A Bet Concerning Neutrinos

27 September, 2011

Over on Google+ I wrote:

I’m willing to take bets that this faster-than-light neutrino business will turn out to be wrong. We can negotiate the detailed terms, the odds, and the stakes.

But beware: I’m still enjoying the case of scotch I won from David Ring. I bet there’d be no “strong evidence for supersymmetry” within the first year of operation of the Large Hadron Collider.

It took a couple of days, but I finally got someone willing to take me up on this. And—surprise!—it was none other than Frederick De Roo, one of the key contributors to the Azimuth Project.

But he’s playing for higher stakes than I’d expected:

Hi John,

actually I’m willing to take a bet.

I propose to bet (even though I don’t believe it) that

neutrinos can go faster than light

The loser of the bet will promise to the winner not to fly for one whole year! (for a year chosen within a specified number of years after the bet has expired)

How about that? The earth wins regardless who’s right ;-)

I asked him if we could discuss the details here, and he said okay.

It’s a tricky business. While I’ve got the odds on my side, I’ve also got more to lose!

Frederik lives in Europe, where there are lots of trains. His idea of a fun vacation is a month-long bike trip. What’s he got to lose?

I could easily survive a year of not flying to conferences. It would hurt a bit. Still, I’d say yes in a minute if it were just up to me. But Lisa and I have permanent positions at the University of California in Riverside, and we’re trying to work out a deal where we work in Singapore every summer. So, I can’t really agree to this bet unless I get her okay!

How do I convince a non-physicist—and not just any non-physicist, but my wife—that it’s really, really safe to bet a summer of being together on the possibility that neutrinos go faster than light?

We spent seven years on opposite sides of the country before she got a job at UC Riverside. We promised we’d never do something like that again. And now I’m saying “oh, don’t worry, dear: special relativity is very well tested.” If you haven’t been in this situation, you don’t know how unconvincing that sounds.

Should I look into cruises from Southern California to Singapore? How long do those take, anyway? It would be a bummer to get there only have to head straight back.

What would you say, Frederik, if I changed the the terms of the bet to something like this? If I lose the bet, for each plane trip I take during the specified year, I’ll donate $10,000 to your favorite environmental organization. Carbon offsets, or whatever you like. That way if I lose, I suffer, but not my marriage.

American Oil Boom?

26 September, 2011

If this is for real, it’s the biggest news I’ve heard for a long time:

Two years ago, America was importing about two thirds of its oil. Today, according to the Energy Information Administration, it imports less than half. And by 2017, investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts the US could be poised to pass Saudi Arabia and overtake Russia as the world’s largest oil producer.

This is from:

New boom reshapes oil world, rocks North Dakota, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 25 September, 2011.

The new boom is due to technologies like fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) and directional drilling. According to an estimate in this article, in the last few years advances in these technologies have made available up to 11 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken formation under North Dakota and Montana. There’s also a lot under the Canadian side of the border:

This map is from:

• Jerry Langton, Bakken Formation: Will it fuel Canada’s oil industry?, CBC News, 27 June 2008.

How big is this boom going to be? What will it mean? The National Public Radio story says this:

Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University says in the next decade, new oil in the US, Canada and South America could change the center of gravity of the entire global energy supply.

“Some are now saying, in five or 10 years’ time, we’re a major oil-producing region, where our production is going up,” she says.

The US, Jaffe says, could have 2 trillion barrels of oil waiting to be drilled. South America could hold another 2 trillion. And Canada? 2.4 trillion. That’s compared to just 1.2 trillion in the Middle East and north Africa.

Jaffe says those new oil reserves, combined with growing turmoil in the Middle East, will “absolutely propel more and more investment into the energy resources in the Americas.”

Russia is already feeling the growth of American energy, Jaffe says. As the U.S. produces more of its own natural gas, Europe is free to purchase liquefied natural gas the US is no longer buying.

“They’re buying less natural gas from Russia,” Jaffe says. “So Russia would only supply 10 percent of European natural gas demand by 2030. That means the Russians are no longer powerful.”

The American energy boom, Jaffe says, could endanger many green-energy initiatives that have gained popularity in recent years. But royalties and revenue from U.S. production of oil and natural gas, she adds, could be used to invest in improving green technology.

What do you know about this news? Is it for real, is it being hyped? What do the smartest of the ‘peak oil’ crowd say?

I’ve read about the environmental impacts of fracking, and the consequences for global warming are evident. Since ‘carbon is forever’, to reduce carbon dioxide levels we need to either stop burning carbon or figure out a way to sequester CO2. A new oil boom won’t help us with that. And in the long run, we’ll still run out.

But the short run could last decades. Suppose people go ahead, ignore the dangers, and ‘drill, baby, drill’. How will geopolitics, the world economy, and the environment be affected?

Opinions are fine—everyone’s got one—but facts are better… and facts with references are the best.

Climate Reality Project

14 September, 2011

The Climate Reality Project is planning a presentation called “24 Hours of Reality” beginning at 7 pm Central Time on September 14th, arguing for the connection between more extreme weather and climate change. “There will be a full-on assault on climate skeptics, exploring where they get their funding from.”

The Washington Post has an interview with Al Gore about this project:

• Brad Plumer, Al Gore: ‘The message still has to be about the reality we’re facing’ , Washington Post, 12 September 2011.

I’ll quote a bit:

Brad Plumer: “An Inconvenient Truth” was basically a primer on global warming—the causes, the problems it creates, the ways we can avert it. So what more is there to add? How will this new presentation be different?

Al Gore: It’s very different—a few of the images are the same, but 95 percent of the slides are completely new. The science linking the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather to the climate crisis has matured tremendously in the last couple of years. Think about the last year, we’ve had floods in Pakistan displacing 20 million people and further destabilizing a nuclear-armed country. We’ve had drought and wildfires in Russia. In Australia you’ve got floods the size of France and Germany combined. Then there’s drought in Texas—out of 254 counties in Texas, 252 are on fire. I’m talking to you from Nashville, where the city lost the equivalent of an entire year’s budget from recent floods—the area has never been flooded like this before, so no one had flood insurance.

That’s the reality we’ve got to focus on. This presentation is a defense of the science and the scientists, against the timeworn claims by deniers.

BP: Now, whenever a natural disaster happens—say, a flood or a wildfire—you typically see scientists quoted in the press saying, “Well, it’s hard to attribute any single event to global warming, although this is the sort of event we should see more of as the planet warms.” As I understand it, this sort of extra-careful hedge is becoming outdated. Scientists actually are making tighter connections between current disasters and climate change, correct?

AG: Yes, that shift in the way scientists describe the linkage is one of the elements of this new slideshow. It’s a subtle but extremely important shift. They used to say that the climate crisis changes the odds of extreme weather events—this was the old metaphor of “loading the dice.” Now, they say there’s not only a greater likelihood of rolling 12s, but we’re actually loading 13s and could soon be rolling 15s and 16s. As scientists like James Hansen [of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies] and Kevin Trenberth [of the National Center for Atmospheric Research] point out, the changes brought about by man-made global-warming pollution have reached the stage that every event is now being affected by it in some way.

In the last 30 years, for instance, we’ve seen water vapor above the oceans increase by 4 percent, and many storms reach as far as 2,000 miles out to collect water vapor. So when you have a 4 percent increase over such a large area, the storms are now fueled with more water vapor than was the case 30 years ago. That means we’re getting larger downpours. And in drought-prone areas, we’re seeing increasing intervals between downpours, which is one of several reasons why we’re seeing extreme droughts.

BP: Now, you’re talking about presenting the stark facts as a way of persuading people that climate change is a problem. Yet when you look at polls on climate belief, one thing that stands out is that the people most dismissive of global warming tend to be the most confident that they have all the information they need. Doesn’t that suggest there’s a point at which more information doesn’t actually persuade anyone?

AG: Well, that logic hasn’t led deniers to stop pressing the inaccurate disinformation about climate science. And the fact is that quite a few of the large carbon polluters and their allies in the ideological right wing have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year to mislead people. Have you read Naomi Oreske’s book Merchants of Doubt? The tobacco companies a few decades ago pioneered this organized disinformation technique to create artificial doubt about the science of their product—they hired actors to dress them up as doctors and had them say, “I’m a doctor, there’s nothing wrong with smoking cigarettes; in fact, it’ll make you feel better.” And some of the same people who took money from tobacco companies to lie about tobacco science are now taking money from large carbon polluters to lie about the reality of the climate crisis.

BP: Okay, but taking that opposition is a given, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether something more is needed to fight it than yet another recital of climate science facts.

AG: Right, you hear a lot of people giving advice on how to talk about climate science—how you need to dress differently or stand on your head and deliver the message in rhyme. And I respect all that, and I hope a lot of people will present the message in their own way. But my message is about presenting the reality. I have faith in the United States and our ability to make good decisions based on the facts. And I believe Mother Nature is speaking very loudly and clearly. We’ve had ten disasters in the United States this year alone costing more than $1 billion and which were climate-related. It’s only a matter of time before reality sinks in, and we need both parties involved. And the only way to get the right answer is to understand the question.

Australian Carbon Tax

13 July, 2011

Australians burn a lot of carbon. Per person, they’re right up there with Americans:

The map here is based on data from 2000. In 2008, Australians spewed out 18.9 tonnes of CO2 per person in the process of burning fossil fuels and making cement. Americans spewed 17.5 tonnes per person. The world average was just 4.4.

Australians also mine a lot of coal. It’s their biggest export! On top of that, coal exports have more than doubled in recent years:

Last Sunday, however, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a tax on carbon!

In this scheme, the 500 biggest polluters in Australia will be taxed at AU $23 per tonne of carbon emissions starting in July 2012. The price will increase 2.5% each year until 2015, and then a carbon trading scheme will be introduced. The hope is that by 2020, Australian carbon emissions will drop 5% below 2000 levels.

Of course, the further we go into the future, the less sure we can be of anything. What if Gillard’s party gets voted out of power? There’s already considerable dissatisfaction with Gillard’s plan, in part because she had earlier said:

There will be no carbon tax under the Government I lead.

but mainly, of course, because taxes are unpopular and the coal lobby is very strong in Australia. There’s been a lot of talk about how the carbon tax will hurt the economy.

These objections are to be expected, and thus not terribly interesting (even if they’re valid). However, some more interesting objections are posed here:

• Annabel Crab, Australia’s diabolical carbon pricing scheme, ABC News, 13 July 2010.

First, it seems that Prime Minister Gillard favors continuing to sell lots of coal to other countries. As she recently said:

Tony Abbott was predicting Armageddon for the coal mining industry But the future of coal mining in Australia is bright.

But coal mining can’t really have a ‘bright future’ in a decarbonized world unless we capture and store the carbon dioxide emitted by coal-burning plants.

Second, in the planned carbon trading scheme beginning in 2015, Australian companies will be allowed to account for half of their emissions reductions by simply buying permits from overseas. I’m not sure this is bad: it could simply be efficient. However, Annabel Crab points out that it has some seemingly paradoxical effects. She quotes a Treasury document saying:

In a world where other countries pursue more ambitious abatement targets, the carbon price will be higher, and this increases the cost in terms of domestic production and income foregone.

Is this really bad? I’m not sure. I hope however that the Australian carbon tax goes forward to the point where we can see its effects instead of merely speculate about them.

Outsourcing Carbon Emissions

25 May, 2011

George Monbiot points out that Britain is accomplishing some of its reductions in carbon emissions by the simple expedient of outsourcing them to other countries:

• George Monbiot, Pass the Parcel, 23 May, 2011.

This gets around the spirit but not the letter of the Kyoto Protocol, since some these other countries, notably China, aren’t required to limit their carbon emissions! He writes:

It could have been worse. After the Treasury and the business department tried to scupper the UK’s long-term carbon targets, David Cameron stepped in to rescue them. The government has now promised to cut greenhouse gases by 50% by 2027, which means that, with a following wind, the UK could meet its legally-binding target of 80% by 2050. For this we should be grateful. But the coalition has resolved the tension between green and growth in a less than convincing fashion: by dumping responsibility for the environmental impacts on someone else.

The carbon cut we have made so far, and the carbon cut we are likely to make by 2027, have been achieved by means of a simple device: allowing other countries, principally China, to run polluting industries on our behalf.

Officially, the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions have fallen from 788 million tonnes in 1990 to 566mt in 2009. Unofficially, another 253 megatonnes should be added to our account. That’s the difference between the greenhouse gases released when manufacturing the goods we export and those released when manufacturing the goods we import. The reason why our official figures look better than those of most other nations is that so much of our manufacturing industry has moved overseas. It is this which allows the government to meet its targets. If the stuff we buy is made in China, China gets the blame.

This would be less of an issue if China were obliged to restrict its emissions. But under the only global treaty in force at the moment—the Kyoto Protocol—developing countries have no need to reduce their impacts. That suits the governments of both rich and poorer nations. Governments like ours can pretend that there is no conflict between green and growth. They avoid unpopular decisions, allowing people to consume whatever they fancy, and they keep business sweet by promising endless expansion. Governments like China’s can keep supplying us with the goods we couldn’t produce at home without breaking our obligations.

The “unofficial” calculation of 253 extra megatonnes of CO2 comes from here:

• Steven J. Davis and Ken Caldeira, Consumption-based accounting of CO2 emissions, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 8 March 2011.

This paper claims that in wealthy countries such as Switzerland, Sweden, Austria, the United Kingdom, and France, more than 30% of consumption-related CO2 emissions were “imported”. In other words, a lot of their CO2 emissions weren’t actually done in those country: they happened during the production and shipping of goods that got imported to those countries!

You can see a bit of what’s going on from this picture (click to enlarge):

But be careful! For example: see the big fat arrow pointing from China to the US, with the number ‘395’ next to it? As far as I can tell, they got that number by working out how many megatonnes of CO2 were created by manufacturing goods in China and shipping them to the US during the year 2004… but then subtracting the megatonnes of CO2 created by manufacturing goods in the US and shipping them to China during that year.

So if I understand this correctly, there’s a lot of ‘cancellation’ going on in this picture. And that could fool the casual reader. After all, it’s not like CO2 produced in the US while making goods for export to China really helps cancel out the CO2 produced in China while making goods for export to the US! So, I’d prefer to see a picture that had labelled arrows pointing both ways between China and the US, and similarly for other countries or groups of countries.

(By the way, the EU is counted as one lump for the purposes of this picture.)

But that’s a small nitpick: this article is full of interesting things. For example, the authors say that the surge of carbon emissions since 2000 has been driven

not only by growth of the global population and per-capita GDP, but also by unanticipated global increases in the energy intensity of GDP (energy per unit GDP) and the carbon intensity of energy (emissions per unit energy).

And, they say that in 2004, 23% of world-wide CO2 emissions, or 6.2 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, were associated to international trade, primarily exports from China and other developing countries to rich countries.

(As you can see, the numbers labelling those arrows in the picture above don’t add up to anything like 6,200. That’s what made me suspect that there’s a lot of ‘cancellation’ going on in that picture.)

Stabilization Wedges (Part 5)

21 April, 2011

In 2004, Pacala and Socolow laid out a list of ways we can battle global warming using current technologies. They said that to avoid serious trouble, we need to choose seven ‘stabilization wedges’: that is, seven ways to cut carbon emissions by 1 gigatonne per year within 50 years. They listed 15 wedges to choose from, and I’ve told you about them here:

Part 1 – efficiency and conservation.

Part 2 – shifting from coal to natural gas, carbon capture and storage.

Part 3 – nuclear power and renewable energy.

Part 4 – reforestation, good soil management.

According to Pacala:

The message was a very positive one: “gee, we can solve this problem: there are lots of ways to solve it, and lots of ways for the marketplace to solve it.”

I find that interesting, because to me each wedge seems like a gargantuan enterprise—and taken together, they seem like the Seven Labors of Hercules. They’re technically feasible, but who has the stomach for them? I fear things need to get worse before we come to our senses and take action at the scale that’s required.

Anyway, that’s just me. But three years ago, Pacala publicly reconsidered his ideas for a very different reason. Based on new evidence, he gave a talk at Stanford where he said:

It’s at least possible that we’ve already let this thing go too far, and that the biosphere may start to fall apart on us, even if we do all this. We may have to fall back on some sort of dramatic Plan B. We have to stay vigilant as a species.

You can watch his talk here:

It’s pretty damned interesting: he’s a good speaker.

Here’s a dry summary of a few key points. I won’t try to add caveats: I’m sure he would add some himself in print, but I’d rather keep the message simple. I also won’t try to update his information! Not in this blog entry, anyway. But I’ll ask some questions, and I’ll be delighted if you help me out on those.

Emissions targets

First, Pacala’s review of different carbon emissions targets.

The old scientific view, circa 1998: if we could keep the CO2 from doubling from its preindustrial level of 280 parts per million, that would count as a success. Namely, most of the ‘monsters behind the door’ would not come out: continental ice sheets falling into the sea and swamping coastal cities, the collapse of the Atlantic ocean circulation, a drought in the Sahel region of Africa, etcetera.

Many experts say we’d be lucky to get away with CO2 merely doubling. At current burn rates we’ll double it by 2050, and quadruple it by the end of this century. We’ve got enough fossil fuels to send it to seven times its preindustrial levels.

Doubling it would take us to 560 parts per million. A lot of people think that’s too high to be safe. But going for lower levels gets harder:

• In Pacala and Socolow’s original paper, they talked about keeping CO2 below 500 ppm. This would require keeping CO2 emissions constant until 2050. This could be achieved by a radical decarbonization of the economies of rich countries, while allowing carbon emissions in poor countries to grow almost freely until that time.

• For a long time the IPCC and many organizations advocated keeping CO2 below 450 ppm. This would require cutting CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050, which could be achieved by a radical decarbonization in rich countries, and moderate decarbonization in poor countries.

• But by 2008 the IPCC and many groups wanted a cap of 2°C global warming, or keeping CO2 below 430 ppm. This would mean cutting CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, which would require a radical decarbonization in both rich and poor countries.

The difference here is what poor people have to do. The rich countries need to radically cut carbon emissions in all these scenarios. In the USA, the Lieberman-Warner bill would have forced the complete decarbonization of the economy by 2050.

Then, Pacala spoke about 3 things that make him nervous:

1. Faster emissions growth

A 2007 paper by Canadell et al pointed out that starting in 2000, fossil fuel emissions started growing at 3% per year instead of the earlier figure of 1.5%. This could be due to China’s industrialization. Will this keep up in years to come? If so, the original Pacala-Socolow plan won’t work.

(How much, exactly, did the economic recession change this story?)

2. The ocean sink

Each year fossil fuel burning puts about 8 gigatons of carbon in the atmosphere. The ocean absorbs about 2 gigatons and the land absorbs about 2, leaving about 4 gigatons in the atmosphere.

However, as CO2 emissions rise, the oceanic CO2 sink has been growing less than anticipated. This seems to be due to a change in wind patterns, itself a consequence of global warming.

(What’s the latest story here?)

3. The land sink

As the CO2 levels go up, people expected plants to grow better and suck up more CO2. In the third IPCC report, models predicted that by 2050, plants will be drawing down 6 gigatonnes more carbon per year than they do now! The fourth IPCC report was similar.

This is huge: remember that right now we emit about 8 gigatonnes per year. Indeed, this effect, called CO2 fertilization, could be the difference between the land being a big carbon sink and a big carbon source. Why a carbon source? For one thing, without the plants sucking up CO2, temperatures will rise faster, and the Amazon rainforest may start to die, and permafrost in the Arctic may release more greenhouse gases (especially methane) as it melts.

In a simulation run by Pacala, where he deliberately assumed that plants fail to suck up more carbon dioxide, these effects happened and the biosphere dumped a huge amount of extra CO2 into the atmosphere: the equivalent of 26 stabilization wedges.

So, plans based on the IPCC models are essentially counting on plants to save us from ourselves.

But is there any reason to think plants might not suck up CO2 at the predicted rates?

Maybe. First, people have actually grown forests in doubled CO2 conditions to see how much faster plants grow then. But the classic experiment along these lines used young trees. In 2005, Körner et al did an experiment using mature trees… and they didn’t see them growing any faster!

Second, models in the third IPCC report assumed that as plants grew faster, they’d have no trouble getting all the nitrogen they need. But Hungate et al have argued otherwise. On the other hand, Alexander Barron discovered that some tropical plants were unexpectedly good at ramping up the rate at which they grab ahold of nitrogen from the atmosphere. But on the third hand, that only applies to the tropics. And on the fourth hand—a complicated problem like this requires one of those Indian gods with lots of hands—nitrogen isn’t the only limiting factor to worry about: there’s also phosphorus, for example.

Pacala goes on and discusses even more complicating factors. But his main point is simple. The details of CO2 fertilization matter a lot. It could make the difference between their original plan being roughly good enough… and being nowhere near good enough!

(What’s the latest story here?)

Energy, the Environment, and What Mathematicians Can Do (Part 2)

20 March, 2011

A couple of days ago I begged for help with a math colloquium talk I’m giving this Wednesday at Hong Kong University.

The response was immediate and wonderfully useful. Thanks, everyone! If my actual audience is as knowledgeable and critical as you folks, I’ll be shocked and delighted.

But I only showed you the first part of the talk… because I hadn’t written the second part yet! And the second part is the hard part: it’s about “what mathematicians can do”.

Here’s a version including the second part:

Energy, the Environment, and What Mathematicians Can Do.

I include just one example of what you’re probably dying to see: a mathematician proving theorems that are relevant to environmental and energy problems. And you’ll notice that this guy is not doing work that will directly help solve these problems.

That’s sort of on purpose: I think we mathematicians sit sort of near the edge of the big conversation about these problems. We do important things, now and then, but their importance tends to be indirect. And I think that’s okay.

But it’s also a bit unsatisfying. What’s your most impressive example of a mathematically exciting result that also directly impacts environmental and energy issues?

I have a bunch of my own examples, but I’d like to hear yours. I want to start creating a list.

(By the way: research is just part of the story! One of the easier ways mathematicians can help save the planet is to teach well. And I do discuss that.)

Mathematics of Planet Earth

20 March, 2011

While struggling to prepare my talk on “what mathematicians can do”, I remembered this website pointed out by Tom Leinster:

Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013.

The idea is to get lots of mathematicians involved in programs on these topics:

• Weather, climate, and environment
• Health, human and social services
• Planetary resources
• Population dynamics, ecology and genomics of species
• Energy utilization and efficiency
• Connecting the planet together
• Geophysical processes
• Global economics, safety and stability

There are already a lot of partner societies (including the American Mathematical Society) and partner institutes. I would love to see more details, but this website seems directed mainly at getting more organizations involved, rather than saying what any of them are going to do.

There is a call for proposals, but it’s a bit sketchy. It says:

A call to join is sent to the planet.

which makes me want to ask “From where?”

(That must be why I’m sitting here blogging instead of heading an institute somewhere. I never fully grew up.)

I guess the details will eventually become clearer. Does anyone know some activities that have been planned?

Energy, the Environment, and What Mathematicians Can Do (Part 1)

18 March, 2011

I’m preparing a talk to give at Hong Kong University next week. It’s only half done, but I could use your feedback on this part while I work on the rest:

Energy, The Environment, and What Mathematicians Can Do.

So far it makes a case for why mathematicians should get involved in these issues… but doesn’t say what they can to help! That’ll be the second part. So, you’ll just have to bear with the suspense for now.

By the way, all the facts and graphs should have clickable links that lead you to online references. The links aren’t easy to see, but if you hover the cursor over a fact or graph, and click, it should work.

Guess Who Wrote This?

3 March, 2011

Guess who wrote this report. I’ll quote a bunch of it:

The climate change crisis is far from over. The decade 2000-2010 is the hottest ever recorded and data reveals each decade over the last 50 years to be hotter than the previous one. The planet is enduring more and more heat waves and rain levels—high and low—that test the outer bounds of meteorological study.

The failure of the USA, Australia and Japan to implement relevant legislation after the Copenhagen Accord, as well as general global inaction, might lead people to shrug off the climate issue. Many are quick to doubt the science. Amid such ambiguity a discontinuity is building as expert and public opinion diverge.

This divergence is not sustainable!

Society continues to face a dilemma posed here: a failure to reduce emissions now will mean considerably greater cost in the future. But concerted global action is still too far off given the extreme urgency required.

CO2 price transparency needed

Some countries forge ahead with national and local measures but many are moving away from market-based solutions and are punishing traditional energy sources. Cap-and-trade systems risk being discredited. The EU-Emissions Trading System (EU-ETS) has failed to deliver an adequate CO2 price. Industry lobbying for free allowance allocations is driving demands for CO2 taxes to eliminate perceived industry windfalls. In some cases this has led to political stalemate.

The transparency of a CO2 price is central to delivering least-cost emission reductions, but it also contributes to growing political resistance to cap-and-trade
systems. Policy makers are looking to instruments – like mandates – where emissions value is opaque. This includes emission performance standards (EPSs) for electricity plants and other large fixed sources. Unfortunately, policies aimed at building renewable energy capacity are also displacing more natural gas than coal where the CO2 price is low or absent. This is counter-productive when it comes to reducing emissions. Sometimes the scale of renewables capacity also imposes very high system costs. At other times, policy support for specific renewables is maintained even after the technology reaches its efficient scale, as is the case in the US.

The recession has raised a significant issue for the EU-ETS: how to design cap-and-trade systems in the face of economic and technological uncertainty? Phase III of the ETS risks delivering a structurally low CO2 price due to the impact of the recession on EU emissions. A balanced resetting of the cap should be considered. It is more credible to introduce a CO2 price floor ahead of such shocks than engage in the ad hoc recalibration of the cap in response to them. This would signal to investors that unexpected shortfalls in emissions would be used in part to step up reductions and reduce uncertainty in investments associated with the CO2 price. This is an important issue for the design of Phase IV of the ETS.

Climate too low a priority

Structural climate policy problems aside, the global recession has moved climate concerns far down the hierarchy of government objectives. The financial crisis and Gulf of Mexico oil spill have also hurt trust in the private sector, spawning tighter regulation and leading to increased risk aversion. This hits funding and political support for new technologies, in particular Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) where industry needs indemnification from some risk. Recent moves by the EU and the US regarding long-term liabilities show this support is far from secured. Government support for technology development may also be hit as they work to cut deficits.

In this environment of policy drift and increasing challenge to market-based solutions, it is important to remain strongly focused on least-cost solutions today and advances in new technologies for the future. Even if more pragmatic policy choices prevail, it is important that they are consistent with, and facilitate the eventual implementation of market-based solutions.

Interdependent ecosystems approach

Global policy around environmental sustainability focuses almost exclusively on climate change and CO2 emissions reduction. But since 2008, an approach which considers interdependent ecosystems has emerged and gradually gained influence.

This approach argues that targeting climate change and CO2 alone is insufficient. The planet is a system of inextricably inter-related environmental processes and each must be managed in balance with the others to sustain stability.

Research published by the Stockholm Resilience Centre in early 2009 consolidates this thinking and proposes a framework based on ‘biophysical environmental subsystems’. The Nine Planetary Boundaries collectively define a safe operating space for humanity where social and economic development does not create lasting and catastrophic environmental change.

According to the framework, planetary boundaries collectively determine ecological stability. So far, limits have been quantified for seven boundaries which, if surpassed, could result in more ecological volatility and potentially disastrous consequences. As Table 1 shows, three boundaries have already been exceeded. Based on current trends, the limits of others are fast approaching.

For the energy industry, CO2 management and reduction is the chief concern and the focus of much research and investment. But the interdependence of the other systems means that if one limit is reached, others come under intense pressure. The climate-change boundary relies on careful management of freshwater, land use, atmospheric aerosol concentration, nitrogen–phosphorus, ocean and stratospheric boundaries. Continuing to pursue an environmental policy centered on climate change will fail to preserve the planet’s environmental stability unless the other defined boundaries are addressed with equal vigour.


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