Monday, May 17, 2010

U.S. & China GHG Emissions: Diverging Trends

Recently, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) released a report on energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2009. Carbon dioxide emissions from energy use make up over 80 percent of our country’s greenhouse gases. The report showed that last year the U.S. had its largest absolute and percentage decline since the EIA started keeping statistics in 1949. Carbon dioxide emissions declined by 7 percent - or 405 million metric tons.

The report cites three factors that led to the reduction in emissions: per capita gross domestic product (GDP which is economic output), energy intensity (the amount of energy consumed relative to total output or GDP) and carbon intensity (the amount of carbon produced per $1,000 of GDP). Although the economic downturn had been expected to lower emissions, the slowdown in economic growth only accounted for about a third of the reduction. The remainder was driven by greater energy efficiencies and less energy-intensive activities in our economy. Energy intensity has declined by an average of 2 percent from 2000 to 2008. Carbon intensity also decreased as the cheap price of natural gas caused many utilities to burn it for electricity generation instead of coal.

The U.S. performance stands in stark contrast to China's performance. The New York Times article below points out that China’s growing demand for power from oil and coal has led to the largest six-month increase in man-made greenhouse gases ever by a single country. Advocates of climate change legislation often cite the growth of renewable energy in China as a sign that they are doing more than the U.S. However, these advocates ignore the explosive growth in the consumption of energy from traditional sources that is dwarfing renewable energy use. Part of the reason for the increase, according to the article, is that China’s economy is shifting from light export industries to heavy industrial production - often heavy industrial production that used to be done in cleaner, better regulated western economies. The increase in energy-intensive industries and increased use of coal is making China’s overall economy less energy efficient, reversing a four-year trend of energy efficiency gains.

The lesson here is that growing energy efficiency and a decrease in carbon intensity is beginning to break the link between economic growth and carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. Continuing that trend, largely driven by the market, is the way to reduce emissions without harming the economy, as opposed to adopting a large, bureaucratic cap-and-trade program. And these news items are a further reminder that developing countries with major economies are the current and future driver of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Without action by them, what we do here in the U.S. will have little impact on the global climate, but a large impact on our economy.

“The Carbon Recession,” Wall Street Journal, May 10, 2010.

“China’s Energy Use Threatens Goals on Warming, New York Times, May 7, 2010.

EIA Emissions Report:

Monday, April 26, 2010

Mt. Eyjafjallajokull

Recently, I visited Mt. Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland to see this volcano firsthand and speak with scientists studying the eruption and its potential impact on our climate. Volcanoes are one of the sources of naturally occurring greenhouse gases and large eruptions in the past have impacted our climate.

During an eruption, volcanoes release a number of gases into the atmosphere. The most abundant gases typically released from volcanoes are water vapor, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Scientists have calculated that volcanoes emit between about 130-230 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year.

While it is unclear at this time how much total CO2 is expected to be released from the current Mt. Eyjafjallajokull eruption, the 1991 eruption at Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines was estimated to have released 42 million metric tons of CO2, roughly the same as the amount emitted by the state of Montana in 2005. The eruption at Mt. Pinatubo was one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in the 20th century, and Mt. Eyjafjallajokull is significantly smaller by comparison. Current estimates place CO2emissions from Mt. Eyjafjallajokull at 150,000 to 300,000 metric tons daily, but it is unclear how long these levels will be sustained.

But the effect of volcanoes on the Earth's climate goes beyond CO2. The sulfur dioxide emissions from volcanic eruptions are also thought to be responsible for the global cooling that has been observed for a few years after a major eruption. Emissions of SO2 from an active volcano can reach the stratosphere where they convert to tiny persistent sulfate particles. These sulfate particles reflect energy coming from the sun, which produces a widespread cooling effect by preventing the sun's rays from heating the Earth.

Mt. Eyjafjallajokull is a stark reminder of how powerful nature is and how little we can control it. This eruption grounded thousands of flights and stranded tens of thousands of travelers in Europe. Yet some people in the climate debate seem to think humans control everything. We need to set aside that hubris. Politicians who use science to push their agendas would be wise to learn from this event and understand that our current climate models have serious limitations. We would be better served in pursuing realistic solutions and not expending tremendous financial resources under the false assumption that we humans control everything.

“Volcano emitting tonnes of CO2 daily,” April 20, 2010

Video of Mt. Eyjafjallajokull erupting

Friday, April 16, 2010

I Told You So

Goldman Sachs: The beginning of "Truth Be Told..."

In several of my blogs I have mentioned how Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, having destroyed the mortgage market and crashed the U.S. economy, have now moved their derivative trade to cap and trade where they will do it all over again.

It disgusts me to have my extreme cynicism proven correct -- politics has always been about moving money around -- rewarding those who help politicians get elected. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley gave over $25m to politicians in the last election. Taxpayers bailed them out with TARP money costing billions.

Enough is enough. No business is too big to fail. Let 'em go down or put 'em down: Goldman or the politicians who support them. Time to punish (read regulate) those who cannot control their greedy impulses!

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Changing Climate Debate

It has been an eventful few months for people following the "settled" climate change debate. Last December began with the Climategate scandal involving emails that have raised questions about the data the International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has relied on to make its forecasts. That was followed by the spectacular failure at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. January brought an upset special election in Massachusetts that made already skittish moderate Democrats even less inclined to vote on a climate change bill. Then there was the discovery that some of the IPCC’s most extreme predictions about the impact of climate change were based not on peer-reviewed science but reports by environmental advocacy groups. And finally, the head of the U.N. Climate Change treaty process recently resigned and said that an international climate agreement was unlikely this year.

The momentum for passing climate change legislation that had been building over the last few years appears to be crumbling under the weight of misguided priorities. A healthy discussion about the science or realistic emission reduction goals was replaced by schemes to create a carbon market Wall Street could profit from and advocating an unprecedented level of government central planning.

All of these developments are a sign that the entire conversation needs to be changed. In many ways, the debate is stuck in the 1990s and needs to instead focus on the realities of today. Developed versus developing countries is becoming an irrelevant concept. Globalization has fueled the rapid economic growth of several Asian countries, and made it clear that emissions-dependent industry can rapidly shift operations to avoid regulation. The focus needs to be on all major economies, where the bulk of emissions are generated now or will be in the future. All major economies need to be on board if a global climate change solution is going to be effective.

Energy security needs to be a front and center concern. We cannot take our energy resources for granted. China sure isn't. China is investing all over the world in traditional and alternative forms of energy. They are investing in the Canadian oil sands, oil reserves in Africa, and produce 95 percent of the world’s rare earth elements that are essential to the manufacture of wind mills and hybrid car batteries. They are securing their energy future while we dither over policies that will do nothing to address global greenhouse gas emissions or energy security. We need to develop our domestic energy resources and tap into the resources of friendly trading partners like Canada and Mexico.

If we don’t change the conversation and our priorities, we will be less energy secure and will have done nothing to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What Are We To Make of This?

For a little over two years, I have been fortunate enough to have had the time to carefully examine issues of public importance like global warming. The "science," as the proponents of global warming like to say, is a closed book and those who refuse to accept it are immediately labeled "deniers." Having read most of the "science," I was, until six months ago, mostly convinced that it was settled.

As I have stated in this space previously, I am concerned, and will remain so until convinced otherwise by observation, and the application of logic and reason, that the solutions to the greenhouse gas conundrum need to be carefully scrutinized so that they do not make matters worse rather than better.

So far, national cap and trade, regional cap and trade, and cap and trade, in general, make me nervous because I pride myself on not being fooled more than once. When Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and other "banks" are major supporters of this solution, like they were of making housing more affordable through the use of "derivatives" and other calculus (that is neither transparent nor particularly well understood 2.5 years into the housing catastrophe!), I remain highly skeptical of cap and trade, of any variety, period, and so should you.

However, putting the half-baked but lucrative for the banks and investors, cap and trade game aside for a minute, what are we to think of the March 5, 2010 SCIENCE article entitled,

"Contributions of Stratospheric Water Vapor to Decadal Changes in the Rate of Global Warming"?

Now this article really does confuse me since, if the "science" is settled, well, read the summary for yourself and, if you have the tenacity read the whole article, and you decide whether healthy skepticism is really denial or, in fact, highly rational and in the general public's best interest. Before we poor billions down the next "housing affordability-type" rat hole, "greenhouse gas amelioration," it would be highly logical if the most prestigious science publication could help us resolve the "science" of the issue more precisely and "permanently."

Originally published in Science Express on 28 January 2010
Science 5 March 2010:
Vol. 327. no. 5970, pp. 1219 - 1223
DOI: 10.1126/science.1182488


Contributions of Stratospheric Water Vapor to Decadal Changes in the Rate of Global Warming

Susan Solomon,1 Karen H. Rosenlof,1 Robert W. Portmann,1 John S. Daniel,1 Sean M. Davis,1,2Todd J. Sanford,1,2 Gian-Kasper Plattner3

Stratospheric water vapor concentrations decreased by about 10% after the year 2000. Here we show that this acted to slow the rate of increase in global surface temperature over 2000–2009 by about 25% compared to that which would have occurred due only to carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. More limited data suggest that stratospheric water vapor probably increased between 1980 and 2000, which would have enhanced the decadal rate of surface warming during the 1990s by about 30% as compared to estimates neglecting this change. These findings show that stratospheric water vapor is an important driver of decadal global surface climate change.

1 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory, Chemical Sciences Division, Boulder, CO, USA.
2 Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA.
3 Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute, University of Bern, Sidlerstrasse 5, 3012 Bern, Switzerland.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Coming Soon to a State Capitol Near You: Climate Change

Having come up empty in Copenhagen and facing defeat in the U.S. Senate, advocates for climate change legislation are retreating to the states.

No meaningful progress on an international climate change treaty was made at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference. Key members of the U.S. Senate now predict that cap and trade won't see the light of day this election year either. But in our state capitols, proponents of carbon regulation are plowing ahead.

At the end of 2009, 11 northeastern states committed to develop a low-carbon fuel standard (LCFS) for their region. These states make up the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which has already imposed a cap-and-trade program for electric utilities. The result: these states have the highest retail electric rates in the country ( Now they want to create an LCFS, which will drive up gasoline and diesel costs for consumers.

Not to be outdone, the Midwest Governors Association has made design recommendations for a cap-and-trade system and is preparing recommendations for an LCFS for the six states participating in its Greenhouse Gas Emissions Accord. Meanwhile, Minnesota and Michigan have introduced LCFS legislation, while Wisconsin is set to begin debating an omnibus climate change bill.

You won't be surprised to learn that western states are pursuing similar policies on a regional level and individually. Oregon passed LCFS legislation last year and now Washington is also considering establishing one.

And then there is California, the state responsible for developing these questionable policies. California’s LCFS goes into effect next year and its cap-and-trade program starts in 2012. Those two policies are the flagship programs for The Golden State’s climate change efforts and the success or failure of these actions in California will influence state-level activity across the country.

Other states should be wary of following California’s lead. California has proven to be a shining example of fiscal mismanagement, and is well on its way to legislating itself into junk bond status. Many of the impending climate regulations in that state are causing manufacturers to seriously consider closing shop for good or relocating their operations. In order to prevent further harm to the economy, one California state legislator is currently getting signatures to put an initiative on the ballot for the next election that would bar the state’s cap-and-trade program from going into effect until the state’s unemployment rate dips below 5.5 percent (the state’s unemployment rate is currently 12.3 percent, third highest in the country).

China and India made it clear in Copenhagen that they have no intention of committing to binding emission reductions. They would not even agree to international monitoring, reporting and verification of their emissions.

Most states are facing continued budget deficits and high unemployment. Climate policies that make businesses less competitive with other regions of the country and -- more importantly -- the world won’t help the situation. We need to make sure our state leaders understand that piecemeal policy is bad policy.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Copenhagen Update: What's Next?

What can we expect to happen next after the breakdown in Copenhagen? Considering that no deadline was put in place to reach an international accord, it seems safe to say that such an agreement is easily several years away, particularly in light of the great differences that exist on the major issues, like binding emission reductions.

The outcome in Copenhagen is also going to make it very hard for Senate Democrats, particularly those from Midwestern manufacturing states, to vote for anything that resembles the House bill. Considering China had little interest in even talking to our President in Copenhagen, those senators should be wary of voting for any bill that will send jobs in their states overseas. That is exactly what cap and trade will do.

Just as the Kyoto Accord should be torn up and a whole new approach developed, the same can be said of climate legislation before Congress. While we have been busy debating climate bills, China and India’s economies have continued to grow. China has spent the last year buying up energy and mineral resources around the world, including the Canadian oil sands. Meanwhile, we engage in a completely pointless either/or debate about energy. If we don’t wake up, we will find our energy security severely compromised in the not-to-distant future.

We need to refocus the U.S. debate so that it is about energy security and independence and how best to drive the technology needed to achieve both. The discussion needs to recognize the need for more nuclear power, the important role fossil fuels will continue to play, the need for economically sustainable renewable energy, and how to best drive energy efficiency. Greenhouse gas emission reductions will be a byproduct of this effort.

We will need all of these approaches to meet our future energy needs and increase our energy security. We cannot continue to delude ourselves into thinking one or two technologies alone will make the difference. The time to change the conversation is now, before it is too late.