The call was very clear, here were “four demands” for Paris COP21 being presented to a group in London. But the surprise was the presenter; not a climate focussed NGO or an activist campaigning for change, but Fatih Birol, Chief Economist for the International Energy Agency. He was in an optimistic mood, despite the previous two weeks of ADP negotiations in Bonn that saw almost nothing happen. He opened the presentation by saying “This time it will work” (i.e. Paris, vs. Copenhagen and all the other false starts).

On June 15th Mr Birol launched the World Energy Outlook Special Report: Energy and Climate Change. The IEA usually launch a special supplement to their annual World Energy Outlook (WEO) and this one was the second to focus on the climate challenge and the policy changes required for the world to be on a 2°C emissions pathway. It was also something of a shot over the bow for the Paris COP21 process which had just completed another two weeks of negotiations in Bonn, but with little to show for the effort. Mr Birol is a master of such presentations and this one was memorable. He focussed almost entirely on the short term, although the publication itself looks forward to 2030 for the most part. With regards to the energy system, short term usually means 5 years or so, but in this case short term really meant December but with the resulting actions being very relevant for the period 2016-2020.

Mr Birol outlined four key pillars (as they are referred to in the publication) for COP21, but restated them as “demands”. They are;

  1. Emissions must peak by 2020. The IEA believes that this can be achieved with a near term focus on five measures;
    1. Energy Efficiency.
    2. High efficiency coal, both in new building and removing some existing facilities. IEA proposed a ban on building sub-critical coal.
    3. An even bigger push on renewable energy, with an increase in investment from $270 billion in 2014 to $400 billion in 2030.
    4. Oil and gas industry to reduce upstream methane emissions.
    5. Phasing out fossil-fuel subsidies to end-users by 2030.
  2. Implement a five year review process for NDCs (Nationally Determined Contributions) so that they can be rapidly adjusted to changing circumstances. I discussed the risk of a slow review process when MIT released a report on the possible COP21 outcome.
  3. Turn the global 2°C goal into clear emission reduction targets, both longer term and consistent shorter term goals.
  4. Track the transition – i.e. track the delivery of NDCs and transparently show how the global emissions pathway is developing as a result.

Interestingly Mr. Birol didn’t mention carbon pricing once, at least not until a question came up asking why he hadn’t mentioned carbon pricing – “Is carbon pricing no longer an important goal, you didn’t mention it?” asked a curious member of those assembled at the Foreign Office. He said yes it was, but given his focus was on Paris and that he saw little chance of a global approach on carbon pricing being agreed in that time-span, he didn’t mention it! I think this represents a major oversight on the part of the IEA although there is at least some discussion on carbon pricing in the publication. While it is true that a globally harmonised approach to carbon pricing won’t be in place in the near term, I would argue that an essential 5th pillar (or 5th demand) for Paris is recognition of the importance of carbon pricing and creation of the necessary space for linking of heterogeneous systems to take place. This looks like the fastest route towards a globally relevant price.

Mr. Birol didn’t mention CCS either, which is perhaps more understandable given the 5 year focus of much of the publication. However, Chapter 4 within the publication deals extensively with CCS and the IEA highlights the importance of CCS in their 450 ppm scenario through the chart below.

IEA CCS

Finally, there was some discussion around the climate statement made by the G7 the week before and their commitment out to 2100. Looking at the statement released by the G7, they said;

“. . . . .we emphasize that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century. Accordingly, as a common vision for a global goal of greenhouse gas emissions reductions we support sharing with all parties to the UNFCCC the upper end of the latest IPCC recommendation of 40 to 70 % reductions by 2050 compared to 2010 recognizing that this challenge can only be met by a global response.”

My reading of this is that the G7 are recognizing the need to be at or nearing global net zero emissions by 2100. However, this isn’t how the statement has been reported, with several commentators, media outlets and even one of the presenters alongside Fatih Birol interpreting this as an agreement to be fossil fuel free by 2100. These are two very different outcomes for the energy system; the first one potentially feasible and the second being rather unlikely. Both the Shell Oceans and Mountains New Lens Scenarios illustrate how a net zero emissions world can potentially evolve, with extensive use of CCS making room for continued use of fossil fuels in various applications. The core driver here will be the economics of the energy system and the competitiveness of fossil fuels and alternatives across the full spectrum of needs. It is already clear that alternative energy sources such as solar PV will be very competitive and could well account for a significant proportion of global electricity provision. Equally, there are areas where fossil fuels will be very difficult to displace; I gave one such example in a case study I posted recently on aviation. Energy demand in certain sectors may well be met by fossil fuels for all of this century, either with direct use of CCS to deal with the emissions or, as illustrated in the IPCC 5th Assessment Report, offset by bio-energy and CCS (BECCS) elsewhere. Unfortunately the nuances of this issue didn’t make it into the IEA presentation.

That’s it from me for a couple of weeks or so. I am heading north on the National Geographic Explorer to see the Arctic wilderness of Svalbard and Greenland.

The recent letter on carbon pricing from six oil and gas industry CEOs to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister of France and President of COP 21 sent something of a tremor through the media world, to the extent that the New York Times picked up on it with an editorial on carbon taxation. The editorial transposed the CEO call for a carbon price into a call for a carbon tax (as is currently applied in British Columbia) and then set about building the case for a tax based approach and dismantling the case for mechanisms other than taxation; but their focus was on cap-and-trade (such as in California, Quebec and the EU ETS). The New York Times suggested that cap-and-trade doesn’t work, but apparently didn’t look at the evidence.

In January 2015 the EU ETS was ten years old. There were those who said it wouldn’t last and any number of people over the years who have claimed that it doesn’t work, is broken and hasn’t delivered; including the New York Times. Yet it continues to operate as the bedrock of the EU policy framework to manage carbon dioxide emissions. The simple concept of a finite and declining pool of allowances being allocated, traded and then surrendered as carbon dioxide is emitted has remained. Despite various other issues in its ten year history the ETS has done this consistently and almost faultlessly year in and year out; the mechanics of the system have never been a problem.

Effective carbon price
Comparing approaches and policies is difficult, but in general the various mechanisms can be rated as shown above. The most effective approach to mitigation is a widely applied carbon price across as much of the (global) economy as possible. Lost opportunities and inefficiencies creep in as the scope of approach is limited, such as in a project mechanism or with a baseline and credit approach; neither of which tackle fossil fuel use in its entirety.

The chart clearly shows carbon taxation and cap-and-trade competing for the top spot as the most effective mechanism for delivering a carbon price into the economy and driving lasting emission reductions. Both approaches work, so differentiating them almost comes down to personal preference, which can even be seen in the extensive academic literature on the subject where different camps lean one way or the other. My preference, perhaps influenced by my oil trading background, is to back the cap-and-trade approach. My reasons are as follows;

  • The cap-and-trade approach delivers a specific environmental outcome through the application of the cap across the economy.
  • Both instruments are subject to uncertainty, however the cap-and-trade is less subject to political change; conversely, taxation policy is regularly changed by governments. The New York Times made note of this with its reference to Australia, which has removed a fixed price carbon price that was effectively operating as a tax.
  • The carbon price delivered through a cap-and-trade system can adjust quickly to national circumstances. In the EU it fell in response to the recession and perversely has stayed down in response to other policies (renewable energy goals) currently doing the heavy lifting on mitigation. Why is this perverse; because the other policies shouldn’t be doing this job when a cap-and-trade is in place to do it more efficiently.
  • Acceptance is hard to win for any new cost to business, but particularly when not every competitor will be subject to that cost. The cap-and-trade system has a very simple mechanism, in the form of free allowance allocation, for addressing this problem for energy intensive (and therefore carbon intensive) trade exposed industries. Importantly, this mechanism doesn’t change the environmental outcome or reduce the incentive to manage emissions as the allowances held by a facility still have opportunity value associated with them.
  • Most carbon policies are being formulated at country or regional levels, rather than being driven by global approaches. Cap-and-trade systems are well-suited to international linking, leading to a more harmonized global price, while tax coordination is complex and politically difficult. Linking leads to a level playing field for industry around the world which fosters acceptance.

The economic effectiveness of both a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system for carbon pricing means that countries and regions of all shapes and sizes have an implementation choice. For large, multi-faceted economies, the cap-and-trade system is ideally suited for teasing out the necessary changes across the economy and delivering a lowest cost outcome. At the same time it offers the many emitters considerable flexibility in implementation. Equally, for some economies or sectors where options for change are limited, the offset provisions that often feature in the design of an emissions trading system can offer a useful lifeline for compliance. Still, in some economies, a direct tax may be the most appropriate approach. Perhaps this is for governance reasons related to trading, or a lack of sufficient market participants to create a liquid market or simply to encourage the uptake of a fuel such as natural gas rather than coal.

The choice between these instruments isn’t as important as the choice of an instrument in the first place, which is why the letter from the CEOs is so important at this time.

The past few weeks, highlighted by the Business & Climate Summit in Paris and Carbon Expo in Barcelona, has seen many CEOs, senior political figures and institutional leaders call for increased use of carbon pricing. This is certainly the right thing to be saying, but it begs the question, “What next?”. Many countries are already considering or in the process of implementing a carbon pricing system, but still the call rings out. While uptake of carbon pricing at national level certainly needs to accelerate, one critical piece that is missing is some form of global commonality of approach, at least to the extent that prices begin to converge along national lines.

On Monday June 1st six oil and gas companies come together and effectively called for such a step in a letter from their CEOs to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister of France and President of COP 21. Rather than simply echo the call for carbon pricing, the CEOs went a step further and specifically asked;

Therefore, we call on governments, including at the UNFCCC negotiations in Paris and beyond – to:

  • introduce carbon pricing systems where they do not yet exist at the national or regional levels
  • create an international framework that could eventually connect national systems.

To support progress towards these outcomes, our companies would like to open direct dialogue with the UN and willing governments.

The request is very clear – this isn’t just a call for more, but a call to sit down and work on implementation. The CEOs noted that their companies were already members of, amongst other bodies, the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). IETA has been working on connection of (linking) national systems for well over a year (although the history of this effort dates back to the days of the UNFCCC Long Term Cooperative Action – LCA – workstream under the Bali Roadmap) and I am co-chair, along with Jonathan Grant of PWC, of the team that is leading this effort.

Late last year IETA published a strawman proposal for the Paris COP, suggesting some text to set in place a longer term initiative to develop an international linking arrangement. I spoke about this at length to RTCC at Carbon Expo in Barcelona.

DCH Interview

The strawman is what it implies, an idea. It could be built on to develop a placemarker in the Paris agreement to ensure that the framework mentioned by the six CEOs actually gets implemented in the follow-up from Paris – as the CDM was implemented in the follow-up from Kyoto.

From my perspective, this week wasn’t just about carbon pricing, but also about climate science. On the same day that the FT published its story on the letter from the oil and gas industry CEOs, The Guardian chose to run a front page story implying that I had tried to detrimentally influence (apparently being a former oil trader!!) the content of the London Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery, a display on climate science that Shell agreed to sponsor some years ago. The reporter had based his story on exchanges between Shell and the Science Museum staff when the gallery was looking to do a recent refresh.

I did engage in such a discussion and I did make some suggestions as to content which I thought was new and interesting since the Atmosphere Gallery was first established. Unfortunately The Guardian wasn’t able to publish my proposals as they were put forward during a meeting between me and two staff members from The Science Museum, so to complete the story I will publish them here. Although this particular piece of science dates back to a 2009 Nature article by Oxford University’s Professor Myles Allen and his team, it didn’t feature in the Gallery when it was first put together (the Advisory Panel met during 2009 as part of the design phase of the Gallery). But today, it is the foundation work behind the concept of a global carbon budget which has become a mainstream topic of discussion. My angle on this was to illustrate the importance of carbon capture and storage in the context of this science, but with an emphasis on the science itself. My discussion with The Science Museum staff members took place on 23rd June 2014 and I asked them to consider the following for the refresh of the gallery:

1. As background, three papers that have come from Oxford University:

  • Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne

Myles R. Allen, David J. Frame, Chris Huntingford, Chris D. Jones, Jason A. Lowe, Malte Meinshausen & Nicolai Meinshausen

  • Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2°C

Malte Meinshausen, Nicolai Meinshausen, William Hare, Sarah C. B. Raper, Katja Frieler, Reto Knutti, David J. Frame & Myles R. Allen

  • The case for mandatory sequestration

Myles R. Allen, David J. Frame and Charles F. Mason

2. Consider using (or adapting) a trillion tonne video made by Shell where Myles Allen talks about CCS in the context of the cumulative emissions issue:

3. Consider putting the Oxford University fossil carbon emissions counter in the Atmosphere Gallery as this would help people understand the vast scale of the current energy system and the rate at which we are collectively approaching the 2°C threshold;

Trillionth Tonne

4. Reference the Trillion Tonne Communique from Cambridge:

5. Offer the use of the Shell “CCS Lift” (an audio-visual CCS experience) to help explain this technology to the gallery visitors.

My pitch to The Science Museum was that this approach offered a real opportunity to feature the Science Museum and the Atmosphere Gallery in the very public discussion on carbon budgets, get some good media attention in the run-up to Paris 2015 (e.g. through the very visible counter), tell the CCS story in context (the Myles Allen video and the CCS audio-visual display) and raise awareness of the cumulative nature of the problem (i.e. the science). In the end they decided not to use this material, but I stand by the proposal.

Last week many representatives of the global business community gathered at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris for the Business and Climate Summit, a prequel of sorts to the main COP21 event in December, but with only the business community involved. The goal was to demonstrate the involvement of the business community in the climate change issue and to set the stage for the business response to whatever is agreed by the Parties to the UNFCCC in December.

The event had significant political backing, with President Hollande speaking at the opening session. His speech went straight to the heart of the issue, with very matter of fact references to the important role of carbon pricing and the need for carbon capture and storage. Even UNFCCC Executive Secretary, Christiana Figures, endorsed CCS, not something she is known to do very often. The remarks by the President were backed up by many speakers, but Angel Gurria, Secretary General, OECD was perhaps the most memorable with his call for “a price, a price, a big fat price on carbon.”

The opening on May 20th set the scene for a major session on carbon pricing the next morning, with the World Bank and various business leaders taking the podium. While these speakers were all in agreement on the importance of carbon pricing, the harmony of the day before wasn’t quite as strong, with something of an argument between Tony Hayward, Chairman of Glencore and Kerry Adler, CEO of Skypower (solar) over the respective role of solar and coal in the coming decades. Mr Hayward saw little possibility of solar filling the breadth of industrial needs currently fulfilled by coal (and other fossil fuels).

The economic purpose of a cost on carbon dioxide emissions (carbon price) is as a response to the externality presented by our collective use of fossil fuels. This externality (the impact related to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere) was discussed on several occasions during the Summit with regular reference to a new IMF report which argues that fossil fuel subsidies now stand at $5.3 trillion per annum. The vast majority of this arises from unaccounted externalities, such as the emissions of carbon dioxide and the impact of black carbon. Given that global fossil fuel production is some 10+ billion tonnes of oil equivalent per annum, then $5 trillion of externality equates to a charge for each tonne of production of some $500. The IMF report says that about a quarter of this relates to carbon dioxide emissions.

The publication of this number caused some excitement at the Summit and of course it got picked up in the media very quickly, in many cases with very little explanation as to its meaning. The IMF paper dwells at length on the need to cost in the externality and argues that despite a huge rise in energy costs that would result from such a charge, there would be a net welfare benefit to society at large. The report discusses the work of 19th Century Economist Arthur Pigou, who introduced the concept of externalities and proposed that negative externalities could be corrected by the imposition of a tax, now known as Pigouvian taxation. In the case of the climate issue, a carbon tax or the need to purchase emission allowances from the government are examples of Pigouvian taxes. The IMF report notes;

When the consumption of a good by a firm or household generates an external cost to society, then efficient pricing requires that consumers face a price that reflects this cost. In the absence of a well-functioning market for internalizing this cost in the consumer price, efficiency requires the imposition of a Pigouvian tax equal to the external cost generated by additional consumption.

. . . . . . 

. . . . . .

Eliminating post-tax subsidies in 2015 could raise government revenue by $2.9 trillion (3.6 percent of global GDP), cut global CO2 emissions by more than 20 percent, and cut pre-mature air pollution deaths by more than half. After allowing for the higher energy costs faced by consumers, this action would raise global economic welfare by $1.8 trillion (2.2 percent of global GDP).

But it is also important to consider the current value that is delivered by the availability of energy, a point also made by Tony Hayward on the carbon pricing panel. From an economic standpoint, it is worth taking this a step further. After all, why would the world be producing and using a fuel that brings such apparent economic hardship to society (i.e $5 trillion per annum worth of hardship)? The answer to this question implies that a positive externality must be outweighing this factor.

Although the IMF report doesn’t mention it, Pigou didn’t just talk about externalities in the negative sense, but also in the positive sense. Someone creating a positive externality—say, by educating himself and making himself more interesting or useful to other people—might not invest enough in education because he would not perceive the value to himself as being as great as the value to society. Pigou even advocated for subsidies for activities that created such positive externalities.

Despite the issues associated with using them, fossil fuels have brought tremendous value to society and continue to do so. Almost everything we take for granted in modern society from the food we eat to the iPhone we constantly use are here because of fossil fuels. This wealth creation that is tied to their use but not reflected in the price is a positive externality. Such a positive externality should be apparent in the price of fossil fuels, but because of their relative abundance around the world and the dislocation that often exists between extraction and use, this may not be the case. The positive externality is potentially so large that it is likely the root cause of some governments offering real incentives and (Pigouvian) subsidies to promote additional fossil fuel production. The IMF report calls these Producer Subsidies, but notes that they are relatively small.

None of the above is meant as an argument for not dealing with the environmental externalities associated with fossil fuels use. As noted many times during the Summit and as I have discussed often in the past, a carbon price is essential. But as other forms of energy scale up to the level at which we use fossil fuels, new externalities will present themselves. There will of course be the ongoing positive externality associated with energy provision, but negative externalities will almost certainly make themselves known as new industries emerge and new materials are introduced into society for everyday use (e.g. very large scale use of lithium). Perhaps the lesson from the IMF report is to start dealing with externalities much earlier in the cycle of production, before they reach a level which challenges our economic system to correct.

More steps towards Paris

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At the end of last week (May 15th) Canada submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the UNFCCC, becoming the 37th state to do so (including 28 countries within the EU). The three key points of the Canadian INDC submission are:

  • An emissions reduction pledge of 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 (the US has pledged a target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025);
  • The reduction will be economy-wide and will cover all GHGs recognized under the UNFCCC;
  • Canada “may also use international mechanisms to achieve its target, subject to robust systems that deliver real and verified emissions reductions.”

This means that substantial progress is being made towards a good coverage of INDC submissions by the time of the Paris COP, although many eyes will now be turning to the emerging economies (e.g. China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Chile, Saudi Arabia etc.) for the real signal with regards tackling global emissions. Mexico has made a good start in that regard.

In just two weeks the national negotiators will meet again, this time in Bonn, to continue their deliberations in the lead up to COP21. But is the process in good shape?

Compared to this time in 2009 with the Copenhagen COP looming, I think it is in better shape. Although there are many details to be agreed, the negotiators at least know what it is they are trying to agree on; a relatively lean framework within which can sit the collection of INDCs from all countries for scrutiny and review. It has taken many years to get to this point and the process is far from complete, but the task at hand is now clear even though many will argue that it won’t be sufficient to deliver the goal to limit warming of the climate system to less than 2°C. At least there is thematic consensus which I don’t think existed in May 2009; was it to be top down or bottom up, what would happen to the Kyoto Protocol, should there be a global goal on temperature rise? These and many other questions were still in play.

Looking back on some of my first year of blog posts which were written in 2009, it was all very different.

  • Many eyes were on the deliberations of the US House of Representatives and the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade Bill, with every expectation that the USA would take the lead on establishing a carbon price. Today, those eyes are on the world’s largest emitter, China, as it proceeds with its carbon pricing provincial trials and expansion to a nationwide system.
  • It wasn’t until the June 2009 UNFCCC meeting that the team from the Oxford University Department of Physics first presented their new thinking on a global carbon emissions limit of 1 trillion tonnes over the industrial era; now negotiators are actually considering the concept of net-zero emissions and therefore an end date to the ongoing accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • The British government produced a first of its kind report on the idea of global carbon trading. In some respects not much has changed, but the discussion has matured and the likes of the World Bank are now taking this concept forward. A linked market even exists between California and Quebec.
  • In July 2009 I came across the first electric vehicle charging stations in London and met a person who was taking delivery of the seventh Tesla in the UK. In 2014 there were 15,000 EV and PHEV newly registered and right now on AutoTrader there are 10 used Tesla cars for sale!!
  • The UNFCCC negotiations were operating on two tracks, the Kyoto Protocol (KP) and Long term Cooperative Action (LCA), with no real sign of them coming together.
  • There was little consensus on climate finance; today the Green Climate Fund has been established and there is an active process underway to start disseminating the initial developed country funding.
  • There was little sign of targets and goal setting from the major developing countries; today China has indicated a plateau in emissions by around 2030 and other countries are following their lead.

In hindsight it isn’t surprising that all of these issues were not resolved by the following December. The goals for Paris may not be as lofty as those for Copenhagen, but at least from the perspective of a mid-year review they appear more achievable. It’s been a few months since I have added a piece to my “Paris Puzzle”, but it is perhaps timely to do this now.

Jigsaw May 2015

In a world of near zero anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, there remains the problem of finding a fuel or energy carrier of sufficiently high energy density that it remains practical to fly a modern jet aeroplane. Commercial aviation is heading towards some 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum so doing nothing may not be an option.

Although planes will certainly evolve over the course of the century, the rate of change is likely to be slow and particularly so if a step change in technology is involved. In 100 years of civil aviation there have been two such step changes; the first commercial flights in the 1910s and the shift of the jet engine from the military to the commercial world with the development of the Comet and Boeing 707. The 787 Dreamliner is in many respects a world away from the 707, but in terms of the fuel used it is the same plane; that’s 60 years and there is no sign of the next change.

Unlike domestic vehicles where electricity and batteries offer an alternative, planes will probably still need hydrocarbon fuel for all of this century, perhaps longer. Hydrogen is a possibility but the fuel to volume ratio would change such that this could also mean a radical redesign of the whole shape of the plane (below), which might also entail redesign of other infrastructure such as airport terminals, air bridges and so on. Even the development and first deployment of the double decker A380, something of a step change in terms of shape and size, has taken twenty years and cost Airbus many billions.

h2airplane

For aviation, the simplest approach will probably be the development of a process to produce a look-alike hydrocarbon fuel. The most practical way to approach this problem is via an advanced biofuel route and a few processes are available to fill the need, although scale up of these technologies has yet to take place. But what if the biofuel route also proves problematic – say for reasons related to land use change or perhaps public acceptance in a future period of rising food prices? A few research programmes are looking at synthesising the fuel directly from water and carbon dioxide. This is entirely possible from a chemistry perspective, but it requires lots of energy; at least as much energy as the finished fuel gives when it is used and its molecules are returned to water and carbon dioxide.

Audi has been working on such a project and recently announced the production of the first fuel from their pilot plant (160 litres per day). According to their media release;

The Sunfire [Audi’s technology partner] plant requires carbon dioxide, water, and electricity as raw materials. The carbon dioxide is extracted from the ambient air using direct air capture. In a separate process, an electrolysis unit splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then reacted with the carbon dioxide in two chemical processes conducted at 220 degrees Celsius and a pressure of 25 bar to produce an energetic liquid, made up of hydrocarbon compounds, which is called Blue Crude. This conversion process is up to 70 percent efficient. The whole process runs on solar power.

Apart from the front end of the facility where carbon dioxide is reacted with hydrogen to produce synthesis gas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen), the rest of the plant should be very similar to the full scale Pearl Gas to Liquids (GTL) facility that Shell operates in Qatar. In that process, natural gas is converted to synthesis gas which is in turn converted to a mix of longer chain hydrocarbons, including jet fuel (contained within the Audi Blue Crude). The Pearl facility produces about 150,000 bbls/day of hydrocarbon product, so perhaps one hundred such facilities would be required to produce enough jet fuel for the world (this would depend on the yield of suitable jet fuel from the process which produces a range of hydrocarbon products that can be put to many uses). Today there are just a handful of gas-to-liquids plants in operation; Pearl and Oryx in Qatar, Bintulu in Malaysia and Mossel Bay in South Africa (and another in South Africa that uses coal as the starting feedstock). The final conversion uses the Fischer Tropsch process, originally developed about a century ago.

Each of these future “blue crude” facilities would also need a formidable solar array to power it. The calorific content of the fuels is about 45 TJ/kt, so that is the absolute minimum amount of energy required for the conversion facility. However, accounting for efficiency of the process and adding in the energy required for air extraction of carbon dioxide and all the other energy needs of a modern industrial facility, a future process might need up to 100 TJ/kt of energy input. The Pearl GTL produces 19 kt of product per day, so the energy demand to make this from water and carbon dioxide would be 1900 TJ per day, or 700,000 TJ per annum. As such,  this requires a nameplate capacity for a solar PV farm of about 60 GW – roughly equal to half the entire installed global solar generating capacity in 2013. A Middle East location such as Qatar receives about 2200 kWh/m² per annum, or 0.00792 TJ/m² and assuming a future solar PV facility that might operate at 35% efficiency (considerably better than commercial facilities today), the solar PV alone would occupy an area of some 250 km² , so perhaps 500 km² or more in total plot area (i.e. 22 kms by 22 kms in size) for the facility.

This is certainly not inconceivable, but it is far larger than any solar PV facilities in operation today; the Topaz solar array in California is on a site 25 square kms in size with a nameplate capacity of 550 MW.  It is currently the largest solar farm in the world and produces about 1.1 million MWh per annum (4000 TJ), but the efficiency (23%) is far lower than my future assumption above. At this production rate, 175 Topaz farms would be required to power a refinery with the hydrocarbon output of Pearl GTL. My assumptions represent a packing density of solar PV some four times better than Topaz (i.e. 100 MW/km² vs 22 MW/km²).

All this means that our net zero emissions world needs to see the construction of some 100 large scale hydrocarbon synthesis plants, together with air extraction facilities, hydrogen and carbon monoxide storage for night time operation of the reactors and huge solar arrays. This could meet all the future aviation needs and would also produce lighter and heavier hydrocarbons for various other applications where electricity is not an option (e.g. chemical feedstock, heavy marine fuels). In 2015 money, the investment would certainly run into the trillions of dollars.

What to make of recent emission trends?

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Recent news from the International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown that the rise in global CO2 emissions from the energy system stalled in 2014. This was unusual on two counts – first that it happened at all and second that it happened in a year not linked with recession or low economic growth as in 1992 and 2009. In fact the global economy expanded by about 3%.

Information is scant at this point, but the IEA have apparently determined this using their Sectoral Approach (below, through to 2014), which has been flattening for a few years relative to their Reference Approach (following chart, ends at 2012). The Reference Approach and the Sectoral Approach often have different results because the Reference Approach is top-down using a country’s energy supply data and has no detailed information on how the individual fuels are used in each sector. One could argue that the Reference Approach is more representative of what the atmosphere sees, in that apart from sequestered carbon dioxide and products such as bitumen, the whole fossil energy supply eventually ends up as atmospheric carbon dioxide. The Reference Approach therefore indicates an upper bound to the Sectoral Approach, because some of the carbon in the fuel is not combusted but will be emitted as fugitive emissions (as leakage or evaporation in the production and/or transformation stage). No information has been provided by the IEA at this point as to the Reference Approach data for 2013 and 2014.

Global Energy System Emissions

Reference vs. Sectoral IEA

Putting to one side this technical difference, the flattening trend does represent a possible shift in global emissions development and it has certainly got many observers excited that this may well be so. If this is the case, what is driving this change and what might the outlook be?

It is clear that many governments are now intervening in domestic energy system development. There are incentives and mandates for renewable energy, enhanced efficiency programmes and some level of carbon pricing in perhaps a quarter of the global energy system, albeit at a fairly low level. More recently in China there has been a strong government reaction to air quality issues, which has given rise to some reduction in coal demand, particularly around major cities. But there is another factor as well and that is price – it is perhaps the overwhelming factor in determining fossil fuel usage and therefore setting the level of emissions. Price drives conservation, efficiency, the use of alternatives and therefore demand. Many of the aforementioned energy policy initiatives have been implemented during the recent decade or so of sharply rising energy prices.

A chart of the oil price (2013 $, as a proxy for energy prices) and global CO2 emissions going back to 1965 illustrates that big price fluctuations do seem to have an impact on emissions. Although emissions have risen throughout the period, sharp energy price excursions have led to emissions dips and plateaus as energy demand is impacted and similarly, price falls have led to resurgence in emissions. This isn’t universally true – certainly from 2004 to 2008 the very strong demand from China in particular was seemingly unaffected by the rising cost of energy, although the end of that period saw a global recession and a very visible dip in demand.

Oil price vs. Emissions

The latter part of 2014 brought with it a sharp reduction in energy prices (2015 is illustrative in the chart at $55 per barrel). With a much lower fossil energy price, demand may rise and the incentive for efficiency and the deployment of alternatives could well be impacted, although there may be some lag before this becomes apparent. The combination of these factors could therefore see emissions take yet another jump, but it is too early to see this in the data. 2015 emissions data might show the first signs of this.

There is of course continued upward pressure on emissions as well, such as the growth in coal use that is now underway in India. Over the three year period to the end of 2014, coal capacity increased from 112 GW to nearly 160 GW. This is the equivalent of some 300 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. By contrast, a five year period from 2002 to 2007 saw only 10 GW of new coal capacity installed in that country. Although India is installing considerable solar capacity, coal fired generation is likely to continue to grow rapidly. One area of emissions growth that is not being immediately challenged by a zero emissions alternative is transport. The automobile, bus, truck and aviation fleets are all expanding rapidly in that country.

The other big uncertainty is China, where local air quality concerns are catalysing some restructuring in their energy system. Certain factories and power plants that are contributing most to the local problems around cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are being shut, but there is still huge development underway across vast swathes of the country.  Some of this is a replacement for the capacity being closed around the cities, with electricity being transported through ultra high voltage grids that now run across the country. Gas is becoming a preferred fuel in metropolitan areas, but some of that gas is being synthetically produced from coal in other regions – a very CO2 intensive process. The scale of this is limited at the moment, but if all the current plans are actually developed this could become a large industry and therefore a further signifacnt source of emissions.

As observers look towards Paris and the expectation of a global deal on climate, the current pause in emissions growth, while comforting, may be a false signal in the morass of energy system data being published. Ongoing diligence will be required.

All the air in the atmospere but at surface conditions:

All-the-air-High-Res

All the CO2 emitted in one day:

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Courtesy Carbon Visuals

As the World Bank and others ramp up the discussion on carbon pricing, heads are turning towards Paris with thoughts on how the issue will be incorporated into the expected COP21 global climate deal. I have said many times in the past that unless a carbon price makes its way into the whole global energy system, then its success in bringing down emissions is far from assured. While local carbon pricing wins will appear, the global effort could be undermined by a lack of global coverage.   This is true of other policy approaches as well, but in the case of carbon pricing there is the significant benefit of economic efficiency.  For me, the signs so far aren’t great, with the text that came out of the Geneva ADP meeting showing few signs of tackling this important issue.

In recent weeks I have heard some commentators and national climate negotiators argue that the Framework Convention itself is sufficient to underpin cooperative carbon market development and that all the COP21 deal needs is a framework to ensure that accounting of carbon based trades is robust and avoids issues such as double counting (two parties each counting a particular reduction under their own emissions inventory). The underpinning language within the Convention can be found in several places (examples below), but the references are oblique and without direct recognition of carbon pricing or carbon markets;

  • Efforts to address climate change may be carried out cooperatively by interested Parties;
  • These Parties may implement such policies and measures jointly with other Parties and may assist other Parties in contributing to the achievement of the objective of the Convention;
  • Coordinate as appropriate with other such Parties, relevant economic and administrative instruments developed to achieve the objective of the Convention;

While this language could be interpreted as a mandate to develop a global carbon market and the ensuing exchange of carbon pricing instruments between Parties, or companies within the jurisdiction of those Parties, it hardly encourages this process to take place, let alone become a key activity in implementing a global deal. Similarly, if a Paris deal just addresses accounting issues, I don’t believe that this will act as the necessary catalyst for carbon market development either. It’s a bit like agreeing how to calculate the GDP and then not opening the national mint to print and issue the currency!!

Looking back at the Kyoto Protocol, the Clean Development Mechanism provides some valuable learning. While it isn’t a comprehensive carbon pricing instrument the Protocol nevertheless catalysed its development with a few paragraphs of text, to the extent that it eventually pushed some $100 billion (some have estimated much higher levels) in project investment into various developing country economies. This far eclipses the $10 billion that has so far been pledged to the Green Climate Fund, clearly demonstrating that market based approaches will almost always outstrip direct public financing or funding.    To meet the developed countries’ commitment to mobilize $100bn per annum by 2020, it is clear that carbon market approaches including linking will be required.  It is difficult to see how it will be met without incentivizing the private sector in this way.

This is the sort of step that I think the negotiators in Paris need to take. Rather than just elaborating on core accounting principles, I believe that they need to incorporate a means of actively encouraging carbon market expansion. Given the nationally determined contribution based architecture that is emerging, such a development will probably be a bottom up process, perhaps with heterogeneous linking between various market based systems. The Harvard Kennedy School are offering valuable insight into how this might transpire.

One organisation, IETA, has put forward a proposal for Paris along these lines. It is a light touch approach, given the opposition that a real carbon market proposal seems to foster, but hopefully it will be enough to get things started. The IETA proposal calls for the development of a “unified international transfer system”, in effect a “plug-and-play” linkage approach for national trading systems. With wording along these lines in the Paris agreement, later COP decisions could establish the modalities for such a system, thus opening up and accelerating the process that the likes of California and Quebec went through to link their respective trading systems. Such modalities would include the common accounting framework that is needed irrespective of the approach taken to encourage the development of a global market. In all cases, accounting still remains central to progress.

I won’t claim that this is the quickest and most effective way forward, but it is where we are and probably the best that can be achieved, assuming the push from above is there to encourage it. Without such a push, we are all left to hope that something may transpire on carbon markets, but wishful thinking isn’t a solution to 2°C.

Baselines, metrics and business as usual

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The submission of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to the UNFCCC started in earnest to meet the March 31st agreed date, although many more are still to come. Mexico was the only non-Annex I country (under the Convention) to submit by this date, although the Gabon submission appeared the following day.

A feature of the Mexico submission is the reference to Business as Usual (BAU) as a metric against which to measure progress. Although Mexico is clear on its commendable absolute long term objective, i.e. “. . . . consistent with Mexico´s pathway to reduce 50% of emissions by the year 2050, with respect to the year 2000”, its shorter term progress will be guided by reference to a “Business As Usual scenario of emission projections based on economic growth in the absence of climate change policies, starting from 2013”. The reference to Business As Usual is a factor that we will likely see in many of the upcoming INDC submissions. BAU was also a feature of many Copenhagen pledges, but in several instances the BAU pathway was hard to discern, which made the pledge difficult to understand and rather opaque in terms of actual numbers and therefore effort. This time around numbers will have to be very clear and part of the scrutiny and review process that negotiators are working towards will need to address the credibility and transparency of the BAU reference. In the case of Mexico, the BAU is well documented.

But even when the numbers are published, a BAU reference can make pledges and actions taken appear far more ambitious than may be the case. This is particularly so when energy efficiency is claimed as a major contributor to supposed reductions in emissions. Based on an existing relationship between energy and GDP and assuming a given near-term growth in economic output, it is easy to project what BAU emissions might be in 2020 or 2030 and then argue that a focus on energy efficiency can reduce this, effectively claiming an emissions reduction. This reasoning would appear to show that the country in question is making a large contribution to the global effort and that energy efficiency is an important contributing factor to change, yet in reality the original projection represents a situation that may never have occurred. Business-as-usual also requires improvements in energy efficiency to drive growth, which means that the assumed growth may not have occurred, had the efficiency improvements not helped deliver it. If energy efficiency really is a route to lower emissions, then it needs to pass one clear test, i.e. which known fossil fuel resource will be left in the ground (or a proposed extraction project shelved) because of this? Only then are cumulative emissions potentially impacted.

The Mexico INDC also highlighted a propensity to mix together actions on long lived greenhouse gases such as CO2 and short lived pollutants such as black carbon (very short lived) and methane (short to medium life). Mexico is reasonably transparent here as well, although its highest level number aggregates the two, i.e. “Mexico is committed to reduce unconditionally 25% of its Greenhouse Gases and Short Lived Climate Pollutants emissions (below BAU) for the year 2030”. The problem is that although carbon dioxide and black carbon (which is the major focus in Mexico) both contribute to warming of the climate system, they behave very differently in the atmosphere and mitigation leads to different outcomes which are not interchangeable.

Black carbon remains in the atmosphere for only days or weeks, which means it strongly impacts the rate of warming today but has little impact on the global goal to limit overall warming of the climate system to 2°C, unless of course there is still an unacceptable level of black carbon in the atmosphere at a time in the future when warming is approaching its peak. By contrast, carbon dioxide remains for hundreds to thousands of years and largely sets the thermostat of the future climate. Solving the black carbon problem today would deliver tangible near term benefits on a number of fronts, but unless carbon dioxide mitigation also takes place the long term outcome will hardly shift.

Mexico has set the bar quite high with its clear and well-structured contribution, but the metrics and baseline used highlight issues that the UNFCCC may need to deal with over the coming months as it begins to assess the merit of all the national contributions.