Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Energy Generation Now & in the Future

I finished my last post with an important piece of data.  Out of 100 quads of energy the US generates every year, the vast majority of it (83%) comes from fossil fuel sources – sources that emit greenhouse gases when we burn them.  The same is true for the vast majority of other countries, and therefore for the global portfolio as well.  Here is a graphic showing global energy consumption distribution by fuel type from 1990 through 2010 and into the future:

 photo EIA-WorldEnergyConsumptionbyfueltype1990-2040_zps8d8ae886.png

Figure 1. Global fuel-type energy consumption, 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).

The global picture is somewhat different from the US picture: liquids’ energy (e.g., oil) exceed coal energy, which exceed natural gas.  All three of these carbon-intensive energy sources, which power our developed, high-wealth lifestyles, greatly exceed renewables (which hydropower dominates), which exceeds nuclear.  It is these type of energy forecasts that lead to the suite of IPCC emissions pathways:

 photo IPCCAR5RCPScenarios_zps69b8b0d5.png

Figure 2. IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) CO2-eq concentrations.

Note that our current emissions trajectory more closely resembles the RCP8.5 pathway (red) than the other pathways.  This trajectory could lead to a 1000+ ppm CO2-eq concentration by 2100, or 2.5X today’s concentration value.  Stabilizing global temperature increases at less than 2C by 2100 requires stabilizing CO2-eq concentrations below 450 and quickly decreasing, which is best represented by the RCP2.6 pathway above (green).  This pathway is technologically impossible to achieve as of today.  The only way to make it possible is to invest in innovation: research, development, and global deployment of low-carbon technologies.  We are not currently doing that investment; nor does it look likely we will in the near future.

Let’s take a further look at the recent past before we delve further into the future.  Environmental and renewable energy advocacy groups tout recent gains in renewable energy deployment.  We should quietly cheer such gains because they are real.  But they are also miniscule – far too little deployment at a time when we need exclusive and much wider deployment of renewable energy globally to shift our emissions pathway from RCP8.5 to RCP2.6.  Here is a graphic showing global use of coal in the past 10+ years:

 photo WorldCoalConsumption-2001-2011_zps68aea439.jpg

Figure 3. Global coal use in million tonnes of oil-equivalent 2001-2011 (Grist).

Climate and clean energy advocates like to report their gains in percentage terms.  This is one way of looking at the data, but it’s not the only way.  For instance, coal usage increased by 56% from 2001 to 2011.  This is a smaller percentage than most renewable energy percentage gains in the same time period, but the context of those percentages is important.  As you’ll see below, renewable energy gains really aren’t gains in the global portfolio.  The above graph is another way to see this: if renewable energy gains were large enough, they would replace coal and other fossil fuels.  That’s the whole point of renewable energy and stabilizing carbon emissions, right?  If there is more renewable energy usage but also more coal usage, we won’t stabilize emissions.  Here is another way of looking at this statement:

 photo GlobalEnergyConsumption-Carbon-FreeSources1965-2012_zps1a06c9a0.png

Figure 4. Global Energy Consumption from Carbon-Free Sources 1965-2012 (Breakthrough).

Carbon-free energy as a part of the total global energy portfolio increased from 6% in 1965 to 13% in the late 1990s.  This is an increase of 200% – which is impressive.  What happened since the 1990s though?  The proportion was actually smaller in 2011 than it was in 1995 in absolute terms.  At best, carbon-free energy proportions stagnated since the 1990s.  Countries deployed more carbon-free energy in that time period, but not enough to increase their proportion because so much new carbon energy was also deployed.  What happened starting in the 1990s?  The rapid industrialization of China and India, predominantly.  Are developing countries going to stop industrializing?  Absolutely not, as Figure 1 showed.  It showed that while renewable energy consumption will increase in the next 30 years, it will likely do so at the same rate that natural gas and liquids will.  The EIA projects that the rate of increase of coal energy consumption might level off in 30 years, after we release many additional gigatonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, ensuring that we do no stabilize at 450 ppm or 2°C.

Here is the EIA’s projection for China’s and India’s energy consumption in quads, compared to the US through 2040:

 photo EIA-EnergyConsumption-US-CH-IN1990-2040_zps70837e84.png

Figure 5. US, Chinese, and Indian energy consumption (quads) 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).

You can see the US’s projected energy consumption remains near 100 quads through 2040.  China’s consumption exceeded the US’s in 2009 and will hit 200 quads (2 US’s!) by 2030 before potentially leveling off near 220 quads by 2040.  India’s consumption was 1/4 the US’s in 2020 (25 quads), and will likely double by 2040.  Where will an additional 1.5 US’s worth of energy come from in the next 30 years?  Figure 1 gave us this answer: mostly fossil fuels.  If that’s true, there is no feasible way to stabilize CO2 concentrations at 450 ppm or global mean temperatures at 2°C.  That’s not just my opinion; take a look at a set of projections for yourself.

Here is one look at the future energy source by type:

 photo GlobalEnergyByType-2013ProjectionbyBNEF_zps36f9806f.jpg

Figure 6. Historical and Future Energy Source by Type (BNEF).

This projection looks rosy doesn’t it?  Within 10 years, most new energy will come from wind, followed by solar thermal.  But look at the fossil fuels!  They’re on the way out.  The potential for reduced additional fossil fuel generation is good news.  My contention is that it isn’t happening fast enough.  Instead of just new energy, let’s look at the cumulative energy portfolio picture:

 photo GlobalEnergyTotalByType-2013ProjectionbyBNEF_zps88331d51.jpg

Figure 7. Historical and Future Total Energy Source by Type (BNEF).

