Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category

Open thread June 2011 – Earth warmed as much as expected

June 9, 2011

For discussing climate/energy things that are not the topic of other posts (hint, hint). E.g:

How (in)consistent is the instrumental temperature record with a climate sensitivity between 2 and 4.5 degrees (per doubling of CO2)? Turns out, within the admittedly large uncertainties they are entirely consistent (based on Ramanathan and Feng, 2009):

Global average surface temperatures have increased by about 0.75 degrees Celsius since the beginning of the industrial revolution, of which ~0.6 °C is attributable to human activities. The total radiative forcing by greenhouse gases is around 3 W/m2, with which we have ‘committed’ the planet to warm up by 2.4 °C (1.6-3.6 °C), according to a climate sensitivity of 3 °C (2-4.5 °C) for a doubling of CO2. The observed amount of warming thus far has been less than this, because part of the excess energy is stored in the oceans (amounting to ~0.5 °C), and the remainder (~1.3 °C) has been masked by the cooling effect of anthropogenic aerosols.

Dana over at SkS has an excellent post on this as well, using slightly different numbers and accounting for uncertainties. Over at the previous thread, RickA makes the common mistake of omitting the negative aerosol forcing and the ocean thermal inertia.

On low carbon technologies I don’t have terribly much to add at the moment, except to point to previous posts on technology (including lots of pointers to literature and/or other articles).

IPCC Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation (SRREN)

May 11, 2011

This month the IPCC will release its Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation. For now, only the Summary for PolicyMakers (SPM) is available; the full report will follow May 31st.

From the Press Release:

Ramon Pichs, Co-Chair of the Working Group III: “The report shows that it is not the availability of the resource, but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades. Developing countries have an important stake in this future—this is where most of the 1.4 billion people without access to electricity live yet also where some of the best conditions exist for renewable energy deployment.”

This is also where the impacts of climate change are expected to be most severe.

While the report concludes that the proportion of renewable energy will likely increase even without enabling policies, past experience has shown that the largest increases come with concerted policy efforts.

Though in some cases renewable energy technologies are already economically competitive, the production costs are currently often higher than market energy prices. However, if environmental impacts such as emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases were monetized and included in energy prices, more renewable energy technologies may become economically attractive.

(more…)

Technology and solutions

November 9, 2010

To avoid other threads from being overriden by discussions on technology issues, here’s a semi-open thread for those topics.

A few references:

Mark Jacobson’s review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security, comparing electric, hydrogen (both from a variety of primary energy sources) and biofuel powered transport.

SkepticalScience moving into solutions. John Cook captures my own sentiment very well: “My views on various solution strategies are not as well formed as my views on the attribution of climate change.” Lots of learning to do. Their first post leans heavily on the idea of stabilization wedges by Pacala and Socolow.

There are tons of documents outlining strategies to achieve a low carbon economy. E.g. Roadmap 2050 from the European Climate Foundation, I discussed the Shell energy scenario’s previously, IPCC wgIII, . I’ll update this list when I have more time on my hands.

Joe Romm has a lot of useful things to say about sustainable technologies (as even noted Joe Romm critic Tom Fuller admits). To avoid getting stuck in the details or in overly adversarial posts, perhaps best to go to an overview post such as this or that first.

Previous posts of mine somewhat related to technology and/or solutions. Some other threads also evolved into interesting technology discussions, but I can’t locate them at the moment (which shows the use of keeping discussions on topic).

Topics on my to-write-about list regarding technologies are geoengineering (based on e.g. chapter 6 from my hand in this report, which starts with an overview of mitigation options before exploring some in more detail), the indirect land use effect of biomass (e.g. chapter 3.3. of the same report) and perhaps transport.

Innovation, implementation and efficiency

September 14, 2010

Often, innovation (of new/improved energy technologies) and implementation (of existing energy technologies) are presented as if they are binary choices. Lomborg is a champion of that kind of rhetoric.

They are not: Both are needed, and both serve a different purpose (or at least, they are different, and complementary means towards the common goal of transforming our energy system towards a more sustainable one).

Innovation doesn’t actually reduce emissions. Rather, it is expected to allow for deep, fast and/or cheap emission reductions in the long term. Its pay-off though is inherently uncertain.

Implementation is needed to get started on emission reductions. It’s the cumulative emissions that are of concern, so earlier cuts in emissions are more useful to climate stabilization than similar cuts made later.

Counting on innovation as the only mitigation strategy risks postponing doing anything until a silver bullet comes along that may never will. Hence this strategy is sometimes referred to as fairy dust.

Counting on implementation as the only mitigation strategy risks high costs to achieve needed emission cuts (or an effective inability to reach needed emission cuts, if we don’t want to pay for it). [edited for clarity]

Interdependencies

Implementation could pave the way for innovation, by giving a sign that society is clearly embarking on a low carbon path. It makes investing in innovation more worthwhile. The opposite is also possible: Innovation could be stalled if easy (e.g. subsidized) money is made on implementation of current, relatively inefficient technology. That is the pitfall we need to prevent.
OTOH, innovation could make people/businesses hesitant to employ current tech (waiting for next year’s tech may be better, but if you keep saying that until eternity, nothing ever changes).

Some kind of carbon pricing structure (preferably a straight tax and rebate) would spur both innovation and implementation. It could avoid the pitfall mentioned above, which is more prevalent in subsidies.

Technology transfer

It should also be kept in mind that it’s not enough to just support basic innovation research and expecting that society can readily bear the fruits:

The key to this process lies in transitioning from R&D to the market–a stage in business development so perilous that it’s often called the Valley of Death. Transversing it requires an intelligent blend of public and private sector investment, targeting the most promising innovations. (Forbes)

Many promising technologies die in this valley of death, to the ultimate detriment of society who misses out on its benefits. If one pays attention to the whole sequence of technology transfer, it becomes clear that innovation and implementation are different stages in this sequence. For a successful final result both (and what’s in between) are needed, otherwise there’s either no head or no tail.

Postponing implementation risks a “lock-in” situation. Every new power plant that is being built will be used for multiple decades: We are now building the energy infrastructure for the next 50 years. What’s it gonna be? Inertia in the energy system, in the carbon cycle, and in the climate system works against us. The longer we wait, the harder it’s gonna be.

The speed of emission reduction influences the costs: The faster, the more expensive (and/or the more intrusive). There’re limits to how fast we can decarbonize the economy without creating havoc. Since postponing emission reduction means that faster reductions will be needed later on (to achieve the same target), it will add to the costs (and/or the havoc). At the very least, this would offset some of the benefits of (hopefully) having cheaper technology available later on.

Putting all your money on innovation with the expectation of a breakthrough is risky. Energy technologies are improved only gradually, and what it comes down to is a gradual reduction in energy production costs. A reduction of comparative costs could also (and much more swiftly) be achieved by putting a price on carbon (a.k.a. internalizing the real costs of carbon, or getting rid of the hidden subsidy for carbon), and then let the market decide who the winners are going to be.

Implementation versus energy saving

It makes much more sense to put energy savings on the one hand and implementation of sustainable energy on the other hand as interchangeable choices: They both lead directly to lower emissions. As I wrote in a previous blog about population growth and the Kaya identity:

Don’t want to use (and pay for) sustainable energy? Then use less energy.

Don’t want to use less energy? Then use (and pay for) sustainable energy.

Don’t want to do either? Go find another planet.

Note that the last line does not read: “Then throw some money at R&D and hope for the best.” Of course, the optimal course of action is to both reduce energy consumption and increase the use of sustainable energy (and do rigorous R&D); it still wouldn’t make much sense to put all your eggs in one basket.

The result of innovation is almost by definition unknown, as Ken Boulding wrote:

The great uncertainties here are in the area of the future of human knowledge, know-how, and skill. There is a nonexistence theorem about prediction in this area, in the sense that if we could predict what we are going to know at some time in the future, we would not have to wait, for we would know it now. It is not surprising, therefore, that the great technical changes have never been anticipated, neither the development of oil and gas, nor the automobile, nor the computer.

In preparing for the future, therefore, it is very important to have a wide range of options and to think in advance about how we are going to react to the worst cases as well as the best.

And John Mashey has the price winning quote:

Never schedule breakthroughs.

With mt as the runner up, making the case that “insufficient funding slows things down, but excessive funding certainly does not speed things up” regarding innovation and technology transfer:

Ten scientists cannot get a decade’s worth of one scientist’s work done in a year any more than nine women can make a baby in a month.

Based on a comment I made at collide-a-scape (teofilo) on the same topic.  For a different perspective, see e.g. this comment by Heiko on a previous post. He argues that we should invest the limited resources we’re willing to spend on this there where it’ll do the most good, and that R&D fits that bill better than rolling out a bit more of current technology. He does have a point, though to my mind it’s a bit akin to admitting we’re screwed and hoping for the best. I think we still ought to try.

Comment on Pielke Jr’s main conclusions

November 4, 2009

Roger Pielke Jr invites comments “from his loudest critics” on his views regarding climate change and response strategies. I’m not even close to being his loudest critic (e.g. he’s often got interesting analyses on the policy), allthough the occasional badmouthing of scientists gets on my nerve. Anyway, here are my replies, each directly following Pielke’s point in italics.

1. There is no greenhouse gas signal in the economic or human toll record of disasters.(Pielke)
I don’t know; his work in this area appears quite robust at first sight, though many conflicting results have also been reported. The PDI (power dissipation index, a measure of hurricane power) has increased though, at least in the North Atlantic. Overall, the jury is still out on the hurricane question it seems like. It’s however not an area that I’ve looked at in detail.

2. The IPCC has dramatically underestimated the scale of the stabilization challenge. (Pielke)
I don’t know, but see also 8.

3. Geoengineering via stratospheric injection or marine cloud whitening is a bad idea. (Pielke)
At this point in time, intentionally cooling the Earth via large scale intervention is definitely a bad idea, because of the risks involved. But we may reach a point where the climate risks start to outweigh the geoengineering risks. So I think it prudent to investigate geoengineering schemes in case of climate emergencies. I agree with Ken Caldeira: “I hope I never need a parachute, but if my plane is going down in flames, I sure hope I have a parachute handy,” Caldeira said. “I hope we’ll never need geoengineering schemes, but if a climate catastrophe occurs, I sure hope we will have thought through our options carefully.” I contributed to an assessment of “other” climate reduction possibilities, for which I wrote chapter 6 on geo-engineering and air capture. In Section 6.4 the context and associated risks are discussed. In short, geoengineering should absolutely not be considered as an *alternative* to emission reduction, since the long term risks would increase to intolerable levels in such a case, and problems such as ocean acidification would continue unabated. I plan to write more about geoengineering here in the near future.

4. Air capture research is a very good idea. (Pielke)
Agreed (though it’s not a holy grail; it’s not even close to large scale implementation). I would perhaps single out biochar application as especially promising, since it appears to have numerous co-benefits. Its global scale climate mitigation effects seem to be limited though.

5. Adaptation is very important and not a trade off with mitigation. (Pielke)
Both adaptation and mitigation (emission reduction) are important, but I would emphasize the latter, since it dominates the long-term risk we expose future generations to (CO2 has a very long lifetime). Over-emphasizing the former risks de-emphasizing the latter, so it’s a tricky balance. The four basic response strategies (emission reduction – air capture – geoengineering – adaptation) are not mutually exclusive, but each of them lowers the (perceived) necessity for the other measures to be implemented (if the long lifetime of CO2 is ignored, which is well beyond the average political radarscreen).

Roger claims that “adaptation is a trade-off with mitigation just as mitigation is a trade off with military spending.” I think that a Euro spent on adaptation competes more strongly with spending it on mitigation than that it competes with spending it on the military. If anything, adaptation and mitigation are decided upon by the same department, with one overall budget. The military budget is separate (unfortunately, I may add).

It may be worthwhile to investigate potential win-win situations: Adaptation measures that simultaneously mitigate climate change, and vice versa (see chapter 4 of the same document as mentioned above for some examples, e.g. green/white roofs, reforestation, spatial planning, etc). Black carbon (soot) reduction is an example of a measure with both health and climate benefits. Those may be the politically speaking low hanging fruit.

6. Current mitigation policies, at national and international levels, are inevitably doomed to fail. (Pielke)
It all comes down to what is being decided in the political process. I am however pessimistic about the politics coming up to speed with what is known scientifically (short version) and what is possible technologically (which is a lot more than what is on the political table, see also 8). But let’s try to avoid self fulfilling prophecies.
David Keith made some pertinent comments to this:

However when people and the political community hear technical people say “can’t be done” they assume we mean that technically can’t be done and that is untrue and destructive.
It’s destructive because it hides the central moral choice: we could cut emissions if we want to, we could have started decades ago when the scientific warnings about climate change were first raised, but we decided not to. It was a choice, implicit or not. A choice that, in effect, we cared more about current consumption than we did about preserving our grandchildren’s chances to enjoy a climate like the one in which our civilization developed.

Nothing is “doomed to fail”; we have the choice.

7. An alternative approach to mitigation from that of the FCCC has better prospects for success. (Pielke)
I don’t know. Depends what the proposed alternative is I guess.

8. Current technologies are not sufficient to reach mitigation goals. (Pielke)
Perhaps that is the case for the long term, but I think it bears stressing that current technologies are hopelessly underused. David Keith, Joe Romm and others have pointed out that even with current technology we could decarbonize the entire electricity production for a few % of GDP. The per capita emissions in the US are double those in the EU. The per capita electricity use in California is a bit over half of that of the rest of the US. There’s clearly a lot more we can do with current technology and other (efficiency) measures than we are currently doing. That doesn’t negate the importance of R&D, but it’s the point I would like to stress. R&D is still needed to make emission reductions cheaper, and to make bigger and faster reductions possible. But it shouldn’t be an excuse for not doing more with the possibilities we currently have. See for a longer argument somewhat along these lines (rebutting Lomborg) here.

9. In their political enthusiasm, some leading scientists have behaved badly. (Pielke)
Without specifics, this is impossible to answer, and is bound to lead to even more misunderstanding. I could try reading your mind of course. You probably have some of your critics in mind, notably some RealClimate scientists as well as Hansen, who you have criticized. I find this very problematic. In most instances that I followed (involving Gavin Schmidt, Michael Tobis, Eric Steig, Hansen, Briffa at different occasions), I have found your and others’ criticisms off base, besides the point, largely irrelevant to the bigger picture and having the smell of a smear campaign (science-bashing). As I commented regarding the latest McIntyre affair (see my review here): “A lot of scientists are getting understandably frustrated with self-proclaimed auditors of science (and their supporters) who cast doubt about a whole scientific field by blowing minor flaws out of proportion and insinuate accusations of scientific misconduct”. Against this backdrop of a lot of people ready to embrace any little nitpicked criticism as if it overthrows the whole scientific consensus, and ignore the mountain of evidence in favour of this consensus, I can perfectly well understand that a lot of scientists (and their supporters) are getting frustrated having to deal with this behavior and (mostly) fake arguments. In the grand scheme of things, the big problem as I see it is the contempt of science and its practitioners by a sizeable segment of the general public and some high profile bloggers; if a scientist responds to faux criticism in a frustrated tone, I find that a minor flaw in comparison. Granted, they (climate scientists) are your subject of study, so you naturally focus on their behaviour, but at the same time, please consider the context in which they operate, as well as the main message they are trying to convey. In light of this, your claim that “bad behavior by the folks at Real Climate does more to hurt the cause for action than the political actions of the skeptics” is preposterous. William Connolley brought up Fred Singer as the most obvious example.

10. Leading scientific assessments have botched major issues (like disasters). (Pielke)
I don’t know.

The bottom line is that I don’t strongly disagree with Pielke Jr on many points, but that I find his choice of ‘problem areas’ to focus on peculiar and often unhelpful in light of the much bigger problems just adjacent to them (e.g. 9, 8, 5). Excluding that context risks giving a false impression of what’s going on, especially to those who are not in the loop and to those wishing to see their pre-conceived notions confirmed.

My ‘next generation questions’ on climate change

August 19, 2009

Following an interesting conversation I’ve been engaged in with Thomas Fuller (see also the previous post), here is my take on what the next generation questions on climate change are.

Let’s distinguish the following main issues:
- To what extent is climate change occurring, and to what extent is it man-made?
- To what extent is that (going to be) a problem?
- What can or should we do about it?

The first questions are strictly scientific; the middle has a judgment value to it, and the latter is primarily a political/moral judgement (and has more to do with technology than with climate science).

 We have made much more progress in addressing the first question than in addressing the last one. The limiting factor in addressing the issues relating to climate change is not a lack of knowledge about the exact nature of the changes; rather, it is the unwillingness of society to deal with (the consequences of) this knowledge. Even if climate change is less bad than currently expected, we need to dramatically step up our policy response.

I don’t say this to downplay the uncertainties in climate science; there are many, and many of them are large (scientifically speaking). However, within realistic boundaries of the uncertainty, we still don’t do enough to deal with the issue: Any realistic change in our scientific understanding is not going to change the needed policy response, at least not in the short to medium term (~decades). As Herman Daly noted: “If you jump out of an airplane you need a crude parachute more than an accurate altimeter.” And Tom Yulsman: “With a bit of luck, maybe we can agree that regardless of [the details regarding] climate change, we need an Apollo-scale effort to develop transformational energy technologies.” How to shape that effort is the next generation question.

So the ‘next generation questions’ in my view relate to the last one: How are we going to deal with this? There are a lot of tough questions to be answered in that arena, e.g. relating to different technologies (nuclear, biomass, CCS, electric vs hydrogen transport, geoengineering, to name just a few highly contested topics), and relating to more institutional-political matters (e.g. carbon tax vs cap and trade, landuse, changes in consumption patterns, equity issues). Michael Tobis has some excellent writing on the latter topics.

Regarding the ‘next generation of questions’ strictly relating to climate science, some examples of important areas with high uncertainty are the following:
- Regional climate effects
- Climate sensitivity
- The role of aerosol and clouds
- Sea level rise (update: added after Heiko’s suggestion)

However, we need to keep in mind that uncertainty goes both ways, and that science usually progresses with small increments: Three steps forward, two steps back. It is wise to be very skeptical of any claim that the science is radically wrong. Any new piece of evidence just adds to the puzzle; it doesn’t replace existing evidence. Context and perspective are key, and they are often missing in loud proclamations against the consensus.

Let me give an example from an area of research that I’ve been working in for a number of years: Aerosol formation. For at least a decade, sulfuric acid has been regarded a key compound in the formation aerosol particles. The potential contribution of other compounds (ammonia, iodine, ions, organics) has been (and still is) hotly debated, but if someone tries to tell me that sulfuric acid has no noticeable effect on aerosol nucleation, I would not tend to take them very seriously, unless they have extraordinary evidence to back up that (scientifically radical) position. Nothing is impossible, but it’s not very likely.

I think we know a great deal more about the role of CO2 in the climate system than we do about the role of sulfuric acid in aerosol nucleation. I don’t expect a landslide change in scientific thinking on the subject. If someone does, they better bring very strong evidence to the table; a photograph or two won’t do.

(update: the next post elaborates on the major climate science uncertainties)

Climate solutions

June 4, 2009

The public debate about the reality of human-induced climate change is perhaps mostly interesting from a psychology point of view: How come some people embrace the wishful thinking and flakey arguments from small splinter groups and distrust the evidence-based conclusions from the vast majority of relevant scientists? I think that in many cases the answer is that they don’t like the perceived consequences. In other cases it’s a matter of thinking along familiar lines. And for some, it may be the attraction of being the underdog, which, in extreme cases, leads some to think of themselves as (supporting) the new Galileo. And yet others may have been fooled into thinking that there still is a real scientific debate about the big picture (with not a little help from the popular media). After all, without reading the primary literature or attending relevant conferences, how would you know who is right? 

The more relevant discussion for society is about how to deal with climate change. How do we act in the face of uncertainty, but with real risks of problematic consequences? “Skeptics” could make a very useful contribution to such a discussion, if they started thinking about how to deal with climate change while at the same time minimizing the perceived consequences they dislike so much (e.g. taxes and regulations).

Waiting until disaster strikes (as desired ‘proof’) before starting to deal with the problem, is not a rational option. If a doctor is 90% certain that you have a dangerous illness, you probably want to start treatment as soon as possible. Or would you wait with treatment until the doctor is 99% or 100% certain? The problem is, doctors and scientists are never 100% certain.

 

So what do we do?

 

I’ll be writing more about this question in the near future. Specific topics that I intend to discuss are geo-engineering (intentional engineering of the Earth’s climate), biomass, transport options (biomass/hydrogen/electric powered vehicles), and others. These are not all clear-cut ‘solutions’, and their suitability in dealing with the problem is vigorously debated, including in the scientific arena. Finally some real debate, rather than the fake stuff.

The car of the past and of the future

October 2, 2008

(Nederlandse versie hier)

 

The Dutch TV program “Tegenlicht” aired a documentary on energy efficiency of cars this past Monday (mostly in English; viewable here). One of the unexpected highlights (starting at 3:40 into the video) was a 1973 Opel P-1 experimental car, which supposedly got a mileage of 159 km for 1 liter of petrol (0.63 liter/100 km or 373 mpg; It’s not road worthy as-is though). How did they achieve this 35 years ago? At least as interesting is the question why such a technical possibility (in a road-worthy adaptation) hasn’t been brought to the market? Why are we still driving in cars that use 7 liter/100 km, when with technology from 35 years ago it can be made 10 times more efficient?

 

A journalist for The Economist explained that car companies get most of their profit from big, luxury cars, and just don’t see much financial promise in fuel efficient cars. Apparently they don’t see such technology as helping their bottom line. The close ties between the car manufacturers and the oil industry is not conducive to improving energy efficiency either. Let alone working towards electric transport, which is generally the most energy efficient.

 

Another interviewee pointed out that half the new cars are sold to fleet owners (e.g. as lease cars). The drivers of these cars typically don’t pay for the petrol themselves, so there’s no financial incentive to drive a fuel efficient car. The U.K. is the exception: You pay differential taxes according to your lease car’s fuel efficiency. It is therefore the only country where company cars are on average more fuel efficient than privately owned cars. This is one of many examples how financial incentives can influence consumer behavior.

 

Of course Tesla Motors was also featured, with their all-electric sports car. It accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h in 3.9 sec and has an action radius of 300 km. A full charge takes 3.5 hours (to be decreased to 1 hour; it costs a few dollars in electricity), which is an important bottleneck for all-electric vehicles. For most trips a range of 300 km is plenty, but for those occasional longer journeys, the long charging time poses a problem. For long journeys, people need to either own or rent a second car which allows a quick charge (i.e. petrol, biomass-derived fuel, hydrogen, etc). Not ideal. As a “family-car” a plug-in hybrid may be more promising in the short term, since it will usually run on electricity (i.e. efficient and cheap), while it can also be used for the occasional long journey (using liquid fuel). Another all-electric vehicle that will soon be on the streets is the Think City. And in contrast to the Tesla, it’s (more or less) affordable.


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