A bit of thermodynamics

In conjunction with the ADP meeting in Bonn last week, the UNFCCC held a Technical Expert Meeting (TEM) on Carbon Capture and Storage. It was really good to see this critical technology finally getting some airtime at the UNFCCC and even more importantly the attendance at the meeting by the Parties was good. There was plenty of interest, lots of good questions and a real desire to understand how CCS could be further advanced and more importantly deployed. On a historical note, the meeting was held in what was the German Bundestag between 1949 and 1999. The pigeon holes used by the MPs were still there and dutifully labelled with names such as Dr. A. Merkel.

The morning session covered the technology more broadly and focussed in on some major CCS projects either in operation or under development around the world. I had been invited to speak about the Shell Quest Project in Canada. The afternoon session had a focus on the “U” in a new acronym now entering the discussion, CCUS or Carbon Capture Use and Storage.

Carbon Capture and Use sounds like a great way forward; why not capture the CO2 and put it to good use? That way there will be an economic incentive to tackle emissions and the problem will be solved. This took me back to a dinner at COP19 in Warsaw last year where one participant suggested that CO2 be commoditized such that it would be used even more widely. Unfortunately, this is where thermodynamics gets in the way.

Carbon dioxide sits at the bottom of a deep thermodynamic well.

Thermodynamic well

It is a by-product from a very energetic chemical reaction, the oxidation of a hydrocarbon molecule (i.e. combustion). This releases a tremendous amount of energy (which is why fossil fuels have such value), but leaves us with CO2, which then doesn’t have the energy to react quickly with anything. As such, it is very stable and any chemical use for CO2 which converts it into something else requires a similar amount of energy to that produced when the CO2 was created in the first place. One of the key presentations at the CCS TEM was about the manufacture of polycarbonates (and other chemicals) from CO2. This was an excellent piece of work, but the tricky subject of process energy doesn’t jump out of the presentation.

There is also another tricky subject that needs to be opened up; for the most part, the use of CO2 in chemical processes has no impact on the atmospheric CO2 balance, unless of course the chemical is eventually sequestered. Otherwise the CO2 simply returns to the atmosphere when the chemical is used or the plastic degrades. Even if sequestration is the end point, chemical processes will never operate on the scale necessary to manage global CO2 emissions from energy use.

I did a bit more searching on these subjects and found an excellent paper from the University of Bath, but beware it is long, detailed and very technical. However, an extract from the early part of the paper highlights the above points:

The development of methods to activate and use CO2 to prepare chemicals and materials is an attractive research goal. Carbon dioxide is abundant, renewable, of low toxicity and is emitted as a waste product from a myriad of industrial processes. A longstanding goal of synthetic chemistry has been to develop catalysts and processes which consume it, however, such reactions pose significant challenges. As the most highly oxidized state of carbon, CO2 is the lowest energy state of all carbon-containing binary neutral species: indeed, CO2 and water are the end-products of most energy releasing processes, including combustion and metabolic pathways. The table below illustrates the free energy of formation of carbon based molecules: the large energy required to reduce it is the most significant obstacle. This energy can either be directly input as physical energy or indirectly via the use of reactive chemical species as reagents; it is the latter strategy which powers the copolymerisation of epoxides and CO2. Free energy of Formation

Nature is successful in transforming approximately 200 billion tonnes/year of CO2 into carbohydrates via photosynthesis. Synthetic chemistry has been less successful, so far there are only a limited range of reactions which can transform CO2 to useful products, those that yield materials with high market volumes and/or economics are even scarcer. Successful reactions include the synthesis of urea (146 Mt/y, 2008), inorganic carbonates (45 Mt/y, 2008, mostly Na2CO3 via the Solvay process), methanol (6 Mt/y), salicylic acid (60 kt/y, 2003, via the Kolbe-Schmitt process), organic carbonates (100 kt/y, 2009; the subject of recent reviews) and polycarbonates (a few kt/y). Current production volumes for aliphatic polycarbonates produced from CO2 are small, however, the polycarbonates sector as a whole is large and growing. In Asia alone the sector is forecast to grow by 8-10%, resulting in the construction of new polycarbonate plants and opportunities for new technologies. Finally, it is important to note that CO2 consumption by chemical processes (approx. worldwide ~ 100 Mt/y) cannot impact global CO2 levels, nor are they a means to address climate change (UK CO2 emissions in 2008 from power stations exceeded 200 Mt/y). However, they could be a means to add value to a portion of the CO2 from carbon sequestration and storage (CSS) processes.

The last point is critical and it is why processes such as described above and the use of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) are so important. All of these give real value to a modest amount of CO2. This is nowhere near the scale necessary to impact atmospheric concentrations, but enough to allow carbon dioxide capture plants to be built, which in turn allows capture technology to develop and become more cost competitive. This then makes CCS a more attractive option over the longer term and gives confidence that it is commercially viable at a certain carbon price.

The Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, turned up in Queensland very recently to open a coal mine (the $US3.4 billion Caval Ridge Mine in Central Queensland, a joint venture between BHP and Mitsubishi which will produce 5.5 million tonnes annually of metallurgical coal and employ about 500 people). In a TV interview he managed to inflame a number of commentators around the world with his quote that “Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world . . . . . “.

In this world in which it is difficult for politicians to say anything without getting criticised, he was perhaps in a losing situation before he spoke, simply because of the critical role that coal happens to play in the global economy cast against the reality that its cumulative carbon footprint is the single largest contributor over time to the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere. More recently, increased coal use has also contributed most to the rapid rise in global emissions.

In one sense Abbott is correct in that over and over again coal has been the starting point for industrial development. I explored this in more depth a few months ago. Coal is an inexpensive fuel, but perhaps most importantly it requires only minimal technology to utilize. There is no need for pipelines, leakage monitoring or sophisticated storage facilities. One could argue that the most important piece of technology is a shovel. This was true in Victorian England, it is still true in parts of China today and it may well be the case as Africa begins to industrialize on a large scale. Of course, the development of Africa on the back of the vast coal resource that sits in that continent (200 billion tonnes in Botswana alone) will send emissions to levels that are hard to contemplate and even more difficult to reduce. That is highly unlikely to be good for humanity.

Contrast this with the latest offering from activist and author Naomi Klein, who has recently published a book on the climate issue; This Changes Everything. I am about a quarter of the way into this and try as I may to be objective, I am already wondering if I will ever finish it. I feel that I have already been vilified a hundred times over, not just as part of the fossil fuel industry that she likens to an evil empire, but also as a shareholder daring to expect a return on my investments (“. . . . pour their profits into shareholder pockets . . .” ). Ms. Klein seems to believe that nothing short of a return to collective ownership, community living, local production and simple lifestyles will be sufficient to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. She blames anybody and everybody for the problem of rising emissions and lands the issue squarely at the feet of the economic system that has served us pretty well for centuries. Apart from her argument for the need to change everything, it looks as if I will have to plough through another 300 pages to find out how she imagines this might actually happen. My guess is that it could be more wishful thinking than practical policy advice. Should I ever get to page 533 (!!) I will let you know, but I don’t know if I have a thick enough skin for that.

One reviewer did manage to make it to the end and his views can be found here.

In the midst of this cacophony of criticism, the rational middle continues on without much of a voice. But some of us are at least trying. My new book, Putting the Genie Back: 2°C will be harder than we think, hasn’t attracted the talk shows or celebrity endorsements yet, but I have at least had some good feedback from readers and that is very gratifying. I wrote it to try and present a more balanced view of the climate issue and it does seem to be succeeding in that regard.

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.

My new book, Putting the Genie Back, goes to some length picking apart the climate issue and then explaining why carbon capture and storage (CCS) is such a critical part of the solution set. It eventually becomes clear when you really think it about and consider three things;

  • The huge scale of the fossil fuel based energy system;
  • The way carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere and;
  • The extraction economics of fossil fuels.

But few of us have the time to really think about an issue such as climate change, let alone read books on the subject or attend seminars, lectures and climate conferences (although quite a few of these don’t mention CCS at all and some barely acknowledge the need for a carbon price). Rather, in this word of social media, 140 character tweets and 24/7 News Channels, we often get just a few minutes to come to terms with a concept and form an opinion. As such, is it possible to explain the role of CCS in such a short amount of time?

With an eye on the UN Climate Summit and then the opportunities in the lead-up to COP21 in Paris, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has given it a try. The media they have used is video, working with an exciting graphics company called Carbon Visuals. The challenge was to help the audience understand why CCS is important in just a few minutes, not just by being told so, but by being convinced.

Carbon Visuals focussed on two key aspects of the climate issue, that being the huge scale of fossil fuel use and the way in which CO2 from this use accumulates in the ocean / atmosphere system, with further accumulation likely due to the global fossil resource base still to be extracted to meet energy needs.

The visuals depicting scale are very attention grabbing, to help the viewer recognise that fossil fuel use is highly unlikely to diminish in the near term or even vanish in the longer term. For example, daily global coal use alone buries Midtown East Manhattan.

Coal mountain

This is then contrasted with renewable energy, which while growing very rapidly, isn’t even outpacing the growth in fossil fuel use, let alone forcing it down.

The animation steps up a notch when it comes to depicting CO2, which bursts out of Central Park and literally buries New York as it accumulates. These spheres are something of a Carbon Visuals “trademark”, first appearing in an excellent video they made about New York City emissions.

CO2 pile in NYC

Finally, the animation puts this into perspective in terms of global accumulation and the likelihood of exceeding the trillion tonnes of carbon threshold (and therefore 2°C), unless of course large scale deployment of CCS takes place to mitigate such an outcome. Of course a great deal has to happen for this scale of CCS to be built, starting with more widespread application of carbon pricing.

CCS Animation

You can watch the animation here and look in more detail at the images and thinking behind it here.

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.

With the UN Climate Summit on Tuesday September 23rd, there has been a push to have new thinking and material ready for the event. One high profile release on September 16th was the report from The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, or Better Growth, Better Climate, The New Climate Economy Report. This was the culmination of months of work by a select group of academics, business people and economists aimed at showing how both economic growth and the need to address rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere were compatible, if not synergistic. Oddly though, the Commission doesn’t feature any leaders or well-known figures from the energy world.

New Climate Economy Report Cover

The report is solid in its findings, to a point. Although the clear need for a strong, predictable carbon price is mentioned a number of times, there is little follow-up on this in the synthesis report and no usable recommendations or even direction on the development of mechanisms, trading systems or tax policy. Rather the report devotes most of its space to urban development, land use, renewable energy trends and financing of low carbon energy. Even cloud computing and modular building techniques get a mention as examples of step changes in efficiency. There is no doubting that these are important innovations, but the ability to put up a building in China in just 15 days using modular construction is more like putting development on steroids, than addressing greenhouse gas emissions. Faster construction, even with recycled materials (as was the example given), means more urbanization, more electricity use, more roads, cars, transport networks and the like, all to support the new city residents being housed at an accelerated rate.

Development and growth are clearly the themes of this report, but is there enough in there to also tackle the issue of carbon dioxide emissions? Coal is chastised any number of times, but it remains the fuel of choice for newly emerging economies to take their first steps towards industrialization. While carbon pricing gets a nod, but not much else, carbon capture and storage barely rates a mention. Yet this is arguably the game changer for fossil fuels, particularly coal. Oddly the report refers to CCS as a game changer, but doesn’t elaborate. Nevertheless, the report has been eagerly anticipated and as such qualifies as another important piece of the puzzle on the way to COP21 in Paris.

New Climate Economy Report Jigsaw

So now for the straight talk, which rather implies I think that the New Climate Economy Report has its fair share of double-talk!!

I have been writing these blog articles for nearly six years and not surprisingly this has accumulated to a great deal of content. A start-up company in the publishing industry, Whitefox, noticed this and approached me about turning the content into something more substantial. So started a rather lengthy discussion between me, the various communications teams in Shell and Whitefox, but the end result is a good one; an e-book on the climate issue which is now available.

Putting the Genie Back

Hopefully it will be the first of a few, all under the title “Putting the Genie Back”, but with various subtitles. This effort covers the climate issue more broadly, but lands on the essential role that carbon pricing has to play in dealing with it, rather than the hope that simply pushing renewable energy and introducing further efficiency measures will somehow solve the problem by proxy. The current plan is that a second book will cover the subject of the carbon pricing controversy more deeply and the third will look at the international process as we head towards Paris.

For those wondering about the title, it’s meant to encapsulate many themes in just a few words. Genies typically grant great wealth when released, but often come with their own set of problems. They are also very hard to recapture, but in the case of carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels, that may not be as difficult as some think. However, scaling this up to meaningful size will be a challenge.

The book will be available for Kindle and can be found here, so if you are interested in the climate issue but can’t find the time to piece six years of somewhat random posts into a coherent story, then do yourself a favour and download a copy. You will also be doing two great NGOs a favour as well, as they will get the benefit of the small charge made by Amazon. They are C2ES, the Washington based climate and energy think-tank and 2041, a small UK outfit dedicated to the preservation of our last truly untouched ecosystem, Antarctica.

Thanks and enjoy.

