Uncharted Territory

May 27, 2011

The UK’s RTFO – Electricity Should Count

Filed under: Biofuels, Electricity, Energy, Global warming, Rail, Road, RTFO, Transport — Tim Joslin @ 4:14 pm

The UK’s RTFO (Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation) is the policy dating back to 2007 that enacts an EU Directive requiring member states to ensure that an increasing proportion of transport fuel is renewable. This meant biofuels. I’ve written previously at length about this folly, most recently here. RTFO, folly, policy, maybe we should talk about the “follicy”, the “RTFOlly” or even the “RTFOllicy”!

Anyway, the EU seems to have listened to at least some of the many organisations objecting to their biofuel policy. They’ve come up with not one, but two new Directives which affect national policies on the issue:

  • The Renewable Energy Directive (“the RED”), 2009/28/EC (pdf), is broader in scope than transport. It details the requirements on EU member states to meet the 2020 goal of 20% renewable energy in the EU as a whole. Whilst this is broken down into different targets for different countries (for example the UK has to get to 15%), the Directive reaffirms a uniform 10% renewable target for transport fuels. It includes a lot more detail on how this can be done, though, including sustainability requirements of various kinds.
  • A new Fuel Quality Directive (“the FQD”), 2009/30/EC (pdf) which amends an earlier FQD by introducing an Article 7 (actually I now see there’s a bit more complexity than that – you can’t take anything on trust, can you?), which introduces two extra requirements:
    • to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in transport fuel by 6% by 2020;
    • for transport biofuels to meet certain sustainability criteria.  Apparently these are to all intents and purposes the same as those included in the RED, so perhaps the FQD is a Directive too far and the RED should have just covered everything.

Accordingly the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) has initiated not one, but two reviews (hey, we can create a legislative mess just as well as they can in Brussels!), with consultations on both open until next Thursday (2nd June):

  • The RED Public Consultation, which considers amendments to the RTFO, to meet the new Directive including biofuel sustainability criteria.
  • The FQD Public Consultation, which only covers the requirement to reduce by 6% by 2020 the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of transport fuel or energy.

One of the problems with biofuel policy in the EU – apart the very existence of quotas and subsidies in the first place – is that it has become hideously complex.  There are no doubt many little devils in the detail.  But all I’m going to cover in this post is one aspect of the RED.

It seems that the EU has actually done something sensible.  They’ve introduced a clause to ensure that the 10% renewable energy in transport target is technologically neutral.  That is, they’ve back-tracked on trying to second-guess what kind of non fossil-fuel powered cars many of us will be driving by 2030 or so.  Yeap, they’ve only gone and allowed renewable electricity (and hydrogen for that matter) to count towards the 10% target.

Here’s what they say in paragraph 4 of article 3 of the RED:

“4. Each Member State shall ensure that the share of energy from renewable sources in all forms of transport in 2020 is at least 10% of the final consumption of energy in transport in that Member State. For the purposes of this paragraph, the following provisions shall apply:

(a) for the calculation of the denominator, that is the total amount of energy consumed in transport for the purposes of the first subparagraph, only petrol, diesel, biofuels consumed in road and rail transport, and electricity shall be taken into account;

(b) for the calculation of the numerator, that is the amount of energy from renewable sources consumed in transport for the purposes of the first subparagraph, all types of energy from renewable sources consumed in all forms of transport shall be taken into account;

(c) for the calculation of the contribution from electricity produced from renewable sources and consumed in all types of electric vehicles for the purpose of points (a) and (b), Member States may choose to use either the average share of electricity from renewable energy sources in the Community or the share of electricity from renewable energy sources in their own country as measured two years before the year in question. Furthermore, for the calculation of the electricity from renewable energy sources consumed by electric road vehicles, that consumption shall be considered to be 2,5 times the energy content of the input of electricity from renewable energy sources.

By 31 December 2011, the Commission shall present, if appropriate, a proposal permitting, subject to certain conditions, the whole amount of the electricity originating from renewable sources used to power all types of electric vehicles to be considered.

By 31 December 2011, the Commission shall also present, if appropriate, a proposal for a methodology for calculating the contribution of hydrogen originating from renewable sources in the total fuel mix.”

I’m afraid I can’t be held liable for any migraines induced by clauses a) and b). I suggest we come back to those when we’re feeling at our best.

It’s clause c) that’s interesting. But when we look at the DfT’s RED Consultation document (pdf) this is what they say (on p.39-40):

“11.6.1. Allowing all renewable fuels to receive RTFCs

We propose to remove the specific list of renewable fuels which may count towards a supplier’s obligation to supply renewable transport fuel in article 5(3) of the RTFO Order. Instead the Order will allow the renewable part of any transport fuel to be eligible for an appropriate number of RTFCs.

We believe our proposal will reduce the burden on industry by enabling any newly developed fuels to automatically count towards the RTFO.

The RED permits all forms of renewable energy to be used to count towards the 10% transport target. While the Directive does allow for the use of renewable hydrogen to meet this target, there is not currently a methodology in place for calculating the contribution of hydrogen from renewable sources. However, the Directive does require the European Commission to come forward with a proposal for such a method by 31st December 2011. We do not propose any amendment to the RTFO to allow renewable hydrogen to be eligible for RTFCs at this time but we will keep this issue under review.

Similarly, we do not propose to allow renewably generated electricity for transport to be eligible for RTFCs at this time. Again, we will keep this issue under review.” [my stress]

This is a bit odd, since the EU clearly said in article 3, paragraph 4, clause a) that in calculating the total energy used in transport:

“…only petrol, diesel, biofuels consumed in road and rail transport, and electricity shall be taken into account.”

which is a tad imprecise (presumably the “only” is present because they assume member states will want to minimise this figure), but I think can be taken to mean:

“…all petrol, diesel, biofuels and electricity consumed in road and rail transport, and no other fuel, shall be taken into account.”

and in clause b) more clearly that:

“…all types of energy from renewable sources consumed in all forms of transport shall be taken into account.”

The DfT’s RED Consultation document, then, provides no evidence that we know what the RTFO target should actually be, because electricity used to power transport has not been taken into account.

Furthermore, the argument for electricity is not “similar” to that for hydrogen, as the RED Consultation dismissively states in section 11.6.1 (above).  Unlike for hydrogen, the RED does supply a “methodology… for calculating the contribution [of electricity] from renewable sources”. In fact, it supplies two methodologies!  Pending a proposal for more accurate calculation (due by the end of 2011), the UK could elect to use either the proportion of renewable energy in the EU as a whole or in the UK (RED Article 3, paragraph 4, already quoted above).

Not including electricity makes the 2020 target more difficult to meet, because, both in the EU as a whole and in the UK, the proportion of renewable energy in electricity will be much greater than the 10% RED transport fuel target. Indeed the target under the UK’s Renewables Obligation scheme for the proportion of electricity from renewable sources by 2015 is 15% (keep on these numeric alliterations – must be a word for that – aren’t they?).

And it’s not as if the proportion of transport powered by electricity is trivial, since it already includes the majority of rail, including the London Underground a few trams and the odd remaining milk float!  That’s before we take account of the Climate Change Committee’s targets for electric vehicle uptake!

Why the omission? One possibility is that we don’t care, because we’re quite happy to promote biofuels to an even greater extent more than mandated by the EU.

But this hardly seems likely. Remember I said we’d have to come back to the EU’s clauses a) and b)? Well, I’ve steeled myself with a strong cup of coffee and am ready to tackle it. What these clauses say is that you can count renewable fuel used off-road (in farm vehicles and pleasure-boats etc – the DfT even have an abbreviation, NRMM, “non-road mobile machinery” for this set of vehicle categories) towards the target proportion of renewable road and rail fuel! Completely bonkers, of course. No doubt there’s a reason, some fix they got themselves into trying to implement the policy. Let’s not dwell on that.

