Pollution from aircraft – another reason to tax fossil fuels at their source

Photo of jet aircraft contrails
Jet aircraft contrails. Image: Wikipedia

The global civil aviation industry is on a roll. Last year the world’s airlines profited from carrying 4.38 billion passengers and 63.3 million tones of freight. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) the number of passengers carried per year could reach 8.2 billion by 2037, a forecast based on 3.5% compound annual growth rate. A rosy outlook indeed — for the industry. Can the good times last — for the industry?

The industry’s current prosperity is based on cheap fossil fuel and on the fact that the industry is allowed to dump its emissions into the global atmosphere at no cost to itself. According to IATA data, in 2018 a total of 38.1 million flights consumed 95 billion gallons of fuel and released 905 million tones of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, about 2% of global CO2 emissions. But that’s not all. Emissions from aircraft jet engines contain other pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen, unburned fuel, soot, and water vapour. Soot, for example, provides condensation sites for water vapour and the consequent formation of contrails at high altitudes (17,000 to 45,000 feet). When contrails linger or spread out thinly like natural cirrus clouds, they trap heat radiating from the earth’s surface and so add to atmospheric warming. The combined contribution to global warming made by these non-CO2 emissions, equals or exceeds that made by the aircraft’s CO2 emissions.

The industry is under pressure to reduce its carbon footprint. According to IATA ‘fact sheets’, this is what the industry plans to do: First it plans to cap its net CO2 emissions at 2019 levels. From then on, or so the industry claims, its growth will be carbon-neutral. It plans to accomplish this carbon-neutral growth by “pursuing a 4-pillar strategy” as follows:

(1) Improved aircraft technology, including the deployment of sustainable low-carbon fuels. (2) More efficient aircraft operations. (3) Better ground-based infrastructure (4) Offsetting the remaining emissions gap.

Here are some of the reasons why the industry’s plan is bound to fall short:

Engineers have made great progress in designing jet engines that are more fuel efficient and produce less CO2. And that work continues. However, a recent paper by Lisa Bock and Ulrike Burkhardt of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany, shows that more fuel efficient jet engines produce more, and longer lasting contrails. The atmospheric heating caused by such contrails cancels out the benefit from more efficient jet engines.

The industry is counting on the development of biofuels to begin replacing fossil fuels. A biofuel is any fuel that is derived from biomass, such as plant or algae material or animal waste. The International Energy Agency (IEA) anticipates biofuels reaching around 10% of aviation fuel demand by 2030, and close to 20% by 2040. In the context of what the industry says it wants to achieve, this is way too slow. Currently biofuels are much more expensive than fossil-based jet fuel, a cost premium that prevents their wider use. The bar chart below shows that for biofuels to compete with fossil jet fuel, the cost of fossil fuels must rise. A sizeable tax on the CO2 content of fossil fuels at well-head or port of entry would do the trick, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Bar chart showing aviation fuel cost comparison
Biofuels vs. jet fuel cost comparison. Image from IEA News, March 18, 2019

According to IEA News, March 18, 2019, “Ongoing research and development is needed to support the commercialisation of novel advanced aviation biofuels which can unlock the potential to use agricultural residues and municipal solid wastes.” In other words, serious work on unlocking that potential on behalf of the aviation industry, hasn’t even started.

 The forth pillar of the IATA’s 4-pillar strategy is where the industry admits that its other pillars will not do enough to mitigate all of its emissions. To mitigate the remaining emissions, the industry intends to rely on an approach developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), called Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The scheme was agreed to by ICAO’s 193 member states. This is what IATA’s ‘Fact sheet on CORSIA and carbon pricing’ says about offsetting:

Offsetting is an action by a company or individual to compensate for their emissions by financing a reduction in emissions elsewhere. Offsetting and carbon markets are a fundamental component of global, regional and national emissions reduction policies. They have operated for decades for compliance purposes and voluntary emissions reductions and continue to be an effective mechanism to underpin action against climate change.

