Betting on Negative Emissions? Carbon Dioxide Removal Geoengineering

BECCSFor instructors who include a module on climate geoengineering, an excellent short reading on carbon dioxide removal approaches, and the challenges of effectively implementing them, is an article (subscription required) from last year by Sabine Fuss, et al., in the journal Nature Climate Change. As Fuss, et al. note, most emissions pathway scenarios that lead to atmospheric CO2 concentrations consistent with avoidance of temperatures above 2°C from pre-industrial levels contemplate some use of global net negative approaches in the second half of this century. In this study, the authors assess the prospects for the so-called “negative emissions” option most highly touted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fifth Assessment Report, Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS).
Among the findings of the authors are the following:

  1. Many integrated assessment models (IAMs) contemplate carbon dioxide absorption by BECCS of 1,000 GtCO2 or more; this could effectively double the globe’s carbon “budget;”
  2. Global net negative emissions strategies would have to be in place by 2070 for the most aggressive emissions scenarios. If deployment is delayed until substantial climate change has occurred, the response of the global carbon cycle will necessitate a larger program. Thus “the future option space depends strongly on today’s decisions;”
  3. Challenges for deployment of BECCS include physical constraints associated with alternative land biomass and biomass needs (including agricultural demands and biodiversity conservation), response of terrestrial and ocean sinks to negative emissions, costs of speculative technologies and socio-institutional barriers, including public acceptance of new technologies;
  4. In IAM scenarios consistent with keeping temperatures below 2°C from pre-industrial levels, BECCS approaches would have to sequester between 2-10 GtCO2 by 2050 (about 5-25% of 2010 CO2 emissions), and 4-22% of 2050 baseline emissions, which would entail “huge upscaling efforts,” especially in light of the currently challenging environment to develop large-scale CCS projects. This challenge is particularly imposing given the high costs of such projects and the low cost of emissions that are likely to be perpetuated absent the imposition of a meaningful price on carbon through climate policies;
  5. While negative emissions options are, ostensibly, more expensive than other mitigation options, in the longer term, alternative mitigation pathways to 2100 are all substantially more costly without use of such technologies;
  6. BECCS could serve as an alternative in the absence of a global accord to substantially reduce emissions for those countries lacking either capacity or the will to participate in international regimes.

Among the discussion questions that this piece might suggest:

  1. How would we (can we?) reconcile the trade-offs between food production and energy production that, as the article suggests, BECCS might pose?;
  2. While the article focuses on the viability of CO2 sequestration, what are the challenges, if any, of transport and storage of 2-10 GtCO2 annually?;
  3. Are there tradeooffs associated with devoting substantial amounts of research and development funding to carbon dioxide programs? If yes, how does society, assess such trade-offs?

Climate Litigation: From the Netherlands to Pakistan

LitigationFor instructors who include a module on climate litigation, it’s been a watershed summer, with two cases presenting excellent opportunities to discuss the potential role of such actions in inducing more substantive actions by government. In July, in a suit brought by a Dutch NGO, (Urgenda v. Netherlands) a District court in the Hague held in that the State was in breach of its duty of care to Dutch society by failing to take sufficient mitigation measures to prevent dangerous climate change. The court ordered the Dutch government to “limit or have limited” national greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25% by 2020 vs. the government’s current mitigation path of 17%.

Following closely on the heels of this case is a September decision by the Lahore High Court Green Bench (Ashgar Leghari v. Federation of Pakistan). The petitioner in this case was a farmer who challenged the government of Pakistan’s implementation of the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) and Framework for Implementation of Climate Change Policy on human rights grounds. More specifically, petitioner alleged that the failure of the federal government to implement climate measures “offends the fundamental right to life under article 9 of the Constitution” by threatening posing a serious threat to water, food and energy security of Pakistan. Moreover, petitioner contended that government inaction, and consequent climatic threats, undermined protection of his right to a healthy and clean environment and human dignity under article 14 of the Pakistani constitution, as well as constitutional principles of social and economic justice. He also alleged that certain international environmental principles, which constituted “fundamental rights” were apposite, including the doctrine of public trust, sustainable development, the precautionary principle and intergenerational equity.

In finding for the petitioner, the court held that:

  1. The primary cause of climate change is anthropogenic and its manifestations, including flooding, have already begun affecting Pakistan “with far reaching consequences and real economic cost;”
  2. The focal point of the Framework for Implementation of Climate Change Policy are adaptation efforts; however, to date “no material exercise has been done on the ground to implement the Framework” by relevant Ministries and Provincial Departments;”

In order to “expedite” protection of “the fundamental rights of the people of Punjab,” the court established a Climate Change Commission, comprised of pertinent government officials, with the powers to effectuate effective implementation of the NCCP and Framework and to compel cooperation by Ministries and Departments. Moreover, the court directed responsible ministries and departments to appoint a focal person on climate change to prepare a list of adaption measures to be completed by the end of 2015. The Green Bench also retained jurisdiction (continuing mandamus) to hear reports from the Commission concerning their progress in carrying out these orders.

It’s been my experience that both law and non-law students are very interested in climate litigation. Some of the questions that might grow out of discussion of these cases are the following:

  1. Should non-elected judiciaries be permitted to impose mandates with substantial fiscal and social implications on society?
  2. Are decisions of this nature likely to have substantive impacts in terms of climate change policy? Is there any empirical evidence to date?
  3. What are the implications of decisions of this nature for international climate policymaking?

“Winning Coalitions” For Climate Policy?

What is the optimal political strategy to effectuate decarbonization of the world’s economy? Professor Jonas Meckling of the University of California-Berkeley, along with several other colleagues at the university, have just published a new article in Science that contends that the key is formulation of green industrial policies that foster “winning coalitions for climate policy.” The two-page piece would be an excellent reading in any energy or climate course’s policy solutions modules.

Among the conclusions of the authors are the following:

1. While climate change agreements increasingly reflect bottom-up, domestically-centered policies, there’s sparse research on the optimal approaches to drive bottom-up processes to effectuate emissions reductions;
2. Even if all carbon pricing mechanisms are implemented globally, they will only encompass 12% of GHG emissions; moreover, because they are subject to the political influence of major polluters, who resist their attendant substantial costs, they are “only marginally effective;”
3. While green industrial policies, e.g. feed-in tariffs and renewable portfolio standards, are viewed by economists as inferior carbon pricing policies from an efficiency perspective, they have the compelling advantage of helping to develop “a political landscape of interests and coalitions” that benefit from such policies. Such “winning coalitions” can also generate positive feedbacks: as such coalitions grow stronger, they can exert more polScienceCoveritical influence, driving additional pro-climate policies, including carbon pricing policies;
a. Empirical evidence for this thesis comes from Germany, where subsidies for low-carbon demonstration projects and feed-in tariffs ultimately led to expansion of renewable energy projects and other measures; California’s experience also supports this contention
4. Among the policy implications of the study’s findings are:
a. Multiple targeted green industrial policies are beneficial in pursuit of de-carbonization because it provides benefits to firms and households that are “politically bounded and relatively easy to understand — unlike broader more systematic strategies,” such as carbon pricing or urban planning initiatives;
b. Policy signals should maximize political leverage by focusing on specific measures for industrial investment which can drive the development of green industry groups;
c. “Strategic sequencing” of policies is important. High leverage measures of the sort described above help mobilize support and strengthen broader policy signals, such as carbon pricing strategies.

The article could generate some excellent classroom discussion. Among the questions that might be pertinent are the following:
1. In many countries, including Spain, France, Italy and the United Kingdom, feed-in tariff rates have been slashed; does this undercut the authors’ contention that green industrial policies help to develop powerful constituencies that ensure that such measures thrive and expand?;
2. Given the fact that many carbon trading regimes, including the EU-ETS have been criticized for not sending sufficiently strong price signals to drive de-carbonization of economies, are the authors correct when they argue that green industrial policies can help foster strong carbon pricing regimes?;
3. What are the implications of “mixed” climate policymaking regimes, i.e. those that incorporate both green industrial and carbon pricing mechanisms? Would you agree with some commentators that the former can undermine the effectiveness of the latter?

IISD Paris Knowledge Bridge Videos

leadThe International Institute for Sustainable Development, a policy NGO that is perhaps best known for its excellent reporting on the review conferences of major international environmental and development regimes, has produced a new set of videos that seeks to explain the climate governance process in the lead-up to COP21 in Paris. The Paris Knowledge Bridge includes four videos, comprised primarily of interviews of key policy makers at both the international and national level, delegates involved in the climate governance process, as well as many representatives of NGOs. The topics covered include a history of climate governance; the key pillars of climate governance (mitigation, adaptation and implementation); the science and economics of climate change, and the current status of climate negotiations leading up to COP21.

The videos are expressly designed for use in the classroom, as each one includes pertinent learning objectives and a raft of additional resources.

Assessing Contrarian Climate Studies

A number of recent studies indicate that 97-98% of actively publishing climate researchers support the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in terms of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). However, a large percentage of the public continue to believe that there’s a close division of opinion in the scientific community. As a new study by Rasmus E. Benestad, et al. in the journal Theoretical and Applied Climatology suggests, this includes many undergraduate students in the United States. This is the reason that I always devote a full class in my climate change courses to discussing the specific arguments of climate skeptics. The Benestad study utilizes an analytical tool to test the results and methods used in high profile 38 contrarian papers (grouped into five categories based on analytical setup, statistics, mathematics, physical and representation of previous results), seeking to replicate and test the results and methods in these studies.
The study could be a useful reading for a teaching module on the arguments advanced by those who challenge the tenets of AGW, as well as providing some broader lessons about the nature of scientific research and the interface of scientists and the public.
Among the conclusions from the study were the following:

• Most of the studies across the categories failed to cite or address relevant literature that proffered evidence or conclusions counter to their conclusions;
• Many of the studies failed to compare models against independent values that were not deployed in the development of the study, which is critical to prevent curve-fitting;
• Many studies engaged in false dichotomy reasoning, such as arguing that warming was attributable to solar activities, while not acknowledging that greenhouse gas forcing could be a co-existing reason;
• Many of the studies employed spectral methods, which almost inevitable finds cycles or periodicities, even when they may not exist;
• A number of papers were published in journals that were far abreast from the field of climate change research, presenting the question of whether the editors were likely to be able to identify qualified reviewers.

The study suggests the need for openness and transparency to facilitate access to open source code and data that can facilitate replication to assess the validity of study findings. The researchers also argue that IPCC assessment reports might be more compelling to the public it is also made it source code and data available.

New Potential Teaching Resource: “Climate Feedback” Tool

Climate_Feedback_logo_sDr. Emmanuel Vincent, a tropical cyclone expert at the University of California, has established a resource to facilitate assessment by climate scientists of the scientific soundness of online content focused on climate science, and to communicate the results to more general audiences. The Climate Feedback tool affords climate scientists the opportunity to use an online resource called Hypothesis to conduct detailed annotations of articles and other online resources on climate change, which can then be shared online. To date, a group of 40 scientists from institutions such as MIT, the University of New South Wales Climate Change Research Centre, Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Harvard, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, have joined together to critique pieces from an array of sources, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Guardian, The Hill, and even the Pope’s recent environmental encyclical.

This could be an excellent teaching tool for climate change courses. One possible approach would be to assign some of the pieces analyzed by the Climate Feedback team in their un-annotated form, and then ask the students to read the annotations for the articles and query whether these perspectives influenced their thinking about the articles. I think this would help to both impart additional knowledge and encourage them to think more critically. In some cases, e.g. a recent Rolling Stone piece  by Eric Holthaus on the potential current impacts of climate change, there is a wide scope of opinion by seven scientists on the scientific validity of the arguments advanced in the article. This would also help demonstrate the contested nature of science under many circumstances; it could also lead to some interesting class discussion of the different methods of assessment used by scientists and students could be encouraged to tease out the assumptions that lead to different conclusions.

Incidentally, the site is extremely well balanced in terms of its assessment of the constructs of both proponents of the theory of anthropogenic global warming, as well as skeptics. As a teaching tool, it affords students access to the insights of some very good thinkers in the field, and it’s a resource that is likely to grow in popularity.

“Deep Decarbonization” The Way Forward?

DDPP_Digit-1_cover1The “Deep Decarbonization Project” (DDP) is convened under the auspices of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations. The Project seeks to develop scenarios for individual countries and the globe to transition to a low-carbon economy that limits increases in global mean surface temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The DDP’s latest report’s Executive Summary would be an excellent reading for a module on long-term responses to climate change. The full 232-page report would be worth checking out also; among other things, it includes chapters on decarbonization scenarios for 15 selected countries, both Annex I and non-Annex I. These materials would be particularly valuable in classes that engage in climate negotiations exercises where students are assigned to represent individual countries.

Among the key findings in the Executive Summary:

  1.  Decarbonization initiatives in developing countries will ultimately need to achieve sustainable development and poverty eradication;
  2. To attain a likely (higher than two-thirds) chance of avoiding passing the 2C threshold will require limiting global cumulative emissions in the range of 550-1300 gigatons by 2050; if we exclude potential “negative emissions,” such as from bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS) or direct air capture, the projected CO2 budget in 2050 is 825 gigatons;
  3. The world is currently on a trajectory for temperature increases of 3.7-4.8C, with the range extending from 2.5-7.8 by the end of the century if one takes into account climate uncertainties.  This is based on emissions growth of 35 gigatons annually currently;
  4. Currently, the quantified targets (Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs) outlined by the Parties to the UNFCCC “are not derived from an assessment of what will be needed to stay within the 2C limit;”
  5. The “three pillars” of decarbonization of energy systems include energy efficiency and conservation, decarbonization of electricity generation through replacement of fossi fuel systems with renewable energy, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) systems;
  6. The most challenging sector in terms of decarbonization efforts is freight and industry; some potential solutions include improved boiler efficiency, CCS, and improved propulsion technologies;
  7. Many of the technologies that will likely prove critical for achieving decarbonization goals will are not technologically mature and will require sustained funding and active collaboration between the government, academic and business sectors/

New UNHRC Resolution on Nexus of CC and Human Rights

In rec25-08-2011humanrightsent years, there has been increasing discussion by both academics and policymakers of the nexus between human rights and climate change. This included the previous passage of three resolutions by the UN’s Human Right Council. This past week, the Council passed its fourth resolution on the topic, likely seeking to send a signal to the Parties to the UNFCCC in advance of the COP21 meeting in Paris. The resolution comes in the immediate wake of a call last month by the Climate Vulnerable Forum (a collaborative forum of climate-vulnerable States) for the Parties to the UNFCCC to agree to aggressive reductions in emissions at Paris to help ensure protection of critical human rights threatened by climatic impacts.

The latest Human Rights Council resolution, which was championed by the Philippines and Bangladesh, and co-sponsored by more than 100 countries, includes the following provisions:

  1. It emphasizes, as had the Parties to the UNFCCC at their 16th Meeting of the Parties, that States should respect human rights “in all climate-related actions,” which would presumably include response measures, including mitigation and adaptation initiatives, as well as climate geoengineering;
  2. It reaffirms the link between climate change (including both sudden-onset natural disasters and slow-onset events)  and the threat to the enjoyment of an array of human rights, including the right to life, food, water and development;
  3. It calls for a panel discussion as part of its work program for its 31st Session “on the adverse impact of climate change on States’ efforts to progressively realize the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health and related policies, lessons learned and good practices.”
    1. The Resolution all calls for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to conduct a study on the nexus of climate change impacts and human to inform the panel discussion. The OHCHR was also encouraged to consult with and solicit the view of States, pertinent international organizations and intergovernmental bodies, including the IPCC, the UNFCCC, the World Health Organization, and other stakeholders.

Among the class discussion questions that this resolution could generate include the following:

  • Do you believe that there is any value in subjecting climate change to a human rights lens given the fact that human rights are regularly flouted in many contexts?
  • Given the fact that the human rights violations associated with climate change in the world’s most vulnerable States will be the consequence of emissions by other countries is there a role for human rights given the anathema of many States to apply human rights provisions extraterritorially?
  • What might be some of the practical problems of applying a human-rights based approach in terms of legal issues e.g. causality, joint-responsibility, etc.

The Paradox of Climate Engineering

earthwrenchInstructors who include a lesson on climate geoengineering now have a luxury of riches in terms of student readings. However, one I’d highly recommend is an article by Michael Zürn of the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung and Stefan Schäfer of the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies in the journal Global Policy.

Zürn and Schäfer argue that the panoply of climate geoengineering options pose a “paradox,” in that “those few technologies that promise to act fast at a low price (identified by the authors as stratospheric particle injection and marine cloud brightening) would also bear the greatest risk of creating political and social resistance and conflict.” The authors conclude that the implications of such conflict could include international conflict, efforts at “counter-climate engineering” by States seeking to offset cooling effects of geoengineering, as well as potentially “permanent damage” to the UNFCCC process.

The authors cite four potential side effects of climate geoengineering that must be addressed to avoid the “paradox.” These included engendering widespread social and political acceptance, avoidance of potential moral hazards (possibility that climate geoengineering might denude the commitment to greenhouse gas emissions reductions), avoidance of a slippery slope from research to deployment without a compelling rationale; and avoidance of the termination problem, potentially “catastrophic” climatic effects should the use of technologies cease.

To address these potential side effects, the authors proposed three institutional principles, including transparency in research to ensure social and political acceptance, institutional integration with existing climate policies to avoid moral hazard, and a clear distinction between research and deployment to avoid both slippery slope and termination issues. Zürn and Schäfer also developed six components to implement these principles, including establishment of a coalition of States to engage in transparent research, assessment of research b the IPCC, decision making by the  UNFCCC in terms of governance protocols, establishment of uniform metrics for comparison of geoengineering and mitigation options, establishment of a time-limited moratorium on implementation and field-testing of climate geoengineering technologies, with subsequent implementation subject to the UNFCCC, and obligations on States to increase emissions reductions if they choose to deploy geoengineering technologies, in order to ameliorate potential termination effects.

This article should be a good jumping off point for class discussion on this controversial topic. Some potential discussion questions include the following;

  1. Would the proposals of the authors likely help to ameliorate concerns of States that might otherwise oppose climate geoengineering research and/or deployment?;
  2. Is quick deployment of climate geoengineering solutions an important criteria in determining potentially optimal geoengineering approaches?;
  3. Do you believe that climate geoengineering poses a moral hazard? How would we empirically test this proposition?

“2 Degrees” Series of CNN

I wanted to make sure that I sent through some reporting that CNN Digital reporter John Sutter did on his climate change project called “2 Degrees,” a number that Scientists and economists say that if the climate warms more than 2 degrees Celsius, will greatly up the odds of climate catastrophe.
When he launched this project in April, he asked what readers were most interested in reading about — and they chose how 2 Degrees could affect climate refugees. After searching for a country that met the criteria, Sutter traveled to the Marshall Islands and spent 9 days there learning about how the Marshallese were affected by the rising sea and their disappearing coast. He’s laid out a multi-part narrative with photos and videos that tells the heartbreaking story of the inhabitants of this Island and the 15% of the population – 10,000 – who have relocated to northwest Arkansas.

I hope you have a minute to take a look at this reporting. Please let me know if you have any questions.
Thanks so much!

Erica Puntel
office: 404-827-1657
mobile: 404-395-6335