Sunday, November 29, 2009

Running Out of Oil, and Why 450 is the New 350.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

The International Energy Agency (IEA) issued their annual World Energy Outlook, and despite a drop in 2009 demand due to the global recession, the numbers look grim. As Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the IEA put it;

"...a continuation of current trends in energy use puts the world on track for a rise in temperature of up to 6°C and poses serious threats to global energy security."

The IEA is to consuming countries what OPEC is to producing ones, advising members on energy supply and policy.Their activities include estimating how much oil is available and what future energy consumption will look like, and things may be even grimmer than they have been letting on.

Oil supplies in flux
According to a report in the Guardian, the Agency may have deliberately overstated world oil supplies, in order to avoid a worldwide buying panic. An unnamed (and therefore unverified) sources claim that the US has played an influential role in encouraging the organization to "underplay the rate of decline from existing oil fields while overplaying the chances of finding new reserves." Another (also unnamed) source was quoted as saying "We have [already] entered the 'peak oil' zone. I think that the situation is really bad."

"Peak oil" refers to the point at which the rate of production of oil, which has generally marched steadily upwards, begins to decline. If we continue our current energy habits and assume no change in government policies (called the 'Reference Scenario'), we will need to produce an additional 20 million barrels a day by 2030. It is not clear where that oil supply would come from, and is projected as "crude oil fields yet to be found."

Is even '450' a stretch?
In the 'Reference Scenario', the world's primary energy demand in 2030 is estimated to grow by a staggering 40% over the current figures. Much of this increase would be in coal use, which would grow by 50% and have a severe impact on climate change.

The IEA also looked at the alternative scenario needed to hold greenhouse gasses to 450 ppm, which is generally considered the maximum upper limit to avoid irreversible and possibly cataclysmic change (we are currently at 385.) What would need to happen? By 2030, a third of the world's power needs to come from renewables and/or nuclear, 60% of cars need to be plug in or hybrid, and we need to invest nearly $10 Trillion globally in energy efficiency. These are all what I would call 'stretch goals', and is partially why others have described staying below 450 ppm as pursuing "the greatest achievement in the history of the human race."

The IEA didn't even bother figuring out what it would take to reduce total ghg back to 350 ppm, a 'do no harm' target which seems to be completely out of reach.

Pay now or pay later

Conspiracy theorists claim that global warming is a hoax designed to create new 'green' profits via cap-and-trade and clean technology. While some concerns about Wall Street are always warranted, here is the simple math: The IEA estimates that carbon should eventually carry a cost of around $50 per ton, which translates to $20 per barrel of oil. If we continue on our current path, however, demand will likely drive up oil prices by at least $50 per barrel, sending over $4 trillion dollars to OPEC members in the next 20 years, just for the oil And the cost of climate change? The NRDC estimates that in the US alone, it will be $300 Billion a year by 2030. Many put the global figure in the Trillions.

So whether for the planet or the pocketbook, it's time to wake up. Things simply will not stay the way they are. We can either start spending on clean energy and efficiency now, or pay even more for the privilege of using up more fossil fuel and polluting the planet, with dire consequences. Why does this seem like a difficult choice?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Should you fly if you care about climate change?

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

If we are "addicted" to oil (as even George Bush admitted), then I guess air travel would need to be classified as heroin: Extremely harmful, and yet almost impossible to quit.

As an example of how deep this addiction runs:
I'm on an email group list of well known climate bloggers, and one of my colleagues recently asked, "So... what bloggers on this list are going to Copenhagen?" (for the UN climate meetings next month)

A few of the answers:
  • "We will have several people there."
  • "We will be sending two people."
  • "We are sending 12 Midwest delegates."
You get the idea. These folks are among the most active and engaged on the issue of climate change, and yet many will be jetsetting multiple writers to Denmark (possibly myself included).

They are almost certainly aware that in terms of personal carbon impact, flying is one of the worst things you can do: Without flying, the average person's carbon footprint in the US (the amount of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses we emit as individuals) is 16 tons. But for the 25% of American who fly, the average footprint is 6 tons higher. And for the roughly 6 Million 'frequent fliers' in The US, the typical footprint is 40 tons - almost triple the average. Yikes!

Flying is especially harmful because the emissions are released much further up in the atmosphere. There was a memorable scene in the movie The Age of Stupid, where a family tries to work out a reasonable carbon budget, and realizes that their holiday flying makes it impossible. As the father says, "the only thing worse than flying seems to be to set fire to a rainforest."

So what is a concerned eco-citizen to do? Waiting for the airlines to fix the problem is certainly not a good option. The Air Transportation Association is lobbying to avoid taxes or cap-and-trade on their industry, while also making vague promises to reduce emissions by 50% in the next 40 years. Unfortunately, most estimates are that airline travel will actually grow substantially as a portion of total emissions in upcoming decades.

Can we stop flying? Given the global nature of business and politics, as well as the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness in an interconnected world, I hope not (although we can fly less, that's for sure.) I'm glad that concerned writers will be in Copenhagen to document the UN climate talks, even if they need to get on airplanes to get there.

The only remaining answer seems to be for fliers to fund activities that reduce their flight emissions via what is known as 'offsetting' -- funding other programs that do more good than the harm we create. Offsetting often gets a bad name, sometimes called the equivalent of a medieval pardon, or simply purchasing guilt reduction. But what it really does is pragmatically mitigate a potential environmental problem through a 'swap', something we do all the time. As examples, we chose to set aside national parks rather than halt westward expansion, conservation funds often trade forest tracts and logging rights with timber interests, and we support hatcheries to make up for dams and lost Salmon habitats. So why not set aside forests or support wind energy to make up for the flying we can't seem to avoid? While none of these 'swaps' are perfect, they are much better alternatives to doing nothing to mitigate activities that - for economic and other reasons - we just can't stop doing.

In the case of flying, offsetting the impact of a one way trip overseas adds roughly 2% ($15) to the price of a ticket. In an era where airlines now charge $32 for advanced seating assignments, $25 for an extra bag, and even for meals, that seems like a bargain to me.

Going back to the original heroin analogy, I suppose offsetting would be the moral and practical equivalent of Methadone -- a safe way to allow us to gradually withdraw from our addiction, rather than quitting cold turkey.

I think it's a good solution to the air travel dilemma, but I know not everyone agrees. What do you think?

Photo copyright:

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wall Street expert says buy stock in Campbell's Soup: The myths and logic of climate skeptics.

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

I just saw a short video featuring James Altucher, a weekly columnist for the Financial Times and long time Wall Street fund manager, who is bullish on Campbell's Soup and winter coats, and bearish on climate change.

Altucher is obviously a very bright guy, but he echoed a couple of the more prominent myths and erroneous arguments of climate skeptics:

"Peak temperatures world wide were hit in 1998, and the world has been cooling ever since."

This bit of urban myth is based on the data shown in the chart at left from AP. As you can see, naysayers jumped on a single high data point, ignoring basic statistical analysis and common sense. As the AP reported in busting this myth:

"The last 10 years are the warmest 10-year period of the modern record," said NOAA climate monitoring chief Deke Arndt. "Even if you analyze the trend during that 10 years, the trend is actually positiv
e, which means warming." The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA's year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics....Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set.

This idea has been perpetuated by both the BBC, and inadvertanly by Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, who has been backpedaling faster than you can say "buy my book."

really knows whether the globe is heating or cooling or how much is man made and how much is just the Earth's natural cycle."

This "we can't be sure" tactic has been used before - by folks resisting DDT bans, cigarette warning labels, sulfur dixoide limits to reduce acid rain, and CFC controls to keep our ozone layer from being destroyed. The scientific evidence is pretty overwhelming, and near consensus. Does that mean that everyone agrees? Of course not.

A minority report released to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee listed 700 scientists who disagree. But a survey study of several thousand leading scientists conducted by the University of Illinois found that 97% of climatologists who are active in research believe that human activity has been a significant factor in changing mean global temperatures. (As a side note, petroleum geologists were among the biggest doubters, with only 47% believing in human involvement.) The study concluded that "the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes."

Here are a few more recent comments from skeptics:

"I live right outside of Orlando and it is the coldest it has been since I have lived in Florida. It was 65 the other day."

Yes, but it was unusally hot in my neighborhood last week.

"The Antarctic ice sheet is actually growing."

Maybe (this is still being studied)...but increased snowfall caused by warming is the likely explanation, and overall sea ice and glacier trends are alarmingly negative, particularly in the arctic. Here is a chart from the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which tracks sea ice and glaciers.

It's a hoax. Al Gore is making millions of dollars on this issue.

As a cleantech venture capitalist, Al certainly has plenty of skin in the game. Billions of dollars are being invested in finding low carbon solutions, and there will be plenty of money made. By the same logic, however,the claims of well funded and motivated naysayers, including the US chamber of commerce and Big Oil should be rejected as well. So I guess nobody is right. Yes Al and the usual suspects might be making bank, but it doesn't mean climate change is a hoax.

Oh by the way, using Altucher's methods and logic, I observed that Campbell's Soup stock has been on a downward trend since 1998...which I guess proves that the planet must be warming.