Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Was Hurricane Irene caused by climate change?

Every major weather event raises the same debate over the same unanswerable question: was it caused by climate change?

And every time, some prominent name or public figure, fed up with media coverage or with the persistence of skepticism about science or the lack of action, throws statistics out the window and says yes. Or says something like "Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming", as founder Bill McKibben wrote in the Daily Beast. That in turn draws legitimate pushback, further polarizes the public discussion about climate change, and makes some long-time participants of the debate want to smash their head against a wall.

The good news is that this cycle has been going on for long enough that people have finally began to reword the question. In Climate Central, Michael Lemonick tried "Is climate change making this storm worse than it would have been otherwise?". That is a slightly better than the staple question, but still demands more certainty than can really be provided by the evidence.

The New York Times asked the subtly different, but far more sensible question: "Are hurricanes getting worse because of human-induced climate change?". By shifting from the particular storm to the sequence of storms over time, it becomes a question we can actually answer with data and statistics. As the article by Justin Gillis finds, scientists including NOAA's Tom Knutson, who I worked with on a related subject, are divided on the interpretation of past data on hurricane intensity.

Hurricane Irene was a reminder of one of factor that should draw more attention in the climate change and hurricanes discussion: rain. The worst damage from Irene came from the heavy rains and floods in Vermont and surrounding areas (the above photo is from CBC News). You can see the data yourself on the USGS real-time streamflow page for the state, a fantastic resource for everyone from regional planners to recreational paddlers (my old haunt the Millstone River in New Jersey reached almost triple the flood stage on Sunday) which may be subject to budget cuts.

If I had to place money on which feature of tropical cyclones or hurricanes would increase the most because of climate change, I'd bet on rainfall, ahead of other metrics like intensity (wind speed) or surge height. Warmer water means more evaporation; warmer air can hold more water.

That doesn't mean the flooding in Vermont was caused by human-induced climate change. But it might mean that we can get more agreement on the answer to the New York Times question.


Friday, August 26, 2011

Another Friday afternoon, another buried climate/energy policy decision

It may very well be an unfortunate coincidence. Or perhaps it may be the start of a trend. In a move that could appear in a dictionary under "burial, as in a controversial decision", the U.S. government has announced support for the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry oil from the Alberta oil sands to the central U.S. and the Gulf Coast, on a Friday afternoon in the summer when the news media is less active. And not just any Friday afternoon... a Friday afternoon when a hurricane is bearing down on the several of the largest metropolitan areas of the country, including New York City.


Storm surge calculus

Jeff Masters' latest forecast for Hurricane Irene, besides warning New York City and coastal New England of damage, serves as a reminder of something to consider whenever you see a static map depicting what your community would look like if sea level rises by X m: the level of the sea is constantly varying, because of the astrononomical tides, storm systems and ocean currents.

On Sunday, New York City could be seriously damaged by the storm surge from Irene, even though the storm will have weakened to Category 1 at most, because the passage of the storm could coincide with a high tide:

At 9:30am EDT this morning, a wind analysis from NOAA/HRD (Figure 1) indicated that the potential storm surge damage from Irene rated a 5.1 on a scale of 0 to 6. This is equivalent to the storm surge a typical Category 4 hurricane would have. While this damage potential should gradually decline as Irene moves northwards and weakens, we can still expect a storm surge one full Saffir-Simpson Category higher than Irene's winds. Since tides are at their highest levels of the month this weekend due to the new moon, storm surge flooding will be at a maximum during the high tidal cycles that will occur at 8 pm Saturday night and 8 am Sunday morning. At those times, Irene is expected to be near the NC/VA border, then close to Long Island, NY, respectively. Thus, storm surge damage rivaling that experienced during Hurricane Isabel in 2003 is likely in northern NC, southern Maryland, and up Chesapeake Bay on Saturday night. It looks like Irene will pass New Jersey during low tide, which may limit the storm surge inundation to 3 - 6 feet there. Coastal New England from New York City to Massachusetts may also see storm surges characteristic of a Category 1 hurricane during Sunday morning's high tide, even if Irene has weakened to a tropical storm. I continue to give a 20% chance that a storm surge high enough to over-top the Manhattan flood walls and swamp the New York City subway system will occur on Sunday.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

The reality of Canada's new regulations on carbon emissions from coal-burning power plants

On Friday, the Canadian Minister of the Environment announced new emissions rules for coal plants which supposed encourage a shift to effective capture and storage of carbon. And, yes, you may be right to be suspicious about any new regulations announced on a Friday afternoon in the middle of August, when the vast majority of Canadians are planning for the weekend and ignoring the news. According to Minister Peter Kent:

These proposed regulations take into account the fact that many electricity facilities across Canada are old and need to be replaced soon. We're acting now to ensure that power companies understand today, the rules that will affect the new investments they have to make tomorrow. It allows for an orderly process - the bedrock of certainty.

The scant news coverage pointed out that the new standards only apply to plants built after July 1, 2015, thus exempted some proposed new coal plants.

That includes Calgary-based Maxim Power Corp.'s contentious proposal for a 500-megawatt expansion at its HR Milner facility, which received final approval from the Alberta Utilities Commission earlier this month and must be built by July 31, 2015 - a condition of the go-ahead (Calgary Herald)

The actual regulations may prove to be even more controversial. I encourage interesting followers of Maribo to read the text of the regulations (pdf from Environment Canada) and provide their interpretation in the comments.
In my reading of the reults, I found what I think, but I could be mistaken, are very large loopholes which could prevent any real reduction in carbon emissions from coal-electricity generation until at least 2025.

First, here's the actual emissions limit, and I'll leave the intrepretation of the number to the readers:

3. (1) A responsible person for a new unit or an old unit must not, on average, emit with
an intensity of more than 375 tonnes CO2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels in the
unit for each GWh of electricity produced by the unit during a calendar year.

Then it gets complicated:

(b) a declaration that includes the following statements:
(i) that, based on the economic feasibility study referred to in paragraph (c), the unit,
when operating with an integrated carbon capture and storage system is, to the best of
the responsible person’s knowledge and belief, economically viable, and
(ii) that, based on the technical feasibility study referred to in paragraph (d) and the
implementation plan referred to in paragraph (f), the responsible person expects to
satisfy the requirements referred to in section 9 and, as a result, to be in compliance with
subsection 3(1) by January 1, 2025;

So, again, if I am reading this right, you can gain an exemption from the regulations if you are able to conduct a study showing that the CCS system will be capable of meeting the new emissions regulation by 2025.

Putting this all together: 

1. Any coal plants built before July, 2015 which have not reached the end of their useful life [ed - see comment #1] are exempt. Given the expected shift towards natural gas in the next few years, it is entirely possible that the regulations will not end up applying to any coal-burning plants unless they are old units, as all the other coal-burning plants will be "grandfathered" in. [ed - fair?]

2. Any coal plants built after July, 2015 are exempt until 2025 so long as it is technologically possible to install a CCS system by 2025. Therefore, CCS systems are unlikely to be operating at any large scale coal plants in Canada for another 15 years. This delay may reflect the technological challenge of CCS or the values of the current government, or both.

Hopefully, I'm wrong.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Science and communication post-doctoral fellowships at UBC

A rare bit of academic business here on Maribo:

The University of British Columbia’s new TerreWEB program is interested in engaging a scientist to facilitate challenges in building research and training involving TerreWEB researchers and collaborators. Highly qualified candidates interested in developing innovative research programs and fostering Graduate Student training are invited to apply. Appointments can range from 2 to 3 years. Click on the image for the full ad.

This is a great program. A large range of UBC faculty, including myself, are a part of program, so applicants have a terrific choice of potential supervisors.

The one drawback: The applications are due on August 31st! If you're interested, get cracking on that application.

Potential students interested in the program should contact a TerreWEB faculty member for more information about applying to UBC (and to the program).


Friday, August 12, 2011

Canada's sham of a federal climate policy

In yesterday's Globe and Mail, Marc Jaccard wisely pointed out the gaping flaws in the Canadian pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 17% by 2020. The pivot point is a proposed new coal-burning power plant in B.C.Alberta:

Stephen Harper can’t allow new coal-fired electricity plants to be built, such as the one Maxim Power is proposing in Alberta, and achieve his promise to reduce Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions 17 per cent by 2020. As a researcher of energy-economy systems, I say this with virtual certainty. I also know that any scholar in my field would agree with me, and that the Prime Minister’s expert advisers would tell him the same thing.

There are two stories here. The first is that Canada has made many emissions pledges but repeatedly failed to enact any plan to meet those pledges. This is not a partisan issue. It happened under majority and minority Liberal governments, and it is happening under minority and now majority Conservative governments:

In 2007, Mr. Harper committed Canada to a 2020 target for greenhouse-gas reduction but hasn’t implemented policies that would achieve it. Like Mr. Chr├ętien, Mr. Harper must know his scant policies will fail. Recently released internal government documents show he’s receiving information from civil servants telling him his current policies are not transforming the energy-economy system in the direction he’s promised.

The second story is that climate policy is ineffective and meaningless without short-term and long-term goals. With no short-term emissions target, we end up delaying shifts in the energy infrastructure, and in the case of the coal-burning power plant, committing to future emissions which make meeting the long-term goal more difficult if not impossible. Jaccard praises the approach taken by the Campbell government in B.C.:

In 2007, then-B.C. premier Gordon Campbell also committed to a 2020 emissions reduction target. But to convince people of his sincerity – especially after two decades of climate policy failure by all Canadian governments at all levels – Mr. Campbell acted very differently. First, he got an independent body to set interim targets for 2012 and 2016, so people would know within a political time frame if he were on track to keep his promise. Second, he asked his advisers what investments needed to happen in 2007, and every year thereafter, to meet the 2020 target. On that basis, he immediately implemented a zero-emission electricity policy, which caused the cancellation of two proposed coal-fired electricity plants that had signed preliminary supply deals with BC Hydro.

Granted this approach is certainly easier, and more politically palatable, in a jurisdication where hydro-power is abundant. Nevertheless, it is a good model to follow.


Friday, August 05, 2011

The complexity of climate change policy

Buried in a couple recent news stories, which themselves were buried by the news of the debt standoff in the U.S.,  were a couple fascinating nuggets that reveal a lot about how climate change mitigation policy does, and does not happen.

One is an agreement to raise fuel efficiency standards in the U.S., which will presumably also become the rule in Canada. The... greement to that vehicles sold will average 54.5 mpg by 2025, although with loopholes related to measurement of efficiency, the actual average will be more like 43 mpg.

Why did it happen? (NY Times):

It is an extraordinary shift in the relationship between the companies and Washington. But a lot has happened in the last four years, notably the $80 billion federal bailout of General Motors, Chrysler and scores of their suppliers, which removed any itch for a politically charged battle from the carmakers...

The new mind-set in Detroit has been helped by some give and take on the government’s side. G.M., Ford and Chrysler pressed for less onerous mileage goals for their profitable pickup trucks and got them. And the administration agreed to revisit the new requirements halfway through their course, with the possibility of adjusting them. In the end, though, Detroit was faced with an undeniable political reality: there was no graceful way to say no to an administration that just two years ago came to its aid financially.

The auto bailout as climate policy: investing in the companies provided some leverage in the battle to reduce emissions from passenger vehicles. Was the Obama administration prescient here, knowing that there were little odds of carbon tax on fuel? More likely, the U.S. government was merely taking advantage of an opportunity to use some leverage to push an emissions reduction effort. Of course, the idea of "nationalizing" companies in hopes of enforcing a climate change policy would cause the "Tea Party" to self-combust.

The other example is the Alberta government's approval of a carbon capture and storage project (Globe and Mail):

Calgary-based Swan Hills Synfuels LP aims to use an unproven method, coal gasification, to reach 1.4-kilometre-deep coal deposits in central Alberta, convert them to gas underground, capture the emissions before they ever see daylight and use the gaseous coal to run a power plant. The new plant would serve a whopping 300,000 homes while producing one-third the emissions of a similarly sized regular coal plant – or about the same carbon output as a natural-gas plant. Because the project will divert 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year – providing the cost certainty of coal and environmental performance of natural gas – Alberta coughed up $285-million for the $1.5-billion development.

Now, investment in a CCS project in Alberta is not a huge surprise, especially considering the particular plant can aide in oil recovery. But then there't this nugget:

Industry members, politicians and academics said provincial funding is necessary because there’s little incentive to reduce emissions. CCS is “viable, but it comes at a cost,” said Don Lawton, a University of Calgary geophysicist who studies CCS. “But until there’s a price on carbon, it’s an expense that has to be borne by somebody.” Mr. Lambert said the project would die without provincial money. “I don’t think I could deliver the returns investors would need to put their money up,” he said.

So the CCS projects go ahead, but solwly, and at great expense to the province of Alberta because of the lack of a federal carbon price, which was strongly opposed by politicans from Alberta. Unlike the automobile case above, pricing carbon is critical to making CCS work.