Climate Change Is Mega Big!

Oil rig off California coast. (Photo A. Emery)

And, yes, we are all correct to worry. A LOT!

Can we beat global warming? YES, IF WE HURRY!

Climate Change presents us with huge problems. We must stop using energy from fossil fuels as soon as we can. But first, in order to remain able to support civil society’s present economy, we must find a replacement for all the fossil fuel energy we use in today’s world. That is, we must find energy sources that will supply the energy equivalent of the total world’s energy draw!

A mega-big challenge, indeed!

To help us understand the magnitude of the amounts of energy we’re talking about, let’s think of all the coal, gas, and oil we burn as equivalents in terms of oil — that is, “oil equivalents” (written as Mtoe). Each year we burn up — yes, each year — nearly 12,000 million tons of “oil equivalents.”

How big an oil pool would that be? A metric ton is 1,000 kg, which is approximately equal to 1,000 litres. Therefore, 12,000 million tons of “oil equivalents” is 12 trillion litres. An Olympic swimming pool holds 2.5 million litres.

There are about a million Olympic pools in the world. So the “oil equivalent” we use every year would fill all the world’s swimming pools five times.

Think about this: the amount of “oil equivalents” we have used since 1970 would fill Lake Erie! Imagine all that smog rising up into our atmosphere — no wonder the air we breathe is polluted. When we can stop using oil, coal, and gas to supply all the energy we need, we won’t have those problems.

We must, however, replace the equivalent of all that dirty energy, and all from clean sources — wind, solar, water, nuclear, and other alternative energy sources — so that we will no longer need fossil fuels to supply our world energy requirements.

The world demand for primary energy is increasing at 2% per year. Supposing that we aim to make the entire transition by 2050 (that is, in 30 years). The doubling rate of 2% is about 35 years, so the demand for energy in 30 years will be nearly double what it is today. By then, all of today’s installed solar panels and wind turbines, as well as most of the old nuclear plants, will need to be replaced. This means essentially that we will need to replace everything twice before we have enough alternative energy. And this must all be accomplished by 2050. That is, “freaking enormous.”

Suppose that we make everything electrical?

One million tons of oil or oil equivalent provides about 11.630 TerraWatt hours of calorimetric energy (TWh). The total fossil fuel use today is about 12,500 Mtoe, so the total in electrical power should be about 145,538 TWh.

But, we get a bonus when we switch to non-fossil-fuel energy. Converting oil to electricity is really quite inefficient, in fact only 40% efficient. That means one million tons of oil equivalent produces only 4.4 TWh of electricity in a modern power station. So today in electricity terms, the correct number is not 145,438TWh, instead it is only 55,000 TWh — big savings.

Does that make it easy? By 2050, the total use would be about 23,414 Mtoe. Translate that into electrical energy and we need to build only about 103,022 TWh, not 272,305 TWh. That is a big saving (less than half), but not yet big enough.

Considering the lifespan of existing installations, everything will need to be duplicated twice in 30 years. Not only that, but none of this new capacity can be from fossil fuels; it must all be from renewables of some kind, or from nuclear power.

You may ask: Is this even technically possible?

Yes, it is entirely technically possible. Globally we currently produce 3,546 TWh using renewables plus nuclear. To meet the demand, we need to increase that to 103,022 TWh in 30 years. Finding the replacements for the fossil fuels is a big challenge, so the solution will need to be an equally ginormous project.

But, as the saying goes, “If you must eat an elephant, you have to do it one bite at a time.” The same is true for mega-big projects, such as transitioning to alternative energy from fossil fuels; you can solve it only one piece at a time.

If we were to ramp up that 3,546 TWh by 11.5% in the first year, and the resulting total by a further 11.5% each year from then to 2050, we would make it! Could we do that? It would mean building about 50 1GW units in the first year (we are currently building more than that per year, but building faster and faster until by 2049, we would have built over 1,219 units in that year alone. We could do it, but only by a concerted global effort and by building the units according to a standard well-tested model. Another way to look at the challenge might be to say we need to build 1 unit of 1GW every day from now to 2050. That is a truly scary engineering project. On the other hand if 30 nations took on the task, it would be about I unit every month. So that is still a massive project, but possible if everyone cooperated.

