What To Do About Climate Change?

23 October, 2013

Here are the slides for my second talk in the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What To Do About Climate Change?

Like the first it’s just 15 minutes long, so it’s very terse.

I start by noting that slowing the rate of carbon burning won’t stop global warming: most carbon dioxide stays in the air over a century, though individual molecules come and go. Global warming is like a ratchet.

So, we will:

1) leave fossil fuels unburnt,

2) sequester carbon,

3) actively cool the Earth, and/or

4) live with a hotter climate.

Of course we may do a mix of these…. though we’ll certainly do some of option 4), and we might do only this one. My goal in this short talk is not mainly to argue for a particular mix! I mainly want to present some information about the various options.

I do not say anything about the best ways to do option 4); I merely provide some arguments that we’ll wind up doing a lot of this one… because I’m afraid some of the participants in the workshop may be in denial about that.

I also argue that we should start doing research on option 3), because like it or not, I think people are going to become very interested in geoengineering, and without enough solid information about it, people are likely to make bad mistakes: for example, diving into ambitious projects out of desperation.

As usual, if you click on a phrase in blue in this talk, you can get more information.

I want to really thank everyone associated with Azimuth for helping find and compile the information used in this talk! It’s really been a team effort!


What is Climate Change?

21 October, 2013

Here are the slides for a 15-minute talk I’m giving on Friday for the Interdisciplinary Climate Change Workshop at the Balsillie School of International Affairs:

What is Climate Change?

This will be the first talk of the workshop. Many participants are focused on diplomacy and economics. None are officially biologists or ecologists. So, I want to set the stage with a broad perspective that fits humans into the biosphere as a whole.

I claim that climate change is just one aspect of something bigger: a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

I start with evidence that human civilization is having such a big impact on the biosphere that we’re entering a new geological epoch.

Then I point out what this implies. Climate change is not an isolated ‘problem’ of the sort routinely ‘solved’ by existing human institutions. It is part of a shift from the exponential growth phase of human impact on the biosphere to a new, uncharted phase.

In this new phase, institutions and attitudes will change dramatically, like it or not:

Before we could treat ‘nature’ as distinct from ‘civilization’. Now, there is no nature separate from civilization.

Before, we might imagine ‘economic growth’ an almost unalloyed good, with many externalities disregarded. Now, many forms of growth have reached the point where they push the biosphere toward tipping points.

In a separate talk I’ll say a bit about ‘what we can do about it’. So, nothing about that here. You can click on words in blue to see sources for the information.


The EU’s Biggest Renewable Energy Source

18 September, 2013

Puzzle. The European Union has a goal of producing 20% of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Right now, which source of renewable energy does the EU use most?

1) wind
2) solar
3) hydropower
4) tides
5) geothermal
6) trash
7) wood
8) bureaucrats in hamster wheels
9) trolls

Think about it a bit before reading further!

The Economist writes:

Which source of renewable energy is most important to the European Union? Solar power, perhaps? (Europe has three-quarters of the world’s total installed capacity of solar photovoltaic energy.) Or wind? (Germany trebled its wind-power capacity in the past decade.) The answer is neither. By far the largest so-called renewable fuel used in Europe is wood.

In its various forms, from sticks to pellets to sawdust, wood (or to use its fashionable name, biomass) accounts for about half of Europe’s renewable-energy consumption. In some countries, such as Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand. Even in Germany, home of the Energiewende (energy transformation) which has poured huge subsidies into wind and solar power, 38% of non-fossil fuel consumption comes from the stuff.

I haven’t yet found confirmation of this on the EU’s own websites, but this page:

• Eurostat, Renewable energy statistics.

says that in 2010, 67.6% of primary renewable energy production in the EU came from “biomass and waste”. This is at least compatible with The Economist‘s claims. Hydropower accounted for 18.9%, wind for 7.7%, geothermal for 3.5% and solar for just 2.2%.

It seems that because wood counts as renewable energy in the EU, and there are big incentives to increase the use of renewable energy, demand for wood is booming. According to the Economist, imports of wood pellets into the EU rose by 50% in 2010 alone. They say that thanks to Chinese as well as EU demand, global trade in these pellets could rise five- or sixfold from 10-12 million tonnes a year now to 60 million tonnes by 2020.

Wood from tree farms may be approximately carbon-neutral, but turning it into pellets takes energy… and importing wood pellets takes more. The EU may be making a mistake here.

Or maybe not.

Either way, it’s interesting that we always hear about the rising use of wind and solar in the EU, but not about wood.

Can you find more statistics or well-informed discussions about wood as a renewable energy source?

Here’s the article:

Wood: the fuel of the future, The Economist, 6 April 2013.

If its facts are wrong, I’d like to know.


P.S. – This is the 400th post on this blog!


Carbon Emissions from Coal-Fired Power Plants

13 September, 2013

The 50 dirtiest electric power plants in the United States—all coal-fired—emit as much carbon dioxide as half of America’s 240 million cars.

The dirtiest 1% spew out a third of the carbon produced by US power plants.

And the 100 dirtiest plants—still a tiny fraction of the country’s 6,000 power plants—account for a fifth of all US carbon emissions.

According to this report, curbing the emissions of these worst offenders would be one of the best ways to cut US carbon emissions, reducing the risk that emissions will trigger dangerous climate change:

• Environment America Research and Policy Center, America’s dirtiest power plants: their oversized contribution to global warming and what we can do about it, 2013.

Some states in the US already limit carbon pollution from power plants. At the start of this year, California imposed a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, and in 2014 it will link with Quebec’s carbon market. Nine states from Maine to Maryland participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which caps emissions from power plants in the Northeast.

At the federal level, a big step forward was the 2007 Supreme Court decision saying the Environmental Protection Agency should develop plans to regulate carbon emissions. The EPA is now getting ready to impose carbon emission limits for all new power plants in the US. But some of the largest sources of carbon dioxide are existing power plants, so getting them to shape up or shut down could have big benefits.

What to do?

Here’s what the report suggests:

• The Obama Administration should set strong limits on carbon dioxide pollution from new power plants to prevent the construction of a new generation of dirty power plants, and force existing power plants to clean up by setting strong limits on carbon dioxide emissions from all existing power plants.

• New plants – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should work to meet its September 2013 deadline for re-proposing a stringent emissions standard for new power plants. It should also set a deadline for finalizing these standards no later than June 2015.

• Existing plants – The EPA should work to meet the timeline put forth by President Obama for proposing and finalizing emissions standards for existing power plants. This timeline calls for limits on existing plants to be proposed by June 2014 and finalized by June 2015. The standards should be based on the most recent climate science and designed to achieve the emissions reduction targets that are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

In addition to cutting pollution from power plants, the United States should adopt a suite of clean energy policies at the local, state, and federal levels to curb emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use in other sectors.

In particular, the United States should prioritize establishing a comprehensive, national plan to reduce carbon pollution from all sources – including transportation, industrial activities, and the commercial and residential sectors.

Other policies to curb emissions include:

• Retrofitting three-quarters of America’s homes and businesses for improved energy efficiency, and implementing strong building energy codes to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption in new homes and businesses.

• Adopting a federal renewable electricity standard that calls for 25 percent of America’s electricity to come from clean, renewable sources by 2025.

• Strengthening and implementing state energy efficiency resource standards that require utilities to deliver energy efficiency improvements in homes, businesses and industries.

• Installing more than 200 gigawatts of solar panels and other forms of distributed renewable energy at residential, commercial and industrial buildings over the next two decades.

• Encouraging the use of energy-saving combined heat-and-power systems in industry.

• Facilitating the deployment of millions of plug-in vehicles that operate partly or solely on electricity, and adopting clean fuel standards that require a reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.

• Ensuring that the majority of new residential and commercial development in metropolitan areas takes place in compact, walkable communities with access to a range of transportation options.

• Expanding public transportation service to double ridership by 2030, encouraging further ridership increases through better transit service, and reducing per-mile global warming pollution from transit vehicles. The U.S. should also build high-speed rail lines in 11 high-priority corridors by 2030.

• Strengthening and expanding the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which limits carbon dioxide pollution from power plants in nine northeastern state, and implementing California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), which places an economy-wide cap on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon emitted per power produced

An appendix to this report list the power plants that emit the most carbon dioxide by name, along with estimates of their emissions. That’s great! But annoyingly, they do not seem to list the amounts of energy per year produced by these plants.

If carbon emissions were strictly proportional to the amount of energy produced, that would tend to undercut the the notion that the biggest carbon emitters are especially naughty. But in fact there’s a lot of variability in the amount of carbon emitted per energy generated. You can see that in this chart of theirs:

So, it would be good to see a list of the worst power plants in terms of CO2 emitted per energy generated.

The people who prepared this report could probably create such a list without much extra work, since they write:

We obtained fuel consumption and electricity generation data for power plants operating in the United States from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) 2011 December EIA-923 Monthly Time Series.


Bridging the Greenhouse-Gas Emissions Gap

28 April, 2013

I could use some help here, finding organizations that can help cut greenhouse gas emissions. I’ll explain what I mean in a minute. But the big question is:

How can we bridge the gap between what we are doing about global warming and what we should be doing?

That’s what this paper is about:

• Kornelis Blok, Niklas Höhne, Kees van der Leun and Nicholas Harrison, Bridging the greenhouse-gas emissions gap, Nature Climate Change 2 (2012), 471-474.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, we need to cut CO2 emissions by about 12 gigatonnes/year by 2020 to hold global warming to 2 °C.

After the UN climate conference in Copenhagen, many countries made pledges to reduce CO2 emissions. But by 2020 these pledges will cut emissions by at most 6 gigatonnes/year. Even worse, a lot of these pledges are contingent on other people meeting other pledges, and so on… so the confirmed value of all these pledges is only 3 gigatonnes/year.

The authors list 21 things that cities, large companies and individual citizens can do, which they claim will cut greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 10 gigatonnes/year of CO2 by 2020. For each initiative on their list, they claim:

(1) there is a concrete starting position from which a significant up-scaling until the year 2020 is possible;

(2) there are significant additional benefits besides a reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, so people can be driven by self-interest or internal motivation, not external pressure;

(3) there is an organization or combination of organizations that can lead the initiative;

(4) the initiative has the potential to reach an emission reduction by about 0.5 Gt CO2e by 2020.

21 Initiatives

Now I want to quote the paper and list the 21 initiatives. And here’s where I could use your help! For each of these, can you point me to one or more organizations that are in a good position to lead the initiative?

Some are already listed, but even for these I bet there are other good answers. I want to compile a list, and then start exploring what’s being done, and what needs to be done.

By the way, even if the UN estimate of the greenhouse-emissions gap is wrong, and even if all the numbers I’m about to quote are wrong, most of them are probably the right order of magnitude—and that’s all we need to get a sense of what needs to be done, and how we can do it.

Companies

1. Top 1,000 companies’ emission reductions. Many of the 1,000 largest greenhouse-gas-emitting companies already have greenhouse-gas emission-reduction goals to decrease their energy use and increase their long-term competitiveness, as well as to demonstrate their corporate social responsibility. An association such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development could lead 30% of the top 1,000 companies to reduce energy-related emissions 10% below business as usual by 2020 and all companies to reduce their non-carbon dioxide greenhouse-gas emissions by 50%. Impact in 2020: up to 0.7 Gt CO2e.

2. Supply-chain emission reductions. Several companies already have social and environmental requirements for their suppliers, which are driven by increased competitiveness, corporate social responsibility and the ability to be a front-runner. An organization such as the Consumer Goods Forum could stimulate 30% of companies to require their supply chains to reduce emissions 10% below business as usual by 2020. Impact in 2020: up to 0.2 Gt CO2e.

3. Green financial institutions. More than 200 financial organizations are already members of the finance initiative of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP-FI). They are committed to environmental goals owing to corporate social responsibility, to gain investor certainty and to be placed well in emerging markets. UNEP-FI could lead the 20 largest banks to reduce the carbon footprint of 10% of their assets by 80%. Impact in 2020: up to 0.4 Gt of their assets by 80%. Impact in 2020: up to 0.4 Gt CO2e.

4. Voluntary-offset companies. Many companies are already offsetting their greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly without explicit external pressure. A coalition between an organization with convening power, for example UNEP, and offset providers could motivate 20% of the companies in the light industry and commercial sector to calculate their greenhouse-gas emissions, apply emission-reduction measures and offset the remaining emissions (retiring the purchased credits). It is ensured that offset projects really reduce emissions by using the ‘gold standard’ for offset projects or another comparable mechanism. Governments could provide incentives by giving tax credits for offsetting, similar to those commonly given for charitable donations. Impact by 2020: up to 2.0 Gt CO2e.

Other actors

5. Voluntary-offset consumers. A growing number of individuals (especially with high income) already offset their greenhouse-gas emissions, mostly for flights, but also through carbon-neutral products. Environmental NGOs could motivate 10% of the 20% of richest individuals to offset their personal emissions from electricity use, heating and transport at cost to them of around US$200 per year. Impact in 2020: up to 1.6 Gt CO2e.

6. Major cities initiative. Major cities are large emitters of greenhouse gases and many have greenhouse-gas reduction targets. Cities are intrinsically highly motivated to act so as to improve local air quality, attractiveness and local job creation. Groups like the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability could lead the 40 cities in C40 or an equivalent sample to reduce emissions 20% below business as usual by 2020, building on the thousands of emission-reduction activities already implemented by the C40 cities. Impact in 2020: up to 0.7 Gt CO2e.

7. Subnational governments. Several states in the United States and provinces in Canada have already introduced support mechanisms for renewable energy, emission-trading schemes, carbon taxes and industry regulation. As a result, they expect an increase in local competitiveness, jobs and energy security. Following the example set by states such as California, these ambitious US states and Canadian provinces could accept an emission-reduction target of 15–20% below business as usual by 2020, as some states already have. Impact in 2020: up to 0.6 Gt CO2e.

Energy efficiency

8. Building heating and cooling. New buildings, and increasingly existing buildings, are designed to be extremely energy efficient to realize net savings and increase comfort. The UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative could bring together the relevant players to realize 30% of the full reduction potential for 2020. Impact in 2020: up to 0.6 Gt CO2e.

9. Ban of incandescent lamps. Many countries already have phase-out schedules for incandescent lamps as it provides net savings in the long term. The en.lighten initiative of UNEP and the Global Environment Facility already has a target to globally ban incandescent lamps by 2016. Impact in 2020: up to 0.2 Gt CO2e.

10. Electric appliances. Many international labelling schemes and standards already exist for energy efficiency of appliances, as efficient appliances usually give net savings in the long term. The Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program or the Super-efficient Equipment and Appliance Deployment Initiative could drive use of the most energy-efficient appliances on the market. Impact in 2020: up to 0.6 Gt CO2e.

11. Cars and trucks. All car and truck manufacturers put emphasis on developing vehicles that are more efficient. This fosters innovation and increases their long-term competitive position. The emissions of new cars in Europe fell by almost 20% in the past decade. A coalition of manufacturers and NGOs joined by the UNEP Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles could agree to save one additional liter per 100 km globally by 2020 for cars, and equivalent reductions for trucks. Impact in 2020: up to 0.7 Gt CO2e.

Energy supply

12. Boost solar photovoltaic energy. Prices of solar photovoltaic systems have come down rapidly in recent years, and installed capacity has increased much faster than expected. It created a new industry, an export market and local value added through, for example, roof installations. A coalition of progressive governments and producers could remove barriers by introducing good grid access and net metering rules, paving the way to add another 1,600 GW by 2020 (growth consistent with recent years). Impact in 2020: up to 1.4 Gt CO2e.

13. Wind energy. Cost levels for wind energy have come down dramatically, making wind economically competitive with fossil-fuel-based power generation in many cases. The Global Wind Energy Council could foster the global introduction of arrangements that lead to risk reduction for investments in wind energy, with, for example, grid access and guarantees. This could lead to an installation of 1,070 GW by 2020, which is 650 GW over a reference scenario. Impact in 2020: up to 1.2 Gt CO2e.

14. Access to energy through low-emission options. Strong calls and actions are already underway to provide electricity access to 1.4 billion people who are at present without and fulfill development goals. The UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative could ensure that all people without access to electricity get access through low-emission options. Impact in 2020: up to 0.4 Gt CO2e.

15. Phasing out subsidies for fossil fuels. This highly recognized option to reduce emissions would improve investment in clean energy, provide other environmental, health and security benefits, and generate income. The International Energy Agency could work with countries to phase out half of all fossil-fuel subsidies. Impact in 2020: up to 0.9 Gt CO2e.

Special sectors

16. International aviation and maritime transport. The aviation and shipping industries are seriously considering efficiency measures and biofuels to increase their competitive advantage. Leading aircraft and ship manufacturers could agree to design their vehicles to capture half of the technical mitigation potential. Impact in 2020: up to 0.2 Gt CO2e.

17. Fluorinated gases (hydrofluorocarbons, perflourocarbons, SF6). Recent industry-led initiatives are already underway to reduce emissions of these gases originating from refrigeration, air-conditioning and industrial processes. Industry associations, such as Refrigerants, Naturally!, could work towards meeting half of the technical mitigation potential. Impact in 2020: up to 0.3 Gt CO2e.

18. Reduce deforestation. Some countries have already shown that it is strongly possible to reduce deforestation with an integrated approach that eliminates the drivers of deforestation. This has benefits for local air pollution and biodiversity, and can support the local population. Led by an individual with convening power, for example, the United Kingdom’s Prince of Wales or the UN Secretary General, such approaches could be rolled out to all the major countries with high deforestation emissions, halving global deforestation by 2020. Impact in 2020: up to 1.8 Gt CO2e.

19. Agriculture. Options to reduce emissions from agriculture often increase efficiency. The International Federation of Agricultural Producers could help to realize 30% of the technical mitigation potential. (Well, at least it could before it collapsed, after this paper was written.) Impact in 2020: up to 0.8 Gt CO2e.

Air pollutants

20. Enhanced reduction of air pollutants. Reduction of classic air pollutants including black carbon has been pursued for years owing to positive impacts on health and local air quality. UNEP’s Climate and Clean Air Coalition To Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants already has significant political momentum and could realize half of the technical mitigation potential. Impact in 2020: a reduction in radiative forcing impact equivalent to an emission reduction of greenhouse gases in the order of 1 Gt CO2e, but outside of the definition of the gap.

21. Efficient cook-stoves. Cooking in rural areas is a source of carbon dioxide emissions. Furthermore, there are emissions of black carbon, which also leads to global warming. Replacing these cook-stoves would also significantly increase local air quality and reduce pressure on forests from fuel-wood demand. A global development organization such as the UN Development Programme could take the lead in scaling-up the many already existing programs to eventually replace half of the existing cook-stoves. Impact in 2020: a reduction in radiative forcing impact equivalent to an emission reduction of greenhouse gases of up to 0.6 Gt CO2e, included in the effect of the above initiative and outside of the definition of the gap.

For more

For more, see the supplementary materials to this paper, and also:

• Niklas Höhne, Wedging the gap: 21 initiatives to bridge the greenhouse gas emissions gap.

The size of the emissions gap was calculated here:

The Emissions Gap Report 2012, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

If you’re in a rush, just read the executive summary.


Geoengineering Report

11 March, 2013

I think we should start serious research on geoengineering schemes, including actual experiments, not just calculations and simulations. I think we should do this with an open mind about whether we’ll decide that these schemes are good ideas or bad. Either way, we need to learn more about them. Simultaneously, we need an intelligent, well-informed debate about the many ethical, legal and political aspects.

Many express the fear that merely researching geoengineering schemes will automatically legitimate them, however hare-brained they are. There’s some merit to that fear. But I suspect that public opinion on geoengineering will suddenly tip from “unthinkable!” to “let’s do it now!” as soon as global warming becomes perceived as a real and present threat. This is especially true because oil, coal and gas companies have a big interest in finding solutions to global warming that don’t make them stop digging.

So if we don’t learn more about geoengineering schemes, and we start getting heat waves that threaten widespread famine, we should not be surprised if some big government goes it alone and starts doing something cheap and easy like putting tons of sulfur into the upper atmosphere… even if it’s been inadequately researched.

It’s hard to imagine a more controversial topic. But I think there’s one thing most of us should be able to agree on: we should pay attention to what governments are doing about geoengineering! So, let me quote a bit of this report prepared for the US Congress:

• Kelsi Bracmort and Richard K. Lattanzio, Geoengineering: Governance and Technology Policy, CRS Report for Congress, Congressional Research Service, 2 January 2013.

Kelsi Bracmort is a specialist in agricultural conservation and natural Resources Policy, and Richard K. Lattanzio is an analyst in environmental policy.

I will delete references to footnotes, since they’re huge and I’m too lazy to include them all here. So, go to the original text for those!

Introduction

Climate change has received considerable policy attention in the past several years both internationally and within the United States. A major report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007 found widespread evidence of climate warming, and many are concerned that climate change may be severe and rapid with potentially catastrophic consequences for humans and the functioning of ecosystems. The National Academies maintains that the climate change challenge is unlikely to be solved with any single strategy or by the people of any single country.

Policy efforts to address climate change use a variety of methods, frequently including mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation is the reduction of the principal greenhouse gas (GHG) carbon dioxide (CO2) and other GHGs. Carbon dioxide is the dominant greenhouse gas emitted naturally through the carbon cycle and through human activities like the burning of fossil fuels. Other commonly discussed GHGs include methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride. Adaptation seeks to improve an individual’s or institution’s ability to cope with or avoid harmful impacts of climate change, and to take advantage of potential beneficial ones.

Some observers are concerned that current mitigation and adaptation strategies may not prevent change quickly enough to avoid extreme climate disruptions. Geoengineering has been suggested by some as a timely additional method to mitigation and adaptation that could be included in climate change policy efforts. Geoengineering technologies, applied to the climate, aim to achieve large-scale and deliberate modifications of the Earth’s energy balance in order to reduce temperatures and counteract anthropogenic (i.e., human-made) climate change; these climate modifications would not be limited by country boundaries. As an unproven concept, geoengineering raises substantial environmental and ethical concerns for some observers. Others respond that the uncertainties of geoengineering may only be resolved through further scientific and technical examination.

Proposed geoengineering technologies vary greatly in terms of their technological characteristics and possible consequences. They are generally classified in two main groups:

• Solar radiation management (SRM) method: technologies that would increase the reflectivity, or albedo, of the Earth’s atmosphere or surface, and

• Carbon dioxide removal (CDR) method: technologies or practices that would remove CO2 and other GHGs from the atmosphere.

Much of the geoengineering technology discussion centers on SRM methods (e.g., enhanced albedo, aerosol injection). SRM methods could be deployed relatively quickly if necessary, and their impact on the climate would be more imme diate than that of CDR methods. Because SRM methods do not reduce GHG from the atmosphere, global warming could resume at a rapid pace if a deployed SRM method fails or is terminated at any time. At least one relatively simple SRM method is already being deployed with government assistance. [Enhanced albedo is one SRM effort currently being undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. See the Enhanced Albedo section for more information.] Other proposed SRM methods are at the conceptualization stage. CDR methods include afforestation, ocean fertilization, and the use of biomass to capture and store carbon.

The 112th Congress did not take any legislative action on geoengineering. In 2009, the House Science and Technology Committee of the 111th Congress held hearings on geoengineering that examined the “potential environmental risks and benefits of various proposals, associated domestic and international governance issues, evaluation mechanisms and criteria, research and development (R&D) needs, and economic rationales supporting the deployment of geoengineering activities.”

Some foreign governments, including the United Kingdom’s, as well as scientists from Germany and India, have begun considering engaging in the research or deployment of geoengineering technologies be cause of concern over the slow progress of emissions reductions, the uncertainties of climate sensitivity, the possible existence of climate thresholds (or “tipping points”), and the political, social, and economic impact of pursuing aggressive GHG mitigation strategies.

Congressional interest in geoengineering has focused primarily on whether geoengineering is a realistic, effective, and appropriate tool for the United States to use to address climate change. However, if geoengineering technologies are deployed by the United States, another government, or a private entity, several new concerns are likely to arise related to government support for, and oversight of, geoengineering as well as the transboundary and long-term effects of geoengineering. Such was the case in the summer of 2012, when an American citizen conducted a geoengineering experiment, specifically ocean fertilization, off the west coast of Canada that some say violated two international conventions.

This report is intended as a primer on the policy issues, science, and governance of geoengineering technologies. The report will first set the policy parameters under which geoengineering technologies may be considered. It will then describe selected technologies in detail and discuss their status. The third section provides a discussion of possible approaches to governmental involvement in, and oversight of, geoengineering, including a summary of domestic and international instruments and institutions that may affect geoengineering projects.

Geoengineering governance

Geoengineering technologies aim to modify the Earth’s energy balance in order to reduce temperatures and counteract anthropogenic climate change through large-scale and deliberate modifications. Implementation of some of the technologies may be controlled locally, while other technologies may require global input on implementation. Additionally, whether a technology can be controlled or not once implemented differs by technology type. Little research has been done on most geoengineering methods, and no major directed research programs are in place. Peer reviewed literature is scant, and deployment of the technology—either through controlled field tests or commercial enterprise—has been minimal.

Most interested observers agree that more research would be required to test the feasibility, effectiveness, cost, social and environmental impacts, and the possible unintended consequences of geoengineering before deployment; others reject exploration of the options as too risky. The uncertainties have led some policymakers to consider the need and the role for governmental oversight to guide research in the short term and to oversee potential deployment in the long term. Such governance structures, both domestic and international, could either support or constrain geoengineering activities, depending on the decisions of policymakers. As both technological development and policy considerations for geoengineering are in their early stages, several questions of governance remain in play:

• What risk factors and policy considerations enter into the debate over geoengineering activities and government oversight?

• At what point, if ever, should there be government oversight of geoengineering activities?

• If there is government oversight, what form should it take?

• If there is government oversight, who should be responsible for it?

• If there is publicly funded research and development, what should it cover and which disciplines should be engaged in it?

Risk Factors

As a new and emerging set of technologies potentially able to address climate change, geoengineering possesses many risk factors that must be taken into policy considerations. From a research perspective, the risk of geoengineering activities most often rests in the uncertainties of the new technology (i.e., the risk of failure, accident, or unintended consequences). However, many observers believe that the greater risk in geoengineering activities may lie in the social, ethical, legal, and political uncertainties associated with deployment. Given these risks, there is an argument that appropriate mechanisms for government oversight should be established before the federal government and its agencies take steps to promote geoengineering technologies and before new geoengineering projects are commenced. Yet, the uncertainty behind the technologies makes it unclear which methods, if any, may ever mature to the point of being deemed sufficiently effective, affordable, safe, and timely as to warrant potential deployment.

Some of the more significant risks factors associated with geoengineering are as follows:

Technology Control Dilemma. An analytical impasse inherent in all emerging technologies is that potential risks may be foreseen in the design phase but can only be proven and resolved through actual research, development, and demonstration. Ideally, appropriate safeguards are put in place during the early stages of conceptualization and development, but anticipating the evolution of a new technology can be difficult. By the time a technology is widely deployed, it may be impossible to build desirable oversight and risk management provisions without major disruptions to established interests. Flexibility is often required to both support investigative research and constrain potentially harmful deployment.

Reversibility. Risk mitigation relies on the ability to cease a technology program and terminate its adverse effects in a short period of time. In principle, all geoengineering options could be abandoned on short notice, with either an instant cessation of direct climate effects or a small time lag after abandonment.

However, the issue of reversibility applies to more than just the technologies themselves. Given the importance of internal adjustments and feedbacks in the climate system—still imperfectly understood—it is unlikely that all secondary effects from large-scale deployment would end immediately. Also, choices made regarding geoengineering methods may influence other social, economic, and technological choices regarding climate science. Advancing geoengineering options in lieu of effectively mitigating GHG emissions, for example, could result in a number of adverse effects, including ocean acidification, stresses on biodiversity, climate sensitivity shocks, and other irreversible consequences. Further, investing financially in the physical infrastructure to support geoengineering may create a strong economic resistance to reversing research and deployment activities.

Encapsulation. Risk mitigation also relies on whether a technology program is modular and contained or whether it involves the release of materials into the wider environment. The issue can be framed in the context of pollution (i.e., encapsulated technologies are often viewed as more “ethical” in that they are seen as non-polluting). Several geoengineering technologies are demonstrably non-encapsulated, and their release and deployment into the wider environment may lead to technical uncertainties, impacts on non-participants, and complex policy choices. But encapsulated technologies may still have localized environmental impacts, depending on the nature, size, and location of the application. The need for regulatory action may arise as much from the indirect impacts of activities on agro-forestry, species, and habitat as from the direct impacts of released materials in atmospheric or oceanic ecosystems.

Commercial Involvement. The role of private-sector engagement in the development and promotion of geoengineering may be debated. Commercial involvement, including competition, may be positive in that it mobilizes innovation and capital investment, which could lead to the development of more effective and less costly technologies at a faster rate than in the public sector.

However, commercial involvement could bypass or neglect social, economic, and environmental risk assessments in favor of what one commentator refers to as “irresponsible entrepreneurial behavior.” Private-sector engagement would likely require some form of public subsidies or GHG emission pricing to encourage investment, as well as additional considerations including ownership models, intellectual property rights, and trade and transfer mechanisms for the dissemination of the technologies.

Public Engagement. The consequences of geoengineering—including both benefits and risks discussed above—could affect people and communities across the world. Public attitudes toward geoengineering, and public engagement in the formation, development, and execution of proposed governance, could have a critical bearing on the future of the technologies. Perceptions of risks, levels of trust, transparency of actions, provisions for liabilities and compensation, and economies of investment could play a significant role in the political feasibility of geoengineering. Public acceptance may require a wider dialogue between scientists, policymakers, and the public.


The Mathematics of Planet Earth

31 October, 2012

Here’s a public lecture I gave yesterday, via videoconferencing, at the 55th annual meeting of the South African Mathematical Society:

Abstract: The International Mathematical Union has declared 2013 to be the year of The Mathematics of Planet Earth. The global warming crisis is part of a bigger transformation in which humanity realizes that the Earth is a finite system and that our population, energy usage, and the like cannot continue to grow exponentially. If civilization survives this transformation, it will affect mathematics—and be affected by it—just as dramatically as the agricultural revolution or industrial revolution. We cannot know for sure what the effect will be, but we can already make some guesses.

To watch the talk, click on the video above. To see slides of the talk, click here. To see the source of any piece of information in these slides, just click on it!

My host Bruce Bartlett, an expert on topological quantum field theory, was crucial in planning the event. He was the one who edited the video, and put it on YouTube. He also made this cute poster:



I was planning to fly there using my superpowers to avoid taking a plane and burning a ton of carbon. But it was early in the morning and I was feeling a bit tired, so I used Skype.

By the way: if you’re interested in science, energy and the environment, check out the Azimuth Project, which is a collaboration to create a focal point for scientists and engineers interested in saving the planet. We’ve got some interesting projects going. If you join the Azimuth Forum, you can talk to us, learn more, and help out as much or as little as you want. The only hard part about joining the Azimuth Forum is reading the instructions well enough that you choose your whole real name, with spaces between words, as your username.


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