This allows us to see how much renewable energy penetration is possible through 2030.  The answer: not a lot, and certainly not enough.  2,000 GW of coal (>20% of total) remains likely by 2030 – the same time when energy experts say that fossil fuel use must be zero if CO2 concentrations are to remain below 450 ppm by 2100.  But coal isn’t the only fossil fuel and the addition of gas (another 1,700 GW) and oil (another 300 GW) demonstrates just how massive the problem we face really is.  By 2030, fossil fuels as a percentage of the total energy portfolio may no longer increase.  The problem is the percentages need to decrease rapidly towards zero.  Nowhere on this graph, or the next one, is this evident.  The second, and probably more important thing, about this graph to note is this: total energy increases at an increasing rate through 2030 as developing countries … develop.

 photo EIA-WorldEnergyConsumptionbyfueltype1990-2040_zps8d8ae886.png

Figure 8. Global fuel-type energy consumption, 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).

The EIA analysis agrees with the BNEF analysis: renewables increase through 2030.  The EIA’s projection extends through 2040 where the message is the same: renewables increase, but so do fossil fuels.  The only fossil fuel that might stop increasing is the most carbon intensive – coal – and that is of course a good thing.  But look at the absolute magnitudes: there could be twice as many coal quads in 2040 as there were in 2000 (50% more than 2010).  There could also be 50% more natural gas and 30% more liquid fuels.  But the message remains: usage of fossil fuels will likely not decline in the next 30 years.  What does that mean for CO2 emissions?

 photo EIA-WorldEnergy-RelatedCO2Emissionsbyfueltype1990-2040_zps417bffc4.png

Figure 9. Historical and projected global carbon dioxide emissions: 1990-2040 (EIA 2013 Energy Outlook).

Instead of 14 Gt/year (14 billion tonnes per year) in 2010, coal in 2040 will emit 25 Gt/year – almost a doubling.  CO2 emissions from natural gas and liquids will also increase – leading to a total of 45 GT/year instead of 30 GT/year.  The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated in 2011 that “if the world is to escape the most damaging effects of global warming, annual energy-related emissions should be no more than 32Gt by 2020.”  The IEA 2012 World Energy Outlook Report found that annual carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels rose 1.4 percent in 2012 to 31.6 Gt.  While that was the lowest yearly increase in four years, another similar rise pushes annual emissions over 32Gt in 2014 – six years ahead of the IEA’s estimate.  Based on the similarity between our historical emissions pathway and the high-end of the IPCC’s AR4 SRES scenarios (see figure below), 2°C is no longer a viable stabilization target.

 photo CO2_Emissions_IPCC_Obs_2012_zpsd3f8cb8f.jpg

Figure 10. IEA historical annual CO2 emissions and IPCC AR4 emissions scenarios: 1990-2012 (Skeptical Science).

The A2 pathway leads to 3 to 4°C warming by 2100.   Additional warming would occur after that, but most climate science focus ends at the end of this century.  A huge caveat applies here: that warming projection comes from models that did not represent crysophere or other processes.  This is important because the climate system is highly nonlinear.  Small changes in input can induce drastically different results.  A simple example of this is a change in input from 1 to 2 doesn’t mean a change in output from 1 to 2.  The output could change to 3 or 50, and we don’t know when the more drastic case will take place.  Given our best current but limited understanding of the climate system, 3 to 4°C warming by 2100 (via pathway A2) could occur.  Less warming, given the projected emissions above, is much, much less likely than more warming than this estimate.  Policy makers need to shift focus away from 2°C warming and start figuring out what a 3 to 4°C warmer world means for their area of responsibility.  Things like the timing of different sea level rise thresholds and how much infrastructure should we abandon to the ocean?  Things like extensive, high-magnitude drought and dwindling fresh water supplies.  These impacts will have an impact on our lifestyle.  It is up to us to decide how much.  The graphs above and stories I linked to draw this picture for me: we need to change how we approach climate and energy policy.  The strategies employed historically were obviously inadequate to decarbonize at a sufficient rate.  We need to design, implement, and evaluate new strategies.


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Climate & Energy Articles – Aug. 17, 2013

Since I can’t devote as much time to everything I read, here is a quick roundup of things I thought were interesting recently:

A Nature article (subs. req’d) describes some of the problems with a trending climate effort: decadal predictions.  In the past, agencies just made climate projections for a couple of centuries into the future.  In addition to that, interest in projections over the next 10 or 20 years grew.  Unfortunately, climate models aren’t well designed for these short time frames.  Thus, they miss high-frequency climate events made just after agencies issue them.  Of particular concern are the high impact events, as we tend to focus on them.  I would remind critics that point out these “misses” that very few financial models indicated the biggest economic disruption of our lifetime: the Great Recession, yet we continue to ascribe great status to the same financial titans that universally missed that high impact event.  That means, of course, that critics remain within their tribal identities and look for any evidence to support their position, even as they ignore similar evidence for analogous cases.

A group made an interesting counter argument regarding the cause behind the US’s recent drop in CO2 emissions.  Instead of the switch from carbon-intensive coal to slightly less intensive natural gas, as many analysts described, this group claims the drop occurred due to widespread, massive efficiency gains.  I characterize this as interesting because the group is countering the International Energy Agency, among others.  While not prescient, the IEA is the leading authority in these types of analyses.  We shouldn’t take their analyses without a grain of salt, of course, as their methodologies are likely imperfect.  Instead, this new argument should encourage further research and analysis.  Was the coal-to-gas switch primarily responsible or was efficiency?  Additional years’ data will help to clarify the respective roles.  In the long-term, efficiency can play as big or a bigger role than the coal-to-gas switch that occurred to date.  That’s where innovation funded from a carbon price comes into play.

Grist ran an informative series recently that included a short video of how much energy the US uses – the primary generators and consumers by type and sector.  The upshot is this: the US uses 100 quads (an energy measurement), which makes further discussion quite simple.  The US generates 81-83 quads (81-83%) via fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas).  That leaves only 17-19% of US generation by non-fossil sources.  Most non-fossil energy generation is nuclear, which means renewables account for the smallest share of energy generation.  Most of that is hydropower from dams that we built in the first half of the 20th century.  This data will form the basis of my next post, which will examine the implications of this energy breakdown for climate policy.  What will it take to replace 83 quads of fossil fuel energy generation with renewable energy generation?


