Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Is the IPCC High Emissions Scenario Impossible?

A commenter here a while back argued that RCP 8.5, the highest emission scenario in the current IPCC report, is impossible, because it requires more coal than is available to be mined. I recently came across a more detailed version of that argument in a published piece by David Rutledge, a Caltech professor.

The argument is straightforward. Estimates of coal reserves are much more reliable than estimates of reserves of oil and gas, coal being a solid. Such  estimates have been made for more than a century and actual quantities mined have, so far, been consistent with them. In particular:
for coal the pattern has been that countries produce only a small fraction of their early reserves, and then late in the production cycle the reserves drop to match the coal at the last working mines. This pattern is seen in the UK (cumulative production of 19% of early reserves), Pennsylvania anthracite (42%), the Ruhr Valley (14%), France and Belgium (23%), and Japan and South Korea (21%). This means that the reserves criteria have been too optimistic, but it also means that world coal reserves are a good upper bound on future production.
By the author's calculation, RCP 8.5 requires the world to consume 200% of total coal reserves by 2100, 700% by 2500. If he is correct, it follows that RCP 8.5 ought not to be included in the IPCC graphs showing possible future climate change and that maximum values of temperature change or sea level rise ought not to include the values it would imply.

I have two questions for readers:

1. Can anyone point at a serious mistake in the argument? Does it misstate the amount of coal consumption implied by RCP 8.5, the size of coal reserves as currently estimated or the reasons to think that current estimates represent a reasonable upper bound?

2. Is there anyone here otherwise inclined to support the IPCC who, having looked at this argument, agrees that the inclusion of RCP 8.5 in the report is fraudulent, an attempt to make risks of future warming look worse than they actually are?


Storewars News said...

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Tibor said...

Reading the comments (well, some of them) under the article, I found this one which might be relevant (suggesting that the reserves levels are underestimated...although perhaps not underestimated enough to compensate for the fact that the reserves are a very generous estimate of the production):

"By using newly developed in-situ extraction technology on previously unreachable seams, coal reserves now appear to be considerably greater than previously estimated, perhaps by an order of magnitude or more.

Tynemouth to be one of first locations for £1bn scheme to access deep sea deposits which could power Britain for centuries

A billion-pound plan to reach untapped coal reserves under the North Sea will be under way by the end of the year, as the vast scale of the energy source beneath the North Sea is made clear.

Scientific data of the true extent of the coal deposits on the sea bed reveals that even a tiny percentage of them would be enough to power Britain for centuries to come, says a local expert.

Dermot Roddy, chief technical officer of energy company Five Quarter which will be leading the much-anticipated extraction work, said there are trillions of tonnes of deeply-buried coal stretching from the North East coast far out to sea: an amount thousands of times greater than all oil and gas extracted so far.

And now technology is advanced enough to be able to reach it.

The technology involves using modern drilling techniques, injecting high pressure steam and oxygen to partially burn some of the coal in the seam and extracting the resulting gas, predominantly carbon monoxide and hydrogen AKA syngas.

Which just happens to be the preferred feedstock for the good old Fischer-Tropsch process."

Biopolitical said...

Maybe the fact that coal reserves quickly became very large is the reason why they have been good predictors of production and why so little effort, in terms of prospecting and technology, has been made to convert more coal resources to reserves.

Anonymous said...

You are misreading the article. He is not saying 8.5 is based on a consumption rate that will use up more coal than available. he is saying that the consumption rate is greater than the *predicted* future consumption rate where the predicted future consumption rate is base on current recoverable reserves (which are a tiny fraction of all coal reserves.) Current recoverable reserves are a good predictor for economic reasons--coal is cheap and easy to find.

Anonymous said...

To rephrase, he is NOT saying the 8.5 future coal burn rate is "impossible", he is saying that if it were expected, the current recoverable reserve (which is endogenous) would be much greater. In other words, the 8.5 scenario is not expected, but not impossible.

Tibor said...

Anonymous: I don't think that is correct. The way I understand it, the author mentions that the current estimated reserves to current (yearly, I assume) production mean that there is enough coal to last 104 years of burning at the same today's rate. On the other hand, in order to achieve the RCP 8.5, at least as far as the author's calculations are valid, it would be necessary to burn twice as much coal in roughly the same amount of time. Which is not impossible only in the case that you assume there to be twice as much coal, half of it still undiscovered (which, since coal is supposed to be relatively easy to find, is so unlikely, that it probably warrants the use of the word "impossible"). And of course, even in that case, you would need the coal burning to accelerate much beyond what is likely (which is not physically impossible, but there is no reason to expect that and many not to).

hightide said...

While better than oil or gas estimates, coal reserves statements are still pretty unreliable. BP's Statistical Review of World Energy, generally regarded as a reliable source, said in 2007 that we had 147 years of coal left to burn. The 2012 number -- five years slater -- was down to 109 years. Why? No idea. I would hazard that "proven reserves" do not include --and should not include -- deposits that will only be reachable by in situ technologies. While these have been used in production, I'm aware of no production operations at this time, and the success of these technologies in one operating environment is not a guarantee that they will operate in others.
All that said, it would feel better about the IPCC's statement if they'd come out and say exactly how much coal they expect to be burned, which thing they seem to take pains to elide.

David Friedman said...

1. As I read the article, oil and gas reserves keep expanding. Coal reserves are an estimate of the total amount that it's practical to recover and past history does not show them expanding as known coal is mined.

2. I suspect the change Hightide asks about from 2007 to 2012 in the number of years of reserves left is a change not in the quantity of reserves but in the rate at which they were being burned.

Tibor said...

David: Could the IPCC be perhaps assuming new coal and gas resources to substitute the coal once (or rather while) it is all (all that is worth mining out) burned? The shale gas power plants seem to be replacing a lot of coal power plants in the US. If one were to count not just coal, but all gas, oil and coal reserves as available for burning (especially assuming the former two to keep expanding), then he might get enough fuels to make the RCP 8.5 scenario at least physically possible (if extremely unlikely). The label "business as usual" is hardly justifiable in that case though anyway.

Mac Muir said...

I posted a comment to "Bits from the latest IPCC report explaining why CO2 has already done essentially all the warming it can. On April 24th American Thinker posted an article "Global Warming and Settled Science" by Andre Loftus. This article confirms my point. Climate science is very complex but the physics of the infrared spectrum is not and that physics blows away the claim that more CO2 will warm the planet.

What more CO2 will do is cause plants to grow better.Apparently many commercial greenhouses add CO2 to improve plant growth rates.

It looks like more CO2 is a positive externality.

Mark Bahner said...


You write, "A commenter here a while back argued that RCP 8.5, the highest emission scenario in the current IPCC report, is impossible, because it requires more coal than is available to be mined."

Since I assume that *I'm* the "commenter," let me add a clarification...and a caveat.

The clarification is that my claim was not that the coal usage in RCP 8.5 was "impossible." My claim was much more that RCP 8.5 does not match historical experience or likely future trends, based on present trends.

For example, you wrote: "This pattern is seen in the UK (cumulative production of 19% of early reserves), Pennsylvania anthracite (42%), the Ruhr Valley (14%), France and Belgium (23%), and Japan and South Korea (21%)."

My claim was much more along those lines...that the IPCC 8.5 scenario does not match history, in that the IPCC production values are well above reserves estimates, and that has historically not happened with coal. So that's my clarification. It's not that it RCP 8.5 *cannot* happen, it's just that it would be well outside historical experience and trends.

For example, as I pointed out on another blog, total world production in 2000 looked like this (in thousands of short tons)
China 1,514,054
United States 1,073,612
India 370,018
Australia 338,103
Russia 264,912
South Africa 248,935
Germany 226,048
Poland 179,247
Kazakhstan 85,367
Indonesia 84,469
Rest of world 742,401
Total world 5,127,166

In 2100, the world production is predicted to be about 44 billion short tons (or 44,000,000 thousands of short tons). That would mean that all the countries combined would need to have a production-weighted average of 8.6 times their year 2000 emissions. Now, U.S. production as of 2013 was actually slightly *less* than in 2000. And a Chinese government expert on coal has predicted that China’s coal consumption will peak in 2020 at 4.7 billion metric tons (5.2 billion short tons) and then decline by 0.43% per year thereafter. Now, assume that the U.S. production in 2100 is the same or less than in 2000, and that the Chinese consumption is say 4 billion short tons per year or less. How does one get to 44 billion short tons for the world in that case? The answer, it seems clear, is “one doesn’t.”

I've run out of allowable words, so I'll post my caveat in my next comments.

Mark Bahner said...

I previously posted my clarification. Now a caveat. Many people have posted responses to my comments (and Dave Rutledge’s post) referring to underground coal gasification. I was not aware of the relatively recent developments regarding prospects for underground gasification of coal under the North Sea. I want to emphasize that there’s nothing in the RCP 8.5 introduction paper that discussed underground coal gasification either. So it’s not like the RCP 8.5 scenario development paper said anything like, “Coal usage in this scenario is so high because we expect lots of underground coal gasification.”

It seems to me that underground coal gasification is *potentially* a Very Big Deal. However, it’s important to recognize that, at present (we’re already into 2014) underground coal gasification is responsible for far less than 1 percent of the world’s coal production/consumption. In order for RCP 8.5 to come true, something like 80+ percent of the world’s coal production/consumption would need to come from underground coal gasification in 2100.

Perhaps even more importantly, some other potentially Very Big Deals would have to go completely bust. For example, if current photovoltaics trends continue, photovoltaics are likely to be the cheapest source of electricity in most of the world’s sunny locations (e.g., U.S. southwest) in 1-3 decades. That trend would have to go bust. And then there’s the possibility for liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs). They have a tremendous number of potential benefits relative to conventional uranium reactors (including operation at atmospheric pressure, much lower levels of waste, avoidance of significant amounts of plutonium production, etc.). LFTR technology would have to not come to fruition. There is the potential for petroleum based on algae or bacteria. Those would have to not come to fruition. In short, even though underground coal gasification is *potentially* a Very Big Deal, development of that technology alone is unlikely to result in coal usage projected in the RCP8.5 scenario.

In summary, I think the RCP 8.5 scenario is very, very unlikely to occur. (I would estimate that the chances of CO2 emissions increasing throughout the 21st century to magnitudes found in the year 2100 in the RCP 8.5 scenario to be much less than 5%.) In contrast, it is routinely referred to as the “business as usual” scenario in the lay press. And even many climate scientists imply or explicitly state that warming similar to the RCP 8.5 scenario will occur if governments don’t step in to lower CO2 emissions. And the IPCC has done absolutely nothing to discourage such speculations. In fact, they encourage it. That’s dishonest; scientists (and engineers) should not be doing such things. They diminish science when they do.

Mark Bahner said...

A clarification to my clarification of 9:16 am on 4/28. I wrote:

"In 2100, the world production is predicted to be about 44 billion short tons (or 44,000,000 thousands of short tons)."

That's the prediction (or "projection") of *RCP 8.5*. I don't think any other organization with knowledge of the situation (e.g. the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration) has such a prediction for coal production in 2100.

Mark Bahner said...


This is a good website about the situation on Chinese coal and global warming:

"China's coal boom is slowing--that's a big deal for climate change"

It contains this statement: "If these trends continued indefinitely, the world will be on pace for a very destructive 4°C (or 7.2°F) of global warming by the end of the century, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). So there's a fair bit of interest in making sure these trends don't continue."

So it basically treats the IPCC's RCP 8.5 scenario (with 4 degrees Celsius warming) in what will happen unless something is done. Just the way the IPCC likes people to think.

David said...

People must learn to go back to basics, and start from the bottom up not look at complex possible consequences rather than the direct causes behind them.

As such the UN already presented a very short and simple list of a flow diagram required for significant global warming.

1) On a doubling of CO2, science expects its contribution to be 2C to the total average, doubling the existing attribution at 260ppm of 1C, and a further 1C per doubling as it loses its power exponentially.

2) This alone could never be a problem, as 520ppm would add 1C and it would require an impossible (as you point out) 1040ppm for 2C, which would also be so far ahead in the future the chances are by then we'd have developed other means of fuel not requiring mining of any forms of carbon based materials.

3) Therefore the next essential stage to exceed their balance point of 2C (where the advantages of warming may be outweighed by the problems) requires additional water vapour from evaporating oceans, plus a small addition from heat absorption from areas previously covered by glaciers, dwelling in the exact layers of the atmosphere required to add more than 1C of warming.

The problem with this, which all the scientists know unanimously, and nearly all the public do not, is water vapour can end up in three places:

a) The bands of the atmosphere it warms uo

b) The bands of the atmosphere it cools

c) Clouds, which block the sun.

That has meant the models can't work, as they can't ever factor in the destination of water evaporate. They can only measure it afterwards. In fact satellites now show three things:

A) CO2 replaces water vapour (cooling effect)

B) Water vapour has decreased since the early 20th century

C) Cloud cover has increased since the early 20th century.

Therefore the positive feedback essential for global warming has had a rise of 50% of CO2, and by observation showed the water to have mainly ended up in clouds, thus explaining the singular lack of anything like the warming predicted in the 90s.

Therefore as there are no mechanisms known to alter this mechanism then the third and vital element of global warming, increased water vapour, has been shown to not happen, and as such we already know the likely outcome at any point in the future as it is highly unlikely the distribution of evaporated water is able to change from any known influence.