Worrying about the near term

Much is being made of a new paper in Nature Geoscience in which the authors recalculate “Emission budgets and pathways consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 °C.” Whether the authors are justified in their marginally optimistic conclusions — and there’s plenty of debate about that — there really isn’t much in the way of policy guidance here. Just look at this money quote in Nature:

“The Paris goal of 1.5 °C is not impossible — it’s just very, very difficult,” says lead author Richard Millar, a climate researcher at the University of Oxford, UK.

Or as Millar and his colleagues put in in their abstract:

Hence, limiting warming to 1.5°C is not yet a geophysical impossibility, but is likely to require delivery on strengthened pledges for 2030 followed by challengingly deep and rapid mitigation.

Yes, well. Ahem. “Challengingly deep” isn’t exactly cause for breaking out the champagne, now, is it? But there is a policy lesson hiding elsewhere in this paper, regardless of just how mind-bendingly difficult it will be to keep temperatures and sea-level rise to manageable levels.  What Millar et al. did was delve into the tricky world of short-term climate projections, which rely a heck of a lot on economic and technology factors.

The Nature story addresses the problem at the end.

Uncertainty about the details of humanity’s carbon budget don’t matter so much when scientists are modelling the cumulative effect of greenhouse gases over the course of centuries. But fine details matter a great deal when researchers are looking at what level of greenhouse-gas emissions would bump warming to 1.5 °C, because, in that case, scientists’ goal is to tease out the precise effects of heat-trapping gases over a few decades.

“When we start thinking about really ambitious mitigation goals in the really near term, everything starts to matter,” Millar says.

Consider that last line for a second. “Everything starts to matter.” That would include factors like short-lived radiative forcing elements such as fugitive methane emissions. Plenty of climatologists who focus on long-term modeling tend to pooh-pooh the influence of the methane that escapes into the atmosphere before it’s turned into CO2 in gas-fired power plants. And that makes sense because methane turns into CO2 in a matter of a few decades, so why worry about it? It’s how countries like the US and the UK can claim to have reduced carbon footprints by converting from coal to natural gas.

But in the near-term, say 20 years, methane is 86 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2, so it has a massive potential impact, if only briefly, and even if only a small fraction of the natural gas leaks out from the wells and pipes. Indeed, those lower emission rates from switching to natural gas, while reducing CO2 levels, may actually increase total carbon emissions, in the near-term.

So if what you care about is what happens in the near-term, then natural gas and everything else really does matter. And what happens if the climate forcing resulting from briefly elevated methane emissions is enough to trigger positive feedback loop of carbon release from the permafrost or ocean depths? What are the implications for the expected need for carbon-drawdown technologies once we’ve peaked emissions, but end up with atmospheric carbon levels that are way too high? These are not esoteric questions.

Besides, from a political point of view, near-term effects are far more powerful motivators of policy-making than is the specter of a miserable world 100 years from now. Why not take advantage of this new understanding that “everything matters” and run with it?




The data gap problem

“The monitoring of the atmosphere, of the surface of the Earth, of what’s going on in the ocean and under the ice — all of that is overwhelmingly funded by the federal government.”

— Former Obama science adviser John Holdren

The other day a friend of mine who works in Beijing as a foreign correspondent suggested that of all the acts of stupidity committed by Donald Trump since assuming office, the thing that bothers him the least is the decision to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement. Haven’t we actually moved beyond relying on government to reduce carbon emissions? he asked. Isn’t the private sector basically doing that for us?

This is a common observation. And he wasn’t just speaking from the position of someone who’s paid to pay attention to what China is doing. A few months ago, you could read all sorts of exhortations about the apparent, or at least impending, decoupling of carbon emissions and economic growth rates. Such predictions are practically a growth industry themselves. And it’s true so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. Yes, wind and solar power are rapidly becoming economic options. But we haven’t been able to record a significant global decoupling, and nothing like that for any meaningful length of time. Even if it does come about, we still have to worry about the climate madness that’s already been baked into the system by the last 200 years of emissions.

The more troubling part of this idea is that it leads to complacency about the public sector’s role in dealing with climate disruption. To do that we need data. Lots of it. And this is why we should be worried about Trump and his allies, Paris or not.

The New York Times‘ Jon Gertner explores what might happen if and when some of the current crop of Earth-0bservation satellites fall out of the sky and aren’t replaced. His magazine piece, “What Could We Lose if a NASA Climate Mission Goes Dark?,” focuses on a pair of aging satellites that are the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE. At the beginning of this month, they were falling 250 feet a day. And when they burn up, as they will within months, there goes a massive amount of important data that climate analysts — including the people who are building Climate City here in Asheville, N.C. — need to be able to tell their clients how to anticipate the ecological changes that warming the world is already bringing.

… if Grace goes dark or perishes before then, there will be a break in NASA’s continuous observation of Earth’s gravity field and water dynamics. Climate researchers will be confronted with what’s known as a “data gap,” which can leave them at a loss for drawing scientific conclusions about environmental trends.

Replacements are getting ready, but they won’t be launched until sometime next year. Hence the data gap. And if the Trumpistas get their way, this sort of thing is going to become a new normal. As Gertner points out, “the recent Trump budget proposal … made the unusual request of turning off the Earth sensors on an orbiting spacecraft, Dscovr, to save $1.2 million.”

This kind of data-gathering is exactly what the private sector can’t do, nor should it. Elon Musk, for all his accomplishments and his desire to save the planet, isn’t interested in doing science experiments. He just wants to help governments carrying out that part of the plan. For one thing, scientists are terrible at predicting how useful their data will turn out to be, and how it will be applied. Corporations are loathe to take stabs in the dark. And then there’s the cost. Satellites are expensive and by their very nature, operate in a global context. Only governments — and international collaborations of governments — can afford to engage in these types of ventures. And there are other incompatibilities, as Gertner describes:

Private-sector satellite companies have in recent years been expanding the business of collecting and selling Earth observational data, but it’s very unlikely that such firms (or a group of tech philanthropists) could adequately replace NASA’s work. “These are projects that are too expensive or require a large and diverse group of collaborators that can only be assembled as an international project,” said Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman who is now the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Or this is work that has to be sustained for a longer period of time than any board of directors from a private company would consider, because it’s not clear enough that it would produce a return on investment in anyone’s lifetime.”

Another problem that occurs to me is the potential conflict between private and public interests. What happens if a firm that gathered some very useful datasets decides, for whatever reason, not to share them with the scientific community? Some things should never be kept secret.

So the next time you hear the claim that the free market will take care of climate change, the best response might be: Yeah, it’s great that business is finally getting on board. But business can’t do it alone, and in fact, without the active and aggressive participation of government, we’re not going to be able to handle existing climate trends, let alone what’s coming down the pipeline if we don’t get those same businesses to stop burning fossil fuels.

A surprisingly subversive look at what the coming energy transformation will look like

The Conference Board of Canada, usually described as a business-friendly think tank, has come out with a report that is refreshingly honest, and even a bit subversive — especially if you pay extra attention to some sidebars, consider what the authors deliberately left out, and are at least a little familiar with the science of power consumption and generation.

The full report, which is behind a freewall — it is downloadable for the cost of supplying your contact information — concludes that converting Canada’s economy to a carbon-free energy mix won’t actually cost all that much. But what I find more interesting is that much of the report’s details support the notion that even optimistic predictions are unnecessarily (small-c) conservative. This suggests the authors (Len Coad, Robyn Gibbard, Alicia Macdonald, and Matthew Stewart) are trying to serve two audiences: the captains of industry who are their patrons on the one hand, and the folks who will do the real heavy-lifting during the coming transition period on the other.

The report’s main thrust is calculating the economic impact of impending carbon taxes, which are scheduled to come into effect next year. You don’t need to worry about the precise numbers, which are all really not much more than barely educated guesses. The important part is even the more aggressive scenarios (like taxes rising to $200/tonne,  several times even the highest of the carbon taxes now in effect) show that the country won’t fall apart.

Overall, the economic impact of eliminating most fossil fuels from the power generation mix is significant—but not overwhelming. The total impact on GDP, at $7.2 billion, is comparable to the output of a relatively small Canadian industry.

So that’s good news.

The even-better news is how much the authors of The Cost of a Cleaner Future: Examining the Economic Impacts of Reducing GHG Emission have managed to misrepresent about the likely future, either deliberately or disingenuously.

First, there is scant mention of the role of either energy efficiency or electrification on future power demand, even though both of these factors are critical to any useful understanding of what’s to come. First, Moore’s Law is pretty much still in effect and something similar continues to hold sway over how much energy we need to do most of what passes for work these days. Not to take into account expected declines in demand thanks to more efficient technology is bizarre to say the least.

Even more puzzling is the failure to address what happens when you switch from running your economy on fossil fuels to running on electricity. The bottom line is you lose a lot less energy to waste heat. Much effort has been made by others to anticipate this effect and the outcome of those calculations. As Mark Jacobson  and Mark Delucci have demonstrated repeatedly, switching to an economy based on wind, water and solar will actually mean demand will fall, not rise, even when you take into account population and economic growth. The difference is actually about 30%. Some have taken issue with Jacobson’s numbers, but even if he’s missed something (which I doubt) and his estimates are off by a bit, the idea deserves at least some mention in a document that pretends to be running sophisticated model of future energy needs.

Instead we get lines like “To eliminate fossil fuels from the grid, over 20 gigawatts of installed generating capacity will need to be replaced.” If Jacobson is right, we’ll actually only need 14 GW. That’s significant, and if you’re a jurisdiction like Alberta or Saskatchewan, now relying on coal, oil and gas for  70-78% of your electricity, every gigawatt is going to count.

Coad et al. also seem to be stuck in old-school thinking when it comes to what generating electricity means from an industrial point of view. They write:

Acceptance of large-scale projects: Substantial investment in large-scale hydro, nuclear, wind, and transmission projects will be required in all parts of the country. Large-scale projects typically attract their share of controversy, and acceptance of these projects among environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and the public is necessary.

Yes, some large-scale projects will be built. Cities are hungry beasts. The controversial Site C hydro dam in northern B.C. will almost certainly overcome the opposition it now faces because there’s just to much potential energy sitting there for it not to be used — mostly by Alberta, which will need something to replace all the coal it’s now burning.  But nuclear? Doubtful, unless we can come up with economical options for fancy  new thorium reactors. The more problematic aspect of this vision is the idea that centralized electricity generation has a major role to play in the future. It probably does, but only to an extent. Decentralized, small-scale generation in the form of wind, solar, run-of-river hydro and geothermal are widely understood to be more likely candidates.

All of this means things will probably be even less disruptive, create even more jobs, and cost even less to the economy, than the report foresees. And what they foresee isn’t that dark to begin with. There are hints that the authors know this. Sprinkled throughout are references and asides that cast doubt on the conventional thinking they ostensibly embrace. For example, there’s a sidebar devoted to debunking (politely) the idea that closing the coal-fired power plants in Ontario is responsible for the recent hikes in electricity bills in the province. In reality, the causes are many and the situation is much more complicated than that. For one thing, “the province has ended up with far more generation capacity than it needs.”

There’s also a fair bit of speculation about the bigger picture, especially when the more dramatic scenarios are explored:

The fact that the GDP hit is so small relative to the lost investment in this pathway provides an interesting insight. It suggests that the investments being given up in this pathway were contributing relatively little to GDP in Canada, as most of the forgone investment would have been spent on imported goods and services.

…if we broaden the scope beyond just looking at the required investments and assess how behavioural and policy changes can impact the results, it is evident that deep emissions reductions are possible at a much smaller cost.

Indeed. Even the Conference Board of Canada is telling you to stop worrying so much about giving up fossil fuels. How about that?