In this case, each bite is pretty big and we can’t stop for at least 30 years.

What we must keep in mind is that if we never take that first bite, this elephant will rot and make a terrible mess — just as the climate will do if we don’t start to correct our problem right away.

Once we reach zero emissions, however, the alternative energy continues to meet the annual increase in demand, but the frantic race to the finish line would be over.

So then is it the time to celebrate a first MEGA BIG win?

Oh dear, No! There is another MEGA BIG problem waiting for us just around the corner. Suppose, after all this massive turnaround, having just built an entire new electrical energy infrastructure, we realize that by 2050, because we’d kept on using fossil fuels, even though at a lower rate, the CO2 kept building up in the atmosphere while we slowed down the use of fossil fuels. By 2050, the increase in CO2 will come to a slow stop at about 530 parts per million (530 ppm). That at least limits the 2100 temperature to about 2C rise above pre-industrial levels, so we can meet that particular world target.

BUT now we remember that the world doesn’t stop at 2100! And so we are left with a remaining, even BIGGER problem: even if the world manages to keep the CO2 level to about 530ppm, the temperature will continue its grinding, inexorable, relentless climb to nearly 8C above pre-industrial levels.

Geological history tells us that anything even approaching that temperature will render most of the world uninhabitable for humans — great for reptile evolution, perhaps, but not for people, not even for most mammals.

To solve the real (not imaginary) MEGA BIG problem of the 530ppm CO2 left over once we get to zero emissions, we need to remove all this extra CO2 out of the air! How much is “extra?” We must remove enough extra CO2 to bring down the top temperature to about 2C above pre-industrial levels or less. So that upper limit would be about 320ppm atmospheric CO2.

Do we know how much CO2 that means? Well, by 2100, there will be 530ppm CO2! We must remove 210ppm CO2 from the atmosphere to get down to 320ppm. How do we do that? How big a deal is that? Or could it in fact be fairly simple? Most non-scientists have trouble even understanding what the problem is, let alone visualizing it.

First, here’s a question: Have you ever seen carbon dioxide (CO2)? Can you visualize it? Probably not. CO2 is transparent and colourless, and you can’t even smell it. Not only that, there isn’t actually very much CO2 in the air — only a little more than 400 parts in a million parts of air.

Sometimes you can see the effect of frozen or liquid CO2 when it is released into the air and causes moisture to condense into clouds of steam. But what does “four hundred parts in a million” feel like?

If you tried to count to a million without stopping to do anything– no coughing, eating, sleeping etc., etc., (unless you can count while you are doing those things), it would take about 12 days assuming you could keep counting at about 1 number per second. Try counting out loud from 500,001 to 500,401. It should take you about 400 seconds, or a little more than 6 minutes. Perhaps the following little word exercise may help clarify the situation: imagine that “four hundred parts in a million” is sort of like 6 minutes in 12 days; so that you might feel that “400ppm” doesn’t even sound like much.

Over the last 200 years of civilization, humans have added about 140ppm of CO2 to the air. That would be like not quite two minutes of counting in 12 days of counting. Not much — right? Well that depends. It depends on how much air there is in the entire world. Any idea how much that is? It is about 51 billion cubic kilometers of air (12.240 billion cubic miles of air). Now, that is a MEGA BIG number.

Picture this:– if we could build a covered walkway to space about 1 km by 1 km (half a mile by half a mile), and fill it with all the air from the Earth, it would reach more than 10 times as far as from here to Pluto. So that is a lot of air. Now suppose we did the same thing, but instead of air, used only CO2 — how far would that go? Even though it is only 400ppm (1 part in 2,500), the walkway would still stretch more than a quarter of the way to Mercury. These are all really MEGA BIG numbers.

Suppose we were to get to zero emissions tomorrow! Impossible, of course, but how much CO2 would we need to remove from the atmosphere just to get back to a “before global warming” stage? That would be about 34% of all the CO2 in the air. Hmmm… still a huge number — the same walkway filled only with just the excess CO2 would extend about 20 times as far as the moon.

Instead of building a walkway to space, let’s be a bit more realistic and build a container big enough to hold all the extra CO2 so it doesn’t get back into the atmosphere once we remove it. If we made a box the height of the Empire State Building, equal to the area of the USA, it could still only contain half the excess CO2; so we would need two boxes the height of the Empire State Building, covering the entire USA, just to hold all the CO2 we have added to the atmosphere in the last 200 years.

Now, holding CO2 in two USA-size boxes as high as the Empire State Building is not going to work. Besides, it’s undoubtedly illegal.

Some have suggested pumping that amount of CO2 back down into the earth’s deep rock formations. However, we know from experience that such deep spaces into which CO2 is sometimes forced often leak, so that they are not a safe location for very long periods of time.

We could compress the CO2 to store it as a liquid, but that would need specialized equipment for storage; an enormous amount of specialized storage of liquid CO2 all in pressurized containers, maintained forever. That would be extremely expensive, not to mention impractical.

But there are practical ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Industry does this routinely by “scrubbing” the CO2 from its exhaust stacks. The industries themselves can transform the CO2 into some other material or product. Why are they not already doing that? It’s basically just MONEY!

We need to do it anyway. The ideal process would be to remove the carbon dioxide, then separate the carbon and allow just the oxygen to be added to the air. Research has shown, first, that this can be done and second, that there is also the potential to scale it up to remove the required amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Still, we must confront the scale of the operation because, again, the numbers are huge. And this time it is not a fantasy walkway to space. This time we actually must deal with the extra carbon because it will create a big pile — a huge pile, a MEGA BIG pile (and, don’t forget — we can’t burn it this time).

We need to entirely remove 140ppm CO2 from the earth’s atmosphere if we reached zero emissions today.

Did you know that CO2 weighs something? Well it does; and if we calculate how much 140ppm of CO2 weighs, it is about 298 billion tons .An aircraft carrier weighs 100,000 tons when fully loaded. So the amount of extra CO2 in the air weighs about the equivalent of 3 million aircraft carriers! If we remove the CO2 from the air and store it as carbon, its weight is down to a mere 81,215 million tons of carbon that civilization has already put into the earth’s atmosphere! Yikes! That is still a huge number.

But, not only is it a mega-big number, this is a real number that we absolutely must deal with if we are going to solve global warming. Let’s translate this into something we can visualize; — carbon is basically like coal, so using that as an analogy, how big would the pile of carbon be if we collected it all in one place once we take it out of the atmosphere? A ton of carbon takes up about 43 cu. ft. The pile would be approximately 3,445,144,414,169 cu ft. Three and a half trillion cubic feet of carbon: Can we visualize this? Let’s set aside one square mile of land and pile it all up. Oops, it is 23.4 miles high. No good. Let’s pile up the carbon in 100-foot-high piles on 1-square-mile plots of land. How many plots of land would we need? It would take 5,980 one-square-mile plots of land, each piled 100 feet high.

But now we are actually getting somewhere. Suppose we assign 100 countries the chore of handling this carbon. That means each country must find about 60 square miles of land on which to pile its carbon quota 100 feet high.

Here’s a better idea. Each country could set aside 10 places, each about six square miles. Each of these can be dug down to a depth of at least 25ft to the whole 100ft — doesn’t have to be a smooth rectangle, but 25 feet should be the shallowest depth. Then load in the carbon and cover it all up with the earth that came out of the holes we dug to begin with. Now the carbon is secure and won’t go anywhere. We know where it is and can retrieve it if we need to. We can plant trees and perennials to hold the earth in place. We now have 60 new parks in each country, global warming is under control, and we solved MEGA-BIG problems with one- bite-at-a-time solutions.

Yes, I know, some of these ideas may seem too far out, but new ideas are needed, and guess what, some of these ideas are already at work!


It’s a wicked problem; perhaps the most challenging humankind has ever faced. But humankind is smart, realistic, and indomitable. We can win this. We must win this.

Scientist (PhD marine sciences). Looking for solutions. Focus: ecology, evolution, global warming, energy transition, biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge.

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