Greenland Whodunit

“The next 5–10 years will reveal whether or not [the Greenland Ice Sheet melting of] 2012 was a one off/rare event resulting from the natural variability of the North Atlantic Oscillation or part of an emerging pattern of new extreme high melt years.”

WHO: Edward Hanna, Department of Geography, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
 Xavier Fettweis, Laboratory of Climatology, Department of Geography, University of Liège, Belgium
Sebastian H. Mernild, Climate, Ocean and Sea Ice Modelling Group, Computational Physics and Methods, Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA, Glaciology and Climate Change Laboratory, Center for Scientific Studies/Centre de Estudios Cientificos (CECs), Valdivia, Chile
John Cappelen, Danish Meteorological Institute, Data and Climate, Copenhagen, Denmark
Mads H. Ribergaard, Centre for Ocean and Ice, Danish Meteorological Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark
Christopher A. Shuman, Joint Center for Earth Systems Technology, University of Maryland, Baltimore, USA,  Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, USA
Konrad Steffen, Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Birmensdorf, Switzerland, Institute for Atmosphere and Climate, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zürich, Switzerland, Architecture, Civil and Environmental Engineering, École Polytechnique Fédéral de Lausanne, Switzerland
 Len Wood, School of Marine Science and Engineering, University of Plymouth, Plymouth, UK
Thomas L. Mote, Department of Geography, University of Georgia, Athens, USA

WHAT: Trying to work out the cause of the unprecedented melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet in July 2012

WHEN: 14 June 2013

WHERE: International Journal of Climatology (Int. J. Climatol.) Vol. 33 Iss. 8, June 2013

TITLE: Atmospheric and oceanic climate forcing of the exceptional Greenland ice sheet surface melt in summer 2012 (subs req.)

Science can sometimes be like being a detective (although I would argue it’s cooler) – you’ve got to look at a problem and try and work out how it happened. These researchers set out to do exactly that to try and work out how the hell it was that 98.6% of the ice sheet on Greenland started melting last summer.

Greenland – July 8th on the left only half melting. July 12th on the right, almost all melting (Image: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory)

Greenland – July 8th on the left only half melting. July 12th on the right, almost all melting (Image: Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI/NASA GSFC, and Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory)

For a bit of context, Greenland is the kind of place where the average July temperature in the middle of summer is 2oC and the average summer temperature at the summit of the ice sheet is -13.5oC. Brrr – practically beach weather! So there’s got to be something weird going on for the ice sheet to start melting like that. Who are the suspects?

Atmospheric air conditions
Suspect number one is the atmospheric air conditions. The summer of 2012 was influenced strongly by ‘dominant anti-cyclonic conditions’ which is where warm southerly air moves north and results in warmer and drier conditions. There was also a highly negative North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) which created high temperatures at high altitudes around 4km above sea level, which could explain the melting on the summit. The researchers also pointed out that the drier conditions meant less cloud cover and more sunny days, contributing to speedier melting.

There were issues with the polar jet stream that summer, where it got ‘blocked’ and stuck over Greenland for a while. The researchers used the Greenland Blocking Index (GBI), which while not trading on the NYSE, does tell you about wind height anomalies at certain geopotential heights (yeah, lots of meteorological words in this paper!). All of this makes the atmosphere look pretty guilty.

Jet stream getting funky – temperature anomaly patterns at 600 hectopascals pressure, aka 4000m above sea level with a big red blob over Greenland (from paper)

Jet stream getting funky – temperature anomaly patterns at 600 hectopascals pressure, aka 4000m above sea level with a big red blob over Greenland (from paper)

Sea surface temperatures
Suspect number two is sea surface temperatures. If it was warmer in the ocean – that could have created conditions where the ice sheet melted faster right? The researchers ran a simulation of the conditions around Greenland for the summer of 2012 and then played around with different temperature levels for sea surface, as well as levels of salinity. It didn’t make more than 1% difference, so they don’t think it was sea surface. Also, ocean temperatures change more slowly than air temperatures (that’s why the ocean is still so cold even in the middle of summer!) and when they looked at the data for sea surface temperature, it was actually a bit cooler in 2012 than it was in 2011. Not guilty sea surface temperatures.

Sea surface temperatures (top) and salinity (bottom) both decreasing (from paper)

Sea surface temperatures (top) and salinity (bottom) both decreasing (from paper)

Cloud patterns
Suspect number three is cloud cover patterns, which the researchers said could be a contributor to the ice sheet melting. However, they don’t have a detailed enough data set to work out how much clouds could have contributed to the melt. Not guilty for now clouds – due to lack of evidence.

Which leaves suspect number one – atmospheric air conditions. Guilty! Or, as the paper says ‘our present results strongly suggest that the main forcing of the extreme Greenland Ice Sheet surface melt in July 2012 was atmospheric, linked with changes in the summer NAO, GBI and polar jet stream’.

Now comes the scary part – it’s the atmosphere that we’ve been conducting an accidental experiment on over the last 200 years by burning fossil fuels. As the researchers point out, the North Atlantic Oscillation has a natural variability and patterns, so we could all cross our fingers and hope that the Greenland melting was a once off anomaly. Given the work that Dr Jennifer Francis has been doing at Rutgers into polar ice melt and how that slows the jet stream and causes it to meander; this may not be a good bet. Combine this with the fact that this level of melting is well beyond ‘the most pessimistic future projections’ and it’s getting scarier. This kind of melting was not supposed to occur until 2100, or 2050 in the worst case scenarios.

Interestingly, this could also link through to some of the work Jason Box is doing with his DarkSnow project in Greenland looking at how soot from fires and industry are affecting the melting of Greenland. The paper concludes that the next 5-10 years will show us whether it was a one off or the beginning of a new normal. Unless we stop burning carbon, it will only be the start of a terrifying new normal.

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Playing the Emissions on Shuffle

What do the emission reductions of industrialised nations look like when you count the imports manufactured overseas?

WHO: Glen P. Peters, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo, Norway
Jan C. Minx, Department for Sustainable Engineering, and Department for the Economics of Climate Change, Technical University Berlin, Germany
Christopher L. Weberd, Science and Technology Policy Institute, Washington, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, USA
Ottmar Edenhofer, Department for the Economics of Climate Change, Technical University Berlin, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Potsdam, Germany

WHAT: Measuring the transfer of CO2 emissions through international trade

WHEN: 24 May 2011

WHERE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) vol. 108 no. 21, May 2011

TITLE: Growth in emission transfers via international trade from 1990 to 2008 (open access)

These researchers have found a problem with the way we count carbon emissions. When we count them, countries tend to count them for industries that emit within their own territorial borders, which means that emissions in the developing world have kept going up, while emissions in the developed world (or first world) have either flattened or dropped, depending on how much your government likes to admit the reality of climate change.

However, most of the emissions from the developed world are to produce goods for places like North America and Europe. So these researchers wanted to work out exactly how much international trade contributed towards global emissions increasing by 39% from 1990 – 2008. Was the increase in emissions due to development in countries like China, or was it a case of wealthy countries just shuffling their manufacturing emissions to another country and continuing to increase consumption rates?

As you might guess (spoiler alert) it’s the latter. Turns out all we’ve been doing is moving most of our industrial manufacturing emissions to developing countries and importing the products back, allowing everyone to say ‘yay, we reduced emissions!’ while the actual amount of carbon being burned continues to increase.

Growth in emissions transferred around the globe – dumping our responsibility on other countries (from paper)

Growth in emissions transferred around the globe – dumping our responsibility on other countries (from paper)

But don’t take my word for it – what does the paper say?

The researchers took the global economy and broke it down into 113 regions with 95 individual countries and 57 economic sectors. They then looked at all the national and international data they could get on supply chain emissions to produce goods between 1990-2008, as well as doing extra detailed analysis for the years 1997, 2001 and 2004. They called it a Time Series with Trade and it was based on GDP, bilateral trade and emissions statistics (all of which you can generally find at your national statistics office online). The only thing they left out of their analysis was emissions from land use change, because there wasn’t enough data for them to thoroughly analyse it.

They found that global CO2 emissions from exported goods rose from 4.3 Gigatonnes (Gt) in 1990 to 7.8 Gt of CO2 in 2008, with a big increase in the decade up to 2008. Exports have increased their share of global emissions from 20% to 26% and grew on average by 4.3% per year, which was faster than the global population grew (1.4%), faster than total global CO2 emissions grew (2%) and faster than global GDP grew (3.6%).

The only thing that export emissions didn’t grow faster than was the dollar value of all that trade, which increased by 12% each year. So not only are all those new iPhones costing you a lot of money (and making Apple super wealthy), they’re also burning a lot of carbon.

But the thing the paper points out is that international trade has led to simply shifting the location of the emissions, rather than reducing the emissions – shuffling them around the planet to avoid counting them. The researchers estimate that the transfer of emissions from wealthy countries to developing countries has been 17% per year increasing from 0.4 Gt of CO2 in 1990 to 1.6 Gt in 2008.

