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The Carbon Bubble

The Carbon BubbleOne of the problems with REDD is that it will not address climate change, for the simple reason that to address climate change we need to reduce the amount of fossil fuel burned. While we need to reduce deforestation, trading carbon stored in forests against fossil fuel emissions will help lock in polluting technology.

One of the more obvious problems is that if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels, the forests will go up in smoke, or be blown down in storms, resulting in yet more emissions. Addressing runaway climate change must involve dramatic reductions in emissions from fossil fuels and leaving fossil fuels in the equivalent of “An Underground National Park”, as George Monbiot puts it. But if we fail to reduce emissions from fossil fuels no amount of REDD chicanery will either save the forests or prevent runaway climate change.

Last month, the Carbon Tracker initiative put out a report looking at how much more fossil fuel we can afford to burn if we are to avoid global warming exceeding 2°C. In the report, “Unburnable Carbon – Are the world’s financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?”, Carbon Tracker summarises as follows:

Research by the Potsdam Institute calculates that to reduce the chance of exceeding 2°C warming to 20%, the global carbon budget for 2000-2050 is 886 GtCO2. Minus emissions from the first decade of this century, this leaves a budget of 565 GtCO2 for the remaining 40 years to 2050.

The world’s total fossil fuel reserves amounts to a carbon potential of 2795 GtCO2. That’s almost five times the available carbon budget for the next 40 years.

The Carbon Tracker initiative focusses on “the fossil fuel reserves held by publicly listed companies and the way they are valued and assessed by markets”. The analysis raises an interesting problem. Currently, financial markets treat fossil fuel reserves as assets. But, if governments become serious about reducing carbon emissions, at some point the vast majority of these assets will become “stranded”. The report explains that,

Investors are thus left exposed to the risk of unburnable carbon. If the 2°C target is rigorously applied, then up to 80% of declared reserves owned by the world’s largest listed coal, oil and gas companies and their investors would be subject to impairment as these assets become stranded.

If we continue burning fossil fuels at the current rate, in only 16 years we will reach the limit of our carbon budget – that’s the amount we can burn if we are to stand a chance of remaining within 2°C warming.

Investments in fossil fuels, then, could end up as dodgy as a sub-prime mortgage backed collateralised debt obligation in 2008. Writing in the Guardian, Duncan Clark suggests that there are four possible explanations for the current situation:

  1. The markets are working well and the risks of unburnable carbon are already incorporated in the cost of energy investments.
  2. The markets understand the risks, but are hoping that new technologies of carbon capture will save the day.
  3. The markets are “acting irrationally”, making judgements based on bad information and are inflating a carbon bubble.
  4. The markets are behaving rationally because they realise that the risks of governments coming to an agreement on leaving fossil fuels in the ground is extremely slim.

The first option seems unlikely, Clark notes, not least because companies continue to raise money to prospect for new reserves, which makes little sense if a large percentage of existing reserves have to be left in the ground. The second option seems unlikely because of the slow pace at which carbon capture is developing.

The scary part is that the third and fourth options seem equally plausible. A carbon bubble would be less worrying because the bubble will eventually burst. Unfortunately, it seems that the financial sector doesn’t see too much problem with the fourth option. When asked about the Carbon Tracker initiative report, one oil and gas analyst told the Financial Times:

“I think it’s a bollocks subject. I’m not interested in this kind of subject. I think this is complete hot air.”

REDD may appear to provide a lifeline. It may appear that by reducing emissions from deforestation we can burn an equivalent amount of fossil fuel, thus giving ourselves more time to adjust to a new low carbon economy. But the reality is that about 40% of the CO2 peak concentration will still be in the atmosphere 1,000 years later (putting a slightly different perspective on the issue of “permanence” in REDD). A 2008 paper published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, found that “climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.” That’s a pretty good argument for keeping emissions as low as possible and stopping them sooner, rather than later.

The other problem with REDD is that it creates a distraction at the UN climate negotiations. Instead of attempting to address runaway climate change by setting limits on the amount of fossil fuel that can be burned, REDD offers negotiators a way of saying that at least they have achieved something.

James Leaton, project director of Carbon Tracker, commented to the Financial Times‘ Energy Source blog,

“The financial crisis demonstrated that markets don’t act to save themselves. Everyone assumed house prices would always go up until the bubble burst; at present everyone is assuming we can keep increasing carbon emissions.”

REDD and other carbon trading schemes reinforce the illusion that we can keep increasing carbon emissions. At the same time, they create opportunities for trading in fiendishly complex derivatives of carbon, increasing the probability of another type of carbon bubble.

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  1. Hi Chris
    In my layman’s understanding of the persistence of CO2 in the atmosphere following emission, the Berne Model is used by the IPCC (it’s a three part exponential decay model which mimics the effects of the the main naural sinks for CO2) and at current concentrations and levels of sink saturation it predicts around 30% of a pulse injection persisting in the atmosphere after 100 years. I would therefore appreciate reference to the peer reviewed science to back the claim that 40% of peak concentrations of CO2 will still be around in 1000 years.
    Also, accounting for emissions and sequestration from LULUCF is one of the few mechanisms potentially capable of reversing global vegetation decline (in fact I can’t see any others). If we can achieve this it might inspire the level of optimism required to adequately address the issues around totally weaning off fossil carbon, as well as providing biomass from an expanded resource base for sustainable human use as fuel, fibre and timber. Reversing vegetation decline directly addresses a core issue for environmentalists, which is a generalised lack of faith in the future.
    Reducing fossil emissions or maximising carbon storage in the biosphere is not a choice we need to make. They can be totally complementary and we urgently need to do both.

  2. @Mark Jackson (#1) – Thanks for this comment. The statement that “about 40% of the CO2 peak concentration will still be in the atmosphere 1,000 years later” is the assumption used in this paper:

    Susan Solomon, Gian-Kasper Plattner, Reto Knutti, and Pierre Friedlingstein, 10th February 2009. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. PNAS, vol. 106, no. 6, pp1704–1709.
    Doi: 10.1073/pnas.0812721106.

    George Monbiot has used this statement twice and both times referenced this paper. First in 2009 ( and again in 2011 ( I know Monbiot’s articles are not peer reviewed science, but he does usually correct factual mistakes in his articles.

    We agree that we need to both reduce fossil fuel emissions and reduce deforestation. The two can only be complementary if we don’t trade off emissions saved from the latter against continued emissions of the former.

  3. @Mark Jackson

    Can you please explain how “accounting for emissions and sequestration from LULUCF” might “inspire the level of optimism required to adequately address the issues around totally weaning off fossil carbon”?

    In the context of how REDD is currently conceptualised, I don’t understand how you think that changing land-use practices in mostly developing countries is going to stop rich countries burning fossil fuels other than, as this posting suggests, probably encouraging us all to think it’s OK to carry on as we are.

  4. very important questions…..
    If 2 million hectares of pristine ancient forests its bio-diversity and hydrology happened to be logged and mutilated to moon scape status in a forest country, how and what affect does that have with countries that are nonequivalent to the same balance of bio diversity and the entire planets fresh water ways underground aquifers oceans and seas.

    Could this said disappearance of bio diversity unbalance the whole planets Eco system?

    What are the entire repercussions environmentally if this said forest areas of 2 million hectares are replaced with Palm Oil , Plantation or reforestation?

    Could there be answers to Climate Change within these questions?

  5. @C Witness – REVERSING GLOBAL VEGETATION DECLINE could inspire the degree of optimism……..etc. What I am saying is that we have been peeling the skin off the Earth by deforestion and vegetation and land degradation, and when the day arrives that we know the Earth is literally getting greener every year, rather than browner, it becomes possible to have an informed faith in the future. This sense of optimism is vital, in that if there is no human future, there is also no basis for morals or ethics and we may as well do what we currently see being done, which is a mad rush to maximise present benefits, and our descendents can go to hell. We need to reinvent the future as a beautiful and precious reality, and be able to ask what effect our actions will have on the 7th, 70th, or 7,000th generation to come.
    Reversing global vegetation decline won’t solve all our problems, but it is likely to be deeply and positively catalytic of a range of other sustainability outcomes.
    And REDD+ is a subset of what we need in this area, which is rigorous accounting in developed and developing nations for terrestrial carbon based on the the principle that we need sustained carbon storage and that this comes about from ecologically, socially and economically sustainable management of land and vegetation.
    This agenda may be less important overall than reducing our use of fossil fuels, but from a strategic point of view it could be the thin end of the emission reduction wedge, and strategies which rely on convincing the international community it has to do the difficult and expensive stuff first may not get very far, especially at the moment.

  6. @Mark Jackson

    I don’t think many people would disagree with your basic premise here – it’s more a question of whether what is being done to agree on the concept of REDD and to implement it will actually serve the purpose of bringing about “ecologically, socially and economically sustainable management of land and vegetation”. If for no other reason, the dismal and flawed UN definition of forests, linked with the current obsession with counting carbon, means that REDD could simply become a pretext and funding mechanism for converting what remains of the world’s forests into intensive plantations, plus providing a few bonuses for ‘low impact’ logging companies.

    The reason why many people are skeptical about what agenda really lies behind REDD is that, as you point out, the reduction of fossil fuels is clearly more important than REDD in the bigger scheme of things, and yet it is the REDD debate which has gained so much more attention – leading people to conclude that it is simply a ploy for rich countries to put a green gloss on their planet-destroying unwillingness to take any politically uncomfortable decisions at home. Added to which, if one looks at the details of what is actually happening in schemes such as the FCPF, the REDD+ Partnership, and most of the UNFCCC debate, it is clear that there is no real political will or even intention to actually reduce deforestation, but a lot of desire to shift money into the hands of a lot of mostly very badly governed topical countries.

    Historically, populaces of the rich countries have been very happy to see their own environment and forests much better protected at precisely the same time that they have been contributing to the trashing of the tropical forests, so I don’t see why a bit of greening in distant poor countries is going to make them turn off their light bulbs when they don’t need them.

    If anything, as it’s going, rather than having a salutary and encouraging effect on the people of the rich world, the mess that our beloved governments and international agencies are currently making out of REDD will probably just convince people that it’s all a lost cause and we might as well just party until the planet burns. And if REDD becomes an excuse for delaying a transmission to low-carbon economies (as it is at the moment) then that is precisely what we will be doing for the next 10-15 years.

  7. If the passion evident in these comments could be turned into mass hunger-strikes outside our Aid agencies, coal-fired power stations, and the ports through which our GHG-associated consumer goods are imported, then we might slow down the lemming-like rush and party for a bit longer.

  8. The REDD+ dialogue could have some dreadful outcomes. This is most likely to occur if people of goodwill disengage from the process because of these possibilities rather than strive for an equitable and environmentally effective deal for forests and people. REDD could also have some magnificent outcomes.
    I would like to stress that REDD+ needs to be considered as a subset of comprehensive accounting for terrestrial carbon in both “developed” and “developing” nations, and nations should account for as much as possible given their technical capacity and the need for balanced accounting (starting with ARD). I wrote a paper a while ago which refers. Anyone interested should be able to find it by googling “REDD and AFOLU” and maybe The Carbon Store as am additional search term.

  9. @ Chris Lang – Hi Chris had a look at the paper by Solomon et al. The basis for the assertion that 40% of peak concentrations will still be around in 1000 years is a bit beyond me, I think they have assumed that the terrestrial sinks saturate leaving only oceanic absorption operational at the relevant timescales. Fascinating but I would need an atmospheric physicist to explain it down to my level of understanding. What is probably more important is to recognise that the effects of this last unrestrained belch of greenhouse gases will be screwing over countless generations to come (assuming humans survive). So it goes. BTW love your work. Cheers

  10. @ Mark The REDD+ dialogue, first REDD & REDD+ needs a International agreed Mechanism.
    Do you know when that could be?

  11. @Mark Jackson

    I assume that your comments about ‘people disengaging from the process’ are directed towards the leaders of the rich world who are refusing to commit to fossil carbon emissions reductions, thereby ensuring that there can be no long-term ‘equitable and environmentally effective deal for forests and people’?