Archive for January, 2013

The real price of CO2 in the EU

The EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) is facing tough times. Last week saw the price fall to below €3 after the European Parliaments’ Industry & Energy (ITRE) Committee voted against the Commission proposal to amend the ETS Directive to allow for backloading of ETS allowances (a compromise mechanism which will shift the auction profile in Phase III to remove allowances in the short term). At such a price level the system isn’t really functioning, rather it is little more than a short term compliance accounting system for reporting on CO2 emissions.

In effect, this means that the EU doesn’t currently have an explicit carbon price to drive change in energy and infrastructure investment, despite 10 years of policy in place designed with that single goal in mind. The very low price level also implies that there is no expectation for a real carbon price ever developing. In theory these allowances could be bought and banked through to Phase IV. Assuming a cost of capital of 5% (and of course availability of capital to do so), a €3 allowance would only need to fetch €7 in 2030 to cover this, which would be well below the price of a market which is presumably driving investment in carbon capture and storage, surely a technology being seriously considered by then. So what is the thinking that might lead to an ~80% discount in market value? Three possible scenarios could lead to such an outlook;

  1. The ETS has been stopped and the market doesn’t exist in the 2020s. In this case Phase IV would never be agreed and although there is formally no sunset clause in the system, it would effectively cease if no allowances for the 2020s were ever issued.
  2. The surplus cannot be removed by then, even with tougher targets. New crediting mechanisms continue to flood the system.
  3. Other policies will be doing the heavy lifting, leaving the ETS as a ”do nothing” policy instrument. The dominant policies will be ongoing renewable energy targets, CCS mandates, Emissions Performance Standards etc.

All of these are plausible, but I tend to think that the third one will be the ongoing problem. It is the problem today, as shown in the abatement curve chart below (an indicative CO2 price is shown on the vertical axis and the cumulative sum of reductions is shown on the horizontal access). The Renewable Energy Directive has brought projects forward which probably would not have happened until much later in the 2020s. This has had multiple effects within the EU energy system because of the presence of the ETS and its allowance based compliance. Whereas the 2020 goal might have been met through improvements in efficiency, fuel switching and the initial phase in of mature renewable energy technologies (all driven by the CO2 price), it has instead been met through a much less cost effective approach which forces the implementation of renewable energy projects first (including the less cost mature technologies), delays energy efficiency implementation and has the effect of pushing fuel switching and CCS into the 2020s and 2030s. The visible carbon price falls as a result, but the hidden carbon price operating in the economy is much higher.

 Low EU Carbon Price

 On top of this there was also the reduction in emissions as a result of the recession. This has had no real impact on the implementation of the renewable energy projects, but it further delays energy efficiency and pushes fuel switching and CCS into the 2030s and beyond. The resultant short term visible carbon price is near zero, but the same high hidden carbon price remains.

 Low EU Carbon Price - with recession 

With a near zero carbon price, no visible sign of CCS and delays in implementing energy efficiency, policy makers may then turn to further mandates, such as the case with the Energy Efficiency Directive. This, in combination with yet another round of renewable energy targets, exacerbates the situation, leading carbon market traders to take the view that their allowances will have minimal value no matter how long they wait.

Very little of this is being discussed in the context of the backloading proposal. Rather, an emotive discussion about trade exposure, the cost of carbon for energy intensive industries and the right or not of the Commission to intervene in the market is dominating the airwaves.

The real discussion needs to be around the role of mandates when an emissions trading system is in operation. As the charts above show, backloading will have very little impact if the mandate issue is not addressed as well. Nevertheless, structural reform needs to start somewhere, so let’s hope the EU Parliament Environment Committee and the Member States will take a more positive view of the importance of the ETS and therefore the backloading proposal, when they vote in February and April respectively.

An update on climate legislation

This week the organisation known as GLOBE (The Global Legislators’ Organisation supports national parliamentarians to develop and agree common legislative responses to the major challenges posed by sustainable development) met in London and launched its biannual review of national climate legislation. The GLOBE Climate Legislation Study is up to its third edition and covers the ongoing efforts in 33 countries. Of these, GLOBE claims that 18 countries have made substantial progress, 14 have made limited progress and one country has been singled out for taking a backwards step, Canada, but more on that later.

In their press release, GLOBE state that:

“The tide is beginning to turn decisively on tackling climate change, the defining material challenge of this century. In the past year alone, as described in this latest study by GLOBE International and the Grantham Research Institute, 32 out of 33 surveyed countries have introduced or are progressing significant climate-related legislation. In 2012 alone, 18 of the 33 countries made significant progress. This is a game-changing development, driven by emerging economies, but taking place across each and every continent. Most importantly it challenges how governments look at the international negotiations up to 2015 requiring much greater focus by governments to support national legislation.”

The report is a substantial piece of work and it steps through the programmes in each country in considerable detail, although the pages of tables raise the question as to what exactly is “climate legislation”. Legislation is categorised under the headings “Pricing carbon”, “Energy Demand”, “Energy Supply”, “Forests/Land Use”, “Adaptation” and so on. Of these, “Energy Demand” is largely energy efficiency measures and “Energy Supply” focuses principally on renewables (and nuclear in some countries). These two categories alone cover all but one of the countries (Nepal) surveyed, yet for the most part none of this is “climate legislation”. Rather, this is legislation that impacts the energy mix, but this does not necessarily translate into a reduction in emissions on a global basis and in many instances does not even lower national emissions. It simply augments the energy mix or lowers the energy and CO2 intensity of certain processes, which in turn can lead to greater overall use of energy and therefore increased emissions over the longer term. I have explored both these issues in previous postings, here and here.

This is not the case for the carbon pricing category, which GLOBE link to 11 of the 33 countries covered. But 4 of these are part of the EU and of the remaining countries only Australia has actually implemented the carbon price (arguably so has Japan, but the level is close to insignificant at about $1.50 per tonne). GLOBE also claim India has carbon pricing, but there is no such mechanism within the economy (there is a heavy focus on efficiency and a certificate trading system to drive it). Others include Mexico, South Africa, South Korea and China, all of which are in various stages of developing carbon pricing but none actually have.

Finally, there is the story around Canada. They are singled out as the only country to take a step backwards because of their decision to abandon the Kyoto Protocol (the same treatment is not given to Japan and Russia though) and the absence of a nationally implemented policy framework. Perversely, Canada is one country that made real and tangible advances last year, although emissions continue to rise in this resource rich economy. Quebec implemented its cap-and-trade system, carbon pricing continued in British Columbia and Alberta and the Federal Government did introduce its carbon standards for power stations, which will mean no new coal plants (without CCS) –  even the EU cannot claim such an achievement. Most importantly, Canada managed to get a large scale CCS project approved and construction started – similar attempts in the EU failed disastrously in 2012. This point is worthy of note, although GLOBE don’t mention it, given the critical role that CCS needs to play in mitigating emissions throughout this century.

The steps being taken in many countries to better manage energy supply, demand and mix are welcome, but to argue that this marks a “decisive turn” on tackling climate change and is “game changing” seems to be overly optimistic. BP released their latest Energy Outlook 2030 this week as well, which sees CO2 emissions rising sharply to 42 billion tonnes per annum by 2030, this despite non-hydro renewable energy nearly quadrupling over that time period. In total, nuclear/hydro/renewables/bio moves from 16% to 23% of the energy mix.

Finally, a P.S. to my previous post on the observation by many that “global warming has stopped”. James Hansen has just published a good analysis of this  and finds that a number of factors are contributing to the lack of change in overall global average temperature. This includes the behaviour of the El Nino/La Nina system (ENSO) and aerosol loading in the atmosphere. But he also concludes that natural variability must be playing a role. Worth a read.

Has global warming stopped?

In a report released just before Christmas, the UK Met Office lowered its decadal forecast for the expected average global temperature. The press release noted that:

 Global average temperature is expected to remain between 0.28 °C and 0.59 °C (90% confidence range) above the long-term (1971-2000) average during the period 2013-2017, with values most likely to be about 0.43 °C higher than average. The warmest year in the 160-year Met Office Hadley Centre global temperature record in 1998, with a temperature of 0.40°C above long-term average. The forecast of continued global warming is largely driven by increasing levels of greenhouse gases.

This was a noticeable change from previous forecasts and was the result of a new climate model being put into use. The upper chart shown below portrays the earlier estimate of temperature rise while the lower chart shows the new estimate. The dark blue lines show the mean, with the light blue lines indicating an upper and lower bound.

Global Annual Temperature (UK Met Office)

The revision was initially ignored in the Christmas rush, but with the festive season now over, the story has reappeared. Some media outlets interpreted this as evidence that “global warming had stopped”, given that the medium term forecast was no different to the temperature peak seen in the late 1990s. One particular columnist caused the Met Office to release a point-by-point rebuttal of his claim that the Office was “useless”.

Despite the acrimony, the revision does raise the question as to what is happening. On the one hand we are seeing an increase in the number of severe heat events globally, yet on the other there has been seemingly little change in global average temperature for much of the last decade.

The starting point must always be the fact that the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere will create a global heat imbalance, at least until a new steady state is reached (e.g. through changes in cloud cover, surface albedo etc. ). That steady state will also take many centuries to reach, given the huge inertia in the climate system. Current estimates put the size of the imbalance at about 3 W/m2 (Hansen et. al., 2009), which although small compared to the total heat arriving from the sun is significant compared to swings over the past million years that have resulted in large shifts in planetary ice cover.

