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A Climate Emergency?

Capacity shortages from global warming should be the real cause for alarm.

Fortnightly Magazine - June 2007

20 percent, attributable to moderately rapid climate changes.

Citing other findings in that report, Radford wrote that a “business-as-usual” approach to greenhouse gases would mean warming of between 1.6 degrees Celsius and 4.7 degrees Celsius by the year 2030.

This prediction generally holds today. However, a recent report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released earlier this year predicts that average global temperatures could rise between 1.1 degrees and 6.4 degrees Celsius (or between 2 degrees and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit) when going out further to the year 2100. How many more power plants would America need to keep buildings, schools, and people cool if temperatures jumped by 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit? That’s the issue that should be part of the climate-change discussion.

A Shift in Focus

These days, the focus seems to have shifted from resource adequacy to carbon reduction—a laudable goal that figures significantly in the minds of today’s utility executives, as revealed in this year’s CEO forum, “ Greenhouse Gauntlet .”

The message is clear, both in Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth , or in any number of U.N. reports: Significant reductions in carbon emissions can very well lead to a Hollywood ending, a reversal of the global-warming trend. And it may be cheap, too. The IPCC Working Group III study released in early May concluded that preventing global temperature increases of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (the level at which some scientists believe severe climate change could be triggered) would cost only 0.12 percent of world economic growth over the next 20 years. But make no mistake. The greatest burden would fall on the energy industry, which is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gases.

The IPCC has stated that a range of mitigation strategies already is available to policy-makers to reduce emissions. Such strategies include improvements in supply and distribution efficiency, fuel switching from coal to gas, nuclear power, renewables, and early applications of carbon capture and storage (CCS). But what happens if we have passed the point of no return? What should the strategy be then?

Tipping Points

Even if emissions were to peak in 2015 (an unlikely event), and thereafter fall by about 50 to 80 percent over the next several decades, global warming would be limited to about 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the recent IPCC report found. The world already has warmed by about 0.7 degrees Celsius in the past century. But if emissions continue to grow until 2030—a much more likely scenario—temperatures probably would rise by 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, according to a Financial Times analysis. This scenario corresponds to a level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere equivalent to about 535 to 590 parts per million of carbon dioxide, according to the report. Scientists fear that at levels above that, the likelihood of “feedback” effects, which amplify temperature rises, could result in runaway climate change—a rapid acceleration in temperature and effects that could include more violent storms, desertification, and a sharp reduction in agricultural productivity.

However, even 535 to 590 parts per million sounds like a rather