The path to decarbonization

Over the fold, another draft section of the climate chapter of Economic Consequences of the Pandemic. As always, comments, compliments and criticism appreciated

The response to the pandemic, in the US and many other countries, has been less than successful. But even leaving aside the disastrous impact of the Trump Administration, it must be conceded that the pandemic posed an incredibly difficult challenge. When it broke out, we had no cure, no vaccine and a very limited understanding of the virus and the way it was transmitted. Now that vaccines are entering production, and given competent government, we can hope for much better outcomes in the future.The contrast with the climate crisis is striking. We have had decades of warning and devoted millions of hours to researching every aspect of the problem. Yet, emissions are still increasing. This failure has come despite the fact that we have have nearly all the technology to decarbonize the economy, at relatively modest cost, and with little disruption to our daily lives.

To stabilize the global climate with less than 2 degrees of warming will be a massive task. It will require not only the elimination of nearly all greenhouse gas emissions in developed countries by 2050 but active measures to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. To see what needs to be done, it’s useful to start with the big picture. At present, around 85 per cent of all primary energy is generated by burning oil, gas and coal. Of the remaining 15 per cent, hydroelectricity and nuclear power (which are unlikely to grow substantially) account for 10 per cent. Solar PV and wind account for only 5 per cent.

The process of decarbonizing energy supply is already underway, but the pace of change is far too slow. Technological progress over the last twenty years has drastically reduced the cost of two carbon-free energy sources, solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind power [fn. I will use the standard term ‘renewables’, although it reflects an obsolete perception of the energy problem, dating back to concerns about the possible exhaustion of ‘fossil fuels’ like oil and coal. When dealing with climate change, the sooner low-cost carbon-based resources become scarce, the better]. Other potentially promising options including geothermal energy, tidal power and biofuels, didn’t work out and have been quietly forgotten (I’ll discuss nuclear power a little later). More recently, improvements in battery technology have effectively eliminated the variability problems associated with solar PV and wind, and have also undermined the case for gas-fired power as a ‘bridge’ to carbon neutrality.

Improvements in battery technology are crucial to the next major step in the process, electrifying transport. Electric cars, buses and trucks are already on the market, and have a lifetime cost of operation only a little higher than that of comparable petrol and diesel vehicles. A modest expansion of existing subsidies would be sufficient to make electric vehicles cheaper. However, the shift to electric vehicles can yield a substantial reduction in emissions only if electricity generation is already largely decarbonized.

The last important piece of the puzzle is hydrogen. In principle, hydrogen produced by electrolysis (splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen) can replace carbon-based fuels in most industrial uses. Examples include the replacement of blast furnaces for steel with DRI and the production of ammonia, the main feedstock for a variety of chemicals, which is currently made using hydrocarbons. Large-scale investment in the production and use of ‘green hydrogen’ (as opposed to current production methods based on lignite) is just beginning, but could be accelerated rapidly given the political will to introduce the necessary supporting policies.

The moderately good news is that the supply of energy from solar PV and wind is growing at around 10 per cent per year, which implies a doubling every seven years. If this trend were were consistently until 2050, and total energy demand was unchanged, the carbon-free share of energy demand would by above 60 per cent.

The positive trend was driven almost entirely by the electricity sector. Coal-fired electricity generation is in sharp decline in most developed countries. This process was already underway before the pandemic,

BP Statistical Review states that in 2019

Renewables provided the largest increment to power generation ( 3 4 0 TWh), followed by natural gas (220 TWh). These gains came partially at the expense of coal generation which fell sharply (-270 TWh), causing the share of coal in power generation to fall by 1.5 percentage points to 36.4% – the lowest in our dataset (which goes back to 1985).

Another way to look at the aggregate numbers is to ask what changes would be need to begin a sustained reduction in energy-related emissions

The BP Statistical Review notes that, in 2019, clean energy accounted for 40 per cent of the growth in primary energy. One way to think about this is that if the rate of additions of renewables were doubled, and the rate of growth of primary energy demand were reduced by 20 per cent, all growth in primary energy would be delivered by clean energy. Given that gas would expand at the expense of coal, this would imply the end of growth in energy-related emissions.

The shift away from coal has accelerated during the pandemic, particularly in less developed countries. Coal-intensive energy strategies have been abandoned or sharply modified in several countries, including Bangladesh, India, the Phillipines and Vietnam. At the same time, China, South Korea and Japan have committed themselves to a zero net emissions target (2060 for China, 2050 for the other two).

Commitments to decarbonization have not, as yet, been matched by concrete policy measures. But the goal of zero net emissions by 2050 is entirely feasible and would, if achieved, stave off most of the worst consequences of climate change.

95 thoughts on “The path to decarbonization

  1. “stave of the worst…”. Another thirty years of fire and drought and eco-disruption might be pretty unbearable. And then who knows what climate state we may have tipped ourselves into. Maybe needs a little more on climate trajectory research.

  2. “If this trend were were consistently until 2050,” is unclear (6th paragraph).

    Your closing clause (“stave off most of the worst consequences of climate change”) seems like a fact you are putting forward, but it has too many value judgements built into it, IMO. I think your guess at the CO2 consequences of net zero emissions by … some/most/all/OECD/developed(?) countries would be a suitable offer of a fact. Then you could provide an opinion that this would “stave off most of the worst consequences of climate change”, in your assessment.

    I hope the book comes together quickly. Thanks for the opportunity to contribute.

  3. John Quiggin,
    Your last paragraph states: “Commitments to decarbonization have not, as yet, been matched by concrete policy measures. But the goal of zero net emissions by 2050 is entirely feasible and would, if achieved, stave off most of the worst consequences of climate change.”

    The latest climate science I see indicates that “the goal of zero net emissions by 2050” is TOO LATE to avoid catastrophic climate change.

    “Climate Reality Check 2020”, by Ian Dunlop and David Spratt, that draws together current climate research from around the world, presents 20 critical observations, insights and understandings to help inform and guide the stark choices that now stand before us.
    See my comment: https://johnquiggin.com/2020/09/28/no-planet-b/comment-page-2/#comment-228973

    See/hear also the YouTube Video titled “Will Steffen – Climate Change 2020 – Why we are facing an emergency – April 2020” embedded in my comment following the link given above.

    1.5 °C will likely be reached before 2030, no matter what we do. It’s looking more and more certain that warming will overshoot 2.0 °C. So, we will likely fail to meet the goals of Paris.

    In the YouTube video titled “Keynote Debate Can the Climate Emergency Action Plan lead to Collective Action? (50 Years CoR)”, Professor H.J. Schellnhuber CBE said in 2018 (from time interval 0:46:57):

    “So, this is just in order to underpin some of the things. And looking forward, I mean, I excuse for… I apologise for that, but… we have actually ended the ice age cycle, the, er… the glacial dynamics for good, or for bad, or for whatever – that’s how it is. But your question is of course extremely important, because… I… I once coined… We had a meeting at the Belgian Academy of Sciences and I coined this expression, which became quite… quite, er… sort of seminal, actually: ‘Avoiding the unmanageable and managing the unavoidable.’ So you see, avoiding the unmanageable would be three, four, five, six degrees. I’m, I’m pretty sure we cannot adapt to that. But if the world warms by one… it has warmed already by one degree, and actually half of a degree is masked by air pollution. So if you would clean the air over China and India and so on, you immediately would… you get another half degree. So, one-and-a-half degree – we are there already, ja? But if we stop it at two, er… two-point-five degrees maybe… and actually CO2 stays within the carbon cycle for more than twenty-thousand years. People think this is a matter of a hundred years. Yes, it goes into the sediment, but it’s re-mineralised and goes back into the air, and so on. So it’s longer lived than plutonium, actually, ja? Atmospheric CO2!”

    The longer we/humanity delay rapidly reducing human-induced GHG emissions from NOW on, the more ambitious we would need to be for every year of delay. If emissions are not rapidly declining by the second half of this decade, it will likely be too late to avoid catastrophic climate change (+3.0 °C warming above pre-industrial, or more) – what we/humanity do (or not do) within the first half of this decade will likely decide human civilisation’s fate.

    While governments continue to encourage and approve more fossil fuel projects, I don’t see human civilisation as we know it continuing for much longer.

  4. J.Q.,

    Your draft is going to be obsolete before it is even published. Events are moving extraordinarily quickly now. The elimination of almost all human greenhouse emissions is required by 2030 not by 2050. Any warming greater than 1.5 C is disastrous. Greater than 2.0 C means human extinction.

