Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Too cheap to meter

April 26th, 2017 17 comments

Reading about the UK National Grid recently, I came across the interesting concept of demand turn up. Unlike the usual form of demand side management, where users are paid to cut usage in periods of excess demand, demand turn up involves making small payments to users willing to increase demand when the supply from renewables exceeds demand.

This looks strange at first sight, but it simply reflects the fact that, once the capacity is installed, the marginal cost of renewable electricity is zero. In the short run, taking account of the costs of shutdown and startup, the marginal cost of electricity from an operating renewable generation source is negative*.

So, demand turn up is just an application of marginal cost pricing, the same as off-peak pricing for coal-fired power.

The broader point is that claims that the electricity supply system must have a large component of coal-fired to meet “baseload demand” reflects the assumption that the system must meet the demands generated by a pricing system set up for coal (or nuclear which is broadly similar).

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Burden of proof

April 10th, 2017 81 comments

Ted Trainer, with whom I’ve had a number of debates in the past, has sent me an interesting piece claiming that “no empirical or historical evidence that demonstrates that [100 per cent renewables” systems are in fact feasible”. The authors, at least those of whom I’m aware, are “pro-nuclear environmentalists” (Ben Heard, Barry Brook, Tom Wigley and CJ Bradshaw) The central premise is that, given that renewables won’t work, and reductions in energy demand are unrealistic, we need to get cracking on nuclear (and also carbon capture and sequestration).

It’s paywalled, but the abstract is sufficient to get the main point. In fact, the whole piece is summarized by its title “Burden of Proof”. To give the shorter version: Unless every possible detail of a 100 per cent renewable system can be proved to be workable decades in advance, we must go nuclear.

The longer version is in these paras from the abstract

Strong empirical evidence of feasibility must be demonstrated for any study that attempts to construct or model a low-carbon energy future based on any combination of low-carbon technology.

The criteria are: (1) consistency with mainstream energy-demand forecasts; (2) simulating supply to meet demand reliably at hourly, half-hourly, and five-minute timescales, with resilience to extreme climate events; (3) identifying necessary transmission and distribution requirements; and (4) maintaining the provision of essential ancillary services.

This list is mostly notable for what’s not in it: adequate year-round power supplies, at an economically feasible cost. That’s because it’s now obvious that solar PV and wind, combined with one of a number of storage technologies (solar thermal, batteries, pumped hydro) and a bit of smart pricing, can deliver these goals. So, instead we get demands for the precise details in the list above. To lift the burden of proof a bit more, it’s not good enough to address them separately, they all have to be done at once in a single study. Unsurprisingly, no one has yet produced a study that meets all of these demands at once.*

And this is where the burden of proof works so brilliantly. Renewable technologies are well established, with annual installations of 100 GW a year a more, and a record of steadily falling costs. But, according to our authors, they haven’t met the burden of proof, so we have to put tens of billions of dollars into technologies that are either purely conceptual (Gen IV nuclear) or hopelessly uneconomic on the basis of current experience (CCS and generation II/III nuclear).

To be fair, this use of the burden of proof, while more blatant than usual, is very common. One any policy issue, most of us would like to compare an idealised model of our preferred solution with the worst case scenario (or, at best, the messy and unsatisfactory reality) for the alternatives. But it’s important to avoid this temptation as much as possible. On any realistic assessment, renewables + storage (with the path to 100 per cent smoothed by gas) offer a far more plausible way of decarbonizing electricity generation than nuclear or CCS>

Clarification: In comments, Ben Heard points out that the authors counted two publications from closely related studies together.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Turning the corner

March 25th, 2017 59 comments

Obviously, climate policy in Australia is not going well. In the US, the Trump Administration is keen to reverse the progress made under Obama. Yet for the planet as a whole, the news hasn’t been better for a long time. And there is every reason to hope that Trump and Turnbull will fail on this, and on much else.

