Weatherdem's Weblog

Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy


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Climate News & Opinion Links – March 26 2014

I’ve collected a number of interesting climate and energy related news releases, stories, and opinion pieces in the past couple of weeks.  In no particular order:

The only way we will take large-scale climate action is if there are appropriate price signals in markets – signals that reach individual actors and influence their activities.  One step in the right direction was phasing out federal subsidies for high-risk coastal properties’ flood insurance policies, as Congress did in 2012.  This had the expected effect of increasing premiums for policy holders.  Unsurprisingly, people don’t want to pay more to live in their high-risk homes.  So they complained to their representatives, who responded by passing new legislation … reinstating government subsidies.  Taxpayers across the country are shoveling good money after bad for a select handful of wealthy people to build without mitigating risk to their homes or paying the true economic costs of their lifestyle decisions.  We will pay for them to rebuild again and again (remember: sea levels will rise for centuries) unless we as a society decide to stop.

Tesla is entering the energy industry.  This could be a game changer in terms of home solar energy and electric vehicles, no matter how Tesla comes out in the long-term.

20 years of IPCC effort and “achievement”.  With no robust international climate agreement after 20 years’ of work, I have a hard time accepting the claim the IPCC has achieved much of anything except an excessive bureaucracy and huge reports that few people read.

News that’s not really news: Asia will be among those hardest hit by climate change.  This isn’t a new result, but something that the IPCC’s WGII report will report on with increased confidence in 2014 versus 2007 (see above statement).  The number of people living close to coasts in Asia dwarf the total population of countries who historically emitted the most greenhouse gases.  That was true in 2007 and will be true in the future.  It will take a generation or more before effects on developed nations generate widespread action.

New research (subs. req’d) indicates ice gains in Antarctica’s Ross Sea will reverse by 2050.  Recent temperature and wind current patterns will shift from their current state to one that encourages rapid ice melt, similar to what the Arctic experienced in the past 20 years or so.

An El Nino might be developing in the tropical Pacific.  The anomalous heat content traveling east via an Equatorial Kelvin Wave rivals that of the 1997-1998 El Nino, which was the strongest in recorded history.  Earlier this month, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center issued an El Nino Watch, citing a 50% probability that an El Nino would develop in summer or fall 2014, based in part on projections such as Columbia University’s.  El Nino is the warm phase of the ENSO phenomenon.  Warm ocean waters move from the western to eastern Pacific, affecting global atmospheric circulations.  Related to science policy, one result of Congress’ austerity approach to the economy is  monitoring buoys’ degradation in the Pacific Ocean.  NOAA helped deploy a widespread network of buoys following the 1982-1983 El Nino which helped track the progress of the 1997-1998 El Nino with greatly improved fidelity.  That network is operating at less than 75% of its designed capacity, hampering observations.  If we can’t observe these impactful events, we can’t forecast their effects.  This negatively impacts business’ and peoples’ bottom line.

Finally, I want to make some observations regarding goings-on within the climate activist community.  Vocal critics recently spent a lot of energy on hit pieces, this being only one example (poorly written with little on science, heavy on “he-saids”, with an overdose of personal insults and vindictive responses to anyone who didn’t agree with the piece, including my comments).  These writings demonstrate something rather simple to me: if you do not agree with 100% of what the activist consensus is, you’re no better than people the activists label ‘deniers’.  Additionally, the their argument is absurd: social scientists have no business analyzing climate data or commenting on activist’s claims.  Why is this absurd?  Because they simultaneously hold the contradictory belief that physical scientists should have exclusive input and decision-making power over climate policy (a social creation).  Furthermore, implicit in their messaging is social scientists don’t have the right kind of expertise to participate in “serious” discussions.  These efforts to deligitimize someone they don’t believe should participate (how very elitist of them) is reminiscent of efforts by many in the Republican party to deligitimize Barack Obama’s presidency simply because of his race.  Nothing is gained and much is lost by these efforts.  How does this advance the climate discussion to people not currently involved, which will need to happen if we are to ever take any kind of large-scale climate action?

Additional lack of critical thought is found in this post, mostly in this penultimate paragraph:

I’ve said before that I think people can believe what they want, as long as they don’t try to act on those beliefs in a way that interferes with others’ lives. When they deny the reality of global warming, and preach it to their flock, that’s exactly what they’re doing (incidentally, a large fraction of Americans believe to some extent the Bible is literally true).

The very same complaint is made by the people the author derides in this paragraph and post but in reverse and it’s one of the biggest reasons why we’ve taken so little climate action.  The author’s condescension is plainly evident for those who don’t believe exactly as he does. Instead of trying to reach out to people with different beliefs (and underlying value systems), he takes the lazy route and spends time insulting them.  Have you ever believed in something you didn’t previously after someone insulted you?  No, it’s an absurd and self-defeating strategy.  These basic problems underlie most climate change discussions and people retrench their positions instead of trying to step into other’s shoes.  I’m not sure how much this has to change before we undertake more widespread and effective climate mitigation strategies.


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Newest Climate Change Consensus Document Won’t Matter…

It won’t matter unless and until physical scientists leverage expertise outside of their silos and stop executing failed strategies.  In addition to summary after summary of government sanctioned peer-reviewed scientific conclusions, scientists now think they need to report on the perceived consensus on individual bases of those conclusions in order to spur the public to action.  Regardless of their personal political leanings, scientists are very conservative job actors.  They have long-held traditions that are upheld at every turn, which reduces the urgency of their statements.  As an analogy, think of a bunch of people sitting down who think for long time periods before any action is ever taken.  First, they calmly say there is a situation that requires near-immediate action.  Then they say it a little louder.  Then a handful start yelling because you’re not responding to their carefully crafted words and they think that you just didn’t hear them or you just aren’t smart enough to understand those carefully crafted words.  Then they start screaming because they’re convinced you’re an idiot and screaming will definitely work where yelling and saying those words didn’t work before.

Well, the screaming isn’t helping, is it?  You’re not an idiot.  The volume of words isn’t the issue.  The issue is you are motivated by things outside of the climate realm – things like having a job; a job that pays a living wage so you can pay for your mortgage and car payment and keep your children educated and happy.  An existence in an affluent world that allows you the time and energy to think of complex problems beyond your perceived immediate needs.  If those needs aren’t met – if you have insecure affluence – you place climate change and the environment far down on a list of priorities – just like a majority of other Americans.

But the newly released “American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society with a membership of 121,200 scientists and “science supporters” globally” report won’t change this dynamic.  While it is important that the AAAS engages scientists and the society it serves, this report is unfortunately just the latest effort by a group of physical scientists that ignores science results outside of their discipline to try to convince Americans that immediate and drastic action is necessary.  Like previous efforts, this one will not spur people to action, mostly because the actions listed are about limits, stopping, restricting, reversing, preventing, and regulating.  The conceptual model from which these words arise works in direct contrast to the fundamentals of American culture.  We are a people who are imaginative, who innovate, who invest.

As I have written before, there is no way we will achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions without substantial investment into innovation of new technologies that we research, develop, and deploy at scale.  There is nothing limiting or restrictive about this framework.  It it the opposite of those things.  This framework recognizes and sets out to achieve opportunities; it allows for personal and cultural growth; it is in sync with the underlying cultural fabric of this country.  It directly addresses people’s perception of the security of their affluence in the same way that developing countries’ economic growth allows people to move beyond basic material needs to higher order needs.

The reality of insecure affluence among many Americans today might be an indirect outcome of the 1%’s efforts to increase wealth disparity, but it is real.  We have to address that disparity first in order to address the real, valid perceptions of insecure affluence.  Only after Americans feel their personal wealth is secure will they have the resources to devote to higher order needs such as global climate change.  That can happen with concerted focus on investing and innovating a post-carbon economy.  But you won’t see that at the top of any policy prescription from the majority of climate scientists.


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Future Emissions Scenario Requirements Part II

Ask and ye shall receive.  I recently wrote about what future GHG emissions scenarios included in terms of emission reduction requirements.  I have maintained for some time now that most of the IPCC’s emission and concentration scenarios are essentially useless for practical planning purposes.  Sure, they’re interesting academically, but we climate scientists can’t just study something for the sake of studying it in today’s tight federal budget environment.

In that post, I showed some graphics from a 2013 Nature paper which combined historical emissions as well as projected emissions.  Due to the article’s age, I had to search for additional data which showed more recent emissions.  I also showed a simple calculation of projected emissions assuming constant 2.1% annual emissions growth and how different emissions growth would have to be in order to achieve an emissions scenario many scientists characterize as ‘doable’: RCP4.5.

Well, a new Nature Climate Change paper (26Feb2014) updates the 2013 graph I showed, with some small changes:

 photo CO2_Emissions_AR5_Obs_Nature_article_zps1e766d71.jpg
Figure 1. Historical (black dots) and projected CO2 emissions from a Nature Climate Change article (subs. req’d).  Bold colored lines (red (RCP8.5), yellow (RCP4.5), green (RCP6), and blue (RCP2.6)) represent IPCC AR5 RCP-related emission scenarios.

Note that this figure shows exactly what I wrote about in my earlier post: historical emissions are tracking at or above the RCP8.5 scenario.  They also exceed the other three scenarios so far in the early 21st century.  These differences are relatively small so far (they will grow with time), but the trend difference between historical and RCP2.6 is already important.  As the figure shows, if we wanted to match RCP2.6 (and keep 2100 global mean annual temperatures near 2C above pre-industrial), emissions would have to be declining for multiple years already.  They aren’t.  Our actual annual emissions already exceed the annual maximum assumed by RCP2.6.  If we were to match RCP2.6 at some time in the future, emission reductions would have to be larger than RCP2.6 assumes, which is currently technologically impossible.

The figure also shows that if we continue at or along the RCP8.5 pathway, we will exceed the 2°C policy target by approximately 2046.  The paper begins with this short and sweet abstract:

It is time to acknowledge that global average temperatures are likely to rise above the 2 °C policy target and consider how that deeply troubling prospect should affect priorities for communicating and managing the risks of a dangerously warming climate.

And it includes this well-written paragraph:

This global temperature target has brought a valuable focus to international climate negotiations, motivating commitment to emissions reductions from several nations. But a policy narrative that continues to frame this target as the sole metric of success or failure to constrain climate change risk is now itself becoming dangerous, because it ill-prepares society to confront and manage the risks of a world that is increasingly likely to experience warming well in excess of 2°C this century.

I wouldn’t have used the term `dangerous` because it conveys a judgmental aspect to an objective statement.  But that’s personal style.  I agree completely with the underlying message.  If we have a small (I would say nearly zero) chance of keeping warming below 2°C this century, then 2°C shouldn’t be the target.  We can make an infinite number of possible targets, but most of them will be unachievable.  How much effort should we put into such targets?  How supportive of additional climate policies will the public be if initial targets fail early?  These aren’t simply academic questions.  Many climate activists think they’re convinced of how important action is, but their rhetoric doesn’t support that conviction.  They’re more ideological than they’d care to admit.

I met someone at a talk at the University of Colorado on Monday and ended up having lunch with them to exchange economic information for climate information.  I tried to convince them of the need to switch targets now, to no avail.  I ran into a basic problem of climate communication.  This person has a worldview and I was in the unenviable position of trying to modify that worldview.  Just as many climate communicators try to do with climate skeptics.  It’s incredibly difficult to do this because you’re dealing with a lifetime of information and experience overlaying a biology that is predisposed to that very worldview.

I will continue to post about historical versus projected emission/concentration pathways.  If activists really are supportive of the objective science as they claim, I think they will eventually shift their target.  They will of course have to come to terms with what they will initially perceive as a failure.  But the faster they can do that, the sooner we can set more reasonable and achievable targets and start making headway towards mitigation.


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Guest Teaching This Week

I’m guest teaching for my adviser’s Climate Policy Implications class while they are at a conference.  Yesterday was the easier task, as the class watched most of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “11th Hour“.  Like Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth”, DiCaprio makes widespread use of catastrophic visuals in the first 2/3 of the film.  I had discussions with classmates when I took this same class and others about the effects of these visuals.  Filmmakers design them to evoke strong emotional responses from viewers, which occurs even if you know what the intent is.  Beyond that intent, the images generate unintended consequences: viewers are left overwhelmed and feel helpless, which is the exact opposite reaction for which the film is likely designed.

The film contains spoken references to the same effect: “destroy nature”, “sick” and “infected” biosphere, “climate damage”, “Revenge of Nature”, “Nature has rights”, “nobody sees beauty”, “demise”, “destruction of civilization”, climate as a “victim”, “ecological crisis”, “brink”, “devastating”, and “environment ignored”.  These phrases and analogies project a separation between humans and nature; they romanticize the mythologized purity of nature, where nothing bad ever happens until the evil of mankind is unleashed upon it.  These concepts perpetuate the mindset that the movie tries to address and change.  That’s the result of … science.  As advocates of science, the interviewees in the film should support scientific results.  But they ignore critical social science findings of psychological responses to framing and imagery.  Why?  Because they’re locked into a tribal mindset and don’t critically analyze their own belief system.  All the while knocking the skeptics who don’t either.  I stopped using catastrophic language once I learned about these important scientific results.  The best I can do is advocate that these students do the same.

We didn’t finish watching the film during class, but the last handful of minutes we did watch did something few environmental-related films manage: stories of action and opportunity.  Filmmakers and climate activists need to stuff their efforts with these pieces, not pieces of destruction and hopelessness.  If you want to change the culture and mindset of society, you have to change your message.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss the 11th Hour as well as this video: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0492931/.  I also want to talk to the class (mostly undergraduate seniors, a couple of graduate students) about the scope of GHG emissions.  I’ve graded a few weeks’ worth of their homework essays and see clear parallels to the type of essays I wrote before I took additional graduate level science policy classes.  As my last post stated, too many scientists and activists get caught up using shorthand terms they really don’t understand (I should know, I used to do it too).  What does 400 ppm mean? 8.5 W/m^2?  2C warming?  Many of my science policy classes required translating these shorthand terms to units we can more intuitively grasp: number of renewable power plants required to reduce emissions to targets by certain dates.

