Tracking Current and Future Progress in Fulfilling Paris

Nature PetersWhile there are numerous analyses indicating that current National Determined Contributions (NDCs) made the Parties to the Paris Agreement do not put the world on track to meet the treaty’s objectives of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.” However, very few efforts have been made to date to ascertain how to track progress in meeting the temperature targets of Paris. This can be a critical component of informing the treaty’s global stocktaking process (Art. 14) and provisions to increase the ambition of commitments (Art. 3; 4). In a new study published in the journal Nature, Peters, et al. employ a nested structure of a group of indicators intended to track the progress of parties to Paris in meeting their Paris obligations, including aggregated progress, country-level decompositions to track emerging trends, and technology diffusion.

Among the conclusions of the study:

  • While global carbon dioxide emissions have been flat for the past three years (projected to be 36.4 GtCO2 in 2016), cumulative emissions continue to rise, which will preclude meeting Paris’s objectives given the need for rapid declines in emissions, and ultimately zero emissions;
  • While Chinese emissions have been largely stable recently, and US and EU emissions have declined in the past few years, it’s unclear if these are long-term trends, or largely attributable to weak economic growth or other short-term factors.
    • There is empirical evidence of emerging declines in carbon intensity globally, including the China, the United States and the European Union
  • While the growth of the use of renewable energy has been substantial in recent years, including more than 50% of total energy growth in 2015, it will prove difficult for renewable energy to supply annual energy growth in the short term absent further declines in global energy use. Renewable energy alone may also not be sufficient to keep global temperatures below 2C given physical constraints to large-scale deployment and limited prospects for use in certain sectors, such as agriculture;
  • While it is possible to keep temperature increases to 2C or below with relatively high fossil fuel energy use, this scenario is predicated on substantial reliance on bioenergy, coupled with large-scale deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). However, this assumes that bioenergy can be sustainably produced and made carbon-neutral. It’s also predicated on huge scale-up of CCS in conjunction with bioenergy (BECCS). This may require as many as 4000 facilities by 2030 compared with the tens currently proposed by 2020. Scale-up of this magnitude may prove to be a large challenge given social resistance and inadequate assessment of technological risks;
  • Studies indicate that current emissions pledges may “quickly deviate” from what is required to conform to the 2C objective. Should some technologies lag in deployment, others will have to ramp up more quickly. These is also a lack of scenarios assessing the prospects for transformational changes in lifestyle and behaviors, other forms of carbon dioxide removal, and solar radiation management geoengineering.

Among potential questions for classroom discussion are the following:

  1. What are the challenges associated with large-scale deployment of bioenergy and carbon capture and sequestration/storage? What policy measures could help to ameliorate these challenges;
  2. What are the potential benefits of solar radiation management geoengineering; what are the potential risks;
  3. What measures could be taken to accelerate market penetration of renewable energy?

Poster’s note: There is an interview with Glen Peters that further explicates some of the findings of this study.

Bioenergy Potential and Tradeoffs with Food Production?

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in its Fifth Assessment Report’s Working Group III Contribution, “[b]ioenergy coupled CCS (BECCS) has attracted particular attention since AR4 because it offers the prospect of energy supply with negative emissions.” However, as the IPCC report also cautions, BECCS poses serious challenges, among them, the potential threat to food supplies posed by diversion of biomass to energy production. A study published a few years ago in the journal Biomass & Bioenergy (subscription required) provides an excellent overview of the potential interrelations between food and energy production, and the potential for projected climatic change to either ameliorate or exacerbate the tensions between food and energy production. The study employed what it termed a “socioeconomic metabolism approach” to formulate a biomass balance model (to 2050) to link supply and demand of agricultural biomass, excluding forestry.
Among the conclusions of the study:
1.    Climate change could have dramatic impacts on available biomass in 2050. If some projections of the CO2 fertilization effects are correct, bioenergy potential could rise by a whopping 45% to 151.7 EJ y-1, or it could decline to 87.5 EJ if CO2 fertilization is completely ineffective.  To put this in context, humans currently harvest and utilize a total of amount of biomass with an energy value of 205 EJ y-1. “This implies that the global bioenergy potential on cropland and grazing areas is highly dependent on the (uncertain) effect of climate change on future global yields on agricultural areas.”
a.    However, part of the potential benefits of the CO2 fertilization effect could be obviated by potential decreases in protein content and higher susceptibility to insect pests
2.    There is huge uncertainty in potential bioenergy from forests, ranging from zero to 71 EJ y-1 in 2050;
3.    After taking into account projected food needs, primary bioenergy potential is estimated to be between 64-161 EJ y-1 However, this is “only a fraction of current fossil-fuel use.” Moreover, realizing bioenergy potentials on grazing lands of this magnitude would require “massive investments” in agricultural technologies, e.g. irrigation and could also particularly threaten populations practicing low-input agriculture.
This study demonstrates that BECCs remains a highly contested proposition in terms of potential tradeoffs of food and energy production. Moreover, the “wildcard” of the potential impacts of climate change on biomass production are likely to remain unknown for many decades, making it difficult to determine if large-scale BECCS should be pursued as a policy option.

Among the discussion questions this article could generate:

  • How can society determine if potential tradeoffs between food and bioenergy production, if they exist, are acceptable, i.e. what should be the pertinent metrics? How do we take into consideration equitable concerns, e.g. potentially disproportionate on particularly vulnerable groups, e.g. small-scale farmers?
  • What are other pertinent questions to ask about BECCS, including the viability of CCS technologies; concerns about finding adequate storage capacity to effectuate “negative emissions,” and the potential threats associated with carbon dioxide leakage;
  • Should BECCS be considered a form of “geoengineering”? Does it matter?

World Energy Outlook 2013

The International Energy Agency has released its World Energy Outlook 2013. Because I cannot afford the heftily priced full version, I am going to discuss the Executive Summary below. This would be an excellent student reading to provide a snapshot of the current state of global energy consumption and production and projections over the next few decades.

Among the findings in the report:

  1. China is poised to become the world’s leading oil importer by the early 2020s and India, the leading importer of coal. The U.S. may meet all of its energy needs from domestic sources by 2035;
  2. Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are still slated to rise by 20% through 2035 even under the study’s “Central Scenario,” which includes policy interventions in the United States, China and Japan. As a consequence, the world is on a trajectory for long-term temperatures to increase 3.6C above pre-industrial levels;
  3. Two-thirds of potential economically viable energy efficiency gains remain on the table despite substantive changes in policy recently to facilitate efficiency improvements;
  4. By 2035, oil consumption will be concentrated in two sectors, transport and petrochemicals;
  5. Brazil is an extremely dynamic actor in the energy sector in 2035, with oil production tripling, natural gas production increasing five-fold, and biofule production tripling. At the same time, the country is projected to see an 80% increase in energy use during this period.


The Sin of Synthetic Natural Gas in China?

While discussions of Chinese energy policy have often focused on its prodigious burning of coal for electricity production, there’s been very little coverage of its plans to massively expand its use of coal for production of synthetic natural gas (AKA substitute natural gas). China has already approved nine large-scale SNG plants this year, with total capacity of 37.1 billion m3 of natural gas per year, and 30 more are in the planning stages, with a combined capacity of 120 billion m3. To put the magnitude of this commitment in perspective, the pioneering Great Plains Synfuels Plant in the United States has a capacity of only 1.5 billion m3.

A recent article in Nature Climate Change makes a strong case that this path could prove environmentally disastrous. Authors Chi-Yen Yang and Robert B. Jackson outline the stark implications of a commitment to SNG. SNG produces life-cycle GHG emissions approximately seven times that of conventional natural gas, as well as 26-82% high than pulverized coal-fired power production for generation of electricity. Overall, the combined projected carbon dioxide production of all of the approved and projected plans could result in an “astonishing” ˜111 billion tons of carbon dioxide over 40 years, severely undercutting any prospects for reduction of GHG emissions over the next half century. The plants would also require tremendous water resources, dramatic exacerbating water shortages in several regions already facing substantial water stress.  In analyzing the economics of such plants, the authors conclude that because such plants would continue to be operated for as long as revenues exceeded fuel and operation and maintenance costs (even without recovery of initial capital investments), there’s a very real danger of technological lock-in and slowing of market penetration of renewable energy sources.

Is China about to render its bottom-up commitments under the UNFCCC chimerical?

New Study on Methane Emissions Rates from Natural Gas Production

Many commentators and policymakers, including the Obama administration in the United States tout natural gas as a “bridge” fuel in the transition to decarbonizing the world’s economy. However, while natural gas produces far more energy per carbon dioxide molecule formed than coal (177%) and oil (144%) major concerns have been raised about the leakage of methane from natural gas from the point of extraction to consumption. Indeed, given the global warming potential of methane over a 100-year time horizon (25x more potential carbon dioxide), recent studies have indicated that natural gas leakage rates of more than 3.2% would yield greater climatic impacts than from combustion of coal.

Unfortunately, the rate of methane emissions from natural gas production remain highly contested. For example, in the United States, the U.S. EPA’s estimates of leakage rates have varied by as much as a factor of 10 over the course of only a few years. In a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, nineteen researcher contend that this disparity in estimates may be attributable to “bottom up” assessments “in which emission factors for multiple processes are multiplied by an inventory of activity data.” Moreover, EPA’s 80 different EPA emissions factors associated with the oil and gas industry are based on a study conducted in the 1990s and, questionably, assumes consistency by industries in a number of different regions.

The researchers sought to assess emissions factors using a “mass balance” approach, a measure-based method to estimate total emissions released from a defined point, facilitating direct assessment of uncertainties associated with the magnitude of methane leakage rates. The study presented results from a natural gas and oil production field in the Uintah Basin in eastern Utah.

The results of the study yielded a natural gas leakage rate of 6.2-11.7% on February 3, 2012, negating an short-term (<70 years) climate benefit of natural gas production compared to electricity production from oil or coal. Appropriately, the researchers of the study cautioned against drawing hasty conclusions given the fact that this was only a one-day snapshot of regional emissions. However, they also pointed out that their results were consistent with several other recent “top-down” studies utilizing that had found bottom-down inventory assessments substantially underestimating methane leakage rates.

At the very least, this study emphasizes the need for continued research in this context. This study would afford students with extensive energy and atmospheric science expertise with an excellent opportunity to wrestle with the merits of starkly different methodological approaches. For students with less expertise, it would provide an excellent gateway into discussing the importance of global warming potentials of various greenhouse gases and to remind them of the importance of life cycle assessments of various energy options.

International Energy Outlook 2013

The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s summary of its International Energy Outlook 2013 report would be an excellent student reading for an energy or climate course. The report’s summary page also includes many other excellent resources for use in the classroom, including detailed data tables and a 33-slide Power Point summary.

Among the key conclusions of the report:

  1. World energy consumption grows by 56% between 2010-2040, with a 90% jump in use by non-OECD States;
  2. Fossil fuels continue to supply almost 80% of world energy needs through 2040, dropping from 84% of the energy mix in 2010 to 78%:
    1. Global use of petroleum and other liquid fuels increases from 87 MBD in 2010 to 97 MBD in 2040, driven by growth in demand in the transportation and industry sectors, with the former accounting for 63% of this growth;
    2. World natural gas consumption increases by 64% in the Reference case, driven by several desirable characteristics, including lower carbon intensity than oil and coal, relatively low capital costs and favorable heat rates;
    3. Global coal consumption is projected to raise at an average rate of 1.3% annually from 2010-2040, with three countries (China, U.S. and India) accounting for 75% of consumption in 2040. However, environmental considerations and declining costs of natural gas is projected to reduce coal’s share of the global energy mix, including from 40% in 2010 to 36% in 2040.
  3.  Renewable energy sources and nuclear will post the fastest growth of world energy sources, increasing at 2.5% annual rate through 2040. Yet, to put this in discouraging perspective, in the Reference case scenario, renewables share of total energy use only rises from 11 percent in 2010 to 15 percent in 2040, with nuclear energy’s share growing from 5 percent to 7 percent;
    1. Almost 80% of the projected increase in renewable electricity generation will come from hydropower (52% of total) and wind;
  4. Perhaps the most discouraging conclusion of the report is that energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to increase from 31.2 billion metric tons in 2010 to 45.5 billion in 2040, a burgeoning 46%.
    1. Non-OECD emissions are expected to exceed those of the OECD by a whopping 127% in 2040;
    2. The largest share of carbon dioxide emissions during this period are from coal;
    3. Carbon intensity of output is projected to decline by 1.9% annually in OECD countries and 2.7% annually in non-OECD countries.

    This reading could also stimulate some good discussion of what would need to be done to substantially deviate from the “Reference case,” both from a technical and political perspective. It might be coupled with pieces that project potentially far higher market penetration of renewable sources by the middle of the century. This could facilitate discussion of the importance of different methodological approaches, as well as the intrinsically difficult task of projecting energy and climate data so far into the future.



Wind Power Overblown?

Wind power is often touted as one of the “wedges” that will help us de-carbonize the global economy over the course of this century. However, a new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters by Professors Amanda Adams and David Keith is a cautionary tale about the long-term prospects for wind power deployment in the face of potential physical constraints of the resource. The study assessed how reduction in wind speed associated with wind turbine scales reduces the capacity factor (CF), defined as “the ratio of actual power given the prevailing winds to the amount that would be produced if the turbines operated continuously as their maximum rated output.” Among the key take-aways from the study:

  1. Each wind turbine creates a “wind shadow” in which the air is slowed down by drag on the turbine’s blades. While discrete wind farms are able to compensate for this phenomenon by spacing them sufficiently to reduce the impact of wind shadows, this becomes more problematic and wind farms grow larger and start to interact. At this point regional wind patterns become more relevant;
  2. “Extraction of energy by wind turbine arrays is limited by the physics of atmospheric energy transport.” This suggests that maximum energy extraction from turbine arrays  of very large wind power installations (larger than 100 square kilometers) is approximately 1 Wm-2 This suggest that recent estimates of wind power capacity of 56-148 TW may be high overestimated by a factor of as much as four;
  3. Wind power installations that could generate huge amounts of power, such as 100 TW, would also have profound effects on global wind patterns that could potentially be larger than the impacts of a doubling of carbon dioxide;
  4. The research here suggests a need for additional studies of realistic economic and social constraints of wind power siting, as well as potential climatic impacts of wind power extraction, to assess the resource’s ultimate potential.


Shale Oil: The Next Energy Revolution?

A new report by the UK branch of PriceWaterhouseCoopers assesses the future of shale oil in the United States and globally.

In the United States, the report concludes that shale oil production has grown at a rate of 26% annually, reaching 553,000 barrels per day in 2011. It is projected the shale oil production in the United States will rise to anywhere from 1.2 million barrels per day  to 3-4 million barrels per day by 2035, with total shale resources pegged at 33 billion barrels. As such shale oil could displace a whopping 35-40% of waterborne crude oil imports to the United State. Moreover, beyond substantially reducing U.S. dependence on imported oil, it could also result in substantially lower oil prices.

The report also pegs global shale oil resources at between 330 billion and 1.4 trillion barrels, with significant recent discoveries in many countries, including New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. Based on scenarios projecting oil prices of $127-133 per barrel, PWC projects that global shale oil production could rise to up to 14 million barrels of oil per day in 2035, comprising 12% of total oil supply. Depending on OPEC’s response (i.e. whether it chooses to lower production to maintain prices), oil prices may range from $83-100 per barrel in real terms. The study concludes that this could result in global GDP increases of 2.3-3.7% by the end of 2035, translating into a $2.7 trillion boost in global income. .Of course, there would be winners and losers in this scenario, with India and Japan doing particularly well, and Russia and the Middle East suffering the most from the decline in oil prices.

However, the report also cautions that oil price declines associated with shale oil production may substantially reduce investments in renewables. To avoid this scenario, countries will have to develop policy responses, e.g. keeping fossil fuel taxes higher and recycling proceedings into R&D for low carbon technologies. Moreover, major oil producing nations may have to consider substantial limitations on supply to maintain oil prices.

Some of the class discussion questions that this reading could generate would include the following

  1. Is it realistic to believe that countries will use oil taxes to artificially elevate petroleum prices to prevent the displacement of renewable energy?;
  2. What would be the optimal way for governments, from a climate policy perspective,  to spend the tax windfall associated with shale oil production?
  3. What are the environmental implications of shale oil production in terms of climate change?;
  • Associated with this question might be parsing out the arguments of proponents that higher GHG emissions associated with shale oil production might be more than offset by displacement of coal production and production of energy from more environmentally sensitive areas, e.g. the Arctic and Canadian tar sand regions.


Stakeholder Forum article for WFES 2013: Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Energy Development for Small Developing States and Remote Nordic Communities

Integrated Approaches to Sustainable Energy Development for Small Island Developing States and Remote Nordic Communities for Stakeholder Forum publication for the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, UAE in January 2013.

Sustainable energy development can assist Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and remote communities and regions in mitigating and adapting to climate change, especially with pursuing an integrated approach to the development of renewable energy in synergy with heat and water and waste treatment. There are common linkages between renewable energy, water, carbon reduction and sustainable economic development, including tourism and sustainable economies, for SIDS and remote communities and regions. Communities and islands that embrace the integration of energy, water and carbon reduction will be more desirable destinations and economies for both travel and business.

The integration of renewable energy, heat and water is quite advanced across the Caribbean and Pacific, and for remote communities and capital cities in the Nordic region. There are common trends through all these regions. Integrated approaches to renewable energy can occur in synergy with heat, water and waste for SIDS and communities in these Nordic regions, and could inspire parallel development of these fields globally. This article builds on research under the Sustainable Energy Development project and the Nordic Centre of Excellence for Strategic Adaptation Research. It is consistent with the international collaboration on energy and water research at the World Future Energy Summit and International Water Summitin Abu Dhabi, and regional efforts for Latin America and the Caribbean under by the Department of Sustainable Energy Development of the Organization of American States.

One key aspect that ties together SIDS and remote northern communities are the high costs of electricity from imported fuel, and diesel generation, which in turn increase the cost of heating, cooling, and water and waste treatment. However, these locations also have significant renewable energy resources, or could, at a minimum, benefit from higher energy efficiency or burning natural gas liquids in substitution for diesel fuel.

The Renewable Energy to Desalination and Tourism Project for Caribbean Islands combines renewable energy based power generation and desalination, with cooling and heating as additional by-products. It works with Caribbean islands and businesses which are tourism dependent to integrate clean energy, carbon reduction, tourism and travel, and the project is a participant in the Climate Technology Initiative Private Financing Advisory Network (PFAN) Clean Energy Financing Forum in Central America and the Caribbean Business Plan Competition.

The island of Aruba in the Caribbean is working with Richard Branson and the Carbon War Room to transition the island to 100% renewable energy, thus creating the world’s first sustainable energy economy. In the Pacific, the three atoll islands of Tokelau, a non-self governing territory of New Zealand, have recently completed projects allowing them to meet all energy needs from renewable energy, with one of the world largest off-grid solar systems, along with batteries and electricity generators powered by coconut biofuel produced on the islands. All these islands have existing tourist economies.

Innovative energy approaches are being used throughout the Nordic region to integrate energy and heat, and increase energy efficiency, supporting local economies and the attractiveness of those communities for visitors and investment. In Nuuk, Greenland, a hydrogen plant uses hydroelectricity to electrolyse water into hydrogen and oxygen. This hydrogen is stored for conversion into electricity, and on-demand heat in a fuel cell. Excess heat from hydrogen production and fuel cells heats Nuuk, while the electricity goes to the grid or buildings.  In Qaanaaq in north-western Greenland, above-ground pipes combine multiple energy and water services, while diesel engines and district heating provide highly efficient fuel use exceeding 85%. If this system was supplemented by a thermal storage mechanism, wind could also be integrated, and biogas from wastes could be used to generate electricity and heat.

This article is also located at:

Solar’s Next Phase?

In a new study, the management consulting company, McKinsey & Company focuses on the future of the solar-photovoltaic industry, which now constitutes a $1000 billion global business with globally installed capacity of 65 gigawatts. While the study acknowledges the current travails of the industry, it concludes that its future is bright. This would be an excellent reading for students in energy courses, as it provides a very good summary of the development of the industry, an analysis of the current challenges facing it, and a solid prescriptive road map.

Among the take-aways from the study:

  1. Even with declining subsidies, photovoltaic (PV) manufacturing capacity is anticipated to double in the next 3-5 years, with costs potentially declining to $1 per watt peak for fully installed residential systems; even at double this price, anticipated additional capacity is still 400-600 GW of PV capacity by 2020;
    • Market penetration of this magnitude will “disrupt” the regulated utility industry in OECD countries, as well as bringing distributed generation to potentially millions of poor people in rural areas;
  2. As demand for PV rose in recent years, it stimulated manufacturing capacity, including in China, resulting in market oversupply, resulting in a boom-bust cycle and a number of prominent bankruptcies. However, these are temporary “growing pains.” The industry is likely to mature and dramatically reduce costs by adopting the approaches utilized by more mature industries, e.g. procurement, supply-chain management, and manufacturing. This could reduce costs of commercial-scale rooftop systems by 40% by 2015, and 70% by 2020
  3. Unsubsidized potential of distributed residential and commercial PV is 10-12 GW by the end of 2012; a tipping point could be reached that would facilitate demand to grow to between 200-700 GW by 2020;
  4. Global potential for PV is 1000 GW by 2020, but given barriers to implementation, installed capacity is likely to be 400-600 GW by 2020. Even at the latter level, installation rates could rival gas, wind and hydro, though revenue would remain flat because of anticipated price declines;
  5. Some the barriers to PV market penetration include, lack of low-cost financing in developing countries and a shortage of distribution partners, as well as regulations in developing countries, including potential efforts to alter rate structures to reduce incentives for switching to distributed sources;
  6. Extensive deployment of solar energy as an alternative traditional baseload generation isn’t likely before 2020; however, it could reach 110-130 GW by 2030, comprising about 15% of cumulative new solar constructed during this period;
  7.  “Scale will be crucial for solar manufacturers.” While manufacturers needed 50-100 MW of solar capacity to compete in the PV market a few years ago, this has jumped to 2-3 GW. This necessitates strategies e.g. development of proprietary technologies, a focus on wringing out efficiencies in production and focusing on reducing balance of system costs (solar components excluded PV panels).