Alexander S. Kolker, PhD
How should Louisiana’s Climate Initiative project changes in the state’s greenhouse gas emissions over the next 30 years? How should it evaluate the ways various actions and strategies impact Louisiana’s emissions in a world that is itself complex and uncertain? This seems challenging- a complex problem, filled with unknowns. A tool from Energy Policy Solutions, provides a step forward, but more work needs to be done to make sure that this one, and ones like it, provide useful results to Louisiana’s Climate Initiative.
One useful guide for Louisiana’s Climate Initiative comes directly from Louisiana, the state’s Coastal Master Plan. This plan, which guides decisions about projects to restore and project Louisiana’s coast in uncertain future, is often considered one of the most technically rigorous environmental plans in the country. There are at least four ways that Louisiana’s Master Plan can inform the state’s climate initiative: it explicitly accounts for an uncertain future, it quantitatively estimates of the magnitude of each project, it provides a clear timeline for projects implementation, and it is regularly updated as the science improves, and environmental conditions change.
This document will examine how the Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan can guide the Climate Initiative. It focuses on the 2017 Master Plan, the plan currently in place, while noting updates likely to be included in the 2023.
Projections For An Uncertain Future.
The Master Plan explicitly recognizes important places where the way Louisiana’s coast works is unknown today, and more areas of uncertainty in the future. For example, Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan acknowledges that Louisiana’s scientific community does not fully understand how fast Louisiana is subsiding. Subsidence is governed many factors that are not completely known, like the composition of the ground beneath Louisiana, whether geological faults cause Louisiana to shift, and how the withdrawal of oil, gas, and water impact Louisiana’s movements. The Master Plan also recognizes uncertainties in how fast global sea level will rise this century, and how hurricanes might strengthen or become more frequent in the future. Those issues depend on how communities across the world reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and on how earth’s dynamic system will respond to continued heating.
Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan incorporates uncertainty into all aspects of the plan. The Master Plan uses three scenarios- a low, medium, and high scenario (Figure 1). These scenarios mostly reflect rate of relative sea level rise (the combined impact of global sea level rise and Louisiana’s subsidence), but also incorporate other variables, including the impacts of climate change on hurricanes, and precipitation rates. The scenarios are based on peer-reviewed science, leading international projections, and the judgement of experts. They are also improved upon as the science improves; the 2023 Master Plan’s will use a more comprehensive subsidence maps than the 2012 and 2017 plans used.
This approach to uncertainty has two major advantages. First, by recognizing that uncertainty exists, the Master Plan’s optimization algorithm can select the projects that work best under different environmental futures. Second, it helps planners and the public understand how specific elements of an uncertain future could impact Louisiana’s coastal future. Of particular importance: the success of the Master Plan at building land and reducing flood risk strongly on the rate of relative sea level rise (Figure 2).
Louisiana’s Climate Initiative is also encountering uncertainties about future energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions. For example, there are uncertainties about global energy and fossil fuel demand will impact emissions here in Louisiana, including which plants will open, close or reconfigure. Draft versions of the climate strategies and actions depend on technologies that have not yet been fully developed, and there are uncertainties about whether these technologies can be deployed, and if so, when they will be.
Following the Master Plan, Louisiana’s Climate Initiative could develop high, medium, and low energy usage scenarios upon which strategies and actions can be evaluated. The high scenario would project a growth in fossil energy- given that that Louisiana is an attractive place for oil and gas producers, transporters, and consumers. It would note that Louisiana State University’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory projects 102 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – or its equivalent (CO2e) will be added to Louisiana’s greenhouse gas budget in the coming years (Figure 3). This high projection might also recognize that the LSU’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory noted some uncertainty- and a potential undercount- in its estimation of carbon dioxide and methane leaks from pipelines.
The low projection might assume a more rapid reduction in fossil fuel use. It would assume that the state and the nation would rapidly shift to electric vehicles, and power those vehicles with wind and solar power. That view would be supported, in part, by the recent closure of the Convent and Alliance Refineries, which are driven by company-estimated changes in national energy demand. The medium scenario would fall somewhere between these two.
Judging these uncertain futures can be guided by a phrase common in coastal modelling community, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” Using different scenarios shine a light on which set of broad conditions might increase or decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in Louisiana; then specific strategies and actions can be evaluated in those different contexts.
Every project in Louisiana Coastal Master Plan is associated with a size (Figure 4). For restoration projects, the metric is the number of square miles of land built- measured over time, and as judged in light of the high, medium scenarios. For protection projects, the metric is the dollars of flood damage reduced, again judged in light of the high, medium and low scenarios.
While this idea is straightforward, its implications for the Climate Initiative should not go unnoticed. The climate initiative’s draft strategies and action portfolio contains over 150 projects and policies; but as of this writing few are associated with a specific magnitude. While the Energy Policy Solutions tool is linked to specific magnitudes, it is not explicitly clear how these policies match up with the Climate Initiative’s strategies and actions. More work is needed to clarify the magnitude of items in the portfolio so that Task Force members know which projects to endorse and how individual projects and policies advance the overall goal of reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.
Timing. Projects in Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan are implemented at specific times over the next 50 years (Figure 5). This is governed- in part on assumptions about funding. It is also informed by the efficacy of a project at building land or reducing flood damage, as judged by the high, medium, and low scenarios at the time of implementation. For example, projects that like river diversions that continue to build or maintain land over time are often better suited toward the earlier part of the time frame, as are projects that can be funded with post-BP funds. The timeline also recognizes that projects can take years to design, permit and build.
The climate initiative should keep the importance of explicit phasing in mind. Large construction projects, like building utility scale wind and solar plants will take some time to finance and construct. Projects that rely on technologies that are not yet fully developed at scale, like utility-scale batteries or carbon capture underground storage, will take even longer to fully develop. The Climate Initiative should include an implementation timelines, based on the best available science and engineering that is also cognizant of funding and permitting constraints.
Louisiana’s Climate Plan, scheduled to be delivered to the governor on February 1, may not be a perfect plan- first efforts rarely are. But while some level of imperfection is par for the course, Louisiana should not settle for second best over the long term. Climate Initiative should look to the Master Plan a guide for developing a continually improving road map. Legislation requires that the Coastal Master Plan be regularly updated; originally every five years and now every six years.
The 2007 Coastal Master Plan was mostly a conceptual outline; the 2012 plan was a major conceptual and analytical advance, providing a blueprint for the 2017 and 2023 plans. Analytical improvements are continually added to each plan; For example, the 2023 plan will use a more comprehensive map of subsidence rates than earlier plans used (Figure 6). This new map is based on more data than was previously available, including an extensive dataset from Louisiana’s Coastwide Reference Monitoring Service (CRMS). This also highlights why scientific data collection is important- it helps improve planning tools.
The Coastal Master Plan’s regular updates also allows new plans to incorporate changing environmental conditions. For example, when international projections of sea level rise increased as climate warmed in the mid 2010s, the Master Plan team incorporated these changes in the 2017 plan.
Louisiana’s Climate Initiative should develop a mechanism for future improvements. For example, as analytical tools improve the ability to measure greenhouse gas emissions, these new data could be included into future plans. The ability of satellites to detect greenhouse gas leaks from pipelines and industrial plants is a likely an area for future measurement improvements. As new information about energy supply and demand becomes available, this information could be incorporated into future plans. Likewise, future plans could be updated as more is learned about how well various emission reduction technologies function.
A Computational Future For Louisiana
Addressing these information needs will be challenging but is hardly impossible. Handling large numbers is a job for computers and the people who program them. Indeed, Louisiana Master Plan made heavy use scientists, engineers and other tech-savvy types to develop its future projects. The Climate Initiative should follow this lead, engaging top talent- and particularly Louisiana-based talent, to develop projections for an uncertain energy future. Over the past decade, the efforts to address the technical needs of the Master Plan have have contributed to the development of a water-skills based workforce. With a bit more hard work and effort, Louisiana’s Climate Initiative could do the same.
Dismukes, D.E. (2021). Louisiana 2021 Greenhouse Gas Inventory. LSU Center For Energy Studies.
Energy Policy Solutions Climate greenhouse gas projection tool can be found here.
Fitzpatrick, C., Jankowski, K.L., & Reed, D. (2020). 2023 Coastal Master Plan: Determining Subsidence Rates for Use in Predictive Modeling. Version I. (p. 70). Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Louisiana Coastal Protection And Restoration Authority. (2017). Louisiana’s Comprehensive Master Plan For A Sustainable Coast. Baton Rouge, LA, 171 p.