The end of the coal boom

A bit over a year ago, I put up a post with the same title as this one, except that it ended with a question mark. At that point, most of the authorities I cited took the view that the decline in the world price of steaming coal was just a blip. In fact, prices have kept on falling and are now, in real terms, not much higher than they were in 2004. More importantly, there is now no expectation of a recovery any time soon. The clearest evidence of that is the abandonment or deferral of a string of proposals to create or expand coal export terminals, most recently by BHP at Abbot Point. Investors are desperately trying to get out of the most recently completed project, at Wiggins Island.

A few observations on this

* It’s common for participants in the Australian debate to claim that the rest of the world is going ahead with coal-fired power stations and fossil fuel projects at an unprecedented rate. That was the view that motivated these port expansion projects, and it’s been falsified as clearly as it can be by their abandonment.

* Much of the discussion about climate mitigation is based on the assumption that Australia can decide how much or how little of the burden we should bear. Leaving aside the risks of a free rider strategy, our status as a coal-exporter means that the biggest impacts will arise from decisions made overseas

* Finally, for some light relief here’s former Queensland Treasurer Andrew Fraser (paywalled) citing the now-abandoned Abbott Point project as evidence of the benefits of the Bligh government’s asset sales program, of which he was the biggest booster. It will be interesting to see if he now changes tack and claims that the state was lucky to get of these assets when it could (a more plausible line, but both dubious and contradictory of his previous position).

188 thoughts on “The end of the coal boom

  1. “the state was lucky to get of these assets when it could ”

    I reckon he should. I have argued this line, for example, for centralised and communal electricity assets. It is not that hard to foresee this stuff.

  2. From the article it seems as if it could go either way – the Chinese government tend to keep their cards close to their chest as far as I can tell, and also keep their options open in terms of geopolitical issues. The last five year plan and other policies bring up the idea of a circular economy for China, and some students I’ve spoken to think this is a possibility, but I think it will depend a lot on the rest of the world – if the rest of the world continues down the track of glamourising over consumption, even if the Chinese government did want to put a circular economy in place I think it’s unlikely they’d be able to win the support of the population enough – you’d end up with all the cultural revolution stuff again if they tried I imagine
    WSJ : “Long-term estimates for Chinese coal demand, for the year 2035, range from 3.66 billion tons of coal equivalent, up from 2.29 billion tons in 2010, to as low as 1.51 billion tons, depending on Beijing’s environmental policies.”

  3. To what extent is this due to increased natural gas production in the US?

    And is your second observation truncated? “biggest impacts will arise…”

  4. To what extent is this due to increased natural gas production in the US?

    In 2012, global consumption of energy from coal increased 2.8% and that from gas 2.5%. On a global scale the gas thing looks a bit over hyped.

    The increased consumption of energy from oil+coal+gas was over ten times that from non-hydro renewables in absolute terms. Non-hydro renewables includes biofuels etc as well as the obvious stuff.

    Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013

    As I recall, China had a very good year for hydro production in 2012. Factor that in too.

  5. “As I recall, China had a very good year for hydro production in 2012. Factor that in too.”

    Coal port investments are forward looking, with a life measured in decades. The fact that they are being abandoned means that companies like BHP are making long-term downward revisions in their projections of coal demand, not responding to seasonal fluctuations or even temporarily low gas prices.

  6. Coal imports into China are pretty small beer compared to domestic production – in 2011 production was 3,576 Mt and net imports just 177 Mt. Furthermore domestic production has increased sharply from 2,226 in 2005 Mt in 3576 Mt in 2011 at a pretty steady pace. (Source IEA via Wikipedia). By these numbers, it seems a bit of a leap to project too much from reluctance to build more port capacity in Qld at this time to future Chinese coal consumption.

    A new report “Too many ports in a storm” from the Centre for Policy Development suggests that Qld existing coal port capacity has currently only 65% utilization. It seems all too easy to translate local Australian issues in the coal export business to predictions of future global coal consumption. All of this might be just the kind of fluctuations one could expect to see in a global coal market that continues to grow.

