Friday, September 27, 2013

IPCC WGI Gives Impartial Consideration to Geoengineering

This morning, IPCC Working Group I (WGI) released its highly anticipated AR5 Summary for Policymakers on the physical science basis of climate change.  The final paragraph of the report considers geoengineering:

Methods that aim to deliberately alter the climate system to counter climate change, termed geoengineering, have been proposed.  Limited evidence precludes a comprehensive quantitative assessment of both Solar Radiation Management (SRM) and Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and their impact on the climate system.  CDR methods have biogeochemical and technological limitations to their potential on a global scale.  There is insufficient knowledge to quantify how much CO2 emissions could be partially offset by CDR on a century timescale.  Modelling indicates that SRM methods, if realizable, have the potential to substantially offset a global temperature rise, but they would also modify the global water cycle, and would not reduce ocean acidification.  If SRM were terminated for any reason, there is high confidence that global surface temperatures would rise very rapidly to values consistent with the greenhouse gas forcing.  CDR and SRM methods carry side effects and long-term consequences on a global scale. (p. 21)

This is a relatively balanced statement, justifiably skeptical but neither implacably opposed nor enthusiastically supportive.  Language favorably disposed toward geoengineering, which the Guardian newspaper claimed was being pushed by the Russian delegation in a story last week (see Russia Pushing IPCC WGI to Recognize Geoengineering as Policy Option?, 9/20), is nowhere to be found.  (The Guardian report did, however, provide vocal geoengineering critic Clive Hamilton the opportunity to draw an intimate connection between climate engineering and the predatory Russian state in a follow-on essay.)  The IPCC will take up geoengineering at greater length when Working Group III (WGIII) on mitigation finalizes its contributions to AR5 next April in Berlin.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Norway Scraps Mongstad

The outgoing government of Norway has halted carbon capture operations at the Mongstad CCS demonstration facility, which opened to great fanfare just last year (see More on Mongstad, 6/1/12).  Cost overruns and schedule delays were given as the reasons.  "At both the national and international level, the development of technologies to capture and store CO2 has taken longer, been more difficult and costly than expected," said Oil and Energy Minister Ola Borten Moe.  Mongstad's closing serves to underline the point that, absent a significant price on carbon, the business case for CCS is very weak, and demonstration and deployment will likely continue at an anemic pace.  Performance standards, as laid out in new and upcoming EPA regulations on power plant carbon emissions, offer a promising (if blunt) way around this enduring market failure.

Monday, September 23, 2013

EPA Releases Revised Performance Standard Requiring CCS

Last Friday, the EPA released a revised New Source Performance Standard (NSPS) intended to regulate CO2 emissions from new fossil fuel-fired power plants.  The EPA issued its initial draft standard in March 2012, which called for limiting power plant emissions to a maximum 1,000 pounds of CO2 per MWh of electricity generated per facility (see Calls Intensify for More Global Action on CCS, 5/16/12).  After a year of pushback from the coal industry (see EPA Advancing CCS Rule for New Power Plants, 7/5), EPA decided to split the standard in two, with one rule applicable to most natural gas plants and another to coal plants.  Specifically, large (i.e., greater than 850 mmBtu per hour) new gas-fired turbines, which are inherently cleaner than coal-fired plants, would remain subject to the 1,000 pounds CO2 per MWh rule, but new coal-fired units would be limited to a slightly less rigorous standard of 1,100 pounds CO2 per MWh.  This would effectively require all new coal plants to be equipped with CCS.  (Small new gas plants would also be limited to 1,100 pounds CO2, while coal plants would have the additional option of meeting a marginally tighter but more flexible standard of 1,000-1,050 pounds CO2 per MWh averaged over seven years.)

The coal lobby and its political backers have responded to EPA's revised proposal by accusing the Obama Administration of waging a "war on coal."  With mid-term elections coming next year, Republicans will attempt to use this issue against their Democratic opponents in states with significant coal operations, in particular West Virginia and Kentucky.  On the eve of the rule's release, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who is up for re-election in 2014, began the counterattack by declaring that "The President is leading a war on coal and what that really means for Kentucky families is a war on jobs."  Coal companies themselves will blame the proposed rule for their industry's declining fortunes, despite the fact that coal has been steadily losing market share for years largely due to the flood of cheap natural gas made available by hydraulic fracturing techniques.

Environmentalists, meanwhile, view the revised NSPS as the prelude to a much larger battle to come next year, when the EPA will unveil a new performance standard for existing power plants, for which the economic stakes are substantially higher.  The proposed standard for existing plants will be issued no later than June 1, 2014.  The current, revised standard for new plants is now subject to a 60 day comment period, and, depending on the outcome of possible court challenges, could take effect as early as fall of next year.

From the perspective of geoengineering, the promulgation of this revised standard is very encouraging.  Most importantly, it will help reduce emissions from the coal industry.  If new coal plants cannot comply with the new requirements, then they will not be built.  If they can comply, then the construction of new coal-fired plants with CCS systems will almost certainly contribute to declining costs across all segments of the CCS chain, valuable practical experience through "learning by doing," and enhanced preparation for extending CCS to industrial facilities.  And these gains will in turn accelerate the development of BECCS and the transport and storage dimensions of direct air capture (DAC).  Realizing such benefits, however, will depend entirely on the legal wrangling and political maneuvering to follow in the months ahead.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Russia Pushing IPCC WGI to Recognize Geoengineering as Policy Option?

The Guardian newspaper is reporting that Russian negotiators are pushing for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group I (WGI) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on the physical science basis of climate change, due to be finalized next week in Stockholm, to acknowledge the potential role of geoengineering as a response to climate change.  According to documents the Guardian claims to have seen, Russia has suggested the report's conclusion state that a "possible solution of this [climate change] problem can be found in using [sic] geoengineering methods to stabilize current climate."  These documents also reportedly indicate that geoengineering research is currently being conducted by Russian scientists.

The Guardian continues by quoting Silvia Ribeiro of the ETC Group:

We have been warning that a few geoengineering advocates have been trying to hijack the IPCC for their agenda.  We are now seeing a deliberate attempt to exploit the high profile and credibility of this body to create more mainstream support for extreme climate engineering.  The public and policymakers need to be on guard against being steamrollered into accepting dangerous and immoral interventions with our planet, which are a false solution to climate change.  Geoengineering should be banned by the UN general assembly.

The story ends by claiming that Sweden, Norway, and Germany have expressed discomfort with Russia's proposal, with German negotiators noting that "The information on geoengineering options is too optimistic as it does not appropriately reflect the current lack of knowledge or the high risks associated with such methods."

While all these facts may be accurate, it is important to bear in mind that not only has the Guardian kept these leaked documents from public view, it also has a history of very bad reporting on geoengineering (for example, see More Questionable Reporting from the Guardian, 7/19/12).  The Guardian also has a barely concealed working relationship with the ETC Group, which long ago erased any semblance of objective, unbiased reporting by its journalists on the subject of geoengineering (for example, see OIF Accusations Fly at CBD COP11, 10/17/12).  Hopefully more information from alternative sources will come to light over the next few days to provide a fuller picture of what is happening.

Monday, September 16, 2013

China Scaling Up Weather Modification

China's main weather modification agency, the China Meteorological Administration (CMA), is undertaking a national plan to increase the scale and coordination of rain and snow enhancement, hail suppression, and fog dispersal programs across the country.  Under this new, more systematic framework, weather modification activities will be organized along regional lines, with six major regions coordinated by a central interprovincial body.  The northeast, central, and southeast regions will seek to maximize the wheat harvest, the northwest region will focus on "environmental protection," the southwest region will promote agriculture and hydropower, and the northern region will aim to increase water supplies.  Overall, the government intends to increase annual precipitation by 60 billion metric tons and expand hail suppression to cover more than 540,000 square kilometers between now and 2020.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Britain's Astronomer Royal Joins Calls for More Research

Britain's official Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, has added his voice to recent calls for more research into geoengineering (for example, see Gore Down, Suzuki in the Middle on Geoengineering, 8/26).  Lord Rees, a former president of the Royal Society and current professor of cosmology at Cambridge University, made his appeal in closing remarks delivered at the British Science Festival in Newcastle on Thursday.  Research is warranted, Rees declared, due to the risks posed by global warming: "If the effect [of heightened CO2 levels] is strong, and the world consequently seems on a rapidly warming trajectory into dangerous territory, there may be a pressure for 'panic measures' ... These would have to involve a 'Plan B' - being fatalistic about continuing dependence on fossil fuels, but combating its effects by some form of geoengineering."  But Rees was careful to underscore the serious problems that would accompany any turn to geoengineering: "Geoengineering would be an utter political nightmare: not all nations would want to adjust the thermostat the same way."  The position of Astronomer Royal, while honorary, is very prestigious, and Rees' comments will likely carry some weight among the broader public.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Germany Passes CCS Law

After a long delay, the German parliament has passed a law permitting a limited number of CCS pilot projects to go forward.  Early versions of the bill would have allowed underground storage of up to 3 million tons of CO2, but the final text adopted by the Bundestag and Bundesrat allows for only 1.3 million tons of carbon storage.  The ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Free Democrats carried the measure over the objections of the Greens and the Left party, while the opposition Social Democrats abstained from voting.  Importantly, the new law permits individual states to prohibit underground carbon storage within their jurisdictions.  Mecklenburg-West Pomerania currently prohibits CCS, and Schleswig-Holstein is considering a ban.