Delusions of Grandeur in Building a Low-Carbon Future

31 01 2018

With many thanks from Ugo Bardi who first published this on Cassandra’s Legacy…… 

Some excerpts from Carey King’s excellent paper titled “Delusion of Grandeur in building a low-carbon future” (2016). By all means worth reading: it identifies the delusionary approach of some policy proposals. Image Credit: K. Cantner, AGI.

…. the outcomes of economic models used to inform policymakers and policies like the Paris Agreement are fundamentally flawed to the point of being completely delusional. It isn’t the specific economic assumptions related to the “low-carbon” transition that are the problem, but structural flaws in the economic models themselves.

There is a very real trade-off between the rate at which we address climate change and the amount of economic growth we can expect during the transition to a low-carbon economy, but most economic models insufficiently address this trade-off, and thus are incapable of assessing the transition. If we ignore this trade-off, or worse, we rely on models that are built on faulty premises, then we risk politicians and citizens revolting against the energy transition midway into it when the substantial growth and prosperity they’ve been told to expect will accompany the low-carbon transition don’t materialize. It is important to note that citizens are also told that doubling-down on fossil energy also only provides growth and prosperity. But this is a major point of this article: mainstream economic models can’t tell the difference. There are foreseeable feedbacks of a fast transition to a low-carbon economy that increase the risk of major recessions.

The AR5 indicates that if the world invests enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over time — such that total annual greenhouse gas emissions are practically zero by 2100 — to stay within the 450 ppm and 2-degree-Celsius target, then the modeled decline in the size of the economy relative to business-as-usual scenarios is typically less than 10 percent. In other words, instead of the economy in 2100 being 300 to 800 percent larger than in 2010 without any mitigation, it is only 270 to 720 percent larger with full mitigation. Meanwhile, there is no reported possibility of a smaller future economy. Apparently, we’ll be much richer in the future no matter if we mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or not.

This result is delusional and doesn’t pass the smell test.

Another flawed piece of the framework in the IAMs is that they assume that factors in the economy during and after a low-carbon transition will remain at or return to the statistically positive trends of the last several decades — the trend of growth, the trend of high employment levels, the trend of technological innovation. Those positive trends change over time, however, so it is faulty to assume they’ll continue at historic levels independent of the need for rapid changes in the energy system. They also assume that energy costs will not significantly increase over the long term. Further, they extrapolate trends in growth, employment and technology from the past and current carbon-based economy to apply to a future decarbonized economy in ways that represent guesswork at best, and ideology at worst.

Perhaps most importantly, IAMs do not consider the substantial negative feedback between high energy costs and overall economic growth. Negative feedback means that when one factor increases (energy prices, for example), another factor consequently decreases. Many of us know from practical experience that if gasoline costs too much — like when it was near $4 per gallon in 2008 — it may eat into our budget to such an extent that we can’t pay all our bills or can’t pursue hobbies. On a personal level, then, we see that increased gas prices cause decreased discretionary spending — a negative feedback. This idea can be extended to the entire economy’s budget and income.
….. the models currently answer a question that is barely useful: “If the economy grows this much, what types of energy investments can we make, and at what rate?” The models should address the question we really need to answer: “If we make these energy investments at this rate, what happens to the economy?”

There is a fundamental conflict between achieving low- or zero-carbon energy systems and growing an economy. Both the scale and rate of change during a low-carbon transition matter. So, let’s create macroeconomic models that can plausibly replicate historical trends of the most important energy and economic variables in times of high energy investment, recession and growth, so that we have confidence that we can ask relevant and informative questions about how low-carbon investments impact economic growth. Let’s stop deluding ourselves by using models that assume answers we want to see.

Read the complete paper (open access) at this link

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Compounding problems for sea level rise…

28 01 2015

Another guest post by Mark Cochrane…..

One of the larger concerns in recent years has been the question of just how fast sea levels might rise due to collapsing ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. In the IPCC AR4 report (2007) there was considerable furor because the 2005 cut off for literature and the natural conservative nature of the ‘consensus’ interpretation resulted in estimates of sea level rise that were known to be too low at the time of publication: specifically, from 0.18 to 0.59 m by 2100, depending on which scenario you chose and the low-to-high extremes. In the more recent AR5 report (2013), they conclude that for the best of emissions cases, if we start immediate and extensive carbon emission reductions (RCP 2.6), sea level is expected to rise by 28-61 cm by 2100, while in the worst of cases (RCP 8.5) sea level rise is expected to be 52-98 cm. This is still conservative but much better than the AR4 estimates.

The real question is whether sea level rise occurs at close to a linear rate (fixed amount per year) that is slow and easily projected, or if it is increasing at a nonlinear rate (fixed percentage per year) that could yield unpleasant surprises in future years? Dr. Richard Alley (2010) compared projections of sea level rise going forward and basically found that most included 1m within their error range, with the exception of one serious outlier at 5m made by Dr. James Hansen (2005, 2007, 2012). Hansen’s predictions have not been well-received by the community of experts on ice sheet dynamics. They point out that, so far, there has been nothing like the amount of sea level rise observed that would be necessary to reach 5m in a linear fashion. Hansen however premises his ideas of rapid ice sheet collapse on nonlinear phenomenon caused by things like glacial melt water being transported to the base of the ice sheets and acting as a lubricant to speed their movement dramatically.

In the mean time, more traditional approaches to looking at glacial melting rates have had values centered more on 1 meter, to maybe 2 meters under worst conditions, of sea level rise by 2100 (NOAA 2012). Hansen has been intransigent in his estimations and the rates of sea level rise keep exceeding the best estimates of the ‘experts’. Glacial melt within dynamic ice sheet models has typically been modelled based on simple top down melting with unchanging processes for explaining the ongoing flow of ice sheets. However, the accelerating rates of observed ice sheet flow and disintegrating ice shelves have led to reappraisals of what is going on. As I recently detailed (post #2340), warmer ocean waters have been melting ice sheets from underneath in some regions, removing the stable grounding lines and now the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is in irreversible collapse (Rignot et al 2014, Joughlin et al. 2014).

Similarly, Pollard et al. (2014) have recently tried to improve continental ice sheet models by adding the processes of oceanic melting and hydrofracturing (melt water from the surface pouring into cracks and forcing them further apart) and also account for ice cliff failures (when they get so large the ice face crumbles). Both processes they added are based on observations made in the field in recent years. They looked at the effects on both the WAIS and the Eastern Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS). The interesting thing (to me at least) is that cliff failure and hydrofracture combine to cause very large changes in expected sea level rise that either process alone does not create. By itself, cliff failure does little to accelerate collapse over the standard model representation. Conversely, hydrofracturing, by itself, causes expected sea level rise to roughly double from 2 to 4 m over thousands of years. When both processes are included though, the sea level rises by 17 m, with about 4 m happening in the first 100 years! Clearly the two processes interact to strongly enhance the collapse rate.  The EAIS collapses slowly over thousands of years but the WAIS collapses in decades.

The Pollard et al (2014) paper is not expressly addressing our future as it was aimed at explaining formerly unexplainable sea level rises during some previous interglacial periods – which their results ended up matching fairly closely. They forced their model using 400 ppm CO2 so it isn’t wildly different from what we currently have though.  In the model, roughly 3 m of sea rise come from the WAIS alone, within 100 years. If you add the much slower response of the EAIS and the undiscussed but very similar ice sheet collapse from Greenland, suddenly Hansen’s 5 m sea level rise call doesn’t look so outlandish after all. Interestingly, the senior author on the Pollard et al. paper is none other than Richard Alley who previously did not see how such rapid ice sheet collapse could be occurring.

This still doesn’t mean that we definitely will get 5 m of sea level rise in this century (let’s pray that we don’t!) but it certainly increases the perceived risks of much larger sea level rises than the IPCC AR5 report states (again). It also helps explain the increasing rates of sea level rise from 1.0 mm/yr to 3.0 mm/yr in recent decades. Things seem to be proceeding in a decidedly nonlinear way.





What are the chances?

14 04 2014

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

Another guest post from Mark Cochrane on the IPCC’s latest offering.

 

The final volume of IPCC Assessment Report 5 (AR5) from Working Group III: Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change has been released by the IPCC. Press release here.

Although 2ºC is a somewhat arbitrary number, it is a level of warming that everyone with any involvement in the study of climate change and its impacts has agreed would be absolutely foolhardy to exceed before 2100 for human civilization. It’s not that the world would suddenly end but it is just so completely obvious that the negative consequences would be so unavoidably large that even Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and the U.S can agree that we do not want to go there. The only question is whether or not the human species is capable of any level of concerted action to avoid it.

wg2coverIn order to have a better than 50% chance of avoiding an average global temperature increase greater than  2C, the following guidance is given:

“Climate policies in line with the two degrees Celsius goal need to aim for substantial emission reductions,” Edenhofer said. “There is a clear message from science: To avoid dangerous interference with the climate system, we need to move away from business as usual.”

Scenarios show that to have a likely chance of limiting the increase in global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius, means lowering global greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent compared with 2010 by mid-century, and to near-zero by the end of this century. Ambitious mitigation may even require removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The question obviously arises as to whether or not we can afford the cost of attempting to avoid what we certainly cannot afford to experience? Well, 235 authors and 38 review editors from 57 countries, together with nearly a thousand contributing or review experts, citing work from 10,000 scientific papers give us some insight there as well:

“Many different pathways lead to a future within the boundaries set by the two degrees Celsius goal,” Edenhofer said. “All of these require substantial investments. Avoiding further delays in mitigation and making use of a broad variety of technologies can limit the associated costs.”

Estimates of the economic costs of mitigation vary widely. In business-as-usual scenarios, consumption grows by 1.6 to 3 percent per year. Ambitious mitigation would reduce this growth by around 0.06 percentage points a year. However, the underlying estimates do not take into account economic benefits of reduced climate change.

If we cannot afford to invest such a paltry amount in the future then we have definitely reached the ‘limits to growth’ in collective human intelligence.

In any case:

1) Delaying action just increases the costs. Waiting until 2030 increases the estimates to 4% GDP.

2) The ongoing economic costs of climate change likely already exceed the proposed costs for mitigation activities by several-fold (e.g. link, link).

Mitigating activities are like trying to turn a fully laden oil tanker. Small rudder changes early on will do a lot more than large changes later on. Right now every decade sees global emissions levels not only going up but growing at increasing rates. This is like the captain of the Titanic spotting the iceberg and calling ‘full ahead’ to speed up their date with destiny.





Are we already past dangerous climate change?

26 02 2014

Are we already past dangerous climate change? asks a Mark Cochrane follower over at Peak Prosperity dot com….. This paper (PDF) – not peer reviewed – he ads, is a critique of the AR5 WG1 SPM. David Wasdell lays out a case that the current situation is far worse than the AR5 posits. He uses a much higher value of Earth System Sensitivity to show that we have no carbon budget left, even for 2C. He also uses other sensitivity estimates to show that there is, at best, very little or no budget left to avoid dangerous climate change.

Wasdell is one of the climate scientists that Guy McPherson leans heavily on for his NTE scenarios, so this question is quite pertinent to How Guy McPherson gets it wrong..

Mark Cochrane

Mark Cochrane

 

Mark replied: Yes we are………But

I read through the 21 page document and it is a good expose of how the politics of the IPCC process shades an already conservative (consensus) representation of what the science indicates is likely to occur as a function of a given amount of greenhouse forcing. For those who do not know, the IPCC process requires 100% consensus of all the authors nominated by all the countries to agree on their interpretation of the data. This means that in the end, after marathon sessions of back and forth, the final interpretation depends on just how far the most skeptical scientists are willing to be moved. These are not ‘alarmist’ interpretations as some would have you believe. Furthermore, the public does not really look at the IPCC report, they look at the Summary for Policy Makers (SPM) which is a short Cliff Notes version. The short version is wrangled over by political appointees (not scientists) who literally argue over every word and every figure. They produce a sanitized version of the report that all governments can support. Again, not conducive to ‘alarmist’ or even the most likely scenarios.

That said, the author (Wasdell) of the document you linked and the IPCC authors are talking about two different outcomes with regard to the made up 2C line in the sand for “dangerous” climate change. The SPM is focused on the so-called fast feedbacks (e.g. radiative forcing of greenhouse gases) and the likely temperature impacts within this century. Wasdell is making the case for including both fast and slow feedbacks and using a final equilibrium temperature as the metric of “dangerous” temperature changes. The slow feedbacks include things like changing albedo values from melting ice sheets and methane release from melting permafrost. These slow feedbacks stretch out for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years. So even if we manage to keep increases under 2C this century (unlikely), the planetary temperatures will certainly rise above that value over the following centuries. Though everything we see shows the 2050 and 2100 outcomes of the model projections the IPCC also does some analyses of “Long-term” changes out to 2300. Here is the figure from the AR4.

The unrealistic goal of 2C is pretty obvious even on the sanitized Figure 10 in the SPM of AR5 (AR5 SPM link; figure is on page 28). Every scenario but the fantasy RCP 2.6 blows past 2C  by 2100 and the trajectories are shooting even higher into the future.

The IPCC and especially the SPM make use of the Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity (ECS) for a doubling equivalent of carbon dioxide concentration, which basically accounts for fast feedbacks and is taken to probably be between 2 and 4.5C, with 3C used as the most likely value (note some models show it to be >5C). Wasdell is arguing to use what is termed the Earth System Sensitivity (ESS) which includes both long and short term feedbacks. It is poorly constrained but may be twice as large as the ECS values.

In the near term there is not a huge difference in using one over the other and what needs to be kept in perspective is that both approaches are postulating an outcome for a doubled CO2 equivalent that is held constant which is not actually a realistic model of what is likely to happen. It does give a measure of sensitivity though. If you are going to try to make mitigating attempts, going after the fast feedbacks is the most reasonable approach since doing things like reducing methane emissions from fossil fuels (or cows!) could make meaningful changes in the short term that have long term significance, while trying to shade glaciers to mitigate long term feedbacks would be ludicrous.

Ultimately though, the 2C threshold is just a chimera created to give policymakers and the public a figure to hang their concerns on. Barring a miracle or a global catastrophe, we are not likely to reduce emissions by the >80% necessary before 2020 in order to maybe squeak in under 2C this century.  In any case, the climate change (0.8C) that we’ve already experienced has led to numerous extinctions and many thousands of human deaths (e.g. 80,000 in 2003 Europe, 50,000 in 2010 Russia). Surely this has already reached “dangerous levels”.





Warsaw – Day 7: World ‘neglects climate impact on food’

19 11 2013

Alex Kirby

By Alex Kirby

With the UN climate talks in Warsaw at their mid-point, a fringe meeting is debating the future of agriculture in a warming world. A senior scientist tells the Climate News Network of her deep misgivings for the future.

LONDON, 17 November – Global leaders are failing to respond to the threat posed by climate change to the growing challenge of feeding the world, a leading agricultural researcher says.

They do not treat the problem seriously, and they are ignoring the warnings of science about what is liable to happen.

Yet, she says, there is much more evidence available than there was a few years ago, and the future it describes is cause for great concern.

The criticism comes from Dr Sonja Vermeulen, who heads the CGIAR research programme on climate change, agriculture and food security (CCAFS).

She was speaking to the Climate News Network as the UN climate negotiations – the 19th conference of the parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, COP 19 – got under way in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Unsettling prospect

Dr Vermeulen said: “I think the COPs are moving too slowly, and global leaders are not taking the problem of food security under climate change seriously enough.

“They’re not sitting up and taking notice of Working Group II of the IPCC. I know that what we’ll get from that this time is a much larger body of evidence than in 2007 on food production – and the picture is not rosy.”

The IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released the first part of its Fifth Assessment Report, AR5, two months ago. The second part to be published will be a summary for policy makers of a report by the Panel’s Working Group II, on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change. It is due to be published in early 2014.

A draft copy of the summary was leaked before the Warsaw COP began. It is liable to amendment before publication. The draft says that “climate change will reduce median yields [of the major crops, wheat, rice and maize] by 0 to 2% per decade for the rest of the century…in a context of rising crop demand projected to increase by about 14% per decade until 2050″.

Dr Vermeulen said some low-income countries now saw less hope of financial flows from richer countries through the Climate Convention process to help them to adapt to climate change. But CCAFS had published a report describing the success some of them had achieved in adapting by their own and their partners’ efforts.

“I believe a certain amount can be achieved by going it alone in this way”, she said. “But we do need to reduce emissions, otherwise there will always be a temptation, without an international agreement, to freeload on others’ actions.

Selective science

“We still hope the UNFCCC process will come up with a programme on agriculture. We need that guidance globally, and some areas – like the food trade – just can’t be tackled at a national level.
“I’m trying all the time to be optimistic. There are some international funds available for smallholders, for example through the International Fund for Agricultural Development. It’s about US$300 m – not a lot, but there’s something there.

“Science does inform discussion at the COPs, but when politicians debate they cherry-pick what parts of the science to talk about.”

Delegates to the Warsaw conference, now in its second and final week, have expressed dismay at the failure to include agriculture and forestry in the current climate change negotiations.

They want people to move out of their silos of climate change, agriculture, forestry and urban land use and to address the question of how the world can produce enough food for nine billion people by 2050 without destroying the Earth’s forests and accelerating climate change. – Climate News Network





At last….. relatively good news on CC

2 10 2013

My friend Dave Kimble who has his ear to the ground and whose work I sometimes post here has sent me this by email…….

The IPCC’s AR5 final report from Working Group 1 (still called Final Draft) is available for download,
either all in one giant file of 158 MB (mine was damaged) at http://www.climatechange2013.org/images/uploads/WGIAR5_WGI-12Doc2b_FinalDraft_All.pdf or as lots of files of individual chapters, see http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/

The RCP2.6 scenario corresponds to Peak Oil, Gas and Coal that peakists would subscribe to.  For reasons that are beyond me, you will have to click on the chart to see it full size…. ipcc.predictions It shows median summer temperatures over land rising to +1.5 C by 2045, and falling very slowly after that.

However the median is only the “most likely” for the whole world, over land, in summer.
The model predicts that the most likely half of all outcomes is in the range +1.0 to +1.8 C.
And the 90% of all outcomes range is +0.2 to +2.6 C.

This of course assumes that we manage to keep producing all the fossil fuels we can, on the downslope of Hubbert’s Curve, which seems very unlikely.

So there you have it.  Only collapse can save us from catastrophic climate change.  Though of course, we might still have fired the Clathrate Gun…..