Academic Publication

Joshua B. Horton. 2018. “Parametric Insurance as an Alternative to Liability for Compensating Climate Harms.” Carbon & Climate Law Review, 12, 4, Pp. 285-296. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Interstate compensation for climate change based on legal liability faces serious obstacles. Structural incongruities related to causation, time, scope, and scale impede application of tort law to climate change, while political opposition from developed countries prevents intergovernmental consideration of liability as a means of compensating for climate damages. Insurance, however, in particular parametric insurance triggered by objective environmental indices, is emerging as a promising alternative to liability. This is manifest in the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement, which ruled out recourse to legal liability, and in the formation and expansion of regional sovereign climate risk insurance schemes in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific. Theory and early practice suggest that parametric insurance exhibits five key advantages compared to legal liability in the climate change context: (1) it does not require that causation be demonstrated; (2) it has evolved to provide catastrophic coverage; (3) it is oriented toward the future rather than the past; (4) it is contractual, rather than adversarial, in nature; and (5) it provides a high degree of predictability. Compensation based on parametric insurance represents a novel climate policy option with significant potential to advance climate politics.

Wake Smith and Gernot Wagner. 11/23/2018. “Stratospheric aerosol injection tactics and costs in the first 15 years of deployment.” Environmental Research Letters, 13. Publisher's VersionAbstract
We review the capabilities and costs of various lofting methods intended to deliver sulfates into the lower stratosphere. We lay out a future solar geoengineering deployment scenario of halving the increase in anthropogenic radiative forcing beginning 15 years hence, by deploying material to altitudes as high as ~20 km. After surveying an exhaustive list of potential deployment techniques, we settle upon an aircraft-based delivery system. Unlike the one prior comprehensive study on the topic (McClellan et al 2012 Environ. Res. Lett. 7 034019), we conclude that no existing aircraft design—even with extensive modifications—can reasonably fulfill this mission. However, we also conclude that developing a new, purpose-built high-altitude tanker with substantial payload capabilities would neither be technologically difficult nor prohibitively expensive. We calculate early-year costs of ~$1500 ton−1 of material deployed, resulting in average costs of ~$2.25 billion yr−1 over the first 15 years of deployment. We further calculate the number of flights at ~4000 in year one, linearly increasing by ~4000 yr−1. We conclude by arguing that, while cheap, such an aircraft-based program would unlikely be a secret, given the need for thousands of flights annually by airliner-sized aircraft operating from an international array of bases.
Lee Miller and David Keith. 10/4/2018. “Observation-based solar and wind power capacity factors and powerdensities.” Environmental Research Letters, 13. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Power density is the rate of energy generation per unit of land surface area occupied by an energy system. The power density of low-carbon energy sources will play an important role in mediating the environmental consequences of energy system decarbonization as the world transitions away from high power-density fossil fuels. All else equal, lower power densities mean larger land and environmental footprints. The power density of solar and wind power remain surprisingly uncertain: estimates of realizable generation rates per unit area for wind and solar power span 0.3–47Wem−2 and 10–120Wem−2 respectively. We refine this range using US data from 1990–2016. We estimate wind power density from primary data, and solar power density from primary plant-level data and prior datasets on capacity density. The mean power density of 411 onshore wind power plants in 2016 was 0.50Wem−2. Wind plants with the largest areas have the lowest power densities. Wind power capacity factors are increasing, but that increase is associated with a decrease in capacity densities, so power densities are stable or declining. If wind power expands away from the best locations and the areas of wind power plants keep increasing, it seems likely that wind’s power density will decrease as total wind generation increases. The mean 2016 power density of 1150 solar power plants was 5.4Wem−2. Solar capacity factors and (likely) power densities are increasing with time driven, in part, by improved panel efficiencies. Wind power has a 10-fold lower power density than solar, but wind power installations directly occupy much less of the land within their boundaries. The environmental and social consequences of these divergent land occupancy patterns need further study.

Lee Miller and David Keith. 10/4/2018. “Climatic Impacts of Wind Power.” Joule, 2. Publisher's VersionAbstract

We find that generating today’s US electricity demand (0.5 TWe) with wind power would warm Continental US surface temperatures by 0.24C. Warming arises, in part, from turbines redistributing heat by mixing the boundary layer. Modeled diurnal and seasonal temperature differences are roughly consistent with recent observations of warming at wind farms, reflecting a coherent mechanistic understanding for how wind turbines alter climate. The warming effect is: small compared with projections of 21st century warming, approximately equivalent to the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing global electricity generation, and large compared with the reduced warming achieved by decarbonizing US electricity with wind. For the same generation rate, the climatic impacts from solar photovoltaic systems are about ten times smaller than wind systems. Wind’s overall environmental impacts are surely less than fossil energy. Yet, as the energy system is decarbonized, decisions between wind and solar should be informed by estimates of their climate impacts.

Peter J. Irvine, David W. Keith, and John Moore. 7/27/2018. “Brief communication: Understanding solar geoengineering's potential to limit sea level rise requires attention from cryosphere experts.” The Cryosphere, 12, Pp. 2501-2513. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Stratospheric aerosol geoengineering, a form of solar geoengineering, is a proposal to add a reflective layer of aerosol to the stratosphere to reduce net radiative forcing and so to reduce the risks of climate change. The efficacy of solar geoengineering at reducing changes to the cryosphere is uncertain; solar geoengineering could reduce temperatures and so slow melt, but its ability to reverse ice sheet collapse once initiated may be limited. Here we review the literature on solar geoengineering and the cryosphere and identify the key uncertainties that research could address. Solar geoengineering may be more effective at reducing surface melt than a reduction in greenhouse forcing that produces the same global-average temperature response. Studies of natural analogues and model simulations support this conclusion. However, changes below the surfaces of the ocean and ice sheets may strongly limit the potential of solar geoengineering to reduce the retreat of marine glaciers. High-quality process model studies may illuminate these issues. Solar geoengineering is a contentious emerging issue in climate policy and it is critical that the potential, limits, and risks of these proposals are made clear for policy makers.
Joshua B. Horton, Jesse L. Reynolds, Holly Jean Buck, Daniel Callies, Stefan Schäfer, David W. Keith, and Steve Rayner. 6/28/2018. “Solar Geoengineering and Democracy.” Global Environmental Politics, Pp. 5-24. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Some scientists suggest that it might be possible to reflect a portion of incoming sunlight back into space to reduce climate change and its impacts. Others argue that such solar radiation management (SRM) geoengineering is inherently incompatible with democracy. In this article, we reject this incompatibility argument. First, we counterargue that technologies such as SRM lack innate political characteristics and predetermined social effects, and that democracy need not be deliberative to serve as a standard for governance. We then rebut each of the argument’s core claims, countering that (1) democratic institutions are sufficiently resilient to manage SRM, (2) opting out of governance decisions is not a fundamental democratic right, (3) SRM may not require an undue degree of technocracy, and (4) its implementation may not concentrate power and promote authoritarianism. Although we reject the incompatibility argument, we do not argue that SRM is necessarily, or even likely to be, democratic in practice.
Andy Parker and Peter Irvine. 3/11/2018. “The Risk of Termination Shock From Solar Geoengineering.” Earth's Future, 6, Pp. 456-467. Publisher's VersionAbstract
If solar geoengineering were to be deployed so as to mask a high level of global warming, and then stopped suddenly, there would be a rapid and damaging rise in temperatures. This effect is often referred to as termination shock, and it is an influential concept. Based on studies of its potential impacts, commentators often cite termination shock as one of the greatest risks of solar geoengineering. However, there has been little consideration of the likelihood of termination shock, so that conclusions about its risk are premature. This paper explores the physical characteristics of termination shock, then uses simple scenario analysis to plot out the pathways by which different driver events (such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or political action) could lead to termination. It then considers where timely policies could intervene to avert termination shock. We conclude that some relatively simple policies could protect a solar geoengineering system against most of the plausible drivers. If backup deployment hardware were maintained and if solar geoengineering were implemented by agreement among just a few powerful countries, then the system should be resilient against all but the most extreme catastrophes. If this analysis is correct, then termination shock should be much less likely, and therefore much less of a risk, than has previously been assumed. Much more sophisticated scenario analysis—going beyond simulations purely of worst‐case scenarios—will be needed to allow for more insightful policy conclusions.
David W. Keith, Geoffrey Holmes, David St. Angelo, and Kenton Heidel. 6/7/2018. “A Process for Capturing CO2 from the Atmosphere.” Joule. Publisher's VersionAbstract

Context & Scale
An industrial process for large-scale capture of atmospheric CO2 (DAC) serves two roles. First, as a source of CO2 for making carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels, enabling carbon-free energy to be converted into high-energy-density fuels. Solar fuels, for example, may be produced at high-insolation low-cost locations from DAC-CO2 and electrolytic hydrogen using gas-to-liquids technology enabling decarbonization of difficult-to-electrify sectors such as aviation. And second, DAC with CO2 sequestration allows carbon removal.

The feasibility of DAC has been disputed, in part, because publications have not provided sufficient engineering detail to allow independent evaluation of costs. We provide an engineering cost basis for a commercial DAC system for which all major components are either drawn from well-established commercial heritage or described in sufficient detail to allow assessment by third parties. This design reflects roughly 100 person-years of development by Carbon Engineering.

We describe a process for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere in an industrial plant. The design captures ∼1 Mt-CO2/year in a continuous process using an aqueous KOH sorbent coupled to a calcium caustic recovery loop. We describe the design rationale, summarize performance of the major unit operations, and provide a capital cost breakdown developed with an independent consulting engineering firm. We report results from a pilot plant that provides data on performance of the major unit operations. We summarize the energy and material balance computed using an Aspen process simulation. When CO2 is delivered at 15 MPa, the design requires either 8.81 GJ of natural gas, or 5.25 GJ of gas and 366 kWhr of electricity, per ton of CO2 captured. Depending on financial assumptions, energy costs, and the specific choice of inputs and outputs, the levelized cost per ton CO2 captured from the atmosphere ranges from 94 to 232 $/t-CO2.

Thomas Stoerk, Gernot Wagner, and Robert ET Ward. 6/4/2018. “Recommendations for Improving the Treatment of Risk and Uncertainty in Economic Estimates of Climate Impacts in the Sixth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Report.” Review of Environmental Economics and Policy. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Large discrepancies persist between projections of the physical impacts of climate change and economic damage estimates. These discrepancies increase with increasing global average temperature projections. Based on this observation, we recommend that in its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) improve its approach to the management of the uncertainties inherent in climate policy decisions. In particular, we suggest that the IPCC (1) strengthen its focus on applications of decision making under risk, uncertainty, and outright ambiguity and (2) estimate how the uncertainty itself affects its economic and financial cost estimates of climate damage and, ultimately, the optimal price for each ton of carbon dioxide released. Our hope is that by adopting these recommendations, AR6 will be able to resolve some of the documented inconsistencies in estimates of the physical and economic impacts of climate change and more effectively fulfill the IPCC’s mission to provide policymakers with a robust and rigorous approach for assessing the potential future risks of climate change.
Sebastian D. Eastham, Debra K. Weisenstein, David W. Keith, and Steven R. H. Barrett. 5/25/2018. “Quantifying the impact of sulfate geoengineering on mortality from air quality and UV-B exposure.” Atmospheric Environment. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Sulfate geoengineering is a proposed method to partially counteract the global radiative forcing from accumulated greenhouse gases, potentially mitigating some impacts of climate change. While likely to be effective in slowing increases in average temperatures and extreme precipitation, there are known side-effects and potential unintended consequences which have not been quantified. One such consequence is the direct human health impact. Given the significant uncertainties, we take a sensitivity approach to explore the mechanisms and range of potential impacts. Using a chemistry-transport model, we quantify the steady-state response of three public health risks to 1 °C global mean surface cooling. We separate impacts into those which are “radiative forcing-driven”, associated with climate change “reversal” through modification of global radiative forcing, and those “direct impacts” associated uniquely with using sulfate geoengineering to achieve this. We find that the direct (non-radiative forcing driven) impact is a decrease in global mortality of ∼13,000 annually. Here the benefits of reduced ozone exposure exceed increases in mortality due to UV and particulate matter, as each unit of injected sulfur incurs 1/25th the particulate matter exposure of a unit of sulfur emitted from surface sources. This reduction is exceeded by radiative forcing-driven health impacts resulting from using sulfate geoengineering to offset 1 °C of surface temperature rise. Increased particulate matter formation at these lower temperatures results in ∼39,000 mortalities which would have been avoided at higher temperatures. As such we estimate that sulfate geoengineering in 2040 would cause ∼26,000 (95% interval: −30,000 to +79,000) early deaths annually relative to the same year without geoengineering, largely due to the loss of health benefits associated with CO2-induced warming. These results account only for impacts due to changes in air quality and UV-B flux. They do not account for non-mortality impacts or changes in atmospheric dynamics, and must be considered in the wider context of other climate change impacts such as heatwave frequency and sea level rise.
Aseem Mahajan, Dustin Tingley, and Gernot Wagner. 5/2018. “Fast, cheap, and imperfect? U.S. public opinion about solar geoengineering.” Environmental Politics. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Solar geoengineering, which seeks to cool the planet by reflecting a small fraction of sunlight back into space, has drawn the attention of scientists and policymakers as climate change remains unabated. Unlike mitigation, solar geoengineering could quickly and cheaply lower global temperatures. It is also imperfect. Its environmental impacts remain unpredictable, and its low cost and immediate effects may result in “moral hazard,” potentially crowding out costly mitigation efforts. There is little understanding about how the public will respond to such tradeoffs. To address this, a 1,000-subject nationally representative poll focused on solar geoengineering was conducted as part of the Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) of the US electorate in October-November 2016. The importance that individuals place on solar geoengineering’s speed and cost predicts their support for it, but there is little to no relationship between their concerns about its shortcomings and support for its research and use. Acquiescence bias appears to be an important factor for attitudes around solar geoengineering and moral hazard.
Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman. 7/2018. “Potentially large equilibrium climate sensitivity tail uncertainty.” Economics Letters, 168, Pp. 144-6. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS), the link between concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and eventual global average temperatures, has been persistently and perhaps deeply uncertain. Its ‘likely’ range has been approximately between 1.5 and 4.5 degrees Centigrade for almost 40 years (Wagner and Weitzman, 2015). Moreover, Roe and Baker (2007), Weitzman (2009), and others have argued that its right-hand tail may be long, ‘fat’ even. Enter Cox et al. (2018), who use an ’emergent constraint’ approach to characterize the probability distribution of ECS as having a central or best estimate of 2.8℃ with a 66% confidence interval of 2.2-3.4℃. This implies, by their calculations, that the probability of ECS exceeding 4.5℃ is less than 1%. They characterize such kind of result as “renewing hope that we may yet be able to avoid global warming exceeding 2[℃]”. We share the desire for less uncertainty around ECS (Weitzman, 2011; Wagner and Weitzman, 2015). However, we are afraid that the upper-tail emergent constraint on ECS is largely a function of the assumed normal error terms in the regression analysis. We do not attempt to evaluate Cox et al. (2018)’s physical modeling (aside from the normality assumption), leaving that task to physical scientists. We take Cox et al. (2018)’s 66% confidence interval as given and explore the implications of applying alternative probability distributions. We find, for example, that moving from a normal to a log-normal distribution, while giving identical probabilities for being in the 2.2-3.4℃ range, increases the probability of exceeding 4.5℃ by over five times. Using instead a fat-tailed Pareto distribution, an admittedly extreme case, increases the probability by over forty times.
Jordan P. Smith, John Dykema, and David Keith. 4/2/2018. “Production of Sulfates Onboard an Aircraft: Implications for the Cost and Feasibility of Stratospheric Solar Geoengineering.” Earth and Space Science. Publisher's VersionAbstract
Injection of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere, a form of solar geoengineering, has been proposed as a means to reduce some climatic changes by decreasing net anthropogenic radiative forcing. The cost and technical feasibility of forming aerosols with the appropriate size distribution are uncertain. We examine the possibility of producing the relevant sulfur species, SOor SO3, by in situ conversion fromelemental sulfur onboard an aircraft. We provide afirst-order engineering analysis of an open cycle chemicalplant for in situ sulfur to sulfate conversion using a Brayton cycle combustor and a catalytic converter. We find that such a plant could have sufficiently low mass that the overall requirement for mass transport to the lower stratosphere may be reduced by roughly a factor of 2. All else equal, this suggests that—for a given radiative forcing—the cost of delivering sulfate aerosols may be nearly halved. Beyond reducing cost, the use of elemental sulfur reduces operational health and safety risks and should therefore reduce environmental side effects associated with delivery. Reduction in cost is not necessarily beneficial as it reduces practical barriers to deployment, increasing the urgency of questions concerningthe efficacy, risks, and governance of solar geoengineering.
Douglas G. MacMartin, Katharine L. Ricke, and David W. Keith. 4/2/2018. “Solar geoengineering as part of an overall strategy for meeting the 1.5°C Paris target.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 376, 2119.Abstract
Solar geoengineering refers to deliberately reducing net radiative forcing by reflecting some sunlight back to space, in order to reduce anthropogenic climate changes; a possible such approach would be adding aerosols to the stratosphere. If future mitigation proves insufficient to limit the rise in global mean temperature to less than 1.5°C above preindustrial, it is plausible that some additional and limited deployment of solar geoengineering could reduce climate damages. That is, these approaches could eventually be considered as part of an overall strategy to manage the risks of climate change, combining emissions reduction, net-negative emissions technologies and solar geoengineering to meet climate goals. We first provide a physical science review of current research, research trends and some of the key gaps in knowledge that would need to be addressed to support informed decisions. Next, since few climate model simulations have considered these limited-deployment scenarios, we synthesize prior results to assess the projected response if solar geoengineering were used to limit global mean temperature to 1.5°C above preindustrial in an overshoot scenario that would otherwise peak near 3°C. While there are some important differences, the resulting climate is closer in many respects to a climate where the 1.5°C target is achieved through mitigation alone than either is to the 3◦C climate with no geoengineering. This holds for both regional temperature and precipitation changes; indeed, there are no regions where a majority of models project that this moderate level of geoengineering would produce a statistically significant shift in precipitation further away from preindustrial levels. This article is part of the theme issue ‘The Paris Agreement: understanding the physical and social challenges for a warming world of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels’.