Archive for the ‘Environment’ Category

Turning the corner

December 13th, 2015 50 comments

The agreement just announced from the Climate Conference in Paris isn’t by any means, a solution to the problem of avoiding climate change. But, along with other developments over the past year, it signals the fact that the world community has turned the corner on this issue. Barring a catastrophe[^1], the world is now on the path to near-complete decarbonization of the economy by the middle of this century, and to stabilization of the global climate with less than 2 degrees of warming.

The big developments of the past year include:

* An apparent (though small) decline in global CO2 emissions in 2015

* Peak Coal. Not only has global consumption of coal begun to fall, but the pressure to abandon coal, exerted at every stage from the initial financing of mines to the burning of coal in power stations has grown in intensity.

* Continued progress in renewables, notably including the appearance of commercially viable battery storage systems. It’s now obvious that, taking all the costs into account, renewable electricity is cheaper than the fossil fuel alternatives, and capable of completely replacing them.

* The political eclipse of leading denialists, most notably Abbott and Harper, and the disarray of US Republicans on the issue

* Looking at the agreement itself, it’s as ambitious as could reasonably have been hoped. Big points include
– The adoption of 1.5 degrees as a goal towards which efforts will be aimed
– The “ratchet” mechanism of 5 year reviews
– The acceptance that all countries need to act to reduce emissions over time.

Taken together, these developments put the world on a path to steadily more ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, consistent with stabilization of the global climate at 2 degrees of warming or less.

[^1]: The most obvious possible catastrophe would be a Republican victory in the 2016 US elections. But the momentum for change is such that even four years of unified Republican rule would probably not be enough to stop it.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Nuclear isn’t looking promising either

November 27th, 2015 105 comments

For quite some time, I’ve argued that, if nuclear power is to make any substantial contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, its growth will have to accelerate in China and to be based on the AP1000, the only Gen III+ design likely to be built in numbers significant enough to achieve any kind of scale economy.

It now appears highly unlikely that this will happen. Although China notionally restarted its nuclear program in 2012, a year after Fukushima, approvals have slowed to a crawl. This article, from Nuclear Engineering International, explains some of the reasons.

More significantly, China appears to have abandoned the idea of using a Western design, and is instead pushing two designs of its own, the CAP-1400 (an adaptation of the AP1000) and Hualong 1, Chinese design with French antecedents, variously rated as Gen II, Gen II+ and “comparable to a Generation III”.

It appears that the cost of imported inputs to the current projects is seen as prohibitive. The hope that the Hualong will generate an export market, and the British government has just agreed in principle to the construction of one such plant, conditional on approval of the design. In the absence of any operational plants, that looks problematic, to put it mildly. The announcement looks to be driven more by diplomatic considerations than by economics, which suggests that actual construction may be a long way off.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Clean Coal is not going to happen

November 27th, 2015 50 comments

The announcement that the UK government is cancelling funding (budgeted at stg 1 billion) for its proposed competition for carbon capture and storage (CCS) marks the end of the last best hope that we can mitigate CO2 emissions while continuing to burn coal. If follows the abandonment of similar programs in Australia and the US.

Two thoughts on this.

First, it makes a nonsense of one of the justifications for supercritical coal-fired power stations, namely that they can be made “CCS-ready”.

Second, lots of projected paths to decarbonization involve substantial reliance on CCS. Those will need to be scrapped or changed substantially. The simplest change would be to replace coal+CCS with nuclear (the UK government now seems to be chasing the mirage of Small Modular Reactors) but that is only marginally less unrealistic than CCS (a new post on this shortly, I hope). The alternative is to rely on a combination of storage and smart grid pricing to adapt our current electricity system to one driven mostly by wind and solar PV, with hydro and limited amounts of gas as the dispatchable sources.

Categories: Environment Tags:

A global climate deal without Australia

November 18th, 2015 25 comments

Over the last few weeks, there have been quite a few reports that the US, Japan, Australia and Korea are negotiating an agreement that would greatly reduce the availability of concessional funding for new coal projects. Recent reports, though, suggest that the US and Japan will make an agreement on their owmsn ter, leaving Australia (and perhaps also Korea) to go its own way. That has some pretty big implications for the Turnbull government and its position at the Paris Conference.

National and international development banks and export credit agencies, including Export-Import Banks in (South) Korea and the US, the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation[1] and the Export Finance Insurance Corporation in Australia have been a major source of finance for coal plants in developing countries like the Phillipines and Vietnam. With Chinese coal demand having peaked, and India shifting emphasis to renewables, the coal industry is counting on rapid demand growth in countries like these.

The reported US-Japan deal would eliminate funding for coal-plants that don’t use supercritical technology, and would require ultra-supercritical technology for all but the poorest countries.[2] Apparently, Korea has proposed weaker restrictions, and Australia weaker still. But rather than split the difference, Politico reports that the US and Japan will make a deal without Australia and Korea.

As far as I can tell, we are still in the stage of preliminary posturing. Some sort of compromise, or perhaps capitulation, may be reached. But if the US-Japan deal goes ahead without us, that will be a pretty clear signal that Turnbull is going to stick with Abbott’s anti-climate policies.

If such an outcome is possible in these talks, it’s also possible in Paris. Until now, I’ve assumed that the imperative for a global deal is such that even Australia’s weak proposals, and rejection of any credible policy, will be treated as acceptable. But now that Harper is gone in Canada, and Japan is working with the US, Australia is unlikely to find much backing for a recalcitrant position. While Korea might hold out on export financing, it is unlikely to want to be seen as sabotaging the entire agreement.

Hopefully, this is one of those situations where the export finance negotiations are still on a dynamic set under Abbott. Hopefully, Turnbull can see that the merits of being a global citizen in good standing, notably including continued friendly relations with Obama, outweigh any grumbles he might face from the LNP right.

Update An agreement has been reached. It looks pretty close to capitulation by Australia, though the government extracted enough concessions to call it a compromise. (Hat Tip: Cambo in comments).

fn1. I wasn’t clear about Australia’s involvement, since we don’t export or finance power plants, AFAICT. It appears that the agreement was formally made by the OECD, which requires unanimity. That makes the threat by the US and Japan to go it alone even more significant, I think.
fn2. Despite the impressive sounding name, ultra-supercritical plants still emit a lot of CO2, only about 10 per cent less than the subcritical plants they replace.

Categories: Environment Tags:

The moral case for renewables

November 11th, 2015 6 comments
Categories: Environment Tags:

No New Coal Mines

October 29th, 2015 42 comments

Along with 60 other Australians, mostly more eminent than me, I’ve signed an open letter to world leaders calling for a moratorium on new coal mines and coal mine expansions. The letter focuses particularly on Adani’s proposed Carmichael mine but it’s important to be clear that this is part of a global movement to stop new coal mines everywhere in the world.

The underlying reasoning isn’t spelt out but ought to be clear enough. If we are to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations at 450 ppm or below, as the world’s leaders have already agreed we should, it is necessary for carbon dioxide emissions to peak soon, and decline to zero over the next 30 years or so. Given that burning coal creates major health hazards in addition to C02 emissions, coal burning needs to eliminated even more rapidly. That means first, that no new coal mine can expect to work for an operating life of more than 30 years, and second that any new coal mine must be offset be additional closures of existing coal mines. Once these factors are taken into account, it’s essentially impossible for new coal mines to make economic sense within the constraints imposed by a limited carbon budget. Certainly, that’s the case for Carmichael, which is a massive boondoggle keeping alive only in the hope of extracting some form of government assistance or compensation.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Adani out of excuses

October 15th, 2015 55 comments

Environment Minister Greg Hunt has just given approval to Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine in the Galilee Basin. This decision is sure to be challenged in court, but presumably the lawyers have been over the decision carefully, to fix up the errors that saw Hunt’s earlier approval overturned.

Assuming the decision stands up, Adani will be in the position of the dog that catches the car it’s been chasing. Adani and its advocates, like the Institute of Public Affairs, have been telling anyone who’ll listen that their marvellous project is being held up by “green tape”. The reality is that the project is as dead as a doornail.

No one will buy the coal it produces at a price that covers even the marginal cost of extraction. No bank will fund the deal: in fact, almost every potential financial institution that might provide funds has already announced a refusal (something almost unprecedented in the world of finance). Adani’s existing bankers, the Coommonwealth, walked away recently (or, in Adani’s telling, was pushed). All the contractors working on the project have been sacked, mostly without any public announcement

Most recently, Adani’s announcement of a proposed contract with Downer EDI has fallen into limbo. The contracts were supposed to be signed by 30 September, but nothing has happened. There’s a reference in the announcement to environmental approvals, so perhaps the contract will go ahead now, but, based on past form, this seems unlikely.

Adani would have done better, in PR terms, to pull the plug when the courts overturned Hunt’s initial approval. Perhaps they have a secret plan to salvage something from this mess, but it’s hard to see how this can work.

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Climate change and catastrophe

September 24th, 2015 46 comments

I have a piece in The Economist climate blog, making the point that the risk of catastrophic climate change has been ignored by “lukewarmists” like Bjorn Lomborg and Jim Manzi.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Is global collapse imminent ? (repost from 2014)

September 10th, 2015 439 comments

Update \ I thought I’d repost this a year on, and reopen the discussion 10 September 2015

Reader ZM points me to a paper with this title, by Graham Turner of the University of Melbourne. Not only does Turner answer “Yes”, he gives a date: 2015. That’s a pretty big call to be making, given that 2015 is less than four months away.

The abstract reads:

The Limits to Growth “standard run” (or business-as-usual, BAU) scenario produced about forty years ago aligns well with historical data that has been updated in this paper. The BAU scenario results in collapse of the global economy and environment (where standards of living fall at rates faster than they have historically risen due to disruption of normal economic functions), subsequently forcing population down. Although the modelled fall in population occurs after about 2030—with death rates rising from 2020 onward, reversing contemporary trends—the general onset of collapse first appears at about 2015 when per capita industrial output begins a sharp decline. Given this imminent timing, a further issue this paper raises is whether the current economic difficulties of the global financial crisis are potentially related to mechanisms of breakdown in the Limits to Growth BAU scenario. In particular, contemporary peak oil issues and analysis of net energy, or energy return on (energy) invested, support the Limits to Growth modelling of resource constraints underlying the collapse.

A central part of the argument, citing Simmons is that critics of LtG wrongly interpeted the original model as projecting a collapse beginning in 2000, whereas the correct date is 2015.

I’ve been over this issue in all sorts of ways (see here and here for example, or search on Peak Oil). So readers won’t be surprised to learn that I don’t buy this story. I won’t bother to argue further: unless the collapse is even more rapid than Turner projects, I’ll be around to eat humble pie in 2016 when the downturn in output (and the corresponding upsurge in oil prices) should be well under way.

Given that I’m a Pollyanna compared to lots of commenters here, I’d be interested to see if anyone is willing to back Turner on this, say by projecting a decline of 5 per cent or more in world industrial output per capita in (or about) 2015, continuing with a sharply declining trend thereafter. [minor clarifications added, 5/9]

Categories: Environment Tags:

CCS vs Hazelwood (updated)

September 7th, 2015 33 comments

It’s often hard to get an idea of the scale at which different technologies are operating. For example, there’s a lot of discussion about Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS or ‘clean coal’), though less than there used to be. To get an idea of current and near-future prospects for CCS in the power sector, I went to the Global CCS Institute list of large-scale projects. The site says

Large-scale CCS projects in the power sector are now a reality, demonstrated by:
* The world’s first large-scale power sector CCS project – the Boundary Dam Integrated Carbon Capture and Sequestration Demonstration Project in Canada (CO2 capture capacity of 1 Mtpa) – becoming operational in October 2014
* Commissioning activities on a new-build 582 megawatt (MW) power plant beginning at the Kemper County Energy Facility in Mississippi (US, CO2 capture capacity of 3 Mtpa) with CO2 capture expected to commence in the first half of 2016
* The Petra Nova Carbon Capture Project at the W.A. Parish power plant near Houston, Texas (US, CO2 capture capacity of 1.4 Mtpa) entering construction in July 2014, with CO2 capture anticipated by the end of 2016.

Tactfully ignoring the fact that the Kemper project has turned out to be a disaster, I thought I would scale this against an option that we can all comprehend, shutting down the brown coal power station at Hazelwood. According to this article, Hazelwood generates 15.7 million tonnes of CO2 per annum, or about three times the total from all CCS Power projects now in operation or under construction.

Looking further down the page, there’s a summary of all the CCS projects currently at any stage of consideration anywhere in the world

Globally, there are 14 large-scale CCS projects in operation, with a further eight under construction. The 22 projects in operation or under construction represents a doubling since the start of this decade. The total CO2 capture capacity of these 22 projects is around 40 million tonnes per annum.

There are another 14 large-scale CCS projects at the most advanced stage of development planning, the Concept Definition (or Define) stage, with a total CO2 capture capacity of around 20 million tonnes per annum. A further 15 large-scale CCS projects are in earlier stages of development planning (the Evaluate and Identify stages) and have a total CO2 capture capacity of around 30 million tonnes per annum.

So, if all of these projects were successfully completed, they would offset the emissions of six Hazelwood-sized plants. It gets worse. Many of these projects serve only to reduce the “fugitive” emissions from oil and gas fields, and most rely for their viability on using the captured CO2 in oil fields, to push more oil to the surface (enhanced oil recovery).

It’s time to bury the myth of CCS once and for all.

were implemented on schedule, the impact over the next fifteen years would be negated if we allowed Hazelwood to continue operating over that period.

Categories: Environment Tags:

My submission or the Abbot Point port expansion Environmental Impact Statement

August 28th, 2015 22 comments

The Queensland government is going ahead with (or, more hopefully, going through the motions of) the process for expansion of the Abbot Point coal terminal. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement has just been released, and there is a call for comments here

Read more…

Categories: Economics - General, Environment Tags:

Are there any sceptical “sceptics”

August 21st, 2015 40 comments

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just reported that the global mean temperature for July 2015 was the highest for any month since record keeping began in 1880. That follows a string of record-breaking months. And with a major El Nino well under way, it seems highly likely that more record high temperatures will follow.

To anyone with a sceptical attitude to factual assertions, this evidence would appear to cast grave doubt on the claim that the world is experiencing a “hiatus” or “pause” in global warming. On the face of it, either the supposed “hiatus” never occurred, or it has now ended.

So, it’s natural to ask whether such sceptical attitudes have been observed among those who describe themselves as “global warming sceptics”. I would be genuinely glad to find examples, since it would imply some possibility of serious discussion, as opposed to a restatement of tribal shibboleths.

Are any sceptical sceptics reading this? Has anyone else noticed any? Or are self-described “sceptics” only sceptical about things they don’t want to believe.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Green jobs

August 17th, 2015 13 comments

The question of “green jobs” has arisen in a lot of different contexts. At present, the most relevant is the problem of how to deal with the employment effects of the necessary and inevitable decline of industries based on fossil fuels. Part of this question is whether expanding sectors of the economy will create a number of new jobs comparable to those that disappear , and whether those jobs will be appropriate for the kinds of workers who worked, or would have, in the declining sector (that is, predominantly, male manual and trades workers). There are a lot of conceptual problems here, which I’m not going to address in detail. Rather, I’ll just look at some raw numbers and throw in some comments.

I was struck recently to read that, in the United States, the solar power industry now employs 174 000 people. That’s twice as many as coal mining. And, while these aren’t direct substitutes, they are, it would appear, broadly similar kinds of industries in the sense that the core workforce is dominated by male manual and trades workers.

Looking quickly at similar stats for Australia, I found that the numbers were reversed. According to the ABS, there were just under 40 000 Australians employed in the coal mining industry in May 2015, down from a peak of 60 000 in 2012, but well above the 20 000 or so employed in the early 2000s.

The Clean Energy Council estimates around 20 000 jobs in the renewables sector in 2014 – that’s up from virtually zero before 2010. So, broadly speaking growth in renewables has offset the decline in coal mining.

One specific issue in the US, that’s less of a problem here, at least in Queensland, is that of declining communities in places like Appalachia. Thanks to the practice of Fly-in Fly-Out, there are many fewer Australian communities focused on coal mining.

Finally, some related statistics I found in the process of researching this. The forestry and logging industries currently employ 3900 people (this number bounces about a lot, so I’m not sure how reliable it is). That’s about the same as the combined total for the NSW and Victorian National Parks systems. I expect if you added in various kinds of manual/trades jobs in adventure tourism and similar, you would find a net gain over the past 25 years or so.

Categories: Economic policy, Environment Tags:

Solar PV (now with grid backup)

August 13th, 2015 60 comments

Following my previous post there was some discussion about the need for grid backup of solar PV to deal with extended periods of overcast weather. It’s obvious that storage will help with this to some extent, since batteries can store electricity from the grid as well as from distributed solar. I thought I would try to put some numbers on this (slightly changed from last time to simplify the numbers).

I’ll focus on 1 kW of solar PV generating an average of 4.8 kWh per day, with (as before) 2 kWh of storage. If there is zero solar generation and no demand management, the entire 4.8 kWh per day must be drawn from the grid. In the absence of storage, we might suppose that 1kW of backup capacity is needed to match the peak output of the solar PV system. But with storage, all that is needed is enough to supply 4.8 kWh over the course of a 24-hour day, that is, 0.2 kW.

The optimal backup choice is a fully dispatchable technology such as hydro or gas. Hydro resources are pretty much fixed, so I’ll focus on gas. According to the US Energy Information Agency, the capital cost of gas-fired power plants is around $1000/kw so our grid backup will have a capital of cost only $200 for each kW of distributed solar. There’s also the need to take account of fuel and distribution costs. Fuel costs will be low since the system is only used as backup, while distribution costs will be around 20 per cent of what would be need if peak loads were to be met by centralised generation.

To sum up, if battery storage becomes available at a sufficiently low price, there’s no obvious problem with a system in which over 80 per cent of capacity, and an even larger proportion of generation is distributed solar PV.

Categories: Environment Tags:

EROEI (batteries now included)

August 12th, 2015 50 comments

As I showed in a recent post, a typical solar cell will generate at least 10 times the electricity used to produce it, and probably substantially more. This Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI) calculation didn’t take account of battery storage, which is needed to make solar PV comparable to dispatchable technologies like gas.

For this purpose, I’ll assume that each kilowatt of PV capacity requires 2 kilowatts of battery storage. The reasoning behind this is that we get an average 5kWh/day from the PV system, of which 3kWh is used during the day and 2kWh is stored.

According to this life-cycle assessment, a 26.6 kWh battery has a life-cycle cost of 4.6 tonnes of CO2, which comes out to around 0.4 tonnes for the 2kWh system proposed here. Assuming that the system displaces black coal, which conveniently yields about 1 tonne of CO2 per mWh, we have a cost of 400 kWh, which is only a few months worth of generation from a 1 kW system.

This seems amazingly good, so I may have made an order of magnitude mistake somewhere. If so, I’d be grateful to have it pointed out. If not, I think we can put the EROEI constraint to bed, at least as regards solar PV.

Categories: Environment Tags:

Score one for the planet

August 6th, 2015 81 comments

Several pieces of news in quick succession, have made in clear that the nightmare prospect of six mega-coal mines in the Galilee Basin has been staved off, at least for the foreseeable future. The key to the whole process is the Carmichael mine proposed by Indian conglomerate Adani. The rail line and port expansion proposed by Adani is necessary if any of the other mines are to proceed. Now the goods news

* Having already sacked its contractors, Adani is laying off most of its own staff, their non-denial denial notwithstanding. The break with Korean Steel company POSCO is particularly notable since POSCO was a likely equity investor and could have brought in debt funding from the Korean Export-Import bank
* The Federal Court overturned Minister Hunt’s approval of the project. While the grounds were technical, the decision raises the possibility that the whole process will need to be reassessed in the light of the adverse information that
* The Commonwealth Bank, the last likely source of debt finance for the project has ended its role as advisor

The remaining question is why, with no mine remotely in prospect, the Queensland government is still calling for expressions of interest in dredging for the proposed Abbot Point expansion. Hopefully, they have just been going through the motions. But, with the latest news, it’s time to stop throwing public money at this mirage. The tender process should be halted, at least until, and unless, the project is re-approved.

Categories: Environment Tags:


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: