Tag Archives: greenhouse gases

The Unquenchable Thirst for Oil

Demand for oil is rising and the energy industry, in America and globally, is planning multi-trillion-dollar investments to satisfy it. No firm embodies this strategy better than ExxonMobil, the giant that rivals admire and green activists love to hate. As our briefing explains, it plans to pump 25% more oil and gas in 2025 than in 2017. If the rest of the industry pursues even modest growth, the consequence for the climate could be disastrous.

To date politicians, particularly in America, have been reluctant to legislate for bold restrictions on carbon. That is in part thanks to ExxonMobil’s attempts to obstruct efforts to mitigate climate change. …ExxonMobil’s policies on climate change remain marred by inconsistencies. In October the company said it was giving $1m, spread over two years, to a group advocating a carbon tax. ExxonMobil maintains that a carbon tax is a transparent and fair way to limit emissions. But the sum is less than a tenth of its federal lobbying spending in 2018. Moreover, the carbon tax it favours would include protection for oil companies from climate lawsuits.

The firm is also working to reduce leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, from its wells, pipelines and refineries. However the American Petroleum Institute  (API) has been a main force urging Mr Trump’s administration to ease regulations on methane emissions. The API’s other efforts include lobbying against incentives for electric cars.  ExxonMobil is not alone in trying to sway the climate debate in its direction either. Shell, Total and BP are all members of the API. Marathon Petroleum, a refiner, reportedly campaigned to ease Barack Obama’s fuel-economy standards. BP spent $13m to help block a proposal for a carbon tax in Washington state in November. The Western States Petroleum Association, whose membership includes ExxonMobil and Shell, also lobbied to defeat that tax.

While oil companies plan to grow, trends in cleaner energy are moving in the wrong direction. Investments in renewables fell as a share of the total in 2017 for the first time in three years, as spending on oil and gas climbed. In 2018 carbon emissions in America grew by 3.4% as economic activity picked up, even as coal fell out of favour. Mr Woods maintains that any change to the energy supply will be gradual. “I don’t think people can readily understand just how large the energy system is, and the size of that energy system will take time to evolve,” he argues… Out at sea, ExxonMobil is working to increase production. By next year an underwater web of pipes will connect wells on the seabed to a vast vessel. From there the oil will be transferred to smaller tankers, then to the vast infrastructure that can refine and transport it until it reaches consumers in the form of fertiliser, plastic bottles, polyester or, most likely, petrol. From beneath the ocean floor to your car’s tank, for about the price of a gallon of milk.

Excerpts from  Crude Awakening, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019; Bigger Oil, Economist,  Feb. 9, 2019

An Umbrella for the Sun: Geo-Engineering

The idea of cooling the climate with stratospheric sunshades that would shield the planet from the sun’s warming rays moved up the international agenda in March 2019, with mixed results. On the one hand, new research suggested that it is theoretically possible to fine-tune such a shield without some of its potentially damaging consequences. Publication of this work coincided with a proposal at the biennial UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), held in Nairobi, Kenya, for an expert review of such geoengineering methods. This was the highest-level discussion of the topic so far. On the other hand, the more than 170 nations involved could not arrive at a consensus. In a fitting illustration of the heat surrounding geoengineering, the proposal was withdrawn at the eleventh hour.

Under the Paris Agreement, governments have pledged to keep average global warming to “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to try to limit maximum warming to 1.5°C. Many see these targets as wishful thinking: the planet is already roughly 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times, global greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and national pledges to cut them fall short of what is needed to hit the 2°C target, let alone 1.5°C.

Faced with this, some think there is a need to turn down the global thermostat using geoengineering. This encompasses a range of possibilities, including technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and others that block incoming solar energy….  The unea resolution was tabled by Switzerland, and by the start of the week it had received support from most governments. It called for an expert review of the science of geoengineering,…Among the most controversial but also effective and affordable geoengineering options are planetary sunshades. By using high-flying aircraft, for instance, to spray a fine mist of mineral or man-made particles into the upper stratosphere, a portion of the sun’s incoming energy could be bounced back out into space before it gets a chance to warm the planet.  But there are challenges. Stratospheric particles eventually fall back to Earth in rain, so the effect is short-lived. A sunshade would need to be continually resupplied, which is one reason for an international governance framework. If a sunshade were allowed to dissipate while atmospheric CO2 concentrations remained high, global temperatures would rapidly shoot up, with devastating consequences in some regions of the world.  Another problem is the effect of solar geoengineering on the water cycle. Over the past decade, several studies have suggested that sunshades could disproportionately affect rainfall, bringing drought to some regions. But that argument may be oversimplified, according to the new study published in Nature Climate Change .

Position of Sunshade Relative to Earth, Moon and Sun from
http://mycgenie.seao2.info/pubs/Irvine_and_Ridgwell_2009.pdf

Switzerland’s proposal to study geo-engineering was blocked at the UNEA…Several delegates told the Economist that America and Saudi Arabia opposed the Swiss proposal to review geoengineering, preferring the issue to be assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is due to include something about the technologies in its next big report, expected in 2021. ..But the Swiss proposal was for a more comprehensive appraisal and one that would be delivered more quickly, by August 2020…. Indeed, there are concerns that some geoengineering methods could be unilaterally deployed by one or more nations, to the possible detriment of others.  The Americans, some said, did not appear to want to make room for conversations, let alone make decisions, about a framework for geoengineering that could restrict their future options.

Excerpts from  Sunny with Overcast Features: Geoengineering, Economist, Mar. 16, 2019

Ozone Layer Recovery Success

The study, “Scientific Assessment of Ozone Depletion: 2018”, is the latest in a series of reports, released every four years, which monitor the recovery of ozone in the stratosphere, a layer that protects life on Earth from harmful layers of ultraviolet rays from the sun.  It shows that the concentration of ozone-depleting substances continues to decrease, leading to an improvement in the layer since the previous assessment carried out in 2014.

Ozone in parts of the stratosphere has recovered at a rate of 1-3 percent since 2000 and, at projected rates, Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone is scheduled to heal completely by the 2030s, followed by the Southern Hemisphere in the 2050s and polar regions by 2060.

This is due to internationally agreed actions carried out under the historic Montreal Protocol, which came into being over 30 years ago in response to the revelation that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting substances – used in aerosols, cooling and refrigeration systems, and many other items – were tearing a hole in the ozone layer and allowing dangerous ultraviolet radiation to flood through.

Next year, the Protocol is set to be strengthened with the ratification of the Kigali Amendment, which calls for the future use of powerful climate-warming gases in refrigerators, air conditioners and related products to be slashed…The writers of the report found that, if the Kigali Amendment is fully implemented, the world can avoid up to 0.4 percent of global warming this century, meaning that it will play a major role in keeping the global temperature rise below 2°C.

Excerpts from Healing of ozone layer gives hope for climate action: UN report, UN News, Nov. 5, 2018

Turning Oceans into Muck

Oxygen is critical to the health of the planet. It affects the cycles of carbon, nitrogen and other key elements, and is a fundamental requirement for marine life from the seashore to the greatest depths of the ocean. Nevertheless, deoxygenation is worsening in the coastal and open ocean. This is mainly the result of human activities that are increasing global temperatures (CO2-induced warming) and increasing loads of nutrients from agriculture, sewage, and industrial waste, including pollution from power generation from fossil fuels and biomass.

Facts: During the past 50 years the area of low oxygen water in the open ocean has increased by 4.5 million km2. The world’ oceans are now losing approximately  1 gigaton of oxygen each year. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment released by the UN in 2005 reported that nitrogen containing compounds (e.g. sewage, fertilizers) release into the oceans grew 80 percent from 1860 to 1990.  Increasing temperatures will reduce the capacity of the ocean to hold oxygen in the future. Oxygen deficiency is predicted to worsen in estuaries, coastal areas and oxygen minimum zones in the open ocean. The ocean’s capacity to produce oxygen will be reduced in the future.
Habitat loss is expected to worsen, leading to vertical and horizontal migration of species.

Oxygen deficiency will alter biogeochemical cycles and food webs. Lower oxygen concentrations are projected to result in a decrease in reproductive capacity and biodiversity loss. There are important local decreases of commercially important species and aquaculture production. Harmful Algal Blooms will be exacerbated from nutrients released in bottom waters due to hypoxia (e.g. in the Baltic Sea).Reduced ocean oxygen concentrations will lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, thereby initiating feedbacks on climate change.

Excerpts from UNESCO, Jan. 2018

View Extensive Abstract

Background paper (pdf)

Global Ocean Oxygen Network: Through the participation of high level scientists from across the world, the IOC expert group, the Global Ocean Oxygen Network GO2NE, established in 2016, is committed to providing a global and multidisciplinary view of deoxygenation, with a focus on understanding its multiple aspects and impacts.

Cut or Pay up: Net Negative Carbon Emissions

Sweden’s parliament passed a law in June which obliges the country to have “no net emissions” of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2045. The clue is in the wording. This does not mean that three decades from now Swedes must emit no planet-heating substances; even if all their electricity came from renewables and they only drove Teslas, they would presumably still want to fly in aeroplanes, or use cement and fertiliser, the making of which releases plenty of carbon dioxide. Indeed, the law only requires gross emissions to drop by 85% compared with 1990 levels. But it demands that remaining carbon sources are offset with new carbon sinks. In other words greenhouse gases will need to be extracted from the air

[I]f the global temperature is to have a good chance of not rising more than 2ºC above its pre-industrial level, as stipulated in the Paris climate agreement of 2015, worldwide emissions must similarly hit “net zero” no later than 2090. After that, emissions must go “net negative”, with more carbon removed from the stock than is emitted…

To keep the temperature below a certain level means keeping within a certain “carbon budget”—allowing only so much to accumulate, and no more. Once you have spent that budget, you have to balance all new emissions with removals. If you overspend it…you have a brief opportunity to put things right by taking out more than you are putting in…

Climate scientists like Mr Henderson have been discussing negative-emissions technologies (NETs) with economists and policy wonks since the 1990s. [But] NETs were conspicuous by their absence from the agenda of the annual UN climate jamboree which ended in Bonn on November 17th 2017.

 Reforesting logged areas or “afforesting” previously treeless ones presents no great technical challenges. More controversially, they also tend to invoke “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). In BECCS, power stations fuelled by crops that can be burned to make energy have their carbon-dioxide emissions injected into deep geological strata, rather than released into the atmosphere….

The Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)  technologies that exist today, under development by companies such as Global Thermostat in America, Carbon Engineering in Canada or Climeworks of Switzerland, remain pricey. In 2011 a review by the American Physical Society to which Ms Wilcox contributed put extraction costs above $600 per tonne, compared with an average estimate of $60-250 for BECCS…

Much of the gas captured by Climeworks and other pure NETs firms (as opposed to fossil-fuel CCS) is sold to makers of fizzy drinks or greenhouses to help plants grow. It is hard to imagine that market growing far beyond today’s total of 10m tonnes. And in neither case is the gas stored indefinitely. It is either burped out by consumers of carbonated drinks or otherwise exuded by eaters of greenhouse-grown produce…..

One way to create a market for NETs would be for governments to put a price on carbon. Where they have done so, the technologies have been adopted. Take Norway, which in 1991 told oil firms drilling in the North Sea to capture carbon dioxide from their operations or pay up. This cost is now around $50 per tonne emitted; in one field, called Sleipner, the firms have found ways to pump it back underground for less than that. A broader carbon price—either a tax or tradable emissions permits—would promote negative emissions elsewhere, too…

Another concern is the impact on politicians and the dangers of moral hazard. NETs allow politicians to go easy on emission cuts now in the hope that a quick fix will appear in the future.

Excerpt from Sucking up Carbon, Combating Climate Change, Economist,  Nov. 18, 2017

Ozone Layer at 2016

In 1974 scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), chemicals used in refrigeration and as propellants in products such as hairsprays, release chlorine into the stratosphere as they decompose. This depletes the ozone that protects Earth from ultraviolet radiation. CFCs are also powerful greenhouse gases, which absorb solar radiation reflected back from the planet’s surface and so trap heat in the atmosphere.

Initially, the consequences for the ozone layer caused most concern. In 1985 a gaping hole in it was found above Antarctica. Two years later, leaders from around the world acted decisively. They signed a deal, the Montreal protocol, to phase out CFCs. Now ratified by 197 countries, it has prevented the equivalent of more than 135 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide emissions, and averted complete collapse of the ozone layer by the middle of the century. Instead, by that point the ozone hole may even have closed up….

In order to manage without CFCs, firms replaced them in applications such as refrigeration, air-conditioning and insulation with man-made hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). These substances do not deplete ozone and last in the atmosphere for just a short time. However, they still contribute hugely to global warming.  The average atmospheric lifetime for most commercially used HFCs is 15 years or less; carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for more than 500 years. But, like CFCs, HFCs cause a greenhouse effect between hundreds and thousands of times as powerful as carbon dioxide while they linger. Total emissions are still relatively low, but are rising by 7-15% a year. Controlling HFC emissions has been under discussion for the past decade; America and China, the world’s two biggest polluters, made a deal on the issue in 2013, which paved the way for co-operation on limiting carbon emissions ahead of UN-sponsored climate talks in Paris last year. There leaders agreed to keep warming “well below” levels expected to be catastrophic.

Average global temperatures are already 1°C higher than in pre-industrial times….America wants action on HFCs speedy enough that emissions will peak in 2021 and then start to fall; after recent talks in Hangzhou between Mr Obama and Mr Xi China may be ready to commit to reaching that point by 2023. Brazil, Indonesia and Malaysia lean towards 2025, and India has lobbied for a later date, closer to 2030.

Some sectors firms are already preparing to move away from HFCs: in 2015 the Consumer Goods Forum, an international industry group whose members include Walmart and Tesco, began enacting a plan to phase out the substances.

A big question is what to use instead….Some HFCs commonly used in refrigeration could be replaced by others that would have an impact more than 1,000 times smaller. Honeywell, an electronics giant, already makes these less-damaging alternatives. But patents covering such substances have been a sticking point in past discussions, says Achim Steiner, until recently the head of the UN Environment Programme….Other possible replacements include isobutane, propane and propylene, all of which occur naturally. These hydrocarbons are cheap and non-toxic, and can be used as coolants without the same harm to the ozone layer….

Excerpts from The Montreal protocol, Economist, Sept. 24, 2016,at 58

Demand for Carbon Tax

“You can argue that Big Oil is becoming Big Gas,” says Occo Roelofsen of McKinsey, a consulting firm. Others are going in for renewables. Total of France has a majority stake in SunPower, one of the world’s biggest solar-power firms. Eldar Saetre, the boss of Statoil, Norway’s state-run oil company, says that in 15 years there may be more opportunities outside oil and gas than within.

Plenty of oil firms (Exxon among them) are also calling for governments to enact a “carbon tax” on emitters of greenhouse gases. Their critics argue that this is less altruistic than it appears. For one thing, such a tax would hurt the coal industry especially, thereby boosting the oil firms’ gas businesses. And governments, especially in the developing world, where fossil-fuel demand is still surging, may find such a tax politically impossible anyway; the oilmen are calling for it, opponents say, in the knowledge that such countries will never introduce it….

On November 4th New York’s attorney-general, Eric Schneiderman, subpoenaed documents from Exxon to investigate how much it has known since the 1970s about the effects of fossil fuels on the climate. Exxon is reportedly being investigated under the Martin Act, dating back to 1921, which gives prosecutors wide-ranging powers to investigate securities fraud. Exxon says it has long disclosed information about the risks to its business from climate change, and from action to prevent it, in reports to its shareholders. But the firm’s run-in with the New York justice department may be a portent of what is to come.

Another worry for oil executives is pressure from investors spooked by the financial risks of climate change. Policymakers, such as Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, talk about the possibility of many oilfields turning into “stranded assets”, or “unburnable carbon”, if governments get serious about climate-change action. Anthony Hobley of Carbon Tracker, a climate-advisory firm, says that if the Paris pledges are taken at all seriously, the oil and gas industry may become “ex-growth”. Oil executives dispute that. But shareholders, if motivated, could force the industry to shrink just by limiting the funds they provide for new oil discoveries.

Curiously, the present situation may provide a foretaste of this—though cyclically, because of falling oil prices, rather than structurally, because of rising temperatures. Faced with a world awash in crude, oil majors are abandoning high-cost reserves in the Arctic, Canada, North Sea and Gulf of Mexico. One oil executive ruefully calls it a “practice run” for the day in the distant future when fears of global warming, or the emergence of cheap, clean alternative technologies, mean that demand for fossil fuels starts to wane.

Excerpt from Oil Companies and Climate Change: Nodding Donkeys, Economist, Nov. 14, 2015, at 61