Archive for the ‘Renewables’ Category

From sunlight to Jet A1

In a world of near zero anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, there remains the problem of finding a fuel or energy carrier of sufficiently high energy density that it remains practical to fly a modern jet aeroplane. Commercial aviation is heading towards some 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum so doing nothing may not be an option.

Although planes will certainly evolve over the course of the century, the rate of change is likely to be slow and particularly so if a step change in technology is involved. In 100 years of civil aviation there have been two such step changes; the first commercial flights in the 1910s and the shift of the jet engine from the military to the commercial world with the development of the Comet and Boeing 707. The 787 Dreamliner is in many respects a world away from the 707, but in terms of the fuel used it is the same plane; that’s 60 years and there is no sign of the next change.

Unlike domestic vehicles where electricity and batteries offer an alternative, planes will probably still need hydrocarbon fuel for all of this century, perhaps longer. Hydrogen is a possibility but the fuel to volume ratio would change such that this could also mean a radical redesign of the whole shape of the plane (below), which might also entail redesign of other infrastructure such as airport terminals, air bridges and so on. Even the development and first deployment of the double decker A380, something of a step change in terms of shape and size, has taken twenty years and cost Airbus many billions.


For aviation, the simplest approach will probably be the development of a process to produce a look-alike hydrocarbon fuel. The most practical way to approach this problem is via an advanced biofuel route and a few processes are available to fill the need, although scale up of these technologies has yet to take place. But what if the biofuel route also proves problematic – say for reasons related to land use change or perhaps public acceptance in a future period of rising food prices? A few research programmes are looking at synthesising the fuel directly from water and carbon dioxide. This is entirely possible from a chemistry perspective, but it requires lots of energy; at least as much energy as the finished fuel gives when it is used and its molecules are returned to water and carbon dioxide.

Audi has been working on such a project and recently announced the production of the first fuel from their pilot plant (160 litres per day). According to their media release;

The Sunfire [Audi’s technology partner] plant requires carbon dioxide, water, and electricity as raw materials. The carbon dioxide is extracted from the ambient air using direct air capture. In a separate process, an electrolysis unit splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then reacted with the carbon dioxide in two chemical processes conducted at 220 degrees Celsius and a pressure of 25 bar to produce an energetic liquid, made up of hydrocarbon compounds, which is called Blue Crude. This conversion process is up to 70 percent efficient. The whole process runs on solar power.

Apart from the front end of the facility where carbon dioxide is reacted with hydrogen to produce synthesis gas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen), the rest of the plant should be very similar to the full scale Pearl Gas to Liquids (GTL) facility that Shell operates in Qatar. In that process, natural gas is converted to synthesis gas which is in turn converted to a mix of longer chain hydrocarbons, including jet fuel (contained within the Audi Blue Crude). The Pearl facility produces about 150,000 bbls/day of hydrocarbon product, so perhaps one hundred such facilities would be required to produce enough jet fuel for the world (this would depend on the yield of suitable jet fuel from the process which produces a range of hydrocarbon products that can be put to many uses). Today there are just a handful of gas-to-liquids plants in operation; Pearl and Oryx in Qatar, Bintulu in Malaysia and Mossel Bay in South Africa (and another in South Africa that uses coal as the starting feedstock). The final conversion uses the Fischer Tropsch process, originally developed about a century ago.

Each of these future “blue crude” facilities would also need a formidable solar array to power it. The calorific content of the fuels is about 45 TJ/kt, so that is the absolute minimum amount of energy required for the conversion facility. However, accounting for efficiency of the process and adding in the energy required for air extraction of carbon dioxide and all the other energy needs of a modern industrial facility, a future process might need up to 100 TJ/kt of energy input. The Pearl GTL produces 19 kt of product per day, so the energy demand to make this from water and carbon dioxide would be 1900 TJ per day, or 700,000 TJ per annum. As such,  this requires a nameplate capacity for a solar PV farm of about 60 GW – roughly equal to half the entire installed global solar generating capacity in 2013. A Middle East location such as Qatar receives about 2200 kWh/m² per annum, or 0.00792 TJ/m² and assuming a future solar PV facility that might operate at 35% efficiency (considerably better than commercial facilities today), the solar PV alone would occupy an area of some 250 km² , so perhaps 500 km² or more in total plot area (i.e. 22 kms by 22 kms in size) for the facility.

This is certainly not inconceivable, but it is far larger than any solar PV facilities in operation today; the Topaz solar array in California is on a site 25 square kms in size with a nameplate capacity of 550 MW.  It is currently the largest solar farm in the world and produces about 1.1 million MWh per annum (4000 TJ), but the efficiency (23%) is far lower than my future assumption above. At this production rate, 175 Topaz farms would be required to power a refinery with the hydrocarbon output of Pearl GTL. My assumptions represent a packing density of solar PV some four times better than Topaz (i.e. 100 MW/km² vs 22 MW/km²).

All this means that our net zero emissions world needs to see the construction of some 100 large scale hydrocarbon synthesis plants, together with air extraction facilities, hydrogen and carbon monoxide storage for night time operation of the reactors and huge solar arrays. This could meet all the future aviation needs and would also produce lighter and heavier hydrocarbons for various other applications where electricity is not an option (e.g. chemical feedstock, heavy marine fuels). In 2015 money, the investment would certainly run into the trillions of dollars.

Recent news from the International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown that the rise in global CO2 emissions from the energy system stalled in 2014. This was unusual on two counts – first that it happened at all and second that it happened in a year not linked with recession or low economic growth as in 1992 and 2009. In fact the global economy expanded by about 3%.

Information is scant at this point, but the IEA have apparently determined this using their Sectoral Approach (below, through to 2014), which has been flattening for a few years relative to their Reference Approach (following chart, ends at 2012). The Reference Approach and the Sectoral Approach often have different results because the Reference Approach is top-down using a country’s energy supply data and has no detailed information on how the individual fuels are used in each sector. One could argue that the Reference Approach is more representative of what the atmosphere sees, in that apart from sequestered carbon dioxide and products such as bitumen, the whole fossil energy supply eventually ends up as atmospheric carbon dioxide. The Reference Approach therefore indicates an upper bound to the Sectoral Approach, because some of the carbon in the fuel is not combusted but will be emitted as fugitive emissions (as leakage or evaporation in the production and/or transformation stage). No information has been provided by the IEA at this point as to the Reference Approach data for 2013 and 2014.

Global Energy System Emissions

Reference vs. Sectoral IEA

Putting to one side this technical difference, the flattening trend does represent a possible shift in global emissions development and it has certainly got many observers excited that this may well be so. If this is the case, what is driving this change and what might the outlook be?

It is clear that many governments are now intervening in domestic energy system development. There are incentives and mandates for renewable energy, enhanced efficiency programmes and some level of carbon pricing in perhaps a quarter of the global energy system, albeit at a fairly low level. More recently in China there has been a strong government reaction to air quality issues, which has given rise to some reduction in coal demand, particularly around major cities. But there is another factor as well and that is price – it is perhaps the overwhelming factor in determining fossil fuel usage and therefore setting the level of emissions. Price drives conservation, efficiency, the use of alternatives and therefore demand. Many of the aforementioned energy policy initiatives have been implemented during the recent decade or so of sharply rising energy prices.

A chart of the oil price (2013 $, as a proxy for energy prices) and global CO2 emissions going back to 1965 illustrates that big price fluctuations do seem to have an impact on emissions. Although emissions have risen throughout the period, sharp energy price excursions have led to emissions dips and plateaus as energy demand is impacted and similarly, price falls have led to resurgence in emissions. This isn’t universally true – certainly from 2004 to 2008 the very strong demand from China in particular was seemingly unaffected by the rising cost of energy, although the end of that period saw a global recession and a very visible dip in demand.

Oil price vs. Emissions

The latter part of 2014 brought with it a sharp reduction in energy prices (2015 is illustrative in the chart at $55 per barrel). With a much lower fossil energy price, demand may rise and the incentive for efficiency and the deployment of alternatives could well be impacted, although there may be some lag before this becomes apparent. The combination of these factors could therefore see emissions take yet another jump, but it is too early to see this in the data. 2015 emissions data might show the first signs of this.

