Archive for August, 2012

US emissions continue to fall

If you dig down a few layers through the US State Department website, you will come across a Press Release from February 2010 where the USA pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

Press Statement

Todd Stern,  Special Envoy for Climate Change Washington, DC

February 4, 2010

Special Envoy Stern: We are pleased to be among 55 countries – including all of the world’s major economies — that have submitted pledges to limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions under the Copenhagen Accord. These countries represent nearly 80% of global emissions. In supporting the Accord, we are taking an important step in the global effort to combat climate change.

In addition to the countries that have submitted targets or actions, a number of others have conveyed their support for the Accord. We urge all countries to join this broad coalition by promptly conveying their support for the Accord to the UNFCCC Secretariat.

The Copenhagen Accord includes important advances on funding, technology, forestry, adaptation and transparency. The United States is committed to working with our partners around the world to make the Accord operational and to continue the effort to build a strong, science-based, global regime to combat the profound threat of climate change.

I have commented on the commitment in previous postings, but just to be reminded of what was said, here is a copy of the letter sent by the US to the UNFCCC. 

Last week the US EIA released the latest greenhouse gas emission figures and they show that the country is well on track to meet this pledge, even though there is no formal program in place to ensure delivery. 

Following the sharp recession led drop, two continuing drivers for the change are the drop in coal emissions as older coal fired power plants close and the fall in automotive emissions due to tougher vehicle efficiency standards and the continuing higher oil price. As expected, natural gas emissions have risen as this fuel replaces coal in power generation, but with less than half the carbon footprint of the coal.

This trend could well continue over the coming years as further coal capacity is closed in response to the combination of EPA air quality regulation, expected greenhouse gas regulation and the growing supply of natural gas. In addition, CAFE standards should ensure further improvements in vehicle efficiency.

My original analysis of this trend produced the following chart. Two years on and we still seem to be at least in the same ballpark.

In a speech given at Dartmouth College at the beginning of this month, US Lead Climate Negotiator Todd Stern caused some consternation in the media by opening up the subject of the global two degree Celsius target. Bylines such as “US Abandons 2° Target” appeared soon after, to the extent that a further statement was made two days later by Todd Stern to say;

 “The U.S. continues to support this goal. We have not changed our policy.”

Reading the speech more closely, Stern had not dismissed the target at all nor questioned the necessity of making substantial reductions in global emissions. Rather, he had outlined a negotiating strategy which might bring nations to the table and actually get them to agree on something, rather than the status quo situation which has so far resulted in little progress.

 For many countries, the core assumption about how to address climate change is that you negotiate a treaty with binding emission targets stringent enough to meet a stipulated global goal – namely, holding the increase in global average temperature to less than 2° centigrade above pre-industrial levels – and that treaty in turn drives national action. This is a kind of unified field theory of solving climate change – get the treaty right; the treaty dictates national action; and the problem gets solved. This is entirely logical. It makes perfect sense on paper. The trouble is it ignores the classic lesson that politics – including international politics – is the art of the possible. . . .

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This kind of flexible, evolving legal agreement cannot guarantee that we meet a 2 degree goal, but insisting on a structure that would guarantee such a goal will only lead to deadlock. It is more important to start now with a regime that can get us going in the right direction and that is built in a way maximally conducive to raising ambition, spurring innovation, and building political will.

The 2°C target has been around for a while, but has no particular scientific basis. Rather, it represents an integrated assessment based on many inputs. From what I have been able to find, it appears to be the point at which various systems may see a step change in their response to rising temperatures. This includes the collapse of some major ice shelves, changes in major ocean current circulation, the demise of some marine ecosystems, extensive coral bleaching and so on. Much of this is summarized in an output document from a 2005 conference, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, convened by the British Government prior to their hosting of the G8. Although the EU had proposed a 2°C target well before 2005, it was at this conference and the following G8 meeting where it really took hold. Finally, at the UNFCCC COP in Cancun it was agreed as a formal goal, given that the objective of the Convention is to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”.

But the 2°C objective is just the beginning  of a long chain which must ultimately stretch down to the allowable emissions of a given power plant or the need to store a tonne of CO2 in a subsurface reservoir. This chain is riddled with uncertainty which almost never gets a mention. For example, many now link the 2°C objective with atmospheric stabilization of CO2 at a level of 450 ppm and in previous postings I have talked about 2°C equating to an atmospheric stock of one trillion tonnes of carbon. But these are levels that are associated with something around a 50% probability that global temperatures will plateau below a 2°C rise. In trillion tonne terms, based on a “business as usual” scenario, we will cross that point in about mid-2043. Shifting the bar such that we have a better than 75% chance of limiting the temperature rise to 2°C moves the crossover point back 15 years, to early 2028.

There is also no guarantee that we can collectively limit the temperature rise to below 2°C. Even if emissions stopped today, the range of possible outcomes from a 400 ppm CO2 level includes 2°C, albeit at quite a low probability. This is because the atmosphere is not in a state of heat equilibrium and will continue to warm at current levels of CO2.  As such, determining a target atmospheric CO2 concentration becomes difficult. 450 ppm is convenient in that it is above current levels, was feasible (at a stretch) when first raised and coincided with a 50% chance of limiting the temperature to 2°C. More recently James Hansen of GISS / NASA has argued for a target of 350 ppm, in that this would restore the current heat imbalance in the system and therefore stop the temperature rising. The problem with this goal is that we have already passed it and nobody really likes setting a target which can’t be met.

Further to the problem of determining a desired plateau for atmospheric CO2, comes the even more difficult task of translating this into a physical limit on global emissions. The task of halving emissions by 2050 is often discussed, but little mention is made of the fact that after 2050 the trajectory must head pretty rapidly to zero. Even the “half by 2050” goal has been obscured by a forgotten baseline year. For some it is 1990, others it is 2000 / 2005 or even just half compared to now. These are all very different. The original baseline when the “half” was first discussed was 1990, which for energy related emissions translates to a goal of 10 GT per annum – China today is at about 8 GT.

As already noted, CO2 acts like a “stock pollutant” in that it collects in the atmosphere. The best approach for this is to find a mechanism for limiting the cumulative CO2 emitted, in other words never emitting that trillionth tonne of carbon.

Framing the problem in this way then perhaps makes us think differently about the comments made by Todd Stern. Trying to carve up the space left in the atmosphere between 190+ nations may be a diplomatic stretch too far, so we should at least move with haste towards what we can do now. In the interim, as actions start to take root and countries realize that limiting emissions isn’t the end of life, the universe and everything, the door then opens to a more comprehensive approach. This would be an “evolving legal agreement” .

Such an approach isn’t the ideal, but given that “immediate global agreement” has very little chance of happening, it would appear to be the prudent way forward, but with the our sights still set on the 2°C goal.

As the NASA Curiosity rover touched down gently on Mars and began its 2+ year observation and exploration of its surrounding terrain, the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies announced the publication of a new paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I reported on a pre-publication release of this paper back in April and was able to reproduce a much simpler version of the analysis using New York Central Park data in a more recent posting. As demonstrated by Curiosity, NASA is a formidable science based organization and one whose findings should not be taken lightly. An early version of the paper appeared back in March, before the extended heat wave experienced in the USA through most of July.

The analysis shows how the distribution of summer temperatures has shifted in recent decades, to the extent that there has been a notable change in the frequency of what were extreme outlying events. This in turn led NASA to assert that “the recent bouts of extremely warm summers, including the intense heat wave afflicting the U.S. Midwest this year, very likely are the consequence of global warming”.


As it turns out, July has been confirmed as the single hottest month ever recorded in the continental United States. The average temperature across the Lower 48 was 77.6 °F, 3.3 degrees above the 20th-century average, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported. That edged out the previous high mark, set in 1936, by two-tenths of a degree, NOAA said. In addition, the seven months of 2012 to date are the warmest of any year on record and were drier than average as well, NOAA said. U.S. forecasters started keeping records in 1895.

Some of course will question the validity of the data used by NASA GISS, but just days before their announcement came a second release of findings from the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project. They found that the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by 1.5 °C over the past 250 years. The Berkeley study noted that the good match between the temperature record and historical carbon dioxide suggests that the most straightforward explanation for this warming is human greenhouse gas emissions. One of their key charts is shown below.


While the analysis from NASA and the data validation from Berkeley will still not satisfy everyone, they will hopefully begin to put to rest the ongoing science controversy that seems to hamper any rational thought about the best approach to actually addressing the issue of rising levels of atmospheric CO2.

Since the creation of the UNFCCC 20 years ago after the first Earth Summit, many have lost hope that a multilateral approach can achieve anything, particularly after the setback of Copenhagen (another attempt plagued by science and temperature controversy just as world leaders gathered) and the eventual failure of that process to agree anything substantive in terms of mitigation efforts for the period 2013-2020. Yet it will ultimately only be such a multilateral approach that can eventually tackle the problem of global emissions – not necessarily to dictate to the world how to do it, but to at least set the direction and timetable for what will ultimately be a bottom up approach. No one country, region or industrial sector can solve this unilaterally. Even if the big three, China, the USA and the major EU economies acted alone (with China reaching a plateau in the short term and then reducing by 50% by 2050 and the US and EU reducing by 80% by 2050), global emissions would plateau at best (see chart below) assuming that the rest of the world emissions grew by no more than 1.5% per annum over the next 40 years (in fact they have been growing at well over 2% p.a. over recent decades). So this issue needs a response from all nations.

As the agreement at COP 17 in Durban “to try once again” gains momentum and turns into a full negotiation process it will be important to lay down foundations that might actually deliver a workable outcome. This is a subject that I hope to revisit in a number of posting between now and the end of the year.

Encouraging CCS in Europe

In a recent post I discussed the problems that the EU flagship programme to demonstrate CCS (carbon capture and storage) is having. With an allowance surplus building up in the ETS and a resulting low carbon price, the urgent need for commercial deployment of CCS has diminished. Furthermore, with natural gas availability growing and renewable energy becoming a sizable factor in the EU electricity mix, it may be well into the 2020s before large scale deployment of CCS is actually needed.

These developments might instill a false sense of security, in that we imagine there is no need to do anything now with regards large scale CCS commercialization. While it is clear that there is no immediate need for rapid rollout, every low carbon energy scenario still shows CCS as an essential component of energy delivery. In a posting late last year, I argued that global emissions are unlikely to be reduced at all without CCS.

Even with widespread deployment starting as late as 2030, action in this decade is still important. Early demonstration and commercialization of new technologies can be a long process. Take for example Shell’s own experience with Gas to Liquids technology. A very large scale plant is now operating successfully in Qatar, but the advanced catalysts used in the process started development in the 1980s and the small commercial scale demonstration plant in Malaysia was an early 1990s development. A final investment decision for the first full commercial deployment was made in 2006 and even then construction and startup took five years. A 10-20 year timeline for first commercial deployment is not unusual, which is one of the reasons why it takes 25+ years for new energy technologies to become globally material (>1% of the energy mix). I discussed this in a post back in late 2009.

All this still points to the need for some CCS activity in Europe this decade and for project development to proceed next decade for startup around 2030 (at the very latest). It may also be the case that a need for deeper cuts in emissions brings CCS forward.

The question of how to promote CCS activity today, in the midst of difficult economic times and carbon markets that are clearly not calling for it, is discussed in a new report issued today by the European Technology Platform for Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plants (ZEP).The ZEP report, Creating a Secure Environment for Investment in Europe, looks comprehensively at short (through to 2020), medium (the 2020s) and long term (post 2030) measures. In the short term the focus must be on recalibrating the ETS, but the report also calls for a number of the measures similar (but not necessarily identical) to those being implemented in the UK as part of the Electricity Market Reform. CCS Feed-In Tariffs, CCS Purchase Contracts and CCS Capacity Payments are all discussed. These measures could also continue in some form into the 2020s, but securing early clarity on 2030 and 2040 EU carbon targets is seen as the key priority for the medium term. For the longer term, the 2050 emissions target is the key driver, but the introduction of an auction reserve price for ETS allowances post 2030 would provide investment certainty for large scale project decisions made in the 2020s. Such investments would be exposed to the prevailing carbon price in the 2030s and beyond.

The EU has put considerable effort into stimulating CCS, but the goal of early demonstration has proved to be intractable. The ZEP report provides some further thinking on the issue and because of the ZEP constituency, is backed by industry, academia and NGOs.