The point is that the DfT proposes to scale back its RTFO targets to take account of the inconsistency between clauses a) and b). They lay out policy options (section 11.5, p.28ff) and note (on p.31) that:

Given our concerns regarding the sustainability of biofuel, at this stage we do not wish to see any additional increases in the volume of biofuel supplied in the UK above those already set out in the current RTFO [which did not take NRMM fuel into account]. We therefore propose to pursue Option B [to scale back the annual RTFO targets – which is actually done retrospectively (scaling back targets retrospectively? – we’re definitely not in Kansas any more!) in Table 3 on p.32].” (my stress as usual, as well as comments in square brackets)

A second possibility is that maybe the DfT hasn’t realised the significance of the inclusion of electricity. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Because there’s another curious passage in the RED Consultation document. On p.50 we find:

“11.7.2. Preventing the use under the RTFO of renewable fuel that has already been used under another obligation

As discussed earlier, the RED has two targets for the supply of renewable fuel. In order to ensure that renewable fuel is not counted twice towards the different targets, we propose to require that suppliers submit a declaration stating that the renewable transport fuel for which they are claiming an RTFC has not been used to discharge any other renewable energy obligation (for example the Renewables Obligation).” (my stress)

But the Renewables Obligation relates specifically to electricity generation!

The DfT’s FQD Consultation document (pdf) adds even more confusion:

  • On p.6, in section 6, “Who should read this consultation?” it includes “a provider of electricity for use in transport”, a category not included in the corresponding section of the RED Consultation document.
  • On p.10 in section 7, “Overview of the FQD” they note very clearly that:

“Furthermore, Article 7a(1) requires Member States to ensure that providers of electricity for use in road vehicles can choose to contribute to the GHG reduction obligation if they can demonstrate that the electricity they provided was used in electric vehicles.” (my stress)

  • On p.14, in section 10, they note that they will:

Establish rules for grouping and the participation of electricity providers for electric vehicles;

  • And they discuss the issue on p.34, in section 11.12, “Electricity for use in road vehicles”:
  • “The FQD requires Member States to ensure that providers of electricity for use in road vehicles can choose to contribute to the GHG emission reduction obligation if they can demonstrate that the electricity they provided was used in road vehicles.We propose to designate electricity providers as being those entities that sell electricity for public consumption. In order for an electricity provider to contribute to the GHG reduction obligation we would require them to supply adequate proof that the electricity they provided was used in road vehicles.

    The European Commission is in the process of considering how to account for the GHG emissions associated with electricity. Initial proposals from the Commission have suggested that Member States would be able to choose between assigning the GHG intensity of electricity used in electric vehicles as being equal to either the Member State average, or the EU-wide average for electricity generally.”

    A strange reading of the RED, which to me is not an “initial proposal”, but an “interim measure”, allowing progress towards the 2020 target to be tracked – more thorough accounting would make the target easier to achieve.

Why, then, has the DfT (or at least the RED Consultation team) ignored the opportunity to meet the RED transport fuel obligation by – at least in part – using renewable electricity? My guess is that there are two main reasons:

  • They’ve baulked at the sheer complexity.  For example, different numbers of Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) are awarded for a unit of energy depending on the technology used to generate the electricity.  Converting them into Renewable Transport Fuel Certificates (RTFCs) would require either knowledge of the energy source or assuming that they are representative of the mix.
  • Vested interests now exist in the biofuel supply market.  Perhaps, although the DfT is now concerned about the sustainability of biofuels, they feel politically unable to reduce the total amount of biofuel in the UK’s quota below that previously assumed (even though, to meet the original quotas more biofuel would have had to be supplied because some would “leak” into the NRMM market and be unable to receive RTFCs).

It seems to me that these problems – assuming my guesses are correct – can be overcome.  A rule (such as an average weighting for all renewable sources on the network) for converting ROCs to RTFCs is perfectly feasible.  And even this is not absolutely necessary, since – to point out once again something the DfT seems to have misunderstood – the EU has allowed assumptions about the proportion of renewable electricity supplied to the transport sector to be made.

If renewable electricity suppliers are denied the opportunity to benefit from the RTFO they have a clear case for complaint. The whole point of the latest EU Directives is surely to ensure that the latest EU thinking – including technological neutrality and effectively a lower biofuel target for 2020, as well as measures to ensure biofuel sustainability – is included in the rules for schemes operated by the member states.

It does not appear that the UK’s RTFO scheme will be compliant with the EU’s RED following the current review.


November 3, 2010

Biofuel Payback Periods Revisited

Filed under: Biofuels, Energy policy, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 6:59 pm

Deepak Rughani from Biofuelwatch was the star of a Campaign Against Climate Change conference last Saturday on the theme Zero Carbon by 2030.  Deepak emphasised the importance of preserving ecosystems for the many services they provide, and not just engaging in carbon bean-counting.  His talk is well worth hearing if you get the chance.

Unusually, the conference was not a totally whole-hearted group hug.  Deepak disagreed with the latest Zero Carbon Britain (ZCB) report which proposes the use of willow and miscanthus as biomass crops in the UK.  If I recollect correctly, he noted that such crops require the full commercialisation of cellulosic ethanol production technology – currently only at the pilot stage – and that willow stands store only maybe 25% of the carbon of natural woodland (miscanthus less) at the expense of biodiversity.  He didn’t mention that willow is notoriously thirsty.  I would also go on to point out that the land for such crops is only made available, in the ZCB plan, by a drastic reduction in meat consumption.  It’s unclear to me how the ZCB team propose to bring about such a change in eating habits.  My main criticism of the ZCB 2030 report, though, is that it still underemphasises the benefits of internationalising the problem.  It makes some comments on a European and North African Supergrid, and bangs on about different peak loads in the UK and Norway, but still relies on domestic electricity production, rather than considering the potential and cost-effectiveness of solar thermal electricity in North Africa.

But what stuck in my notebook from Deepak’s talk was a point he made about biofuel from Indonesian palm oil.  A peer-reviewed paper, he said, had determined that clearing the land to grow the oil palms would incur a “carbon debt” that would take up to 840 years to pay off.  My ears pricked up.  This sounded very like the “pay-back period” concept I came up with in 2007, and documented in three papers.

I’ve now tracked down the paper Deepak was referring to, despite my notes referring to someone called “Fagione”.  The paper is actually Fargione et al, from Science vol 319, no. 5867, 29 February 2008, p.1235, and it’s titled “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt”.  You can download it yourself for free if you register with Science.  Curiously, the last page of Fargione et al included the start of another article by Searchinger et al on the same topic, entitled “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change” so I downloaded that, too.

Fargione et al indeed estimates how long it would take for avoided fossil-fuel emissions (due to the use of biofuels instead) would take to compensate for the emissions from clearing land for biofuel feedstock production, in a variety of scenarios.  Searchinger et al instead amortise the land-clearance emissions over 30 years in order to compare carbon emissions from biofuel with those from gasoline.

I’ve pored over these two artefacts and I’m afraid I have to report that the scientific community has made a smidgeon of progress, but isn’t quite there yet.  I’ve had the benefit of an education at a prestigious university and I have to say if I’d handed in work like these two papers I would have expected a “good effort but must try harder”, B-.  Very disappointing after I put the answers in the public domain in The Biofuel Papers.

The bottom-line is that the scientists massively understate the case against biofuels.  There are a number of points in my critique, so I’m even going to number them:

0. Meta-critique: the Perils of Peer-Review

I’m going to save this one for a separate post.  Nevertheless, I can’t help noting, passim, a familiar twinge of irritation.  It would be so helpful to know who the reviewers of these papers were, and especially what points they raised.  I am forced to guess that much time and effort was spent checking the methodology used to produce the numerical data; less, or at least not enough, on the overall line of reasoning; and little on the comments and discussion which are actually the most interesting part.  The effort is especially misspent in this case as accuracy is not important.  Ballpark is fine for showing that biofuels will not help us stave off dangerous climate change.  We’re not trying to disprove the general theory of relativity, here.

1. An Invalid Implicit Assumption: the Displacement Fallacy

Both papers rest on the assumption that producing biofuels – say for use in road vehicles – will somehow “displace” the use of fossil fuels.  This will not be the case.  I laid out the argument quite some time ago in a short paper entitled The Displacement Fallacy (pdf).

