Archive for the ‘Climate Science’ Category

One million tonnes of CO2

The first week of November sees Shell officially open its first major carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility, the Quest project. It is in Alberta, Canada and will capture and store about one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. Construction commenced back in September 2012 when the Final Investment Decision (FID) was taken and the plant started up and began operating for the first time in September of this year, just three years later. It is one of only a handful of fully integrated carbon capture and storage facilities operating globally. There are now many facilities that capture CO2 but mainly linked to Enhanced Oil Recovery which provides an income source for these projects.  Quest has dedicated CO2 storage, developed in an area some 65 kms from the capture site at a depth of about 2 kms.

Quest Construction

The Quest income source is not based on EOR; it has been able to take advantage of the government implemented carbon price that prevails within Alberta. Although the current carbon pricing mechanism has an effective ceiling of $15 per tonne CO2 which isn’t sufficient for CCS, let alone a first of its kind, it nevertheless provides a valuable incentive income to operate the facility which has been built on the back of two substantial capital grants from the Provincial and Federal governments respectively. A supplementary mechanism also in place in Alberta provide credits related to the carbon price mechanism for the early years of a CCS project, providing additional operating revenue for any new facility.

Canada, as it turns out, has become a global leader in CCS. The Quest facility is the second major project to be started up in Canada is as many years, with the Saskpower Boundary Dam project commencing operations this time last year.

As noted, Quest will capture and store approximately one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. It demonstrates how quickly and efficiently large scale CO2 management can be implemented once the fiscal conditions are in place. Quest, which is relatively small in scale for an industry that is used to managing gas processing and transport in the hundreds of millions to billions of tonnes globally, demonstrates both the need for continued expansion of the CCS industry and the importance of carbon pricing policy to drive it forward. This single facility far surpasses the largest solar PV facilities operating around the world in terms of CO2 management. Take for example the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in California, currently the fourth largest solar PV power station in the world. According to First Solar, it displaces 300,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, less than a third of that captured and permanently stored by Quest.

A key difference though is the use of the word displace. Alternative energy projects don’t directly manage CO2, they generate energy without CO2 emissions. But, as I have noted in previous postings and in my first book, the release of fossil carbon to the atmosphere is more a function of energy prices and resource availability. This means that even when a project like Desert Sunlight operates, the CO2 it notionally displaces may still be released at some other location or at some other time, depending on long term energy prices and extraction economics. There is no doubt that the CO2 is not being emitted right now in California, but that doesn’t necessarily resolve the problem. Quest, by contrast, directly manages the CO2 from fossil fuel extraction.

The requirement to provide alternative energy (i.e. without CO2 emissions) needs to grow, but we shouldn’t imagine that such action, by itself, will fully resolve the climate issue. That will come through the application of carbon pricing mechanisms by governments, driving the further expansion of both the alternative energy and CCS industries as a result.

A video about the Quest project, made by the constructors, Fluor, is available here.

The last few weeks have seen a flood of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) arrive at the UNFCCC offices in Bonn, presumably to be included in the assessment of progress promised by the UNFCCC Secretariat for release well before the Paris COP21.

There are now some 150 submissions and assessing them in aggregate requires some thinking about methodology. For starters, the temperature rise we will eventually see is driven by cumulative emissions over time (with a climate sensitivity of about 2°C per trillion tonnes of carbon – or 3.7 trillion tonnes CO2), not emissions in the period from 2020 to 2025 or 2030 which is the point at which most of the INDCs end. In fact, 2025 or 2030 represent more of a starting point than an end point for many countries. Nevertheless, in reading the INDCs, the proposals put forward by many countries give some clues as to where they might be going.

For Europe, the USA and many developed economies, the decline in emissions is already underway or at least getting started, with most having already said that by mid-century reductions of 70-80% vs. the early part of the century should be possible. But many emerging economies are also giving signs as to their long term intentions. For example, the South Africa INDC proposes a Peak-Plateau-Decline strategy, which sees a peak around 2020-2025, plateau for a decade and then a decline. Similarly, China has clearly signalled a peak in emissions around 2030, although with development at a very different stage in India, such a peak date has yet to be transmitted by that government.

Nevertheless, with some bold and perhaps optimistic assumptions, it is possible to assess the cumulative efforts and see where we might be by the end of the century or into the early part of next century. In doing this I used the following methodology;

  1. Use an 80/20 approach, i.e. assess the INDCs of the top 15-20 emitters and make an assumption about the rest of the world. My list includes USA, China, India, Europe, Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa, Canada, Mexico, Russia, Japan, Australia, Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. In current terms, this represents 85% of global energy system CO2 emissions.
  2. For the rest of the world (ROW), assume that emissions double by 2040 and plateau, before declining slowly throughout the second half of the century.
  3. For most countries, assume that emissions are near zero by 2100, with global energy emissions nearing 5 billion tonnes. The majority of this is in ROW, but with India and China still at about 1 billion tonnes per annum each, effectively residual coal use.
  4. Cement use rises to about 5 billion tonnes per annum by mid-century, with abatement via CCS not happening until the second half of the century. One tonne of cement produces about half a tonne of process CO2 from the calcination of fossil limestone.
  5. Land use CO2 emissions have been assessed by many organisations, but I have used numbers from Oxford University’s spreadsheet, which currently puts it at some 1.4 billion tonnes per annum of carbon (i.e. ~5 billion tonnes CO2). Given the INDC of Brazil and its optimism in managing deforestation, I have assumed that this declines throughout the century, but still remains marginally net positive in 2100.
  6. I have not included short lived climate forcers such as methane. These contribute more to the rate of temperature rise than the eventual outcome, provided of course that by the time we get to the end of the century they have been successfully managed.
  7. Cumulative emissions currently stand at 600 billion tonnes carbon according to

