Archive for the ‘Low carbon economy’ Category

A recent story in The Guardian expressed some optimism that “humans will rise to the challenge of climate change”. Ten reasons were given to be hopeful, but not one of them mentioned the climate basics such as a carbon price or carbon capture and storage. Rather, the offerings were largely tangential to the reality of rising CO2 emissions, with the hope that because European homes are using less energy and solar prices are dropping, then ipso facto, atmospheric CO2 levels would somehow stabilize (i.e. annual CO2 emissions falling to zero).  Without wanting to be pessimistic, but rather realistic, it may not be the case that emissions just fall and here are ten reasons why not. For those who visit this blog more regularly, sorry for the repetition, but hopefully this is a useful summary anyway.

1. There is still no carbon price

Although discussions about carbon pricing are widespread and there are large systems in place in the EU and California, pervasive robust pricing will take decades to implement if the current pace is maintained. Yet carbon pricing is pivotal to resolving the issue, as discussed here. The recent Carbon Pricing Statement from the World Bank also makes this point and calls on governments, amongst others, to work towards the goal of a global approach.

2. Legacy infrastructure almost gets us there

The legacy energy system that currently powers the world is built and will more than likely continue to run, with some parts for decades. This includes everything from domestic appliances to cars to huge chemical plants, coal mines and power stations. I have added up what I think is the minimum realistic impact of this legacy and it takes us to something over 800 billion tonnes carbon emitted to the atmosphere, from the current level of about 580 billion tonnes since 1750. Remember that 2°C is roughly equivalent to one trillion tonnes of carbon.

3. Efficiency drives growth and energy use, not the reverse

The proposition that energy efficiency reduces emissions seems to ignore the cumulative nature of carbon emissions and is apparently based on the notion that energy efficiency is somehow separate to growth and economic activity. What is wrong with this is that the counterfactual, i.e. that the economy would have used more energy but grown by the same amount, probably doesn’t exist. Rather, had efficiency measures not been taken then growth would have been lower and energy consumption would have been less as a result. Because efficiency drives economic growth, you have to account for Jevons Paradox (rebound). After all, economies have been getting more efficient since the start of the industrial revolution and emissions have only risen. Why would we now think that being even more efficient would somehow throw this engine into reverse?

4. We still need a global industrial system

In a modern city such as London, surrounded by towns and idyllic countryside with hardly a factory in sight, it’s easy to forget that an industrial behemoth lurks around the corner producing everything we buy, eat, use and trade. This behemoth runs on fossil fuels, both for the energy it needs and the feedstock it requires.

5. Solar optimism

There’s little doubt that solar PV is here to stay, will be very big and will probably be cheap, even with the necessary storage or backup priced in. But it’s going to take a while, perhaps most of this century for that to happen. During that time a great deal of energy will be needed for the global economy and it will come from fossil fuels. We will need to deal with the emissions from this.

6. Developing countries need coal to industrialize

I talked about this in a very recent post – developing countries are likely to employ coal to industrialize, which then locks the economy into this fuel. One way to avoid this is to see much wider use of instruments such as the Clean Development Mechanism, but at prices that make some sense. This then comes back to point 1 above.

7. We focus on what we can do, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best thing to do

Methane emissions are currently attracting a great deal of attention. But cutting methane today and not making similar reductions in CO2 as well means we could still end up at the same level of peak warming later this century. It’s important to cut methane emissions, but not as a proxy for acting on CO2.

8. It’s about cumulative carbon, not emissions in 2050

Much of the misconception about how to solve the climate issue stems from a lack of knowledge about the issue itself. CO2 emissions are talked about on a local basis as we might talk about city air pollution or sulphur emissions from a power plant. These are flow problems in that the issue is solved by reducing the local flow of the pollutant. By contrast, the release of carbon to the atmosphere is a stock problem and the eventual stock in the atmosphere is linked more to the economics of resource extraction rather than it is to local actions in cities and homes. Thinking about the problem from the stock perspective changes the nature of the solution and the approach. One technology in particular becomes pivotal to the issue, carbon capture and storage (CCS).

9. Don’t mention CCS, we’re talking about climate change

Following on from the point above, it’s proving difficult for CCS to gain traction and acceptance. This is not helped by the UN process itself, where CCS doesn’t get much air time. One example was the Abu Dhabi Ascent, a pre-meeting for the upcoming UN Climate Summit. CCS wasn’t even on the agenda.

