Infinite solar

An infographic published earlier this year asks the question “Could the world be 100% solar?”. The question is answered in the affirmative by demonstrating that so much solar energy falls on the Earth’s surface, all energy needs could be met by covering just 500,000 km2 with solar PV. This represents an area a bit larger than Thailand, but still only ~0.3% of the total land surface of the planet. Given the space available in deserts in particular and the experience with solar PV in desert regions in places such as California and Nevada, the infographic argues that there are no specific hurdles to such an endeavour.

Solar

However, solar PV is both intermittent and only delivers electricity, which currently makes up just 20% of final energy use. Oil products make up the bulk of the remaining 80%. As I noted in a recent post, even in the Shell net-zero emissions scenario, electricity still makes up only 50% of final energy. In that case, what might a 100% solar world really look like and is it actually feasible beyond the simple numerical assessment?

The first task is of course to generate sufficient electricity, not just in terms of total gigawatt hours, but in gigawatt hours when and where it is needed. As solar is without question intermittent in a given location, this means building a global grid capable of distribution to the extent that any location can be supplied with sufficient electricity from a location that is in daylight at that time. In addition, the same system would likely need access to significant electricity storage, certainly on a scale that far eclipses even the largest pumped water storage currently available. Energy storage technologies such as batteries and molten salt (well suited to concentrated solar thermal) only operate on a very small scale today.

The Chinese State Grid has been busy building ultra-high voltage long distance transmission lines across China and they have imagined a world linked by a global grid (Wall Street Journal, March 30 2016 and Bloomberg, April 3rd 2016) with a significant proportion of electricity needs generated by solar from the equator and wind from the Arctic.

OJ-AH932B_CGRID_16U_20160330062113

But could this idea be expanded to a grid which supplies all the electricity needs of the world? A practical problem here is that for periods of the day at certain times of the year the entire North and South American continents are in complete darkness, which means that the grid connection would have to extend across the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. While the cost of a solar PV cell may be pennies in this world, the cost of deploying electricity from solar as a global 24/7 energy service could be considerable. The cost of the cells themselves may not even feature.

sunmap

But as noted above, electricity only gets you part of the way there, albeit a substantial part. Different forms of energy will be needed for a variety of processes and services which are unlikely to run on direct or stored electricity, even by the end of this century. Examples are;

  • Shipping currently runs on hydrocarbon fuels, although large military vessels have their own nuclear reactors.
  • Aviation requires kerosene, with stored electricity a very unlikely alternative. The fuel to weight ratio of electro-chemical (battery) storage, even given advances in battery technology, makes this a distant option. Although a small electric plane for one person for 30 minutes flight has been tested, extending this to an A380 flying for 14 hours would require battery technology that doesn’t currently exist. Still, some short haul commuter aircraft might become electric.
  • While electricity may be suitable for many modes of road transport, it may not be practical for heavy goods transport and large scale construction equipment. Much will depend on the pace and scope of battery development.
  • Heavy industry requires considerable energy input, such as from furnaces powered by coal and natural gas. These reach the very high temperatures necessary for processes such as chemical conversion, making glass, converting limestone to cement and refining ores to metals. Economy of scale is also critical, so delivering very large amounts of energy into a relatively small space is important. In the case of the metallurgical industries, carbon (usually from coal) is also needed as a reducing agent to convert the ore to a refined metal. Electrification will not be a solution in all cases.

All the above argues for another energy delivery mechanism, potentially helping with (or even solving) the storage issue, offering high temperatures for industrial processes and the necessary energy density for transport. The best candidate appears to be hydrogen, which could be made by electrolysis of water in our solar world (although today it is made much more efficiently from natural gas and the resulting carbon dioxide can be geologically stored – a end-to-end process currently in service for Shell in Canada). Hydrogen can be transported by pipeline over long distances, stored for a period and combusted directly. Hydrogen could also feature within the domestic utility system, replacing natural gas in pipelines (where suitable) and being used for heating in particular. This may be a more cost effective route than building sufficient generating capacity to heat homes with electricity on the coldest winter days. It is even possible to use hydrogen as the reducing agent in metallurgical processes instead of carbon, although the process to do so still only exists at laboratory scale.

But the scale of a global hydrogen industry to support the solar world would far exceed the global Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) we have today. That industry includes around 300 million tonnes per annum of liquefaction capacity and some 400 LNG tankers. That amounts to about 15 EJ of final energy compared to the current global primary energy demand of 500 EJ. In a 1000 EJ world that we might see in 2100, a role for hydrogen as an energy carrier that reached 100 EJ would imply an industry that was seven times the size of the current LNG system. But hydrogen has 2-3 times the energy content of natural gas and liquid hydrogen is one sixth the density of LNG (important for ships), so a very different looking industry would emerge. Nevertheless, the scale would be substantial.

Finally, but importantly, there are the things that we use, from plastic water bottles to the Tesla Model S. Everything has carbon somewhere in the supply chain or in the product itself. There is simply no escaping this. The source of carbon in plastics, in the components in a Tesla and in the carbon fibre panels in a Boeing 787 is crude oil (and sometimes natural gas). So our infinite solar world needs a source of carbon and on a very large scale. This could still come from crude oil, but if one objective of the solar world is to contain that genie, then an alternative would be required. Biomass is one and a bioplastics industry already exists. In 2015 it was 1-2 million tonnes per annum, compared to ~350 million tonnes for the traditional plastics industry.

Another source of carbon could be carbon dioxide removed directly from the atmosphere or sourced from industries such as cement manufacture. This could be combined with hydrogen and lots of energy to make synthesis gas (CO +H2), which can be a precursor for the chemical industry or an ongoing liquid fuels industry for sectors such as aviation. Synthesis gas is manufactured today on a large scale from natural gas in Qatar and then converted to liquid fuels in the Shell Pearl Gas to Liquids facility. Atmospheric extraction of carbon dioxide is feasible, but remains as a pilot technology today, although some companies are looking at developing it further.

The solar world may be feasible as this century progresses, but it is far from the simple solution that it is often portrayed as. Vast new industries would need to emerge to support it and each of these would take time to develop. The LNG industry first started in the early 1960s and is now a major part of the global economy, but still only carries a small fraction of global energy needs.

The new Shell publication, A Better Life with a Health Planet: Pathways to Net Zero Emissions, shows that in 2100 solar could be a 300 EJ technology, compared to 2.5 EJ energy source today. This is in a world with primary energy demand of 1000 EJ.

 

Scenarios are part of and ongoing process used in Shell for more than 40 years to challenge executives’ perspectives on the future business environment. They are based on plausible assumptions and quantification and are designed to stretch management thinking and even to consider events that may only be remotely possible.

Within the Decision Text supporting the Paris Agreement, paragraph II.21 calls on the IPCC as follows;

21. Invites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to provide a special report in 2018 on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways;

This has prompted a number of academic institutions and climate scientists to start publishing on the issue of a 1.5°C goal, with much more likely to come in the months ahead. One such paper (Huntingford, C. and Mercado, L. M. High chance that current atmospheric greenhouse concentrations commit to warmings greater than 1.5 °C over land. Sci. Rep. 6, 30294; doi: 10.1038/srep30294 (2016).) was reported on recently by the BBC, under the heading Debate needed on 1.5C temperature target.

In fact the paper was about where we are today in terms of temperature and reaches a similar conclusion to the one that I reported on recently after attending an MIT Joint Program forum. At that meeting, the response to my question about current levels of warming was as follows;

. . . . current warming is around 1.1°C since pre-industrial times, but that there is more to the story than this. The climate system is not at equilibrium, with the oceans still lagging in terms of heat uptake. Therefore, if the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was maintained at some 400 ppm, the surface temperature would rise by another few tenths of a degree before the system reached an equilibrium plateau.

Similarly, the paper reported on by the BBC, argues much the same line;

There is strong evidence that even for current levels of atmospheric GHGs, there is a very high probability that the planet is committed to a mean warming over land greater than 1.5 °C relative to pre-industrial times. Such warming could be greater than 2.0 °C, and in particular for large continental regions away from coastlines.

While a debate about the global goal wasn’t a feature of the paper itself, the BBC interviewed the authors and reported that while they believed it to be a good idea to have an “aspirational” 1.5°C goal in the Paris agreement, that nevertheless if the world is to take 1.5°C seriously, then a serious discussion needs to be held about the implications of that goal. The author of the paper is quoted as saying “I think there needs to be a very thoughtful debate about what’s to be gained at these different temperature levels, if approaching the lower levels meant severely damaging the economy,”.

Such a discussion has been largely absent, replaced with a somewhat myopic focus on 2°C and now “well below 2°C, with a view to 1.5°C”. I discussed this at some length in my first book, drawing on the work of the MIT Joint Program in their 2009 report Analysis of Climate Policy Targets under Uncertainty. In that report the authors demonstrated that even a modest attempt to mitigate emissions could profoundly affect the risk profile for equilibrium surface temperature. This is illustrated below with five mitigation scenarios, from a ‘do nothing’ approach (Level 5) to a very stringent climate regime (Level 1).

Shifting the Risk Profile

An important feature of the results is that the reduction in the tails of the temperature change distributions is greater than the shift in the temperature goal (represented by the median of the distribution). For example, the Level 4 stabilization scenario reduces the median temperature change by the last decade of this century by 1.7 ºC (from 5.1 to 3.4 ºC), but reduces the upper 95% bound by 3.2 ºC (from 8.2 to 5.0 ºC). In addition to being a larger magnitude reduction, there are reasons to believe that the relationship between temperature increase and damages is non-linear, creating increasing marginal damages with increasing temperature (e.g., Schneider et al., 2007). These results illustrate that even relatively loose constraints on emissions reduce greatly the chance of an extreme temperature increase, which is associated with the greatest damage.

But the other focus of the Paris Agreement stands apart from such debate. As previously discussed in several postings, Article 4 calls for a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century, i.e. a state of net-zero emissions. In fact such an outcome is eventually required irrespective of the temperature outcome; without it warming continues.

Net-zero emissions arguably brings a more practical focus to the task of emissions mitigation. It defines an end-point and allows a discussion on the pathway there, the types of technologies required and the shape of the energy economy once achieved. All of this features in the new supplement to the Shell New Lens Scenarios, A Better Life with a Healthy Planet: Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions.

image003
Scenarios are part of an ongoing process used in Shell for more than 40 years to challenge executives’ perspectives on the future business environment. They are based on plausible assumptions and quantification, and are designed to stretch management thinking and even to consider events that may only be remotely possible.

Do we focus too much on electricity?

  • Comments Off on Do we focus too much on electricity?

A recent article posted on the GreenMoney e-jounal site argues that society is moving rapidly into a period of structural (and possibly abrupt) decline in fossil fuel use. The story, like many which argue along similar lines, draws on the current upward trend in renewable electricity deployment, noting that “Renewable energies have become too economically competitive for fossil fuels to contend with . . . “.

While this may be true at the margin when generating electricity, what does it mean for the energy system as a whole? Oil, gas and coal make up 80% of primary energy use (Source: IEA World Balance 2013), although it is often argued that this isn’t a representative picture as a significant percentage of the energy in fossil fuels is wasted as heat loss in power plants, which wouldn’t be the case for a technology such as solar PV. However, moving past primary energy and looking instead at final energy (i.e. the energy which we use to generate energy services such as mobility – so gasoline is a final energy whereas crude oil is primary energy) we see that oil products, natural gas and fuels such as metallurgical coal still make up two thirds of energy use, with electricity and heat comprising just over 20% of the mix. The balance is biofuels (comprising liquid fuels and direct use of biomass) and waste (IEA Sankey Chart for 2013).

Today electricity is generated primarily from coal and natural gas, with nuclear and hydroelectricity making up most of the difference. In 2014 the world generated 23,536 TWhrs of electricity, of which wind was 706 TWhrs (3%) and solar 185 TWhrs (<1%). Wind grew at 10% and solar at nearly 40% compared to the previous year (Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy). This contrasts with an overall growth in electricity generation of 1.5% per annum. It is certainly possible to imagine a world in which solar and wind grow to dominate electricity production, but then we also need to imagine a world in which electricity grows to become the dominant final energy for renewables to dominate the energy system overall.

This is one of the key subjects that is dealt with in a recent Shell publication that I have worked on during this year; A Better Life With a Healthy Planet – Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions. For me, the most telling outcome of the scenario analysis and energy system modelling work behind the publication was that even in the latter part of the century when a net-zero carbon dioxide emissions state might be reached, electricity still only makes up ~50% of final energy. This means that 50% of final energy is something else!

The scenario presented shows a world that still requires several types of final energy to meet its needs. For example, liquid hydrocarbons still dominate in shipping and aviation, even as road passenger transport is hardly serviced by hydrocarbons at all. For road freight transport, a three way split has emerged between electricity, hydrocarbons and hydrogen.

Industry remains a large user of thermal fuels throughout the century, with key processes such as cement, chemicals and metallurgical process all dependent on their use for the foreseeable future. Electrification makes significant inroads to other types of industry, but this is far from universal. Hydrogen is a potential thermal fuel of the future, but processes might have to be modified significantly to make use of it. For example, it is possible for hydrogen to act as the reducing agent in iron smelting, but today this is a pilot plant scale research project.

Even the manufacture of hydrogen might take two routes, with competition through efficiency and cost determining the eventual winner. The first is the conversion of natural gas to make hydrogen, with the resulting carbon dioxide captured and geologically stored. Alternatively, hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water with renewable energy providing the necessary electricity.

Of course the continued use of fossil fuels to meet the needs of hydrocarbons in transport, industry and even power generation means extensive deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Meeting the aim of the Paris Agreement and achieving a balance between anthropogenic emission sources and sinks (i.e. net zero emissions) is a complex challenge and not one that can necessarily be serviced by wind and solar, or for that matter electricity, alone. Rather, we potentially end up with a more diverse energy system, much larger in scale than today, with a set of new processes (CCS), new industries (hydrogen based) and new sources (solar PV).

NZE Energy System Development

Pathways from the Paris Agreement

  • Comments Off on Pathways from the Paris Agreement

Laws and Sausages

As COP21 concluded I was reminded of a quote by Otto von Bismarck, ‘Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.’ Yet, over the course of the preceding decade I had done just that. I could now reflect upon the complex and torturous course of modern diplomacy that had worked to deliver a deal and which hopefully represents renewed global leadership on climate change.

Some 150 heads of Government and heads of state had turned up in Paris to kick off proceedings and although most departed immediately afterwards to leave the job with their negotiating teams, the telephones ran hot between capital cities across the world over the ensuing two weeks. Indeed, it was even rumoured that the newly forged friendship between the USA and Cuba meant that the two countries cooperated to put pressure on Nicaragua when it appeared that its negotiator was going to hold up proceedings with some fiery rhetoric in the final stages of the main plenary meeting.

In the previous eighteen months, staff in French embassies all over the world had worked tirelessly to support the process, but in the end it was the negotiators themselves working through the night in the final days who delivered the deal. All manner of behind the scenes trade-offs were made to resolve profound disagreements on a dozen or so key issues including the temperature goal itself, the eventual need for net zero emissions of greenhouse gases and the level of financial assistance for developing countries. There were also hundreds of smaller issues and points of principle that got dealt with during the final days, ranging from continued specific recognition of developing countries in certain instances to the role of a non-market mechanism to support mitigation.

In the days before the start of the COP the text had extended to nearly one hundred pages, with multiple variations of almost every clause and hundreds of square bracketed words and phrases, indicating disagreement amongst the Parties. But unlike 2009’s COP15 that took place in Copenhagen where almost everything that could go wrong, ultimately did, the French Foreign Ministry had left nothing to chance and were to be congratulated on an extraordinary outcome. . . . . .

The rest of this story and a deeper analysis of the Paris Agreement can be found in my new e-book, Pathways from the Paris Agreement. It is available on Amazon for their Kindle (and Kindle app for iPad and Android) or as a print-on-demand publication and coming soon on a number of other e-book platforms.

Pathways from the Paris Agreement (small)

All proceeds from this book will be donated to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) and the 2041 Foundation, two NGOs that I have worked with directly over many years.

 

 

In amongst the excitement created by the Brexit vote, on 30th June 2016 the UK Government met its statutory requirement and announced the details of the 5th Carbon Budget which covers the period 2028-2032. The Government followed the recommendation of the Climate Change Committee and advised that the carbon budget for the 2028–2032 budgetary period is 1,725,000,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. This assumes 590 MtCO2e covered by the EU ETS and subject to its carbon price and a nontraded share of 1,135 MtCO2e (excluding international shipping emissions). The overall budget represents a reduction of 56.9% below the 1990 baseline.

The UK is unique in the world with its carbon budget approach. This is the result of far reaching legislation enacted back in 2008 in the form of the Climate Change Act which requires the UK Government to establish a specific carbon budget for successive future periods. To date the UK is on track towards meeting the 2nd Carbon budget, as described in a recently released summary of greenhouse gas emissions which covers the period up to the end of 2014. But the journey has been relatively easy so far. With the continued shift to natural gas and away from coal, the arrival of wind and to a lesser extent solar, the 2008-2009 recession and the higher cost of oil and gas in recent years driving real efficiency and demand reduction, UK emissions have fallen.

UK GHG Emissions to 2014

In 1990 UK CO2 emissions per kWhr of electricity generation were 672 grams, whereas today they are around 450 grams. As a result, emissions from power generation have fallen, even with current electricity demand higher than the 1990 level. By contrast, road transport emissions have remained about flat for 25 years although there has been a marked shift from gasoline to diesel. Another significant reduction has come from industry, but much of this is due to an overall reduction in heavy industry (steel making, refineries), in favour of services (media and finance) and high technology industry (e.g. aerospace).

With a large natural gas base and a diminished heavy industry sector, has the UK now reached an interim floor in terms of national greenhouse gas emissions? While there are still gains to be made in the electricity sector, future progress towards the goals of the 3rd, 4th and 5th Carbon Budgets will require additional action in other parts of the economy.

UK Emissions Progress

The 5th Carbon Budget requires nearly another 200 Mt per annum of reductions across the UK, compared to the 2nd Carbon Budget period that we are currently in. Even with Hinkley Point nuclear and an ambitious renewables programme (which is reported as being off track http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-36710290 ), it is unlikely that power generation emissions would fall more than 100 MT per annum. A 200-250 gram per KWh goal by 2030, equivalent to about 50% natural gas and 50% nuclear/renewables would mean a fall of about 70 Mt. There may also be upward pressure on the sector as transport electrifies.

The above implies that the emission reduction focus will have to expand more rapidly into the transport and residential areas in particular. While the residential sector has been an area of action for some time with a focus on boiler efficiency and home insulation, the rate determining step here is turnover in housing stock or at least housing refurbishment, which can be very slow.

UK transport emissions have hardly budged over many years, although there has been some redistribution within the sector. A sharp single step reduction came during the 2008-2009 recession, but that fall has not been continued. Data since the late 2014 price fall in crude oil is not available yet, but that may put upward pressure on transport emissions. Between now and 2030 there is the opportunity for a single turnover of the vehicle fleet, but EV sales are still only very modest in the UK. In March 2016 there were some 67,000 registered plug-in cars in the UK, less than 0.2% of the fleet. During January to March 2016, some 11,750 new ultra low emission vehicles (ULEVs) were registered in the UK. Over the year to the end of March 2016, ULEVs represented 1.0% of all new registrations, compared with 0.8% over the previous year and 0.2% over the year before that.

The 5th Carbon Budget represents a further landmark step for the UK, but it also means a shift in policy emphasis is required in the near term.

Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions

  • Comments Off on Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions

Three years ago when Shell released their New Lens Scenarios, the two views of the future looked out far beyond previous scenarios, taking in the period from 2050-2100. This offered the opportunity for both scenarios to explore ways in which the world might reach a point of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions, down from some 40 billion tonnes per annum at the moment. Such an outcome is critically important for the global environment as it means stabilization and then probably some decline in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, an essential requirement for limiting the current rise in surface temperature.

Net-zero emissions is also a requirement of the Paris Agreement. Article 4 is very clear in that regard, with its call;

“so as to achieve a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century. . . “

Energy scenarios typically explore the nearer term and many limit their horizon at 2050, but that isn’t sufficient for seeing truly profound changes in the energy system. These will play out on longer timescales, given the size of the system, the capital and capacity required to turn the system over. Solar energy is a good example. Today, we are in the middle of an apparent boom, but that is founded on years of development and improvement in the underlying technologies, a process that is still underway. Even at current deployment rates, solar still makes up only a small fraction of the global power generation system and electricity only represents 20% of the final energy we actually use. But over many decades, an energy technology such as solar PV may come to dominate the system.

Looking at the emissions issue from the fossil fuel side, even if solar was to dominate, would fossil fuels and the associated emissions of carbon dioxide necessarily decline? Simply building more renewables doesn’t guarantee such an outcome and even a significant reduction in fossil fuel use could still mean a continuing rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, albeit at a reduced rate. Scenarios help explore such questions and by extending the New Lens Scenarios to 2100, real solutions to reaching net zero emissions present themselves.

The original “New Lens Scenarios” publication from 2013 focussed more on the period through to 2060, but a new publication released by Shell looks specifically at the challenge posed by net zero emissions and explores plausible pathways towards such an outcome using the “New Lens Scenarios” as a backdrop. I have been involved in the development and writing of this publication, which started in earnest only days after the Paris Agreement was adopted. But the material within it comes from the strong base built up over many years through the various Shell scenarios.

The analysis presented sees the energy system doubling in size as global population heads towards 10 billion people. Today we collectively consume about 500 Exajoules of energy; this could rise to some 1000 Exajoules by the end of the century. The makeup of that energy system will most likely look very different from today, but it is probably not a world without fossil energy; rather it is a world with net-zero carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon capture and storage therefore plays a significant role. Even in 2100, hydrocarbon fuels could still make sense for sectors such as aviation, shipping, chemicals and some heavy industry. Electrification of the energy system would need to shifted from ~20% today to over 50% during the century.

NZE Energy mix in 2100
The new supplement is called “A Better Life with a Healthy Planet. Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions”. The title highlights the intersection between the need for energy to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the requirement of the Paris Agreement to reach net-zero emissions. A better life relies on universal access to energy. The publication comes with a wealth of online material to support it.

NZE Cover

Where are we now?

  • Comments Off on Where are we now?

Last week I presented a simple analysis of the temperature data over the last 50+ years which showed that there was good reason to think that the global surface temperature was rising by about 0.18°C per decade. But a further question to ask is when the current upward trend really started in earnest and therefore where are we today against a baseline of the pre-industrial temperature (i.e. 1850s or thereabouts). This is an important question as we have collectively established a desire to keep warming well below 2°C, but with the real prize being to limit this even further and ideally to 1.5°C.

If the current strong warming trend started in the middle of the last century, say in the post-war boom, then at 0.18°C per decade that results in warming over that period of nearly 1.2°C. The 1950s were also presumably warmer than the 1850s as CO2 levels had risen by some 30 ppm (parts per million) over that period, which argues for the current level of warming to be something more than 1.2°C.

Another way of looking at this is to use the climate sensitivity relationship between cumulative carbon and peak warming, which was estimated at 2°C per trillion tonnes of carbon by Myles Allen and his team in their formative paper published in Nature in 2009. A look at the associated Oxford University website will show cumulative carbon now stands at over 600 billion tonnes, which implies associated warming of about 1.2°C.

Cumulative carbon on June 16th 2016

Yet another way is to seek an answer from a group of climate scientists and I had the opportunity to do just that earlier this week. I am in Boston for the 39th Forum of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. I posed the question and one respondent (Chatham House Rule applies) argued that current warming is around 1.1°C since pre-industrial times, but that there is more to the story than this. The climate system is not at equilibrium, with the oceans still lagging in terms of heat uptake. Therefore, if the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was maintained at some 400 ppm, the surface temperature would rise by another few tenths of a degree before the system reached an equilibrium plateau. That would take us perilously close, if not over, the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement. This implies that 1.5°C is only possible if we see a fall in atmospheric carbon dioxide, back below 400 ppm; but noting that it is currently rising at 2-3 ppm per annum.

This isn’t to say there are no routes forward to a 1.5°C outcome, with the Joint Program itself publishing one such pathway back in 2012.

MIT Scenarios - Temperature

MIT analysed four pathways that result in different temperature outcomes, including 1.5°C. These are shown in the chart above against a business as usual trajectory based on the 2010 post-Copenhagen national pledges.

  1. An immediate drop to net zero by 2015, starting in 2010 (Natural only after 2015).
  2. A very rapid drop to net zero by 2035, but with growth from 2010 to 2030 (Natural only after 2035).
  3. A more extended drop to net zero by 2060, with the decline commencing in 2010 (Alternative).
  4. The IEA 450 scenario, with emissions peaking around 2020 and reaching net zero by 2070 (IEA 450).

Pathway 3 (Alternative) results in peak warming of just over 2°C, but with a return to 1.5°C by the end of the century. Of the three MIT extreme mitigation scenarios, it also represents an outcome that could at least be envisaged, albeit still very challenging to implement.

The ocean also plays an important role here, but in a different way to that described above. Atmospheric CO2 begins to decline once net zero anthropogenic emissions is reached as the ocean continues to take up significant quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere, but with nothing additional being added from human activities.  This is because the ocean is also lagging in terms of its ability to dissolve CO2. After some 20-30 years, as the ocean’s upper layer comes into balance with the atmosphere, uptake of CO2 slows. The fall in atmospheric CO2 that results also brings down the global surface temperature by about 0.5°C.

However, this scenario required a very sharp decline in emissions from 2010. Current Paris NDC plans show emissions continuing to rise through to 2030 at which point there are good signs of a plateau but by which time atmospheric CO2 may be at 430-440 ppm. The conclusion from all the above; any pathway that eventually delivers 1.5°C is likely to require a fall in atmospheric carbon dioxide back to 400 ppm or even below.

 

A recent edition of The Economist featured an article on the current (albeit coming to an end) strong El Nino in the Pacific and the impact or otherwise that a warming climate system might be having on it. The article asks many questions and even delves into the recent controversy about the so-called pause in global warming. The author notes;

The sweltering temperatures in recent months may help settle debates over a supposed “pause” in global warming that occurred between 1998 and 2013. During that period the Earth’s surface temperature rose at a rate of 0.04°C a decade, rather than the 0.18°C increase of the 1990s.

Global temperature data can be challenging to analyse, but one very simple analysis I put together showed quite a surprising result. El Nino events can be categorised, with the events of 1997-98 and 2015-16 both listed as Very Strong. 1972-73 and 1982-83 were also Very Strong events, giving a total of four such events over the last 40 years. Each of these events led to a temperature spike in the global record as reported by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The data is as follows;

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.15.14

A quick plot of this data shows an almost perfect linear trend over recent decades, with the Very Strong El Nino same year global temperature anomaly rising monotonically at 0.18°C per decade. There is no sign of a pause in warming or acceleration, at least over the last 40+ years. Extending the trend into the 2030s indicates that a future Very Strong El Nino event in that period would result in a 1.3°C temperature rise, which is about the equivalent to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels in the NOAA time series (using late 19th century as a proxy for pre-industrial).

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.15.30
Casting back a bit further to a much earlier Very Strong El Nino, brings us to 1926. This was reportedly an extreme event for the period and corresponded with the most severe drought in tropical South America during the 20th century. Including it in the chart above as well as a further point in 1963, shows the current linear trend still holding back to 1960, but not into the 1920s. At this time atmospheric carbon dioxide was only just beginning to rise. But the fact that the 1920s El Nino is matched by a presumably elevated 1960s El Nino perhaps points to just how severe that event must have been.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 21.15.43
The data for the last half century for comparable El Nino event years and coinciding with a rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide from 315 ppm to 400 ppm (vs. 275 ppm to 315 ppm over the century before that) indicates that the underlying surface temperature trend is rising consistently, despite the noise associated with year on year fluctuations of the Southern Oscillation (El Nino and La Nina) and other phenomena. This data noise has given rise to claims of both no global warming and accelerating global warming. The reality is sobering enough, even without the histrionics from some observers.

A new reality to come to terms with

  • Comments Off on A new reality to come to terms with

The first UNFCCC talks since the adoption of the Paris Agreement are now underway and the various delegations are getting down to the tough task of implementation. I was in Bonn on the opening day of the two week meeting, representing the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) in a side event hosted by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) Executive Board (EB). The aim of the event was to draw on the learning from a decade of CDM operation and apply this experience to Article 6 of the Paris Agreement. This is the Article that provides a potential new foundation for carbon market development. I was there to present the IETA Article 6 Vision paper which I posted a story on recently.

The side event was packed out and many were standing in the corridor leading to the room; there is clearly considerable interest in this topic. Over the years the CDM has been a successful mechanism, resulting in nearly 8000 projects and some 1.7 billion Certified Emission Reduction (CER) units issued. Even at a €5-10 per CER (as it was in the earlier days of the EU ETS), this still represents a carbon price based financial injection of up to €10 billion into developing economies. The CDM spawned a small industry of project developers, assessors, MRV professionals and climate finance experts and clearly demonstrated that even a gentle application of the market can have a significant impact. Little wonder that there is such interest in the mitigation mechanism embedded in Article 6 and its potential to drive change.

However, the CDM (or a version of it) is unlikely to be repeated or replicated under Article 6, at least not under the terms that existed within the Kyoto Protocol. It was clear from the discussion during the side event that this new reality is going to take a while to hit home and settle in. The CDM became an important source of climate finance for developing countries, where the only real obligation on the part of the host country for a given project was to provide the necessary governance structure to ensure eventual issuance of the CERs. But that is no longer the case given the provisions of the Paris Agreement and Article 6 are now effectively the same for all countries.

Over time, Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) will expand to cover all greenhouse gas in all economies. Every NDC, either specifically or notionally (for assessment and stocktake purposes) is linked to a quantitative carbon budget and there is an expectation from the Paris Agreement that these budgets will be delivered. While the Paris Agreement doesn’t say this in such stark terms, it is nevertheless implied. The whole approach that the UNFCCC used to assess the NDCs in their latest synthesis report, released on May 2nd, underpins this. Their aggregate analysis is summarized in carbon budget terms as follows;

The implementation of the communicated INDCs is estimated to result in aggregate global emission levels of 55.0 (51.4 to 57.3) Gt CO2 eq in 2025 and 56.2 (52.0 to 59.3) Gt CO2 eq in 2030. The global levels of emissions in 2025 and 2030 were calculated by adding the estimated aggregate emission levels resulting from the implementation of the communicated INDCs, that is 46.5 (44.3 to 48.9) Gt CO2 eq in 2025 and 48.0 (45.1 to 51.4) Gt CO2 eq in 2030, to the levels of emissions not covered by the INDCs. Global cumulative CO2 emissions after 2011 are expected to reach 533.1 (509.6 to 557.2) Gt CO2 in 2025 and 738.8 (703.6 to 770.9) Gt CO2 in 2030.

As I noted in my last post and drawing on Article 6.5 in the Paris Agreement, this means that the transfer of credits from a project across a national border (in the style of the CDM) will impact the national inventory reports of both parties. These transfers will then have to be executed in the style of Joint Implementation (JI) of the Kyoto Protocol, which effectively required an adjustment to the project host country’s national goal if the crediting unit was to be used by another Party to meet their goal.

I raised this issue as part of my presentation and the message was then amplified by a couple of people in the audience during the Q&A. But the response from some in the room was close to one of denial of this new reality, even though the Paris Agreement makes the need for such adjustment clear. The discussion almost drifted back into the old reality of developing countries not having goals and targets, but fortunately we didn’t land there. We didn’t resolve the issue either, which means that there are probably some tough discussions ahead as the negotiators get down to business.

A week later in Bonn and after many hours of discussions on Article 6 by the Parties, there has been some progress. At a side event on the second Monday also on Article 6 and also standing room only, I heard one central African delegate note that we had certainly left the world of the CDM and that perhaps we were somewhere between the constructions offered by CDM and JI of the Kyoto Protocol, albeit this would have to be interpreted to match the new bottom up global architecture of the Paris Agreement. I also heard another national delegate argue strongly that the new mechanism was not a sustainable development mechanism and should not be referenced as such, even if sustainable development was an important outcome of the implementation of the mechanism. Several panellists talked about quantification of NDCs as an important precursor to the avoidance of double counting.

The various concerns and issues that have been raised in these early discussion are very valid and the answers aren’t immediately obvious. Many developing countries have placed the need for finance as a condition on at least some portion of their mitigation contribution and in the past the CDM offered such finance. But if the reality of a new mechanism is a tighter national goal as a consequence of using it, there may be some push back. In the IETA paper one possible solution to this was proposed, namely the direct purchase of project units from the host country of the mitigation activity by multi-lateral funds. But this is unlikely to reach the necessary scale of mitigation envisaged by the NDCs, so other approaches will have to be developed. Interesting times ahead!

Update: The co-chairs in the UNFCCC discussions on Article 6 have released informal notes on ITMOs (here) and the proposed mechanism (here). These are a summary of points made in the initial discussions in Bonn.

Within the Paris Agreement sits Article 6, a carefully crafted set of provisions to foster, in the parlance of the UNFCCC and the Parties to the Agreement, cooperative approaches. This includes a provision for cross border transfer of mitigation outcomes and a mechanism to contribute to the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions and support sustainable development. But for those outside the negotiating process (and hopefully those inside as well), this Article is seen as the foundation for carbon market development. There was a great deal of advocacy effort behind the Article, particularly from the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) who argued strongly that such a construction within the Paris Agreement was essential to see accelerated adoption of government implemented carbon pricing; widely recognised as a critical policy instrument for managing carbon dioxide emissions.

The wording of Article 6 needs some deciphering and for those now assembling in Bonn to begin the process of implementation of the Paris Agreement, some steer from the private sector will hopefully be helpful. After all, if the provisions do enable the development and expansion of carbon markets then it will almost certainly be the private sector that is most deeply involved. To that end, IETA have now published a first thought piece on Article 6, setting out a vision for its implementation.

IETA Article 6 Brochure

The IETA vision for Article 6 is built on the need for governments to implement carbon pricing, ideally through market based approaches such as cap-and-trade or baseline-and-credit. This starts with the internationally transferred mitigation outcomes (ITMO), described in 6.2 and 6.3. These transfers are effectively carbon market trades between governments or private entities operating through emission trading systems. One example is the link between California and Quebec, which effectively ties parts of the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) of Canada and the United States together. Similarly the link between Norway and the EU ETS is doing the same for their respective NDCs. IETA argues that for clean and simple accounting and the avoidance of double counting, that the concept of exchange of carbon units, either notional or real, should be an underpinning feature of any ITMO. That means the basis for cooperative approaches is, for the most part, a market based one. For governments to access the economic benefits and cost effectiveness of a cooperative approach, they will need to implement carbon unit based emissions management systems within their economies.

IETA also recognises that not all governments may be ready or able to implement trading based systems, so its vision draws on another aspect of Article 6 to enable this. Paragraphs 6.4 (a) – (d) describe an emissions mitigation mechanism (which IETA have given the designation EMM). While some commentators are already arguing that this is a future version of the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol (i.e. CDM 2.0), IETA makes the case for a much broader interpretation and use of this mechanism. Such implementation could see the EMM offering both universal carbon allowance and crediting units for those countries that choose to use them, facilitating trade between NDCs (i.e. ITMO), providing registry accounting and offering the prospect of carbon pricing in many economies.

The EMM could also be designed to establish sector baselines and issue sovereign credits for performance in excess of those baselines, which might then be purchased by external climate funds to channel investment. In this way it would function more like the CDM. But as IETA notes in its thought piece, the world in which crediting from one country acting as a direct offset in another is coming to an end. Under the CDM this was possible because the project host country had no quantified emissions management goal. As such, national accounting effectively took place on one side only, although the project itself had to have a credible baseline against which it operated. But as NDCs progressively expand to cover all national emissions (if they don’t then the Paris Agreement can’t claim to manage global emissions), paragraph 6.5 prevents such one sided accounting;

Emission reductions resulting from the mechanism referred to in paragraph 4 of this Article shall not be used to demonstrate achievement of the host Party’s nationally determined contribution if used by another Party to demonstrate achievement of its nationally determined contribution.

This means that the transfer of credits from a project across a national border (in the style of the CDM) will impact the national inventory reports of both parties. IETA argues that these transfers will then have to be executed in the style of Joint Implementation (JI) of the Kyoto Protocol, which effectively required an adjustment to the project host country’s national goal if the crediting unit was to be used by another Party to meet their goal.

The Paris Agreement introduces a very different world of international emissions trading to the one that exists today and has operated in recent years. The IETA paper concludes with a visualisation of how this might end up.

Article 6 Evolution