Our Fast-Paced Modern Climate

How can we determine dangerous levels of climate change so that we can stay within those limits?

WHO: James Hansen, Makiko Sato, Jeffrey Sachs, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, USA Pushker Kharecha, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, NASA, New York, USA
Valerie Masson-Delmotte, Institut Pierre Simon Laplace, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’Environnement (CEA-CNRS-UVSQ), Gif-sur-Yvette, France
Frank Ackerman, Synapse Energy Economics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
David J. Beerling, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, UK
Paul J. Hearty, Department of Environmental Studies, University of North Carolina, USA
Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, Australia
Shi-Ling Hsu, College of Law, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, USA
Camille Parmesan, Marine Institute, Plymouth University, Plymouth, Devon, UK, Integrative Biology, University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA
Johan Rockstrom, Stockholm Resilience Center, Stockholm University, Sweden
Eelco J. Rohling, School of Ocean and Earth Science, University of Southampton, Hampshire, UK Research School of Earth Sciences, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia
Pete Smith, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland, United Kingdom
Konrad Steffen, Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL, Zurich, Switzerland
Lise Van Susteren, Center for Health and the Global Environment, Advisory Board, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Karina von Schuckmann, L’Institut Francais de Recherche pour l’Exploitation de la Mer, Ifremer, Toulon, France
James C. Zachos, Earth and Planetary Science, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA

WHAT: Working out what the limit to dangerous climate change is and what the implications are for the amount of carbon we need to not burn.

WHEN: December 2013

WHERE: PLOS One, Vol 8. Issue 12

TITLE: Assessing ‘‘Dangerous Climate Change’’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature (open access)

This (very) lengthy and detailed paper runs us all through exactly what’s happening with the planet’s climate, what’s making it change so rapidly (spoiler: it’s us) and what objectively we need to do about it. Needless to say, since the lead author is Dr. James Hansen, the godfather of climate science, we would do well to heed his warnings. He knows his stuff; he was doing climate models before I was born (seriously).

Firstly, the paper points out that humans are the main cause of climate change and then also neatly points out that while all 170 signatories to the UN Framework on climate change (UNFCCC) have agreed to reduce emissions, so far not only have we not worked out what the limit for ‘dangerous’ climate change is, we’ve also done nothing to fix it except fiddle at the edges.

Epic procrastination fail, humanity.

One planet, different ways to reach zero emissions (Norman Kuring, NASA GSFC, using data from the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP)

Norman Kuring, NASA GSFC, using data from the VIIRS instrument aboard Suomi NPP

Then, the researchers look at 2oC warming as a target. In reality, while 2oC is a nice, seemingly round number that is far enough away from our current 0.8oC of warming, the reason it was randomly chosen to be our line in the sand is that it’s the point beyond which ecosystems start collapsing. I have a sneaking suspicion it was also easy to agree on because it was way into the ‘distant’ future, but let’s play nice and believe it was all for rational scientific rigour.

The latest IPCC report says that if we’re going to stay below 2oC, we can burn a total of 1,000GtC (Gigatonnes of carbon). Ever. This means we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop cutting down more trees than we plant.

As has been pointed out in previous papers, the researchers show that burning all the fossil fuels is a really bad idea. A really bad idea in a mass extinction like the dinosaurs kind of way.

So, if we look at all the warming that has happened so far and measure the energy imbalance in the atmosphere, what do we get? Firstly a step back – energy imbalance. This is your energy budget where you always want it to be constant. Energy comes into the atmosphere from the sun, some goes back out, some stays and keeps us warm and comfy on planet Earth.

Fossil fuels mean that humans have taken a seriously large amount of energy out of the ground and burned it. Releasing this energy into the atmosphere means we’ve now got too much energy inside our atmosphere and we’re out of balance.

What happens when we’re out of balance? Well, so far it hasn’t been pretty. With only 0.8oC of global warming 98% of Greenland’s surface melted for the first time in recorded history, Arctic sea ice hit new record lows, the planet has seen more frequent more extreme storms, floods, typhoons, hurricanes, droughts, fires, algal blooms, glacial melt, and ocean acidification. We’ve had weird storms no-one has ever heard of before like Derechos, we’ve had tropical diseases in new places, and the Jet Stream over the Northern Hemisphere getting ‘stuck’ and dumping more weird weather on us. It’s pretty clear the planet is unwell and that it’s because of us.

you have humans

If all that terrifying stuff is happening at 0.8oC of warming, what does that make 2oC? Hopefully your answer is ‘horrifying’, because that’s what my answer is. Since 2050 (when we’ll arrive at 2oC if we keep going business as usual) is within my working lifetime, I’ll let you know how horrifying it is when we get there.

More scientific than ‘horrifying’ though, the researchers point out that previous paleoclimate changes, from the Earth’s tilt and other slow oscillations took between 20,000 – 400,000 years to happen. Changes happening at that rate give the plants and animals and fish time to relocate and survive. The rate at which we’re changing our modern climate is bad news for things that are not mobile.

How far out of balance are we? The paper estimates that between 2005-2010 the planet was 0.58 W/m2 (± .15W/m2) out of balance. How much of that was caused by humanity? Well, solar irradiance has been going down over the last while, so it’s pretty much all us.

If we are 0.5 W/m2 out of balance, the researchers calculate that we would need to reduce the CO2 concentration down to 360ppm to have energy balance again (we’re currently at 395ppm). If you include some error in the calculations and we’re 0.75W/m2 out of balance, humanity needs to get CO2 down to a concentration of 345ppm.

To make planning easier, the researchers suggest we just aim to get and stay below 350ppm.

The paper then runs through all the reasons why 2oC is a really bad idea to let happen. Because it will lead to damaging sea level rise (sorry Miami), because change is happening too quickly for many species to survive and more than half the species on the planet could go extinct from too much warming (and yes, if we warm this planet enough, humans could be part of that mass extinction).

Because the recovery back to normal temperatures happens on a timescale of millions of years which is beyond the comprehension of humanity.

So to avoid being the next mass extinction, what do we need to do? First, we need to quantify how quickly fossil fuels need to be totally phased out.

If emissions are reduced to zero in 2015, the world could get back to 350ppm by 2100. If we wait until 2035, it would take until 2300. If we wait until 2055, it would take until the year 3000. So when we start reducing emissions is important.

Reduction scenarios (from paper) BAU: Business As Usual

Reduction scenarios (from paper) BAU: Business As Usual

If we had started reducing emissions in 2005, it would only have taken reductions of 3.5% per year. Since we didn’t do that, if we start now, we need to reduce emissions by 6% a year. If we delay until 2020 it becomes 15% per year, so let’s not procrastinate on this one humanity. Also keep in mind that the amount that is considered ‘politically possible’ is currently around 2-3% reductions each year, which means that scientific reality and political delusions are going to collide very soon.

If we reduce our carbon emissions by 6% per year to keep below 350ppm of carbon dioxide by the end of the century, our total carbon budget is going to be 500GtC.

This means we’ve got ~129GtC that we can burn between now and 2050, and another 14GtC left over for 2050-2100. Humanity has already burned through ~370GtC from fossil fuels, so we’ve got to kick this habit quickly.

The paper points out that this means all of our remaining fossil fuel budget can be provided for by current conventional fossil fuels. Therefore, we would require the rapid phase-out of coal and leave all unconventional fossil fuels in the ground. Yes, all of them – all the tar sands, the shale gas, the shale oil, the Arctic oil, the methane hydrates, all of it.

The researchers also say that slow climate feedbacks need to be incorporated into planning, because we’re probably starting to push those limits. Slow feedbacks include things like melting ice sheets (Greenland and Antarctica), deforestation, melting permafrost and methane hydrates.

These things are like climate ‘black swans’ – they’re unquantifiable in that you don’t know when you’ve passed the irreversible tipping point until after you’ve gone beyond it, but things like the ocean no longer being able to absorb most of the carbon we spew into the atmosphere and the rapidly melting permafrost need to be considered in daylight as well as our nightmares now. This is because slow feedbacks can amplify climate changes by 30-50% which puts a big hole in our ‘not burning carbon anymore’ plan.

The paper points out: ‘warming of 2oC to at least the Eemian level could cause major dislocations for civilisation’ which I don’t even need to translate from scientist, because scientists are no longer bothering to pull their punches when explaining how quickly we need to stop burning carbon before we’re really screwed.

So what do we do? The paper makes some suggestions, pointing out that since the science clearly shows what’s happening, the range of responses is also pretty clear.

The first thing is a price on carbon. This paper suggests a carbon ‘fee’ with a border levy for countries that don’t sign up to the fee idea. The fee starts at $15/tonne of carbon and increases by $10/tonne each year. Imports from countries that don’t have the fee get charged at the border, which can then be used for assistance to industries that are exporting to countries without the fee.

They point out that this fee is below the price of cleaning up our climate carbon mess. If we wanted to pay to sequester 100ppm of CO2 out of the atmosphere, it would cost ~$500/tonne of carbon. If that was charged to all countries based on their cumulative emissions, that would be a cost of $28 trillion for the USA (or $90,000 per person) who is responsible for 25% of cumulative global emissions. Hmmm – expensive.

The other things we need to get rid of fossil fuels are hybrid renewable smart grids and better efficiency as well as not only an end to deforestation but ‘reforestation’ and increasing the amount of trees on the planet.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but the clearest thing from this paper is the choice we cannot make is to do nothing. So let’s stop burning carbon.

Reviewing Our Budget

In the lead up to the IPCC 5th Assessment Report next week, let’s review the Unburnable Carbon report and remind ourselves how much carbon we have left to burn.

WHO: James Leaton, Nicola Ranger, Bob Ward, Luke Sussams, and Meg Brown, Carbon Tracker Initiative

WHAT: Measuring the amount of capital, assets and infrastructure that is currently overvalued and will be stranded or wasted when we act on climate change.

WHEN: 2013

WHERE: On the Carbon Tracker website

TITLE: Unburnable Carbon 2013: Wasted capital and stranded assets (open access)

As I’m sure all of you RtS readers are aware (and excited about!); the IPCC are releasing the first part of their 5th Assessment Report on Friday September 27th and then slowly drip feeding us chapter by chapter over the next year.

This is exciting for climate nerds like me because the last IPCC report came out in 2007, so it was looking at the state of climate science in a very different world – before the 2008 financial crash, before the weather started getting seriously weird and going haywire, before 98% of Greenland melted one summer, the Arctic Death Spiral, the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen talks…. yeah, a lot has happened since 2007.

So, in preparation for when this international ‘State of the Climate’ report comes out, I thought it would be good to look at the Carbon Tracker’s Unburnbable Carbon report from this year to remind ourselves of the budget of carbon we have left that we can spew into the atmosphere and still have a chance of not totally cooking the climate.

The Carbon Tracker report looks at two different budgets – if we want to have an 80% chance of not going beyond a certain amount of global warming, and if we want to have a 50% chance of not going beyond a certain amount of global warming. Given that we haven’t done much to lower global carbon emissions yet, I think we’ll push to a 50/50 chance of cooking our habitat (humans are great at procrastinating after all), but feel free to be optimistic and look at the 80% option.

Carbon budget from now until 2050 (from paper)

Carbon budget from now until 2050 (from paper)

If we start from the assumption that humanity will act to save ourselves and keep global warming at 2oC or less with a 50/50 chance, we have 1,075 Gigatonnes (Gt) of CO2 left to burn over the next 37 years.

Now, you might ask – what about carbon capture and storage? Everyone says that technology is going to be big! The Carbon Tracker people ran those numbers. The 2015 estimate for carbon capture and storage projects (CCS) is 2.25million tonnes of CO2 being sequestered over 16 projects. The idealised scenario for CCS is that it will be able to sequester around 8Gt of CO2 each year, which Carbon Tracker worked out would be 3,800 projects operating by 2050 and would only reduce the above carbon budgets by 125Gt. It definitely isn’t a ‘get out of jail free and burn the fossil fuels’ card.

Speaking of burning all the fossil fuels – how much do we have left? The World Energy Outlook, which gets released by the International Energy Agency each year estimated in 2012 (the 2013 report will be released in November this year) that there were total assets equivalent to 2,860Gt CO2 in the world. This is enough carbon to cook the atmosphere beyond 3oC and probably into the next mass extinction.

The report rightly points out that if we assume we want to save a livable climate and keep within the above carbon budgets, then between 65-80% of all the listed reserves for fossil fuel companies cannot be burned. It’s simple math: 2,860 is more than double the budget for keeping under 2oC with a 50/50 chance of blowing past the temperature.

But enough about trying not to cook the atmosphere – how about the important things – like what does it mean for financial markets?

Carbon Tracker looked at the capital expenditure by publicly listed fossil fuel companies to work out how much money is being spent trying to find new reserves of fossil fuels that will add to the list we can’t burn and are therefore being over-valued, because the market valuation assumes they will be burned and a profit will be made from burning it.

In 2012, the 200 listed fossil fuel companies spent $674billion on capital expenditure. $593billion of that was spent looking for more oil and gas, while $81billion of that was spent looking for more coal. If these kinds of spending continue (if the companies don’t admit that there is going to be an end to carbon pollution) over the next decade $6.74trillion dollars could be wasted looking for fossil fuels that have to stay in the ground.

As the authors say: ‘this has profound implications for asset owners with significant holdings in fossil fuel stocks’ because what investors are being sold is the lie that these reserves can be profitably sold and burned.

There’s also a lot of risk associated with this. Over the last two years, the amount of carbon being traded on the New York Stock Exchange has increased by 37% and in London it’s increased by 7%. This means that similar to the sub-prime loan crisis that precipitated the 2008 financial crash, all investors are exposed to carbon risk through the over-valuation of fossil fuel companies.

Map of oil, gas and coal reserves listed on world stock exchanges (from paper)

Map of oil, gas and coal reserves listed on world stock exchanges (from paper)

There’s a risk of carbon not being properly managed as a risk within stock portfolios which could create a carbon bubble that will burst as carbon starts being constrained, and there’s also the risk of stranded assets, where the fossil fuel companies sink all the capital expenditure into their projects only to find they can’t burn the carbon and there was no point in building the mine/gas well/oil platform in the first place.

The report states: ‘investors need to challenge the continued pursuit of potentially unprofitable projects before costs are sunk’. This makes sense also because oil and gas are becoming harder to get at (tarsands, tight oil, gas fracking, Arctic drilling), so the cost is going up and the profit margins are getting squeezed, unless the price of oil keeps climbing. This means that fossil fuels are going to increasingly become challenged by lower cost lower carbon options, because mining for sunshine is really not that hard.

So if we agree that we’ll stop burning carbon before we’ve cooked the atmosphere and therefore that means that 80% of the world’s fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, what does it mean for the fossil fuel companies themselves?

Well, they may have some debt problems on the horizon. The report points out that even without a global climate change agreement the coal industry in the USA is looking increasingly shaky, just from new air quality regulations. They point out that if the business models unravel that quickly, these companies may have problems refinancing their debt when they mature in the near future (which is also a risk for investors). They point out that any company with tar sands exposure will also have stranded asset risk because the business model relies on high oil prices to be profitable.

Basically they show that traditional business models are no longer viable in energy markets that will be moving towards decarbonisation and that different information is going to be needed for investors to manage the risk of carbon in their portfolio.

In the final section of the report, Carbon Tracker gives a list of recommendations for investors, policy makers, finance ministers, financial regulators, analysts and ratings agencies for how we can avoid this financial carbon bubble. The recommendations include better regulation, shareholder engagement and resolutions, fossil fuel divestment, and better risk definition.

The full list of Carbon Tracker recommendations (click to embiggen) (from paper)

The full list of Carbon Tracker recommendations (click to embiggen) (from paper)

For what it’s worth, my recommendations would be to remove fossil fuel subsidies, stop looking for new reserves of carbon that we can’t burn and price carbon pollution. And as usual, stop burning carbon.

100% Australian Renewable

What does 100% renewable electricity for the whole of Australia look like?

WHO: The Australian Energy Market Operator, commissioned by the Australian Federal Government

WHAT: Modelling for what a 100% renewable national electricity grid for Australia would look like.

WHEN: July 2013

WHERE: Online at the Department of Climate Change website

TITLE: 100 PER CENT RENEWABLES STUDY – MODELLING OUTCOMES (open access)

The Australian Department of Climate Change (yes, they have one!) commissioned the Australian Energy Market Operator in conjunction with CSIRO and ROAM Consulting to model what a national energy market would look like in 2030 and 2050 with 100% renewable electricity. Oh, and when they say ‘national’ they mean the more densely populated East Coast of the country (sorry WA and NT…)

The ‘national’ energy market (from paper)

The ‘national’ energy market (from paper)

They looked at two different scenarios – the first one was rapid deployment of renewable technology with moderate electricity demand growth (ie. including energy efficiency gains), and the second one was moderate deployment of renewable technology with high demand growth (no efficiency gains).

They ran both scenarios for getting our act together by 2030 and procrastinating until 2050 to see what might happen.

Given that this is a government document, it comes with many caveats (of course!). There are uncertainties (always); CSIRO says bioenergy is feasible, other groups say it’s not that feasible. The costs don’t include transitional factors (and change over time), the costs of land acquisition or stranded fossil fuel assets and infrastructure. Phew.

They also pointed out the obvious (someone has to say it I guess) that because this is looking at 100% renewable electricity it does not look at nuclear, natural gas or coal with carbon capture and storage. This is a fossil free zone people!

Ok, so what did they look at? They took data from the 2012 Australian Technology Assessment by the Australian Government Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, and using that looked at what demand might look like in 2030 and 2050, and calculated the approximate costs.

Their findings in a nutshell are that a renewable system needs more storage (you can’t put solar in a pile like coal to burn later), is a more diverse and distributed system, needs an expanded transmission network and will be primarily driven in Australia by solar.

Depending on when Australia does it, it will cost somewhere between $219billion and $332billion dollars to build. No surprises that it’s cheaper to do it now, not to mention the stranded infrastructure and assets you save by starting the transition now. It’s cheaper after all not to build the coal terminal if you’re only going to use it for a short period of time.

Cost calculations for Scenario 1 (rapid deployment) and Scenario 2 (moderate deployment) (from paper)

Cost calculations for Scenario 1 (rapid deployment) and Scenario 2 (moderate deployment) (from paper)

They included energy consumption by electric vehicles (EVs) as well as the reduction of demand from rooftop solar. Interestingly, rooftop solar will dramatically change the makeup of a national energy grid. Currently the energy grid is summer peaking, which means more power is used in summer (for things like air conditioners when it’s seriously hot outside). With the uptake of rooftop solar, the grid will become winter peaking, because demand decreases in summer when everyone’s solar panels are doing great.

They ran the numbers to make sure a renewable power grid is as reliable as the current power grid, which is 99.998% reliable, and made sure the technologies they picked are either currently commercially available, or projected to be available soon.

They found that the capital costs are the main factor, given that once renewable power is installed; it costs almost nothing to run, because you don’t have to feed it fossil fuels to go. There are maintenance costs, but all power stations have maintenance costs.

Storage capacity wasn’t found to be economically viable with batteries once scaled up, given that a renewable grid needs 100-130% excess capacity. So storage would be in solar thermal, pumped hydro, biogas or biomass. The paper noted that geothermal (which Australia has a fair bit of) and biomass are similar to current standard baseload power in the way they can be used. Concentrated solar thermal is still a new technology that is being developed, so the scale up potential is not fully known yet, but it’s working well in Spain so far.

The space required to do this (to put the solar panels on and the wind turbines in) is between 2,400 – 5,000km2 which is small change in a country that has 7.7mill km2 and is mostly desert. So people won’t need to worry about wind turbines being put forcibly in their backyards, unless they want them (can I have one? They’re pretty!).

The most economic spread of renewables for transmission costs was a combination of remote with higher transmission costs and local with lower energy generation capacity.

Transmission possibilities (from paper)

Transmission possibilities (from paper)

The sticking point was meeting evening demand – when everyone comes home from work and turns the lights on and starts cooking dinner and plugs in their EV in the garage. The paper pointed out that work-based charging stations could promote charging your car during the day, but also ran scenarios where the demand shortfall could be met by biogas. This also applied for weeks where the storage capacity of the renewables was low (a week of low wind or a week of overcast weather).

Meeting demand shortfall by dispatching biogas and biomass (from paper)

Meeting demand shortfall by dispatching biogas and biomass (from paper)

Long story short, the future is hybrid renewable systems.

Breakdown of each technology for the different scenarios (from paper)

Breakdown of each technology for the different scenarios (from paper)

There is no single technology that can replace the energy density of fossil fuels, but a hybrid grid can. Diversifying both the technology and geography of the power grid will not only allow for 100% renewable generation, it will also build resilience.

As climate change extreme weather events become more common, having a distributed power system will avoid mass blackouts. It will be better for everyone’s health (living near a coal mine or a coal power station is NOT good for your health) and it will slow the rate at which we’re cooking the planet. Sounds good to me.

Vote for last week’s paper!

climate voter

Remember how I was excited about the possibilities of scaling up the carbon sequestration process outlined in last week’s post from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the USA?

Turns out you can vote for it!

I had an email from the lead author of the paper (I send my blog posts to the lead authors when I post them) letting me know that their process has made the finalists of two MIT Climate CoLab ideas. So if you’re excited about the idea of feasibly sequestering carbon dioxide from the oceans being tested out as well, you can vote for them.

The first proposal is for the Geoengineering section called ‘Saving the Planet v2.0‘. The second proposal is for the Electric power sector section called ‘Spontaneous Conversion of Power Plant CO2 to Dissolved Calcium Bicarbonate‘.

Climate CoLab is an online space where people work to try and crowdsource ideas for what to do about climate change. The contest voting closes in 11 days (August 30th) and the winning proposals will be presented at the Crowds & Climate Conference at MIT in November.

So if it takes your fancy, and you’d like to see this project presented at the conference, go forth and vote!

 

Disclosure: I am not affiliated with either the paper or the MIT CoLab project.

Antacid for our Oceans

An electrolysis method that removes CO2 from seawater could be affordably scaled up for commercial carbon sequestration.

WHO: Greg H. Rau, Institute of Marine Sciences, University of California, Santa Cruz, Physical and Life Sciences, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA
Susan A. Carroll, William L. Bourcier, Michael J. Singleton, Megan M. Smith, and Roger D. Aines, Physical and Life Sciences, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA

WHAT: An electrochemical method of sequestering CO2 from sea water using silicate rocks.

WHEN: June 18, 2013

WHERE: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), PNAS vol. 110, no. 25

TITLE: Direct electrolytic dissolution of silicate minerals for air CO2 mitigation and carbon-negative H2 production (open access)

This paper was fun – I got to get my chemistry nerd back on thinking in moles per litre and chemical equations! It almost made me miss university chemistry lectures.

No, not those moles per litre! (IFLS facebook page)

No, not those moles per litre! (IFLS facebook page)

So what does chemistry jokes have to do with carbon sequestration? It’s looking increasingly like humanity is going to have to figure out ways to draw carbon out of the atmosphere or the oceans because we’ve procrastinated on reducing our carbon emissions for so long.

There’s two options for this – you can either create a chemical reaction that will draw CO2 out of the air, or you can create a chemical reaction that will draw CO2 out of a solution, and given how quickly the oceans are acidifying, using sea water would be a good idea. The good news is; that’s exactly what these researchers did!

Silicate rock (which is mostly basalt rock) is the most common rock type in the Earth’s crust. It also reacts with CO2 to form stable carbonate and bicarbonate solids (like the bicarbonate soda you bake with). Normally this takes place very slowly through rock weathering, but what if you used it as a process to sequester CO2?

The researchers created a saline water electrolytic cell to test it out. An electrolytic cell is the one you made in school where you had an anode and a cathode and two different solutions (generally) and when you put an electric current through it you created a chemical reaction. What these researchers did was put silicate minerals, saline water and CO2 in on one side, and when they added electricity got bicarbonates, hydrogen, chlorine or oxygen, silicates and salts.

A basic schematic of the experiment (from paper)

A basic schematic of the experiment (from paper)

The researchers used an acid/base reaction (remember those from school?!) to speed up the silicate and CO2 reaction, which also works well in an ocean because large differences in pH are produced in saline electrolysis. Are you ready to get really nerdy with me? The chemical equation is this:

Chemical equation for the experiment (from paper)

Chemical equation for the experiment (from paper)

So how did the experiment go? It worked! They got successfully sequestered carbon dioxide with an efficiency of 23-32% that sequestered 0.147g of CO2 per kilojoule (kJ) of electricity used.

There are issues around the scaling up of the reaction of course – once the bicarbonate has been created, where do you store it? The paper suggested ocean storage as the bicarbonate solids would be inert (un-reactive). I would hope that a re-use option could be found – has anyone looked into using bicarbonate solids as an eco-building material?

There’s also the issue of needing to power the reaction with electricity. If scaled up, this process would have to make sure it was powered by renewable energy, because burning carbon to sequester carbon gives you zero.

Also, if sea water is used, the main by-product is Cl2 so the researchers point out that while it would be feasible to do this process directly in the ocean, the issue of what to do with all that chlorine would need to be dealt with. The paper suggests using oxygen selective anodes in the electrolysis, or ion-selective membranes around the reaction to keep the chlorine separate from the ocean.

That being said, there are some exciting upsides to this process. The paper points out that the amount of silicate rock in the world ‘dwarf[s] that needed for conversion of all present and future anthropogenic CO2.’ Also, using sea water is an easier way to sequester CO2 rather than air-based methods.

Scaling the method up is economically feasible too. The researchers estimated that 1.9 MWh (megawatt hours) of power would be needed per metric tonne of CO2 sequestered. If the waste hydrogen from the process were sold as hydrogen fuel for fuel cells, the price of CO2 sequestered would be $86/tonne. If the hydrogen fuel wasn’t feasible, it would still only be $154/tonne, which compares very favourably to most current carbon capture and storage feasibility estimates of $600-$1000/tonne of CO2.

So, like an antacid for the oceans, if this process can be scaled up commercially through research and development, we could have an effective way to not only capture and store carbon, but also reduce ocean acidification. A good-news story indeed – now we just need to stop burning carbon.

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.