Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Are emissions growing faster than the models say?

There have been a number of recent studies warning that greenhouse gas emissions will skyrocket in the next three decades, thanks to rising energy use in China, India, and the developing world. The new International Energy Outlook from the US Energy Information Administration reports that global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels will increase 51% by 2030.

Projecting future emissions is by no means simply. The underlying conceit in much of the discussion (e.g. see Pielke et al.) of late is that the projected emissions in the scenarios used by all the climate models are too low. In other words, climate change will be even worse than the models say, and the runaway emissions train will be even harder to stop than we think.

I had to plot some emissions data for a presentation, so I did a quick comparison of the SRES scenarios, the group of future emissions scenarios used by all the climate models in the last IPCC assessments. The global carbon emissions from fossil fuels only in the four main scenarios are plotted in the figure to the right. [A note: These are the means for each scenario. Despite what most people think, A2, A1b, etc. do not each refer to one set of emissions data, rather a series of datasets generated by different economics / emissions models using the same inputs].

Now here's the same graph with the high growth, medium (reference scenario) and low growth scenarios from the IEO (coarse grey/black lines). And the surprise: the path of the highest IEO scenario lies in between SRES A1b and SRES A2, basically what people have been calling "business as usual" for quite some time. The low growth scenario parallels SRES B1, a scenario in which thew world seeks "global solutions to economic, social, and environmental sustainability, including improved equity". The emission path in all the IEO scenarios fall below that of SRES A1F1, the fossil fuel intensive scenario. In other words, the scary new report is no worse than what we were already projecting. That is hardly a reason to celebrate, yes, but it may be a reason to argue with those claiming emissions are rising so fast that climate change mitigation is prohibitively expensive.

There is a caveat. The red line on the graph comes from a recent paper by Sheehan in Climatic Change (see Pielke's commentary). This scenario attempts to take into account the "abrupt shift to rapid growth based on fossil fuels" that has occurred in Asian countries. The paper argues that the SRES scenarios assumed too much decarbonization of the energy system and the economy. The SRES approach is reasonable -- as I've argued before, the emissions intensity of the world economy, the amount of carbon pumped out per unit of GDP, has been declining for decades as we became more efficient at making producing stuff. The problem is that we're at a moment where Asian are using coal and oil to expand, so the global decarbonization is slowing down or even stopping (because the carbon emissions per unit energy production is rising). How and whether recent Asian fossil fuel growth should be extrapolated 25 years into the future, I can't say. I'd be interested to see a comparison of Sheehan-style scenarios with those of the IEO.

(By the way, the IPCC is planning a new set of scenarios for the fifth assessment)


Sunday, June 22, 2008

The tradeoff betwen fuel and feed

The central challenge of producing biofuels is that we're already using most of the world's prime agricultural lands to grow food, especially food that we feed to animals. Our work has continuously found that it will be difficult to produce biofuels from prime cropland without reducing meat production. From our paper on the effect of corn-based ethanol production on nitrogen pollution in the Mississippi River:

The land cover analysis in this study raises questions about the availability of land to radically increase ethanol or other biofuel production. Reaching the proposed biofuel production goals will lead to trade-offs between cropland demands for food, feed, and fuel... given the probable ceilings on cropland area, grain yields and use of ethanol coproducts as animal feed, a gradual decrease in use of corn and soybeans for animal feed may be a necessary consequence of the projected increase in demand for biofuels.

Sounds crazy? This conflict is already happening. The flooding in the Midwest U.S. hurt corn planting this year. The NY Times reports that with so much corn promised to ethanol plants, feed will get hard to find. The choice is to reduce the ethanol mandate, open up conservation lands to corn production, or risk damage to the animal production industry:

Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and one of Capitol Hill’s main voices on farm policy, on Friday urged the Agriculture Department to release tens of thousands of farmers from contracts under which they had promised to set aside huge tracts as natural habitat... In disasters, the Environmental Protection Agency can roll back requirements for ethanol production, which could free up a large amount of corn for animal feed. Mr. Grassley, a strong ethanol backer, rejected that proposition, but in recent days many industries that depend on corn have urged the government to act.

A quarter of the United States corn crop is used for biofuels rather than animal or human food, and the percentage is rising. What this has done to the price of gasoline is debated by ethanol’s critics and defenders, but it has certainly benefited farmers, who have not seen such demand for their corn crop in decades. On the losing side of the equation have been cattle, hog and chicken producers, as well as consumers. The government’s latest projection, released Friday, is that food prices this year will rise as much as 5.5 percent. Some products, including cereals and eggs, are expected to rise about 10 percent.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Where did we put that drill?

I’ve just returned from south of the border, where a new proposal from President Bush and John McCain to lift the U.S. ban in offshore oil drilling is drawing outrage from environmentalists. The proposal, a stab to appearing to take action against high oil prices, definitely fails the political sniff test. Joe Romm points out that lifting the ban would not have a significant impact on US oil production or prices before 2030.

However, I remain uncomfortable with the stance of much of the US environmental community on this issue. Is American opposition to offshore drilling a case of national NIMBY-ism? The US relies on oil from offshore drilling in Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia, and a number of other developing nations. Where is the outrage about the environmental toll of those operations?


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

A perfect storm for the Dead Zone

The massive floods in the Midwestern US are likely to fuel the largest Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone in recorded history. The image at right is from the NY Times and the National Weather Service.

Nitrogen applied to crops like corn in the Midwest is the major driver of the now famous Dead Zone, as I've described in a number of previous posts and this Google News commentary. The blame for the high nitrogen levels in the Mississippi and this year's record Dead Zone forecast is being placed on the production of more corn for ethanol. A more complete explanation would be that the surge in corn production, and, hence, fertilizer use, the past few years has made nitrogen pollution more sensitive to the climate than ever.

Nitrogen and hydrology are tightly linked in the Mississippi River Basin, and other agriculturally intensive river basins, thanks to nature and to humans. Several nitrogen 'species' like nitrate are highly soluble. What has exacerbates things in the Mississippi is activities like wetlands, installing artificial drainage under fields and channelizing rivers that reduce chances for nitrogen to be consumed before moving downstream. The result is the amount of nitrogen that the Mississippi sends to the Gulf can actually be predicted from the rainfall in the Corn Belt.

In coverage of our recent paper on corn and the Dead Zone, the prediction that the US Energy Policy would increase average nitrogen loading by 10-34% drew most of the attention. What might be missed is that the nitrogen loading could be much higher if the conditions are wetter.

The reason this matters is the the continental shelf of the Gulf of Mexico has a memory. The usual tale is that the Dead Zone grows each spring and summer when the big flood of Mississippi nitrogen arrives weather and water conditions are ripe for algae growth (it breaks up in the fall when the waters cool and mix, reintroducing oxygen to the bottom waters). However, nitrogen from previous years that is deposited in the sediments can also be recycled and feed algae growth. In other words, the system remembers a big flood of nitrogen. For example, during the 1993 Mississippi floods, the Dead Zone grew to a then-record 17,600 km2; the next year, it grew to an almost equal 16,600 km2, despite 31% less nitrate flowing down the Mississippi. That's just one reason why it is critical to consider climate and climate variability in ecological management and policy.

This year, the Dead Zone is projected to reach over 25,000 km2 in size, 20% greater than the previous maximum. What will that mean for 2009? For 2010? The longer you wait, the harder problems like the Dead Zone are to solve.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Corals return to Bikini

This has not been a good news year for the world’s oceans. Scientists found an increase in the number of dead zones, documented acidification along the Pacific coast of North America, produced a startling map of the human impact on the global oceans, warned about the decline of Caribbean coral reefs, and detected an increase in the unproductive mid-ocean "deserts". The UNEP Rapid Response Report on the status of the world's fisheries, released in February, had the ominous title "In Dead Water".

For a change, here is a story about the recovery of a marine ecosystem from the most extreme of disturbances. A team of scientists conducted a survey of the coral communities of infamous Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The results were published earlier this year in a fascinating paper by Richards et al. in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin that I finally had the chance to read.

Between 1946 and 1958, the U.S. government conducted 23 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll. You can easily see some of the impact craters using Google Earth the photo at right is a 23 kton test in 1946). The Bikinians were forcibly removed, a story that cannot be told enough.

The Bikinians today live on Majuro Atoll, the capital of now independent Marshall islands. I took this photo of the displaced Bikini Town Hall during a short stay in Majuro a few years back. (It's a a long story; if your only way home involves the only plane of Air Nauru, a bankrupt airline from a rapidly depopulating island nation, you do what the ticket says).

The experience of the Bikinians – or the people of Rongelap, or the Banabans forced to buy an island in Fiji, or the i-Kiribati moved to the Phoenix Islands and back – is a lesson to all those who think it would be “easy” to move communities from islands threatened by climate change. Forced resettlements, whether due to colonial management, World War II, or environmental degradation, have been in many cases disastrous for those leaving their home, those already living in the new home, and the more powerful actors “orchestrating” the migration. But that's an issue for another day. Back to the corals.

A taxonomic study before the nuclear tests found 172 species of hard corals. Richards et al. equated this to 126 species according modern coral taxonomy. The nuclear tests, no surprise, devastated the coral communities. From Richards et al.:

Post-test descriptions of environmental impacts include: surface seawater temperatures raised by 55,000 C after air-borne tests; blast waves with speeds of up to 8 m/s; and shock and surface waves up to 30 m high with blast columns reaching the floor of the lagoon... Coral fragments were reported to have landed on the decks of the target fleet deployed within the lagoon... The most publicized of the Bikini tests, ‘Bravo’... destroyed three islands causing millions of tonnes of sand, coral, plant and sea life from Bikini’s reef to become airborne. The sediment regime in Bikini was fundamentally altered by the nuclear events because millions of tonnes of sediment were pulverized, suspended, transported and then deposited throughout the lagoon by wind-driven lagoonal current patterns.

Five decades later, Richards et al. found 183 species of hard corals living around Bikini (note: the increase from the pre-tests results is likely due to more thorough surveys and better taxonomic knowledge). It is a remarkable recovery considering the complete devastation caused by the nuclear tests. The study concluded that 28 species were lost. Most of those were calm (lagoon) water specialists, whose habitat was most severely and permanently disturbed by the nuclear tests.

The authors find a tragic irony in this tale of recovery:

If the disturbance event were to be repeated in the modern day, recovery would not be expected to be as high, due to the combination of additional stressors associated with climate change (Anthony et al., 2007; Lesser, 2007) and a possibly much altered atoll environment due to an additional 50 years of human occupation. Thus, in a twist of fate, the radioactive contamination of northern Marshall Island Atolls has enabled the recovery of the reefs of Bikini Atoll to take place in the absence of further anthropogenic pressure. Today Bikini Atoll provides a diverse coral reef community and a convincing example of partial resilience of coral biodiversity to non-chronic disturbance events.


Monday, June 09, 2008

Where can we find that $45 trillion?

The International Energy Agency released a report that examines what it will take to reduce GHG emissions by 50% by the year 2050. The message of the media coverage: It'll cost US$45 trillion.

The economists and energy experts can debate the details of their projections. See Romm and Pielke for early reactions (which I don't necessarily endorse). Here, I'll only quote the key passage from the executive summary that led to the "45 trillion" headlines. The bold is mine:

"Additional investment needs in the BLUE Map scenario are USD 45 trillion over the period up to 2050. They cover additional R&D, larger deployment investment in technologies not yet market-competitive (even with CO2 reduction incentives), and commercial investment in low-carbon options (stimulated by CO2 reduction incentives). The total is about USD 1.1 trillion per year. This is roughly equivalent to the current GDP of Italy. It represents an averageof some 1.1% of global GDP each year from now until 2050. This expenditure reflects a re-direction of economic activity and employment, and not necessarily a reduction of GDP. While there will be impacts on global GDP, these are hard to predict and beyond the scope of this analysis."

The last bit seems important, no?


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The personal cost of the gas price increase

Yesterday's decision by GM to cut SUV and truck production will costs thousands of people their jobs.

Let's not for a moment pretend that shifting to a more energy efficient transportation system in North America will benefit every North American, especially in the short-term. Imagine though, for a moment, that this shift had been happening as a result of a proactive government policy to price carbon or increase efficiency standards. The automakers could be working with the government to transition plants for manufacturing newer efficient vehicles and to retrain workers, rather than closing plants and laying off workers.

A price on carbon. Yes we can?


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

More fallout from high gas prices

With all the focus on the US Senate debate Lieberman-Warner climate bill climate legislation (which awaits a presidential veto) and the pledge by the "central" Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec pledge to co-operate on cap-and trade, you might miss this news piece.

From the NY Times:

Responding to a consumer shift to more fuel-efficient vehicles, General Motors said Tuesday that it would stop making pickup trucks and big S.U.V.s at four North American assembly plants and would consider selling its Hummer brand.

Are we continuing to move along the elastic part of the gas tax equation?

(And, on a separate note, are we maybe being a wee bit loose with the definition of "central"? What map is Jean Charest using?)