Category Archives: greenhouse gas emissions

Five years on

The past five years have given many reasons for optimism about climate change

I have now been writing this blog for just over five years, and it seems timely to step back and look at how the climate change problem appears now compared with five years ago.

In some ways it is easy to feel discouraged.  In the last five years the world has managed to get through about a tenth of its remaining carbon budget, a budget that needs to last effectively forever.

However, in many ways there seem to be reasons for much greater optimism now than five years ago.  Several trends are converging that together make it appear that the worst of the risks of climate change can be avoided.

There is increasing action at the national level to reduce emissions, reinforced by the Paris Agreement …

Legislation is now in place in 164 countries, including the world’s 50 largest emitters.  There are over 1200 climate change and related laws now in place compared with 60 twenty years ago[i].  And this is not restricted to developed countries – many lower income countries are taking action.  Action at national level is being supported around the world by action in numerous cities, regions and companies.

This trend has now been reinforced by the Paris Agreement, which entered into force in November 2016, and commits the world to limiting temperature rises and reducing emissions.

There is increasing evidence of success in reducing emissions …

Many developed countries, especially in Europe, have shown since 1990 that it is possible to reduce emissions while continuing to grow their economies.  Globally, emissions of carbon dioxide from energy and industry have at least been growing more slowly over the past four years and may even have reached a plateau[ii].

Carbon pricing is spreading around the world  …

Among the many policies put in place, the growth of carbon pricing has been especially remarkable.  It has grown from a few small northern European economies 15 years ago to over 40 jurisdictions[iii].  Prices are often too low to be fully effective.  However, carbon pricing has also been shown to work spectacularly well in the right circumstances, as it has in the UK power sector.  And the presence of emissions caps in many jurisdictions gives a strong strategic signal to investors.

Investors are moving out of high carbon sources and in to lower carbon opportunities …

Companies are under increasing pressure to say how their businesses will be affected by climate change and to do something about reducing emissions.  And initiatives such as the Climate Action 100+, which includes over two hundred global investors controlling over $20 trillion of assets, are putting pressure on companies to step up their action.  This will further the trend towards increasing investment in a low carbon economy.  Meanwhile, many funds are divesting from fossil fuels, and vast amounts of capital are already going into low carbon investments.

Falling costs and increasing deployment of renewables and other low carbon technologies …

Solar and wind power and now at scale and continuing to grow very rapidly.  They are increasingly cost-competitive with fossil fuels.  The decarbonisation of the power sector thus looks likely to proceed rapidly, which will in turn enable electrification to decarbonise other sectors.  Electric vehicle sales are now growing rapidly, and expected to account for the majority of light vehicle sales within a couple of decades.  Other technologies, such as LED lighting are also progressing quickly.

This is not only making emissions reductions look achievable, it is making it clear that low carbon technologies can become cheaper than the high carbon technologies they replace, and can build whole new industries as they do.  As a reminder of just how fast things have moved, in the last five years alone, the charts here show global generation from wind and solar since 2000.

Falling costs of low carbon technologies, more than anything else, gives cause for optimism about reducing emissions.  As lower carbon alternatives become cheaper the case for high carbon technologies will simply disappear.

Charts: Global Generation from Wind and Solar 2000 – 2017

Sources:  BP Statistical Review of World Energy, Enerdata, GWEC, IEA

Climate sensitivity looks less likely to be at the high end of the range of estimates …

The climate has already warmed by about a degree Celsius, and some impacts from climate change have been greater than expected.  However, the increase in temperature in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases has so far shown few signs of being towards the top end of the possible range, although we can never rule out the risk of bad surprises.

Taking these trends together there is reason to be cautiously optimistic …

There will still be serious damage from climate change – indeed some is already happening.  And it is by no means clear that the world will act as quickly as it could or should.  And there could still be some nasty surprises in the earth’s reaction to continuing emissions.  Consequently, much effort and not a little luck is still needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

But compared with how things were looking five years ago there seem many reasons to believe that things are beginning to move in the right direction.  The job now is to keep things moving that way, and to speed up progress.

Adam Whitmore – 10th April March 2018 

[i] http://www.lse.ac.uk/GranthamInstitute/publication/global-trends-in-climate-change-legislation-and-litigation-2017-update/

[ii] http://www.pbl.nl/sites/default/files/cms/publicaties/pbl-2017-trends-in-global-co2-and-total-greenhouse-gas-emissons-2017-report_2674.pdf

[iii] https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28510

Economic growth and emissions cuts can go together

There is often said to be a trade-off between growth and decarbonisation, but the evidence shows that advanced economies can combine large emissions cuts with continuing economic growth.

Policy on greenhouse gas emissions reductions is often framed as a trade-off between greater emissions reductions and greater economic growth.  However, while emissions clearly can’t be reduced to zero immediately, faster emissions reductions can be accompanied by robust economic performance.  The clearest example of this is the UK.  Since 1990 the UK has cut its total greenhouse gas emissions much more rapidly than other G7 countries, while growing its economic output per capita more than the average.  This is illustrated in Chart 1.

Chart 1: UK per capita GDP growth and greenhouse gas emissions compared with the G7 average[i]

The extent by which the UK has cut its per capita emissions relative to other countries is emphasised in the following charts, which show that the UK has achieved by far the largest reductions in per capita CO2 emissions.

Chart 2: CO2 emissions per capita in 2016 and 1990 for G7 countries[ii]

Note: Japanese emissions rose by 0.4 tonnes per capita over the period (not shown)

Chart 3: Change in per capita and total CO2 emissions 1990 to 2016 for G7 countries

Note: Data in these charts is for CO2 only, excluding other greenhouse gases.

Of course, some of the relative changes reflect circumstances.  The UK started with relatively high emissions, including extensive use of coal in power generation.  In contrast, France already had a low carbon power sector in 1990, and in 2016 France’s per capita emissions remained about 8% below those of the UK, even though UK emissions had fallen much more from their 1990 levels.

Germany has also achieved significant reductions, having benefitted from reductions in emissions in the former East Germany and installing large amounts of renewables.  However it has been hampered by continuing extensive use of coal and lignite for power generation.  The USA has accommodated significant population growth with only a small rise in emissions, but this is clearly nowhere near enough if it is to make an appropriate contribution to global reductions.  Emissions remain at almost three times UK levels.  Canadian emissions are also high and have increased in absolute terms.  Japan’s emissions have grown slightly over the period.

Some falls in emissions in G7 economies may reflect a shift in the global pattern of emissions, with reduced emissions from industry in the G7 economies balanced by increases in China and elsewhere.  However this can’t account for all of the reductions that have been achieved, or the vast differences in reductions between countries.

Policy has certainly also played its part.  UK policy has successfully targeted relatively low cost emissions reduction, notably reducing coal use in the power sector.  Above all the Climate Change Act (2008) has provided a consistent and rigorous policy framework.

And whatever the reason, one thing is clear.  Cutting emissions more can accompany growing the economy more.

Adam Whitmore – 8th March 2018

 

 

[i]https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/651916/BEIS_The_Clean_Growth_online_12.10.17.pdf

[ii] http://www.pbl.nl/en/publications/trends-in-global-co2-and-total-greenhouse-gas-emissions-2017-report

There should be few reservations about auction reserve prices

The auction reserve price in California has proved successful in maintaining a minimum carbon price.  However it shows the importance for an emissions trading system of political commitment and stability. 

This is the second of two posts looking at experience of carbon price floors.  My previous post looked at UK carbon price support, which guarantees a minimum price by means of a tax.   This post looks at an alternative approach, which is used in California  and the other Western Climate Imitative systems, Quebec and Ontario.  Here, instead of imposing a tax, the floor is set by specifying a reserve price in auctions of allowances.  If bids in auctions stay below the reserve price the allowances are not sold.  Reserve prices such as this are common in practice in many commercial auctions, including those held by major auction houses and online.

Reserve prices give what is often called a “soft” floor.  The market price can go below the auction reserve, but eventually the need to buy allowances at auction is likely to ensure that the price recovers.

The chart below shows the auction reserve price in the California system (green line), which started at $10/tonne in 2012 and is increased each year by 5% plus the rate of inflation.  The California market price (blue line) has generally stayed above this level.  However it did dip below the reserve price for a while in 2016, illustrating that the floor is soft.  This price dip reflected a combination of legal challenges to the system, and political uncertainty about the continuation of the system after 2020, which together reduced the demand for allowances.  Once those uncertainties were resolved the market price recovered.

Chart: Auction reserve prices and market allowance prices in the California cap-and-trade system to end of 2017

Source:  http://calcarbondash.org/ and CARB

The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) has similar arrangements but with a much lower reserve price, and there too the price has been above the floor.

The environmental effectiveness of price containment mechanisms depends in large part on what eventually happens to any unsold allowances.  In the case of California this issue particularly affects the upper Price Containment Reserve, from which allowances are released if prices go above defined thresholds.  Allowances from this reserve appear most unlikely to be required in the current phase, as prices seem highly unlikely to reach the threshold levels.  If these unsold allowances in the reserve are cancelled, or otherwise put beyond use, cumulative emissions will be lower.  However if they eventually find their way back into the system, and enable the corresponding quantity of emissions to take place, the environmental benefit may not be realised, or at least not it full.  Some sort of cancellation mechanism is therefore needed, for example cancelling allowances that have been in the reserve for more than a specified number of years.

So price floors can work, however in the case of the California system at least two things need to be agreed as the rules for the system after 2020 are debated this year.

First, continuation of the escalation of the floor price needs be confirmed at least at the current rate, and ideally the rate should be increased.

Secondly, rules for cancelling unsold allowances from the Price Containment Reserve need to be defined.  The cancellation of allowances from the Market Stability Reserve included in the recent reforms to the EUETS sets a valuable precedent in this respect.

The theoretical advantages of a floor price in an ETS are well known.  The experience of auction reserve prices now proving effective in practice over a number of years should encourage other jurisdictions, especially the EU, to introduce similar arrangements.  And those jurisdictions such as California where they are already in place need to continue to develop and enhance them.

Adam Whitmore – 15th February 2018

Emissions reductions from carbon pricing can be big, quick and cheap

The UK carbon tax on fuel for power generation provides the most clear-cut example anywhere in the world of large scale emissions reductions from carbon pricing.   These reductions have been achieved by a price that, while higher than in the EU ETS, remains moderate or low against a range of other markers, including other carbon taxes.

The carbon price for fuels used in power generation in the UK consists of two components.  The first is the price of allowances (EUAs) under the EUETS.  The second is the UK’s own carbon tax for the power sector, known as Carbon Price Support (CPS).  The Chart below shows how the level CPS (green bars on the chart) increased over the period 2013 to 2017[i].  These increases led to a total price – CPS plus the price of EUAs under the EUETS (grey bars on the chart) – increasing, despite the price of EUAs remaining weak.

This increase in the carbon price has been accompanied by about a 90% reduction in emissions from coal generation, which fell by over 100 million tonnes over the period (black line on chart).   Various factors contributed to this reduction in the use of coal in power generation, including the planned closure of some plant and the effect of regulation of other pollutants.  Nevertheless the increase in the carbon price since 2014 has played a crucial role in stimulating this reduction in emissions by making coal generation more expensive than gas[ii].  According to a report by analysts Aurora, the increase in carbon price support accounted for three quarters of the total reduction in generation from coal achieved by 2016[iii].

The net fall in emissions over the period (shown as the dashed blue line on chart) was smaller, at around 70 million tonnes p.a. [iv] This is because generation from coal was largely displaced by generation from gas. The attribution of three quarters of this 70 million tonnes to carbon price support implies a little over 50 million tonnes p.a. of net emission reductions due to carbon price support.   This is equivalent to a reduction of more than 10% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions.  The financial value of the reduced environmental damage from avoiding these emissions was approximately £1.6 billion in 2016 and £1.8 billion in 2017[v].

Chart:  Carbon Prices and Emissions in the UK power sector

The UK tax has thus proved highly effective in reducing emissions, producing a substantial environmental benefit[vi].  As such it has provided a useful illustration both of the value of a floor price and more broadly of the effectiveness of carbon pricing.

This has been achieved by a price that, while set at a more adequate level than in the EU ETS, remains moderate or low against a range of other markers, including other carbon taxes.  CPS plus the EUA price was around €26/tCO2 in 2017 (US$30/tCO2).  The French the carbon tax rose from €22/tCO2 to €31/tCO2 over 2016-2017. In Canada for provinces electing to adopt a fixed price the carbon price needs to reach CAN$50/tCO2 (€34/tCO2) by 2022[vii].  These levels remain below US EPA 2015 estimates of the Social Cost of Carbon of around €40/tCO2 [viii].

This type of low cost emissions reduction is exactly the sort of behaviour that a carbon price should be stimulating, but which is failing to happen as a result of the EU ETS because the EUA price is too low.  More such successes are needed if temperature rises are to be limited to those set out in the Paris Agreement.  This means more carbon pricing should follow the UK’s example of establishing an adequate floor price.  This should include an EU wide auction reserve for the EUETS.  The reserve price should be set at somewhere between €30 and €40/t, increasing over time.  This would likely lead to substantial further emissions reductions across the EU.

Adam Whitmore – 17th January 2018

Notes:

[i] Emissions date for 2017 remains preliminary.  UK carbon price support reached at £18/tCO2 (€20/tCO2) in the fiscal year 2015/6 and was retained at this level in 2016/7.  In 2013/4 and 2014/5 levels were £4.94 and £9.55 respectively.  This reflected defined escalation rates and lags in incorporating changes in EUA prices. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/293849/TIIN_6002_7047_carbon_price_floor_and_other_technical_amendments.pdf and www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn05927.pdf

[ii] http://www.theenergycollective.com/onclimatechangepolicy/2392892/when-carbon-pricing-works-2

[iii] https://www.edie.net/news/6/Higher-carbon-price-needed-to-phase-out-UK-coal-generation-by-2025/

[iv] Based on UK coal generation estimated weighted average emissions intensity of 880gCO2/kWh, and 350gCO2/kWh for gas generation.

[v] 50 million tonnes p.a. at a social cost of carbon based on US EPA estimates of $47/tonne (€40/tonne).

[vi] There is a standard objection to a floor in one country under the EUETS is that it does not change of the overall cap at an EU level so, it is said, does not decrease emissions.  However this does not hold under the present conditions of the EUETS, and is unlikely to do so in any case.  A review of how emissions reductions from national measures, such as the UK carbon price floor, do in fact reduce total cumulative emissions over time is provided was provided in my recent post here.

[vii] The tax has now set at a fixed level of £18/tonne.  It was previously set around two years in advance, targeting a total price comprising the tax plus the EUA price.  There was no guarantee that it would set a true floor price, as EUA prices could and did change a good deal in the interim.  Indeed, in 2013 support was set at £4.94/tCO2, reflecting previous expectations of higher EUA prices, leading to prices well below the original target for the year of £16/tCO2 in 2009 prices (around £17.70 in 2013 prices). See https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28510?locale-attribute=en.  The price is also below the levels expected to be needed to meet international goals (see section 1.2), and below the social cost of carbon as estimated by the US EPA (see https://onclimatechangepolicydotorg.wordpress.com/carbon-pricing/8-the-social-cost-of-carbon/ and references therein).

[viii] Based on 2015 estimates.

The case for additional actions in sectors covered by the EUETS is now even stronger

Recently agreed reforms to the EUETS mean that excess allowances in the MSR will be cancelled.  This further strengthens the case for actions such as phase-out of coal plant, increasing energy efficiency and deploying more renewables.

About a year ago I looked at whether additional actions to reduce emissions in sectors covered by the EUETS do in practice lead to net emissions reductions over time [i].

It is sometimes claimed that total emissions are always equal to the fixed cap.  By implication additional actions do not reduce total emissions, because if emissions are reduced in one place there will be a corresponding increase elsewhere.  This is sometimes called the “waterbed hypothesis” by analogy – if you squeeze in one place there is an equal size bulge elsewhere.

Although often repeated, this claim is untrue.  Under the EU ETS at present the vast majority of emissions reductions from additional actions will be permanently retained, reflecting the continuing surplus of allowances and the operation of the MSR.  Furthermore, over the long term the cap is not fixed, but can respond to circumstances.  For example, tighter caps can be set by policy makers once emissions reductions have been demonstrated as feasible.

When I last looked at this issue, the fate of additional allowances in the MSR remained necessarily speculative.  It was clear that additional excess allowances would at least not return to the market for decades.  It also seemed likely that they would be cancelled.  However, no cancellation mechanism was then defined.

This has now changed with the trilogue conclusions reached last week, which include a limit on the size of the MSR from 2023.  The limit is equal to the previous year’s auction volume, and is likely, given the size of the current surplus, to lead to large numbers of allowances being cancelled in the 2020s.

With this limit in place there is a very clear pathway by which allowances freed up by additional actions, such as reduced coal burn or increased renewables, will add to the surplus, be transferred to the MSR then cancelled (see diagram).  Total emissions under the EUETS will be correspondingly lower.

There is now a clear mechanism by which additional actions reduce total emissions

Modelling confirms that with the limit on the size of the MSR in place a large majority of reductions from non-ETS actions are retained, because additional allowances freed up almost all go into the MSR, and are then cancelled.  This is shown in the chart below for an illustrative case of additional actions which reduce emissions by 100 million tonnes in 2020.  Not all of the allowances freed up by additional actions are cancelled.  First there is a small rebound in emissions due to price changes (see references for more on this effect).  Then, even over a decade, the MSR does not remove them all from circulation.  This is because it takes a percentage of the remainder each year, so the remainder successively decreases, but does not reach zero.  If the period were extended beyond 2030 a larger proportion would be cancelled, assuming a continuing surplus.  Nevertheless over 80% of allowances freed up by additional actions are cancelled by 2030.

The benefit of additional actions is thus strongly confirmed.

The large majority of allowances freed up by additional actions are eventually cancelled

Source: Sandbag

When the market eventually returns to scarcity the effect of additional actions becomes more complex.  However additional actions are still likely to reduce future emissions, for example by enabling lower caps in future.

Policy makers should pursue ambitious programmes of additional action in sectors covered by the EUETS, confident of their effectiveness in the light of these conclusions.  Some of the largest and lowest cost gains are likely to be from the phase out of coal and lignite for electricity generation, which still accounts for almost 40% of emissions under the EUETS.  Continuing efforts to deploy renewables and increase energy efficiency are also likely to be highly beneficial.

Adam Whitmore – 15th November 2017

[i] See https://onclimatechangepolicydotorg.wordpress.com/2016/10/21/additional-actions-in-euets-sectors-can-reduce-cumulative-emissions/  For further detail see https://sandbag.org.uk/project/puncturing-the-waterbed-myth/ .  A study by the Danish Council on Climate Change reached similar conclusions, extending the analysis to the particular case of renewables policy.  See Subsidies to renewable energy and the european emissions trading system: is there really a waterbed effect? By Frederik Silbye, Danish Council on Climate Change Peter Birch Sørensen, Department of Economics, University of Copenhagen and Danish Council on Climate Change, March 2017.

New long term targets for emissions reduction are needed.

The UK and other jurisdictions need to set target dates for reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions.  These need to be reinforced by new targets for 2060 that are at least close to zero, and by reaffirmed or strengthened targets for 2050.

Ten years ago setting emissions reduction targets for 2050 was a major step forward

2018 sees the tenth anniversary of the UK’s Climate Change Act[i].  This remarkable piece of legislation established a legally binding obligation for the UK to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050, with obligations along the way in the form of five year carbon budgets.  So far progress has been remarkably good, though significant challenges remain.

Other jurisdictions also adopted 2050 targets at around the same time.  In 2005 California also set a target of an 80% reduction from 1990 levels[ii].  In October 2009 the EU established a long term EU goal for reducing emissions by 80-95% from 1990 levels by 2050[iii].

At the time these targets were path breaking.  However, ten years on there are good reasons for reviewing and extending them.

But now the world has moved on …

  • When the targets were established, the period to 2050 seemed long enough to give appropriate strategic guidance to policy makers and investors. However, future dates are now ten years closer.  A 2060 target now gives about the same time horizon for planning as the 2050 targets did when they were established.
  • The Paris Agreement sets targets to limit temperature rises which imply stringent limits on cumulative emissions. It also sets a goal of net zero global emissions in the second half of the century.
  • A fifth or more of the world’s carbon budget that remained in 2008 has since been used up[iv], increasing the urgency of emissions reductions.

Extending targets to reflect these changes would have some clear benefits … 

Together these changes imply a strong case for setting new targets now.

The most compelling target would be a date by which emissions must fall to net zero.  Such a target would make it clear to all sectors that they need to completely decarbonise by a specified date.  At the moment emissions of up to 20% of 1990 levels are allowed even in 2050.  This allows each of those sectors where decarbonisation is more difficult – for example parts of industry, agriculture or residential heating – to largely continue in a belief that there will still be plenty of room for them within the 2050 emissions limit, even though this cannot be true for most sectors.  This in turn allows them to continue to believe they can carry on indefinitely without taking the steps needed to decarbonise.  A date for reaching zero makes it clear this can’t happen.

Setting stringent target for 2060 – at or close to zero – would also give investors in low carbon infrastructure greater confidence, and deter investment in higher carbon alternatives. In the case of the UK and California, a simple extrapolation of their current targets would suggest a 2060 target of a 93% reduction from 1990 by 2050, reaching zero by 2065.

As part of the process of setting these longer term goals the existing 2050 targets need to be at least reaffirmed and preferably tightened.  If this is not done there is the risk that policy makers will simply see the problem as having become more distant, and delay action.  This is the last thing that the climate needs.

2050 targets may also need to be revised …

As a first step, the EU’s target of 80-95% cuts clearly needs to be made more precise.  The current uncertainty of a factor of four in the level of emissions allowed in 2050 is too wide for sensible policy planning.

However the events of the last ten years also raise the question of whether the stringency of the 2050 targets need to be increased, with implications for later periods.  The UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King and others have suggested that there is a strong case for the UK seeking to reach net zero emissions by 2050[v].  The difference in cumulative emissions in declining linearly to net zero by 2050 instead of by 2065 is substantial, at a little over 3 billion tonnes – equivalent to about 8 years of current UK emissions.

The goal of reaching zero emissions by 2050 is clearly desirable in many ways.  However there is a risk that it may have unwanted side effects.  The government’s advisory body, the Committee on Climate Change has pointed out that policies are not in yet place even to meet current goals for the fifth carbon budget in around 2030[1].  The route to net zero emissions in 2050 – just over 30 years from now – looks even less clear.  Indeed reaching that goal even by 2065 remains challenging.  If even tighter targets are introduced they may come to be regarded as unrealistic, which may in turn risk weakening commitment to them.  A somewhat slower emissions reduction track may prove a relatively acceptable price to pay for retaining the credibility and integrity of the targets.

Whatever the judgement on this, the need for longer term targets is clear.  Governments need to set dates for reaching net zero emissions.  These need to be supported by targets for 2060 that specify continued rapid reductions in emissions after 2050, and by reaffirmation of 2050 targets, tightening them as necessary.  These new targets will in turn help stimulate the additional actions to rapidly reduce emissions that are ever more urgently needed.

Adam Whitmore – 6th November 2017

 Notes:

[1] https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/2017-report-to-parliament-meeting-carbon-budgets-closing-the-policy-gap/

[i] https://www.theccc.org.uk/tackling-climate-change/the-legal-landscape/the-climate-change-act/

[ii] https://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/cc.htm

[iii] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/complementary measures_data/docs/pressdata/en/ec/110889.pdf

[iv] The calculation is based on data in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Synthesis Report.  This quotes a  cumulative budget of 3700 billion tonnes of CO2 for a two thirds probability of staying below 2 degrees.  Of this 1800 billion tonnes had been used by 2011.  Assuming CO2 emissions of roughly 40 billion tonnes p.a. including land use gives a remaining budget in 2008 of 1920 billion tonnes.  Over the subsequent ten years about 400 million tonnes CO2, which is just over a fifth of 1920 billion tonnes, have been emitted.

[v] http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/ministers-greenhouse-gas-emissions-fail-cut-environment-greg-clark-chief-scientist-david-king-a7969496.html

Climate change: how did we get here, and why is it so hard to fix? (Part 1)

Activities that cause emissions are ubiquitous, diverse and deeply embedded in modern life.  The world’s energy system is huge and long-lived.  This makes emissions tough to deal with. 

This post is the first of two stepping back a little from the specific topics I usually cover to take a very high level look at why the climate change problem is so hard to fix.  This first post looks at how we got here and (at a very high level) the physical and engineering challenges of addressing the climate change problem.  The next post will consider some of the political and psychological barriers to greater action.

The consequence of industrialisation

The world’s climate was remarkably stable from before the birth of agriculture, some 8-10,000 years ago, until very recent times[1].  Human civilisation grew up in a stable climate, and knew nothing else, despite the calamities caused on occasions by storms, floods, drought, and so forth.

Industrialisation changed this.  There is no single year that definitively marks the beginning of industrialisation, but 1776 probably as good a reference point as any.  It was an eventful year, with the US Declaration of Independence giving history one of its most famous dates, while elsewhere the first edition of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published and the Bolshoi Theatre opened its first season.  But in the long view of history perhaps more important than any of these was that James Watt’s steam engines began to power industrial production[2].  This, more than any other event, marks the beginning of the industrial era.

In the nearly two and a half centuries since 1776, world population has grown by almost a factor of about 10.  Economic output per person has also grown by a factor of about 10.  Taking these two changes together, the world’s economic activity has increased by a factor of about 100.  This has put huge stresses on a range of natural systems, including the atmosphere[3],[4].

The increase in the use of fossil fuels has been even greater than the increase in industrial activity.  Around 12 million tonnes of fossil fuels, almost entirely coal, were burnt each year before 1776[5].  Today the world burns about 12 billion tonnes of fossil fuels each year, an increase of a factor of 1000[6].

This huge increase in the burning of fossil fuels is now – together with deforestation, agriculture and a few other activities – changing the make-up of the atmosphere on a large scale.  This in turn, is changing the world’s climate.   Within a single human lifetime – just one percent or so of the time since the birth of agriculture – changes to the climate are likely to be much greater than human civilisation has ever before experienced.  The consequences of these changes are likely to be largely harmful, because manmade and natural systems are largely adapted to the world we have, not the one we are making.

The characteristics of the systems that have led to these changes also make the problems hard to address.

The scale of emissions is huge …

The scale of CO2 emitted from the energy system is vast, around 36 billion tonnes p.a.  If this were frozen into solid form as “dry ice” it would cover the whole of Manhattan Island to the depth of about two thirds of the Empire State building.

The system that generates these emissions is correspondingly huge.  The world’s energy system cost tens of trillions of dollars to build, and is correspondingly immensely expensive to replace.

The diversity and dispersion of emissions makes the problem more challenging …

The problem is worse even than its scale alone suggests.  It would be simpler to deal with emissions if they were all in one place, whether Manhattan or elsewhere, and in solid form.  Instead emissions are dispersed across billions of individual sources around the world.  And they come from many different types of activity, from transporting food and powering electronics to heating and cooling homes and offices.  There is no single technology doing one thing to be replaced, but a wide diversity of technologies and applications.

And once emissions get into the atmosphere the greenhouse gases are very dilute.  Carbon dioxide makes up only 400 parts per million (0.04%) of the atmosphere.  Among other things this makes capture of CO2 once it has got into the atmosphere difficult and expensive.

And assets producing emissions are very long lived …

Energy infrastructure often lasts many decades, so changing infrastructure tends to be a long term process, with premature replacement expensive.  And on the whole the existing system does its job remarkably well.  Some political considerations aside, there would be little need for very rapid changes to the system if it were not for climate change and other forms of pollution.

Energy is central to modern life …

Finally it’s not possible to simply switch off the world’s energy system because it is essential to modern life.  Hurricane Sandy disrupted much of New York’s energy system, and the consequences of that gave an indication of how quickly modern life collapses without critical energy infrastructure.

These physical characteristics of the problem are compounded by the political and psychological obstacles to change at the necessary scale.  I will return to these in my next post.

Adam Whitmore – 22nd May 2017

 

[1] This climatically stable period since the end of the last ice age between 11,000 to 12,000 years ago is referred to as the Holocene.  Agriculture started not long after the ice sheets retreated and the world warmed.  Human activity has now led to a new period, referred to as the Anthropocene.

[2]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watt_steam_engine.  The first use of the Watt engine to provide the rotary power, which was crucial for factories, was a little later in 1782 at the Soho manufactory near Birmingham.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soho_Manufactory.

[3] http://www.scottmanning.com/content/year-by-year-world-population-estimates/

[4] http://www.ggdc.net/maddison/maddison-project/data.htm

[5]Reliable data is obviously hard to come by that far back, but See Energy for a Sustainable World: From the Oil Age to a Sun-Powered Future By Vincenzo Balzani, Nicola Armaroli .  They estimate 10 million tonnes in 1700 and 16 million tonnes by 1815.  The majority of the increase would have been in the later part of this period.  See also Socioecological Transitions and Global Change, edited by Marina Fischer-Kowalski, Helmut Haberl, who quote estimates of 3 million tonnes p.a. in 1700 in the UK, a large proportion of the world total at the time, with little increase to 1776.  This consumption included a few primitive, inefficient steam engines, used mainly for pumping water from coal mines themselves.  The Newcomen steam engine required such large quantities of coal that it was rarely economic to site it away from coal mines.  The Watt engine was more than twice as efficient.

[6] My estimate of the total mass of coal, oil and gas, based on data in BP statistical review of World Energy.