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Climate Sensitivity and 21st Century Warming

I want to write about shoddy opining today.  I will also write about tribalism and cherry-picking; all are disappointing aspects in today’s climate discussion.  In climate circles, a big kerfuffle erupted in the past week that revolves around minutiae and made worse by disinformation.  The Research Group of Norway released a press release that somebody’s research showed a climate sensitivity of ~1.9°C (1.2-2.9°C was the range around this midpoint value) due to CO2-doubling, which is lower than other published values.

Important Point #1: The work remains un-peer reviewed.  It is part of unpublished PhD work and therefore subject to change.

Moving from that context, what happened next?  The Inter-tubes were ablaze with skeptics cheering the results.  Additionally, groups like Investor’s Business Daily jumped on the “global warming is hooey” bandwagon.  Writers like Andy Revkin provided thoughtful analysis.

Important Point #2: Skeptics view some model results as truthful – those that agree with their worldview.

IBD can, of course, opine all it wants about this topic.  What obligation to their readers do they have to disclose their biases, however?  All the other science results are wrong, except this one with which they agree.  What makes the new results so correct when every other result is so absolutely wrong?  Nothing, as I show below.

Important Point #3: These preliminary results still show a sensitivity to greenhouse gas emissions, not to the sun or any other factor.

For additional context, you should ask how these results differ from other results.  What are IBD and other skeptics crowing about?

 photo Climate_Sensitivity_500_zps9f1bcb3a.jpg

Figure 1Distributions and ranges for climate sensitivity from different lines of evidence. The circle indicates the most likely value. The thin colored bars indicate very likely value (more than 90% probability). The thicker colored bars indicate likely values (more than 66% probability). Dashed lines indicate no robust constraint on an upper bound. The IPCC likely range (2 to 4.5°C) is indicated by the vertical light blue bar. [h/t Skeptical Science]

They’re crowing about a median value of 1.9°C in a range of 1.2-2.9°C.  If you look at Figure 1, neither the median nor the range is drastically different from other estimates.  The range is a little smaller in magnitude than what the IPCC reported in 2007.  Is it surprising that if scientists add 10 more years of observation data to climate models, a sensitivity measurement might shift?  The IPCC AR4 dealt with observations through 2000.  This latest preliminary report used observations through 2010.  What happened in the past 10 years that might shift sensitivity results?  Oh, a number of La Niñas, which are global cooling events.  Without La Niñas, the 2000s would have been warmer, which would have affected the sensitivity measurement differently.  No  mention of this breaks into the opinion piece.

Important Point #4: Climate sensitivity and long-term warming are not the same thing.

The only case in which they are the same thing is if we limit our total emissions so that CO2 concentrations are equal to CO2-doubling.  That is, if CO2 concentrations peak at 540ppm sometime in the future, the globe will likely warm no more than 1.9°C.  Note that analysis’s importance.  It brings us to:

Important Point #5: On our current and projected emissions pathway, we will more than double pre-industrial CO2 concentrations.

 photo CO2_Emissions_IPCC_Obs_2011_zpsa00aa5e8.jpg

Figure 2.  Historical emissions (IEA data – black) compared to IPCC AR4 SRES scenario projections (colored lines).

As I’ve discussed before, our historical emissions continue to track at the top of the range considered by the IPCC in the AR4 (between A2 and A1FI).  Scientists are working on the AR5 as we speak, but the framework for the upcoming report changed.  Instead of emissions, planners built Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) for the AR5.  A graph that shows these pathways is below.  This graph uses emissions to bridge between the AR4 and AR5.

 photo CO2EmissionsScenarios-hist-and-RCP-2012.png

Figure 3. Representative Concentration Pathways used in the upcoming AR5 through the year 2100, displayed using yearly emissions estimates.

The top line (red; RCP8.5) corresponds to the A1FI/A2 SRES scenarios.  As Figure 3 shows, our historical emissions most closely match the RCP8.5 pathway.  The concentration for this pathway through 2100 is 1370ppm CO2-eq, which results in an anomalous +8.5W/m^2 forcing.  This forcing is likely to result in 4 to 6.1°C warming by 2100.  A couple of critical points: in this scenario, emissions don’t peak in the 21st century; therefore this scenario projects additional warming in the 2100s.  I want to make absolutely clear this point: our business-as-usual concentration pathway blows past CO2-doubling this century, which means the doubling sensitivity is a moot point.  We should investigate CO2-quadrupliung.  Why?  The peak emissions and concentration, which dictates the peak anomalous forcing, which controls the peak warming we face.

The IBD article contains plenty of skeptic-speak: “Predictions of doom have turned out to be nothing more than madness”, “there are too many unknowns, too many variables”, and “nothing ever proposed would have any impact anyway”.

They do have a point with their first quoted statement.  I avoid catastrophic language because doom has not befallen the vast majority of people on this planet.  Conditions are changing, to be sure, but not drastically.  There are too many unknowns.  Most of the unknowns scientists worked on the last 10 years ended up with the opposite result that IBD assumes: scientists underestimated feedbacks and results.  Events unfolded much more quickly than previously projected.  That will continue in the near future due mainly to our lack of knowledge.  The third point is a classic: we cannot act because others will not act in concert with us.  This flies in the face of a capitalist society’s foundation.  Does IBD really believe that US innovation will not increase our competitiveness or reduce inefficiencies?  Indeed, Tim Worstall’s Forbes piece posited a significant conclusion: climate change becomes cheaper to solve if the sensitivity is lower than previously estimated.  IBD should be cheering for such a result.

Finally, when was the last time you saw the IBD latch onto one financial model and completely discard others?  Where was IBD in 2007 when the financial crisis was about to start and a handful of skeptics warned that the mortgage boom was based on flawed models?  Were they writing opinion pieces like this one?  I don’t think so.  Climate change requires serious policy consideration.  This opinion piece does nothing to materially advance that goal.


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Can Carbon Emissions Be Reduced In Electricity Generation While Including Variable Renewables? A California Case Study

This is a class paper I wrote this week and thought it might be of interest to readers here.  I can provide more information if desired.  The point to the paper was to write concisely for a policy audience about a decision support planning method in a subject that interests me.  Note that this is only from one journal paper among many that I read every week between class and research.  I will let readers know how I did after I get feedback.  As always, comments are welcome.

40% of the United States’ total carbon dioxide emissions come from electricity generation.  The electric power sector portfolio can shift toward generation technologies that emit less, but their variability poses integration challenges.  Variable renewables can displace carbon-based generation and reduce associated carbon emissions.  Two Stanford University researchers demonstrated this by developing a generator portfolio planning method to assess California variable renewable energy penetration and carbon emissions (Hart and Jacobson 2011).  Other organizations should adopt this approach to determine renewable deployment feasibility in different markets.

The researchers utilized historical and modeled meteorological and load data from 2005 in Monte Carlo system simulations to determine the least-cost generating mix, required reserve capacity, and hourly system-wide carbon emissions.  2050 projected cost functions and load data comprised a future scenario, which assumed a $100 per ton of CO2 carbon cost.  They integrated the simulations with a deterministic renewable portfolio planning optimization module in least-cost and least-carbon (produced by minimizing the estimated annual carbon emissions) cases.  In simulations, carbon-free generation met 2005 (99.8 ± 0.2%) and 2050 (95.9 ± 0.4%) demand loads in their respective low-carbon portfolios.

System inputs for the 2005 portfolio included hourly forecasted and actual load data, wind speed data generated by the Weather Research and Forecasting model, National Climatic Data Center solar irradiance data, estimated solar thermal generation, hourly calculated state-wide aggregated solar photovoltaic values, hourly temperature and geothermal data, and approximated daily hydroelectric generation and imported generation.  They authors calculated 2050 load data using an assumed annual growth rate of 1.12% in peak demand and 0.82% growth in annual generation.

The Monte Carlo simulations addressed the uncertainty estimation of different system states.  As an example, the authors presented renewables’ percent generation share and capacity factor standard deviations across all Monte Carlo representations.  The portfolio mix (e.g., solar, wind, natural gas, geothermal, and hydroelectric), installed capacities & capacity factors of renewable and conventional energy sources, annual CO2 emissions, expected levelized cost of generation, and electric load constituted this method’s outputs.

A range of results for different goals (i.e., low-cost vs. low-carbon), the capability to run sensitivity studies, and identification of system vulnerabilities comprise this method’s advantages.  Conversely, this method’s cons include low model transparency, subjective definition and threshold of risk, and a requirement for modeling and interpretation expertise.

This method demonstrates that renewable technologies can significantly displace carbon-based generation and reduce associated carbon emissions in large-scale energy grids.  This capability faces financial, technological, and political impediments however.  Absent effective pricing mechanisms, carbon-based generation will remain cheaper than low-carbon sources.  The $100 per ton of CO2 assumption made in the study’s 2050 portfolio is important, considering California’s current carbon market limits, its initial credit auction price of $10.09 per metric tonne (Carroll 2012), and its a $50/ton price ceiling.  In order to meet the projected 2050 load with renewable sources while reducing emissions, technological innovation deserves prioritization.  More efficient and reliable renewable generators will deliver faster investment returns and replace more carbon-based generators.  Improved interaction with all stakeholders during the planning phase of this endeavor will likely reduce political opposition.

Carroll, Rory. 2012. “California Carbon Market Launches, Permits Priced Below Expectations.” Reuters, November 19. http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/19/us-california-carbonmarket-idUSBRE8AI13X20121119.

Hart, E. K., and M. Z. Jacobson. 2011. “A Monte Carlo Approach to Generator Portfolio Planning and Carbon Emissions Assessments of Systems with Large Penetrations of Variable Renewables.” Renewable Energy 36 (8): 2278–2286.


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Carbon Emissions: Who Is Doing vs. Who Has Done More?

Inspired by a tweet, this blog post spurred me to think about how to answer a question: who is doing more on carbon emissions: the US or some other country?  I think looking ahead to the next 5-10 years, the author is probably correct: it appears that the US is on a path toward additional CO2 reductions while some other nations’ efforts might not yield the results they did in the past.  But that only captures part of the story.  To get a good idea of who has done what, it is instructive to look at multiple time periods, as the following table does for OECD countries (link has raw data; calculations are mine):

Environment – Air and land – Emissions of Carbon Dioxide
CO2 emissions
Million tonnes
1990 1999 2006 2009 09-06 09-99 09-90 09-71
Australia 260 333 393 395 1% 19% 52% 174%
Austria 56 61 72 63 -13% 3% 13% 29%
Belgium 108 117 110 101 -8% -14% -6% -14%
Canada 432 511 544 521 -4% 2% 21% 54%
Chile 31 57 60 65 8% 14% 110% 210%
Czech R. 155 111 121 110 -9% -1% -29% -27%
Denmark 50 55 56 47 -16% -15% -6% -15%
Estonia 36 15 16 15 -6% 0% -58% ####
Finland 54 56 67 55 -18% -2% 2% 38%
France 352 378 380 354 -7% -6% 1% -18%
Germany 950 829 824 750 -9% -10% -21% -23%
Greece 70 80 94 90 -4% 13% 29% 260%
Hungary 67 57 56 48 -14% -16% -28% -20%
Iceland 2 2 2 2 0% 0% 0% 100%
Ireland 30 39 45 39 -13% 0% 30% 77%
Israel 33 50 62 65 5% 30% 97% 364%
Italy 397 425 464 389 -16% -8% -2% 33%
Japan 1064 1169 1205 1093 -9% -7% 3% 44%
Korea 229 385 476 515 8% 34% 125% 890%
Luxem. 10 7 11 10 -9% 43% 0% -33%
Mexico 265 334 395 400 1% 20% 51% 312%
Netherl. 156 169 178 176 -1% 4% 13% 35%
N. Zealand 23 30 34 31 -9% 3% 35% 121%
Norway 28 38 37 37 0% -3% 32% 54%
Poland 342 303 304 287 -6% -5% -16% 0%
Portugal 39 60 56 53 -5% -12% 36% 279%
Slovak R. 57 39 37 33 -11% -15% -42% -15%
Slovenia 13 14 16 15 -6% 7% 15% ####
Spain 206 269 332 283 -15% 5% 37% 136%
Sweden 53 57 48 42 -13% -26% -21% -49%
Switzerland 41 43 44 42 -5% -2% 2% 8%
Turkey 127 177 240 256 7% 45% 102% 524%
UK 549 515 534 466 -13% -10% -15% -25%
USA 4869 5506 5685 5195 -9% -6% 7% 21%
EU27 total 4052 3812 3996 3577 -10% -6% -12% ####
OECD total 11158 12293 12999 12045 -7% -2% 8% 29%
Brazil 194 292 327 338 3% 16% 74% 271%
China 2211 3047 5603 6832 22% 124% 209% 754%
India 582 939 1252 1586 27% 69% 173% 693%
Indonesia 142 261 356 376 6% 44% 165% ####
Russian Federation 2179 1468 1580 1533 -3% 4% -30% ####
S. Africa 255 291 331 369 11% 27% 45% 112%
World 20966 22947 28093 28994 3% 26% 38% 106%

I have included data from 5 years: 1971 (the first of the dataset), 1990, 1999, 2006, and 2009 (the last year with data).  The blog post I link to above asks which nation has reduced CO2 emissions the most since 2006.  In many ways, this is like choosing 1998 for the start of a global temperature data comparison.  You can do it, but that doesn’t mean you should do it.  I will use 2006-2009 as the baseline against which I make comparisons with other start years.  The story changes (of course) when you do this.

How did the US fare from 2006 to 2009?  Emissions were reduced (-9%), there is no denying that.  The Great Recession and the relatively widespread switch from old expensive coal plants to newer cheaper natural gas plants accounted for most of that reduction.  How do we know?  What is the US’s national climate policy?  We don’t know because we don’t have one.  Sure, there are actions that the EPA and other agencies of the Obama administration have taken, but they occurred simultaneously with the recession and market responses to a different cheap fuel.  It will take years before their effects are noticeable in aggregate numbers like total CO2 emissions.  But look, most European nations’ emissions were also reduced during the 2006-2009 time period.  The biggest factors: the Great Recession and austerity measures keeping economies from growing.

What does the next time period show us?  From 1999 to 2009 (11 years), US emissions fell by 6% – still a noteworthy accomplishment given the lack of national policy pushing us towards any type of meaningful goal.  How did European nations do in comparison?  Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Hungary, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Sweden, and the United Kingdom all posted double-digit percentage emission declines.  All but two of those countries posted double the US’ 6% value (>=12%).  What happened in the late-1990s?  The signing of the Kyoto Protocol (all except the US, of course).  Did the European nations hit their Kyoto targets?  No, but they decreased their CO2 emissions substantially.

I often write that we should benchmark nations’ CO2 emissions to 1990, since that was prior to Kyoto or even the Rio Conference.  In other words, before emissions garnered widespread international attention.  Let’s compare the US and European nations on that basis.  I would further advocate for this comparison because of the length of time involved: 19 years, which represents a lot of time.

Unsurprisingly, US emissions increased from 1990 to 2009 – by 7%.  What about their European counterparts?  In this case, I’ll collect all the nations who posted emission decreases.   Belgium (-6%), Czech Republic (-29%), Denmark (-6%), Estonia (-58%), Germany (-21%!), Hungary (-28%), Italy (-2%), Poland (-16%), Solvak Republic (-42%), Sweden (-21%!), and the United Kingdom (-15%).  Well, well, well.  It appears that Germany’s reputation for reducing emissions is pretty well deserved.  Take away the former Eastern bloc nations and there are six European countries which accomplished something the US did not.

The last column represents the longest look possible: from 1971 to 2009.  I have never looked at this time frame and it held some surprises.  In contrast to the US’ (+21%) change in CO2 emissions, Belgium (-14%), Czech Republic (-27%), Denmark (-15%), France (-18%), Germany (-23%), Hungary (-20%), Luxembourg (-33%), Slovak Republic (-15%), Sweden (-49%), and the United Kingdom (-25%) all posted declines compared to 38 years ago!  Let’s give credit where credit is due: that is impressive!

I am not saying that European countries are perfect or that they accomplished their task.  Anything but: they still have positive emissions, which is changing the climate.  But their emissions are, in yearly magnitude and in cumulative sum, dwarfed by the US’s.  The US has a very long way to go before it can claim any environmental success story related to climate change.  We do have things we can learn from the other side of the pond.  We could start by developing and publicizing a national climate policy.  Absent that, efforts from US mayors are needed and welcomed as part of a bottom-up approach, which I am convinced is the only way this problem will be tackled successfully.


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How the IPCC Underestimated Climate Change – Scientific American article

Scientific American published an article summarizing what I’ve written about for a couple of years: the IPCC’s projections aren’t 100% correct.  Gasp – the horror!  But, contrary to what skeptics think, the direction the IPCC’s reports were wrong are opposite of what they claim.  The projections time and again underestimated future changes.  I think a valid complaint, and one I’ve made many times myself, is that the IPCC process is too conservative – it takes too long to get the kind of consensus they’re looking for.  Rapidly changing conditions are not well handled by the IPCC process.  When there is conflicting evidence of something, the IPCC has tended to say nothing in an effort not to upset anybody.  The good news is there are indications this is changing.  The list:

1. Emissions

This is the biggest one.  Too many studies focused on moderate emission pathways, when yearly updates showed our actual emissions were on the high range of those considered by the IPCC.  I actually posted on this two days ago: CO2 Emissions Continue to Track At Top of IPCC Range.  This has implications for every other process that follows.

2. Temperature

More accurately, energy in the climate system is the variable of interest.  It is easy to point out that temperatures since 2000 haven’t increased as much as projected.  It is also easy to compare observed trends since 1980 and claim AR4 models over-predicted temperature rise.  This conflates a couple of issues: the AR4 wasn’t used to project since 1980.  More importantly, the difference between observed trends since 1980 and projected temperatures from half of the AR4 models was less than 0.04°C (0.072°F).  That’s pretty darned small.  With respect to the trend since 2000, the real issue is energy gain.  The vast majority of energy has accumulated in the oceans:

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More specifically, if the heat is transported quickly to the deep ocean (>2000ft), the sea surface temperature doesn’t increase rapidly.  Nor does atmosphere or land temperatures change.  This is true at least in the short-term.  When the ocean transports this heat from the deep back to the surface, we should be able to more easily measure that heat.  Put simply, the temporary hiatus of temperature rise is just that: temporary.  Are we prepared for when that hiatus ends?

The relatively small increase in near-surface air and land temperatures is thus explained.  The IPCC never claimed the 4.3° to 11.5°F temperature rise (AR4 projection) would happen by 2020 – it is likely to happen by 2100.  Expect more synergy between projected temperatures and observed temperatures in the coming years.  Also remember that climate is made up of long-term weather observations.

Additionally, aerosols emitted by developing nations have been observed to reflect some of the incoming solar radiation back to space.  Once these aerosols precipitate out of the atmosphere or are not emitted at some point in the future, the absorption of longwave radiation by the remaining greenhouse gases will be more prominent.  The higher the concentration of gases, the more radiation will be absorbed and the faster the future temperature rise is likely to be.  These aerosols are thus masking the signal that would otherwise be measured if they weren’t present.

3. Arctic Meltdown

This is the big story of 2012.  The Arctic sea ice melted in summer 2012 to a new record low: an area the size of the United States melted this year!  Even as late as 2007 (prior to the previous record-low melt), the IPCC projected that Arctic ice wouldn’t decrease much until at least 2050.  Instead, we’re decades ahead of this projection – despite only a relatively small global temperature increase in the past 25 years (0.15°C or so).  What will happen when temperatures increase by multiple degrees Centigrade?

4. Ice sheets

These are the land-based sheets, which are melting up to 100 years faster than the IPCC’s first three reports.  2007′s report was the first to identify more rapid ice sheet melt.  The problem is complex cryospheric dynamics.  Understandably, the most remote and inhospitable regions on Earth are the least studied.  Duh.  That’s changing, with efforts like the fourth International Polar Year, the results of which are still being studied and published.  Needless to say, modern instrumentation and larger field campaigns have resulted in advances in polar knowledge.

5. Sea Level Rise

It’s nice being relevant.  I just posted something new on this yesterday: NOAA Sea-Level Rise Report Issued – Dec 2012.  The 3.3mm of sea-level rise per year is higher than the 2001 report’s projection of 2mm per year.  Integrated over 100 years, that 1mm difference results in 4″ more SLR.  But again, with emission and energy underestimates, the 3.3mm rate of SLR is expected to increase in future decades, according to the latest research.  Again, another mm per year results in another 4″ 100 years from now.  Factors affecting SLR that the IPCC didn’t address in 2007 includes global ocean warming (warmer water takes up more volume), faster ice sheet melt, and faster glacial melt.  Additionally, feedback mechanisms are still poorly understood and therefore not well represented in today’s state-of-the-art models.

6. Ocean Acidification

The first 3 IPCC reports didn’t even mention this effect.  In the past 250 years, ocean acidity has increased by 30% – not a trivial amount!  As the article points out, research on this didn’t even start until after 2000.

7. Thawing Tundra

Another area that is not well-studied and therefore not well understood.  The mechanics and processes need to be observed so they can be modeled more effectively.  1.5 trillion tons of carbon are locked away in the currently frozen tundra.  If these regions thaw, as is likely since the Arctic has observed the most warming to date, methane could be released to the atmosphere.  Since methane acts as a more efficient GHG over short time frames, this could accelerate short-term warming much more quickly than projected (See temperatures above).  The SciAm article points out the AR5, to be released next year, will once again not include projections on this topic.

8. Tipping Points

This is probably the most controversial aspect of this list.  Put simply, no one knows where potential tipping points exist, if they do at all.  The only way we’re likely to find out about tipping points is by looking in the past some day in the future.  By then, of course, moving back to other side of the tipping point will be all but impossible on any time-frame relevant to people alive then.

Summary

There are plenty of problems with the UNFCCC’s IPCC process.  Underestimation of critical variables is but one problem plaguing it.  Blame it on scientists who, by training, are very conservative in their projections and language.  They also didn’t think policymakers would fail to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.  Do policymakers relying on the IPCC projections know of and/or understand this nuance?  If not, how robust will their decisions be?  The IPCC process needs to be more transparent, including allowing more viewpoints to be expressed, say in an Appendix compendium.  The risks associated with underestimating future change are higher than the opposite.


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2011 CO2 Emissions Up

In 2011, global emissions of carbon reached an all-time high of 31.6 Gigatonnes, according to preliminary IEA estimates.  That was 3.2% (1.0 Gt) higher than 2010 emissions.  The IEA has developed an energy pathway consistent with a 50% chance of limiting global temperature increases to only 2°C, which requires CO2 emissions to peak at 32.6 Gt no later than 2017.  This reinforces statements I’ve made in the past year that a maximum of 2°C warming is no longer feasible.  There is no reason short of worldwide economic collapse that emissions will peak at or below 32.6 Gt prior to 2017.  As emissions continue, more warming and additional effects are locked into Earth’s climate system.  The good news is due to transfer of power generation from coal to natural gas (more natural gas plants as gas prices fell in 2009 and 2010), US CO2 emissions fell by 92 Mt (1.7%) from 2010 to 2011.  Indeed, emissions have fallen 7.7% from 2006 levels in the US.  A significant portion of that decrease was due to the economic troubles from which we still haven’t recovered, of course.  Do market forces exist to help reduce those emissions?  Absolutely they exist: taxes and permit systems.  Note that the second article includes a brief discussion of why previous environmental action was taken.  It cites the immediate identification of the causality behind environmental disasters.  I disagree with the author’s assessment that such an event will ever occur with respect to climate change.  I further disagree that such a “Climate Pearl Harbor” (as it has been described elsewhere) is the only means by which bottom-up action and support can be generated.


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2010: Largest Increase in CO2 Emissions On Record -> Actions To Date Insufficient

I wanted to share just a few brief words on an article I saw in the Denver Post (from the AP) today: Greenhouse gas levels rise. Somewhat surprisingly, a reference to the article appeared on the top of the front page of the print edition of the paper. The story, at the back on 11A, was a little too filled with various quotes from experts in the field for my taste, with no real context for readers to grasp why the news is so important.

This graph encapsulates the importance of this news item:

What this graph shows is the observations of emissions (as calculated by the IEA) represented by the black curve and 5 of the 6 emissions scenarios used by the IPCC AR4 in colored lines. The SRES begin in 2000, which was the starting year used for future simulations in the AR4. You can clearly see the effects of the partial collapse of the global economy in 2009 emissions: they went from higher than the worst-case scenario to the middle of the pack.

In 2010, however, emissions jumped back up to the top of the pack, almost as if 2009 never even happened. I would be willing to bet the 2011 numbers will demonstrate a further increase.

The simplicity of this graph should in no way distract from the deep problems underlying the data: we continue to emit more and more greenhouse gases. As a result, we are locking in more and more future warming and ensuring a cascade of resultant effects that we can’t envision today. In contrast to some of my earlier posts, I want to make sure I don’t convey that I think those effects will be apocalyptic because I don’t think they will be.

There will be changes forced on us and on ecosystems worldwide as a result of these emissions. But what I want to start spending more time on are the solutions to the grand challenges we’re facing instead of just the depths of those challenges themselves.

In short, it is clear that actions taken to date with respect to emissions clearly have been unsatisfactory. That is because the approach to developing policies that could affect emissions have been woefully inadequate. I have solidified my opinion that the IPCC is not the best approach to dealing with the adaptation or mitigation strategies. Neither do I think that the Conference on Parties, which is set to meet in a handful of weeks to discuss roles and responsibilities for developed and developing countries, is suitable for the task. I’m not sure what the best approach is, but neither of these two primary tacks have proven themselves capable of dealing with the problem to date.


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U.K. Announces Aggressive Emissions Cuts – Will They Follow Through?

The U.K. has announced a policy that should be lauded:

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne told Parliament that Britain would reduce the emissions by about 50 percent from benchmark emission levels in 1990, part of its legally mandated commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent by 2030, and 80 percent by 2050.

This news is huge.  Note first the benchmark: 1990 emission levels.  The U.S.’s wasted effort at a needed emissions policy change was going to use 2005 as a benchmark – which was woefully inadequate.  Of course, the policy never got changed so our trial benchmark is irrelevant.

What we need to know – and we obviously cannot for the time being – is whether this policy proposal will be watered down and if so by how much.  No other European country has yet proposed such an aggressive cut in emissions.  So while the U.K. is first and that’s a good thing because it moves the debate forward, the sorry state of politics in general likely means that the target won’t stand when put into place.  But as long their efforts move actual policy forward, that’s a good thing.  I just hope it’s enough and in time.


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Changes In The Arctic

I’ve written about Arctic sea ice conditions for a couple of years now. As I’ve written new posts, I’ve tried to include information regarding the science behind the conditions being written.  2010 was a particularly bad year for Arctic ice, as conditions were recorded to be well below average conditions for months at a time.  Arctic ice in September 2010 challenged the record low minimum extent observed in the modern era in 2007.  My summary conclusion after paying attention to Arctic sea ice is this: the Arctic has entered into a new climatic regime.  Conditions are now regularly quite different than those observed in the past couple hundred years.  I’m going to provide a broader look at this topic in this post.

When I have written about climatic changes, especially in the context of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 4th Assessment Report Physical Science Basis (IPCC 4AR WG1), I have increasingly mentioned the disturbing fact that the IPCC’s projections were far too conservative to be of real use to policy makers.  The reason is both simple and complex.  Simply put, the IPCC focused on moderate greenhouse pollution scenarios that were better researched.  The biggest problem with that is the globe’s actual emissions path is following the worst-case scenario (A1FI) considered by the IPCC 4AR (courtesy of Hansen and Sato; data through 2010):

Of greater complexity is the “better researched” part of my statement.  Critical feedbacks were largely kept out of climate model runs leading up to the 4AR.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong or manipulative about this.  Those feedbacks remain less researched and therefore less understood than other processes included in state-of-the-art model efforts.  That situation is improving, as feedbacks are coming under increasing scrutiny.  This is where politics intrudes: somebody has to fund that research.  There was a strong effort during most of the past 10 years to slow down or stop this kind of climate research.  Budgetary pressures moving forward will cause potential future research to be shelved when it’s needed most.

Back to the IPCC 4AR.  One of the problems with relying on scenarios that don’t accurately reflect the true state of the climate system is projections are starting to look overly cheerful.  Take Arctic sea ice extent as an example.  From the 2009 Copenhagen Diagnosis, we can see that not only does the mean of the IPCC models over-project the extent of September Arctic sea ice only a few short years after making the projections, but the worst-case scenario wasn’t able to capture how low sea ice extent would get prior to 2010 (data through 2008); [h/t msobel for reminding me this graph existed].

September 2009′s extent was similar to 2008′s.  2010′s looked more like 2007′s, which is represented by the lowest point of the red line in the above graph.  In other words, the observations time series continues to record values substantially lower than the bottom of the IPCC models’ range.  Scientists (and others) love to ask, “Why?”  So, the question should be, “Why were the IPCC models so far off on this projection?”  A quick note: a growing number of other kinds of projections are showing similar signs of being worse than projected much sooner than was thought to be the case.  I will discuss some, but not all, of the factors involved in this phenomenon.

I’ve already shown the annual growth of CO2 emissions over the past 50 years.  That, of course, is only part of the story.  Since CO2 isn’t scrubbed from the atmosphere very quickly, CO2 concentrations have risen with that growth of CO2 emissions.  Here is the state of atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured at Mauna Loa, Hawai’i as of early February 2011:

(Courtesy Tans et al., NOAA/ESRL web site)

Up and up it goes.  2010′s average CO2 concentration was 389.69ppm.  That will be the last time in a long time that the concentration will be below 390ppm.  Today’s concentration is higher than at any point during the past few hundreds of thousands of years.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the last time concentrations were above 400ppm for an extended period of time (somewhere between 400 and 560ppm), the Greenland ice sheets collapsed.  That’s because there is a melting ice/warmer air feedback that occurs around Greenland.  The problem?  Nobody knows exactly where the tipping point leading to collapsing ice sheet exists.  Since we’re only 10ppm  and 5 years away form 400ppm, does anybody seriously want to continue gambling?  After all, it’s going to take quite some time to get that concentration back below 400ppm; more time will be required the longer we wait.

CO2 is being emitted into the atmosphere faster than it is being removed.  The concentration of CO2 is therefore increasing.  As a result of very basic physical laws, more and more solar energy is accumulating in Earth’s climate system.  Part of this energy is manifesting as increased surface temperatures:

This graph shows 5-year and 11-year running averages of global temperatures as analyzed by NASA’s James Hansen.  Within this data, something interesting is occurring.  And it didn’t become obvious until Hansen published a different kind of temperature anomaly graph.  Instead of averaging the entire globe’s temperatures together, Hansen averaged temperatures over different latitude bands together:

If it’s too hard to make out all the little details, check out this web page, where you can click on a PDF which shows a much larger version.  I’m going to concentrate on the top two boxes in this graph, which show temperature anomalies for five zones (upper-left) and for the two polar zones (upper-right).

The first thing I want to point out is the period between 1940 and 1980.  This period has been cited recently by climate zombies as one reason not to listen to climate scientists.  According to the zombies, predictions were made in the 1970s about global cooling.  Nothing exists in the scientific literature supporting this claim, of course.  What scientists did say in the 1970s was the recent warming trend was no longer evidenced and they wondered what could be causing it.  Without getting further into the minutiae, the top two time series show where the global signal originated from: the Arctic.  It was the zone that showed the strongest signal that looks similar to the signal seen in the global temperature anomaly time series.  Since the 1970s, the Arctic’s surface temperatures have warmed more than any other zone.  You can see that in 2010, the Arctic temperature anomaly was greater than 3.6F (2C).  The northern mid-latitudes (23.6°N to 64.2°N, or the zone in which most of us live) has “only” warmed by just under 1.8F.  The northern mid-latitudes showed a slight cooling from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, but if you look at the time series on the bottom-left, the scale is much smaller than the Arctic graph in the upper-right.

So that’s what’s happened in the lowest part of the atmosphere above the Arctic: the greatest warming of any zonal area on Earth since the 1880s.  Arctic sea ice, of course, rests on water – the Arctic Ocean, to be precise.  Something has been occurring to the Arctic Ocean at the same time that the atmosphere above the ice has been steadily warming.  Unfortunately, it’s the same phenomenon: water entering the Arctic from the Atlantic is warmer than it has been at any point in at least the past 2,000 years.  This water is 3.5F warmer today than it was one century ago.  It is 2.5F warmer today than it was during a favorite time period for climate zombies, the Medieval Warm Period, during which Europe warmed while most of the rest of the globe didn’t see much change.  But even if the effect was global, as they wish it was, conditions are warmer today by a substantial margin.  Not only that, but the volume of water entering the Arctic from the Atlantic has also increased over the past century.  If the same volume of water that was warmer was the situation, that would be bad enough.  But significantly more water that is significantly warmer than similar water was 100 years ago is a double whammy.  What this mean is Arctic ice has a harder time forming along the edge of the ice pack on a year-to-year and decade-to-decade basis.  This is evident in the following graphic:

(courtesy Robert F. Spielhagen, Science)

The red arrows represent flow direction of Atlantic water entering the Arctic Ocean at depth.  The white arrows represent flow direction of ice exiting the Arctic Ocean at the surface.  The solid white line represents the average sea ice coverage for April from 1989 to 1995.  The broken white line represents the average sea ice coverage for April from 1963 to 1969.

Why are the time series and study results relevant to the comparison of ice extent observations against IPCC model projections?  Because they represent only a small number of examples of how increasing understanding of the Arctic has occurred in recent years and that’s problematic when interpreting the IPCC’s results.  I haven’t covered how the warming observed in the Arctic so far is thawing permafrost both on land and underwater, which is projected to release 1 Billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere yearly by the 2030s – and how such a process likely won’t be included in the IPCC 5AR.  Additionally, most of that carbon will be released as methane, which is 72 times as efficient a greenhouse gas over a 25 year period than CO2.  I haven’t covered how the retreat of Arctic sea ice is causing additional solar energy to be collected by dark sea water instead of being reflected back into space by white ice – and how such a process also isn’t included in today’s climate models.  I haven’t covered how over 80% of the solar energy absorbed in the past couple hundred years is currently stored in the world’s oceans, mostly at depth.  When that warmer water rises to the surface, it will interact with a warmer atmosphere in ways that are not completely understood.  Of course, warmer waters means Arctic sea ice will have even less of a chance of existing year-round in tomorrow’s world.

To some extent, I have talked about the dangers involved with spending most of our research time on moderate emission/warming scenarios, when our actual emission scenario is closer to the worst-case considered in the 2007 report.  But all of the feedbacks I’ve discussed so far are lacking from all of the emission scenarios.  What will happen when those feedbacks are included?  Instead of “5.0 °F with a likely range of 3.1 to 7.9 °F” for the A1B scenario or “7.2 °F with a likely range of 4.3 to 11.5 °F” for the A1FI scenario from the 4AR by 2100, the globe could experience 10-13°F warming by 2100.  Long before then, the Arctic will likely have attained a new stable climate; one that is quite different from the climate present during most of our species’ existence.

The Arctic has entered into a new regime.  Even climate scientists are playing catch-up right now, which means the American public is way behind in understanding what changes in the Arctic mean to them.

Cross-posted at SquareState.

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