Two big pieces of good news this week

* For the third year in a row, global carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector have remained nearly stable, despite continued economic growth.
* Large-scale cancellations in China and elsewhere have greatly reduced the number of proposed coal-fired power plants

A lot more needs to happen, but with the cost of renewables steadily falling and awareness of the health and climate costs spreading, there’s every reason to hope that the decarbonization of electricity supply will happen more rapidly than anyone expected. After that, the big challenge is to electrify transport. The technology is there, so this is mostly a matter of renewed political will.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

My resignation from the Climate Change Authority

March 23rd, 2017 45 comments

Earlier today, I wrote to Josh Frydenberg, the Minister for Energy and Environment, resigning as a Member of the Climate Change Authority. Mine is the third recent resignation: Clive Hamilton resigned in February, and Danny Price a couple of days ago. There’s a story in the Guardian here. My resignation statement is over the fold.

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Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Hope springs eternal …

March 20th, 2017 7 comments

… for the nuclear power faithful. Over the last couple of months, it’s become apparent that the Westinghouse AP1000, by far the most promising hope for a modern Generation III+ design, is dead in the water. Toshiba, which bought Westinghouse a while ago, is writing off billions of dollars, and seems unlikely to stay in the nuclear business after the remaining projects (all overdue and overtime) are completed. The other developed country candidates, including EPR and Candu are in an even worse state.

But wait! It seems there is a project that is on time, and possibly even on budget. It’s being built in the United Emirates by Korean company KEPCO, and consists of four plants using KEPCO’s APR-1400 design. That’s been the basis for some new optimism.

A quick look at Wikipedia’s APR-1400 article suggests this optimism may be misplaced. Among the problems

(i) This is a Gen III design, dating back to the 1990s. It hasn’t yet been certified as safe in the US, and it may not be
(ii) While the UAE project appears to have gone well, projects in South Korea have been subject to delays and cost overruns
(iii) The UAE deal was signed in 2009. There hasn’t been another export deal since then.
(iv) Although there were plans to build more plants in South Korea, they appear to have been shelved. There hasn’t been a new APR-1400 plant started there since 2013.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Faith-based energy policy: the case of nuclear power

March 16th, 2017 23 comments

If you want to explain the success of Trump and Trumpism, despite Trump’s blatant reliance on falsehood, it’s crucial to understand that the mainstream political right has been rendering itself more and more impervious to reality for at least two decades. A striking example is the belief that nuclear power is the answer to our needs, and that the only obstacle is Green Nimbyism. This claim has recently been restated by a number of LNP Parliamentarians, by no means all of whom are on the hardline right.

Rather than rehearse the arguments I’ve put many times, I’ll quote the conclusion of the SA Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle:

a. on the present estimate of costs and under current market arrangements, nuclear power would not be
commercially viable to supply baseload electricity to the South Australian subregion of the NEM from 2030 (being the earliest date for its possible introduction)

b. it would not be viable
i. on a range of predicted wholesale electricity prices incorporating a range of possible carbon prices
ii. for both large and potentially new small plant designs
iii. under current and potentially substantially expanded interconnection capacity to Victoria and NSW
iv. on a range of predictions of demand in 2030, including with significant uptake of electric vehicles

c. nuclear would be marginal in the event of a lower cost of capital that was typical for the financing of public projects and under strong climate action policies.

That closes off just about every loophole a pro-nuclear advocate might want to use. And the Royal Commission was anything but anti-nuclear. It pushed hard for the idea of a nuclear waste dump (not really credible, but not as obviously infeasible as nuclear electricity generation).

Read more…

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Bastiat anticipates climate science denialism

February 23rd, 2017 26 comments

I’m working on the environmental policy chapter of my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons, which is a reply to Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, which in turn is a repackaging of Bastiat’s What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen. Hazlitt was aware of the difficulties posed for laissez-faire by pollution, and chose to avoid the issue. But, on Googling Bastiat + pollution, I came across a remarkable package in which Bastiat anticipates the climate change debate and takes the denialist side in advancee.

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Clean coal

January 7th, 2017 18 comments

The most plausible argument put forward by opponents of immediate action to mitigate global warming is that some form of ‘clean coal’ technology will emerge that will obviate any need for costly changes in our current way of doing things.

