Monday, March 28, 2011

Fukushima Dai-ichi and Geoengineering

The ongoing crisis at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in Japan threatens not only the local population and environment, and perhaps places farther away, but also threatens conventional plans to mitigate carbon emissions in response to global warming. Despite safety and cost concerns, the emissions-free baseload electricity provided by nuclear power is an essential component of any credible plan to shift the world economy away from fossil fuels. In recent years there has been talk of a “nuclear renaissance” driven by improved reactor designs, generous loan guarantees, streamlined licensing and regulatory procedures, growing recognition of the climate benefits of nuclear energy, and the absence of serious nuclear incidents since Chernobyl in 1986. This renewed push for nuclear power may be stopped or even reversed by the damage and possible meltdown at Fukushima Dai-ichi.

In the US, safety concerns now dominate the nuclear debate, and many government and corporate leaders have begun to reconsider new and proposed investments in the nuclear industry. Chinese authorities have announced plans to review construction of 77 new nuclear reactors. Germany, the country perhaps least friendly toward nuclear power, is set to backtrack on a 2010 decision to extend the lives of seven aging reactors. France, which is among the strongest proponents of nuclear power, is unique in viewing the crisis in Japan as a potential commercial opportunity for its domestic nuclear firms.

Movement away from nuclear power cannot be offset by increases in other forms of zero-emissions generation—renewables such as wind and solar are characterized by technical and performance constraints, available hydropower resources are dwindling, and energy efficiency faces inherent limitations in its capacity to squeeze out additional savings. Greater reliance on natural gas is an improvement over coal, but still results in significant carbon emissions. The remaining strategy to fight climate change is geoengineering, making it the only tool available to take up the slack left by a fading nuclear industry in any concerted effort to stabilize the climate. Geoengineering, in particular CDR, is therefore likely to play an even larger role in future climate policy following the hydra-headed disaster in Japan.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

REDD/FCPF Moving in Too Many Directions?

In a new report on the World Bank's Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), FERN and the Forest Peoples Programme sharply criticize the body on procedural grounds, arguing that FCPF is typified by rushed decision-making, non-inclusiveness, and an excessively narrow focus on carbon stocks and sinks. FCPF is part of the burgeoning Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD, a potential vehicle for reforestation/afforestation projects) architecture under the umbrella of the UNFCCC. The role of FCPF is to assist readiness activities among REDD member states and support a future forest carbon credit trading system.

The report's authors assail the Facility on multiple fronts, including:
  • FCPF fails to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities, in particular land tenure and resource rights.
  • FCPF fails to incorporate the views of local people, in particular by failing to utilize proper consultation mechanisms.
  • FCPF processes tend to blame indigenous peoples and forest communities for deforestation.
  • FCPF has not developed appropriate benefit-sharing arrangements.
These criticisms are legitimate, but they point to a potential quandary for REDD institutions: different stakeholders ascribe different goals to REDD, and some goals may be partially incompatible. From the perspective of climate change and the UNFCCC, the purpose of REDD is to cut carbon emissions resulting from tropical deforestation. From the perspective of the development community, REDD and FCPF should work to promote the sustainable development of forest communities. For conservationists, the goal of REDD is to protect the remarkable biodiversity of forest ecosystems. And for some in the geoengineering community, REDD should serve as a means to enhance forest carbon stocks, through conservation, reforestation, or afforestation.

Enhancing the role of forests as carbon sinks may entail reductions in biodiversity. Sustainable development may enlarge the carbon footprints of forest communities and indigenous peoples. FERN and the Forest Peoples Programme attribute the problems of the FCPF to "the combined pressure of REDD countries, that resist stringent environmental and social standards, and key donors, that want quick disbursement of funds" (p. 32). With REDD pulled in many directions at the same time, none of the goals favored by its supporters may be achieved, and deforestation may continue as before.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Soil Carbon Credit Standard Proposed

Novecta, a consultancy jointly owned by the Iowa and Illinois Corn Growers Associations, has been circulating a draft standard for agricultural soil credits. Soil credits have played a minimal role in carbon markets up to now, because soil carbon is viewed as difficult to measure, verify, and track. The proposed standard seeks to rectify two particular issues affecting the perceived integrity of soil carbon credits:
  • Additionality - The additionality (compared to business as usual) of soil credits has been difficult to demonstrate, because the cyclical nature of agricultural production complicates efforts to estimate what would have happened in the absence of a soil carbon project. The proposed standard would base additionality on crop cycles, comparing carbon content at the beginning and end of a cycle--more carbon at the end than at the beginning would confirm additionality.
  • Permanence - An individual soil project is subject to multiple factors, such as weather and market dynamics, that render outcomes highly variable. This makes permanence difficult to demonstrate at the individual project level. To compensate, the Novecta standard would employ the concept of "collective persistence" to aggregate individual projects. Treating projects in the aggregate protects individual producers from the uncertainties associated with agriculture, while creating a more stable measure of sequestration for carbon markets.

Following comments and further revisions, Novecta plans to present the standard to USDA and members of Congress in an attempt integrate farming more fully into carbon trading schemes. This represents an important step forward for the budding "carbon farming" movement. It also represents an opportunity to align the interests of agriculture more broadly behind carbon sequestration efforts by providing an additional, secure source of income, particularly attractive in a world of fluctuating, unpredictable food prices.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Under Any Scenario, Mitigation Not Enough

A team from MIT recently published the results of a modeling exercise in which they ran multiple 21st century climate change scenarios through the state-of-the-art MIT Integrated Global Systems Model (IGSM) in order to compare projected outcomes. These scenarios derive from three respected sources: the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES); the US Climate Change Science Program (CCSP); and a set of Shell corporate climate scenarios. Drawing on these, scientists assembled a dozen different climate scenarios reflecting different emissions profiles, biogeochemical process models, public policies (including aggressive mitigation), and other critical assumptions. The results of subsequent test runs are unnerving:

"The broader implication of these scenarios is that all see substantial continued increases in temperature that would create serious environmental concerns. If we rule out the highest [impact scenario] as unthinkable and the lowest ... as possibly unachievable we arrive at a scenario-dependent temperature increase ranging from about 2.5 to 4.5 degrees [C] compared to present. Such increases will require considerable adaptation of many human systems and will leave some aspects of the earth's environment irreversibly changed." (p. 529)

In other words, regardless of the precise trajectory climate change follows, emissions mitigation will not be sufficient to prevent serious harm to people and the planet. This is the basis on which a growing number of observers (myself included) advocate for climate intervention. Geoengineering, in combination with sustained and robust emissions cuts, represents the only viable path to avert potentially catastrophic climate change. Without it, the future looks increasingly bleak.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Cloning Giant Trees

The latest variation on reforestation entails planting genetic copies of the world's largest trees to maximize terrestrial carbon sequestration. Scientists with the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive have begun collecting genetic material from forest giants such as redwoods and sequoias, and cloning these trees for the purpose of wide-scale propagation. Working on the premise that bigger trees store more carbon, the organization aims to clone 200 tree varieties with the highest potential for carbon reduction. So far the group has produced copies of more than 60 species.

The science is straightforward and the goal laudable, but it is unclear how these cloned giants will be cultivated to the extent necessary to make a meaningful impact on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. The Archive intends to sell trees, but short of robust and accessible carbon markets or major reforestation/afforestation projects, it is difficult to see how conventional sales would achieve significant carbon reductions. Regardless, at the very least the group is creating an invaluable genetic library of the planet's largest living things.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Hurtling Toward the Sixth Mass Extinction

A new study in Nature adds to the growing evidence that the Earth is on course for its sixth mass extinction event. In an article titled "Has the Earth's Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?," scientists analyze the fossil record and modern conservation biology data, and conclude that we are headed for the first mass species die-off since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The current rate of extinction is between 3 and 80 times higher than normal, placing us on a trajectory for a mass extinction sometime in the next 300 to 2,000 years. A mass extinction occurs when 75 percent of all species disappear within a geologically short span of time.

How sad, then, that the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the chief international instrument for conserving biodiversity, has adopted a moratorium on geoengineering, even one that is less than meets the eye (see The Meaning of the Moratorium, 10/31/10). It is possible if not probable that geoengineering techniques will enhance biodiversity in a world undergoing climate change, stabilizing ecosystems that would otherwise change too quickly for many species to adapt. At the very least, the terms of the Convention would seem to compel parties to research the possible biodiversity benefits of climate engineering.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

WorldStove Biochar Program Certified as Carbon Offset

WorldStove, a maker of biochar stoves for use in the developing world, announced that its LuciaStove and "Five Step Program" have been certified as an effective, measurable carbon sequestration method. The Measurable Offsets Five Step Program is organized as follows:
  1. Establish a "Stove Hub" base of operations at an appropriate location in the developing world.
  2. Build a LuciaStove factory - LuciaStoves are pyrolitic stoves that burn biomass under low-oxygen conditions to produce biochar.
  3. Acquire a biomass pellet plant.
  4. Collect fuel supplies and biochar - A Stove Hub lab grades the char generated by program LuciaStoves. Suppliers of biochar may be awarded carbon credits.
  5. Distribute biochar, either to food programs or afforestation projects.

The Five Step Program has been certified as a carbon offset by BIOS, an independent certification body. WorldStove intends that this private certification will accelerate LuciaStove accreditation under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and will promote the adoption of the Five Step Program as a carbon offset. Three corporate clients have already signed up for the program.