I find it quite astonishing that neither the authors nor, presumably, the reviewers of papers in a prestigious scientific journal even consider the validity of such an assumption (or perhaps even its existence), especially as the paper goes on to imagine biofuels being produced for centuries.  The implication would be that we’re continually “displacing” the same fossil-fuel from being burnt!

As I argued in The Biofuel Papers, when trying to justify the use of biofuels, it might make sense to use a simplifying assumption, for example that half the time you’re displacing fossil fuel use, and half the time you’re not (very generous to biofuels, in my opinion, especially over a long time period).  This would, for example, double Fargione et al’s pay-back period for palm oil on converted peatland to 1680 years.  That for sugarcane ethanol would be 34 years rather than 17 and corn ethanol on abandoned cropland would be 96 years rather than 48.

2. Completing the Argument (i): the Importance of the Timing of Emissions

The basic argument in both papers is that clearing land to produce biofuels releases carbon which takes many years to offset by displacing fossil-fuel emissions through the production of biofuels.  But this isn’t the whole story, as Fargione et al notes:

“…biofuel production can displace crops or pasture from current agricultural lands, indirectly causing GHG release via conversion of native habitat to cropland elsewhere”.

So maybe we should be looking at the problem in the round.  Perhaps we should simply be making an assumption about whether or not we need to clear land to produce biofuel feedstock.  Again, 50% seems a good figure to choose, since we can imagine that half the time the total cultivated area is increasing and half the time it is shrinking.

But how do we deal with this general case?

The answer is that what we’re really concerned about is how long extra CO2 emissions remain in the atmosphere, because all that time they’re capturing extra heat.  The amount captured per tonne of CO2 depends on the atmospheric CO2 concentration at any given time, but that’s an unknown, so let’s simply assume we’re concerned about extra tonne-years of CO2.

For example, in the case of palm oil grown on converted peatland, it takes 1680 years to offset the emissions from the initial land conversion, that is, to reverse the initial increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration.  But it’ll take another 1680 years to compensate for the time the initial release of CO2 spent in the atmosphere.  So paying back our initial carbon debt will actually take 3360 years!

But in the general case, we “only” have to add 50% to our payback periods, because on average the biofuel will only result in land clearance 50% of the time.  The payback period for sugarcane ethanol becomes 51 years (34 *1.5) and that for corn ethanol on abandoned cropland is 144 years (96 * 1.5).

3. Completing the Argument (ii): the Importance of Foregone Carbon Sequestration

But this doesn’t sound quite right, does it?  Surely, if the land doesn’t have to be cleared we wouldn’t have a carbon debt to repay.  Surely we can’t allow for extra tonne-years of atmospheric CO2 removal to compensate for initial land clearance and a probability of the land not having needed to be cleared?

Actually, yes we can.  Because the cost of the carbon emissions from the potential ecosystem on a given area of land are incurred regardless of whether you physically clear it before starting biofuel production.  Both papers recognise this, but have not taken it into account in their calculations.  Fargione et al write:

“…if land cleared for biofuel production had been accruing carbon (we assumed lands were at steady state), the debt would be increased by the loss of this future storage”.

Well, OK, but eventually the land would reach a maximum carbon carrying capacity.  Hence, as I just said, our starting point needs to be the amount of carbon in the potential ecosystem on a given area of land (actually the carbon in the ecosystem potentially cleared as a result of cropping the biofuels, which worsens the case e.g. where soya bean production is displaced from cerrado into rainforest, but for simplicity’s sake I’m going to ignore this wrinkle).

Searchinger et al give the matter considerably more thought:

“Even if excess croplands in the United States or Europe became available because of dramatic yield improvements beyond existing trends or the release of agricultural reserve lands, biofuels would still not avoid emissions from land-use change. Truly excess croplands would revert either to forest or grassland and sequester carbon. Use of those lands instead for biofuels sacrifices this carbon benefit, which could exceed the carbon saved by using the same land for biofuels. In addition, even as cropland declined in Europe in recent years, changing technology and economics led cropland to expand into forest and grassland in Latin America. Higher prices triggered by biofuels will accelerate forest and grassland conversion there even if surplus croplands exist elsewhere. Most problematically, even with large increases in yields, cropland must probably consume hundreds of millions more ha of grassland and forest to feed a rising world population and meat consumption, and biofuels will only add to the demand for land.” [my emphasis]

4. The Correct Line of Reasoning

This is laid out more fully in my essay Biofuels Are Not the Answer (pdf) and my systematic treatment Biofuel Payback Periods (pdf).  But to summarise using the examples from Fargione et al:

Principle: Compare growing biofuels with not growing biofuels – an alternative policy of letting the land revert to its natural state.

Step 1: How much carbon would the land store if we didn’t grow biofuels?

E.g. In Indonesia the peat bog would store around 6000 tonnes CO2/ha according to Fargione et al (this figure is in the text rather than the table, which uses a lower figure based on only 50% of the emissions from land clearance occurring immediately, but as Fargione et al note, they should in fact all be included), the cerrado 165 tonnes and the abandoned cropland 69.  But in the last case the land is still taking up carbon so we have to take a figure for natural grassland, which is considered in the paper (which is thereby simplified) of 134 tonnes/ha.

Step 2: How many years biofuel production would save the same amount of carbon if it replaced gasoline?

These are the figures given by Fargione et al of 840 years (in the text) for the palm oil on peatland; 17 years for sugarcane on cleared cerrado; and 93 years for corn ethanol on the Great Plains (potential grassland).  The data must be based on complete life-cycle emissions of both the biofuel and the fossil fuel.

Step 3: Allow for only 50% success in replacing gasoline (generous, especially for the centuries required to justify cultivating peatland).

Doubling our figures gives 1680 years for the palm oil on peatland; 34 years for sugarcane on cleared cerrado; and 139.5 call it 140 years for corn ethanol on potential grassland.

Step 4: Allow for the timing of land clearance at the start of the cultivation, probability 50%.

Adding 50% to our figures gives payback periods of 2520 years for palm oil on peatland (note even the deferred emissions are rapid compared to this timescale); 51 years for sugarcane on cleared cerrado; and 210 years for corn ethanol on potential grassland.

5. What does this analysis mean?

We need to be a little bit clearer about our conclusions.

We’re going to be worse off in terms of the heat captured by the atmosphere – global warming – for the periods given if we produce biofuels than we would be if we didn’t, if we simply left the land alone.  I repeat, the planet will be hotter, more ice will melt, if we do grow biofuels than it would be if we don’t.  And that’s before we consider any other benefits of the natural ecosystems replaced by biofuel monocultures, such as biodiversity, water retention and purification and so on.

And we may never reap the benefits for the simple reason that the biofuel production may not be sustainable.  Soils may become too depleted to maintain yields and global warming may kick in.  Climate change combined with cultivation rather than maintenance of a resilient ecosystem may result in desert replacing the biofuel crops long before the end of the payback period has been reached.

July 5, 2010

Tantric Biofuel “Science”

Filed under: Biofuels, Complex decisions, Energy policy, Global warming, Reflections, Science — Tim Joslin @ 7:18 pm

The advocacy group, if it’s permissible to use the latest imported American argot to refer to a campaign against a policy programme, Food Not Fuel, have kindly emailed me a link to a Reuters Special Report, reporting that the EU may at last be having doubts about its biofuel policy.

The Special Report is so unnecessarily long-winded that it could in itself make a significant contribution to Europe meeting its renewable energy targets.  Here’s the main substantive point:

“The basic assumption with biofuels is that plants absorb as much carbon dioxide while growing as they release when burned in an engine. If you use them as a fuel, their net impact on the climate is close to zero, except for emissions from farming machinery and fertilizers. [Actually these can be very significant, but that’s not the main problem].

But this doesn’t take into account a relatively new concept that scientists drily call ‘indirect land use change’. Put simply, if you take a field planted with grain and switch that crop to something that can be used to make a biofuel, then somebody will go hungry unless the missing grain is grown elsewhere or farming yields are massively improved.

The rush to biofuels means the quantities of land needed are huge. Satisfying the EU’s demand alone will require an additional 4.5 million hectares of land by 2020, according to Reuters calculations based on an average of 15 of the studies for the Commission. That’s an area roughly equal to Denmark.