    The time has come to stop soft-soaping and green-washing the crisis in any attempt to remain in the ludicrously purblind and denialist mainstream. You need to come out with a luridly “alarmist” (actually a realist) publication and stand by it. In a matter of months, if not a year or two, after publication, you will be completely vindicated. Your books needs to be as realist and frightening as your publisher will deign to print. The facts already permit it. Indeed the facts now mandate it. Matters will be apocalyptic by 2025. People then will act, but the dangerous feed-backs may be be out of control even by then: permafrost warming, loss of sea-ice, forest wildfires etc.

    https://www.counterpunch.org/2020/11/20/expert-ipcc-reviewer-speaks-out/

  5. Hydrogen has many problems, but at least it should be under $2 Australian per kilogram to produce by 2030 according to the Dutch. Or at least one Dutch person. Note that $1.50 a kilogram may not be cheap enough to compete with natural gas in many applications as natural gas is likely to be cheap thanks to low cost solar and battery storage, and may be cheaper than hydrogen even after adding the cost of capturing and sequestering its greenhouse gas emissions.

  6. As action must be almost immediate I suggest a change in terminology. To get people focussed on this climate emergency, like they focused on the health emergency of 2020, we must find another term for decarbonization. I suggest we use terms like “greenhouse gas vaccine” or even “global atmospheric coolant”. To remind people of the role of coal as the enemy of climate change recovery, is to allow opponents to sidetrack the debate to one about jobs. If we can sideline coal and focus on the job creation powers of clean energy sources, then the fight against global warming can be shown to be an immediate issue and not one we can leave until 2050. “Boxing clever” is the way to knock out the absurd claims of denialists and political opportunists. The lockdowns have shown the benefits of the decentralization of workplace environments. Moving factories closer to sources of clean energy may be a way to reduce greenhouse emissions.

  7. A point I need to stress: We are already experiencing serious damage from global heating, and, whatever we do, things will get worse over the next 30-50 years, maybe longer. We don’t have a choice between “damage” and “no damage”, but between “damage” and “much worse damage”

  8. John Quiggin,
    You state: “We are already experiencing serious damage from global heating, and, whatever we do, things will get worse over the next 30-50 years, maybe longer.”

    I’d suggest you need to adjust to: We are already experiencing serious damage from global heating, and, whatever we do, things will get worse over the next 10-30 years, maybe sooner.

    1.5 °C reached in the year range 2026 to 2028, best estimate
    2.0 °C reached in the year range 2038 to 2058, best estimate
    https://johnquiggin.com/2020/11/28/climate-health-and-the-pandemic/#comment-231107

    Peter Carter, M.D., who has the distinguished title – Expert IPCC Reviewer for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, per the YouTube video embedded in the article that Ikonoclast links to above (at DECEMBER 1, 2020 AT 1:32 PM), says at time interval 20:48:

    “Whether it’s 1.5°C, we are going to lose food production, and the latest models, show this.”

  9. John Quiggin,

    it reads as a bit of a leisurely paseo* taken through a weed filled paddock. The weeds present there are noted but not the danger presented by the bull. And, there is no time.

    2050, 2060… is more bull making way for yet more bull to come. Already for 30 and 40 years the bull has been allowed to charge around without being checked. The bull must be faced, and taken by the horns. It is beyond urgent now. There is no time.

    Subsidies: Covid response cf. Climate response. Also, why only modest? Why only mention EVs?

    An urgently required vaccine for covid will make money for big pharma and save great pain, including economic pain. It is no free lunch, but virtually noone stands to lose economically from a proven vaccine, including the governments subsidising the expensive research and later mass vaccination programs.

    An urgent massive actual reduction of ghg emissions by 2030 will also make money for some and save great pain, including, economic pain. It is no free lunch. But with their subsidies fossil fuel vested interests actually do much better than free – they are payed to lunch! There being no free lunch switch fossil subsidies over to renewables, and as money has never been cheaper throw heaps more at it.

    https://www.thefreedictionary.com/paseo

    paseo n, pl paseos

    1.
    a. A slow, easy stroll or walk outdoors.
    b. The street, series of streets, or walkway along which such a walk is taken.

    2. In bullfighting, the formal procession into the ring of the players, including the matadors, banderilleros, and horses, that occurs just before the first bull is fought.

  10. Tipping point for climate can already be a reality in East Asia

    https://www.miragenews.com/tipping-point-for-climate-can-already-be-a-reality-in-east-asia/

    Science NOVEMBER 27, 2020 5:58 PM AEDT

    The climate in inner East Asia may already have reached a tipping point, where recent years’ transition to abnormally hot and dry summers can be irreversible. This is the finding of a new international study by researchers at University of Gothenburg now published in Science.

    …“By combining observations, reconstructions and climate model data, we discovered that the link between land surface and atmosphere has become more pronounced in inner East Asia over the last 20 years, along with increased drying of soils. So we argue that reduced soil moisture enhances land-atmosphere coupling contributing to heating of the land surface, which causes more heat waves, which in turn reduces soil moisture and so on,” says Peng.

    https://www.gu.se/en/news/tipping-point-for-the-climate-can-already-be-a-reality-in-east-asia

  11. Well, it is interesting to see that the main response to anyone arguing for much stronger action than being taken at the moment (2C pathways) is now a complaint that it isn’t enough (by those proposing 1.5C pathways). It’s all a bit People’s Front of Judea.

    One irritant for me is the use of primary energy: this radically overstates the importance of burning things and splitting atoms, because it counts all the wasted energy as if it were just as important as the useful output. e.g., when coal is replaced by wind and solar the reduction in primary energy is bigger than the actual renewable output.

    So we don’t need to replace all the primary energy with renewables. We only need to replace the energy services: people need to be warm, have light to see by, and get from A to B. E.g. both heat pumps and better insulation keep people warm but decrease primary energy use substantially, especially in combination. Electric cars powered with renewables consume 10% as much primary energy as ICE cars (electric bikes, of course, are another another order of magnitude less).

  12. There’s a quite large problem in this section: using primary energy as an indicator of energy demand. The transition is electrification, so it involves cutting waste in half. This is most dramatic in transportation, where the powertrain goes from ± 15% efficiency to ± 85%, but it’s also true in generation (± 40% to 100% – the thermodynamic losses in wind and solar are not included in primary energy, unfair perhaps but them’s the breaks). Jacobson’s modelling gives a transition drop of about half in primary energy demand, for the same lifestyle.

    The best tool for bringing home the waste in the fossil system is a Sankey chart, such as the superb one produced by the Berkeley Lab for the USA https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/content/assets/images/energy/us/Energy_US_2019.png Their baseline measure of demand is useful “energy services”, which leaves out readily available gains in end-use efficiency such as LED lights, induction hobs, smart thermostats and heat-pump water heaters.

    If I were JQ, I would print this chart along with a thought-experiment one for a post-transition world. I had a go at this myself using free tools available on the Web: https://www.samefacts.com/the-cost-of-the-gnd-or-whats-the-price-of-gopher-wood/ Obviously not up to book standard, but it’s a proof of concept. (My main problem was bringing in large-scale storage.) You could try to talk the Berkeley Lab or Jacobson into making a proper one, or put an intern to work and then hire a professional graphics designer.

  13. Minor points.
    – On storage, pumped hydro is more important than batteries, and represents >90% of the current storage fleet. See Andrew Blakers’ model of the Australian NEM (http://re100.eng.anu.edu.au/resources/assets/1708BlakersREAust.pdf) and his global atlas of 616,000 potential off-river dam sites.
    -Geothermal: the traditional hydrothermal type soldiers on in its useful niche, in the few locations available. Some of us still have hopes for the hot-rock version, which could be had over huge areas if it works. I linked earlier to a promising low-risk new approach by Canadian company Eavor, building on progress in drilling for fracking. https://eavor.com/about/technology Geothermal is worth persevering with for its very great technical merits: completely reliable (>95%), completely despatchable 24/365, low footprint, very safe. In Cornwall, they are looking at combining geothermal energy with extraction of lithium from deep brine reservoirs.

  14. No worries. I have to say that I’m much less optimistic about pumped-hydro though… there are some solid reasons for batteries and hydrogen being in the spotlight at the moment.

  15. Pumped hydro is a mature, century-old technology with limited prospects for improved technology, but it works fine at the needed scale. Batteries are a Wild West of real and imaginary innovation, goldrush claims and uncertainty.

    Other points: no country is yet taking carbon sequestration and net-negative seriously, beyond small-scale research and scattered field trials. This is a very big gap. We need a crash effort on the scale of the covid vaccine response.

    JQ: “The moderately good news is that the supply of energy from solar PV and wind is growing at around 10 per cent per year, which implies a doubling every seven years.” I feel this is needlessly pessimistic. For once, the tipping point hype seems appropriate. wind and solar plus storage have beaten coal on costs and are starting to cut into gas. The industries are populated by large and capable companies thinking in multiple gigawatts. Banks are abandoning coal finance. FERC reports a US wind and solar project pipeline of 200 GW in the next three years. The surviving coal fleet is only 242 GW. It all seems to be speeding up. With Asian importers all committing to net zero targets or import replacement, Australian coal exports are doomed, and pretty soon.

  16. There is no voluntary path to decarbonisation. Humans are not going to do anything substantial because they and their systems are incapable of so doing. This is proven by the empirical facts. The record to date shows humans refuse to decarbonise on any viable time scale. Calling this fact does not cause this fact. Calling this fact is even a minority position. Most climate change aware people have been and continue to call for CO2 reductions and believe or hope it can happen. (I call for it but I no longer believe or hope it will happen.) Despite these calls nothing substantial ever happens. Annual CO2 emissions continue to rise. Click on link below and scroll down to the graph “Annual CO2 Emissions.”

    https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions

    Continued and/or increased emissions plus increasing feed-backs exceed mitigation efforts.
    The atmospheric CO2 measurements at Mauna Loa Observatory show, on their graph, a continued relentless rise with a seasonal fluctuation. This graph represents the net results of all carbon emissions and carbon sinks, human generated and natural. This relentless rise still shows a linear to slight exponential increase character. The lack of change in inflection in the graph demonstrates the essential non-effect of mitigation efforts to date.

    In summary, neither humans nor their capitalist political economy have shown to date the capacity to effect meaningful change to prevent catastrophic climate change. Conclusion: catastrophic climate change will occur, indeed is occurring right now, and these effects will put the real limits on human deleterious activities which humans and their systems have proved intrinsically incapable of doing themselves. Indeed, it is obvious that runaway feedback effects plus human releases still exceed our puny efforts at mitigation. The Mauna Loa graph keeps going up. That’s after 30 years of talking about it. That’s iron-clad proof.

  17. Batteries will play a big role. The Hornsdale Power Reserve (Tesla Big Battery) in South Australia could provide 100 megawatts of power and 129 megawatt-hours of energy and cost roughly $89 million before its expansion and has been paying for itself quite handily. The Victoria battery that will be completed in less than one year will cost around half as much per kilowatt-hour.

    Provided the interconnector with NSW goes ahead, South Australia is looking to build a 900 megawatt and 1,800 megawatt-hour battery. That’s enough power to supply around one quarter of maximum demand.

    Home and business batteries are also providing storage. There are a number of Virtual Power Plants using them operating and vehicle batteries are increasing in number. Even if they only operate as a load they’re a useful place to dump energy when it’s price is low.

    With battery storage rapidly reducing the return available to pump storage schemes, they are going to find it hard to get built.

  18. James “no country is yet taking carbon sequestration and net-negative seriously”

    I suspect China is, via their “great green wall” which will hopefully turn their new desert back into soil. The amount of carbon released by building the desert will hopefully be reversed by the undesertificalisation. There’s a similar project across northern Africa that might also work.

    They’re not *primarily* about carbon, but they will have a significant effect. And in both cases the primary reasons mean they’re not going to be playing silly buggers to make the carbon numbers look better if that makes the forest less effective.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three-North_Shelter_Forest_Program

    On a much smaller scale the rise of tree crops like manuka/teatree means that farmland will likely sequester more carbon, especially in the marginal country where that particular species is generally grown.

    All of which are far more sensible than the various “bury it and hope” strategies.

  19. Great thread. Thanks all. And esp. James W.

    Ikon “The time has come to stop soft-soaping “…
    I think you may be asking JQ to say something like…”Much of the U.S. Could Be Uninhabitable by 2050

    “Are you twenty years old today? By the time you’re fifty, much of the area on the map … will be uninhabited — abandoned and feral — while everyone from those regions will crowd north. The U.S. as you know it won’t exist; it will lose territorial integrity (as will China, by the way). Most of our food will come from Canada, if they still like us. And I’m willing to bet the Canadian border will be armed and patrolled — by Canadians.

    “Is civil revolt — not violence, mind you, but a massive series of general strikes and shutdowns— looking like a viable option all of a sudden? It is to me. It may in fact be the only one on the table.

    “How else do you propose we stop this killing machine we call our ruling class?”

    “Humans die when it gets too hot; that barely merits saying. But how hot is too hot, and how fast does “too hot” catch up to them?


    “Don’t let the green in the map above fool you. Look again at the map with the red on it [at link], the one showing weeks per year above 95 degrees. Much or most of the area below the “niche zone” will be uninhabitable without heavy use of electrically powered air conditioning, and tomakeit habitable, people would have to work long hours outside, in unbearable temperatures, to add the infrastructure needed.

    “Under those conditions, and knowing things will only get worse, no one will invest a dime in making those areas livable. Nor will anyone move there. Those who can afford to move and change jobs will emigrate. Others will simply flee, like refugees.

    “Where will they go? What kind of country will we have when this occurs?
    [downwithtyranny site not mobile friendly]
    https://www.downwithtyranny.com/post/much-of-the-u-s-could-be-uninhabitable-by-2050

    Via https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/12/much-of-the-u-s-could-be-uninhabitable-by-2050.html

    Ref… “Climate Change Will Force a New American Migration
    “Wildfires rage in the West. Hurricanes batter the East. Droughts and floods wreak damage throughout the nation. Life has become increasingly untenable in the hardest-hit areas, but if the people there move, where will everyone go?”
    https://www.propublica.org/article/climate-change-will-force-a-new-american-migration

    Yet I dont agree Ikon, with “Greater than 2.0 C means human extinction.”. Peter Thiel, Elon etall & CCP heavyweights’ will be in Antarctica, and Sthn NZ.

  20. Ikonoclast (re your comments at DECEMBER 1, 2020 AT 1:32 PM),
    You state: “The elimination of almost all human greenhouse emissions is required by 2030 not by 2050. Any warming greater than 1.5 C is disastrous. Greater than 2.0 C means human extinction.”

    H.J. Schellnhuber might disagree with you on the threshold temperature for human extinction. In an interview almost two years ago:

    “Okay, if we get it wrong, do the wrong things, policy, economics and psychology, in science, then I think there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years. I am pretty sure.”
    See: https://theecologist.org/2019/jan/03/its-nonlinearity-stupid

    I’d suggest the collapse of human civilisation, likely above +3.0 °C (NOT +2.0 °C) mean global warming (per Schellnhuber’s Aurelio Peccei Lecture in 2018) is likely to be at a lower warming temperature threshold than the one for the extinction of the human race. There are still likely to be some pockets of habitable areas on planet Earth for some humans (probably in the hundreds of millions, maybe less) to survive at higher mean global temperatures. That also means probably more than a few billions will not survive. Whether a runaway “Hothouse Earth” scenario begins to kick-in at or around +2.0 °C warming is debatable, as Professor Will Steffen freely admits – the jury is still out.

    From a Vox article last year:

    “Beneath the disagreement over climate risks is a disagreement over worldviews. From one perspective, quibbling over whether climate change will kill millions or billions is a waste of time when, in either case, we urgently need to act. But from another perspective, the difference is deeply significant; for example, it changes whether potential solutions that carry significant risks, like some forms of solar geoengineering, are warranted.

    Another broad disagreement is whether alarmism makes our prospects of tackling climate change better or worse. As some people see it, we’re not doing nearly enough to fight climate change, so we’d better focus in on the worst-case scenarios in case that will be what it takes to finally spur people to action. Others, though, worry that alarmism, far from motivating people, leads to paralysis — too much despair about the future to even bother working on it.”
    See: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/6/13/18660548/climate-change-human-civilization-existential-risk

    Should we give up if there’s still a chance for humanity to prevail?

  21. Referring to the above two posts by K2T and G. Miell,

    1. The growing zone of the US may well move to Canada. However, all the good and deep soil (another prerequisite of successful cropping) will not move back to Canada with it. I say it that way because the soil in places like Iowa came from Canada in the last full Ice age phase when the glaciers gouged the Canadian or North American shield down to bedrock and bulldozed all the good soil down to what is now northern mid-west USA. There is no mechanism to cart that soil back to a new growing zone in Canada.

    This just illustrates that if any current zone is good for growing crops, there will be multiple and layered reasons why it is good. Yet only one major factor has to go wrong, like a climate zone change, and it will be next to useless. And only one other major factor has to be missing from the new climate Goldilocks zone for that zone to be next to useless anyway. It’s a pretty safe bet that the post-Holocene world (the Anthropocence) will be growing less crops. The Holocene was so benign for humans and crop growing there’s theory that that’s why agriculture arose in the first place; simply because it was very feasible in the Goldilock’s Holocene. Almost any other imaginable climate regime hotter or colder, drier or wetter, and less stable will almost certainly be worse for agriculture.