10. We just aren’t trying hard enough

A new report out from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change argues that the expected global agreement on climate change coming from the Paris COP21 in 2015 is unlikely to deliver anything close to a 2°C solution. At best, they see the “contributions” process that is now underway as usefully bending the global trajectory.

The analysis shows that an agreement likely achievable at COP-21 will succeed in a useful bending the curve of global emissions. The likely agreement will not, however, produce global emissions within the window of paths to 2050 that are consistent with frequently proposed climate goals, raising questions about follow-up steps in the development of a climate regime.

Perhaps of even greater concern is the potential that the UNFCCC process has for creating lock-in to a less than adequate policy regime. They note:

Nevertheless, if an agreement is reached in 2015, going into effect by 2020, the earliest review of performance along the way might not be before 2025. In this case, an effort to formulate the next agreement under the Climate Convention, or a tightening of COP-21 agreements, would not start until 2025 or after, with new targets set for a decade or more after that. If this expectation is correct, then global emissions as far out as 2045 or 2050 will be heavily influenced by achievements in the negotiations over the next 18 months.

 

 

While all fossil fuels are contributing to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, coal stands apart as really problematic, not just because of its CO2 emissions today (see chart, global emissions in millions of tonnes CO2 vs. time), but because of the vast reserves waiting to be used and the tendency for an emerging economy to lock its energy system into it.

Global energy emissions

Global emissions, million tonnes CO2 from 1971 to 2010

I recently came across data relating to the potential coal resource base in just one country, Botswana, which is estimated at some 200 billion tonnes. Current recoverable reserves are of course a fraction of this amount, but just for some perspective, 200 billion tonnes of coal once used would add well over 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and therefore shift the cumulative total from the current 580 billion tonnes carbon to nearly 700 billion tonnes carbon; and that is just from Botswana. Fortunately Botswana has quite a small population and a relatively high GDP per capita so it is unlikely to use vast amounts of this coal for itself, but its emerging neighbours, countries like Zimbabwe, may certainly benefit. This much coal would also take a very long time to extract – even on a global basis it represents over 25 years of use at current levels of production.

This raises the question of whether a country can develop without an accessible resource base of some description, but particularly an energy resource base. A few have done so, notably Japan and perhaps the Netherlands, but many economies have developed by themselves on the back of coal or developed when others arrived and extracted more difficult resources for them, notably oil, gas and minerals. The coal examples are numerous, but start with the likes of Germany, Great Britain, the United States and Australia and include more recent examples such as China, South Africa and India. Of course strong governance and institutional capacity are also required to ensure widespread societal benefit as the resource is extracted.

Coal is a relatively easy resource to tap into and make use of. It requires little technology to get going but offers a great deal, such as electricity, railways (in the early days), heating, industry and very importantly, smelting (e.g. steel making). In the case of Great Britain and the United States coal provided the impetus for the Industrial Revolution. In the case of the latter, very easy to access oil soon followed and mobility flourished, which added enormously to the development of the continent.

But the legacy that this leaves, apart from a wealthy society, is a lock-in of the resource on which the society was built. So much infrastructure is constructed on the back of the resource that it becomes almost impossible to replace or do without, particularly if the resource is still providing value.

As developing economies emerge they too look at resources such as coal. Although natural gas is cleaner and may offer many environmental benefits over coal (including lower CO2 emissions), it requires a much higher level of infrastructure and technology to access and use, so it may not be a natural starting point. It often comes later, but in many instances it has been as well as the coal rather than instead of it. Even in the USA, the recent natural gas boom has not displaced its energy equivalent in coal extraction, rather some of the coal has shifted to the export market.

Enter the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The idea here was to jump the coal era and move directly to cleaner fuels or renewable energy by providing the value that the coal would have delivered as a subsidy for more advanced infrastructure. But it hasn’t quite worked that way. With limited buyers of CERs (Certified Emission Reduction units) and therefore limited provision of the necessary subsidy, the focus shifted to smaller scale projects such as rural electricity provision. These are laudable projects, but this doesn’t represent the necessary investment in large scale industrial infrastructure that the country actually needs to develop. Rooftop solar PV won’t build roads, bridges and hospitals or run steel mills and cement plants. So the economy turns to coal anyway.

