Zero Emissions by 2050

Is it feasible to have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050? Yes!

WHO: Niklas Höhne, Pieter van Breevoort, Yvonne Deng, Julia Larkin, Gesine Hänsel (ECOFYS Consultants, Köln, Germany)

WHAT: Looking at the technical and economic feasibility of having zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

WHEN: 2 October 2013

WHERE: On the ECOFYS website

TITLE: Feasibility of GHG emissions phase-out by mid-century (open access)

Is it technologically and economically doable to have zero carbon emissions by 2050 so that we can avoid an unlivable climate? Yes! Huzzah – easiest and shortest blog post ever. Let’s have a glass of wine and go home.

Huzzah! Some climate good news! (Joe Penniston, flickr)

Huzzah! Some climate good news! (Joe Penniston, flickr)

For those of you that don’t just want the tl;dr version, here are the details. The German environmental consulting firm ECOFYS set out to find out if it was doable to have zero GHG emissions by 2050 and it is.

It’s going to take some serious restructuring of how we do things and the systems we use, but we can get 90% of the way there with current technologies and it will cost around 5% of a country’s annual GDP each year.

If that sounds like a lot of money (which it is), consider that the globe currently spends around 3% of annual GDP subsidising fossil fuel production each year. So if we removed fossil fuel subsidies and made them compete on a level playing field with renewable energy, it will practically be cheap!

The authors of the paper also point out that while that’s what the estimated costs are now, the longer we wait to get going on reducing emissions the more expensive it is (and that’s before the billions of dollars extreme weather disaster clean ups cost get factored in).

Ok, so restructuring – what exactly does that entail? It involves changes to the systems that we use to do things. The first big one is energy systems, which account for two thirds of our fossil fuel emissions and the first change that takes a big chunk out of our emissions is electrification.

Because there is no ‘silver bullet’ material to replace oil, moving things that use oil over to electricity makes it easier to decarbonise, because you can take a hybrid-renewable electric grid and feed lots of different kinds of power into it.

Industry and industrial systems account for 30% of the world’s carbon pollution. The fastest way to decarbonise those is through circular manufacturing processes that reuse and recycle 100% of their inputs, which is already being worked on at the Ellen MacArthur foundation. We will also need to be more efficient with things like co-generation where you use waste heat (like the heat in your shower water when it goes down the drain) to heat buildings.

The False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility in Vancouver

The False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility in Vancouver (City of Vancouver)

These ideas will get industry about 95% of the way off our carbon habit, so the gap will need to be closed with some extra innovation before 2050, which I’m sure humanity is capable of.

Buildings are about 20% of the world’s carbon emissions. The way to decarbonise the existing buildings is to retrofit them to high efficiency standards. In order to do this by 2050, we’ll need to be renovating existing building stock at a rate of 2-3% each year (which the authors say has been demonstrated as an achievable rate).

Because buildings have a long lifespan of decades, the other really important thing is to make sure there are new building standards where all new buildings need to be as close to carbon zero as possible and powered by zero emission sources.

The other areas buildings can be more efficient is to make sure they’ve got efficient appliances in them, and efficient stoves which reduces black carbon (soot) pollution.

What about transport? It accounts for about 15% of global emissions, and one of the first things we can do to make transport less carbon intensive is to have better Urban Planning. Good news – when you have walkable and bikeable urban areas people drive less and take public transport more often!

My kind of bikeable (photo: Amy Huva)

My kind of bikeable (photo: Amy Huva)

All vehicles will need better efficiency standards – all road vehicles, rail transport, air transport and shipping. Passenger and freight transport needs to be switched to zero carbon options.

Here’s the bit I really like – 100% electrification of individual road transport and rail transport. Think of how much nicer cities will be to walk around when they’re full of electric cars! No more nasty noisy traffic, because the internal combustion engine is last century’s technology and hot cars like a Tesla are the future.

Not the future (Simone Ramella, flickr)

Not the future (Simone Ramella, flickr)

For the transport that cannot be electrified like international shipping and air travel, advances in biofuels will get us there by 2050.

Power supply covers about 5% of global emissions, but coal power plants are nasty, dirty, toxic things. So naturally the first step there is to rule that any new power plants get built with carbon capture and storage or not at all. Carbon capture and storage will also be important for biomass, but interestingly, the paper says that nuclear power is not essential for electricity generation.

Dirty coal is not your friend – it’s so two centuries ago (Steve Jones, flickr)

Dirty coal is not your friend – it’s so two centuries ago (Steve Jones, flickr)

What is essential for electricity decarbonisation is smart grids. We need a more efficient electrical grid, and unless we know how much power people are using, we can’t meet demand at the times they need it.

Agriculture contributes 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions (and it’s not just from cow fart methane either). The first thing that needs to happen is the end of deforestation. Cutting down trees means not only that the carbon gets released from the tree, but also that tree is no longer in service sucking in carbon dioxide and giving us back oxygen. We really need trees on the job of sucking up carbon, so we need to stop cutting them down.

Keep the carbon sequestering worker-trees! (ljhar6, flickr)

Keep the carbon sequestering worker-trees! (ljhar6, flickr)

Next we need to enhance the amount of carbon sequestered in soils. There’s a whole heap of new farming techniques that help keep moisture in the soil and retain the nutrients to reduce inorganic fertilizer use, so keep up the good work farmers!

Next, us city people need to stop wasting so much food. It’s estimated at 40% of the food produced globally gets wasted. So we need to stop doing that and stop putting food scraps into landfill where it produces methane. Start composting, people.

You know you want to... (Kirsty Hall, flickr)

You know you want to… (Kirsty Hall, flickr)

Another suggestion the paper had was to make sure all wastewater (the water you flush) gets treated with anaerobic digestion, so the methane can be collected and used to heat things.

With a long list like that it sounds expensive, right? It will be. But you know what’s going to be more expensive? Doing nothing. Business as usual will force us to pay huge amounts to adapt to continued and diversifying climate disasters, which will cost anywhere between 5-20% of global GDP every year depending on how unlucky you are. You could get ‘lucky’ and only have to clean up from an extreme weather event once a year, or you could get unlucky and have drought followed by floods, followed by a storm, followed by weird snow, unprecedented forest fires, etc. The list is scary, long and very, very expensive.

So what do we need to do to make all of this start steamrolling forward? We need a price on carbon. The paper used an estimated price of US$50/tonne, and it makes a lot of sense that if you no longer allow everyone to use the atmosphere as a free pollution dump, then innovation and changes will kick in pretty quickly after that.

So how ‘bout it? Shall we price carbon, stop burning it and make our cities and homes healthier places to live?

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Uninhabitable Homeland

The effects of climate change on Arctic peoples is a warning sign for the rest of the planet.

WHO: Elizabeth Ferris, Co-Director, Brookings-LSE Project on Internal Displacement

WHAT: Looking at the effects of climate change on people living within the Arctic and how it is displacing them within their own countries.

WHEN: January 13, 2013

WHERE: The Brookings Institute (public policy think tank based in Washington, DC)

TITLE:  A Complex Constellation: Displacement, Climate Change and Arctic Peoples

The Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet right now due to a reduction in surface albedo, which is scientist for when the white ice melts; the darker surfaces absorb heat faster.

This means that the people who live in the Arctic are experiencing climate change ahead of the schedule the lower latitudes are on. So what’s happening to all the people who like living in the really really cold? This report from the Brookings Institute in the USA is looking into it.

The official Polar Countries are Greenland, Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland the USA (Alaska) and one of the major issues that will be faced by anyone living in these countries and inside the Arctic circle is ‘internal displacement’ which is UN speak for refugees who don’t leave their original country, but can no longer live wherever ‘home’ originally was.

The map of the world angle you don’t normally see – the Arctic (from paper)

The map of the world angle you don’t normally see – the Arctic (from paper)

The Arctic is expected to warm by up to 10oC by 2100, which will have serious ramifications for weather patterns in North America by messing with the jet stream, but will also have other scary impacts like greater erosion from the lack of sea ice protecting coastal areas from storm surges.

Larger storm surges is also an issue for permanent infrastructure for coastal communities (as the people of Manhattan discovered in Hurricane Sandy), but here’s one I hadn’t thought of before – melting permafrost means that the ground underneath houses in the Arctic could literally melt away from underneath the foundations. If your home is melting underneath the foundations and will continue to, how long do you stay?

There’s issues for sea life, where permafrost creates a kind of breeding ground for ice crystals filled with sediment, which then float to the surface and feed all the small things like plankton under the sea ice (if there’s any sea ice left). There’s issues getting food, not only with changes in the migration patterns of the tasty animals normally hunted in the Arctic, but more modern food issues like supply barge docks being destroyed in climate fuelled storms.

Ice crystals (tlindenbaum, flickr)

Ice crystals (tlindenbaum, flickr)

There’s the interesting new research looking at black carbon feedback loops, where researchers think that pollution could be creating enough of a colour change on the top of ice and snow that it’s further speeding up the melting of the Arctic.

What else is happening in the Arctic through climate change? Well the growing season is getting weird from the changed patterns of freezing and thawing of the ground, but scarier than that, roads are starting to buckle and travelling across ice that used to be thick enough to drive a large truck over is becoming increasingly dangerous in really unpredictable ways. It really puts a different spin on a fun day of ice fishing when you don’t know if the ice will even hold you up…

The report looks at the potential benefits for the local communities from the changes, however some of them are pretty suicidal for the planet as a whole. Unfortunately, Greenland (who was only given self governance from Denmark in 2009) has decided that the best way to be less reliant on Danish Government subsidies is ‘drill baby, drill’, and the number of mineral exploration licences has increased dramatically over the past decade, with the oil and gas industry spending $100m in 2011 searching Greenland for more fossil fuels.

Whichever language you say it in, ‘drill baby, drill’ is also the fastest way towards spending the atmosphere’s entire carbon budget and ensuring that there will not be a livable climate for Greenland’s next generations, so I hope someone is advising their government that a longer term outlook would be more beneficial.

Other benefits from a melting Arctic are new shipping routes, greater tourism opportunities, new military bases, and greater wage-based activities (which must be think tank speak for ‘all other businesses that pay wages’).

The big sticking point though (aside from the fact that their homes are melting beneath their feet) will be the geopolitics of the region. The report points out that indigenous Arctic people are rarely represented at national or international Polar negotiations in a way that they can influence the decisions that affect them. Competing commercial, national security and environmental concerns are going to only be heightened in the Arctic as climate change continues to intensify.

The report concludes that more research needs to be undertaken, (naturally) and that Governments and organisations need to make sure that they’re engaging fully with local indigenous peoples (yes, you need to ask before you mine their land).

For my part, I hope that the rest of the world can start looking at the Arctic and stop seeing it as the next place to attempt to continue the fossil fuel gold rush and instead start seeing it as the future of where the whole planet is headed, complete with 7m of sea level rise if Greenland fully melts.

Is it time to stop burning carbon yet?

In the Wake of Sandy: Modelling Sea Level Rise

The connections between sea level rise and sediment movement in coastal areas could be a problem for flooding and climate change

WHO: Roshanka Ranasinghe, Department of Water Engineering, UNESCO-IHE, Delft, The Netherlands, Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Technical University of Delft, The Netherlands, Harbour, Coastal and Offshore Engineering, Delft, The Netherlands       Trang Minh Duong, Department of Water Engineering, UNESCO-IHE, Harbour, Coastal and Offshore Engineering, Delft, The Netherlands                                                        Stefan Uhlenbrook, Dano Roelvink, Department of Water Engineering, UNESCO-IHE, Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Technical University of Delft, The Netherlands,          Marcel Stive, Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Technical University of Delft, The Netherlands

WHAT: A rapid response model to assess the risk of coastal areas to climate change sea level rise and flooding

WHEN: 2 September 2012

WHERE: Nature Climate Change, Vol 2 Issue 9

TITLE: Climate-change impact assessment for inlet-interrupted coastlines (subs req.)

This paper has the honour of including the most complicated description of flooding I’ve ever read. Are you ready? upward and landward movement of the cross-shore coastal profile, resulting in coastline recession.’ Which is scientist for sea level rise floods the beach.

Anyhow, I thought this paper would be somewhat topical, given the damage Frankenstorm Sandy caused on the East Coast of the USA last month. The researchers have developed a model that can run multiple simulations of coastal impacts due to climate change  quickly, making it useful for local coastal risk management.

The model only works specifically with coastline areas that are less than 25km long and are barrier estuaries along sandy coasts with microtidal environments. Sounds really specific? It’s actually 50% of the world’s coastlines. Which instantly makes this tool seriously useful and very practical.

Their model is part of a larger worldwide modelling project called the Dynamic and Interactive Vulnerability Assessment, which gets huge acronym points from me for being the DIVA initiative.

More seriously, they looked at sea level rise in four areas – the Swan River and Wilson Inlet in Western Australia and the Tu Hien Inlet and Thuan An Inlet in Vietnam and used the A1B and A2 climate change scenarios from the IPCC report to run their model.

For those who haven’t read either the whole IPCC report or missed last week’s post, the A1B scenario is the middle ‘worst case scenario’ option which predicts between 18cm and 79cm of sea level rise. For the purpose of this experiment, the researchers went with the worst case scenario of 80cm which is my desk height.

This would be normal tide, not high tide (Roberto Trm, flickr)

They found that while sea level rise itself can be pretty accurately predicted, the problem is sediment. When oceans, bays and rivers all meet, there’s a lot of sediment that gets transported in different directions. And the model run by the researchers found that sea level rise only accounted for around a quarter to a half of the flooding. The rest of it was sediment movement through either the process of basin in-filling where extra sediment gets washed into the bay and decreases the volume of the bay which means that a normal water level is higher, or changes in river runoff due to changes in rainfall patterns.

If half or more of the damage coastal areas can expect from climate change and sea level rise is going to be from sediment changing the shape and depth of the area, this is something that needs to be measured and included in disaster management plans, because just dredging the sediment out can have the perverse effect of increasing flooding by removing the local ecosystems (remember the eelgrass?!) which naturally minimise floods.

Hopefully, in the near future local areas can work with tools like this one to more accurately model the potential risks from climate change, and prepare for them. In the mean time, the rest of us will hopefully wake up to the climate urgency and stop burning carbon before we’ve really ruined everything.

The cover of Bloomberg Businessweek in the wake of Hurricane Sandy (from Cover Junkie)

Hello world!

Welcome to my wordpress home for Read the Science. Please bear with me while I work out all the nuances of a new platform (for me).

What I hope to do with this site is to post my translation of current climate science each week. In conversations with people who are less of a science nerd than I am, I’ve discovered a gap between what the science and scientists are saying and what the public is hearing. So I’m trying to bring a new take on current peer-reviewed published papers.

Recommendations of papers I haven’t seen or that you think should be blogged about are welcome. I will be focusing on climate change, but will occasionally take the time to deviate to different research that I find either interesting or relevant.

I hope you find it interesting and relevant as well!

Happy reading,
Amy