20 October 2010

Cool It--Movie Review

Cool It is a documentary about Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg and his views on how the world should, and should not, address climate change.

He insists that the approaches taken so far to mitigate the threat of climate change just haven't worked, are unlikely to work, and cost far too much for the limited benefits they may provide. He says we need a different approach, and has used cost-benefit analysis to prioritize and recommend actions.

For a mere $250 billion a year, he calculates, we could deal with climate change, and eliminate disease and poverty too.

He objects strongly to the scare approach of An Inconvenient Truth (this film is not kind to Al Gore) and says, "We need to scale back the fear."

This may be perceived as dismissing the seriousness of global warming threats. And in fact he does minimize some threats. For instance he repeatedly talks about "one foot" of sea level rise in this century, which he says is about the same as we experienced in the 20th century and we handled that OK. (He likes The Netherlands' local geoengineering approach.) Most observers are projecting higher rises than that.

Lomborg downplays the risk of passing tipping points such as collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The film includes interviews with scientists saying how that is just not going to happen. Minimizing the risk of such catastrophic consequences is essential to his argument, since these consequences couldn't be reversed by geoengineering, which is his "insurance policy".

He has made a point of his (possibly revised) belief that global warming "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today" and "a challenge humanity must confront". Indeed it was a Guardian article playing up his "apparent U-turn" that has put Lomborg back in the headlines recently (just in time for his film and book promotion tour).

His views do seem to have changed significantly from those put forward in 1998 in Verdens sande tilstand ("The Real State of the World", published later in English as The Skeptical Environmentalist). He would now invest significantly in dealing with global warming, rather than relegating it to much lower priority than fighting disease, poverty and other public policy issues. He now insists that for the amount the EU alone is proposing to spend trying to cut carbon emissions, with little probability of actually affecting warming very much, the world could deal with the climate change problem and other major social problems too if policy approaches were revised.   

He recommends investing a lot more in R&D (ten times as much--$100 billion a year) with the expectation that new technology can drive down the cost of alternative energy sources. Those sources will then replace fossil fuels and carbon emissions will be reduced at much less cost than the current heavy subsidization of low-carbon technologies and efforts to impose a price on carbon. He is very enthusiastic about whiz-bang technology and the film features interviews with numerous scientists which interesting ideas, including geoengineering schemes. Geoengineering, to "buy time" and to adapt, is an important element of his technology fix.

He repeatedly says the current approach to dealing with global warming is "broken" and "dumb". He throws a lot of numbers around which may or may not be adequately supported by research and sources. Some of his data is a bit out of date, which is inevitable in this fast-moving field.

I haven't read his books, The Skeptical Environmentalist of 2001, Global Crises, Global Solutions of 2004 (editor), Solutions for the World's Biggest Problems (editor) and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming both of 2007, nor of course his latest book that is expected to be published in November of this year, Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Comparing Costs and Benefits. But I have heard him speak, and his message seems to still be pretty much in line with what is in the film. (The film is due to be released in the U.S. on 12th November 2010. It has been shown at the Toronto Film Festival and in teaser screenings around the country.)

Cool It starts out as a bit of a hagiography, which may be inevitable in films of this sort (An Inconvenient Truth has a lot of crusading Al Gore in it, after all.) Lomborg is shown to love his mother, to respect nature, to feed impoverished Kenyan kids, and to ride a bicycle. But eventually it gets into the argument and becomes more interesting.

The interviews with scientists supporting to some of his points are inevitably selective. But overall the film gives a good look at Lomborg's views and recommendations, which are not as loony or extreme as some of his detractors might suggest. He may be imprecise, even selective, about many points of climate science, but his basic argument that we are throwing a lot of money at the problem in ways that are unlikely to actually mitigate its effect has some weight.

Lomborg is a political scientist interested in the economics of action to deal with social problems like malnutrition, disease and poverty, not a climate scientist. His welfare economics approach is actually pretty far from the traditional environmentalist/green main stream. To some extent he is speaking a different language. But his arguments do add to the overall debate on what to do about climate change, when to do it, how to pay for it, and whether it is worth doing at all.

The film probably won't win any Academy Awards, but anyone concerned with climate change, who can watch it with something of an open mind, may find it interesting.

Photo by Emil Jupin from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bj%C3%B8rn_Lomborg_1.jpg

Lomborg is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

The film was Produced by Ralph Winter (a producer of the X-Men movies), among others, and co-written and directed by Ondi Timoner. Lomborg receives a "written by" credit.

A trailer for Cool It is here. The movie's official website is here.

15 October 2010

Green Business Blog Carnival #19

Another selection of the best of the green business blogs! They guess your weight and tell your fortune in carnival midway style.

(Check Ecolocalizer to see last week's show if you missed it. The sidebar to the right has links to past Carnivals.)

The Greatest Posts on Earth

  • Jaime Nack of Three Squares Inc. posts A Small Green Business Take on Prop 23 at TriplePundit. As a small business owner she sees how "Proposition 23 would undermine the laws that support the rapidly expanding green technology and business sector." Follow TriplePundit's ongoing series about California’s Proposition 23.
  • Dan Yurman posts about Spain's erratic energy policy at Idaho Samizdat: Nuke Notes. Once the darling of Europe for solar energy, the country now dithers over future choices without the capital to execute its plans.
  • Green Prophet notes Israeli Companies Make "Global Cleantech 100" Guardian List in a post by Karin Kloosterman. "It’s no secret that Israeli cleantech companies and their products are hot commodities. Now in: the Cleantech Group just announced their global list, the Global Cleantech 100 for the second year running, and it’s no surprise that Israeli companies earned 8 of the 100 spots. Five of the companies are listed as being based in Israel; two of them, though founded by Israelis are based in the United States." Karen has interviewed and written feature stories on all of them, except CellEra.
  • At CalFinder Jeanne posts a Quiz: 7 Signs Your Company is a Treehugger (Or Greenwashing Machine!) Is your office on the track to sustainability or is it a green mirage? A simple test to determine which direction your company is headed and how you can change the attitude around the water cooler.
  • Marta Iglesias posts on the CleanTechies blog: LG Electronics Unveils Plans to Enter US Solar Market. Korean giant "LG plans to capitalize on its existing footprint outside of the US, but it will have to battle hard with well-established American players like First Solar, a thin film leader in the US, or Sunpower, a US leader in monocrystalline, as well as big Chinese competitors such as Suntech or Trina Solar".
  • At Eco-Libris Raz Godelnik considers Saving trees or softer touch for the butt? It seems that this is the question consumers have to ask themselves if they're considering using toilet paper made of 100% recycled paper. "Right now, according to NRDC, just 10% of the paper products for home contain recycled content." [This Carnival post is almost entirely recycled content!--Ed.]
  • Editor's Choice--Doris de Guzman has a good post about Stonyfield Farm's adoption of bioplastic packaging at the ICIS Green Chemicals blog:  Stonyfield yogurt cups from PLA. In addition to her writeup there is video from Stonyfield and a link to its life cycle analysis of PLA cups vs. polystyrene ones. Doris consistently has interesting information in a blog well worth following. Polymers are in everybody's supply chain.
  • Here at Doc's Green Blog we analyzed Google's investments and projects in cleantech and green. What have they been up to? Where are they going? See if you can spot trends in the 26 items listed. Are they becoming more focused? "A company this creative, and with this much money, will keep trying new things."

Thanks to all who submitted their favorite posts for this week's Carnival!

The Traveling Carnival

Green Business Bloggers take note! You can submit items for future editions of the Green Business Blog Carnival here. Why not publicize your blog, share your insights, and get some links and traffic? Test your strength!

See the schedule for upcoming hosts of the Carnival. If you would like to host an upcoming edition on your very own blog, tha page also tells you how to volunteer. Thanks to Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at Sustainablog and the team at Triple Pundit for keeping this Carnival on the road.

14 October 2010

What Is Google Doing In Cleantech?

Google Inc. has invested a lot in cleantech and green ventures. Is there any pattern? Here is a summary of Google's investments and projects to date, and thoughts about where it is going.

The Arms of Google

Google has several "arms" where cleantech activities reside.

What Google Has Been Up To

Project or Investment Date Arm Comments
Makani Power
$10 million series A funding for company developing Airborne Wind Turbines
on-site solar
Google Initiatives
1.6 megawatt solar power system on Mountain View campus buildings from EI Solutions (now Suntech Power)
"effort within Google.org that aims to reduce CO2 emissions, cut oil use, and stabilize the electrical grid by accelerating the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles"; includes a demonstration fleet of plug-ins at corporate headquarters in Mountain View.
plug-in hybrids
worked with Hymotion/A123Systems to create fleet of plug-in hybrids for research
Innovate or Die Pedal-Powered Machine Challenge 2007-09-24
collaborated with Specialized and Goodby Silverstein & Partners on YouTube video contest on harnessing pedal power in innovative ways, with prizes of $5,000 in cash and Specialized Globe bikes
"joint Google.org+Google.com climate team created RE<C"; "RE<C will work to develop one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity – enough to power a city the size of San Francisco – at a price cheaper than coal in years, not decades. As part of this effort, Google.org is making strategic investments and grants, advancing key public policies, and using Google products to unlock critical information." Includes EGS project and investments. [Update 2011 11 23: program terminated. See last item this official Google blog post.]
Clean Energy 2030

Google's Proposal for reducing U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Text here.
$10 million invested in utility-scale concentrating solar power; also participated in later round
BrightSource Energy
$10 million equity investment as part of RE<C initiative
lithium ion battery start-up; investment through RechargeIT program; $2.75 million between ActaCell and Aptera.
Aptera Motors
electric vehicle start-up; investment through RechargeIT program; $2.75 million between ActaCell and Aptera.
Enhanced Geothermal Systems
an effort to advance EGS through R&D, investment, policy and information. Investments in Potter Drilling, AltaRock Energy, Inc., Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab and Stanford University
Potter Drilling
$4 million investment to develop breakthrough hard rock drilling technologies for EGS
AltaRoc Energy, Inc.
$6.25 million investment to develop EGS technologies and projects
Southern Methodist University Geothermal Lab
$489,521 grant to improve geothermal resource assessment techniques and update the Geothermal Map of North America; recent update here
Stanford University

$135,000 award to research advanced well concepts (part of EGS)
Silver Spring Networks
Google Ventures
Smart grid technology company
V-Vehicle Company
Google Ventures
Energy-efficient vehicle company
Google PowerMeter
free home energy monitor software; collaborating with energy monitor hardware partners and utilities
Google Earth Engine
computational platform for global-scale analysis of satellite imagery to monitor changes in key environmental indicators like forest coverage
mirror technology

developed prototype new mirror technology for concentrating solar power applications
NextEra Energy Resources investment
Google Initiatives
$38.8 million direct investment in a two NextEra Energy Resources wind farms that generate 169.5 megawatts of power in North Dakota
NextEra Energy Resources PPA
Google Initiatives
bulk power purchase of clean energy from 114 megawatts of wind generation at the NextEra Energy Resources Story County II facility in Iowa; 20-year PPA and also buying RECs in bulk
Google Initiatives
as part of its Project 10^100 Google awarded $1 million to this human-powered transit project
self-driving cars
Google Initiatives
Google hired leading developers and has built and tested cars that can drive themselves, logging 140,000 miles so far
Atlantic Wind Connection
Google Initiatives (?)
Google to provide 37.5% of the equity for initial development stage of project to build offshore high-capacity transmission line off Eastern Seaboard

The company also has a lot of internal energy-efficiency and emission-offset activities, and other green stuff like bike-sharing and goats as lawnmowers.

Where are they going?

At a recent event Bill Weihl, head of Google's renewable energy team, admitted that the RE<C initiative hasn't found as many attractive investment opportunities lately. "It's a little bit bleak," Reuters quotes him as saying. "There aren't that many people working on home runs" to cheap energy, he continued, adding, "We have not seen things that we felt were big enough potential breakthrough and low enough risk."

Greentech Media asked "Has Google’s Green Strategy Begun to Make Sense?" It concludes that the investments have been "a mixed bag" and in some cases "downright wacky", but notes that now it "wants to apply its core competence -- artificial intelligence -- in the realm of efficiency". "Overall, the navigation system fits in much better with Google's strengths than VC investing or solar thermal. Presumably, you can expect more of this sort of thing."

I find it interesting that Google was the sponsor of the "Transportation" category in the California region of the Cleantech Open competition this year. Back in 2007 they sponsored the "Green Building" category. 

There is an apparent shift from pure venture investing and spaghetti-to-wall projects toward three areas of emphasis:
  • Energy efficiency in computing, which is crucial to Google's bottom line,
  • Acquiring supplies of clean energy, which will also reduce the carbon footprint of its data centers, and
  • Application of its core decision-making tools and web resources to clean technology, as in its Google Earth projects, PowerMeter and self-driving vehicles.
Certainly all of Google's public sustainability activities also function to buff the "green" image of the company. The primary benefit of this may be to help attract and retain the best talent. Google has always emphasized the psychic benefits of working there, and green issues are easy to communicate and have a strong "feel good" component.

A company this creative, and with this much money, will keep trying new things.

[Update 2011 11 23: RE<C project closed]

11 October 2010

Cleantech Open: $180,000 to California Finalists

The Cleantech Open, the world’s largest cleantech business competition, announced the finalists in its California competition for 2010 last Friday.
The mission of the Cleantech Open is to find, fund, and foster the big ideas that address today’s most urgent energy, environmental, and economic challenges.
Finalists were selected in each of six categories by teams of judges at an all-day event at the San Ramon campus of Cleantech Open Global Partner Chevron. Each category winner received a prize package worth $30,000 in cash/investment and services (and a handsome framed certificate). A listing of the categories and the 36 semi-finalists is here.

One of the six California finalists will be named the California Regional Winner and receive an additional $20,000 in cash/investment and services, and go on to compete with the other regional winners.

On November 17th in San José one of the five regional winners will be crowned National Winner at a National Award and Expo event and will get a $250,000 prize package of investment and additional services.

And The Winners Are . . .

In the Air, Water and Waste category: FogBusters, who have developed an oil/water separator to help food processors and similar companies remove fats, oils and grease from their wastwater streams. The extracted oil can be sold as biodiesel feedstock, and the cost of wastewater treatment can be significantly reduced.

For Energy Efficiency: Suntulit, developers of advanced technologies to affordably improve energy efficiency. Their first product is SMART HVAC, which provides homeowners with the comfort of an expensive multi-zone system and greater efficiency than existing energy management solutions.

In Green Building: Stramit Strawboard, makers of green strawboard building panels with better insulation and higher strength properties to replace gypsum based sheet rock.

In the Renewables category: Pure Solar. They are developing a laser processing technology targeting <15 cents per watt manufacture of c-Si wafers for solar cell production.

The Smart Power winner was SmartSense, which is working to commercialize the first wireless sensor that can both predict and detect faults in underground utility distribution systems.

The Transportation award went to Pressure Sentinel, makers of a $25 device that keeps tires at optimum pressure automatically. Using the Automatic Tire Inflation System, trucking companies could save $1000 per truck per year on gas, tires, and tire-related expenses caused by routine maintenance and emergency road calls.

Finally, Bellweather Materials was selected as the most sustainable of all the California entries. They are a triple bottom line company that transforms sustainable agricultural waste into green building insulation. Using wool that has no market in the U.S., they have developed a simple, easy-to-use and install insulation batt for buildings.

Congratulations to these California finalists, and to all the other regional finalists from the Pacific Northwest, Rocky Mountain, North Central and Northeast regions. See you at the National Awards and Expo event on 17th November!

05 October 2010

Is "Dangerous Interference" Inevitable?

[Shared from sister blog A Very Different Earth.]

Should We Just Throw In The Towel?

The Stern Review warned that adapting to climate change would be significantly more expensive than avoiding it in the first place (see this earlier post). But the opportunity to slow or reduce ("mitigate") climate change may have been lost.

It may already be too late. Now we have to start facing the costs of adaptation to inevitable changes.

At least that is the gist of a recent report by a British expert committee, and accompanying comments by the UK's new environment secretary.

And other evidence, from scientific research and from China's continued rapid economic growth, with corresponding increases in energy consumption, suggests that we will substantially overshoot the proposed target of 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels.

Yet more research suggests that the 2°C target was in the danger zone anyway.

So here is the information summarized in this post:
  • China's growth takes us past targets
  • 2°C target was too low
  • We can't stay below 2°C anyway
  • UK Environment Minister: Change inevitable

Soaring Chinese Growth

A recent article in Reuters noted that the International Energy Agency suggested that China's greenhouse gas emissions could rise to a peak of about 8.4 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by around 2020 and then begin to decline. Such a scenario would still allow global warming to be kept below about 2°C above pre-industrial levels--a supposedly "safe" level.

But the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency in their report "No growth in total global CO2 emissions in 2009" estimate that China's emissions from fuel burning reached 8.1 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2009, and India's reached 1.7 billion tonnes. (Press release here, PDF of report here.) China's emissions rose at 9% and India's at 6%. At that rate China will easily exceed 8.4 billion tonnes of emissions by 2010 or 2011.

The almost-global recession caused emissions to drop in developed economies, but increases in developing economies largely canceled out such reductions.

(Note that "The assessment excludes CO2 emissions from deforestation and logging, forest and peat fires, from post-burn decay of remaining above-ground biomass, and from decomposition of organic carbon in drained peat soils. The latter mostly affects developing countries. These sources could add as much as a further 20% to global CO2 emissions." Source)

Even with proposed "efficiency gains, China's expected rapid economic growth will push its absolute volume of emissions to between 9.6 and 10.1 billion tonnes of CO2 per year by 2020, compared with 5.2 billion tonnes in 2005, according to a study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences," said Reuters.

Keeping Warming Below 2°C Won't Save Us

A lot of international discussion, and the Copenhagen Accord, mention the idea that if we can keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels we will avoid "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system". This target now seems dubious. Maybe it should be 1.5°C or even lower.

Chris S.M. Turney and Richard T. Jones of the University of Exeter have published "Does the Agulhas Current amplify global temperatures during super-interglacials?" in the Journal of Quaternary Science (full text here). They looked at climate during the Last Interglacial, spanning the period from about 130 to 116 thousand years ago, when sea level was 6.6–9.4 meters higher than today. The question was, what was the global temperature then? And, what were the mechanisms of regional distribution of that warming?

With the usual caveats, "Our results suggest the world was 1.5 ± 0.1°C warmer than the period AD 1961–1990". (The underlying drivers of warming at that time were changes in the amount of energy reaching the Earth from the Sun, due to variations in the Earth's orbit, and resulting changes in the carbon cycle.) They believe that warming in the southern hemisphere altered prevailing winds and thus ocean currents, allowing more upwelling of carbon-rich deep waters thus amplifying warming in the northern hemisphere.

The authors note that similar changes in southern-hemisphere winds and ocean currents seem to be happening today, and that similar feedbacks driving more warming may occur.

They go on to say, "if our estimate of global temperatures during the LIG is broadly correct and was higher than pre-industrial levels by ∼1.9°C, this leads us to question whether a 2°C target for stabilising global temperatures should be considered ‘safe’", since sea levels were so much higher back then at those temperatures.

Many others have raised similar concerns. See this review of James Hansen's book.

We're Going to Overshoot 2°C Anyway

A recent paper by Rogelj et al. in Environmental Research Letters, "Analysis of the Copenhagen Accord pledges and its global climatic impacts—a snapshot of dissonant ambitions", points out that if you total up the emission-reduction "pledges" made in the Copenhagen Accord the resulting rates of continuing emissions are very likely to take us past 2°C of warming. They find, regarding the developed countries:
Ultimately, even the optimistic interpretation of the Accord's pledges results in effective reductions by 2020 far outside the 25–40% range of aggregated emission reductions for developed countries specified in Box 13.7 of IPCC AR4. That box provided data for the lowest category of analysed mitigation scenarios which stabilize atmospheric CO2eq concentrations between 445 and 490 ppm CO2eq and have a best estimate global temperature increase of 2.0–2.4 °C at equilibrium.
Taking the countries at their word, the authors estimate global annual emissions of around 50 Gigatonnes CO2 equivalent in 2020, up from about 39 GtCO2eq in 1990 and 49 GtCO2eq in 2004. They estimate that global emissions would reach 55 GtCO2eq by 2050. To keep us under 2°C warming the estimated emissions in 2050 would have to be closer to 17 GtCO2eq. They figure that "Case 1 with reference growth after 2020 results in a likely global temperature increase of 2.5–4.2 °C above pre-industrial in 2100 and is still increasing afterwards."

Thus even if the various countries deliver on their pledges to decrease (or, in some cases, increase) their emissions those emissions are likely going to take us above 490 ppm and above 2°C. (The conclusion of the paper is too depressing to quote, but I include it in a footnote.)

The UK Climate Change Committee Report

The Adaptation Subcommittee of the UK Committee on Climate Change has issued a report "How well prepared is the UK for climate change?". The report says that because of current and projected future climate change, the UK should be thinking about what its inhabitants, companies and institutions should be doing to deal with the impacts of that change.
Preparing for climate change today will reduce the costs and damages of a changing climate and allow UK businesses, the public sector, the third sector and individuals to take advantage of potential opportunities. Early action will help make the UK better prepared for today’s climate and ensure that decisions made today that have long-lasting consequences do not close off options and make it harder to adapt in the future.
They go on to make various specific recommendations. Access the Adaptation Subcommittee's report here. (About the committee.)

But the really interesting development was a speech given by new UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman on the occasion of the report's launch. She said:
Today’s report provides a wake-up call. It recognises that there is no part of our society which is immune from the effects of climate change. Which means that every part of our society must think about its resilience. ... This Government will not give up the battle to tackle the causes of climate change. ... But while it is vital that we continue the task of drastically cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, we know that we are already facing levels of unavoidable climate change. ... And UK climate change projections suggest even higher temperatures and more severe weather in the coming years. ... If more than 75% of our businesses remain unprotected we are in danger of ending up with a two-tier commercial sector - those that have adapted successfully and those who didn’t see it coming. ... What Government can do is provide them with information and models to help them calculate the risks. ... And the transition to a low carbon, well-adapted global economy could create hundreds of thousands of sustainable ‘green’ jobs.
(PDF of the speech here. Article about the speech in The Telegraph here.)

That sounds to me like a change in emphasis. "Low carbon" efforts will not be enough. Everybody has to start thinking, and acting, to protect themselves from the negative impacts of inevitable climate change. There is particular emphasis on getting companies and local authorities to analyze their risks and address them, using tools (but not necessarily money) provided by the government.

Get ready for a very different Earth.

Graph from Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, June 2010, No growth in total global CO2 emissions in 2009 (pdf here) by permission.

The Chris S.M. Turney and Richard T. Jones paper is Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.  Quotations used under fair use standards.

The Rogelj et al. is © IOP Publishing 2010. Quoted under fair use standards.

Conclusion of Rogelj et al. paper:
If the average national ambition level for 2020 is not substantially improved and loopholes closed in the continued negotiations, only low probability options remain for reaching the 2 °C (and possible 1.5 °C) ambition of the Accord. Most developed country submissions to the Accord indicate that only with a global and comprehensive agreement countries are inclined to commit to more, and likewise for developing countries the required level of support through financing, technology and capacity building is needed. With the negotiation mandates having been extended to the end of 2010, committing to higher ambitions and agreement by all Parties still remains possible. It is clear from this analysis that higher ambitions for 2020 are necessary to keep the options for 2 and 1.5 °C open without relying on potentially infeasible reduction rates after 2020. In addition, the absence of a mid-century emission goal—towards which Parties as a whole can work and which can serve as a yardstick of whether interim reductions by 2020 and 2030 are on the right track—is a critical deficit in the overall ambition level of the Copenhagen Accord.

01 October 2010

Climate Change--What We Know and What's Uncertain

[Crossposted from Science In Action]

The Royal Society has published Climate change: A summary of the science. It has the aim "to summarise the current scientific evidence on climate change and its drivers." It is focused on how Earth's climate is changing and what is making it change. "The impacts of climate change, as distinct from the causes," are not considered.

Although the summary tries to be as non-technical as possible, it is after all a summary of the science, so it incorporates some scientific terminology necessary to convey the facts. It also includes some numbers, such as "240" and "3.6".

The report attempts to clarify which aspects of climate change science are widely agreed, which others have achieved consensus but where further research is expected to give more clarity, and which are not yet well understood.

It begins with a dozen paragraphs of "some background science", explaining very broadly what the greenhouse effect is, what is meant by "climate forcing" and "climate change", and why what may seem like small forcings of a few Watts per square meter can create the profound climate changes seen over past millennia.

At the risk of offering a précis of a summary, here are some of the key points of the report.

Aspects of climate change on which there is wide agreement

  • "Averaged over the globe, the surface has warmed by about 0.8°C (with an uncertainty of about ±0.2°C) since 1850."
  • "Each decade since the 1970s has been clearly warmer (given known uncertainties) than the one immediately preceding it. The decade 2000-2009 was, globally, around 0.15°C warmer than the decade 1990-1999."
  • Other changes include "increases in the average temperature of both the upper 700m of the ocean and the troposphere (the atmosphere up to 10-18km), widespread (though not universal) decreases in the length of mountain glaciers and increases in average sea level."
  • "Global-average CO2 concentrations have been observed to increase from levels of around 280 parts per million (ppm) in the mid-19th century to around 388 ppm by the end of 2009."
  • "Present-day concentrations are higher than any that have been observed in the past 800,000 years, when CO2 varied between about 180 and 300 ppm."
  • "Various lines of evidence point strongly to human activity being the main reason for the recent increase, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas) with smaller contributions from land-use changes and cement manufacture."
  • "About half of the CO2 emitted by human activity since the industrial revolution has remained in the atmosphere."
  • "The concentration of methane has more than doubled in the past 150 years; this recent and rapid increase is unprecedented in the 800,000 year record and evidence strongly suggests that it arises mainly as a result of human activity."
  • "These additional gases have caused a climate forcing during the industrial era of around 2.9 Wm-2 [Watt per square meter], with an uncertainty of about ±0.2 Wm-2."
  • "The net effect of all human activity has caused a positive climate forcing of around 1.6 Wm-2 with an estimated uncertainty of about ±0.8 Wm-2."
  • "Changes in CO2 can lead to climate change and climate change can also alter the concentrations of CO2."

Aspects of climate change where there is a wide consensus but continuing debate and discussion

  • "Current understanding indicates that even if there was a complete cessation of emissions of CO2 today from human activity, it would take several millennia for CO2 concentrations to return to preindustrial concentrations."
  • "Natural forcing due to sustained variations in the energy emitted by the Sun over the past 150 years is estimated to be small (about 0.12 Wm-2)" but this remains an active area of research.
  • "Particles have caused a negative climate forcing of around 0.5 Wm-2 with an uncertainty of ±0.2 Wm-2."
  • "Climate models indicate that the overall climate sensitivity (for a hypothetical doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere) is likely to lie in the range 2°C to 4.5°C," with this wide range due to "uncertainties in how much water vapour amounts will change, and how these changes will be distributed in the atmosphere, in response to a warming."
  • "Unless [internal climate variability] has been grossly underestimated,
    the observed climate change must result from natural and/or human-induced climate forcing."
  • "When only natural climate forcings are put into climate models, the models are incapable of reproducing the size of the observed increase in global-average surface temperatures over the past 50 years. However, when the models include estimates of forcings resulting from human activity, they can reproduce the increase."
  • "The observed vertical and latitudinal variations of temperature change are also broadly consistent with those expected from a dominant role for human activity. There is an ongoing controversy concerning whether or not the increased warming with height in the tropical regions given by climate models is supported by satellite measurements."
  • "The IPCC’s best estimate was that globally averaged surface temperatures would be between 2.5 - 4.7°C higher by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. The full range of projected temperature increases by 2100 was found to be 1.8 - 7.1°C based on the various scenarios and uncertainties in climate sensitivity."
  • "Climate models tend to predict that precipitation will generally increase in areas with already high amounts of precipitation and generally decrease in areas with low amounts of precipitation."
  • "Because of the thermal expansion of the ocean, it is very likely that for many centuries the rate of global sea-level rise will be at least as large as the rate of 20 cm per century that has been observed over the past century."

Aspects that are not well understood

  • "Projections of climate change are sensitive to the details of the representation of clouds in models. Particles originating from both human activities and natural sources have the potential to strongly influence the properties of clouds, with consequences for estimates of climate forcing. Current scientific understanding of this effect is poor." [Or, as Joni Mitchell wrote in 1967, "I've looked at clouds from both sides now, From up and down and still somehow, It's cloud's illusions I recall; I really don't know clouds at all."] 
  • "The future strength of the uptake of CO2 by the land and oceans (which together are currently responsible for taking up about half of the emissions from human activity…) is very poorly understood, particularly because of gaps in our understanding of the response of biological processes to changes in both CO2 concentrations and climate."
  • "There is currently insufficient understanding of the enhanced melting and retreat of the ice sheets on Greenland and West Antarctica to predict exactly how much the rate of sea level rise will increase above that observed in the past century ... for a given temperature increase."
  • "There is little confidence in specific projections of future regional climate change, except at continental scales."

The authors conclude

  • "There is strong evidence that changes in greenhouse gas concentrations due to human activity are the dominant cause of the global warming that has taken place over the last half century. This warming trend is expected to continue as are changes in precipitation over the long term in many regions. Further and more rapid increases in sea level are likely which will have profound implications for coastal communities and ecosystems."
  • "Like many important decisions, policy choices about climate change have to be made in the absence of perfect knowledge. Even if the remaining uncertainties were substantially resolved, the wide variety of interests, cultures and beliefs in society would make consensus about such choices difficult to achieve. However, the potential impacts of climate change are sufficiently serious that important decisions will need to be made. Climate science – including the substantial body of knowledge that is already well established, and the results of future research – is the essential basis for future climate projections and planning, and must be a vital component of public reasoning in this complex and challenging area."
A nice effort by the Royal Society. What we know is sobering. What we don't know is scary. The fact that we don't know everything is unsurprising. That we know so much is among the great achievements of science over the past few decades. That we are unable to deal with the problem, or that some even deny that it is a problem, is just human nature.

The report is available in PDF here.

The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge, better known as just the "Royal Society", is one of the world's premiere national scientific organizations. It acts as the United Kingdom's "academy of sciences".

29 September 2010

Geoengineering Today

Geoengineering . . . You're Looking At It

"Geoengineering" refers to large-scale efforts to manipulate the climate. There are several current and recent activities that have been undertaken for other purposes, but which have the effect of changing climate, for good or ill.

We will set aside the deliberate release of 25 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases from combustion of fossil fuels each year, a geoengineering "experiment" that seems already to be creating many interesting effects. Although this is one of the largest geoengineering projects ever undertaken, it has been discussed in some detail elsewhere.

The three current geoengineering programs this post will consider are:
  • China's "Great Green Wall"
  • Large-scale expansion of irrigation
  • Large-scale deforestation

Afforestation Changes The Climate

Since 1978 China has been engaged in a vast project that has been called the "Great Green Wall". In 1981 the National People’s Congress passed a resolution to require every citizen above age 11 to plant at least three Poplar, Eucalyptus, Larch or other saplings every year. [Source] Afforestation has already covered 500,000 square kilometres with new artificial forest, and China hopes to have such forests on 400 million hectares--more than 42% of its land area--by 2050.

Chinese Vice Premier Hui Liangyu recently called for even greater efforts to increase China's forest cover.

The immediate goal of this program is to slow the encroachment of desert from the north and west into areas formerly grassland. Whether artificial forests can do this remains to be seen. And there are some concerns about other effects, such as increased water use. [More at Wikipedia.] A similar effort was the shelterbelt program in the U.S. Great Plains in the 1930s, but that was not on a Chinese scale.

Since forests affect the water cycle, albedo, and cloud cover of an area they can be expected to modify the local climate, and perhaps the climate downwind.

Irrigation Changes The Climate

Large programs of crop irrigation in Asia and North America result in large quantities of water evaporating from fields and water channels, and by transpiration through plants.

Because of the latent heat of water, more evaporation means more cooling in some places, and more rain means more warming in other places.  A recent article in the Journal of Geophysical Research (pdf here, New York Times Green blog post about it here) says irrigation may be causing cooling in some regions, locally masking the effects of global warming.

The model runs reported in this paper suggest that parts of northern India may have experienced several degrees of cooling due to all the heat absorbed by irrigation water applied to crops in the later part of the 20th century. Weather patterns may even have been affected enough to reduce the amount of rain in the Bay of Bengal branch of the Southwest Monsoon. (Other researchers got somewhat different or even contradictory results with different models.)

This is a bit scary because if groundwater depletion leads to reduction in irrigation in the future, the resulting reduction of cooling effect could have both local an regional climate effects, including sharply higher temperatures and changes in rainfall amounts and distribution.

Deforestation Changes The Climate

Large-scale deforestation for conversion of forest to pasture or cropland is an old story.  Such deforestation took place over much of Europe and temperate North America in earlier centuries. A similar massive land-use change was the breaking up of the American prairie grasslands for farming in the 19th century.

When forests are burned (the usual method) to clear them for agriculture the carbon trapped in the trees is dumped into the atmosphere. Soot and other particulates are also released in great quantities. Both CO2 and black carbon have significant local and global effects on climate.

The Nature Conservancy says "deforestation and land use change contributes approximately 20 to 25 percent of the carbon emissions that cause climate change." This Wikipedia article on per-capita greenhouse gas emissions by country, which uses data from the World Resources Institute for 2000, suggests land-use changes account for about 17% of greenhouse gas emissions.

So land-use changes, mostly deforestation, annually release about the same amount of greenhouse gases as the USA or China does from all burning of fossil fuels.

The Future of Geoengineering

Several enormous geoengineering projects have been discussed as ways to undo some of the damage the earlier geoengineering projects mentioned above are causing. This previous post looks at some of the limitations and potential impacts of such schemes. Whether such consequences are "unintended", "unavoidable", or "somebody else's problem" will be part of the discussion of these projects in years to come.

24 September 2010

Green Blogs List

What is a Green Blog?

There is no clear line between blogs and many other web-based information channels. Many lists of "blogs" on the web include a lot of sites that are not blogs in any useful sense of the word. So here is a new, focused list of green blogs.

It does not include sites that are purely news channels or the web presences of news or trade magazines. It emphasizes blogs that are not commercial projects with paid staff. It also emphasizes blogs with information of interest to businesses, so it is light on lifestyle blogs.

That said, here is my subjective list of the green blogs (in English) that are most worth reading. I follow many of these for Daily Green Brief.

Please use the comment panel below to add your suggestions, complaints and corrections.

List of Green Blogs

Blog Comments
Autoblog Green Cars
businessGreen blog
Cleantech Blog
CleanTechies blog Part of the CleanTechies portal
CleanTechnica Part of the Important Media network
Climate Progress Politics; a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund
Coal Tattoo Coal
Daily Green Brief
Doc's Green Blog With bay area events list
Eco-Libris blog Eco-Libris greens the publishing industry
EcoGeek Apps and hardware
George Monbiot's blog Carried in The Guardian
GigaOM Cleantech Formerly earth2tech
Green Building Elements Part of the Important Media network
Green Prophet Middle East
Greenspace blog Part of the Los Angeles Times
Guardian Environment blog Part of The Guardian
Huffington Post green blog
ICIS Green Chemicals Chemicals industry
Idaho Samizdat: Nuke Notes Nuclear
Inhabitat Green design
Marc Gunther's blog
Mongabay Tropical forests, conservation, and wildlife
New York Times Dot Earth blog Part of the New York Times opinion section; Andrew Revkin's column
New York Times Green blog Part of The New York Times science section
One Block Off The Grid Blog Solar; 1BOG is a solar group purchasing site
Planetsave Part of the Important Media network
RealClimate Science
RenewableEnergyWorld blog
Reuters Environment blog Part of Thompson Reuters
Roger Pielke Jr.'s Blog
SolveClimate Blog and news aggregator
Switchboard Staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council
The Oil Drum Fossil fuels
The Wonk Room -- Climate Politics; a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund
TriplePundit Both blog-type posts and items by staff writers
Watts Up With That? "green" climate skeptic
Yale Environment 360 "a publication of the Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies"

The World of Green Blogs

Blogs come in many flavors.
  • Some are personal, independent projects (like this one).
  • Some are still personal, but have sponsors. An example is Joseph Romm's Climate Progress, a project of The Center for American Progress Action Fund
  • Some that were started as blogs have become elaborate corporate web portals, like Treehugger, owned by Discovery Communications.
  • Others, while part of corporate web systems, have maintained their informal, lightly edited, community-oriented blog character, such as Autoblog Green, which is owned by AOL Inc. 
  • Many "blogs" are run by mainstream media companies such as The New York Times or The Guardian. They are more like columns than blogs. Nonetheless I have included some of them in the list.
  • Some have grown from personal into entrepreneurial enterprises as their proprietors struggle to find ways to make them pay.
  • Some are aggregators, like Matter Network, an "alliance of web publishers".
One factor that helps distinguish a blog from a news site or commercial site is its rights policy. I look for a Creative Commons license rather than an "all rights reserved" copyright. Also, a blog should ideally have an identifiable author or group of regular authors. I am consciously excluding the many commercial news sites that are sometimes seen in lists of blogs, such as Environmental Leader and Biofuels Digest.

Green Blog Directories

There are several directories of green blogs, but of varying quality.
  • technorati has a separate green directory where blogs are ranked automatically using the site's "authority" metric. There are a lot of non-blogs in the list, and some quality blogs have inexplicably low scores (e.g. George Monbiot with a green score of 116). But in general the blogs are ranked in a way that seems to correspond to their real value.
  • Alternative Energy News maintains the Energy Planet renewable energy directory. It has all sorts of green sites, not just blogs.
  • Green Blog List exists, but its search function doesn't seem to work.
  • Best Green Blogs seems no longer to be accepting free listings. Many top blogs not listed (e.g. Autoblog Green).
  • The Open Directory Project, and the directories based on it, and many other directories, don't have a home for green. Green blogs are widely scattered. For instance Grist is under "Science: Environment: News and Media" while George Monbiot's blog is under "Regional: Europe: United Kingdom: News and Media: Journalists" and Climate Progress is under "Society: Issues: Environment: Climate Change". Many of the blogs in my list do not appear in dmoz at all. This is why I thought this list would be useful.
Again, I encourage and appreciate your comments.

(By the way, check out the ongoing Green Business Blog Carnival fostered by Sustainablog and the team at Triple Pundit.)

Other blogs of interest:
environmentalresearchweb blog
GreenBiz blogs

17 September 2010

Green Business Blog Carnival No. 15

The Green Business Blog Carnival brings you the best of the blogs every week. Admission is free! Top posts from leading green blogs around the world.

So grab a corn dog or a deep-fried Twinkie® and check out the midway for thrilling rides, tests of strength and skill, and attractions for the whole family!

Check Planetsave to see last week's Carnival if you missed it. (There is a list here in the sidebar to the right with links to all of the past Carnivals.)

The Greatest Posts on Earth

What does "green building" mean in Haiti, where whole neighborhoods have been reduced to rubble? Thera Kalmijn begins to answer this question at Matter Network, in part 1 of a series of 3 posts about "Rebuilding a Sustainable Haiti: Best Green Building Practices in Developing Countries".

Raz at Eco-Libris posts an extensive interview with Greenpeace Senior Campaigner Rolf Skar, replying to Ian Lifshitz, Sustainability and Public Outreach Manager at Asia Pulp and Paper. More in the continuing APP saga.

Nick Aster at Triple Pundit asks "Are You Ready for Opportunity Green?" and "What conferences are you going to this year?" He says that with Opportunity Green, Net Impact, West Coast Green, and SoCap all on the radar it's hard to pick. Like the barker at our Carnival, he says, "Come Over to 3p and view our events sidebar for some of the best, including how to get useful discounts!" Come one, come all!

Kerry Given at Green Marketing TV posts about How Ceres Is Helping Businesses Go Green. Non-profit Ceres [not to be confused with Ceres, Inc.] has created several major programs for businesses and investors including the Ceres Roadmap to Sustainability, the Global Reporting Initiative, Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, and the Investor Network on Climate Risk, each briefly profiled in this post.

Editor's Wild Card: Marc Gunther posts about the Progressive Automotive X Prize results. And the winner is . . . The Edison2 Very Light Car 98, a 4-seater that achieved the equivalent of 100.3 miles per gallon with a one-cylinder engine burning an E85 blend. The Edison2 team collected $5 million. Another $5 million was split by two specialty EV entries.

Editor's Super Bonus: Post from Jennifer Kaplan at Ecopreneurist looks at how California Chambers of Commerce Members Prove Energy Efficiency is Profitable. Small Business California has published a new booklet, "32 Examples of Chambers of Commerce & Chamber Members in California: Leading the Clean Energy Economy", which profiles local California chambers of commerce and their members who are demonstrating how recovering profits through energy efficiency can help strengthen the chamber, its business members and the community. Post links to the free booklet.

Here at Doc's Green Blog we analyzed a recent article in the journal Energy, "A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis". Translation: "Peak coal is here". Interesting implications for energy policy if it's true.

Our sister blog Daily Green Brief selects, links to and comments on top green news for business. Yesterday's post, for example, noted items on carbon trade barriers, the UK push toward adaptation, coal issues in India, China and at the World Bank, plus other news for and about sustainable businesses.

Thanks to all who submitted their favorite posts for this week's Carnival!

The Continuing Carnival

Green Business Bloggers take note! You can submit items for future editions of the Green Business Blog Carnival here. Why not publicize your blog, share your insights, and get some links and traffic?

See the schedule for upcoming hosts of the Carnival. If you would like to host an upcoming edition on your very own blog, this page also tells you how to volunteer. Thanks to Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at Sustainablog and the team at Triple Pundit for organizing the Carnival and managing the details.

Next Friday go to the Viv Business Club blog for more Carnival action!

13 September 2010

Storms of My Grandchildren--James Hansen

Serious Science for Critical Times

Storms of My Grandchildren cover imageDr. James Hansen has written a personal, idiosyncratic, urgent, heartfelt book about climate change, past and future. The reader can feel his frustration at the stubborn inaction of governments in the face of what he sees as a looming disaster. But one also feels the warmth, the grandfatherliness, advertised by the book's title. Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity is more than half science, but it is part emotion. Scientists are people too.

The book's message in brief: It's worse than we thought, and here's why. Politicians are subservient to fossil fuel polluters. We have to do something about it unless we want to leave our descendants a severely damaged, and perhaps uninhabitable, world.

Hansen, in spite of the public role he has felt called upon to play, is 100% scientist. The book's structure uses his own journey as a researcher, and as an expert called upon to brief government leaders, to explain a lot of serious science. Climate forcings, paleoclimatology, aerosols, and more are presented to the reader in more depth than is usual for a book targeted at the general public.

Science of Climate Change

graph from Fig. 18
Color version of book's Figure 18
"Deep ocean temperature during the Cenozoic era"
[Do we really want to go back to the
Permian-Eocene Thermal Maximum
when sea levels were 75 meters higher?]
Some readers will be tempted to skip over some of the technical background. They will miss a fascinating part of the message. The scientific explanations are clear enough, although Dr. Hansen does take some shortcuts and requires the reader to pay attention. He has been immersed in this field for nearly 50 years and is used to its jargon, units and arguments. On the other hand this is not meant to be a textbook. Some compression and ellipsis is unavoidable. Readers who glide over the technical parts will be missing something important.

The science, Hansen is saying, is fundamental, undeniable, and convincing. He naturally feels that the reader should understand it in order to follow the argument that climate change is a serious threat to society. We may be setting in motion changes in the Earth's climate that could wipe out life on the planet and will certainly make life tougher for coming generations in this century. He urgently wants to get that message across.

Frustration with Inaction

This is a polemic. Hansen feels that politicians are in the palm of economic interests that benefit from continuing "business as usual" even in the face of urgent warnings of enormous risks. He is urging the people to take action.

His deep understanding of climate forcings and their effects in the past leads him to a much greater degree of alarm than many other scientists or environmentalists feel comfortable expressing. He has been criticized by other climate activists for lacking "a realistic idea of what is politically possible".

Hansen doesn't pull his punches. He thinks "cap and trade" is useless. He thinks expanded use of nuclear power is part of the solution. In these areas he treads beyond the strict boundaries of his expertise.

But when he says that targets like 450ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere are much too high and will lead to disaster, he speaks of science he has studied in depth. He implores us to get back to 350ppm.
A striking conclusion from this analysis is the value of carbon dioxide--only 450 ppm, with estimated uncertainty of 100 ppm--at which the transition occurs from no large ice sheets to a glaciated Antarctica. This has a clear, strong implication for what constitutes a dangerous level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. If humanity burns most of the fossil fuels, doubling or tripling the preindustrial carbon dioxide level, Earth will surely head toward the ice-free condition, with sea level 75 meters (250 feet) higher than today. It is difficult to say how long it will take for the melting to be complete, but once ice sheet disintegration gets well under way, it will be impossible to stop.

With carbon dioxide the dominant climate forcing, as it is today, it obviously would be exceedingly foolish and dangerous to allow carbon dioxide to approach 450 ppm. [p. 160]
Neither politicians nor political climate activists and thought leaders like to be told that they are being "exceedingly foolish". Yet Hansen goes further. "But maybe Congress doesn't really care about your grandchildren. [p. 215]"  "The present situation is analogous to that faced by Lincoln with slavery and Churchill with Nazism--the time for compromises and appeasement is over. [p. 211]"

A Book Worth Reading

Sophie and Connor,
Dr. Hansen's grandchildren
Dr. Hansen has decided that he knows something important, and that he must speak out about it. Not everyone will agree with the urgent, even intolerant, tone of his call to action. But it is based on true feelings founded on decades of serious science.

How the book's call to action affects you will depend on your biases and personality. Some will be moved to do something, some will be more informed but still passive, some will be annoyed, some will be indifferent. But all will have learned something.

The science that is at the heart of the book is worth seriously considering. If Hansen is right, our children, grandchildren and more distant heirs are going to curse us. We heard the message, and we are doing little or nothing. We blunder past tipping points with little concern for those who will have to live in the world we are leaving them.

Want to buy it? Click here: Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

Dr. Hansen's web site is here.

He and Dr. Makiko Sato have also created the Updating the Climate Science page to supplement and update the content of Storms of my Grandchildren.

The book's official web page is here.

Good reviews of the book at Daily Kos and the Los Angeles Times.

The color version of the book's Figure 18 is from this site.

The picture of Sophie and Connor is from here. A black-and-white version is in the book at page 272.

The contents of the book are copyright © 2009 by James Hansen. The illustrations are copyright © 2009 by Mikiko Sato.

11 September 2010

"Peak Coal" And The Future Of Energy

Is coal the fuel of the past? Will the rising price of energy from coal make alternative energy sources more economically competitive? Recent research says "Maybe."

peak coal graph from Patzek & Croft 2010
Peak Coal
How Much Coal Is There?

The large-scale burning of coal is contributing significantly to rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations, a key global forcing driving climate change. Some want rules to push for the substitution of renewable energy sources or nuclear power for coal to reduce the severity of future global warming effects. But is the amount of coal projected to be burned in "business as usual" (BAU) scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and others really there to be burned?

Tad Patzek of the University of Texas at Austin and Gregory Croft of The University of California, Berkeley, decided to find out. They contend that the stated coal reserves published by governments have a significant political component. They say, "The proved reserve numbers are the source of the myth of a 200-400 years supply of coal worldwide at the rate of production of roughly 6.5 billion tonnes per year."

So they used historical production data fitted to Hubbert curves, which predict the total amount that can be extracted from a mining resource based on past rates of extraction. They also looked at the world's coal reserves in terms of the quality of the deposits--the amount of energy produced per tonne by burning it. They say they wanted "to inject some geophysics into the debate."

They found that the peak of energy production (and CO2 emission) from coal may have nearly been reached.

Their work is reported in the journal Energy. The abstract and citation is here. (Unfortunately the full article is behind a $35.95 pay wall, unless you subscribe to Energy. You don't, do you? Hardly anybody does. This is called "secret science". Fortunately the paper is available in PDF here.) From the abstract:
We develop a base-case scenario for global coal production based on the physical multi-cycle Hubbert analysis of historical production data. ... The resulting base-case is significantly below 36 of the 40 carbon emission scenarios from the IPCC. The global peak of coal production from existing coalfields is predicted to occur close to the year 2011. The peak coal production rate is 160 EJ/y, and the peak carbon emissions from coal burning are 4.0 Gt C (15 Gt CO2) per year. After 2011, the production rates of coal and CO2 decline, reaching 1990 levels by the year 2037, and reaching 50% of the peak value in the year 2047. It is unlikely that future mines will reverse the trend predicted in this BAU scenario.
Translation: "Our statistical analysis suggests that peak coal is upon us, and that the use of coal to generate energy will decline in the future, even if more mines are dug."

A summary of their findings:
  • Both global coal production and CO2 from burning coal will peak in 2011.
  • CO2 from coal will decrease by half by 2050.

Very Different Numbers

This contradicts coal industry and even government agency forecasts. The U.S. Energy Information Administration shows continuous increase in energy from coal (almost entirely in Non-OECD Asia) in their projections to 2035. (See International Energy Outlook 2010 - Highlights. The full report is available in PDF here.)

Patzek and Croft compare their prediction of coal consumption over time with 40 IPCC scenarios developed to model future coal use and emissions. They assert, "Most of the IPCC scenarios seem to have little to do with reality predicted by the actual coal production data. In the year 2100, the physical Earth will not be producing 5-7 times more than at the peak in 2011. ... The real problem 40 years from 2009 will be an insufficient supply of fossil energy, not its overabundance, as the IPCC economists would have it."

Could newly discovered coal fields or new mining technology prevent the decline in coal production? The authors think not. "Gradual improvements in recovery percentage should fall within the base-case; only a technology that allows access to a new population of coal seams should create a new fundamental Hubbert cycle, such as in unconventional natural gas recovery in the U.S." Such technology breakthroughs are always possible. They also point out that some new fields are remote, or have environmental or water-availability issues that may hinder their ability to change the overall picture.


Barring such revolutionary technological breakthroughs, want does this analysis mean for the future of energy, and in particular for atmospheric CO2 concentrations?

They point out that lower-energy coals will become increasingly uneconomic. Coal has a significant transportation cost, which would be a higher proportion of the cost of using low-energy coal.

As coal production declines, while global energy demand continues to increase, the authors suggest that there will be an increasing emphasis on more efficient coal-to-energy technologies, such as "to gradually replace the existing electrical power generation blocks with the new ultra supercritical steam blocks (steam temperatures of 620-700 °C, and pressures of 220-250 bars), whose electrical efficiency is close to 50%, compared with the ~35% efficiency currently realized. This replacement might ultimately lower current CO2emissions from coal-fired power stations by 15/35 ≈ 40% for the same amount of electricity." They think increasing coal-fired generating capacity, as opposed to efficiency, would be a dumb idea given the future decline of coal supply.

They also say "Scarce coal will make it difficult to justify the energy penalty of CCS [carbon capture and storage at coal plants]." They feel there are cheaper and quicker ways to sequester carbon than by coal-fired carbon extraction and compression systems.

They add, "Cap-and-trade policies for carbon dioxide emissions will not be effective if the cap is set near peak emission levels, and may allow the natural decline of coal production to effectively subsidize a lack of effort on the part of energy industry."

The Phase-Out of Coal

Although the authors of this report do not say so, reduced supply of coal will drive up its price. As we try to extract more and more energy from coal we will deplete the easy-to-get-at and high-quality deposits, and have to turn to more expensive and less-energy-dense sources. Thus the production of energy from coal combustion will become more expensive. The coal itself will be more costly, and more will have to be burned to generate the same amount of power.

This will make competing sources of energy such as wind more competitive. Already Europe is projected to substantially increase its share of energy from wind, with a corresponding decrease in the share from coal.

Coal miners and coal companies have considerable political clout, which has minimized restrictions on coal use to control greenhouse gas emissions. But they can do little about the cost of coal. In the end the switch from coal to gas, nuclear and renewables may be driven more by the decline in supply of coal and its increasing cost than by national emissions-control strategies.

National Geographic has a good article about this research report.

The image is Figure 2 from Patzek and Croft, A global coal production forecast with multi-Hubbert cycle analysis, Energy, Volume 35, Issue 8, August 2010, Pages 3109-3122 at http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.energy.2010.02.009
copyright 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All of the quoted content is also copyright Elsevier. Used under Fair Use standards.