1663606690079 Imageofcropsontheleftandaerialimageofhomeswithwhiteroofsontheright

How to stop global warming?

July 25, 2022
In the short term, 'whitening our footprint' is needed to limit rising temperature

I've spent the past six decades studying the behavior of industrial processes to determine their dynamics, the "personality" that tells us where they'd go—and how fast—if left uncontrolled. Such dynamic analyses also showed what it would take to stabilize them and keep them within safe limits. What we also learned during these decades of study is that this sort of analysis can be applied to all processes (biological, cultural, etc.), and not only to industrial ones.

When I started my analysis of global warming three years ago, my goal was to quantify the impact, determine where it would lead if left uncontrolled, and learn what we can do to get it under control. ISA is publishing the resultant book, "Controlling the Future," in October. It shows that transitioning into a new, zero-emission and free-energy economy is still achievable. But doing so will take the sequential application of three gigantic steps guided by three different control strategies. By sequential, I mean that the short, medium and long range steps have to differ. I might also mention that since completing the text of that book, my outlook has worsened. I now see that no democracy is free to act as would be needed as long as its energy economy is at the mercy of the availability of fossil fuels.

Let us first look at the heat balance process of global warming (GW) process, in which the Earth's temperature remains constant as long as the incoming solar heat equals the energy reflected back into outer space. If they get out of balance, the global temperature changes, so the planet warms when incoming solar radiation increases, and it cools when radiation drops (or if the Earth's reflectivity increases). The amount of solar radiation received by Earth varies as it travels around the Sun and rotates very slowly around three cyclical axes. While these cycles do effect our distance to the Sun and therefore the radiation we receive, their cycle periods are around 100,000 years, while human effects occur in just decades or centuries and therefore are easily distinguished.

Until we started burning fossil fuels, there was no human effect was enough to upset the heat balance of Earth. Today, when average per capita greenhouse gas emissions are about 10 kiliograms per day, we're doing just that. During the past 4 million years, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere never exceeded 280 ppm (parts per million), while in June 2022 it reached 421 ppm—the highest ever recorded. As a consequence, 1.6 trillion tons of greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere and my analysis indicates that, as a consequence, keeping GW under 1.5 °C is no longer possible.

In spite of present mitigation efforts, GW will actually increase during the next few years and only after that, as the cost of fossil energy rises above that of green alternatives, will it gradually start to drop. This process will be slow (low gain) and will not keep GW under 1.5 °C. Therefore, to reestablish the heat balance of the planet, reducing carbon emissions is insufficient and must be supplemented by heat removal (cooling). From a process control perspective, control of the GW process requires a three-phase control approach, meaning three sets of actions triggered in sequence as time passes.

Phase 1: Control Action

Due to the influence of the fossil fuel industry and limited public understanding of the consequences of continued inaction, GW will continue to rise for the next few years. Because this process is self-accelerating and because the most powerful effects of ocean warming have not even started, immediate action is needed. (The oceanic effects evolve slower because the oceans' mass is some 200 times greater than that of the atmosphere. But once started, it will be very powerful.) Emission reductions alone simply won’t be fast enough. Therefore, a concentrated effort is needed to quickly increase the reflectivity of the planet.

Right now, 30% of incoming solar energy is reflected back into outer space. This reflection is commonly referred to as the Earth having an albedo of 0.3. The name albedo comes from Latin and means “whiteness.” The albedo of a completely white surface is 1.0 (100% reflection), and that of a completely black surface is 0.0 (no reflection, total absorption). Today, the global albedo is changing in the wrong direction. It's beginning to drop, because polar melting reduces the areas covered by snow and ice (albedos of 0.75 and 0.45) and replaces them with highly heat-absorbing water and land (albedos of 0.03 for water and 0.15 for land).

To reverse this trend and start cooling the planet, its albedo must be increased. This isn’t as unrealistic as it may sound. Arable lands and grazing pastures cover one-third of Earth’s land surfaces and tilling or use of alternative cover crops can substantially increase the land's albedo. In addition, these agricultural practices would reduce carbon emissions and serve to retain both soil moisture and nutrients.

It's estimated that changes in cover crops could increase the albedo of agricultural areas from the present 0.17 to 0.21 to about 0.3, while other sources report that the albedo of grazing surfaces could double if different grasses were planted. I also understand that just nine species of plants account for 66% of global crop production, and increasing the use of higher albedo ones could quickly increase global reflectivity. City dwellers can make a similar contribution by increasing the albedo of their roofs, roads and parking lots.

In my book, the analysis calculations show that the impact of abdebo control greatly depends on education and government support. However, they also show that if applied in combination with carbon emission taxes and if part of the collected taxes are used to finance cooling by whitening, the impact can be substantial and fast. My analysis suggests that if the planet's albedo increases by only 0.01 (say from 0.30 to 0.31), it could be sufficient to stop global temperatures from rising.

The first part of the three-phase GW control process that I described here could be implemented in about five years. Phase 2 centers on converting to a hydrogen economy, and would stop the rise of global temperatures by 2050. (Volvo is already testing hydrogen-powered trucks with a range of 1,000-km). Phase 3 outlines the final control target—converting our energy economy to a fully distributed one that would permanently reduce the greenhouse effect and whiten the human footprint on Earth.

About the author: Béla Lipták
About the Author

Béla Lipták | Columnist and Control Consultant

Béla Lipták is an automation and safety consultant and editor of the Instrument and Automation Engineers’ Handbook (IAEH).

Sponsored Recommendations

Measurement instrumentation for improving hydrogen storage and transport

Hydrogen provides a decarbonization opportunity. Learn more about maximizing the potential of hydrogen.

Get Hands-On Training in Emerson's Interactive Plant Environment

Enhance the training experience and increase retention by training hands-on in Emerson's Interactive Plant Environment. Build skills here so you have them where and when it matters...

Learn About: Micro Motion™ 4700 Config I/O Coriolis Transmitter

An Advanced Transmitter that Expands Connectivity

Learn about: Micro Motion G-Series Coriolis Flow and Density Meters

The Micro Motion G-Series is designed to help you access the benefits of Coriolis technology even when available space is limited.