lunes, 20 de abril de 2020

Climate consistency of IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario

This post presents the results of checking the climate consistency of the most ambitious energy transition scenario from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Energy transition scenarios are meant to inform policy-makers and society about the implications of potential roadmaps for the energy sector. In the context of addressing the climate change challenge, the goal of scenarios should be achieving a targeted level of global warming. Hence, the climate consistency of scenarios should be clearly and transparently reported, but often this is not the case. Moreover, it is common to find ambiguity in climate consistency reporting, with scenarios claiming to adhere to current policy commitments (e.g., Paris Agreement) without properly backing these statements.

Policy agreements themselves often embody a significant ambiguity. It is for instance not clear what does it take to be consistent with the Paris Agreement, so different interpretations are used. Unfortunately, how IPCC has reported available carbon budgets has also contributed to the overall ambiguity, since different numeric values of carbon budgets can be inferred from its publications. Moreover, the fact that global warming is linked to total emissions and not only to energy-related emissions is often by-passed by implicit or explicit assumptions about the evolution of non-energy emissions, for which the proposed energy transition scenarios do not provide any means for mitigation. And on top of all of this we have the significant uncertainty attached to carbon budgets themselves.

The lack of clarity in reporting the climate consistency of energy transition scenarios strongly undermines its value, since chances to trigger the wrong policy or societal response are high.
Carbon budgets (CBs) are an appropriate yardstick to check the climate consistency of transition scenarios. The IPCC compiles the available scientific knowledge on climate change, including carbon budgets. The IPCC periodically produces Assessment Reports (AR) where the available knowledge on climate change is compiled. The fifth AR was released in 2014, and the sixth AR is due for 2021-2022. Climate and earth system models are updated for each AR, and therefore changes in carbon budgets are to be expected. Since climate and earth system models incorporate ever increasing detail about physical mechanisms (including feedbacks), carbon budgets estimates can be expected to reduce in updated ARs.

In 2018 the IPCC released its last publication updating carbon budgets (Special Report on 1.5C – SR1.5C). This publication is still based on model results from the AR5, but introduced several methodological changes to derive carbon budgets, lading to a significant increase of CBs over those presented in AR5. In here  and here we discuss this update in CBs and its implications. One of the effects of this update in CBs is that some of the principal energy transition scenarios that before the SR1.5C were reported to be consistent with a 2C global warming, suddenly were reported to be consistent with 1.5C global warming (without reducing its cumulative emissions).

Comparing the cumulative CO2 emissions from transition scenarios with the available carbon budgets provides a direct check of its climate consistency.

Energy transition scenarios provide high detail for energy-related CO2 emissions, and the proposed means to mitigate them. However, CBs make reference to total CO2 emissions. Therefore, for checking climate consistency total cumulative CO2 emissions are the metric to be compared with available carbon budgets. This means that energy-related CO2 emissions need to be complemented with industrial process CO2 emissions and LUCUCF (land use, land use change and forestry) CO2 emissions before comparing with the available carbon budgets.

Most energy transition scenarios do not address the details of mitigation in industry-process and LULUCF emissions, but still they make statements about climate consistency. For this purpose, they rely on unclear, non-transparent and unbacked assumptions about mitigation of non-energy related emissions. Often, the implicit mitigation for non-energy related emissions turns out to be far more ambitious than that for energy-related emissions, which is in stark contrast with the absolute lack of mitigation measures that these scenarios propose for non-energy related emissions.

In order to avoid this inconsistency, and in the absence of detailed transition analysis for non-energy related emissions, we propose that the climate consistency of the energy scenario is analyzed by framing it with the range of likely non-energy related emissions consistent with the proposed energy transition scenario. This range of non-energy related cumulative CO2 emissions can be defined by the two following cases:
  •         Business As Usual (BAU) CO2 emissions from industry-process and LULUCF, consistent with historic values and trends.
  •       Mitigation in non-energy related CO2 emissions that has the same ambition as that deployed in the energy transition scenario for energy-related CO2 emissions, where ambition is defined by the time-dependent ratio of transition to BAU emissions.

Among the most influential energy transition scenarios during the last decades are those developed by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and reported in its annual World Energy Outlook (WEO). 
The 2019 WEO includes 3 scenarios: Current Policies Scenario (CPS), Stated Policies Scenario (SPS) and Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS). The SDS is by far the more ambitious of the three in climate terms: Cumulative energy-related emissions between 2020 and 2100 from SPS and CPS are about 360% and 500% those of SDS, with SPS and CPS still emitting additional CO2 after 2100. Here we will address the climate consistency of the SDS scenario (the one with the highest climate ambition).

In the WEO 2019, IEA claims the SDS to be consistent with 1.8C global warming with 66% likelihood, or 1.65C global warming with 50% likelihood. It is worth noting that the reduction of CO2 energy-related emissions of the SDS from the SPS already includes 9% of Carbon Capture Use and Storage (CCUS). As we will see below, the analysis of the climate consistency of the SDS rather points (at best) to an alignment with a 2C global warming with 50% likelihood (see Fig.1).

As discussed above, the analysis of climate consistency requires evaluating the total cumulative CO2 emissions and comparing them with the available carbon budgets. The energy-related emissions associated to the SDS are taken from the WEO 2019. Two estimates of industry process CO2 emissions and LULUCF CO2 emissions will be used to frame the likely evolution of this sectors in parallel to the implementation of the SDS energy transition roadmap: BAU and similar ambition to the mitigation in the energy-related emissions.