    2. In pure temperature terms, it’s true that + 2.0 C might not mean human extinction purely from a climate change perspective. Maybe people some people can go and live a cool temperate and then temperate Antarctic at that or at + 3.0 C etc. However, it’s also possible that a lot of other bio and geo sphere problems flowing on from + 2.0 C will cause compounding problems which send humans extinct. It’s also possible that human mal-reaction to even +2.0 C stresses (on average with far worse in some regions) will lay waste to our prospects in any case. It’s pretty certain now that + 2.0 C is really dangerous territory which makes outright extinction a real and quite high possibility.

    3. Non-alarmism certainly hasn’t worked. People have just remained non-alarmed, complacent and have done far too little in the way of real action. I believe it’s time to try outright, terrifying “hellfire breathing” alarmism, for more or less adult comprehension consumption at least: meaning intelligent and mature 14 year olds and above. It’s no good hiding facts and implications any more. This overt alarmism will very soon be backed up by many, many real and terrifying events. indeed, for those paying attention, the really terrifying things started happening from about 2015 to 2018 up until the present, and due to be on-going of course.

  22. This may seem like an irrelevant question. But is it now the case that proximity to the coast is correlated to net wealth or income? If its the coasts that are threatened, then do the people who live close to the coasts have the means to mitigate the problem?

  23. Geoff Miell says DECEMBER 2, 2020 AT 4:36 PM

    – “Whether a runaway “Hothouse Earth” scenario begins to kick-in at or around +2.0 °C warming is debatable, as Professor Will Steffen freely admits – the jury is still out.”

    It’s already heated past 1.5 C when the albedo effect of fossil fuel aerosols is factored in. It’s +500ppmCO2e and climbing. It’s tipping points tipping now.

    Juries properly are not composed of proponents without time limit on submissions, nor are their lodgings made so comfortable they may chance to try serving indefinitely.

    It’s a debate for dummies. Dummies in a wooden house surrounded by dry forest might also debate insuring the house against fire until they run out of time.

    Strangely not mentioned above also is of course the high probability that humans driven to extremis by catastrophic climate change will take to global annihilating total war, or do their damnedest at it. A tipping point that can’t be far off now with various climate apocalypse wars having in fact already begun and numerous others planned for.

    – “There are still likely to be some pockets of habitable areas on planet Earth for some humans (probably in the hundreds of millions, maybe less) to survive at higher mean global temperatures.”

    Fat chance of that! Humans won’t be the only thing left still stalking and killing other humans for a few generations at best. An entirely alien planet is lying in wait to suddenly pounce. No Neanderthals nor Denisovians on some foreign continent to show ways to eke out a living and to boost the gene pool. No time either. No African cradle time repeat. Genetic bottlenecks show in better times humans near snuffed it a few times there when down to twenty-some breeders. Random touch and go chance there, but in a cradle changing s l o w l y in better times! No such recovery time ahead. No applicable tested knowledge nor lore handed down the generations. Totally lost bare handed hunter gathers on an alien planet with all kinds of nasty bugs taking over. Death in childbirth, death in infancy, nobody grows old, death, death, death, extinction. No one to count the passing of time. The end of time in no time.

  24. Respectfully, I believe there are several things that are missing from this analysis.

    1. “Renewable energy” as it is marketed in many places, is not strictly “renewable”. Have a look at the installation of a wind turbine In Australia or anywhere else and you will see huge amounts of diesel operated equipment moving earth, materials, removing vegetation etc (not unlike a fracking operation). It simply isn’t possible to have “renewable” electricity without a large underlying fossil fuel base to manufacture, install the equipment etc.This is the same with the manufacture of batteries, electric cars etc. Electricity is only a fraction of overall energy consumption.
    2. If renewables have already reached grid parity and are now are so dirt cheap, why haven’t they taken over massively, not only in electric networks, but in all other functions of the world economy? It is time for unconditional pro-renewable promoters to make an act of contrition and start admitting that perhaps they grossly missed the elephant in the room (massive storage, intermittency, other related societal energy costs?) in their EROI and LCOE calculations? Europe has invested in “renewable” energy to a much greater extent than Australia and at the same time are investing in massive natural gas import pipelines and terminals from Russia etc. Why is this the case if renewable energy is so cheap and destined to take over from all other energy sources?
    3. In most developed economies, “renewable” energy only represents a fraction of total energy use, generally less than 5%. It simply isn’t possible to get to anywhere near 100% of energy use while maintaining anything close to our current economy/society and anything that would resemble a “developed” economy. A barrel of oil contains ~4.5 years of human labor. It has the greatest density of available energy sources and would then be followed by other fossil fuels (natural gas, coal etc.). This is why most of us now live in cities and do not spend the majority of our time engaged in physical labour on the land and is the problem for renewable energy. It has a much lower energy density so it can never provide the same value regardless of its price or its cost. The only way to meet current energy needs with renewables is to greatly expand the number of units—solar panels or wind turbines—that provide the energy. To provide more energy output requires more energy input–pretty basic physics. That in turn creates more emissions and confounds the purpose of cleaner energy.
    4. 100% renewable energy would only work with a much lower global population and a living standard that would revert to pre-industrial times. Maybe that is a good thing for the long term survival of the human species, I don’t know. However, promoters of this approach should study this topic in more detail or be more honest about the long term consequences of advocating this strategy.
    5. Personally I doubt that the pandemic will accelerate any trend away from burning fossil fuels. There will be little appetite in a poorer would for the massive cost with moving to less dense forms of energy. It’s likely that humans will only move away from burning fossil fuels at some point in the future when they are forced to do so, perhaps when there are fewer resources available. This will be an extremely difficult period of human history – much more traumatic than this pandemic.

    This is not an argument against renewable energy, or against climate change, in fact I am in favour of greater use of solar and wind resources and greater electricity use, however people will be very pissed off at advocates of this approach if they are not open and honest about the long term consequences up front.

  25. J. W.,

    really, the IEA say global CO2 emissions flatlined in 2019?

    Did Birol keep a straight face the next day when he was to discuss these results at an IEA Speaker Series event with energy and climate ministers?

    The good old IEA and juggernaut of coal oil and gas burners’ spin. They don’t concern themselves with wild fires, nor with any ghg other than CO2 emissions from fossil fuel power, yet if one looks at their bar graph one may even better say global CO2 emissions flatlined from 1990 to 1994 inclusive; say equally as well that global CO2 emissions flatlined in 1997, 1998 (maybe include 1999 with that too); say better that global CO2 emissions actually were falling from 2008 to 2009; and say equally as well that global CO2 emissions flatlined in 2014 and 2015!

    One may say up is down, but it appears that emissions, even CO2 fossil fuel emissions, actually have continued to grow all the time.

    I linked the Australian BOM State of the Climate 2020 Report last week in a reply to Ikonoclast here at johnquiggin.com/2020/11/23/covid-and-the-climate-emergency/comment-page-1/#comment-230854 , and pasted this quote which also is repeated early in the report under Report at a glance …Key Points …Global:

    http://www.bom.gov.au/state-of-the-climate/greenhouse-gas-levels.shtml

    Greenhouse gases
    Global average concentrations of all the major long-lived greenhouse gases continue to rise in the atmosphere, with the global annual mean carbon dioxide concentration reaching 410 ppm and CO2 equivalent reaching 508 ppm in 2019.

    The rate of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere has increased with every passing decade since atmospheric measurements began.

    Despite the slow-down in global fossil fuel emissions of CO2 from early 2020 associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, there will be negligible impacts in terms of climate change. Atmospheric CO2 continues to rise, and fossil fuel emissions will remain the principal driver of this growth throughout 2020 and likely beyond.

  26. To add to the chorus about “stave off the worst”: –

    This carries within it the idea of an end-state, which might be very bad, or might be worse, but is somehow “the aftermath”. There is no aftermath. It’s all storm from here on.

    I would prefer “delay the worst”, or something like”slow down the deterioration”.

  27. Well James, 2020 will be the first time we’ll have had a decrease in CO2 emissions since the early Global Financial Crisis. And before that, I couldn’t guess. While the drop won’t be as much as I’d like, looking at fossil fuel production this year, it will be more than I expected.

  28. Svante: point taken on non-industrial emissions including wildfires. Of course, i was selective in taking just 2019: but with no recession and normal growth, it looks to me a reasonable representation of the new BAU. Agreed that more-or-less-flat is nowhere near the sharp falls we need to see, and flat emissions merely delays the apocalypse.

    A speculation on the political impact of the pandemic. JQ’s book will be an attempt to influence this, but it’s worth considering as an objective question too. Both Xi and Boris have recently made stronger climate commitments (net zero in China by 2060, no new ICEV cars in the UK from 2030). It’s very possible these initiatives are in part to make up for their poor covid performance. China has not done badly after the initial mishandling compared to Europe and the USA, but the Chinese middle class is more likely to compare with Asian neighbours, many of which (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and even Mongolia) have done much better. Conversely in Australia, a good covid policy has insulated Morrison from any similar pressure on climate: but the set of “climate denialist countries with good pandemic performance” has few other members. You can certainly find less cheerful indicators, such as the success of fossil fuel interests in securing covid recovery funds. Overall, it’s a confusing picture, with signs in both directions, and all still to play for.

  29. James,

    in 2019 China was still slowing down construction, steel production, and other heavy industries with their planned move towards a bigger service economy. Their 2020 covid-19 economic stimulus response turned all that on its head, and apparently for the next few years all the old heavy industry sectors are set to be again going flat out. It’s made for a big turn around windfall for Australian iron ore miners’ prices, but likely heaps more CO2 than in 2019 going up in smoke from steel mills, cement plants, and etc. XI will have put the recent past difficulty behind when his robot prospector returns soon from the Moon laden with ore samples the Japanese haven’t got near yet, not to mention his 6G satellite for that Chinese middle class’ diversions.

  30. China is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet. And is so by a considerable margin. Outside some of the oil states of the Persian Gulf, Australia is the biggest per capita emitter on the planet. Both nations are being very reprehensible in their approach to climate change. Absolute emissions matter because it is the absolute global total that generates the climate damage and the dangerous feed-backs. Per capita emissions matter because a few people being very emissions intensive equal a lot more poor people being less emissions intensive. Both “sins” matter, at least while national borders and national geostrategic competition matter.

    Unfortunately, some very major dynamics are working against GHG emissions reduction. The first is human greed and the way in which Capitalism justifies and canonizes greed, growth and excessive consumption. Indeed, capitalism mandates these as necessities to keep the capitalist system running. Endless growth plus over-production mandate over-consumption and vice versa. It’s a vicious feedback cycle and capitalism has no practical or theoretic way out of it. The second major dynamic is geostrategic competition. The tenets of geostrategic competition mandate that a large nation (any nation which is realistically in the competition to become a superpower) must grow faster, economically and then militarily, than its main rivals. In a collapsing world, this competition will become one of collapsing more slowly than rivals. After all, it is the relative difference in power that matters, not the absolute amounts.

    Geostrategic competition operates under the default tendencies of “offensive realism”. I leave people to check that term and its theorist, John Mearsheimer. Taken as a prescriptive discipline “offensive realism” is or would be morally offensive. Taken as an accurate description of real, extant geostrategic dynamics, the discipline appears depressingly realistic in its description of great power competition.

    The assignment of blame for aggressive action, and before that aggressive posturing and aggressive preparations, is not easily and wholly assignable to any one superpower or superpower contender. Rather, a feedback situation has been spirally historically and continues today. Each competitor participates in tit-for-tat provocations and escalations. It might be thought that like a blood feud, the allocation of blame settles on a selectively chosen (by each side against the other) initiating “crime”. However, the initial “crime” of a blood feud is usually lost in the annals of time.

    The above perhaps is not the case with great power competition. New competitors arise and old competitors drop out of contention. It seems amazing now to consider that Spain was once a great imperial and colonial power and ran its empire for 500 years, though in the last hundred years or so the empire was decaying continuously. What is Spain now in global power terms? “Almost negligible” is the correct answer.

    Where there is a succession of powers, there are sometimes clear initiating crimes. But even these initiating crimes have explanations, though not necessarily morally acceptable justifications. Any regional or global power which has suffered from an “initiating crime” against it, in turn becomes an initiator of crimes against others in the long run. The Jewish people and Israel are a good case in point. The subjects of the holocaust, they now attempt a progrom and a kind of holocaust against the Palestinians and other Arabs and this comes out of the existential trauma in their collective memory.

    The Chinese suffered the century of humiliation. That was real and a (multiple) crime. We can name Britain, Germany, France, USA and Japan as the main perpetrators of the major acts and processes of the century of humiliation. The Chinese are reacting against this and now THEY are the most powerful economy in the world, and soon to be in (historical terms) the most powerful military in the world. The Chinese are acting true to the dynamics of trauma and offensive realism. The calculation is that the only way to be safe in an anarchic world is to be totally insignificant or else the most powerful. China was never going to be totally insignificant. It has too much civilizational history, too much landmass, too many resources and too many people for that.

    The pursuit of being the most powerful mandates massive catch-up GHG emissions and then lead-maintaining GHG emissions on the part of China. This is the path China has committed, almost inevitably, to taking. No matter that the nations of the world have already emitted too much of the GHGs. Even nations which have emitted too much already, like the USA refuse to cut in any meaningful way as they calculate, rightly, that this will collapse their power relative to China, the new yardstick.

    Thus we are lost in a morass of greed and fear, consumption and competition. Without some kind of United Nations agreement that climate change and our own strategic competitions are our worst enemies, then we remain trapped in this mode until catastrophic collapse. The worst belief by anyone, including China, is that they can win this competition. There will be no winners. It’s an extinction level negative sum game.

  31. David (re your comments at DECEMBER 2, 2020 AT 9:32 PM),
    You state: “1. “Renewable energy” as it is marketed in many places, is not strictly “renewable”…”

    Agreed – see my comments: https://johnquiggin.com/2020/10/19/too-cheap-to-meter-2/comment-page-1/#comment-229219

    I’d suggest the most challenging task will be ending our addiction to oil in a very limited timeframe.

    You ask: “2. If renewables have already reached grid parity and are now are so dirt cheap, why haven’t they taken over massively, not only in electric networks, but in all other functions of the world economy?”

    I’d suggest:
    – “dirt cheap” is only very recent;
    – renewables have started from a relatively small base – fossil fuels overwhelmingly dominate;
    – fossil fuels continue to be heavily subsidised and protected by governments, but that’s apparently beginning to change in some jurisdictions.

    You state: “To provide more energy output requires more energy input–pretty basic physics. That in turn creates more emissions and confounds the purpose of cleaner energy.”

    Most of the embodied energy in fossil fuels is wasted as heat – circa two-thirds. Electrification, heat pumps, etc., dramatically reduce energy consumption and still do useful work.
    See the NREL energy flows diagram: https://cleantechnica.com/2020/11/13/what-does-bill-gates-favorite-energy-guru-vaclav-smil-get-wrong/

    You state: “4. 100% renewable energy would only work with a much lower global population and a living standard that would revert to pre-industrial times.”

    We will inevitably need to learn to live with less – we either do it willingly or it will be imposed in an energy reducing and increasingly hotter world over the next few decades. I have no doubt there will be casualties – the question is how big – hundreds of millions to a few billions? Civilisation collapse would inevitably mean “a living standard that would revert to pre-industrial times”/agrarian world.

    You state: “5. Personally I doubt that the pandemic will accelerate any trend away from burning fossil fuels.”

    Maybe. It depends on whether more extreme events occur within the next few years. Perhaps a social ‘tipping point’ begins a meaningful non-linear change? Schellnhuber said (see the link in my earlier comment):

    “Oh, it can happen pretty soon and pretty quickly, because, you see, if a minor conflict in Syria is sending so many shockwaves, through migrants for example, to Europe, so, it is all about nonlinearity.

    It’s the nonlinearity stupid, huh?

    This goes in both ways. On the one hand, we can have climate disruptions coming very soon, but in the medium term, clearly, if we don’t do a lot now, we will send the Greenland ice sheet into irreversible collapse, and so on, you talk about all of these.

    So, the nonlinearities are our biggest enemy when it comes to the Earth System. On the other hand, why I am still optimistic, is that in society, you also have nonlinear dynamics. Tipping points that are social, economic and psychological.”

  32. Does anyone agree with…
    KT2 says: Ozone agreements and recovery are a good timeline proxy for Co2 agreements and abatement imo. (^1.)

    Or does anyone have a better proxy as to realistic Co2 reductions?

    If we look at the most successful agreement for an externality EVER – Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, and timelines of how the Vienna Convention has played out, any lowering of Co2 – AFTER we all agree and sign on –  will follow this trajectory imo. 

    And “Fossil fuels and nuclear do not follow learning curves”(^2) is a favorite phase now.
    ****

    ^1. 
    “Ozone Layer
    by Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser

    “The rapid decline in emissions of ozone-depleting substances shown above [see link] was driven by international agreement to phase out their production. In 1985 the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer was adopted and entered into force in 1988.1

    “In the chart we see the evolution of global parties signing on to the Vienna Convention. In its first year (1988) there were only 29 parties signed to the agreement. This rapidly increased in the years to follow, reaching 174 parties by 2000. In 2009, the Vienna Convention became the first of any Convention to achieve universal ratification.

