Climate 2016: the curate’s Easter egg

Chances of cutting carbon emissions to stay within 2 degrees warming are good, but not 1.5 degrees.

How are we doing? American readers in particular could use a little perspective. Trump is not the USA, the USA is not the world. So: good in parts. I will leave out the record temperatures, droughts, floods here and there, and melting Arctic ice. You know all that and it’s bad, bad. But we are maybe not doomed – yet.

1. To start with the good news. Global industrial carbon emissions are about flat. The IEA says they are exactly flat at 32.1 gigatonnes of CO2 a year.

That’s 8.5 GT of carbon. I propose to use carbon rather than CO2 (1 unit carbon = 3.67 units CO2, by the molecular formula). Nobody can imagine a tonne of a gas. A tonne of carbon corresponds to about 1.3 tonnes of typical US hard coal, 1.2 tonnes of crude oil (with some variation).

The Tyndall Centre and the Global Carbon Project estimate global emissions including the hard-to-measure land-use changes and methane leaks. They find a slight rise: +0.7% in 2014, approximately constant in 2015, and up again by 0.2% in 2016 (provisional data excluding Q4). See here and Le Quéré et al here.  Global GDP growth was about 3%. We have decoupled GDP growth from industrial carbon emissions. There is still a little growth from land-use changes like deforestation.

2. A plateau isn’t enough. Emissions have to go down. Carbon Brief  has estimated the world’s remaining carbon budget at 222 GT for a 66% chance of staying within the 2 degree C target; 56 GT for the more demanding and prudent 1.5 degree target. I set up a few scenarios to show what these imply.

Sources and my calculations in a spreadsheet here.

The straight-line reduction paths are not realistic. An S-shaped logistic curve would be more likely for a technological transformation, but I don’t know how to model this. However, it’s good enough to show the scale of the effort needed. For 2 degrees, we have to cut emissions by 2% linear or 170 MT a year starting now, 2.17% or 190MT if we delay for 5 years. Should be doable. For 1.5%, it’s a staggering 730 MT a year or 8.35% linear, for a mere 11 years. Ouch. Delay makes it flatly impossible.

I infer that 2 degrees is plausibly attainable with effort, even with a fairly leisurely glide-path to zero in 2065. 1.5 degrees is impossible by mitigation alone.

3. Why are we stuck on an emissions plateau? You would expect the forces that produced the slowdown and decoupling from growth to keep working at the peak and start an actual reduction. The explanation seems to be this. The flatlining reflects a balance between the now clearly declining trend in coal and continued growth in oil and gas. Here’s the chart from the Global Carbon Project (slide 16).

The numbers:
Changes in consumption from previous year (source BP).
Year      2013       2014       2015
Coal  +2.0%    +0.5%    -1.8%
Oil     +0.2%    +1.0%    +1.9%
Gas    +1.9%     +0.6%   +1.7%

There aren’t full data for 2016, but the coal decline accelerated in China (-4.7%). In the USA it fell even more spectacularly, -17% over 2015. Growth in India did not make up for the slide in the two giants, and is itself slowing.

The death of coal is now a pretty sure thing. In several US states (Texas, Colorado) old coal plants are now more expensive generators than new renewables. A brand-new coal generating plant in Rotterdam has had half of its €1.7 bn construction cost written off already.

The growth in oil use reflects that in internal-combustion vehicles and in aviation. Electric cars are growing fast, but are still only 0.86% of annual new car sales, and an even lower proportion of the fleet. There is no immediate prospect of these uses slowing. The growth rate of EVs is so high (42% last year) that we can expect them to start having a real impact on gasoline use early in the 2020s. Three more doublings, taking 6 years at current rates, and the share will be 7%, five doublings (10 years) 27%. Electric buses are ahead of cars and already hold 20% of the Chinese market. Policy initiatives by cities like London may lead to another rapid switch in light commercial vehicles. The energy transition in land transport is a strong likelihood, but it will be delayed. Aviation? Commuter electric aircraft are being developed, but need a breakthrough in battery density. We may be stuck with expensive biofuels.

The real joker is gas. A good part of the decline in coal generation in the USA and the UK has come from substitution by gas. This is cheap for now, and allows either more efficient large baseload plants or cheaper peaker ones. Renewables have helped dig coal’s grave. But they are now competitive with gas on the unsubsidised LCOE of new build. Once built, their top place in the merit order cuts into gas usage as well as coal. This is only partly compensated by the greater use of gas peakers to backup wind and solar when they aren’t producing: a function which is itself coming under threat from cheaper grid batteries and cleverer demand management. It’s a complex and murky picture.

This pattern explains the political stance of the oil companies. They have abandoned coal: the faster coal shrinks, the more room for their gas. They will even accept a carbon tax to speed the euthanasia of coal, which has higher unit emissions than gas. They also work behind the scenes to hamper renewables, as with solar in Arizona and wind in Ohio and England. Exxon wants the USA to stay in the Paris Agreement, going to all the meetings and throwing sand in the gears of the transition.

The oil companies will not have an easy pass here. The economic advantages to utilities of wind and solar are now enormous, and the banks and investment funds are now on their side too. The Trump administration (the Goldman Sachs crowd) has for instance dropped opposition to offshore wind. You can’t seriously imagine a policy that would force utilities to burn gas against their interests.

4. Where does this leave our prospects?
Of my emissions scenarios for the 2 degrees warming target, the “five more years flat and then cut” looks by far the most feasible, even though it’s more expensive and riskier than starting now. It depends on the following realistic assumptions:

  • continued decline in coal generation (sure thing)
  • continued rapid growth in wind and solar (sure thing)
  • continued rapid growth in electric vehicles (pretty sure thing, requiring overcoming obstacles to better batteries, but  with major impact delayed +/- five years)
  • significant substitution of gas for generation by renewables and storage (more likely than not).

5. What if we go for the 1.5 degree warming target? We are already seeing significant climate disruption from the 1 degree warming we have already caused. I expect the next IPCC report to conclude that safety requires going firm on the 1.5 degrees. But this target is already out of reach by mitigation alone. So it will have to involve truly massive sequestration to mop up the overshoot. A crash research programme is needed, starting now.

Oh, and BTW, whatever fix is chosen will require a pretty uniform global carbon tax – not all of it rebated to the taxpayers, the sequestration is the first charge. A slice of socialist world government, more or less. Well, the Kochs and Exxon and all of us in our shiny freedom! cars have asked for it.

Salvation may be offered cheap, to the customer at any rate. But it’s never free. It does call for rather more cojones than the curate showed.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

11 thoughts on “Climate 2016: the curate’s Easter egg”

  1. My argument for some time has been that as EVs gain market share, even as little as several percent, the ease of the Internal Combustion Engine infrastructure will start getting less easy. Mainly gas stations will start being less common – if you have to drive further and take more time filling your ICE with gas while EV battery ranges extend further and charging becomes commonplace, then the relative ease of EV versus ICE will keep shifting towards EVs in a virtuous cycle. Availability of ICE repair shops and mechanics will also decrease.

    Globally this is some years away, but if I'm right then there should be localized places already this is happening, like in Oslo and other places with high EV uptake. Places with bad traffic, where the inconvenience of driving a few extra blocks to gas up your ICE as the gas stations get fewer will also be early demonstrators of this cycle. FWIW, there are no gas stations in Lower Manhattan, but EVs can charge up there.

    One other point – it's true that market share of new vehicle sales takes years to be reflected in the vehicle fleet, but the share of vehicle miles travelled won't change as slowly as the vehicle fleet. People will prefer to drive newer vehicles when they have a choice, and especially prefer EVs that have much cheaper fuel and maintenance costs. So the effect of the change, both on emissions and on reducing support for ICE infrastructure, will be faster than that of changing the vehicle fleet.

    1. The switch to electric buses, taxis and delivery vans will also be fast-acting from the high mileages.

      1. Combination of high mileage and (in some cases at least) routes and duty intervals that can be tailored to battery capacity.

        1. If we come through, we should remember that it wasn't just the work of upright and farsighted scientists like James Hansen and Nicholas Stern and politicians like Hans-Josef Fell, Barack Obama, and Christina Figueres, but also of shady chancers like Ken Livingstone (who introduced the first congestion zone to London) and Boris Johnson (who kept it). Their policy is being intensified by their successor Sadiq Khan, a comparatively boring and cautious mainstream Labour party hack, far more typical of mayors throughout the world. Khan suffers from asthma. He can't be alone in this.

  2. A couple of years ago a friend and I drove a hybrid from Amsterdam to Paris, and I was a bit confused as to how to find my sister's place there, so I pulled over and parked near Les Invalides, and said hey, let's get a drink, and I'll find a payphone or borrow someone's local cellphone and give her a ring, or we can hail a cab and pay him to lead us to her address. Naturally we chose to sit in the al fresco section on the sidewalk, the prototypical Parisien café scene, which I wanted my friend to enjoy as he had never been in Paris, and this was his first millisecond on those Rive Gauche boulevards.

    Now, I've always associated Paris and Rome with Vespas, but this was my 13th or 14th time there, and the volume of scooters had increased palpably. As we sat there on the sidewalk, over a leisurely twenty minutes or so, every few seconds somebody was pulling up on a scooter in front of the boulangeries or along the side of the park and popping a little cable into a little post. Maybe they popped in a couple of francs, or maybe it was free. But clearly the entire urban transportation infrastructure was in the process of being transformed — in terms of power, traffic, habits. And of course the Smart and its equivalents seem to represent 75 percent of the urban car market these days in Europe. SUVs may be a thing in Metro Denver, but not on the Continent,

    It certainly won't happen in our TeaParty Imperium, but taxing the fuck out of engine size rather than gas might have greater traction on this side of the pond. Still, I really enjoyed the ambience of people just pulling over for a coffee or to shop at a bookstore and "filling their tank" by plugging in to the posts every 15 meters, much as you'd do with your cellphone or laptop at an airport bar. It was a very appealing glimpse of the transitional future.

    1. Nice. Civic pride and competition is a real thing. I'm sure part of Anne Hidalgo's motivation in Paris is not to be outdone by London, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. In California, it may be San Francisco versus San Diego. The C40 people have started something big. But where are the German cities?

    2. Not only can you tax engine size, but gas (petrol), price insurance by engine displacement & tire speed rating, tax mileage, etc.

  3. Changing to electric & other environment friendly combustion method is only way to save many company have already develop electtric buses & car which are on test & trial method

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