Wednesday, September 17, 2014
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Rethinking Emissions Reduction

THE HAGUE – Whether at United Nations climate-change summits or one of the many “green growth” forums, renewables and energy efficiency are consistently regarded as the solution to global warming. Even the coal industry adopted the efficiency line in its Warsaw Communiqué, released ahead of the UN’s COP19 summit last November. But a closer look at the global energy system, together with a more refined understanding of the emissions challenge, reveals that fossil fuels will likely remain dominant throughout this century – meaning that carbon capture and storage (CCS) may well be the critical technology for mitigating climate change.

The widespread focus on efficiency and renewable energy stems from the dissemination of the Kaya Identity, which the Japanese economist Yoichi Kaya developed in 1993. Kaya calculated CO2 emissions by multiplying total population by per capita GDP, energy efficiency (energy use per unit of GDP), and carbon intensity (CO2 per unit of energy). Given the impracticality of winning support for proposals based on population management or limits on individual wealth, analyses using the Kaya Identity tend to bypass the first two terms, leaving energy efficiency and carbon intensity as the most important determinants of total emissions.

But this convenient interpretation does not correspond to reality. The fact is that the rate at which CO2 is being released into the ocean-atmosphere system is several orders of magnitude greater than the rate at which it is returning to geological storage through processes like weathering and ocean sedimentation. In this context, what really matters is the cumulative amount of CO2 being released over time – a fact that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognized in its recently released Fifth Assessment Report.

Since the industrial age began some 250 years ago, roughly 575 billion tons of fossil-fuel and land-fixed carbon – more than two trillion tons of CO2 – have been released into the atmosphere, leading to a shift in the global heat balance and a likely 1°C increase in surface temperature (the median of a distribution of outcomes). At the current rate, a trillion tons of carbon, or some 2°C of warming, could be reached as early as 2040.

This view does not align with the prevailing mechanisms for measuring progress on emissions reduction, which target specific annual outcomes. While reducing the annual flow of emissions by, say, 2050 would be a positive step, it does not necessarily guarantee success in terms of limiting the eventual rise in global temperature.

From a climate perspective, the temperature rise over time is arguably more a function of the size of the fossil-fuel resource base and the efficiency of extraction at a given energy price. As supply-chain efficiency increases, so does the eventual extraction and use of resources and, ultimately, the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. This means that efficiency may drive, not limit, the increase in emissions.

In fact, since the Industrial Revolution, efficiency through innovation has revolutionized just a handful of core energy-conversion inventions: the internal combustion engine, the electric motor, the light bulb, the gas turbine, the steam engine, and, more recently, the electronic circuit. In all of these cases, the result of greater efficiency has been an increase in energy use and emissions – not least because it improved access to the fossil-resource base.

Countries’ efforts to rely on renewable energy supplies are similarly ineffective, given that the displaced fossil-fuel-based energy remains economically attractive, which means that it is used elsewhere or later. And, in the case of rapidly developing economies like China, renewable-energy deployment is not replacing fossil fuels at all; instead, renewables are supplementing a constrained fuel supply to facilitate faster economic growth. In short, placing all bets on renewable-energy uptake outpacing efficiency-driven growth, and assuming that enhanced efficiency will drive down demand, may be a foolish gamble.

Instead, policymakers should adopt a new climate paradigm that focuses on limiting cumulative emissions. This requires, first and foremost, recognizing that, while new energy technologies will eventually outperform fossil fuels both practically and economically, demand for fossil fuels to meet growing energy needs will underpin their extraction and use for decades to come.

Most important, it highlights the need for climate policy that focuses on the deployment of CCS systems, which use various industrial processes to capture CO2 from fossil-fuel use and then store it in underground geological formations, where it cannot accumulate in the biosphere. After all, consuming a ton of fossil fuel, but capturing and storing the emissions, is very different from shifting or delaying its consumption.

Unfortunately, a policy framework built on this thinking remains elusive. The European Union’s recently released 2030 framework for climate and energy policies maintains the focus on domestic policies aimed at boosting efficiency and deployment of renewable energy. While the framework mentions CCS, whether the EU commits to its deployment remains to be seen.

Rallying support and political will for CCS – rather than for derivative approaches that misconstrue the nature of the problem – will be the real challenge for 2030 and beyond.

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  1. CommentedStephen Pain

    I would say that the problem is to do with consumption. Less cars and less ships will lead to less pollution. Nearly every European country is not interested in reducing car manufacturing or purchases. On top of this many are building more roads and bridges to encourage consumption. Use a bicycle more. The EU has not taken up my proposal of increasing the average commute distance using bicycle stops and providing a bike infrastructure to reduce traffic.

  2. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I apologize for not directly talking about the suggestions discussed in the article.
    The problem with all our "solutions" for the different aspects of the global crisis encompassing humanity basically at every level and area of human activity today, is that we still concentrate on the superficial layer, the immediate problems but we keep ignoring the root cause.
    And this is why none of our "solutions" work, moreover many times we do not even get to the implementation phase, even the best looking suggestions, plans simply fizzle out.
    And this is all because the root cause is in our inherently self-centred and egoistic human nature.
    Thus until we correct our nature none of the "end level" action will work, since we continue corrupting everything we start, even if we start with the best intentions.
    This is what has happened to the economy, financial institutions, politics, there is no classical democracy anywhere in the world any longer, we corrupted medicine, education, culture, our relationship to the natural environment, and even the most basic human institution the family cell.
    We need to start from the foundations, with a completely revised education system for children and adults alike, and a fundamentally changed set of values we instil in human society.
    If with those tools we create a completely new humane environment all the other structures, solutions will appear effortlessly.

  3. CommentedVincent Champain

    Yes an approach based on the stock of CO2 makes sense. But I do not see why this would lead to CCS. What should be done is to rank all the technologies to reduce CO2 emissions by cost per ton of co2 avoided. If you do this, energy savings come first (very often the cost is zero because saving pay theyr own costs), then you have mix (subsidizing gas to reduce coal consumption) and wind turbines - both clos to 40 euros/ton of co2

    CCS today is too expensive (80 euros/ton for the best technologies since at the lab stage). So of course R&D is needed but today is not simply not the best thing to do...

  4. CommentedJason Gower

    Strange combination here with the author of this piece being employed by Shell. Anyhow, not sure what the author means "rallying support for CCS?" I suspect that means subsidizing CCS instead of renewables? Here I can see the point but perhaps governments like the US could also stop subsidizing fossil fuels in the first place to allow them to stand on their own in the market? Curious if the author also supports a revival of new nuclear build as the absolute cleanest source of baseload power? Granted nuclear has its problems (waste and safety) but all fuel sources do. Curious how long it will take for, in particular Germany, to back away from its rash post-Fukushima decision and introduce nuclear as a key source of future baseload energy. The shortcomings of the Energiewende are actively being discussed in Germany so perhaps it is just a matter of time. Japan recently made a similar decision, leaving the door open for nuclear in the energy mix and I suspect others will as well. So yes CCS will likely play a large role in future energy markets but is not the only game in town. If we are just going to shift subsidies to renewable alternatives then I have a feeling the authors advise here is a bit biased. Government funding for energy storage (the real game changer) research, among others, seems just as logical.

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