IPCC: Millions of words on climate change are not enough

The latest IPCC report has highlighted that it's dead certain that the world has warmed, and that it's extremely likely that humans are the main cause. Credit: IPCC

The latest IPCC report has highlighted that it’s dead certain that the world has warmed, and that it’s extremely likely that humans are the main cause. Credit: IPCC

The most recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report saw perhaps the most severe conflict between scientists and politicians in the organisation’s existence. As its name suggests, governments take an active part in the IPCC process, whose latest main findings appeared between September 2013 and May 2014. Debate over what information makes the high-profile ‘Summaries for Policymakers’ is usually intense, but this time three graphs were dropped on politicians’ insistence. I show these graphs later in this blog entry.

At the Transformational Climate Science conference in my home town, Exeter, UK, earlier this month, senior IPCC author Ottmar Edenhofer discussed the ‘battle’ with governments on his part of the report. Another scientist who worked on the report highlighted confidentially to me how unusual the omission was.

To me, it’s more surprising that this hasn’t happened more often, especially when you look more closely at the latest report’s findings. There’s concrete certainty that warming is happening, and it’s extremely likely that humans are the dominant cause, it says. Governments have even – in some cases, begrudgingly – already signed up to temperature and CO2 emission targets reflecting this fact.

The inadequacy of those words is becoming ever more starkly obvious. Ottmar stressed that the emissions levels agreed at the United Nations’ Climate Change Conference in Cancún, Mexico, in November 2010, would likely need later emissions cuts the likes of which we’ve never seen before to avoid dangerous climate change. The latest IPCC report shines a floodlight on that inertia, which understandably cranks up the tension between researchers and politicians.

Ottmar was one of two co-chairs who led the ‘working group three’ (WGIII) section of the IPCC report that looks at how to cut greenhouse gas emissions. He stressed that the need to make these cuts comes from a fundamental difference between the risks that come from climate change and the risks of mitigation. We can heal economic damage arising from cutting emissions – reversing sea level rise isn’t so easy.

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The urgent voice who refused to be silenced on climate danger

  • This is part three of this profile. Read part one here and part two here.
In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

In response to the revelations of his ongoing research, NASA scientist Jim Hansen has become increasingly active in campaigning to halt climate change over the past decade. Image credit: Greenpeace

By December 6, 2005, NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies’ (GISS) temperature record was already sending a clear message: worldwide, 2005 would likely be the warmest year so far. For GISS director Jim Hansen, speaking to the annual American Geophysical Union conference, arguably the world’s largest environmental research meeting, it seemed fair to reveal. For several listening journalists it was newsworthy enough for them to cover Jim’s talk. But it would anger some of Jim’s colleagues at NASA headquarters enough to try to stop him talking to the media. In the process they’d drag him outside the world of pure research he was most comfortable in. “The undue influence of special interests and government greenwash pose formidable barriers to a well-informed public,” Jim would later write about the situation. “Without a well-informed public, humanity itself and all species on the planet are threatened.”

The comments came during a lecture in honour of Dave Keeling, the CO2 tracking pioneer, who’d died of a heart attack in June that year. Soothing Jim’s hesitation, Dave’s son Ralph stressed he was continuing the work of his father, who had even been discussing one of Jim’s papers minutes before his death. And so Jim had brought together evidence showing that Earth’s climate was nearing a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be impossible to avoid dangerous changes. However, warming from 2000 onwards might still be kept below the 1°C level that Jim at that time considered hazardous if CO2 levels in the air were held at about 450 parts per million (ppm). Emissions of other greenhouse gases would also need to be significantly reduced. The message was clear: how we get our energy would must change, mainly by shifting away from coal and the vast volumes of CO2 burning it produces.

NASA headquarters was already reviewing all publicity on climate change research, but the latest coverage would force it into even more severe action. The following week it laid out new restrictions on Jim’s ability to comment publicly, and the global GISS temperature record was temporarily taken off the internet. Prominent amongst those setting the new conditions was NASA’s new head of public affairs, appointed by George Bush’s administration, David Mould. His previous jobs included a senior media relations role at the Southern Company of Atlanta, the second largest holding company of coal-burning power stations in the US. Only one company had donated more to the Republican Party than the Southern Company during George Bush’s 2000 election campaign: Enron. Read the rest of this entry »

Results show quick CO2 ‘fix’ feasibility – but its future rests in government hands

The CarbFix project is trapping natural CO2 emissions underground as Iceland seeks to offset emissions from other sources. Image credit: Reykjavik Energy

The CarbFix project is trapping natural CO2 emissions underground as Iceland seeks to offset emissions from other sources. Image credit: Reykjavik Energy

Although CO2 can stay in the atmosphere, trapping heat, for thousands of years scientists think they have turned it into rock in just a few months. Juerg Matter from the University of Southampton, UK, and his colleagues in the CarbFix project have injected 170 tons of pure CO2 into the reactive basalt underneath Iceland. Their findings suggest around 85% of it reacted with the rock over the short distance between injection and monitoring boreholes in less than one year.

“We think that was because all that CO2 precipitated out as carbonate minerals in the reservoir,” Juerg, who’s also an adjunct scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York, told me. “To really prove it this summer we will drill a borehole into the injection reservoir to retrieve rock core samples.” But the CarbFix team has also emphasised this week that it will take higher carbon prices for this and other carbon capture and storage technology to fulfil their potential.

The latest UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the cheapest way to avoid dangerous climate change is to stop using fossil fuels and switch to renewable energy. However time’s running out on that option, and the IPCC report therefore highlights the probable need to suck CO2 from the air. But before we capture CO2 straight out of the air, or even from the chimneys of power stations, we need somewhere to put it. Currently captured CO2 is simply pumped and stored underground as a gas, meaning care is needed to choose reservoirs that won’t leak. “Storage options right now are mainly in depleted gas and oil fields, in sedimentary rocks,” Juerg said.

In the air, CO2 eventually reacts with basalt naturally, but that process is far too slow to balance out what humans are emitting. Since 2007 the CarbFix team has been working to see if they can speed that process up by forcing CO2 underground. Not only would this quickly turn the gas into minerals and prevent leak worries, it would also greatly expand the number of places it could be stored. “The storage potential is just huge, there’s billions of tons of reservoir, because basically all the ocean floor is basalt,” Juerg highlighted. Read the rest of this entry »

Renewable energy beats ‘clean coal’ on cost in Australia

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales' Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

A part of the extension of the Snowtown Wind Farm in South Australia that added 90 new 3 megawatt turbines. In South Australia wind farms contribute 27% of annual electricity, notes University of New South Wales’ Mark Diesendorf. Photo by David Clarke, used via Flickr Creative Commons license.

It’s unlikely that fossil fuel power stations that capture and store their CO2 emissions could supply eastern Australia’s electricity more cheaply than renewable energy technologies like solar and wind power. That’s according to a study based on hour-by-hour analysis of electricity demand by Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and Mark Diesendorf from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Although renewables are often seen as expensive, these findings highlight that they can be competitive after accounting for the impact of burning coal and gas on our climate. “Our studies, and those conducted by other research groups around the world, find that it is possible to operate reliable national and subnational electricity systems on predominantly renewable energy generated by commercially available technologies and that these systems are affordable,” Mark told me.

Ben is a PhD student, supervised by Iain and Mark, and together the three have sought to answer key questions about renewable energy. Is it possible to supply a whole electricity grid’s needs with these technologies, or are some ‘base-load’ coal or gas power stations needed to fall back on? And if it is possible, would it be affordable?

To answer these questions, Ben designed a computer programme to simulate running an electricity supply system. His program can go through a year’s hourly data on electricity demands, wind and sunshine over the region in a fraction of a second. “Everything else follows from this, provided of course one asks the right questions,” Mark noted.

Over the last two years they have published work exploiting that programme, first showing that it’s possible to reliably supply 100% of eastern Australia’s electricity using renewable energy. Wind and solar power supplied most of the electricity, but output from these technologies varies due to changes in weather. But rather than filling gaps with fossil fuels, they showed existing hydroelectric power stations and gas turbines burning biofuels could be used to meet the grid’s reliability standard. Read the rest of this entry »

If we pass safe climate limits, it’s a long way back

University of Victoria's Andrew MacDougall in Canada's Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

University of Victoria’s Andrew MacDougall in Canada’s Kluane National Park Credit: Nicolas Roux

If CO2 levels in the air pass the ‘safe’ limit, we’d have to take out up to four-fifths more than we originally emitted to get back under it. That’s the result from seemingly the first study to look at climate change’s reversibility with plausible scenarios, done by Andrew MacDougall from the University of Victoria (UVic), Canada. “With monumental effort and political will climate change is reversible within the millennium,” Andrew told me. “However, more carbon will need to be extracted from the atmosphere than was originally emitted to it. Meanwhile, changes in sea-level are effectively irreversible on the millennial time-scale.”

Andrew started looking at whether climate change could be undone in autumn 2012, after publishing a study showing that melting permafrost will speed up global warming. “The results were pretty grim,” Andrew said. “Combined with the failure of the political classes to implement controls on carbon emissions I began to wonder if there was a way to undo what humanity will do to the climate if we greatly exceeded the 450 parts per million (ppm) target.” That target comes because scientists say temperatures 2°C higher than the ‘pre-industrial’ average from 1850-1899 could become dangerous, and governments have agreed to keep warming below this level. Scientists also calculate that 450 CO2 molecules are allowable in every million air molecules to give us better than a 3/5 chance of temperature rises below 2°C.

After human emissions cease, current evidence suggests that natural processes would take tens of thousands of years to remove all of the fossil carbon from the atmosphere. Most of the warming will remain, even 10,000 years into the future. This sentence could be reduced by taking CO2 directly from the atmosphere, though this would be a huge effort, on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry according to one estimate. One method for doing that involves generating electricity by burning plants or trees that grew by absorbing CO2, and capturing and storing the CO2 from the burning. The other, known as air capture, uses machines to scrub CO2 right out of the air. However, this would need to be powered by clean energy and arguments over its cost are holding back research. Read the rest of this entry »

How ocean data helped reveal the climate beast

Wally Broecker's famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences.  Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

Wally Broecker’s famous quote on display at California Academy of Sciences. Image copyright: Jinx McCombs, used via Flickr Creative Commons license

  • This is part two of a two-part post. Read part one here.

On the wall of Wally Broecker’s building at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory hangs a 16-foot long terry-cloth snake, blue with pink spots, that he calls the ‘climate beast’. Left in his office as a surprise by his workmates, its name refers to one of Wally’s most powerful quotes about the climate: “If you’re living with an angry beast, you shouldn’t poke it with a sharp stick.”

Today, the sharp stick is the CO2 we’re emitting by burning fossil fuels, which Wally was warning about by 1975. By that time he had also helped confirm that throughout history, changes in Earth’s orbit have given the climate beast regular kicks, triggering rapid exits from ice ages. He became obsessed with the idea that climate had changed abruptly in the past, and the idea we could provoke the ‘angry beast’ into doing it again.

Among the many samples that Wally was carbon dating, from the late 1950s onwards he was getting treasure from the oceans. Pouring sulphuric acid into seawater, he could convert dissolved carbonate back into CO2 gas that he could then carbon date. And though nuclear weapon tests had previously messed with Wally’s results, they actually turned out to help improved our knowledge of the oceans. The H-bomb tests produced more of the radioactive carbon-14 his technique counts, and as that spike moved through the oceans, Wally could track how fast they absorbed that CO2.

In the 1970s, as Wally and a large team of other scientists sailed on RV Melville and RV Knorr tracking such chemicals across the planet’s oceans, a debate raged. Was cutting down forests releasing more CO2 than burning fossil fuels? Dave Keeling’s measurements showed the amount of CO2 being added to the air was about half the amount produced by fossil fuels. But plants and the oceans could be taking up huge amounts, scientists argued. Thanks to the H-bomb carbon, Wally’s team found the CO2 going into the oceans was just 1/3 of what fossil fuels had emitted. Faster-growing plants therefore seemed to be balancing out the impact of deforestation, and taking up the remaining 1/6 portion of the fossil fuel emissions. Read the rest of this entry »

CO2 for oil swap brings carbon capture viability closer

Oil and gas producer Denbury makes its case for its 300-mile plus “Green Pipeline” that transports CO2 for use in extracting more oil from old fields. University of Texas, Austin’s Carey King and colleagues have looked at the economics of using a larger network to store CO2 in underground saline aquifers.

For 314 miles from Donaldsonville, Louisiana, to Alvin, Texas a 24-inch diameter pipeline slithers under the landscape, dwarfing even the giant invasive snake species menacing the US. And while the Hastings Oil and Gas Field sits at the Texan end of the pipe, fossil fuels don’t flow along it: CO2 does. Rather than emit the greenhouse gas to the atmosphere, in Louisiana, Mosaic Phosphates Company’s Faustina Plant sends it to Texas. There the pipeline’s owner, Denbury, uses the CO2 to swill more oil out of the ageing Hastings field, leaving most of the CO2 trapped underground instead.

Denbury estimates that from 2014 it could get 10,000 tonnes of CO2 a day from industrial sources. Though that sounds a lot, it pales against the roughly 15 million tonnes the whole US emits each day. But what if Texas’ coal-fired power plants were hooked up to pipelines to both produce more oil from old fields and keep CO2 locked out of the atmosphere?

A team of University of Texas at Austin scientists have been looking at the financial details of how such a network might work. Though it could trap much more CO2 than burning the oil it gets out will emit, they find that such a scheme likely could not yet support itself. “If you capture CO2 from multiple coal-fired generators to produce oil and you want to have a net storage of CO2, the costs are still greater than the revenues,” UT Austin’s Carey King told me. “But the oil revenues do pay for the majority of the costs.”

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