Carbon Dioxide Accounting: Why I hate it.

Friends, the turn of the year is the time when Carbonistas such as myself look at their carbon dioxide accounts. Like all accounting it is tedious but sort of important.

However carbon dioxide accounting depresses me more than regular accounting because I can hardly believe any of the numbers!

Allow me to explain…

The Big Picture

Click on image for a larger version. The red line on the graph shows estimated emissions from my household if I had not undertaken any refurbishment. The data are calculated month by month out to 2040. The green line shows actual estimated emissions from my household. The black dotted-line shows the additional effect of paying Climeworks to remove CO2 from the atmosphere on my behalf.

The aim of my activities and expenditure over the last three years has been to reduce ongoing carbon dioxide emissions from all aspects of my life, but targeting especially my home.

The graph above shows how I expect household emissions to accumulate based on various assumptions. Notice the scales: the horizontal scale extends out to 2040, my targeted date of death, and the vertical scale is in tonnes of carbon dioxide. Tonnes!

  • The red line shows how I would expect emissions to accumulate if I had made no alterations to the house.
  • The green line shows how I expect emissions to accumulate based on the current plan. This is based on the amount of electricity I draw from the grid.
  • The dotted black line accounts for the activities of Climeworks who have promised to permanently remove 50 kg of CO2/month in my name. This line is dotted because I don’t personally have any evidence that Climeworks are actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

The net effect of my efforts will hopefully by 2040 amount to around 78 tonnes of CO2 emissions which do not take place. But in honesty, I am not very sure about these numbers.

Assumptions, Assumptions, Assumptions

Working out the data for this graph involves estimating the amount of electricity and gas that the household has consumed (not so hard) – and will consume in future (a bit harder, but still not crazily difficult).

However it also involves associating an amount of carbon dioxide with each unit of gas or electricity used – the so-called carbon intensity (CI) measured in kilograms of CO2 per kilowatt hour (kgCO2/kWh) of gas or electricity. And I genuinely do not know what numbers to use for these CI’s.

Allow me to explain my difficulty.

Assumptions for gas

For gas, a hypothetical 100% efficient boiler would produce around 0.18 kgCO2/kWh.

But it also takes energy – and thus emissions – to extract and deliver the gas to my boiler, and these emissions should also be associated with my consumption.

However, allocating these ‘up stream emissions is not straightforward. It will differ depending on the source of gas e.g. from the North Sea (~+0.013 kgCO2/kWh) or liquified natural gas shipped from (say) the US (~+0.035 kgCO2/kWh). And also it will vary with the distance gas is pumped through the gas distribution network.

And then there is the giant smelly elephant in the room: leaks.

The gas network leaks. At every point from gas platforms to our homes, leaks are very significant. Probably around 1% of the gas we consume leaks, and some of the burned gas escapes without combustion.

When methane leaks it enters the atmosphere, staying for around 10 years before reacting to form CO2 and H2O . And during that 10 years or so, it warms the atmosphere much more intensively than CO2. Averaged over 20 years – methane is around 80 times more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

So a leak of 1% anywhere from the gas well to our homes increase the carbon intensity associated with methane by approximately  1% x 80 x 0.18 = 0.144 gCO2/kWh. Combined with upstream emissions this practically doubles the carbon intensity of burning methane compared with the value used by most web sites.

The only way to really know the amount CO2 emitted associated with gas use, is to use no gas at all: anything multiplied by zero is zero.

Assumptions for electricity

As difficult as it is to truly know the  appropriate carbon intensity (CI) to associate with gas consumption, it is much more difficult to know the appropriate CI to associate with electricity consumption. This is because electricity is generated from several different sources, each with its own characteristic CI.

For example, as I type this, this web site tells me that the carbon intensity of the electricity I am using is 0.065 kgCO2/kWh, but this web site tells me that the carbon intensity of the electricity I am using is 0.101 kgCO2/kWh. Which should I believe? I just don’t know.

Both figures will change depending on the composition of generating technologies, but they have (I suppose) made different assumptions about how to account for some emissions. I have previously written to the web sites to ask but received no reply.

Click on image for larger version. Data from MyGridGB and National Grid on carbon intensity. the two sites give answer which differ by 0.036 kgCO2/kWh – amounting to ~30% discrepancy.

But what if I want to draw some extra electricity? If I switch on a tumble dryer, this extra demand must be met by a source which can be switched on to meet that demand, and in practice, this is always gas-fired generation, which is nominally assigned a CI of 0.45 kgCO2/kWh.

So I have to choose whether to allocate an average CI (0.101 or 0.065 kgCO2/kWh) or a marginal CI (0.45 kgCO2/kWh) to my consumption. How do I decide what is my average consumption and what is marginal? I genuinely do not know.

And additionally, the same elephant (methane leaks) that was in the room for gas consumption, is still in the room for electricity derived from gas-fired power stations. Accounting for leaks, the contribution to the average CI of gas-fired generation could practically double from 0.45 kgCO2/kWh to 0.81 kgCO2/kWh which is almost as bad as coal-fired electricity generation.

And there are similar problems accounting for electricity exported from – say – solar panels. In principle, each extra kWh exported displaces a kWh that would have been generated by gas-fired generation. And so exports of solar electricity are avoiding emissions of CO2 at the marginal rate for gas-fired emissions (0.45 kgCO2/kWh). But should this also include the effect of methane leaks avoided?

And since the CI of grid electricity is changing all the time, should I do my accounting in (say) half-hour periods? Or should I use day or night averages? Or weekly, monthly or yearly averages?

Click on image for a larger version. graph showing the variation in CI with time of day: using electricity at night is generally a bit greener because the fraction of electricity generated by wind and nuclear power is greater. Data from the Carbon Intensity web site.

And some argue that the CI of grid electricity varies from region to region! They argue that in regions where there is lots of renewable generation the ‘local’ CI is low. But this ignores the fact that it is essentially a single grid, and that if these regions were isolated, the grid would not be able to function.

Click on image for a larger version. Map showing regional sub grids together with an indication (by colour) of the ‘local’ carbon intensity. Data from the Carbon Intensity web site.

So what do I do?

Friends, this is why I hate carbon accounting: just changing the accounting basis can apparently change emissions associated with electricity or gas consumption depending on where they take place, and how many leaks are associated with the consumption. And part of this is real, and part is conventional practice, which ignores critical issues like methane leaks.

So one can find oneself making spreadsheets of enormous complexity in search of an accounting accuracy that is ultimately unattainable.

So in the face of all this complexity and ambiguity I assign the same carbon intensity to gas and electricity (imports and exports) of 0.230 kgCO2/kWh.

  • For gas this is a bit higher than higher than estimates that add upstream emissions but much lower than estimates that account for methane leaks.
  • For electricity this is roughly the average CI for the years 2019 to 2022 as specified on the MyGridGB web site. If this figure changes significantly in 2023 I will update it.

Click on image for a larger version. Map showing carbon intensity averaged over one year showing the systematic reduction in CI. Data from the MygridGB web site.

The graph at the head of the article shows progress so far and how I anticipate things unfolding over the years. In calculating that graph I disregarded…

  • Exports of solar electricity which could be considered to be avoiding emissions by displacing gas-fired generation.
  • The share of a wind farm that I bought and which should start generating from November 2023. Again, this could be considered to be avoiding emissions by displacing gas-fired generation.

If add these in to my projections, (CI = 0.23 kgCO2/kWh) then the outlook looks better. However, the uncertainties in all the numbers here are so great that I just don’t know if any of it is correct. That’s why all the lines are dotted.

Overall, I know that household gas consumption is zero and therefore so are emissions, no matter what the CI. And this year I expect that we will be more or less off-grid i.e. taking no electricity from the grid – for roughly 6 months. And so I know emissions during that period will be zero. In short, just minimising grid consumption is probably the best way to ensure that associated carbon dioxide emissions are low.

Click on image for a larger version. The red line on the graph shows estimated emissions from my household if I had not undertaken any refurbishment. The data are calculated month by month out to 2040. The green dotted line shows estimated emissions from my household accounting for electricity exported in the summer as ‘negative emissions’ i.e. I have avoided someone else emitting CO2. The black dotted-line shows the additional effect of paying Climeworks to remove CO2 from the atmosphere on my behalf. The blue dotted-line shows the ‘negative emissions’ effect of shares in a wind farm due to begin generating in November 2023.

The Great Carbon Dioxide Accountant in the Sky

Friends, on the sacred slopes of Mauna Loa in Hawaii, there is a carbon dioxide accountant far greater than I.

Click on image for larger version. Mauna Loa CO2 observatory: the  location of the great Carbon Dioxide Accountant in the sky.

Patiently this accountant has been monitoring the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since 1959, the year of my birth.

This accountant:

  • Does not care about which value of carbon intensity I use in my calculations.
  • Does not care about whether I used the correct estimate for embodied carbon in my solar panels or triple-glazing
  • Cannot be sweet-talked with promises of future emissions reductions.

They just measure the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.

When the volcano is not erupting, this accountant publishes their results daily. And this global accountant shows that whatever we are doing is just not enough.

Even if this curve stabilised at its current value of around 420 ppm, the Earth would not cool. But this curve is not stabilising – it is still rising – and it is our actions that are causing this – and only our actions can stop it.

Click on image for larger version. Black Curve: Monthly average atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration versus time at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii (20 °N, 156°W). Red Curve: Fossil fuel trend of a fixed fraction (57%) of the cumulative industrial emissions of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion and cement production. This fraction was calculated from a least squares fit of the fossil fuel trend to the observation record. Data from Scripps CO2 Program.

 

 

7 Responses to “Carbon Dioxide Accounting: Why I hate it.”

  1. David Cawkwell Says:

    I read a few days ago that carbon emissions for 2022 have been the highest ever. I don’t think there is a solution. Our society world wide is not civilised enough to achieve what is necessary. It all comes down to economics while burning fossil fuels remains cheaper than carbon free alternative it will not happen. The only solution that I do not see governments even dare talk about but I see as the only solution is rapid depopulation especially here in the developed world. If we dont do it the planet will do it for us.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      David, Good Morning.

      Two things.

      Firstly, yes, there is the possibility of catastrophic involuntary depopulation – probably via famine. Many of the very bad consequences of climate change currently have a low probability, but we are unlikely to be ‘lucky’ every time.

      But Secondly, there is cause for hope because as you said, “It all comes down to economics“. We are at the start of an energy transition – for the first time in the history of human kind we have access to energy – wind and solar – that does not involve burning stuff. And this energy is already the cheapest energy source available ever. This transition is really happening and it will – probably – change everything.

      Tony Seba has proclaimed this for many years

      https://protonsforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2022/12/04/tony-seba-has-got-me-thinking/

      and in my estimation he is more or less correct. I think the low cost of solar and wind will drive enormous changes in the coming years. I have spent a lot of money on my house, but my bills are negligible. The government’s £400 (£69/month) subsidy with take care of our entire year of bills.

      I talked about some of teh reasons to remain positive in the second half of this talk I gave to teenagers this November.

      https://protonsforbreakfast.wordpress.com/2022/11/21/is-it-possible-to-live-a-carbon-zero-life/

      In any case, best wishes – and stay hopeful!

      Michael

  2. Nicola Terry Says:

    I agree there is a lot of complexity in carbon accounting that gets glossed over. For fuels, I generally use the factors published for businesses to use in their carbon accounts. If you want to include upstream emissions, add in well to tank for gas (though I am sure this is not accurate for leakage) and the transmission and distribution for electricity. I think these are based on 3-year averages. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/government-conversion-factors-for-company-reporting

    If you want to consider marginal rates, the UK government red book has a marginal rate for electricity as well as the standard rate. This is intended for use in cost-benefit analysis of potential policy/projects.

    The latest version of SAP, the model used for building energy performance certificates, now has different rates for solar panel export at different times of the year. This is because in the summer solar is more likely to be displacing renewables which are already lower carbon.

    However, if you are trying hard to optimise the time at which you use electricity you need something more sophisticated which matches your electricity use with emissions on a half hourly basis.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Nicola, Good Morning. And thanks for those links.

      I think you have a practical approaches to all these problems, but I think there is still potential ambiguity.

      For example, you say that marginal rates are intended to be used in cost benefit analysis of potential projects. But what if I consider my normal electricity use. This is best estimated by the use of average CI data. But If I consider reducing my consumption as a potential project, then I should use the marginal rates. This confuses me!

      My resolution is just to reduce consumption where I can – without embodying too much CO2 in equipment in the process.

      Best wishes

      Michael

  3. Dan Grey Says:

    I’d use the BEIS WTT emissions factors https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1083857/2022-ghg-cf-methodology-paper.pdf

    Look at Table 4. For example, each kWh of heat delivered by burning UK natural gas also released 34.5g of CO2 in the production of the gas.

  4. protonsforbreakfast Says:

    Dan, using such tables has the benefit of allowing comparability between different reports. But the great carbon accountant in the sky doesn’t give a toss about consistency. For example, the upstream emissions associated with LNG are quite different from North Sea Gas. And none of these numbers include proper accounting for leaks.

    The point of the article was that given the uncertainties, the only way to really be sure is to drive consumption towards zero.

    All the best

    Michael

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