Former Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, with whom I worked on the Climate Change Authority a few years back, has a new Quarterly Essay, on Getting to Zero (emissions). Some quick observations
- It’s far too generous to the current government. However, it makes sense for Finkel to be diplomatic and diplomacy abhors frankness
- A comprehensive and readable wrapup of the main issues in managing an orderly transition with the current system
- Most notable, Finkel is very cool on nuclear energy and carbon capture, both of which he has discussed sympathetically in the past
It’s paywalled, but I’ve posted a couple of relevant passages over the fold
When faced with a huge challenge, we should stock our armamentarium with all the tools at our disposal and go into battle with both hands at the ready, but many of the clean electricity generation methods are denied to us, or are incapable of making a significant contribution.
Uranium and plutonium nuclear fission power stations produce electricity and heat at massive scale and do not emit any carbon dioxide. However, populations around the world live in fear of nuclear disaster – even though the actual safety record for nuclear electricity shows that it is one of the safest energy technologies ever developed. Rejection is further exacerbated by the nearly universal failure of national governments to show leadership in solving the problem of permanent nuclear waste disposal. In addition, the cost of electricity from new conventional nuclear reactors is high, too high to compete with solar and wind supported by batteries. There is a chance that a new style of nuclear reactor called a small modular reactor (SMR) might overcome the issues plaguing conventional nuclear reactors, but the first approved SMR will not be built in the United States till the end of this decade, which would push any conceivable adoption in Australia into the following decade.
Other forms of nuclear energy, such as hydrogen fusion and thorium fission, are under development, but despite decades of effort they are still far from being proven at demonstration scale, let alone commercial scale. So if they are able to contribute commercially, it will not be in the next two decades.
Carbon capture and storage will be needed in industrial processes that cannot otherwise eliminate emissions, or those in which the cost of capturing the carbon dioxide is essentially free, such as hydrogen production from fossil fuels. CCS is currently operational at large scale at nineteen industrial facilities internationally, including the Gorgon storage project in Western Australia. On the other hand, CCS has only been implemented commercially at two coal-fired electricity plants and only one remains operational.
25 thoughts on “Finkel on getting to zero”
“There is a chance that a new style of nuclear reactor called a small modular reactor (SMR) might overcome the issues plaguing conventional nuclear reactors…”
SMR designs that are far enough along to have a cost estimate cost more than conventional nuclear power. So it would be a matter of building a working SMRs and then bringing down their cost, first so they can compete with conventional nuclear power, then beat coal, then finally beat solar and wind.
There is no reason to think that will happen.
“…or those in which the cost of capturing the carbon dioxide is essentially free…”
Looking at what oil producers pay to compress, transport, and inject CO2 into oil fields doesn’t make it look free even if we ignore the initial cost of the CO2. But if the source of CO2 is relatively pure it’s not that expensive either and only a modest carbon price will be necessary to make it worthwhile to capture CO2 from some processes.
Around 50 grams of CO2 are emitted from brewing one liter of beer. This is almost pure CO2 plus water vapour, which is relatively easy to remove. So brewing could be one process. There is a great opportunity here for brewers to go carbon negative.
Meanwhile, a final revised peer-reviewed paper published on Mar 1 in the Earth System Dynamics not-for-profit international scientific journal, titled “Climate model projections from the Scenario Model Intercomparison Project (ScenarioMIP) of CMIP6”, IMO highlights the urgency of the climate emergency. On page 264, Table 1 provides the best computer model estimates and ranges for the years of crossing global mean warming temperature thresholds for 1.5, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 and 5.0 °C for various GHG emissions trajectory scenarios (SSP1-1.9, SSP1-2.6, SSP2-4.5, SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5).
So, per my interpretations of the data, no matter what GHG emissions trajectory humanity chooses to take from now on, best modelling estimates indicate the 1.5 °C global mean temperature threshold is likely to be crossed sometime between years 2026 and 2029 inclusive – meaning, likely before 2030.
