A brief look at the costs of sustainable energy development

As a researcher entrenched in an academic setting my career and academic future depends on funding that largely comes from the government (National Science Foundation in particular). With renewed budget talks on the horizon I am sure further cuts in research funding will be discussed and put on the table. The problem is that most politicians and citizens do not have a real understanding of how research money is spent or what the benefits are. As an example let us take research and development funding for sustainable energy. This is often a point climate change opponents bring up to argue against using government dollars to develop green energy.

According to this congressional budget office document, in 2011 the Department of Energy (DOE) had a total budget of $24 billion, with only $3.5 billion of that dedicated to direct investment of research and development of sustainable energy technologies. The remaining $20.5 billion goes to tax incentives to improve energy efficiency and encourage investment into sustainable energy programs.

Let’s focus first on direct r&d investment. Opponents to sustainable energy argue that the government should not support new technology investment because the free market will dictate where investment occurs. However, a look at the past DOE budget shows that heavy investments have been made in fossil fuel technologies since the 1980s with only a recent switch (2006) to sustainable energy. In fact, when adjusted to today’s dollar value the DOE spends less on sustainable energy technology investment today than it did for fossil fuels throughout the 80s and most of the 90s. Also let’s remember that DOE has funded and continues to fund fossil fuel development since 1980 with sustainable energy money only recently seeing a large increase in investment.DOE graph

On the other hand, tax incentives are higher now than they were during the 80s and 90s with the majority of that money going to sustainable technologies. However, with the current emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainable energy one could argue that this program is a relative bargain. For example, a National Academies of Sciences Report estimated that air and water pollution resulting from energy production and transportation, which is overwhelmingly fossil fuel based, cost the US $120 billion in health and environmental related damages in 2005. If we spend even a fraction of the overall DOE annual budget on improving our air and water quality by using cleaner energy we could potentially save billions of dollars in the long run by improving our health and environment.

Energy-Related Tax Preferences, by Type of Fuel or TechnologyIf we look at federal money spent across the entire government then the disparity between fossil fuel and sustainable energy spending becomes more apparent. Priceofoil.org estimates that the fossil fuel industry received approximately $53 billion in total funding last year (subsidies, tax breaks, direct government funding, etc.) while sustainable energies received just $15 billion. When we incorporate the environmental and health costs of fossil fuel based energy I would argue that we are greatly underfunding sustainable energy programs. It will take some time before sustainable energies can meet our growing energy demand but in the long run we will all be better by switching to cleaner and more efficient energy sources.

The full NPR series on the effects of climate change on tropical forests

The local Winston Salem NPR station (WFDD 88.5) has now wrapped up their 5-part series covering our research on the effects of climate change on tropical forests.  Here are the links to all of the different segments:


maximize the long-term value of your data

Ethan White et al. have published a paper entitled, “Nine simple ways to make it easier to (re)use your data“.  This paper provides some extremely useful tips and guidelines for formatting and structuring your data in order to maximize its long-term value.  The guidelines are based on three general principles: “Well documented data are easier to understand”, “Properly formatted data are easier to use in a variety of software”, and “Data that are shared in established repositories with open licenses is easier for others to find and use”.  I very highly recommend that all students, and established researchers take a look at these guidelines and start following them ASAP.  If you establish the right habitats early on, then they will require little extra work on your part and will increase the value of your studies and the data they generate greatly.  If you wait, it only becomes more and more difficult, if not impossible, to retroactively reformat data and the value of that data for future studies, your own and those of others, is greatly diminished.

The ways to make it easier to (re)use your data are:
1. Share your data
2. Provide metadata
3. Provide an unprocessed form of the data
4. Use standard data formats
     -Use standard file formats
     -Use standard table formats
     -Use standard formats within cells
5. Use good null values
6. Make it easy to combine your data with other datasets
7. Perform basic quality control
8. Use an established repository
9. Use an established and open license


trees move up but the treeline doesn’t

Picture1Work from our team has showed provided evidence that cloudforest tree species from the Andes and from Costa Rica are shifting their distribution upslope, possibly in response to increasing temperatures.  For the Andes, we conducted a follow-up study where we predicted the future population sizes, and thus extinction vulnerabilities, of the migrating species under different warming scenarios and sets of competing assumptions.  What this exercise clearly showed is that the future of these cloudforest species depends very much on what happens at the upper limit of their distributions – the treeline*. If species are able to migrate upslope and extend their ranges past the current treeline to occupy the parts of the puna (high elevation grassland habitat above treeline sometime referred to as paramo in other parts of the Andes) that become climatically suitable, then we predict that their population sizes may actually increase.  The reason for the increase, and apparent benefit of climate change, is simply that the cross section of the Andes is more trapezoidal than triangular; consequently, as species migrate up off the steep slopes, past treeline and onto the high plateau (altiplano), the amount of land area that they can occupy increases.  In contrast to this relatively rosy scenario, if the treeline remains where it currently is and doesn’t shift upslope with warming (e.g., due to cattle grazing and human activities above the treeline), we predict that all cloudforest species will suffer massive decreases in available habitat area and their population sizes (and hence increases in their risks of extinction) as the lower elevations become ‘too hot’ but they are unable to occupy the ‘just right’ temperatures at higher elevations.

Picture2So we need to know, “will treeline move with warming?”  Well, we now have several decades of climate change behind us so we can look back and ask if treeline has moved or not in response to the 0.5-1oC of warming that the Andes have already experienced over the last several decades.  As part of his dissertation research, our colleague, Przemek Zelazowski, looked at Landsat images collected over the Andes from 1970 to 2000. Due to warming, treeline should have shifted upslope between 90 and 140 vertical meters over this time period.  He found zero change.  Yes, treeline moved up in some places, but in other places it moved down and the modal change, by far, was zero zero zero.  Now, a new study by David Lutz et al. conducts a similar analysis but using much higher-resolution imagery of the areas around Manu National Park where my team works. Over the 4 decades for which they had imagery, they found that 80% of the treelines that they looked at showed zero net change, and the average change across all treelines they looked at was an upslope shift of 0.14 vertical meters per year. This is in the right direction, but it is just 1% the rate that was required to keep pace with concurrent warming.

Treeline has not moved in response to past warming.  It is doubtful that it will move in response to future warming. Cloudforest species will continue to shift their disruptions upslope.  They will be unable to invade the puna. They will suffer decreases in their population sizes. They will be at danger of extinction.

All bad news, right?  Well there is one result from the Lutz et al. study that may be the silver lining on an otherwise very dark cloud.  When Lutz et al. compared the rates of movement of the treelines in the protected areas of Manu National Park to the rates of movement of the treelines in unprotected areas outside the park, they found that protected treelines migrated upslope 5 times faster than their unprotected counterparts (0.24 vs. 0.05 vertical meters per year).  The rate of migration in the park is still way too slow, but this difference does indicate that parks and protection work.  If we could make the parks better park (e.g, remove cattle and stop fires) and make the parks bigger, then at least some Andean treelines might move faster and some extinctions may be avoided.

-Ken Feeley

*My grad student, Evan Rehm, is probably cringing at my use of the word ‘treeline’. I will leave it up to him to define the correct use of ‘treeline’ vs. ‘timberline’ vs. ‘tree species line’ and to better explain why the treeline or timberline is not shifting upslope faster in Manu.

one leak, two takes

The IPCC is set to release its fifth assessment report. A draft summary of the 2000 page document was leaked last month leading to several different news articles and opinion pieces. The most interesting part of this for me has been to see the different interpretations that have emerged. An article in the Wall Street Journal exemplifies how climate change deniers have latched onto a slight decrease in the amount of warming projected as a result of the doubling of CO2. Using some sleight-of-hand logic they then go on to state that the IPCC is now supporting the view that climate change will be beneficial and allow for greater plant growth and production. The New York Times looked at the same leaked information but took away a very different message. They complain that the IPCC has chosen to reject “extreme” predictions for sea level rise but has chosen to accept the extremely conservative predictions for temperature rise. The New York Times also highlights the fact that the IPCC report puts a certitude of >95% on humans being the principal cause of climate change (interestingly this little tidbit is not reported on by the Wall Street Journal).

-Ken Feeley

Britain’s astronomer royal calls for ‘Plan B’ to prevent runaway climate change

In a lecture to be delivered today at the British Science Festival, one of Britain’s most senior scientists the astronomer royal Lord Rees suggests that experimental “Plan B” schemes such as launching mirrors into space, triggering algal blooms in the oceans and seeding clouds, should start to be considered in response to global climate change from rising carbon emissions.

Fairly controversially, Lord Rees suggests that manipulating the planet’s climate through geoengineering, which he admits would be “an utter political nightmare”, would buy time in our quest for development of cleaner sources of energy. Geoengineering refers to deliberate interference of the planet’s natural systems to counteract climate change through global warming.

Some of the techniques that Lord Rees, a former president of the Royal Society and a cosmologist at Cambridge University, suggests include placing mirrors into the mesosphere to reflect sunlight before it enters the Earth’s atmosphere, and artificially fertilising the world’s oceans with iron to encourage algal blooms that can absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide.

However, inspired by the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Phillipines that saw global temperature drop by 0.5C, Lord Rees’ preferred option would be to send particle dust into the stratosphere to form clouds which would reflect some of the Sun’s energy back into space.

The concept of geoengineering will remain  controversial, and I imagine highly debated. Although we may be able to model the direct and indirect effects of these processes, due to the highly unpredictable and chaotic nature of climate the true effects of geoengineering will be hard to predict. It’s certainly an interesting, exciting and daunting period to be involved in climate change science.