    “The Vienna Convention, despite not mandating parties to take concrete actions on ozone protection laid the foundations for adoption of The Montreal Protocol.

    “However, the Copenhagen (1992) and its subsequent revisions greatly increased controls and ambition in global commitments, leading to a peak in stratospheric concentrations in the early 2000s and projected declines in the decades to follow.

    https://ourworldindata.org/ozone-layer
    ****

    ^2. 
    “Why did renewables become so cheap so fast? And what can we do to use this global opportunity for green growth?
    by Max Roser
    December 01, 2020

    “The world’s energy supply today is neither safe nor sustainable. What can we do to change this and make progress against this twin-problem of the status quo?

    …” As the burning of fossil fuels accounts for 87% of the world’s CO2 emissions, a world run on fossil fuels is not sustainable, they endanger the lives and livelihoods of future generations and the biosphere around us. And the very same energy sources lead to the deaths of many people right now – the air pollution from burning fossil fuels kills 3.6 million people in countries around the world every year; this is 6-times the annual death toll of all murders, war deaths, and terrorist attacks combined.1

    “What you see in the chart is that within the last 10 years the price of electricity from nuclear became more expensive, gas power became less expensive, and the price of coal power – the world’s largest source of electricity – stayed almost the same. Later we will see what is behind these price changes.

    “In bright orange you see the development for the price of power from solar PV over the last decade. The learning curve relationship that we saw for the price of solar modules also holds for the price of electricity. The learning rate is actually even faster: At each doubling of installed solar capacity the price of solar electricity declined by 36% – compared to 20% for solar modules. 

    “Wind power – shown in blue – also follows a learning curve. The onshore wind industry achieved a learning rate of 23%. Every doubling of capacity was associated with a price decline of almost a quarter. 

    “Offshore wind had a learning rate of 10% and is still relatively expensive – only 25% cheaper than nuclear and a bit more expensive than coal. But for two reasons experts expect the power from offshore wind to become very cheap in the coming years, larger wind turbine sizes and the fact that the consistent winds out on the sea allows higher load factors.26 The obvious similarity of onshore and offshore wind also means that learning effects in one industry can be transferred to the other.

    “Fossil fuels and nuclear do not follow learning curves

    “Electricity generation from renewables is getting rapidly cheaper. What about its competitors? Let’s look first at coal. “…

    https://ourworldindata.org/cheap-renewables-growth

  33. KT2,

    “Does anyone agree with…
    KT2 says: Ozone agreements and recovery are a good timeline proxy for Co2 agreements and abatement imo. (^1.)”

    Nope. The industries and vested interests concerned with producing and using ozone depleting gases (propellants, solvents, refrigerants, etc) were not faced with an end to their businesses, investments, and with holding useless stranded assets. Using pretty much the same plant and technology they had only to swap over to using other gases. I suppose the faster a firm did this meant they might increase their market share and profits, and if they were slow at it they might lose out.

    Fossil fuel investors, producers, and users don’t have anything else similar to swap over to for digging up, shipping, and burning as a substitute. It’s an ending rather than a relatively easy adjustment to business as usual and so it is a long drawn out hard fought battle against being forced by external interests to shut up shop and go away. A significant portion of fossil fuel related revenue that might otherwise be invested in an adjustment to new and potentially promising enterprise, as was the case with ozone, will continue to be invested in ANY means of extending the fight for as long as possible such as buying up political parties, lawfare, and propaganda.

    “^2.
    “Why did renewables become so cheap so fast? And what can we do to use this global opportunity for green growth?
    by Max Roser
    December 01, 2020”

    Great industry pr spin and marketing strategies combined with a herd market mentality, and abundant cheap fossil power facilitating the economies of scale achieved in applying a few main technological improvements have driven renewables price reductions.

    In short: profit potentials, fossil fuels, and psychology are behind such ‘green’ growth.

    Shorter still: such green growth is not a thing, so drop the growth, or drop the green.

    ¯\_(°⁔°)_/¯

  34. The https://ourworldindata.org/cheap-renewables-growth link mentioned by KT2 above is a perfect example of why all the gloom and doom expounded by some people here is not warranted at all. This problem is rapidly being solved and in 10-15 years will be a solved issue so doomsayers can worry about something else instead.

    Fact is solar is now cheapest power available and is growing exponentially. Within 10 years it and wind will dominate the energy situation purely by exponential growth. Coal will basically have had it. Within a few years from now no one will invest in coal as they will realise their assets will be stranded. Social pressure is also helping.

    Same thing happening in transport – anyone here seriously thinking they won’t be driving an EV by 2030?? Or maybe they won’t own a car at all, relying on autonomous vehicle services instead.

    Perhaps the greatest source of C02 – animal farming – is also being disrupted. Lab grown meat will wipe it out in very short order. Just today Singapore approved the first lab grown ( made like beer ) chicken. Most other meats are also being developed and their price will soon be MUCH cheaper and healthier than regular meat.

    This is all common knowledge. No need for doom.

  35. As far as I can tell, what is mostly driving the decreased cost of renewables is that in many cases these offer a superior LCOE. Essentially, the installation and occasional maintenance of renewables is easier and lower cost than equivalent cost of fossil fuel extraction.

    There are certainly fair criticisms which can be levelled at renewables – the degree of recycling is currently far too low, and design-for-recycle should be implemented from first principles. Though, notably, such recycling efforts should actually help decrease costs lower still (as extraction costs will be decreased still greater).

    Of course, this perspective could be wrong, but it would be nice if those convinced “renewables can’t work” and “renewables cost a lot” ever presented evidence for their claims.

    Or, to put it another way, green energy is actually a thing, and is cost effective – so no need to drop the green or the energy!

  36. nG – ”green energy is actually a thing, and is cost effective – so no need to drop the green or the energy!”

    My phrasing was “such green growth is not a thing, so drop the growth, or drop the green” not “green energy”. Green energy can of course be a thing, both actual and hypothetical. The only actual known green growth from green energy is biological and in the wild.

    You apparently are in denial of the amount of embedded fossil fuel derived energy, the humungous amount of lifetime fossil fuel burning that supports the purported ‘green energy’ and ‘green growth’ referred to in the relevant posts above.

    ‘Renewable’ energy comprises a tiny percentage of total energy use confined to a small percentage of electrical and heat generation. It is a very long way from hypothetically growing and renewing just itself and thus being somewhat renewable and green. It is doubtful that hypothesis could pan out. It is doubtful the hypothesis will pan out before economic affections to do with growth, a train wreck really, let alone ‘green growth’ crash the underpinning environmental systems necessary for sustaining civilisation. Like parents and other adults at times have said to children for ever, “you can’t have your cake and eat it.”

  37. nG: ” the degree of recycling is currently far too low,” The reason few solar panels are recycled is that are aren’t any to recycle. They last 30 years. The volume installed in 1990 was tiny – it was still under 300MW In 2000, the size of a single big solar farm today. We won’t see scrappage over 10GW a year before about 2040. The same story holds for car batteries.

  38. James Wimberley

    A fair point. What I had in mind was my concerns regarding the following.

    The current EU directive for PV recycling/recovery targets is ca. 85% and 80%. The current PV recycling % possible is between 90% and 96%. But one report I’ve read suggests currently PVs are cycled at ca. 10% world-wide, which appears to be mainly a consequence of lack of regulation.

    DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.74390

    Perhaps I didn’t explain well (always a possibility), but my concern is that currently there doesn’t seem to be in place enough from-first-principles thought going into this yet. I could be wrong though – maybe economies of scale will come in to play, or perhaps I’ve misunderstood.

    Thoughts welcome.

  39. Savante

    Firstly, can we drop the accusations about being in denial? I don’t think personal attacks are productive, and generally I am more interested in having a useful conversation that not. As it happens, I believe I have a good understanding of the situation, but if you care to offer data-supported arguments then I am open to changing my mind. But simply making ad hominem attacks is not, I think, a good way to proceed.

    As far as I can tell, your initial argument is that the use of renewables has only grown because

    Great industry pr spin and marketing strategies combined with a herd market mentality, and abundant cheap fossil power facilitating the economies of scale achieved in applying a few main technological improvements have driven renewables price reductions.

    Yet that seems to me to be flawed because the energy generated by renewables is cheaper than the than that generated by fossil fuels[1]. So surely increasing use of renewables will, if anything, decrease the costs still further? Which would, in turn, drive production of renewables…etc.

    Now, however, you appear to be advancing a different argument.

    ‘Renewable’ energy comprises a tiny percentage of total energy use confined to a small percentage of electrical and heat generation.

    Well, that depends a lot on where you are looking, for example countries with renewable energy include Iceland (100%), Norway (98.5%), and Austria (80%), and Denmark (ca. 50%) mostly from wind (with some solar). I’m not sure I would classify that as tiny with respect to those countries. Which would seem to suggest renewables are perfectly viable. Assuming those countries are able to manufacture renewable energy devices, then renewables would in fact be self-sufficient [3].

    It is true you can’t have your cake and eat it – what you can do is look for cake which already exists and eat that. Given we have the benefit of being able to harvest energy emitted by the sun, for example, it seems odd that you don’t believe this is viable. This is especially confusing, as the biologocial “green growth” you mention is also dependent on…energy from the sun.

    If you wish to advance an argument, supported with evidence, for why you believe renewable energy is not viable, I am certainly interested in hearing it.

    Otherwise, frankly speaking, I see little point in continuing (I am, I’m afraid, not very interested in assertions made without evidence).

    Un salud!

    [1] As of 2018, renewables were cheaper than everything except coal (10.14171/j.2096-5117.gei.2018.01.006), and that in part due to coal be artificially subsidised. More recent data suggests that renewables are currently more cost effective than any fossil fuel at all (https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2020/Jun/IRENA_Costs_2019_ES.PDF?la=en&hash=A74F5A6BA01D86C175702B4F27C7086AF5D23F99)
    The argument that energy coming from renewables will be in anyway more expensive than that from fossil fuels seems to be unsupported by the evidence.

    [2] doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2018.04.113

    [3] Well, to be completely fair not entirely. It would require the wind to still blow and the sun to still shine during the day. But if those were ever to not be happening, then you probably have larger concerns to deal with, frankly.

  40. Too bad there is such a strong anti-government ideology these days. Building government owned solar and wind plants with negative nominal 10 year interest rates would be such a steal at the moment in the Eurozone.

  41. gN,

    Firstly, can we drop the accusations about being in denial? I don’t think personal attacks are productive, and generally I am more interested in having a useful conversation that not. As it happens, I believe I have a good understanding of the situation, but if you care to offer data-supported arguments then I am open to changing my mind. But simply making ad hominem attacks is not, I think, a good way to proceed.

    Calling a spade a spade is hardly an ad hominem. By skipping the embedded fossil fuel issues again you yet again seem to be in denial, only more so. I have cited the pertinent expert authorities here a number of times. You may check. They have not been refuted, rather they have simply been ignored and/or shouted down and/or shut down as they have been by the vested interest proponents of ‘renewable’ energy.. Others here from time to time too have raised similar points and cited some of the same authorities, eg, several just recently both on another thread <a href=https://johnquiggin.com/2020/11/16/monday-message-board-486/comment-page-2/#comment-230694Geoff Miell on NOVEMBER 20, 2020 AT 10:08 AM and David above in this thread at DECEMBER 2, 2020 AT 9:32 PM.

    I read the references you provided, and have no problem at all with those other than them being rather about money and quite beside the point. I could have just word searched on “eroi” to quickly ascertain whether an immediate intuition was in fact correct.

    As far as I can tell, your initial argument is that the use of renewables has only grown because

    Great industry pr spin and marketing strategies combined with a herd market mentality, and abundant cheap fossil power facilitating the economies of scale achieved in applying a few main technological improvements have driven renewables price reductions.

    Yet that seems to me to be flawed because the energy generated by renewables is cheaper than the than that generated by fossil fuels[1]. So surely increasing use of renewables will, if anything, decrease the costs still further? Which would, in turn, drive production of renewables…etc.

    The ‘renewable’ energy appears cheaper and the ‘renewables’ only exist because of the myriad fossil fuel inputs over their lifetime from mine to recycling/scrapping. This “cheaper” thing you reference is but an incomplete and arbitrary monetary measure of the price of a given unit of energy output tied to the monetary price of installing a given unit of generation capacity. It’s just funny finance money and no true accounting of costs in the real world physical currency of ERoIEXT. ‘Renewables’ make money, increasingly more money due to lower prices delivered by economy of scale increases, but aren’t made of such a nebulous concept as money. ‘Renewables’ are made of stuff external to ‘renewable energy’, made of and by overwhelmingly external stuff including large amounts of fossil fuel. ‘Renewables’ aren’t capable of sustaining all the stuff humans use at today’s globally inequitable lumpy levels, and when that stuff external to it declines so too do ‘renewables’. Nature just does not admit the creative account balancing that finance does. Nature will only admit we use either much less stuff or we get much further out of balance with both nature and principles of human equity.

    Now, however, you appear to be advancing a different argument.

    ‘Renewable’ energy comprises a tiny percentage of total energy use confined to a small percentage of electrical and heat generation.

    Well, that depends a lot on where you are looking, for example countries with renewable energy include Iceland (100%), Norway (98.5%), and Austria (80%), and Denmark (ca. 50%) mostly from wind (with some solar). I’m not sure I would classify that as tiny with respect to those countries. Which would seem to suggest renewables are perfectly viable. Assuming those countries are able to manufacture renewable energy devices, then renewables would in fact be self-sufficient [3].

    No, not a different argument at all. But let’s examine how you would wish to bend it. Hint, it doesn’t look too good:

    Your chosen four developed wealthy populations / world population = 341,243+5,421,241+9,006,398+5,792,202 / :7,829,633,270 = 0.0026260596494068

    That so far to date very fortunate 0.26% of world population is highly unrepresentative of the bulk of the remaining 7,809,072,186 people on Earth. The relatively good situation of these countries you chose, some of them exceptionally well geologically endowed with energy resources, all rather rich, does not translate well to the bulk of other countries.

    Iceland has uniquely abundant hydro and geothermal resources unlike any other country on Earth! It has little to nil solar and wind. However oil and coal comprise some 13% of energy used, so definitely not your 100% ‘renewables”!

    Norway is fortunate in having abundant hydro energy resources at 93% but only 4% comes from other ‘renewables’. Nevertheless Norway is a heavy per capita emitter of CO2 due to its fossil fuel consumption! It has abundant oil and gas resources, heavily exported, and responsible for another 500-some million tons of emissions poorly accounted for by Norway.

    Austria generates (2015) some 74% of its electricity from ‘renewables’ (43% hydro, 31% ‘renewable’ mostly wind). But “renewable energies accounted to 33.5% of the final energy consumption” in 2016!

    Denmark has coal, and oil and gas for domestic and exported use. ‘Renewables’ accounted for only 33% of Danish energy consumption in 2018, a long way off from your claim of 50%!

    None of the above takes account of the energy, mostly fossil sourced energy, embedded in the commodities and manufactures these wealthy ‘greening’ countries source from elsewhere. None of this takes account of any offshoring of production where it has occurred and the likely heavily embedded fossil fuel energy content therein.

    With respect to that grouping of countries, they have separately and together an outsized environmental footprint in comparison with the bulk of other countries even when they indeed are also tiny by comparison.

    It is true you can’t have your cake and eat it – what you can do is look for cake which already exists and eat that. Given we have the benefit of being able to harvest energy emitted by the sun, for example, it seems odd that you don’t believe this is viable. This is especially confusing, as the biologocial “green growth” you mention is also dependent on…energy from the sun.

    We don’t ‘simply’ harvest energy from the sun like a green plant. We aren’t so equipped, we have to extensively use external things, and use up many things in order to harvest the comparatively low density energy resources available from the sun.

    If you wish to advance an argument, supported with evidence, for why you believe renewable energy is not viable, I am certainly interested in hearing it.

    Otherwise, frankly speaking, I see little point in continuing (I am, I’m afraid, not very interested in assertions made without evidence).

    No probs. Hall et al were in the end thoroughly exhausted by arguing this with compromised vested interests and happy to pull out and retire from banging their heads up against the wall of acrimony and corrupted science they faced. To paraphrase, one of them said upon retiring that the real world (ERoIEXT) experiment is under way, nothing more they could do to any effect when up against so much money, yet in time everyone will see the result one way or the other and see whether they were right or not. They wrote the book on this stuff, and were confident of being found right. I’ve indicated where the evidence may be found, so look into that first. Till then I feel there’s no need to go round one more time for I might again get across it and answer your questions, but then you might say that I was trying to have the last word or inventing it. So perhaps I will just leave things where they are. Happy hunting.

    Un salud!

    [1] As of 2018, renewables were cheaper than everything except coal (10.14171/j.2096-5117.gei.2018.01.006), and that in part due to coal be artificially subsidised. More recent data suggests that renewables are currently more cost effective than any fossil fuel at all (https://www.irena.org/-/media/Files/IRENA/Agency/Publication/2020/Jun/IRENA_Costs_2019_ES.PDF?la=en&hash=A74F5A6BA01D86C175702B4F27C7086AF5D23F99)
    The argument that energy coming from renewables will be in anyway more expensive than that from fossil fuels seems to be unsupported by the evidence.

    [2] doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2018.04.113

    [3] Well, to be completely fair not entirely. It would require the wind to still blow and the sun to still shine during the day. But if those were ever to not be happening, then you probably have larger concerns to deal with, frankly.

    Other than the flawed assumptions meaning its demise is built in?

    worldpopulationreview.com/countries
    worldometers.info/population/
    nea.is/the-national-energy-authority/energy-statistics/primary-energy/sources-of-energy/
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_Iceland
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_Norway
    worlddata.info/europe/norway/energy-consumption.php
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_Denmark
    worlddata.info/europe/austria/energy-consumption.php
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_in_Austria
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renewable_energy_in_Austria
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wind_power_in_Austria
    oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Gazprom-Expects-Gas-Glut-In-Europe-Will-Continue-In-2021.html
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_gas_by_country
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_natural_gas_consumption
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_natural_gas_proven_reserves
    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia_in_the_European_energy_sector
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/annalisagirardi/2018/12/12/growing-dependent-on-russia-the-gas-routes-in-europe/?sh=6ed5003c62b0
    e-ir.info/2020/02/24/the-energy-relationship-between-russia-and-the-european-union/
    money.cnn.com/2018/06/05/news/economy/russia-europe-gas-dependency/index.html

  42. Making renewable energy technology is the very best of all possible uses for fossil fuels; a multiplier effect (or whatever we call it) should come into play.

    Certainly less overall emissions will be generated that way – more renewables in the energy supply means further manufacturing uses more of the low emissions renewables rather than sourcing more fossil fuels directly, including for the manufacturing of renewables. The making of low emissions energy technology should not be singled out for requiring low emissions energy sources; all manufacturing has to reduce emission and the reductions of embedded emissions in renewables has to flow primarily from that overall increase in level of low emissions energy. Solar manufacturers for example can and do tend to put solar on their roofs and preferentially source low emissions energy but more broadly it ought to be carbon pricing applied to all industries that levels the playing field. Seems like a variation of the (very hypocritical) “any climate activist not willing to forego all technology is a hypocrite” argument to insist renewable energy tech makers should be responsible for their emission but fossil fuel energy makers should not.

    As the proportion of renewables in the mix grows the embedded emissions decreases; seems kind of obvious. Zero is the target, not the starting point and arguments that if renewables cannot be zero emissions from day one they are unacceptable are disingenuous. If manufacturing is mostly electrically powered and happens someplace mostly low emissions, like eg Tasmania, then the embedded emissions will mostly be those of materials sourced elsewhere, not the manufacturing. As the proportion of low emissions energy elsewhere grows those embedded emissions fall further. Ultimately when all the energy supply is zero emissions all manufacturing will be zero emissions.

  43. nG
    You state: “If you wish to advance an argument, supported with evidence, for why you believe renewable energy is not viable, I am certainly interested in hearing it.”

    In another thread (Too cheap to meter) on Oct 20, I stated:

    “Until renewables can be replicated at every single step of their life-cycle using renewable energy, they are not sustainable. There are critical issues of scale, resource availability, and timing that I think are not being honestly acknowledged.”

    “Currently, renewables are dependent on petroleum oil — from mining, to crushing ore and smelting it, to delivery (via petroleum-fueled trucks, trains and ships) to fabrication plants, to the supply chains for numerous parts, to the final delivery sites, along roads that need constant repair with diesel construction trucks laying more asphalt, which is found only at the bottom of a crude oil barrel. When they wear out or fail, the components then need to be recycled as close to 100% as possible. The process from start to finish would need to be electrified.”

    I’d suggest the critical challenge is to get off petroleum oil in the limited timeframe (i.e. less than 20 years).

    Ask yourself:
    1) What zero GHG-emissions solutions currently exist to replace all fossil fueled:
    – Mining equipment?
    – Agricultural equipment?
    – Land transport?
    – Water transport?
    – Air transport?

    2) Can these solutions be rapidly deployed at large-scale to replace the fossil fuelled equipment and be operational within the required timeframe (i.e next 20 years)?

    I’d suggest if solutions are not already available now to be deployed at large scale then it’s already too late. IMO, land transport has the best chance to transition. I don’t see timely solutions for long-range heavy capacity water and air transport. The other critical question is whether there are adequate supplies of the base mineral resources to support the transition.

    I recommend you read the book “EXTRACTED: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet” by Ugo Bardi, published Jun 2014. The Club of Rome commissioned a YouTube video to promote the book (duration 8:57): https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=u_Y29DqzWkc

    EnergySkeptic blog has taken a look at some aspects of Bardi’s book.
    http://energyskeptic.com/2017/mining-waste-pollution-destruction-from-ugo-bardis-extraction/

  44. Geoff Miell thanks for your response.

    I believe human behaviour only changes substantially in response to trauma. Human’s will only move away from burning fossil fuels when they are forced to do so. Maybe that could be in response to climate change, or lack of remaining resources to burn – it’s hard to predict accurately. Moving from a higher density to a lower density energy source is against the genetic imperative of any living thing to expand as a species. We only have such a global population of 7 billion because we burn so many fossil fuels.

    Respectfully disagree with your analysis that “renewable” energy is now cheaper than energy generated by fossil fuels. A barrel of oil contains around 4.5 years of human labour or around 1700 kilowatt hours of energy. This is simply the most dense form of energy that humans have ever found, which is why it now dominates the world economy.

    Any basic physics textbooks will tell you that wind or solar energy delivers nothing like that density. The energy that goes into producing solar panels, wind turbines etc. that is powered by oil is not properly acknowledged by many of their promoters. I have solar panels on my roof and huge amounts of diesel was burned in the mining of the raw materials, manufacture of the panels and then their transport to my house.

    Almost all “work” in modern society is performed by energy generated in burning fossil fuels. If a barrel of oil represents 4.5 years of human labour, the world will be much poorer when burning fossil fuels ceases. It will have huge impacts associated with a much lower global population being able to be supported, depopulation of cities, more war, refugees etc. I am not saying that climate change itself may not cause those impacts, but just trying to be realistic that the world will not be some kind of nirvana if burning fossil fuels ceases.

    There is also the issue of if one country decides to unilaterally move away from burning fossil fuels, it will be completely dominated by others in the world that continue to do so. The reason Britain became powerful and developed an empire is because they were the first country to burn fossil fuels on a large scale. Germany and Japan largely lost world war 2 because of lack of oil resources compared to their opponents.

    There is almost a 1 to 1 correlation between the wealth of a country and how many fossil fuels it burns.

  45. mrkenfabian,

    with respect, the best use of fossil fuels is that they stay exactly where they are.

    > all manufacturing has to reduce emission and the reductions of embedded emissions in renewables has to flow primarily from that overall increase in level of low emissions energy.

    It’s actually simpler. All manufacturing has to reduce, or will be reduced. The global ecological overshoot has to be downsized or will be downsized..

    > Solar manufacturers for example can and do tend to put solar on their roofs and preferentially source low emissions energy but more broadly it ought to be carbon pricing applied to all industries that levels the playing field.

    And see the price of roofs sky rocket in the interim before solar manufacturers can manufacture those entirely from solar power just like they won’t be doing for the rapidly expanding solar manufacturing plant and solar products themselves.

    >Seems like a variation of the (very hypocritical) “any climate activist not willing to forego all technology is a hypocrite” argument to insist renewable energy tech makers should be responsible for their emission but fossil fuel energy makers should not.

    Nope, it’s not any climate activist. Rather it is any body not willing to forgo business as usual and try to remain so 20th century-like.

    > As the proportion of renewables in the mix grows the embedded emissions decreases; seems kind of obvious. Zero is the target, not the starting point and arguments that if renewables cannot be zero emissions from day one they are unacceptable are disingenuous.

    Talk about disingenuous. Straw man. Who has argued that? But do reevaluate Including the rate that the global ‘”mix” must increase for equitable sustained bau projected growth all over.

    > As the proportion of low emissions energy elsewhere grows those embedded emissions fall further.

    Never will it be enough for current and projected global bau.

    > Ultimately when all the energy supply is zero emissions all manufacturing will be zero emissions.

    Due to physics apparently not on this planet, I’m not a physicist, but I’ve read those who are and others who are otherwise qualified to have researched this. What we have going now is an experiment. If it gets to run uninterrupted to a definitive conclusion we will have an incontrovertible answer concerning ERoIEXT, renewables/fossils, equity, and growth.

    I am actually prepared to bet on this as there is a high probability I’ll live to see the result. If those authorities research results are proven correct, as I think they are, then I expect that like most people I will by then be relatively poorer than now, so I could do with a betting win around about that time. It would be a decent win by any terms if current low future inflation projections hold, as they may well do, for there is not all that long to wait.

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