Category Archives: Climate science

Posts relating to climate science

Keystone XL rejected

The Obama administration has officially rejected the proposed Keystone XL pipeline! That is the pipeline that prompted me to travel to Washington D.C. this summer to volunteer at the protests.

The rejection of the pipeline is good news for many reasons.

By rejecting pipelines, the jurisdictions around Alberta can slow the development of the oil sands and reduce the total quantity of fossil fuels that will be burned. These pipelines are also a major investment in an inappropriate technology. Canada needs to be working on developing a decarbonized economy, not encouraging unlimited growth in the unsustainable business of extracting fuels from the oil sands.

President Obama will probably lose a few votes over this decision, particularly from people who think oil is still the future of energy and who do not care about climate change. At the same time, I am sure he will gain some votes too for finally doing the right thing on this. The choice offered to us by the oil sands is to either profit today in a way that harms future generations or to leave the oil in the ground and invest in safer sources of energy.

Fossil fuel rationing

Virtually everyone agrees that putting a price on carbon would be an efficient way to start the transition toward a low-carbon global economy. Right now, there is no cost whatsoever to a person or business who uses the atmosphere as a dumping ground for greenhouse gas pollution. Putting even a small price on doing that – through a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, or a fee-and-dividend scheme – could effectively discourage the most wasteful polluting practices.

Problematically, even when it is perfectly just to do so, it is often wildly politically unpopular to make people pay for something that used to be free. This is part of what makes it so hard to get carbon pricing introduced in the first place, as well as to keep carbon pricing laws on the books once they are established. Cap-and-trade systems could also ‘lose their bite’ if emissions fell below the level of the cap.

What might be even harder politically would be raising carbon prices to the point where they produce emission reductions on the necessary scale. The world needs to be pushing aggressively toward carbon neutrality, and heavily polluting nations like Canada have an enormously long way to go. Getting a high enough carbon price in place to cut emissions to virtually nothing by mid-century is certainly a political challenge.

Perhaps it would be more honest and effective to focus the policy on rationing fossil fuel use, with prices as the mechanism for allocation. This is basically what the fantasy climate policy I wrote about before does: it sets up a mechanism that guarantees that pollution reduction targets will be met, though the carbon prices necessary to achieve that may be extremely high.

It may be no more politically possible to impose high prices as part of a rationing scheme than it would be as part of a carbon pricing scheme not explicitly linked to fossil fuel abandonment. At least a rationing scheme would point clearly at the problem and the ultimate solution – the elimination of fossil fuels from the global energy system.

Is the world choosing geoengineering by default?

Judging by the Durban talks, the world as a whole really doesn’t see climate change as an urgent issue. Nor is there any willingness whatsoever to cut emissions by the amount necessary to prevent temperature rise of over 2°C.

Does this make geoengineering inevitable? 

If the atmospheric concentration of CO2 keeps rising sharply until 2020 and beyond, preventing radical climate change through future emissions cuts may well be impossible. At that point, the deliberate manipulation of the climate system may be the only option that remains.

Objection: problems with Kyoto

Every time there is a Conference of the Parties (COP) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), people who want Canada to continue to do little or nothing about climate change bring up the flaws of the Kyoto Protocol as an argument against action.

This argument is flawed. The problems with Kyoto make it more important to develop an effective global agreement now, and that requires countries like Canada to lead the way in reducing their domestic greenhouse gas pollution.

The UNFCCC and Kyoto

To explain briefly, the 1992 UNFCCC is a framework convention that sets out the world’s general objective when it comes to climate change: preventing dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was the first major attempt to make concrete progress toward that objective. Some (rich) states got emission reduction targets which they agreed to meet by 2012. Other (poorer) states did not have targets, but there were systems established to encourage them to reduce emissions as well, partly through financial help from richer countries directed through institutions like the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Kyoto was an experiment in coordinated global action on climate change, and many things have gone wrong with it. The United States never joined the agreement. Some countries (like Canada) have ignored the targets they agreed to and are now producing much more pollution than they were meant to at this point. Countries like India and China, which had no targets, have seen their emissions grow rapidly. There have been problems with the CDM, such as dubious transactions involving HFC-23. Kyoto also ignores the major issue of pollution that is effectively ’embedded’ in imports.

Whole books could be (and have been) written about the flaws of Kyoto. That being said, it is wrong to see those flaws and conclude that it is no problem for Canada to ignore its Kyoto obligations, or for the UNFCCC process to fall apart. The fact of the matter is that dealing with climate change requires global action. Countries like Canada have become rich on the basis of burning fossil fuels, and currently produce an excessively high level of greenhouse gas emissions per person. It makes sense that countries like Canada lead the way on emissions reduction – a general policy known as contraction and convergence.

The challenge of climate change

If the world continues on the path of carbon-intensive economic activity, we are setting ourselves up to dramatically transform the planet’s climate by the end of this century, with severe consequences for people all over the world. Preventing dangerous or catastrophic climate change requires limiting how much greenhouse gas pollution gets added to the atmosphere; that, in turn, requires that the world abandon fossil fuels and move on to zero-carbon forms of energy. Achieving that transition will be challenging and costly, but so is our continued dependence on fossil fuels. Instead of spending billions developing deepwater oil fields off the coast of Brazil, fracking shale gas in North America, or exploiting Canada’s oil sands, we could be investing our money and effort on the transition to a renewably-based zero-carbon economy of the sort described by David MacKay.

In summary: yes, there are problems with Kyoto. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore climate change. Dealing with the problem requires coordinated international action, and it requires that countries like Canada:

  • (a) take responsibility for the harm they have already caused by altering the climate through fossil fuel use,
  • (b) take the lead in developing a domestic energy system that is compatible with a stable climate, while phasing out fossil fuels, and
  • (c) help the rest of the world to achieve the same transition.

Doing our part in a fair global deal requires a willingness to compensate countries that will suffer from the climate change we have caused, and help them to develop on a safer trajectory than we did.

Our current approach doesn’t even make sense from the perspective of pure economic calculation. At some point in the future, the world as a whole will finally realize just how damaging and dangerous climate change is. When that happens, there will be a collective realization that extracting fossil fuels from shale gas and the oil sands is absolutely the last thing we should be doing. The billions of dollars invested in the technology and the infrastructure used to do that will be wasted when those facilities are forced to close down. On top of that, we will suffer the expense of the additional climate harms that arise because of our delay. Finally, we will need to deploy a zero-carbon energy basis for our economy on a compressed timeline, which is sure to be more expensive than undertaking the task over a longer span of time. It is far more intelligent to build the right thing in the first place than it is to:

  • build the wrong thing (at great expense),
  • suffer the consequences of that choice (at great expense),
  • and then build the right thing in a hurry (at great expense).

There are also major additional benefits associated with an early transition away from fossil fuels: greater geopolitical stability, less air pollution, less water pollution, less destruction of land, etc.

The failure of the Kyoto Protocol to curb the growth in global emissions means we face a bigger problem now than in 1997 and that we have less time to deal with it. The way to do that is to engage constructively with the international community and help drive the emergence of a fair deal, while taking meaningful steps domestically to decarbonize our economy. What we absolutely not do is use the problems with Kyoto as an excuse to continue on a carbon-intensive path of economic development that sacrifices the vital interests of future generations for the short-term profit of those alive and making decisions right now.

Schmittner on climate sensitivity

Recent work published in Science suggests that the climate may be a bit less sensitive to carbon dioxide (CO2) than previously thought. The term ‘climate sensitivity‘ refers to how much the planet is expected to warm if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles. The most commonly cited estimate is 3ËšC.

The recent work, undertaken by Andreas Schmittner, a climate scientist at Oregon State University, suggests that the correct value may be more like 2.4ËšC.

If so, that would be good news for humanity. It would mean that we could burn more fossil fuels while remaining below any particular temperature threshold of warming.

RealClimate on the Keystone XL ‘carbon bomb’

I am personally a bit uncomfortable with the James Hansen’s much-repeated claim that approving the Keystone XL pipeline would be ‘game over’ for the climate. While the amount of greenhouse gas pollution facilitated by the pipeline is large, I am not sure if it is large enough to justify that particular piece of rhetoric.

As such, I was glad to see a new post on the RealClimate blog that fleshes out and evaluates this claim. In it, the author crunches the numbers and basically concludes that Hansen’s argument is defensible. The huge amount of carbon in the oil sands is cause enough to be concerned about their extraction:

Are the oil sands really the “biggest carbon bomb on the planet”? As a point of reference, let’s compare its net carbon content with the Gillette Coalfield in the Powder river basin, one of the largest coal deposits in the world. There are 150 billion metric tons left in this deposit, according to the USGS. How much of that is economically recoverable depends on price and technology. The USGS estimates that about half can be economically mined if coal fetches $60 per ton on the market, but let’s assume that all of the Gillette coal can be eventually recovered. Powder River coal is sub-bituminous, and contains only 45% carbon by weight. (Don’t take that as good news, because it has correspondingly lower energy content so you burn more of it as compared to higher carbon coal like Anthracite; Powder River coal is mined largely because of its low sulfur content). Thus, the carbon in the Powder River coal amounts to 67.5 gigatonnes, far below the carbon content of the Athabasca Oil Sands. So yes, the Keystone XL pipeline does tap into a very big carbon bomb indeed.

But comparison of the Athabaska Oil Sands to an individual coal deposit isn’t really fair, since there are only two major oil sands deposits (the other being in Venezuela) while coal deposits are widespread. Nehring (2009) estimates that world economically recoverable coal amounts to 846 gigatonnes, based on 2005 prices and technology. Using a mean carbon ratio of .75 (again from Table 6 here), that’s 634 gigatonnes of carbon, which all by itself is more than enough to bring us well past “game-over.” The accessible carbon pool in coal is sure to rise as prices increase and extraction technology advances, but the real imponderable is how much coal remains to be discovered. But any way you slice it, coal is still the 800-gigatonne gorilla at the carbon party..

Commentators who argue that the Keystone XL pipeline is no big deal tend to focus on the rate at which the pipeline delivers oil to users (and thence as CO2 to the atmosphere). To an extent, they have a point. The pipeline would carry 500,000 barrels per day, and assuming that we’re talking about lighter crude by the time it gets in the pipeline that adds up to a piddling 2 gigatonnes carbon in a hundred years (exercise: Work this out for yourself given the numbers I stated earlier in this post). However, building Keystone XL lets the camel’s nose in the tent. It is more than a little disingenuous to say the carbon in the Athabasca Oil Sands mostly has to be left in the ground, but before we’ll do this, we’ll just use a bit of it. It’s like an alcoholic who says he’ll leave the vodka in the kitchen cupboard, but first just take “one little sip.”.

So the pipeline itself is really just a skirmish in the battle to protect climate, and if the pipeline gets built despite Bill McKibben’s dedicated army of protesters, that does not mean in and of itself that it’s “game over” for holding warming to 2C. Further, if we do hit a trillion tonnes, it may be “game-over” for holding warming to 2C (apart from praying for low climate sensitivity), but it’s not “game-over” for avoiding the second trillion tonnes, which would bring the likely warming up to 4C. The fight over Keystone XL may be only a skirmish, but for those (like the fellow in this arresting photo ) who seek to limit global warming, it is an important one. It may be too late to halt existing oil sands projects, but the exploitation of this carbon pool has just barely begun. If the Keystone XL pipeline is built, it surely smooths the way for further expansions of the market for oil sands crude. Turning down XL, in contrast, draws a line in the oil sands, and affirms the principle that this carbon shall not pass into the atmosphere.

I find this analysis convincing. If approved, Keystone XL would certainly feed the process of oil sands development. Being able to export and process more bitumen would justify digging up more of the stuff. It would also justify continued investment in research and development of oil sands technologies.

By exploiting the oil sands, we are riding the last desperate coat-tails of fossil fuel dependence. Instead, we should be investing our wealth and energy and intelligence into developing truly sustainable sources of energy that are compatible with a stable climate.

MIT study: “The Future of Coal”

This study from MIT looks useful for those trying to understand the implications of coal use in a warming world:

An interdisciplinary MIT faculty group examined the role of coal in a world where constraints on carbon dioxide emissions are adopted to mitigate global climate change. This follows “The Future of Nuclear Power” which focused on carbon dioxide emissions-free electricity generation from nuclear energy and was published in 2003. This report, the future of coal in a carbon-constrained world, evaluates the technologies and costs associated with the generation of electricity from coal along with those associated with the capture and sequestration of the carbon dioxide produced coal-based power generation. Growing electricity demand in the U.S. and in the world will require increases in all generation options (renewables, coal, and nuclear) in addition to increased efficiency and conservation in its use. Coal will continue to play a significant role in power generation and as such carbon dioxide management from it will become increasingly important. This study, addressed to government, industry and academic leaders, discusses the interrelated technical, economic, environmental and political challenges facing increased coal-based power generation while managing carbon dioxide emissions from this sector.

Among other things, the report highlights the gigantic scale and cost that would accompany the use of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to try to mitigate emissions from coal-fired facilities. That said, they argue that coal use is inevitable because coal is “cheap and abundant” and argue that CCS is the only plausible way to square continued coal use with falling global greenhouse gas pollution.

Key Climate Questions #3: Would geoengineering work?

Despite the strong consensus that human beings are dangerously altering the climate, there are many important scientific questions about climate change that remain unanswered, or where additional research would be valuable. Improved scientific understanding of these questions can help guide appropriate policy-making. This series of posts identifies what some of these questions are and provides information on the scientific work that has been done on them so far.

One possible way to deal with climate change is to intentionally manipulate the climate system to offset the warming that is resulting from human emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs). This concept is called ‘geoengineering‘.

Ideas include putting aerosols into the upper atmosphere that will reflect away sunlight and cool the planet. Alternatives include removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and burying it underground.

Nobody is entirely sure whether such approaches can successfully counteract the warming effect of GHGs. It is also unclear how much geoengineering would cost, and what side effects it would produce.

IPCC presentation on climate and renewables

Renate Christ recently gave a good presentation on climate change and renewable energy (PDF) on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The charts on page 4 and 5 are especially stark. The first shows the huge extent to which the global energy system remains dominated by fossil fuels. The second is a re-affirmation of the chart on this page showing the relative size of different fossil fuel reserves, and showing how reserves of coal dwarf those of oil and gas in terms of how much climate change they can generate. It also shows how large portions of the world’s remaining oil and gas reserves are of an unconventional variety, such as shale gas and oil sands crude.

Climate change and layered uncertainty

One of the trickiest things about making projections about climate change is that what it will end up being like is intertwined with the question of how a number of other important trends develop. For instance, there is the question of how long conventional reserves of coal, oil, and gas will last. Related to that is the question of whether prices of those conventional fossil fuels will increase considerably with scarcity, fall as they are eclipsed by new forms of energy, or something different. Tied to those questions is the unknown future development pathways of all the world’s major economies. Will rapid growth continue in China? If so, what implications will that have for climate and energy? What will the pace of development and deployment be for renewable energy, particularly given different potential policy approaches.

It is possible to imagine many possible global trajectories. In some, climate change impacts prove serious earlier. In others, effects only emerge later. In some, those effects are concentrated in some geographic areas. In other scenarios, different parts of the world experience the largest changes.

We will not be able to ‘wait and see’ how major trends develop, before making our choices about how to deal with climate change. Rather, we need to choose in the face of layered uncertainty. Given that inevitable situation, I would argue that the only prudent approach is to pursue a set of strategies that would prevent disastrous outcomes from occurring, regardless of which predictions prove accurate on various important questions. We cannot, for instance, simply assume that renewable energy, or nuclear energy, or some other energy source will automatically become inexpensive and widely deployed enough in time to prevent the worst effects of climate change. We must also be prepared for scenarios in which conventional fossil fuels become scarce more rapidly than expected, unconventional sources prove uneconomical or slow to deploy, and prices rise substantially.

Avoiding disastrous outcomes requires pursuing a resilient approach that can deal with surprises. It requires investing in numerous technologies and approaches, with the knowledge that not everything will work and the humility to recognize that we cannot know in advance which technologies will be successful and which will not be. That means driving investment and innovation in every major energy source that has the potential to serve humanity’s energy needs in a low-carbon or carbon-neutral way. This clearly includes renewables and nuclear fission. It also includes biomass for stationary power generation and biofuels for vehicles. It includes basic research into promising but speculative technologies like nuclear fusion and space-based solar power. It includes continued and expanded work on energy efficiency.

In addition to all of those things, we need to stop assuming that the world of the future will basically be like the world of today. It may not be the case that energy use will be at the same level fossil fuels have allowed us to reach, either in absolute or per-capita terms. It may not be the case that the most energy-intensive aspects of our current lifestyle will be able to continue. At the same time, there are many benefits that could be realized though the transformation of our energy systems. Fossil fuels produce large quantities of deadly air and water pollution. They also contribute to conflict and geopolitical instability.

If we succeed in moving from a world that runs on dirty, climate-altering fossil fuels to a world that operates much more efficiently using energy that largely comes from renewable sources, we will have achieved one of the most remarkable and positive transformations in the broad sweep of human history. We will also have set humanity up to endure indefinitely, without undermining the relatively stable climate that has accompanied and facilitated the emergence of human civilization. Exactly how we can do that remains unknown, but it will require us to confront layered uncertainty and develop portfolios of effective strategies that allow us to progress to that goal.