Wednesday 10 February 2016

Family and the Fossil Carbon Safety Margin

by Dr. Susan P. Krumdieck, Professor in Mechanical Engineering, University of Canterbury

In my previous blog, I translated the current language of the 2oC climate change target into an engineering concept of a global warming “failure limit” associated with carbon fuel production.  For this part of the analysis, I will use the units more commonly used by the media – GtCO2 – which means the cumulative emissions failure limit to maintain temperature rises below 2oC is around 3000 GtCO2 with a probability greater than 66%.

Suffice it to say that a 2oC temperature rise would pose an unacceptable risk to our civilization and most of the world ecosystems. That seems quite a dramatic claim, but there is pretty good certainty that the heat input involved in that 2oC temperature change would be sufficient to melt global ice, raise the sea level and cause uncertainty enough to risk, alter, damage, or destroy 80-90% of the investment in real estate, infrastructure, agriculture and organization that humanity has made to date. It will also mean a mass extinction of species and climate chaos. By “climate chaos” I mean the occurrence of storms, droughts, high temperatures, low temperatures, rainfall, hail stone size, and tornado size that are “unprecedented” and can’t be managed by historical hazard mitigation measures.

I wanted to make this personal by considering the history of CO2 emissions against the human scale of seven generations of my family. As an engineer, I don’t think of safety limits as “targets.” Failure to reduce fossil fuel production to nearly zero in my lifetime will mean unacceptable hardship for people I know. So how did we get to this point?

Here is my family:
  • Great Grandmother Agnes – She died before I was married, but I remember her well. The last member of my family denied the right to vote by law.
  • Grandmother Ruth – She died when my daughter was 10 years old, so we remember her well. She lived through the Great Depression and World War II. 
  • Mother Sue – Still enjoying retirement from public education. She married an Air Force enlistee during the Vietnam War, but she has never had a child or grandchild involved in armed conflict. 
  • Me – I have passed 50 years old, and I am the first woman to be promoted to full professor in engineering by my university. 
  • Daughter Kierra – Has finished university and a couple of big OE’s and into her career in environmental law.
  • Granddaughter – No definite plans yet, but she’s coming!
  • Great granddaughter – It is conceivable that I would know her.

When Agnes was born, there was a global warming safety margin of nearly 2300 GtCO2, and the global emissions were about 0.3 Gt/yr.  So, my Great Grandmother Agnes would have not been worried about the way that her society's energy use might affect her great granddaughter (me). She would have been much more worried about what life would be like for herself and her daughter:  would they get the right to vote, have legal protection, attend university in sciences, and survive wars, depression and even famine? She and her husband lost their farm in the Dust Bowl environmental disaster in the 1930’s when my Grandmother Ruth was 4 years old. Her son fought in World War II.

When my mother was born, the world was in ruins from war, the family lived in a tiny two-room house, the children had two outfits per year, and mothers knew how to make a small amount of food stretch to feed a whole family. But the 1950’s were just around the corner, and the trends for just about every graph of every type of consumption or production were just about to rocket upward.

When I was born, the CO2 emission rate was up to a happy 4.6 GtCO2/yr, and the safety margin was still over 2000 GtCO2. When I was born, climate scientists were already measuring the atmospheric CO2 level at Mauna Loa and could see it rising exponentially, echoing all of those other exponential trends.  If the fossil fuel production rate had been frozen at 1963 levels back then, due to alarm over exponential growth of emissions, then the safety margin would not have been exceeded for another 385 years, in the 2350’s!  More importantly, the safety limit of 350ppm causing climate change would have been more than a century away. No wonder nobody was worrying about climate change when I was a baby. When I was in university 20 years later, I was protesting nuclear weapons, mad levels of military spending, and environmental destruction. But, I did decide to study Mechanical Engineering because I was concerned about energy and global warming. I wanted to work on renewable energy. Interestingly, about 91% of all historical CO2 emissions have been emitted during my lifetime, since 1960.

