Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Making sense of the carbon budget

Over the last years, the notion of a “carbon budget” has made it into climate policy parlance. The idea is often expressed as “in order to keep warming below x degrees, we can only emit y more tonnes of carbon dioxide”. Straightforward as this may sound, reality is obviously more complicated. Not only are there some remaining uncertainties with regards to “climate sensitivity” (i.e. how much warming each additional ton of carbon dioxide produces) but we must also put the human-generated inflow of carbon dioxide in relation to the rate of natural outflow. Recognizing that climate change is not so much a flow as a stock problem, this means that we must make estimates of how long the emitted carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere. For instance, we know that between 65% and 80% of carbon dioxide released into the air dissolves into the ocean over a period of 20–200 years. The remaining emissions have very long perturbation lifetimes of up to five thousand years. To complicate the picture even further, not all carbon emissions stay in the troposphere where carbon dioxide removal can take place. The remaining emissions go into the stratosphere where neither natural nor artificial removal is currently possible. This means that the role of negative emissions technologies (or NETs) in meeting the carbon budget is limited not only by political, social and economic factors but also atmospheric physics.

It is beyond my scientific competence to say what all this means for the notion of a fixed carbon budget. Writing in the journal Anthropocene, Adam Dorr recently suggested that we must take a broader view of climate stabilization and what possible restoration curves would look like:

As a very first step, we must stop the growth in emissions. Once this is achieved, we must begin reducing the total amount of carbon dioxide that we add to the atmosphere every year. Only when this amount falls below the rate of natural carbon dioxide removal will the actual concentration of carbon dioxide (currently at 400 ppm) begin to fall and the warming be reversed. The longer we wait with reducing emissions, the greater will the need be to deploy negative emissions technologies if dangerous warming is to be avoided. The problem is that NETs, in addition to their own instrinsic limitations, are subject to many of the same political economic constraints that are preventing effective mitigation in the first place, in particular the discrepancy between certain upfront cost and uncertain future benefits as well as a paralyzing fragmentation of agency (no single NET project will ever have a discernible effect on the climate).

Unlike NETs, rapid decarbonization using existing nuclear technologies would produce many immediate local benefits, such as improved air quality and cheaper electricity for consumers. If anything, visiting Chernobyl further strengthened my support for nuclear as a source of clean, reliable and abundant energy. However, formidable political and psychological barriers remain to its large-scale deployment. Even if the public may eventually come about and realize the necessity of expanding nuclear power, it may soon be that the stock of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has become so high that dangerous warming is inevitable.

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Cloud hopping

After a weekend in Kiev, I decided to return to the city that once filled my dreams. Unfortunately, running around in the autumn mist of the exclusion zone had turned my cold into something more sinister so instead of a great night out in the 7th district with Markus I got ibuprofen and a large pack of tissues from Billa.

Landing in the new shiny terminal 3 of Vienna Airport, I realized that more than eight years have passed since my last visit. Below the hypermodern surface and the ticket machines suddenly addressing me in Swedish, Austria seems to once again straddle on the brink of collapse into illiberal darkness. On 4th of December the country will go to the polls for a new second run of its presidential election in which we can only hope that Alexander Van der Bellen from the Greens will succeed in once again defeating FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer.

Later tonight I will be in Warsaw to see Gabriel before heading back to Umeå for a teaching marathon of near epic proportions. But first, and despite the flu, there is no denying the magic of being able to order a “melange to go” with some “prickelnd” mineral water.

Saturday, October 15, 2016


Just as Hong Kong is Asia for Beginners, Kiev is definitely Russia with side wheels. Still I am already very much in love with the city, here at Shuliavska metro station with its beautiful nuclear mural.

Friday, October 14, 2016


It is late at night when I get back to my Kiev hotel room after a full day on the road visiting the ghost town Pripyat and the exclusion zone around Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. While the recording of the radiation dosimeter would have been significantly higher had I spent the day in an airplane across the Atlantic, actually visiting the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident did leave me with a much more personal experience of nuclear risk. Seeing the abandoned beds in the nursery of Kopachi or walking through the beta particle detector before having lunch at the canteen of the Chernobyl plant reminded me of the very physicality and vulnerability of our bodies.  At the same time, the exclusion zone is a place where nature is bouncing back, the wildlife is thriving and the decontamination process has successfully restored a surprising degree of normality to many places. Overall I took more than 150 pictures today but here are a few snapshots:


Friday, September 30, 2016


Friday morning on a backstreet near Paddington Station. Like last time in London, I have been absorbed by marking but now I am finally nearing the end of the alphabet. Meanwhile, high above the usual Heathrow approach, an A330 belonging to Air Berlin is making its way from Düsseldorf to Cuba. Despite my promise to cut down on my coffee consumption, I order an Illy double espresso and allow myself to disappear into the blue dreamy sky above.

Regardless of the Brexit gloom, London is still London. Yesterday at the National Portrait Gallery one could really tell that the history of these islands has never been straightforward or free of moral contradictions. Yet, coming from small-town Umeå, it is still true magic to be able to follow up some highly authentic Vietnamese food with Italian coffee at Frith Street before heading over to Islington for some mixology escapades.

Over the next two weeks, I will work full-time with my co-authored book project with little time for blogging. On 13 October, the Ukraine awaits.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Ten years

Documenting a decade at the very frontline of champagne socialism, Rawls & Me has definitely had a good run. I am still undecided if I want to continue the weblog for another decade but today, exactly ten years ago, I wrote my first post suggesting that, in the universe of blogs, supply exceeds demand. I still think that holds true, at least to some extent. Yet, the long format blog post does have a certain currency in these Twitter times.

Concluding this decade of imperfectly interlaced biographies, the immediate future of Rawls & Me will take you along to London and Chernobyl. Then, early next year, there will be Baltimore for the 58th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association which, I just learned, has accepted my paper for presentation in a panel on “Images of the Future in the Anthropocene”. Beyond that, the road lies open.


Friday, September 16, 2016

Intergenerational justice

Some ten years ago, I did a bit of work in applied ethics on our moral obligations towards future generations. Among other things, I was able to publish a paper in the journal Organization & Environment on how to reduce the highly asymmetric influence that current generations, in particular through climate change, exercise on the well-being of future generations. Like most academic papers, it has only generated a handful of citations and, in retrospect, I do not think I was able to add much to what others had already said.

Afterwards, I moved on, primarily to work on climate policy but also different notions of environmental citizenship. However, on the 27th of September, I have been invited to serve as opponent for the final seminar of a PhD thesis on the non-identity problem in intergenerational justice at Stockholm University. Despite teaching full-time, this means that I have spent the last days rediscovering a lot of literature and coming back to many of the thoughts I had a decade ago. If I can find the time, I will write a follow-up post on this after the seminar. For now, I am afraid I have to go back to reading...


Saturday, September 10, 2016


Already it is barely above freezing and completely dark when William wakes everyone up to a new day. During the three or so hours before taking the bus to the nursery, there is plenty of time to make pancakes, run a washing machine or two and maybe, but just maybe, get a brief moment to read the world news.

Today, it feels like the whole world is inside a cold rain cloud. A perfect setting to get a taste of what is to come. Frying some sweet potatoes and onions with saffron and cayenne pepper, I make the kind of lunch that makes one survive the long winters of the High North. Zucchini, chickpeas, whole tomatoes and some freshly whipped aioli on top. Of course served with a Czech lager and some wheat levain bread.


Sunday, September 04, 2016


One late night almost ten years ago, I was out driving near Page, Arizona. In the dark without a GPS, I was trying to find a Best Western motel which I had been able to book at a rather incredible $40 rate which seemed like a steal since every picture on their website looked really scenic. However, the reason for the low rate would soon be all too clear as the motel had two “wings”, one facing the beauty of Lake Mead and the other a 2250 megawatt coal-fired powerplant called “Navajo Generating Station” (obviously, my room was in the latter wing). Not only was the view highly dystopic, the powerplant also gave away a fair share of noise which made sleeping rather difficult.

Looking out at the coal power plant at night, I remember thinking that this is what we are doing to the planet and ourselves. Rather than the clean high-energy future envisioned in StarTrek (which by the way is turning fifty on Thursday), we are burning through brownish-black minerals of fossilized carbon. To me, coal is somehow emblematic “Ork-tech”. It is the kind of technology that we should have left behind decades ago where it not for irrational fears of nuclear energy. Thus, it is somewhat ironic that the greatest achievement of the so called “environmental movement” may be that it has made the world safe for coal.

And now, it seems as I have had better luck and scored a more permanent upgrade to the wing with the “lake view”. As the construction of the neighbourhood is almost finished, it feels nearly as idyllic as Hobbiton with kids playing and lots of green stuff.  If now only people would share a moral commitment to making this universal rather than taking it as an unreflected privilege or, worse, pursue “feel good” policies that will keep the rest of the world trapped in fossil Mordor.

Friday, August 26, 2016


Working, as I do, on climate mitigation policy it does not hurt to get a bit of perspective sometimes. The other day, I picked up Neal Stephenson’s latest book "Seveneves" which Obama listed as one of his favourite summer reads. I must admit that it has not been easy to put it away.

In the book, the Moon suddenly breaks into seven pieces, leading to a chain reaction which in two years’ time will make the planet's surface uninhabitable for millennia. Quickly, a doomsday evacuation into orbit is initiated.

Without giving away too much of the plot, it is good to be reminded of what we humans can do if we work together towards a common goal. In comparison, fixing anthropogenic climate change seems like a rather simple task if we were to actually commit ourselves. For instance, the threat of rising sea levels can, at least to some degree, be reduced by putting a number of nuclear reactors on Antarctica and then pumping seawater into the interior of the continent where it will freeze. Ocean acidification may be a bit more difficult but sprinkling olivine into the sea could go a long way in opposing surface ocean acidification. Similarly, and unlike evacuating Earth, displacing fossil fuels in the energy sector is hardly rocket science but rather something that we have already successfully done in the past using nuclear energy in Sweden and a number of other countries. Thus, if the shit really hits the fan, as there is every indication that it will do in a couple of decades, I am fairly confident that disaster can be avoided, if not by these precise means so then by others. However, in retrospect, people will probably ask why we were so slow in realizing the danger and acting on it and why the solutions first proposed (such a small-scale renewable energy) were even seriously considered in a world of seven billion people.

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