For crossing the 2 °C global mean temperature threshold, for higher GHG emissions scenarios (SSP2-4.5, SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5) the best estimates are all before the year 2050 (i.e. 2046, 2043, and 2039, respectively). Only the lower GHG emissions scenarios (SSP1-1.9 and SSP1-2.6) best estimates are after 2050 (i.e. beyond 2100, and 2064, respectively).
The evidence I see indicates nuclear fission (uranium, uranium/plutonium, thorium/uranium fuel cycles) and nuclear fusion cannot provide any additive meaningful timely contributions to mitigating the climate emergency.
The post above includes:
“CCS is currently operational at large scale at nineteen industrial facilities internationally, including the Gorgon storage project in Western Australia.”
Gorgon CCS apparently still has continuing problems.
From Clark Butler’s report in Jul 2020:
“There isn’t one example of a CCS project anywhere in the world that offers a financial justification for investing in CCS.
In the absence of a carbon price, CCS will never provide a return on investment.”
Click to access CCS-Is-About-Reputation-Not-Economics_July-2020.pdf
And from the ABC:
“…most of Australia’s industry, as well as coal and gas-fired power plants, does not have such convenient geology nearby.
Sequestering emissions from those facilities would involve transporting captured CO2 vast distances before it could be pumped underground.”
IMO, Alan Finkel needs to be less diplomatic about the available timely choices.
Frankly, I think it is pretty inconceivable that the world will reach carbon ‘neutrality’ by 2050 (or 2060 for China) without nuclear being a big part of the solution. The US government seems to recognise this and the US nuclear industry has strong bipartisan support. Check out the share prices of Australia’s listed uranium companies post the Biden election – markets are reacting to Biden’s strong support for nuclear.
The Chinese need more nuclear reactors and are building them. At the moment, only about 5% of China’s electricity generation is from nuclear, which is very low for a nuclear state. The average for those countries that use nuclear is about 20% (France leads the way at 70%). Even Japan is now restarting its nuclear fleet post Fukushima.
I’d love to see the Australian government starting a proper debate about whether Australia should begin to invest in small modular reactors (SMRs).
Finkel has been very effective by being diplomatic, by understanding that different actors have different motivations, and that by being strategic it is possible to even get climate change deniers to sometimes support good policy. Finkel has a lovely line on p.23 when he says ‘When Senator Matt Canavan expressed to me his support for a national hydrogen strategy, his hope may have been that Australia will become a major exporter of this commodity, irrespective of why the world adopts it. The point is that there are many reasons to invest in the low-emissions technology transition, all leading to the desired outcome of reducing emissiong of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.’
And don’t forget that 49 of the 50 recommendations of the National Electricity Market review (the Finkel Review 2017) were accepted. A pretty good hit rate – even though the most important recommendation – the Clean energy target- was dumped.
Andrew: – “Frankly, I think it is pretty inconceivable that the world will reach carbon ‘neutrality’ by 2050 (or 2060 for China) without nuclear being a big part of the solution.”
Perhaps it’s “inconceivable” for you because you are ignorant of the inconvenient facts?
“Carbon ‘neutrality’ by 2050” is too late – see my comment above (at MARCH 22, 2021 AT 6:22 PM) – Evidence I see indicates all coal and fossil gas extraction/combustion globally needs to cease by 2030 as part of mitigation efforts to avoid catastrophic climate change (+3 °C mean global warming or more) later this century.
Nuclear is far too slow to deploy in a timely manner to assist in mitigating catastrophic climate change. Per IAEA document titled “PROJECT MANAGEMENT IN NUCLEAR POWER PLANT CONSTRUCTION: GUIDELINES AND EXPERIENCE”, dated 2012, Fig 8 outlines the typical durations for feasibility, licensing, design and procurement, site preparation, excavation, construction, grid connection, commissioning and startup. Five years allocated for pre-construction processes + six years for project implementation = eleven years total project time. For inexperienced nuclear power countries like Australia, it would probably be 15-20 years from the time a decision was made to proceed to first start-up.
Nuclear is much more expensive compared with renewables + storage.
The status and trends of the international nuclear industry is explored in the detailed document titled “World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2020”. I think the nuclear industry isn’t as rosy as it seems you are suggesting.
Andrew: – “I’d love to see the Australian government starting a proper debate about whether Australia should begin to invest in small modular reactors (SMRs).”
There has already been numerous state and federal nuclear inquiries coming to much the same conclusions – see the latest Australian Parliament Committee report “Not without your approval: a way forward for nuclear technology in Australia”, dated Dec 2019.
Inaction against climate change continues to be the leading characteristic of the “World System”. I continue to hope for, vote for and work for change (in my own very puny way) but I seriously doubt anything substantive will happen. Since humans will not act in any significant way, the earth system itself will limit the human world system. This process has already begun. I might blog about these trends sometime or I might not. Matters have reached the point where having an opinion and expressing it has begun to feel quite pointless.
There is no difficulty in the world getting to net zero by 2050 – with or without nuclear. The problem is the path to get there. We need to have very very rapid reductions in carbon emissions in the next `15 years to have any hope of keeping below a 1.5 degree increase. And unfortunately nuclear can’t help us with that, even if it was economic, which at this stage it’s not. Our hope for salvation really does fundamentally rest with wind and solar, and there we need annual average growth rates in new capacity of over 20% in the next 15 years. That will be hard.
Agreed, John G.. We just need a carbon price — which doesn’t have to be extremely high given the cost of renewables and storage these day — to make sure coal generation is rapidly phased out and aviation and shipping focuses on improving efficiency and reducing emissions. Vehicles need a tax on their purchase price based on their emissions to shift purchases to low and zero emission vehicles. We can rapidly cut emissions and the health benefits from reduced air pollution alone may pay for it.
Note: We don’t NEED a carbon price, as in it’s essential. We could reduce emissions by other means. It’s just that a carbon price is the lowest cost method.
John Goss (re your comments at MARCH 23, 2021 AT 10:25 AM),
JG: – “There is no difficulty in the world getting to net zero by 2050”
Except net zero by 2050 is now far too late, to avoid +3 °C mean global warming.
JG: – “We need to have very very rapid reductions in carbon emissions in the next `15 years to have any hope of keeping below a 1.5 degree increase.”
The evidence I see indicates it’s already too late for “keeping below a 1.5 degree increase”. Yet our political, business and media elites are still talking about keeping below +1.5 °C warming level. For example:
1) UN Secretary-General António Guterres on Mar 2, called the phasing out of coal from the electricity sector “the single most important step to get in line with the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Agreement.”
2) Australian Greens leader Adam Bandt MP, in a Mar 5 RenewEconomy podcast said
(from time interval 30:47):
“What’s going to be our top priority? Our top priority is going to be climate action, and we want…
we think if we can get agreement to working towards a one-and-a-half degree goal, then things
flow backwards from there.”
In 2020, mean global warming reached +1.3 °C (relative to Holocene Epoch pre-industrial age). Mean land temperature was +1.94 °C (3.5 °F). Oceans were just over +1 °C.
No matter what GHG emissions trajectory humanity chooses to take from now on, best modelling estimates indicate the +1.5 °C global mean temperature threshold is likely to be crossed sometime between years 2026 and 2029 inclusive – meaning, likely before 2030.
See my comments above (at MARCH 22, 2021 AT 6:22 PM).
What chance do we/humanity have if the political, business and media elites aren’t up to speed on the climate emergency reality?
JG: – “Our hope for salvation really does fundamentally rest with wind and solar, and there we need annual average growth rates in new capacity of over 20% in the next 15 years. That will be hard.”
IMO, an understatement to be sure.
Media Release 22.03.21 BY CLIMATE COUNCIL
““We must take decisive action this decade to bring climate change under control. Australia must get to net zero emissions well before 2040, and accelerate efforts to shift away from coal and gas to a fully renewables-powered economy,” he (Climate Council spokesperson Professor Will Steffen) said.”
Finkel? Tell him he’s dreaming again. Sweet capitalist dreams of infinite growth.
“Change is in the air. I sense we will live through a technological revolution this decade as exciting as the conquest of space in the 1960s. If Australia handles the challenge well, we can build an economy that takes advantage of the transition. If we cling to the past, we will miss opportunities that the rest of the world will seize.” — Alan Finkel, Getting to Zero – blackincbooks.com.au/books/getting-zero
The 60’s conquest of space is no comparison. Sure there’s the old military motives as always, but now fighting the last war is far less focused than when it was on the space race. The diversion of resources, the capital, the taxation necessary is immensely more. The time allowable is much less. It is not a malleable arbitrarily set political target a decade out, but is one closed off definitively by natural systems. Getting to space was an exercise in physics, exciting, but more a technical evolution than a revolution – the bringing together of various already existing technological know-how and refining systems by trial and error. Regarding an energy transition to renewables and other CO2-free energy sources that’s dreamed of being just around the corner, where is this fantastic revolutionary technology capable of sustaining capitalist infinite growthism? Global resource application utilising already existing technological know-how occurs already at a level comparable to the space race. If such resource application is to satisfactorily succeed then it requires a stupendous increase in the resources diverted to it such that it entails a major global social revolution aligned with the technical evolution necessary. Is that not likely to be beyond diplomacy?
Other than that, maintaining status quo growthism (until other limits impinge) would indeed require a technological energy revolution, but where is this newly discovered field in physics on which to base the expectation?
Physicist Tom Murphy’s newly released freely available textbook, “Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet – Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits” is a great resource written to support a general education college course on energy and the environment. He covers these topics and so much more in detail. On the energy revolutions and counter revolutions try jumping in at “Part IV Going Forward” commencing at page 303, or in the online edition at https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9js5291m#page=322
Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet – Assessing and Adapting to Planetary Limits
– Thomas W. Murphy, Jr. University of California, San Diego
Published by eScholarship, University of California, March 11, 2021.
Part IV Going Forward — page 303
We have layered an artificial world atop the natural one.
Which do you think will stand the test of time?
The sooner we dovetail back to the natural, the greater our chances for success become.
18 Human Factors 304
18.1 Personality 304
18.1.1 Consequences and Coping .307
18.2 Policy vs. Individual Action 309
18.3 The Energy Trap 310
18.4 Fermi Paradox Explained? 312
18.5 Upshot on Humanity 313
18.6 Problems 313
19 A Plan Might Be Welcome316
19.1 No Master Plan 316
19.1.1 The Growth Imperative 318
19.2 No Prospect for a Plan 319
19.2.1 Who Makes the Plan? 321
19.3 Economic Regimes 322
19.3.1 Steady State Economy 324
19.4 Upshot on the Plan 326
19.5 Problems 326
Adaptation Strategies 328
20.1 Awareness 328
20.2 Communication 330
20.2.1 Predicament, not Problems 332
20.3 Guidelines for Adaptation 332
20.3.1 Overall Framing 333
20.3.2 Energy Assessment Rules 334
20.3.3 Quantitative Footprint 337
20.3.4 Dietary Energy 339
20.3.5 Flexitarianism 341
20.3.6 Discretionary Summary 342
20.4 Values Shifts 343
20.5 Flexibility in Uncertainty 344
20.6 Upshot on Strategies 346
20.7 Problems (Predicaments?) 347…
Ronald: “We don’t NEED a carbon price, as in it’s essential.” Not for getting to net zero no. Bit as IEEFA say, you DO need one for net carbon removal – and we are practically certain to overshoot 1.5 deg C of warming, so large-scale sequestration is pretty much a given. Beyond actually having a price, and assurances about its duration, it will be important to have a level playing field on technologies. I would be very surprised if CCS using big chemical engineering can outbid softer biological and geochemical processes like basalt on farmland or ocean dumping of farmed kelp.
The big issue with a lot of CCS methods is probably how much they can scale, rather than what they cost. Chemical CCS would be worthwhile well before $100/tonne. But if you want negative emissions, you need to have a carbon stream from somewhere other than fossil fuels, and biomass is limited. Massive use of biomass tends to conflict with other environmental and social goals.
Basalt looks like it might have fewer scaling issues. Of course, the mass of rock is comparable to the fossil fuel you are trying to cancel, so you have to be OK with a lot more mining.
At the moment I think just spending a lot of money on big pilot programs to try out CCS methods would be far more plausible pathway that a carbon tax. Targeted programs like the initial deployment of wind+solar.
A carbon tax has to be really high to encourage people to deal with the hard problems, but the only way to make it work politically is to start the tax at low levels. Carbon tax is just not good at driving innovation in technology that has to come down the learning curve, and needs a decade or two or development.
But if you want negative emissions,
My vague understanding is that that’s better done by permit auctions. Once we get close to net zero it makes more sense to hard-quantify emissions and manage them directly, more like with do with irrigation water (imagine the Murray-Darling basin if the rule was “we tax you $50/Gl for excess draw”)
That would feed directly off the cost of CCS, because very quickly you’re going to have people who really, really want to create net emissions and really really need to buy the corresponding permits.
It’s depressing that so much of the discussion focuses on financial issues – as if getting the price right would solve the problems. If CCS is needed, and current technologies are not up to it, why not directly fund a range of the most promising candidates, test outcomes (including side-effects) and then implement? It’s what has worked in the past for similar issues and, as long as the funding is adequate and ongoing, will work here – without opening the way to all sorts of Wall St trickery, siphoning and so on.
Offering life insurance to the crew will not ensure the Titanic arrives safely.
I remain very doubtful CCS is scalable – 2 to 3 tons of CO2 per ton of fossil fuels makes it unlikely to ever be cost effective. If it can be done with LESS infrastructure and cost than burning the fuel does I will be very surprise. And any guarantees the stuff will stay where it is put for multi-centuries should be taken with a grain of salt.
So far the principle use of CCS is enhanced oil and gas recovery, that increases overall global emissions. I think any emissions reductions support for doing that is reprehensible – and that is mostly a consequence of excess political influence that diverts funding from actual emissions reductions..
Actual and significant emissions reductions are coming from solar, wind and batteries. I think if batteries with double the energy density can be mass produced then the shift to electric road transport will be unstoppable. Triple and air transport will follow. But just halving the cost one more time, even as they are – something that happened 4 times just in the last decade, even before battery R&D hit ludicrous mode – will make mass increase of solar and wind unstoppable too.
Australia is running at near 20 times more battery take-up than was predicted only 4 years ago. I suspect some of the installation of Big Batteries was simply to get a quick fix when longer term planning has become more difficult due to lack of clear policy colliding with growing awareness of corporate responsibility that undercuts the automatic support for fossil fuels that Morrison’s pro fossil fuel cabinet counted as certain.
Nuclear? Cost is too high and the need for nuclear specific legislation and regulation is never going to go away; the potential for diversion to military nuclear of materials, equipment and expertise remains and then there is how much it costs when it goes wrong. It cannot ever be “just another energy source”.
And until and unless Right-Conservative politics takes up zero emissions goals with real vigor any emerging Australian nuclear power industry cannot even rely on the parts of mainstream politics that LIKE nuclear. They sure can’t expect The Greens to do it for them. Even The Nationals under Barnaby Joyce never had a climate policy with nuclear – too much like having a climate policy. Just complaints that people who ARE concerned about it do not.
Ironically, should the LNP take up the climate issue they will not be able to rely on their unexamined belief that nuclear is a fix all, low cost solution. They will find that solar, wind and batteries are better options.
James: Well, the Soviet Union did drive the Nazi war machine/livestock all the way back to Berlin without an efficient price setting mechanism. Come of think of it, no country involved in the conflict had one. Just look what happened to black ammunition loaders in the US when they went on strike for safer conditions.
Anyway, we could pass a law requiring states to bury x amount of charcoal in order to receive their share of GST (Goods & Service Tax). Not as good a choice as just having a carbon price to sequester CO2 but it would still work.
mrkenfabian: I guess pretty much everyone here (and Finkel) agrees that CCS is not a sensible way to decarbonise the electricity system. But it provides a pathway to net-negative emissions technology, and a niche role for industrial processes that inherently emit CO2 (e.g. cement production).
Capturing CO2 in aggregates that are needed for building materials seems promising, since it doesn’t involve any extra mining, and the storage is chemical, so it should work well in the long term. Or using these minerals as fertilisers on farms as James W was suggesting.
On the other hand indeed the main ‘use’ for it at the moment is to allow the fossil industry to pretend that their existence is compatible with a net-zero world. At the simplest level, just saying “keep it in the ground” is a perfectly reasonable position.
Moz: really I should have said ‘carbon price’ rather than tax. Whether you auction permits or have a tax, there is an effective price, and you face the same kind of issues setting the price.
Ben, to my mind permits mean the holy market sets the price, and more importantly someone manufacturing permits won’t sell them at an aggregate loss (much as electricity now – especially fast response plants just shut down if they can’t make a profit in a given auction). So as long as the regulation is accurate (a big ask!) it wouldn’t be possible to have the current artificially low price without direct subsidies from the government.
Well, the EU carbon price is ‘set by the market’ but for a long time been too low to promote the kinds of long-term things needed for getting close to net-zero.
E.g. it is high enough now (40€) to force coal-to-gas switching, but that isn’t exactly transformative long-term change. Also, it isn’t broad enough, but that is a different issue.
That’s because Europe is deliberately issuing enough permits to boil us all alive. If they issued net zero quantity of permits that price would change.
Right, so the ‘alternative’ is tighter permitting, that would lead to a 100€ or higher price that is politically impossible…
The problem is really the politics, not ‘tax vs. permits’.
Ronald: A hard socialist scheme for carbon sequestration is certainly possible. If it’s run by the ghost of Kantorovich, it would have an implicit carbon removal price. What doesn’t work is anarcho-capitalist wishful thinking about magic technological fixes. Sequestration has to be paid for.
Andrew. No, we don’t need need more debate about an imaginary nuclear option. We have wasted far too much time, highly skilled labour and political effort on this no-hoper already. If the SMR people come up with a scaleable, safe and cheap design, they should get a hearing, but PR does not deserve one. Meanwhile let’s concentrate on stuff that works: wind, solar, batteries, EVs, pumped storage, smart grids, HVDC transmission, efficiency. They will together do the job (see Jacobson and a dozen other energy modellers). Green hydrogen is worth having for ironmaking and fertiliser, so if promoters want to spend money on hydrogen or ammonia as a broader energy carrier, fine. The unsolved headaches – cement. aviation, sequestration – can’t be helped by nuclear power at all.
“I would be very surprised if CCS using big chemical engineering can outbid softer biological and geochemical processes like basalt on farmland or ocean dumping of farmed kelp.”
Maybe we can sequester CO2 using agricultural methods for around $70 a tonne here in South Australia while using big machines to remove it from the air and then sequester it might — at a very rough estimate — be around $400 a tonne.
Finkel (and most everyone else) are largely not talking about ‘direct air capture’, which indeed looks expensive.
Some of the industrial processes produce pure streams of CO2, which makes the capture costs pretty low. Whether storage is expensive/works long enough/scales is another question.