    There seems little doubt that the Chinese leadership is under significant pressure to do something about air pollution and by implication coal burning, but both what it decides to aim for and what it achieves remain uncertain. China runs on coal and it will be a tough nut to crack.

    Other nations – India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Sth Africa and probably many more are bound to increase their coal consumption.

    I’d like to see a few years of declining or at least static global coal consumption before becoming in the least bit comfortable with peak coal.

  7. India is important too. The official plan to roll out lots of new coal generating plants have run into major problems, including water for cooling and rail capacity to ship the coal, but primarily the incapacity of Coal India ever to meet its production targets. Hostile take from Greenpeace here:
    Will this turn India into a big coal importer? My understanding is that cif prices are too high to meet the expectations of Indian electricity consumers. Is this still true?
    Indian state governments (latest Madhya Pradesh are turning to solar in a big way. It’s not ideal, but does at least guarantee power before the next elections.

  8. According to reports from the US (Goldmans) the bubble in coal prices has collapsed and Aus thermal coal should settle at $85/tonne this decade. This should translate to increased production on smaller margins just to stay in profit – if global demand peaks the whole chain will suffer.

    Projections of global demand has been overshadowed by the cost of consequences of coal fired power.

  9. The Terminal 4 (T4) proposal for Newcastle provides another bit of light amusement – amusing as long as you don’t live in Newcastle, I suppose. The original economic assessment of the project, by coal industry favourites Gillespie Economics, estimated an NPV for the project of up to $60 billion. Only months later it was declared unviable by its proponents, and put on the backburner.

    It has since been downsized and returned to the planning process at half its original size. Undeterred by their earlier model’s $60B error, the exact same assumptions have been applied to the new proposal, finding an NPV of $33B. Yet without a substantial increase in the rate of growth of throughput at the Newcastle port, this iteration too will be unviable.

  10. It’s hard to know what to make of this trend. India wants to install another 8 GW of coal generation capacity and Hunt has just approved the large Kevin’s Corner mine to supply coal to India. This year Germany is installing another 4 GW (for both local and imported coal) and China has 750 GW already installed. On the other hand 4 coal plants near Beijing are to be replaced by gas to improve air quality. Will Palmer’s ‘China First’ mine now go ahead?

    A time series of just two or three years is hardly enough to pinpoint causes for a coal slowdown. With renewables the price effect plus carbon tax/network charges is likely to be higher than the direct substitution effect. Hydro is good in La Nina years. Efficiency and reduced carbon intensity of GDP may only be good for the early increments then it gets harder. Even serious observers are uncertain
    I suspect China may be slowing whatever they tell the West. If so that exposes coal mining overcapacity elsewhere.

  11. It is important to distinguish between steaming coal used in power plants and coking coal used for steel making. The demand for high quality coking coal from China will continue to grow at a higher rate than their demand for steaming coal.
    How much China’s overall demand for steaming coal (imported and locally produced) will increase will depend on how quickly they are able to bring in solar and wind. They are ramping up solar at an enormous rate (9 GW expected extra capacity in 2013, 15 GW expected GW extra capacity in 2014) but they still have some way to go before it substantially reduces their need for additional coal fired power stations. (Output from solar is of course much lower than installed capacity). Currently they are putting in 50 GW of coal fired power plants a year. And these plants are high temperature and very efficient (and with sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide control technology). Solar is at present more expensive than these efficient coal fired plants (though it is rapidly decreasing in price), but, clearly China have made the political decision to put in lots of higher cost solar. Whether there is enough political will to continue the ramping up of solar when it starts to reduce the need for coal fired power stations remains to be seen. The coal sector is very powerful in China. So this may delay the inevitable levelling off of the growth in coal fired power in China.

  12. @John Goss

    You’re right to distinguish the met coal and thermal coal markets, John, but they’re linked in interesting ways. Lower quality met coals – PCI, semi soft, semi hard – are often sold off into thermal markets. Increased demand for these met coals pre 2008, took them out of thermal markets, which was one factor in the price spike in thermal coal. A lot of Australian coal projects are now living and dying by perceptions of what will happen with these coals – Maules Creek, Watermark, Rocky Hill as three examples.

  13. The coal markets are fascinating at present. I don’t think there is any question that King coal is dying. The only question is how long it takes and in what manner it occurs. And of course how long it takes will have a major impact with regard to greenhouse gas control.

  14. China has recently dropped their export tariff, I think it was 10%. This will allow Chinese producers to export to their neighbours. It also signals and end to the need to build stockpiles.

    Australia needs a fall in AUD to keep competitive and it doesn’t seem to be falling enough.

  15. John, I assume you’re pretty familiar with Paul Fritjers. He has a reliably pessimistic view of any actual effective action on climate change, such as here and here. He seems like a serious commentator – I’d be interested in your response.

  16. Paul and I are colleagues and friends, but we have had some pretty vigorous discussions (aka shouting matches) on this topic. I commented on one of the linked threads.

  17. From today’s China Daily
    “Kalee Kreider, special adviser for climate science at the United Nations Foundation, said the air will clear relatively quickly in China compared with the Western world as the central government becomes more aware of the public demand for better air quality.

    In 2012, consumption of standard coal equivalent in China was 3.62 billion metric tons, with coal accounting for 67.1 percent, a fall of 1.3 percentage points compared with 2011, said a report issued by the commission on Tuesday.

    The report, China’s Policies and Actions for Addressing Climate Change, said the consumption of non-fossil fuel in 2012 was 9.1 percent, up 1.1 percentage points from 2011.

    Li Gao, deputy head of the climate change department at the commission, said, “Developing countries are willing to contribute in tackling climate change, but their ability will be limited if preconditions such as financial and technological support from developed countries are not fulfilled.”

    Li was speaking during a discussion with environmental non-governmental organizations last week.”

  18. Climate change is a done deal. We have made the Faustian bargain.

    “It has been remarked that all technology is a Faustian bargain: one obtains conveniences and sometimes luxuries, but in exchange one gets an increased potential for catastrophe.” – Frank von Hipple.

    Now, we can strike out the words “an increased potential for catastrophe” and substitute the words “certain catastrophe”. The proof that catastrophe is certain is contained in footprint analysis which demonstrates we are already in overshoot. Currently, we using up earth’s resource stocks and environmental services about 50% faster than they renew. This is on average as some stocks (mineral concentrations) do not renew on any timescale useful to humans. In overshoot situations a die-off catastrophe is 100% certain. It’s an invioable biophysical law.

    This is (relatively) simple maths and certainly simple physics. Psychologically accepting the truth is the hard part for people.

  19. @Ikonoclast

    You keep asserting this, but you never provide any evidence beyond vague assertions. My maths (and I do have a 1st class Honours degree in the subject as well as hundreds of relevant journal articles) says:

    * 100 per cent renewables is entirely feasible and consistent with rising living standards
    * The projected maximum population of the world could be fed well with existing ag technology
    * There are no other resource constraints more important than energy and food

    I’ve spelt this out numerous times, in detail, and you haven’t produced any counter

    None of this implies that we will get it right, and there is plenty to suggest that we won’t (of course, we are not feeding the current world population, although there is more than enough food produced to do so). But saying that all of this is 100 per cent certain is not only wrong, but effectively arguing in favor of those who want to do nothing. After all, if we’re doomed anyway why not enjoy life while we still can?

  20. @Ikonoclast – I can’t entirely remember but at least in Goethe’s Faust didn’t the angels step in somewhere?

    But thank you for the opportunity to bring up Macbeth, you seem to be of a like mind with him in Act 3 – tho there’s witches rather than angels in this one:

    “I will tomorrow, and betimes I will, to the weird sisters : more shall they speak, for now I am bent to know, by the worst means, the worst. For mine own good all causes shall give way: I am in blood stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er: strange things I have in my head that will to hand, which must be acted ere they may be scann’d”

  21. The Guardian is reporting that the Chinese Air Pollution Control Action Plan contains plans to build 18 new synthetic natural gas plants (SNG) – coal-to-gas. It claims that the full life cycle GHG emissions are worse than just burning the coal and water use is high.

    Among the links in the article are reports that the ban on new coal plants around Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou affects only 5% of proposed new coal plant projects in China.

    Other reports suggest that in Indonesia a couple of the coal mining companies are going into the power station business (with government support) to hedge against a somewhat fickle international market. Demand for electricity is growing rapidly in Indonesia. Small on the global scale but an indication that the international coal market is not everything.

    It is claimed above that solar is expanding in China at an enormous rate – 9 GWp in 2013 and 15 MWp in 1014. Not really – at 20% capacity factor (probably generous for fixed PV) that’s only equivalent to about 2 GW and 3 GW of coal respectively. There should be 12-15 GW of new nuclear coming on-line by the end of 2014 or thereabouts. Unfortunately, that’s not going to make a whole lot of difference either. These things need to go ahead a lot faster – in fact their growth rate needs to exceed that of coal globally by a convincing margin before peak coal becomes a reality. The historical drivers for coal use on a world scale haven’t changed despite short term wobbles in commodity markets.

  22. @John Quiggin

    I think “100% certain” is probably too high, but it is still very concerning.

    Just to take one factor, about half the world’s agriculture output is due to I-NPK.

    Even if we manage to save our current level of arable land and good soils, and continue to have enough water, fertiliser could be a seriously limiting (or even reducing) factor in having food for all the people in the not distant future.

  23. Refusal to face the challenge – to fail to try – is something worse IMO than to try and to fail. When one side of politics seeks to refuse the challenge and the other is lacking conviction to do more than seek to appear to be trying, I can share in Ikonoclast’s pessimism.

    ZM, I think the deus ex machina plot element – angels or equivalent stepping in – is a strong meme; on one side we have God, Free Market Economic growth exceeding Earthly physical limitations and undiscovered climate regulating feedbacks making the dire consequences disappear. On the other we have techno fixes – peel and stick solar cheap as chip wrapper, with high capacity batteries printed on the back. Neither is good enough to bet our future on. Actual mainstream political commitment on the other hand would be sufficient.

    I’m not sure there will be sufficient mainstream political will to actually try until the consequences are so seriously damaging that doubt and denial no longer work; but at that point the needs of short term adaptation and of preserving an unsustainable level of economic prosperity may overwhelm rational forethought and planning.

  24. Ken Fabian, I was talking about Goethe’s Faust and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in particular, not a general memeish thingamy.

    “The last act finds Faust having accomplished most of his grand design of pushing back the primal energies of the Ocean, and establishing his own land, attempting to redesign the natural environment. He is frustrated by an old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who hold a cottage and chapel on strategic high ground which Faust wants to mould to his design. Goethe weaves into his play, the classical myth of Baucis and Philemon. (These were an old couple in Phrygia who provided shelter for Zeus and Hermes while they were wandering incognito through that land. Everyone else had refused the travellers hospitality, so they sent a great flood upon the land. Only Baucis and Philemon were saved and rewarded by having their cottage changed into a temple where they held priestly office). In the last act of Goethe’s play, Faust wishes them to move from their sacred spot and Mephisto sends his henchmen to evict them, however, the old couple die in the struggle and the house is burned to the ground. Through this tragedy Faust loses his sight.

    In his final hours he tries to press on with his great scheme to drain the marshes and establish a great paradise on Earth won from the ocean bed, where he believes humanity through struggling against the forces of nature will become free. Ironically, Mephistopheles leads the blind Faust to believe his workmen are completing his life’s work, when they are actually digging his grave. Faust dies believing that his plan was nearing completion.”

    Then come the angels and so forth.

  25. For those who haven’t seen Hans Rosling’s The Magic Washing Machine, see it. Rosling divides the world’s population into four “classes”. The “fire people” who have no electricity, the “bulb people” who have electricity but no washing machines, the “washing machine people” who have electricity AND washing machines” and the “air people” who are fortunate enough to be able to indulge in air travel.

    If one single thing defines our historical context, it must be hundreds of millions jumping these “class” boundaries. That means economic development which means more energy consumption easily outstripping progress on energy efficiency and conservation. And the choice of technologies for increasing energy supply remains “all of the above” with little indication of that changing any time soon on a global scale. China is not the whole world. It is not even all of Asia and some very populous Asian countries are also undergoing rapid economic growth.

    This is the core of the climate problem.

    PS Rosling’s Two Centuries of Global Change presentation at the launch of IPCC AR5 is equally compelling.

  26. Ikonoclast – well, I believe Goethe’s angels are of the immaterial sort that cannot be shown as such.

    But, materially, and over time, I’m sure you would agree that there have been many in many places who have been influenced to do good? Although of course they are human and and subject to circumstances and also therefore unlikely to be perfect. Sometimes they tried to do good with painful consequences?

    ” I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

    “”Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

  27. @John Quiggin

    The Global Footprint Network has done the work. I accept Climate Change science and I also accept biophysical and footprint science. I accept and thus assert that the science in all these areas is now robust.

    “There are no other resource constraints more important than energy and food.” – J.Q.

    Potable and irrigation standard fresh water is up there too of course. By extension, bio-services (absorption and processing of waste by the environment) are critical as well. Also, Liebig’s Law (of the minimum) asserts that any shortage of any necessary resource constrains the whole system. There are many resources critical to various segments of our economy.

    Yes, I know the “doomed anyway” argument plays into the hands of the BAU advocates. But what does one do when the truth could give succor to the wrong side of the argument? Denialism and complacency are probably equal or worse mistakes than being honest about our predicament. Final realisation that we face a global civilizational emergency might galvanise people. Some degree of collapse is now unavoidable IMO. If people are galvanised early enough (thought it seems very late to me) we might save some regions of civilization. That’s a best case scenario again IMO.

    The argument could hinge on whether you agree or not that Footprint Science is robust.

  28. @Ikonoclast

    “I accept and thus assert that the science in all these areas is now robust.”

    You seem to think it’s more robust than the practitioners themselves do. The Global Footprint Network are aware of the limitations as well as the value of their methods. You won’t find them claiming that their method can predict the future.

    I’m reminded of the words of the population biologist Joel Cohen (who has spent considerable time investigating the Earth’s carrying capacity):

    “The more confidence someone places in an unconditional prediction of what will happen in human affairs, the less confidence you should place in that prediction.”

  29. ZM,

    Of course there is hope in the washing machine. The “magic” is that it freed hundreds of millions of women from drudgery. At the end of the presentation, what pops out of the washing machine? Books! As women had more time to read to their children.

    There’s always hope. If there isn’t then fake it as constant doom mongering is not going to get us too far. It is still easily possible to be “reality based” and have hope. Or more pertinently, genuine hope can only be “reality based”.

    There was hope in the bottom of Pandora’s Box too. Hint, hint.

  30. Here we go- the ol’ NPK furphy.

    Nitrogen can be fixed from the atmosphere by plants. In fact some plants introduced to Oz, like subterranean clover, do it so well that their spread is a threatening process for various native plant species, for example many of the herbaceous plants of Melbourne’s Basalt Plains.

    Tim Worstall hits the peak PK peanuts over the boundary for six.

  31. Quokka at 26. In my comment at 14 I was careful to say that ‘output from solar is of course much lower than installed capacity’. Your 20% factor may be a bit low, but its ballpark. and that is why I said that although there is an enormous rate of increase of solar ‘they (China) still have some way to go before it (ie the substantial increase in solar) substantially reduces their need for additional coal fired power stations’. Solar will have to continue to increase at very high rates for at least another 3 to 5 years for it to have a significant impact on coal fired power stations, but when the Chinese decide to do something, annual increases of 30 to 50 % per year for 5 years are not uncommon. So we will have to wait and see, but there are prospects for radical changes in the coal industry in China in the next 10 years. Interesting times.

  32. quokka,

    That was a fairly ambiguous sort of comment, so I would appreciate it if you spelt out your meaning more, I am not sure whether to be cross or not. I’m leaning towards crossness – but perhaps I have misunderstood?

    Well, i do have a washing machine so i am far from perfect, but technically women would have not have had so many household chores and so on to do if some men had done their fair share anyway, instead of gallivanting around making tools (i don’t know, but i’d guess a man invented the washing machine in the first place) and hunting, and conquering places and all of the other things (ok, there were some women maybe like that, but not to the same extent)

    Ha, no way can you blame women for books! If you happen to be someone who reads – and we do get taught to read nowadays – and you read old things – you are reading a lot of what men wrote and passed down to children through the ages. Whereas what women told were typically dismissed as old wives tales and what not. Or as hysterical etc etc

    Well, while you actually still breathe you still have actual hope, if you extrapolate from the motto.

    I am happy to hear about your “reality based” hope, I am sure I’d be greatly cheered up by it (as long as you’re not, you know, faking it).

    Now, to Pandora’s Box and your inexplicit hints – which actually make me pretty cross indeed unless I have misunderstood your misunderstanding of it.

    I know some of the surviving variants of Pandora’s Box, not all, and i’m sure a lot were lost to time as things are. It is old and Greek and fairly dark (give me bucolic verse or persephone or something like the golden ass any day) I think – but of course, if you address a woman, with non-specific hints, why not bring up Pandora!?!

    From what i remember (anyone please correct me, i am not going to bother looking it up right now) i think it generally follows from Prometheus – who stole fire for men (or maybe they were titans or something at this stage?) and taught them to eat meat – trying to pacify the gods by giving them part of the flesh, but, as a trickster, Prometheus taught the men to give the gods only the less edible parts. Zeus punished Prometheus by binding him to a rock, and vultures pecked out his liver or something.

    Ok, I’m getting a book I have after all. Literature and the Crime Against Nature.

    “Mythically, it was Prometheus who determined that the Neolithic Golden Age should be replaced by the terrible age of Bronze:
    Earth’s natural plenty no longer sufficed.
    Man tore open the earth, and rummaged in her bowels.
    Precious ores the Creator had concealed
    As close to hell as possible
    We’re dug up – a new drug
    For the criminal. So now iron comes
    With its cruel ideas. And gold
    With crueller. Combined they bring war –
    War, insatiable for the one,
    With bloody hands employing the other.
    Now man lives only by plunder.

    I can’t remember the direct link, but to punish men or Prometheus or both Zeus created Pandora and gave her as a gift to Prometheus’ more stupid brother or something like that. She was very attractive and he was happy to wed her, but Zeus had given her a vessel, which she was to open. And when opened out came all of the evil, and hope stayed inside. etc etc

    If anyone can correct me on this I would be pleased. And if you can tell me what your “reality based” hint is, that would be great. Maybe I am cross for no reason.

  33. Perhaps something from the land we dwell on would be more appropriate than something from the cradle of Western civilisation

    “Many years ago this land that we now call Melbourne extended right out to the ocean. Port Phillip Bay was then a large flat plain where Boon Wurrung hunted kangaroos and cultivated their yam daisy.

    But one day there came a time of chaos and crises. The Boon Wurrung and the other Kulin nations were in conflict. They argued and fought. They neglected their children. They neglected their land. The native yam was neglected. The animals were killed but not always eaten. The fish were caught during their spawning season. As this chaos grew the sea became angry and began to rise until it covered their plain and threatened to flood the whole of their country.

    The people went to Bunjil, their creator and spiritual leader. They asked Bunjil to stop the sea from rising. Bunjil told his people that they would have to change their ways if they wanted to save their land. The people thought about what they had been doing and made a promise to follow Bunjil. Bunjil walked out to the sea, raised his spear and directed the sea to stop rising. Bunjil then made the Boon Wurrung promise that they would respect the laws.

    The place the Kulin then chose to meet as a means of resolving these differences is where this Parliament [of Victoria] is now located. The Kulin nations met here regularly for many thousands of years. They debated issues of great importance to the nation; they celebrated, they danced.”

  34. Some rough calculation: Installed global coal capacity of coal-fired power is of the order of 1000GW. To reduce that, it’s necessary to install enough renewables to meet demand growth. If that condition is met, then any further expansion of renewables + additions of gas and any net addition of nuclear, comes at the expense of coal.

    5 per cent growth is 50 GW. if we assume availability of coal is four times that of renewables, we need 200 GW of renewables a year to meet growth. Not long ago, that would have seemed absurd, but we are already looking at 100GW for 2014 (equal mix of wind and solar). Wind is probably going to be stable, but cost of solar continues to fall rapidly. So, if we get decent policy (a BIG “if”) we could get to peak coal, at least in electricity, by 2020.

    Still a long way to go, but not hopeless as suggested by some commenters

  35. I’m an agricultural economist (recent president of the Aust Ag & Res Econ Society). We worry about lots of things concerning food supplies, but NPK constraints aren’t among them.

    Much more worrying is the withdrawal of public funding for basic research and reliance on the corporate sector to produce new crop varieties.

  36. The argument about Phosphate, for example, can be twisted just as it can for oil (or any other finite resource for that matter). The issue is not over mixing up the terminology and confusing ‘reserves’ with ‘resource’ for a snide gotcha point. The key is rate of production.

    There is gold in seawater, but nobody is getting rich extracting it.

  37. @John Quiggin
    Coal must be bigger than 1 TW if the world is using 15-17 TW according to various sources. The thing to remember is generating capacity must cover periods when neither wind nor solar are helping. On a still frosty night aluminium smelters still need steady electrical power so the ‘pots’ won’t solidify.

    I don’t dispute that wind and solar can replace coal. We know it is technically possible to drive a solar powered car from Darwin to Adelaide. The reason Mum, Dad and the kids aren’t doing it is because it requires more sacrifice or inconvenience than we are willing to accept. If the election can be taken as a referendum on electricity prices I’d say there is no appetite to increase the RET. We may now be entering into an era of subsidy fatigue in which we may never get 2m solar rooftops and the best wind farm sites near existing transmission have been taken up. Then there are grid stability problems with power surges and the diseconomics of running backup generators on a stop-start basis.

    The problem would be solved if we could store wind and solar electricity on the Gwh scale for days at a time. So far the century old lead acid battery remains the cheapest at $200 per kwh. To run the smelter on one calm night we might need 2 Gwh or $400m in battery capex with rapid depreciation costs. Therefore I suggest there has to be adequate realtime generation to cover wind and solar kept below a destabilising level.

  38. Here’s the FAO. Only had time for a quick look, but doesn’t seem to be much of a constraint here

    If I’m reading it right, inferred reserves (the best estimate of the amount that can eventually be extracted at reasonable cost) are equal to about 1000 years of current consumption.

    To repeat, none of the experts I talk to seem to regard this as worth mentioning among the many problems we face in producing enough food to feed the world in 2050. Is there serious research I am missing?

  39. As regards rate of production, the FAO states “n the past 100 years, phosphate has been discovered at a rate (Figure 2) that exceeds the rate of consumption ”

    Also relevant, their comment on offshore deposits “One source of future phosphate production is offshore deposits. Deposits of this type occur along the southeast coast of the United States of America, on the Peru-Chile shelf, off the coast of Namibia, on the Chatham Rise off New Zealand, off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, and off the Congo River delta. None of these offshore deposits is being mined, and they will probably not be mined while ample reserves exist onshore.” (emphasis added).

  40. @Hermit

    Again with the aluminium smelters. I’m imposing a personal topic ban on this. If you can’t make a point without reference to aluminium smelters, don’t make it at all.

  41. I’m going to be sorry but I’ll give this a try. It takes not advanced mathematics but simple and basic reasoning to deduce that something must give or change in our human global situation.

    1. The earth is finite.

    2. Human population, human physical infrastructure and human use of resources and waste sinks are all growing exponentially. (A general trend briefly interrupted recently by the GFC.)

    3. Exponential growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite system (the biosphere).

    4. It is a characteristic of exponential growth in a finite system that there is just one further iteration from half full to completely full. This is making simplifying assumptions ignoring the issues of both overshoot and of growth slowing as the limit is approached. We will come back to these issues.

    5. It is a characteristic of exponential growth that it also exponentially draws down on finite stocks and flows. Picture the exponential growth graph shooting up and the reverse exponential depletion graph of resources plummeting down. When these opposite exponential trends cross over the overshoot gap widens very rapidly.

    6. The feedback from point 5 above (signaling that growth must halt and indeed reverse) is late, due to living of natural capital stocks, and the system is already well into overshoot before feedback shortages and feedback pain signal that the growth paradigm must be ended and a new paradigm sought.

    7. A growth slowdown might be perceived as a signal that growth is levelling off to a stable, sustainable plateau. But in a condition of rapid overshoot, the resource base is now so depleted and the environment so compromised that the previous carrying capacity has been severely degraded. A collpase or die-off is then inevtiable in any natural biophysical system.

    8. The belief that we can plateau sustainably is predicated on two notions. First, that we, or a few of the most perspicacious of us, can foresee that growth must cease and we must plateau sustainably. Second, that having perceived this, we can then actually act effectively on it.

    9. At this point, we are somewhat like the captain of a supertanker travelling at full speed. The captain now realises for some reason that he must stop his supertanker as fast possible. The problem he faces is the immense momentum of his ship and the long stopping distance required. Modern industrial civilization and its attendent political and capitalistic apparatus has immense momentum and tendencies to continue BAU. It is very hard to stop or even to slow down apart perhaps from inadvertant economic recessions and depressions. These do not in any case slow demographic growth, at least not until after a considerable lead time.

    10. To argue that we can voluntarily slow and sustainably plateau this system at this late date is to ignore the history of our failure to deal with the rise in CO2 emissions, to name one example. The extant evidence is that this system (late stage capitalism) and the humans who run it consistently fail to apprehend environmental and limits to growth signals (until it is too late).

  42. There’s gold in seawater, but a lot more Potassium. Sea salt is about 1.1% potassium. There’s not so much phosphorus in seawater, but if you are looking for an extremly extensive source of it that I’d suggest limestone. And we got a lot of limestone in Australia. Quite possibly the largest contigious chunk in the world. Not that anyone is likely to want to import it as there are more convenient sources, but we do use limestone for phosphorus for local use in Australia to save on transport costs.

  43. @Ikonoclast

    Your argument has no numbers in it, and is formally identical to the same argument put by Malthus 200 years ago. So, assuming the argument is valid, the collapse could be due tomorrow, or in 200 years time or in 2000 years.

    And, your point 10 is circular reasoning. How can you claim that “the humans who run it consistently fail to apprehend environmental and limits to growth signals (until it is too late).” unless you already know what “too late” means.

    As regards at least some acute problems, the claim is false. Middle capitalist societies experienced severe and dangerous air and water pollution resulting from exponential growth – London smogs and the deadly condition of the Thames in 1900 being examples – and late capitalist societies have fixed them. You can swim in the Thames now whereas you would have died if you tried it a hundred years ago.

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