Tagged: greenhouse gas emissions

Climate math redone: bye bye fossil fuels

photo: Eamon Ryan

Nearly 10 months ago, I put down my final thoughts on COP21, the historical climate summit in Paris where world leaders adopted an international agreement to limit global warming to no more than 2ºC by 2100, with the aim of keeping it at 1.5ºC. I remember that nightly writing session very well. It had been an extremely exhausting month due to the conference, and university exams where around the corner. I wanted to go to bed early to catch up some sleep, but I felt the urge to conclude my reporting on the climate summit with a piece about how I perceived the outcome of the climate summit. With the title ‘Born of Hope’, I argued that despite the many compromises, the Agreement was an amazing feat of diplomacy and a victory for all people who had been working day and night to pave the way for this global framework for climate action. I still believe it is a proper basis for meaningful action international level. And that’s what we really need. The sum of individual national initiatives is simply not sufficient to avoid dangerous global warming.

Didn’t I share the doubts about the fact that the agreement still had to go through the whole UN ratification process? That the Paris Agreement indeed put a what, but not a clear when or a how? Of course I had my doubts. It is a deal made by politicians and diplomats, and they will have to implement it too. Of all people, politicians are the last I would entrust humanity’s fate to. But as it happens, that is how the world works.

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I also have my doubts about politicians, you know

After COP21, the long and boring process of ratifaction began. In Paris, the countries only adopted the agreement. Then they had to sign it. Next, at least 55 nations covering at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions had to ratify the agreement in their national parliaments. Only after fulfillment of these requirements, a UN agreement can take force. Remember the Kyoto protocol? It took 8 years to reach the tresholds. Not a surprise many people where not too optimistic about the meaningfulness of the Paris Agreement.

Delegates and politicians packed their bags, the climate caravan left Paris and the news returned to its normal stream of misery-and-pain-coverage. But apparently the sense of urgency stayed. After the US and China jointly ratified the Paris Agreement by the end of August, 31 countries, including Brazil and Mexico, joined by the end of September, bringing the counter to 60 countries covering 52% of global emissions. Suddenly, the realization of the Paris Agreement came very close. And just last week it happened: the European Parliament gave its green light, and so both requirements were finally fulfilled. The Paris Agreement will take force on November 4th, a bit less than 11 months after its conception.

World leaders at COP21 (photo: euronews.eu)

World leaders at COP21 (photo: euronews.eu)

What the Paris Agreement really implies

Hooray! Bravo! Well done! The politicians can organize a big reception and go brag about themselves. Or can they? Do they actually realize what they signed? Are they fully aware of the reach of such a promise? I doubt it. The truth is that no-one really knows what 2ºC global warming means, nor how we can limit it to no more than that in a way that will be socially and economically acceptable.

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A new study published last week by think thank Oil Change International (OCI) makes it suddenly much clearer what the promised 1,5 and 2ºC goals mean. It reveals the outcomes of a fairly straight-forward climate change math exercise. The solution is very simple:

No more drilling and digging. No new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built worldwide, from today on.

That sounds like a non-ambiguous policy guideline. If politicians are serious about honoring the agreement they just ratified, they know what needs to happen. Or rather, what shouldn’t happen anymore.

A closer look at OCI’s study

But the outcomes of this report just read a bit too much like a climate movement’s manifesto to make the scientist in me feel comfortable. So I took my time to read through the whole document, which turns out to be very well done. In fact the study draws on the by now well-accepted concept of the carbon budget, developped by the Carbon Tracker Initiative and also used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their assesment reports.

The theory of the carbon budget tells us that the world has 800 Gigatons of CO2 emissions left until we reach the 2ºC global warming limit. That might sound like a lot, but at current rates we will hit it in 2037. Oh, and actually we were aiming for 1,5 degrees, right? Well, then we have just ten years left. Ouch!

The Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and co-founder of the climate group 350.org, Bill McKibben already calculated four years ago that the world’s fossil fuel reserves are about five times the size of what we can safely burn to stay within our carbon budget. Oil Change International made the math exercise again, using the latest data from Rystad Energy, who in turn gets its estimates of coal, oil and gas reserves from fossil fuel companies and governmental sources.

The new math exercise not only reaffirms Bill McKibben’s work, but also has more concrete findings:

  • if you add up the potential emissions of all existing coal, oil and gas extraction projects we already blow the two degrees goal. We blow it through the roof
  • even if we would stop using coal overnight, the most dirty of fossil fuels, we will still not be able to stay below 1,5 degrees warming by 2100

One can more easily appreciate these findings by looking at the graph below. Following the International Energy Agency, reserves are defined as the amount of fossil fuel that is already discovered and known to be extractable with current technology and under current economic conditions. If we burn all reserves we currently already have we are in big shit, apperently.

Comparison of fossil fuel reserves and the common climate change targets (graph: Oil Change International)

Comparison of fossil fuel reserves and the common climate change targets (graph: Oil Change International)

Unless we prohibit any new coal, oil or gas extraction projects, we don’t stand a chance. And yes, I forgot to tell you, but the whole discussion about 1,5 or 2 degrees warming is always one of chances. Statistics has never been my favorite subject, but let’s have a closer look. The 2 degrees limit has to be read as a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees. And the UN’s likely officialy means an accepted 33% chance of failure. Knowing that more than 2ºC global warming will almost certainly kick off non-stoppable feedback mechanisms which drag us to further heating, I think that it is quite reckless. If I as an engineer design a bridge with 33% chance of collapsing, they throw me in jail straight away. Just saying.

The best strategy is managed decline

But let’s get back to the main point of the study: no new coal, oil and gas extraction, let alone exploration. Good. But should we stop using fossil fuels overnight? Not at all. The study calls for a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry and a just transition for the workers and communities that now depend strongly on it. In fact, Obama’s Power+ plan is a very nice example of how mine workers can be supported in their retraining to become active in the renewable energy sector.

The study further argues that the required phase out of fossil fuels can be matched to an increase in renewable energy following current trends. It is shown in the graph below. But don’t be fooled, an increase to 50% renewable energy provision by 2035 and 80% by 2045 as a global average is not going to be easy. Not at all. It will need enormous investments in both the energy production facilities as well as grid infrastructure.

A managed phase-out of fossil fuels can be matched with an increase in renewable energy sources following current trends (graph: Oil Change International)

A managed phase-out of fossil fuels can be matched with an increase in renewable energy sources following current trends (graph: Oil Change International)

On the other hand, earlier this week a study has been published from no less than the renown economist Stern, who gained international respect from both the climate change believers and skeptics with his study in 2006 about the cost of future climate change versus the cost of acting against it. In the new study he calls for a rapid and strong decline of fossil fuel subsidies (still worth 550 billion USD in 2014) and a rapid shift to green technologies. If we fail in ditching fossil fuels, the economy can ‘self-destruct’. Green growth is the only growth left on the long term.

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To take away the doubts of my more skeptical readers who might think ‘but wait, isn’t there the option to keep using fossil fuels and switch later to renewables when they are cheaper?’ or ‘couldn’t we keep burning fossil fuels and use carbon capture technologies to prevent the greenhouse gases from being emitted in the air?’. The answer is no, at least not really. Carbon and capture technology has still a long way to go before it is ready for large-scale application. And with respect to a postponed introduction of renewables, this scenario is most likely not going to work. If governments allow fossil fuel companies to first built new infrastructure, that at a later point has to be closed in a short time span and before the end of lifetime, we are left with a huge amount of stranded assets. And you can be sure that the companies will lobby very hard to keep their plants open a bit longer. Either way it is a terrible waste of money, in the form of wasted investments or otherwise climate damage.

Why these findings are important

You might be wondering why this whole math exercise is so important for policy making (it is). You’re right, many governments set already a cap on emissions or are in the process of introducing emission limits, carbon taxes or other systems that aim to tackle climate change. The problem is that this kind of approaches focus on the demand side of fossil fuels and leave the supply side for what it is. And that’s where the contradiction between the politician’s promises in the Paris Agreement and their actual policy making so far has to be found. Let me explain.

First of all: the supply of fossil fuels is not just dictated by the demand. No, it depends on the state of technology, global economy, possible unrest in certain regions of the world and strategies like the choice of OPEC to keep producing a lot of oil, which brought the oil price to its lowest levels in the last decade. That lower oil price has an increase of demand –and very likely emissions– as result. Many countries have decreased taxes for fossil fuel companies to limit the damage of the low oil price, thus effectively subsidizing emissions. Clearly not what we want.

We already mentioned the stranded assets problem, which is another big contradiction in policy making. The economic reality is that  once a (fossil fuel) project has been developed, the economic incentives push for continued production even if it means a long-term loss on the capital invested, since closing down would lead to an even greater loss.

Last but not least, governments tend to act more strongly to protect existing industries than to stimulate future ones. The pain to cut existing jobs is way more important for a politician, than a promise of future jobs. Besides that, an existing industry like the fossil fuel industry has huge lobby power. A future technology has not.

These are the reasons why it makes sense to choose for a strong policy that assures a managed and just decline in fossil fuel supply. If politicians are really serious about the Paris Agreement, they now know what to do: leave those fossil fuels in the ground. Or as the report formulates so nicely: if you’re in a hole, stop digging.

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Analysis: a traveler’s footprint

If you’re only a bit like me, you love traveling. I love to explore new cities and cultures, meet new people, hear stories and challenge my view on the world. I believe traveling is one of the most effective and fun ways of self-enrichment. But what does our planet think about us flying/driving/sailing around? Now I got rid of the sand in my shoes, the backpack is stored away and I’m back at University, I thought it was the perfect time to present you the results of an experiment I undertook this summer. I wanted to find out what my travel footprint was and if I would be able to do better.

Living in the heart of Belgium, around 30 kilometers from the capital Brussels, I’ve always had the luxury of a broad range of options to go abroad. Brussels is a major international traffic hub, with a lot of international flights, high-speed train connections going in all wind directions and a lot of buses connecting cities all over Europe. Around 60 kilometers to the South, the airport of Chaleroi is the main hub for low-cost airlines — always tempting for the student with a small budget.

The idea to challenge myself to think more about the ecological impact of my journey arose from a discussion I had with one of the participants of a summer academy on sustainability I was attending in the beginning of August. Wasn’t it a bit ironic that a group of young people who are interested in sustainable living, came all the way to Istanbul, in most cases by plane? And many of us seemed to be fervent travellers. This got me thinking… what was my impact on the environment by attending this sustainability academy? And how could plan my travels in the future to limit that footprint?

So I did what you usually do when big life questions arise — I started googling. After half a day of searching the web, I ceased my attempt. Frustratingly enough, I didn’t find any satisfying calculator that could tell me how much greenhouse gases my trip had blewn into the atmosphere. The problem was this: or the available tools were too simple, or they were way too complicated. It was also difficult to track the data sources or to find out which assumptions were made to turn my input into the number the calculator spew out on the screen. My conclusion was clear: I would have to do the calculation myself.

After two days , mainly invested in digging for data on greenhouse gas emissions of different means of transport, I had a first version of the calculator ready in excel. Time for the test: how much did my trip from Belgium to Istanbul including local transport hurt the planet? The result was striking. I made an infographic to summarize the inputs and most important results.

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

Infographic of the travel footprint of my Istanbul trip

It was quite shocking to learn that the transportation of this two-week trip alone took a bite of 20% out of my carbon budget. The carbon budget is what I can emit, according to the IPCC, to be on track for no more than 2°C global warming by 2100. I further found out that taking the taxi from the airport to the hotel was the most carbon intensive means of transportation, followed by the flight from Brussels to Istanbul. The difference is of course that I travelled around 4600 kilometers by plane and only 55 kilometers by taxi. The bus trips turned out to be the least carbon intensive way of moving around. But if Turkey would have had the same energy mix as France, the metro would have won that title — the carbon intensity of electricty is very low in France because of the nuclear power. During the research I made a graph of the carbon intensity per kilometer for some of the means of transport, which can serve has a first guiding tool in choosing your way of traveling.

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

Chart of greenhouse gas emissions of typical means of travel (based on data from DEFRA and LIPASTO)

The biggest lessons from playing around with the data were:

  • taking a taxi as a single passenger, or a car with only one person are most carbon intensive
  • taking a plane is devastating, since it is nearly as carbon intensive as being a single person in a car but you travel much longer distances
  • taking an electric train or metro is often a good idea, unless you are living in a country with a mainly coal-fired power generation (such as Poland)
  • taking a coach bus has a very low footprint

With this in mind, I started planning my next trip. I now wanted to travel with a minimal ecological footprint, but still fulfill the two remaining items on my bucket list for the summer of 2015: attending the Climate Launchpad competition in Amsterdam and doing a surf camp in France or Spain. To make things even more complicated, I had to remember my budget constraints. I used the Travel Carbon Footprint calculator to estimate the footprint of different ways to realize my plans. It was pretty clear that I had to avoid taking the plane. I finally choose to do everything by long-distance bus, because it had the lowest footprint, it was enormously cheap (especially because I was arranging everything last minute) and I didn’t have to worry about luggage restrictions. The final footprint is around 2,20% of my yearly carbon budget. If I would have chosen a less time-consuming alternative, e.g. taking the train to Amsterdam and a plane to the South of France, it was at least five times more carbon intensive. So for me it was worth the long hours on a bus.

If you are curious about your own travel footprint of last summer, I have good news for you. You can calculate your own footprint now as well, I made the first version of the calculator available for you on the Shift website! Be sure to first read the manual so you know what input is expected from you and what the results really mean. I plan to further upgrade the calculator in the future and keep the data up to date. You can always leave a suggestion for new functionalities as well, or leave a question.

And to assure you: I had an awesome time both in Amsterdam and during my surf trip in the South-West of France. For me, it was the proof that travelling and exploring can be cheap and good for the environment without compromising too much. I hope the calculator will help you choosing your transportation means during the planning of future trips! And don’t forget: transport often is a huge part of your travel footprint, but not the only one. Eat, shop, sleep and enjoy your destination without leaving traces…only good memories.

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