That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story (republished with a slightly different title in The Canberra Times). It draws on a shorter summary I published here. Read it at Inside Story, and comment here.
That’s the title of my latest piece in Inside Story (republished with a slightly different title in The Canberra Times). It draws on a shorter summary I published here. Read it at Inside Story, and comment here.
15 thoughts on “Finkel’s road to zero”
Hopefully we can get there – but we need help from the Chinese. An interesting report from the ‘Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA)’ was released today. The report is called ‘Boom and Bust 2021 Tracking the Global Coal Plant Pipeline’.
Click to access BoomAndBust_2021_final.pdf
The good news is that the world ex-China is reducing its reliance on coal for electricity generation. The bad news is that China is more than offsetting the reduction and total coal fired power stations actually increased last year.
The opening statement from the report reads;
A steep increase in coal plant development in China offset a retreat from coal in the rest of the world in 2020, resulting in the first increase in global coal capacity development since 2015. A record-tying 37.8 gigawatts (GW) of coal plants were retired in 2020, led by the U.S. with 11.3 GW and EU27 with 10.1 GW, but these retirements were eclipsed by China’s 38.4 GW of new coal plants. China commissioned 76% of the world’s new coal plants in 2020, up from 64% in 2019, driving a 12.5 GW increase in the global coal fleet in 2020.
The most recent update to the Chinese five year plan was under-whelming in terms of non-carbon emitting power generation. The country has committed to being carbon neutral by 2060 – but there is no clear path to get there. China will probably need to significantly increase its investment in nuclear reactor capacity to meet its targets.
Andrew: – “Hopefully we can get there…”
Posted yesterday at NOAA Research News was an article headlined “Despite pandemic shutdowns, carbon dioxide and methane surged in 2020”, that included:
“The atmospheric burden of CO2 is now comparable to where it was during the Mid-Pliocene Warm Period around 3.6 million years ago, when concentrations of carbon dioxide ranged from about 380 to 450 parts per million. During that time sea level was about 78 feet higher than today, the average temperature was 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher than in pre-industrial times, and studies indicate large forests occupied areas of the Arctic that are now tundra.”
78 feet = 23.77 m
7 °F warmer = 3.9 °C warmer
Atmospheric carbon drawdown is now essential to return the Earth System to a more hospitable environment for humanity. But first, we/humanity need to get our GHG emissions down fast!
Andrew, I share the concern at continuing growth of coal use by China, however I also see continuing rapid growth of renewable energy there. My understanding is that more new electricity capacity coming on line is renewable than new coal – which gives an indication of how much growth in energy is going on there. Them still building coal should not be Australia’s excuse and justification for reduced ambition – but that kind of hypocritical politicking is still going on.
I think they, like Australia, will be finding the cost effectiveness and short build times of renewables to be compelling. Whether there is bureaucratic inertia in China that will slow that shift – that prefers the certainties of doing what it knows – I don’t know, but I do expect that will change.
Global capacity of installed solar energy has been growing at over 40% per year and China makes most of the solar panels; whilst their emissions count globally, so do their contributions to the transition to low emissions count globally. China has a lot to gain by increasing their commitment to zero emissions, including as the leading manufacturers and exporters of the equipment needed to do it.
A global political climate that has greater commitment will be key to inducing China to be more ambitious – and perhaps with US under Biden that may happen.
“Atmospheric carbon drawdown is now essential to return the Earth System to a more hospitable environment for humanity. But first, we/humanity need to get our GHG emissions down fast!” – Geoff Miell says: APRIL 8, 2021 AT 10:00 AM
So said: Google’s RE<C in 2011, James Hansen in 2008 – 11, &etc…
We individually and en masse need to power down! We need to completely cut burning fossil fuels immediately, ie. yesterday. Renewables need to power their own growth – if they can without fossil or nuclear inputs. All existing nuclear plant in operation should from now on only power direct air CO2 capture to the max until we are brought back to a climate safe concentration of atmospheric ghg.
Hansen in 2018 (and below):
The last thing we should talk about (it’s not)
David J C MacKay, Monday, June 2, 2008
Endorsements by American academics
Notably this by Tom Murphy*, Associate Professor of Physics, UC San Diego:
Cost of Carbon Capture:
Can Young People Bear the Burden?
James Hansen and Pushker Kharecha
Joule 2, 1405–1406, August 15, 2018 © 2018 Published by Elsevier Inc
Click to access 20180816_Hansen.CostOfCarbonCapture.Joule.pdf
*Murphy, T. W. (2021). Energy and Human Ambitions on a Finite Planet. Location: eScholarship. http://dx.doi.org/10.21221/S2978-0-578-86717-5 Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9js5291m
Svante – James Hansen urged frugality, immediate cessation of fossil fuel burning, including for production of renewable energy was essential. and a massive build of nuclear… that has not happened. Clearly that was NEVER going to happen.
I expect as someone who knows more about the potential or rather, the near certain likelihood for global climate catastrophe Hansen felt it deserved an emergency response that mobilised whole economies in ways like they had during WW2.
He wanted massive expansion of nuclear energy, but it failed to be promoted and supported by mainstream politics in any consistent and committed way, let alone by environmentalists – which, as the loudest voices, sometimes the only voice on the climate issue outside of science – were somehow supposed to abandon their distrust and hostility and lead mainstream politics around to supporting nuclear, in some sort of “See, Environmentalists support nuclear so we can too” scenario, that too, was never going to happen. Not Greens turning around and supporting it, not mainstream politics committing to it… especially not on the basis of what The Greens say or do.
If the LNP in Australia really believed going nuclear was the best option it would be their policy – and would have been for at least the past 2 decades. Vote loser? Even that is not as certain as they like to make out; the willingness of the LNP to back down and not follow through indicates a lack of commitment, not strength of opposition. I think opposition to nuclear is indeed widespread, but mostly it is not that deep; had the climate problem’s seriousness been promoted heavily on a non-partisan basis I think it would have been politically possible and acceptable – the Green-Left and RE could have been sidelined by clear committed leadership. I saw Left opposition diminish in the face of the emerging climate problem. But promoting Doubt, Deny Delay to protect fossil fuels remains incompatible with promoting nuclear.
“…renewable energies, with almost unlimited subsidies through renewable portfolio standards…”
Was it ever “almost unlimited”? I seems like it mostly came out of existing government revenues, without new taxes in most cases, ie done at the expense of some other government expenditure. It has been hyped as endless subsidy – but I think the real endless subsidy is the de-facto amnesty on the externalised climate costs of fossil fuel burning.
Seems like the bottom line was always that emissions reductions must not cost more than NOT taking action. I can understand how, ten and more years ago the costs of renewables were seen by Hansen as prohibitive but I am much less pessimistic about RE, given the cost trends. I think RE should be pushed as far and as fast as we can, but it does not rule out greater use of nuclear – but I do think nuclear absolutely requires the end of Doubt, Deny, Delay politics. RE can survive climate science denial by captains of commerce and industry and FF protectionism but nuclear cannot.
mrkenfabian & Svante…
It seems few technologies and only renewables in generation, have a positive constant long term learning / experience rate. ymmv.
Another tool to highlight renewables constantly dropping in price and gaining net energy measures, and inherently outperforming fossil / nuclear.
“A review of learning rates for electricity supply technologies
…” This uncertainty in learning rates, together with other limitations of current learning curve formulations, suggests the need for much more careful and systematic examination of the influence of how different factors and assumptions affect policy-relevant outcomes related to the future choice and cost of electricity supply and other energy technologies.’
Above referenced here;
“Why did renewables become so cheap so fast? And what can we do to use this global opportunity for green growth?”
“Swanson’s law is the observation that the price of solar photovoltaic modules tends to drop 20 percent for every doubling of cumulative shipped volume. At present rates, costs go down 75% about every 10 years.”
Critisism of experience curve effects:
“Attempts to use the learning curve effect to improve competitive advantage, for instance by pre-emptively expanding production have been criticized, with factors such as bounded rationality and durable products cited as reasons for this.
“The well travelled road effect may lead people [who?] to overestimate the effect of the experience curve.”
Rereading MacKay’s book a decade later is an interesting exercise. First, the ‘problem’ of inadequate renewable power density in the UK, which is the main arc of the narrative, is irrelevant for Australia. Second, MacKay was pretty clearly too pessimistic about offshore wind.
The large increase in primary energy usage he was suggesting doesn’t look like coming to pass either. Taught a lot of people useful things about energy though. One legacy of this work is:
For most people, the discussion has moved on in the last couple of decades.
Never been any shortage of studies of why renewables can’t ever work at reasonable cost – that have turned out very wrong already. Studies that offered no clear alternate pathway, but rather, have been thick with Doubt and Delay, just with the Deny muted.
That we do not know how all the challenges might be met to get to zero emissions seems like stating the obvious – but it is not any kind of valid reason not to commit to it. How much it will cost? Who really knows? But that is also true of a fossil fuel future – which can only look better with a strong element of Deny, whether sincere or not (not sure which is worse), that discounts the climate costs. It certainly appears like the expert advice (based on global warming being true, and neither at the low or high range for climate sensitivity, ie might turn out better, but might still turn out worse), supports the conclusion that the fossil fuel option will cost a LOT more than pretty much ANY other options.
mrkenfabian: “Clearly that was NEVER going to happen.”
– Well, as Steve Keen has recently shown us so clearly, that is mainly due to thirty years of mainstream economics input on climate change matters being taken seriously by economists themselves, and others, In particular, its being taken seriously by national and international agencies, such as the IPCC, set up specifically to address climate change, and other agencies such as the IEA, not to mention the now risable Nobel Prize committee.
Most kids after struggling with denial, magical thinking, and concrete reality learn they can’t have their cake and eat it too! It takes kids three or four years to learn that economics lesson in opportunity costs supportive of future life. If it took three or four decades to learn there’d have been no evolutionary line to holocene homo sapiens. However sad, the current exception seems set to prove the rule with the natural experiment about to end the hominid family lines of evolution because human nature, apparent as it is against nature, compels humans to believe and act like they can have their cake and eat it.
“Hansen felt it deserved an emergency response…”
– “Felt”? More like “feels”. Sure he said it in the ancient past, all of some thirteen or so years ago, but the above publication is from 2018 and any updates of earlier publications linked from his website, some made this year already, show that the situation has only changed for the worse since 2008 or so and at increasing rates.
“He wanted massive expansion of nuclear energy”
– Nuclear arguments being such a mess of rabbit holes is why I suggest that at least whilst remaining operational the nuclear power plants in existence should be wholly committed to the task of scrubbing the atmosphere of excess CO2. Why shut those in existence when for their remaining life times they can be put to such good use? I suspect arguments for expansion into new nuclear plant may spring from the same vein of malappropriate hope as child-like arguments for having one’s cake and eating it do.
“If the LNP in Australia really believed going nuclear was the best option it would be their policy”
– LNP policies belong to the highest bidder. Regarding climate policy the owners are big coal and gas.
– Their policies belong to the highest bidders too. Regarding climate policy the owner is magical thinking. Adequate climate policy there is trumped and undone by bidders for other conflicting policies.
“…renewable energies … almost unlimited subsidies .. Was it ever “almost unlimited”?”
Ask Elon, for one, about the funny money. About other funny money and the real world, look to the fossil and nuclear fueled energy subsidies required to build RE!
“Seems like the bottom line was always that emissions reductions must not cost more than NOT taking action.”
– Funny money again. See Steve Keen again for how the mainstream economics profession got away with faking it on climate destruction for thirty years. Where is it now? Still making out with conucopian arguments that unlimited amounts of cake can be had and eaten too.
“I can understand how, ten and more years ago the costs of renewables were seen by Hansen as prohibitive but I am much less pessimistic about RE, given the cost trends.”
– Financial costs have decreased due to relatively small technical improvements, but mainly due to large increases in global production economies of scale underwritten by large increases in global fossil and nuclear fueled power production. That and government policies, and low interest rates driving a RE financial boom/bubble and the consequent FOMO. The up front financial costs of a sufficiently rapid switch to a sufficiently large enough amount of RE to have any chance against anthropomorphic climate destruction whilst maintaining status quo desired living standards are so high that it is unlikely that enough pollies in enough countries will ever try it on before it is way too late. The physical energetic costs of RE self powered growth and maintenance are at best uncertain even at much lower levels of power consumption additional to those required by RE itself. Depowering society could be an almost certain solution, but opposing that are human nature, child-like cake eater thinking, and the consequent political barriers.
“RE can survive climate science denial by captains of commerce and industry and FF protectionism but nuclear cannot.”
– On the path humanity is set on there can be little doubt that nuclear power’s day will come one way or another. If it must be, it is better resorted to first in some forms than others, but if desperately resorted to in panic too late on the path it may well be that latter application of last resorts.
” First, the ‘problem’ of inadequate renewable power density in the UK, which is the main arc of the narrative, is irrelevant for Australia.”
– That Australian irrelevancy needs some explaining. Does it hold for, say, the Sahara? Anyway, Mackay’s context for presenting the basic physics and numbers is primarily that of the UK as his case in point whilst drawing somewhat on wider European data. And in any event it is a global ‘problem’ of the personal which I suspect you miss in that context why MacKay placed much emphasis on personal consumption of energy.
“For most people, the discussion has moved on in the last couple of decades.”
Yes, yet as the output and consumption of hopium increases the situation degenerates faster and further. It still remains about the last thing ‘most people’ discuss. The basic physics that ~250kWh of energy is required to capture 1 ton of CO2 from air hasn’t changed. Proven small scale COs DAC technology costs at best about $100/t now. Per person CO2 emissions are around 10t/yr now and still significantly rapidly increasing. Personal atmospheric scrubbing would cost about $1000/yr now.. Per person there is an existing inheritance of, say, 100 years worth of CO2 emissions amounting to about $100,000.
For Australia now: $100,000*25,729,274=$2,572,927,400,000! But how many will/can pay, and pay on time?
For the world now: $100,000*7,858,716,500=$785,871,650,000,000! Ditto.
Costs of doing something with the captured CO2 are extra! Add those to the additional ongoing costs of removal of yearly increasing global CO2 emissions for another decade or two at least.
And add that to the uncertainty, and stupendous up front costs of displacing fossils with RE in time to avoid global climate disaster.
How many will/can/should pay, and pay on time?
KT2: ““Why did renewables become so cheap so fast? And what can we do to use this global opportunity for green growth?” ..,ourworldindata.org/cheap-renewables-growth”
Note they cover and show learning curves for some past 63 years of developments, capacity growth, and prices, but not the preceding 63 years for fossil fueled electricity generation, nor for nuclear. Interesting.
Note that this hopium does not accord with their graphed data for electricity pricing:
Sure, some RE electricity prices decreased too, but by significantly less. Why?
There are plenty of such curves and plenty of reasons behind them, but physical laws set the ultimate limits.
I think using fossil fuels to make RE may be the best of possible uses for them. Certainly better than continuing to use them WITHOUT making RE. Or worse, excluding the making of RE using any modern technological resources, them all having FF input. Because there are embedded emissions, for the sake of ideological or other purity? Stuff that. It has been and is going to be compromises all along the way but THAT one’s a no brainer.
The hypocrisy is being in the relevant Government Offices with the responsibility and yet practicing, encouraging or just tolerating climate science denial and Doubt, Deny, Delay politics, the politics that entrenched the “must not cost more than not reducing emissions” bottom line that puts a low cap on climate ambition, along with it’s corollary, “must not raise taxes”. Especially not Carbon Taxes, ie the policy that seems likely to work best of all.
Ordinary people – or activist people – asking for a coordinated, ramping response without going stone age to prove the problem everyone that matters knows is serious… is hypocritical somehow? The people in the Offices that matter have full access to reliable expert based knowledge and access to other experts capable on checking their veracity, all telling the same consistent story, yet are encouraging the view that if people who care don’t go stone age the problem shouldn’t be taken seriously. As if people fanatic enough to go stone age would ever be taken seriously anyway.
When the energy sources used by manufacturing are zero emissions the embedded energy in them will be zero emissions and that requirement to work towards zero emissions applies across ALL manufacturing – without RE manufacturing being singled out. Making batteries and solar in Tasmania for example or South Australia – or just using power from there – would embed less than with PPA with a coal generator. As the proportion of RE grows it goes down. Carbon pricing is the policy solution that doesn’t stifle Renewable for being imperfect or allow fossil fuels to capitalise on incumbency but that is excluded by the “must not raise taxes” provision.
I think there is cause for cautious optimism. The bits that currently RE can’t do or only do yet at demonstration scale – Hydrogen with RE, Iron and Steel with Hydrogen are things I think the relevant industries almost certainly can do – but won’t as long as they aren’t required to and mostly they aren’t. Which leaves doing so only where is cheaper than making Hydrogen and Steel with fossil fuels. Which cannot happen without support during development, ie whilst being more expensive. And that won’t happen with idiotic “must not use any fossil fuel inputs” requirements.
Mention was made above to Hansen and WW2: “…an emergency response that mobilised whole economies in ways like they had during WW2.” – Economies are made of people. Mention needs be made of the personal efforts, sacrifice, deprivation, and rationing restrictions ordinary people mostly understood that they as individuals had to endure on the home fronts of WW2. They generally accepted they could not carry on with life as before and have any chance of winning that war. They understood they couldn’t have their cake and eat it.
“Carbon pricing is the policy solution that doesn’t stifle Renewable” – How so if it also increases their price due to embedded emissions? And when does the consequent potential bottleneck occur where shrinking energy availability stifles renewables.
“idiotic “must not use any fossil fuel inputs” requirements” – Apart from any strawmen, ok, down to brass tacks then…
How much? How much further compounding CO2 emissions are allowable, and where? And how is it all funded? That is financially funded with everyday life carrying on as we know it, and apart from fossil fuel covering the stupendous energetic budget of the switch and the uncertainty that RE energetics can maintain itself let alone maintain life as we know it? Not forgetting the building levels of ghg in the atmosphere and the uncertain looming thresholds of natural climate tipping points, how fast can it be safely accomplished? Think of that as England after Dunkirk, Australia after Singapore, or “qu’ils mangent de la brioche” as seems you are wont to do.
In the YouTube video titled “Climate Emergency: Is 1.5º really safe?”, duration 45:36, from time interval 23:11, David Spratt presents a table of military spending from 1939-44, in terms of military outlays as a percentage of national income:
USA: _ _ _1% (1939) _ _ 2% (1940) _ _ 11% (1941) _ _ 31% (1942) _ _ 42% (1943) _ _ 42% (1944)
UK: _ _ _ 15% (1939) _ _44% (1940) _ _53% (1941) _ _ 53% (1942) _ _ 55% (1943) _ _ 54% (1944)
Germany: 23% (1939) _ _40% (1940) _ _52% (1941)_ _ 64% (1942) _ _ 70% (1943) _ _ N/A (1944)
Japan: _ _22% (1939) _ _22% (1940) _ _27% (1941)_ _ 33% (1942) _ _ 43% (1943) _ _ 76% (1944)
David Spratt poses the question:
“If we moved this fast to build a global machine to kill people, why can’t we move this fast so that the climate crisis doesn’t kill a lot more?”
A question to put to politicians.
Svante – Even a massive nuclear build depends on starting with and using fossil fuels until nuclear energy can replace the inputs that fossil fuels provide.
Fossil fuels make other energy types possible, including ones that can supplant and replace them and can get kudos for that. Past some tipping point it becomes fossil fuel compounding clean energy (coal power making solar panels) and further along, past another tipping point it becomes clean energy compounding clean energy (solar power making solar panels); that we have continued global growth of energy use put that crossover point a lot further back but than hypothetical hard emissions policy that curtails it – that was never going to happen. I don’t see how clean energy growth, before RE or nuclear has sufficient scale to displace fossil fuels, that it could ever be at all. Without the RE revolution I think we would be in a far worse position going forward.
Svante, I don’t see that you have any alternate and superior course to suggest and frankly, find the “hypocritical” criticisms for advocating ramping economy wide change to energy supply whilst using existing supply… hypocritical and offensive. (Not specifically reacting to your comments, but to that Doubt, Deny, Delay meme they echo). In any case I am NOT of the view that personal responsibility and lifestyle change is or was ever capable of solving this problem; it is an economy and society wide problem that only can get solved with massive growth of clean energy, so that when all the energy is clean energy even extravagantly wasteful lifestyles of people who do not care will be low emissions. Leaving it to those who care… prompted support for solar and wind as gesture politics with a strong undercurrent of give em enough rope. Now we get “Not like that”. Not good enough.
Geoff, if we are aiming for climate recovery, ie drawing down CO2 levels, not just stopping emissions, we may still require that level of all out commitment. But I don’t see that as something we have the political competence – here or elsewhere – to agree to or manage that. Let alone Will.
Getting to zero emissions but stopping short of deploying CO2 drawdown at least leaves us some ocean uptake to bring levels down… if we can do that before carbon feedbacks grow too large. Any optimism is for RE getting cheaper still, enough that a transition away from FF’s becomes unstoppable and that resistance to climate action diminishes.
I did have some hopes that the successes of RE would feed greater willingness to commit to strong climate policies but unfortunately I see lowering of ambition, like it isn’t so necessary, which I think is way wrong. I think we are seeing opponents of strong policy committing to greater use of RE, but that is not the same thing, but it is another tipping point.