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David Hone's picture
Chief Climate Change Adviser Shell International Ltd.

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member of the International Emissions Trading Association...

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Global Warming: Drawdown, or Not?

A recent book and associated website discusses the steps necessary to address and even reverse the current warming of the climate system. The project, known as Drawdown, maps, measures, models, and describes the 100 most substantive solutions to global warming. For each solution, the Drawdown team describe its history, the carbon impact it provides, the relative cost and savings, the path to adoption, and how it works. Drawdown is that point in time when the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begins to decline on a year-to-year basis.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide would likely stabilize before the world stops emitting (on a net basis) carbon dioxide from anthropogenic sources. This is because of the action of the oceans and the lag in carbon dioxide uptake that they exhibit. Net carbon dioxide emissions of 6-10 Gt per annum (currently 40 Gt per annum) are possible while atmospheric carbon dioxide plateaus, but emissions must eventually head to net-zero to see atmospheric carbon dioxide fall and for that trend to continue. Even then, the fall will be very slow given the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the rate at which the ocean can absorb it, at least until the surface layers are largely saturated. Further processes which involve fixing the carbon in ocean sediment and absorbing it through mineralization will play out over thousands of years.

Drawdown’ is a comprehensive piece of work and covers not just energy solutions such as replacing fossil fuel use with renewables, but also includes social changes such as the need for educating girls in developing countries. Education is linked to infant mortality, birth rates and therefore long term population trends, which in turn impacts energy use and therefore emissions. Within the website is a listing of the approaches, starting with Refrigerant Management at the top of the list. A change in this area is claimed to be the equivalent of 90 Gt CO2, but this is a more complex story as refrigerants are, for the most part, short lived climate pollutants (SLCP). I discussed this in a post last October, shortly after the Parties to the Montreal Protocol had agreed the Kigali Amendment which covers these refrigerants.

While the list covers areas such as electricity generation, land use change and transport, it has very little to offer for industrial processes, but seems to rely on them completely to deliver systemic change. Building wind turbines, developing mass transit, deploying nuclear power stations, manufacturing insulation and automating buildings will require large scale manufacturing and significant production of chemicals and materials. Today, these activities alone account for some 8 Gt of global carbon dioxide emissions, or nearly the same as transport. New activities such as building hundreds of TWhrs of battery storage are likely to exacerbate these emissions. Included within this there are significant emissions from the processes themselves, such as the carbon dioxide from the reduction of iron ore to make iron / steel and the calcination of limestone to make cement.

These activities are amongst the most difficult to decarbonise and lead to the need for carbon capture and storage (CCS). Capturing and geologically storing the emissions from cement manufacture may be far simpler than trying to find substitutes, developing alternative process routes or trying to offset the emissions through reforestation. The one hundred solutions offered on the Drawdown website make no specific mention of geological storage of carbon dioxide, yet venture into areas such as air capture of carbon dioxide. While the latter may provide a useful conduit towards synthetic fuels, it will make no difference at all to atmospheric carbon dioxide if there isn’t large scale storage involved.

Drawdown’ is an interesting piece of work, but it doesn’t tackle the real challenge associated with net-zero emissions, let alone actual drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere. These issues are tackled with much greater rigour in the recent Shell publication ‘A Better Life With a Healthy Planet: Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions and in my forthcoming book ‘Putting the Genie Back: Solving the Climate and Energy Dilemma’.

Book cover

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Thorkil Soee's picture
Thorkil Soee on Jun 22, 2017

Putting the Genie Back.
Decades of neglect needs more than wishful writings.
But who is the Genie?
Who have brought us into the current mess?
All of us know: It is the result of the “Green” and their followers and the fight against self-made goats.
Instead of picking the low-hanging fruits (Nuclear) we in the old countries behave like chicken.
Read on and see how Greenpeace’s credibility is a myth.

Willem Post's picture
Willem Post on Jun 22, 2017

Hi David,

Obama, to cement his legacy, and thinking Hillary would be elected, agreed to much greater CO2 reductions than China and India and the EU during COP-21. Trump objected, wanted to renegotiate, and, of course, they did not want to renegotiate.

Please read my article.

COP21 pledges, if fully implemented, would reduce world CO2 émissions from about 60 billion metric ton to about 56 billion Mt in 2030.

With the US opting out, it will be about 57 billion Mt.

But, to achieve no more than 2 C by 2100, it would need to be 42 billion Mt in 2030. The required investments would be in the tens of trillions of dollars to achieve that reduction in 14 years.

However, from there, per UNEP, the downward path would need continue to ZERO by about 2080, which would require very significant levels of sequestration and other measures. That would be a truly mind-boggling challenge, and with 10 to 12 billion people on the planet.

All those numbers can be obtained from the United Nations Environment Project, UNEP, website.

It is always prudent to have some estimates of capital costs to implement any endeavor.

– The present world investments in RE systems to achieve the Current Policy Trajectory goal of 60 billion Mt of CO2eq (for 3.7 C) is about $300 billion/y, of which China spends about $100 billion/y.

– The investment required to implement COP-21 pledges to achieve 56 billion Mt (for 3.5 C) would be at least $500 billion/y during the 2016 – 2030 period.

– The investment required to achieve 42 billion Mt (for 2 C) would be at least $2 trillion/y during the 2016 – 2030 period.

– The investment required to achieve 39 billion Mt (for 1.5 C) would be at least $2.5 trillion/y during the 2016 – 2030 period.

Based on outcomes of about twenty prior COPs, the many trillions of dollars required for additional investments to achieve such a huge emission reductions likely would not take place. Whereas, China is praised for making investments of at least $100 billion/y, it would be making those investments anyway, as continuing its severe pollution problems likely would be politically untenable.

A table with above values is in this URL.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Jun 22, 2017

The “Drawdown listing of solutions” link is very interesting, and ranks food, agriculture, and land use highly. Thanks for the references.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 23, 2017

David, Drawdown gets off to a bad start, calling itself “the most comprehensive plan ever to address global warming.” More comprehensive than IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, representing 195 countries, 830 authors, and 2,000+ expert reviewers?

I don’t think so.

Global warming is the result of fossil fuel extraction/combustion, period. If we stop it, we will have no climate change problem – period. Of that, Drawdown makes no mention, which is probably the reason this stalling stratagem is presented by Shell as a “comprehensive plan.”

Though it would require a massive expenditure of time and effort, 95% of fossil fuel use could be replaced by nuclear by 2050. It’s possible. Yet Drawdown ranks nuclear energy 20th in priorities, after “Girls’ Education”, “Tree Intercropping”, and fourteen other “solutions” which ignore the problem of fossil fuel extraction. The plan then goes on to explain why, in the same hilariously-misninformed jargon of the 1970s-era thriller The China Syndrome:

At Project Drawdown, we consider nuclear a regrets solution. It has potential to avoid emissions, but there are many reasons for concern: deadly meltdowns, tritium releases, abandoned uranium mines, mine-tailings pollution, radioactive waste, illicit plutonium trafficking, and thefts of missile material, among them.

So many reasons for concern (sniff)!

What’s a reason for concern, in 2017, is fronting this feelgood ignorance as any kind of “solution” for climate change. So in answer to your question: not Drawdown.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on Jun 23, 2017

As far as iron ore is concerned, this can be made with hydrogen too (process patented by VOest Alpine as far as I rmember) which again can be made with electric power.
Calcination of limestone is a problem, but when heat is supplied by electricity, not fire, there is the option to collect the almost pure CO2 emmited from this process (CCS)

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on Jun 24, 2017

Obama, to cement his legacy, and thinking Hillary would be elected, agreed to much greater CO2 reductions than China and India and the EU during COP-21.

Or he did it to try and get the most out of say the EU, and other countries, knowing full well he set the bar, and no matter what he agreed to, it wouldn’t be ratified because of all the racists in the US who have been making stuff up and attacking him since day 1. In otherwords, by taking on a huge chunk, he drew india and china in and numerous other countries. The US funding pledge was 3 billion, over several years, so not much.

His legacy is cemented whether Hillary got elected or not. In fact, probably more cemented because Trump was elected and is a complete bumbling idiot.

Whereas, China is praised for making investments of at least $100 billion/y, it would be making those investments anyway, as continuing its severe pollution problems likely would be politically untenable.

China is taking a leadership role for sure. They are driving down component prices with their billions in investment which pretty much helps everyone else out. GM’s electrified SUV is being developed and will be built in China, because people will buy it. The US might get the 2nd generation if the market is ready for it by then. Ford is now following suit. China -wants- to look good to the rest of the world and they have a lot of money to do it with.

Sean OM's picture
Sean OM on Jun 24, 2017

CCS is not economical. It is simply cheaper not to use FFs in the first place. Solar has greatly reduced the energy spent for creating panels which also drives down the cost. In fact, there is a whole list of improvements in various technologies we have made just by focusing on the issue.

The hardest sell is to the baby boomer or older generation. It is merely part of a generational gap, and getting them to change their ways. successive generations have pretty much accepted they will have EVs and renewable power, and it won’t cost them more. There are still places we probably won’t get rid of FFs for a long while, but we are looking at major chunks.

By 2050, the baby boomer generation will mostly be dead, we have 3-4 generations before 2100. A lot of actually new cool tech can happen before then if we continue to work at it, but CCS isn’t really anything noteworthy as far as technological prowess.

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