For industry process emissions, starting from the current values, the BAU follows the historic increasing trend with a linear evolution. The other extreme for industry process emissions assumes the same time evolution of mitigation as in energy-related emissions, leading to zero emissions a bit before 2070.

For LULUCF, starting from the average level of emissions from the last couple of decades, the BAU implements the historic increasing trend using a linear evolution up to 2040, when LULUCF are assumed to stabilize and keep constant up to 2100. The other extreme for LULUCF emissions assumes the same time evolution of mitigation as in energy-related emissions, leading to zero emissions a bit before 2070.

Figure-1 presents the results. Carbon budgets as of 2020 for different levels of global warming and likelihoods are presented at the right (yellow bars) and include the uncertainty range recommended by IIPC in the 2018 1.5C Special Report. Cumulative emissions (2020-2100) for the SDS transition scenario are presented at the left for the two cases of industry process emissions and LULUCF emissions: Energy-related emissions from SDS are presented in blue bars (the same for both cases); The bar at the left includes the BAU process industry and LULUCF cumulative emissions, while the bar at the right has industry process and LULUCF emissions with the same mitigation ambition as the energy-related emissions.

As it may be seen, total cumulative emissions are well above the available carbon budgets for 1.5C (67% and 50% likelihoods). The case that considers a similar mitigation ambition for industry process and LULUCF emissions as that for energy-related emissions has total cumulative emissions that fall within the upper uncertainty range of the carbon budget for 2C at 67% likelihood, and close to the median value of the carbon budget for 2C at 50% likelihood. However, if BAU emissions are considered for industry process and LULUCF (which seems more consistent with a transition scenario that does not foresee any measure to mitigate these emissions), the cumulative emissions are almost in the limit of the upper uncertainty range of the 2C at 50% carbon budget, and hence would be likely to lead to a global warming above 2C.

Figure-1: Cumulative emissions of IEA’s SDS (2020-2100) compared with available carbon budgets. Energy-related emissions are those from the SDS. For process and LULUCF emissions two cases are presented: BAU and same ambition as for energy-related emissions.

The analysis herewith presented has focused on the SDS from IEA, concluding that this energy transition scenario, at best would be aligned with 2C global warming, but that it significantly overshoots the 1.5C climate goal. However, this conclusion can be extended to other of the available main energy transition scenarios which also belong to the 800 – 900 GtCO2 cumulative energy-related emissions climate tier.

Historic GHG emissions have already produced 1.1C of global warming, and its impacts are being felt around the world with increasing intensity year after year. Avoiding climate impacts that can seriously challenge the integrity of our socioeconomic and environmental systems would require limiting global warming to 1.5C, and reaching this goal requires the whole world completing the transition before 2050. Even if we fail to stabilize global warming to 1.5C, the faster we can transition the better for our socio-economic systems. In this context, and taking into account how these influential energy transition scenarios lock-in policies and investments for the following decades, it is difficult to understand why we have not been analyzing more ambitious scenarios since several years ago, so that policy-making can be properly informed.

In the post-COVID period, the opportunity window to address structural change should be used to increase transition rates and bring us into more climate-ambitious transition roadmaps.   

domingo, 12 de abril de 2020

GDP is a wicked compass to guide our socio-economic system: Additional COVID-19 evidence

Fears to economic consequences from COVID-19 have delayed (or prevented altogether) effective response to the pandemic in many countries, with a significant death toll impact, and are now hasting a risky return to ‘normality’ (breaking confinement measures) against the advice of health experts. In several global North countries, we have witnessed the naked nasty reality of statements putting GDP before people’s life, accepting to sacrifice our elders just to maintain GDP growth for a bit longer.

Our economic system has become production growth-dependent, and our whole social system seems to be guided by one single compass: GDP growth. When GDP stops growing, our economic system collapses, and our societies suffer. By itself, this is a very clear sign of weakness (moreover considering the fallacy of eternal GDP growth) and lack of resilience. We certainly do not have appropriate socio-economic structures to navigate collective crisis, and we should better take advantage of the lessons from the COVID-19 crisis to improve before we have to face bigger crisis already in the pipeline (e.g., climate change).

Because of the time lags between the initial wave of the COVID-19 crisis in different countries, it is still rather soon to have the full picture. Indeed, the crisis is just taking off in the US (Figure-2) and it may still be incipient in many parts of the global South. But data up to date (Figure-1) already hints what could be a significant positive correlation between COVID-19 deaths per million people and GDP per capita. This could still become more of a U-curve if the COVID-19 crisis hits strong in the global South. However, if this happens it will be (at least in part) due to weakened health systems in these countries, for which the structural adjustment policies dictated by global North controlled institutions during the last decades have an important responsibility. And since these are (at least in theory) impositions done in the name of promoting GDP growth in the global South, the main conclusion would still hold:

It seems we are using the wrong compass (GDP growth) to guide the evolution of our socio-economic systems. Blindly following it takes us far away from prosperity, at least when facing a collective crisis. Focusing our whole socio-economic system on serving GDP growth leaves us without resilience and capability to navigate shocks without high impacts.  


Figure-2: Evolution of confirmed COVID-19 deaths per million people in selected countries (January 31  to April 11th, 2020)

We already knew that the ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ counties narrative becomes a fallacy as soon as we evaluate the state of development in a holistic two-dimensional space (‘achieved social thresholds’ and ‘biophysical boundaries transgressed’): we all live in developing countries. Indeed, Figure-3 shows how there is no country in the D-quadrant, the region where the needs of all are met within the means of the planet, where developed countries would lay (

Figure-3: Countries' performance in terms of achieved social thresholds and biophysical boundaries transgressed

The mainstream neoliberal argument during the last decades has been that there is a significant positive correlation between the ‘social thresholds achieved’ and GDP growth. This is certainly the case for some prosperity indicators, such as child mortality (Figure-4) and maternal mortality (Figure-5).

However, the beneficial effect of GDP on many prosperity indicators, while being important for low income countries, saturates or even becomes negative as high GDPs per capita are reached, which invalidates the use of GDP growth as the only compass to guide the evolution towards prosperity. This can be appreciated, among other, in life expectancy (Figure-6), self-reported life satisfaction (Figure-7), human development index (Figure-8), share of children in employment (Figure-9) and death rate from indoor air pollution (Figure-10).

Other indicators present a high dispersion with GDP, like Human Rights Score (Figure-11), perform the worst at middle GDPs, like outdoor air pollution death rates (Figure-12), or even deteriorate as GDP increases, like gender wage gap (Figure-13) and the share of low-pay earners who are female (Figure-14).

Therefore, we should stop using GDP growth as the only or main compass to guide the evolution of the socio-economic system. The momentum provided by the evidence disclosed during the COVID-19 crisis (about the lack of resilience and extreme socio-economic weakness that results from blindly using the GDP growth compass) should be used to change course and adopt a compass that guides us towards inclusive prosperity, while redesigning socio-economic structures so that they have the needed resilience.












miércoles, 8 de abril de 2020

Climate emergency in the COVID-19 wake

COVID-19, and the sanitary crisis it has triggered, has put a halt on many fronts. Even the economy, understood as the ‘holy’ consumption-driven activity to produce ever increasing corporate profits, has been suddenly halted. Under this ‘shock’-like mental framework it is easy to give-in to the thought that other processes that were underway will also halt and wait for us to recover business as usual (BAU). With climate change this would be a fatal mistake. We should instead use all the lessons offered by the COVID-19 crisis to intensify action to address the climate emergency, since failure to do so will bring about deeper crisis for which we now have the evidence that our BAU socio-economic structures are poorly prepared.

The COVID-19 crisis is offering us many lessons about how our societies face collective challenges, including: the need of strong social networks and how these have been undervalued and dismantled during the last decades; the thin line between responsible and authoritarian governments which are ready to take any chance to step over social values and human rights; how the burden of collective response is often enforced on people, without enough care for the required economic support linked to a redistribution of the available resources; the importance of public buy-in and education to trigger collaborative behaviors; the power of solidarity; the wickedness deeply rooted in some dominating power groups, which explicitly advocate for sacrificing our elders for the sake of saving what they wrongly call ‘the economy’ (in terms of climate change the young generations are the ones that will be called to be sacrificed for today’s corporate profit).

From the COVID-19 crisis we can also learn about the structural drivers behind collective crisis, the value of diversified economies with strong domestic supply chains in all fronts (and not only industrial), where social value lies and how it has been systematically undervalued during the last decades.

This crisis also evidences how growth dependency has become a structural critical disease of our economic system: It seems fundamentally wrong to put all our socio-economic system to service corporate profit, in such a way that when this material growth (measured by monetized output irrespective of its social value) fails, all our socio-economic structure collapses. Resilience is missing.

Last but not least, this crisis also offers important lessons about the uttermost relevance of early action following scientific knowledge, and about the extremely high rates of change that can be deployed once there is a collective understanding of the urgency of change. These insights directly speak to the ongoing climate crisis.

Let’s come back to the emergency of the climate crisis and how important it is that we find our way to an appropriate collective management of this challenge.

What emerges after COVID-19 depends on today’s choices and on how many and how deep we internalize the lessons that the COVID-19 crisis offered us.

In the post-COVID period three frameworks are possible:
  • Coming back to a reinforced fossil fuel BAU (FF-BAU), including nuclear and CCS resurgence.
  • Recovering what we could already call the Renewables BAU (RE-BAU), pushing for renewables and efficiency to gradually take-up the role of conventional energy technologies without major structural changes in our socio-economic system.
  • Addressing structural changes (SC) in our socio-economic system, in such a way that besides having an energy system based on renewables and efficiency, wider systemic resilience is developed.

The implications for the energy transition and effective climate action of the post-COVID framework will be very important: FF-BAU will lead to decades of delay; RE-BAU would bring us back to the pre-COVID framework that already involves a significant delay compared to the climate imperative; SC would provide room for significantly speeding up the transition.

Strategic movements can already be seen pushing ahead these frameworks, with pressures for bailouts to fossil fuel industries and regulatory rollbacks (both financial and environmental) already finding their way through proposed ‘stimulus’ measures all around the globe.

The dominating thinking (and certainly policy-making) today seems to be longing for a fast return to BAU. However, this might not be the best thing to do, considering the deep links between BAU and the origin of structural crisis like COVID-19 or climate change.

Even recovering the pre-COVID push for renewables and avoiding going back to a reinforced FF-BAU does not seem to suffice anymore on light of the accumulated delay and the evidence provided by the COVID-19 crisis about the weakness of our socio-economic system to navigate these collective challenges.

COVID-19 reveals once more the strong link between carbon emissions and economic activity as we understand it today (and as pursued during the last decades). The huge impact expected from the pandemic to current economic activity will probably mean that carbon emissions fall in 2020 for the first time since the Great Recession of 2008. But this is an undesirable, unsustainable and non-lasting way to reduce emissions; emissions rebounded sharply after 2009.

If economic stimulus programs and bailing out policies are linked to climate goals (RE-BAU), and if people and institutions get used to telecommuting (and perhaps other behavioral changes than can be internalized through the COVID-19 crisis, like reduced flying), the COVID-19 crisis could also deliver some longer-term climate benefits along the RE-BAU roadmap. But if the pre-COVID socio-economic structures are kept unchanged, climate benefits are likely to be small compared to the size of the challenge.

A crisis like COVID-19, with its heap of lessons offered and the halt in the BAU inertia that produces, opens a window of opportunity for rethinking old structures from scratch. What just few weeks ago was difficult to be opened for discussion, now can be explored. And there is also an increased appetite to address these discussions now. However, the window of opportunity can be small due to the different competing forces.

But how tight is the situation regarding the climate crisis and why do we need to address it without further delay, channeling all the lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis to double down on climate ambition?

Figure-1 presents the remaining carbon budgets as of January 2020, i.e. the cumulative amount of CO2 that can be emitted since January 2020 in order to stabilize global warming at 1.5C or 2C with different likelihoods. The presented carbon budgets are taken from the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5C, updated to 2020, expressed in terms of near surface temperature, and including the effect of 2019 updates in sea surface temperature measurement databases. These carbon budgets also include the conservative estimate of earth system feedbacks reported in the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5C. The presented uncertainty ranges are the ones recommended in 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5C, but is worth noting that uncertainties can be significantly higher.

Given the huge socio-economic impacts that we can expect if global warming goes beyond 1.5C (as documented in the 2018 IPCC Special Report on 1.5C), the collective social goal should really be to stay below 1.5C global warming with the maximum likelihood. Hence, from the carbon budgets presented in Figure-1 we should be aiming at the carbon budget for 1.5C global warming with a 67% likelihood, which is as meager as 110 GtCO2 (emissions during last decade have been about 40 GtCO2/year, every year!).

The most ambitious transition scenarios from the two main international agencies dealing with the energy transition, the IEA Sustainable Development Scenario (WEO, 2019) and IRENA's REmap scenario (GET, 2019), belong to the same climate tier, with cumulative energy-related emissions until completing the transition of around 850 GtCO2. Other CO2 emissions from industrial processes and LULUCF should be added to energy-related emissions before checking consistency with climate goals by comparing with available carbon budgets. In any case, comparing these energy-related cumulative emissions with the carbon budgets for 1.5C (110 GtCO2 for 67% likelihood, and 270 GtCO2 for 50% likelihood) provides a clear indication of how short the RE-BAU falls from climate requirements. 

Figure-1: Remaining carbon budgets, as of January 2020, for limiting global warming to 1.5C with 67% and 50% likelihood and to 2C with 67% likelihood.

How fast should we transition to be aligned with the remaining carbon budgets?

If for simplicity sake we consider a linear transition to decarbonize our economy, Figure-2 presents historic CO2 emissions and a transition pathway consistent with a given climate goal (stabilize global warming to a certain value with a given likelihood of success). The carbon budget linked to the climate goal is the yellow area under the transition pathway (cumulative emissions from 2020 onward have to match the carbon budget for alignment with any specific climate goal).

Figure-2: Historic CO2 emissions and linear transition pathway consistent with a given climate goal, with indication of the associated carbon budget and how it relates with the evolution of annual emissions.

When we apply this kind of linear transition pathway to the remaining carbon budgets for stabilizing global warming at 1.5C with 67% and 50% likelihoods, we get the results presented in Figure-3: Full decarbonization should be reached within 5 years (67% likelihood of staying under 1.5C global warming) or a bit more than 12 years (50% likelihood of staying under 1.5C global warming). This is an extreme emergency!

Figure-3: Linear transition pathways consistent with the 1.5C carbon budgets with 67% and 50% likelihood.

The subtle difference between the climate crisis and the COVID-19 crisis is that in the case of climate change the human suffering is yet not as visible to all, because of the associated time lags and the distance of current impacts from the global North. But once the climate change impacts on human life fully materialize it will make COVID-19 look negligible at its side. So, we better emerge from the COVID-19 crisis with all lessons learned and a disruptive approach to address climate change.

viernes, 9 de noviembre de 2018

Increased carbon budgets in IPCC SR1.5: Bittersweet news (part-II)

In the first part of this post we presented the big apparent differences between the carbon budgets (CB) reported by the  IPCC SR1.5 in 2018 and the ones formerly reported in the IPCC AR5 in 2014. Indeed, in terms of the 2019 CBs the difference, especially for the budgets associated to lower global warming goals, are huge (see Figure-1 where the ratio between SR1.5 and AR5 CBs is presented). 

Still, in any case, as we documented in the first part of this post the situation is extremely tight, with just a bit more than one decade (SR1.5 optimistic vision) or very few years (AR5 vision) to completely transition towards a zero carbon emissions economy if the worst impacts of climate change are to be avoided. Moreover, if uncertainties in CBs are considered, we showed that CBs could in fact already be exhausted.

Therefore, the main conclusion we drew from this analysis is that the apparent increase in CBs reported by the IPCC SR1.5 should not be interpreted as an additional allowance to emit more carbon. Instead, at this point in time the focus of climate policy and action should move from trying to comply with a given CB towards transitioning as fast as possible along a sustainable pathway.

Figure-1: Ratio between the 2019 carbon budgets as reported by IPCC SR1.5 in 2018 and the IPCC SR AR5 in 2014.

But let’s delve a bit deeper into the origin of the mismatch between the CBs reported by IPCC in SR1.5 and AR5.

As shown in Figure-2 (taken from chapter-2 of the IPCC SR1.5), the origin of the modification in CBs estimates comes from the displacement of the relationship between global warming and cumulative emissions, occasioned by a discrepancy between measured and modeled historic CO2 emissions. The origin of this discrepancy is better explained by Carbon Brief , with Figure-3 clearly identifying the origin of this CB discrepancy in the difference between observed and modeled historical CO2 emissions, specifically around 1940. The Carbon Brief’s post makes clear mention to the uncertainties associated to historic CO2 emissions observations, which seem to be specially accentuated around the 1940 period. Therefore, this being the origin of the discrepancies between SR1.5 and AR5 CBs, calls for a note of caution when interpreting the apparent increase in available CBs as reported by the IPCC SR1.5 as a licence to emit more carbon.

Figure-2: Functional relationships between global warming and cumulative emissions, from where the CBs estimates are derived. The figure comes from chapter-2 of the IPCC SR1.5 and presents two versions of this functional relationship (and their uncertainty bands). The functional relationship from the top comes from the climate models used to derive the IPCC AR5 reported CBs. The functional relationship at the bottom is the one used for the IPCC SR1.5 and incorporates a displacement of the curve following the historic observed emissions, and then using the AR5 slopes to extrapolate the functional dependency between global warming and cumulative emissions from 2017 onward.

Figure-3: Origin of the discrepancy between SR1.5 and AR5 IPCC reported CBs, as provided by Carbon Brief . The origin of the discrepancy lies in the difference between observed and modeled emissions around 1940.

In fact the evidence is growing around the fact that we could well have overestimated CBs up till now, like the findings reported by this recent paper, reporting a documented higher than previously thought build-up of heat in the oceans: ‘Startling new research finds large buildup of heat inthe oceans, suggesting a faster rate of global warming’.

In fact the evidence is growing around the fact that we could well have overestimated CBs up till now, like the findings reported by this recent paper, reporting a documented higher than previously thought build-up of heat in the oceans: ‘Startling new research finds large buildup of heat inthe oceans, suggesting a faster rate of global warming’.

Evidence is also building up regarding the increase of climate impacts that we are already observing in 2018 as a result of climate change:

And so many more…

Clearly corporations and institutions have been unable to properly tackle climate change up till now, which has left us as a legacy the extremely tight and critical situation we are currently facing. Only a deep social change and evolution could bring us into an appropriate transition pathway. And although already very tight, signs are showing up of ongoing social changes that bring hope for humanity, from school kids to poets taking the lead, and clearly illustrating the deep social nature of tackling climate change:

So let’s joint efforts and between all, each maximizing its individual and collective contributions, buildup momentum for an effective social steering of the transition, avoiding the delays, misalignment and additional challenges that would stem from allowing a partial and biased transition approach, like those only focusing on the energy system, or even the economic system, as if they were self-contained systems, and hence missing its embedded nature into society and Earth (Figure-4), as well as missing the fundamental requirement for an overall and integrated transition that properly addresses the structural elements that have led to us to the brim of collapse and that prevent appropriate alternative pathways to be followed.

Figure-4: Acknowledging the embedded nature of the energy system and the economy into society and Earth is the starting point for a successful transition.

sábado, 3 de noviembre de 2018

Increased carbon budgets in IPCC SR1.5: Bittersweet news (part-I)

(Note: To improve its readability this post has been split in two parts)

The new IIPC SR1.5 (‘Global warming of 1.5°C’, released in October 2018) reports an important  increase in the available carbon budgets (CB) to comply with different degrees of global warming with regard to those reported in the fifth IPCC assessment report (AR5), which was the main reference for CBs since its publication in 2014.

The first impression from this IPCC-backed increased CBs is a sweet one, with certain relief, because it seems to provide a buffer and additional room to materialize a transition with chances to stabilize climate change with global warming below 1.5°C, and therefore to limit important climate change impacts.

However, there is a bitter aftertaste from these IPCC-backed increased CBs, which rises as soon as one delves into the details of its origin and the likely implications of its dissemination into our socio-economic and institutional framework. The two main points on this regard are:

  • The new IPCC SR1.5 CBs do not represent an update of the former IPCC AR5 CBs, in the sense that they are not based on improvements over the modeling approach used to obtain the AR5 CBs. In this sense the AR5 CBs keep on being conceptually valid, and the new SR1.5 simply presents CB results from a different methodological approach. In fact, the SR1.5 CBs use the same slope of the dependency between global warming and cumulative emissions (transient climate response to cumulative emissions: TCRE) as evaluated in AR5. The difference from SR1.5 and AR5 CBs basically stems from displacing the curve that relates global warming and cumulative emissions as a response of a discrepancy between measured and calculated historic annual emissions, which is more significant around 1940. The SR1.5 gives priority to measurements over modeled results for annual CO2 emissions, but since the measured CO2 emissions have high uncertainty, and particularly around the 1940 period, one can’t really place much confidence on the updated CB values, especially given their high discrepancy with the AR5 CBs and the fact that they move in the direction of reducing our safety buffer as a society.
  • Indeed, in spite of the appearance of providing a buffer (higher CBs should provide more chances to comply with climate boundary conditions), the updated IPCC SR1.5 CBs reduce our safety buffer for a successful transition towards sustainability. This is because our socio-economic and institutional current setups, frameworks and dynamics, have been and are still geared towards the silly goal of maximizing the use of fossil fuels (FF) consistent with a specified climate boundary. This approach is deeply imbedded into policy making driven by FF interests, but also into most of the scientific approaches used to evaluate the transition potential: Indeed, most of the Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs) used to draw the IPCC conclusions implement a shortsighted ‘economic’ optimization algorithm that basically provides the answer to the question of 'how slowly we can transition to comply with the specified climate goal' (i.e., how can we maximize the FF emissions within this climate boundary), let alone the fact that they keep on relying on equilibrium models that do not approach the reality of how the economy works, and on a deeply underdeveloped concept of the ‘economy’ itself, that considers it as a self-contained system that does not acknowledge its embedded nature into society and the Planet. This reality becomes still more pathetic when we hear the reaction from the big oil corporations to the calls for urgent climate action from the IPCC SR1.5 (ExxonMobil CEO Depressed AfterRealizing Earth Could End Before They Finish Extracting All The Oil ). Under this fully alienated context, it really does not sound like a good idea to provide updated IPCC-backed CBs that in spite of being full of uncertainties basically convey the main message that we have room to burn more carbon than the one we thought before while still remaining within appropriate boundary conditions, since from now onward all policies and modeling efforts will just adjust their goal towards the increased carbon allowance, instead of focusing on what really matters, which is transitioning as fast as possible.

Below we will develop further some of these issues, but let’s upfront state the main insights from this analysis:
  • Do not take the higher IPCC SR1.5 CBs as a license to still emit more carbon to the atmosphere. The old IPCC AR5 carbon budgets are still as valid as they were before the IPCC SR1.5 release. Moreover, the huge uncertainties embedded into the CBs could very well mean that in fact we have already exhausted them.
  • The fundamental transition goal right now should migrate from the alignment with specific global warming goals towards unlocking all the potential and capacity to transition as fast as possible. We already know that the later we manage to transition the highest will be the costs for the society and the Planet. And we also know that due to the lack of effective transition action up till now, even if we deploy a fast transition we will have to manage and try to adapt to strong climate impacts: even at 1.5°C global warming the impacts will be strong, they will basically double at 2°C global warming (IPCC SR1.5C), and they are already important at the present 1°C global warming). Therefore, in any case we will need to adapt to the impacts of climate change, and for this adaption capability and associated resilience to be unlocked we need to address the very structural aspects of the transition as soon and fast as possible. We should pay attention to avoid 'green washing' transition strategies, which ultimately will produce additional delays, and focus without any further delay on the structural aspects of a fair and just transition, as well as avoiding those transition strategies that under the flag of one specific global warming goal rely on false solutions that ultimately will further weaken the social and planetary capability to manage and navigate the climate (and potentially other global) impacts that are already in the pipeline. This somehow simplifies the subject and decision-making process: Just run as fast as possible along a pathway that addresses structural issues.

The CB concept it is an important one for climate change discussions, analysis and policies, and therefore an effort should be made to reduce noise around it. Indeed, the power of the CB concept is that it provides a very direct, clear and effective means to communicate and calibrate any transition policy or initiative. This clarity and communicative capability is of paramount importance to articulate an effective, engaging and participative transition towards sustainability. And among the enormous amount of often blurry seas of climate change information, pledges and policies, CBs stand as one of the very few elements promoting and supporting this clarity and communicative capacity.

The accounting concept of the CB is conceptually very close to citizens and politicians: The carbon budget available to maintain global warming below one specific target (1.5°C, 2°C,…) is the amount of CO2 that still can be emitted at any point at time. Of course, as times goes by and we keep on emitting, the CB reduces, just like the monetary or resources budget decreases as we keep on spending.

But first of all: Let’s have a look at how big the current CBs are, according to both AR5 and SR1.5 IPCC reports.

The IPCC AR5 provided CBs for 2011, and the IPCC SR1.5 provides CBs for 2018. To compare both budgets we need to discount historic CO2 emissions until a common year. Since we are already on the point of turning into 2019 (and still without having done anything effective to tackle climate change…), here we will present the 2019 carbon budgets: The amount of CO2 that we can still emit as of 1/1/2019 to comply with different global warming goals.

Figure-1 presents a direct comparison of the 2019 carbon budgets for 2°C@66% (this means the budget for global warming of 2°C with a likelihood of 66%), 1.5°C@50% and 1.5°C@66% for the IPCC AR5 and the IPCC SR1.5. The SR1.5 CBs presented in this figure are the main values provided in the SR1.5 report. The figure also presents the associated remaining years before budget exhaustion and the year of budget exhaustion (assuming annual emissions equal to those in 2017).

First think to clarify is that the quantification for the likelihood of staying under the specified global warming has different interpretations in AR5 and SR1.5. In AR5 the likelihood is evaluated through the dispersion of the results obtained from different climate models. In SR1.5 the likelihood is associated to the uncertainty in the slope of the dependence between global warming and cumulative emissions (transient climate response to cumulative emissions: TCRE) as obtained by the AR5 model runs.

The second issue that is worth pointing regarding the likelihood, are the meager values that we are considering: 66% or 50% likelihood of staying within the specified global warming if the emissions do not exceed the associated carbon budget. Hence, for 1.5°C@50% we have a 50% chance that even if emissions are within the associated carbon budget we still exceed the 1.5°C global warming…

The third thing that needs to be commented regarding the likelihood is the fundamental uncertainty embodied into its very value. Indeed, these likelihoods are not real likelihoods: they are estimates that come from the dispersion of results from climate models. But there is an implicit bias in this way of estimating likelihoods, because all the climate models used for evaluating global warming in AR5 basically have the same fundamental limitations in their modeling approach, which stem from the current understanding and modeling capability of the climate and Earth systems. Therefore, any uncertainty associated to real aspects not captured by these climate models (like several climate feedbacks) is simply not captured into this likelihood estimate. Because of the nature of the current ‘unknowns’ from the response of the climate system we could therefore expect that the real likelihood of limiting global warming to a specified value if the corresponding CB is not exceeded is lower (and perhaps significantly lower) to the one indicated. Hence, for instance, for the 1.5°C@50% carbon budget we could expect the real likelihood of staying within a 1.5°C global warming if this carbon budget is not exceeded to be lower than 50%, which really does not leave us in a very good position EVEN in the VERY unlikely event that we would comply with the 1.5°C@50% carbon budget.

Coming back to Figure-1, we can appreciate the very significant increase of CBs reported by IPCC SR1.5 with regard to those from IPCC AR5: The SR1.5 2°C@66% CB is 90% higher than the AR5 value, the 1.5°C@50% CB is 227% higher in the SR1.5, and the 1.5°C@66% CB is 623% higher in the SR1.5.

Figure-1 also translates these CBs in terms of the remaining years before exhaustion and year of exhaustion if future annual emissions would equal to those from 2017. As we can see, in any case the current situation is VERY tight, with only 2 years left (2020) for exhausting the 1.5°C@66% carbon budget from AR5 and 13 years (2031) according to the carbon budget from SR1.5.

Figure-1: 2019 carbon budgets for 2°C@66%, 1.5°C@50% and 1.5°C@66% as per the IPCC AR5 and IPCC SR1.5. The remaining years before budget exhaustion and the year of budget exhaustion, assuming future annual emissions equal to those in 2017, are also presented.

But the Figure-1 carbon budgets from both AR5 and SR1.5 do not take into account several climate feedbacks with the potential to significantly accelerate climate change. These are those complex non-linear physical processes that still escape to the modeling capability of the current climate models. However, our current physical understanding of the climate system provides evidence that even with 1.5°C or 2°C global warming several tipping points unlocking some of these climate feedbacks could be surpassed. Therefore, we should better count on the effect of climate feedbacks when evaluating our available carbon budget. The IPCC SR1.5 provides a very high-level quantification of the effect of climate feedbacks (citing two of them: CO2 released by permafrost thawing or methane released by wetlands), without much backing and giving the impression of being a rather incomplete estimate. The IPCC SR1.5 quantifies the impact of climate feedbacks into a 100 GtCO2 reduction of the carbon budget up to 2100 (acknowledging that this figure should be higher if we consider impacts beyond 2100). This figure certainly seems far too low, and even one of the studies cited in the IPCC SR1.5 quantifies almost twice this figure associated to one single climate feedback (methane emissions from permafrost). Hence, we should consider the estimate of the impact from climate feedbacks on the CBs provided by the IPCC SR1.5 as extremely optimistic and with a very high uncertainty. Still, if we include this estimate into the IPCC SR1.5 presented carbon budgets, we get the results from Figure-2.

Figure-2: 2019 carbon budgets for 2°C@66%, 1.5°C@50% and 1.5°C@66% as per the IPCC AR5 and IPCC SR1.5. For the SR1.5 CBs the estimate of climate feedbacks provided in the IPCC SR1.5 has been included. The remaining years before budget exhaustion and the year of budget exhaustion, assuming future annual emissions equal to those in 2017, are also presented.

Uncertainty is a big issue here, mostly when we pretend to take carbon budgets (or equivalent climate model-predicted global warming) as goals to guide ‘economic’ optimization routines that are meant to provide us transition pathways consistent with the climate goals. The IPCC SR1.5 is really not very conclusive regarding the uncertainty associated to the provided CBs. The only think that says is a very vague statement that the uncertainty is expected to be 50%, which therefore we have to interpret as a highly uncertain figure itself. However, if we take this uncertainty estimate and look for the lower potential value (the one we should aim at for not missing the goal) of the SR1.5 CBs, we get the results presented in Figure-3. As we can see, now both the AR5 and SR1.5 become very close to each other. For the 2°C@66% CB the SR1.5 value becomes lower than the AR5 value. For 1.5°C@50% and 1.5°C@66% CBs the SR1.5 value keeps on being higher than the AR5 value but now both are rather aligned.

Figure-3: 2019 carbon budgets for 2°C@66%, 1.5°C@50% and 1.5°C@66% as per the IPCC AR5 and IPCC SR1.5. For the SR1.5 CBs the estimate of climate feedbacks provided in the IPCC SR1.5 has been included. The SR1.5 CBs herewith presented are the lower end of the 50% uncertainty range indicated in the IPCC SR1.5. The remaining years before budget exhaustion and the year of budget exhaustion, assuming future annual emissions equal to those in 2017, are also presented.

However, the IPCC SR1.5 provides more information about the potential uncertainty of the presented CBs. Specifically, it reports the expected impact of the following uncertainty sources:
  •  the uncertainty associated to variations of non-CO2 GHG emissions evolution pathways. This is what I denominated Carbon Budget Wedges (CBW) in the 1.5°C Climate Vision analysis that I developed in late 2016 for Greenpeace International (see here, here and here)
  • the uncertainty associated to non-CO2 forcing and response
  • the historical temperature uncertainty
  • the uncertainty associated to recent (since 2011) emissions uncertainty

Clearly, one could think of further sources of uncertainty, like those associated to historic emissions uncertainties, among which are the emissions around 1940 that underpin the fundamental difference between the reported AR5 and SR1.5 CBs, or the huge uncertainties associated to climate feedbacks and the modeling limitations of current climate models. But let’s just concentrate on the uncertainty sources quantified in the SR1.5 report.

The IPCC SR1.5 report is quick in providing a disclaimer that the different reported uncertainties cannot be added up. However, the SR1.5 report does not elaborate on how they should be combined nor substantiate the statement that they should not be added up, to which we should add the uncertainty that seems to be attached to these uncertainty estimates themselves.

But with all these caveats, we still think that adding these provided uncertainty estimates may provide a powerful qualitative insight that should not be overlooked in the discussion about the CBs. Hence, in Figure-4 we compare again the AR5 and SR1.5 CBs, but in this case, for the SR1.5 we use the lower value of the CBs associated to the different quantified uncertainties.

The picture provided by Figure-4 changes completely. Now all the SR1.5 CBs are lower than the AR5 estimates, with the CBs for the 1.5°C@50% and 1.5°C@66% already having been exhausted (in 2011 and 2006 respectively), and the 2°C@66% being exhausted within just 6 years (in 2024).

Well, this changes everything (as Naomi Klein would probably say), because the SR1.5 report, far from pretending to communicate the ‘convenient’ message that we still have room to emit a bit more of carbon than the one we thought, should completely refocus the strategy towards deploying a sustainable, just and fair transition as fast as possible, with the priority on addressing the structural changes that can provide resilience and adaption capability to navigate the future. We could already have gone beyond the 1.5°C@50% CB, and we know by sure that the higher the final global warming the worst. But we also need to be very aware that not any transition will do the job, and that there are pathways that can significantly debilitate our capability as a society to navigate the future, aggravating those structural aspects that underpin the very climate and social crisis we are currently facing.

Figure-4: 2019 carbon budgets for 2°C@66%, 1.5°C@50% and 1.5°C@66% as per the IPCC AR5 and IPCC SR1.5. For the SR1.5 CBs the estimate of climate feedbacks provided in the IPCC SR1.5 has been included. The SR1.5 CBs herewith presented are the lower end of the uncertainty range indicated in the IPCC SR1.5 through the different quantified uncertainty sources. The remaining years before budget exhaustion and the year of budget exhaustion, assuming future annual emissions equal to those in 2017, are also presented.

I will finish with one personal note associated to CB's uncertainties: 

End 2016 I was developing the 1.5°C Climate Vision analysis (CV1.5) for Greenpeace International (see here, here  and here). The CV1.5 is a transition analysis addressing the possibilities, requirements and implications of a transition aligned with the Paris Agreement 1.5°C goal. 

The IPCC AR5 CBs were used as reference for the CV1.5 analysis. 

By this time, colleagues from the Oil Change International were preparing to launch the ‘Sky’slimit’ report, and when I was asked to review the report I noticed that they were interpreting the IPCC AR5 CBs differently than I was for the CV1.5. The IPCC AR5 provides the 2011 CB and following typical accounting practice I had assumed that the 2011 CB meant the budget available at the beginning of 2011. However, the Oil Change International colleagues were interpreting it as the CB available at the end of 2011 (what would be the 2012 CB for me). We engaged on a discussion about this, and we ended up involving into the discussion two of the principal authors behind the IPCC AR5 CB estimates, and they told us that the Oil Change International interpretation was the right one (in fact they got it from those authors on the first place), and therefore that the reported values in the IPCC AR5 report were in fact the 2012 CBs associated to conventional accounting practice. So I changed my interpretation for the CV1.5 analysis. 

However, now in the IPCC SR1.5, with one of these authors being among the main authors for chapter-2 of the current SR1.5 where CBs are discussed, the IPCC SR1.5 states that the IPCC AR5 CBs are really 2011 budgets! Hence, in the results I presented here I adopted the 2011 interpretation for the AR5 CBs, and that is the reason why the CV1.5 analysis is based on higher CBs (the difference are the emissions in year 2011).

But the issue is not trivial. This very elemental accounting error has huge relative implications in the already very meager CBs. For instance, this accounting error means a 18% error in the 2019 1.5°C@50% CB and a 54% error in the 2019 1.5°C@66% CB.

The corollary for me is that if this happens with something as simple as an accounting practice, what other uncertainties could be embedded into the reported CBs? Moreover, the needed conservative approach by IPCC could bias uncertainties. Hence, I think we should change our approach and give up the strategy of building evolution pathways and policies that seek to match specified CBs (or specific warming goals) by adjusting the amount of FF that we still can burn, and rather focus on deploying an appropriate and structural transition as fast as possible. CBs will keep on being a very useful communication instrument, but shouldn’t become an excuse for allowing us to burn more carbon.  Otherwise we are just playing with fire.

martes, 20 de febrero de 2018

Transition options and implications for a sustainable consistency with the 1.5C policy goal

In this link you can get the paper  'Transition options and implications for a sustainable consistency with the 1.5C policy goal'.

The transition analysis presented in this paper explores the feasibility and implications of articulating a transition aligned with the 1.5C climate policy goal, within the boundaries of sustainability, and that reinforces the resilience from the socio-economic systems. The results from the analysis show that such a transition is still feasible, but in order to achieve the required transition rates structural changes have to be addressed. Peak renewable energy deployment rates more than one order of magnitude higher than current values would be required. Integration of the energy system through smart electrification is a must to unlock high transition rates within the energy sector. Because of the delay on undertaking such a transition, even these high transition rates within the energy sector are not enough to provide climate alignment,  and ambitious transitions in forestry, agriculture and industry (process and fluorinated gasses) are needed to achieve the global climate goal. Innovative policies are required in all the fronts (energy, economy, financing, social accountability, …) to facilitate and enable the structural changes that have the key for the required high transition rates, with the transition from representative contexts to participative contexts being one of the key areas where policy action needs to focus.