In thinking about how the global economy can be decarbonized, I’ve focused on the electricity sector, and particularly the elimination of coal-fired electricity generation. In the transport sector, I’ve pushed for fuel efficiency standards, but have generally assumed that internal combustion cars are going to be around for a long time to come. That’s consistent with Australian experience where annual sales of electric vehicles are counted in the hundreds, and with the US, where cheap petrol has held electrics to a market share of a couple of percentage points.
So, I was quite surprised to find out that lots of European countries, including Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, are talking about ending sales of petrol driven vehicles in the near future (2025 or 2030), with diesel possibly being banned even earlier.
Obviously, achieving these goals will require some pretty strong policy encouragement, including subsidies and planned provision of infrastructure, and targets are easier to announce than to hit. Still, it looks as if eliminating internal combustion engine cars is not a distant dream but a feasible policy goal.
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While doing a bit of work on electricity policy, I dug out this piece from 2001, which was published as ‘Market-Oriented Reform in the Australian Electricity Industry’ in The Economic and Labour Relations Review, June 2001; vol. 12, 1: pp. 126-150. The conclusion, written at a time when supporters of electricity reform were trumpeting it as a huge success, stands up pretty well 15 years later, I think.
Some problems, however, are likely to become more rather than less acute. The Australian National Electricity Market commenced operation in a period of oversupply so that problems of market power and excessive prices have not emerged until recently. It remains unclear whether an electricity auction market can produce adequate incentives for investment while generating appropriate prices for consumers.
Similar problems are emerging in relation to the regulated monopoly component of the industry, the transmission and distribution sector. Regulators must set prices that do not reward inefficiency or allow monopoly profits, but nevertheless provide appropriate incentives for new investment. This is a delicate balance.
In the longer term, the problem of the environmental impact of an industry relying predominantly on carbon-based fuels remains to be addressed. A market solution would involve the creation of emissions credits that could be traded along with electricity in national markets. Although limited steps have been taken in this direction, much remains to be done.
There are reports that the ABC’s Catalyst science program is to be dumped, and replaced by a series of specially commissioned 1-hour documentaries. The move has reportedly been prompted by the disastrous broadcasts of Maryann Demasi, on the supposed dangers of statins and wifi. I have mixed feelings about this. Catalyst has serious problems, going beyond Demasi, but the alternative sounds like it will require a lot of money to do well. I fear that “specially commissioned” will turn out to mean “recycled from Discovery Channel” and that we will end up with lots of variants on “Shark week”
More generally, it’s depressing to reflect on the near-total failure of television as a communications medium for science. The demands of the medium (flashy visuals, and continuous sound) overwhelm what ought to be its potential. Discovery Channel is a joke that makes Catalyst at its worst look good. Even the great David Attenborough is now presented inaudibly, drowned out by the monotone background noise of Sigur Ros. Overall, radio is better, and text better still.