350: The Most Important Number In The World For Global Warming

Posted on Tue 12/15/2009 by

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By Nick Loris

When Kevin Garnett led the Boston Celtics to the 2008 NBA Championship, his memorable post game interview included him screaming, “Anything is possible!” – A slight rendition of his shoe sponsor Adidas’ motto, “Impossible is nothing.” At Copenhagen where world leaders are gathering to discuss policies to ratchet down the emission of carbon dioxide, the goals of some proponents of a climate treaty are as close to impossible as you can get.

Many global warming activists believe 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the upper limit before we reach climate disaster. For reference, we are currently at 390ppm and we were at 280ppm before the Industrial Revolution. Bill McKibben, founder of the group 350.org says, “It’s the most important number in the world. It’s the line between habitability on this planet and a really, really desolate future.”

What does it take to reach 350 ppm? In short, a miracle. Energy chemist Nate Lewis of the California Institute of Technology ran the numbers and found that for the earth not to surpass 450ppm by the year 2050, 26.5 of the 45 terawatts the world uses would have to come from carbon-free sources (assuming low population and economic growth). What would this entail?

• Are you a fan of nuclear? To get 10 terawatts, less than half of what we’ll need in 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d have to build 10,000 reactors, or one every other day starting now.
• Do you like wind? If you use every single breeze that blows on land, you’ll get 10 or 15 terawatts. Since it’s impossible to capture all the wind, a more realistic number is 3 terawatts, or 1 million state-of-the art turbines, and even that requires storing the energy—something we don’t know how to do—for when the wind doesn’t blow.
• Solar? To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then.

And that’s to reach 450ppm something co-director of MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change Henry Jacoby called “totally impossible.”

Cap and trade’s 83 percent cut of 2005 emission levels by 2050 would allegedly put the U.S. on the right track. The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Data Analysis found that, for the average year over the 2012-2035 timeline, job loss will be 1.1 million greater than a world without cap and trade. By 2035, there is a projected 2.5 million fewer jobs. The average GDP lost is $393 billion, hitting a high of $662 billion in 2035. From 2012 to 2035, the accumulated GDP lost is $9.4 trillion.

Our numbers do not extend out to 2050 when the emissions cuts become the steepest. And the steeper cuts required to reach the 350ppm threshold would entail even more economic pain and revert our standard of living back to the era of the Flintstones.

If that’s what it would take to save the world, then somehow it would get done. But as Heritage Senior Policy Analyst Ben Lieberman says, the scary global warming stories are turning out not to be true and what is true isn’t all that scary. And the science is anything but conclusive. We shouldn’t forget there was once a time when the most important number in the world was 550ppm. The much broadcasted Stern Review offers 550 parts per million of atmospheric CO2 as a magical upper threshold. Beyond 550ppm, the world is in trouble.

Church bells rang 350 times in Copenhagen and all over the world to signal the importance of the 350ppm threshold. By the time we get down to 350ppm, there won’t any bells to ring.

Contributing Author Nick Loris writes at The Heritage Foundation and he is a Research Assistant at The Heritage Foundation’s Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies.

Read more informative articles at Heritage – The Foundry

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