Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Update from Planet Under Pressure

For the past few days, I have been attending the Planet Under Pressure 2012 conference in London. While geoengineering has not figured prominently here, two individual sessions were devoted fully to the subject. The first of these, titled "Geo-Engineering: Engineering Constraints," focused primarily on the apparent technical limits of specific strategies, in particular CDR techniques. Enhanced weathering came off especially badly, with one presenter noting that the physical infrastructure required to support global-scale silicate weathering would effectively constitute the largest industry in history. Other carbon approaches such as A/R were also criticized for inherent ecological, economic, and resource constraints, and the general tone was one of discouragement regarding current technical potentials.

The second panel was titled "Geo-Engineering Governance," and looked at various institutional and policy dimensions of the field. Presenters discussed governance at conceptual levels (e.g., the Oxford Principles on research) and practical levels (e.g., regulation under the LC/LP). This session was characterized by greater agnosticism toward geoengineering compared to the engineering panel. Several presentations were excellent, particularly those on geopolitics and SRMGI, and left the impression that research on the governance aspects of geoengineering is in some ways beginning to outpace engineering and technical work.

Other items worth noting include:
  • Word that the Japanese government has finalized plans to fund two research projects, one focused on modeling and the other a general assessment of geoengineering technologies.
  • SRMGI will hold two final meetings this year in Africa, bringing its dialogue Phase I to a close. The Royal Society is looking to obtain funds for a more regularized Phase II.
  • The ETC Group is promoting an International Convention for the Evaluation of New Technologies (ICENT), which would of course apply to geoengineering technologies.
Lastly, below is an image of the poster I presented at the conference, titled "The Global Politics of Climate Engineering." (I am happy to provide a PDF version upon request.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Climate Scientists, Geoengineering Community Slam AMEG

For months now, the Arctic Methane Emergency Group (AMEG) has been warning of impending climate catastrophe linked to observations of methane venting, and calling for immediate geoengineering in the Arctic (see Arctic Methane, Emergencies, and Alarmism, 12/29/11). The rationale for this position rests on weak science and bad politics, but AMEG has pressed its case regardless, even appearing before a UK parliamentary committee in February (see Environmental Audit Committee Hearing in the UK, 2/25). Last week, AMEG made a similar presentation to the UK All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG). This time, however, the catastrophists appear to have taken one step too many.

A BBC story on the APPCCG meeting not only reported the exaggerations and occasional hysterics typical of AMEG pitches, but relayed the apparently unfounded assertion that "The idea of putting dust particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight, mimicking the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions, would in fact be disastrous for the Arctic ... with models showing it would increase temperatures at the pole by perhaps 10C." Mainstream climate scientists were quick to cast ridicule on the main arguments presented by AMEG. More importantly, prominent members of the geoengineering community took the group to task, chastising AMEG for scientific carelessness and public-relations ineptitude. This reaction was summed up best by well-known New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andy Revkin: "I'm with Stoat, Ken Caldeira, David Keith, Alan Robock and others who see this 'emergency' effort to rush cloud intervention in the Arctic on behalf of sea ice (and indirectly seabed methane) as undermining the case for a serious push on geo-engineering options, impacts and policy issues. ... 'Yelling fire on a hot planet' can have unanticipated consequences."

AMEG is unlikely to alter its stance based solely on this pushback, but that is not really the point. What is important is that leading advocates of geoengineering research have publicly disavowed the extreme views of a fringe element. If (when?) the AMEG bubble bursts, critics of geoengineering will have a much harder time painting the entire geoengineering community with a single broad brushstroke as techno-fanatics committed to rash action. Instead, responsible supporters of research can rightly claim to have opposed the alarmists as well, not having indulged in either apocalyptic visions or messianic pretensions.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

BioCF Makes Recommendations for CDM A/R Offsets

The World Bank's BioCarbon Fund (BioCF) has released a report detailing its experience supporting afforestation/reforestation (A/R) offset projects under the CDM since 2004. The BioCF functions as the primary World Bank vehicle for funding A/R projects under the CDM, with approximately 80% of its resources going to support 21 such projects. The report makes 4 overall recommendations for the CDM and stakeholders:

  1. Improve the regulatory process

  2. Increase access to finance

  3. Strengthen capacity

  4. Increase demand for credits
These are general recommendations, but some of their more specific aspects deserve further attention.

The CDM project validation and verification process is notoriously complex, and this applies equally to A/R projects as it does to other project types. Among other problems, this unwieldy process is difficult for project developers, national authorities, and independent auditors to navigate; threatens to postpone credit issuance, which is particularly troublesome for A/R projects where upfront costs are high and there is a great need for early, reliable cash flow; is subject to constant revision by the CDM Executive Board (EB), creating a significant regulatory monitoring burden for stakeholders; and adds considerable transaction costs to any project, discouraging many otherwise compelling proposals from being made in the first place. Simplifying the project cycle is one of many items on the agenda of the high-level CDM Policy Dialogue, currently underway.

A/R is unique in the CDM in that credits issued for A/R projects are distinct from normal Certified Emission Reductions (CERs). Ordinary CERs are considered permanent, but because forestry projects are regarded as "non-permanent" (due to natural events or possible logging), A/R credits are considered temporary. A/R project participants must choose to receive either "temporary CERs" (tCERs), good for 5 years, or "long-term CERs" (lCERs), good for 20-40 years. Buyers of tCERs and lCERs are obligated to replace them with regular CERs before the former expire. For this reason, A/R credits sell at a discount in the carbon market, resulting in reduced demand. The BioCF strongly backs innovative efforts to make temporary A/R credits more fungible in the broader carbon market.

Lastly, although depressed demand in the carbon market is ultimately attributable to structural features of the EU ETS (see ZEP to Rescue CCS in Europe?, 3/1), European policymakers could provide a minor boost to A/R CDM credits by tweaking institutional rules. Currently, the EU prohibits use of tCERs and lCERs in the European market out of concerns over the permanence of forest carbon sequestration. As the European market is the largest in the world, this puts A/R credits at another distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis other offset credits. Many safefuards against non-permanence in A/R projects have been proposed. EU authorities could lift the prohibition on A/R credits and instead work constructively to help develop mechanisms to ensure against non-permanence, thereby boosting the prospects of A/R credits in Europe and globally.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

South Korea and Indonesia Sign Agreement on Reforestation

The governments of South Korea and Indonesia have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to undertake a major reforestation project in Indonesia over the next 10 years. The Korea Forest Service (KFS) has agreed to plant trees on 200,000 ha of degraded land in exchange for 100 million tons of carbon credits, all conducted within the REDD+ framework. Initial plantings will be carried out in Sumatran rainforest. This deal comes on the heels of a similar, recently announced agreement to promote reforestation in sub-Saharan Africa (see Hopeful Signs for Reforestation in Africa, 2/4).

Monday, March 5, 2012

Environmental Economists Present "Schelling Consensus"

A group of leading environmental economists has published what is being referred to as the "Schelling consensus" on tackling climate change. This 10-point consensus (named for Nobel Prize-winning economist and game theorist Tom Schelling) calls for an innovative, reinvigorated approach to climate change, making use of the full spectrum of available policy options:

1. Economic analysis suggests that Governments have underinvested in mitigation relative to the level of effort that would be economically efficient.
2. All serious options for addressing climate change should be considered – including controlling greenhouse gas emissions, removing CO2 ,adaption and geo-engineering.
3. International agreements are needed, but need not include all countries or sectors.
4. New approaches that pass a benefit-cost test should be tried, but not necessarily in a single comprehensive agreement; e.g. individual greenhouse gasses could be handled in separate agreements.
5. Putting a price on greenhouse emissions by taxing them or using emission caps would be desirable because it would help consumers, businesses and governments to account for the full social cost of their behaviours. Many countries already have explicit implicit prices on greenhouse gas reductions. The large revenue streams that result should be used productively by reducing other taxes that distort economic activity.
6. Climate stabilization requires that net CO2 emissions decline significantly. Achieving that goal will require a technical revolution. This is one reason why R and D in energy technologies should be a priority, though policies should also ensure innovative efforts are socially productive.
7. R and D is also needed in technologies for removing CO2 from the atmosphere and for managing solar radiation, even though these technologies may not be deployed for decades. Efforts should begin now to develop governance arrangements for the appropriate use of geo-engineering.
8. Businesses need appropriate incentives for innovation, investment and behavioural change.
9. The incentives for consumers, firms and governments to adapt are strong because they will bear most of the costs if they do not. The poorest countries will need assistance from industrialised countries, which may be best targeted to more economic development.
10. There are great uncertainties about how best to manage the various components of the climate change problem. These uncertainties should be acknowledged by adopting a flexible approach to decision making that responds to new knowledge about climate change. Uncertainty should not be used as a rationale for inaction.

These points are generally unremarkable and relatively uncontroversial. Nevertheless, it is significant that geoengineering is treated on equal terms with mitigation and adaptation, as one tool among many that should be considered in the overall effort to avoid dangerous climate change. Such characterizations provide added legitimacy to the field of geoengineering, and promote its increasing acceptance as a normal part of the climate change discourse.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

ZEP to Rescue CCS in Europe?

The European carbon market is currently in a depressed state, and looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future. This is due primarily to a combination of excess supply of credits, and anemic demand due to stagnant growth and the ongoing Eurozone crisis. Among the many casualties of low-priced carbon, CCS may be particularly hard hit, for a couple of reasons. First, in the short term, funding for demonstration projects in the EU is tied directly to carbon prices via set-asides of emission allowances under the New Entrants' Reserve (NER) 300 financing mechanism. Lower allowance prices mean less funding available for CCS. Second, in the longer term, with a weak carbon price, the business case for CCS begins to fall apart, as there is little incentive to invest in costly capture and storage infrastructure.

In response to this situation, the Zero Emissions Platform (ZEP), a collaborative of European industry, civil society, and academia that works to promote adoption of CCS across the continent, has unveiled a new strategy designed to bolster prospects for the technology. The ZEP plan has four components:

1. Targeted support for the 11 remaining NER300 CCS candidate projects.
2. Recommend Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) market reforms, such as a floor price for EU Allowances (EUA).
3. Increase efforts to promote investments in transport and storage, not just capture.
4. Push for greater R&D funding to enable eventual commercial deployment.

Given the present economic and fiscal climate in Europe, it is highly unlikely that calls for additional spending on CCS will be met either by the EU or by individual member states. As such, the most promising option to boost CCS in Europe probably lies in reducing the supply of carbon credits in the ETS, by withdrawing a large quantity of EUAs from the system. The EU is currently considering removing up to 1.4 billion EUAs from the market, and ZEP supports this move. However, utilities and manufacturers will be loathe to accede to the higher carbon prices resulting from such a measure, and can be relied on to resist any such attempt.