This is one of the puzzles that will need to be solved for a Paris 2015 agreement to actually start to make a difference. If we can rescue a mechanism such as the CDM and have it feature in a future international agreement, it’s focus, or at least a major part of it, has to shift from small scale development projects to large scale industrial and power generation projects, but still with an emphasis on least developed economies where coal lock-in has yet to occur or is just starting.

There is a well-known saying that “Politics makes strange bedfellows”. In recent weeks, carbon pricing has seen its share of media exposure and strange bedfellows, although this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that it is all about politics anyway. The good news is that this much maligned and misunderstood subject is finally getting some solid airtime, albeit from some interesting supporters.

The re-emergence of this subject has been building for some time now, but perhaps was highlighted by the June 21st op-ed by Hank Paulson in the New York Times. Paulson served as Secretary of the Treasury during the recent Bush administration, following many years at the helm of Goldman Sachs. Although his article was in part directed at the launch of the recent Risky Business report, Paulson used the opportunity to reach out to the Republican side of the political spectrum in the US and argue that a carbon price (a tax in this case) was “fundamentally conservative” and “will reduce the role of government” rather than the opposite which many opponents argue. At least in my view, he is right. Intervening in the energy mix, forcing certain technology solutions, requiring a given percentage from a particular energy source and so on are all big government steps towards addressing emissions. A carbon price is clean and simple and can get the job done.

On the opposite page of the New York Times was the reality check from Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. While Krugman made it clear that Paulson had taken a “brave stand” and that “every economist I know would start cheering wildly if Congress voted in a clean, across-the-board carbon tax”, the sobering reality from Krugman is “we won’t actually do it”. Rather, he imagines a set of secondary measures, the “theory of the second best” as he calls it, including vehicle efficiency standards, clean energy loan guarantees and various other policy measures. My view is that while all of these are important parts of a coherent energy policy, they are approaching third best when it comes to CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, another strong advocate of carbon pricing has emerged, namely the World Bank. They have never been silent on the issue and indeed have pioneered policy approaches such as the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, but this time they have gone much further and are being considerably louder and bolder. The World Bank have produced a statement, “Putting a Price on Carbon” and have called on governments, companies and other stakeholders (e.g. industry associations) to sign up to it. The statement calls for:

. . . the long-term objective of a carbon price applied throughout the global economy by:

  • strengthening carbon pricing policies to redirect investment commensurate with the scale of the climate challenge;
  • bringing forward and strengthening the implementation of existing carbon pricing policies to better manage investment risks and opportunities;
  • enhancing cooperation to share information, expertise and lessons learned on developing and implementing carbon pricing through various “readiness” platforms.

This is all good stuff, but of course now it needs real support. A further look at the World Bank website illustrates the growing patchwork of activity around carbon pricing. It’s quite heartening.

cq5dam_resized_735x490!

To finish where I started, the strange bedfellows, perhaps nothing could be closer to this than seeing Australian mining magnate and now Member of Parliament, Clive Palmer, on the same stage as climate crusader Al Gore. Only weeks before Mr Gore had made the very clear statement that “We must put a price on carbon in markets and a price on denial in politics”, but nevertheless stood with Palmer as he announced that he would support the Government’s decision to repeal the Carbon Pricing Mechanism (there isn’t a colour for repeal on the World Bank map). I don’t think Mr Gore was particularly happy about that bit, but hopefully was there for the follow-on, where Palmer announced that his party would require a latent ETS to be established in Australia for use once Australia’s main trading partners were also pricing carbon. Given PUP’s (Palmer United Party) hold on the balance of power in the Australian Senate, this might at least mean that Australia will stay in the ETS club and emerge again as a player in the years to come. However, considering the fact that New Zealand, the EU, parts of China, Pacific North America (i.e. California, British Colombia), Japan and (soon) South Africa all have some sort of carbon price, latency may indeed be short lived.

In the lead up to the UN Climate Summit in September this year, the Abu Dhabi Ascent was held on May 4-5th as the only preparatory event. Former Vice President Al Gore was one of the keynote speakers and perhaps got the most tweeted line, which came in response to a question from the moderator regarding the single policy he would ask for if he had only one choice. He said, “. . . . put a price on carbon in markets and put a price on denial in politics”. In fact this is two things, but I wouldn’t expect anything less of Al Gore.

This comment set the scene for Rachel Kyte of the World Bank to launch their call for countries and companies to put a price on carbon. This isn’t the first time such a call has been made, but it is perhaps the first time such a call has been made directly to governments at a forum designed for governments by a multilateral agency linked with governments.

The call is a relatively simple one at this stage and fills a glaring gap in the UNFCCC agenda as it has been developing over recent years. Arguably the UNFCCC started the multilateral process back in the 1990s with a carbon pricing approach, in that the Kyoto Protocol is in part built around the idea of allowances, offsets and trading which in turn implies a price on carbon. Over time as the Kyoto Protocol has waned, talk of carbon pricing at the international level has gone in a similar direction. By the end of the Warsaw COP last year, all talk of markets and carbon pricing had been largely put to one side in favour of the efforts just to get everybody around the table and talking about contributions.

“Contributions” may be the political language of the day, but they will do little to stem emissions if carbon pricing isn’t core to the national effort underpinning said contributions. Some countries seem to have figured this out, but the actual price on carbon that currently prevails in those economies that have tried to create it is a far cry from anything that might actually make a difference. While the efforts to date may be a good start from the perspective of building the necessary national institutional capacity for carbon pricing, there is little evidence that governments, business and consumers are actually prepared to accept a carbon price that will deliver a tangible change in energy investment.

I would suggest that this  is where The World Bank most needs to focus its attention. If not, I believe that we may end up with a complex system of carbon markets, linkages, trade and compliance all operating at under $10, which will look impressive on paper but in reality won’t make a difference to global emissions. The acid test for a carbon pricing system is its ability to deliver carbon capture and storage (probably with some additional fiscal support for the first generation of projects). At least for the next few decades, carbon pricing below this point may put a dent in the profitability of fossil fuels, but it won’t make them go away. This will inevitably lead to one thing – regulation. That might sound like the answer for some, but the reality will be a much higher cost for economies to bear for the same mitigation effort.

World bank Carbon pricing Cliff

The last of the three IPCC 5th Assessment Reports has now been published, but with a final Synthesis Report to come towards the end of the year. The “Mitigation of Climate Change” details the various emission pathways that are open to us, the technologies required to move along them and most importantly, some feeling for the relative costs of doing so.

As had been the case with the Science and Impacts reports, a flurry of media reporting followed the release, but with little sustained discussion. Hyperbole and histrionics also filled the airwaves. For example, the Guardian newspaper reported:

The cheapest and least risky route to dealing with global warming is to abandon all dirty fossil fuels in coming decades, the report found. Gas – including that from the global fracking boom – could be important during the transition, but only if it replaced coal burning.

This is representative of the general tone of the reporting, with numerous outlets taking a similar line. The BBC stated under the heading “World must end ‘dirty’ fuel use – UN”:

A long-awaited UN report on how to curb climate change says the world must rapidly move away from carbon-intensive fuels. There must be a “massive shift” to renewable energy, says the study released in Berlin.

While it is a given that emissions must fall and for resolution of the climate issue at some level, anthropogenic emissions should be returned to the near net zero state that has prevailed for all of human history barring the last 300 or so years, nowhere in the Summary Report do words such as “abandon” and “dirty” actually appear. Rather, a carefully constructed economic and risk based argument is presented and it isn’t even until page 18 of 33 that the tradeoff between various technologies is actually explored. Up until that point there is quite a deep discussion on pathways, emission levels, scenarios and temperature ranges.

Then comes the economic crux of the report on page 18 in Table SPM.2. For scenarios ranging from 450ppm CO2eq up to 650 ppm CO2eq, consumption losses and mitigation costs are given through to 2100, with variations in the availability of technologies and the timing (i.e. delay) of mitigation actions. The centre section of this table is given below;

 IPCC WGIII Table SPM2

Particularly for the lower concentration scenario (430-480 ppm) the table highlights the importance of carbon capture and storage. For the “No CCS” mitigation pathway, i.e. a pathway in which CCS isn’t available as a mitigation option, the costs are significantly higher than the base case which has a full range of technologies available. This is still true for higher end concentrations, but not to the same extent. This underpins the argument that the energy system will take decades to see significant change and that therefore, in the interim at least, CCS becomes a key technology for delivering something that approaches the 2°C goal. For the higher concentration outcomes, immediate mitigation action is not so pressing and therefore the energy system has more time to evolve to much lower emissions without CCS – but of course with the consequence of elevated global temperatures. A similar story is seen in the Shell New Lens Scenarios.

Subtleties such as this were lost in the short media frenzy following the publication of the report and only appear later as people actually sit down and read the document. By then it is difficult for these stories to surface and the initial sound bites make their way into the long list of urban myths we must then deal with on the issue of climate change.

In my previous post I responded to an article by environmentalist Paul Gilding where he argued that the rate of solar PV deployment meant it was now time to call “Game over” for the coal, oil and gas industries. There is no doubt that solar PV uptake is faster than most commentators imagined (but not Shell in our Oceans scenario) and it is clear that this is starting to change the landscape for the utility sector, but talk of “death spirals” may, in the words of Mark Twain, be an exaggeration.

In that same article, Gilding also talks about local battery storage via electric cars and the drive to distributed systems rather than centralized ones. He clearly envisages a world of micro-grids, rooftop solar PV, domestic electricity storage and the disappearance of the current utility business model. But there is much more to the energy world than what we see in central London or Paris today, or for that matter in rural Tasmania where Paul Gilding lives. It all starts with unappealing, somewhat messy but nevertheless essential processes such as sulphuric acid, ammonia, caustic soda and chlorine manufacture (to name but a few). Added together, about half a billion tonnes of these four products are produced annually. These are energy intensive production processes operating on an industrial scale, but largely hidden away from daily life. They are in or play a role in the manufacture of almost everything we use, buy, wear, eat and do. These core base chemicals also rely on various feedstocks. Sulphuric acid, for example, is made from the sulphur found in oil and gas and removed during the various refining and treatment processes. Although there are other viable sources of sulphur they have long been abandoned for economic reasons.

dow-chemical-plant-promo

The ubiquitous mobile phone (which everything now seems to get compared to when we talk about deployment) and the much talked about solar PV cell are just the tip of a vast energy consuming industrial system, built on base chemicals such as chlorine, but also making products with steel, aluminium, nickel, chromium, glass and plastics (to name but a few). The production of these materials alone exceeds 2 billion tonnes annually. All of this is of course made in facilities with concrete foundations, using some of the 3.4 billion tonnes of cement produced annually. The global industry for plastics is rooted in the oil and gas industry as well, with the big six plastics (see below) all starting their lives in refineries that do things like converting naphtha from crude oil to ethylene.

The big six plastics:

  • polyethylene – including low density (PE-LD), linear low density (PE-LLD) and high density (PE-HD)
  • polypropylene (PP)
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • polystyrene solid (PS), expandable (PS-E)
  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • polyurethane (PUR)

All of these processes are also energy intensive, requiring utility scale generation, high temperature furnaces, large quantities of high pressure steam and so on. The raw materials for much of this comes from remote mines, another facet of modern life we no longer see. These in turn are powered by utility scale facilities, huge draglines for digging and vast trains for moving the extracted ores. An iron ore train in Australia might be made up of 336 cars, moving 44,500 tonnes of iron ore, is over 3 km long and utilizes six to eight locomotives including intermediate remote units. These locomotives often run on diesel fuel, although many in the world run on electric systems at high voltage, e.g. the 25 kV AC iron ore train from Russia to Finland.

The above is just the beginning of the industrial world we live in, built on a utility scale and powered by utilities burning gas and coal. These bring economies of scale to everything we do and use, whether we like it or not. Not even mentioned above is the agricultural world which feeds 7 billion people. The industrial heartland will doubtless change over the coming century, although the trend since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been for bigger more concentrated pockets of production, with little sign of a more distributed model. The advent of technologies such as 3D Printing may change the end use production step, but even the material that gets poured into the tanks feeding that 3D machine probably relied on sulphuric acid somewhere in its production chain.

The US Submission on Elements of the 2015 Agreement has recently appeared on the UNFCCC website and outlines, in some detail, the approach the US is now seeking with regards “contributions”. Adaptation and Finance are also covered, although not to the depth of the section on Mitigation.

The submission makes it very clear that the US expects robust contributions from Parties, with schedules, transparency, reporting and review. There is also a useful discussion on the legal nature of a contribution. None of this is surprising as the US delegation to the recent COPs and various inter-sessional meetings has made it very clear that real action must be seen from all parties, not just those in developed countries.

But the submission makes no reference to the role of carbon markets or carbon pricing. Only in two locations does it even refer to market mechanisms and this is only in the context of avoiding double counting. This is coming from the Party that gave the world the carbon market underpinning of the Kyoto Protocol, which in turn has given rise to the CDM, the EU ETS, the CPM (in Australia) and the NZ ETS to name but a few, so perhaps reflects the current difficulty Parties are having keeping carbon price thinking on the negotiating agenda. 

I would argue that without a price on carbon emissions, the CO2 emissions issue will be much more difficult to fully resolve. Further to this, while individual countries may pursue such an agenda locally, the emissions leakage from such systems could remain high until the carbon price permeates much of the global energy system. This then argues for an international agreement that encourages the implementation of carbon pricing at a national level. The Kyoto Protocol did this through the Assigned Amount Unit, which gave value to carbon emissions as a property right. While there is no such “Kyoto like” design under consideration for the post 2020 period, the agreement we are looking for should at least lay the foundations for such markets in the future. The question is, how??

In the post 2020 world, carbon pricing is going to have to start at the national level, rather than be cascaded from the top down. Many nations are pursuing such an agenda, including a number of emerging economies such as China, South Korea, South Africa and Kazakhstan. Linkage of these carbon price regimes is seen as the key to expansion, which in turn encourages others to follow similar policy pathways and join the linked club. The reason this is done is not simply to have carbon price homogeneity, but to allow the transfer of emission reduction obligations to other parties such that they can be delivered more cost effectively. This allows one of two things to happen; the same reductions but at lower cost or greater reductions for the expected cost. The latter should ideally be the goal and is apparently the aspiration the USA has, given it states that the agreement should be “designed to promote ambitious efforts by a broad range of Parties.” The carbon price is simply a proxy for this process to allow terms of trade to be agreed as a reduction obligation is transferred.

All of this implies that the post 2020 agreement at least needs a placeholder of some description; to allow the transfer of reductions to take place between parties yet still have them counted against the national contribution. As it stands today, it is looking unlikely that explicit reference to carbon pricing or carbon markets will make its way into the agreement, but perhaps it doesn’t need to at this stage. On the back of a transfer mechanism, ambition could increase and a pricing regime for transfers could potentially evolve. If that happens to look like a global carbon market in the end, then so be it.

A flawed prediction?

One of the comments I quite often get at external events is that “The oil and gas industry has only got 20 years”. This doesn’t just come from enthusiastic climate campaigners, but from thoughtful, very well educated people in a number of disciplines related to the climate issue. A report by WWF a few years back took a similar but slightly less aggressive line, through the publication of an energy model forecast which showed that the world could be effectively fossil energy free as early as 2050.

It’s hard for anyone who has worked in this industry to imagine scenarios which see it vanish in a couple of decades, not because of the vested interest that we certainly have, but because of the vast scale, complexity and financial base of the industry itself. It has been built up over a period of 120+ years at a cost in the trillions (in today’s dollars), provides over 80% of primary energy globally, with that demand nearly doubling since 1980 and market share hardly budging. Demand may well double again by the second half of the century.

So why do people think that all this can be replaced in a relatively short space of time? A recent media story provides some insight.

As if often the case with the turn of the year, media outlets like to publish predictions. Once such set that appeared on CNN were by futurist Ray Kurzweil. He is described by CNN as:

. . . . one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers, and futurists, with a 30-year track record of accurate predictions. Called “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes magazine, Kurzweil was selected as one of the top entrepreneurs by Inc. magazine, which described him as the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” Ray has written five national best-selling books. He is Director of Engineering at Google.

Kurzweil claims that:

By 2030 solar energy will have the capacity to meet all of our energy needs. If we could capture one part in ten thousand of the sunlight that falls on the Earth we could meet 100% of our energy needs, using this renewable and environmentally friendly source. As we apply new molecular scale technologies to solar panels, the cost per watt is coming down rapidly. Already Deutsche Bank, in a recent report, wrote “The cost of unsubsidized solar power is about the same as the cost of electricity from the grid in India and Italy. By 2014 even more countries will achieve solar ‘grid parity.’” The total number of watts of electricity produced by solar energy is growing exponentially, doubling every two years. It is now less than seven doublings from 100%.

That gives us just 14 years! But maybe not.

Kurzweil has compared the growth of the energy system to the way in which biological systems can grow. With huge amounts of food available, a biological system can continue to double in size on a regular time interval, but the end result is that it will either exhaust the food supply or completely consume its host (also exhausting the food supply), with both outcomes leading to collapse. Economic systems sometimes do this as well, but collapse is almost certain and there have been some spectacular examples over the last few centuries.

The more controlled pathway is one that may well see a burst of growth to establish a presence, followed by a much more regulated expansion limited by resources, finance, intervention, competition and a variety of other real world pressures. This is how energy systems tend to behave – they don’t continue to grow exponentially. Historically there are many examples of rapid early expansion, at least to the point of materiality (typically ~1% of global primary energy), followed by a long period of growth to some level which represents the economic potential of the energy source. Even the first rapid phase takes a generation, with the longer growth phase stretching out over decades.

Energy Deployment Laws

The chart above was developed by energy modelers in the Shell Scenario team, with their findings published in Nature back in 2009. The application of this type of rule gives a more realistic picture of how solar energy might grow, still very quickly, but not to meet 100% of global energy demand in just 14 years. The “Oceans” scenario, published last year as part of the Shell New Lens Scenarios, shows solar potentially dominating the global energy system by 2100, but at ~40% of primary energy (see below), not 100%. A second reality is that a single homogeneous system with everybody using the same technology for everything is unlikely – at least within this century. The existing legacy is just too big, with many parts of it having a good 50+ years of life ahead and more being built every day.

Solar in Oceans-2

As the EU Commission gears up to release its 2030 Energy and Climate White Paper in Davos week, there is considerable discussion regarding the emissions reduction target that will be recommended. Historically the EU has been keen on multiple targets, but in recent years this has backfired, with conflicting goals and multiple policy instruments leading to a weak carbon market and a lack of investment in one critical climate technology in particular, carbon capture and storage (CCS).

For the period 2020-2030, it is hoped that the EU will retreat on the number of targets and focus instead on a single greenhouse gas target that then becomes the main driver of change in the energy system. Such an approach could help restore the EU ETS and ultimately deliver the key carbon emissions goal at a lower overall cost, therefore also helping restore some EU positioning in terms of international competitiveness.

Most commentators are expecting the GHG target to be in the range of 35 to 40% from a 1990 baseline (vs. 20% for 2020), but there is very little discussion on how that target might be structured. There are two basic approaches;

  1.  Emissions must meet a particular goal in a given year.
  2. Cumulative emissions over a period of time must be below the baseline year on an average basis.

While a single statement such as “Emissions in 2020 must be 20% below 1990” is often used to cover both these cases, the goals are very different. This is a critical consideration as the EU sets out its position for 2030, but perhaps more importantly as future goals are tabled for the UNFCCC in Q1 2015.

The UNFCCC has, to date, monitored and reported on national objectives through the Kyoto Protocol, which is based on the second approach given above, i.e., cumulative emissions. In the Doha Amendment to the Kyoto Protocol, the EU commitment for the period 2013-2020 is a reduction of 20% below 1990. This is because the Kyoto Protocol is based on allowances (Assigned Amount Units or AAUs) and that these must be surrendered for each tonne emitted over the period. This is also how the atmosphere sees CO2 emissions – cumulatively. Every tonne matters as CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere over time. It doesn’t matter at all what the emissions are in a given year, only that the cumulative amount over time is kept below a certain amount. The EU ETS works in the same way – every tonne counts.

However, as if to confuse, the Doha Amendment also gives the EU Copenhagen pledge of a 20% (or 30% under certain conditions) reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 as a percentage of the reference year, 1990. In the particular case of the EU, due to the expectation of relatively flat emissions over the period 2013 to 2020, these two goals are very similar, such that the difference issue hasn’t really seen the light of day. Further to this, the Kyoto Protocol allows for carryover of AAUs from 2008-2012 into the 2013-2020 period, so the difference is further dampened. But when it comes to 2030, big differences could show up (see chart below).

 Eu Emissions Goal 2030

 In the case of a 35% target (for example), the brown line shows a pathway to this as a fixed goal in 2030, but equally any pathway would be okay as long as the emissions are 35% below 1990 levels in 2030. But on a cumulative emissions basis, assuming a linear reduction, this is only a 28% reduction for the period 2021 to 2030.

The green line equates to a 35% cumulative emissions reduction for the same period, but in the year 2030 a reduction of about 47% is actually needed to achieve this, a much more ambitious requirement then a simple 2030 goal.

Exactly what the EU says on January 22nd remains to be seen, with considerations such as the high level number itself and domestic vs. international action being the main discussion points. But the big difference might just lie in the eventual wording (“by 2030” or “through to 2030”) and the need to table commitments with the UNFCCC at some point, particularly if the latter still works on a cumulative basis after a global agreement is reached.

The other end of the spectrum

With Warsaw now a fading memory and the meager outcome still cause for concern that there really isn’t enough substance to build a robust global agreement upon, I signed up for The Radical Emission Reduction Conference at the Royal Society. This was held in London and put on by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Given the academic reputation of the Tyndall Centre and of course the credentials of the Royal Society, I was hoping for a useful discussion on rapid deployment of technologies such as CCS, how the world might breathe new life into nuclear and other such topics, but this was far from the content of the sessions that I was able to attend.

Rather, this was a room of catastrophists (as in “catastrophic global warming”), with the prevailing view, at least to my ears, that the issue could only be addressed by the complete transformation of the global energy and political systems, with the latter moving to one of state control and regulated consumerism. There would be no room for “ruthless individualism” in such a world.  The posters that dotted the lecture theatre lobby area covered topics as diverse as vegan diets to an eventual return to low technology hunter-gatherer societies (but thankfully there was one CCS poster in the middle of all this).

Much to my surprise I was not really at an emission reduction conference (despite the label saying I was), but a political ideology conference. Although I have been involved in the climate change issue for over a decade, I had not heard this set of views on the issue voiced so consistently in one place. This was a room where there was a round of applause when one audience member asked how LNG and coal exporters in Australia might be “annihilated” following their (supposed) support for the repeal of the carbon tax in that country. A few of the key points coming from both the speakers and audience in the sessions I was able to stay for were;

  • The human impact of development is a function of three variables; population, technology and affluence (another version of the Kaya Identity), which therefore argued for affluence to be reduced, given that population couldn’t be and technology was in a progression of its own.
  • The recent World Trade Agreement in Bali was anti-climate in that the removal of further trade barriers would simply offer more opportunity for consumerism and therefore more emissions. This was cited as a “neo-liberal elitist trade agenda”.
  • The current energy system is “a lousy way of powering our economy”.
  • A climate movement is rapidly evolving and could be likened to the global anti-apartheid movement that developed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. This includes the current fossil fuel divestment advocates.
  • Markets would not and could not deliver the necessary changes to the current energy system, even with the introduction of carbon pricing.
  • Small and renewable is good. Even large scale renewable projects run by major utilities are seemingly unacceptable – local community generated renewable electricity is the only answer.

Another feature of the discussion was the view that like apartheid or the Berlin Wall, the change from the current state of the energy system to a zero emissions one (there is no 40% or 50% or even 80% reduction talk here) can happen overnight and be triggered in a similar way, i.e. a popular but peaceful uprising, hence the talk of a rapidly evolving “climate movement”.

The above is a flavour of the sentiment and there was plenty more, all articulated with great passion and deep concern. This is all very well and of course this group have every right to express their view, but for me the event highlighted one of the real problems associated with climate change; that it is an issue with a chasm between the two ends of the spectrum and the rest of us are left in the middle watching the exchange. Problematically, the chasm is a deeply rooted political one which questions the very role of government and the economic structure of society. Could anything be more difficult to arbitrate? Thinking back to Warsaw and although the UNFCCC is a more contained (and constrained) stage, elements of this divide play out there as well, which perhaps speaks to why there has been such limited progress.

None of this need be the case, which is probably why I felt a level of discomfort in the conference and why the UNFCCC process feels frustrating. Carbon pricing can make the difference, but we need to see it evolve and mature without the systematic attack it has endured to date (from all sides). Technology does have a key role to play, but it will take time for deployment on the scale necessary and both ends of that spectrum are essential – CCS on one side and zero carbon fossil fuel alternatives on the other. Finance is important, but big energy projects have attracted capital for decades so we shouldn’t position a required change in this as the critical enabler for success. Finally, patience is a virtue, like it or not this is now a project for the whole of the 21st century.