Shell: internal carbon pricing and the limits of big oil company action on climate

Originally posted at Skeptical Science on March 24th, 2015.

Shell evaluates all of its projects using a shadow carbon tax of $40 per tonne of carbon dioxide. That’s great. But why is the company still exploring in the Arctic and busy exploiting the Alberta oil sands?

Of all of the big fossil-fuel companies, Shell has adopted perhaps the most constructive position on climate change mitigation. Recently, the company’s CEO, Ben van Buerden told an industry conference:

You cannot talk credibly about lowering emissions globally if, for example, you are slow to acknowledge climate change; if you undermine calls for an effective carbon price; and if you always descend into the ‘jobs versus environment’ argument in the public debate.

Shell employs engineer David Hone as their full-time Climate Change Advisor. Hone has written a small ebook Putting the Genie Back: 2°C Will Be Harder Than We Think, priced at just 99¢ and he writes a climate change blog that should be part of every climate-policy geek’s balanced diet.

Shell also has a position they call Vice President CO2, currently occupied by Angus Gillespie. Here’s Gillespie talking recently at Stanford on the company’s internal shadow carbon pricing strategy (hat-tip to John Mashey). It’s worth watching if only for Gillespie’s vivid example of the limitations of looking at averages. The slides can be downloaded here.

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Have we turned the corner on emissions?

One of these days, the world will get its act together and halt the growth in CO2 emissions. This week, the International Energy Agency reported that the rise in emissions did indeed stall in 2014. According to the announcement, this was the first time in forty years that IEA emissions did not increase, except in years of economic weakness.

When we start to turn the emissions corner for good, this is what it will look like. Although halting emissions growth does not yet put us on the path to meeting the 2°C target, it does at least mean that we might not be destined to follow the business-as-usual path to disaster along the worst-case RCP8.5 pathway. At least we are not going as fast along that road.

Chris Mooney, Climate Nexus and Joe Romm have articles on this, all worth reading.

The IEA announcement was a teaser: we are going to have to wait until June 15, 2015 to see the details of the analysis. In the meantime, I thought it would worthwhile looking at some data to see how confident we can be that this really is a positive signal that we can discern out of the noise and uncertainty.

First, let’s plot year-to-year growth in CO2 emissions, along with global GDP growth, against time:


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Does providing information on geoengineering reduce climate polarization?

This article was originally published at Skeptical Science on March 4, 2013.

Dan Kahan of Yale University and four colleagues have just published an article in Annals of the AAPS titled: Geoengineering and Climate Change Polarization Testing a Two-Channel Model of Science Communication that investigates the effect on study participants’ attitudes to climate change after reading an article about geoengineering. In their abstract, they write:

We found that cultural polarization over the validity of climate change science is offset by making citizens aware of the potential contribution of geoengineering as a supplement to restriction of CO2 emissions.

I will argue here that this experiment achieved no such result because the premise was wrong. Specifically, the information on geoengineering that was presented to the study participants (in the form of a fictional newspaper article) bears no relation to mainstream scientific opinion on geoengineering nor, even, to the opinions of advocates of geoengineering. Geoengineering is portrayed in the fictional newspaper article as a strategy with no uncertainty about how well it might work and, it is claimed, will “spare consumers and businesses from the heavy economic costs associated with the regulations necessary to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm or lower”. This is hardly depicting geoengineering as a “potential solution” or “a supplement” to the restriction of emissions, as is claimed in the abstract of the paper.

In fact, what Kahan et al. have demonstrated is that presenting misinformation dressed up as fact can affect people’s opinions about climate change. That may be interesting as a social science experiment conducted on consenting adults, but it is not much use as a guide to effective public science communication, constrained as it is to tell the truth.
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