Archive for April, 2010

So we “scramble” on

  • Comments Off

This week has seen what may be only a short delay towards climate legislation in the USA, but a potential long-term hold in Australia as the Rudd government has shelved plans for an emissions trading scheme, at least until 2012/2013. Both countries are struggling with bipartisan support for action. As a result, the notion of a broad response to the Copenhagen Accord by developed countries looks increasingly unlikely, at least in the run-up to COP16 in Mexico and maybe even COP17 in South Africa. With action in developed countries slowing down, it is hard to build the case for comprehensive action globally.

A delay of the sort that Australia now faces means that there will be little legislative framework of any substance in place to deliver on their national 2020 goal. The same may well be the case in the USA if the proposed Senate Bill doesn’t appear soon. Whilst the Australian government has said that this is a delay and that may well be the case, the reality is that 2012 or 2013 legislation could translate to a 2014 or even later start-up of the trading system. As we have seen in the EU-ETS, a 3-5 year bedding-in period should also be expected during which time the trading system appears as a soft touch on the economy allowing businesses and consumers to begin to adapt to the change. So a delay to 2012 for legislation means 2014 for startup and 2018 or 2019 before it really begins to bite. Such a timeline is not commensurate with the challenging 2020 goals that have been pledged by most developed countries in the weeks after Copenhagen. These will only be met with comprehensive economy wide action delivered through a coherent policy framework, such as now being discussed in Washington and which had been tabled in Australia.

Inter-dependencies may also become a problem. In announcing the delay in Australia, the government pointed out that it may be more opportune to introduce climate legislation domestically once the international position firms up and a more coherent global approach is closer to reality. But some nations have linked their commitment for action internationally with their ability to deliver legislation domestically, so there is a real Catch-22 developing.

In 2008 Shell published two energy scenarios for the period to 2050. They were very different in terms of the global response to carbon emissions.

In the Blueprints scenario, a comprehensive global approach arises from local, national and regional action as a series of bottom-up coalitions build towards a solution. Bipartisan agreement is a critical component. More importantly, the scenario assumes robust carbon pricing is prevalent across the OECD (and beyond in some instances) in the period 2010-2020 which in turn allows the world to turn the corner in terms of emissions in the 2020s.

The alternative world, called Scramble, sees much more focus on meeting energy demand as a single goal, with little real action on emissions. Energy nationalism is the flavor from 2010-2020, rather than real international cooperation. In the decades that follow governments need to make difficult decisions on energy and climate issues given the lack of progress in dealing with them early on.

As a follow-up to the scenarios Shell worked with MIT to look at the climate implications of the two scenarios and this was published in 2009. The actions taken in Blueprints lead to a clear stabilization in atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases, albeit at a level above that now advised by the science community (note that we are already at 450 ppm CO2e when considering all GHGs). But Scramble sees GHG levels in the atmosphere continue to climb through the whole century, ending up at over 1000 ppm and still rising by 2100.

In terms of temperature, the difference is a cause for concern. Whereas Blueprints shows clear signs of the temperature impact leveling out at somewhere between 2 and 3 degrees C, Scramble has us heading to 5 degrees C by the end of the century.

A key learning point from the scenarios is that action in this decade is very important. Developments this week would seem to be counter to that need.

Volcanoes, weather, climate and planes

  • Comments Off

Although the airspace is now open again, it has been impossible to be in the UK this week and not hear about, talk about or watch volcanoes. It has also made everybody painfully aware of the fact that we are totally and utterly dependent on air travel and that having a global air travel hub on a small island presents a further set of complications when the system doesn’t function as it should. Not only have travelers been stranded, but the impact was quickly felt by the likes of Kenyan flower growers and market gardeners – although this was apparently solved fairly rapidly as air freight was diverted to Spain and supermarkets trucked from there.

Arguably we have been really unlucky – a combination of location (near major air routes), timing (end of Easter vacation) and weather patterns (a huge blocking high pressure system) has made this event particularly traumatic for those directly impacted. But for those of us in London with no travel plans, the reverse has been true – nice weather, much less traffic near Heathrow and quiet skies. Even BAA, the company which owns and operates Heathrow has had its own small silver lining in this cloud of ash – apparently they have used the time to collect baseline environmental data around Heathrow which will help them better understand the local impact of aviation.

As readers of climate literature will doubtless know, volcanoes have figured heavily in global climate over the millennia. There is evidence in the paleoclimate  record that they may have contributed so much CO2 to the atmosphere in periods of extended high activity that warming occurred as a result. On a shorter timescale they also contribute to cooling of the atmosphere due to the discharge of large amounts of ash and sulphur compounds.

Whilst the current eruption is turning out to be very disruptive, compared to other eruptions in history it is a mere puff of smoke. Eyjafjallajokull has ejected about 140 million cubic metres of material, but Pinatubo (the Philippines in 1991) ejected 10 cubic kilometres – that’s 100 times as much and Tamboro in Indonesia ejected 160 cubic kilometers in April 1815. The super-volcano which still exists under Yellowstone National Park has the potential to eject at least an order of magnitude more than this – but with no expectation that it will do so anytime soon.

Even in recently recorded history there is evidence of the short term climate effects of volcanic eruptions. 1816, the year after Tamboro, was known as the “year without a summer” in Europe and another Icelandic volcano that erupted in 1783-1784 apparently impacted life in Northern Europe, parts of Asia and Africa and in Iceland killed over half of livestock followed by a famine in which a quarter of the population died. In the following years there were crop failures and record grain prices in France (this may of course be unrelated). Looking at the UK monthly temperature record for the past 400 years it is possible to see some of this (but there are also plenty of years with anomalous data in which there was no volcanic activity). The chart below shows yearly data from 1650, with the blue data being the annual average temperature, the yellow data being the maximum monthly average for a given year and the purple data the minimum monthly average for that year. The trend lines show the current warming and give some hint of the Maunder Minimum in the second half of the 17th Century.

Looking at the Tamboro event more specifically, the chart below shows the monthly average temperature as a difference to the average for that month for the period 1650 to 2008. 1816 does appear to be well below the average and is generally lower than the surrounding years.

In terms of CO2 impact, the grounding of thousands of flights has led to some newspapers here in the UK commenting on the CO2 impact. The Times calculated that some 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 emissions had been avoided (based on the premise that on a normal day the 28,000 flights in European airspace emit about 560,000 tonnes of CO2). This led me to wonder why they hadn’t included the CO2 impact of the volcano itself – there seem to be a number of different figures for this but all are less than the CO2 impact of European aviation itself and some considerably less.

 Meanwhile, con-trails are again visible over London and that almost ever present background noise has returned.

A Low Carbon Roadmap for Europe

  • Comments Off

This week the European Climate Foundation (ECF) launched its low-carbon roadmap for Europe – essentially a plan which details the pathway to an 80% emissions reduction by 2050. Long-term readers of this blog may recall a short piece I did back in July 2009 entitled “The Last 20%”, which looked at what an 80% reduction in emissions actually looks like (although for the USA, but the EU will be pretty much the same) – the key outcome being that society needs to rapidly electrify (e.g. for heating in the home) and that the power generation sector must head to zero or near zero emissions. The ECF study works from this basis as well and although it looks at the whole energy economy the introduction points out that the study is largely a power sector analysis.

 As has been the finding in many similar studies, four key directions must figure in the mix:

  • Energy efficiency improvements of up to 2% per annum;
  • Nearly full decarbonization of the power sector;
  • Fossil fuels replaced in the buildings and transport sectors by electricity and bio-fuels;
  • A wide range of other mitigation options are implemented, such as CCS in industry and afforestation.

 One of the underlying data sources for the study is the well known McKinsey Abatement Curve.

 The authors are of the view that the pathways illustrated, although immensely challenging, are feasible. In particular, several mixes of power technologies are argued to be feasible, providing reliable power at all times at an economic price on average over the 2010-2050 period. The technologies include hydro; coal and gas plants with CCS; nuclear plants; wind turbines (onshore and offshore); solar PV and CSP; biomass plants; and geothermal plants. The supply mixes tested cover a share of renewable energy between 40 percent and 80 percent, a share of nuclear energy between 10 percent and 30 percent, and a share of fossil fuel plus CCS plants between 0 percent and 30 percent. A 100 percent renewable pathway is also evaluated, but not costed. All of the pathways require a shift in the approach to planning and operation of transmission systems.

 One potential challenge for policy makers will be to recognize that the power mix projections are scenarios and that ultimately the market will dictate the direction and final mix. In the EU the principal driving mechanism over the long term will be the EU-ETS and the carbon price that it has introduced into the energy system. However, a variety of other policy approaches will be required to augment this, such as some form of guarantee on nuclear acceptability and waste liability and early support for nascent technologies such as CCS and solar.