The end result of all of this are the charts below, the first being global CO2 emissions on an annual basis and the one below that being cumulative emissions over time. The all important cumulative emissions top out just below 1.4 trillion tonnes carbon.

Global CO2 Emissions Post INDC

Global Cumulative Emissions post INDCs

The trillionth tonne point, or the equivalent of 2°C, is passed around 2050, some 11 years later than the current end-2038 date indicated on the Oxford University website. My end point is the equivalent of about 2.8°C, well below 4+°C, but not where it needs to be. The curve has to flatten much faster than current INDCs will deliver, yet as emissions accumulate, the time to do so is ticking away.

Even with a five year review period built into the Paris agreement, can the outcome in 2030 or 2035 really be significantly different to this outlook? Will countries that have set out their stall through to 2030 actually change this part way through or even before they have started along said pathway? One indication that they might comes from China, where a number of institutions believe that national emissions could peak well before 2030. However, the problem with accumulation is that history is your enemy as much as the future might be. Even as emissions are sharply reduced, the legacy remains.

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t feel hopeless about such an outcome. Last week I was at the 38th Forum of the MIT Joint Program on the Policy and Science of Global Change and I was reminded again during one of the presentations of their Level 1 to Level 4 mitigation outcomes which I wrote about in my first book, 2°C Will Be Harder than we Think. These are shown below.

Shifting the Risk Profile

Taking no mitigation action at all results in a potential temperature distribution with a tail that stretches out past 7°C, albeit with a low probability. However, we can’t entertain even a low probability of such an outcome, so some level of mitigation must take place. While Level 1 remains the goal (note however that the MIT 2°C is not above pre-industrial, but relative to 1981-2000), MIT have shown that lesser outcomes remove the long tail and contain the climate issue to some extent. The INDC analysis I have presented is similar to Level 2 mitigation, which means the Paris process could deliver a very substantial reduction in global risk even if it doesn’t equate to 2°C. More appreciation of and discussion around this risk management approach is required, rather than the obsession with 2°C or global catastrophe that many currently present.

Of course, extraordinary follow through will be required. Each and every country needs to deliver on their INDC, many of which are dependent on very significant financial assistance. I looked at this recently for Kenya and India. Further, the UNFCCC process needs its own follow through to ensure that global emissions do trend towards zero throughout the century, which remains a very tall order.

Assessing the INDCs

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It is now just 100 days until COP21 in Paris.

The summer months have seen many Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted to the UNFCCC prior to the assessment deadline of October 1st. This is the date when the UNFCCC secretariat will start work on a synthesis report on the aggregate effect of the INDCs as communicated by Parties. Many organisations are already offering assessments of progress, with most basing this on reductions through to 2030 against a notional 2°C pathway.

However, the climate system doesn’t care about 2030 nor does it respond to changes in annual emissions. The real metric is cumulative emissions over time, with each trillion tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere equivalent to about 2°C rise in temperature rise (this isn’t precisely linear, but it is a reasonable rule of thumb to use). This means that any assessment must look well beyond 2030 and make some bold assumptions as to where the emissions pathways then go. It also means that the wide variety of pledges using metrics such as the share of renewable energy in the power generation mix, installed solar capacity or emissions per GDP, whilst important in the context of energy system development, offer limited insight into the trend for cumulative emissions.

A good example of this comes from looking at the INDC from China. They have pledged the following;

  • To achieve the peaking of carbon dioxide emissions around 2030 and making best efforts to peak early;
  • To lower carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 60% to 65% from the 2005 level;
  • To increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20%; and
  • To increase the forest stock volume by around 4.5 billion cubic meters on the 2005 level.

From an energy emissions context, only the first part of this pledge is really important, but little information is given allowing an assessment of its real impact on the climate system. Some big assumnptions will have to be made.

According to the Oxford Martin School carbon emissions counter, global cumulative emissions now stand at nearly 600 billion tonnes of carbon (2.2 trillion tonnes CO2). Back in November 2014 when China and the USA announced their climate deal, I speculated that the Chinese side of the Sino-US deal could see their emissions rising to as much as 14.5 billion tonnes CO2 per annum by 2030 based on the following assumption;

The USA and China appear to have adopted a “Contraction and Convergence” approach, with a goal of around 10 tonnes CO2 per capita for 2030, at least for energy related emissions. For China this means emissions of some 14.5 billion tpa in 2030, compared with the latest IEA number for 2012 of 8.3 billion tonnes, so a 75% increase over 2012 or 166% increase over 2005. It also has China peaking at a level of per capita CO2 emissions similar to Europe when it was more industrial, rather than ramping up to the current level of say, the USA or Australia (both ~16 tonnes). By comparison, Korea currently has energy CO2/capita emissions of ~12 tonnes, so China peaking at 10 is some 17% below that.

Of course China could still peak at lower levels than this and the economic downturn they currently seem to be facing may ensure this. Nevertheless, two reduction pathways following 2030 give a very different cumulative outlook for the period 2015-2100. It is this cumulative outcome that matters, not where China might happen to find itself in 2030. While the period up to 2030 is important, it only tells a fraction of the story. Chinese emissions over that period will likely add some 50 billion tonnes of carbon to the global cumulative total, but this is small compared to their potential remaining cumulative contribution (i.e, before they are at net-zero emissions). The two pathways below illustrate the difference;

  1. A plateau for about a decade, followed by a long slow reduction through to near zero by 2100 means cumulative emissions from 2015 are around 800 billion tonnes of CO2, or 220 billion tonnes of carbon. In this scenario, Chinese emissions alone take the global carbon emissions total to 820 billion tonnes.
  2. A sharp decline from 2030 to zero before 2080 gives cumulative emissions of 550 billion tonnes, or 150 billion tonnes carbon. In this case the global total rises to 750 billion tonnes carbon based on Chinese emissions alone.

Either way, China will have a profound impact on global cumulative emissions. But this fairly simple analysis illustrates that the period from 2030 onwards is where the real story lies, which to date isn’t covered by any of the INDC submissions. For a 2°C outcome, even the lower of the two scenarios above leaves little carbon space for the remaining 7+ billion people living on the planet throughout the 21st century.

Impact of Chinese Cumulative Emissions

Who knew what and when?

A recent article in the Guardian, which was also carried through a number of other media outlets, implied some prior knowledge within the oil and gas industry of climate change and the impact of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel use long before others had recognised its impact. The assertion was based on unearthed correspondence within Exxon where carbon dioxide emissions were discussed as early as 1981. The article goes on to say that “Climate change was largely confined to the realm of science until 1988, when the climate scientist James Hansen told Congress that global warming was caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels.”

In fact, information about the role of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere has been widely available for over a century and has its foundation as far back as the early 19th Century, nearly 200 years ago. At that time, physicists were coming to terms with radiation physics and were attempting to understand why the Earth had a stable temperature. Knowing the energy falling on the planet from the Sun and after building an understanding of the radiation outwards from the Earth itself, the expected temperature of the planet could be derived. Unfortunately the calculation resulted in a number of somewhere around -15°C, which was clearly some 30°C lower than the observed temperature (about +15°C). Something else was in play, but at the time this was unclear. By 1862, an understanding of the role of certain gases in the atmosphere had been established, now more widely known as the “greenhouse effect”.

In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius used this information for a paper on the role of carbon dioxide that remains the foundation of 120 years of analysis of the Earth’s temperature and resulting climate (On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground).


In this paper Arrhenius established a methodology for linking the change in surface temperature with the change in the level of carbon dioxide (carbonic acid as he referred to it as) in the atmosphere. Table VII of the paper showed the results of his calculation for different levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ranging from K=0.67 (where K=1 for the level at the time) to K=3.0. For the latitude of the equator he derived the following results;

Carbonic acid = 0.67 Carbonic acid = 1.5 Carbonic acid = 2.0 Carbonic acid = 2.5 Carbonic acid = 3.0
Temperature change at Latitude 0° -3.02°C 3.15°C 4.95°C 6.42°C 7.3°C

The Arrhenius paper discusses the work of a Professor Högblom, another Swedish scientist of the day, who had even calculated how much the burning of coal at that time (500 million tonnes per annum) might change the surface temperature of the planet. The number was very small, but today annual fossil carbon extraction is some twenty to thirty times greater than this and more importantly the cumulative extraction (which we now know is what actually matters) since the late 19th century is hundreds of time this level.

By the late 1950s, thanks to the work of Charles Keeling of Scipps Institution of Oceanography in California, accurate measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide were being made. In 1961, Keeling produced data showing that carbon dioxide levels were rising steadily in what became known as the “Keeling Curve”. In 1965, the first truly public warning as to the impact of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere came from the President’s Science Advisory Committee (President Lyndon B. Johnson), with the words “Through his worldwide industrial civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. . . . . This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate, and will almost certainly cause significant changes in the temperature and other properties of the stratosphere.

There have been many other such references and warnings, ranging from the 1988 testimony to Congress by NASA scientist James Hansen to Al Gore’s film Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Through all of these the story hasn’t really changed from the original calculations of Arrhenius in 1894, rather the understanding and methodology has been increasingly refined and improved.

The above timeline isn’t new and can be found in much more detail in many books, blogs and periodicals. Nor is it even close to comprehensive, with dozens of other scientists and institutions making important contributions to the early analysis, particularly in the 1950s. Nevertheless, it seems to need repeating. Although atmospheric warming may not have been a dinner table conversation in the 1980s, it wasn’t a secret either. A look at the use of the phrases “greenhouse effect”, “global warming” and “climate change” shows that they appeared in books in the 1970s.


Nor was it largely confined to the realm of science. Hollywood had even picked up on the issue in the 1973 film Soylent Green, where the greenhouse effect is specifically mentioned and is to some extent a core issue in the dystopian future that is postulated.

Soylent Green

Rather, what is unusual about the climate issue is the present day questioning of the background science that has come some 100-200 years after the scientific basis was first formulated and largely established, rather than at the time. In my forthcoming book, “Carbon Pricing Matters”, I touch on this issue as follows;

The need to manage global emissions and put a halt to the relentless build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere requires the intervention of governments and cooperation between them to ensure their success; particularly when implemented through a cost on carbon dioxide emissions. There is an ongoing debate around the role of government and the degree to which it should be allowed to address the issue of global warming. There are many who believe that government should have only a modest role in society; others accept a much wider role, including one to solve broad-based issues that affect society at large, for example, the build-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For the latter group, a carbon price may not go far enough; it is a tool designed to tease out the solution over a generation or more. In the case of those who seek to limit the role of government, the imposition of a pricing mechanism across the entire economy can be seen as a step too far and may even raise questions about the foundation upon which the mechanism is based; the science of climate change.

I have just returned from a personal vacation expedition to the European high Arctic, starting in Longyearbyen, Svalbard and ending in Iceland via the East Coast of Greenland. The trip was on the National Geographic Explorer, a 148-passenger expedition class vessel with ice strengthening.

It was an extraordinary trip and many aspects of it offered opportunities to reflect on the big issues of energy transition and climate change. This started in Longyearbyen itself, where it turns out that in the country of hydro electricity (Norway) this small town runs on coal, mined locally. Svalbard even exports coal, although some of the original mines have long been abandoned. Perhaps in this land of vast glaciers and freezing temperatures hydro isn’t practical, but there wasn’t a wind turbine to be seen either. Wind seems like an obvious contender here but even in the Arctic days of dead calm are possible; we experienced this for nearly two full days in the middle of the Greenland Sea. Of course solar is a non-starter with months of darkness. Powering such a location with dependable 24/7 electricity seems to come down to coal. Equally surprising was that some remote northern towns we visited in Iceland were powered by diesel generator, not geothermal.


Svalbard Coal Mine

It doesn’t require much travel in Svalbard to come across magnificent glaciers, but even here there were signs of change. Most of the glaciers we saw appeared stable, but one in particular was retreating rapidly and the early summer was already revealing large melt water streams on its surface. The retreat was clearly visible, with the slow moving foliage line marking the original and fairly recent (in glacial terms) position of the glacier.

Retreating Glacier

Glacier Meltwater

Similarly in Iceland, all but one of that nation’s glaciers are reportedly in retreat. Observable rapid change in one Svalbard glacier isn’t sufficient evidence to reach a conclusion on the state of the Arctic, but it was interesting to see nevertheless. There was also an indication of change in the permafrost, although once again this was limited to a specific observation in one of the handful of locations we visited. Close to a site where we had come face to face with several curious walruses, the soft thawing ground had collapsed into the sea as a river of mud. This might well be a regular event, but if that were the case it was hard to see how the landscape had survived for such a long period.


Permafrost mud

Climate change was a constant topic of conversation on the ship, in part because there was a talk on the subject, further due to the link with National Geographic but also because of where we were. Being a relatively small ship it didn’t take long for most people to know of my link with the issue, so my vacation was filled with dinner discussions about carbon pricing (given the significant number of Australians on the passenger list), renewable energy and climate science. This wasn’t always easy, with a few of the American travellers arguing from the standpoint of information they heard on certain talk radio shows. But it was always interesting and I enjoyed the sparring on the issue. It was also very apparent that National Geographic travellers are deeply interested in the subject and for the most part, very well informed.

The wildlife was a highlight, but here again there was an interesting sign of change. We had two excellent encounters with wandering polar bears, scouring the ice edge for their next meal, and one sobering encounter with the remains of such a meal. This would normally be the carcass of a seal, but in this instance it was the remnants of a white beaked dolphin, a new phenomenon that has only very recently been observed in the high latitudes. These dolphins aren’t normally found in this area in spring when the pack ice is still widespread and therefore may have become trapped in shifting ice.  They then become prey to the region’s most effective predator, the polar bear. The current view on this is that warmer waters may be encouraging the creatures to move north earlier in the year, therefore exposing them to this new and more dangerous environment.

Polar Bear in Arctic Landscape

Polar Bear Food

But there is one constant in this part of the world and that is ice. Lots of ice. Although there is clear satellite evidence of ice loss from Greenland and declining sea ice in the Arctic Ocean, the ice nevertheless got the best of us. The trip included a passage through the Greenland Sea with one or more stops in Greenland itself, but the latter wasn’t to be. Thick multi-year sea ice kept us some 80 miles from the Greenland coast and no landing was possible. Although the ship is ice strengthened it is not an icebreaker, so we were defeated in a year when the ice cover was tracking below the 2012 minimum, at least until mid-June for the Arctic as a whole.

Midnight Ice

Arctic Sea Ice Extent July 2015

The ice provided a wealth of photographic opportunities, including one of the ship taken far out at sea from a zodiac, but in dead calm conditions.

Ship and Ice

We did get a consolation prize for missing out on Greenland, a visit to Jan Mayan. This is a tiny volcanic island in the middle of the Greenland Sea, but rising rapidly to over 2 kms the volcano itself was anything but small. Needless to say, it was spectacular.

Jan Mayen

You can see a complete set of my pictures of this trip here.

The past few weeks, highlighted by the Business & Climate Summit in Paris and Carbon Expo in Barcelona, has seen many CEOs, senior political figures and institutional leaders call for increased use of carbon pricing. This is certainly the right thing to be saying, but it begs the question, “What next?”. Many countries are already considering or in the process of implementing a carbon pricing system, but still the call rings out. While uptake of carbon pricing at national level certainly needs to accelerate, one critical piece that is missing is some form of global commonality of approach, at least to the extent that prices begin to converge along national lines.

On Monday June 1st six oil and gas companies come together and effectively called for such a step in a letter from their CEOs to Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC and Laurent Fabius, Foreign Minister of France and President of COP 21. Rather than simply echo the call for carbon pricing, the CEOs went a step further and specifically asked;

Therefore, we call on governments, including at the UNFCCC negotiations in Paris and beyond – to:

  • introduce carbon pricing systems where they do not yet exist at the national or regional levels
  • create an international framework that could eventually connect national systems.

To support progress towards these outcomes, our companies would like to open direct dialogue with the UN and willing governments.

The request is very clear – this isn’t just a call for more, but a call to sit down and work on implementation. The CEOs noted that their companies were already members of, amongst other bodies, the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). IETA has been working on connection of (linking) national systems for well over a year (although the history of this effort dates back to the days of the UNFCCC Long Term Cooperative Action – LCA – workstream under the Bali Roadmap) and I am co-chair, along with Jonathan Grant of PWC, of the team that is leading this effort.

Late last year IETA published a strawman proposal for the Paris COP, suggesting some text to set in place a longer term initiative to develop an international linking arrangement. I spoke about this at length to RTCC at Carbon Expo in Barcelona.

DCH Interview

The strawman is what it implies, an idea. It could be built on to develop a placemarker in the Paris agreement to ensure that the framework mentioned by the six CEOs actually gets implemented in the follow-up from Paris – as the CDM was implemented in the follow-up from Kyoto.

From my perspective, this week wasn’t just about carbon pricing, but also about climate science. On the same day that the FT published its story on the letter from the oil and gas industry CEOs, The Guardian chose to run a front page story implying that I had tried to detrimentally influence (apparently being a former oil trader!!) the content of the London Science Museum’s Atmosphere Gallery, a display on climate science that Shell agreed to sponsor some years ago. The reporter had based his story on exchanges between Shell and the Science Museum staff when the gallery was looking to do a recent refresh.

I did engage in such a discussion and I did make some suggestions as to content which I thought was new and interesting since the Atmosphere Gallery was first established. Unfortunately The Guardian wasn’t able to publish my proposals as they were put forward during a meeting between me and two staff members from The Science Museum, so to complete the story I will publish them here. Although this particular piece of science dates back to a 2009 Nature article by Oxford University’s Professor Myles Allen and his team, it didn’t feature in the Gallery when it was first put together (the Advisory Panel met during 2009 as part of the design phase of the Gallery). But today, it is the foundation work behind the concept of a global carbon budget which has become a mainstream topic of discussion. My angle on this was to illustrate the importance of carbon capture and storage in the context of this science, but with an emphasis on the science itself. My discussion with The Science Museum staff members took place on 23rd June 2014 and I asked them to consider the following for the refresh of the gallery:

1. As background, three papers that have come from Oxford University:

  • Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne

Myles R. Allen, David J. Frame, Chris Huntingford, Chris D. Jones, Jason A. Lowe, Malte Meinshausen & Nicolai Meinshausen

  • Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2°C

Malte Meinshausen, Nicolai Meinshausen, William Hare, Sarah C. B. Raper, Katja Frieler, Reto Knutti, David J. Frame & Myles R. Allen

  • The case for mandatory sequestration

Myles R. Allen, David J. Frame and Charles F. Mason

2. Consider using (or adapting) a trillion tonne video made by Shell where Myles Allen talks about CCS in the context of the cumulative emissions issue:

3. Consider putting the Oxford University fossil carbon emissions counter in the Atmosphere Gallery as this would help people understand the vast scale of the current energy system and the rate at which we are collectively approaching the 2°C threshold;

Trillionth Tonne

4. Reference the Trillion Tonne Communique from Cambridge:

5. Offer the use of the Shell “CCS Lift” (an audio-visual CCS experience) to help explain this technology to the gallery visitors.

My pitch to The Science Museum was that this approach offered a real opportunity to feature the Science Museum and the Atmosphere Gallery in the very public discussion on carbon budgets, get some good media attention in the run-up to Paris 2015 (e.g. through the very visible counter), tell the CCS story in context (the Myles Allen video and the CCS audio-visual display) and raise awareness of the cumulative nature of the problem (i.e. the science). In the end they decided not to use this material, but I stand by the proposal.

For Earth Day

All the air in the atmospere but at surface conditions:


All the CO2 emitted in one day:


Courtesy Carbon Visuals

Getting to net-zero emissions

It is looking increasingly likely, but not a given, that a reference to global net-zero emissions or even a specific goal to achieve net-zero emissions by a certain date (e.g. end of the century) will appear in the climate deal that is expected to emerge from the Paris COP at the end of this year. But like many such goals, it is both open to interpretation and raises questions as to how it might actually be achieved.

The background to this is that the issue itself implies that this outcome is necessary. The IPCC says in its 5th Assessment Report;

Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Limiting risks across RFCs (Reasons for Concern) would imply a limit for cumulative emissions of CO2. Such a limit would require that global net emissions of CO2 eventually decrease to zero and would constrain annual emissions over the next few decades (Figure SPM.10) (high confidence).

However, the term net-zero needs some sort of definition, although this is currently missing from the UNFCCC text. One online source offers the following;

Net phase out of GHG emissions means that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere decrease to a level equal to or smaller than anthropogenic removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The above effectively means stabilization of the atmospheric concentration of CO2, which also aligns with the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC Convention (stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system). This could still leave room for some level of emissions in that climate models show atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will decline if anthropogenic emissions abruptly stopped. In a 450 – 500 ppm stabilization scenario emissions could remain in the range 7-10 billion tonnes CO2 per annum without driving the atmospheric concentration higher. This is far below current levels (35 billion tonnes per annum from the energy system alone), but it isn’t zero. It can be classified as net-zero though, in that the atmospheric concentration isn’t rising.

However, such an outcome, while stabilizing the atmospheric concentration may not be sufficient to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. In that case an even lower level of emissions may be required, such that atmospheric concentrations do begin to fall and stabilize at a lower concentration.

Another definition of net-zero may simply apply to anthropogenic emissions directly, irrespective of what the concentration in the atmosphere might be doing. In this case, any remaining emissions from anthropogenic sources (and there will be some) would have to be offset with sequestration of carbon dioxide, either via CCS or a permanent forestry solution. In the CCS case, the carbon dioxide would need to come from a bio-source, such as the combustion of biomass in a power station. This is what the IPCC have termed BECCS.

A final step which goes beyond net-zero, is to have an anthropogenic net-negative emissions situation, which is drawing down on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through some anthropogenic process. This would be necessary to rapidly lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the case of a significantly elevated level that comes about in the intervening years between now and the point at which the concentration stabilizes. Very large scale deployment of BECCS or an atmospheric capture solution with CCS would be required to achieve this.

Finally, there is the consideration that needs to be given to greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. Methane for example, while a potent greenhouse gas, is relatively short lived (a decade) in the atmosphere so will require some thought. Even in a zero energy emissions system, methane from agriculture and cattle will doubtless remain a problem.

Both of the Shell New Lens scenarios end in a  net zero emissions outcome by the end of the century, but this is within the energy system itself and does not encompass the full range of other sources of CO2 emissions and other long lived greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, with extensive deployment of CCS the Mountains scenario heads into negative emissions territory by 2100 and the Oceans scenario soon after that (which means there is potential to offset remaining emissions from very difficult to manage sources). Oceans relies on this approach in a major way to even approach zero in the first instance

Many look to renewable energy as a quick solution to the emissions issue, but the reality is far more complex. While we can imagine a power generation system that is at near zero emissions, made up of nuclear, renewables and fossil fuels with CCS, this is far from a complete solution. Electricity currently represents only 20% of the global final energy mix (see below, click for a larger image: Source IEA).

Global final energy 2012

Solutions will need to be found for a broad range of goods and services that give rise to greenhouse gas emissions, including non-energy sources such as limestone calcination for cement and cattle rearing for dairy and direct consumption. While we can also imagine a significant amount of global light transport migrating to electricity, shipping, heavy transport and aviation will not be so simple. Aviation in particular has no immediate solution other than through a biofuel route although there is some experimentation underway using high intensity solar to provide the energy for synthesis gas manufacture (from carbon dioxide and water), which is then converted to jet fuel via the well-established Fischer–Tropsch process. There are also dozens of industrial processes that rely on furnaces and high temperatures, typically powered by fuels such as natural gas. Metal smelting currently uses coal as the reducing agent, so a carbon based fuel is intrinsic to the process. Solutions will be required for all of these.

Whether we aim for a very low level of emissions, true net-zero anthropogenic emissions or negative emissions is somewhat academic today, given the current level of emissions. All the aforementioned outcomes are going to require a radical re-engineering of the energy system in a relatively short amount of time (< 80 years).

Talking about climate change

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From the rarefied atmosphere of the Swiss Alps to a small London theatre, there has been a lot said about climate change over the last couple of weeks.

The World Economic Forum held its annual retreat at Davos, with climate change high on the agenda. Much of the discussion was about building additional momentum towards a UNFCCC led agreement in Paris at the end of this year. Business leaders, politicians and other prominent people from civil society reiterated the need for a strong outcome. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim was more specific and called on leaders to “break out of the small steps of business as usual and provide that structure, first and foremost by putting a price on carbon”. The call for more emphasis on carbon pricing has been a strong World Bank theme for a year now.

While there was good talk emanating from Davos, in Brussels the scene was very different. The EU Parliament ITRE Committee (Industry, Research and Energy) was apparently not listening to the calls from Davos and instead ended up with “no opinion” on the important proposals required to support the carbon price delivered by the EU ETS, through the early implementation of the proposed Market Stability Reserve (MSR). The “no opinion” outcome was the result of not supporting the need to start the MSR early and use the 900 million backloaded allowances as a first fill, but then rejecting an alternative proposal on how the MSR should be taken forward. The only silver lining in this otherwise dim cloud is that the debate is about the proposed structure of the MSR, rather than whether an MSR should be present at all. Nevertheless, it is disappointing that some industry and business groups in Brussels did not seem aligned with the recognition that many of their member CEOs were giving to the carbon pricing discussion in Davos just a few hundred miles away.  The proposals for the MSR now have to go to the important ENVI (Environment) Committee in Parliament as well as to the Member States, where there is cause for optimism that they will adopt a position in favour of a stronger MSR reform.

One business group did give very strong support to the MSR proposals, the UK and EU based Corporate Leaders Group (CLG). This organisation started its life 10 years ago, which means it is also celebrating a landmark birthday along with the EU ETS. The CLG sits under the Cambridge University Institute for Sustainability Leadership, with the Prince of Wales as its patron. This is a group that has been talking about the need for a robust carbon price in the EU for many years and backing that talk up with strong advocacy in Brussels and various Member State capitals. Birthday celebrations were held in London to mark the occasion, with the Prince of Wales in attendance. The CLG was a step ahead of the World Bank with its own Carbon Price Communique back in 2012. While the World Bank effort has garnered greater support than the original CLG effort, it is worthy of recognition that the current push for this important instrument had its roots in the business community.

Despite the important talk in Brussels and Davos, the real talk on climate change came from a small theatre in Sloan Square, London. Climate change might seem like an odd subject for the London theatre scene, but nevertheless there it was. Chris Rapley, former head of the British Antarctic Survey, more recently the head of the Science Museum and now Professor of Climate Science at University College London, staged an engaging one man show to talk about the climate. This wasn’t the Inconvenient Truth with its high profile narrator and 200 odd PowerPoint slides, but more a fireside chat about paleo-history, the atmosphere, trace gases and the global heat balance. Here was a man who had spent the majority of his life studying this issue, from field measurements in Antarctica to computer analysis of satellite observations and his message was very clear; we are in trouble. There was no alarm, no hysteria and no predictions of an apocalypse, but just a softly spoken physicist explaining his job and describing with great clarity what he had learned over the course of some forty years of hard work. The audience was engrossed by the monologue and the gently changing backdrop of graphs and charts that seemed to envelop the speaker.

Chris Rapley 2071

This production is a unique approach to communicating the climate change issue to a new audience. It is small in scale, but it will get people thinking about the subject and hopefully discussing it in less partisan terms. The show, 2071, has now completed a second short run in London but may be destined for some other venues. I would highly recommend it.

The global energy system works on timescales of decades rather years. When considering the changes required in managing the climate issue, the short to medium term takes us to 2050 and the long term is 2100! As such, drawing long term conclusions based on a 2050 outlook raises validity issues.

A new Letter published in Nature (and reported on here) discusses the long term use of fossil fuels, further exploring the notion that certain reserves of oil, gas and coal should not be extracted and used due to concerns about rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. But the analysis only looks to 2050 in its attempt to quantify which reserves might be more penalised than others, assuming we are in a world that is actually delivering on the goal of limiting warming to 2°C. The authors drew on available data to establish global reserves at 1,294 billion barrels of oil, 192 trillion cubic metres of gas, 728 Gt of hard coal and 276 Gt of lignite. These reserves would result in ~2,900 Gt of CO2 if combusted unabated, with approximately two thirds of this coming from the hard coal alone.

The Letter draws on the original work of Malte Meinshausen, Myles R. Allen et. al. which determined that peak CO2 induced warming was largely linked to the cumulative release of fossil carbon to the atmosphere over time, rather than emission levels at any particular point in time. They determined that surpassing the 2°C global goal could be quantified as equivalent to the release of more than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon (3.7 trillion tonnes CO2), with their timeframe being 1750 (i.e. the start of the modern use of coal) to some distant point in the future, in their case 2500. Precisely when CO2 is released within this timeframe is largely irrelevant to the outcome, but very relevant to the problem in that the continued release of carbon over time, even at much lower levels than today, eventually leads to an accumulation with the same 2°C or higher outcome (the slow running tap into the bathtub problem). Hence, the original work gives rise to the sobering conclusion that net-zero emissions must be a long term societal goal, irrespective of whether the whole issue can be limited to 2°C. “Net-zero” language has now appeared as an optional paragraph in early drafting text for the anticipated global climate deal currently under negotiation.

As a point of reference, the associated Trillionth Tonne website shows the cumulative release to date (January 2015) as 587 billion tonnes of carbon, which leaves 413 billion tonnes (~1.5 trillion tonnes CO2) if the 2°C is not to be breached (on the basis of their midrange climate sensitivity). The chart below is extracted from the original Meinshausen / Allen paper and illustrates the relationship, together with the inherent uncertainty from various climate models.

Peak warming vs cumulative carbon
Further work was done on this by Meinshausen et. al. They attempted to quantify what the results mean in terms of shorter term greenhouse gas emission targets, which after all is what the UNFCCC negotiators might be interested in. While the overarching trillion tonne relationship remains, it was found;

. . . .that a range of 2,050–2,100 Gt CO2 emissions from year 2000 onwards cause a most likely CO2-induced warming of 2°C: in the idealized scenarios they consider that meet this criterion, between 1,550 and 1,950 Gt CO2 are emitted over the years 2000 to 2049.

This focus on a cumulative emissions limit for the period from 2000 to 2049 (which is arguably a period of interest for negotiators) has been picked up by the most recent Letter and it is the starting point for the analysis they present, although slightly refined to 2011 to 2050. The Letter has concluded that;

It has been estimated that to have at least a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming below 2°C throughout the twenty-first century, the cumulative carbon emissions between 2011 and 2050 need to be limited to around 1,100 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (Gt CO2). However, the greenhouse gas emissions contained in present estimates of global fossil fuel reserves are around three times higher than this and so the unabated use of all current fossil fuel reserves is incompatible with a warming limit of 2°C. . . . . Our results suggest that, globally, a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80 per cent of current coal reserves should remain unused from 2010 to 2050 in order to meet the target of 2°C.

Further to this, the Letter also deals with the application of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for mitigation and finds that;

Because of the expense of CCS, its relatively late date of introduction (2025), and the assumed maximum rate at which it can be built, CCS has a relatively modest effect on the overall levels of fossil fuel that can be produced before 2050 in a 2°C scenario.

The choice of 2050 is somewhat arbitrary, in that while it may be important for the negotiating process, it is largely irrelevant for the atmosphere. But running a line through the middle of the century and drawing long term conclusions on that basis does change the nature of the issue and potentially leads to high level findings that are linked to the selection of the line, rather than the science itself. Most notable of these is the finding regarding the use of oil, coal, and gas reserves up to 2050 rather than their use over the century as a whole.

The study notes that current global reserves of coal, oil and gas equate to the release of nearly 3 trillion tonnes of CO2 when used and based on this draws the conclusion that two thirds of this cannot be consumed if a global budget were in place that limits emissions to 1.1 trillion tonnes of CO2 for the period 2011 to 2050. The problem here is that the current reserves are unlikely to be consumed before 2050 anyway. The Shell New lens Scenarios contrast a high natural gas future with a high renewable energy future, but in both cases the unabated CO2 (i.e. before the application of CCS) released from energy use over the period 2011-2050 is about 1.6 trillion tonnes. Using this as a baseline reference point for the period to 2050 rather than total global reserves, would then lead to a different conclusion and a much lower fraction that cannot be used. In the case of the Shell Mountains scenario which has both lower unabated CO2 (high natural gas use) and high CCS deployment, the net release of CO2 from energy use over the period 2011-2050 is about 1.5 trillion tonnes. Of course we should add the other sources of CO2 (i.e. cement and land use change) to this for a complete analysis and also recognise that neither of the New Lens scenarios can resolve the climate issue within the 2°C goal (discussed in an earlier post here), but both are close to net-zero emissions by the end of the century.

Looking out to the end of the century also changes the findings with regards the application of CCS. Any energy technology, be it solar PV or CCS, will take several decades to reach a scale where it substantively impacts the energy system. During that build up period, its impact will therefore be modest and this is the observation made in the Nature Letter. But by 2050 CCS deployment could be substantial and in the Mountains scenario CCS reaches its peak by the end of the 2050s decade. Therefore, it is the use of CCS after 2050 that really impacts the total use of fossil fuels this century. From 2050 to 2100 net fossil fuel emissions in Mountains are ~560 billion tonnes CO2, far less than the period 2011-2050 and similar in scale to a post 2050 “budget” that would be remaining in a world that limited itself to 1 trillion tonnes CO2 over the period 2011-2050 (i.e. for a total of 1.5 trillion tonnes as noted above).

With such CCS infrastructure in place and given the size of the remaining ultimately recoverable resources (which the Letter puts at ~4,000 Gt for coal alone), fossil fuel use could continue into the 22nd Century hardly impacting the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, assuming it remains competitive with the alternatives available at that time. CCS in combination with biomass use, also offers the future possibility of drawdown on atmospheric CO2.

The big challenge is the near term, when fossil fuel use is meeting the majority of energy demand, alternatives are not in place to fill the gap and CCS is not sufficiently at scale to make a truly material difference. Of course if CCS scale up doesn’t start soon, then the long term becomes the near term and the problem just gets worse.