Friday, October 28, 2016

Saint Clair

The other week in Kiev, I stumbled upon an old favourite from the South Island. In line with Herman Melville’s “everlasting itch for things remote”, this sauvignon blanc tastes of black currant leaves, gooseberry, and lime but most of all of another life and time. Rushing between classes and papers to mark, I have barely been able to breathe this week. At the homefront, William is just recovering from a nasty flu while Eddie has another eye infection coming on. In the middle of it all, I am trying to schedule my teaching for 2017. So bear with me. However, on 11 November I will be back in Lund where an old friend will defend her PhD thesis.

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 grand 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: