Low-carbon cuts

The UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change has announced details of cuts it will be making as part of broader cost-cutting, with low-carbon projects bearing the brunt of reductions.

With few areas being spared from the UK government’s “age of austerity”, the country’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) announced back in May that it would contribute £85m to departmental cuts in government. DECC has now revealed that a sizeable chunk of those savings – £35m, or 40% of the total – will come from cuts in expenditure on low-carbon technology.

In May, the department unveiled plans to save £3m through the early closure of the Low Carbon Buildings Fund, which gave grants to help the installation of small-scale renewables in homes, replacing it with a scheme where homeowners and businesses can receive money for renewable electricity which they generate. The latest announcement indicates that several other green funding schemes will be shut down or curtailed.

The Carbon Trust, which promotes the transition to a low-carbon economy, will lose £12.6m from its budget for promoting green technology and business. The offshore wind capital grant scheme is set to have its scope reduced, with an expected saving of £3m. And the government will cancel £4.7m worth of final funding rounds of schemes which support bio-energy.

DECC was keen to stress that the department would still spend over £150 million on low carbon technology this year, including the recently announced formation of a Green Investment Bank (GIB) – although there has been reported tension (FT, subscription required) between Chancellor George Osborne and Business Secretary Vince Cable over the scale of the institution.

Perhaps inevitably, the announcement got a poor reception on the opposition benches, with former climate change secretary and Labour leadership prospect Ed Miliband denouncing the plans, saying “On the one hand they call for tougher carbon emissions targets but with the other they take away the means to achieve these targets.”

On his well-subscribed Twitter account, Miliband later added “so much for greenest govt ever”, a reference to Prime Minister David Cameron’s pledge to the 10:10 campaign in May. The sentiment was echoed by John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace, who said that Cameron’s green promises were “beginning to crumble”.

Given that almost half of cuts affected low-carbon schemes, it is inevitable that the government’s green promises would be called into question. The coalition has not abandoned its commitments as much as Labour would like to suggest. But it will need to ensure that its remaining commitments, including the GIB, are run effectively, or Cameron’s pledge may become a point of attack for Labour, and of tension between the coalition partners.

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Hydrogen vs EV, Round 5

At the very least, Suzuki’s Burgman Fuel Cell Scooter prototype (pictured) passes the embarrassment test: you wouldn’t feel like a fool tooling around the city on it, as you probably would in some electric vehicles like the Smart Car or a Toyota iQ, or certainly the old Sinclair C5 tricycle (remember them?).

Indeed, the bike is intended to look just like a conventional Suzuki Burgman and was developed with Intelligent Energy, a UK-based fuel cell developer, to address some other issues that have held back commercial deployment of fuel-cell vehicles — its makers claim a range of 350km, a re-fueling time of just a few minutes, as well as engine power comparable to its conventional stablemate.

It’s expected to be rolled out commercially sometime around 2015 as a realistic alternative to a standard combustion bike, and is designed to have mass appeal, specifically targeted for use in the urban environment by London’s commuters. The London prototype unveiling, with the backing of city authorities, also comes amid talk of a European Union move to crack down on motorbike emissions.

However, there are plenty of questions still to be answered and the impetus both in the EU and the USA heavily favours electric vehicles (EV) over hydrogen.

The initial price of the Suzuki Burgman fuel cell scooter will be relatively high — perhaps twice the current price tag of US$6,000 for a conventional bike — though that would fall if the bike found a large enough market. Bigger issues include the fragility of the engines, which can be highly susceptible to bumps and vibrations. Also, hydrogen is enormously expensive to store, and refuelling pumps are scarce.

The EV versus Fuel Cell debate hasn’t been in fuel cell’s favour recently, especially in the US, where Nobel Prize-winning Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, has come out forcefully against a viable future for the technology.

Intelligent Energy chief executive,  Henri Winaund, argues that it will be cheaper in the long run to develop a hydrogen fuel grid compared to electricity, as pumps can be built into existing petrol stations. EVs also face questions about infrastructure, such as the fact that many countries still produce most electricity from coal, the dirtiest fuel source, and grids would require huge upgrades to be able to cope with large-scale EV deployment.

For motorcycles, the lighter-weight fuel cell also has a distinct advantage over heavier EV battery alternatives. Several vehicle manufacturers, including GM, Honda and Toyota, have cited 2015 as the year that affordable hydrogen vehicles will start to come onto the market, and investment in infrastructure is picking up pace accordingly. Already, California has a nascent hydrogen network, with over 25 refueling stations; Germany has 30 and Sweden and Denmark are working to keep up with Norway, aiming to link up to create a Scandinavian highway. Japan is also investing heavily in infrastructure, hoping to have built up to 60 stations by 2015.

Now, encouraged by the Suzuki launch, London is scheduled to have at least six refueling points built in the run up to 2012, as well a fleet of fuel-cell taxis, buses and police cars planned for roll-out. By focusing on London’s commuters, the hope is that the practical case for developing a power grid for hydrogen is supported. Further backing in the UK came from energy minister Philip Hunt, who has laid out a £7m investment plan to fund a hydrogen highway along a stretch of motorway into Wales.

EVs are still favoured among policy-makers (See Cleaning up cars) and roll-out in the US and elsewhere is well-advanced. But Suzuki’s new scooter is a stylish ambassador for the hydrogen case.

Hottest year on record?

[From The Economist]

The betting is that 2010 will be the hottest year on record. But understanding how the planet’s temperature changes is still a challenge to science.

IT MAY seem implausible at the moment, as northern Europe, Asia and parts of America shiver in the snow, but 2010 may well turn out as the hottest year on record. Those who doubt that greenhouse gases are quite the problem they have been cracked up to be by most of the world’s climatologists have taken comfort from the fact that the Hadley Centre, part of Britain’s Meteorological Office, reckons the warmest year since records began was 1998 (see chart 1). Twelve years without a new record would, the sceptics reckon, be rather a large lull in what is supposed to be a rising trend. Computer modelling by the Met Office, though, gives odds-on chances of the lull being broken.

The fact that no record high happened in the 2000s does not mean that there was no warming over the decade–trends at scales coarser than the annual continued to point upwards, and other authorities suggest there have been record years during the period. Nor was the length of time without an annual record exceptional. Models simulating centuries of warming normally have the occasional decade in which no rise in surface temperatures is observed. This is because heat can be stored in other parts of the system, such as the oceans, for a time, and thus not show up on meteorologists’ thermometers.

Indeed, one reason for thinking that the coming year will be hotter than all known previous ones is that the tropical Pacific is currently dumping heat. This phenomenon, by which heat that has been stored up in the sea over the previous few years is released into the atmosphere, is known as El Niño. A strong Niño contributed to the record temperatures in 1998. In 2007 and 2008 the opposite phenomenon, a cooling Niña, was happening. That goes some way to explaining why those years were chilly by the standards of the 2000s.

And on top of El Niño, there is the sun. The sun’s brightness fluctuates over an 11-year cycle. Though the fluctuation is not vast, it is enough to make a difference from peak to trough. In 2009 the sun was at the bottom of its cycle. Unless it is behaving particularly strangely, it should, over the next 12 months, begin to brighten.

The Met Office’s forecast was made using the Decadal Prediction System, or DePreSys (pronounced “depresses”, which is what it sometimes does to Doug Smith and his colleagues, who run it). Climate models are normally used to show how the climate’s behaviour will respond to changes in things like greenhouse-gas levels. But though a model’s response will, it is hoped, be similar to the real climate’s, models are caricatures, not portraits. Trying to force one into a state that looks exactly like the real climate at a specific time, as prediction requires, will distort it, and it is likely to misbehave as a result.

DePreSys is an attempt to work round this “initialisation” problem–to give the model’s caricature not just an all-purpose resemblance to the way the real climate behaves, but one that captures its pose and expression at a particular moment. In 2007 the first study using DePreSys correctly predicted that there would be a few more years which would set no records. After this, it said, there would be a definite rise in temperature. More recently, Dr Smith and his team have been using clusters of computers around Britain to run multiple models with slightly different initial conditions. Four-fifths of these runs suggest 2010 will be warmer than any previous year–which could be taken as odds of four-to-one on. The techniques are still in their infancy. But they are at least making predictions that can be checked.

Balancing the books

Dr Smith and his colleagues are trying to predict some of the natural variability to come. Kevin Trenberth of America’s National Centre for Atmospheric Research wants to understand in detail the natural variability just seen. His quest gained unexpected prominence when one of his forcefully expressed e-mails on the subject–“The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t”–found its way into the public domain as one of thousands of e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the “climategate” furore of November 2009.

Dr Trenberth was not, he has since been at pains to stress, saying that the relatively unwarmed 2000s were particularly out of the ordinary. Instead, he was saying that, given the panoply of satellites and measurement networks that are being installed to monitor the climate, it should now be possible to identify the places and processes that hide energy from the prying eyes of climatologists. That would make it possible to determine what has actually happened to the energy trapped by increasing levels of greenhouse gases.

For the first part of the decade this turns out to be possible. From 1998 to 2003, although surface temperatures were not rising, a lot of energy was mopped up by the oceans (see chart 2). This is borne out by the rise in sea level during the period, which matches (once the additional effects of melting glaciers and ice sheets are taken into account) the expansion of the water in the oceans caused by this heating. Until the middle of the 2000s, therefore, the sums seem to balance.

It is after that that the problem comes. Runoff’s role in the rising sea level increases, meaning the fraction attributable to expansion, and thus the amount of heat taken up by the sea, has fallen (and the chart therefore levels out). The missing heat must therefore be going somewhere else. One possibility is that it is being reflected back into space by changes in cloud cover. The data, however, seem to say no. America’s CERES programme, the result of observations by seven different instruments on six different satellites, suggests the Earth has actually absorbed more energy and reflected away less over the past few years, rather than the other way round. It is all rather mysterious.

Nevertheless, while there is a lot of scepticism in, around and about climate science, none of it is aimed at the first law of thermodynamics, which says that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The energy that the sun delivers to the Earth must therefore be equal to the energy that is reflected back into space, plus that re-emitted as infra-red radiation, plus that stored in some part of the atmosphere, the oceans or the land.

The fact that the books cannot currently be balanced is therefore an admission of ignorance–an ignorance that better, future measurements should help abolish. That, in turn, should allow predictions of what the climate will do next, for good or ill, to become significantly better, and thus deprive climatic bookies of their trade.

Summit fallout

The Guardian (UK) carried a fascinating insight into the failed Copenhagen summit from Mark Lynas, an Oxford-based climate change consultant and activist who was in attendance at the inter-governmental sessions there. The piece was titled How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room, which really requires little further explanation.

Whether or not one shares Mr Lynas’ position on anthropogenic climate change, CO2 policies, etc., his account of the talks has a very convincing ring to it in terms of the process involved in one of these events. One doesn’t even have to agree with his conclusion that China is “to blame” for the failure to get the kind of deal that he, his fellow climate activists and indeed most governments appear to have wanted out of Copenhagen, to understand what went wrong. For the truth is that all of these processes, whatever the “One World” pronouncements from politicians involved, are ultimately a complex set of countervailing negotiations around national interests. The bigger the number of countries involved — 193 for Copenhagen, for goodness sake — and the more divergent those national interests, the less likely is the prospect of a meaningful outcome. In the case of Copenhagen, it was clear long before it commenced that there was little prospect that it would achieve anything conclusive. But the completeness of its failure exceeded even the pessemistic expectations. 

In a way, however, that failure — and the nature of the failure, as spelled out in Mr Lynas’ account –can be seen as a good thing. It is likely to focus governments more on what can — and should — be done at national levels, even if only rationalised on the grounds of pollution-control, energy security, promotion of economic and technological development, etc. There will be, of course, much debate at the natoional and the inter-governmental levels about costs, monitoring, effective delivery systems, etc. But it may well be more rational if done in more manageable, less amorphous groups than was seen to fail at the Copenhagen shambles. Already there is talk of a much smaller group of the most powerful — and most polluting — countries negotiating outside of a UN process, perhaps at a G30 level.

The UN’s top climate man, Yvo de Boer, generally a voice of reason in the process, could have had Mr Lynas in mind (as well as Ed Miliband, the UK environment minister and others from the west, and those responding for China) when he called for the blame game to finish and to move onto constructive talks. But sometimes a big, noisey row is needed so that everyone can see what really is what before moving onto the business at hand. And maybe the UN forum for debating and managing the climate change process has run its course.

Copenhagen fatigue

Chinese smog (NASA)

Put it down to “Copenhagen fatigue” as the hype levels reach mind-numbing proportions ahead of next month’s big climate summit, but some of the headlines of the last two days might give the impression that the US and China have finally put in place firm carbon emissions-cutting commitments that will allow the world to reach a deal in Denmark.

On Friday, it was the turn of the Chinese to capture front pages. In the US, the New York Times had “China joins US in pledge of hard targets on emissions“, while the Los Angeles Times went with “China vows to cut greenhouse gas emissions 40% by 2020“.

China’s commitment is neither a hard target nor has it agreed to cut emissions. Rather, the Chinese pledge is an aim to cut energy intensity by between 40% and 45% by 2020 compared to the 2005 level, where energy intensity is measured as the unit of energy required to produce a unit of GDP. That announcement is not just a diplomatic sop aimed at appeasing doubters over China’s commitment to act on climate change, as the South China Morning Post argues (subscription required). Nonetheless, it is best described as an aspiration, and not even a new one; also, it is something which is a fruit of development rather than specifically aimed at cutting emissions. Countries get less energy-intense naturally as heavy industry becomes a smaller proportion of economic growth.

China has made great strides in energy efficiency over the last couple of decades, but progress has been patchy and it gets more difficult as development progresses. The graph below comes from a blog in September by Roger Pielke, an environmental studies professor at University of Colorado, and maps recent Chinese progress. It shows that China should already have achieved half the goal it has pledged – under its 2005-2010 plan it aimed to cut energy intensity by 20%. However, it had only managed to cut by 7.4% through 2008. To achieve its new aim by 2020 will require feats that are well beyond anything that has been demonstrated hitherto.

In any case, as a Reuters story points out, how will we know? The measuring and verifying process for carbon emissions makes nuclear weapons verification look like small  beans.

The headlines are being generated, of course, to soften the fact that Copenhagen will fail to create a new convention to supplant the Kyoto protocol, something that will have to wait until next year at the earliest. (see Copenhagen countdown subscription required).

The pledge from President Obama, such as it is (cuts of “around 17%” from 2005 levels by 2020), also is only an aspiration until it can be ratified in Congress next year. As The Economist magazine points out:

“The promised target is no different than that already passed by the House of Representatives, and considerably lower than what other rich countries (especially in Europe) have promised.”

It has also been noticed that Mr Obama’s visit to Copenhagen is a somewhat half-hearted affair, timed to coincide with his trip to Oslo to collect the Noble Peace Prize and coming early on in proceedings—the opening day—”well before the crunch time near the end” (see It’s off to Denmark we go subscription required).

Andrew Mitchell, the UK’s shadow development secretary, sees the “litmus test” of success as the world’s ability to keep global warming to two degrees. Worryingly as The Independent pointed out earlier this month, scientists are already planning for worse. Mitchell added that if the “deal on the table doesn’t look like it is going to do this, then the British delegation must have the nerve to reject the usual back-slapping and face-saving statements”. With delegates already managing expectations such a stand is likely to prove fruitless.

Yvo de Boer, the UN’s climate change head, has also been managing expectations this week. On Wednesday, at a pre-summit press conference, he talked of four elements of success at Copenhagen, starting with firm emissions-cutting commitments from developed countries, especially the US. The other aims about helping the developing countries to fund their plans for curbing emissions growth are contingent on the first, which won’t happen. So, he said, look out for a deal in Copenhagen to allow the Kyoto protocol to continue after it expires in 2012; but whatever the headlines, such a small achievement shouldn’t be confused with a meaningful replacement for Kyoto that would bring in countries accounting for more than two-thirds of the world’s CO2 emissions.

Thank you for warming

With the stakes so high, it is little wonder that controversy is being ratcheted up ahead of next month’s Copenhagen climate change summit.

The timing of leaked email traffic between climate scientists – the fruits of hacking into computers at the University of East Anglia – and a BBC investigation into apparent abuse of UN climate change funds may be coincidence, but they’ve certainly had the effect sought by sceptics of global treaties like Kyoto.

The Washington Post does a good job of capturing the back-and-forth that is at the heart of “Climategate” (a tediously inevitable sobriquet) with a series giving voice to both sides.

Whatever the debate about temperature data, one group of leading scientists has issued a report, timed to land ahead of Copenhagen, which loudly and unequivocally argues that the effects of warming are there for all to see.

The stoking of the scientific debate may have stirred the sceptical side of the argument, but still there is an overwhelming majority, even in the US, that accepts anthropogenic global warming.

So, it is the BBC story on funding that may signal the more lingering controversy. Even for those that accept the enormous task of energy transformation and climate change mitigation needed, there is scepticism around any efforts that are intermediated by big non-governmental organisations – such as the UN, the European Union – and the possibility for corruption and incompetence.

The EU cap-and-trade effort has had very mixed results so far, and there are many doubters about the carbon “offsets” devices set up under Kyoto, and certainly not restricted to the climate-change-sceptic camp.

The main parties may manage to come together to reach at least a political agreement at Copenhagen, but there is still a lot of work needed to demonstrate clearly that the nuts and bolts of a Kyoto successor deal won’t be full of waste and fraud.

Disruptive behaviour

Never before has there been so much uncertainty about the future supply and demand of hydrocarbons.

That somewhat Churchillian premise of a new study about “disruptive” energy technologies, authored by Melissa Stark, a partner at consultant group Accenture, (see pdf link below*), is also one of the main underlying themes of the big climate change debate about how to curb carbon emissions without devastating the world economy.

While the statement is unarguable, it also underlines how much harder it has become to predict a whole array of key elements of the energy future, such as how oil demand will change, how the energy mix might evolve, what will be the effect on lifestyle options such as transport, etc.? And the changes are likely to come much more quickly than many might think, the study argues.

That forecasting difficulty was demonstrated by last week’s unveiling by the International Energy Agency of its annual World Energy Outlook, which was met with an unusual degree of excitement in some quarters amid the pre-Copenhagen hype. George Monbiot of the Guardian, in particular, doesn’t want to let go of his outrage that the IEA has adjusted quite substantially its predictions for some oil forecasts. [NB, it seems from the link title to Mr Monbiot’s blog entry that some Guardian wag thinks the pique might be out of control].

Given the heightened uncertainty, the Accenture study, in another Churchillian flourish, concludes, “Never before have we demanded so much from our regulators and governments”. It goes on to prescribe what governments must do to help the 12 identified technologies reach commercial viability, which varies considerably from country to country, including controversial moves such as supporting genetic engineering of biofuel crops.

The bottom line: “In five years, we will be looking at a different landscape of fuel supply, fuel demand and options to reduce [greenhouse gases] than is currently forecast today given the pipeline of disruptive technologies. It is important that these technologies be considered when forecasting supply and demand.” We’ll try to bear that in mind.

*Accenture_Betting_on_Science_Study_Overview