I am in New York for Climate Week, which includes the UN Climate Summit on Tuesday. Sunday saw an enormous turnout for the People’s Climate March as can be seen from a few of my pictures below.

Climate march 1 (small)

Climate march 2 (small)

Climate march 3 (small)

Climate march 4 (small)

Climate march 5 (small)

Climate march 6 (small)

Climate march 7 (small)

Climate march 8 (small)

Climate march 9 (small)

Climate march 10 (small)

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

Schleswig-Holstein

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%.

Last week the UK media put a lot of effort into reporting on the EU ban on the sale of the most powerful vacuum cleaners and then extended the discussion to possible future action on other high end appliances that consume a lot of energy, such as powerful hair dryers, kettles, toasters and so on. This was also in a week when there was an extraordinary amount of other news to report on as well, ranging from ISIS to celebrity photo leaks, so it wasn’t as if they were short of content. Yet kettles seemingly won the day.

Daily Exress Kettles

Some media outlets were just outraged at the broader idea of Brussels interfering yet again, but others began a discussion about the effectiveness of the measure, with The Guardian resorting to the headline “Will banning high-powered kettles and hairdryers help climate change efforts?”.

The intention behind the legislation stems from the EU Energy Efficiency Directive, which in turn is part of the 20/20/20 for 2020 package – i.e. 20% reduction in GHGs, 20% renewable energy and 20% improvement in energy efficiency. The package aims to meet a number of energy related policy objectives, but the big three are climate, competitiveness and security of supply.

The Telegraph also reported on the issue and was able to quote EU Energy Commissioner, Günther Oettinger, who said that legislation preventing consumers from buying high-wattage appliances was necessary to fight climate change. To quote;

“We haven’t got round to these devices yet, we want curb power consumption,” he told Bild newspaper. “All EU countries agree that energy efficiency is the most effective method to reduce energy consumption and dependence on imports and to improve the climate. Therefore there needs to be mandatory consumption limits for small electrical appliances.”

Unfortunately it isn’t quite this simple. While using energy more efficiently may well improve EU competitiveness and, provided there is no domestic efficiency driven rebound, might even lower the dependence on imports, the impact on “climate change” will likely be zero. This is because of the “stock” nature of the carbon dioxide problem in the atmosphere and the scale of energy demand globally. Nevertheless, there is the notion expressed by many, that as efficiency effectively drives down local energy use (e.g. in a household or factory), mandating efficiency must be part of the policy mix to reduce global carbon dioxide emissions. Efficiency is a vital part part of economic growth, but it’s relationship to carbon dioxide emissions is much more complex.

I have written about this many times before and perhaps the explanation that I keep returning to as to why people accept the above notion is an examination of the Kaya Identity, which although correct in its presentation of carbon dioxide emissions in the economy leads to a flawed conclusion as to what to do about them. The International Energy Agency (IEA) followed this line of thinking in their 2013 report, Redrawing the Energy-Climate Map. Like many others, they projected what business-as-usual emissions would be by 2020 and then argued that a focus on energy efficiency could reduce this, effectively claiming an emissions reduction. Nevertheless emissions continue to rise.  This reasoning appears to show energy efficiency as the most important contributing factor to change, yet in reality the original projection represents a situation that may never have occurred.  The economy requires improvements in energy efficiency to drive growth, which is why efficiency is so important, but that doesn’t mean emissions reduce in the sense that the eventual load on the atmosphere is impacted. If energy efficiency really is a route to a lower concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then it needs to pass one clear test, i.e. which known fossil fuel resource will be left in the ground (or a proposed extraction project shelved) because of this? Only then are cumulative emissions potentially impacted, which is the real driver of the climate issue.

One unintended consequence of energy efficiency policy can be to exacerbate the emissions problem. In the worst case scenario, an energy efficiency improvement in the power generation supply chain can incentivize the resource holder (e.g. coal mine) to expand the resource base and therefore increase the potential tonnes of carbon that will be released into the atmosphere.

Efficiency mandates have had both positive and negative consequences over time.

  • In many instances they have spurred innovation, leading to the introduction of new products and also reducing the cost of energy services. Air conditioning is a good example, with innovation spurred by programs such as Japan’s Top Runner approach. But this has also made air conditioning much more affordable and therefore more widely available, which in turn has resulted in enormous demand for airconditioners, more settlement and development in hot arid areas and therefore more energy use. This efficiency drive has offered huge benefits to society, but one of them has not been to help manage the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
  • In the USA, the introduction of tough CAFE standards for vehicles in the 1970s and 1980s was partly blamed for the rise of the SUV or light truck. As these were not covered by the standard, they offered a loophole for both the manufacturers and their customers to have larger vehicles without having to invest heavily in new technology to make them more efficient.

The vacuum cleaner mandate is already having a perverse effect. There is a rush to the shops to buy a powerful machine before they vanish, which rather undermines the whole effort . . . . . .

MIT takes a view on a new climate agreement

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In my most recent post outlining ten reasons why the global 2° C goal is more difficult than most commentators imagine, I referenced a new MIT report, Expectations for a New Climate Agreement, which looks at the prospects for the expected Paris COP21 agreement actually changing the current global emissions pathway. The findings don’t give a lot to be hopeful about, but nevertheless are worthy of further review.

The work has been carried out by the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, a unique coming together of disciplines ranging from atmospheric chemistry to macro-economics, all under one roof. The team has developed considerable modelling expertise, which also combines the aforementioned disciplines to allow policy feedback to impact emissions and therefore the climate model itself. For the sake of transparency, Shell is a sponsor of the Joint Program.

The first stumbling block the researchers hit in trying to assess what Paris might deliver was the current lack of detail or even a basic outline of the scope of the deal; this with just 15 months to go. While it is now widely assumed that COP21 will deliver a bottom up agreement based on contributions at a national level, there is almost no information available on accounting periods, review options, the nature of a contribution (e.g., reduction quantity, mitigation action, adaptation effort, financial aid, capacity building, technology transfer, R&D effort), terms of compliance, extension provisions and so on. Rather, all this had to be assumed, with the consequence of considerable uncertainty around the MIT findings. For example, MIT focus on a target date of 2030 for the first round of contributions, but continue the simulation of the effects of assumed contributions through to 2050.

A reference case is presented which sits within the RCP 8.5 range, the equivalent of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 exceeding 1000 ppm over the long term. This represents a 4+°C scenario by the end of the century.

Electricity generation is the single largest emitting sector in most countries and therefore features first in the resulting analysis. The MIT team argue that the majority of policy effects on emissions can be covered with just two options: controls on coal-fired generation and renewable energy mandates. In the case of coal, various regions and countries are assumed to pledge restrictions in coal generation, as outlined in the table below. Crucially though, large future users such as India are not expected to make a pledge of this type.

MIT Coal Assumptions

Renewable energy is also expected to grow strongly, with the EU reaching a 35% share in electricity generation by 2050, with other regions following, albeit not as aggressively.

MIT Renewable Portfolio Assumptions

In the transport sector, efficiency is the trend to watch, with vehicle efficiency improving by 2% per annum from 2020 in developed countries and by 1% per annum in the rest of the world. Similarly, in the commercial transport sector, a constant focus on efficiency in trucking fleets sees emissions between 10 and 20% lower than the reference case by 2050. However, the sector remains oil based for the entire period.

Efficiency is also the major driver in reducing household emissions from the reference case, with developed countries leading the way and achieving a 20% differential by 2050. However, for other parts of the world this falls to as low as a 5% improvement over 30 years.

Significant improvements are also assumed for land use change emissions and methane emissions.

The effect of all this is noticeable, but growth in global emissions still continues through to 2050, although at a slower pace than the reference scenario. MIT have 2050 CO2-eq emissions at about 71 Gt, vs. their estimate of 56 Gt in the year of the agreement, i.e. 2015. This outcome is compared with two other projections in the figure below. One is the Reference case used throughout this analysis. Also shown, for comparison purposes, is their estimate of emissions to 2050 if commitments made in Copenhagen are met in 2020 and sustained thereafter. By this analysis, the expected contributions from current negotiations will bring the nations part way toward an RCP 4.5 pathway (a median global temperature increase of 1.8°C over this century or about 2.6°C above the pre-industrial level) but will also leave much to be done in subsequent efforts.

MIT Reductions

The issue of subsequent efforts and the nature of any review process is where the MIT analysis carries its starkest warning. The paper notes that 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.

Finally, the analysis calls for a common pricing regime as a preference to individual national actions conducted in isolation. The benefit here is a simple one, a lower overall cost for the global economy. Alternatively, for the same cost, greater ambition could be realized.

Based on the MIT work it would appear that negotiators and their national governments still have a long way to go to be able to say that they have a deal and set of actions that is effectively dealing with anthropogenic warming of the climate system.