The term ‘clean coal’ is sometimes used to refer to ‘ultra-supercritical’ or ‘high efficiency, low emissions’ (HELE) coal-fired power stations. Despite these impressive sounding description, HELE plants provide only a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in emissions relative to standard coal-fired power plants. They aren’t as clean as gas-fired fossil fuel plants, let alone renewables (or nuclear power, though this isn’t a viable solution for other reasons).

‘Clean coal’ is also used to refer to the idea of ‘carbon capture and storage’, (CCS) in which the carbon dioxide produced in coal-fired power stations would be captured before being emitted into the atmosphere, then pumped into underground storage, or captured through ‘biosequestration’ into products such as biochar.

CCS was an appealing idea for a coal producing country like Australia. Enthusiasm for the idea led to the establishment of the Global CCS Institute in Melbourne. However, the Institute’s own website shows that CCS is not a viable option. After decades of work, there is exactly one operational power plant using CCS, the Boundary Dam project in Canada. Two more, both deeply troubled, are under construction in the United States.

Even if all the coal-fired CCS power plant projects anywhere in the world that are listed by the Institute as possibly happening by 2030 are included, the total amount of CO2 captured would be less than 20 million tonnes a year. That’s about what Australia generates in two weeks.

To sum up, what’s usually called ‘clean coal’ isn’t clean. The real thing, cost-effective coal-fired power stations with CCS, is never going to happen.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Fuel efficiency standards could help curb Australia’s persistently growing emissions

December 24th, 2016 13 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

Austrian economists and environmental policy

December 8th, 2016 40 comments

While working on my long-forthcoming book, Economics in Two Lessons, I came across an interesting article by Edwin Dolan published (with commendably openness to criticism) in the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. The conclusion

On a theoretical level, Austrian writers delight in claiming the moral high ground, condemning polluters as aggressors against property rights. On a practical level, however, they leave pollution victims in the lurch. They invite them to sue, but propose a set of legal standards that would guarantee that polluters would always win. They oppose all government measures to reduce pollution, whether through regulation or through measures to make polluters pay. As a result, at least in cases of environmental mass torts, the Austrian paradigm is a polluter’s dream and a victim’s nightmare. It offers far too little of any practical value toward securing property rights, too little toward facilitating environmental coordination, and too little toward promoting libertarian justice. Much work remains to be done.

Build it, and they probably won’t come

December 1st, 2016 12 comments

When the SA Royal Commission on the Nuclear Fuel Cycle brought down its report, I welcomed the conclusion that there was no serious prospect that nuclear power generation would be feasible in Australia. That was unsurprising, since my own submission to the Commission had shown this pretty clearly. As regards the Commission’s recommendation for a waste dump, I argued that there could be no objection in principle, given that SA was an exporter of uranium and the waste had already been generated.

That left open the question of whether the waste dump proposal made economic sense. I’ve now looked at the case in more detail and concluded that it doesn’t. Countries with existing nuclear power industries have made arrangements that may not be satisfactory, but are unlikely to change. There is little prospect of any significant growth in the future. So, building a nuclear waste dump in the hope of attracting demand makes about as much sense as the actions of the protagonist in the movie Field of Dreams, who ploughed up his cornfield to make a baseball diamond for the ghosts of disgraced players.

I make the argument in more detail in this piece in New Matilda. Right on cue, Vietnam, which was one of the hypothetical users of the dump, decided that it would be better to dump nuclear power as uneconomic. Expect more announcements along these lines as the economics of renewable energy improve.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

The good news on climate

November 25th, 2016 64 comments

There’s plenty of bad news around these days, and that’s true of climate policy as of many other things. Turnbull (or Abbott, pulling Turnbull’s strings) has already imposed massive cuts in climate science research in Australia and it seems certain that Trump will do the same in the US.

Happily, it looks as if they have come too late to do real damage. The fact of climate change is now well established. Cutting research will impose all kinds of costs, but it’s not going to change the conclusions of science. Of course, the right will reject inconvenient science as they have done for decades, but more of less research won’t change that.

