I realize that I’ve doubled-down on the emotion-laden issues here—not only discussing anthropogenic climate change but also taxes!
As before, could I politely request that we avoid a stooshie about whether the climate scientists and atmospheric physicists are right or wrong – and concentrate purely on the subject of discussing methods for reducing New Zealand’s consumption of dirty energy without causing an increase in global greenhouse gas emissions.
Let the animadversions begin...
Rob Stowell wrote in the comments for Part 1 of this blog:
A carbon tax isn’t just – or even primarily? – aimed at consumers, but at producers, too, of course. Isn’t it possible that the NZ iceblock [exporters] will (in response to a carbon tax) even further reduce their dirty energy consumption, install a wind generator, avoid any carbon tax at all and end up doing ok...
Hopefully this second part of my blog explains an alternative approach to this now, Rob (see the discussion on exports in Section 3). I couldn’t really explain it before without posting the whole thing. There are certainly methods (as described) of not imposing a carbon tax or emissions cost on exports (within a given industry category) – while at the same time providing an incentive for exporters to minimize their consumption of dirty energy.
It's worth noting that you have also focussed entirely on energy, so you're ignoring the flatulent bovine in the room.
It's at least conceptually possible to include methane waste/leaks/dumping from fossil energy mining as part of the "energy cost", but it's very easy when looking at energy to overlook GHG emissions from other sources. Deforestation and other land degradation, farming especially ruminants, clathrate destruction, refrigerant gas releases, etc, are all significant problems that should be included.
Note that Russia is basically fucked the day we count methane from permafrost and clathrates, as their whole economy is not big enough to buy the offsets required to adjust for that. Even if you just count the warming from the Siberian fires they're in trouble (which also introduces another twist, the cost of soot deposits decreasing albedo).
It's worth noting that you have also focussed entirely on energy, so you're ignoring the flatulent bovine in the room.
As I mentioned in my discussion, the methane emissions from ruminants are due to the conversion of solar energy (e.g. via grass) into chemical potential energy in meat. So that certainly is an emission due to energy usage.
The reason I didn't include it in the ballpark calculations is that -- insofar as I have been able to discover -- the UNFCCC approach doesn't seem to distinguish between biomethane from cattle and fossil methane. So it's not clear to me what the true numbers actually are. (I may be wrong about this and would be very happy to be corrected). At any rate, neither calculating nitrous oxide or methane from agriculture is in my field of expertise, and the ballpark calculations could demonstrate what I needed to show without them, i.e. that a PGST could produce the same revenue as the GST it replaces.
minor nit - I think you mean "milk solids"
Deforestation and other land degradation, farming especially ruminants, clathrate destruction, refrigerant gas releases, etc, are all significant problems that should be included.
Actually (nearly) all of this is included in the numbers that I discussed!
Russia is basically fucked the day we count methane from permafrost and clathrates, as their whole economy is not big enough to buy the offsets required to adjust for that.
This would be the exception in the numbers that I discussed. And this highlights yet again the silly system used in the UNFCCC conventions, alas. That methane is being released because the whole world is heating up – it would be ridiculous to slate it all back to Russia on account of it being released in Russian territory.
minor nit - I think you mean "milk solids"
Thanks Paul -- that'd be my aging eyes! Now fixed...
David, I agree with you in general and in more than 90% of the detail. I'm aware that I'm picking at the corners of an argument I wholeheartedly agree with, so I hope that's coming through.
I'm not convinced that your side notes and implicit "wood as a construction material is energy use" really convey even to me that you intend cutting down that tree in my front yard to incur an energy use tax for the embodied energy in the timber, let alone for the methane release as the waste breaks down.
I don’t even understand how biomethane from cattle can be considered to have the same effect as fossil methane ... since biomethane doesn’t leave net residual carbon dioxide after the methane breaks down
This week, this year, this decade, methane is methane regardless of where it comes from. Half life in the atmosphere is between two and five electoral cycles, so as far as the political system is concerned it's permanent once released.
I love the naive optimism inherent in ignoring the next 50 years in favour of the long-term effects, while we're still trying to understand where the tipping points are and how dramatic they are. Especially since we are in a catch-up year right now, where the suppression of warming due to ocean surface water movements is reversed and we've seen half a degree of warming this year alone. That kind of sudden change makes me very wary of "in the long term", especially when you're calling 50 years short term.
But even so, long-term we're looking at 10-50 metres of sea level rise and that is worth thinking about. All this "1-2 metre" stuff has the little caveat (not counting 70% of the fresh water in the world - the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps). But when engineers say "long term we need to rebuild our cities above the 10m mark" politicians get flighty.
I'm aware that I'm picking at the corners of an argument I wholeheartedly agree with, so I hope that's coming through.
That certainly comes through, Moz -- and it's very helpful! One learns to think a certain way as an energy engineer, and this often makes it confusing when you try to explain things to normal humans. Very helpful having it pointed out where my explanations have been lacking!
It's hosing down with rain here, and I'm currently reading Anne of Avonlea to my daughter. Will respond to the issues you raise ASAP.
I'm currently reading Anne of Avonlea to my daughter.
:) I was singing "there was an only lady who swallowed a fly" to entertain my sister in law yesterday. She loved it. Also, she's 25 years old. But apparently hadn't heard the story before
I’m not convinced that your side notes and implicit “wood as a construction material is energy use” really convey even to me that you intend cutting down that tree in my front yard to incur an energy use tax for the embodied energy in the timber, let alone for the methane release as the waste breaks down.
The PGST you’d pay on the tree would mainly consist of:
* PGST on the petrol (at point of importation or production) to run the chainsaw
* PGST on the diesel (at point of importation or production) to run the hauler and transport to the timber mill
* PSGT on the dirty energy (at point of production) used to run the timber mill (i.e. a proportion of electricity cost)
* PSGT on the diesel (at point importation or production) used to transport the processed timber to its final destination
There would also be infinitesimal portions of PGST in the final cost of the finished timber due to the PSGT paid on the embodied energy (at point of importation or production) in the chainsaw, hauler, timber mill machinery, and trucks, etc.
If the timber was burnt or decomposed aerobically in the normal way then the resulting carbon dioxide would only be that originally removed from the atmosphere to grow the timber, and therefore no PGST would be payable on these processes (since there is no net release of greenhouse gases).
If the timber rotted anaerobically in a landfill to produce methane then PGST would be payable (at point of production) on the methane emissions by the company running the landfill.
Does that answer your question?
Indirect relevance, but I met a climate change denier recently. It was at a thing where we all had to contribute something. He (a climate scientist) contributed a catalogue of human shortcomings which motivate people to subscribe to the idea of anthro CC.
I didn't have time to talk to him properly but I observed a tendency for him to make short utterances summarising deeply complex science, to the effect that there's nothing to worry about. And when questioned, he tended to respond by critiquing (i.e. attacking) the motivation behind the question, rather than considering the question itself. E.g. "How do you know that? Have you studied that yourself?" etc. etc.
In other words, if I was getting paid by someone to disrupt a set of well intentioned people acting on widely reported and widely held scientific consensus, I would do exactly what he was doing.
This week, this year, this decade, methane is methane regardless of where it comes from. Half life in the atmosphere is between two and five electoral cycles, so as far as the political system is concerned it’s permanent once released.
Here’s what confuses me:
If, as I understand they are, the calculations for greenhouse gas emissions are based on the GWP100 values (global warming potential over 100 years) then how can biomethane be equivalent to fossil methane:
[EDIT: I hadn’t realized that this was particularly recondite information, but I may need to explain that under the IPCC guidelines greenhouse gases are rated according to their global warming potential (GWP) in comparison to carbon dioxide over a given time period. For example, the GWP100 value for methane is 34, because methane has 34 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide over a time period of 100 years.]
1. Fossil methane breaks down after, say, twelve years, and then spends the next 88 years (of the 100 year GWP period) as carbon dioxide still contributing to global warming.
2. The C in the CH4 of biomethane comes originally from the atmosphere, i.e. it was absorbed from the atmosphere to grow the grass which feeds the ruminants who emit the methane. So when biomethane breaks down after, say, 12 years then the resulting carbon dioxide was just that which was absorbed by the grass in the first place. So there is no net contribution to global warming for the next 88 years by the decomposed biomethane.
So how can biomethane and fossil methane be considered to have the same GWP100?
Maybe there’s some modification factors that are figured in at some basic calculation level, but I haven’t been able to find them.
I may just be confused by all this biological stuff because it’s not my field. Any explanation would be greatly appreciated.
P.S. I also need to resolve this mystery for some other work I’m doing – so my appreciation would be double the normal value!
So how can biomethane and fossil methane be considered to have the same GWP100?
Maybe consider a process view rather than a static view. For any given interval we have some methane being released, and some breaking down, but there's a net amount of methane in the atmosphere. Sure, that exact methane isn't there 50 years later, but the processes that produce and consume it are still running. That 10ppb of methane works the same whether it's from Cretaceous plants, kiwi plants or political ruminations.
As a GHG methane has the huge advantage that it's a short-term gas, so if we stop excreting it it'll be gone in a mere 20 to 100 election cycles. Which may be your confusion?
Alternatively, any given methane molecule will "live" in the atmosphere for, say, two half-lives or about five election cycles. During that time it will trap X joules of otherwise radiated heat.
The obvious solution, as always, is SPACE LASERS! Punch that unwanted thermal energy straight up and off the planet using lasers pointed into space. I am only slightly kidding here, as that approach at least has the advantage that it's permanent (barring aliens with space mirrors). Sequestration has the problem that it has to be permanent in the "diamonds are forever" sense, not the "no nuclear ships" sense.
The PGST you’d pay on the tree would mainly consist of
Right, so in this view there is no energy storage in the tree per se, so there's no negative tax applied for planting trees or any other carbon-negative activity. That makes the system much simpler, but it makes negative emissions a separate problem. Since it looks as though we definitely need those, that's kind of an important lapse (I am deliberately not using the future tense here).
I'm also concerned that transformation isn't apparently considered. If I capture CO2 and turn it into methane, I pay PGST on the energy used to do that, but not on the net warming potential in the gas produced. This is much more of an issue if I make a refrigerant that is stable and a more effective GHG than methane... which is another "loophole" in the current rules that was being exploited by some companies. I think and hope it's been shut down.
Right, so in this view there is no energy storage in the tree per se, so there’s no negative tax applied for planting trees or any other carbon-negative activity.
Well, you could say there’s no dirty energy storage in the tree.
The tree, if burnt, would provide mostly clean energy. The tree, if used as a building product, might displace another product that requires more dirty energy to manufacture. The approach taken in my demonstration proposal is to disincentivize dirty energy – rather than the more fraught and difficult route (it seems to me) of incentivizing clean energy.
The idea of using forests for carbon sequestration seems like a wholly separate issue. There’s only a finite amount of land in New Zealand that could be turned perpetually into forest, and so it’s obviously not a long term solution to ongoing greenhouse gas emissions. The question of what proportion of land we devote to perpetual forest – or how much we deforest – seems like a wholly separate political question (though certainly a tax on dirty energy might disincentivize dairy in comparison to forestry, for example).
If I capture CO2 and turn it into methane, I pay PGST on the energy used to do that, but not on the net warming potential in the gas produced.
I may not be following you here. The methane emitted at the landfill, for example, would be charged on a carbon-dioxide-equivalent basis. Theoretically you could also tax ruminant carcasses and milk solids (at abattoirs and dairy factories) on a per kilogram basis at a rate to represent the carbon-dioxide-equivalent of methane emitted during production of their food energy.
You’d only need to focus on big emitters. You wouldn’t worry about home kills or methane emissions from long-drops, of course (much in the same way that we don’t attempt to charge GST on postal orders of trifling value).
EDIT: It’s illegal in New Zealand, of course, to release synthetic refrigerants into the atmosphere, so that’s not an issue that needs to be covered by my demonstration proposal. Though you could certainly explore the possibility of taxing synthetic refrigerant imports on a carbon-dioxide-equivalent basis rather than under the current levy.
The idea of using forests for carbon sequestration seems like a wholly separate issue
Yes, once you rule negative emissions out they are. You also rule out embodied energy as sequestration, which makes some substitutions difficult (plantation vs old growth forest, they're identical to you)
I think I'm struggling with your time scales. To me, it doesn't matter whether, say, the 400 year old trees we're burning are swamp kauri (PGST taxable) or standing timber (not taxable), they both burn to CO2 and that's what we care about. But to you, one 400 years is geologic time which matters, the other 400 years is just normal carbon cycling so can be ignored.
