Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category


August 4th, 2015 35 comments

Among critics of renewable energy, one key idea is that of Energy Returned On Energy Invested (EROEI). The central idea can be illustrated by the case of ethanol produced from corn in the US. It’s argued by critics that the production of ethanol from corn uses more fossil fuel inputs than it displaces. The US Department of Agriculture has an EROEI slightly greater than 1, but it’s still clear that corn ethanol is not going to do much to solve the carbon dioxide problem.

Now lets look at the case of solar PV. The energy-intensive component of a solar PV module is the polysilicon used to produce the wafer, which is produced using an electric furnace. Clearly, if more electricity is used in this process than is generated by cell, EROEI < 1, and the idea does not work. We can do a rough check by observing that a typical wafer uses 5 grams/watt of polysilicon. The cost of polysilicon is $20/kg. To be conservative let's assume this is all electricity, at a cost of 5c/Kwh. Then a quick calculation shows that each watt of PV requires 2 KWh of electricity in production or about 1 year's generation in a favorable location. So, for a panel with a 10-year lifetime, the EROEI is 10. Clearly not much of a problem. The estimate omits the energy costs of the rest of the module, but that's almost certainly more than offset by the conservative assumptions about polysilicon.

Some EROEI fans don't like this calculation. They want to include all sorts of other costs, going as far as the food energy used by the workers who instal the panel. At this point, the exercise becomes one of trying to price all economic activity in terms of energy, an idea that has been tried without success for decades. For everything except energy-intensive activities like smelting, energy costs are a small part of the total, and imputing such costs to any particular energy source is a fools errand.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

No regrets

August 4th, 2015 6 comments

Another quick reaction piece, this time on Obama’s climate policy, for The Conversation. My key observation is that, despite its ambitious goals, Obama’s policy is still in the “no regrets” class. That is, the domestic benefits for the US, disregarding climate effects, outweigh the costs. More over the fold

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

Is an emissions trading scheme a carbon tax?

August 4th, 2015 23 comments

I was recently asked this question by ABC Fact Check. Here’s my answer:

The core idea of an ETS is to limit the volume of emissions (of carbon dioxide) by creating a set of permits that must be used by emitters. The permits may initially be auctioned or given away. Since the permits are tradeable a market price will be determined by the demand for permits and the willingness of permit holders to sell their permits. By contrast, a carbon tax sets a price on carbon emissions and allows the market to determine the volume of emissions.

There are a large variety of schemes that resemble the ETS in general structure. Within the environmental area, both the Renewable Energy Target and the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (if augmented with a baseline allocation and penalty structure) fall into this class. Other examples include taxi licenses, electronic spectrum auctions, and tradeable catch quotas in fisheries. None of these policies is normally described as a tax.

CCS: A fiction that has outlived its usefulness

August 2nd, 2015 41 comments

With only a handful of pilot projects in operation around the world, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has not played a significant role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions. CCS has, however, been valuable as a fiction for all those who want, for whatever reason, to avoid dealing explicitly with the fact that stabilizing the global climate will require ending the use of fossil fuels, and particularly coal. For example, rather than prohibiting new coal-fired power stations, the US EPA has proposed that only power stations equipped with CCS technology should be permitted. Since new coal stations are mostly uneconomic even without CCS, this amounts to a ban, but can be justified simply as requiring best practice.

It now appears that this fiction has outlived its usefulness. Recent reports suggest that the EPA will drop the CCS requirement in favour of the weaker requirement that all new coal-fired stations should use supercritical combustion. There are two main reasons for this

(a) The requirement might not stand up to legal challenge on the basis that CCS is not a feasible technology
(b) No new coal plants are likely to be built anyway

Meanwhile, the EU is struggling over proposals to stop subsidies for coal-fired power. Again, the compromise was to subsidise only projects with CCS. But the coal lobby is now arguing that

proposed requirements on carbon capture and storage (CCS) to neutralise emissions have to be realistic as the technology is still in its infancy.

In this context, “realistic” means supercritical and therefore theoretically ready for CCS, as opposed to actually using the technology.

Combine this with a string of cuts in funding for CCS projects, and the conclusion is inescapable. CCS is an ex-parrot.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

How I learned to stop worrying and love the RET

July 26th, 2015 21 comments

That’s the title of a paper I wrote a while back about the Renewable Energy Target scheme. I was reminded of it when Labor announced its proposal to raise the RET to 50 per cent by 2030.

First, it’s striking to observe that no one has popped up to claim that the target is unachievable or that an electricity supply system with 50 per cent renewables will be unworkable. The strongest claim I could find in this article describing coal lobby responses is someone from the Minerals Council of Australia saying that the target is “technically questionable” which could mean anything. By contrast, until very recently, sites like Brave New Climate were full of amateur experts claiming to demonstrate the impossibility of such a goal.

Second, it’s clear that the economic impact will be minuscule. Owners of coal-fired power stations (if they are not compensated, as they should not be) will bear most of the costs. Electricity prices may rise a little compared to the current RET, but will probably be no higher than if we had stayed with a coal-based system. Perhaps this will help to convince those who think that decarbonization of the economy as a whole must have a massive cost impact, but, based on past experience, I can’t see this happening.

Third, as argued in the paper mentioned in the title, an expanded RET may not be the best way to achieve climate goals, but, if the carbon price is below the appropriate level ($50/tonne or more), a RET for the electricity sector is an appropriate policy. The main problem is that the RET doesn’t discriminate between different fossil fuels. A RET, combined with incentives to close down brown coal power stations, would have much the same effects as an adequate carbon price, and is politically much easier to do.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Leaving it in the ground

July 23rd, 2015 33 comments

If there’s to be any chance of stabilizing the global climate, a large proportion of existing reserves of coal will need to be left in the ground. The Galilee Basin, estimated to contain 27 billion tonnes of coal, enough to raise atmospheric concentrations of CO2 by several parts per million on its own, is arguably the biggest test case in the world right now. Fortunately, the latest news is good.

The critical project is the Carmichael Mine proposed by Adani Coal. To get the coal out Adani proposed a new rail line and a port expansion at Abbot Point. Korean conglomerate POSCO (originally a steelmaker) was named as the builder of the railroad, with the prospect that POSCO would take an equity share and the Korean Export-Import Bank would lend money on favorable terms. If the rail line is built, other projects could go ahead. One such project, owned by Bandanna Coal (now in receivership) was just approved by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

It now seems clear that Adani is mothballing the project. A month ago, the engineering design teams were told to stop work, and now Posco’s contractors have been sent home. Coincidentally or otherwise, Posco has announced the intention to return to its steelmaking roots, with aggressive cuts to its engineering and construction divisions.

Adani is still blaming regulatory delays, but this seems increasingly implausible. The sacking of the engineering teams will set the project back many months, if not years, and burning your primary equity partner doesn’t seem like a sensible response to regulatory problems. At this point, I’d say the strategy is to obtain and bank the regulatory approvals then hope that the price of coal increases in the future. This seems unlikely, given the collapse of demand in the US, declining demand in China and increasing Indian focus on renewables, in which Adani itself is a big player.

Moreover, with every year that passes, the obstacles to coal projects of any kind get bigger. Most international development banks will no longer lend to such projects, global banks are under similar pressure and institutional equity investors are being pushed to divest. It’s unlikely that the proponents of new coal projects in Australia will ever again see a government as favorable as the Abbott government, so if they can’t succeed now, they will probably never do so.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Derp: An irregular verb

July 7th, 2015 28 comments

Following up on Noah Smith’s marvellous definition of derp, I thought I would add the first person to give the declension of this irregular verb

* I can’t see this happening
* You regularly restate your tight (low probability) prior
* He herped a flerp of derp, the twerp

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Economists call on climate change policy

July 2nd, 2015 68 comments

I’ve just signed a statement drawn up by a group of economists from the Toulouse School of Economics and the Université Paris-Dauphine, in advance of the current COP21 international negotiation. The aim of the statement is to encourage the parties to aim for a more comprehensive and economically effective agreement that would ultimately supersede the patchwork of voluntary commitments being put forward at present. While the commitments being made for COP21 represent a huge advance on the vague aspirations that emerged from Copenhagen, we should not lose sight of the ultimate goal of decarbonizing the global economy in a way that minimizes the economic costs by taking advantage of the power of price mechanisms.

From an Australian viewpoint, the most important part of the Call is Part 3: “Free rider” behavior must be hindered. The current government’s attempts to position Australia as a free rider on the efforts of others cannot succeed in the end, and will only do Australia harm.

If you’re a professional economist and agree with Call, you can sign it here. More generally, it’s open for discussion in the comments thread.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

How about that hiatus?

June 23rd, 2015 132 comments

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administratioh has just released its global climate analysis for May 2015. The results

May 2015 was

* The warmest May on record globally
* The warmest May on record on land
* The warmest May on record on the oceans
* The warmest May on record in the Northern Hemisphere
* The warmest May on record in the Southern Hemisphere

Also, the warmest March-May, Jan-May and (I think) 12-month period in the record.

Comment is superfluous, but don’t let that stop you.

Categories: Environment Tags:

An optimistic view on climate change

June 23rd, 2015 65 comments

Regular readers will be aware that I have a generally optimistic disposition. You may wish to bear this in mind when you read this Inside Story piece arguing that the prospects are good for stabilising global greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm.

On the whole, though, I think excessive pessimism is a bigger problem than over-optimism. As I’ve argued before, I think lots of people have locked themselves into positions (eg advocacy of geoengineering, or belief in the end of industrial civilisation) that are based on the assumption that stabilisation is impossible. Many of these people are not open to evidence that stabilization is feasible, and even likely.

There’s a strong case that we should do better than 450 ppm, with a common ‘safe’ figure being 350 ppm. Since we passed that level some time ago, that requires a long period of negative net emissions, which cannot easily be achieved with current technology. Still, if net emissions are reduced to zero in the second half of this century, and some technological advances are made over the next fifty years (a plausible assumption if we put in some effort), even 350 ppm might be feasible.

Australia is dragging the chain under the Abbott government, but even Abbott seems to be feeling the international pressure judging by recent reports. With luck the last couple of years will turn out to have been a temporary detour in progress towards decarbonization.

Categories: Environment Tags:

In the press

June 16th, 2015 116 comments
Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Big Oil changes sides in the War on Coal

June 11th, 2015 44 comments

As the time left to save the planet from uncontrolled climate change gets shorter and shorter, the previously glacial pace of movement on the issues has speeded up. One of the most important, and surprising, developments has been a string of increasingly sharp attacks on coal, coming from representatives of major oil and gas companies. As this (rather excitable) piece explains, the reason is simple. The policy debate has crystallised around the idea of a carbon budget – the remaining amount of CO2 that can be emitted while keeping atmospheric concentrations at levels consistent with 2 degrees of warming or less.

Obviously, if such a budget is imposed and adhered to, a lot of fossil fuel resources, currently sitting on corporate account books, will have to be left in the ground. Unsurprisingly, fossil fuel companies have done their best to prevent such an outcome, promoting science denial, and encouraging national governments to shirk their share of the burden with the argument that others should do more. Such a strategy implies a united front among fossil fuel owners, since the longer the imposition of a budget can be delayed, the better off they all are.

The recent break in the fossil fuel coalition therefore marks a new stage. Rather than try to expand the budget for all fossil fuels, the oil and gas companies have decided to get as much as possible for themselves, which means shutting down coal as fast as possible. The facts that have made such a strategic switch sensible are many and varied but the most important are

(a) the increasing recognition of the health effects of burning coal which gives national governments like that of China a strong incentive, independent of climate change, to reduce coal use
(b) the fact that the most immediately promising alternatives to fossil fuels are renewable sources of electricity which compete directly with coal, and are, to a significant extent complementary with gas (as a dispatchable source, gas-fired electricity tends to offset problems associated with the variability/intermittency of renewables.

What’s the appropriate response here? In the end, it will be necessary to phase out fossil fuel use altogether. But the logic of tackling coal first is inescapable. If that logic drives a wedge in the fossil fuel coalition, so much the better for all of us.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The end of the “hiatus”

June 8th, 2015 52 comments

Graham Lloyd in the Oz (not going to link) is pretty upset about the latest research showing that there is no significant difference between the rate of global warming over the 15 years since 2000 and that over the 50 years 1950 to 2000. The finding is the result of some corrections to data on sea surface temperatures, with the result that the estimated temperature at the beginning of the period is higher (so warming since 1950 is lower) and the fact that the period since 2014 has been the warmest on record.

Lloyd and others have popularized the term “hiatus” to refer to the slowdown which could at least plausibly be found in the data prior to this update and correction. Climate denialists capitalized on the ambiguity in this term to keep alive their beloved, but long discredited, “no warming since 1998, no significant warming since 1995” talking point.

For those interested, there’s a good analysis at Real Climate.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Nuclear power in Australia

June 7th, 2015 44 comments

I’ve decided to make a submission to the South Australian Royal Commission into the nuclear fuel cycle. I can’t actually submit until I find a JP or similar to witness it. This is a minor inconvenience for me, but may be a big problem for plenty of interested groups (for example, indigenous people). On the upside, I have time to ask for comments, and maybe make changes in response. This thread will be open to discussion of any issues related to nuclear power. However, in the event of lengthy two-person debates emerging, I’d ask the parties to move to the sandpits and leave room for everyone else.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Standard Chartered and Galilee

May 23rd, 2015 63 comments

Among the international banks that might finance Adani’s massive Carmichael coal mine, and the associated rail line and port development, the most significant is probably Standard Chartered of the UK, currently Adani’s largest lender outside India. The media is providing mixed messages here.

Standard Chartered has announced its intention to “review” its involvement, stating, according to the Financial Times that

We will go no further with this until we are fully satisfied with the environmental impact of this project.

The chairman added that

He added that the bank was in “active dialogue” with the Australian government about the issue.

I’d normally read this as a euphemism for “we are going to pull the plug, like everyone else”, except that the Fin reports that the bank is.

running a now fairly discreet process because of the line-in-the-sand assault by the environmental defenders on banks that support coal

We’ll find out soon enough, I guess, given that Adani claims that it will start dredging in September. But given that the previous CEO and Chairman were forced out a few months ago, mainly because of bad loans to mining companies, it’s hard to see what the bank could gain by extending more credit to a venture that’s both financially marginally and politically toxic, or how it can claim to have satisfied itself on the environmental impact of a mine that will contribute as much to global warming as all but a handful of national economies. Surely they don’t believe that they will please anybody by announcing that the Abbott government has assured them that everything is fine.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The end of coal

May 23rd, 2015 23 comments

I have a piece in The Conversation, looking at the continued fall in Chinese demand for coal, and a highly relevant IMF study confirming previous findings that, even disregarding climate change, the health costs of burning coal make it more costly than renewables. So, the idea that the path to development lies through coal is a nonsense. The Chinese government has recognised this and acted, and the same will be true in India before too long.

I’ve reprinted over the fold.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Flogging the dead horse of nuclear power

May 5th, 2015 96 comments

As I anticipated, my post on Tesla’s new battery provoked some pretty hostile responses, most notably from pro-nuclear diehards. I’ve written plenty on this (use the search facility), so rather than repeat myself I’ll make an observation drawing on the previous post.

Ten years ago, solar PV was a faintly hopeful technologica prospect, making a minuscule contribution to electricity generation. Today, it’s a reality that is creating massive disruption for electricity utilities around the world. As I said in the previous post, the availability of even moderately cost-effective storage removes the last big obstacle (more on the economics soon)

By contrast, ten years ago, nuclear energy was a mature technology which seemed to be at the beginning of a renaissance. Today it’s further away, in almost every respect, than it was in 2005. Construction times have blown out, costs have turned out to be twice as high or more than expected, the operating record (thanks to Fukushima) is far worse, and the various new technologies (SMRs, Gen IV) have receded even further.

None of this means that the replacement of fossil fuels with renewables+storage is going to happen under current policy settings. But such a replacement is now clearly feasible, much faster, more reliably and at much lower cost, than attempting to reboot the failed nuclear renaissance.

Backing the nuclear horse was a reasonable choice in 2005. But it’s dead, and flogging it won’t revive it.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Is Powerwall good for coal and nuclear?

May 5th, 2015 74 comments

No one seems to have spelt this point out, but there’s an obvious potential for Powerwall to be used in ways that benefit coal, nuclear and geothermal power, as well as renewables like wind and solar. Advocates of these technologies love to cite the fact that they are “baseload” supplies, but this is a misconception. Because they are costly to turn on and off (or even up and down), these technologies produce too much power at times of little demand (late night and early morning).

If owners of home solar systems, connected to grids with an off-peak excess supply, install battery storage on a large scale, it would make sense to run two cycles per day. The systems (most sensibly oriented west) would charge up from solar panels in the early afternoon, and supply power in the evening. Then they would recharge from the grid in the early morning, and supply power to meet the morning peak associated with getting ready for work, school etc.

What’s the net effect of this. First, obviously, it makes storage a more appealing economic choice for householders. Second, although it reduces costs for any kind of electricity that is not fully dispatchable, the benefits are bigger for renewables for two reasons. First, the variability of these sources is greater. Second, pricing systems, at least those in Australia, are already set up to encourage use of off-peak grid power, whereas current feed-in tariffs discourage solar PV.

From our current starting point, effect of adding more systems with a combination of solar PV and storage will be to reduce total demand for coal-fired power (and, where it exists, nuclear power), and to enable more efficient use of existing capital stock. So, it’s likely to discourage new investment in these sources. However, unless we have a carbon price, or other measures in place, it won’t necessarily accelerate the closure of existing coal-fired plants.

Update A note on the economics: Calculations I’ve seen on the web assumed that lithium batteries have a life of 1000 recharge-discharge cycles, but it appears this number can be improved drastically. These guys are claiming 20 000. More on this soon, I hope.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Some unwelcome good news

May 3rd, 2015 119 comments

The announcement by Tesla of a new home battery storage system, called Powerwall, costing $3500 for 10KwH of storage, has been greeted with enthusiasm, but also a good deal of scepticism regarding its commercial viability, which depends in any given market on such things as the gap between retail electricity prices feed-in tariffs for solar PV.

This is missing the forest for the trees, however. Assuming the Tesla system comes anywhere near meeting its announced specifications, and noting that electric cars are also on the market from Tesla and others, we now have just about everything we need for a technological fix for climate change, based on a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency, at a cost that’s a small fraction of global income (and hence a small fraction of national income for any country) .

That’s something hardly anyone expected (certainly not me) a decade ago. And, given how strongly people are attached to their opinions, and especially their public commitments, there is bound to be a lot of resistance to this conclusion. Based on the evidence available a decade ago, people drew some of the following conclusions:

(a) decarbonizing the energy sector will require radical economic changes which will entail the end of industrial society/capitalism as we know it
(b) conclusion (a) is true and therefore climate change must be an enviro-socialist hoax
(c) any solution must involve a return to nuclear power on a massive scale
(d) any solution must involve the development and deployment of a “clean coal” technology
(e) a market-based solution will require a very high carbon price, say $100/tonne

I was in group (e), and was still talking about prices up to $100/tonne as recently as 2012. But it’s easy to revise a price number downwards in the light of technological change, much harder to revise strongly held and publicly stated conclusions like (a)-(d).

So, I’m not going to bother trying to demonstrate the assertion that a technological fix is now possible – from past experience, demonstrations of such points are futile. Rather, I’m going to spend some time thinking about the implications for the next round of global climate policy, and what constructive contributions I can make to getting Australia back on tract.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Loaves and fishes, again

May 2nd, 2015 20 comments

I expanded my earlier analysis of the Galilee Basin mines in this piece for The Guardian. The really striking number is 483, the number of long-term new jobs the Carmichael mine is estimated to generate in the local (Mackay Isaac Whitsunday) region. That estimate comes from a computable general equilibrium (CGE) modelling exercise by Adani’s own consultants, ACIL Allen. Before the Queensland election, of course, much bigger numbers of 10-20 000 were bandied about. That’s partly a difference of coverage – the bigger numbers envisage, implausibly, that all the proposed mines in the Basin will go ahead, along with rail lines and port expansions.

Also, some of them focus on peak numbers during construction for each project, so that the jobs in question would only last a year or so. But the big difference is that the larger estimates were made using the discredited input-output method, in which each job created directly generates many more indirect jobs. This is an extreme version of the Keynesian multiplier effect, valid during a deep recession. But, as ACIL Allen observes, it makes sense only if you assume that the recession is going to last for the life of the project.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

The cost of a policy depends on what policy you choose

April 24th, 2015 14 comments

I don’t usually respond to posts on Catallaxy, but I will try on this occasion to fix up what I hope is simply a misinterpretation. Responding to the recent proposal by the Climate Change Authority (of which I am a member) for an emissions reduction target of 30 per cent, relative to 2000 levels, to be achieved by 2025, Sinclair Davidson picks out the following sentence

As noted earlier, the Authority is not in a position to prepare meaningful estimates of the costs of meeting its recommended target, primarily because many of these costs will depend on the policies adopted.

and responds

Wow. Really wow. Let’s adopt a policy even though we have absolutely no idea how much it will cost.

This is a serious misreading. As the report says, there a variety of ways in which this target might be reached. There are the methods favored by economists, involving a major role for carbon prices. Costs of achieving emissions reductions using these methods have been estimated on many occasions. The invariable finding is that carbon prices can achieve large-scale reduction si emissions very cheaply.- typical estimates are for a reduction in the rate of economic growth of around 0.1 percentage points. Or, there are much more expensive methods, such as a massive expansion of the current government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (on which more later, I hope).

Since we don’t know what policy this, or a future government, might adopt, we can’t estimate the cost. So, to rephrase Davidson “Let’s propose a target even though we don’t know how the government, should they adopt it, will choose to achieve it”. That is, of course, exactly what the government asked the CCA to do in this report.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Lomborg review: repost from 2005

April 23rd, 2015 25 comments

The announcement that the Federal government will be (they say, only partly, but UWA appears to have a different view) funding a move of Bjorn Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Center to the University of WA has attracted plenty of comment.

Rather than pile on, I thought I would repost my, decidedly mixed, review of Lomborg’s first CCC effort in 2005.

Read more…

Categories: Environment Tags:

CO2 emissions levelling out?

April 7th, 2015 236 comments

Preliminary estimates from the International Energy Agency, released in March, suggest that energy-related emissions of CO2[1] were unchanged in 2014 compared to 2013. Countries experiencing notable drops in emissions included China, Britain, Germany and the EU as a whole, but not, of course, Australia[2]

This has happened before, but only in years of global recession, whereas the global growth rate in 2014 was around 3 per cent. Of course, there are plenty of special factors such as a good year for hydro in China. Still, after looking carefully at the numbers, I’ve come to the conclusion that this really does represent, if not the long-sought peak in emissions, at least the end of the link between rising living standards and CO2 emissions.

The most striking feature of 2014 in this context was the behavior of fossil fuel prices. Coal prices had already fallen a long way from their peak levels in the years around the GFC, and they kept on falling through the year, even as coal mines began to close and lots of projects were abandoned. Oil prices remained at historically high levels until the middle of the year but then joined the downward trend, which has continued into 2015. Natural gas is a more complex story, since there isn’t a global market, and I haven’t figured it out yet.

Still, it seems to me that the 2014 outcome is a consistent with a story in which most growth in demand for energy services will be met by a combination of renewables and energy efficiency, and in which coal continues to lose ground to gas. The lack of demand implies that fossil fuel prices are likely to stay permanently below the levels anticipated when most recent projects were initiated.

Behind all this, it seems as if the various piecemeal measures introduced with the aim of switching away from fossil fuels are working better than almost anyone expected, and with minimal economic cost. Hopefully, this will encourage world leaders to set more ambitious targets, consistent with stabilising the global climate at temperatures 2 degrees or less above pre-industrial levels.

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Reality finally bites for Willie Soon

February 23rd, 2015 26 comments

Among the handful of apparently reputable scientists who deny mainstream climate science, Willie Wei-Hock Soon, regularly described as a Harvard astrophysicist (he’s actually an aerospace engineer working for the Smithsonian, which has a joint centre with Harvard), has been among the most prominent and durable. His biggest hit was his 2003 paper with Sallie Baliunas* which brought about the resignation of half of the editorial board of the journal concerned.

Soon has finally come unstuck, having failed to declare his funding from fossil fuel interests and the Koch brothers in a number of articles, thereby violating the requirements of the journals that published him. The New York Times has a lengthy and unflattering expose.

The only surprise is that this took so long, and that Soon has been allowed to do so much damage to science. Still, the supply of seemingly credible deniers is small enough that discrediting even one makes a difference.

Read more…

Categories: Environment, Science Tags:

Turnbull and the Renewable Energy Target

February 8th, 2015 34 comments

At the minute of writing (1404 Sunday), it looks as if Malcolm Turnbull will replace Tony Abbott as PM tomorrow. Among his many challenges will be climate change policy, the issue that brought him undone last time around. The word appears to be that he will adhere to the platform from the 2013 election, which rules out a carbon price (tax or ETS) but gives him room to move in various directions.The assumption is that this compromise will buy both Turnbull and the climate deniers in the LNP enough time to work out some kind of solution.

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the Abbott government, in defiance of the 2013 platform, has been doing its best to make drastic cuts in the Renewable Energy Target. To the extent that the processes of government are going on during the current mess, negotations with Labor and the minor parties are still under way. Turnbull will have to decide, more or less immediately, whether to keep pushing for deep cuts.

There’s a further problem. Turnbull can’t simply drop the issue and leave things as they are. Abbott’s obvious intention to destroy the scheme has had a chilling effect on investment, particularly in the wind sector. Under the current rules, fossil fuel generators need to offset their generation with certificates from renewable generators. But it now seems unlikely that there will be enough certificates by 2020, which would result in the triggering of penalty clauses. So, the scheme needs some kind of change.

The Climate Change Authority, of which I’m a member put out a report just before Christmas last year, suggesting that the target date of 2020 be shifted out, and that the duration of the scheme be extended past 2030. That’s one possible solution, though not the only one.

The problem for Turnbull is that any realistic solution will instantly enrage the climate deniers, while continuing on the current path will put him in the position of owning Abbott’s broken promises.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Abbott, Knight and Bishop

January 27th, 2015 104 comments

In making my predictions for 2015, I was tempted to predict that Abbott would last out the year, mainly on the basis of inertia, but decided it was too risky (Commenter Fran B sensibly went the other way). I’m already glad of that: even before Sir Phil, it seemed as if he was on the skids.

Assuming Abbott goes (still not certain, but looking more likely with every hour), Julie Bishop looks like a sure thing to replace him. She has looked pretty good as Foreign Minister (if you’re willing to overlook a massive cut in foreign aid), but that’s relatively easy, largely a matter of not messing up. If she does take over, she’ll need to do more than that.

To demonstrate that there’s a real change, she’ll have to break with Abbott on some major issues. Presumably that will include dumping Hockey and the most unpopular of the 2014 budget measures, but most of those are already dead.

The really big break would be to return to some kind of bipartisanship on climate change. There’s some precedent, given the way she stood up to him over going to the Lima meeting. But it would entail a break with the (numerous) denialists and tribalists in the party room and the broader party apparatus (including the Murdoch Press and bodies like the IPA). Still, if she could carry it off, she would be a force to be reckoned with.

Categories: Environment, Oz Politics Tags:

Increasing trend keeps on increasing

January 19th, 2015 104 comments

Unsurprisingly, 2014 was the warmest year so far in the incremental record, as measured by NOAA and NASA. A few quick observations

* It’s silly to base global judgements on local observations. Still, living through January 2015 in Queensland, it’s easy to believe that the warming trend has continued into the New Year

* There’s nothing special about a calendar year. The first part of 2014, particularly February, was cooler than the rest of the year. So, it’s a safe bet that the 12 months ending Feb 2015 will be even warmer than the 12 months ending Dec 2014

* The biggest source of short-term fluctuations is the El Nino cycle, responsible for the very warm year in 1998 that is the basis for so much silly talk about “no global warming for x years”. 2014 was the first record year without a full-scale El Nino, though it kept threatening to emerge. Predictions are mixed for 2015.

* Of course, this long-expected news had no effect on denialists. But, like anti-vaxers, they are no longer getting the kind of “balanced” hearing they have counted on for so long, at least outside the Murdoch press. It’s now generally recognised that climate science denial isn’t a scientific viewpoint but a tribal shibboleth, and this is reflected in news coverage.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Only a mug punter would bet on carbon storage over renewables

January 9th, 2015 75 comments

That’s the title of my latest piece in The Conversation. The key point

To sum up, if investing in energy storage is like backing every horse on a race, investing in CCS is like a parlay bet, which pays off only if we can pick the winners of several races in succession.

When you think about it like that, it’s not surprising that the smart money is on storing energy, not carbon.

Categories: Environment Tags:

From Montreal to Lima

December 21st, 2014 10 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

The fossil fuel crash of 2014

December 20th, 2014 43 comments

Among the unforeseen (by me, at any rate) events of 2014, the collapse in the price of crude oil may be among the most significant. Prices have fallen from more than $100/barrel in mid-2014 to around $60/barrel today. This follows a more gradual fall in the price of coal. The thermal coal price peaked at $140/tonne in 2011 and has now fallen to around $70/tonne. Prices for metallurgical coal and iron ore have also collapsed.

What should we make of this? The big questions are
(i) to what extent does the price collapse reflect weak demand and to what extent growing supply
(ii) will these low prices be sustained, and if so, what will be the outcome.

The answer to the first question seems to be, a mixture of the two, with some complicated lags. Strong demand growth (briefly interrupted by the GFC) produced high prices which made new projects appear profitable. Now the projects are coming on stream, but demand has weakened. Since both demand and supply are inelastic (not very responsive to prices) in the short run, a moderate oversupply produces a big drop in prices.

Coming to the second point, if we are to reduce emissions of CO2, a necessary precondition is that the price of fossil fuels should fall to the point where it is uneconomic to extract them. Current prices are below the level at which most new oil and coal projects are profitable, so, if they are sustained, we can expected to see a lot of project cancellations and closures (this is already happening with coal to some extent).

The big question is whether sustained low prices will lead to a recovery in demand. There are at least some reasons to hope that it won’t. There’s pressure to reduce coal and oil use coming from many directions, so, even at lower prices, I doubt that we will see a surge in investment in new coal-fired power plants* or a return to oil for uses like heating.

So, the hopeful scenario is one in which the abandonment of new projects brings us the long-awaited advent of Peak (or rather Plateau) Oil and Coal** in the not-too-distant future, giving time for policy to push the global economy in the direction of decarbonization.

* Someone will doubtless point to the case of Germany. But as far as I can tell, the plants that have opened recently were commissioned around 2006, and most proposals made since then have been abandoned.

** Of course, gas is a different story, partly because there is no global market. Gas prices are rising in some places (Australia, for example) and falling in others as trade expands.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags: