Bad and good news from the IEA

The International Energy Agency reported today that global CO2 emissions hit a new record in 2010, and are well above where they should be for a path to stabilise CO2(+equivalent) concentrations at 450 ppm. The Global Financial Crisis has had a significant impact in the US and Europe but (not surprisingly) hardly any in China, where the impact of the crisis was short-lived, and rapidly offset by a strong fiscal stimulus. With the failure of policy in the US, things are not looking good. On the other hand, after playing the wrecker’s role at Copenhagen, China now seems to have embraced the idea of becoming the world leader in renewable energy.

The real good news is a new study undertaken by the IEA that refutes negative views about the variability of supply from PV and wind power (expressed by quite a few commenters here over the years, and the subject of numerous amateur analyses at blogs like Brave New Climate) and concludes that “the challenges of integrating large shares of variable renewables in power systems are far from insurmountable“. The analysis suggests that starting with existing grid characteristics, and employing balancing technologies now available, it would be possible to supply between 20 per cent (Japan) and 60 per cent (Denmark) of electricity generation using variable renewables, with an average of around 30 per cent. No specific date is given, but the discussion implies a time horizon around 2030.

Unfortunately, the PDF containing the detailed analysis is on sale at a price of 80 euros, which I don’t intend to pay, but the executive summary is online and gives a general idea of the argument.

An important point is that the most natural partners for variable renewables are sources that can be turned on and off easily. Hydro-electricity is the best example, but scope for expansion is limited. The next best case is a mixture of gas and variable renewables, and that seems like the sensible path to take over the next decade or two.

In the absence of any equally authoritative critique of the IEA analysis, I intend to treat this question as settled from now on, as with the prospects for nuclear power. Anyone seeking to make unsupported counter-claims based on their own intuition, BNC-style amateur analysis and so on should take them to the nuclear sandpit.

Summing up the news so far, if the world’s governments are willing to act to stabilise the global climate, they can do so at very low cost. It remains to be seen whether or not they will.

UK leading the way

The announcement by the UK government (Conservative-LibDem coalition) that it would aim to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 per cent, relative to 1990 levels, by 2025 has had a significant impact on the Australian debate and is likely to have a greater impact as time goes on.

In part this reflects the fact that, understandably if not entirely justifiably, Australians pay a lot more attention to news and ideas from the UK and US than from, say, France or Germany. The British announcement cuts the ground from under many of the claims being made by the denial/delusion/delay lobby in Australia.

* The idea that “Australia risks getting out in front of the world” is obviously false. Even assuming we get a carbon tax, leading on to an emissions trading scheme later this decade, we will be a decade or so behind the UK and other EU countries, which introduced an ETS in 2005

* The view that it is impossible, in a modern economy to reduce emissions substantially without a radical reduction in economic activity is obviously not shared by the UK government which (unlike the critics) has actually done the analytical work required to show that large reductions can be achieved at very little economic cost, and is now implementing the required policy. I’ve demonstrated this point over and over on this blog, and the negative responses have amounted to little more than “La, la, I’m not listening”, but hopefully a practical demonstration will have more effect

* As part of the longstanding intellectual trade with the UK, we get a regular flow of delusionist speakers like Lord Monckton out here (fair’s fair, we did send them Clive and Germaine after all). Demolition jobs like this one, from a leading British Tory, might make their audiences a bit more sceptical

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Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself

That’s the advice on scandal management from former Clinton spinmaster Lanny Davis, who’s since applied his expertise to defending some of the least appealing clients imaginable. Whatever you think of Davis, his advice is pretty good, and lots of people have come to grief by doing the opposite. That certainly seems to be the case with George Mason University. In March 2010, they received an official complaint of plagiarism regarding the notorious Wegman report produced (at the request of Republican Congressman Joe Barton) to criticise the well-known ‘hockey stick’ graph of global temperatures. Amazingly, GMU Professor Edward Wegman had lifted substantial blocks of text, without acknowledgement, from one of his targets, Raymond Bradley. When this was pointed out by bloggers John Mashey and Deep Climate, Bradley complained and asked for the report to be retracted.

Ignoring (or ignorant of) Davis’ advice, GMU took its time, perhaps hoping the problem would go away. Unfortunately for them, the opposite happened. Further research produced at least two more instances of plagiarism, one in another section of the Wegman report dealing with social networks and another in an unrelated paper on color vision. As I a mentioned a little while ago, the social networks analysis produced an academic paper, accepted by a Wegman mate with no peer review, which has now been retracted.

And now, Nature, which published the original hockey stick paper in 1999, has weighed in with an editorial calling for GMU to hurry up, and making mention of the Office of Research Integrity as an alternative process. That could make it a criminal matter.

At this point, GMU has no appealing options.

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Reality-based journalism in the US

The fact that, with no observable exceptions, the US Republican Party relies on delusional beliefs for most of its claims about economics, science and history has been obvious for some years. But, until recently it’s been outside the Overton Window. That seems to have changed, as witness:

* Jacob Weisberg, who only a little while ago was giving qualified praise to the Ryan Plan, now says the Repubs have

moved to a mental Shangri-La, where unwanted problems (climate change, the need to pay the costs of running the government) can be wished away, prejudice trumps fact (Obama might just be Kenyan-born or a Muslim), expertise is evidence of error, and reality itself comes to be regarded as some kind of elitist plot.

* USA Today comparing Republican climate change delusionism to birtherism and saying

The latest scientific report provides clarity that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. It paves a path to a future fraught with melting ice caps, rising sea levels, shifting agricultural patterns, droughts and wildfires.

* The Washington Post, home of High Broderism says “the Republican Party, and therefore the U.S. government, have moved far from reality and responsibility in their approach to climate change.”

* Even GOP house journal Politico draws the formerly off-limits link between “skeptics” and “deniers”, regarding the Republican adoption of fringe economic theories suggesting the US can safely leave the debt ceiling unchanged.

Why is this happening now, after years of apparent Republican immunity from any kind of fact-based challenge? And how will this affect public debate in the US and elsewhere?

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Weekend reflections

It’s time again for weekend reflections, which makes space for longer than usual comments on any topic. In keeping with my attempts to open up the comments to new contributors , I’d like to redirect discussion, and restatements of previous arguments, as opposed to substantive new contributions, to the sandpit(s). As always, civilised discussion and no coarse language please.

Turnbull for PM

There are three people prominent in Australian politics whom I would happily support as Prime Minister[1]. Of these, the one who has the best chance is, I think, Malcolm Turnbull (it shouldn’t be hard for readers to guess the other two). He’s reminded us again what we lost when he was replaced by the lightweight opportunist who now leads the Opposition, against a mirror-image PM. If the Libs would put Turnbull up again, they would get my vote for the first time.

fn1. That reflects a fairly pessimistic view of what progress can be made. A competent government with a decent and consistent policy on climate change is as much as we can hope for at present.