Saul Griffith, “Climate Change Recalculated”

Posted on Monday, January 19th, 02009 by Stewart Brand
link Categories: Seminars   chat 0 Comments

Saul Griffith

The Terawatt World

Engineer Griffith said he was going to make the connection between personal actions and global climate change. To do that he’s been analyzing his own life in extreme detail to figure out exactly how much energy he uses and what changes might reduce the load. In 2007, when he started, he was consuming about 18,000 watts, like most Americans.

The energy budget of the average person in the world is about 2,200 watts. Some 90 percent of the carbon dioxide overload in the atmosphere was put there by the US, USSR (of old), China, Germany, Japan, and Britain. The rich countries have the most work to do…

Read the rest of Stewart Brand’s Summary

  • Oliver X

    This post is confusing because it has no links and no context. But it seems this is in regards to a talk given last Friday (1-16-02009):

    Looks like there might be a video here:

    Last year, I read a summary of a similar talk Saul gave at ETech 2008 and did a similar set of calculations that convinced me to give up most of my business travel. Months later I found a PDF from that talk:

    And later still, a video:

  • For me the key phrase here is “strangely exhilerated.” There’s an remarkable amount of predictive science that says if we don’t do something we are in big trouble – never before has such a body of work been assembled. But acting on that science is an even more gargantuan task. This is where social science, neuroscience and culture need to come together to create that sense of “strange exhileration…”

  • mitchell porter

    According to Wikipedia (“Automobile industry in China”), over 9 million cars were made in China in 2008 alone. If you could make that many 300-ft wind turbines each year for three years, that would be the whole of your 25-year 11.5-terawatt quota (for the 450 ppm target). The extra 26% required by 350 ppm might require four years, rather than three.

    I also note that China made all those cars without a national mobilization for the express purpose of making cars. It’s great to see these calculations, but they should now be compared to the efforts that go into making ordinary consumer items by the hundred million. Maybe “business as usual” can save the planet after all.

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  • mitchell porter

    Wait, I see I read that article wrongly – I thought Griffith had calculated what would be required to meet the energy demand only using one type of clean energy – solar OR wind OR geothermal, etc. But I see he’s describing a “multi-wedge” strategy in which everything contributes. So three or four years of intensive manufacture of those big wind turbines, at Chinese volumes, still only produces about a fifth of what’s required. Very well. Still, it will remain difficult to judge how intimidated one should be by these figures, until they can be compared to the big activities that global industrial society already manages to carry out, e.g. China opening a new coal-fired power station every two weeks.

    It may make more sense to think about these things in terms of space rather than time: i.e. can one find the *space* to locate all those wind farms, nuclear and geothermal power plants, PV panels, solar thermal collectors, and biofuel plantations? If that can be done, one can then think about the labor, capital, and material resources required to put them there. Finding the labor, at least, I think would be no problem, in a world of billions.

  • Philip B.

    The CO2 target is no longer 450 or even 350 (e.g,.; it is closer to 300! See “350 is the wrong target: put the science first”.

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  • Dave Grumman

    Watts? Terawatts? That is a rate of consumption of energy — not a quantity of energy. What gives? Does he mean watt-hours — or terawatt-hours? I can’t believe Saul Griffith doesn’t know the difference between a power term and an energy term. Is it a misprint? A typo in the article????? Inquiring energy engineers would like to know……

  • The space, resources and money to do such a thing are not really an issue. As was pointed out earlier, we already spend far more on stuff we already produce. How much land is taken up by roads and carparks? How many tonnes of steel and concrete in skyscrapers being built this year? How many Watts are used by shopping malls and offices at night when nobody’s there? And so on.

    The space, resources and money are already there, it’s just a matter of where we choose to put them. That said, it’s a big task. To get an idea of the scale of the task it’s not enough to simply look at what energy we’re using now and then convert it all to renewables. There are after efficiencies available. The other day I was talking with a couple who spend $150 weekly on groceries, are overweight and unhealthy (many minor ailments) and throw away about 1/3 their food uneaten; this compares to us on $60 weekly, fit and eating tasty food, wasting nothing but the peelings. For them to improve their health wouldn’t involve just buying $150 of lentils instead. They need to spend their money better, and make more efficient use of the things they buy.

    Likewise with energy. Using a tonne of metal and plastic to move an average of 1.6 people is simply never going to be as energy-efficient as using 7 tonnes to move 25 people, or 25 tonnes to move 150 people. So that we in the West could be using a lot less energy per person while achieving the same things, and actually saving money and improving quality of life. This is a nice coincidence since those in the Third World would also like a decent quality of life, too. How much energy is needed?

    I talk about more efficient energy use here, and making sure all get a fair share here. I conclude that about 2,000W of renewable electricity per person would do it. This is bit less than suggested in the article above, but I also mention population growth – since in the 25-50 years we’d take to do it, population would max out at 9-10 billion around 2050. So we’re looking at 18-20TW of delivered energy.

    Can we manage it? Technically it’s possible but politically and culturally it’s difficult. I think more plausible is getting about halfway to that goal. The future I most fear is not a Mad Maxian dystopia, but something like our modern gated communities as ecotopias, with 10,000W of renewable energy zipping around in electric cars, surrounded by impoverished slum-dwellers with 0W who are near-slave labour in the sugar cane fields making biofuels and cleaning the ecotopians’ houses.

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  • van glandon

    When did nuclear become a “clean energy”?

    I understand that there is little if any CO2 given off, however to suggest that nuclear power is in anyway clean or safe, even by using “French Standards” is the same short sighted thinking that produced ideas like going to Iraq or the free market.

    What I’m poorly trying to say is that, we need to be more accurately selective when choosing adjectives that completely change the noun in question.

    It would be like saying “good Lucifer”, when comparing he with Satin? So, Lucifer’s GOOD? and George W is smart when compared to a second grader in a developing nation, my apologies if he was your guy.

    Please let us be more accurate with our language so we don’t talk ourselves out of our values and right off of this planet!

    Thanks again,
    Peace, Love & Understanding,

  • Saul refers to a site I had a little difficulty finding (listening to the mp3) where you can calculate and compare your own personal power consumption.

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  • Thank you @OliverX for the links! For more on Saul, he did a Ted Talk in 2006: – It’s more of an overview of his various projects including some scary/exciting notions on programming biology.

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  • Darryl

    “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” W. Churchill

    It’s uplifting to see that there are people like Saul who have made the connection between their personal actions and global climate change and who are quantifying what’s required to save the environment. While I applaued Saul’s effort I don’t see it amounting to much. To paraphrase Orlov and his comments regarding “Social Collapse” this past Friday, this is Tinkerbell type thinking, yup, wave the fairydust around, close your eyes and start praying.

    What we already know is that significantly reducing our country’s collective carbon footprint is a lot like dieting, easy to talk about but really, really hard to do. Even if we can develop and stick to a realistic “carbon” diet we can’t be sure that the rest of the world (India & China) will stick to theirs in which case the problem remains. So unless somebody out there thinks that we’ll be able to borrow a few extra trillion dollars to pay for all of these energy infrastructure initiatives (many of which like new nuclear power plants will take years to construct) then it might be worthwhile to be a wee bit more pragmatic about how soon or how easily we’ll be able to get to the promised land.

  • Michael Baggett

    How someone can write an article like this without mentioning marijuana is beyond me. What is the stat? Correct me if I am wrong – but when it come it making paper – 1 acre of marijuana = 4.5 acres of trees. I wonder how many carbon credits we could claim for legalizing marijuana?

  • Carri

    Or our global economy can collapse and energy consumption and likely population can plummet. Won’t be fun for anyone but is probably the best scenario for a healthy planet in the future.

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    How arrogant is this? We can’t even cure the common cold, and you’ve got a plan to change the weather? Without collapsing the global economy? I got news for you, the weather has been changing since time began – well before GM brought out the Cadillac Escalade. How many people will die because you’re pushing this agenda? Everybody who makes anything that could be consideered carbon-positive is out of a job. All those people in South America clearing farmland should just stop trying to feed themselves? Who will take care of them while you’re playing mother nature. Moron.

    Why don’t you liberals show some intellectual honesty and just admit you want to control energy so you can control people? It’s a power thing.

  • To IP Freely: Never mind the politics at the end of your comment. You are not offering any ideas. Not that there are any easy answers. We cannot address environmental issues without addressing the economy. We must create jobs through addressing the environmental issues. We have the perfect opportunity. We did not need to go to the moon. We declared that it was important to demonstrate our technical superiority to the USSR and then created a challenge that in the process of meeting it created a whole new economies and technologies. We have a much graver threat than during the cold war. Mother Nature has proven she remains just as adept as humans at destruction. Yes of course people do need to eat, they will need to eat 100 years from now too.

    We need to everyone to put their intellectual/creative back into this. INCLUDING YOU! Stop making people you disagree with wrong and find ways to common goals. If the house is on fire I don’t care who you voted for, we are on the same side. It is just a fact.

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  • May

    More than 70 % of the world’s population live this way.
    Thrifty, conservative with all resources. Much more important is soil conservation, ( no-till cultivation) food security and protection of water catchement areas from pollution.
    CO2 Paranoia is a hoax and a ruse by over eager politicians to tax the air we breathe.
    CO2 is essential to all carbon life forms on earth.
    We are very fortunate to be alive during a interglacial optimum which may be over sooner that you think.
    It makes sense to conserve fossil fuels and promote sustainable energy sources as the human race will need them during the next ice age. A little extra CO2 in the atmosphere will add to the food chain as the global population expands.

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  • I agree that links to the video, podcast and slides should be included in summaries:

    The Video:

    The Slides from the Video:

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  • Andrew McRae

    @May: Well done for speaking the truth in a comment section full of warmer parrots.

    It is indeed quite bizarre that a lecture supposedly advocating long-term thinking would completely fail to examine the long-term history of Earth’s climate. As anyone who does not live under a rock would know by now, the Earth’s climate is always changing, so at any time it is always a case of either global warming (in the literal sense) or global cooling. Superior ice core sample analysis techniques developed since 1997 revealed several facts which the “CO2 paranoid” would do well to sequester:
    * The Earth has been warmer in the distant past than today,
    * The Earth has had CO2 levels over 10 times higher in the past than today,
    * The rate of CO2 increase has been higher in the distant past than today,
    * The rate of temperature increase has been higher in the distant past than today,
    and all without any assistance from human activity.

    That is the truth as best as anyone can measure it, just as global warming seemed the truth as best as anyone could measure it during the early nineties. The “best” got better and so the facts changed. Of course the fundamentalists have not moved on from there, seemingly stuck in past and choosing to believe in a scary and guilty future instead of adapting to the more precise results of later research.

    With these facts in mind, and remembering the only source of heat on Earth is the Sun, why would anyone assume that the greenhouse effect drives climate change or that recent increases in either temperature or CO2 were due to human activity?
    A true long-term thinker (or those with a suitably long term view of climate such as geologists) would immediately see that the present is totally within the long-term natural range of climate.

    Dr Roy Spencer –

    Top 15 Climate Myths –

    Dr Bob Carter –

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  • the information is very useful.The right is increasingly skeptical even going so far as to question the entire validity of the process of global warming, which is madness as well.

  • Nice blog.
    It is really very helpful for me.
    Thanks for it.

  • Thanks for sharing. The slides are interesting and after reading it, I have a whole new outlook on how we can save the Earth from us.

  • Thanks for sharing, this is a fantastic article.

  • Acting on such science as you says requires a governement with guts and an ability to persuade the general populas of the need for urgency. Sadly, this is not the case in Australia

  • John

    How can you take a calculation seriously that quotes an energy consumption of 2,200 watts ?

    The Watt is a unit of power not energy; you don’t bother reading the rest when you see that.

  • ibika

    the only evil on the planet is human unconsciousness.. at least we know your ego is big enough to power the world if we do get in trouble

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