When my daughter Kierra was born in 1989, CO2 emissions were up to 13.2 GtCO2 per year and the safety margin had shrunk to less than 2000 GtCO2. The Berlin Wall had just come down and the Cold War was negotiated to a stand-off. The risks and imperatives of fossil fuel emissions reduction were simply known and not debated. This is the era where the Kyoto Protocol was established.  It was understood that continued growth of CO2 emissions was presenting a risk. The idea was to ensure the annual emissions stayed around these levels of 13.2 Gt CO2 from 2012 onward. The safety margin would have run out in 80 years at this rate of emissions. That's still just one lifetime, but it was thought that within that time new technologies would be developed to reduce emissions while fuelling continued growth. This is the era where people changed status from “citizens” to “consumers”. This is the era where we started talking about our “needs” and “hungers” for cheap energy to maintain our lavish lifestyles. Needless to say, there was no green energy revolution.

In 2012, Kierra turned 23 years old and started to think about a family, and the emissions level was 31 GtCO2 per year. So now, if the nations of the world woke up and actually limited fossil fuel extraction to the 2012 levels – no more growth – then within my lifetime, about the time my daughter is retiring, and my granddaughter is finishing her PhD, the climate failure limit will have been exceeded. I will live to see what climate chaos looks like. I will get to observe the failure modes of a planetary thermodynamic system forced out of balance.

With about 1500 GtCO2 cumulative emissions to the failure limit remaining, at current fossil fuel production rates, the failure limit will be reached in 36 years. By my calculations, if all the people of the world agreed on radical reduction of 15% in fossil fuel production per year for the next 10 years, so that fossil fuel production rate would be around level it was when I was a child...then the climate failure limit of 2oC would not be reached at the end of my great granddaughter’s lifetime.   However, the limit recently agreed on at the COP21 meeting in Paris of pursuing efforts to stay below 1.5oC will have been exceeded.

My challenge as a Mechanical Engineering academic is to take on the work of transition. I can work with students to envision the prospect of the world reducing fossil fuel production and consumption drastically, to one tenth of current levels, starting now.  I can think about how difficult that would be, how much hardship people would experience in using 15% less fuel next year. The oil shocks of the 1970’s had only about a 7% drop in oil consumption in one year. I can wonder about the meaning of “hardship” for people now, when I think about the hardships of my grandmother Ruth and great grandmother Agnes. I can develop methods to plan for the transition to 90% less fossil fuel. And I can teach these methods and write a text book and start an organization of professional engineers who work on transition of all kinds of systems to use 90% less fossil fuel. And still when my great granddaughter is my age, she will likely have to face climate issues with coastal cities, extinction of species, unprecedented droughts, floods, temperatures and storms. This is because the safety margin is already exceeded. The climate is already changing.

There are actually two reasons to dramatically reduce fossil fuel production: the climate failure limit as already discussed, and the fact that even a small amount of fossil fuel is necessary for the essential benefits of industrial society. Engineers in my granddaughter’s and great granddaughter’s time will make things work – but their jobs will be impossible without a model amount of high-quality fuel. I realise that the idea of dramatically reducing fossil fuel production is unthinkable to most people my age.  I have talked to some retired people my mother’s age about reduced and curtailed fossil fuel production. They have not been receptive to the idea. I have talked to young people my daughter’s age about reducing their travel and consumption and driving, and they have not been receptive to the idea. “We need the energy for our economy,” they say. This need for energy is only one generation old. Out of all the thousands of generations of people who have lived, one, mine, will live their entire lives as profligate users of fossil fuels.

Have human societies been this un-mindful of their own future, and that of their children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, at any time in our history? Especially in the world’s advanced economies, might my generation and my parents’ generation become willing to sacrifice some of our conveniences and some of our vacations, drive our big cars about half as much, and buy less stuff that will end up in landfills? Is that sacrifice so unthinkable that our grandchildren are going to have to experience climate chaos?

Right now, if I imagine my future granddaughter and I think about what she will need, what I realize is that the only solution that makes any sense for her is for us to wind down dramatically the extraction and production of fossil fuels. If we do this, then we will have to use existing resources wisely to change all of our industrial production, transportation and end use and use dramatically less fossil fuels. If we succeed at this, then we will provide justly for the needs of future generations.

Hansen, J., M. Sato, P. Kharecha, D. Beerling et al. “Target Atmospheric CO2: Where Should Humanity Aim?” Open Atmospheric Science Journal 2 (2008): 217-31.


  1. You are right to be very concerned. When I look at my grandchildren I prefer not to think about their future and even though I do a lot of work in climate change I don't like to relate the climate to the outcome for people.
    The climate is changing faster than people think and the margins are much narrower.

  2. Hi Susan,

    Thank you for this very informative post. I would like to ask a few questions, but before I do, some personal background.

    I have been 'car free' for 8 years and haven't flown since 1997. I use a bicycle as my primary form of transport and occasionally use public transport. My friend, whom I live with, also does the same, although her last flight was in 2008 and even then an emergency due to the health of her mother. We live in a small 9 meter by 7 meter house which is quick and easy to heat with a wood stove that is fired up just for 2 to 3 hours per night in winter, which we also cook our food on. The house is shaded in summer by lots of great trees. We use less than 2 kwh of electricity per day. The house has a 2 kw solar system and solar hot water. We don't have air conditioning, tv, fridge (apart from a small 12 volt car fridge), freezer, entertainment system (apart from laptop / internet), vacuum cleaner (no carpets / broom works fine) or iron. We have a 1970's twin tub washing machine (still going strong), a toaster and electric kettle. We use a solar cooker in summer and grow most of our own veggies. To us, we live simply, earning less than Aus$20,000 per year, but we also live extremely well in comparison to most people on the planet.

    But here's the rub, most people who know us think we're insane and this includes just about every 'environmentalist' we know. Interestingly, they love to focus on single issue symptoms of western contemporary life and will get heavily involved in street walks, social media, lobbying etc. Where we live, there is a heavy focus on logging in native forests. But whenever we attempt to raise a discussion about the energy profligacy of western contemporary life, we are totally ignored, marginalised for our attempts and seen as some kind of wierdo's!

    Our small township recently had an anti-plastics campaigner roll into town. He held numerous workshops at the local school, community organisations and worked with several locals to set up a trivia night. His primary focus was the plastic waste in oceans. Approximately 80 people rolled up to the trivia night in 40 plus cars, even though most of them lived less than 3 kilometers away. When we attempted to point out that whilst we agreed with the need to cut out plastics, that we also needed to think deeply about CO2 emissions and Ocean Acidification, we were told that we were being 'negative'.

    We have seen this behaviour all too frequently over many years and we really struggle to find others who are working hard on energy consumption reduction strategies, and that includes those who are actively working in permaculture / transition towns etc. I know of many who still drive everywhere and fly overseas twice a year....

    It seems to me that there are a number of psychological issues at play here and I am interested to know if you or any of your colleagues have come across them. The first is an almost religious belief in techno-utopianism, the second something akin to the 'prisoners dilemma', if I make changes in my life I might miss out at the expense of someone else. The third is a belief that living simply means having to go back to the dark ages and therefore, life would be unbearable. The fourth, which probably ties in with the first, is that nuclear fusion will solve all our problems and all we need to do is to ramp up renewables whilst we are waiting for nuclear fusion to finally be cracked.

    Any thoughts or ideas on any of the above would be most welcomed! In the interim, we'll keep chipping away......


  3. Good points! I am an academic nearly ready to retire. I am not willing to give up traveling, but I strongly advocate policies such as a carbon tax and incentives for green energy that will markedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I will be putting solar panels on my home, even if the payoff is long and I will be advocating for strong action on climate. Now as a university professor (USA), I have some opportunity to explain that generation how bad thing are going to get and to give my young grandchildren and their generation a chance.

  4. The cultural values, norms, and expectations of the mega-consumers are the issue and thus what will change, now or later. Now, if we figure out how to change course for a responsible future. Later if we don't.
    Psychology is really important. I have been researching the psychology of change, technology, marketing, policy... for a while now. I have tried out things on people. You can see some of my stories on youtube if you like.

    My theory at this point is that I can be part of the course change if I can change my own field - engineering. I am working as hard as I can to bring about a massive shift in the way all engineers incorporate the transition of all the things they work on to the post-carbon version. I call it Transition Engineering because it is about engineering the course change. Pass around the idea if you agree: