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How much of our CO₂ budget is needed just to rebuild our energy system?

posted Aug 28, 2018, 4:00 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Aug 28, 2018, 4:04 AM ]

[Spoiler alert: I’m not actually going to answer the title question above — not quantitatively at least. But I think there is some merit even just in drawing attention to the fact that there is a question here that can usefully be asked!]

Early in the excellent book Our Renewable Future by Richard Heinberg and David Fridley (full text available online, open access), they present the following “big picture” perspective on the challenge of rapidly decarbonising our energy systems (locally and globally):

[Original image source: Michael Carbajales-Dale, “Fueling the Energy Transition: The Net Energy Perspective,” presentation at the Global Climate and Energy Project Workshop on Net Energy Analysis, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, April 1, 2015.]

Notwithstanding the notional quantitative units on the two axes, the graph is, of course, purely qualitative, but it does still convey an important heuristic insight: building energy infrastructure itself takes energy, and we only get a net energy (or energy service) “surplus” if or when that initial investment is “paid back”.

Unpacking this slightly, given that the technologies of a decarbonised energy system (energy sources, conversions, end uses) are, in significant measure, very different from those of our existing fossil fuel based systems, an awful lot of physical infrastructure will have to be replaced during the decarbonisation transition. And physical infrastructure all involves so-called embodied energy — as opposed to the operational energy that we are more generally familiar with:

  • Operational energy is energy used directly to provide some function or service. Thus the heat cooking food in an oven, the electricity lighting a bulb, the liquid fuel burned to produce thrust in an aviation engine are all examples of operational energy.

  • By contrast, the energy required to manufacture an oven or a light bulb or an aviation engine (or complete aircraft) is referred to as embodied energy.

Quantification of embodied energy can be contentious as it depends on choices of exact system boundaries: but in general it is intended to include all upstream operational energy required to create the target product or device. The concept of embodied energy applies equally to infrastructure, such as roads, railways, buildings, and energy system components including power stations, electricity grids, oil tankers, pipelines, vehicles, aircraft, refuelling networks etc. In the specific case of renewable energy systems, renewable source technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, hydroelectric stations, etc. all have associated embodied energy. Similarly, to the extent that use of low-carbon or renewable energy sources may require progressive electrification of heating and transport, then new battery electric vehicles or heat-pumps, or additional grid infrastructure, all with associated embodied energy may be required. And in complementary manner, even interventions to enhance energy efficiency, such as in retrofit and renewal of the built environment, may involve associated embodied energy. (And in relation to energy efficiency, we will not even start on the complicating issues of rebound here…)

Given the current dominance of fossil fuel based infrastructure in energy systems (at global, regional, or national levels) it follows that the decarbonisation transition itself will involve a great deal of embodied energy. While some of that might substitute for energy that would otherwise be embodied in maintenance or refurbishment of the existing energy system, a great deal of it is likely to be additional i.e., it would not be required but for the decarbonisation of the system. At any given point in the decarbonisation of renewable energy transition, it will be the energy system of that time, and the carbon intensity of energy at that time, that determines the emissions associated with that embodied energy. Toward the end of the transition, that intensity will have become low (by definition); but early on, it will still be very high.

In effect then, decarbonisation itself involves a large scale commitment to additional CO₂ emissions, over and above emissions from all “ongoing” human activities (not directly associated with the decarbonisation transition).

As CO₂ is effectively cumulative, any given climate change temperature constraint (such as now embodied in the Paris Agreement) implies a limit on the total further amount of  CO₂ that can be released to the atmosphere, the so-called remaining global carbon budget. But the analysis above indicates that a potentially substantial component of this must be ring-fenced for emissions associated with the embodied energy essential to the construction of the new, decarbonised, energy system.

While precise quantification of this commitment (of embodied energy and associated emissions) is difficult, it strongly suggests a need to absolutely minimise, as far as possible (technically, socially, politically), the amount of operational energy used for any purposes other than for the energy system transition, until that transition is substantially achieved.

As far as I know, this heuristic system-level insight has not, as yet, been incorporated in any explicit way in practical energy transition policy (certainly not in Ireland?)... but comments/pointers are definitely welcome via our project twitter feed @ie_nets or direct email to ienets@dcu.ie.

"Energy Trilemma" Considered Harmful

posted Aug 22, 2018, 3:30 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Aug 22, 2018, 3:44 AM ]

The “energy trilemma” starts with the idea that there are three key interacting goals in any national energy system strategy or policy; while precise terminology varies, we will label them here as:

  • Security (of supply)

  • Cost (including effects on trade competitiveness)

  • (Environmental) sustainability (including climate change mitigation)

This is termed a “trilemma” to indicate that, to at least some extent, these three aspects are all in tension or conflict with each other, and pursuing any one in isolation may therefore limit or compromise delivery on the others. But all three are evidently desirable if not essential (as in motherhood and apple pie): therefore we must presumably strive to carefully balance policy interventions across all three “legs” or “pillars” of the trilemma, and avoid “unduly” focussing on, or prioritising, any one of them. Indeed, this can be seen as exactly encapsulating the whole challenge of energy policy: were it not for this tension, and this need for balance, policy would surely be (relatively) straightforward — just pursue some single overriding policy goal!

Perhaps as a result of its widespread use and repetition, this formulation now seems so eminently sensible that it hardly requires any further elaboration or motivation. Indeed, since 2010, the energy trilemma has explicitly served as a central element for the work programme of the UN-accredited World Energy Council, in the form of their now annual report on the World Energy Trilemma Index:

This includes standardised assessments of the status of the “energy trilemma” for individual countries, such as Ireland:

(Aside: While not central to this particular blog post, it is impossible not to notice here that, according to the WEC, Ireland is ranked second best in the world on the “environmental sustainability” of its energy system. This for a country where, as of 2016, 92% of its primary energy was sourced from fossil fuels, including direct and indirect subsidies for burning peat — perhaps the single most environmentally destructive fossil fuel of all; and a country which actually ranked as second worst in Europe on an independent aggregate assessment of climate action, though admittedly that is also skewed by Ireland’s particularly strong profile of non-CO₂ GHG emissions from ruminant agriculture. Still: there are clearly some peculiar devils hidden in the details of the WEC energy trilemma methodology. But we will save any detailed discussion of that for a possible future post...)

Note that the WEC graphic device is subtly instructive here: the choice of an equilateral triangle to represent the trilemma clearly frames the three “dimensions” are essentially equal and symmetrical, at least as policy objectives. Again, the tacit implication appears to be that no one of the dimensions should be singled out or prioritised over the other two.

The earliest explicit use of the “energy trilemma” terminology that I have found dates from 2009 (Sautter et al, The Energy Trilemma in the Green Mountain State: An Analysis of Vermont's Energy Challenges and Policy Options), however the general trope of three more-or-less “equal” interacting goals in energy policy has certainly been around for much longer. In the specific Irish context again, we can go back at least to the Government White Paper of 2007 on Delivering A Sustainable Energy Future For Ireland where we read that:

“... the primary objectives of our energy policy as set out in this White Paper are: security of supply, environmental sustainability and economic competitiveness.”

It is possible that the emergence of this three-way characterisation at that time was influenced, consciously or otherwise, by what had already become the canonical definition of “sustainable development” as comprising three mutually dependent “pillars”, usually labelled “economic”, “social”, and “environmental”, and often illustrated as follows:

Although the graphical device is different, we again see a tacit commitment to essential equality and symmetry among the three aspects. Of course, these three specific dimensions of “sustainability” do not map precisely onto the commonly cited dimensions of the energy trilemma, so the comparison is suggestive at best. I will set it aside again for now (but revisit it before the end of the post!).

So: what’s the problem? If this is all so much common sense, how can the “energy trilemma” possibly be considered “harmful”?

Well, the central question to be resolved is whether the three aspects or dimensions really are “symmetrical”? Or, alternatively, whether there might actually be legitimate reasons and arguments for prioritising or privileging any relative to the others? Because if they are not, in fact, symmetrical, then the call for “balanced” treatment in policy might actually be mistaken, and potentially counter-productive. And if that were all indeed the case, it would surely be important to become aware of it as soon as possible.

OK, so cards on the table: my claim is that in fact, the three dimensions of the supposed “energy trilemma” are not “symmetrical”, but are actually best thought of (and pictured graphically!) as a prioritized hierarchy.

To explain this, I will first present a different but (I will argue) closely related hierarchy: Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. This is conventionally represented by a deliberately asymmetrical graphical device, namely a pyramid:

While there is much background and detail that could be explored in relation to the Maslow hierarchy, the essential idea is straightforward enough. The lower levels in the hierarchy provide enabling conditions for all the levels above: that is, unless and until a lower level is attained, it is difficult if not impossible to achieve the higher levels that depend upon it. Or to put it another way: it well be an ultimate societal goal that all citizens should have the opportunity to realize their full human social, creative and intellectual potentials, but if their basic physiological needs are not yet satisfied (food, water, shelter) then first addressing those basic needs must properly override all other priorities.

So, in an exactly similar manner, I would like to suggest that the standard “dimensions” of energy policy properly constitute not a “trilemma” of relatively equal aspirations to be “balanced” against each other, but a strict “hierarchy” of needs with a quite rigorous priority order between them, visualised as follows:

As with the Maslow hierarchy, the argument here is perfectly straightforward. At the bottom of this energy-needs hierarchy we place environmental “sustainability” precisely because if our energy system is not (indefinitely) sustainable — if it is not “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (in the words of the Brundtland report) — then in a perfectly reasonable sense, it cannot be called “secure” (and further, its real “cost” is effectively unbounded); by definition, it would ultimately, inevitably, fail to meet any needs at all (either for ourselves or our posterity). In the case in point, if, collectively, we do not succeed in effectively limiting anthropogenic climate change (in the sense of the Paris Agreement goals of limiting temperature rise under conditions of global equity and solidarity), then organised human civilization as we know it will almost certainly become impossible. So transitioning to a “sustainable” energy system (locally and globally), which is to say, achieving zero (or negative) ongoing energy system GHG emissions within a prudent assessment of the remaining Global Carbon Budget (GCB), needs to be viewed as an overriding priority in energy system policy. Unless and until our portfolio of policy measures meets the criterion of reliably achieving sustainability in this sense, then all considerations of “security” (never mind “cost”) must be properly regarded as essentially moot. In practice this likely amounts to prioritising early, equitable, reductions in energy consumption (i.e., protecting those in energy poverty while targeting those actions and practices in society that have the most intensive and discretionary consumption profiles), while rapidly ramping down unabated fossil fuel combustion (“unabated” here meaning “without capture and reliable long term storage of the produced CO₂ pollution”) and building out energy infrastructure capable of at least zero and preferably negative nett CO₂ emissions in operation.

But once we satisfy these policy conditions for long term environmental sustainability, then, of course, security becomes a critical consideration, precisely because the critical physiological and safety needs of any industrialised human society (the bottom two layers of the Maslow hierarchy) are completely contingent on ready access to adequate energy. And achieving energy security is especially challenging in a world, that, for the currently foreseeable future, will be struggling to deal with intensifying impacts from already transgressing multiple bio-physical planetary boundaries (of which climate change is only one, even if the most immediately acute). So again at this level of the energy-needs hierarchy, unless a society can have a high degree of security in its energy supply — robust in the face of potentially severe geo-political stresses — then the question of relative “cost” must still remain largely moot. Energy supply that may be seriously disrupted with little notice or control is not a basis for a stable, prosperous, society — no matter how “cheap” it may otherwise appear to be.

So, subject only to ensuring sustainable energy supply, then the second most important condition for energy system policy must be achieving adequate security of supply. In practice this will tend to favour the greatest feasible “insourcing” of supply by maximising use of indigenous zero- or negative-CO₂ energy resources; and secondarily maintaining strategic reserves of critical energy carriers where technically possible. But there is essentially no scenario in which concerns over short-term security should be allowed to undermine the strategic imperative to exit from (unabated) fossil fuel use. Moreover, in the case of a country such as Ireland, with very small and rapidly depleting indigenous fossil fuel reserves, and only highly speculative prospects of any new fossil fuel discovery (which, in any case, would be likely to be high cost, both technically and socio-politically) then even abated fossil fuel use (via carbon capture and storage) can be expected to play only a small and relatively transient role in our energy decarbonisation transformation.

Of course, if sustainability and security are assured, then it does finally become absolutely reasonable to judge energy system measures and policies against criteria of relative cost: we would want, as far as possible, to ensure that the required sustainability and security are indeed achieved in the most cost-effective manner possible. But it cannot be stressed too strongly that the very concept of “cost-effectiveness” becomes coherent only when the choices at hand are between alternatives that can all be considered as very likely to be successful in meeting the criteria for sustainability and security. Otherwise, cost comparisons are premature and inappropriate — comparing apples and oranges. Cutting energy system costs at the expense of compromising key thresholds of sustainability or security should never even enter in to the evaluation of energy system policy measures.

I promised to also connect this discussion back to the more general concept of “sustainable development” and its common formulation in the three (symmetrical) “pillars” of “economic”, “social”, and “environmental” sustainability. While not usually expressly described as a “trilemma”, this shares a similar cognitive framing, and tends to evoke similar concerns for “balance”; and is subject to exactly analogous critique to that presented here of the “energy trilemma”. For a detailed discussion (including the political history of the quite deliberate framing of sustainable development in this fundamentally equivocal way) see the article Sustainability at thwink.org; I will just quote the conclusion:

“There is a bird's nest of interdependencies between the three types of sustainability... Social sustainability depends on economic sustainability, and vice versa. Social and economic sustainability depend on environmental sustainability. To a much smaller extent, environmental sustainability depends on economic and social sustainability. But the dominant dependency is that from a systems thinking viewpoint, the human system is a dependent subsystem of the larger system it lives within: the environment. Therefore, of the three, environmental sustainability must be society's top priority.”

So, in conclusion, I have presented my case for replacing the terminology and preconceptions of the “energy trilemma” with those of the “energy-needs hierarchy”. To be clear, I believe it is very useful to view energy policy through the three “dimensions” of environmental sustainability, security and cost: but I would encourage anyone continuing to use this framework to explicitly recast it into the hierarchy formulation. It is only under conditions of full sustainability and secure (largely indigenous) supply that there can be proper discovery of the true cost of energy. This is the difficulty with the energy trilemma framing. If the essentially global and long-term view of an energy hierarchy, including alignment with the Paris Agreement, is not reflected in national policy-making then it is almost inevitable that energy cost will instead prioritise near-term and local priorities by being biased toward reflecting current costs accepting fossil fuel lock-ins without internalised constraints on their total future use.  

The properly accounted and internalised near-term cost should still, of course, be minimised: but in general, this cannot usefully be at the expense of undermining security of supply or (even more seriously) of destroying long term environmental sustainability for generations to come.

Green Plan Ireland and the Paris Agreement: A cumulative CO₂ assessment

posted Jul 16, 2018, 5:16 AM by Paul Price   [ updated Aug 15, 2018, 3:31 AM by Barry McMullin ]

For the IE-NETS project we have been examining a number of user-friendly and/or open source energy system models that may be useful in informing policy in aligning climate action with the Paris Agreement and in indicating the possible need for carbon dioxide removal and a timeline for investing in negative emissions technologies to accomplish this.

One such model is EnergyPLAN, developed and maintained by Aalborg University in Denmark, with which users can start by setting up a reference model matching the energy supply and demand infrastructure and parameters of a current energy system. From this, users can then develop a plausible sequence of scenario steps for a low carbon transition. The EnergyPLAN model focuses on achieving a 100% renewables energy system so the modelling of fossil fuel, carbon capture and storage or nuclear power is relatively basic, but the modelling of technologies such as combined heat and power, district heating, energy storage and power-to-fuel is more detailed.

Though not open source, EnergyPLAN is well documented, easy to use and runs quickly in a Microsoft Windows operating system. Building the reference model from available data takes time but once completed alternative scenario options can rapidly be explored. Hourly balance of the energy system enables a reasonably fine grained look at a scenarios involving high capacity and grid penetration of variable renewables combined with modelling of synthetic liquid or gaseous fuel production to use excess energy production and store it for use in periods when there is insufficient wind or solar.

David Connolly's Green Plan Ireland

Using the EnergyPLAN energy system simulation model, while at Aalborg David Connolly (now CEO of the Irish Wind Energy Association) proposed Green Plan Ireland, a series of six steps in demand management and renewable energy development, by which Ireland could potentially transition its energy system to being based on 100% renewables energy supply  (Connolly and Mathiesen, 2014). You can see the paper, a video presentation and all data via links at the Green Plan Ireland webpage. For each of these steps the EnergyPLAN output data gives a net value for CO2 emissions. The Aalborg modelling does assume that all bioenergy is “carbon neutral” – as per current EU methodology and policy, though at odds with much science – but does aim to limit bioenergy use.

In this blogpost we very simplistically imagine fully accomplishing one of these steps every five years up to 2050, draw a straight line between of these annual emissions levels and then add up the total CO2 emissions of this imagined Green Plan Ireland emission pathway to 2050. We then compare this CO2 commitment to the possible Paris-aligned CO2 quota for Ireland as estimated in previous IE-NETS work. This is only an exploratory assessment, nonetheless it does give a blog-level exploratory view that can set some basic context for the timeline of low carbon transition planning.

In outline, Green Plan Ireland begins with Step 1, a reference model matching the projected Irish energy system as of 2020, followed by a transition of energy supply to 100% renewables by 2050 via the following six steps:

  • Step 1. Reference model

  • Step 2. District heating (2020)

  • Step 3. Heat pumps for building heat

  • Step 4. Electricity grid regulation

  • Step 5. Demand side management (DSM) and electric vehicles & (EVs)

  • Step 6. Synthetic methanol/DME

  • Step 7. Synthetic methane production

For the purpose of this modelling energy demand is assumed to stay constant in terms of total and sectoral breakdown. The last two steps in particular require large scale expansion of wind energy, especially offshore, so that excess capacity can enable energy storage via synthesised chemical energy storage in electrofuels: synthetic liquid fuels (methanol and/or  dimethyl either) and synthetic gaseous fuel (methane). Running EnergyPLAN for each scenario step gives a value for nett annual CO2 emissions for each one. Using an import/export‐corrected fuel account, the model additionally calculates a value for “corrected CO2 emissions”. At Step 7 in the Green Plan the EnergyPlan modelling of the Irish energy system yields marginally negative CO2 emissions, at least on a corrected basis (and assessing bioenergy as CO2 neutral).

A Simple Green Plan Emission Path Scenario

In the chart below an emission scenario imagines fully accomplishing each one of the six steps from 2020 to 2050, assuming that 2015 to 2020 emissions are flat at the Step 1 Level of just over 38 MtCO2 per year from the energy system (although in fact we know they have increased in 2016). Drawing a straight line between each of these annual emissions way points then gives us an imagined emissions pathway to 2050. We will come back to the dashed green pathway that is also shown.

As shown in the next chart below, we can then sum the CO2 emissions starting in 2015 and adding on each year of emissions (from the values in the annual chart above) to get a cumulative total pathway to 2050. This is important because cumulative CO2 emissions are the predominant driver of long-term global warming and climate change, and therefore provide a gauge of Ireland's climate action policy effectiveness. For the scenario shown the annual emissions from 2015 to 2050, add up to cumulative CO2 calculated as just over 1000 MtCO2 (or about 900 MtCO2 after correcting for import/export).

In IE-NETs we have presented previous work based on the current scientific estimates of  the remaining, nett global carbon budget range of CO2 emissions from 2015 onwards, necessary to align global action with the Paris Agreement temperature target of “well below 2ºC”. For Ireland, a population-based share of the mid-point of this global carbon budget is only 586 MtCO2. Though representing some attempt at equity, this “equal per capita” allocation of the budget is overly generous: it cannot be said to be properly “equitable” (as the Paris Agreement demands) because it does not account for responsibility for past emissions, current high emissions or capacity to act. In any case, allowing for Ireland’s ongoing nett land use CO2 emissions reduces the quota share for energy system emissions to about 534 MtCO2, which is shown as a dotted green line in the chart below. (Note: Glynn et al. 2018 uses a different global carbon budget basis and arrives at a somewhat higher 766 MtCO2 quota for Ireland using the same type of allocation.) The green dashed "Even Effort Path" line in both charts shows the effect of a constant fractional reduction rate pathway of -7.1% per year, starting at the 2015 level - which would (asymptotically) use exactly the estimated cumulative quota.

Cumulative CO2 Implications for Paris-Aligned Climate Action Policy

This very simple assessment sets the Green Plan Ireland steps defined by Connolly and Mathiesen into a sequential, 5-yearly series to 2050. The charts indicate that this apparently extremely ambitious plan, which does achieve very deep emissions rate reduction by the final stage in 2050, still does not limit Ireland’s cumulative CO2 emissions to even a minimally equitable Paris-aligned carbon quota.

Cumulative emissions as shown go above the quota limit before 2030 and go on to exceed the quota by a total of 350 to 400 MtCO2. This is similar to the scale of maximum technical potential for negative CO2 emissions to 2100 estimated earlier in the IE-NETS project. Therefore, following such a pathway would commit Ireland to achieving these very high levels of negative emissions, using what are currently speculative technologies in terms of both cost and performance with large implications for land use area needed, for example to produce energy crops for bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Even if faster or other mitigation measures are applied it seems likely that some level of negative emissions capacity may be needed, requiring investment in at least some carbon capture and storage.  This CCS capacity might need to be prioritised for bioenergy rather than abating interim fossil fuel emissions (the so-called “fossil fuel bridge” model) so that negative emissions can be realised.

Of course, it is possible that the Green Plan steps could be planned to overlap in time and begin much earlier in terms of investment and achievement so that the decarbonisation pathway followed in Ireland’s ‘low carbon transition’ is far closer to the required target path. Critically, it is the final two steps that have the largest effect on total energy system emission reductions. This suggests that early investment in development in synthetic fuel R&D and capacity building, including offshore wind turbines might need to be a critical focus for mitigation planning in order to incorporate these key changes as early as possible in the energy system transformation, thus yielding the maximum impact on cumulative CO2 emissions.

It is evident from the charts that early and deep mitigation effort are needed to limit the large, subtractions from the carbon quota due to ongoing high emissions. The Green Plan only looks at energy supply to meet current sectoral demands, so near-term measures that achieve real cuts in absolute demand would greatly assist in mitigation. Energy efficiency may help here, but only if carbon pricing or supply regulation is sufficient to eliminate rebound effects that encourage spending of cost savings. Immediate phase-out of the most carbon intensive fossil fuels in electricity production, peat and coal, would provide an important early benefit.

To be “cost effective”, as demanded by Ireland’s Climate Act, mitigation action must add up to meeting a science-based target, in this case a Paris-aligned carbon quota, with a high degree of certainty. By definition, not meeting the target is not cost effective, so the choice is then between options that meet the target at least cost. Existing investment guidance is often based on near-term carbon prices which do not reflect the climate impacts if the science-based targets are exceeded; and this may preclude investment in what are ultimately likely to be the most important technologies – possibly including failing to invest early in synthetic fuel production as indicated above for the Green Plan. On the demand side, the option to reduce existing high emitting activities in favour of potentially economic lower emitting activities can too easily be omitted from mitigation studies that may be overly influenced by the present economic mix. Research shows that early, substantial investment is required for the those areas thought most difficult to mitigate. Likewise, the possibility of large new energy demands, such as the promotion of new data centres, may need to be considered carefully relative to decarbonisation pathways.

Ongoing work in the IE-NETS project is further examining and modelling the required scale and speed of emission reductions to align Ireland’s climate action with the Paris Agreement, including possible tacit commitment to achieving some level of negative emissions. The simple scenario sketched above echoes the overwhelming consensus of international climate mitigation research: any and all delay in actually achieving deep decarbonisation quickly risks likely failure to meet Ireland’s Paris commitment. As the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland state in their recent submission to the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment:

The longer the delay of annual total (net) emissions reductions (in the order of 10% per annum) the more challenging and costly future decarbonisations become. Modelling scenarios will need to be updated to ensure they are based on achieved levels of decarbonisation in each accounting period, and in the event of delayed mitigation will indicate a shrinking time horizon for fossil fuel use, and the need for costlier solutions such as negative emissions technologies (e.g. bioenergy CCS) in the future.

Looking forward to the International Conference on Negative CO₂ (and #BeyondFlying)...

posted May 18, 2018, 12:48 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated May 18, 2018, 12:48 AM by Paul Price ]

The first International Conference on Negative CO₂ Emissions will take place on May 24-26 2018 in Gothenburg, Sweden. As part of the ie-nets project team working on a (small) project to assess the potential for negative CO₂ emissions in Ireland, I’m delighted that we have had two abstracts accepted for presentation, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting and engaging with the emerging international community of researchers working on this critically important topic.

And yet: I’m also torn. Dublin, where I live, and Gothenburg are 1240 km apart. My return flight would represent a combined GHG emission commitment of the order of 250-500 kgCOe. Trivial in a global sense: but if academic “experts” on climate action appear unwilling to urgently reduce their own emissions, does that not grievously undermine any message we might have for wider society?

Now you may say I’m a dreamer ... but I’m not the only one! The Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research has published a very useful working paper, Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century and there already exists a public petition calling on academic institutions to address this issue, called Flying Less: Reducing Academia's Carbon Footprint.

Which all brings me to a “modest proposal”. I do hope the Gothenburg event is the first in a series of such conferences: but, I also hope that, as a new, emerging, research community we might consider, from the start, radical ways to reduce the environmental impact of everything we hope to do. I would point, for example, at the Nearly Carbon-Neutral model that can deliver a highly effective international conferencing experience but without the burden of large scale travel. In the meantime: I am still very much looking forward to Gothenburg, but for myself, I’ll be choosing not to fly, but to travel by ferry and train instead. It will cost rather more and take a little longer (four extra days overall!), and of course, the carbon “saving” will be no more than symbolic. But I hope that sometimes symbols may matter more than they appear. And if you are also travelling to Gothenburg, do please look out for me there and let me know what your own thoughts are on a life Beyond Flying!

Barry McMullin, Dublin, Ireland
Reach me at: barry.mcmullin@dcu.ie

Ireland’s domestic climate policy needs updating to include ten million tonnes of untargeted emissions

posted Apr 16, 2018, 2:03 PM by Paul Price   [ updated Apr 17, 2018, 12:15 AM ]

The Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, provides Ireland’s most recent complete emission inventory data, up to 2015, published 2017 [pdf]. Comparing inventory emissions with Ireland’s core climate policy it becomes clear that about 10 million tonnes CO2e of Ireland’s emissions (on a GWP-100 equivalence basis) are not currently targeted by national policy, even though these emissions are accounted in EU targets – and do, of course, physically affect Earth’s climate system by adding to global warming. These ‘missing emissions’ are primarily from manufacturing, industry, waste and also ‘F-gases’ (used in refrigeration and air conditioning). In this blogpost, we discuss this issue and some possible implications for climate policy and policy analysis.

Ireland’s current climate action policy, most fully stated in the 2017 National Mitigation Plan, continues to be based on a policy statement made in 2014 called the National Policy Position (NPP). This states that:

“The low-carbon roadmapping process will be guided by a long-term vision of low-carbon transition based on –

• an aggregate reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of at least 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050 across the electricity generation, built environment and transport sectors; and

• in parallel, an approach to carbon neutrality in the agriculture and land-use sector, including forestry, which does not compromise capacity for sustainable food production.”

Separately from, and pre-dating, this national policy, Irish emissions are also subject to binding EU emission reduction policies, where emissions are divided between: the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme, the ETS (from large industrial sources, such as power stations, industrial heat use and cement production); and non-ETS emissions, which are limited according to the Effort Sharing Decision whereby each nation is assigned an emissions pathway (allocated by negotiation according to different assessed national mitigation potential).  For the linear, national non-ETS emission pathways each Member State is legally bound to stay within their corresponding allocated total of non-ETS emissions for periods up to 2020, and soon, under the forthcoming EU Climate Action Regulation, to 2030.

However, rather than reflecting this ETS vs. non-ETS distinction, the NPP does not mention the separation at all. Indeed, it mixes them together – the electricity generation facilities are covered by the ETS, whereas the built environment, transport, and agriculture and land-use sectors are all within the non-ETS sector. Built Environment includes mainly heating-associated emissions in the Public and Commercial Services, and Residential sectors.

Logically, as the NPP takes this collective approach to territorial greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring the ETS/non-ETS distinction, we can ask: Are all GHGs therefore included in the key NPP statement quoted above?  Obviously they are not, some major sectors are omitted from mention altogether: there is no targeting of reductions in Manufacturing Combustion, Industrial Processes, F-gases, Waste sectors, or in Energy Industries other than electricity, including petroleum refining, solid fuel manufacture and fugitive emissions. These ‘missing emissions’ amount to a considerable 10.3 MtCO2e or 17% of 2016 total Irish CO2e emissions. See the Excel file here which includes lines below the main tables adding up these missing emissions, for example in the Provisional Summary 1990-2016 sheet detailing total national emissions.  In terms of EU targets, the missing emissions add up to 5.8 MtCO2e or 33% of Ireland's ETS emissions, and 3.6  MtCO2e or 8% of non-ETS emissions.

Even though these territorial emissions are ultimately covered by the EU targets it is striking that there is no mention at all of these key sectors in the NPP.  These omissions are surprising as the NPP is specifically framed in the context of the aligning action with the UNFCCC objectives (now concretely stated in the Paris Agreement) and the associated European Union objective of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80-95% by 2050 compared to 1990.  The latter EU 2050 Roadmap assumes EU-wide average reductions of ~85% in Industry and ~74% in non-CO2 (especially Waste and F-Gases) emissions by 2050, yet these sectors are not given a target or included at all in the NPP. It is very difficult to see how deep, economy-wide and sectoral emissions reductions can be achieved if significant sectors are excluded from the explicitly stated targets in Ireland’s climate action policies.

This omission of major sectors from the NPP and the lack of clarity in aligning the policy position with the EU targets undoubtedly has the potential to increase confusion in Ireland’s carbon governance capable of achieving a low carbon transition, especially relative to meeting the separate ETS and non-ETS targets. Sectors outside the NPP definitions could possibly even be incentivised to grow – contrary to the need for decarbonisation across all sectors – simply because their emissions are not readily apparent to policy analysis that is primarily based on the NPP statement that fails to target them.

It should also be of serious concern if some sectors of emissions are not fully included in policy analyses and projections, given that policies will nonetheless need to achieve the EU targets that do include these emissions. Several policy analyses by agencies and researchers released since the NPP are notable for charting the NPP's EGBET emissions yet failing to chart pathways for all CO2 and non-CO2 emissions, thereby overlooking emissions from the omitted sectors. Even if current national policy does not target them, objective policy analysis and projections by agencies, researchers and NGOs needs to assess the trajectory of all of Ireland’s greenhouse emissions relative to international climate commitments.

To avoid the evident risk of overlooking or downplaying the need for climate action by the unnamed sectors, an obvious climate policy recommendation would be to redraft the core NPP statement for the NMP as soon as possible to target all territorial emissions and sectors. (Ideally, the NPP would also state a cumulative CO2 quota in aligned with the Paris Agreement, replacing the currently stated 2050 target, which could result in high total emissions depending on the pathway taken.) As research makes very clear, in the context of the Paris Agreement and the EU objectives, all sectors will need to target substantial and sustained emission reductions.

Updating the National Mitigation Plan to include the missing emissions noted here, by targeting all sectors explicitly, would increase the coherence, effectiveness and ambition of Ireland’s climate action.

Upcoming International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions (and a "modest proposal"...)

posted Apr 12, 2018, 6:06 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Apr 12, 2018, 6:28 AM by Paul Price ]

The IE-NETs project will be represented at the upcoming International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions, where we will give two short presentations on summary results from our recently completed Post-Paris Literature Review of Negative Emissions Technology, and Potential for Ireland. We're very much looking forward to meeting and engaging with the emerging community of NETs/CDR researchers at this first international conference dedicated to these topics.

That said ... we're also keenly aware of the environmental (and especially climate) impact of our own activities. With that in mind, we have just offered a "modest suggestion" to the conference organisers, which we share here in case it is of wider interest. Even if the suggestion proves too late for formal discussion at Gothenburg, we would certainly appreciate any reactions or comments from visitors to the IE-NETs blog. Do feel free to email us at: ienets@dcu.ie

From barry.mcmullin@dcu.ie Thu Apr 12 12:54:59 2018
Date: Thu, 12 Apr 2018 12:54:26 +0100 (IST)
From: Barry McMullin 
To: Int. Conf. on Negative CO2 Emissions 2018 
Cc: Barry McMullin 
Subject: Planning future NETs/CDR conferences: a modest suggestion?

Dear conference organisers -

This is a very late suggestion, so I will completely understand if it is not feasible... but I am guessing that there may be some slot during the conference where there will be discussion of possible future conferences in this “series”? If that is the case, I would like to suggest that there might be some specific discussion of whether to migrate wholly, or at least partially, to a “nearly carbon neutral” (NCN) conferencing model, as described here, for example:

“A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model:White Paper/Practical Guide”

This suggestion of course reflects the very active discussion in the wider climate research community in relation to the interaction between our own academic culture and norms and wider societal perceptions and expectations, as highlighted for example here:

“Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century”[Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research]

and here:

“Flying Less: Reducing Academia's Carbon Footprint” [A petition addressed to “Universities and Professional Associations”]

If this suggestion is of interest, obviously I would be very happy to help facilitate or support the discussion in any way that might be useful or appropriate.

Kind regards - Barry.

PS: For what it is worth - I will be using surface travel only (ferry/train) to get from Dublin to Gothenburg. This will, of course, have negligible material impact on the emissions associated with the conference: but it is a symbolic act of solidarity with other “low carbon” academics, that seems important to me personally, at least...

Professor Barry McMullin,
School of Electronic Engineering
Dublin City University
   phone: +353-1-700-5432
   web: http://www.eeng.dcu.ie/~mcmullin/
   skype: barrymcmullin-dcu.ie

IE-NETs is hiring! Post-doc position, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin

posted Apr 12, 2018, 1:42 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Apr 12, 2018, 1:56 AM by Paul Price ]

Advert text:

"This is a 9-month post-doctoral position on an EPA funded project entitled ‘Investigating the Potential for Negative Emissions Technologies (NETs) in Ireland’. The work involves the use of crop growth modelling to create a productivity map of the energy crops, Miscanthus and willow in Ireland and using Life Cycle Assessment of greenhouse gas emissions and techno-economic analysis of bioenergy production with a focus on the potential for BECCS (Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage). The work will be undertaken in The Botany Department, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College Dublin under the supervision of Professor Mike Jones. For further details contact mike.jones@tcd.ie. Applications including a CV should also be sent to mike.jones@tcd.ie"

Climate action or carbon debt?

posted Mar 22, 2018, 9:38 AM by Paul Price   [ updated Mar 22, 2018, 9:42 AM ]

How quickly are different regions and nations committing to responsibility for substantial negative emissions? Or, to tacit mitigation failure?

The Paris Agreement commits the signatory Parties (essentially all sovereign nations of the world) to aligning their actions with,

“[h]olding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change”    Article 2, Paris Agreement

Thanks to the strong climate science showing a direct, linear relation between cumulative total human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and resultant long-term global warming, a global carbon budget (GCB) range can be estimated for any given probability of limiting to any given threshold of warming. Using a 66% probability of avoiding 2ºC, the IPCC give a post-2011 GCB range of 750 to 1400 GtCO2 (where Gt means gigatonnes or billions of tonnes). Adjusting this for emissions up to the end of 2015, Rogelj et al. (2016) suggest a remaining post-2015 (i.e., post-Paris Agreement) budget of 590 to 1240 GtCO2, with a mid-point of 915 GtCO2. Of course, a “lay”/common-sense interpretation of “well below 2ºC” (surely at least better than 66% probability of staying below, say, 1.75ºC?) or any “efforts” at all to respect the lower limit of 1.5ºC (surely at least 50% probability?) would yield significantly smaller ranges for the GCB.

A somewhat simplistic, but still informative starting point to compare the current emissions of regions and nations is on the basis of per capita CO2 emissions relative to per capita CO2 quotas, where quota means some allocated share of the remaining global carbon budget.  Simply, dividing the Rogelj et al. range by the 2015 global population of 7.4 billion people, gives a globally averaged range of remaining post-2015 per capita quota of 80 to 169 tCO2, with a mid-point of 124 tCO2.  

Although this is an ‘equal per capita’ GCB division, derived from regional or national population share in 2015, it’s important to be very clear that this sharing formula is not “on the basis of equity” (Article 4, Paris Agreement) because it ignores very significant differences in: historic responsibility (based on past emissions), technical and economic capacity to undertake mitigation measures, vulnerability to climate impacts, and the wider objectives of the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Taking such equity considerations adequately into account would greatly diminish the quotas assigned to the wealthy, developed nations (indeed, would arguably put at least some of these nations already in a situation of quota deficit or global “CO2 debt”). Nonetheless, this equal per capita cumulative emissions (EPCCE) basis might provide us with at least an initial “rough and ready” baseline to compare the “good faith” commitments with the actual efforts of regions and nations to deliver on the temperature goals of the Paris Agreement.

For this blogpost analysis, let’s look at how quickly the EPCCE quotas would be exhausted (from 2015), assuming that every region or nation simply ‘flatlined’ their existing CO2 emission rate at 2016 levels. Globally, for territorial fossil fuel and cement emissions, this ranges from very high emitters such as the USA with 16.5 tCO2 per capita per year and high emitters such as Ireland with 8.5 tCO2 per capita per year, to very low emitters such as Bangladesh with only 0.5 tCO2 per capita per year. Let’s assume that current global land use emissions, about 5 GtCO2 per year (nett, allowing for land use carbon sinks) are also allocated per capita, adding about 0.7 tCO2 per capita per year to each nation’s per capita CO2 emissions. (This is, of course,  another very simplistic assumption – that, for example, more than doubles the emissions assigned to Bangladesh but only adds 4% to the USA per capita figure.)

For the midpoint global carbon budget of Rogelj et al., the chart below therefore shows the resulting (straight line) annual depletion of EPCCE for selected regions and nations: starting all with an equal EPCCE and, thereafter, for each region or nation, just subtracting the 2016 value of estimated total CO2 emissions for each subsequent year, giving the remaining per capita quota for each yer..

For reference, the curved, dashed black “global decarbonisation” line shows how global EPCCE would decline under a constant year-on-year fractional emission reduction rate (exponential emission rate decline), chosen in such as way as to extend the remaining global carbon budget for the maximum time i.e., the “softest possible landing trajectory” for global decarbonisation (albeit, already very difficult to achieve at this point…). As of 2015, from current global emissions of about 41 GtCO2, this would require annual emission rate reductions of 4.5% per year. The pink area below zero indicates carbon debt and dotted lines for the nations or regions indicates negative quotas, where the available EPCCE would have been exhausted, implying those nations would, from that point on, be accumulating a growing responsibility for implementing (or paying someone else to implement) so-called “negative emissions” or “carbon dioxide removal”. For Ireland, this would become the case before 2030 in this analysis.

Even using assumptions heavily biased in favour of developed nations/members of the OECD and/or EU28  (i.e., the weakest conceivable interpretation of the Paris temperature goals, and of the Paris commitments to reflect “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, in the light of different national circumstances”), this chart graphically shows how developed nations, or even a rapidly developing nation like China, are all very quickly exhausting their Paris Agreement ‘CO2 credit’. Without urgent action they are heading toward deep (likely irrecoverable) CO2 debt relative to the Paris target. Aligning their actions with “well below 2ºC” without such tacit reliance on speculative future “negative emissions” requires radical mitigation measures to reduce from currently high, whole economy CO2 emissions (at an annual reduction rate, sustained indefinitely, of at least the global requirement of 4.5%/yr). In addition, if serious about Paris-level ambition, then precautionary commitment to careful (limited) anthropogenic enhancement of  CO2 removals from the atmosphere will very likely be necessary.

Meanwhile, low emitting, less developed nations like Bangladesh, are only using up their carbon quotas very slowly – despite often being the most exposed to the climate change impacts resulting from the fossil fueled development and consumption elsewhere.

Unfortunately, to date, emission projections and Paris mitigation pledges (Nationally Determined Contributions) are in fact mostly in the range of merely ‘flatlining’ near-term emissions rates, so the chart is a very concerning reflection of the current situation in global (developed world) climate policy.

Indeed, for Ireland, the EPA’s projections to 2035 indicate that annual CO2 emission rates will actually continue, not merely to “flatline” but to increase even “with additional measures” – in other words an even worse outlook for very early, rapid, and deep entry into carbon debt than the chart shows. We might call this “carbon bankruptcy”, except, of course, that the climate system is not a bank, and has no mechanism to offer “debt restructuring”. Rather, there will be only harsh, perhaps unbearable, consequences, though these will likely impact “innocent bystanders” in poorer and more vulnerable nations first. As the chart makes very clear, ‘flatlining’ (or, much worse, increasing) CO2 emissions is not an option for any nation if the aim is to restrict warming in any way equitably. Nations with high emissions will need to cut much faster and deeper to leave any ‘CO2  emission space’ for countries with lesser responsibility and capacity.

Rich nations are committing to achieving large "negative emissions", or are they "choosing failure"?

Looking at this chart we can ask: Is a tacit commitment being made by those going into carbon debt to achieving large negative emissions (removals of CO2 from the atmosphere)?  Or, are they simply “choosing to fail” – to quietly renege, in practice, on the requirements of the Paris Agreement?  In the absence of sufficient mitigation, It might easily be assumed to be the latter, unless sufficient investment to support real achievement of balancing negative emissions. This would sadly vindicate the blunt assessment of eminent climate scientist James Hansen, that the Paris Agreement is a mere “precatory” instrument – wishful thinking, dressed up in diplomatic and legal language.

Flatlining Ireland’s current emissions and aligning climate action with Paris would imply a commitment to total emissions of about 1540 MtCO2 just up to 2050 – and much more beyond. As Ireland’s post-2015, remaining national quota is only about 600 MtCO2 (on the generous 2015 EPCCE basis), flatlining implies achieving carbon dioxide removal of close to 940 MtCO2 by 2050. This is an enormous and likely unfeasible quantity to store, the equivalent of over 20 years of current emissions. It would necessitate the urgent development now, and use within a decade, of carbon capture from bioenergy (BECCS) and direct air capture (DACCS), then piping and injection to storage deep underground.  As a guide, the almost-exhausted Kinsale Gas Field is thought to have a capacity for “easy” (low-pressure) CO2 storage of only about 100 Mt.

Compared to the costs of CO2 storage and the risk that negative emission technology will not deliver at scale, aiming to deliver actual whole-economy, gross emission reductions now and in the near-term, at rates hitherto thought ‘unfeasible’, combined with some commitment to modest achievement or enhancement of negative emissions may well prove more ‘cost effective’ (see previous post). Even if these measures are expensive or reduce aggregate economic activities they will likely be the cheapest course, if indeed we are serious about aligning climate mitigation efforts with the Paris Agreement. The overwhelming consensus of mitigation literature makes clear that any and all delay in peaking and very rapidly decarbonising rapidly increases the costs (and human impacts) of meeting the temperature targets.

As agreed in Paris, for all developed nations, early and deep climate action is critical to mitigation success. Our chart above clearly illustrates this difficult reality and the urgency of coordinated action now required to observe the Paris temperature limits. Are choosing to fail? Or, are we collectively ready to discuss this reality frankly and honestly?


Rogelj, J., Schaeffer, M., Friedlingstein, P., Gillett, N.P., van Vuuren, D.P., Riahi, K., Allen, M., Knutti, R., (2016). Differences between carbon budget estimates unravelled. Nature Clim. Change 6, 245–252. https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2868

Where is the low carbon [sic] energy vision Ireland needs to mitigate climate change?

posted Mar 13, 2018, 3:44 AM by Barry McMullin   [ updated Mar 13, 2018, 4:17 AM by Paul Price ]

The 2018 Spring Energy Policy Seminar of the Nuclear Free Local Authorities (NFLA) All Ireland Forum took place on Friday 9th March in Omagh, Northern Ireland. The NFLA "... lobbies for improvements in the provision of renewable energy across Ireland, the encouraging of Council-led decentralised energy schemes and provides information on the risks to Ireland from the UK's nuclear energy and waste programme, as well as promoting the support of moves for international multilateral nuclear disarmament. The All-Ireland Forum is part of the UK and Ireland NFLA organisation which has four national Forums and itsheadquarters in Manchester."

I was invited to give a presentation at the event, with suggested title "Where is the low carbon energy vision Ireland needs to mitigate climate change? And how can it be delivered?" I explained to the organisers that nuclear energy is not prima facie excluded from the energy system scenarios I explore. Nonetheless, they kindly gave me the opportunity to present without any restriction, which I was very pleased to take up.

The presentation slides, including embedded links to more detailed resources are now available for download. The seminar itself was not recorded. However, I have made a screencast version of my own presentation, which can be viewed on the ie-nets youtube channel:

YouTube Video

 While the slides are exactly the same as the original live presentation, I took the opportunity to elaborate on a number of points, and this version is a good deal longer (at just over one hour) than the original c. 25 minute version presented in Omagh.

As I mention in the presentation, virtually every proposition I make is a simplification of some sort and could certainly be contested. I would welcome any comments or questions. I can be reached at: barry.mcmullin@dcu.ie 

ie-nets team contributes to event by the Royal Irish Academy for the recent EASAC report on negative emissions

posted Mar 8, 2018, 7:02 AM by Alwynne Hanna McGeever   [ updated Mar 9, 2018, 2:04 AM by Paul Price ]

The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) provide independent science advise for EU policymakers, based on the expertise of leading scientists in national academies from EU member states, Norway and Switzerland. On February 1st, EASAC released a report entitled ‘Negative emission technologies, What role in meeting Paris Agreement targets?’. The report was written by a group of senior scientists in the area, one of which was ie-nets team member, Prof. Mike Jones. 

The report found that Negative Emission Technologies (NETs) had ‘limited realistic potential’ and are unlikely to be delivered at the scale envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s scenarios. This has significant implications for the feasibility for Europe achieving nett emission reductions aligned with the commitments to the Paris agreement and places further urgency on the need for immediate, significant emissions reductions. The findings of the EASAC report (available to download here) support the conclusions of a recent deliverable by the ie-nets research team of a literature review on the potential for NETs in Ireland (available here). We draw similar conclusions that Ireland cannot depend upon future availability of NETs to meet Paris aligned emission targets, and must continue to prioritize reducing national annual emissions.

As part of the Royal Irish Academy (RIA)’s aim to bring academia, industry and government together to address mutual interests, and as a member academy of EASAC, the RIA provided a briefing breakfast event for the EASAC report on Monday, February 26th.The event was well attended by a diverse group of stakeholders from academy, industry, NGOs and government. The event took the format of a brief presentation, followed by an open discussion. ie-nets Co-Principal Investigator, Prof. Mike Jones, delivered the presentation component, summarizing the main findings of the EASAC report and communicating its implications for Ireland. In his presentation Prof. Jones highlighted some of the key uncertainties around different NETs options. Taking the example of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), he discussed issues such as the land area competition and greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing bioenergy crops (fertilizers, transport, etc.) and demonstrated how challenges such as these might prevent a NETs options to achieving truly nett negative emissions. He also applied the report to an Irish context, presenting options to assess the potential capacity of different NETs options in Ireland. After the presentation, attendees discussed the report in an Irish context, raising points about the feasibility, capacity and limits of different NET options for Ireland. There was particular emphasis in the discussion the on the feasibility and capacity of carbon capture and storage off the Irish coast.

As part of this event, ie-nets team members contributed to a briefing paper for the RIA and a blog post, available on the RIA website here.


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