Thursday, December 29, 2011

Arctic Methane, Emergencies, and Alarmism

Arctic methane has attracted increasing attention over the last several weeks based on new findings presented by a Russian research team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The principal members of this team, Natalia Shakhova and Igor Semiletov, published a paper in the journal Science last year in which they reported previously unobserved methane venting over the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS). These methane plumes were traced to so-called methane hydrates (or "clathrates") found on the seabed. The researchers estimated that 8 tons of methane per year were being released from these sedimentary structures. These findings were particularly troubling given that methane is a much more potent GHG than carbon dioxide (72 times as powerful over a 20-year period).

At this year's fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco, Shakhova and Semiletov released new observations from a 2011 expedition to the ESAS. According to Semiletov, "Earlier we found torch-like structures ... but they were only tens of meters in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures, more than 1,000 meters in diameter. It's amazing." These new data have not yet been widely released, but are scheduled for publication next spring.

In response to these developments, some members of the geoengineering community have formed an Arctic Methane Emergency Group. Members of this group tie together observations on methane venting, permafrost thaw scenarios, models of sea-ice retreat, and positive feedback hypotheses to paint a picture of an Arctic on the verge of imminent meltdown:

It is now clear that there are two critical problems confounding one another: the rapid loss of sea ice and the emergence of methane from a thawing seabed. They both call for rapid intervention: to cool the region and to capture the methane. ... There is clearly no longer any alternative to large-scale intervention (also known as "geoengineering") for reducing the risk of disaster. And this has to be done extremely quickly - possible large-scale deployment in Spring 2013 - which is an enormous challenge for the development of new technology and its deployment (see booklet here).

In short, the Group believes that super-GHG methane plumes herald the start of runaway global warming, and only an immediate Arctic geoengineering response can avert catastrophe. Group members call for some combination of SAI, marine cloud brightening, and cloud removal to be deployed a little over a year from now, a proposal which has begun to attract attention in the popular science press.

While declaring a methane emergency and calling for immediate action is rooted in good intentions, such advocacy is both premature and misguided. In scientific terms, the available evidence simply does not support assertions that a worst-case scenario is unfolding. Shakhova and Semiletov have discovered an important phenomenon in the ESAS, but there are no data to indicate that this is a new phenomenon, or that methane venting is increasing at a statistically significant rate, or that venting is tightly connected to sea-ice retreat and the ice-albedo feedback. Arctic climate expert Ed Dlugokencky has written that "There is no evidence from our atmospheric measurements that there has been a significant increase in emissions during the past 20 years from natural methane sources in the Arctic so far." Ice expert Richard Alley states "the physical understanding agrees with the paleoclimatic data that methane can be an important feedback but isn't likely to have giant rapid climate-changing belches." Even Shakhova and Semiletov urge restraint: "we have never stated that the reason for the currently observed methane emissions were due to recent climate change. ... We would urge people ... not jump to conclusions and be open to the idea that new observations may significantly change what we understand about our world."

Demands for quick deployment are also politically unwise. Given the mainstream scientific views described above, such calls will not be heeded, but instead will be attributed to "the scientific fringe," which could in turn contribute to the marginalization of the broader geoengineering community. This would be especially tragic if compelling evidence subsequently emerges that we are indeed at an Arctic tipping point: climate remediation solutions may be dismissed as the science-fiction fantasies of doomsday prognosticators, even if the underlying engineering is sound and deployment warranted by an objective reading of events. Monitoring of Arctic methane venting should be increased, and research on global and regional geoengineering schemes should be intensified, but assertions that we are on the brink of calamity and must act now should cease. There is a difference between vigilance and alarmism, and the Arctic Methane Emergency Group is rapidly drifting toward the latter.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Two New German Government Reports

The German government has released two new reports on geoengineering in recent months. The first, released by the Federal Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt), is titled "Geoengineering: Effective Climate Protection or Megalomania?" As its name implies, this report is generally hostile toward climate engineering, recommending "that greater restraint be exercised and a moratorium imposed on the employment of such measures until there is a substantial improvement in knowledge of the interdependencies of geo-processes" (p. 4). The entire study, however, is plainly premised on the false choice between mitigation/adaptation on the one hand, and geoengineering on the other ("Geoengineering measures are for the foreseeable future no alternative to emission reduction and adaptation to climate change," p. 42), and as such, its conclusions are neither sound nor convincing.

The second report, "Large-Scale Intentional Interventions Into the Climate System?," is more systematic, more agnostic, and more useful. Written for the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), it is a scoping study that seeks to map the scientific, economic, social, and political aspects of the emerging debate on climate engineering. One of the more interesting subjects it explores is how geoengineering is likely to be received by German political culture:

According to the experts consulted, the potential for social conflict in Germany is conditioned by a variety of factors. If Germany were to take part in a CE [climate engineering] initiative, either at an operative level or as a financial backer, this would raise the potential for conflict more appreciably than if Germany were merely a passive observer of such developments. Experts agree that the potential for conflict would increase with the implementation of CE measures in close proximity to Germany. At the other end of the scale, a German refusal to participate in an international initiative would lead to less intensive conflicts, as Germany is not one of the countries affected most strongly by climate change and the urgency of adaptation measures would not be perceived as a priority by most observers. Protests expressing solidarity with others could be expected, but not on any very large scale. If CE technologies were to be deployed against the will of the United Nations and many developing countries, the resulting potential for conflict would however be severe (Ch. 8, p. 15).

Unsurprisingly, these experts also feel that Germany would be more inclined to take part in geoengineering research than in deployment. The actual politics are no doubt more complicated than what is depicted in the BMBF study, yet this report does an excellent job of sketching out the details and complexities of these issues. Clearly there is more to geoengineering than either "effective climate protection or megalomania," despite what the Federal Environment Agency suggests.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

California to Allow Forestry Offsets in AB 32

In late October, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) adopted final rules governing the state's Assembly Bill (AB) 32 cap-and-trade system, scheduled to launch in 2013. As part of these rules, CARB has formally permitted the inclusion of forestry project offset credits in the new California carbon market, including offsets derived from reforestation projects (for details see the approved methodology). While offset allowances will be limited to eight percent of emissions from regulated entities, this decision by CARB stands in contrast to the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which prohibits use of forestry credits altogether.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Post-Durban Wrap-Up

Now that the Durban climate conference has ended, it is appropriate to take a look at what its outcome means for geoengineering policy and research. Before the start of COP17, I listed four agenda items that would be particularly relevant to geoengineering (see What to Look for in Durban, 11/16). Below I assess these in light of the conference results:

1. The future of Kyoto - At the core of the final "Durban Platform" was an agreement to extend the Kyoto Protocol beyond 2012 into a second commitment period. However, most details of this second commitment period were left for future negotiations to resolve. Remaining Kyoto parties agreed in principle to reduce their emissions by at least 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, but hard targets were not specified. A "pledge and translate" process next year will attempt to quantify actual emission reduction commitments. Parties failed to agree on whether the new commitment period will end in 2017 or in 2020. The only major emitter bound by this extension is the EU, and it is unclear whether the bloc's previous internal target of a 20 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2020 is affected at all by this new agreement. In other words, the substance of the agreement remains undefined, and its practical impact is far from clear. As if to underline the fragility of the Protocol, yesterday Canada announced its intention to withdraw from Kyoto, the first country to do so. In addition to all this, the inclusive post-2020 treaty negotiation process Europe extracted in return for its Kyoto lifeline is vague and the legal status of any outcome is already contested. Although Kyoto survives, the Durban Platform hardy signals a shift in the direction of strengthened emissions mitigation.

2. Geoengineering on the fringes - Geoengineering as an explicit topic did not figure prominently at COP17, either formally or informally. The main discussion on climate engineering took place at a dedicated side event, where two documents were released: an SRMGI status report (containing no recommendations), and a short UNESCO-SCOPE-UNEP policy brief. None of this activity seemed to have any significant effect on the broader conference proceedings.

3. Market mechanisms - By extending the Kyoto Protocol, parties also preserved its market mechanisms, CDM and JI. Importantly, parties agreed to integrate CCS projects into the CDM, which gives this key CDR component technology a foothold in the carbon offset market and may eventually help qualify other carbon removal techniques for carbon credits. In general, Durban maintained key elements of the global carbon market that may one day play a substantial role in promoting large-scale carbon dioxide removal.

4. REDD+ - Little was achieved with regard to REDD+ at Durban. The central issue remains financing--how much? from whom? public or private? under what oversight? While REDD+ will probably end up incorporated into carbon markets, some civil society groups vigorously oppose this on ideological grounds. Parties agreed to continue work on REDD+ financing in the new year.

Overall, COP17 and its resulting Durban Platform underscored the weakness of global mitigation efforts. The Kyoto Protocol will live on after 2012, but it is unlikely to lead to significant emissions abatement, and prospects for its 2020 successor agreement are questionable at best. As IISD notes, "those who look first to science to measure success were the least enthusiastic about the Durban Platform, for they know that--once again--the endemic incrementalism that has haunted climate negotiations since 1992 continues to force compromise on sufficient commitments on mitigation." Our collective options continue to narrow, and climate engineering looks increasingly unavoidable.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Even Higher Cost for Direct Air Capture

Earlier this year the American Physical Society (APS) released a report estimating the cost of direct air capture (DAC) at $600 per metric ton of CO2, compared to $80 per ton for conventional, point-source CCS systems (see Bright Spots for Direct Air Capture, 6/24). Now a second study has been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which advances a much higher cost estimate, even relative to the APS report. Based on observed separation cost trends and energy penalty analyses, the authors estimate the cost of DAC at $1,000/tCO2. Although this estimate is generic and not specific to any particular DAC technology, and individual DAC processes could conceivably capture carbon for much less in the event of technological breakthroughs, nevertheless the overall analysis appears sound and its implications are troubling for supporters of DAC. Despite this, as David Keith notes, "To really know what it costs, someone actually has to build it."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Biochar Fund Giving Biochar a Bad Name?

Biofuelwatch is continuing its campaign against biochar with the release of a new report, "Biochar Fund Trials in Cameroon: Hype and Unfulfilled Promises." The report summarizes an investigation of a high-profile biochar project undertaken in Cameroon in 2008-2009 by Biochar Fund, a Belgian NGO, along with a local group called Key Farmers Cameroon. The project supported field trials conducted by locals and overseen by Biochar Fund, which were focused on enhancing agricultural productivity. Biochar Fund highlighted the climate benefits of biochar, and held out the prospect of future participation in the European carbon market and resulting financial benefits for local farmers.

In practice, the project was poorly managed and marred by inadequate oversight, miscommunication, flawed trials, and unrealistic expectations. The trials were discontinued amid confusion, and the project fizzled out leaving participants in the dark--"Even farmers who had described participation in the trial as a positive experience at the time, were wondering what benefits - financial or otherwise, they had actually gained from the experience" (p. 19). The report contends that Biochar Fund leveraged the initial appearance of success in Cameroon to obtain funds from the Congo Basin Forest Fund (CBFF) for a second biochar project in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Even proponents of biochar must admit that Biochar Fund comes off looking sloppy and unprofessional at best in the wake of this report. But it is important to emphasize that a mediocre project run by Biochar Fund is not equivalent to the failure of biochar as a climate remediation technology. The report itself notes that "Verification of the actual trial results would have been impossible at this stage and was therefore not an aim of this investigation" (p. 20). Indeed, "farmers told us that they had been impressed by the quality and quantity of the maize harvested" (p. 12). From a geoengineering perspective, the carbon sequestration impacts of biochar were never even examined. Biochar Fund deserves to be admonished, but "guilt by association" should not extend to biochar as a whole.

Monday, December 5, 2011

New Spending in US and Australia

Far from Durban, new spending has been announced for geoengineering-related technologies. In the US, a "minibus" spending bill (HR 2112) for the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Transportation, and others was signed into law last month. Provision for $2 billion in spending on fossil-fuel CCS was folded into the bill, funds which are now available for new or existing plants.

In Australia, the government announced AUD$2 million in biochar research grants as part of its Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) roll-out (see Australian Carbon Farming Passes, 8/22). Grants will be made under a new Biochar Capacity Building Program (BCBP), intended to spur agricultural investment in biochar and participation in the national carbon market set to launch next year.