The imbalance is offset to a degree by the effect of aerosols, which scatter incoming solar radiation and therefore act as coolants. There remains considerable uncertainty in the science community regarding the extent of the aerosol impact and how it might be changing over time. For example, the recent (10 years) sharp increase in coal use in China, much of which does not have sulphur emission handling, may well be adding enough sulphur (an efficient coolant) in the atmosphere to dampen the warming trend that would otherwise be seen. The charts below show the various forcings and the net effect. The large error bar illustrates the uncertainty linked with aerosols, to the extent that the red line (GHGs) and blue line (Aerosols) could cancel if at the extremes of their respective ranges.

Radiative Forcing

The proxy we use to “measure global warming” is the surface temperature record, because both a recorded history and derived history of this measurement exists and because it’s relatively easy to take the necessary measurements. In the case of the recorded history, it is typically 100-150 years, but in the UK it starts in 1659 (1772 for the daily series). But real “global warming” is far broader than this and includes ocean heating (surface and deep ocean) and land ice melting.

Take as an example land ice melting. There is good evidence that this has risen considerably in recent years, with both Greenland and Antarctica showing a combined reduction in ice mass of some 400 billion tonnes per annum. The amount of energy required to melt this much ice (to overcome the latent heat of fusion) is in the same ballpark as the energy required to raise the temperature of the atmosphere by 0.02 deg.C in a single year (a tenth of the expected decadal increase of 0.2 deg.C). A very simple (probably too simple as someone is bound to comment) analogy is a glass of iced water, which on a hot day will remain cold until the ice melts. Then the temperature starts rising rapidly – but this is not to argue that the climate system will do the same.

As the additional heat building up in the atmosphere distributes through the ocean/ice/atmosphere system it is unlikely that a uniform and unchanging temperature rise in one particular part of this system would be the result. The interaction between them and the impact of short term aerosols will likely result in volatility in the surface temperature record. This has been seen before, most recently in the post war period when temperature remained flat for about 20 years. Some have attributed this to the aerosol loading from the rapid increase in coal burning in the USA and Europe over that period, none of which had sulphur scrubbing. As sulphur emissions fell sharply with the arrival of scrubbers, so the masking effect was removed and temperatures began rising.

To simply argue that “global warming has stopped” is short sighted. The evidence to support such a claim is not there.

In a year which saw extreme weather rise up the political agenda and the consequences of a changing climate starting to sink into our collective psyche, action to actually address the issue of rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere remained limited.

With regards issue recognition and despite arguments about attribution, the Bloomberg Businessweek headline after Hurricane Sandy was a telling moment. But events such as this seem to have a short half life, so it remains to be seen how lasting this will be.

 The principal policy instrument to trigger action, a price on CO2 emissions, did gain political traction and coverage, but its impact remained mute. Several jurisdictions introduced carbon pricing and others continued developing approaches and/or starting up schemes already in the pipeline. Notably, despite industry resistance, Japan introduced a modest carbon tax (although there has been a change in government since then so watch this space) and Kazakhstan leapt ahead of the pack by introducing an emissions trading system for startup this week. The Chinese trial systems began to take shape and there is now serious discussion about national implementation in the 2016 5-year plan. As of January 1st the California ETS is up and running, as is the Quebec system. The Australian carbon price mechanism started in 2012 and importantly the Australian Government passed legislation to link their system with the EU ETS. But fierce opposition forced the EU to take a step back with regards its plans to cover international aviation under the EU ETS.

The EU did however take one major step forward during 2012, in its recognition that a carbon market created as a result of an ETS may need some government intervention from time to time to keep it on track and relevant. Although the issue is far from settled, there is at least a proposal on the table aimed at supporting the weak market in the EU. The move also establishes an important precedent for the future, not just in the EU but probably in the minds of policy makers globally.

With global carbon prices remaining low, the one critical technology for actually rescuing the emissions problem, carbon capture and storage (CCS), struggled badly. Shell did announce an important project in its oil sands in Alberta, but other than this little else happened. At the end of the year the EU managed to deliver a damaging blow to the technology by not coming up with a single project to support with its NER300 CCS funding mechanism, despite having nearly €2 billion in hand to spend. Instead, the money went to some twenty or so small renewable energy projects. It’s hard to overstate the importance of CCS, yet it seems increasingly distant in terms of commercialization and deployment.

From a climate perspective, the year concluded in Doha with two weeks of talks that did a lot to tidy up the UNFCCC process, but hardly pushed the agenda forward at all. If the “holy grail” of a global deal really is to be agreed by 2015, then something remarkable needs to happen during 2013.

Happy New Year!