14 September 2011

Don't Count Carbon, Count Carbon Free Energy Supply Instead

In case you wanted more evidence that policies based on accounting for carbon dioxide emissions are hopeless, the NYT reports that a scientific advisory body to the EU is going to soon issue a report that undercuts the carbon accounting of the UN FCCC and its Kyoto protocol as well as a host of EU biofuels policies:
The European Union is overestimating the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved through reliance on biofuels as a result of a “serious accounting error,” according to a draft opinion by an influential committee of 19 scientists and academics.

The European Environment Agency Scientific Committee writes that the role of energy from crops like biofuels in curbing warming gases should be measured by how much additional carbon dioxide such crops absorb beyond what would have been absorbed anyway by existing fields, forests and grasslands.

Instead, the European Union has been “double counting” some of the savings, according to the draft opinion, which was prepared by the committee in May and viewed this week by The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times

The committee said that the error had crept into European Union regulations because of a “misapplication of the original guidance” under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense since it assumes that all burning of biomass does not add carbon to the air,” the committee wrote.
Problems with biofuels accounting have been long recognized by academics and advocacy groups, but has taken a while to get fully considered in formal processes of governance. Even after the EEA Scientific Comittee reports, it is unclear what the EU response will be, as there is considerable political and economic momentum already built into EU biofuels policies.Stay tuned.

If we shouldn't be using carbon dioxide molecules as the unit of focus, what then should we be looking at?  Easy -- the proportion of energy consumption from carbon-free sources, as I discussed a while back:
To achieve stabilization of carbon dioxide concentrations at a low level the proportion of primary energy consumption from conventional fossil alternatives will have to increase from 13.9% to above 90% (which in round numbers means the equivalent deployment of a nuclear plant per day of carbon-free energy).  I suspect, but do not know, that 2010 will see this ratio decrease (i.e., go the wrong way) from 2008.  Who is tracking this data?
All the attention to counting carbon has led us to take our eye off the ball.