This is an issue, because it means that all of the countries that signed on to Kyoto to reduce their carbon emissions – most of which promised around 0.7 Gt CO2 reduction per year – have simply shifted those emissions through trade to make them someone else’s problem, while continuing to consume stuff at an ever increasing rate.

More and more stuff (epSos, flickr)

More and more stuff (epSos, flickr)

The researchers point out that while China is currently the world’s largest emitter of carbon emissions, with the USA at number two, if you counted consumption emissions (meaning you made the USA count the emissions for all the stuff they use that’s made in China), they’d swap places and the USA would be the world’s largest emitter.

This makes sense if you think it through – have a look around your house at everything that’s made in China. All of that carbon that China is burning, which is destroying their air quality and polluting their cities and people; all of that is to make stuff for you to consume.

If you count the consumption emissions, the emissions reduction of 3% from the developed world becomes an emissions growth of 11%. Oops. Also, the researchers point out that emissions reductions in wealthy countries are often exceeded by the growth of trade emissions.

Emission reductions vs emissions transferred to developing world. Annex B: developed world, non-Annex B: developing world (from paper)

Emission reductions vs emissions transferred to developing world. Annex B: developed world, non-Annex B: developing world (from paper)

So what does this mean, other than the fact that everyone is trying to avoid having to clean up their own mess?

It means there’s a problem with the way we count emissions from trade vs emissions from consumption. It also means that we’re currently failing to reduce our carbon emissions in any significant way, which puts us on a straight path to 4, 5 or 6oC of global warming, otherwise known as the next mass extinction.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Looking at the Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions being undertaken by developing countries with the UNFCCC.

WHO: Xander van Tilburg, Sophy Bristow, Frauke Röser, Donovan Escalante , Hanna Fekete, MitigationMomentum Project, Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN)

WHAT: An update on the progress of the NAMA projects under the UNFCCC process

WHEN: June 2013

WHERE: Published on their website MitigationMomentum.org

TITLE: Status Report on Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs) (open access)

This week, the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) is meeting in Bonn to try and make some more progress towards action on climate change (yay!). One of the papers that was released to time with the negotiations is this one and I thought it would be interesting to look at what actually happens on the ground in relation to the high level negotiations. There will be lots of acronyms, so bear with me and I’ll try and get us there in English.

What is a NAMA?

NAMAs are not this guy (photo: Tamboko the Jaguar, flickr)

NAMAs are not this guy (photo: Tamboko the Jaguar, flickr)

Did you say Llama? No, NAMA… In true bureaucratic style, the UN came up with the really forgettable name of NAMA for Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions, which can also be called ‘correctly fitting climate jeans’ or even ‘different places are different’. I want to keep calling them llamas (because I lack that maturity) but I promise not to make any bad llama jokes. The main thing you need to remember is that climate mitigation in Alaska is obviously going to be different to climate mitigation in Indonesia because they’re very different locations and economies.

The idea with NAMA is for a bottom up approach to the UNFCCC negotiations and the ideas that come out of the negotiations (they’re not just talk-fests – they have program and policy ideas too!).

Because the wealthy industrialised countries (also called the First World, Global North or Annex 1 in UN speak) are mostly responsible for the emissions causing climate change, we are also then more responsible for the cleanup. So in 2007 at the Conference of the Parties (COP 13) in Bali, it was decided that NAMA projects should be created by developing countries for mitigation projects they’d like to do which would be funded by industrialised countries.

The projects need to be related to sustainable development and are supported through technology, financing and capacity building (training local people). The people running the projects also report back to the UNFCCC so that progress can be monitored (like any project). The first group of NAMAs were submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat at the Copenhagen COP 15 in 2009.

NAMA projects are only conducted in developing countries because the idea is that it’s going to be easier for those countries to change the way they’re developing towards a low carbon economy, rather than just following in the full carbon burning footsteps of the industrialised world and then having to retrofit low carbon alternatives.

So if they’re going to try and build it right the first time round, what do they do? First, the country comes up with a feasibility study – what do they want to do and is it possible? If it is possible, then they develop the concept to present to the UNFCCC for funding. The concept has to have a mitigation objective and be clear about who is running the project as well as support from the government of the country.

Once they’ve worked out what they’re doing, they start the preparation phase where they work out the costs, the specific support they need to pull off the project and an estimate of how much carbon emissions will be reduced through the project.

Finally, they start the implementation of the project, which is my favourite bit – getting on the ground and getting it done.

NAMA projects by stage (left) and location (right) (from paper)

NAMA projects by stage (left) and location (right) (from paper)

So far, €100million has been provided to NAMA projects, and a NAMA facility was launched to help the projects with financial and technical support in December 2012. Most of the projects are related to energy supply and the majority of them (56%) are based in Latin America.

The funding agreed to was from 2010 until 2012, so a long term financing arrangement will need to be made at this year’s talks, but I think it’s really exciting to see the tangible reality of what the UNFCCC is trying to do.

The first two NAMA projects submitted were from Mali and Ethiopia looking at shifting freight to electric rail in Ethiopia and energy efficiency and renewable energy supply in Mali.

So far, five projects have advanced far enough to receive funding. The projects are between 3-5 years in length, need between €5 – €15million in funding and should be able to start quickly (within 3-12 months) after applying.

The five projects are:

  1. Small scale renewable energy projects in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia with a feed-in tariff for independent power producers (IPPs)
  2. A project to stimulate investment in renewable energy systems in Chile
  3. Waste to energy systems using agricultural waste in Peru (with different approaches tailored to different geographic locations)
  4. Energy conservation and efficiency standards for the building sector in Tunisia
  5. A geothermal energy project in Kenya

There are still details and processes that need to be worked out as the NAMA program progresses, given that one size never fits all for climate mitigation and renewable energy generation. But I really like the idea of locally developed projects that suit the challenges different countries face being implemented on the ground, supported at a high level from the UNFCCC.

Climate Question: Do We Get to Keep Flying?

An analysis of jet fuel alternatives that could be viable in the next decade.

WHO: James I. Hileman, Hsin Min Wong, Pearl E. Donohoo, Malcolm A. Weiss, Ian A. Waitz, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
David S. Ortiz, James T. Bartis, RAND Corporation Environment, Energy and Economic Development Program

WHAT: A feasibility study of alternatives to conventional jet fuel for aircraft.

WHEN: 2009

WHERE: Published on both the MIT website and RAND Corporation website

TITLE: Near-Term Feasibility of Alternative Jet Fuels

Last week, I looked at how our transport systems could be carbon free by 2100 and was intrigued by the comment ‘hydro-processed renewable jet fuel made from plant oils or animal fats is likely to be the only biomass-based fuel that could be used as a pure fuel for aviation, but would require various additives in order to be viable as an aviation fuel’.

It made me wonder what was being done for airplane fuel alternatives, or do we not have any alternatives and will I have to give up visiting my family in Australia?

Any other options? (photo: Amy Huva 2013)

Any other options? (photo: Amy Huva 2013)

I came across this technical report by MIT and the RAND Corporation (apparently RAND stands for Research ANd Development) and sat down to read all 150pages (you’re welcome) and see what our options for fuels that we could feasibly use in the next decade are.

The paper compared alternative fuels on the basis of compatibility with existing aircraft and infrastructure, production potential, production costs, lifecycle Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, air quality emissions, merit of the fuel as jet fuel vs ground fuel and the maturity of the technology.

The researchers pointed out (quite rightly) that emissions from biofuels need to take into account the carbon emitted through land use changes because if you clear-fell a forest to plant a biofuel crop any carbon you’ve saved by not burning oil has just been invalidated by the carbon emitted from clear-felling the forest.

Deforestation: not helpful. (Image by: Aidenvironment, flickr)

Deforestation: not helpful. (Image by: Aidenvironment, flickr)

There were five different fuel groups looked at;

  1. Conventional Petroleum
  2. Unconventional Petroleum
  3. Synthetic fuel from natural gas, coal or biomass
  4. Renewable oils
  5. Alcohols

The standard fuel used in North America for aviation is called Jet A and was used as the benchmark for the study. So what did they find?

Conventional Petroleum Fuels

Almost all Jet A fuel comes from crude oil and is kerosene based. The emissions from Jet A are 87.5g of CO2e (CO2 equivalent) per megajoule (MJ) of energy created (g CO2e/MJ). Of that 87.5g, 73.2g comes from the burning of the fuel and there can be a 7% variation on the amount emitted from refining depending on the quality of the crude oil used and the refining process.

The world consumption of jet fuel is estimated at 5million barrels per day of oil. This number is really hard to wrap your head around, so let me quickly walk you through some math. A barrel of oil is 159L, which means 5million barrels per day is 795,000,000L of oil burned each day. To get that volume of water, you would have to run a fire hose (359L/minute) for 101 years (yes, YEARS). We burn that much in one day.

Given that a conventional fuel is already oil based and you can’t reduce those carbon emissions, the tweak for this paper was an Ultra Low Sulfur Jet A fuel, which would reduce sulfur emissions from burning the fuel.

While it’s a great to reduce sulfur emissions that cause acid rain, the extra refining needed upped the lifecycle emissions to 89g CO2e/MJ.

Unconventional Petroleum Fuels

Unconventional fuels are things like the Canadian tar sands (or oil sands if you’re their PR people) and Venezuelan Heavy Oil. These oils are dirtier and require more refining to be made into jet fuel. They also require more effort to get out of the ground, and so the lifecycle emissions are 103g CO2e/MJ (with an uncertainty of 5%). The upstream emissions of sourcing and refining the fuel are what add the extra – burning the fuel has the same emissions as Jet A, and the upstream emissions range from 16g CO2e/MJ for open cut mining to 26g CO2e/MJ for in-situ mining.

You can also get shale oil through the process of fracking and refine it to Jet A. Shale based Jet A also burns the same as Jet A, but the extraction emissions are a whopping 41g CO2e/MJ which is double the tar sands extraction emissions, giving an overall 114.2g CO2e/MJ lifecycle emissions.

Fischer-Tropsch Synthetic Fuels

These are fuels derived through the catalysed Fisher-Tropsch process and then refined into a fuel. These fuels are good because they have almost zero sulfur content (and therefore almost zero sulfur emissions). They don’t work as a 100% fuel without an engine refit because of the different aromatic hydrocarbon content, and the energy density is 3% less than Jet A (meaning you’d need 3% more fuel in the tank to go the same distance as Jet A fuel). However, it does combine easily to make a 50/50 blend for planes.

You can make FT Synthetic fuel from natural gas which gives you 101g CO2e/MJ emissions, from coal which gives you between 120-195g CO2e/MJ and relies on carbon capture and storage as a technical fix, or from biomass, which has almost zero lifecycle emissions ONLY if you use a waste product as the source and don’t contribute to further land use changes.

Renewable Oils

These are biodiesel or biokerosene which can be made from soybean oil, canola oil, palm oil, coconut oil, animal fats, waste products or halophytes and algae.

Because this paper was looking at fuels that could be commercially used in the next 10 years, they looked at a 5% blend with Jet A fuel to meet freeze point requirements (most renewable oils freeze at too high a temperature for the altitude planes fly at). They found too many safety and freezing point issues with biodiesel or biokerosene, so didn’t calculate the emissions from them as they’re not practical for use.

Another renewable oil is Hydroprocessed Jet Fuel entertainingly sometimes called ‘Syntroleum’. This is made from plant oils, animal fats or waste grease. Soybean oil without land use emissions would have only 40-80% of the emissions of Jet A, while palm oil would have 30-40% the emissions of Jet A.

Alcohol Fuels

The paper looked at using ethanol (the alcohol we drink) and butanol as replacement fuels. They both had lower energy densities to Jet A, higher volatility (being flammable and explosive) and issues with freezing at cruising altitude. While butanol is slightly safer to use as a jet fuel than ethanol, the report suggests it’s better used as a ground transport fuel than a jet fuel (I assume the better use of ethanol as a drink is implied).

Options for jet fuel alternatives (from paper)

Options for jet fuel alternatives (from paper)

After going through all the options, the researchers found that the three main options we have for alternative fuels over the next decade that could be commercially implemented are;

  1. Tar sands oil
  2. Coal-derived FT Synthetic oil
  3. Hydroprocessed Renewable jet fuel

They recommended that when looking to reduce the emissions from the transport sector that aviation shouldn’t be treated any differently. While strongly recommending that land use changes be taken into account for the use of biofuels, they also pointed out that the use for aviation should also be looked at as limited biofuel resources may be more effective producing heat and power rather than being used for transport.

Personally, I don’t find the report very heartening given that the first two options involve either dirtier oil or really dirty coal when what we need to be doing is reducing our emissions, not changing the form they’re in and still burning them. I’ll be keeping my eye out for any new research into hydroprocessed renewable jet fuels that could use waste products or algae – given the speed that oceans are acidifying, there could be a lot of ocean deadzones that are really good at growing algae and could be used as a jet fuel.

But until then, it looks like there aren’t many options for the continuation of air travel once we start seriously reducing our emissions – they’ll be a really quick way to burn through our remaining carbon budget.