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The Lancet Commission on pollution and health have published their report. Report was wildly publicised. Since it deals with an important issue I wanted to have a look. Oh no! was my first thought as I read all the way down to the first author Philip Landrigan.  He has published anti-GMO fear mongering with the infamous organic industry lobbyist Charles Benbrooke. Since there is a broad scientific consensus that risks from GMO:s are similar or smaller than from other types of breeding, this is somewhat of a red flag for me. But nevermind…let us proceed and hope the report focuses on the important issues and does not stray into western chemophobes pet projects.

The 1st figure summarizes the death toll from pollution. Whether indoor pollution (from bioenergy mostly) or outdoor particulate matter kills the most depends on whom you ask, but both together are estimated to kill about 6.5 million people every year. Dirty water and poor sanitation (not chemicals) also kill around million or two depending on whom you ask. This is terrible.

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Biomass burning, dirty water, and particulate matter in the outdoor air are the biggest pollution killers. Of the outdoor pollution substantial part is again from the biomass burning together with transport, coal power plants etc.

However reading the media about the report might have left me in the dark as to the main culprits. For example, here is how Landrigan choose to represent the results in CNN.

Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, co-leader of the commission, said the problem is chemicals. “There are thousands of chemicals out there and we know that people are exposed to them,” said Landrigan. “We just didn’t know enough about what chemicals are doing to people.”“: CNN
No, sorry. Chemicals might on occasion be a problem, but the heavy hitters are bioenergy,  dirty water, shitty cars, and dirty powerplants in poor and developing countries. It is right there in your report.
Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 13.05.54

Pollution especially likely to kill you if you live in a poor country. Better get rich…except that is not quite the message the commission wants you to hear.

As I read the report itself I got a very clear impression that authors did not really want to discuss most deaths which occur due to poverty.  These are by-passed with a casual remark about how these deaths “…are slowly declining” after which authors choose to focus on other things. On stuff that for sure titillate the wealthy chemophobes in the west, but have relatively minor impact in the real world. (Only on page 30 is there one paragraph actually acknowledging the connection between poverty and pollution.) They even make their desire to focus on other things explicit:
The aim of this Lancet Commission on pollution and health is to end the neglect of pollution, especially of the modern forms of pollution, in low-income and middle income countries, to focus the world’s attention onto the silent threat of pollution-related disease, and to mobilise the national and international resources and the political will needed to effectively confront pollution.
Authors frame pollution as the nemesis of economic growth. Fine…people might become richer in some superficial and material sense, but they die and suffer…especially innocent ones! Cities are growing uncontrollably, traditional lifestyles abandoned, rich countries build polluting factories to poor countries…so tragic!  This narrative is not altogether surprising since it has infected the minds of large segments of environmental and development communities for decades. I sometimes get the feeling that the only economic development where poor country goes to sleep in the evening and wakes up as Norway in the morning is acceptable. The largely unreported fact is nevertheless that people tend to have higher life-expectancy in regions of high economic growth. The situation is often terrible by our standards, but compared to the alternative of staying stuck in subsistence farming it is an improvement. People flocking to the cities are not mindless idiots who have no clue what is good for them. The positive opportunities created by economic growth, outweigh the drawbacks for them. (This is not to say, that fossil fuel based growth would not create problems later on. Simply that the poorest people are better off being prosperous and screwed by climate change than being poor and screwed by climate change.)

If you wish to live longer, move to the city. Ignore commissions complaint about “the uncontrolled growth of cities”. It is your life and you should have agency over it. (Results are similar in many other developing regions as well. Google it, if you don’t believe me.)


People in cities seem happier. Those bastards! But they are really crying inside!

So how has the body count developed in the past decades? Next figure from the report illustrates this. Number of deaths has remained roughly stable. However, at the same time population has increased by about 50%, so your actual risk of dying from pollution has in fact declined dramatically. This tidbit of information would have been useful to mention, but strangely enough authors decided to skip it. Presumably it didn’t fit the choosen narrative.

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Translation: “Your risk of death from pollution has reduced dramatically since 1990″…except that this is not the message commission wished to tell.

Then there is this weird graph…the real deaths which the report discusses are all in the “Zone 1”. Authors decided to make this as “the tip of the iceberg” with two very large zones below it. These zones are authors speculative deaths for the stuff that they are clearly most interested in… chemicals, pesticides… For these speculative zones they give no body counts, but clearly wish to insinuate that they are huge. This must be nonsense since if they were larger than regular causes of pollution deaths, we would for sure know about it. In fact even  “Pure Earth” NGO which was partly responsible for writing the Lancet report puts the body count of (unintentional) pesticide poisoning at about 20000 on their own web page. This is 20000 too many, but still pales in comparison to millions killed by other causes.

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“The pollutome”: Only Zone 1 is grounded on data. Zones 2 and 3 titillating speculation and fear mongering with no numbers. Behind the scenes, numbers suggest deaths in zones 2 and 3 are way smaller than in zone 1.

Instead of Zone 1 being the tip of the iceberg, is it not way more likely and supported by evidence that it is in fact the bottom of the iceberg? The actual “Pollutome” looks like this…



Fixed it! This way it is easier to focus on the most relevant things.

But of course if you present things like this, it is harder to shift the focus to chemicals, pesticides, endocrine disruptors, nanomaterials…and glyphosate. Oh dear. Authors actually choose to fearmonger also about glyphosate:

On the basis of these findings, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has determined that glyphosate is a “probable human carcinogen”; this finding is contested by glyphosate’s manufacturer

FacepalmThey rely on largely discredited IARC report which was riddled with conflicts of interests and highly dubious scientific practices. As for “contested by glyphosate’s manufacturer“…really…no one else? Are there really no experts on risk assessment and toxicology who think IARC work is nonsense? Why did you choose to omit all discusion on this? Is there only one manufacturer or did you just insert a dog whistle for your intended target audience? I really hoped more from this report.

Update 25.10.2017: Greenpeace kindly provided another example of environmentalist battling imaginary issues while inflating them to insanity. Asbestos actually kills more than 100000 a year and glyphosate almost no one. Heroically Greepeace goes into attack. After all if they  do nothing consequences will undoubtedly be ass dire as from the battle of Blackwater bay. 


Many celebrated the Paris climate meeting as being a turning point and were extatic of the new “ambitious” 1.5 degrees warming target. This target will be quickly reached and then exceeded massively. I think it is a cynical move to avoid acknowledging the colossal failure of the policies during past decades. If we are to have a reasonable change to stay below 1.5 degrees, cumulative emissions should stay below approximately 1000G tons. We have already emitted about 600 and are adding more at a rate of about 40 Gt per year so the “ceiling” will be crossed in short order.

NGO:s have been especially excited on the new target and for example Greenpeace kindly suggests their own plan (+GWEC+SolarPower Europe lobby groups) as a way forward.
We will push our beautifully simple solution to climate change – 100% renewable energy for all – and make sure it is heard and embraced. From schoolyards in Greece, to the streetlights of India, to small Arctic communities like Clyde River in Canada, we will showcase the clean, renewable solutions that are already here, and pressure our governments to make them available for everyone, fast.Kumi Naidoo

However, since GP plan implies much greater warming than 1.5 degrees, it is unclear why this plan should be followed. Let me elaborate.

Energy [R]evolution scenario is in fact quite critical of bioenergy. While this doesn’t often translate to consistent behavior at the organizations grass root level at least some understanding does exist. Report says:

  • Any bioenergy project should replace energy produced from fossil fuels. considering the entire production chain, above- ground and below-ground carbon stock changes and any indirect land use changes (ILUC), the net greenhouse gas emission reduction of such a project must be at least 50% compared to a natural gas reference, 60% compared to an oil reference and 70% compared to a coal reference. This net emission reduction must be realized within 20 years.
  • “Greenhouse gas emissions as a result of indirect land use change (ILUC) must be integrated in the greenhouse gas calculation methodology of crops (including trees) for bioenergy, grown on agricultural land, by determining crop- specific ILUC-factors.”

They continue…”Despite this, all bioenergy is accounted for as climate neutral leading to an enormous carbon accounting error. Therefore, carbon accounting schemes should stop assuming ‘carbon neutrality’ of bioenergy and account for the net direct and indirect greenhouse gas performance of bioenergy as outlined in the sustainability criteria for bioenergy presented in this document.” (As an aside for my Finnish readers I would like to point out that GP sustainability criteria effectively exclude pretty much all forrest bioenergy here. It remains to be seen how long it takes for this realization to diffuse into local Greenpeace and other NGO:s.)

This is great and I agree! But then… why is that on pages 317-318, where E[R] scenario numbers are given, climate impacts of  bioenergy and biofuels are absent?

Emissions also from outside energy sector

Emissions also from outside the energy sector.

The report is also very silent on the emissions outside energy sector. For example, large fraction of the GHG emissions are due to agriculture. If we add the GHG emissions that Greenpeace+friends do not count, this would probably add roughly 10Gt of CO2 emissions a year.

I conclude with a short movie summarizing what Greenpeace+GWEC+SolarPower Europe figures actually imply. The first two columns are based on CO2 emissions reported in E[R] scenario. Third one adds 10G tons of GHG emissions that the report seemed to brush aside. It has always been clear that Greenpeace scenarios are widely unrealistic (for large number of reasons), but as is clear, E[R] scenarios are also inconsistent with the 1.5 degree target they celebrate. In fact, given that large fraction of emissions are unaccounted for the scenarios are unlikely to be consistent even with the earlier 2 degrees target. Other scenario builders typically add massive amounts of CCS with bioenergy to get negative emissions later on the century. Greenpeace is opposed to CCS (well of course) so we can safely assume the cognitive dissonance will only get worse.  Since the substance is lacking on NGO proposals, should we really be outraged if substance is also missing from the official policies? Is anybody actually serious about this?

Estimate of the cumulative emissions in Greenpeace E[R] scenarios. (3rd column adds 10Gt of yearly GHG emissions from missing bioenergy emissions, agriculture etc.) Last column indicates the level below which we have reasonable chance to stay below 1.5 degrees.

Note added 2.5.2016: Careful commenter pointed out few stupid mistakes in the original post. There was a confusion between C and CO2 on the one hand and on the other the earlier limit for cumulative emissions was too high. The mistakes had a tendency to cancel each other out. Now the underlying data is fixed accordingly. E[R] advanced scenario has some change of staying below 2 degrees by 2050, but as mentioned before it leaves out a large fraction of existing GHG emissions and thus cannot be used to estimate actual climate impacts.

I noticed a new Greenpeace report “Great Water Grab” on how coal use is deepening a water crisis. I glanced at the report and used it as an opportunity to learn new things about a topic I don’t follow closely. What struck me first was the authors clear unwillingness to put the water footprint of coal into a broader context. Report reads as if coal is THE reason for water stress. Even I know that almost all the water humanity uses is used in agriculture, but this you will not learn from this report. Even though it is by far the largest driver of water consumption, the word “agriculture” (and variants of it) only appears 12 times and then in the context that coal water use conflicts with agricultural use. Incidentally “coal” appears 448 times. So I googled to learn how much do we actually use or withdraw water. The first figure shows the result…

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 12.40.47We seem to extract around 4000 cubic kilometers of fresh water a year and this is massively dominated by agricultural use. We can dig a bit deeper and learn from FAO that, for example, despite rapid economic growth  and modest population growth Chinese water withdrawals have only increased moderately, by about 10% since 1990. India has seen more substantial increase in withdrawals, but essentially all of this increase has been in agriculture and their growth in water consumption corresponds closely to the population growth. Greenpeace report tells that the coal use is  responsible for about 7% of all withdrawals, but if we look at the water consumption this relatively small number is reduced even further. I am sure there are places so close to the edge that even small extra withdrawals are relevant, but are there any places where water use for energy is the main cause of water stress?


Coals water consumption (includes mining) was 22.7 km3 according to Greenpeace. (Never mind  the last decimal point.)

What about household use? We (finns) use on average 155 litres per day for household use. Our household of four consumes about 10kWh of electricity a day, which might consume around 5 litres of water per person. Following figure illustrates the relative importance of different ways we use water. “Great Water Grab” on the left.

 I don’t like coal, but just attaching any apocalyptic concern on it is bad form. The real issues are serious enough and we should aim to give a fair overall picture. I don’t think the report does this, but maybe “Relatively Minor Water Grab” would have been too boring title and we all have our preferences.

And then there is the usual promotion of chosen alternatives without actually demonstrating improvements in a meaningful way. “Switching from coal to renewable energy is one of the most effective and actionable ways to save water, and ensure clean water supply for people, agriculture and environment.” Sigh… Report gives an estimate of water consumption of various power sources. The source for the graph seems solid and probably the data is reliable (although Meldrum et al. report very large ranges for consumption figures, so large uncertainties exist) Notice how concentrated solar power tends to have the highest water consumption of all. According to the latest incarnation of Greenpeace E[R] advanced scenario world is supposed to get roughly twice as much electricity from CSP at 2050 than we get from coal today. Now what am I missing? If we produce twice as much power from something which has higher water footprint, won’t this mean dramatic increase in water consumption? Would not these CSP plants be predominantly located in areas with high water stress like deserts?

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Water use of different sources of electricity according to Greenpeace based on Meldrum et al 2013. (Notice, however, that several nuclear power plants actually use seawater for cooling and for example Diablo Canyon power plant in California desalinates seawater for its use. Plant has excess capacity for desalination and this could be used to reduce water stress elsewhere. If desalination requires about 3kWh/m3, desalination would require about 10kWh of electricity for each MWh produced. Doesn’t seem like a deal breaker.)

What about bioenergy? Greenpeace+GWEC+SolarPower Europe E[R] scenario actually relies less on bioenergy than some other scenarios loaded with renewables. Nevertheless, in power production bioenergy goes from 379 TWh (2012) to almost 3200 TWh (2050). Biofuels for transport about triples to about 8000 PJ/a and in heat supply there is an increase of about 12000 PJ/a from bioenergy. Energy crops can consume 70-400 times as much water than coal so the bioenergy increases Greenpeace promotes will likely require massively more water than coal use requires today. The energy requirements for desalination are so high that for energy crops it is unlikely to make any sense.

Why do I get a feeling that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing? Maybe my mistake is to actually read these reports assuming that they are intended to reflect a coherent plan as opposed to myopic lobbying effort. Both coal and water use are serious challenges, but in this report water problems are used as a tool to attack coal and (incoherently) lobby for E[R]. In doing so attention is drawn away from the real causes of water stress which does disservice to an important issue that needs to be addressed. World is a complicated place and to make wise decision we need to acknowledge the complexities and trade-offs and try to navigate among alternatives as well as we can. 

I found an article by Krausmann et al. on how human appropriation of primary production has evolved in the past 100 years or so. Human appropriation of net primary productivity (HANPP) has about doubled since early 1900 so that in 2005 humanity appropriated about 25% of all primary production on the continents. This has been one of the main causes of the ongoing wave of extinctions.

The article also showed some positive trends. Even though HANPP has doubled the population has actually grown by a factor of about 4. This means than HANPP per capita today is much lower than it was a century ago. This reduction has been possible thanks to improvements in land use efficiency (mainly due to modern agriculture). Today we produce much more food per unit of area than we used to. This positive development has nevertheless not been enough to reduce the total footprint of humanity.

Authors conclude with some possible extrapolations into the future. Earlier I wrote about my adventures among the IPCC mitigation scenarios (see also this). I focused on the way modellers dealt with nuclear power, but I was also tempted to highlight the crazy assumptions on bioenergy (with carbon capture) that many modellers made. Kraussmann et al. noted the same in their paper. Many mitigation scenarios casually imagine bioenergy use of around 300EJ/year (some assume much more. GCAM up to 862 EJ!).  Figure 4 from the paper sketches what this implies for human impact on the biosphere. It would mean another doubling in HANPP and in a much shorter period of time.If you thought human have been causing serious environmental damage during the past century just wait what is going to happen in this one if we follow modellers fantasies!

Finally humanity came up with a climate policy that has real impact.

I have tried to find some serious discussions on the ecological impacts these models imply, but to no avail. Can somebody help me with this or is it really true that there is none? It seems that if primary productivity (tons of biomass or whatever) is assumed to be same before and after human meddling, modellers call meddling sustainable. There seems to be no discussion on biodiversity impacts, extinctions, erosion etc. etc. For that matter there seems to be very little discussion on impacts for food production either.

Maybe I am missing something, but ambitious IPCC mitigation scenarios assume a carbon price that rises to the level of 1000$/tCO2 (or much more) by the end of the century. If a hectare of land ties down let us say 5 tons of carbon per year, the revenue from CO2  capture schemes could be almost 20000$/year. If the same hectare produced 7 tons of wheat at about 250$/ton, revenue would be about 2000$/year… an order of magnitude less. Wouldn’t this create a very strong incentive for farmers to move from food production to BECCS (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage) game? Since the food is nevertheless needed, its price must start tracking the carbon price and increase massively during this century. I have a nasty feeling that modellers haven’t thought this through.

450ppm really is possible!

It is a cause for concern when modellers feel it safer and easier to build these kinds of scenarios rather than inform people that (thanks to colossal policy failures) 2 degree target is essentially unfeasible. It is about time modellers stop providing fig leaves for the policy makers.

“The beginning of all wisdom is acknowledgement of facts.”: Juho Kusti Paasikivi, the 7th president of Finland after Finland had lost a war against Soviet Union.

Recently a report on energy costs prepared for EU commission by the consulting company Ecofys crossed the news threshold in many places. Usually it has been reported as being “the EU report”, but EU commision states “The views have not been adopted or in any way approved by the European Commission and should not be relied upon as a statement of the European Commission’s views. The European Commission does not guarantee the accuracy of the information given in the studies, nor does it accept responsibility for any use made thereof.” So the report has not been “endorsed” by EU commision (although paying Ecofys for the report is bad enough). Ecofys did the work on WWF bioenergy-heavy renewables-only energy vision and is widely linked and quoted by environmentalists in Europe.

Following quote from WWF report captures quite well, why I am not a fan. “Ecofys estimates that we would need around  250 million hectares of agriculture land,  which is equivalent to about one-sixth of  the total global cropland today, as well  as 4.5 billion cubic metres of biomass from already disturbed forests. But what  is possible on paper, even after the most  rigorous analysis, is a different matter in  practice. We have yet to identify where  this land is, and how it is being used at the moment.“: WWF. This is then followed by WWF nevertheless endorsing such a vision.  I had a look at this new report. Below few comments.

  1. As you can see from the Figure 1, they find that nuclear power is not heavily subsidised and is among energy sources with low external costs. According to Ecofys external costs are only little higher than with the worst renewable (biomass). This is not news, but it is interesting that even Ecofys is forced to acknowledge this. (See later for their desperate attempts to change the results…)

    Figure 1: Summary of costs, subsidies, and external costs

    Figure 1: Summary of costs, subsidies, and external costs

  2. It has been widely quoted (example here) that according to this report wind power is cheapest source of energy. It is perhaps helpful to note that  Ecofys gets this result by discounting nuclear costs with 9-11% rate while discounting wind power with a much lower rate of 5-7%.
  3. As you can see from Figure 2, according to Ecofys external costs of nuclear is dominated by “depletion of energy resources” category. This was very strange result.
    Figure 2: External costs

    Figure 2: External costs

    It turns out that they calculate a cost of depletion as 0.05 euros/(kg oil. eq.) both for fossil fuels and nuclear power! Ecofys used a tool called “Recipe” to calculate external costs and interestingly in case of nuclear power they decided to specifically deviate from what developers of Recipe said was the appropriate methodology. ” Unlike metals, we cannot use the concept of grade to express the quality of oil and gas resources. Conventional oil and gas will simply flow out of the well up to a certain point. After that point is reached it is still possible to extract more, but this will increase the production costs and the production energy requirement. Once the energy price increases, it also becomes possible to extract other unconventional resources, such as tar sands, the use of gas liquids, converting gas to oil or coal to oil etc. This means the increase of costs and energy is not caused by a gradual decrease of ore grade, but because more and more mankind will have to switch from conventional resources to unconventional resources…Uranium was formed in the same way as all other metals, the characterisation factor for Uranium is thus included in the impact category for mineral depletion and not fossil fuels.” Recipe in fact gives external cost for Uranium extraction and finds that it is similar to oil per kg.  However, since energy density is different by a factor of 10000-million (roughly…who cares) depending on reactor type, Ecofys inflated otherwise irrelevant externality into one that dominates external costs of nuclear power. Not cool. Perhaps they did this in order to inflate the external cost of nuclear power to be at least higher than renewables they promote?

  4. Historical subsidies for nuclear are mostly based on the idea that state participation lowered interest rates for the projects and that difference between imagined market rate and state interest rate constitutes a subsidy. The logic here is not convincing and also requires the value choice that “market interest rate” is the correct one and states participation is an interference into natural order of things.  Whatever your opinion happens to be on that one it is important no notice, that when Ecofys calculates external costs for depletion of resources they assume owners of resources use too high discount rate and that socially optimal one is lower. So now the market no longer knows better. On the other hand when they calculate the levelized cost of energy (LCOE) they use different interest rates for different technologies.  Maybe it is true that some wind power developer can get cheaper loan from the bank, but they do so because state has guaranteed them customers as well as the price with feed in tariffs.   According to Ecofys such political interference was supposed to be a subsidy and real interest rate was the one without political support structures. In case of nuclear power it is the political uncertainty that increases the perceived risks and consequently it is suffering a “negative subsidy” due to politics. Strangely here Ecofys nevertheless takes interest rates as “correct ones” rather than interpreting the resulting LCOE as the one after political interference. So note how the ground keeps shifting, but always in such a way as to inflate costs for nuclear power and fossil fuels.
  5. ECOFYS ignores some external costs. For example, there is an external cost for occupying agricultural land (0.1 €/m^2). This cost is due to monetizing the lower biodiversity of agricultural land as opposed to natural habitat.

    Figure 3: External costs? What external costs?

    However, there is no cost that I can see associated with removing biomass from forests for burning. They rationalize this by “We assumed wood pellets are made of residue wood and did not allocate agricultural land  occupation to the production of this wood …”  So a precondition for this resource is a forest industry creating huge externality and “waste” stream, but none of this is reflected as an externality for bioenergy.

  6. Existence of higher system level costs from intermittent renewables is acknowledged in the text, but these are not counted as costs, subsidies, nor as external costs. They are, as far as I can see, simply not included in any category.
  7. After renewables subsidies (41 billion euros/year) largest subsidy category (27 billion) was for “Energy demand support”. This is almost entirely due to lower tax rate for some uses of fossil fuels. I think this is the way also OECD defines subsidies, but in my opinion it is deeply misleading. If I am not taxed according to maximum rate, am I receiving a subsidy? If we use the Ecofys definition for energy subsidies, yes I am. Where I live (Finland) state gets more than 4 billion euros income from energy taxes that mostly tax fossil fuel use. However, this is not counted as a “negative subsidy” for fossil fuels. If we would stop burning oil, state would lose billions in tax revenue. If oil burning is then replaced with some other energy source requiring subsidies (for example) of 5 cents/kWh, state would need to find billions more. In total such transition could easily cost the state as much as we spend on education, but when computing subsidies there would have been no change. Definition is insane.

In previous posts I discussed the size of the challenge and messed up cost comparisons WGIII provides. Here I provide few observations on how WGIII deals with bioenergy.  The 2007 assessment report as well as the 2011 renewables report were largely uncritical of bioenergy/biofuels, but now some warnings have been added to 5th assessment report. But still… These warnings are largely to be found only in the actual report while the summary for policy makers creates, in my opinion, more positive image.

Realizing that BECCS is the route to salvation.

Realizing that BECCS is the key?

Bioenergy can play a critical role for mitigation, but there are issues to consider, such as the sustainability of practices and the efficiency of bioenergy systems  (robust evidence, medium agreement) [11.4.4, Box 11.5, 11.13.6, 11.13.7]. Barriers to large‐scale deployment of bioenergy include concerns about GHG emissions from land, food security, water resources, biodiversity conservation and livelihoods. The scientific debate about the overall climate impact related to landuse competition effects of specific bioenergy pathways remains unresolved (robust evidence, high agreement)”  WGIII Summary for policy makers

Notice how this is phrased. It starts by saying bioenergy can play a critical role (robust evidence, medium agreement) and then ends by saying that we do not actually know what climate impacts are (robust evidence, high agreement).  In my opinion, caution should be emphasized here since were are dealing with issues with very large ecological and social consequences. Summary for policy makers also seems to discuss, in practice non-existent,  bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) as some independent technology while in the real report it is quite clearly mentioned in the context of geoengineering (quite rightly of course).

Here and there the report seems very confused about bioenergy and especially serious ecological or social damage assessment is largely missing. For example, in chapter 6 (table 6.7) only water use is mentioned as an adverse effect of bioenergy! Sometimes existence some risks are mentioned, but not in such a way as to identify what action in particular is risky and how it relates to current bioenergy practices. This gives me a feeling of CMA (cover my ass) type of activity.  Without actually saying clearly what types of bioenergy schemes are counterproductive, what use is this? WGIII doesn’t say that US corn ethanol scheme would be stupid, or that maybe German biodiesel production is not the brightest of ideas, or that perhaps forestry practices in Scandinavia might leave something to be desired from climate and biodiversity perspective.

Or what do you think about this?

Bioenergy can be deployed as solid, liquid and gaseous fuels to provide transport, electricity, and heat for a wide range of uses, including cooking, and depending on how and where implemented, can lead to either beneficial or undesirable consequences for climate change mitigation (robust evidence, high agreement)…Scientific debate about the marginal emissions of most bioenergy pathways, in particular around land‐mediated equilibrium effects (such as indirect landuse change), remains unresolved (robust evidence, high agreement)” WGIII Chapter 11

So basically they say that either bioenergy is a good idea or a bad idea and are happy to announce robust agreement on this. Then later on page 27 of Chapter 11 they say ” This assessment agrees on a technical bioenergy potential of around 100 EJ, and possibly 300 EJ and higher.” What am I supposed to learn from this? If IPCC is seriously proposing 300EJ they are irresponsibly deluded. In fact, the Figure 11.20 seems to suggest that there is high agreement only about the roughly 100EJ amount (technical potential). So why are those higher numbers so casually thrown around elsewhere in the report?

Between the lines you might perhaps be able to read something. WGIII mentions several times how bioenergy schemes on degraded lands could have multiple positive impacts, but what fraction of current bioenergy schemes fall into this category? If I guess that approximately 0%, am I wrong? WGIII doesn’t tell. Reading the report I get a feeling that unsustainable bioenergy practices would only be some speculative risks in the future rather than standard operating practice of  most bioenergy schemes  today. Since no bad practices are identified, everyone can declare unsustainable practices are things done by others. The effect can be de facto promotion of those unsustainable practices today by creating a narrative for sustainable practices in the future. Furthermore, the bioenergy scenarios WGIII presents as mitigation tools seem to be on such a massive scale that I do not believe degraded lands, waste streams etc. can ever provide more than than a very small fraction of the required biomass. See for example Fig 6.20 (below) from Chapter 6.


IPCC WGIII Chapter 6 Fig.  6.20

IPCC WGIII Chapter 6 Fig. 6.20

In scenarios roughly consistent with 2℃ goal (blue dots) we are supposed to get around 300 EJ of primary energy from bioenergy and most of it equipped with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). What does this mean? Well first of all, it might mean no climate benefits, since WGIII had an agreement that this is not understood. Only ecological and social damage seems guaranteed. Second, the primary productivity of terrestrial biosphere is apparently around 56.4 Gt C/yr which means that 300EJ would amount to around 20% of all primary productivity of the continents. This is not just geoengineering. It is geoengineering on steroids. Given that one of the main drivers of extinctions is the ever increasing share of primary productivity appropriated by Homo Sapiens the idea that this extra diversion might even have some biodiversity benefits (speculated about in Chapter 6) is preposterous. In chapter 6 WGIII also gives results with different amounts of negative emissions — either more than 20Gt CO2/year or less. That 20Gt is roughly consistent with the ridiculously large bioenergy production equipped with CCS. Having presented such idiocy as a possible solution WGIII says later in Chapter 11:

Full GHG impacts, including those from feedbacks (e.g., iLUC) or leakage, are often difficult to determine (Searchinger et al., 2008).  Feedbacks between GHG reduction and other important objectives such as provision of livelihoods and sufficient food or the maintenance of ecosystem services and biodiversity are not completely understood.

Again, where is the precautionary principle when you actually need it? But let us get crazy and start thinking where we could produce that 300EJ. It amount to perhaps 10 Gt/year of carbon from the biosphere. Given that in most places where people live, they already appropriate outrageously large amount of primary productivity (see figure), we should head somewhere where our footprint isn’t quite so large.



If I have a look at the world map with primary productivity shown as well (see figure), it seems that most obvious choices are either northern wastelands, Amazon, or central Africa. Since things don’t grow that well in Siberia and there is hardly anyone there to do the work, we would be left with the unenviable task of terraforming rainforests into energy plantations. How much area would we need? With around 1kg C/m2 combined area of the Amazon rainforest and Congolian rainforest would not be quite enough. With synthetic fertilizers, irrigation etc. we could boost this, but how much energy does it take and where does the water come from? If you want to use degraded land, we will need more space since that land is presumably called degraded for a reason.

Where to grow all that biomass?

Where to grow all that biomass?

Many bioenergy schemes have a low energy return on energy invested (EROEI). In other words we spend a lot of energy in producing bioenergy compared to the amount of useful energy when the fuel is consumed. I was not entirely surprised to notice that the term EROEI did not seem to appear in the report. It is usually brushed aside since dealing seriously with it might rock the boat.

When it comes to bioenergy it must be kept in mind that large financial interests are at stake. Fossil fuel producers have not been too happy with climate science and we can rest assured that countries relying heavily on bioenergy and related schemes will not be happy if impacts of bioenergy are seriously evaluated. When WGIII report was released a high official from Finnish Ministry of employment and the economy declared that Finland can only reach 80-95% emissions reduction goal if bioenergy is counted as climate neutral. Notice that it is not a question if it really IS climate neutral, just that on paper it must be counted as such. I am certain that similar political pressures exist in many other countries on this issue. Also among environists (“enviromentalist without the mental part” Tom Blees) there has been a proliferation of renewables only energy “plans”. Most of them rely heavily on bioenergy and on assuming its beneficial climate impacts. These groups are unlikely to acknowledge easily that they got it wrong. If they do so they might have to rethink the role of nuclear power. However, opposing nuclear power is an identity issue for many environist and they will find it easier to live in denial about environmental and social impacts of bioenergy.

Update 17.5.2015: Some quotations above didn’t make it to the final report. When writing this post I was reading the Final Draft. I thank Glen Peters (@Peters_Glen) for pointing this out.

Luin Giampietron ja Mayumin kirjoittaman kirjan “Biofuel delusion:The fallacy of large scale agro-biofuels production”. Kirjan kirjoittajat eivät ilmeisesti puhu englantia äidinkielenään mikä varmasti vaikuttaa hieman kömpelöön kieliasuun. Ottaen huomioon, että kirja on ilmeisesti tarkoitettu laajemmalle yleisölle, he myös harhautuvat välillä nähdäkseni täysin tarpeettomasti takaisin norsunluutorniin teknisellä ja osin sekavalla (ainakin minulle) kielenkäytöllä. Suosittelen kirjaa joka tapauksessa, koska sisällössä on paljon hyvää asiaa. Olen toki ollut tietoinen monien biopolttoaineiden marginaalisista ilmastohyödyistä ja siitä kuinka kyseenalaista ruuan muuttaminen polttoaineeksi on, mutta tässä kirjassa keskusteltiin laajasti itseltäni pääosin huomaamatta jääneistä yhteiskuntarakenteisiin liittyvistä tekijöistä.

Kaikki palava ei ole sopivaa polttoainetta edes silloin, kun sen “EROEI” (energy return on energy invested ) on suurempi kuin yksi. Polttoaineen on myös sovittava ympäröivän yhteiskunnan metabolismiin. Ennen teollistumista kaupungit eivät voineet kasvaa suuremmiksi osin sen vuoksi, koska ne olivat riippuvaisia sekä ympäröivän maaseudun tuottamista elintarvikkeista että energiasta. Fossiilisen energian käyttöönotto rikkoi tämän rajoitteen ja mahdollisti urbaanisation. Samalla se mahdollisti työntuottavuuden hurjan nousun ja tämä taas tarkoitti, ettei kaikkia käsiä tarvittu enää pelloilla. Siinä missä aikaisemmin massat tuottivat vaatimattoman ylijäämän, jonka hyvin kapea eliitti sitten rosvosi itselleen, nyt tie aukesi koulutukselle ja laajan keskiluokan syntymiselle. Tällaiset energiankäytön yhteiskunnalliset seurannaisvaikutukset tahtovat usein unohtua.

Teollistuminen ei ainoastaan kasvattanut energiankulutusta rajusti vaan myös muutti yhteiskunnan “metabolismia”. (Tämä on ehkä melkein itsestään selvää, koska myös termodynamiikassa suuremman järjestyksen aikaansaaminen vaatii korkeampaa energiankulutusta. Monimutkaisemman yhteiskunnan ylläpitäminen vaatii suuremman energiavuon kuin yksinkertaisen yhteiskunnan ylläpitäminen.) Aivan samalla tavalla kuin esim. meidän aivomme kuluttavat paljon suuremman osan elimistön energiavaroista kuin sen paino antaisi ymmärtää, niin myös yhteiskunnan energiankulutus on jakautunut hyvin epätasaisesti. Tämä tarkoittaa sitä, että ei riitä laskea yhteen kilowattitunteja ja todeta niiden riittävän. Myös tehotason (energian kulutus/aikayksikkö) täytyy eri sektoreilla olla riittävä ja vastata ympäröivän yhteiskunnan metabolismia.

Me elämme yhteiskunnassa missä lapset ja nuoret ovat koulussa, vanhukset eläkkeellä ja suuri osa työikäisestä väestöstä ei tee järin “tuottavaa” työtä. Nekin, jotka tekevät “tuottavaa” työtä ovat suuren osan ajastaan vapaalla. Tämä tarkoittaa sitä, että siinä segmenttissä väestöstä, joka tekee “tuottavaa” työtä työn tuottavuuden täytyy olla hyvin korkea, jotta se kykenee ylläpitämään kulutusta myös niissä osissa yhteiskuntaa, jotka ovat tuottavan sektorin ulkopuolella. Energiaa tuottava sektori taas pyörittää kaikkia muita, joten siinä sektorissa tuottavuuden ja “metabolismin” täytyy olla sitäkin rajumpaa. Nähtävästi teollisuusmaissa energiasektorin metabolismi  asettuu välille 20000-40000MJ/työtunti. Tuottavuus on taas noussut nimenomaan energiaa kuluttavien koneiden vuoksi. Tämä tekijä on mahdollistanut sen, että elämme melko mukavassa yhteiskunnassa missä kaikkia käsiä ei tarvita pelloille talikoimaan.

Giampietron ja Mayumin keskustelevat tästä laajasti ja havainnollistavat tätä hauskalla esimerkillä. He kysyvät ovatko kasvijätteet sopiva ruoka karjalle? Vastaus: Se riippuu ympäröivästä yhteiskunnasta. Kehitysmaassa työntuottavuus on niin alhainen, että kasvijätteet voivat olla karjalle sopiva ravinnonlähde. Karjan kasvattajan ei tarvitse tuottaa suurta ylijäämää, koska melkein kaikki elävät omavaraismaataloudesta. Sen sijaan teollistuneessa maailmassa tarvitaan tiiviimpiä rehuja. Maanviljelijöitä on vähän ja heidän työn tuottavuuden täytyy olla hyvin korkea, jotta he pystyvät tuottamaan elintarvikkeet muulle yhteiskunnalle. Yhdessä työtunnissa heidän täytyy saada aikaiseksi paljon enemmän kuin mitä kehitysmaiden maatalousvaltaisissa talouksissa vaaditaan (muistaakseni USA:ssa n. 100 kg viljaa/työtunti). Biopolttoaineissa on monia ongelmia, mutta yksi on siinä, että niillä on hyvin vaikeaa aikaansaada sellaista metabolismia mitä teollisuusmaiden energiasektorilta vaaditaan. Tukiaisilla kannattomatonta toimintaa voi tietenkin osin ylläpitää, mutta se puolestaan tarkoittaa, että jonkun muun työn pitää yhteiskunnassa olla sitäkin tuottavampaa kompensoidakseen alhaisen tuottavuuden  biopolttoainesektorilla…ja se taas vaatii lisää energiaa. Kiinnostava ja tärkeä pointti!

David MacKay has written a fantastically readable book about “Sustainable energy — without hot air”. Rather than dwelling in a ideological dreamland, the book is firmly focused on the real world and real numbers. Some discussion is specific to UK, but most of it applies equally well elsewhere since the author wisely focuses on per capita quantities. While reading it I noticed that it is easier to delude one-self about some supposedly sustainable energy solutions, in the (nearly) uninhabited north (where I am from) than in the more densely populated south. If such computations are done independently for each country, for example, the amount of biomass per capita is much higher in Sweden and Finland than in UK. Consequently, if one ignores the ecological damage caused by the bioenergy, in the north one might be tempted to imagine bioenergy as more sustainable solution than it really is. (The forest growth in Finland/capita/year is around 20m^3.) Marketing such absurdities as global solutions reminds me of Marie-Therese’s notorious outburst to the hungry peasants: “Let them eat brioche!”

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