Part of the issue is that politically, geologic time does not exist, and any apparent problem that can be deferred to the next electoral cycle can be solved that way. So there's a clash between "we must make this a political problem right now today immediately" and the engineer-speak of "in the long term". Politically "the long term" is the budget estimates that stretch way off into the far distant future... sometimes as far as 10 years. In that 10 year context, methane emitted now is permanent.
The engineering problem we have is that we don't have a socipolitical system capable of dealing with anything much beyond 10 years reliably, but we engineers are good at producing systems that require active management over much (much, much) longer timescales. It's not a "bah, puny humans" situation.
This is why I prefer to express everything in electoral cycles, and keep trying to emphasise that politicians count like dogs "one election, two election... thre? ... lots and lots of elections".
As a GHG methane has the huge advantage that it’s a short-term gas, so if we stop excreting it it’ll be gone in a mere 20 to 100 election cycles. Which may be your confusion?
Perhaps. It's not really so much the methane as the residual carbon dioxide (or not) after the methane has broken down.
There are some aspects of biology that I really enjoy & am somewhat good at; apparently thinking about biomethane isn't one of them.
The methane emitted at the landfill, for example, would be charged on a carbon-dioxide-equivalent basis
The reciprocal problem I was using as an example was the one where companies were paid for destroying a gas, but not charged for creating it. Profit!
The PGST tax has the problem that if a process creates a GHG they're charged for that, but there is no way to recover that tax if the gas is later destroyed. So with the landfill, they pay for the methane production, but if they sell that methane to someone who burns it, there is no tax refund for the methane but there is tax on the CO2 produced by burning. There are also nasty edge cases along similar lines (I assume that other intermediate products that are consumed during production are not taxed, for example, unless they are sold or shipped during production. It gets very complex).
It’s illegal in New Zealand, of course, to release synthetic refrigerants into the atmosphere, so that’s not an issue that needs to be covered by my demonstration proposal
No, but it does need a container deposit levy style system to make sure that there's no systematic "accidental" release (at the dump, if nowhere else). That's where refusing to have tax refunds for destruction makes the system more complex, not less.
plantation vs old growth forest, they’re identical to you
Only from an energy perspective! I'd say old growth forest has value that can't be measured in joules -- and should be considered (protected) via totally different laws.
think I’m struggling with your time scales. To me, it doesn’t matter whether, say, the 400 year old trees we’re burning are swamp kauri (PGST taxable) or standing timber (not taxable), they both burn to CO2 and that’s what we care about. But to you, one 400 years is geologic time which matters, the other 400 years is just normal carbon cycling so can be ignored.
You're saying that--from an energy perspective--I'd view swamp kauri as a fossil fuel? But standing timber as a renewable fuel (so long as the area is reforested after harvesting)? Yes I would. Burning the swamp kauri adds to the net carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but burning the sustainably harvested timber doesn't (when averaged over time). This is the standard energy engineering perspective.
I'm assuming here that the swamp kauri is turning into coal or some such in the long term. Of course, if you were to extract the swamp kauri and then replant forest then that would be a different story (but again that gets back to the decision of how much of our finite land should be forested or not).
The engineering problem we have is that we don’t have a socipolitical system capable of dealing with anything much beyond 10 years reliably, but we engineers are good at producing systems that require active management over much (much, much) longer timescales. It’s not a “bah, puny humans” situation.
You won't find an argument from energy engineers on that analysis!
I suppose the core problem is that you use "averaged over time" rather than naming a period, so it's not clear whether you mean over the next thousand years or million years. You've ruled out anything much under a century, though. Your ranges are inappropriate, IMO, since the solutions we need have to start now and operate over at most decades.
In terms of trying to avoid the worst of the effects of AGW, 1.5 degrees is starting to look too generous (just 1.5 degrees in the air is looking scary), and likely we should be aiming for less than one. But current policies are premised on long-term warming of 5-10 degrees, with a goal of 3-5 degrees in the immediate future (10-20 electoral cycles). While it's clear to me at least that somewhere in that range technological society becomes impossible, it's not clear where. I vote not to carry out the experiment. Unfortunately the overwhelming majority vote to give it a go. Which raises the question of whether people who will be dead soon should even be allowed to vote on issues like this. The evidence suggests not. Perhaps voting on climate policy should be restricted to those likely to live more than another 50 years?
So with the landfill, they pay for the methane production, but if they sell that methane to someone who burns it, there is no tax refund for the methane but there is tax on the CO2 produced by burning.
Okay I see what you’re asking. The idea, of course, is to encourage landfill operators to capture the methane (as they do now). If they flare it off (as is commonly done now anyway) then they would only have to pay PGST on carbon dioxide rather than the carbon-dioxide-equivalent of methane. If they use the methane to earn money from fuelling a peaking-power plant or heating a municipal swimming pool (which also turns it into carbon dioxide, of course) then they can recoup some of their PGST cost from the profits.
This would have the advantage of encouraging them to convert the methane into ‘safe’ (i.e. minimum-emissions) form at the point of production. It would have the disadvantage–as you say–of discouraging the landfill operator from selling the methane, for example, as fuel for a trucking company.
I can see ways around this disadvantage, if necessary, but I don’t think it’s the degree of detail that I need to get into on a broad-brush proposal (but an interesting point to raise nevertheless).
There are also nasty edge cases along similar lines (I assume that other intermediate products that are consumed during production are not taxed, for example, unless they are sold or shipped during production.
It would have to be sold to attract PGST. The lowest energy state of any slightly common fuel is when it is reduced to carbon dioxide – so there’s no real incentive for anyone to engage in large-scale release of unburnt 'fuel' to atmosphere (and indeed there are already laws that deal with dumping and spillages). The cost drivers would encourage usage of as much of the energy as economically possible, and existing pollution laws would cover discharge of most products (that I can think of) to atmosphere.
I agree that there are all sorts of definitional difficulties with energy – as there are now. For example, are wood pellets a waste product that embodies very little dirty energy, or should they be considered to embody a proportion of the dirty energy from production of the sold timber? In my view a PGST approach may well solve more definitional issues than it would raise, as the flow of money would determine the definition.
Again I think that these are details that could worked out if such a system was ever implemented (which would probably be never!) I fully acknowledge that my demonstration proposal isn’t a ready-to-implement scheme, but I would point out that all the other proposals I’ve seen seem a lot worse – which is why I used it as an example approach to show the basic ingredients required to genuinely reduce greenhouse gas emissions from New Zealand…
I would point out that all the other proposals I've seen seem a lot worse...
Except that for all its faults, a carbon tax is widely known and discussed. A whole new approach would both create confusion and give excuses for further delay. As OldNewThing reminds us, new features start with -100 points. They don't just have to be good ideas, they have to be very good, to be worth considering at all.
Also, "no incentive to release fuel" is just wrong. Oil wells only burn it because otherwise it might explode, and the whole fracking industry is built around capturing most of the gas rather than all of it. Leakage from coal mines is so bad that there is a whole sub-industry built around preventing methane building up and suffocating or detonating miners. The methane doesn't stop existing in coal seams when you open cut mine them, it just becomes easier to ignore. Also, harder to quantify, especially when you're asking an industry to collect hard-to-quantify numbers in order to tax them on the numbers... expect them to systematically bias low.
Except that for all its faults, a carbon tax is widely known and discussed.
But one of the faults of a carbon tax when applied to dirty energy in New Zealand (as I’ve tried to point out) is that it would increase greenhouse gas emissions for the world as a whole. That seems a major fault! And that’s why I’ve pointed out the ingredients required for a system that doesn’t suffer this fault.
I suppose the core problem is that you use “averaged over time” rather than naming a period, so it’s not clear whether you mean over the next thousand years or million years. You’ve ruled out anything much under a century, though. Your ranges are inappropriate, IMO
If we’re still taking about trees, the harvest time for radiata pine can be as low as 20 years; the coppiced chestnuts in Canterbury only 10 years. Not many renewable timber ‘crops’ are over 100 years (selective logging being a different kettle of fish).
Also, “no incentive to release fuel” is just wrong. Oil wells only burn it because otherwise it might explode, and the whole fracking industry is built around capturing most of the gas rather than all of it.
Well I was thinking of intermediate products in manufacturing in New Zealand [EDIT: sorry I may have confused the discussion when talking about ‘fuel’ in my previous post–I was thinking about fertilizer production and ‘non-oxidized intermediate chemicals’ might have been better terminology!]. I agree that the incentives would be for fossil fuel producers to attempt to hide their emissions, but whatever could be attributed to them would be all counted as embodied emissions under a PGST approach. Embodied emissions on imports aren’t even considered on other schemes I’ve seen proposed for New Zealand.