India – Climate Change Deniers?

Last week, I looked at the IPAT identity and the conflict between striving for affluence and aiming to keep greenhouse gas emissions from energy use low. One of the graphs showed that of the 25 major countries presented, India has both the lowest GDP and energy use per person. The graph showed that the affluence (measured by GDP/person) is approximately proportional to the energy use. I also mentioned the filming of the short movie “Quest for Energy,” which described India’s efforts to provide electricity to an area in India that was not connected to the electrical grid. During the filming we asked some of the people that were directly affected (those in the Sundarbans region) whether or not they minded paying slightly higher prices for electricity compared to people on the “mainland” – the area around Kolkata (Calcutta). The people in the “mainland” get most of their electricity from coal. The hope in providing the electricity in the Sundarbans was to try to “skip” the coal stage. It turns out that this was a bit more expensive. The answer that we got was that actually, they would be delighted to get their energy from coal and pay less, provided that it would be a “clean” coal that doesn’t contribute to climate change. We basically had to end the chat at that point. It became useless to try to explain that there is no such thing as “clean” coal unless the carbon dioxide generated is being sequestered, a process that would make the coal considerably more expensive.

My last blog also described one “shade” of climate deniers – the “fatalists,” that don’t believe anything can be done to seriously reduce anthropogenic climate change because countries like India will never agree to sacrifice their quest for economic development for the sake of global sustainability. Admittedly, my “shading” of deniers mostly focuses on the US landscape. A valid question to ask is whether India shares this attitude.

There is no question that there are climate change deniers in India. However, India recently had major elections that resulted in a big change of government. The Bharatiya Janata Party under Narendra Modi was the big winner. It is especially notable that all the big contenders within the election have recognized that anthropogenic climate change is a major threat that India has to face together with the rest of the world. Here is how Worldwatch Institute summarized the political landscape:

Perhaps for the first time in India’s election history, both Congress and the BJP-the two leading contenders-give fairly significant mention to climate change and the environment in their manifestos.

The Congress party states that “climate change has now emerged as a serious challenge for the world community” and has committed to implementing its National Action Plan on Climate Change, released last June, “in letter and spirit.” Shyam Saran, India’s Special Envoy on Climate Change, noted in a recent statement in Washington, D.C., that “climate change has now been fully integrated into the development process” and that detailed national strategies will be released soon. The party has also indicated plans to better conserve the Ganges River Basin and to safeguard India’s biodiversity.

With regard to India’s energy security needs, Congress has announced plans to add at least 12,000-15,000 megawatts of capacity each year through a mix of sources, including coal, hydroelectricity, nuclear power, and renewable energy-although the pace of oil and gas exploration will also be intensified.

The BJP has outlined a fairly robust set of measures as well, stating that it will “pursue national growth objectives through an ecologically sustainable pathway that leads to mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, recognising that containing global warming is essential to protecting [the] life and security of people and [the] environment.” The party also notes that “mitigating this threat by building a low carbon economy is the biggest economic opportunity of the 21st century.”

In terms of energy infrastructure, the BJP proposes investing heavily in non-fossil fuel clean energy sources, with a goal of adding at least 120,000 megawatts of power over the next five years, 20 percent of this from renewable sources. This amounts to a near-doubling of India’s currently installed energy capacity. The BJP manifesto also includes measures to create incentives for environmental education, energy efficiency, afforestation, wildlife conservation, and low-water, low-chemical, and high-diversity agriculture.

Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, a famous Indian scientist and administrator has served until very recently as head of the IPCC and was its main spokesman. He was the face of the organization when in 2007 the organization shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

The people in the Sundarbans region fully realize, as most Indian citizens do, that India is very vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The monsoons are getting more intense on both the Indian and Bangladeshi sides of the Sundarbans. With these intense monsoons come more intense and more frequent flooding. With the sea level rise, shallow wells quickly become too salty for use and extraction of fresh water becomes much more difficult.

Figure 1 shows a climate vulnerability map; India, China and West Africa are noted as some of the most vulnerable regions. They are also among the world’s poorest and most populated regions. Most of these regions cannot afford adaptation through expensive construction. In many cases, the best solution that they can offer is to let affected people to try to move from the most vulnerable coastal region to the interior as climate refugees.

Climate vulnerability world mapFigure 1 – Climate Change Vulnerability Map 

Smith School at Oxford: Countries' Actions and Commitments to Climate ChangeFigure 2 – Countries Action and Commitments on Climate Change

In spite of all this, Figure 2, a global map of countries’ actions and commitments on climate change, clearly shows that India and China are among the most committed.

In the next two weeks I will focus on the specific challenges that India faces in its energy use and the actions that the country is taking to mitigate its contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.

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India – Lighthouse for the IPAT

India is “hot” now. I just got the recent issue of The Economist (February 21st), whose cover features a personification of India, riding high on a very attractive elephant that has a jet engine strapped to its side. With most of the world in some sort of stagnation, India, with its newly elected Prime Minister (Narendra Modi), is leading the way in economic growth among the large developing countries. The US, meanwhile, is in a very strong position among the large developed countries. President Obama visited India last month and met with Modi and other Indian officials. They have agreed to cooperate on the development and implementation of sustainable energy sources but – unlike with China – did not make any specific commitments. The main reason for this is that climate change is only one of the major concerns that India has in terms of its energy policy; until India can find satisfying solutions that balance these concerns, it cannot securely commit itself to any global agreements on energy use.

Given the pending December 2015 meeting in Paris, where many hope to finally get global commitments to take efforts to mitigate climate change, these meetings go a long way toward giving the world confidence that these commitments will not only be made, but also followed.

A few years ago (September 3, 2012), I described what I called, “Three Shades of Deniers.” Of these, the following is the one that concerns me most, especially because it includes some very good scientists:

The fatalists. This group fully agrees with both the science and its predicted impact, but believes that since the task of preventing it is so enormous as to be practically undoable, they might as well enjoy life for as long as it lasts. Unfortunately, many in this group are good scientists.

The first example that most of these “fatalists” bring up is India. I was focused on India’s efforts to balance between the pressing needs to alleviate poverty and mitigate anthropogenic contributions to climate change for many years. Many of these efforts can be quantified through the IPAT identity (November 26, 2012 blog):

There is a useful identity that correlates the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, in Governor’s Romney statement) with the other indicators. The equation is known as the IPAT equation (or I=PAT), which stands for Impact Population Affluence Technology. The equation was proposed independently by two research teams; one consists of Paul R. Ehrlich and John Holdren (now President Obama’s Science Adviser), while the other is led by Barry Commoner (P.R. Ehrlich and J.P. Holdren; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:16 (1972). B. Commoner; Bulletin of Atmospheric Science 28:42 (1972).)

The identity takes the following form:

Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology

Almost all of the future scenarios for climate change make separate estimates of the indicators in this equation. The difference factor of 15 in GDP/Person (measure of affluence), between the average Chinese and average American makes it clear that the Chinese and the rest of the developing world will do everything they can to try to “even the score” with the developed world. The global challenge is how to do this while at the same time minimizing the environmental impact.

The figure below, taken from my book, shows the dependence of the GDP/Person on Energy Use/Person for 26 countries, including both developing and developed countries. The data for this graph were taken from the 2002 CIA World Factbook.

Figure 1 for Environmental Justice Global Blog

On superficial observation, the dependence in the graph looks linear. Linear dependence indicates that the energy intensity, defined as the ratio of GDP/Energy Use, is constant and independent of the GDP of a country. The energy intensity is a true measure of the efficiency of energy use. The approximate independence of the energy intensity to GDP, directly contradicts the often-heard perception that developed countries use their energy more efficiently than developing countries.

More careful observation shows (Yevgeniy Ostrovskiy, Michael Cheng and Micha Tomkiewicz; “Intensive and Extensive Parametrization of Energy Use and Income in US States and in Global Environments”; International Conference on Climate Change: Impacts and Responses; 12 – 13 July 2012; Seattle Washington) that the energy intensity is weakly dependent on the GDP (inverse square root dependence), not because developed countries are more efficient in their use of energy, but because service starts to play bigger and bigger roles in developed countries and is considerably less energy dependent as compared to heavy industry.

In the next few blogs I will focus on the difficulties in reaching an international agreement on limiting the use of fossil fuel, what China and other developing countries are doing to change their energy use, and how the USA is reacting to these developments.

Since my paper with Ostrovskiy and Cheng is now published in a refereed professional journal, my focus has shifted to India, which, as I showed in the previous blog, is a somewhat more difficult, example. India is poorer than China. It’s also a democratic country, meaning that the issue shifts from trying to convince governments to take a certain action to trying to convince voters in a fast growing population that already numbers over a billion people.

The IPAT is not just a “formula.” It actually describes the driving forces for the anthropogenic contributions to climate change.

Figure 2, taken from the latest IPCC reports, shows the relative contributions of the four terms with the carbon intensity of energy defined as CO2/energy summarizing the last two energy terms. The balancing act of the socioeconomic terms with the energy terms is clearly visible, resulting in increased emission with the increased contributions from the socio-economic terms, dominated by the increased affluence of developing countries. The increase in emission associated with the first two terms of the equality is only partially compensated by the energy terms.Decomposition of the change in total global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by decade

 Figure 2

Decomposition of the change in total global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion by decade (IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report)

A few years ago I went to India to try to see the balancing act for myself. Here is what I wrote about this effort (April 29, 2014):

I was able to interest a colleague of mine, Prof. Vinit Parmar from our film department, and we went exploring. We went to a region of India called the Sundarbans, which is part of the West Bengal State, near the city of Kolkata (Calcutta). The region is shared by India and Bangladesh and is the home of one of the world’s largest deltas, formed by the outlets of the Ganges, the Brahmaphutra and the Meghna rivers into the Bay of Bengal. About 4 million people live on the Indian side of the border. The land’s topography has made it difficult to extend the Indian electrical grid, and until 1995 most of the inhabitants lived a Hunter-Gatherer way of life: “hunting” fish and gathering honey in the Mangrove forest. Around 1995, the Indian government (with some help from the US government) decided to do something about it and try to deliver electricity to the region. They decided to do it by skipping the coal stage, instead delivering the electricity in the most sustainable way that the budget would allow.

We tried to monitor this process through a documentary film; to accomplish this we needed some help but the result, along with the full list of contributors, can be seen in the short film “Quest for Energy.”

The film illustrates the initial delivery of electricity in the small town of Gosaba. This delivery comes by way of a microgrid that runs through some of the main streets in town. Here, the microgrid doesn’t function as an additional, supplemental aspect of the main grid. In fact, since in this case, the microgrid is the only grid, in a sense, it resembles the main grid in the US more than 100 years ago. The proliferation of microgrids in rich countries is a boon to developing countries like India because it promotes further exploration and improvement of such technology. Hopefully these innovations will continue to be applicable not only in rich countries, where the microgrids function mostly as a form of adaptation, but also in poor countries where in many regions they are the only game in town.

Figure 3, taken from a 2002 seminar on energy and poverty reduction at the World Summit for Sustainable Development, shows the global access to electricity and reliance on biomass for energy use.Global access to electricity and biomass

Figure 3 – Global lack of access to electricity and reliance on biomass

The same seminar documents describe how India’s inhabitants fit in to the world’s access to and use of electricity as follows:

Of the 1.6 billion people today have no access to electricity, about 80% of these people are located in India (580 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (500 million). Four out of five people lacking access to electricity live in rural areas. By 2030, in the absence of radical new policies, 1.4 billion will still have no electricity

The next few blogs will continue my discussion of India, as I describe the country’s present energy situation and its efforts toward energy transition. I also plan to address the difficult balance it strives for between reducing its energy needs overall while also recognizing that some energy expenditure is necessary in its attempts to alleviate poverty.

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India – the Global Lighthouse

Toward the end of last year (December 9, 2014), I started a series of blogs taking stock of where we stand, in light of this year’s anticipated Paris meeting (December 2015) that will try (again) to formulate an international agreement to mitigate climate change:

I will try to welcome 2015 a bit differently. On November 11th, the US and Chinese presidents came to a landmark agreement: the US will accelerate the speed of its current reduction of greenhouse gas emissions so that its level by 2025 will be close to 30% below its level in 2005 (double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020). Meanwhile, China’s emissions will peak by 2030 – by which time sustainable sources should constitute at least 20% of its energy supply. People around the world saw this agreement by the two worst polluting countries as a good framework upon which to base a global agreement – one which will be discussed at the United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled be held in Paris, France in December of 2015. Many eyes are now turning to India to see if it will follow. I will try to follow the global preparations for the December 2015 Paris meeting and include updates in this blog.

I promised in that blog that I would describe the energy transition processes in a few key countries. I started then with Germany (December 9, 2014), and will continue now with India. A recent (2014) ranking of carbon emissions by country puts India in third place with 5.7% (following China – 23.4% and US with 14.7%).

In terms of energy usage per person, however, the picture is different. Figure 1 shows the comparison with other key countries.

Energy Use Per Capita Figure 1

Figure 2 shows a more detailed comparison of the relevant parameters with China. It is clear from both figures that on a per person basis, India is far below all the rich countries and even many developing countries, most importantly China. By almost every measure, India is a very poor country that strives to catch up with the more affluent parts of the world.

Seeking Alpha: How Does India's Energy Consumption Compare to China's?Figure 2 – Comparison of the relevant parameters for energy consumption between India and China.

For a number of years, I have used India as my ideal, seeing it as a beacon; a lighthouse for the world in these matters. The country epitomizes many of the imperative changes necessary for a future with a much more equal world; one many of us want to see. Unfortunately, idealism aside, the world needs safeguarding against existential hazards such as anthropogenic climate change, and using India as a model for the scale of action might make mitigation seem like an insurmountable pursuit.

The figure below (marked as figure 9.4) shows why. The figure was taken from my book (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now- Momentum Press (2011)). Below the figure, I have included an excerpt from the book as an explanation. The figure serves as a focal point for an assignment in my courses on climate change. The courses are open to all of the school’s students, provided that they have passed the regular core requirements, including introductory offerings in both the physical and social sciences (what we call Upper Tier Core).

Climate Change: The Fork At the End of Now: Figure 9.4 US vs. India GDP

The figure shows the changes in the GDP per capita since 1960 for India and the United States. India was chosen as an example because it is the most populous country in the low- income group while the United States was chosen because it is the most populous country in the high- income group. You will notice something peculiar in the graph not yet mentioned in this book. The scale of the vertical axis is not linear: 100– 1000 is the same distance on the vertical axis as 1000– 10,000, which on a linear scale would take 10 times the space. Such a scale is called a logarithmic scale. It is used here because the Indian GDP per capita is more than a factor of 10 smaller than the US GDP per capita. If we showed both countries on the same linear graph, then the scale of the graph would have to be adjusted to that of the United States, and India will be extremely close to the horizontal axis. Plotting them on a logarithmic scale makes both economies visible and relatively easy to compare.

I will push this a bit further. Inspecting the two lines on this scale, we notice that the US line is approximately a straight line, while the India line changes to an increased slope around 1980. Straight lines on this scale means exponential growth with a constant growth rate (remember Chapter 2). One can calculate this rate from the graph. In this case I will skip the details. The rate for the United States is 1.5%. This rate is expressed in constant US dollars, which means that the inflation rate in the United States is discounted. We can do the same for India— the Indian economy grew until 1980 at an approximate rate of 0.9% in real US dollars, followed by an accelerated rate of approximately 2.5%. These calculations are performed with units that already discount population growth (because we calculate GDP per capita) and inflation in the United States. It is an old axiom of geometry that two unparallel, straight lines must meet somewhere. From the graph, we can calculate where the lines will meet. If the US economy continues to grow at the same rate that it grew since 1960, and the Indian economy continues to grow at the same rate that it grew since 1980, then the two economies will have the same GDP per capita in about 300 years. This time is way beyond “now,” but it is a trend that needs to be seriously considered. Presently the average American is richer than the average Indian by a factor of about 60. When the two extrapolated economies will converge in terms of an average individual standard of living 300 years from now, the GDP per capita of the two economies will reach the astronomical number of 3.5 million US$ (this is already after discounting inflation and population growth). Such is the power of an extrapolated exponential growth without imposed limits.

The students are asked to use the graphs to calculate the time it will take for an average Indian to have the same average income (in the form of GDP/capita) as an average American, assuming a business as usual scenario (i.e. extrapolating the future from the present). From this data, they continue to calculate energy use and climate change parameters of that world, again, based on a business as usual scenario.

More than two years ago (December 3, 2012), in a different context, I discussed a similar exercise where students had to predict a scenario of when the GDP of an average Chinese citizen might match that of an average American. At the time, I invited everybody to try their hand with their own scenario. I repeat the request here.

Next week I will start to focus on what India is doing right now.

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Addressing a Global Issue –Fall 2015: What Have I Seen, What Have I Done to Take Part?

This will be a short blog. Any collective efforts to make the world a better place for all of us and for future generations have to start with individuals. The purpose here is to attract contributions about some of these individual efforts. I am inviting comments about your experiences and thoughts. The comment can take the approach of trying to convince somebody to join in a certain collective effort, or can speak to your own actions – reporting which strategies worked and which didn’t. It can address an article or book you’ve read, or a movie, play or TV program you’ve watched that you think should be shared with others.  Tell us why you are interested in a specific topic, why you want to spread the word about it, how you plan to act on it or share it, and the results that you expect.

Much of what I focus on in this blog revolves around the interactions between humans and our environment, as well as their ramifications. As I continue to stress, many of the challenges that we face today can be framed in these terms. I will ask my students to participate and I am asking all of you to do so too. I will send individual email requests to authors who post comments that I find especially interesting, asking them to expand upon their thoughts in the form of guest blogs. I want this to be a lively and engaging discussion!

Please make sure that your comments are labelled with your real name and email and a short description of your background as it relates to your comment. The objective here is to relate the global issue that you want to address with your personal activity and interests.

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Extinctions in the Anthropocene

Yesterday (Wednesday) was the first day of classes in my school. I am scheduled to teach two related courses this semester: Energy Use and Climate Change for advanced undergraduates, and Physics & Society for physics seniors and graduate students. I am going to start both courses with the picture shown in Figure 1. At first glance, one might confuse the picture either with mediocre art or maybe more generously with science fiction. Yet the picture comes from an article that was just published in Science magazine, one of the most prestigious publications in science (I subscribe to it, but anybody can download this picture through Google images). I mentioned that article, “Marine Defaunation: Animal Loss in the Global Ocean,” (Science, 347, 247 (2015)) last week, together with the book The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. Both publications deal with species extinctions of the past, present and future. The picture shows an artist’s representation of how the world once looked and how it might look in the future, both on land and in the ocean. As always, there is no way of knowing what the future will actually bring; the best we can do is to base our suppositions on models that we hope can inform us about what the future will entail. In this case, the picture’s scope extends from 50,000 years ago – the approximate time that early modern humans started to spread from Africa to Asia and Europe – to toward the end of this century (what I call the “End of Now” in my book).

Defaunation Over TimeFigure 1
Timeline of marine and terrestrial defauntation

 To fit the provided space, the horizontal baseline was presented on a logarithmic scale (August 6, 2012 blog). Additionally, to give us an idea of the environment, not only do the climates of the past and present show up on the middle of the diagram, but the projected IPCC temperature rise (October 14, 2014) is superimposed on the area that represents the future.

The starting supposition in both publications is that we are now living in the Anthropocene (May 14, 2013 blog) period. “Officially” we are not there yet, but with 7 billion people (as of October 2012) and growing, the change in designation becomes inevitable and humans will soon officially become the dominant part of the “natural environment.” A fully qualified group is now discussing the issue, Here is their charge:

The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is an interdisciplinary body of scientists and humanists working under the umbrella of the International Commission on Stratigraphy and tasked with developing a proposal for the formal ratification of the Anthropocene as an official unit amending the Geological Time Scale. On occasion of its very first meeting, the AWG together with HKW convene a socio- and science-political forum, bringing together scientific experts, political stakeholders, media outlets, and an interested public. The forum presents insights into current scientific findings in defining a global impact of human activities and debates the far-reaching implications of the Anthropocene hypothesis for science and society alike.

Extinction Chronology Figure 2
Comparative chronology of human-associated terrestrial and marine animal extinctions.

Kolbert’s book takes the position that we were basically dominant as soon as humans started to move around about 50,000 years ago. Her reasoning is that we almost immediately started to use killing tools whose effectiveness were independent from our body size and our physical strength. The book focuses on the role that humans play throughout the entire period depicted by the picture. There is no question in my mind that the official designation of the time period will not be quite so broad.

The Science paper emphasizes defaunation in the oceans; its main argument is that in comparison with that on land, the process started much more recently in marine environments, and thus, in principle, is still reversible. Figure 2 illustrates the timeline for land defaunation (again, the image was posted through Google Images, not directly taken from the Science paper). The loss of species shown is confined mostly to megafauna – a class of animals often defined as having body mass that exceeds 45 kg. Many of these species became extinct in Australia between 16,000 – 50,000 BCE. These include monotremes, various marsupials (the largest one exceeding 2 tons), big birds, and large reptiles. There has long been a dispute over who is to blame for these extinctions, but recent studies show a clear “preference” for humans as a cause.

Here is a short (non-exhaustive) list of what is included among the North American megafauna:

Pleistocene fauna in North America included giant sloths; short-faced bears; several species of tapirs; peccaries (Including the long nosed and flat-headed peccaries); the American lion; giant tortoises; Miracinonyx (“American cheetahs”, not true cheetahs); saber-toothed cats like Smilodon and the scimitar cat, Homotherium; dire wolves; saiga; camelids such as two species of now extinct llamas and Camelops; at least two species of bison; stag-moose; the shrub-ox and Harlan’s muskox; 14 species of pronghorn (of which 13 are now extinct); horses; mammoths and mastodons; the beautiful armadillo and the giant armadillo-like Glyptotherium and giant beavers as well as birds like giant condors and other teratorns. The nine-foot sabertooth salmon lived at the time as well. In contrast, today the largest North American land animal is the American bison.

The global extinction phase in the figure is represented by the dodo, an animal that became extinct once the island of Mauritius was settled by humans (July 30, 2013 blog). Mass marine extinction, which is shown as a small vertical blue line that hugs the origin of the figure, only started in the 20th Century, with the advent of industrialized fishing.

The Science paper differentiates between these different kinds of extinctions:

Local extinction

Defaunation has caused numerous geographic range constrictions in marine animal species, driving them locally extinct in many habitats. These effects have been particularly severe among large pelagic fishes, where ~90% of studied species have exhibited range contractions (8, 14) (Fig. 3). Local extinctions, however, are not unique to large pelagic predators. Close to a third of the marine fishes and invertebrates off the North American coasts that can be reliably sampled in scientific trawl surveys (often small to medium bodied species) have also exhibited range contractions (Fig. 3). Such contractions can result from the direct elimination of vulnerable subpopulations or from region-wide declines in abundance (14). Available data suggest that the magnitude of the range on tractions for this diverse set of trawl-surveyed marine species is, on average, less than the contractions observed for terrestrial animals such as mammals, birds, and butterflies. Though data deficiencies are abundant, most marine animal species also do not yet seem to exhibit some of the most extreme range contractions recorded for terrestrial animals. Asian tigers, for example, have lost ~93% of their historical range (15), whereas tiger sharks still range across the world’s oceans (16).

Ecological extinction

Reductions in the abundance of marine animals have been well documented in the oceans (17). Aggregated population trend data suggest that in the last four decades, marine vertebrates (fish, seabirds, sea turtles, and marine mammals) have declined in abundance by on average 22% (18). Marine fishes have declined in aggregate by 38% (17), and certain baleen whales by 80 to 90% (19). Many of these declines have been termed ecological extinctions—although the species in question are still extant, they are no longer sufficiently abundant to perform their functional roles. Ecological extinctions are well known in terrestrial environments and have been demonstrated to be just as disruptive as species extinctions (20). On land, we know of the phenomenon of “empty forests” where ecological extinctions of forest fauna alter tree recruitment, reshape plant dispersal, and cause population explosions of small mammals (1, 20, 21). We are now observing the proliferation of “empty reefs,” “empty estuaries,” and “empty bays” (7, 14, 22).

Commercial extinction

Species that drop below an abundance level at which they can be economically harvested are extinct from a commercial standpoint. On land, commercial extinctions affected species ranging from chinchilla to bison (23). Cases of commercial extinction are also common in the oceans. Gray whales were commercially hunted starting in the 1840s.

By 1900, their numbers were so depleted that targeted harvest of this species was no longer regionally tenable (24). Likewise, the great whales in Antarctica were serially hunted to commercial extinction (25). Not all species, however, are so “lucky” as to have human harvesters desist when they become extremely rare. Demand and prices for certain highly prized marine wildlife can continue to increase as these animals become less abundant—a phenomenon termed the anthropogenic Allee effect (26). Individual bluefin tuna can sell for >US$100,000, rare sea cucumbers >US$400/kg, and high-quality shark fins for >US$100/kg. Such species are the rhinos of the ocean—they may never be too rare to be hunted.

How could man – a comparatively small animal with (at best) a bow and arrow, be responsible for the extinction of beasts such as the wooly mammoth? Kolbert’s book presents an interesting theory: big animals like the mammoth or today’s African elephants and rhinos are big for a reason. They didn’t use to have any natural enemies.

A very large animal is living on the edge with respect to its reproductive rate. The gestation period of an elephant, for example, is twenty two months. Elephants don’t have twins, and they don’t start to reproduce until they are in their teens.

With such restrictions, they can survive only because they didn’t have predators that could take them on. Once man was able to develop the tools and the social skills to take them on, they didn’t stand a chance. It’s true that the human population was still small and the people killed only the animals that they needed for survival. With the help of computer modeling, however, researchers have found that such a dynamic was more than enough to cause mass extinction within a few hundred years – in geological time, that is an instant.

In the oceans, the process is just starting. 70% of the Earth is covered by oceans, which have an average depth that exceeds 2.2 miles. Marine animal ranges are naturally much larger than those of terrestrial animals with similar body weight. Man’s access is much more limited, or has been up to now. The balance has yet to be completely monopolized by humans. To some extent, fish can still flee from human predators as well as from the changing environment caused by anthropogenic climate change. However, our ever increasing population and technological developments are starting to close that gap. Hopefully, going on the business as usual warming scenario shown in Figure 1, we still have some time to restore the balance.

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Maine: Codfish Adaptation – Fishermen’s Distress and What the Rest of the World Can Do About It.

With a few small changes, the title of this blog could represent (and ring true for) almost anywhere on Earth. I am focused on Maine right now because I think that something can be done about its situation that could be successfully adopted in other locations.

Last week’s blog centered on two articles in the New York Times that addressed the recent migration of codfish away from Maine’s coast and the regulatory agencies’ reaction of limiting fishing in an attempt to minimize the stress on the fish. The imposed limits had a major impact on the ability of the fishermen to make a living. The three key paragraphs in the Wines & Bidgood article read as follows:

In decades past, the gulf had warmed on average by about one degree every 21 years. In the last decade, the average has been one degree every two years. “What we’re experiencing is a warming that very few ocean ecosystems have ever experienced,” said Andrew J. Pershing, the chief scientific officer for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute here.

Joe Orlando, 60, who fishes from a Gloucester, Mass., base, said the effect of the ban was terrifying. “It’s completely, completely over,” he said. “I got a house, kids, payments.”

But many other fishermen do not blame climate change. They blame the regulators, calling the moratorium cruel and needless, because they say their latest cod catches are actually better than in recent years. More than a few talk of a conspiracy between scientists and environmentalists to manufacture a fishing crisis that will justify their jobs.

The second article considerably expanded upon the history of the problem, all the way back to the end of the 19th century when climate change was not yet a real issue:

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — IN November, regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down recreational and commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, that enchanting arm of the coastal sea stretching east-northeast from Cape Cod. They did not have much choice: Federal law requires action to rebuild fish stocks when they are depleted, and recent surveys revealed cod populations to be at record lows, despite decades of regulations intended to restore them.

Yet annual cod landings in the Gulf of Maine continued to slide, from about 70,000 metric tons in 1861 to about 54,000 metric tons in 1880, to about 20,000 tons in the 1920s, to just a few thousand metric tons in recent years. There have been a few upticks along the way, such as one bumper year in the mid-1980s when the cod catch reached 25,000 tons (due, in part, to an unnecessarily large expansion of the fishing fleet), but for the most part the trend has been noticeably downward since the era of the Civil War.

Again, the difference between the two perspectives is hidden in the numbers and the first paper provides some of those. Major changes in any species’ abundance can result from large modulations in reproduction rates, mortality and/or migrations. Within these parameters, the shift can often be traced back to changes in either the habitat or the species’ vulnerability to predation. For the fish in Maine the changes in predation are coming from overfishing and now the changes in the habitat are dominated by climate change. The main effect of climate change that impacts the fish is the temperature rise. In decades past, the water was warming by an average of one degree every 21 years; in contrast, over the last decade, the water was warming at a rate of one degree every two years! This is not surprising because over the last decade almost every year was the hottest in history – this is climate change and the cod is trying desperately to adapt, but the fishermen don’t want to hear about it.

Figure 1 shows the global situation as recorded in the IPCC’s latest report about other species that are trying to adapt by moving:

Graph of maximum speed a species can move (km per decade)Figure 1

Most of the species mentioned in the graph can move. Trees and other plants cannot. They move through selective pollination and through changes in predator distribution. It is estimated that the massive Boreal Forest that covers most of inland Canada and Alaska, most of Sweden, Finland and inland Norway, much of Russia, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Japan – and represents 29% of the world’s forest cover – will be unrecognizable in terms of species distribution toward the end of the century.

The potential speed of movement is given for various species (not fish – sorry – we will get back to them shortly) in different scenarios. In the past, I’ve discussed various RCP scenarios (October 1428, 2014). The RCP2.6 scenario is the “environmentally friendly” one, in which the increase in temperature at the end of the century stays below 2oC; the RCP8.5 scenario, meanwhile, is the “business as usual” scenario where the global average temperature is projected to increase by close to 5oC. In an environmentally friendly scenario nobody moves; in the “business as usual” scenario, everybody must move to follow preferred environments. The uncertainties here are very large, though, and we still have a lot of work to do.

Fish are important and relatively easy to follow. Figures 2 and 3 show historical fish migrations based on NOAA data.

Graph of Change in depth of marine life in USThe distance that corresponds to a change of latitude by 1 degree is about 69 miles.

Graph of Change in Latitude for Marine Life in USFigures 2 & 3

There is no question that cod are trying to adapt to the climate by migrating north and going deep. If we are making a living out of catching the fish we ought to adapt to the fish’s adaptation. The only way that I know that this can be done is through education (of people, not fish) but how? Maine, like any other place in the US and the rest of the world has plenty of opportunities for adult education. Searching for adult education in Maine gets me to a site that tells me that I have 4,953 courses to choose from and directs me to find a local program. I went to Maine’s largest city, Portland, which is located on the coastline, and clicked climate change. I found three relevant courses: one about composting, one about Transition towns or how shifting energy practices are changing our lives, and one on “The Wisdom to Survive” – testimonies by scientists about climate change. But how likely is it that the fishermen who already have a house, kids and payments will register? What’s the reality of educating this demographic? Alternatively, can we find a Katherine Hayhoe (see last week’s blog) in the form of a scientist/fisherman that can chat with the fishermen like Katherine was doing with the evangelists in Texas? I am sure that we will find many. It is likely that all of them go fishing as a recreational activity, though, earning their livelihood in science (like Katherine Hayhoe does). Unlike the fishermen of Maine, most of the evangelists in Texas that Prof. Hayhoe was interacting with do not make their livelihood in religion.

It seems to me that a much better alternative is for the government to create a small paid internship program where willing fishermen could take some of their vacation time to join the scientists in trying to map where the fish are going, then hopefully discuss the broad results with their friends and fellow fishermen. The focus would be on data collection rather than opinion or advice. A good host for such a program would be the Island Institute:

The Island Institute works to sustain Maine’s island and remote coastal communities. Our core program areas—including economic development, education, community energy, marine resources, and media—are driven by the requests of community members themselves. Our core commitment to the islands of Maine includes sharing what works among these diverse communities and beyond.

The Island Institute is already partnering with Maine’s Fishermen’s Association, which has experience in raising funds and being involved in community education. The internship program to connect professional fishermen with scientists would require the Institute to expand its activities beyond its current geographic foci, to target vulnerable populations in need of help. My first exposure to their activities came at a 2013 AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) meeting in Boston where they reported about their NSF (National Science Foundation) funded research effort in community education. NSF is insistent that its funded efforts will have a comprehensive assessment component that specifies goals and progress in achieving the goals. If the Island Institute is able to secure NSF funding for the internship program, it will be money well spent.

I am now at the tail end of a semester break. Among other things, I am filling my spare time reading The Sixth Extinction, a new book by Elizabeth Kolbert, which focuses on man’s role in major species extinction. I’ve also been reading, “Marine Defaunation: Animal Loss in the Global Ocean,” an important paper that came out in Science Magazine (Science, 347, 247 (2015)). Many of us probably need to look up what that means, so to save you the trouble, defaunation (according to Wikipedia) is:  the “loss of animals from ecological communities.” A recent New York Times article highlights that study. Next week I will try to expand from the situation in Maine to the oceans at large.

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The Stuttering Energy Transition: Fishing in Maine

As we approached the new year, I started to describe the global energy transition that’s been taking place, which we hope will take us away from fossil fuels and closer to non-carbon-based energy sources. My plan was to study the efforts of a few key countries, each of which serves as a potential example from which the rest of us can learn; I started that series of blogs with a look at Germany’s main steps  (December 9 – 30, 2014). All of these efforts are largely targeted toward the meeting that will take place in Paris, in December of 2015, where a global agreement regarding such approaches will be discussed. As often happens with any plan, however, reality interfered, so I am pausing from that train of thought – in this case the distraction came, in the form of a short New York Times article about a conflict between two groups of people in the state of Maine.

PORTLAND, Me. — In the vast gulf that arcs from Massachusetts’s shores to Canada’s Bay of Fundy, cod was once king. It paid for fishermen’s boats, fed their families and put their children through college. In one halcyon year in the mid-1980s, the codfish catch reached 25,000 tons.

Today, the cod population has collapsed. Last month, regulators effectively banned fishing for six months while they pondered what to do, and next year, fishermen will be allowed to catch just a quarter of what they could before the ban.

But a fix may not be easy. The Gulf of Maine’s waters are warming — faster than almost any ocean waters on earth, scientists say — and fish are voting with their fins for cooler places to live. That is upending an ecosystem and the fishing industry that depends on it.

Regulators this month canceled the Maine shrimp catch for the second straight year, in no small part because shrimp are fleeing for colder climes. Maine lobsters are booming, but even so, the most productive lobster fishery has shifted as much as 50 miles up the coast in the last 40 years. Black sea bass, southerly fish seldom seen here before, have become so common that this year, Maine officials moved to regulate their catch. Blue crab, a signature species in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, are turning up off Portland.

In decades past, the gulf had warmed on average by about one degree every 21 years. In the last decade, the average has been one degree every two years. “What we’re experiencing is a warming that very few ocean ecosystems have ever experienced,” said Andrew J. Pershing, the chief scientific officer for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute here.

Joe Orlando, 60, who fishes from a Gloucester, Mass., base, said the effect of the ban was terrifying. “It’s completely, completely over,” he said. “I got a house, kids, payments.”

But many other fishermen do not blame climate change. They blame the regulators, calling the moratorium cruel and needless, because they say their latest cod catches are actually better than in recent years. More than a few talk of a conspiracy between scientists and environmentalists to manufacture a fishing crisis that will justify their jobs.

Scientists say the truth is more prosaic: Although the gulf is generally warming — 2012 was the hottest year on record — the last year was cooler, and kinder to cod. Moreover, the gulf’s remaining cod have congregated in deeper, colder waters in southern Maine and Massachusetts, where their abundance masks their scarcity elsewhere.

“A fisherman’s job isn’t to get an unbiased estimate of abundance. It’s to catch fish,” said Michael Fogarty, the chief of the ecosystem assessment program at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that monitors sea life. “The world they see is a different world than we see in the surveys.”

Two weeks later, another article appeared in the New York Times in the form of an Op-Ed that expanded the issue:

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — IN November, regulators from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down recreational and commercial cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine, that enchanting arm of the coastal sea stretching east-northeast from Cape Cod. They did not have much choice: Federal law requires action to rebuild fish stocks when they are depleted, and recent surveys revealed cod populations to be at record lows, despite decades of regulations intended to restore them.

The fishery resources of the western Atlantic once seemed virtually limitless, with fish supposedly as numerous as grains of sand in the Sahara. And yet the current emergency effort to restore cod populations is simply the latest chapter in a 150-year saga in which fishermen, scientists, industrialists and politicians have consistently confronted emptier nets and fewer fish.

As early as the 1850s, fishermen from Maine and Massachusetts began to pester their governments to do something about declining cod catches. Those men fished with hooks and lines from small wooden sailboats and rowboats. Fearing “the material injury of the codfishing interests of this state” by increased fishing for menhaden, a critical forage fish for cod, fishermen from Gouldsboro, Me., implored the Legislature in 1857 to limit menhaden hauls.

Yet annual cod landings in the Gulf of Maine continued to slide, from about 70,000 metric tons in 1861 to about 54,000 metric tons in 1880, to about 20,000 tons in the 1920s, to just a few thousand metric tons in recent years. There have been a few upticks along the way, such as one bumper year in the mid-1980s when the cod catch reached 25,000 tons (due, in part, to an unnecessarily large expansion of the fishing fleet), but for the most part the trend has been noticeably downward since the era of the Civil War. There have been plenty of warnings along the way. Maine’s fishery commissioner, Edwin W. Gould, spoke out plainly in 1892. “It is the same old story,” he said. “The buffalo is gone; the whale is disappearing; the seal fishery is threatened with destruction.” For Mr. Gould, the path forward was clear: “Fish need protection.”

Maine is a small state (in terms of population and economic activity) with about 0.4% of the US population and 0.3% of its GDP. A reported clash between fishermen and regulators should not be big news. It might be big news if served as a laboratory for resolution of similar clashes in much larger setting.

I have two academic friends, both of whom are retired professors of history; they now split their lives between teaching in New York and vacationing in a cabin situated on the shores of a beautiful lake in Maine. The cabin is not connected to the electrical grid, but gets its electrical power from a small generator supplemented by a solar panel. When I was making a the movie, “Quest for Energy,” about a community of people living in the Sundarbans in India and their quest to transition their access to electrical power, I invited myself over to my friends’ cabin for a few days so I could learn the intricacies of living off the grid. Since then I have tried to visit for fun – instead of just for reasons relating to my work. My wife and I simply love their place (and their company) and we have great time there. Recently, I met up with them and showed them the article. I asked them what they think can be done to bridge the gap between the fishermen and the scientists (regulators); they told me to forget about it – such a thing will never happen. According to them, the fishermen want to keep guys like me (an academic from NY) as far away as possible from Maine and more specifically from Maine’s precious shoreline.

Maine is not indifferent to climate change. Here is what the Energy Information Administration (EIA) writes about environmental activities in Maine:

Quick Facts

  • The Port of Portland receives crude oil shipments that are transported by pipeline to refineries in Quebec and Ontario.
  • Maine is the only New England state in which industry is the largest energy consuming sector; the industrial sector accounted for 34% of energy consumed in 2011.
  • Maine had the lowest average electricity retail prices in New England at the end of 2013.
  • Virtually all of Maine’s net electricity generation comes from nonutility power producers.
  • In 2013, over half of Maine’s net electricity generation came from renewable energy resources, with about 29% from hydroelectricity, 25% from wood, and 7% from wind.

Maine: Profile Analysis

Hydroelectric dams and biomass from wood products provide almost half of Maine’s net electricity generation, the largest share from renewable sources in the eastern United States. Biomass alone accounts for more than one-fifth of generation, the largest share by far of any state, placing Maine among the top U.S. producers of electricity from wood and wood waste-derived fuels, such as wood pellets. The state has the highest generation per capita in the nation of electricity from biomass. Use of wood for home heating has grown in rural Maine as the price of home heating oil has risen.

Hydroelectric turbines produce nearly one-fourth of Maine’s net electricity generation, the largest share of any state east of the Mississippi. Water-powered mills were built on Maine’s numerous rivers to run its earliest industries, and when electricity became available in the late 1800s, small hydroelectric dams were built all over the state. By the mid-1980s, the state was home to 782 dams. A few have since been removed to restore natural river flows and fish migrations. Recently, Maine hydroelectric dam owners and conservationists have reached agreements to increase turbine generating capacity at some dams while tearing down others.

In 1999, as part of electricity market restructuring, Maine regulators set a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) requiring that at least 30% of retail electricity sales come from renewable sources, although state electricity distributors had already surpassed that goal. Since then, the legislature has added a second, separate RPS that requires new renewable resources to supply increasing shares of electricity sales, topping out at 10% in 2017. New hydroelectric generators must be smaller than 100 megawatts to qualify under the second RPS. The state legislature has debated lifting that limit to allow more hydroelectricity imports from Canada.

Most new renewable generating facilities planned in New England are wind-powered. Maine has significant wind resources along crests of Appalachian ranges in the state’s northwest and along its Atlantic coastline. The Maine legislature has set goals of installing 2,000 megawatts of wind capacity in the state by 2015; 3,000 megawatts by 2020, with at least 300 megawatts offshore; and 8,000 megawatts by 2030, with at least 5,000 megawatts offshore. Wind energy has been gaining net electricity generating share in Maine rapidly in recent years, with more than a dozen projects coming on line. The state leads New England in wind generation. The first application for wind turbines in federal waters off Maine was filed in 2011. Also on the Maine coast is the first U.S. tidal power generating facility to produce electricity, a pilot project in Cobscook Bay. Because of concerns about the cost of new technologies, New England governors are exploring regional procurement of renewable resources, primarily wind, to meet state RPS goals more economically.

So what can be done to make the fishermen and scientists talk with each other? My first thought was of Katherine Hayhoe. I wrote about her efforts in my April 22, 2014 blog when I described the TV program “Years of Living Dangerously.” Don Cheadle, who narrated the first episode of the program, showed the difference in response to the droughts in both Texas and California. In California, common belief seems to be that climate change is an important contributor to the cause, while in Texas they believe that the droughts are an act of God. Cheadle went to Texas to interview Katherine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and devout evangelist, who joins the evangelists in their prayers but explains that there is no contradiction between believing in both God and science (The Pope is now strongly presenting the same view). Through her efforts, much of the audience was listening and starting to believe that anthropogenic climate change has something to do with the drought and that we can do something to mitigate it.

How could a similar experience help in Maine? Any ideas? Stay tuned!

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The Stuttering Energy Transition and the Sharp Drop in Oil Price

Economically, the recent global event that has attracted everybody’s attention is the sharp and major decline in oil prices. Figure 1 shows the decline. I am writing this blog on Friday, January 9th, and the price of Brent Crude is $47/barrel – a drop of almost 60% in only six months! Consumers in many parts of the world are happy to pay much less for gasoline and heating oil; meanwhile, producers in countries such as Russia, Venezuela and Iran, which are heavily dependent on oil exports for balancing their budgets, are in bad shape.

Graph of Brent Crude Oil Prices for End of2014Figure 1 – The recent sharp drop in oil prices

Figure 2 shows the break-even prices for producing oil in various countries and regions. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are still making money, while shale producers in the US are losing money.

Crude Oil Cost of Production

Figure 2

Figure 3 shows the recent decline within the framework of oil price changes from 1947. However, almost all the arrows point to triggers for price increases, not decreases. Among such rapid price increases are those in the 1970s and ‘80s, which were triggered by major political changes such as the Yom Kippur War oil embargo, the Iranian Revolution and the Iran/Iraq War. The most recent increase, which started around the beginning of this century, was triggered mostly by economic forces; China’s increase in demand played a major role.

Oil Price Timeline starting 1947Figure 3

My main interest is on the effects the sharp decline in price has on the ongoing energy transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable energy resources. To evaluate the possible impact on the transition I have to introduce a new concept that I haven’t mentioned before: price elasticity of demand. Here is what I wrote about it in my book (Climate Change: The Fork at the End of Now; Momentum Press (2011)):

Price Elasticity:

Raising prices does not guarantee decreased use. The concept of price elasticity deals with the correlations between prices of products and services and the corresponding demand. Numerically it indicates the extent to which a 1% increase in price would affect the demand for a good or a service (measured in % compared with the base level). Estimates for gasoline price elasticity are widely, but in the United States they converge to a short- term elasticity at – 0.26 and a long- term elasticity at – 0.86. Based on these numbers, a 10% increase in price results in a 2.6% short- term decrease in the use of gasoline and an 8.6% decrease in long- term use. There are also indications that the elasticity varies between periods of rising and declining prices. Customers adapt faster in times of increasing prices as compared to periods of falling prices. The adjustment of consumers and industry to rising energy prices is one of the main driving forces to an increase in energy efficiency and a decrease in energy intensity, which plays such an important role in our attempt to maintain and increase our collective well- being during the transition period. Most differences in the short- term and long- term price elasticity result from the capital expenditures needed to adapt. As a business we will not invest heavily in research, development, or implementation of energy- saving policies if we believe the high prices are not here to stay, and as consumers we will not try to change our lifestyle through relocation to places with shorter commuting time and greater availability of public transport unless we assume the high prices are here to stay.

Most alternative energy power industries are targeting manufacturing to an expected oil price range that is in the $80 – $100/barrel bracket. In the case of major price changes, inertia plays an important role that reflects itself in price elasticity – in other words, before they are willing to change their business models to adapt, buyers have to be convinced that the price change will last a long time.

There are some economic forces that help prolong the price reduction. As Figure 3 shows, the most recent major rise in price was triggered by a series of OPEC cuts in supply. Presently, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries refuse to repeat the exercise, hoping that the low price will force American producers to cut production and thus alleviate the glut. However, since countries such as Venezuela, Russia and Iran badly need the money to balance their budget, they increase production to generate more revenue, and thus exacerbate the oversupply.

Beliefs in future trends will largely determine the impact on the energy transition. If we strictly follow market forces, the market for the future oil prices should be a good indicator: the price of Brent Crude Oil will return to around $80/barrel toward the end of 2021. This is a rise of about 7% per year – a long-term rate that is far slower than the decline of 60% in half a year (Source – Thomson Reuters; CME Group; Nymex through The Economist Espresso 1/8/2015).

One anecdotal example of the market’s estimate that the decline might be short-term is that oil traders are renting supertankers in which to store surplus oil for later sale at a higher price. Right now, said rental period is only for one year. On the other hand, those banking on a longer term decline include American companies that have started idling oil rigs, and two utilities’ cancellation of a power purchase agreement with Cape-Wind, a $2.6 billion wind power project off the coast of Massachusetts.

We will be closely following these developments.

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Assessment: Winter 2015

In my July 8, 2014 blog, I promised to check in with four self-assessment reports throughout the year, at the following times:

  • The commemorations of the American and French Revolutions (first two weeks of July)
  • The Jewish religion’s holy day, Yom Kippur – a day in which Jews are advised to take accounts of their deeds and misdeeds (beginning of October)
  • New Year’s Day (January 1st)
  • Earth Day (April 22nd)

Well – it’s time for that New Year’s report.

Over the course of the last three months, a slew of important global developments in energy transition took place, leading many of us to think that 2014 was the start of a breakthrough in the worldwide attempts to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. That doesn’t necessarily mean that such a breakthrough is imminent, but efforts are underway, and the “skeptics” subset of deniers (September 3, 2012) have increasingly fewer branches to hang their arguments on.

These developments include the recent US-China agreement (signed November 12, 2014) regarding the two countries’ specific targets and tactics to mitigate climate change, and the call Pope Francis issued to the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide to tackle the issue. Though many will consider this out of place in this list, I am also including the recent sharp drop in global energy prices, which was spearheaded by the more than 50% drop in oil and gas prices over the last six months. The common opinion right now is that the drop is good for consumers but bad for most producers and countries that heavily rely on oil to balance their budgets. Many also consider the abrupt change to be an obstacle to efforts to mitigate climate change through a global energy transition to more sustainable sources. I believe that’s an over-simplification. Next week I will discuss the matter, and will examine some of the aspects of the price drop that may be friendlier to the energy transition.

No one has specifically raised this as a concern, but since this post is part of my periodic assessment reports, I would like to use it as a self-assessment of the ethics of my style of writing.

In other words, could my style of writing for this blog be labeled as plagiarism or worse – intellectual theft?

Let’s start with a definition of plagiarism: Meriam Webster Dictionary defines plagiarism as:

The act of using another person’s words or ideas without giving credit to that person : the act of plagiarizing something

Plagiarism is a big issue in academia. Everybody is vigilant against it, trying to make sure not only that our students aren’t trying to present the work of others as their own, but also that faculty cannot enhance their accomplishment portfolios by borrowing other people’s work and hoping that no one notices. Among the measures against such practices are the very sophisticated anti-plagiarism programs that can now scan literature for unaccredited pieces of work. The other side of this culture is that most of our intellectual work is constructed on the broad shoulders of our predecessors.

I myself am hyper-aware of the issue, as it pertains to my own writing and that of others. In fact, the issue was broad enough that I found myself collaborating with an English professor at my institution to write an article for a professional journal summarizing our collective experiences on the issue. I am citing here the introductory paragraph to this article, which was mostly written by the editors of the journal:

In response to a pamphlet on ways to avoid plagiarism published by their university, a science professor and an English professor reflect on their own writing practices. They also explore such topics as electronic plagiarism detectors, the history of “imitation” in literature, the Popperian formulation of the scientific method, the postmodern notion that “everything is already written,” the problem of “unconscious plagiarism,” Foucault’s “author function,” and the different assumptions about truth made in the “objective” work of science and the “subjective” work of the humanities. They reflect on some reasons why teachers’ guidelines may foster plagiarism among students, and they suggest ways to frame assignments that help students to do their own work.

I am a scientist that was trained to do scientific research. I am an old guy with a tenured university position and a Wikipedia profile (see the right column of this blog). I am also an experimentalist, so most of my work is based on experimental findings – whether they are mine, my students’ or collaborators’. No plagiarism there. However, in my long time of doing so, I have acquired enough experience and enough of a reputation to be asked to write review articles and books that are based on other people’s work. Every finding that I present is properly attributed and, when necessary, permission has been granted from the authors and/or publishers. No plagiarism there either.

I was recently invited to write a review article for a professional journal on the topic of climate change. My practice in writing any scientific paper or presenting a talk on any scientific topic is to start with the data, describe it in detail, and then discuss the ramifications.

When writing the blogs, I follow a similar routine. I focus on climate change and my objective is to try to establish a connecting line between the relevant science, my students, and members of the general public that don’t have a science background. I am using the blog in a few of my courses, and routinely welcome comments from my students. Another important objective for me is to frame my own thoughts on a range of diverse, yet interconnected issues that – without the blog – would likely stay separate in everyone else’s minds. I put my thought process in writing in part so that I can spur my readers to think and (hopefully) react/provide feedback.

As I often mention here, with more than 7 billion people in the world and growing, humans are an increasingly important part of the physical environment; discussions are under way to label the present era as Anthropocene. Climate change deals with the past, present, and an extrapolated near future. Mitigation and adaptation on scales that vary from local to global are ongoing, as are the fluctuations in politics and money flow aimed at influencing discussions on these topics.

The dispensation of information is now changing as well. Some of the information comes the old-fashioned way, through reporters who are paid by news organizations to probe, investigate and document. The role of aggregators that collect various news reports on select topics is also growing.

As a “lone wolf” with no organization and no budget, I am relying on the news infrastructure.

I have a combination of paid and free subscriptions that I follow on a daily basis. These include: the New York Times, The Economist, National Geographic, Scientific American, Science Daily, and Renewable Energy World. In addition, my computer facilities come with their own aggregators that I follow regularly. If I find something relevant that I want to use, my subscription through my college library usually allows me to download the original publication.

Following the same practice I use for my scientific papers, I don’t ask readers to agree with me blindly; I make sure to cite and wherever possible link to any reference that I use, in addition to including the relevant paragraph(s) that clarifies the story that I am trying to tell. If I need picture or graph that I regard as pertinent to the story, I often go to Google Images and use the available links. I do not ask permission to do that because my timing does not allow for the usual lag that such requests often entail.

My basic assumption is that if information is posted sans a warning against its use without permission, it’s fair game. I don’t pay anybody for the information that I post; I don’t have the resources for that and again, the time element in such transactions is prohibitive. In a sense, I am acting here as an aggregator on the particular topics that I wish to write about. I have no idea how commercial aggregators work, especially in this age of the internet, but so far I have not been warned by anybody to cease and desist.

So – following the original dictionary definition, I do not plagiarize, but my practice of direct use of data and paragraphs from original publications without permission for doing so may be questionable. I have justified these practices to myself in various ways – none of them to my complete satisfaction. It would be nice to have some feedback. Please let me know what you think!

In my last assessment, I included an update on my readership/ social media progress, so I will do so again here. Again, most of my efforts have focused on Twitter. In the last 60 days, I have gained 91 followers (bringing my total to 300). I also had 961 link clicks, 93 mentions and 78 retweets. This is all readily accessible information. On Facebook, in the same time period, my page got an additional 6,075 impressions from 1,769 users.

On my blog itself I’m happy to report that I’ve had had 1,655 visits from 902 unique computers, 700 of them new visitors. To those of you reading, I thank you and (as always) welcome your comments.

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Stuttering Energy Transitions: Germany – Storage

As I have mentioned before, electric utilities must necessarily store electricity in order to keep up with the fluctuations in consumer demands (July 29 – August 12 blogs). For example, all around the world (where people are connected to electrical grids) people use considerably less electricity in the middle of the night compared with that used at dinner time. The process is known as load leveling; it is essential when the generation of electricity is steady but consumption is not. There is an increasing need for such a process when the generation of electricity is intermittent – as is the case with solar energy use in forms such as photovoltaics (solar cells) and wind. The enhanced need for storage in the use of such intermittent sources was the trigger for the contentious series of blogs in November that followed John Morgan’s guest blog on EROI. I came to know John Morgan through an exchanged series of tweets (August 8, 2014 blog) about David MacKay’s article on the “ultimate” need for storage in a virtual, fully sustainable, England. Here is what I wrote in that short blog:

Thank you Dadiva for directing my attention to this important article. It is a significant quantitative contribution to the requirements necessary for a global energy transition to decarbonized energy sources based on solar energy conversion in all its forms. It makes the key point that although globally there is plenty of energy coming in, locally there are imbalances that require separating energy production from consumption. The emphasis in the paper is on sovereign states (with Britain as a focal point), but in-state disparities – especially between dense populations of urban consumers and equally dense rural production areas – require extensive investments in storage and smart grids capable of covering a large area.

MacKay’s emphasis was on global need, but he used his native England as a virtual case in point. Meanwhile, Germany is probably the best example of what shape such a transition will take: it’s a large (population 80 million), rich, developed country that has taken a top-down approach, and its decision to move the energy transition full speed ahead has met with support from most of the population. The issue of the storage requirements in the transition is under active discussion. The head of Agora Energiewende, a German think tank focusing on the German energy transition gave his position:

‘We don’t really need new storage devices in the next 10 to 20 years’ as cross-border power trade, demand management and intelligent steering of fossil-fired power plants can ensure flexible electricity flows at less money, Patrick Graichen, head of Agora, told reporters today in Berlin

 Below are some significant parts of Paul Hockenos’ article in Renewable Energy World that summarizes the debate and Agora’s thoughts on this issue:

… this autumn, one of Germany’s leading energy think tanks, Agora Energiewende (financed by the Stiftung Mercator and the European Climate Foundation), dropped a small bombshell on the Energiewende community. In a study carried out by Agora and other high-profile, independent research institutes, it concluded that significant storage capacity for renewably generated electricity would not be needed for another 20 years — until Germany has at least a 60 percent share of renewables in its power sector. The study is a hot potato that has, so far, incurred considerable critique from peer institutes and lobby groups.

‘The key insight here,’ explains one of the authors, Daniel Fürstenwerth of Agora Energiewende, ‘is that the Energiewende can continue investing massively in renewable power right now. We will need to invest in power-to-power storage capacity in the long term, but not today. We have to keep the Energiewende cost-efficient or the German people, industry, and the political establishment won’t go for it.’

The essence of Agora’s argument is that Germany’s energy system can maintain the flexibility it needs even as renewables expand by other, less costly means than new power-based storage technology. These alternative options include demand-side management, flexible conventional power plants, and grid expansion both in Germany and across its borders.

Demand management is an idea central to the work of Agora Energiewende, a young think tank that burst onto the scene in Germany two years ago. ‘It’s about making the electricity demand flexible so that it meshes better with a fluctuating power supply,’ explains its website, as well as ‘making the power system as a whole more flexible in order to ensure security of supply.’ Agora’s analysts argue that energy demand management can be spurred by market incentives, regulatory guidelines and new technology that will reduce investment costs in the Energiewende and help ensure supply security.

Load control, load shifting, energy efficiency and conservation, for example, are all ways to manage demand. One Agora study shows that Germany’s industrial producers can shift more than a gigawatt of their power demand for short periods, a phenomenon that on a larger scale could go a long way to ensure security of the regional power supply. Pilot projects in Bavaria and Baden Wurttemberg have already brought encouraging results.

Moreover, inflexible conventional power plants like Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants can be made more flexible by adding hot water towers. In Germany today there are already CHP plants in places like the German cities of Flensburg and Nuremburg that turn surplus power into hot water, opening the way for renewables to provide supply when the weather dictates. ‘It’s a relatively cheap solution,’ says Fürstenwerth.

The other cornerstone of Agora’s argument is that Germany’s current grid and the expansions underway — an additional 2,650 kilometers of new high-voltage grid is currently being laid — will provide the flexibility necessary to accommodate more renewables. Agora assumes that grid construction will proceed as planned — in Germany as well as in neighbor countries — which will better enable grid operators to match supply and demand. And the better Germany is linked to its neighbors, the more it can balance by trading on the European market.

The people at Angora emphasize flexibility – different sustainable sources have corresponding intermittency periods, but if they can match certain ones with peak usage times, they can partially stabilize the energy supply and thus decrease the need for storage.

As the following figure shows, wind power and solar cell power in Germany correlate negatively throughout the year:

solar-pv-and-wind-power-complementary-570x388As we will discuss when we look at the energy transitions of other countries, such combinations of sustainable sources with different intermittency are now starting to permeate globally, becoming an important element in the global transition.

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