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June 13, 2023

Global Warming From Waste Heat?

Mark Trexler

Global Warming from waste heat? I was surprised and intrigued by David McRobert's post on LinkedIn, and so read the three papers that sit behind this piece posted at Aeon. Here's why I take some issue with the implication of David's chosen headline that "waste heat will pose a problem that is every bit as serious as global warming from greenhouse gases."

1. The papers involved can be characterized as thought experiments, not in-depth studies. It's sort of equivalent to some of the conjectures about CO2 warming 100+ years ago.

2. The timeline here is long, on the scale of 200-300 years. Just to be clear, the amount of waste heat produced today is trivial in Earth's energy budget.

3. Assuming global warming can come from waste heat assumes that global energy demand continues to increase exponentially, and that energy is supplied from sources that result in waste heat -- most specifically, fossil fuels (even with CO2 capture and storage), nuclear, or geothermal.

4. One of the biggest problems with CO2 induced warming is that the CO2 sticks around for a long time. But getting rid of waste heat, e.g. by replacing fossil or nuclear with renewable energy, is immediate in its impact. So even if we were to build a lot of geothermal or nuclear, replacing that generation over time would solve the waste heat problem.

All of that said, the papers do raise interesting cautionary points (and one hopeful one):

  • Even if cheap carbon capture and storage (CCS) comes to pass, continuing to simply grow fossil fuel consumption for the next 200 years is a bad idea.
  • Innovative options like space based power need to be evaluated carefully in terms of their contribution to the Earth's energy balance.
  • The massive exploitation of OTEC (ocean thermal energy conversion), by accelerating the movement of shallow ocean heat to the deep ocean, could have a substantial net cooling effect.

Bottom line, there are some interesting ideas here, with some potential near-term implications. But in no way does this detract from the urgency of tackling GHG-induced warming -- on which all of the papers agree.

Featured image by Rebecca Humann from Pixabay

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Mark Trexler

Mark has more than 30 years of regulatory and energy policy experience. He has advised clients around the world on climate change risk and risk management. He is widely published on business risk management topics surrounding climate change, including in the design and deployment of carbon markets. Mark has served as a lead author for the IPCC and holds advanced degrees from the University of California at Berkeley.

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