My hope is that resetting the frame might elicit a different kind of conversation that what they’ve had so far this semester.  I also really enjoy talking about these topics with folks, so tomorrow should be fun.


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Future Emissions Scenario Requirements & Arctic Warming [With Update]

A recent research article didn’t generate anything terribly earth-shattering, but I wanted to write about some writing on it because it deals with a recurring theme on this blog.  For context, I’ll start with the news release and article (article subs. req’d).  In a nutshell,

Climate model projections show an Arctic-wide end-of-century temperature increase of +13∘ Celsius in late fall and +5∘ Celsius in late spring if the status quo continues and current emissions increase without a mitigation scenario. In contrast, the mean temperature projection would be +7∘ Celsius in late fall and +3∘ Celsius in late spring by the end of the century if a mitigation scenario to reduce emissions is followed, concludes the paper titled, “Future Arctic Climate Changes: Adaptation and Mitigation Timescales.”

Again, there is nothing terribly shocking there.  If we do nothing, the Arctic will likely warm a whole lot more than if we implement mitigation policies.

But that paragraph could use some additional context.  What do the greenhouse gas emissions scenarios look like to generate those varying warming projections?  To get a little technical (stay with me), the authors compared two out of four of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs): RCP8.5 and RCP4.5.  These pathways represent an additional 8.5 W/m^2 and +4.5 W/m^2 radiative forcing at the year 2100 relative to pre-industrial values.

But even though I’ve taken a graduate level radiation course and I’m using these same pathways in my own research, I don’t really know what +8.5 W/m^2 radiative forcing is, and neither do most people.  It’s a number with units that is not intuitively obvious.  This is where climate scientists underperform in communicating with the public and where I come in.

So instead of losing ourselves in the technical details, how can we understand what these two pathways represent?  Qualitatively, RCP8.5 represents a scenario in which we do not enact GHG mitigation policies until after the year 2100.  Economic growth and GHG emissions continue to grow throughout the rest of this century due to 4x 2000′s global energy use.  The radiative forcing is induced by 1370 ppm CO2-eq (CO2 and other GHGs).

By comparison, RCP4.5 represents a scenario that stabilizes forcing at 4.5 W/m^2 without overshooting it and has 650 ppm CO2-eq by 2100 (583 ppm CO2; 2013 mean CO2 concentration: 397 ppm).  Global energy use is just over 2x 2000 levels.  RCP4.5 achieves relatively lower CO2 concentrations by steadily decreasing the amount of carbon per energy unit supplied from 2000 to 2050, then decreasing the carbon/energy ratio very rapidly between 2050 and 2075, then leveling off from 2075-2100.  It does this via wider renewable energy deployment, but predominantly fossil fuel use with carbon capture and sequestration deployment.

In other words, RCP4.5 chiefly relies on slower CO2 concentration growth by assuming widespread and rapid deployment of technologies that do not exist today.  This point is very important to understand.

In a write-up on this same research, Joe Romm concludes thusly (emphasis mine):

This study essentially writes off the possibility of humanity doing any better:

The RCP2.6 scenario requires a 70% reduction of emissions relative to present levels by 2050, a scenario that is highly unlikely in view of the current trajectory of emissions and the absence of progress toward mitigation measures. We refer to the RCP8.5 and RCP4.5 future scenarios as business-as-usual and mitigation.

But the fact is that RCP2.6 — which is about 421 ppm CO2 — is entirely feasible from both a technical and economic perspective. It is only the irrationality, myopia, and, it would seem, self-destructiveness of Homo sapiens that make it “highly unlikely.”

No, it’s not.  RCP2.6 makes many more assumptions about technological capabilities and deployment than does RCP4.5.  It does this more quickly than RCP4.5 by modeling declining carbon per energy unit between 2010 and 2025 (which hasn’t happened yet), then declining much more rapidly starting in 2025 (only 10 years away) until 2050, then slowing down in 2050 and again in 2075.  But here is the kicker: it assumes negative carbon per energy unit after 2075!  How does it do this?  By assuming more carbon will be removed from the atmosphere than emitted into it starting in 2075 and continuing thereafter.  Do we have carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies ready for rapid global deployment?  No, there is to my knowledge only a couple of utility-scale projects currently operating and they haven’t achieved the level of capture and sequestration this pathway assumes.

In order for CCS to operate at the level RCP2.6 assumes, global investment in the technology would have to increase by many factors for years.  Is there any discussion of this occurring in any government?  Will we price carbon-based fuels without interference (i.e., an end to market manipulation by fossil fuel entities and governments)?  No and these things aren’t likely to begin any time soon.

Simply put, RCP2.6 is a fantasy scenario [see update below].  Absent global economic collapse that dwarfs the Great Depression, CO2 emissions and concentrations will continue to increase as economies continue to rely on relatively cheap dirty fossil fuels with manipulated prices.  At this point, I think RCP4.5 is to a lesser extent another fantasy scenario.  That’s neither irrational nor myopic, but realistic based on historical climate policy and my own reading of where international climate policy is likely to exist in the next 35 years.  We are currently on the RCP8.5 pathway.  Researchers use RCP4.5 because it is illustratively different from RCP8.5.  They think it is technically feasible simply because they understand the likely science ramifications of RCP8.5 and misunderstand the public’s desire for continued increasing quality of life that comes with fossil fuel use.  Case in point: researchers have shown the difference between “worst-case” and “best-case” climate scenarios for 30+ years.  Nobody enacted robust climate policy in response to these comparisons.  To continue to do so moving forward is a waste of resources.

[Update]

I wanted to share some updated data demonstrating my statement that RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 are “fantasy scenarios”.  Here are two plots I used in a related post in last 2012:

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

Figure 1. Historical (black dots) and projected (out to 2050 only) CO2 emissions from a Nature Climate Change article (subs. req’d).  Bold colored lines (red, yellow, gray, and blue) represent IPCC AR5 RCP-related emission scenarios.   Thick green dashed lines and thin green solid lines represent SRES emission scenarios used in IPCC AR4.  Light blue dashed lines represent IS92 scenarios.  Different generation scenarios are presented together for inter-report comparison purposes.

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

Figure 2. As in Figure 1 except projections shown to year 2100 and RCP scenarios highlighted.

Figures 1 and 2 show historical and projected annual CO2 emissions in Pg/year from 1980 until 2050 and 2100, respectively.  Historical data end in 2011 because the paper was published in 2012.  So there are two more year’s data available to us now.  How do you think global CO2 emissions changed since 2011?  Did they decrease, stay the same, or increase?

It’s more challenging than it should be to find similar graphics, but I found this update:

 photo CO2_emissions_Global_Carbon_Project_2013_zps7214b665.jpg

Figure 3. Historical (1990-2012; 2013 projection) global CO2 emissions in GtC/year (1 PgC = 1 GtC).

As Figure 3 shows, global CO2 emissions rose in 2012 compared to 2011, and emissions likely rose further in 2013 compared to 2012.  It further shows that emission rates increased only by 1.0%/year in the 1990s and accelerated to 2.7%/year in the 2000s.  While recent year-0ver-year increases aren’t at 2000 mean levels, they are at least twice that of 1990 levels.  In other words, there has been no stabilization of CO2 emissions, let alone a decrease, as RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 assume.

A fair counterpoint can be made that RCP2.6 assumes a decline starting in 2020, while RCP4.5′s decline starts in 2040.  Sure enough, Figure 1 and 2 demonstrate those assumptions.  To that, I say Figure 1 and 2 also shows RCP2.6′s maximum annual emissions peak at 2010 levels.  Emissions have already increased at 2%+/year since then historically.  For argument sake, let’s say emissions will peak in 2020.  Historical emissions will then be higher than RCP2.6 assumed, which would require even more CO2 removal to achieve <2C stabilization by 2100.  More CO2 removal means more efficient and widespread deployment than RCP2.6 already assumes, which makes it less likely to occur.

RCP4.5 assumes peak annual emissions in 2040 of approximately 11 PgC/year.  If annual growth rates continue near 2.1%, we’ll actually reach that level in 2018 – 22 years ahead of RCP4.5′s assumption.  What emissions growth rate is required to hit 11 PgC/year in 2040?  See the chart below:

 photo CO2Emissions-21and0475_growth_rates_zps20b1f74a.png

Figure 4. Historical (1959-2012) and projected (2013-2040) global annual CO2 emissions using mean 2000′s emissions growth (blue) and calculated emissions required to achieve 11 GtC/year in 2040 (red).  [Historical data: 2013 Global Carbon Project.]

Note that the RCP4.5 scenario has declining emissions growth rate between 2030 and 2040 while my computations uses constant growth rate assumption.  Still, this calculation sheds some light on required changes to achieve RCP4.5 scenario assumptions.  Figure 4 shows that if future emissions grow at constant rate of 2.1%/year (less than the mean 2000′s rate; more than the mean 1990′s rate), 2040 emissions will total >17 GtC/year (remember RCP4.5′s maximum of 11 GtC/year could be achieved as early as 2018).  To max out at 11 GtC/year, emissions would either have to grow at no more than 0.475%/year – less than half the 1990′s mean value – or grow more quickly in the near future, stabilize quickly, and decrease every year following 2030.

RCP2.6 and RCP4.5 demand that countries begin to change their entire energy production fleet from fossil fuels to renewables – either immediately (RCP2.6) or within the next 10-15 years (RCP4.5).  What costs are associated with this conversion?  How many people without energy access today are denied energy access in the future?  That is something that Romm doesn’t address in his talking point that “the fact is that RCP2.6 — which is about 421 ppm CO2 — is entirely feasible from both a technical and economic perspective.”  421 ppm CO2 means no higher concentration than what will occur by 2025.

A permanent emissions decline has obviously never happened historically.  What basis allows for the assumption that it will occur starting in 2030?  More sweeping and effective policies than have ever been implemented are required.  The point to this exercise is to demonstrate that we can play games with numbers all day, but the real world is quite different from economic and climate models as well as Excel spreadsheets.  Unless and until we see real world evidence that emissions stabilization occurs, I see little reason to discuss what RCP2.6 or RCP4.5 shows beyond what “could be” as a rhetorical exercise.


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Climate & Energy Links – Sep. 12, 2013

Here are some stories I found interesting this week:

California’s GHG emissions are already lower than the 2015 threshold established as part of California’s cap-and-trade policy.  The reasons emissions fell more than expected include the slow economy and relative widespread renewable energy deployment.  The problem with this is the lack of innovation.  We have seen what companies do with no incentive to innovate their operations: nothing that gets in the way of profit, which is the way companies should operate.  That’s why we need regulations – to incentivize companies to act in the public interest.  Should CA adjust future cap thresholds in light of this news?

No surprise here: Alter Net had a story detailing the US Department of Energy’s International Energy Outlook and the picture isn’t pretty (and I’m not talking about the stock photo they attached to the story – that’s not helpful).  Experts expect fossil fuels to dominate the world’s energy portfolio through 2040 – which I wrote about last month.  This projection will stand until people push their governments to change.

Scientific American’s latest microgrid article got to the point: “self-sufficient microgrids undermine utilities’ traditional economic model” and “utility rates for backup power [need to be] fair and equitable to microgrid customers.”  To the first point, current utility models will have to change in 21st century America.  Too much depends on reliable and safe energy systems.  The profit part of the equation will take a back seat.  Whatever form utilities take in the future, customers will demand equitable pricing schemes.  That said, there is currently widespread unfair pricing in today’s energy paradigm.  For example, utilities continue to build coal power plants that customers don’t want.  Customers go so far as to voluntarily pay extra for non-coal energy sources.  In the end, I support microgrids and distributed generation for many reasons.

A Science article (subs. req’d) shared results of an investigation into increasing amplitude of CO2 oscillations in the Northern Hemisphere in the past 50 years.  This increase is greater for higher latitudes than middle latitudes.  The increase’s reason could be longer annual times of decomposition due to a warming climate (which is occurring faster at higher latitudes).  Additional microbial decomposition generates additional CO2 and aids new plant growth at increasing latitudes (which scientists have observed).  New plant growth compounds the uptake and release of CO2 from microbes.  The biosphere is changing in ways that were not predicted, as I’ve written before.  These changes will interact and generate other changes that will impact human and ecosystems through the 21st century and beyond.

And the EPA has adjusted new power plant emissions rules: “The average U.S. natural gas plant emits 800 to 850 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt, and coal plants emit an average of 1,768 pounds. According to those familiar with the new EPA proposal, the agency will keep the carbon limit for large natural gas plants at 1,000 pounds but relax it slightly for smaller gas plants. The standard for coal plants will be as high as 1,300 or 1,400 pounds per megawatt-hour, the individuals said Wednesday, but that still means the utilities will have to capture some of the carbon dioxide they emit.”  This is but one climate policy that we need to revisit in the future.  This policy is good, but does not go far enough.  One way or another, we face increasing costs; some we can afford and others we can’t.  We can proactively increase regulations on fossil fuels which will result in an equitable cost comparison between energy sources.  Or we can continue to prevent an energy free market from working by keeping fossil fuel costs artificially lower than they really are and end up paying reactive climate costs, which will be orders of magnitude higher than energy costs.


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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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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Australia Giving Up On Relatively Successful Carbon Market

Australia voted last week to scrap their carbon tax and replace it with a much less economically efficient cap-and-trade scheme.  The pro-business Reuters article acknowledges the only “positive” that results from this decision: businesses will save money.  Well, hallelujah.  I’m sure today’s children will be immensely grateful when they’re adults with all the resultant climate change effects that Australian businesses were able to avoid paying for their actions and saved a few billion dollars in the 2010s.  That’s one way to look at this news.  Let’s flesh the landscape out before throwing Australia under the bus too quickly.

To be fair, Australia simply moved up the date when they joined … the European carbon “market”.  You remember, that’s the market that severely over-supplied carbon credits at its outset and refused earlier this year to remove some of those excess credits for a mere two years.  In essence, the European carbon market doesn’t work.  How can you tell?  Carbon costs €4.2/tCO2 today.  When the European market started, the cost was €31/tCO2.  At one-tenth the original price, the market signal is clear: there are far too many allowances in the European market.  Have greenhouse gas emissions (note: CO2 isn’t the only GHG!) fallen in the EU since the market’s inception?  Yes, but this is a result of the continued economic malaise the Europeans inflict on themselves, as described by the European Environment Agency’s most recent report.

The temporary benefit to the earlier Australian move to the EU’s ETS is this: the flow of carbon credits is one way: from Europe to Australia.  Australia can’t export credits until July 2018.  So in the short-term, Australia could help relieve the over-supply of EU carbon credits.  This might help in raising the carbon price back to more realistic levels, but this won’t happen until 2016 at the earliest because of lower emissions and demand for permits in Australia.

There are two big negative effects of moving from a fixed tax to a floating market.  The first is that carbon will become much cheaper in Australia: from A$25.40 per tonne to A$6 per tonne.  Is carbon really only worth A$6?  In an over-supplied market, perhaps it is.  The fact that not all industries are involved in the carbon market means that we manipulate the true carbon price.  Of course, as much as folks like to talk about “free markets”, most markets are heavily manipulated by vested interests.  The second negative effect remains local: the move removes A$3.8 billion from the Australian federal budget over four years.  Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd proposed to make up this budget shortfall by “removing a tax concession on the personal use of salary-sacrificed or employer-provided cars.”  Good luck with that, Mr. Rudd.  Everybody is loath to give up a financial benefit once they receive it.  Look – more market manipulation!

Australian coal companies were more than happy to propagate misinformation to Australian energy consumers: electricity price increases were due exclusively to the carbon tax!  This highlights a common problem with any carbon-pricing scheme: special interests can more easily spread misinformation and disinformation (and are often happy to do so!) than market proponents can spread true information.  The reason is often quite simple: the truth is complex and consumers don’t want to invest the time to understand why they pay the prices they pay.  How many consumers demanded energy utilities stop raising prices before carbon market inception?  Then who was responsible for price increases?  “Market forces” is the lame excuse dished out to the masses.  How about the relentless, unquenchable hunger for ever-rising profits?  Somehow, that’s alright, but accurately pricing a commodity is heresy.

An additional piece of context: Australia suffered from record heat waves, droughts, and floods in the past ten years.  The Australian public’s acceptance of climate change related to these disasters is widespread, as is their desire to “take action”.  Well, the government took action and that same public cried uncle with slightly higher utility bills.  This proves the common refrain: people support climate policies … so long as they are absolutely free.  That smacks into reality awfully quick.  It also demonstrates that there is no such thing as a “Climate Pearl Harbor” that leads to unequivocal support for a given climate policy.  The slow-acting nature of climate works strongly against widespread, effective climate policy.


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Energy and Climate Stories Via Charts

The following charts show different pieces of a sobering story: the US and the world has not and is not in the foreseeable future doing enough to reduce carbon-intensive energy.  This shouldn’t come as any great surprise, but I think these charts enable us to look at the story graphically instead of just hearing the words.  Graphics tend to have a larger impact on thought retention, so I’m going to use them to tell this story.

 photo GlobalEnergyByType-2013ProjectionbyBNEF_zps7ec53b2d.jpg

Figure 1. Annual global installations of new power sources, in gigawatts.  [Source: MotherJones via BNEF]

This figure starts the story off on a good note.  To the left of the dotted line is historical data and to the right is BNEF’s projected data.  In the future, we expect fewer new gigawatts generated by coal, gas, and oil.  We also expect many more new gigawatts generated by land-based wind, small-scale photovoltaic (PV) and solar PV.  Thus the good news: there will be more new gigawatts powered by renewable energy sources within the next couple of years than dirty energy sources.  At the same time, this graph is slightly misleading.  What about existing energy production?  The next chart takes that into account.

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Figure 2. Global energy use by generation type, in gigawatts.  [Source: MotherJones via BNEF]

The story just turned sober.  In 2030, coal should account for ~2,000GW of energy production compared to ~1,200GW today.  Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels, so absent radical technological innovation and deployment, 2030 emissions will exceed today’s due to coal alone.  We find the same storyline for gas and to a lesser extent oil: higher generation in 2030 than today means more emissions.  We need fewer emissions if we want to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations.  The higher those concentrations, the warmer the globe will get until it reaches a new equilibrium.

Compare the two graphs again.  The rapid increase in renewable energy generation witnessed over the last decade and expected to continue through 2030 results in what by 2030?  Perhaps ~1,400GW of wind generation (about the same as gas) and up to 1,600GW of total solar generation (more than gas but still less than coal).  This is an improvement over today’s generation portfolio of course.  But it will not be enough to prevent >2°C mean global warming and all the subsequent effects that warming will have on other earth systems.  The curves delineating fossil fuel generation need to slope toward zero and that doesn’t look likely to happen prior to 2030.

Here is the basic problem: there are billions of people without reliable energy today.  They want energy and one way or another will get that energy someday.  Thus, the total energy generated will continue to increase for decades.  The power mix is up to us.  The top chart will have to look dramatically different for the mix to tilt toward majority and eventually exclusively renewable energy.  The projected increases in new renewable energy will have to be double, triple, or more what they are in the top chart to achieve complete global renewable energy generation.  Instead of a couple hundred gigawatts per year, we need a couple thousand gigawatts per year.  That requires a great deal of innovation and deployment – more than even many experts are aware.

Let’s take a look at the next part of the story: carbon emissions in the US – up until recently the largest annual GHG emitter on the globe.

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Figure 3. Percent change in the economy’s carbon intensity 2000-2010. [Source: ThinkProgress via EIA]

As Jeff notes, the total carbon intensity (amount of carbon released for every million dollars the economy produces) of the economy dropped 17.9 percent over those ten years.  That’s good news.  Part of the reason is bad news: the economy became more energy-efficient in part due to the recession.  People and organizations stopped doing some of the most expensive activities, which also happened to be some of the most polluting activities.  We can attribute the rest of the decline to the switch from coal to natural gas.  Which is a good thing for US emissions, but a bad thing for global emissions because we’re selling the coal that other countries butn – as Figure 2 shows.

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Figure 4. Percent change in the economy’s total carbon emissions 2000-2010. [Source: ThinkProgress via EIA]

Figure 4 re-sobers the story.  While we became more efficient at generating carbon emissions, the total number of total emissions from 2000 to 2010 only dropped 4.2%.  My own home state of Colorado, despite having a Renewable Energy Standard and mandates renewables in the energy mix, saw a greater than 10% jump in total carbon emissions.  Part of the reason is Xcel Energy convinced the state Public Utilities Commission that new, expensive coal plants be built.  The reason?  Xcel is a for-profit corporation and new coal plants added billions of dollars to the positive side of their ledger, especially since they passed those costs onto their rate payers.

In order for the US to achieve its Copenhagen goals (17% reduction from 2005 levels), more states will have to show total carbon emission declines post-2010.  While 2012 US emission levels were the lowest since 1994, we still emit more than 5 billion metric tons of CO2 annually.  Furthermore, the US deliberately chose 2005 levels since they were the historically high emissions mark.  The Kyoto Protocol, by contrast, challenged countries to reduce emissions compared to 1990 levels.  The US remains above 1990 levels, which were just under 5 billion metric tons of CO2.  17% of 1990 emissions is 850 million metric tons.  Once we achieve that decrease, we can talk about real progress.

The bottom line is this: it matters how many total carbon emissions get into the atmosphere if we want to limit the total amount of warming that will occur this century and the next few tens of thousands of years.  There has been a significant lack of progress on that:

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Figure 5. Historical and projection energy sector carbon intensity index.

We are on the red line path.  If that is our reality through 2050, we will blow past 560 ppm atmospheric CO2 concentration, which means we will blow past the 2-3°C sensitivity threshold that skeptics like to talk about the most.  That temperature only matters if we limit CO2 concentrations to two times their pre-industrial value.  We’re on an 800-1100 ppm concentration pathway, which would mean up to 6°C warming by 2100 and additional warming beyond that.

The size and scope of the energy infrastructure requirements to achieve an 80% reduction in US emissions from 1990 levels by 2050 is mind-boggling.  It requires 300,000 10-MW solar thermal plants or 1,200,000 2.5-MW wind turbines or 1,300 1GW nuclear plants (or some combination thereof) by 2050 because you have to replace the existing dirty energy generation facilities as well as meet increasing future demand.  And that’s just for the US.  What about every other country on the planet?  That is why I think we will blow past the 2°C threshold.  As the top graphs show, we’re nibbling around the edges of a massive problem.  We will not see a satisfactory energy/climate policy emerge on this topic anytime soon.  The once in a generation opportunity to do so existed in 2009 and 2010 and national-level Democrats squandered it (China actually has a national climate policy, by the way).  I think the policy answers lie in local and state-based efforts for the time being.  There is too wide a gap between the politics we need and the politics we have at the national level.

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