The big news is that the problem has turned out to be much easier to solve than anyone thought. We’ve long known that, to have a 50-50 chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, emissions should peak in 2015, and decline at an annual rate of at least 2.2 per cent thereafter. Hardly anyone thought a peak could happen before 2020 at the earliest, and this would imply a decline so steep (4.6 per cent per year) as to be just about impossible.

It now seems pretty clear, however, that fossil fuel emissions did in fact peak, or at least flatten out in 2015, and have remained stable through 2016.

Of course, stabilization is not enough. Is it possible for emissions to decline at the required rate. We can look at an identity

e = g – t – r

where e is the rate of growth of emissions, g is the rate of growth of output, t is the annual technological improvement in energy efficiency (the ratio of energy use to output, and r is the reduction in emissions per unit of energy, due to renewables).

Currently, these are just about in balance. But installations of renewables (and therefore r) are growing rapidly, while g is declining in the developed world, and probably also in China. It follows that we can expect e to become negative in the near future.

Policy matters, and it is important that the Paris Agreement should go ahead, with or without Trump and Turnbull. But the goals to which governments are willing to commit depend on what they think they can credibly promise. So, the fact that stabilizing the global climate looks to be feasible within the current economic framework is really good news.

UPDATE: A couple of commenters have questioned the math above. So, let’s spell it out. Let
E = Emissions (tonnes CO2)
G = Gross World Product (constant $)
J = Energy used (joules)
T (for technology) = G/J ($/joules)
R (for reduction) = J/E (joules/tonne CO2)

E = G / (T*R)
Taking logs

log (E) = log (G) – log (T) – log (R)

Differentiating with respect to time

e = g – t – r

as stated.

Anyone wishing to debate this further should do so in the Sandpit

Categories: Environment Tags:

Electric cars: coming soon to a country near you?

November 6th, 2016 65 comments

In thinking about how the global economy can be decarbonized, I’ve focused on the electricity sector, and particularly the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation. In the transport sector, I’ve pushed for fuel efficiency standards, but have generally assumed that internal combustion cars are going to be around for a long time to come. That’s consistent with Australian experience where annual sales of electric vehicles are counted in the hundreds, and with the US, where cheap petrol has held electrics to a market share of a couple of percentage points.

So, I was quite surprised to find out that lots of European countries, including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, are talking about ending sales of petrol driven vehicles in the near future (2025 or 2030), with diesel possibly being banned even earlier.

Obviously, achieving these goals will require some pretty strong policy encouragement, including subsidies and planned provision of infrastructure, and targets are easier to announce than to hit. Still, it looks as if eliminating internal combustion engine cars is not a distant dream but a feasible policy goal.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

The good news on climate

October 3rd, 2016 36 comments

Climate policy under the Abbott-Turnbull government has been so uniformly grim that it’s sometimes hard to remember how well things are going elsewhere in the world. A few of the most notable developments

* India has ratified the Paris Agreement, a big step for a country which not so long ago was disclaiming any responsibility to act. The EU will follow suit next week, and the agreement will enter into force 30 days after that.

* (H/T James Wimberley) Renewable electricity investment in 2015 was “more than sufficient” to cover the growth in global demand, according a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA). Unfortunately, fossil fuel capacity is still growing, adding to overcapacity, particularly for coal. But once this idiocy ends, the combination of growing energy efficiency and new renewables will be sufficient to see electricity-related emissions peak and then decline.

* Despite a 60 per cent reduction in the crude oil price, oil demand has barely moved. Admittedly, supply has also been slow to respond, but capital expenditure has been slashed, suggesting that we will see reduced oil production in future.

There’s still the chance of disaster. Should Donald Trump manage to get elected as President of the US, the whole process will be set back (though withdrawing will be difficult to do in a 4-year term of office) as will just about everything else. Currently, that chance is estimated at 30 per cent and falling, which is much better than it was a week or so ago, but still way too high.

But if that can be averted, there’s every chance that the world can reach peak CO2 emissions by 2020 and reduce emissions drastically after that. If that requires sanctions to bring a handful of recalcitrant governments into line, those governments will have well and truly earned it.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Last chance on climate change policy

September 19th, 2016 68 comments

With August 2016 setting yet another record for global temperatures, the need for action on climate change is obvious. The good news is that most national governments are finally recognising the urgency of the problem. The bad news is that Australia is not among them. Having commissioned a Special Review from the Climate Change Authority (of which I’m a member) and received recommendations designed with the current policy as a starting point, the government’s response has been that it might take another look at the problem in 2017.

I’ve written the statement over the fold in response. Comments very welcome. I won’t engage in discussion; in this context, I’d rather let the statement speak for itself.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

The relative rationality of Malcolm Roberts

August 11th, 2016 292 comments

Among other interesting results, the recent election gave a Senate seat to One Nation member Malcolm Roberts. Roberts is notable for his expressed belief that global warming is a fraud produced by a global conspiracy of bankers seeking to establish a worldwide government through the United Nations.

Unsurprisingly, Roberts has copped a lot of flak for these statements. But his position seems to me to be more credible than that of the average “sceptic”.
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Categories: Boneheaded stupidity, Environment Tags:

Second thoughts

August 6th, 2016 29 comments

In a recent post, here and on Crooked Timber, I remarked on the fact that hardly any self-described climate sceptics had revised their views in response to the recent years of record-breaking global temperatures. Defending his fellow “sceptics”, Crooked Timber commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.

I’m tempted by the one-word response “Derp“. But the dangers of holding to a position regardless of the evidence are particularly severe for academics approaching emeritus age[1]. So, I gave the question a bit of thought.

Here are three issues on which I’ve changed my mind over different periods

* Central planning
* War and the use of violence in politics
* The best response to climate change
Read more…

Categories: Environment, Metablogging, World Events Tags:

Do climate sceptics exist?

July 22nd, 2016 60 comments

June 2016 was the hottest month globally since records began in 1880, and marks the fourteenth record month in a row. For the great majority of people who’ve been following scientific findings on climate, there’s no great surprise there. There is very strong evidence both for the existence of a warming trend due mainly to emissions of carbon dioxide, and for the occurrence of a peak in the El Nino/Southern Oscillation index. Combine the two, and a record high temperature is very likely.

But suppose you were a strongly sceptical person, who required more evidence than others to accept a scientific hypothesis, such as that of of anthropogenic climate change. Presumably, you would treat the evidence of the last couple of years as supporting the hypothesis. Perhaps this supporting evidence would be sufficient that you would regard the hypothesis as confirmed beyond reasonable doubt, perhaps not, but either way, you would be more favorably inclined than before. And, if you were a public commentator, willing to state your views honestly, you would say so.

Does such a sceptic exist? I haven’t seen one, although I follow the debate fairly closely. In fact, in the 25 years or so in which I’ve been following the issue, I can only recall one instance of someone described as a “sceptic” changing their view in the light of the evidence. And of course, his fellow sceptics, who’d been promising that his research would reveal massive errors in the temperature record, immediately decided that he’d never really been one of them. In any case, while Muller was and remains a scientific sceptic, he’s no longer a climate sceptic.

Operationally, it’s clear that the term “climate sceptic” means someone whose criteria for convincing evidence are those set out by the Onion.

I’d be happy to be proved wrong (by counterexample), but as far as I can see, if the ordinary usage of the term “sceptic” is applied, the world population of genuine climate sceptics is zero.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Nuclear math doesn’t add up

July 20th, 2016 112 comments

Writing in the conservative US magazine National Review, Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute criticises the Democratic Party platform for omitting any mention of nuclear power, and accuses the Democrats of failing to “do the math”. Unfortunately, although he throws some numbers about, he doesn’t do any math to support his key conclusion

But even if we doubled the rate of growth for wind and solar — and came up with a perfect method of electricity storage (which of course, doesn’t exist) — those renewables aren’t going to replace nuclear energy any time soon

So, I’ll do the math for him.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Gas and climate change

April 16th, 2016 60 comments

As well as posting here, I have a couple of articles in the Conversation about the end of the coal era (I’ll give links in a subsequent post, if I get time). In all cases, I’m getting lots of people saying that the reduction in coal use in is entirely/overwhelmingly due to low gas prices caused by the rise of shale gas. So, I thought it was time for a post on the subject. I want to make three points

(1) This claim is presented in global terms, but it’s really specific to the US. There is no global market for gas, and the expansion of fracking is not global (it’s big in the US and in Queensland, but not many other places).