Burning forests to clear that land — which in theory could be found anywhere around the globe — would pump vast quantities of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere, enough to cancel out many of the theoretical benefits the biofuels are supposed to bring in the first place. EU sources say an upcoming report will point to a one-off release of around 200 million metric tons of carbon due to land-use change from biofuels, paid back slowly as the fuels do their job over the following centuries. That one-off release is roughly the annual fossil fuel emissions of Germany.”   [My emphasis].

Well, exactamundo.

This is rather as I pointed out as long ago as 2007 when I started calculating carbon emission payback periods for biofuels in my essay Biofuels Are Not the Answer.

Clearly the establishment is rather slow on the uptake.

But it’s not just that the study of this and other supposedly complex scientific questions is tantric.  There’s a more fundamental problem.

Maybe it’s all an elaborate job creation scheme, but it is simply not necessary to produce “116 studies, data files and emails, amounting to thousands of pages” (and that’s just the stuff we know about) and have “a charged [email] discussion between those in the frontline of biofuels research on whether indirect land use change was already taking place before 2007”, as Reuters reports.

Indirect land use change (ILUC), as it’s now being called, is not science in the sense that you can measure it in the complex real world.  I know this may be an alien concept to policy-makers, but ILUC is a logical argument.  If you devote significant amounts of land to the production of biofuels, something has to give.  Either there will be less land available for food production than would otherwise be the case, or we will encroach further on the world’s remaining natural ecosystems and forested land than would otherwise be the case.

Reuters note that:

“…agriculture officials, backed by colleagues in the energy unit, have painted the new science as unrefined. ‘Trying to establish the amount of indirect land use change caused by EU biofuels production is simply ridiculous,’ wrote one, whose name was blacked out in the released documents.”

Obviously the officials, who I assume are biofuel proponents, have a point.  But the science is unrefined, not because it’s primitive, as they perhaps imply, but because it is inappropriate to try to refine it.  ILUC is not something that can easily be measured or predicted.  There’s too much going on.  Land productivity varies with technological change and the vagaries of our increasingly unstable climate.  Many factors affect consumption of agricultural products. These uncertainties must be addressed by the disclaimer “all else remaining equal” – they will happen whether we devote land to biofuel production or not.

At some point we need to listen to the common-sense argument.  Reuters end by reporting that:

“…the likelihood of a policy shift in Brussels has grown. After 20 years in German politics, Guenther Oettinger [Europe’s new Energy Commissioner] is the kind of man who loathes controversy and policy dysfunction. Many of the architects of the biofuels policy were replaced in an overhaul in January.

‘We promote only sustainable biofuels and take the phenomenon of indirect land use very seriously,’ he said in a written response to Reuters. ‘This is why we have launched several studies on this. If it is confirmed that indeed that there is a serious problem related to indirect land use, we may adapt our legislation.’ “

Guenther, you can commission as many studies as you want, the scientists are not going to be able to give you a bottom-line number on this one.  Eventually you’re going to have to make the call.

November 4, 2009

Some Contrarian Climate Change Ideas

I had a day (well afternoon and evening) out of the home-office yesterday. I took the train to Cambridge and caught the first hour or so of a Cambridge Energy Forum on UK buildings before heading to the Guildhall for a well-attended public meeting on “what Copenhagen means for you”.

Maybe I’m an unreconstructed contrarian, but I find myself disagreeing with much of what I’m being told on the topic of global warming. Here are my latest musings.

What’s the target?

The Guildhall meeting started with a very competent whirlwind summary of the science of climate change by Emily Schuckburgh of the British Antarctic Survey. In particular she showed a rather longer graph than I’d seen before of historic temperatures and CO2 concentrations derived from ice-core analysis: around 800,000 years worth. During all this time the level of atmospheric CO2 had varied only between 180 and 280ppm, in close correlation with the temperature.

Furthermore, when temperatures have briefly spiked up during inter-glacials they have reached levels somewhat higher than at present (or in the entirety of recorded human history for that matter). Schuckburgh suggested temperatures may have been 4C higher than her baseline (presumably the pre-industrial average temperature, 0.8C lower than at present) for brief periods (and -8C lower during ice ages). Scary stuff.

Why then, do we think we’ll manage to keep temperatures within 2C of pre-industrial levels – and they’ve already risen 0.8C – at the sort of CO2 concentrations implied by the discussions at Copenhagen? We’re at around 390ppm right now and it doesn’t look like the proposed policies have much chance of keeping us below, at best, 450ppm.

And on top of that, CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas. Some have only just been invented! If we can’t get all the methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O) down to natural levels and the anthropogenic alphabet soup of CFCs, HFCs and so on down to negligible levels, then we’ll be even warmer.

Here’s my contrarian position (1): we need to get CO2 levels back down to the natural range of 180-280ppm. Presumably we’d aim for 280ppm, since 180 implies an ice age!

At present the strongest mainstream positionsupported by reputable scientists and prompted by James Hansen’s landmark paper – is that we should aim for 350ppm.

The theory – perhaps I should say hope – is that we can “stabilise” levels at 350ppm and a 2C temperature rise. This is wishful thinking poppycock. In fact, the climate system is not a stable one. In particular, it will not be stable at 350ppm and a 2C temperature increase. It will have a tendency to warm further, for example, as ice melts, darkening the planet’s surface; as CO2 levels rise further as forests burn in the occasional much hotter summers we’d experience; as wetlands dry out and release their carbon too; and as the ocean circulation gradually slows due to the reduced temperature differential between the poles and the equator, removing less and less carbon from the atmosphere as time goes on.

We’ve opened Pandora’s box – we have to put all the demons back in, not just some of them.

Will the Gulf Stream slow and keep Britain cool?

This was meant to be a post about policy, but I’ll get the other science point out of the way, since this old chestnut came up in the Q&A at the Guildhall.

The point is that the Gulf Stream (as the North Atlantic branch of the ocean’s circulation is popularly known) can be disrupted by lots of fresh water flowing into the North Atlantic. Such water floats (because it’s fresh which makes it lighter, even though it’s cold which tends to make it heavier) and would prevent the circulation whereby (salty) cold water sinks as it approaches the pole, drawing more warm surface water up from equatorial regions, keeping Northern Europe, including the UK, a lot warmer than other regions at such a high latitude.

As the world emerged from the last ice age (and previous ones), it seems vast quantities of meltwater from the North American ice-sheet poured into the North Atlantic as ice-dams gave way. This disrupted the oceanic circulation and caused warming to reverse for a while, at least in the North Atlantic region.

It’s possible that meltwater from Greenland could have a similar effect to that from Canada, but unless someone’s asleep on the job, this isn’t imminent, since we’d see the water pooling in Greenland.

So, what will happen to the Gulf Stream in the absence of disruption from a sudden flood of meltwaters?

Here’s my contrarian position (2): the ocean circulation will strengthen in the short-term (which, depending largely on future greenhouse gas emissions, is likely to be a century or two), then gradually weaken as the ice-caps disappear. There’s no get out of jail free card for the UK, certainly not in our life-times.

The point is that the circulation is ultimately driven by the temperature difference between polar and equatorial regions.

More heat is captured by the atmosphere in the tropics than at the poles, that’s why you have a circulation in the first place. With the presence of greenhouse gases, even more heat is captured in equatorial regions and tends to be transported poleward either in the oceans or the atmosphere. More warm water stays near the surface until it cools as it approaches the poles. The result is a stronger circulation.

The presence of ice (Antarctica, Greenland, permafrost) keeps the polar regions from warming. Until this ice melts, more heat will be transported poleward. Indeed, the heat uptake by ice melt that drives the circulation.

Of course, the heat transport itself progressively melts the ice. When it’s eventually all gone, temperatures will tend to equalise between the poles and the equator, weakening the circulation. We’re not there yet, though.

I should remind readers that the ocean circulation is one of the major ways in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere.
[5/11/09 Afterthought: Oops, this throwaway comment could be a bit misleading. In fact, the ocean circulation returns CO2 to the atmosphere, so, if the circulation increases in strength, as I’m suggesting it will over the next century or two, the net effect will be for the ocean to take up less CO2 (net, the oceans are currently absorbing CO2 because the ocean and atmosphere are out of equilibrium because of the “extra” anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere). This mechanism represents a positive feedback during deglaciation warming phases, and, if my hypothesis is correct, during the current phase of global warming. When the ocean circulation is interrupted, then there is a positive cooling feedback as the ocean releases less CO2 due to the reduced circulation, taking up more net. This could explain the persistence of cooling phases during deglaciations (warming periods after ice ages), such as the 1000 year long Younger Dryas event.].

Therefore, as I said in my first heresy, we’d better get temperatures and CO2 levels back down before the ocean circulation strengthens too much. [5/11/09: Amended this sentence, see previous note in square brackets].

Burning wood is not a good idea

Everyone loves Julian Alwood! (He taught on my MBA programme). He told an amusing anecdote yesterday about how some well-meaning foreigners had tried to introduce a more efficient stove in Malawi. The problem was Malawians bash the meat while its cooking, apparently, and the new stoves didn’t last very long.

But the main point is that the big problem in Africa is burning wood. It releases carbon (and, almost as important, retains moisture). “Reducing deforestation” (George Orwell would have loved the double negative!) was mentioned by Chris Hope, among others, yesterday as the cheapest way to avoid deforestation. What’s really needed in Africa is a robust solar stove design, but more about that another time.

So why then was a picture shown at the Cambridge Energy Forum of a supposedly virtuous Briton carrying some logs to put on his fire?

I’ve harped on about the biofuel topic on this blog previously and will no doubt do so again (see the Biofuel category in the box on the right), but here’s my contrarian position (3): Everyone should avoid the use of all forms of biomass as fuel.

Here’s something you may have missed. A radio programme a day or two ago was discussing a satellite that has just been launched to detect moisture levels from space. The point was made that if forecasters had realised that European soil moisture levels were so low in 2003 they would have been able to forecast that year’s heatwave much more accurately.

Interesting factoid. I don’t know about you, but it suggests to me that one way we could adapt to global warming here in Europe is to increase soil moisture levels. How do we do that? More trees (including decaying ones), less arable farming, that’s how. And how do we achieve that change? We ban agrofuels (the right-on term for biofuels) and discourage biomass burning. Simple isn’t it, when you think things through?

Trying to reduce UK (or other comparable country’s) energy consumption is a waste of time, effort and money

I have to say I was stunned by the facts and figures thrown at me by the Cambridge Energy Forum (and in Michael Kelly’s talk on a similar topic in the Guildhall). I think they’ll put up a report of the meeting and slides on their site, in due course, so I won’t try to cover everything that was said.

Let it suffice for me to report that improving the energy efficiency of the UK’s housing stock turns out to be a Sisyphean task. (And even if we succeeded, energy consumption would tend to rebound as we spent the money saved! I won’t go into all this again – my most recent post on the topic is here). After you’ve insulated the loft and put in the low-energy lightbulbs – and anyone who doesn’t take the simple steps is an idiot – it starts to get really expensive.

And you can’t wait for new low-energy houses to be built to replace the existing housing stock because that would take 20,000 years. Or something.

The UK will not reduce its energy consumption by 50%. It won’t happen. The effort is futile. It’s a dead parrot of a policy.

The reason is economics. Importing solar-generated electricity can be achieved at a fraction of the cost per kWh. Promoting that sort of scheme is what everyone should be putting their effort into. And the Desertec plan was only mentioned once, en passant, in the Guildhall.

And then there are the economic reasons. People want to be richer, not poorer. They don’t want to be turning their thermostats down. And what’s more, people are tending to get richer over time – despite a raft of policies promoted by governments round the world designed by a secret global committee with the objective of halting this process – ultimately because technological (and learning) advances mean productivity tends to steadily increase (especially when regular economic recessions purge the least efficient).

The fact that more people are getting richer all the time suggests that policies based on changing people’s behaviour through taxation have had their day. We need to think again about behavioural taxes on everything from alcohol to carbon.

The main advantage (probably the only one, at least in this contrarian’s view) of a carbon tax (championed by the even more lovable Chris Hope last night), or any other way of pricing carbon, is that it makes dirty energy more expensive than clean energy, encouraging companies to invest in renewable energy production. This presupposes, though, that the main reason companies aren’t investing in renewable energy projects is price. And when I read in New Scientist magazine on the train home that “over 5 gigawatts of [UK] wind power are currently stalled by aviators’ objections” to possible radar interference alone, I really wonder whether price rather than the planning system really is the problem.

Nevertheless, internalising the carbon cost must be part of the solution. The problem with introducing a UK tax on carbon is that it will use up an enormous amount of political capital. To be effective there would have to be a huge shift to carbon taxes. And I can see the headlines already. “Driving is just for the rich in Cameron’s Britain”! Not going to happen, is it?

People certainly don’t like being morally preached at (as Chris Hope pointed out), but they like being taxed, and changes to how they’re taxed, even less.

The problem with a tax on carbon in general is that it sets no limit on emissions – so, since a tax simply redistributes spending power, could turn out to be ineffective.

A lot of intellectual effort seems to be going into working out what is the “right” price for carbon. The Kyoto idea of carbon trading may have had a lot of problems, but the principle of letting the market determine the carbon price (by squeezing supply) was the right one.

So what’s my contrarian position? OK (4): Right now energy policy should focus entirely on removing all obstacles to the development and roll-out of renewable forms of energy. Let’s see how far that gets us.

Guilt is not an appropriate emotion for dealing with this problem

Chris Hope was the only one last night who explicitly mentioned that the West caused the problem and should pay to fix it.

Well, I’m sure that “from each according to their abilities”, despite its connotations, might be a principle that could reasonably be applied in the context of international climate change negotiations. But what appears to be happening in the Copenhagen negotiations (I was hoping to find out more last night) is that the aid agenda has taken over the global warming agenda.

For starters, I don’t see a lot of evidence of binding emission targets being linked to these large transfers of money. But for the main course, we’ve brought some more presuppositions with us. There are serious doubts that aid is what’s needed to promote development. Yeap, for decades we’ve been following a seriously flawed policy. For example, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, that “Africa must attract broad investment, not rely on handouts, if we are to sustain development”.

What’s needed is trade, not just aid.

Aah, you say, the Copenhagen largesse is investment. Well, maybe some of it will be spent wisely. But there is plenty of money in the world – too much in fact (that’s what caused the credit crisis) – looking for investment opportunities. Why do we need billions more?

A cynic, and I am one, so I’ll carry on, might even conclude that the $100bn or whatever comes out of the wash in Copenhagen, is in fact a further Keynesian stimulus for sluggish western economies. Think about it. Many of those pounds, dollars and euros are going to be spent on – to hazard a guess, as the details are not very clear – engineering projects that will be carried out by western companies. And I would have thought Gordon Brown (who’s driving this handout) is savvy enough to know this. Watch shares in Aggreko and Balfour Beatty when this deal is done!

And what happens when the money runs out? When we eventually decide we don’t need to pay developing countries for a climate deal, or decide that they’re not keeping their side of the bargain (whatever that is)? The money will be like aid, creating dependency.

On the other hand, and let’s call this my final contrarian position (5): paying for ecosystem services – and here’s some good news that could come out of Copenhagen – and/or energy, such as desert solar, will (if executed properly) provide countries with sustainable income streams which will support their further development.

December 8, 2008

Biofuel Payback Periods – Update

Filed under: Biofuels, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 5:34 pm

Even though the BBC report, “Palm oil offers no green solution”, was clearly written by a computer programmed without regard to punctuation or sentence structure, it appears that at least some researchers have started to realise that:

(1)  The critical resource when considering the wisdom – or lack of it – of promoting biofuels is the land required for growing the biofuel crop.

Land stores a lot more carbon if left uncultivated (e.g. as forest) than it does if it is cultivated (e.g. used to grow biofuel crops).  Clearing land for cultivation may therefore be said to incur a “carbon debt”.

(2)  The critical concept in evaluating the value of biofuel crops in slowing global warming (or, more likely, making the problem worse) is the payback period for the carbon debt.

The crucial question is:

“For how long would we have to grow biofuels in order to justify the decision to cultivate the land rather than allow it to revert to its natural state?”

The BBC therefore reports that:

“The lead author of the study […,] Finn Danielsen of Denmark’s Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology [said:] ‘Our analysis found that it would take 75 to 93 years to see any benefits to the climate from biofuel plantations on converted tropical forestlands’…”

My money’s on us running practically everything on cheap renewable electricity long before those 75 to 93 years are up.  Otherwise we’re toast, and all bets are off.  So we never will grow biofuel crops for those “75 to 93 years” – even if we don’t degrade the soils long before then.

But “75 to 93 years” is likely an underestimate, since conceptual problems are still evident.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the BBC report, researchers still think just in terms of how long it would take to pay off the carbon debt from clearing the land.  As I argued in the Biofuel Papers – sigh! – this is only part of the story.  The Beeb notes that:

“On a positive note, the researchers found that grassed areas where forest had been destroyed in the past, the land farmed and then abandoned, did become a net absorber of carbon after 10 years of being planted with palm oil.”

But the land in question was already “a net absorber of carbon”, since it was slowly reverting to its natural state – presumably forest.  Duh!

In short, you need to take account of the opportunity cost of growing biofuels.

And not only that.  If you clear land to plant a biofuel crop such as oil palm trees, you also need to take account of the damage done (i.e. planetary heating) by the extra carbon in the atmosphere over the years during which there is more carbon in the atmosphere than there would have been if you hadn’t cleared the land.

Oh well, I guess we’re slowly getting there.  At least we’re starting to take account of the land required for biofuel crops.

July 29, 2008

Biofuels: an Energy Security (and Price) Own Goal?

Filed under: Biofuels, Economics, Global warming, Oil price, Politics — Tim Joslin @ 12:13 pm

Here‘s the written form of the BBC story about the Obama campaign team’s second thoughts about biofuels, which I heard on the radio and wrote about yesterday. I wasn’t dreaming!

The written piece includes a couple of points I don’t recollect hearing in the radio version. Apparently, “[Obama] has also said in the past that the subsidies help with energy security and climate change” and he “has also backed President Bush’s controversial coal-to-liquid fuel programme which benefits coal miners in the south of his home state.”

Obama’s advisor, Professor “Kammen’s paper says that a car will emit more greenhouse gases [GHGs] driving on corn ethanol processed with coal than it will using normal petrol.”

What the BBC report (or Professor Kammen) doesn’t mention is the energy balance (or the energy returned on energy invested, EROEI) for corn ethanol. We established yesterday that biofuel subsidies do not help with climate change, so perhaps Obama should stop saying they do. If they don’t help with energy security either, then that would remove Obama’s entire rationale for supporting them. Not that, given the wonders of the political process, he couldn’t get away with simply falling back on the apparent European (and probably US) historic position that farmers (“ours”, not those in poorer countries, of course) are different to the rest of us and their lifestyle should be subsidised, period. At least we’d then all know where we stand.

What we also have to bear in mind is that, although some forms of energy are more useful for some applications than others, different forms are interchangeable, at the margin. Here in the UK, natural gas and electricity prices are rising steeply in step with the oil price. In fact, you more often here about the “energy crisis” than the “oil crisis”, since whereas the overwhelming priority in the US seems to be to carry on driving, here it’s simply to keep our poorly-insulated homes warm. There is a lot of concern about “fuel poverty” in the coming winter. Indeed, as Bush and Obama realise, over the longer term, coal can be converted to oil (if you don’t care about the GHG emissions).

Oil is the most valuable fuel, and, all else being equal (i.e. if the price at the pump doesn’t change enough to compensate), we may well be able to reduce national consumption by displacing some with biofuels, though, globally, we will likely simply use the oil elsewhere – the Displacement Fallacy (pdf). If every country produces biofuels, though, then the oil price will drop and consumption will rise. The oil price will in turn tend to rise again because of the increased consumption and we’ll simply be back where we started from. Oil will still be expensive, but we’ll simply be consuming biofuel as well, that is, more fuel in total (there’s nothing “closed” about the global warming problem). Clearly, there is a complete lack of clarity as to what we’re collectively trying to achieve even in terms of the oil market. More on this another time.

What I want to stress here is that, because some uses of oil are interchangeable with other forms of energy, there is a basic energy price even though oil is at a premium. So, if producing biofuel does require more energy than the oil it “displaces”, then, sure, we might reduce the premium commanded by oil, at least temporarily, but we’d be likely to increase the basic price of energy by a greater amount. Biofuel may be an energy security, and price, own goal.

Now, we can’t simply say that the EROEI is negative for corn ethanol, just because Professor Kammen has shown that the use of corn ethanol results in more GHG emissions than “normal petrol”. The corn ethanol inputs include coal which produces more emissions per unit energy than oil. But not much more – we’re not talking about the difference between oil and natural gas (i.e. methane) here. The link to their original source is broken, but the Energy Information Administration (EIA) notes that: “According to the United Nations Environment Program, coal emits around 1.7 times as much carbon per unit of energy when burned as does natural gas and 1.25 times as much as oil.”

But, when answering the question as to whether the American taxpayer gets any energy security in return for their corn ethanol subsidies, we need to include all the energy consumed in producing corn ethanol. We need to include the (amortised) energy cost of all the facilities required, from ethanol refineries to improved roads and vehicles. We need to include the energy consumed directly and indirectly by the people receiving the subsidies, compared to what they may have done otherwise. We would have to base “what would have happened otherwise” on the energy consumption of the average American. That is, we need to add in, as an energy cost of biofuel subsidies, all the energy, above that used by the average American, consumed by the owners, employees and contractors of the farms, refineries and distribution infrastructure required for corn ethanol production. We would also need to make an allowance for the extra energy consumption – made possible by the subsidy bonanza – by the communities in corn ethanol production regions. And, as I noticed one wit observe on a blog recently, we might need to allow for all the flights to Washington by corn ethanol lobbyists. I could add that we should also account for all the hot air expended on the campaign trail.

And water is important. We may find that we are reducing river flows by taking water to produce biofuels. Further downstream we may be having to put in energy to get water – either by building salination plants or using energy to import water.

Fully determining the EROEI for corn ethanol is a tricky exercise. I don’t believe it has been or can be done to a high level of accuracy. That’s why subsidies and quotas are evil. If the energy value of all the inputs and outputs was represented by their cash value we would know whether it was “worth” producing ethanol from corn, at least in energy terms. (Don’t forget I’m just talking about energy value here – I’ve already established that biofuels make the global warming problem worse. Once we put a cash value on carbon storage and other ecosystem services – which I advocate – then growing biofuel crops is for Tin Men: you’d only do it if you had straw for brains).

As it is, it is quite likely that we are putting more useful energy into corn ethanol than we are getting out. As the price of oil increases, many countries – not just the US – are instituting quotas and subsidies for biofuels without knowing whether they actually save energy. If they don’t, this will end up pushing up the market cost for all forms of energy. Or reducing energy security, for those who prefer to frame the issue that way. Panicking governments into even more generous incentives for biofuels…

July 28, 2008

The Biofuel Blues, or, it’s the Opportunity Cost, Stupid!

Filed under: Biofuels, Economics, Global warming, Media, Oil price, Politics — Tim Joslin @ 12:32 pm

As I woke up this morning BBC Radio 4 was telling me the very encouraging news that an adviser to Barack Obama has questioned his policy on biofuels. I can find no reference to this story on the Web, but Obama’s website still leads its entire discussion of energy with a speech made in Des Moines, Iowa, capital of the corn belt. For some reason the BBC suggested the policy was to win votes in Illinois. I wonder whether they’ve muddled the two states: won’t Obama win Illinois anyway, being already senator for that state, and isn’t it Iowa that is famous for being corn-country? Though corn does grow in Illinois, too.

Anyway, apparently the adviser is a university professor and has pointed out that ethanol from corn does not reduce greenhouse gas (“GHG”) emissions because of all the inputs to produce the crop. He also noted that it displaces soya-growing from USA which leads to more GHG emissions if it is then grown in areas of virgin forest.

At this point I realised that my arguments about biofuels may be going over people’s heads. Not because it’s such a high-falutin’ line of reasoning. But because, owing to short-comings of the education system (more on this astonishing story in due course), not to mention the political process and processes of public discourse, the average decision-maker or influencer is no better than a drunk lying in the gutter, in terms of the analytical tools they are able to deploy.

Much as I want to get on and discuss the other aspects of my agenda to save the planet, I realised, while waking on a rapidly warming day of a sticky British summer (which, fortunately, inductive reasoning suggests is likely to last only a few days more), that I would have to spell out even more carefully how the issue is not just one of biofuels displacing crops into virgin forests. Such displacement is fairly inevitable, but even if it didn’t happen – let’s say the total global area of land being used for agriculture declines even as we produce more biofuels – then there is still the question of what you could do with the land instead of growing biofuels. A point people seem to find extraordinarily difficult to grasp. Sigh! I have a case of the Biofuel Blues. It’s Too Damn Hot, as someone once sang.

A small amount of progress has been made in thinking about how to deal with global warming (henceforth “GW”). A book discussing “Kyoto2” is due out this week. George Monbiot (and I believe Mark Lynas) is enthusiastic so I looked at the web summary of the idea (if the book is out a few days early, as often happens, I’ll buy it today so I can sit under a tree out of the heat and read it!). The idea represents considerable progress. It advocates a supply-side solution, that is, restrictions on the production of fossil fuels rather than just their consumption. Correct. Targeting emissions alone will not in itself keep any oil, coal and gas in the ground. Much better to limit the amounts that are dug up, or pumped out. And, in conjunction with a supply-side solution, Kyoto2 advocates the use of existing market mechanisms – i.e. the price of oil etc. – to try to influence the whole global economy. Good work.

I too have been thinking along these lines. I too would like to treat the world as one global economy. I’ll comment when I’ve read the Kyoto2 book, but one problem is that we can’t do this. Unfortunately, as I’ve outlined, and even revisited once already, states and trading blocks distort the global economy. Massively. This has to be taken into account. I look forward to reading Oliver Tickell’s book to see if he’s done this.

But here’s what really baffles me. Why, oh why, does everyone advocate short-term – often annual targets for emissions? GW is a long-term problem. Any solution must be resilient through booms and busts, even wars. That’s why I’m Abebooks best customer right now for books on financial crises! If we’re going to try to solve GW through the price of commodities, such as oil, then we have to take account of the fact that demand and supply and hence commodity prices naturally fluctuate considerably.

GW is a long-term problem. Hold that thought.

Back to biofuels. Almost everyone analyses the problem in terms of the annual emissions of growing biofuels. So they consider the displacement of food crops onto other land as a short-term problem. This is fundamentally the wrong way of looking at the problem.

The last time I penned this argument I had Winnie the Pooh talking to Piglet about “100 Hectare Wood”. Very witty it was too, and highly topical just now, since the EU has banned the “acre”. (Sad, but maybe one less unit conversion to worry about). But then I got worried about whether or not Disney Corporation would be happy about a lengthy spoof on their “intellectual property” and wimped out of posting it. (I’ll leave it to another time to discuss whether we actually want a world where our rights to reference our cultural heritage actually are or should be allowed to be restricted in such a way).

The point is that if we have an area of land – say 100 hectares – we could use it to grow trees or we could perhaps use it to grow biofuel crops. The one is the opportunity cost of the other. If you do an MBA (and I recommend you do, since they are clearly not actually teaching how our society works in schools), one of the things you will learn is that for any investment project you have to tally up the costs and benefits of doing it and the costs and benefits of not doing it and compare the two. You may want to compare a number of alternatives.

For example, a project to manufacture widgets may make use of a factory already owned by the company you work for. You might mistakenly base your business case for manufacturing widgets on the cost of the factory being zero. If you did that, though, you would be sadly disabused of your opinion by your company accountant. It would be such a howler that he might even verbally abuse you as well.

Even if you weren’t charged for the factory space through internal company cost control processes you would still have to include in your business case a benefit in the alternative project of not manufacturing widgets. For the sake of argument this benefit would be the rental value of the factory through the period over which it is proposed to manufacture widgets. It is quite plausible that once the opportunity cost of renting the space to someone else is taken into account, it would make little business sense to use the factory to manufacture widgets. It might be much better to simply rent it out. This is the way you have to “run the numbers”. It is elementary.

In an MBA of course, costs and benefits are considered in cash terms. But we can do the same thing with carbon.

We could either grow biofuel crops on our land or we could simply leave it alone and trees would grow. Carbon would build up in the soil because it is not being ploughed. There would be other benefits, aesthetic and practical. All these benefits are positive to the project of not growing biofuel crops. Remember, to work out if the project makes carbon business sense we’re going to compare the two projects – growing biofuels and not growing biofuels – in fact, just as in the example of manufacturing widgets, we will have to subtract any benefits of not growing biofuels from the case for the project to grow biofuels.

When we correctly evaluate the case for growing biofuel crops it is a no-brainer. We could either grow crops for 100 years or grow a forest over that time. Even allowing for the possibility of fire, we can, on average, expect a hectare of forest to store at least 100 tonnes of carbon after 100 years. Once we allow for the energy costs of production, fertiliser and so on, it turns out that, in temperate regions, you will not be able to grow enough biofuel crops on a hectare of land to displace a tonne of carbon emissions a year. Nowhere near.

In tropical regions the case for growing biofuel crops also needs to be assessed in this way. I suspect, though, that, once realistic figures are used for the benefits of allowing forest to regrow (my 100 tonnes/hectare is a deliberately low figure, since the argument against growing biofuel crops in temperate regions is so strong there’s no need to make any potentially contentious assumptions), and for the carbon stored in forest soils, compared to the likely depletion of soils used to support annual biofuel crops, and for the value of water retention and maintained biodiversity, once all these figures are put together, the argument for growing biofuel crops will be seen to be remarkably weak.

This argument is developed further in my Biofuel papers.

I’m hoping that Obama doesn’t have straw for brains and won’t follow the yellow brick road being built by the corn ethanol lobby. Like that of the Wizard of Oz, their vision is an illusion. (Oh, sorry about the plot spoiler!).

Damn, I was hoping to end there, but now I remember I wanted to highlight two policies from Obama’s website:

Expand Locally-Owned Biofuel Refineries: Less than 10 percent of new ethanol production today is from farmer-owned refineries. New ethanol refineries help jumpstart rural economies. Obama will create a number of incentives for local communities to invest in their biofuels refineries.” [I won’t digress now – I’ll explain why “rural economy” is a contradiction in terms some other time].

“Confront Deforestation and Promote Carbon Sequestration: Obama will develop domestic incentives that reward forest owners, farmers, and ranchers when they plant trees, restore grasslands, or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

Here’s a way out, Mr President-in-waiting (careful with the triumphalism, mate, we had a guy called Kinnock over here once, you may have heard of him). I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the political imperative to find ways to allow your constituency to have their cake and eat it. Here’s my advice: make it a no-brainer for land-owners to choose the second set of incentives over the first. That way you may still be able to tell everyone just what they want to hear! Isn’t politics great?

It’s hot – this flat wasn’t built for today’s climate so woe betide the poor wretch who has to live here in 50 years time. I’m going for a swim. Right now.

June 16, 2008

The Biofuel Papers

Filed under: Biofuels, Global warming — Tim Joslin @ 6:23 pm

This entry is intended to serve as an index to the three papers I’ve written on the topic of biofuels, and in particular how to derive a payback period for a biofuel crop. Such a consideration inevitably suggests that growing biofuels on a given plot of land is a bad idea. It’s just a question of how long there’s going to more global warming for if you grow biofuels than if you don’t – centuries in many cases.

A few months ago I outlined the argument in a systematic step-by-step manner in Biofuel Payback Periods (pdf) (5 sides plus footnotes).

My somewhat longer initial essay treatment a year ago, Biofuels Are Not the Answer (pdf) (6 sides plus footnotes), takes a slightly broader view.

I also last year produced a slightly more elaborate critique of the idea that biofuels displace fossil fuel use – The Displacement Fallacy (pdf) (just 1 side).

PS (26/6/08): Updated Biofuels Are Not the Answer after noticing some broken links in the footnotes. Version 1.1.1, rather than version 1.1, is now referenced.

March 28, 2008

Save the forests, save the world

It’s amazing what you can do with Excel. I thought I’d have another quick look before breakfast at my 450ppm stabilisation scenario (hey, kids, you can play this game at home!).

Here’s what I was referring to yesterday (all numbers approximate):

450ppm CO2 stabilisation scenario

To some extent I’m being optimistic. The 4AR mostly refers to scenarios that we would not now countenance as we’ve come out of denial over the last few years (I suggest they review their approach for the next report, 5AR). But if we look at the Scientific Basis, page 791 (I kid you not – strictly I should also be using a 3 line reference to the chapter – 10, section 4.1 as it happens), we see some discussion of stabilisation scenarios. The IPCC suggest a higher peak in fossil fuel emissions (about 12GtC/yr compared to the 9GtC I’ve shown), but with a steeper reduction. Their scenario allows 596GtC over the 21st century, whereas I came up with 566GtC. But the key point is that the IPCC also calculate some scenarios with positive carbon cycle feedbacks – that is, when we listen to the science and assume that warming will cause ecosystems to release carbon, or in actual fact merely to take it up more slowly than at present – and in these scenarios taking account of carbon cycle feedbacks we are “allowed” to emit 105 to 300GtC less. That is, even an aggressive scenario to stabilise CO2 at 450ppm relies on a get-out-of-jail-free card.

A more rigorous analysis – I would next separate out land use change (deforestation) from the fertilisation effect altogether – is unlikely to give a different conclusion, because the sanity check (total fossil fuel emissions) succeeds. This simple spreadsheet, adding together the main parts of the the carbon cycle is compatible with the sophisticated models cited by the IPCC. And it shows that, at first approximation (as the scientists say) we have to manage both components we can influence – fossil fuel burning and land uptake of CO2.

The critical point is that, if we want to save the planet, we’ve got to make sure that land carbon uptake over the next century – by natural ecosystems, such as forests, wetland and grassland – increases, not decreases. And if we plough them up and plant even more crops, then they will release carbon for a while and then store a roughly constant amount.

This is the macro reason why promoting biofuels is a really, really bad idea. In fact, it’s difficult to think of a worse policy response to the threat of global warming.

March 27, 2008

Baffled by BERN, but beware of biofuels

Filed under: Biofuels, Books/resources, Climate change, Energy policy, Global warming, Science — Tim Joslin @ 7:53 pm

Today’s project – well it was going to be this morning’s project – was to evaluate the two papers I recently tried to summarise one here: from Hansen et al and from Kharecha and Hansen.

The first question I asked myself was whether the conclusions of these papers are compatible with my Deep Green perspective. What is the Deep Green perspective? You may well ask. The point is that we have to attend to all parts of the Earth’s carbon cycle.

Both papers referred to something called the BERN carbon cycle model. At first I thought BERN was a place, then that it was a person (short for Bernie, perhaps). It turns out of course, thanks to Part 1 of the 4th IPCC Assessment Report (4AR, for short) – best doorstop I ever bought (tip, always ask for a discount) – that BERN is an acronym. I don’t know what BERN stands for, but I have learnt that it is an example of an EMIC – an Earth System Model of Intermediate Complexity, believe it or not.

What it seems is built in to BERN is the idea that a “pulse” of carbon emissions put into the atmosphere is gradually absorbed over time, such that a defined proportion remains in the atmosphere after t years (though it seems the model does allow this to be modified in order to simulate carbon cycle feedbacks). The equation is a series of exponential functions, given in Khurecha and Hansen. This is fine if we’re talking about a single emission of carbon – say a volcano going off in an oilfield – and its gradual re-absorption over time. But what appears to be being done is to try to apply this principal to emissions over a number of years by “integrating the results from 1850 to year t“. After much thought and fiddling with spreadsheets, I’m still baffled why anyone would want to do this.

Tied in with the BERN equation is the idea of the Airborne Fraction (AF) of fossil-fuel emissions, which has been observed to be remaining roughly constant at about 60% (AR4, p.139).

The justification behind both the BERN equation and the (dangerous) AF concept is, it seems, the idea that the processes that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – ocean uptake and the fertilisation effect on land – remove a (roughly) fixed proportion each year of the difference between the current atmospheric level of CO2 and the equilibrium value.

Now, my point is that there is, in the real world, no necessary relationship between our emissions and the rate of uptake of carbon by the biosphere. Our emissions go into the atmosphere changing the level of CO2 – now over 380ppm, compared to about 280ppm before industrialisation – but the uptake processes depend on the level in the atmosphere, not the annual change in the level. It is therefore very dangerous to drift into assuming a constant AF.

To test my hypothesis, I stuck some numbers into a spreadsheet – mainly the rough CO2 levels and emissions between 1960 and the present, calculating absorption rates based on IPCC data (AR4, p.26) extrapolating into the future (spreadsheet available on request). All I’m doing is adding what carbon we’re putting in to the atmosphere, and what’s being taken out each year, to what’s already there to produce a time-series. And, lo and behold (actually I was a tad surprised), it is indeed the case that the AF is fairly constant under these assumptions at about 60%.

The trouble is, to my mind, thinking in terms of an AF and integrating annual pulses of emissions is really odd way to look at the problem.

The simple way to expose the limitations of this approach is to see what happens if you start to decrease emissions. And, sure enough, the AF drops considerably (and can even go negative) if you do this. In other words, the whole approach only works while CO2 emissions and atmospheric levels are increasing at a fairly steady rate.

But this is only a minor problem. The AF is extremely sensitive to saturation of the processes to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. And it appears that removal by the oceans is indeed saturated (AR4, p.26 & elsewhere).

If we allow for the fact that the rate of carbon uptake by the oceans is not going to increase, then (of course) we see that the AF increases, if our emissions continue to increase, as in the graph below:

AP 1960 - 2070 peak emissions 2045 JPG

The implication of all this is rather important. If we continue to increase our emissions, then we face a double whammy. A higher proportion of the higher level of emissions will remain in the atmosphere.

At this point I realised that I had constructed a rough carbon cycle model in my spreadsheet. I was able to test different emission scenarios, varying the behaviour of other parts of the carbon cycle. And I can report that we are indeed in big trouble. Here are some preliminary conclusions:

1. If we’re to keep CO2 levels below 450ppm – the absolute optimistic minimum to prevent dangerous climate change of 2C or more – global carbon emissions have to peak by 2015 and decline steeply, that is, by about 1.5% pa – my 2045 peak example led to 630ppm by 2070. I don’t believe anything faster than 1.5% is feasible – in fact, even that looks like a silly number to me, though I’m open to persuasion.

2. In a scenario where we do stabilise CO2 levels, then (of course) the AF declines dramatically, and eventually goes negative. The AF is a double-edged and misleading concept if used as part of a causal explanation. It can only be sensibly used – IMHO – to make the rhetorical point that increasing our rate of carbon emissions will make our problems much worse very quickly.

3. In my spreadsheet carbon cycle model, the outcome is sensitive not only to the emission peak and rate of decline and to the timing of the peak rate of ocean uptake (I’ve assumed 2010, which may be optimistic – AR4 implies it has already peaked). Critical, also, is the rate of land uptake of CO2. My model has the fertilisation effect dependent on the area of natural ecosystem. Now, here we have another double whammy. If we clear forest (and, worse, wetlands) to create grazing land, or to grow more crops – for example, biofuels – then we not only emit carbon as we do so, we also reduce the rate of carbon uptake by the fertilisation effect.

4. If land (and/or ocean) uptake of CO2 goes into reverse as the planet warms we are completely screwed, to put it scientifically. If this happens it will be almost impossible to keep atmospheric CO2 (not CO2 equivalent, just CO2) below 45ppm.

In fact, my conclusion is that it will be practically impossible to keep CO2 below 450ppm unless we:

1. Start reducing fossil fuel carbon emissions within the next decade; and

2. Significantly increase the area of forest and wetland over the next century.

Given point 2, it might be a good idea to suspend all incentives and quotas for biofuels.

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