Quantifying the effect of greenhouse gases (GHGs) on global warming, such as methane helps us to understand where we can best focus our efforts to combat climate change. Here I will be discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the way we measure greenhouse gas impacts for the second most significant gas, methane – whose inexorable rise is shown left.
There are well over 100 different GHGs, each having a varying warming effects – that is to say they absorb infrared light to different extents and in different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. The lifetime of these gases in the atmosphere differs a lot: some like methane, CH4, are broken down by chemical processes in a relatively short time, around 12 years, and others like sulfur hexafluoride, SF6, are very long-lived, taking in the order of 3,200 years to be eliminated.
For carbon dioxide, CO2, there are a number of different ways that it is removed from the atmosphere, some relatively fast like dissolution in sea water over 30-80 years, and some very slow, such as weathering reactions with rocks over hundreds or thousands of years, so precisely pinning down its lifetime is still to be done. As a result CO2 is generally assumed to have a lifetime of at least a hundred years.
A further complication is that some of the breakdown products of these gases may be GHGs in their own right, for example, methane eventually breaks down into long-lifetime carbon dioxide (through a series of intermediate chemical processes primarily involving radical chemistry in the stratosphere) and water, with a very short lifetime, meaning that even after it has decayed, methane has a residual warming effect with variable persistence.
To simplify the process of calculating the combined effects of lots of different emissions, we have created a measure called the Global Warming Potential, GWP, for each of the greenhouse gases.(more…)
In the week where the IPCC has issued its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) which contains its starkest warning yet about the risks from climate change and the urgency for action, I find myself thinking back to recent job application I was unsuccessful at.
I should point out that I am not really looking for a full-time role at this point. However, the job in question was for Director of the Manchester Climate Change Agency which has intrigued me ever since it was advertised at the back end of last year.
With the re-advertisement of the role, I thought a lot about how one might facilitate a process of decarbonization at a city-wide level and I did some background research on the Agency. In particular, I very much agreed with the Agency’s partnership approach, rather than a top-down or command-and-control style. So I threw my hat into the ring for the job. I should point out that I did have also some very considerable misgivings, which I intended to raise in the interview process, if I ever got that far.(more…)
In this long format article I will explore why a knee-jerk response to the climate emergency can lead to well intentioned but counterproductive consequences. I have heard it said that we are living in a time where political reality is approximating scientific reality – at last policymakers are beginning to grasp what science has been saying for many years. This article explores another critical dimension, which I will call engineering reality, where I believe that much of the hard work and tough choices around climate change will be focused. The broader themes in this article are absolutely central to our success or failure and are offered not as a criticism of one specific response, but as a broader lesson to all those who can influence our responses to climate change.
The climate emergency is real and requires a rapid and effective response. Our success in delivering fast decarbonisation of our economy depends on myriad decisions taken in every sector based on our knowledge of the technologies, skills and finance available. These decisions are intricate and complex, not helped by a large number of uncertainties about the future, inconsistent data and conflicting visions of how to achieve Net Zero emissions.The climate emergency is real and requires a rapid and effective response. Our success in delivering fast decarbonisation of our economy depends on myriad decisions taken in every sector based on our knowledge of the technologies, skills and finance available. These decisions are intricate and complex, not helped by a large number of uncertainties about the future, inconsistent data and conflicting visions of how to achieve Net Zero emissions.
Those of us who have been in the business of sustainability for a long time crave a John F. Kennedy moment: “we will put a man on the moon by the end of the decade”. We fancy the notion of a mobilisation of all resources available to limit climate change, to adopt a state of war where combating climate change become the overwhelming priority in everything we do. We can’t wait to see the many barriers we have faced in the past come tumbling down.(more…)
For change to happen, people and teams need two things: the capability to carry out the required action and the desire to do so. Capability reflects many aspects such as knowledge and skills, as well as resources like time and money. Motivation can be intrinsic due to beliefs and attitudes or extrinsic due to instructions, incentives, penalties or social norms.
Capability and motivation are related. An easy-to-implement behaviour change (i.e. one for where the existing capability to act is high) will need much less motivation than a challenging behaviour change (i.e. one which requires lots of resources, time, effort, risk-taking, knowledge, etc).
Understanding the interrelationship between capability and motivation can dramatically increase the chance of success of our change programme.(more…)
I would probably have taken little interest in yesterday’s announcement that a relatively small regional airline, flybmi, has ceased trading, if it was not for the fact they were placing the blame, in part, on the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). According to the statement on the airline’s website :
The airline has faced several difficulties, including recent spikes in fuel and carbon costs, the latter arising from the EU’s recent decision to exclude UK airlines from full participation in the Emissions Trading Scheme.
So, I wanted to find out if this was really the case.
First of all, the background. You may recall from my earlier post that the EU is facing a real challenge for its flagship ETS as a result of BREXIT. The problem is that allowances in the scheme can be traded freely between member states of the EU but if the UK leaves the scheme ahead of the current Phase (running to 2020), there is a very real risk that the now redundant UK allowances, would flood the market and so render the ETS ineffective at capping carbon emissions. (more…)
It was a privilege to participate in the Manchester Green Summit yesterday as the event was heavily over-subscribed. I found the meeting very stimulating with a wide range of views about how Manchester could become the “Greenest” City Region in the UK. Here are my semi-random thoughts on the event…
Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, started proceeding by setting out an aspiration for Manchester to become a zero-carbon city – although he did not pledge a specific date to achieve this, he did suggest that we should be bold and commit to achieving this at least a decade earlier than the current 2050 target date.
The reason we need this level of urgency was starkly presented by Kevin Anderson from the Tyndal Centre. His brilliant talk cut through all the complexities surrounding emissions goals and reminded us that there is only one thing that matters – the absolute CO2 emissions that we put into the atmosphere. According to research by him and his colleagues we (Greater Manchester) have a budget of just 71 million tonnes of CO2 in order to meet the 2 ºC target we signed up to in the Paris Agreement. At current rates of emissions we will spend this in just 5-6 years.
The complexity of disentangling the UK from European institutions has been put in sharp relief by the intricate manoeuvring taking place around the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. Politicians have been at pains to talk up the simplicity of any transition and the ease with which existing EU environmental legislation will be translated to the UK statutes through a “Great Repeal Bill”. In practice the process is proving to be much more complex. (more…)
Several pieces of news have caught my attention in the last few days which have challenged my generally positive outlook on climate change issues. Despite this, I remain stubbornly optimistic about our ability to rise collectively to the challenges we face, as I will explain…. first though, the bad news…
Let’s start with the report from the BBC of a recent study by Eun-Soon Im, Jeremy S. Pal, and Elfatih A. B. Eltahir. This considered an aspect of global warming which, I must admit, has passed me by – that is the impact of temperature on human survival. Not, I hasten to add, the conventional “dry bulb” temperature measurement we are all familiar with from weather forecasts (and which are hitting all-time highs in Europe in the last few days, in excess of 43 °C in Cordoba, in the south of Spain, for example) but rather the more esoteric “wet bulb” temperature.
This measurement is the lowest temperature that can be achieved by evaporating water from a surface. In a low humidity environment, the wet bulb temperature can be considerably lower than the dry bulb temperature (as heat energy – aka latent heat – is needed to evaporate the liquid water, so lowering the temperature of the surface). As the moisture in the atmosphere rises, however, the potential for further evaporation decreases and so the wet bulb temperature approaches the dry bulb temperature until we reach 100% humidity, when both temperatures are the same. (more…)
I want to share an argument that I have used on many occasions when faced with audiences who are yet to be convinced about climate change. This is summarized by the diagram below.
This illustration reflects, in the columns, the positions that folks adopt about climate change. Some think that it is real, others not. Of course, we cannot change these columns, one will be prove to be right and the other will be wrong.
The rows, on the other hand, reflect the choices we make. We have two choices, A or B – either we take effective action on climate change, or not. That choice is under our control.
Clearly, we want to avoid the red box – where life as we know it comes to an end. Thus the only rational choice is “B”, to take action on climate change, despite some uncertainties about the consequences of inaction.
President Trump’s announcement of the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement made in the Rose Garden of the White House yesterday unambiguously represents Choice A.
The statement Trump made justifying this decision relies on two central arguments, which are understood by reference to the table above.
First is the argument that the Paris Accord is not Choice B (i.e. it will do little for climate change). To quote.
Even if the Paris Agreement were implemented in full, with total compliance from all nations, it is estimated it would only produce a two-tenths of one degree — think of that; this much — Celsius reduction in global temperature by the year 2100. Tiny, tiny amount.
Indeed, as the PolititFact site clearly elucidates, there is some truth in this statement. Scientists and climate change advocates have also been very clear that the commitments made in Paris were not enough. But they did see Paris as the framework through which countries could tighten their commitments over time. Indeed, Paris was a real milestone in that developing countries, too, agreed to targets for the first time. So saying that the first step is not enough is not an argument for stepping backwards.
The reader will note that there is no downside portrayed in the bottom left box, where dangerous climate change is not real, but we have nevertheless substantially transformed our organizations to reduce emissions and adapt to rising temperatures. While individual businesses, such as the coal industry, may well see a substantial reduction in their value unless they change the core business model, the majority of organizations will gain from resource efficiency to address climate change. That is because using less energy and creating less waste reduces costs. Delivering more efficient products will provide a competitive advantage. The new technology gold rush to mitigate carbon emissions will create countless business opportunities and thousands of jobs. Anticipating rather than reacting to regulation will create greater degrees of freedom for business operations extending, rather than diminishing, their licence to operate and innovate.
The second, essential, strand in the narrative of denial is to dismiss the notion that the lower-left box will lead to a better world even if climate change does not exist. Unless the fact that action is detrimental can be established, the precautionary principle would suggest that Choice B should be taken even if the probability that climate change is real (since the consequence of climate change is so catastrophic). To quote again.
The Paris Agreement would result in “lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories and vastly diminished economic production.