Surprising to me is the finding that this can be done with a resultant cost of electricity only 10-15% higher than the baseline, with that cost bridged by a CO2 price of more than €20 per ton (a 2008 McKinsey study showed that the long term deployment of CCS would require a CO2 price of some €40-60 per ton). However, the required efficiency improvements in electricity use are also an important factor and these also contribute to a lower overall cost of energy than in the baseline.  This then menas that final energy bills to end users will fall.  In reality it may be a challenge to make efficiency improvements stick if electricity bills do fall, and indeed they may stimulate further demand increases.

 It is no surprise that the study finds that all decarbonization pathways explored in Roadmap 2050 throw up profound implementation challenges. This rate of change seriously challenges the historic trends of change which I discussed back in December on the back of a Nature paper written by two Shell colleagues. When things have gone well, it has taken around 30 years to move from the first pilot plants outside the laboratory, to reach a ‘material’ scale, i.e. delivering about 1% of the world’s energy supply.  This still follows an exponential curve running at an average of 26% growth per year for those 30 years.  It is simply that it has to climb three orders of magnitude in scale. The question that clearly arises in all of this is whether we are fooling ourselves in thinking that such large scale deployment is even possible in just 40 years, or whether, as has been seen in some limited cases such as nuclear power in France, that sustained and determined policy implementation can deliver the necessary change.

An important mission for NASA

  • Comments Off

I was very fortunate to see the launch of the space shuttle in Florida this week. More of that at the end, but you might wonder why this belongs in a climate change blog?

Whilst flicking through the NASA web-site to find details of the launch and the best viewing locations, I came across two items which have an important link. The first is that NASA is planning a mission in October to measure aerosols in the Earth’s atmosphere and solar irradiance. The mission is called Glory and it aims to establish a more accurate picture of the Earth’s energy balance, thereby improving upon the knowledge of the various forcing influencing that balance. The overall balance is critical as it will determine the extent of warming of the planet. We already know that the Earth is out of balance by some 2 watts/m2 as a result of the additional CO2 in the atmosphere, but we don’t fully understand the extent to which this might be countered or enhanced by other forcings, particularly aerosols. The CO2 forcing alone is enough to change ice extent over the coming decades and centuries to the extent that sea level will become a big problem – this is one of the main points in James Hansen’s latest book, Storms of My Grandchildren.

According to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center website, the science objectives of the Glory mission include:

  1. The determination of the global distribution, microphysical properties, and chemical composition of natural and anthropogenic aerosols and clouds with accuracy and coverage sufficient for a reliable quantification of the aerosol direct and indirect effects on climate;
  2. The continued measurement of the total solar irradiance to determine the Sun’s direct and indirect effect on Earth’s climate.

Scientific instruments will include;

  1. Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor (APS) which will provide the retrieval of aerosol particle microphysical properties by inverting multiangle and multispectral radiance and polarization measurements.
  2. Total Solar Irradiance (TIM) which will measure the absorption and reflection of this radiation by the Earth’s atmosphere, and determine the global average temperature of the Earth.
  3. Cloud Camera data which will provide cross track coverage over a finite swath of aerosol load and fine mode fraction over the open ocean.

A related study by NASA is available on the same website (http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/road-transportation.html) found that the transportation sector is the largest contributor to overall warming, not because it is the highest CO2 emitter, but because of the combination of emissions from the sector. Unlike the industrial sector it emits very little in the way of sulphates which act as coolants, thereby partly offsetting the warming of the CO2 emissions. Rather, the sector primarily emits CO2, black carbon and ozone, all of which contribute to warming.

As for the space shuttle – seeing that was both good luck and good timing – more the former than the latter. The fact that our family vacation happened to coincide with one of the last ever launches was a coincidence, but the trek to see it was not easy. We started out at 4am in the morning with a planned one hour dash across central Florida to get there in good time for the 6:21 am launch. Traffic was heavy, but we hadn’t counted on the huge queues at the endless toll booths (most drivers were visitors so didn’t have the electronic pass). This consumed most of our available time, so we ended up entering Titusville with 15 minutes to spare. We then managed to get lost when the rental sat-nav decided we were in fact in a swamp (we weren’t) but somehow managed, with five minutes to spare, to appear at the shore on Highway 1 opposite the launch facility and had a splendid view of the event. A minute later we were reminded of the power of this vessel as the sound arrived.

Establishing a Policy Objective

  • Comments Off

Last week I was in Washington for the 30th MIT Global Change Forum. This slightly more than annual event is a core part of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. Shell has been a sponsor of the program for over a decade now and the forum is always rich in content and a valuable opportunity to learn and gain a better understanding of the complexities of climate change and the potential society has for dealing with it. This was also true of the Washington event.

Given the recent rancour around climate science, it was refreshing to hear Professor Ron Prinn, co-director of the program and a leading atmospheric chemist, give a very down-to-earth assessment of the state of the climate as his opening address. This was not based on any new science or particular recent revelation, but a review of the solid body of work by thousands of scientists all over the world and their use of data from satellites, ocean buoys, ground observing stations and the like to attempt to build a reliable picture of just what is happening on our planet today.

There was some discussion regarding the fact that the global land-ocean surface temperature record hasn’t shown any particular trend over recent years, other than maintaining an elevated level compared to, say, a century ago. Professor Prinn made the point that this is very much the nature of surface temperature and noted that this has happened before and will almost certainly happen again. For example, between 1940 and 1960 global temperatures declined despite increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere before the underlying upward trend in temperature was seen again.

There is no clear reason as to why there was a decline over this period. Some scientists have linked it to the post-war industrial boom which brought with it increased use of coal for power generation, but without the sulphur removal that is common in modern OECD power stations today. Sulphur acts as a coolant in the atmosphere, which could also mean that the current period of temperature stability may be the result of the recent step change in coal use in developing countries, much of it without sulphur removal.

But Professor Prinn also reminded the audience that the ocean plays a huge role in governing climate, with a heat capacity some 1600 times that of the atmosphere. An upwelling of colder deep ocean water could easily shift global surface temperatures for a period of years. Nevertheless, the climate forcing due to increases in greenhouse gases and aerosols remains at 1.6 W per m2, or 816 TW globally, some 50 times current global energy consumption.

This last point is brought home in James Hansen’s latest book, Storms of My Grandchildren. He shows that the shift in forcing over the last million years due to slight changes in the orbit of the earth is only 1 W per m2, yet this has been sufficient to cause the advance and retreat of vast ice shelves over thousands of miles. As such, we shouldn’t somehow think that the current man made forcing is of no significance to long term climate.

On the subject of ice, Professor Prinn put up a chart showing the current trends in Arctic sea ice coverage since satellite imagery began. Like temperature, it is quite possible to shown that there is almost no change between certain individual years, e.g. 1996 and 2007,  yet at the same time there is a very discernible decrease of ice extent of 2.5% per decade (March) and 8.9% per decade (September).

The issue of policy objectives was also discussed and this is where MIT bring great clarity to an otherwise opaque subject. At the end of 2009, the total level of long lived greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, in terms of CO2 equivalent, was 469 ppm. With 2091-2100 as a future reference point, the following probability analysis emerges:

Policy Objective Probability of ΔT > 2⁰C above 1981-2000 Probability of ΔT > 2⁰C above 1860 (pre-industrial levels) Probability of ΔT > 4⁰C above 1981-2000
No policy, 1400 ppm CO2e outcome 100% 100% 85%
Stabilize at 900 ppm 100% 100% 25%
Stabilize at 790 ppm 97% 100% 7%
Stabilize at 660 ppm 80% 97% 0.25%
Stabilize at 550 ppm 25% 80% < 0.25%

This of course raises the issue of the credibility of a global policy objective to limit warming to 2⁰C. Professor Prinn went on to offer an alternative way to express the policy objective. The approach could be to consider the level of stabilization which would limit the probability of a very serious degradation of ice shelves, which is perhaps a more tangible objective and one that may be better understood and accepted by people. The table below (Webster et al, JPSPGC Report 180, 2009) shows the cumulative probability of Arctic surface air warming from 1981-2000 to 2091-2100 (note also that the poles warm much faster than the tropics). A very different picture arises.

Policy Objective ΔT > 4⁰C above1981-2000 ΔT > 6⁰C above1981-2000 ΔT > 8⁰C above1981-2000
No policy, 1400 ppm CO2e outcome 100% 95% 70%
Stabilize at 900 ppm 95% 30% 3%
Stabilize at 790 ppm 80% 9% 0.25%
Stabilize at 660 ppm 25% 0.25% <0.25%
Stabilize at 550 ppm 0.5% <0.25% < 0.25%

If the Greenland ice-shelves were considered to be under threat as arctic temperature rose above 6⁰C, then stabilization at 660 ppm CO2-equivalent could be considered a positive outcome in this regard. I should say at this point that this was not a recommendation from MIT, rather an attempt to show how policy objectives could be formulated. It was certainly an interesting presentation. Professor Prinn also noted that the last time the polar regions were significantly warmer (~4⁰C) than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 metres of sea level rise.

The above is just a taster from two days of excellent presentations. The MIT reports are all available on their website.