Sunday, February 11, 2018

Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels. Dieter Helm.

Published in the journal, Science Progress  Volume 100 Number 4 2017

Book review
Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels.
Yale University Press 2017
ISBN 9780300225624; xx + 281 pp; £16.59

Ironically, given its theme, as published early in 2017, “Burn Out: The Endgame for Fossil Fuels” shortly preceded the announcement made by President Trump of the withdrawal by the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change, driven primarily by an aim to support the US coal industry, which he maintains has been hampered by environmental policies, and disadvantaged in comparison with other countries, such as China. The book’s title offers  a punchy proclamation, that the age of fossil fuels is coming to an end:  this is not as a result of any imminent shortage of them - far from it - but an expectation that natural gas will be employed as a cheap and plentiful bridging fuel,  en route to a dominant electrification of the energy sector, most likely powered by advanced solar technologies, and that such innovations as the Internet of Things (IoT), 3D printing, and robotics will confer a more efficient overall use of energy, hence reducing demand on oil, gas and ultimately renewables.

The author, Dieter Helm, is professor of energy policy at Oxford University, and an outspoken commentator and critic on global energy strategies, including those intended to ameliorate climate change. Thus, this book is in part a consolidation of some views, framed from the viewpoint of an economist, espoused in his various writings on the subject, and an extension of some of the themes covered in his previous books. Helm remains thoroughly censorious of the peak oil concept, and bangs the drum that “peak-oilers” have got it wrong. He stresses that there is no shortage of “oil” (or indeed of the other fossil fuels), and in terms of the large quantities of carbon-rich fossil materials that lie in the ground he is quite correct. However, peak oil was never a reference to “running out of oil”, but to an ultimate maximum in the rate of production and flow of this unique source of energy into global civilization. This depends on geological factors,  changes in technology and the oil price, and indeed, the “hole” in supply that would have arisen following the peaking in global production of conventional oil that  occurred about a decade ago, has since been filled by production from expensive and more energy intensive “unconventional” sources, mainly from hydraulically fracturing (“fracking”) shale and processing bitumen from oil sands, neither of which would have been entertained had the oil price not approached and then exceeded $100 a barrel.

As Helm has stressed, it was surging demand from China for oil that initially forced the price up; however, the resulting escalation in unconventional production, combined with a maintained strong output by OPEC (30% of this from Saudi Arabia), led to an oversupply against demand and a price crash. Helm asserts that the oil price will stay low (perhaps in the range $40-$60) from now on, but the question remains of, how low can the price go and oil production still remain  a viable activity? There are varying estimates of the breakeven price for oil from different plays, depending on exactly what is being measured, and it is claimed that due to improved technology, oil might be viable even at $30 a barrel. However, some analysts in the oil industry have concluded that the relatively low apparent breakeven prices currently being quoted for shale are partly an artefact of not including all costs, and that service providers, e.g. fracking crews, are running on the margins, accepting whatever cash flow they can get in order to remain in business. Indeed, many small oil and gas companies have gone bankrupt in their efforts to continue shale gas and oil production, while oil and gas prices plummeted.

Whatever may be quibbled over the cost/price of oil in $, an important measure of production viability is Energy Returned on Energy Invested (EROEI) – sometimes the equivalent term, Energy Returned on Investment (EROI) is used - since it takes energy to produce energy, and ultimately it is primary input energy that is the determining factor in the production rate of a resource (i.e. physics trumps economics). In the limit, for an EROEI of 1, it takes as much energy to produce the resource as will be delivered by burning it: clearly a pointless exercise. Before 1930, the figure was around 100, as it still is in some plays in Saudi Arabia, while the global average has fallen to below 20.  An increasing reliance on unconventional oil - i.e. “tight oil” produced by fracking shale, extra-heavy oil/bitumen from oil sands, (ultra)deepwater drilling, etc. - means falling EROEI (perhaps 5 for some shale and oil sands deposits), higher production costs, greater  carbon emissions, and less available energy for society from the total primary energy that is accessible, if more of that energy is consumed overall by the various energy production processes. As noted, it was only the very high oil price that prevailed prior to its crash in 2014, which rendered alternative, unconventional sources economically viable. In the present period of low oil prices, the high costs of producing oil from these sources continue to push companies to the verge of bankruptcy, and investment in new projects  is stalling. On this basis, it is not obvious how cheap oil prices will be maintained into the future.

In regard to the potential for producing the large quantities of natural gas that have been estimated to exist  in shale plays across the world,   echoing the notable  success  achieved  in the United States, the experience of Poland1  might urge some caution.  Originally reckoned in a US Department of Energy study to be the European giant, with holdings of around 5,295 billion cubic metres (bcm) of technically recoverable shale gas, the figure was revised down initially to 346–768 bcm by the Polish Geological Institute, which nose-dived further to perhaps 38 bcm, according to a study made by the US Geological Survey, i.e. around one hundredth or so of the original estimate, and with a huge range of uncertainty: anywhere between zero and 116 bcm. Of the 72 test wells that had been drilled in Poland by the end of 2015, 25 were successfully fracked, but none of them yielded a sufficient gas production rate to be commercially profitable. It may well prove that technical advances, such as using supercritical CO2 as the fracking fluid, will improve the circumstances  in Poland and elsewhere with  complex geologies, e.g. China (where, reportedly, shale gas accounted for around 5% of total domestic natural gas production in 2016), but unless the selling price of gas increases, or somehow production costs can be substantially reduced, the prospects for a global shale gas bonanza are open to question. In any case, while gas is clearly the better option to coal, since it produces perhaps half of the latter’s carbon emissions per unit of energy generated, unless the “bridge” that it is intended to build is a relatively short one, it may not fulfil the carbon reductions outlined in the Paris Agreement, and it is debatable that even these are sufficient to keep the mean global temperature from rising in excess of the 2 oC limit, beyond which catastrophic climate change is predicted to ensue.

Clearly, we need low-carbon energy sources as soon as possible, and Helm is sceptical about the prospects for both wind and nuclear energy, concluding that the primary energy source in a largely electrified system will be “probably solar, but not as we know it”, which implies a reliance on new and untried technology whose date and scale of installation is as yet unknown. Indeed, to change to a nearly “all electric” energy system would entail the installation of an entirely new distribution network, of much greater capacity than we have presently, and most likely of the smart grid kind, with the potential for energy savings, both in terms of primary (input) and end-use energy, although questions remain about how base-load power would be provided, which would require storage (battery technology) if solar is to be a key driver in the scheme.

Helm concludes that sustained low oil prices will severely damage the economies of oil exporting nations. For example, although Saudi Arabia can produce oil for $5-$10 a barrel, it needs a selling price of nearer $100 to cover its national expenditure (fiscal breakeven price). He opines that the strife in the Middle East will worsen, as nations who earn most of their GDP from selling oil find themselves lacking the funds to pay for social programmes which help to preserve societal order. Helm predicts that the future for Russia, which previously benefitted from high oil and gas prices, “looks bleak, since it has few competitive industries beyond fossil fuels, other than its military complex”. While China is lambasted for having attained prominence as the world’s worst “emitter”, its firm stance on decarbonising its use of energy is applauded. Helm concludes that the US is “The lucky country” in terms of its energy prospects, while in Europe, the situation is “Not as bad as it seems”.

In summary, this is a well written and thought provoking book, and is impressive in its wide ranging coverage of those technical, economic and geopolitical factors which are woven together in the Gordian knot of providing a sustainable energy supply, while dealing with climate change. In truth, we are in uncharted territory regarding our use of energy and other resources, but Burn Out offers considerable insight into the complexity of the challenges that may lie ahead of us, and outlines some courses of action that we might take in dealing with them. In Helm’s view, “step one is to acknowledge the possibility of radical change and of discontinuity.” The existing patterns of supply and demand for energy, upon which the world’s geopolitics is based, may change profoundly, and it is a mistake to assume that tomorrow will be “roughly like today”.

(1) Inman, M. (2016) Nature, 531, 22-24.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

US withdrawal from the COP21 Paris Climate Change Agreement, and its possible implications.

Published in the journal, Science Progress  Volume 100 Number 4 2017

The global media have reacted with a combination of disappointment and dumbfoundedness, in the wake of the decision by the United States of America to abrogate its curbing of carbon emissions1, as set forth in the Paris Agreement, at the COP21 United Nations Climate Change Conference2 in December 2015. Thus, the US joins a rather exclusive club, consisting of Syria (whose energies and considerations have been more pressingly occupied by the civil war which has raged there for the past 6 years) and Nicaragua, a nation so successful in providing its energy from low-carbon sources that it does not need to sign up for any further amelioration of its emissions, but rather sets a pristine example to much of the rest of the world1. China, now at overcapacity against demand for coal-fired power production3, has emphasised to the US that fighting climate change is a global responsibility4, and around 40 other independent nations5, along with the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union, have expressed their concern, disappointment or outrage, and reaffirmed their own commitments5 to abide by the treaty. Even major oil companies such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, are against the US decision, and have vowed to hold to the agreement, irrespective of it6. It is indeed true that the agreement is not legally binding, but more a citizens’ charter of individual nations, who will receive no further retribution than to be named and shamed2 should they ultimately fail to comply, as the US may profoundly demonstrate.
The purpose of the Paris Agreement7 is to limit “the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and [pursue] efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels", primarily through limiting greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 1), to which the US became a signatory in April 2016, and accepted it by executive order in September of the same year. Donald Trump, of the Republican Party, was elected into office as President of the United States on November 8th 2016, just 4 days after the Paris Agreement entered into force in the US: during his election campaign, Trump had voiced his intention to revamp the US coal industry, which in his opinion has been disadvantaged by environmental regulations8. Trump issued an executive order to reverse the Clean Power Plan (which was inaugurated by his predecessor President Obama), and other environmental regulations, during the early stages of his presidency9.  Obama had also committed the US to providing $3 billion for the Green Climate Fund (intended to assist developing countries in coping with the effects of climate change, by means of raising an annual $100 billion by 2020) which Trump has criticised as a scheme to redistribute wealth from rich to poor countries10. Prior to his announcement, President Trump had been urged to revoke the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement, in a letter11 signed by 20 Members of the European Parliament, 10 from the UK Independence (UKIP) Party12, on the grounds that:

We believe that the Paris agreement is potentially damaging, especially to developed western economies.  We also believe that an early decision by your Administration to pull out of the Paris agreement will effectively neuter it, to the benefit of us all. 
At the same time, we would urge you to take action to withdraw the carbon dioxide endangerment finding, which has no sound basis in science, but which provides a pretext for damaging and extreme environmental policies.”

Trump had similarly been exhorted by 22 US Republican senators, to pull out of the Paris Agreement, although it has been stressed that most of the signatories on the letter are from states with an economic reliance on the combustion of fossil fuels13, and claimed14 that the group of 22 senators had, between them, benefitted from contributions to their election campaigns to the tune of over $10 million from companies dealing in oil, gas and coal, during the past three elections. However, a group of 40 senators13 from the Democrats had also written to the President counselling him to abide by the Agreement, emphasising that, "a withdrawal would hurt America's credibility and influence on the world stage."

The Announcement itself.
As a prelude to the announcement, at the G7 summit in late May 2017, President Trump stood alone in refusing to confirm commitment by the United States to the Paris Agreement, and a communication was issued at the end of the conference stating that the US "is not in a position to join the consensus" of other G7 countries regarding policies on climate change and the Paris Agreement15. Then, on June 1st, 2017, he announced that the US would cease all participation1,16 in the 2015 Paris Agreement, but that he was prepared to negotiate for "a better deal". However, European and UN leaders made the point that the pact "cannot be renegotiated at the request of a single party"17. In his announcement, Trump affirmed that "In order to fulfil my solemn duty to protect the United States and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris climate accord." He averred that implementation of the agreement would lose the United States $3 trillion worth of GDP and result in the loss of 6.5 million jobs18. He further remarked that it would "undermine our economy, hamstring our workers," and "effectively decapitate our coal industry"19.
According to its Article 28, the United States cannot depart from the Agreement before November 4th, 2020, and until then, it may be obligated to maintain its agreed commitments, including that it continues to report its emissions figures to the United Nations. However, since the agreement has not been ratified by the Senate, it has been speculated that this may not prove binding20.

Global reactions.
As already noted, the reactions from the world’s governments have been almost universally hostile5 to the prospect of the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Similarly, the overall reaction from the scientific community is one of great disappointment, if not outright appal, as was reported21 in the journal Nature. However, in the journal Nature Climate Change, Luke Kemp of the Australian National University has written a commentary22 in which he concludes that, “Continued US membership in the Paris Agreement on climate would be symbolic and have no effect on US emissions. Instead, it would reveal the weaknesses of the agreement, prevent new opportunities from emerging, and gift greater leverage to a recalcitrant administration.” In part, the basis of this argument is that, “the greenhouse gas emissions of the US are divorced from international legal obligations." Kemp does, nonetheless, conclude that should the US abandon contributing to the Green Climate Fund, it would make it more difficult to maintain activities globally to ameliorate climate change and to cope with its consequences. Kemp also noted that, "a rogue US can cause more damage inside rather than outside of the agreement." He concludes by saying22, "A withdrawal could also make the US into a climate pariah and provide a unique opportunity for China and the EU to take control of the climate regime and significantly boost their international reputations and soft power.”
In an interview by the Washington Post23, a colleague of Kemp, Frank Jotzo, accords with his view that it could be more damaging for the US to remain, or in any case that the consequences of its withdrawal will be less severe than has been feared by some, saying, “The US leaving the Paris agreement is unlikely to have a domino effect. And it is a long game: the next president might decide to rejoin the agreement, or join a successor agreement.” Indeed, should the US desist from its participation in the Agreement at this stage, it could reunite at some future point; as was remarked upon by Kemp23, “A future president could rejoin Paris at the flick of a pen.” In accord with this option, in Trump’s written statement24, is the phrase “the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord but begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States…” So, the US divorce from the Paris Agreement is not yet “absolute”; however, Senator John Kerry is highly sceptical25 that the president has any intention of acceding to any such agreement. An independent report has warned of the likely adverse consequences should the international community delay in its actions to combat climate change26.
The reaction from the commercial world is mixed, but a number of large organisations6 have expressed their opposition to Trump’s decision, and confirmed their intention to pursue low-carbon policies, including Apple, General Electric, Google, Facebook, Goldman Sachs, Tesla, Morgan Stanley, PepsiCo, Walmart and Walt Disney, ExxonMobil and Chevron, along with ConocoPhillips27 and Microsoft27. A bipartisan group of US states formed the “US Climate Alliance”28, and this was followed rapidly by the “We Are Still In” (WASI)29 campaign, created by a group which includes 125 cities, 9 states, 902 businesses and investors, and 183 colleges and universities, all motivated by a collective support for the Paris Agreement, on the basis that taking action against climate change is both good for America and is the nation’s obligation to the world28. Meanwhile, the state of California has signed a climate agreement29 with China.

Possible consequences.
Of concern is the prospect that other nations could follow the US example, and similarly withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Indeed, one analysis26 suggests that should the rest of the world delay taking action by 8 years, the result would be a doubling of cumulative CO2 emissions over the next century, rendering the 2 oC target unattainable. As an example from history, we may note that although the US signed the Kyoto Protocol, it did not formally ratify the agreement: this led to the adoption of the Marrakech Accords by the international community, but further actions stalled. In 2007, the Bali Road Map was introduced, so marking the abandonment of Kyoto, and the inauguration of a new treaty which involved the US, i.e. the Paris Agreement22. It seems unlikely that the Paris Agreement will be derailed by a US withdrawal, in the short term at least, since the international community has emphasised almost universal commitment to it. However, even if the US remains as a club member, given its economic power and significance as a principal global CO2-emitter (Figure 1), should it fail to deliver on its agreed targets, other parties might feel less inclined to honour their own.

Leading climate change scientists, James Hansen and Michael Schellenberger have co-authored an article30, in which they make a case that it is necessary to build more nuclear power stations, since solar and wind energy cannot replace fossil fuels entirely. The US is the world’s second largest CO2 emitter, meaning that its promised carbon reductions would have accounted for over one fifth of the Agreement’s total emissions cuts by 203031. A truly “worst case” scenario of the effects of climate change has been presented in an article published in New York Magazine , with the self-explanatory title “The Uninhabitable Earth”, which has evoked mixed responses32.

Global Trends in Carbon Emissions.
Part of the increase in CO2 emissions from developing countries such as China and India is a result of richer Western nations “outsourcing” their manufacture to these Eastern nations, effectively exporting the emissions and importing the goods. While, during the early 2000s, such transfers were increasing at 11% per year, it is now domestic growth that is the cause of rising emissions in Asia: 97% of the steel and 99% of the concrete made in China is actually used in China33. Moreover, there is now a trend in outsourcing emissions within Chinese borders, since the richer coastal provinces consume more than the poorer hinterlands, where the manufacturing is done34. There has been a “flattening” in global CO2 emissions, over the past few years35, which is attributed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to “growing renewable power generation, switches from coal to natural gas, improvements in energy efficiency, as well as structural changes in the global economy.” The United States experienced a 1.6% decrease in its energy-related emissions in 2016, as a result of substituting natural gas for coal, and an expansion of wind and solar energy production. CO2 emissions in Europe remained flat in 2016, while in China, the effect of moving away from heavy industry has apparently led to a smaller consumption of coal, though one commentator has raised a question mark over the reliability of the statistics for this35.
The BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2017 was published in June 2017, and reckons the actual quantities of fossil and other energy resources for the year 2016. In summary, the following picture emerges36:

·                     The use of Oil (Crude oil + Condensate +Natural Gas Liquids) was static.
·                     The use of gas was static.
·                     The use of nuclear energy continues to recover.
·                     The installation of hydroelectric power continues to rise.
·                     The installation of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are all increasing.
·                     The use of coal continues to decline.

How can we best deal with the “changing climate”?
It is worth asking the question, that irrespective of a US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, what strategies might be best adopted for dealing with a “changing climate”37, of which “climate change” is merely one symptom? Indeed, it has been argued38 that the emissions pledges outlined in the Agreement are insufficient to restrain the further global temperature rise to below the ceiling of “well below 2 oC above pre-industrial levels” that it stipulates. Indeed, if we are to address the manifold changes that are occurring, in terms of the depletion and deterioration of natural resources - fossil, mineral, water, soil, biodiversity – and the products of their use, e.g. CO2, it is probably necessary to adapt away from traditional models of economic growth39. It has been argued that various methods of geoengineering might offset the continued emission of CO2 by human civilization, but these would need to be implemented on a gargantuan scale, e.g. “bio-energy with carbon capture and storage” (beccs), which would necessitate planting tree plantations with a total acreage equal to three times the area of India, and occupy one-third of the arable land on the Earth’s surface, seriously compromising food production. It has been estimated40 that achieving a 50% probability of keeping to within the 2 oC limit, will require the industrialised nations to reduce their carbon emissions by 8-10% per year, from 2015, reaching a net zero in 2050; in contrast, by the combined effect of increased renewable energy installation, and improved energy efficiency technologies, a mere 4% per year is likely to be possible. It is concluded that this deficit can be dealt with by reduced economic activity, also known as “degrowth”39,40, with the industrialised countries curbing their economies by 4-6% per year, beginning in 2015, while the poorer nations begin scaling down their economies, in 2025, by close to 3% per year. In short, it implies the end of global capitalism, which depends implicitly on relentless growth.
In a recently published book, Dieter Helm argues that technological adaptations, including the internet of things (IoT) will drive an unabated decline in our use of oil, gas and renewables, and which will be more effective than current efforts to avert climate change41, as has been reviewed in this journal42.The Drawdown project has identified 80 different “solutions”, and more than 20 potential innovations, all with the ability to either reduce carbon emissions or to sequester CO2 that is already in the atmosphere, and a book has been published about it43. The methods are highly various, and include clean (low-carbon) energy production (including nuclear fission and hydrogen-boron fusion), a kind of seaweed which when fed to cattle reduces their methane emissions, providing education to girls and encouraging family planning, green roofs, high-speed/high-efficiency transportation methods (with reduced energy demands compared with driving or flying), industries based on using recycled feedstocks, ocean farming, farmland regeneration, forest protection, managed grazing and conservation agriculture. Some of the latter concepts are also described in a paper previously published in this journal entitled44 “The Imperative for Regenerative Agriculture”, which also emphasises the need for waste minimisation via methods of permaculture and the circular economy. Dealing with the changing climate will involve a climate resilience model which incorporates the inter-connected elements of climate resilience, climate change, adaptability, and vulnerability, as is summarised by the graphic shown in Figure 2. If we define resilience to mean the ability to recover from an adverse circumstance (in the present context, climate change), then it is vital to prepare in advance of the event, and to plan strategies (adaptations) that will enable recovery to be made, and also to identify vulnerable populations that are less capable of devising and putting into action a strategy of resilience. In the above, it is taken implicitly that the impacts of climate change will be detrimental to ecosystems and ecosystem services.45

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Captions to Figures.
Figure 1. Global CO2 gas emissions in the year 2015 by country.. Credit: Árni Dagur

Figure 2. A graphic displaying the interconnectivity between climate change, adaptability, vulnerability, and resilience; for climate resilience. Credit: Quokka-roo.