There is of course continued upward pressure on emissions as well, such as the growth in coal use that is now underway in India. Over the three year period to the end of 2014, coal capacity increased from 112 GW to nearly 160 GW. This is the equivalent of some 300 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. By contrast, a five year period from 2002 to 2007 saw only 10 GW of new coal capacity installed in that country. Although India is installing considerable solar capacity, coal fired generation is likely to continue to grow rapidly. One area of emissions growth that is not being immediately challenged by a zero emissions alternative is transport. The automobile, bus, truck and aviation fleets are all expanding rapidly in that country.

The other big uncertainty is China, where local air quality concerns are catalysing some restructuring in their energy system. Certain factories and power plants that are contributing most to the local problems around cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are being shut, but there is still huge development underway across vast swathes of the country.  Some of this is a replacement for the capacity being closed around the cities, with electricity being transported through ultra high voltage grids that now run across the country. Gas is becoming a preferred fuel in metropolitan areas, but some of that gas is being synthetically produced from coal in other regions – a very CO2 intensive process. The scale of this is limited at the moment, but if all the current plans are actually developed this could become a large industry and therefore a further signifacnt source of emissions.

As observers look towards Paris and the expectation of a global deal on climate, the current pause in emissions growth, while comforting, may be a false signal in the morass of energy system data being published. Ongoing diligence will be required.

Getting going in Lima??

COP20 is now underway in Lima and I have been on the newly created site for two days. Less than three months ago this was apparently an empty piece of land in a large Peruvian government complex, but now it is a bustling and well fitted out set of temporary buildings for housing negotiators and observers from some 190 countries; plus of course their entourage, a large security contingent, caterers, support staff and voluntary guides. The facilities are good and the meetings have started, but solid progress is hard to identify. There’s a lot resting on Lima as Carbon Visuals have clearly shown!!

Lots resting on Lima

Although the ADP (The Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action) is charged with the unenviable task of producing an agreement text for Paris in just one year and has been running for three years with this in mind, the opening days here are once again like watching the opening rounds of a chess match, with the Parties positioning themselves for later confrontation rather than attempting to clear the way and open up the game. This isn’t to say that nothing has happened since Durban; there is at least a non-paper on elements of a draft negotiating text and this is where the discussions for this COP have started.

While the ADP continues its discussions, the various strands of other dead or dying negotiations continue on, although to what end it is sometimes hard to see. Sitting within the technical bodies are the remnants of the LCA (the failed Copenhagen agreement), which includes the Framework for Various Approaches (FVA) and New Market Mechanism (NMM). This is where the main discussion around the use and expansion of carbon markets and mechanisms sits, but progress here has been close to zero since the discussions fell apart in Warsaw as I reported last year. No progress is being made in Lima, with a standoff between parties preventing any further discussion based on objections from Brazil, China, Bolivia, South Africa and Saudi Arabia to this work continuing in the absence of a mandate from the ADP. They have argued that until the ADP takes shape and sets the scene for the development of a carbon market framework, then there is no point having discussions on this subject on the sides. The problem is that unless these side negotiations make some progress in defining what a carbon market framework might look like, the ADP can’t really incorporate the necessary hooks within its structure to give the mandate to the FVA and NMM workstreams to continue their deliberations. Catch 22 comes to mind!

Perhaps on a brighter note, an active side event schedule is well underway. Attendance at these events, often lacklustre in the first few days, appears to be good, with an IPCC event that I spoke at on Wednesday afternoon playing to a nearly full house in quite a large room. This was an event about how people use and interpret the findings of the IPCC, rather than what the IPCC itself had to say in its 5th Assessment Report. But even here the differences in how people view the world show up. I spoke about the key role that CCS plays in scenarios that are targeting aggressive reductions (i.e. 430-480 ppm CO2e) and how a particular table in the IPCC report showed the sharp increase in costs if CCS was unavailable.


My point was not just to highlight this table, but to use it to illustrate a problem the IPCC has in taking complex information and bringing it to the surface. The table was my case study. While it represents the actual findings of the IPCC, it seems to have little bearing on what people think (see below for my key slide from the presentation I gave) they said and I argued that the IPCC and UNFCCC are part of the problem in the way they summarise, shorten, tweet and disseminate the data. Deep down in the 5th Assessment Report it is very clear that a 2°C outcome is very (perhaps totally) dependent on the deployment of CCS, but this wasn’t even discussed in the high level summaries and press releases that were put out at the time. As I mentioned back in September, when the UN Climate Summit took place in New York, CCS wasn’t even on the agenda but a whole session was devoted to renewable energy. While renewable energy (solar / wind) is important in the context of energy access, the table clearly highlights that it isn’t really key to 2°C.

Declining facts

As if to underscore the point, the panellist from Climate Action Network took the stand and said that the IPCC work helped him realise that the world should and could be running on 100% renewable energy by 2050. It wasn’t at all clear to me where this realisation came from in the actual IPCC work, but you can probably guess who had the longest line of audience members wanting to be met with after the event – it wasn’t me.

Let’s hope for some greater enlightenment in the days to come.

Comparing apples with oranges

The Climate Group has posted an interesting story on its website and has been tweeting a key graph from the piece of work (below) with the attached text saying “From 2000 to 2012, wind and solar energy increased respectively 16-fold and 49-fold”.

Climate Group Image

The story is headed “Wind and Solar Power is Catching up with Nuclear” and argues correctly that the global installed capacity of these two new sources of electricity are catching up with nuclear. Although the article concludes with the sobering reality that actual generation from wind and solar are still just a fraction of that from nuclear, the headline and certainly the tweets are somewhat misleading.

Both wind and solar have very low on-stream factors, something like 30% and 20% respectively in the USA, whereas nuclear is close to 90%. This means that although 1 GW of solar can deliver up to 1 GW of output, this is highly intermittent, needs considerable backup and results in an average output of only 200 MW (with a low of zero half the time). By contrast a 1 GW nuclear power station is on stream most of the time and delivers about 1 GW 24/7 throughout the year. Therefore, comparing solar or wind capacity with nuclear capacity gives little insight into the actual energy being generated, which is really the point of any comparison in the first instance. The global generating picture actually looks like this (Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014);

Generation by source

Wind, but particularly solar generation are still only a fraction of nuclear generation, even with the global nuclear turndown following Fukushima. Interestingly, both wind and solar are only rising at about the same rate that nuclear did in the 1960s and 1970s, so we might expect another 30+ years before they reach the level that nuclear is at today, at least in terms of actual generation.

The comparison of capacity rather than generation has become a staple of the renewable energy industry. Both coal and nuclear provide base load electricity and have very high on-stream factors. Depending on the national circumstances, natural gas may be base load and therefore also have a high on-stream factor, but in the USA it has been closer to 50% as it is quite often used intermittently to match the variability of renewables and the peaks in demand from customers (e.g. early evenings when people come home from work and cook dinner). This is because of the ease with which natural gas generation can be dispatched into or removed from the grid. However, natural gas is also becoming baseload in some parts of the USA given the price of gas and the closure of older coal plants.

Capacity comparisons look great in that they can make it appear that vast amounts of renewable energy is entering the energy mix when in fact that is not the case, at least not to the extent implied. Renewable energy will undoubtedly have its day, but like nuclear and even fossil fuels before it, a generation or two will likely have to pass before we can note its significant impact and possibly even its eventual dominance in the power sector.

Did the UN Summit shift the dial?

The UN Climate Summit has come and gone and leaders from many countries have made announcements, pledges or at least offered moral support. But are we any better off as a result? Reflecting on the last few days of meetings, events, panels and speeches in New York, I would have to argue for the “yes” case. As such, it contributes another piece to the Paris jigsaw.

UN Climate Summit Jigsaw

Although nothing that was formally pledged or offered is likely to make a tangible difference to global emissions in the medium term, one subject has resurfaced in a major way that can: carbon pricing. While there was still a focus on efficiency and renewable energy at many events, the need to implement policy to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions came through loud and clear. In recent months this has been led by the World Bank and they were able to announce in New York that 73 countries and some 1000 companies have signed their Statement, Putting a Price on Carbon, which is an extraordinary result for just a few months of concerted effort.

Given that this was a UN event rather than a national event, the focus naturally shifted to the global story, with an emphasis on how the Paris 2015 agreement might accelerate the shift to carbon pricing and a carbon market that operated globally. The International Emissions Trading Association (IETA) held a number of events around the city outlining its ideas on how this might happen.

Its kickoff was an event on Monday afternoon, the day before the Summit, where a team led by Professor Rob Stavins of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University presented new work on linking various carbon emission mitigation approaches. The work suggests that such linkage could be the foundation mechanism behind a globally networked carbon market and can be found in summary here. It illustrates how even quite different approaches to mitigation might link and then deliver the economic benefits associated with a larger more liquid market.

But if this approach is to be adopted, the big question that would still need to be addressed is how the Paris agreement might actually facilitate it. IETA offered some thinking on is, with an outline proposal that even included some basic treaty text to enable such a process. Given that the 2015 agreement will almost certainly be structured around INDCs, or Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, the text proposal needed to embrace this concept and work with it, rather than attempting to impose a carbon price or carbon market structure by diktat. The basic reason for trading in a market is to exchange goods or services and optimise revenue and / or lower costs as a result, so the text simply suggested that parties (nations) could be offered the ability to exchange and transfer mitigation effort (INDCs) should they (or companies within their economies) wish to do so, but requires that it be recorded in some form of carbon reduction unit. The proposal by IETA is as follows;

Cooperation between Parties in realizing their Contribution

  1. Parties may voluntarily cooperate in achieving their mitigation contributions.
  2. A unified international transfer system is hereby established.

a.  A Party may transfer portions of its defined national contribution to one or more other Parties through carbon units of its choice.
b.  Transfers and receipts of units shall be recorded in equivalent carbon reduction terms.

There could be many variations on this theme, but the idea is to establish the ability to trade and require a carbon unit accounting of it if and when it takes place. Of course many COP decisions will be required in years to come to fully flush this out.

What was interesting about this proposal was the reaction it got from those closer to the negotiating process. Rather than simply acknowledging it, one meeting in New York saw several people debating the wording as if the formal negotiation was underway. I understand that this was exactly the reaction IETA were looking for and hopefully it bodes well for the development of market mechanisms within the Paris outcome.

There were of course other themes running through the various events. The new business coalition, We Mean Business, was actively marketing its new report which attempts to make the case that emission reduction strategies in the business sector can deliver returns on investment approaching 30%. This is a rather misleading claim in that it is primarily focussing on efficiency improvements in certain sectors, which of course factors in the local cost of energy, but particularly electricity. There is no doubt that reducing electricity consumption can lead to improved competitiveness and growth, hence a very attractive ROI, but this is very different to a real reduction in emissions that actually delivers benefits globally. This is a major theme of my recent book. The problem with such claims is that they shift attention away from the much more difficult task of actually reducing emissions to the extent that cumulative atmospheric carbon dioxide is impacted; such reductions require real heavy lifting as delivered through the use of carbon capture and storage.

Overall, It was an interesting week, framed by 300,000 demonstrators on Sunday and a plethora of world leaders speaking at the UN on Tuesday. Just maybe, this was the start of something meaningful.

Energy reality meets Climate Reality

In its enthusiasm to spread the word about the rapid uptake of renewable sources of energy, the Climate Reality Project recently circulated the picture below. It references the amount of wind energy, in particular, that is now being generated in the German State of Schleswig-Holstein.

Climate Reality Renewable Energy

This is Germany’s northernmost state and borders both the North Sea and the Baltic, so benefits from the windy climate that this geography offers. It is well known as Germany’s windiest area


In recent years and as part of the overall push to generate more renewable energy in Germany, considerable wind energy capacity has been installed in this region. While the current level of generation from wind is laudable, this is far from 100% renewable energy. The actual milestone that the state has reached was more accurately described as follows;

The Northern German coastal State of Schleswig-Holstein will be able to mathematically meet its electricity demand fully with renewable energy sources this year if wind yields reach at least average levels, Robert Habeck, Minister of Energy said when presenting a new study last week (May 2014).

This means that the amount of wind (and solar) electricity generated in Schleswig-Holstein will be equal to total demand, but these may not match in terms of timing. At certain times the state will export surplus wind generated electricity into the grid and at other times it will need to draw from the grid to meet its needs, particularly during periods of little wind. Nevertheless, it is quite an achievement, even though it highlights the need for a substantial backup system for renewable electricity generation.

But there is a second major reality associated with “100% renewable energy” statements. We live in a global economy that is only partly powered by electricity, to the extent that even if this electricity is generated entirely from renewable sources, the percentage of renewable energy in the final energy mix will still be less than 20% (see below). Even in OECD countries where electricity is more widely used, this only rises by a few percentage points.

Global final energy 2011

The largest slice of final energy (i.e. energy that is used by the final consumer for the delivery of an energy service, e.g. mobility) is oil, used mainly for mobility in road vehicles, planes, trains and ships. Natural gas and coal are also very large, used primarily for industrial processes such as steel making, chemical plants and similar. Natural gas is also used extensively throughout the world as a residential fuel for boilers and direct home heating.

Coming back to Schleswig-Holstein, the actual percentage of renewable energy in the final mix is probably higher than most areas, not just because of its renewable electricity production but also because of the availability of biomass from the agricultural sector. In Germany as a whole, even if all the electricity was sourced from renewable energy (but it isn’t) and adding to this the biofuel and waste energy sources, a level of ~27% renewable energy would be reached. For Schleswig-Holstein with its current level of renewable generation, that probably translates to ~30% today.

That’s an impressive feat, but it isn’t 100%.

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.

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.

Some energy system home truths

One point of note on the annual calendar of energy events is the release by BP of their Statistical Review of World Energy. The data, all available to download in Excel format, covers the period up to the end of the previous year (i.e. the current data is to the end of 2013) and as such is about 18 months ahead of the equivalent data from the IEA (which is currently up to 2011 but will be updated later this year). Just about anything you might want to know on energy supply, energy consumption, CO2 emissions, fossil fuel reserves etc, is there for the interested user. In recent years BP have updated the tables to include a more comprehensive look at renewable energy as well.

The most recent release by BP was just a couple of weeks ago, so here are a few key energy/climate home truths within it;

Global CO2 emissions just keep on rising: This is hardly a surprise, but given the recent burst of capacity from the renewable energy sector there might be some sign of some levelling off at least. OECD emissions are at least flat now, but non-OECD emissions continue to rise sharply as coal use increases in particular (chart below in millions tonnes CO2 per annum).

Global emissions


The global CO2 intensity of energy isn’t budging: This is a bit more surprising given the influx of natural gas into the global economy and the build rate of renewables. But coal continues to surge and quite some nuclear has been shut down in Japan. The chart below shows the OECD intensity falling as renewables take off in Europe and natural gas increases in the USA, but non-OECD intensity offsets this to give a flat picture overall (chart below is in tonnes of CO2 per barrel of oil equivalent).

Global CO2 intensity of energy


The annual increase in fossil fuel use far exceeds the increase in renewable energy production: While many will readily quote the annual increase in renewable energy investment or annual increase in renewable energy capacity as evidence of turning the corner, the reality in terms of renewable energy produced is somewhat different. The chart below compares the annual coal increase with global solar and wind increases. For reference, the total fossil fuel increase from 2012-2013 was 183 Mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent). The whole picture is rather distorted by the global financial crisis, but coal alone is increasing by something like 100-150 Mtoe per annum. At least for the last couple of years solar has been flat at about 7 Mtoe annual increase.

Increase in coal use

Solar and wind are growing rapidly, but the fossil fuel share of global primary energy is high and steady: Both solar and wind are in their early rapid growth phase where double digit annual increases are expected, but as they become material in the energy system at around 1% of global energy production, don’t be surprised to see this start to level off. The chart below has a log scale (otherwise solar and wind are barely discernible) and shows fossil fuel up in the mid 80’s as a percent of the global energy mix.

Energy mix fraction

Even in Germany it is taking a while for solar to make a showing: While solar PV in Germany is having a profound impact on electricity generation on long sunny days in June, the annual story when looking at total energy use is different. Solar has reached about 2% of the mix (i.e. reached materiality) and might even be showing some signs of slowing up and growing at a more linear rate (but a few more years data are needed to see the real trend). Again, this is a log chart.

German solar


Thanks to BP for the time and effort they put into this work every year.