Offsetting is more effective than a tax, as a carbon tax merely requires companies to pay for their emissions, without any guarantees that the payment will lead to any emissions reductions.

Poppycock! Carbon offsetting, like taxing carbon emissions, is a form of greenwashing — a way for industries to appear responsible while behaving irresponsibly. To argue that “offsetting is more effective” than taxing carbon emissions, is to say nothing. Neither approach works. The bottom line is this: while “offsetting and carbon pricing . . . have operated for decades” the temperature of the world’s atmosphere continues to rise.

♦ According to a paper published Aug. 14, 2019 by the Center for Climate and Security, titled ‘Climate Change Implications for U.S. Military Aircraft’, new research shows that as the environment grows hotter and more humid, the performance of military aircraft is being adversely affected. Rear Admiral David Titley, US Navy (Ret.), is quoted as follows:

“To better visualize how military operations are being impacted by increasing heat and humidity, one can look at the impacts that changing climate conditions have had on commercial airlines. Commercial airlines are fighting a losing battle with climate change. Increasing heat and humidity is driving flight cancellations and threatening the viability of various airports and flight routes. . . . We are not used to having commercial airlines disrupted because of hot weather. This is a harbinger of things to come.”

As temperature increases, air expands and becomes less dense. As humidity increases, nitrogen and oxygen molecules are displaced by lighter water molecules causing the air to become less dense. As air density decreases, aircraft performance decreases and costs increase .

“These aircraft performance impacts,” Titley says, “can be mitigated by expanding aircraft power and efficiency through wing modification, more aerodynamic design, and more powerful engines. Other mitigation strategies involve lengthening runways and decreasing payloads.”

More powerful engines, if they are fossil-fuel powered, means more emissions to mitigate.

♦ To summarize, if the aviation industry is to achieve its objective of carbon-neutral growth, it will have to cut its use of fossil fuel now, not in decades. Relying on offsetting to fudge a cap on CO2 emissions, will not do.

As the bar chart above shows, the cost of fossil jet fuel must rise by about 100 USD/bbl for alternative fuels to begin competing seriously. Alexandre de Juniac, IATA Chief, has been lobbying against a ‘Green Tax’ on aviation. He should instead lobby globally for a carbon tax on fossil fuels at the mine, well-head, or port of entry. A heavy enough tax would remove the cost premium that’s delaying the use of alternative fuels, force the fossil fuel industry to pay some of the conversion costs, and place all airlines on a level environmental playing field.

Carbon Capture — Big Oil’s bogus response to global warming

Carbon Capture cartoon
Carbon Capture. Image credit: Pilita Clark, Financial Times, Sept. 9, 2015

The Oil & Gas Industry wants us to keep on burning fossil fuels, come hell or high sea level. To divert attention from that sorry objective, the industry is promoting a techno-fix that policymakers and investors can get behind — it’s called Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS  for short. It’s a ruse, a scam. CCS won’t change industry’s behaviour, won’t cause emissions to drop.

Last April, a group of U.S. Senators — 8 Democrats, 4 Republicans — sent a letter to the Senate appropriations committee requesting “robust funding” to develop carbon capture, utilization, and storage (CCUS) technologies “that will address COemissions from coal, natural gas, and industrial facilities.” The letter contains a mixture of false statements, dubious claims, and baloney. Examples follow:

▲ The Senators claim that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has identified CCUS as “a critical component of the portfolio of energy technologies needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.” The claim is false. Here are the facts:

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed Dec. 2015 by 95 countries, set a goal of “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” Global average temperature has already exceeded 1.0°C. Last year, the IPCC prepared a special report on the impacts of global warming to 1.5°C and on the CO2 emissions pathways that could limit warming to that temperature. Here’s what the report’s ‘Summary for Policymakers’ says  in its single statement (item C.2.2) about the use of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS):

In 1.5°C pathways with no or limited overshoot, renewables are projected to supply 70–85% of electricity in 2050. . . . [T]he use of CCS would allow the electricity generation share [from] gas to be approximately 8% (3–11%) of global electricity in 2050, while the use of coal . . . would be reduced to close to 0%.

In other words, the IPCC views the use of CCS, not as a critical component of efforts to reduce CO2 emissions, but as a bit player, and not even an essential bit player. What the IPCC does predict is that ‘natural’ carbon dioxide removal (CDR) techniques, such as reforestation and soil carbon sequestration, will play the major roles.

The Senators state that “Like the wind and solar industries, a combination of federal incentives such as tax credits and federal funding for research, development, and demonstration, will be needed to improve [carbon capture] technology so that it can be cost-competitive with other forms of low COemitting technologies.”

Here the Senators make the absurd implication that energy from fossil fuels  can be made cost-competitive with energy from renewables (solar, wind) by throwing money into carbon capture research. The fact is, energy from fossil fuels cannot compete with energy from renewable today; adding carbon capture technology — no matter how well researched — to fossil fuel exhaust systems, will result in energy that is even less competitive tomorrow. No amount of funding will change that certainty.

▲ The Senators state that “Innovators across the United States are already developing a wide range of CCUS technologies that can improve the efficiency of electricity generation and utilize carbon dioxide emitted by power plants and other sources for more efficient resource development and valuable products, such as algae-derived chemicals, plastics, and fuels.”

Here the Senators are trying, but failing, to show that CCS can pay for itself. The reference to “more efficient resource development” points to ‘enhanced oil recovery’, a process in which captured CO2 is injected into existing wells to force more oil out of the ground. When the recovered oil is burned, it releases as much or more CO2 into the atmosphere as was captured in the first place. The process has nothing to do with true carbon storage, nor with serious efforts to reduce global warming CO2 emissions.

As for the reference to “valuable products”, the world is awash in chemicals, plastics, and fuels, all derived from fossil carbon feed stock (oil, gas, coal). When that fossil carbon feed stock is burned, its carbon is released into the air. The claim that that same carbon (captured from the emissions) can form the basis for new or different products, makes no sense.

▲ The Senators claim that “Investment in carbon utilization technologies will transform carbon dioxide into an economic resource, lower the cost of reducing emissions, create jobs, save consumers money, and safeguard our environment.”

At least the part about jobs is true. Scientists will work on anything, no matter how nutty the project, just so long as they get paid to do it.

Photo of U.S. Senate building
U.S. Senate. Image: Senate.gov

The Senators’ letter is dated April 4, 2019 and signed by Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Angus King (I- Maine), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

If the Senators had actually read the IPCC’s 2018 special report’s ‘Summary for Policymakers’, they would have discovered that holding global average temperature to 1.5°C by 2050 requires action on restricting CO2 emissions NOW.  Pushing CCS technology on behalf of the fossil fuel industry will not do the trick. Here’s what the ‘Summary for Policymakers’ says on the matter:

Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) [e.g., reforestation] can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (item D.1).

The lower the emissions in 2030, the lower the challenge in limiting global warming to 1.5°C after 2030 with no or limited overshoot. The challenges from delayed actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions include the risk of cost escalation, lock-in in carbon-emitting infrastructure, stranded assets, and reduced flexibility in future response options in the medium to long term (item D.3).

In other words: ignore the carbon capture ruse, focus instead on reducing fossil fuel production. That’s the real challenge for policymakers. Are they up to it?

How to survive global warming — Nail the culprits before they nail us

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) continues its rapid rise. Last month (May 2019) CO2 in the atmosphere set a new record with the average peaking at 414.7 parts per million at NOAA’s Mauna Loa Atmospheric Baseline Observatory (see graph below). 

NOAA graph showing atmospheric CO2 2014 to present
The red line represents the monthly mean values. The black line represents the same as a moving average of 7 adjacent seasonal cycles, after correction for the average seasonal cycle. Image: NOAA

The highest level of CO2 in the atmosphere during the 800,000 years preceding the industrial revolution was 300 ppm. That occurred about 330,000 years ago, long before modern humans arrived on the scene (see graph at bottom of post).

What is being done about the present accumulation of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere? Here’s what the World Bank (April 2018) says: Some 40 countries and more than 20 cities, states and provinces already use carbon pricing mechanisms, with more planning to implement them in the future.  Together the carbon pricing schemes now in place cover about half their emissions, which translates to about 13 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions.”

As the above graph shows, these carbon pricing efforts, while well meaning, have had no noticeable effect on the rise in atmospheric CO2. Is it possible that if the carbon pricing efforts become more widespread, their effect will become noticeable? That is unlikely. Why? Because the carbon pricing schemes currently in use target the emissions from fossil fuels rather than the fossil fuels themselves.

In a shooting war, the bullets are not the enemy, the people loading the guns and pulling the triggers are the enemy. To win the war, you duck the bullets and focus your attack on the gunmen. In our climate war, we need to look past the CO2 emissions and set our sights on the gunmen, the people who extract fossil fuels from the ground, the oil and gas industry. 

The best way to fight the industry is to replace fossil fuel based technologies with clean technologies. That’s already happening simply because the cost of clean technologies has dropped sharply. Clean technologies are now cheaper and more efficient than fossil fuel based technologies and they are starting to be used in large areas of the economy (see May 27 post — NY Governor Cuomo goes for clean power technology in a big way). The fossil fuel industry will eventually collapse because of its inferior economics. But not fast enough.

Applying a carbon tax is a way to speed things up. However, to be effective the tax must be targeted, not against the CO2 emission from fossil fuels, but against the carbon content of the fossil fuels before they are burned. The most effective time and place to apply the carbon tax is when and wherever the fuels are extracted from the ground or imported into the country. The correlation between the amount of tax charged and the resulting reduction in oil and gas produced will be close, unambiguous, and directly measurable; a huge advantage for the administrators.

Is it right to single out a particular industry and tax it so as to throttle its production? Of course it is. Our survival depends on it. Being fair to the enemy is not a winning strategy. In any case, fossil fuel companies do not deserve equitable treatment. They knew for years that the use of their products would cause global warming. Did they inform the public? No. They kept the knowledge to themselves, continued pumping fossil fuels, and lied about the dangers.

Keep this in mind:
The oil and gas industry is in favour of taxing CO2 emissions. Why? Because it provides a smoke screen in which to hide. When CO2 emissions are taxed, everyone pays. It allows the oil and gas industry to masquerade as just another industry paying its fair share. It is not just another industry, it is the culprit. As I write this post, the culprit is busy promoting a scheme to 
tax CO2 emissions, a scheme much to its advantage (see May 12 post — Oil Industry promoters want to pay Americans not to complain about global warming).

Subsidize clean technologies. Sue oil and gas  corporations in court. Ban fossil fuel industry tax breaks. Dump investments in oil and gas. Dump politicians who support the oil and gas industry. Those are all great ways to hit the fossil fuel industry and its promoters. Here’s some pertinent advice:

“hit them fast, hit them hard, hit them a lot” — Jack Reacher (Lee Childs’ fictional character)

Graph showing Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million (ppm) for the past 800,000 years, based on European Project for Ice Coring in the Antarctic (EPICA) data. Image: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in parts per million (ppm) for the past 800,000 years, based on European Project for Ice Coring in the Antarctic (EPICA) data. Image: NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

Oil Industry promoters want to pay Americans not to complain about global warming

Photo of oil derricks, Long Beach CA in 1937
Oil derricks, Long Beach CA in 1937. Image: Lib. Of Congress

Every national government in the world knows that burning fossil fuels is a practice that’s killing us. All 197 UNFCCC member countries have either signed or acceded to the Paris Agreement dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the production of oil and gas continues unabated. The following table shows the production from the largest producers: the U.S., Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The U.S. alone has increased its production by about 55% since 2008

U.S. EIA chart showing oil and gas production

Global warming is the disease. Stopping fossil fuel production is the cure. Reducing production might at least help the patient survive. So why haven’t the producers acted? Because no legislation exists anywhere to force them to act. Nor is such legislation likely to appear anytime soon; politicians the world over dance to the tune of the fossil fuel industry. In the few countries where setting a price on carbon emissions is being tried, the taxes are set too low for the effects to work back to the producers of the fuel.

The fossil fuel industry’s business model is similar to the one used by the drug trade: push the product; saturate the market; keep the users hooked. Direct or indirect political involvement is a given. The equivalent of the drug kingpins are the guys running or controlling the world’s Oil and Gas companies: Exxon, Gazprom, BP, Aramco, Shell, to name a few. The pushers are all the entities that stand to gain from the industry’s continued existence. They range from nation states and oil companies down to the industry’s bottom feeders: bought politicians; co-opted scientists; paid lobbyists; etc. A formidable array.

American Fossil fuel pushers are easy to spot because their statements are obviously pro industry. Sometimes their ideas sound reasonable at first reading. The Climate Leadership Council (CLC) is an example. Its proposal — called the Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan (aka: the Climate Consensus Solution) — is presented as a sort of prospectus in its 6 page website. The plan is heavy on promotion, light on specifics. Change a few words in it and the thing could pass as a sales pitch, complete with big-name endorsements, for Florida investment property.

According to its website, the CLC is “an international policy institute founded . . . to promote a carbon dividends framework as the most cost-effective, equitable and politically-viable climate solution.” Its plan, the website says, is backed by “3500+ economists, 27 Nobel laureates, all 4 former Fed Chairs, and 15 former Chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers.” 3500+ economists? That’s what it says. The following image identifies the CLC’s founding members.

Photo list of Climate Leadership Council founding members
Climate Leadership Council founding members. Image from CLC website

The CLC plan proposes that polluting industries pay a carbon tax on CO2 emissions, the money to be collected and given back to the American people in the form of dividend cheques. In exchange, the American people would have to agree to: the elimination of certain EPA emissions regulations; repeal of the clean power rule; and the introduction of a new law that would prohibit lawsuits of the sort that are currently plaguing fossil fuel producers. In other words, while the emitters of CO2 (all industries that burn fossil fuel) would pay a carbon tax, the producers of oil and gas, who refine but don’t burn much of the stuff themselves, would not have to pay much of the carbon tax. Instead, they would get to stick around producing more fossil fuel without having to worry about being sued for causing global warming.

Here’s how the creators of this ‘believe it or not’ scheme sum it all up:

“A sensible carbon tax might begin at $40 a ton and increase steadily over time, sending a powerful signal to businesses and consumers, while generating revenue to reward Americans for decreasing their collective carbon footprint.”

Let’s see how that might work: (1) Industry pays carbon taxes. (2) The tax money is collected and distributed to all Americans as a reward (for agreeing not to sue Oil and Gas companies?) (3) Industry raises its prices to recover the tax cost. (4) Americans use their reward money to cover the extra cost of the stuff they buy from industry. At what point in that Mobius Loop does a reduction in fossil fuel use take place? It doesn’t. The thing is a fantasy. But wait. Isn’t it true that carbon taxes work over time to limit the use of fossil fuels? Yes, but not when the taxing system is designed by fossil fuel pushers as is the case with this CLC plan. This plan is about convincing Americans to shut up about global warming so that the oil and gas companies can get on with the business of making money while the planet burns.

Among the CLC founding members shown in the image above, the five oil and gas companies are doubtless fully supportive of the CLC plan. As for the rest, who knows. My guess is that most of them don’t know exactly what they’ve lent their names to. The CLC pitch is misleading. The website prospectus mentions ‘carbon dividends’ 11 times and ‘climate solution’ 8 times. A dividend-generating Climate Solution sounds good. On the other hand, the words, oil, gas, fossil, or fuel, appear only once or not at all in the prospectus. Those are words that remind people of what causes global warming in the first place.

The Climate Leadership Council is headquartered in Washington DC at 1250 Connecticut Ave. NW.

1250 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC
1250 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC