Category Archives: greenhouse gas emissions

Hydrogen and heat pumps may both play a role in UK building heating

Low carbon hydrogen and electricity via heat pumps may both play a large role in decarbonising building heating in the UK.  Ways forward are needed that maintain optionality around solutions while more is learnt about the right mix.

This is the second of three posts looking at the potential role of hydrogen in residential heating in the UK.

Decarbonising building heating in the UK poses a range of challenges.  First, the required transition is very large scale.  There are around 27 million households in the UK, with many more commercial buildings, small and large.  This implies around a million or more premises a year on average need to be converted to low carbon heat between now and 2050.

Along with scale, there is cost.  Replacing the UK’s heating system is expensive both on in total and by household, even if the existing natural gas network can be used for hydrogen.   This challenge is made more difficult by the high seasonality of heating demand (Chart 1).  Building natural gas supply chains, reformers to produce hydrogen from natural gas, CCS, low carbon electricity and heat pumps all involve major capital investment.  Running this for only part of the year – the colder months – increases unit costs substantially. The chart below shows daily gas and electricity demand from non-daily metered (i.e. small) customers.  Demand for energy from gas, the major source of building heating at present, is about two or three times electricity demand during winter, and is much more seasonal.

Chart 1: Heating demand is highly seasonal …

Source: BEIS (2018) ‘Clean Growth – Transforming Heating’ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766109/decarbonising-heating.pdf

Furthermore, the transition to low carbon heat needs to be made largely with the UK’s existing building stock, which is mainly old and often badly insulated.  Improved insulation is a priority in any programme, but there are practical and cost constraints on what can be done with existing buildings.  (Buildings also need to be able to cope with the increased prevalence of heat waves as the climate warms, but that is a separate topic.)

Finally, building heating directly affects people’s day to day lives, so consumers’ acceptance is critical.  On the whole the present system, based mainly on natural gas boilers, works quite well except for its emissions.  Any new system should preferably work as well or better.

The leading candidates for low carbon heating in buildings are electricity, almost certainly using heat pumps to increase efficiency, and low carbon hydrogen.  Biomass seems unlikely to be available either at the scale or cost that would be needed for it to be a major contributor to low carbon heating, though it may find a niche.  District heating networks require low carbon heat and this must draw on the same ultimate set of sources of heat.  Waste heat from nuclear, once discussed as a possibility, no longer seems likely to be either practical or cost effective.

Recently the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) analysed the costs of decarbonising heat in 2050 using different approaches.  They looked at electricity, hydrogen, and combinations of the two.  The analysis concluded that a 50% increase over current costs was likely (Chart 2).  The remarkable thing about the analysis is that this cost was similar for all of the options considered.  Any differences were well within the uncertainty of the estimates.

Chart 2: Costs of different modes for decarbonising building heating …

Source:  Committee on Climate Change

With no large cost difference leading to one or the other option being preferred there is a need to test each option out to see which works better in practice.  Mixed solutions may be appropriate in many cases.  For example, hydrogen may be useful in providing top-up heat even if heat pumps are providing the baseload, or may be the only solution for some poorly insulated properties for which heat pumps don’t run at high enough temperatures.

The CCC’s analysis includes expected cost savings.  The transition to low carbon heat will clearly be more acceptable if this cost can be reduced further.  In particular there seem likely to be both technical advances and large economies of scale in heat pump manufacture and installation, and the costs of low carbon power may fall by more than assumed by the CCC.  As the analysis stands, a 50% increase is clearly politically difficult, especially when there do not seem to be advantages for the customer, and potentially some drawbacks.  However, this is less than a 2% p.a. compound increase in real terms over a 30 year period, which might be politically feasible if introduced gradually spread across all consumers.

With such large changes in demand between summer and winter, seasonal storage is a major issue for reasons of both cost and practicality.  This is an under-researched area, and needs further work.  There are various possibilities – storage of hydrogen itself in salt caverns, storage of hydrogen as ammonia or storage of heat in ground sinks, but each has its problems and the scale involved is very large.

A final uncertainty is the form which hydrogen production will take.  At the moment methane in reformers predominates and, with the addition of CCS, may continue to do so.  However both the costs of low carbon electricity and of the electrolysis are decreasing rapidly.  Over the long term this may become the main pathway for hydrogen production.

These uncertainties imply that building heating poses a particularly difficult set of choices for policy.  It is not clear what route, or mix of routes is the right one.  The transition needs to be quite rapid relative to the lifetimes and scale of existing infrastructure, and it involves the need for consumer acceptance.  There are also potentially strong network and lock in issues.

The best approach is likely to be to develop several types of solution in parallel, maintaining optionality while learning, and being prepared for some approaches to be dead ends.  The implications of this include the need for roll out of low carbon heat sources in some districts now to get an idea of how they will work at scale.

Some of this is happening, much more is needed.

Adam Whitmore -29th October 2019.

 

Comparison of cost estimates with previous analysis by this blog.

Around four and a half years ago I looked at the costs of decarbonising domestic heating in the UK in winter using low carbon electricity.  I concluded that switching to low carbon heat would add 75% or more to domestic heating bills, with some drawbacks for consumers (I also looked at higher cost case, but this case no longer seems likely due to the fall in the costs of low carbon electricity, especially offshore wind, since the analysis was done.)  I suggested that this meant that the transition would be difficult and that reductions in capital costs were necessary.

This analysis is broadly consistent with the CCC analysis quoted here, which suggests a 50% increase on current costs.  The estimates are roughly similar given the large uncertainties involved , the inevitable differences is assumptions, and different basis of the estimates.  In particular the CCC analysis factors in reductions in costs of low carbon heating likely by 2050, whereas my previous analysis was based on current costs to make the point that cost reductions are necessary,  Consequently it would be expected that the CCC analysis would show a smaller cost increase relative to current costs.  Also, the CCC’s analysis may exclude some costs – estimates such as these have a tendency to go up when you look at them more closely.  Equally it may understate the cost reductions possible over decades.

 

 

Hydrogen and electricity for low carbon heat

Hydrogen and electricity are competing carriers, and there may be a role for both in providing low carbon heat.

There has recently been a lot of interest in the role of hydrogen as a carrier of low carbon energy, because it produces no CO2 on combustion (or oxidation in a fuel cell).  This is the first of three posts looking at hydrogen and how it might compete with electricity to provide low carbon heat.  Hydrogen and electricity may also compete in transport, but that is a large subject in its own right and will need to await further posts.

This first post outlines some of the possibilities and the issues raised.  The next post will compare electricity with hydrogen for heating in buildings.  The third post will look at the ways they may complement each other to supply heat.

There are broadly two main sources of primary energy for low carbon heat:

  • Fossil fuels with CCS, which I’ve assumed in these posts will usually be natural gas.
  • Renewables, likely in practice to be mainly wind and solar.

Each of these primary energy sources can get to the energy consumer in the form of electricity or hydrogen.  Wind and solar can produce low carbon electricity directly, or they can produce hydrogen via electrolysis of water.  Natural gas can be burnt in a CCGT to produce electricity.  It can also be processed to produce hydrogen, most commonly in a steam methane reformer (SMR).  I’ve assumed here that SMRs are used, although many are looking at alternative approaches such as autothermal reforming (ATRs) which may allow for higher efficiencies and capture rates.

If fossil fuels are used CCS is required, as both CCGTs and SMRs produce CO2.  This means they provide low carbon energy, rather than a zero-carbon energy, as a maximum of 90-95% of the CO2 produced is captured.  Any CCS built now or in the future will likely still be in use by 2050, so its capture rate must be judged against 2050 net-zero targets.  In this context, the residual emissions from any large-scale use of CCS for fossil fuels are likely to be significant, and may place limits on the extent of deployment.  SMRs produce different streams of CO2. Some of this is concentrated and so relatively easy to capture, some is more dilute.  Both streams need to be captured for the technology to play an appropriate role in a net-zero carbon economy.

Both CCGTs and SMRs also produce waste heat, which may be used, so improving the overall thermal efficiency, although applications to date have been limited.

Hydrogen can be converted into electricity using a fuel cell or CCGT (with appropriately designed turbines).  This may enable use of hydrogen for electricity storage.

Electricity for building heating is likely to come from heat pumps (likely mainly air source heat pumps) as these greatly improve efficiency.

This gives a variety of routes for primary energy to low carbon end use. These are shown in the diagram below.  In practice several of these may co-exist, and some may not happen at scale.  The pathways shown assume natural gas cannot continue to act as a carrier of energy to individual buildings.  This is because its combustion inevitably produces CO2 and very small-scale CCS for individual buildings is likely to prove impractical, for example because of the very extensive CO2 transport network that would be required.

Both fossil fuels and renewables can deliver energy as electricity or hydrogen …

Which mix of these pathways will provide the best solution? It’s not yet clear.  It will depend on various factors.

Suitability for end use.  Some industrial processes require high temperature heat or a direct flame, which heat pumps cannot provide.  Conversely, hydrogen needs to demonstrate its safety in a domestic context, though this is likely tractable.

Consumer acceptability. This is critical for residential heating, and both hydrogen and heat pumps face potential difficulties.  For example, heat pumps may be perceived as noisy, or require modifications such as installation of larger radiators which people resist.

Costs.  Which route is cheaper depends on a wide range of factors, including :

  • The capital costs of the equipment (e.g. CCGT or SMR, hydrogen boilers, and heat pumps)
  • The costs of reinforcing, creating or repurposing grids, including the extent to which the natural gas gird can be repurposed for hydrogen, and the cost of reinforcing the electricity distribution network to accommodate demand from heat pumps.
  • The cost of the primary energy, for example whether renewable energy is produced at times of low demand so might be available at a low price. If electricity from renewables is available very cheaply then resistance heating without heat pumps may make sense in some cases.
  • The thermal efficiency of the processes, for example the extent to which CCS adds costs by requiring additional energy, and the coefficient of performance (heat out divided by electricity in) for heat pump, especially in winter.
  • The costs of electricity storage via batteries or as hydrogen.
  • Load factor for heat and electricity production.

Many of these variables are uncertain.  They also vary with location and over time. The very large cost falls for renewable electricity demonstrate the need for caution in judging options on present costs.

In my next post I will take a look at how these factors may play out for building heating in the UK, and will consider the policy implications.

Adam Whitmore – 30th September 2019

 

 

Europe’s phase out of coal

Europe is progressing with phasing out hard coal and lignite in power generation, but needs to move further faster, especially in Germany and Poland

Reducing coal use in power generation and replacing it with renewables (and in the short run with natural gas) remains one of the best ways of reducing emissions simply, cheaply and quickly at large scale.  Indeed, it is essential to meet the targets of the Paris Agreement that the world’s limited remaining cumulative emissions budget is not squandered on burning coal and lignite in power generation.

Europe is now making progress in phasing out coal.  The UK experience has already illustrated what can be done with incentives from carbon pricing to reduce coal generation.  Emissions from coal have reduced by more than 80% in the last few years, even though coal plant remains on the system[i].  However, many countries, including the UK, are now going further and committing to end coal use in power generation completely in the next few years.  The map below shows these commitments as they now stand.  Most countries in western Europe now have commitments in place. (Spain is an exception.  The government is expecting coal plant to be phased out by 2030, but currently does not mandate this.)

Map: Current coal phase-out commitments in Europe[ii]

Source: Adapted from material by Sandbag (see endnotes).

In some countries there is little or no coal generation anyway.  In other countries plants are old and coming to the end of their life on commercial grounds, or are unable to comply with limits on other pollutants.  In each case phase-out is expected to go smoothly.

However, the largest emitters are mainly in Germany and Poland and here progress is more limited.  Germany has now committed to coal phase-out.  But full phase-out might be as late as 2038.  Taking another 20 years or so to phase out such a major source of emissions is simply too long.  And Poland currently looks unlikely to make any commitment to complete phase out.

This means the Europe is still doing less than it could and should be doing to reduce emissions from coal and lignite.  As a result, EU emissions are too high, and the EU loses moral authority when urging other nations, especially in Asia and the USA, to reduce their emissions further, including by cutting coal use.

Several things are needed to improve this situation, including the following.

  • Further strengthening the carbon price under the EUETS by reducing the cap. I looked at the problem of continuing surpluses of allowances in another recent post, and accelerated coal closure would make the surplus even greater.  Although the rise in the EUA price in the last 18 months or so is welcome, further strengthening of the EUETS is necessary to reduce the risk of future price falls, and preferably to keep prices on a rising track so they more effectively signal the need for decarbonisation.
  • Continuing tightening of regulations on other pollutants, which can improve public health, while increasing polluters’ costs and therefore adding to commercial pressure to close plant.
  • Strengthening existing phase out commitments, including be specifying an earlier completion date in Germany.
  • Further enabling renewables, for example by continuing to improve grid integration, so that it is clear that continuing coal generation is unnecessary.

As I noted in my last post, making deep emissions cuts to avoid overshooting the world’s limited remaining carbon budget will require many difficulties to be overcome.  There is no excuse for failing to make the relatively cheap and easy reductions now.   Reducing hard coal and lignite use in power generation in Europe (and elsewhere) continues to require further attention.

Adam Whitmore – 18th June 2019

[i] See https://onclimatechangepolicydotorg.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/emissions-reductions-due-to-carbon-pricing-can-be-big-quick-and-cheap/

With and updated chart at:

https://onclimatechangepolicydotorg.wordpress.com/carbon-pricing/price-floors-and-ceilings/

[ii] Map adapted from Sandbag:

https://sandbag.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Last-Gasp-2018-slim-version.pdf

and data in:

https://beyond-coal.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/Overview-of-national-coal-phase-out-announcements-Europe-Beyond-Coal-November-2018.pdf

and https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=39652

The EUETS has not been fully fixed

The reforms introduced to the EUETS for Phase 4 improve its functioning, but without further reform a chronic surplus looks likely and the risk of low prices remains.

The changes to the EUETS that were agreed in late 2017 make significant improvements to its design.  The temporary doubling of the intake rate for the MSR will reduce the surplus in the market more quickly.  And the provision to cancel allowances from the MSR when it exceeds a defined size will avoid the number of allowances in the MSR growing indefinitely.  The price of EUA’s has risen, although they remain below the levels needed to stimulate many efficient emissions reductions.  These changes have led some to conclude that the problems with the EUETS have been resolved.

However, major risks remain.  The cap for Phase 4 (which runs through the 2020s) was set on the basis of an overall reduction in emissions from 1990 levels of 40% by 2030[i].  In practice, emissions now look likely to reach around 50% below 1990 levels by 2030, and possibly to go lower than this if additional policies are put in place.  This looks likely to result in emissions remaining well below the cap throughout Phase 4.

This is illustrated in Chart 1 below, which shows three scenarios included in a recent report by climate NGO Sandbag[ii] (to which I contributed).  The correspond to overall reductions from 1990 levels of 50%-58% by 2030, rather than the 40% reduction on which the cap was set.

Many of the additional emissions reductions are from the sectors covered by the EUETS.  In particular increased renewables and decreased coal and lignite burn in power generation are the largest contributors to reduced emissions.  Consequently, in each scenario emissions remain well below the cap throughout the 2020s.

Even the European Commission’s own modelling suggests a 46% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels now looks likely.  This, while a somewhat smaller decrease than shown in these scenarios, would nevertheless likely result in emissions below the cap throughout the 2020s.

Chart 1: Projected EUETS emissions under three scenarios compared with the cap

Source: Sandbag

With emissions so persistently below the cap the surplus, after decreasing to 2020, begins to grow again, and continues growing to 2030 (see Chart 2).  It does so despite the operation of the MSR.

Chart 2: Projected cumulative surplus under three scenarios

Source: Sandbag

With such a large and persistent surplus there is a clear risk of prices weakening. This is especially the case later in the decade, where reductions in coal use in power generation seem likely to reduce the need for generators to buy emissions as a hedge to cover forward contracts, which may in turn further reduce demand for allowances.

The problem of the chronic surplus arises because the cap is both undemanding and rigid. There are at present no mechanisms for automatically resetting it, and no measures such as price containment which might limit how low prices could go.

The best way to deal with this problem is simply to reduce the cap in around the middle of Phase 4. This would be in line with the principles of the Paris Agreement, which envisages signatories to the Agreement adjusting their commitments over time to bring them more into line with the agreed temperature targets.

Chart 3 shows the effect of resetting the cap in 2026 to match actual emissions.  Under the Base Case the surplus begins to reduce rapidly as a result of the cap being reset.  Such an approach could readily be made consistent with other reforms, such as introducing a price floor in the EUETS.

Chart 3: Effect on the surplus of reducing the cap in 2026 (Base Case)

Source: Sandbag

While the 2017 reforms to the EUETS were a major step forward they are unlikely to prove sufficient.  Further measures will be needed to make sure the EUETS is robust as emissions continue to fall.

Adam Whitmore – 9th April 2019

 

 

 

[i] With a 43% reduction from 2005 levels in the sectors covered by the EUETS.

[ii] https://sandbag.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Halfway-There-March-2019-Sandbag-3.pdf

 

Simple approximations can link emissions and temperature rise

Some simple indicators based on stylised emissions tracks help show clearly the consequences of different rates of emissions reductions.

A simple relationship allows the overall objectives – limiting temperature rises and reducing emissions – to be linked in a straightforward way[i]. Over relevant ranges and timescales temperature rise varies approximately linearly with cumulative emissions of CO2, after adjusting for the effect of other greenhouse gases.  Specifically, for every 3700 GtCO2 emitted (1000GtC) the temperature will rise by about 2.0 degrees[ii] (with estimates in the range 0.8 to 2.5 degrees)[iii].  This is the transient climate response to cumulative emissions (TCRE).

There has been around a 1.0 degree rise in temperatures to date[iv].  This means the remaining total of cumulative emissions (“carbon budget”) needs to be small enough to keep further temperature rises to around 0.5 to 1.0 degrees if it is to meet targets of limiting temperature rises to 1.5 to 2.0 degrees.

The remaining carbon budget for meeting a 1.5 degree target (with 50% probability) is around 770 GtCO2.  The remaining carbon budget for meeting a 2 degree target (again with 50% probability) is 1690 GtCO2[v].  This is illustrated in Chart 1, which shows temperature rise (median estimates) against additional emissions from 2018.

There are many uncertainties in the estimates of the remaining carbon budget.  These include different estimates of the climate sensitivity, variations in warming due non-CO2 pollutants, and the effect of additional earth system feedbacks, including melting of permafrost.  These can each change the remaining carbon budget by around 200GtCO2 or more.

Chart 1: Temperature rise from additional emissions

 

Source: adapted from Table 2.2 in http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf

To look at the implications of this simple relationship we can make the following assumptions about future levels of emissions.  These are simplistic, but like all useful simplifications, allow the essence of the issue to be seen more clearly.

  1. Net emissions continue approximately flat at present levels (of around 42 GtCO2a.[vi]) until they start to decrease.
  2. Once net emissions start decreasing they continue decreasing linearly to reach zero – when any continuing emissions are balanced by removals of COfrom the atmosphere. They then continue at zero. There are of course many other emissions tracks leading to the same cumulative emissions.  For example, many scenarios include negative total emissions, that is net removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in the second half of the century.
  3. Relatively short-lived climate forcings, such as methane, are also greatly reduced, so that they eventually add about 0.15 degrees to warming[vii].

Chart 2 shows various temperature outcomes matched to stylised emissions tracks.  Cumulative emissions are the areas under the curvesTo limit temperatures rises to 1.5 degrees, emissions need to fall to zero by around 2050 starting in 2020, consistent with the estimates in the recent IPCC report[viii].

For limiting temperature rises to 2 degrees with 50% probability, zero emissions must be reached around 2095To reach the 2 degree target with 66% probability emissions need to be reduced to net zero about 20 years earlier – by around 2075 from a 2020 start.  |To reach a target of “well below” 2 degrees is specified in the Paris Agreement emissions must be reduced to zero sooner.

Chart 2: Stylised emissions reduction pathways for defined temperature outcomes (temperatures with 50% and 75% probability)

This simplified approach yields some useful rules of thumb.

Each decade the starting point for emissions reductions is delayed (for example from 2020 to 2030) adds 0.23 degrees to the temperature rise if the subsequent time taken to reach zero emissions is the same (same rate of decrease – i.e. same slope of the line) – see Chart 3 below. This increase is even greater if emissions increase over the decade of delay.  This is a huge effect for a relatively small difference in timing.

Delaying the time taken to get to zero emissions by a decade from the same starting date (for example reaching zero in 2070 instead of 2060) increases eventual warming by 0.11 degrees.

Correspondingly, delaying the start of emissions reductions increases the required rate of emissions reduction to meet a given temperature target.  For each decade of delay in starting emissions reductions the time available to reduce emissions to zero decreases by two decades.  For example, tarting in 2020 gives about 75 years to reduce emissions to zero for a 2 degrees target.  Starting in 2030 gives only 55 years to reduce emissions from current levels to zero once reductions have begun, a much harder task.

Chart 3: Effect of delaying emissions reductions (temperatures with 50% probability)

These results are, within the limits of the simplifications I’ve adopted, consistent with other analysis (see notes at the end for further details)[ix].

How realistic are these goals? Energy infrastructure often has a lifetime of decades, so the system is slow to change.  Consistent with this, among major European economies the best that is being achieved on a sustained basis is emissions reductions of 10-20% per decade.  While some emissions reductions may now be easier than they were, for example because the costs of renewables have fallen, deeper emissions cuts are likely to be more challenging.  This implies many decades will be required to get down to zero emissions.

All of this emphasises the need to start soon, and keep going. The recent IPCC report emphasised the challenges of meeting a 1.5 degree target.  But even the target of keeping temperature rises below 2 degrees remains immensely difficult.  There is no time to lose.

Adam Whitmore – 23rd October 2018

Notes

[i] This analysis draws on previous work by Stocker and Allen, which I covered a while back here: https://onclimatechangepolicydotorg.wordpress.com/2013/12/06/early-reductions-in-carbon-dioxide-emissions-remain-imperative/

[ii] This is the figure implied in Table 2.2 in http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf.  All references to temperature in this post are to global mean surface temperatures (GMST).

[iii] IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, Synthesis Report, Section 2.2.4 for the range.  The central value is that which appears to have been used to construct Table 2.2 of http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf

[iv] The IPCC quotes 0.9 degrees by 2006-2015, which is consistent with 1.0 degrees now.

[v] Table 2.2 of http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_chapter2.pdf

[vi]  http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdfC1.3

[vii] See IPCC 1.5 degree report Chapter 2 for details.

[viii] http://report.ipcc.ch/sr15/pdf/sr15_spm_final.pdf summary for policy makers, see charts on p.6

[ix] See for example work by Climate Action Tracker https://climateactiontracker.org/global/temperatures/, and and the Stocker and Allan analysis cited as reference (i) above.  The recent IPCC report Chapter 2 Section C1, concludes:  In model pathways with no or limited overshoot of 1.5°C, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (40–60% interquartile range), reaching net zero around 2050 (2045–2055 interquartile range). For limiting global warming to below 2°C CO2 emissions are projected to decline by about 20% by 2030 in most pathways (10–30% interquartile range) and reach net zero around 2075 (2065–2080 interquartile range). Non-CO2 emissions in pathways that limit global warming to 1.5°C show deep reductions that are similar to those in pathways limiting warming to 2°C.”  References in this paragraph to pathways limiting global warming to 2C are based on a 66% probability of staying below 2C.

 

 

Satellite data can help strengthen policy

Advancing satellite technology can improve monitoring of emissions.  This will in turn help make policies more robust.

There are now around 2000 satellites in earth orbit carrying out a wide range of tasks.  This is about twice as many as only a decade ago[i].   Costs continue to come down, technologies are advancing and more organisations are making use of data, applying new techniques as they do so.   As progress continues, satellite technologies are positioned to make a much larger contribution to monitoring greenhouse gas emissions.

Tracking what’s happening on the ground

Satellites are critical to tracking land use changes that contribute to climate change, notably deforestation.   While satellites have played an important role here for years, the increasing availability of data is enabling organisations to increase the effectiveness of their work.  For example, in recent years Global Forest Watch[ii] has greatly increased the range, timeliness and accessibility of its data on deforestation.  This in turn has enabled more rapid responses.

This is now extending to other monitoring.  For example, progress on construction projects can be tracked over time.  This enabled, for example, monitoring the construction of coal plant in China, which showed that construction of new plants was continuing[iii].

Monitoring operation and emissions

As the frequency with which satellite pictures are taken increases, it becomes possible to monitor not only construction and land use changes, but also operation of individual facilities.  For example, it is now becoming possible to track operation of coal plant, because the steam from cooling towers is visible[iv].  This can in turn allow emissions to be estimated.

More direct monitoring of emissions continues to develop.  Publicly available data at high geographic resolution on NOx, SOx, particulates and in the near future methane[v] are becoming increasingly available[vi].   For example, measuring shipping emissions has traditionally been extremely difficult, but is now becoming tractable, at least for NOx.

Measuring methane is especially important.  Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with significant emissions from leakage in natural gas systems.  Many of these emissions can easily be avoided at relatively low cost, leading to highly cost-effective emissions reduction.

Monitoring CO2

CO2 is more difficult to measure than other pollutants, in part because it disperses and mixes in the atmosphere so rapidly.  However, some of the latest satellites have sophisticated technology able to measure CO2 concentrations very accurately[vii].  These cover only quite small areas at the moment but are expected to scale up and allow more widespread direct monitoring.  The picture below shows a narrow strip of the emissions from a coal plant in Kansas, based on data from the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2 (OCO‐2) satellite.  These estimates conform well with reported emissions from the plant.

Figure 1:  Satellite data showing CO2 emissions for a power plant in Kansas

Note: the red arrow shows prevailing wind direction.

Space agencies around the world are now exploring how such monitoring can be taken further.  For example, the EU has now asked the European Space Agency to design a satellite dedicated to monitoring CO2.  It is expected to be operational in the 2020s.[viii]

Work is also underway to improve data analysis, so that quantities of emissions can be attributed to individual plants.  Machine learning holds a good deal of promise here as a way of finding and labelling patterns in the very large amounts of data available.  It is likely soon to be possible to monitor emissions from an individual source as small as a medium size coal plant, taking account of wind speed and direction and so forth.

Implications

These developments will make actions much more transparent and subject to inspection internationally.  Governments, scientists, energy companies, investors, academics and NGOs can monitor what is going on.  Increasingly polluters will not be able to hide their actions – they will be open for all to see.  This is turn will make it easier to bring pressure on polluters to clean up their act, potentially including, for example, holding countries to account for their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Climate Agreement.

Improved transparency and robust data are not in themselves solutions for reducing climate change.  Instead, they play an important role in an effective policy architecture.  And the do so with ever increasing availability and quality.  This gives cause for optimism that policies and their implementation can be made increasingly robust.

Adam Whitmore – 12th September 2018

Thanks to Dave Jones for sharing his knowledge on the topic .

[i] https://www.ucsusa.org/nuclear-weapons/space-weapons/satellite-database#.W5Y-7ZNKhcA, https://allthingsnuclear.org/lgrego/new-update-of-ucs-satellite-database,

[ii] https://www.globalforestwatch.org/about

[iii] See here http://www.climatechangenews.com/2018/08/07/china-restarts-coal-plant-construction-two-year-freeze/ for examples

[iv] https://twitter.com/matthewcgray/status/1032251925515968512

[v] http://www.tropomi.eu/data-products/methane

[vi] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/meet-the-satellites-that-can-pinpoint-methane-and-carbon-dioxide-leaks/

[vii] https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2017GL074702

[viii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-43926232

 

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