(2) The claim is out of date as applied to the US. New electricity generation capacity there is now dominated by renewables (still true even after capacity factors are taken into account, I think)

(3) The continuing low price of gas (like that for coal and oil) is being drive, in large measure, by competition from renewables

I also want to talk about different views on the role of gas in the decarbonization process, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The awkward squad

April 13th, 2016 65 comments

Looking back, the G20 meeting in Brisbane marked a historic turning point in global climate policy. Before G20, the big problem had been the unwillingness of any of the big emitters (US, China and India) to make the first move. The joint statement by Obama and Xi Jinping broke the logjam, with the result that India moved away from its longstanding position that poor countries should have the opportunity to repeat the mistakes of the past before dealing with the problems of the future. This shift was reflected in the successful outcome in Paris, and with the arrival of Peak Coal in both the US and China. India is still expanding its use of coal, but renewables are growing much faster, and imports are already declining.

With all the big players on board, the immediate problem in climate change policy is what might be called the awkward squad – a group of second- and third-rank countries that are, for one reason or another, trying to push ahead with fossil fuels. These include Poland, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Vietnam and, of course, Australia. Until the recent election, the Harper government in Canada was part of the awkward squad and a comfortable ally for Abbott and the LNP denialists. But Harper’s defeat appears to have provoked a broader rethinking with even the Conservatives moving to a pro-planet position.

As the awkward squad shrinks (Vietnam is already showing signs of rethinking) the remaining members are going to find their position in the international community less and less comfortable. That is, of course, unless the Republicans win the US Presidential election. In that case, the whole world will have a lot to worry about.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Adani mirage fading

April 4th, 2016 28 comments

Adani Mining has just received the final approval from the Queensland government for the Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin. According to this report from February, citing a “top Adani Group executive”, operations should start in August 2016, which would be a disaster for the global environment.

But wait! Now it seems yet more “secondary approvals” are needed (it appears this refers to a bond for cleaning up the mess afterwards), and “we hope that construction would start any time in 2017”.

There’s more interesting stuff in the report.

He said the price of coal was not the main issue in determining the viability of the project, but rather the cost at which the coal could be mined as the company already had a price agreement with the Indian government.Adani Mining CEO Jeyakumar Janakaraj claims there’s no need to worry about the price of the coal they produce “We are an integrated player. We have sold electricity in India on a long-term price.

‘‘It is not about the price point of coal, it is about the cost point, at what cost can we produce coal so that we will always be able to make a profit with the electricity price that we have already sold,”

The reference to the Indian government is pretty cheeky, given the government policy of eliminating coal imports over the next few years, which looks to be on track to succeed. (it’s currently a little behind its targets for increased production, but that’s because of weak demand).

More importantly, Janakaraj’s claim that “We are an integrated player” suggests he does not know much about his own business. Adani was an integrated enterprise when the project began. But the restructuring of the Adani Group in 2015 separated Adani Power (the electricity producer with a diversified portfolio of coal-fired power and renewables) from Adani Mining, which holds the stranded assets like Carmichael. This analysis from IEEFA spells it all out. Adani Power would be breaching its fiduciary obligations to shareholders if it paid an above market price for coal from Adani Mining.

I found a response from Adani, which illustrates one of my favorite points. When you have no answer to a damning report, say that it is “flawed“. That’s true of just about anything, and saves you the trouble of an actual response.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Good and bad news on climate

April 1st, 2016 32 comments

Although China has been moving away from coal-fired power for some time, provincial governments didn’t get the memo. They’ve been approving new plants at a cracking pace, with as many as 250 on the books, through a combination of inertia and desire to keep construction going. Now the national government has started pulling them into line, banning new coal plants in 15 provinces.

As this report shows there’s a similar tendency in many developing countries, with a long-standing push for coal running into the reality that it’s economically and environmentally disastrous. The result is a potential trillion dollars in stranded assets.

Still, progress in reducing carbon emissions has been much greater than seemed possible even five years ago. The problem is that the news from the scientists keeps getting worse. I haven’t had time to digest the discussion around the Hansen et al paper on sea level rise, but it’s certainly alarming. Closer to home and undoubted is the disastrous coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef.

And of course, while the world is moving to cut emissions, Australia is going backwards under the Abbott government (now notionally led by Malcolm Turnbull). The defeat of this government would be an important step towards saving the planet.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Parallel universes

March 7th, 2016 186 comments

Of the 20 years or so that I’ve been observing climate change policy, global developments over the past year have been the most hopeful I can remember, particularly as regards electricity generation

* The Paris Conference was a big success, at least relative to expectations
* Coal-fired power stations are shutting down around the world
* China has reduced its coal use for two years in a row
* India has increased its coal tax, and greatly expanded use of renewables

Whether emissions reductions will be big enough and fast enough remains to be seen, but at least we are going in the right direction.

As far as climate science is concerned, the string of temperature records broken recently has killed any idea that we are in a ‘pause’ or ‘hiatus’. Even the favorite source of deniers, the satellite data from UAH, is now showing a new record. The only remaining issue is the second-order debate over whether there was a pause or perhaps slowdown at some point in the first decade of the 2000s.

At the same time, following the US election, I’ve been paying more attention than usual to rightwing blogs, most of which run climate denialist pieces fairly regularly. Given that nearly all the major US coal companies are now bankrupt, and that coal-fired electricity is declining rapidly, I’d have expected a lot of “wrecking ball” pieces on the supposed damage to the economy (in reality, the effects are small and mostly offset by the expansion of renewables) now that mitigation policies of various kinds are taking effect.

But I don’t see anything like that. Rather, most of the articles I’m reading are claims of victory in the debate over both science and policy. Here’s a fairly typical example, with the title “Is the Climate Crusade Stalling?

We really do live in parallel universes.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Peak paper (updated)

February 22nd, 2016 55 comments

I’ve recently published a piece in Aeon, looking at the peak in global paper use, which occurred a couple of years ago, and arguing that this is an indication of a less resource-intensive future. Over the fold, a longer draft, with some links.
Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

No nuclear reactor for South Australia

February 15th, 2016 33 comments

That, for me at any rate, is the crucial element of the Tentative Findings of the South Australian Royal Commission into the Nuclear Fuel Cycle (here. The media releasee summarises

aking account of future demand and anticipated costs of nuclear power under the existing electricity market structure, it would not be commercially viable to generate electricity from a nuclear power plant in South Australia in the foreseeable future.

However, Australia’s electricity system will require low-carbon generation sources to meet future global emissions reduction targets. Nuclear power may be necessary, along with other low carbon generation technologies. It would be wise to plan now to ensure that nuclear power would be available should it be required.

The detailed findings are sensible (that is to say, largely in line with my submission and evidence. A crucial para:

If nuclear power were to be developed in South Australia, a proven design should be used that has been constructed elsewhere, preferably on multiple occasions, and should incorporate the most advanced active and passive safety features. This is likely to include consideration of small modular reactor (SMR) designs, but exclude for the foreseeable future fast reactors

Given that Barry Brook, a leading enthusiast for fast reactors was part of the Commission’s Expert Advisory Panel, this finding should make it clear that fast reactors are an option for the distant (beyond foreseeable) future.

The finding is striking because South Australia is, or ought to be a test case for those arguing that a carbon-free electricity system must rely on “baseload” nuclear. South Australia has high and increasing reliance on renewables, is close to phasing out coal, and has limited interconnection capacity. It’s exactly the modle that anti-renewable sites like Brave New Climate have “proved” time after time can’t possibly work without nuclear power. Yet, it seems, even a sympathetic inquiry finds nuclear power to be an option for the distant future, if that.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Adani: the dog that caught the car

February 3rd, 2016 41 comments

Adani has finally received environmental approval from the Queensland government for its proposed Carmichael mine in the Galilee Basin. At this point, in a standard news story about a multi-billion project, we’d be reading about the domestic and global banks that were competing to be the lead financiers for the project, and those who would have to content with the crumbs. Along with that, there would stories about the partners and subcontractors who would get the lucrative work of construction.

Instead, we have a long list of banks and other funding sources that have announced that they won’t finance the project, or have pulled out of announced and existing finance arrangements. The list includes the Commonwealth (formerly a big lender to Adani), NAB, the Queensland Treasury, the State Bank of India, and global banks including Standard Chartered (another former big lender), Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Credit Agrilcole and Societe Generale. The US and Korean Export-Import banks have been touted as possible sources, but appear to have backed away. Even the Abbott-Turnbull $5 billion slush fund for Northern Australian boondoggles, seen when it was announced as a rescuer for Adani, now appears unlikely. At the recent Northern Australia Investment Forum, the fund was the centre of attention, but Adani apparently didn’t get a mention, unless it was implicit in Frydenberg’s claim that the government wouldn’t be investing in “white elephants”.

The situation with suppliers is just as bad. Adani sacked the engineering team from Worsley Parsons and the construction group from Posco (also a supposed equity partner) last year. A $2 billion announcement of work for Downer EDI seems to have vanished into thin air. And at Abbot Point, Adani, as owner, is engaged in a nasty brawl with Glencore, the current operator.

In summary, we appear likely to find out what happens when a dog catches the car it has been chasing. Adani and its backers have been denouncing green tape and “lawfare” as the only obstacles to the bonanza they have on offer. Now, the legal and administrative obstacles are gone, so they have only to line up the money, rehire the contractors and announce the starting date. My guess is that this will never happen.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Hard cash and climate change: repost from 2005

January 20th, 2016 142 comments

While thinking about decarbonizing transport, I dug out this old post from 2005. It’s interesting to see how the debate has evolved (or not) since then.

The big change has been that the prospects for technological alternatives like alternative energy sources and electric vehicles have improved dramatically. As regards transport, I don’t see much reason to change the analysis I presented in 2005. Unfortunately, while some progress has been made along the kinds of lines I suggested, it’s been very limited compared to the radical changes in electricity generation. So, we are only at the beginning of the process of decarbonizing transport.

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Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Increasing fuel efficiency: standards vs prices

January 19th, 2016 24 comments

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll be talking to the Victorian Transport Economic Forum on decarbonizing transport on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 from 5pm at the Public Transport Victoria Corporate Centre, 750 Collins Street, Docklands. I thought I’d start with the policy issue implying the smallest change in existing transport patterns, increasing the fuel efficiency of petrol-engined vehicles. The primary choice here is between relying on a carbon price and imposing fuel efficiency standards. For those who want the shorter version, I think we need both but standards are probably going to be more important.

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Decarbonizing transport

January 18th, 2016 78 comments

I’ll be talking on this topic to the Victorian Transport Economic Forum on Wednesday, 10 February 2016 from 5pm at the Public Transport Victoria Corporate Centre, 750 Collins Street, Docklands. I’m still formulating my thoughts, so I’ll be happy to read those of anyone who’d like to comment. Here are a few observations to get started

* The process of decarbonizing electricity supply is well under way and, I think, just about unstoppable. To some extent at least, this process provides a template for an approach to transport. In particular, there’s a close analogy between cars and coal. Both have negative local effects (air pollution, congestion, negative amenity and so on) that haven’t been properly taken into account, in addition to generating CO2 emissions. Focusing on the local effects may be a more effective way of reducing CO2 emissions than attacking the problem directly

* By contrast, although we have the technology to greatly reduce the use of carbon-based fuels in transport, we haven’t made nearly enough progress, and it’s not clear what is the best way to go. Should the focus be on improving existing modes of transport (for example, with electric cars), or in switching modes (public transport instead of private) or in reducing the need for travel (with urban design, telepresence and so on).

* Relatedly, is it better to rely on prices, direct controls such as vehicle fuel efficiency standards, or on some other approach?

Categories: Environment Tags: