Archive for the ‘Policy’ Category

As governments struggle to find practical routes forward with positive outcomes for CO2 mitigation, attention is turning to dealing with other greenhouse gases, particularly methane. A number of methane emission initiatives are now underway or being planned, for example those within the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

Methane seems like an obvious place to start. Anthropogenic emissions are about 250 million tonnes per annum. A tonne of methane emitted now has a short term (20 years) impact on atmospheric warming which is some 80 times greater than a tonne of CO2. This means that over the period of twenty years, the methane will add 80 times the amount of heat to the atmosphere as the carbon dioxide. But methane breaks down in the atmosphere quite quickly with a ‘half life’ of about seven years, so on a 100 year basis (with the methane effectively gone) the impact of a tonne of methane emitted now compared to a tonne of CO2 is much less. The factor falls to about 28, but even with a lower multiplier reducing methane still seems to be a worthwhile endeavour. While agricultural methane may require real lifestyle changes to bring down, e.g. less meat consumption, industrial methane emission management looks like something that can be done. Often mitigation may be a case of good housekeeping, such as monitoring and maintaining pipelines to minimize fugitive emissions.

While most articles about methane simply use the GWP (Global Warming Potential over 100 years) of 28 and present data and economics on that basis, a few dig deeper. Of note is the work of the Oxford-Martin School who present a number of policy papers on methane. In the more popular press, Burning Question author Duncan Clark has written about methane.

Both follow a similar line of reasoning. They note that methane and CO2, while both greenhouse gases, behave very differently with regards their impact on the actual goal of the UNFCCC, to limit eventual peak warming to 2°C or less. As noted, methane is a relatively short lived gas in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 is a long lived gas that accumulates in the atmosphere. This means there is another dimension to the issue, time. The point in time at which they are emitted relative to each other and the shape of any reduction pathway relative to the other is important. Duncan Clark describes this in the following way:

The difference between carbon dioxide and methane is a bit like the difference between burning coal and paper on a fire. Both generate plenty of heat but whereas the coal burns steadily for a long time and accumulates if you keep adding more, the paper gives an intense burst of warmth but one that quickly disappears once you stop adding it.

Their conclusions are similar. Peak warming is largely dictated by the cumulative amount of CO2 emitted over time. If a certain amount of methane is also emitted, the timing of that emission is what matters. Methane that is emitted today will immediately impact the rate of warming, but long before we reach peak warming (assuming CO2 emissions are eventually brought under control and warming actually peaks) the methane will have left the atmosphere and been converted to carbon dioxide, in which case it’s impact on peak warming is based only on the CO2 that remains from the methane. We may have accelerated warming in the short term but peak warming will remain largely unchanged. In this case, the warming potential of methane expressed in terms of its impact on peak temperature falls sharply and comes close to the stoichiometric conversion of methane to carbon dioxide, which is about 3, i.e. a tonne of methane when combusted or oxidised in the atmosphere gives rise to about three tonnes of carbon dioxide. Conversely, methane that is emitted much later, say when we are close to peak warming, will directly add to whatever level of temperature we happen to reach.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t bother about methane today? Unfortunately the answer is an ambiguous one. If we are confident that the world will quickly and decisively reduce CO2 emissions then of course we must also be reducing methane and other greenhouse gases as well. If we don’t, then we will still have a methane problem at the time peak CO2 induced warming occurs, in which case we will almost certainly overshoot our peak warming goal, i.e. 2°C, with the additional warming from the other greenhouse gases. But if we don’t address the CO2 issue, then addressing the methane issue now doesn’t offer a lot of benefit for later on. Instead, the benefit that we do get is less short term warming as we will have removed the intense burst of warming that the methane is providing.

Of course, since we don’t know how well or otherwise the task of CO2 mitigation will proceed (despite the fact that the track record is pretty poor), we feel obliged to act on methane now in case the CO2 mitigation picks up.  At least we know that we will slow down the near term rate of warming by doing so.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that dealing with methane and atmospheric warming is just as complex as dealing with CO2. In the case of CO2, many are convinced that steps such as efficiency measures can curtail warming, when all they are probably doing is geographically or temporally shifting the same CO2 emissions such that the eventual accumulation in the atmosphere is unchanged. In the case of methane, treating it as if it were interchangeable with CO2 but with a convenient and high multiplier may make us feel that modest effort is delivering great benefit, when it may be the case that little benefit is being delivered at all.

In both cases it is the science that we have to look at to decide on the appropriate strategy, not expediency and certainly not sentiment.

As we head towards COP21 in Paris at the end of 2015, various initiatives are coming to fore to support the process. So far these are non-governmental in nature, for example the “We Mean Business”  initiative backed by organisations such as WBCSD, CLG and The Climate Group. In my last post I also made mention of the World Bank statement on Carbon Pricing.

2 C Puzzle - 3 pieces

This week has seen the launch of the Pathways to Deep Decarbonization report, the interim output of an analysis led by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and of the UN Sustainable Development Network. The analysis, living up to its name, takes a deeper look at the technologies needed to deliver a 2°C pathway and rather than come up with the increasingly overused “renewables and energy efficiency” slogan, actually identifies key areas of technology that need a huge push. They are:

  • Carbon capture and storage
  • Energy storage and grid management
  • Advanced nuclear power, including alternative nuclear fuels such as thorium
  • Vehicles and advanced biofuels
  • Industrial processes
  • Negative emissions technologies

These make a lot of sense and much has been written about them in other publications, except perhaps the second last one. Some time back I made the point that the solar PV enthusiasts tend to forget about the industrial heartland; that big, somewhat ugly part of the landscape that makes the base products that go into everything we use. Processes such as sulphuric acid, chlorine, caustic soda and ammonia manufacture, let alone ferrous and non-ferrous metal processes often require vast inputs of heat, typically with very large CO2 emissions. In principle, many of these heat processes could be electrified, or the heat could be produced with hydrogen. Electrical energy can, in theory, provide this through the appropriate use of directed-heating technologies (e.g. electric arc, magnetic induction, microwave, ultraviolet, radio frequency). But given the diversity of these processes and the varying contexts in which they are used (scale and organization of the industrial processes), it is highly uncertain whether industrial processes can be decarbonized using available technologies. As such, the report recommends much greater efforts of RD&D in this area to ensure a viable deep emission reduction pathway.

Two key elements of the report have also been adopted by the USA and China under their U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In an announcement on July 9th, they noted the progress made through the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, in particular the launching of eight demonstration projects – four on carbon capture, utilization, and storage, and four on smart grids.

Reading through the full Pathways report I was a bit disappointed that a leading economist should return to the Kaya Identity as a means to describe the driver of CO2 emissions (Section 3.1 of the full report). As I noted in a recent post it certainly describes the way in which our economy emits CO2 on an annualised basis, but it doesn’t given much insight to the underlying reality of cumulative CO2 emissions, which is linked directly to the value we obtain from fossil fuels and the size of the resource bases that exist.

Finally, Sachs isn’t one to shy away from controversy and in the first chapter the authors argue that governments need to get serious about reducing emissions;

The truth is that governments have not yet tried hard enough—or, to be frank, simply tried in an organized and thoughtful way—to understand and do what is necessary to keep global warming below the 2°C limit.

I think he’s right. There is still a long way to go until COP21 in Paris and even further afterwards to actually see a real reduction in emissions, rather than reduction by smoke and mirrors which is arguably where the world is today (CO2 per GDP, reductions against non-existent baselines, efficiency improvements, renewable energy goals and the like). These may all help governments get the discussion going at a national or regional, which is good, but then there needs to be a rapid transition to absolute CO2 numbers and away from various other metrics.

Steps towards Paris 2015

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National climate negotiators and a number of Energy/Environment Ministers are currently meeting in Bonn as the global climate deal process slowly edges forward. Whether the steps being taken are big or small remains to be seen, but there are at least steps, so that is a start. The most well publicized have been those of the United States and China who are both active domestically with action on emissions. In the case of the USA this is the EPA rules that gained heavy media coverage and for China it is the notion that they will peak their coal use at some point in the reasonable future, perhaps as early as 2020. The idea of peak coal in China is also starting to appear in government conversations and is not just something emanating from the Chinese academic community.

But another step was also taken in Bonn last week when Ministers were in town as part of an ADP Dialogue; a new business coalition reared its head. Called “We Mean Business”, this is a coalition of a number of existing business linked organizations and has been established to demonstrate to government that a broad business base sees the need for action on climate change and is prepared to support their actions in creating the necessary policy frameworks under which emissions can then be reduced. “We Mean “Business” has started life with seven supporting organizations;

We Mean Business
The question that needs to be answered is how important is this and can such a group exert any influence over the process at all. Looking back, one parallel that comes to mind is USCAP (Unites States Climate Action Partnership), a group of some 25 companies and NGOs that coalesced around the 2007-2009 US process to implement climate legislation, but most notably a cap-and-trade bill. This was a detailed federal legislative process and USCAP certainly got into the weeds of it, with a comprehensive manifesto of requirements. When the Waxman-Markey Bill did eventually pass through the House there were many elements within it that aligned with the USCAP manifesto, so arguably that organization did have some influence on content. More importantly perhaps, the very existence of USCAP helped create the political space in which comprehensive legislation could be considered, even though the process eventually stalled and ultimately failed in the US Senate.

But Waxman-Markey was a specific piece of national legislation; at the international level the process is more complex. While a cap-and-trade system is a very tangible policy outcome with a set of well understood rules and metrics, the likely outcome from Paris may be far less defined. One aspect that is common to both is the need for political space in which to act. While the majority of this will come from the Parties themselves, business can play a role here. However, such a business coalition will have to act at both national and international levels to be truly effective, in that delegations are most likely given a certain negotiating mandate within which they can operate before they leave for the COP. As such, simply showing that business supports the process at the international level will probably not be enough.

The second area for business advocacy comes in terms of content. This is more difficult in that the business coalition will be made up of a broad range of constituents acting in many different sectors of the economy. While a cap-and-trade system may be ideal for one company in a given sector in a particular country, another company might prefer financial incentives to help it develop a particular technology. Further, the nature of the international agreement won’t include specifics such as cap-and-trade, but will be much more about the process of establishing suitable national contributions and commitments. However, a business coalition could at least ask for some basic building blocks to be included, such as the use of market instruments and the ability to transfer some or all of a national contribution between Parties , both necessary precursors to the longer term development of a global carbon market.

It is early days for “We Mean Business”, but it at least exists and is starting to mobilize resources and interest. But the hard work hasn’t started; what it will actually do and how it might positively influence the process and eventual outcome is for the days and months ahead.

Scaling up for global impact

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A visit to Australia offers a quick reminder of the scale to which Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) production has grown over recent years. This was a technology that first appeared in the 1960s and saw a scale up over the 1970s and 1980s to some 60 million tonnes per annum globally. As energy demand soared in the 1990s and 2000s, LNG production quickly rose again to around 300 million tonnes per annum today and could reach 500 million tonnes per annum by 2030 (see Ernst & Young projection below).

2012OGJcolors

Flying into Australia we crossed the coast near Dampier in Western Australia, which is currently “Resource Central” for Australia. The waters were dotted with tankers (I counted 14 on the side of the plane I was sitting on) waiting for loading, many of which had the distinctive LNG cryogenic tanks on their decks. Two days later the first shipment of LNG from the new Papua New Guinea project took place and this received considerable coverage in the Australian media. Clearly LNG is booming in this region, with even more to come. Most major oil and gas companies have projects in development and there are several LNG “startups” considering projects.

This is a great example of technology scale up, which is going to be key to resolving the climate issue by progressively shifting energy production and use to near zero emissions over the course of this century. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one of the technologies that needs to be part of that scale up if we are serious about net zero emissions in the latter part of the century.

There are many parallels between LNG production and CCS which may offer some insight into the potential for CCS. Both require drilling, site preparation, pipelines, gas processing facilities, compression and gas transport, although LNG also includes a major cryogenic step which isn’t part of the CCS process.

LNG production and CCS are both gas processing technologies so the comparison between them needs to be on a volume basis, not on a tonnes basis. CO2 has a higher molecular weight than CH4 (methane), so the processing of a million tonnes of natural gas is the same as nearly 3 million tonnes of CO2. As such, the production scale up to 500 million tonnes of LNG by 2030 could be equated to nearly 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum in CCS terms, which is a number that starts to be significant in terms of real mitigation. The actual scale up from today to 2030 is projected to be 200-250 million tonnes of LNG, which in CCS terms is about 700 million tonnes of CO2.

This is both a good news and bad news story. The scale up of LNG shows that industrial expansion of a complex process involving multiple disciplines from across the oil and gas industry is entirely possible. LNG took two to three decades to reach 100 million tonnes, but less than ten years to repeat this. In the following ten years (2010-2020) production should nearly double again with an additional 200 million tonnes of capacity added. These latter rates of scale up are what we need now for technologies such as CCS, but we are clearly languishing in the early stages of deployment, with just a few million tonnes of production (if that) being added each year.

What is missing for CCS is the strong commercial impetus that LNG has seen over the last fifteen years as global energy demand shot up. With most, if not all, of the technologies needed for CCS already widely available in the oil and gas industry, it may be possible to shorten the initial early deployment stage which can last 20 years (as it did for LNG). If this could be achieved, CCS deployment at rates of a billion tonnes per decade, for starters, may be possible. This is the minimum scale needed for mitigation that will make a tangible difference to the task ahead.

The commercial case for CCS rests with government through mechanisms such as carbon pricing underpinned by a robust global deal on mitigation. That of course is another story.

Is the UNFCCC ADP on track?

This week (March 10th-14th) in Bonn, parties to the UNFCCC are meeting under the direction of the Fourth Part of the Second Session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP 2.4). In short, this is the process that is trying to deliver a global deal on climate change over the next 20 months when the world comes together at COP 21 in Paris. The last attempt at such a monumental feat ended in tears in Copenhagen in December 2009.

One might imagine that a process with only a few months to reach a solution on a major global commons issue would be deeply imbedded in the economics of Pigouvian pricing, or at least attempting to see how the global economy could be adjusted to account for this particular externality. However, as we know from the Warsaw COP and previous such meetings that this isn’t the case, rather it is an effort just to get nation states to recognize that a common approach is actually needed.

The pathway being plied in Warsaw resulted in the text on “contributions”, which at least attempts to create a common definition and set of validation rules for whatever it is that nation states offer as climate action from within their own economies. More recently the USA set out its views on the nature of “contributions”. This process is at least trying to get everyone in a common club of some description, rather than having several clubs as has been the case since 1992 when the UNFCCC was created. The diplomatic challenge for Paris will be to find the most constraining club which everyone is still willing to be a member of and then close the doors. Once inside, the club rules can be continually renegotiated until some sort of outcome is realized which actually deals with emissions. This ongoing renegotiation will be for the years after Paris, it won’t happen beforehand or even during COP 21.

But ADP 2.4 in Bonn seems to have gone off-piste. Looking through the Overview Schedule, what can be seen is a series of meetings on renewable energy and energy efficiency. While this may be an attempt to highlight particular national actions as a template for others to follow, it is nevertheless symptomatic of a process that isn’t really dealing with the problem it is mandated to solve; limiting the rise in the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

At best, the ADP has become a derivative process, or perhaps even a second derivative process. Rather than confronting the issue, it is instead dealing with tangents. Holding sessions on renewable energy is a good example of this behaviour. The climate issue is about the release to atmosphere of fossil carbon and bio-fixed carbon on a cumulative basis over time, with the total amount released being the determining factor in terms of peak warming (i.e. the 2°C goal). The first derivative of this is the rate of release, which is determined by total global energy demand and the carbon intensity of the energy mix. The second derivative is probably best described as the rate of change of the carbon intensity of the global energy mix, although this can be something of a red herring in that the global energy mix can appear to decarbonize even as emissions continue to rise, simply because demand change outpaces intensity change.

Energy efficiency is perhaps yet another derivative away from the problem. It deals with the rate of change of energy use, but this has further underlying components, one being the rate of change of energy use in things such as appliances and the other the rate of change of the appliances themselves. Efficiency isn’t good at dealing with the immediate rate of energy use in that this tends to be dictated by the existing stock of devices and infrastructure, whereas efficiency tackles the change over time for new stock. That new stock then has to both permeate the market and also displace the older stock.

Focussing on renewable energy deployment and efficiency is a useful and cost effective energy strategy for many countries, but as a global strategy for tacking cumulative carbon emissions it falls far short of what is necessary. Yet this is where the UNFCCC ADP 2.4 has landed. It also seems to be difficult to challenge this, as illustrated by one Tweet that emanated from a Bonn meeting room!!

 Twitter: 10/03/2014 16:47

shameful: US sells concept of “clean energy” (including gas, CCS) at renewable workshop. what hypocrisy / hijacking of process. #ADP2014

 

The EU ETS isn’t out of trouble just yet

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On January 22nd the EU Commission launched its White Paper which lays out the major components of its energy and climate policy through to 2030. This is the first major step in what could well be a lengthy debate and parliamentary process before a new package of measures is finally agreed. The Commission has proposed a 40% EU wide greenhouse gas reduction target for the year 2030, an EU wide target of 27% renewable energy by the same year and a supply side mechanism to adjust the overall number of allowances in circulation within the EU ETS.

The latter component is clear recognition by the Commission that the ETS has been awash in allowances for some time now and with a price of just a few Euros is doing nothing to drive emissions management across the EU. There are multiple reasons for the situation the ETS currently finds itself in, but one major contributor has been overall energy policy design in the EU. This has imposed renewable energy targets to the extent that further emission reductions under the ETS are not required once the former have been met. Hence the near zero CO2 price. There are two parts to this particular story – the first is the overall level of the renewable energy target and the second is the reality that transport (oil) and commercial / residential (natural gas) sectors hardly contribute to this, so it forces a much higher renewable energy penetration in the power sector, which is under the ETS.

But with a 2030 reduction target of 40% and a new renewable energy goal of 27%, is the problem now remedied?

This of course depends on how the renewable energy target is met. Importantly, it will not be imposed on Member States as it was in the period to 2020, but is only binding at EU level. This could mean that the Commission expects to be at 27% renewables based on the impact of policies such as the ETS, rather than requiring that Member States guarantee a certain level of renewable energy use and therefore effectively forcing them to enact policies to deliver such goals. But many Member States are likely to continue their support of renewable energy and may force it into the overall energy mix right through to 2030.

The worst case outcome for the ETS would be one that sees the whole 27% renewable energy goal met with explicit policies at Member State level. The chart below shows this – note that this is a simple model of the EU for illustrative purposes. Assume that at the end of 2012 EU power generation and industry sector emissions are at 2000 million tonnes CO2. By 2020, with a 1.74% annual reduction under the ETS, they need to be at ~1730 million tonnes. But with renewable energy being forced into the power generation system (although not quite reaching the 20% across the EU) and the EU easily meeting its overall 20% CO2 goal, sector emissions are below the ETS cap, which implies nothing else need be done, hence the low CO2 price. Projecting this out to 2030 with the proposed 2.2% annual reduction and meeting the 27% renewable energy goal across the EU energy system, shows that sector emissions are only slightly above the cap (about 50 million tonnes), which again implies a low to modest CO2 price. Assume further that a CCS programme is actually running and delivering 50 mtpa storage (through direct incentives) and no further action is required – so a zero CO2 price once again! The model also assumes about 30% growth in electricity generation from 2012 to 2030.

 EU ETS RET impact to 2030

This very simple model doesn’t account for the large allowance surplus that exists in 2012 (> 1 billion allowances), which would therefore be unlikely to vanish through normal growth in electricity demand, industrial production and so on. This makes it imperative that the EU also implements the supply side mechanism within the ETS, which would then remove much of the surplus through the early 2020s. Ideally, implementation of this should be immediate and also with immediate effect, rather than waiting until post 2020.

Should Member States not implement specific renewable energy policies and the supply side mechanism is active and functioning, we might just have an ETS that actually drives change in the large emitters sector, but there are two big “ifs” here. Otherwise, expect continued price weakness and probably a higher overall cost of energy as a result.

In conjunction with its request for submissions on the 2030 policy framework, the EU Commission posed a series of questions on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to be answered separately. This follows on from the failure of the NER300 policy framework to deliver an EU CCS demonstration programme.

One question within this new consultation is of particular interest in that it opens up the possibility of a dedicated instrument designed specifically for the deployment of CCS. The Commission asked;

Should the Commission propose other means of support or consider other policy measures to pave the road towards early deployment, by:

a.      a support through auctioning recycle or other funding approaches

b.      an Emission Performance Standard

c.       a CCS certificate system

d.      another type of policy measure

One of the leading CCS focused industry / society groups (European Technology Platform for Zero Emission Fossil Fuel Power Plants, or ZEP) responded to this and argued for consideration of a CCS Certificate system should its preferred Feed-in-Tarrif approach not be acceptable. Such a system would require a certain (and annually increasing) amount of CO2 storage for each tonne of CO2 emitted, but the storage could take place in another location with proof of such storage coming in the form of a tradable certificate. But ZEP noted that;

Any system of certificates should be designed in such a way as to avoid any negative interaction with the existing ETS. Measures to ensure this could include making CCSCs fungible with a certain number of EUAs, or retiring EUAs, as CCSCs are supplied into the market.

While a robust carbon market is the preferred approach for driving investment in technologies such as CCS, frustration with price development is leading policy makers and some CCS proponents to consider targeted policies. The ZEP caveat is important in that overlapping policies have been a real problem for the EU ETS. With other polices taking away the need for the carbon price to trigger investment,  higher overall  costs of mitigation result, but at the same time weakening the visible CO2 price.  The same would be true of a CCS policy instrument. However, an EU wide CCS Certificate mechanism which operates for all the same facilities as the ETS could be designed as follows, delivering a first round of CCS projects but working within the ETS to at least mitigate the overlap issue to some extent:

  • For the period 2021-2025, each 100 tonnes of CO2 emitted would require the surrender of 99 EUAs (EU ETS Allowances or equivalent instruments) and 1 CCSC (carbon capture and storage certificate).
  • The CCSCs are tradable instruments and would be granted for each tonne of CO2 stored in the EU from 2015 onwards. This would give the EU some lead time to build up a modest bank of CCSCs.
  • From 2026 onwards, the CCSC requirement would increase by 1 in 100 each year, i.e. by 2030 the minimum compliance requirement for each 100 tonnes of CO2 emitted would be 6 CCSCs and 94 EUAs (or equivalent).
  • A facility that generates CCSCs would be deemed as emitting one tonne of CO2 for each CCSC sold into the market.
  • CCSCs could be banked for future use.
  • The initial 2021-2025 period would require about 20 million CCSCs in each year across the EU, therefore underpinning a number of projects.
  • As a “relief valve” mechanism for the period 2021-2025 only, an EUA could be converted to a CCSA for a fee, for example at the current ETS non-compliance penalty level (€100), with the money being placed in a CCS technology fund for disbursement to CCS projects.
  • Total EU allowance auction / allocation for the period 2020-2030 would be adjusted downwards on the basis of the creation of a certain number of CCSCs.
  • The approach could also inspire the EU to lead the development of an international CCSC at the UNFCCC which could also be used for compliance in the EU.

A CCS Certificate approach has a very modest price impact on the consumer (of electricity). Under an ETS, the marginal cost of compliance is reflected in the cost of everyone’s electricity and this must rise to levels above €50 per tonne before any CCS project activity is firmly triggered. This equates to quite an increase in electricity prices. But the CCSA not only ensures delivery but quickly socializes the cost of CCS, in that each electricity purchaser pays a fraction of the cost of the first CCS facilities. If a CCSC was trading at €80 per tonne of CO2 stored, then in the period 2021-2025 the consumer would see a cost per tonne of CO2 of only 80 € cents, or for coal fired power generation at 900 gms CO2/kWh, a price increase of less than a tenth of a €-cent per kilowatt hour.

So should we opt for CCS Certificates? Although they will deliver CCS, the approach isn’t as economically efficient as the carbon market left to its own devices. But as already noted, carbon markets aren’t being left to their own devices as other policies continually encroach on their turf (e.g. renewable energy targets), which means that CCS may be significantly delayed.

One further thought. Arguably, the increasing requirement to provide CCSAs could continue past 2030 until the ETS is fully replaced later in the century. This would at least align any use of fossil fuels with the long term requirement to store all the resulting CO2.

Last week I attended the official launch in London of a book I reviewed recently, The Burning Question. Both authors were at the launch and they gave a great overview of the energy and climate predicament we have collectively managed to get ourselves into. Key to their message is that carbon emissions are growing exponentially and that no amount of energy efficiency or alternative energy investment is going to change that pathway anytime soon, rather both approaches may be exacerbating the problem. Of course they did make the point that all exponential systems eventually collapse or at best plateau, but in the meantime emissions continue to rise with no immediate sign of change. As I noted in my initial review, the authors paint themselves into something of a difficult corner and don’t give a great deal of insight as to how to get out, but carbon capture and storage looms large in their thinking. The book follows a line of thought that I have been developing in this blog over the last couple of years, best described here and here.

The morning after the book launch I found myself at a business association meeting where the subject of climate action was top of the agenda for the day. As if in follow-up to the previous evening, we quickly got on to the role of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for mitigation, vs. the apparently more attractive premise (to many people) that the focus must be on energy efficiency and renewables, with carbon capture and storage in more of a mop-up role at the end. The efficiency / renewables approach has been played out in numerous scenario exercises, most notably in that presented by WWF (with the support of Ecofys) in their 2011 report “100% Renewable Energy by 2050”. In all such cases and particularly that one, a natural progression of change within the energy system doesn’t feature, rather a “war time footing” scenario is advocated. This specific report was also presented to the meeting.

I contrast this with the recent Shell New Lens Scenarios which I discussed in a March posting. These do follow a natural progression forward, driven by social concerns, legislative change and energy economics. The conditions behind the Oceans scenario result in higher uptake of efficiency and much faster renewables deployment.  However, these are not strong enough to offset all of the extra pressures for energy demand growth from developing markets in particular.  As a result, fossil energy growth is similar to that of Mountains for the next several decades, and so without the strong stimulus for CCS in Mountains, the Oceans scenario results in higher cumulative CO2 emissions over the century and therefore additional warming. The reasons are somewhat similar to those articulated in The Burning Question.

This leads to thinking about climate action in terms of two paradigms. One recognizes the sobering reality of the global energy system as outlined in The Burning Question and seeks to address the issue through a combination of measures, prioritizing a robust carbon price in the energy system and placing a strong emphasis on carbon capture and storage. This tackles the issue from the fossil fuel end, which has the consequence of managing emissions directly (the CCS bit) and drawing in alternatives and reducing demand as pricing dictates (the carbon price bit). The other approach is to tackle the issue from the alternatives end, which results in forced efficiency measures and subsidized renewable energy coming into the mix. Following the logic of The Burning Question, this is like putting the energy system on steroids which pumps up global demand and potentially even forces emissions to rise.

Back then to the business association meeting which, at least in part, was also attended by a prominent official in the global climate process. The inevitable question as to the role of CCS arose and a debate around mitigation priorities got going. Many, including the official present in the room, took the view that efficiency and renewables were critical to the change process required and that this is where the emphasis must be.

 Of course the real sweet spot is somewhere in the middle, where there is a strong attack on emissions through carbon pricing and CCS, but in combination with a more rapid displacement of fossil energy with alternatives such as solar and nuclear. This isn’t easy to achieve as the social conditions for one are somewhat counter to those needed for the other. This is one paradox that also comes out of the New Lens Scenarios. Nevertheless, if those in leadership positions are sitting at one end of this spectrum rather than squarely in the middle, will we ever get a solution that actually addresses the problem head on? Perhaps The Burning Question needs to be distributed more widely!

There are many books and thousands of reports on climate change, carbon economics, energy transformation and the like, but few encapsulate the issue as well as a recently released book by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark, The Burning Question. Judging by the recommendation on the cover, even Al Gore liked it.

bqcover

Rather than speculate on the potential severity of climate events or try to convince readers that simple changes in consumer behaviour and green, job creating investment will solve everything, the book takes a thought provoking but dispassionate look at the global energy system. The authors discuss the role of fossil fuels and the carbon emission limits that we know we should meet and set out to explain the rock and the hard place that we find ourselves between. The rock in this case is the trillion tonne of carbon limit for cumulative emissions over time and the hard place is the abundance of fossil fuels, the rate at which we use them and the relative ease with which more becomes available as demand rises.

Berners-Lee and Clark present a compelling set of stories which show how fossil fuels dominate the global energy market, why it is proving almost impossible to displace them (on a global basis) and why strategies such as improving energy efficiency and deploying renewables  are not effective approaches to try and limit global emissions. In fact they make the point that in some instances the reverse happens – emissions just rise faster.

The tag line on the cover includes the teaser  “So how do we quit?” (using fossil fuels). Do they really know? As the book unfolds and the problem they describe mounts in both complexity and difficulty, there is almost the feeling of a thrilling ending around the corner. SPOILER ALERT. Sadly this is not quite the case, but they do give some useful advice for policy makers trying to get to grips with the issue and the book itself gives the reader a very different perspective on the energy-climate conundrum (although hopefully one that the readers of this blog have picked up over time, but here it is all in one book).

I assume that for similar reasons to my own line of thinking (but after beating around the bush about it for 181 pages) they do finally land on a key thought:

In the course of writing this book we have come to think that the most undervalued technology in terms of unlocking international progress on climate change is carbon capture – both traditional CCS for point sources such as power plants and more futuristic ambient air capture technologies for taking carbon directly out of the atmosphere.

It would appear that The Inconvenient Truth and CCS are indeed inextricably linked. Clark and Berners-Lee don’t go so far as to argue that CCS is the convenient answer, but the message on CCS is a strong one. Nevertheless, geoengineering makes a surprise entrance at the end!!

Overall, this is an excellent discussion which is both easy to ready and hugely informative. It is well worth putting it on the summer reading list.

At an event in Brussels earlier this week the EU Commission shared some initial thinking with business and NGOs on the consultation they have launched with regards the EU international position on climate change as we head towards COP 21 in France in 2015 where a deal is targeted for agreement. Although the EU remains very open to input on the shape of their position, it was clear to me reading the consultation document and listening to the presenter in Brussels that they are putting enormous emphasis on ambition – largely in the form of the size of national pledges.

In one sense this is hardly surprising given the world is a long way from anything that looks like a 2°C pathway, but it feels like it is becoming a distraction in itself, taking the emphasis away from the much more difficult job of putting in place the various tools and practices that might actually give us some chance of getting on a pathway that leads to some real reductions. The EU focus, like the international one, is divided into two parts, increasing global ambition to 2020 and post 2020 goals and targets.

The discussion reminded me of one I had about a decade ago with a senior policy maker in a Kyoto Annex 1 government. At that time the country had just ratified a pretty ambitious target under the Kyoto Protocol, considerably more than economically comparable countries. The government was trying to come to terms with the task of meeting the target, but the perceived difficulty of meeting the target was becoming a major distraction in itself. The conversation went something like this:

GM (government policy maker): The target is very difficult to meet.

Me: Agreed, but perhaps that shouldn’t be your primary consideration.

GM: It has to be, we have a target.

Me: Yes, but perhaps you should focus on getting a carbon price embedded in the economy first, then use that to start to drive change.

GM: But will we meet the target?

Me: You may not, but you would leave a legacy of an economy with emissions management up and running, the required capacity building done and emissions at least moving in the right direction. At the end of the day if you don’t meet the target, at least you will have made a good attempt.

GM: Yes, I understand. But what about the target?

Although this country has seen considerable regional activity (bound only by their own targets, developed as part of their policy making), the national government has struggled to this day with a target it felt somewhat helpless about. Early paralysis was almost certainly a contributing factor.

The current international discussion over a 2°C pathway is now at a similar stage and the EU appears to have fallen victim to this sort of thinking. Building a position on the need for more national ambition to meet the target, may well be a self defeating strategy. Rather, what is needed is a clear focus on two primary objectives;

    1. Getting a carbon price into the global energy economy.
    2. Getting CCS up and running and ready for rapid commercial deployment.

These are very specific climate objectives so play in to what the UNFCCC should be able to deliver, although they will also need to be supported by strong growth in other energy technologies, such as solar, nuclear, geothermal and the like (which shouldn’t necessarily be the objective of the UNFCCC at all). This also carves out a different role for UNFCCC, one which is related to pragmatic implementation of the tools and practices related to mitigation, rather than trying to create a frenzy of activity around targets and enhanced ambition.

Ambition will always be important, but without some clear ideas as to the pathways available, it becomes a rather empty and pointless discussion.