Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger’s “apology essay” is the last gasp of “ecomodernism”

Although ecomodernists make a lot of claims, the only one that is distinctive is that nuclear power is the zero-carbon “baseload” energy source needed to replace coal, and that mainstream environmentalists have wrongly opposed it.

Historically, there is something to this. It would have been better to keep on building nuclear plants in the 1980s and 1990s than to switch from oil to coal, and it was silly for Germany to shut down nuclear power before coal

. But none of that is relevant anymore, at least in the developed world. Solar PV and wind, backed up storage are far cheaper than either nuclear or coal. As a result, there have been very few new coal or nuclear plants constructed in developed countries in recent years.

Several countries (Belgium, Austria, Sweden) are already coal-free and most developed countries will be by 2030. So, ecomodernism is obsolete.

At this point, Shellenberger is faced with the choice between admitting that the mainstream environmentalists were right or explicitly going over to the other side. He has chosen the latter.

(From Twitter using Spooler)

Adani news, June 2020


Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the climate crisis rolls on, slowed a bit by the economic impact of travel restrictions. The campaign to stop carbon dioxide emissions, including those from the Adani Carmichael project, has to continue as well.

It’s now almost a year since Adani Mining gained the final environmental approvals for the construction of the Carmichael mine and rail project. At the time, the company promised to ramp up construction in a matter of weeks, with at least 1500 jobs in prospect during the construction phase. What has happened in the subsequent year. Three points stand out

First, the project is proceeding, but it can still be stopped. Work on the site continues and contracts said to total $1 billion have been announced. Nevertheless, the progress so far has been much less than might be expected if, as announced, the mine is to be exporting coal by next year.

Second, in global terms, the news for thermal coal has been remorselessly bad.  Demand for coal-fired power has crashed in many countries, closures and cancellations have been announced regularly and major corporations and financial institutions have divested their assets
Finally, there is still no sign of the promised jobs bonanza.

What is happening on the site?

A number of recent announcements suggest substantial progress. The most notable are
* A $350 million contract with BMD for the construction of the rail line, including rail camps and other works, for a total of more than $1 billion in contracts.
* The completion of an airstrip permitting Fly In Fly Out (FIFO) operations
* Completion of the first of three camps for workers to construct the railway

However, throughout the long and troubled history of the project, Adani has made announcements of progress that turn out to be overstated.  For example, the claim that more than $1 billion in contracts have been issued repeats an earlier claim. Many previously announced contracts with Downer EDI, Kepco and other large companies have come to nothing.

The airstrip (pictured here) was macadamized in March, and is nothing like the $35 million airport Adani initially proposed to build, to be financed by Townsville and Rockhampton city councils. It’s unclear whether it would be suitable for the large planes that would be needed for a FIFO operation with 1500 workers as claimed.  

The contract for the construction of rail camps was announced in November 2019.  The construction of one camp in the subsequent seven months is much less progress than might be expected for a rail line that is supposed to be operational next year. Satellite imagery suggests modest progress at best beyond this development, though even this is sufficient to cause substantial damage to the local environment.

Meanwhile the coronavirus is said to have cost Gautam Adani $1.5 billion of his $9.2 billion fortune, which raises the question of whether he can afford to sink $2 billion into a project that seems unlikely to generate any significant cash flow at current coal prices (see below)


Much of the loss has come from a decline in the share price of Adani Power, the presumed customer for Carmichael coal. The Adani group has proposed to delist the company, repurchasing all its shares, a transaction that has been highly controversial in India


Overall, it is clear that the project is moving forward slowly. But, it still appears possible that Adani can be stopped by a combination of the global decline in thermal coal and continued pressure on every aspect of the production chain, from insurance and finance, through the construction of the mine and rail line, the financing of the Abbot Point coal port and the cronyism surrounding Adani Power’s dealings in India and Bangladesh.



An important example emerged recently with the exposure of a number of insurance companies that have outstanding contracts with Adani, negotiated through broker Marsh (a disgusted Marsh employee leaked the info).  Most of these contracts are nearly expired, and Adani will need either to renew them (some of the companies have said this won’t happen) or look elsewhere, such as to US company AIG, which still has no serious climate policy. You can take action here https://www.marketforces.org.au/liberty-mutual-hdi-talanx-and-aspen-revealed-as-adanis-insurers/  and here https://www.marketforces.org.au/adani-could-be-doing-an-insurance-deal-with-lloyds-canopius-and-axis-capital/


The global decline of thermal coal



In the year since Adani got its approval, the global outlook for thermal coal has worsened, steadily at first, and then rapidly in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. In most of Europe and the Americas, coal-fired power is disappearing fast.  Sweden and Austria closed their last coal-fired power plants earlier this year, and most EU countries have committed to a phase-out by 2030 (in many cases, by 2025). In the US, renewables now generate more electricity than thermal coal, which is likely to account for no more than 10 per cent of generation by 2030, while Canada has promised a complete phase-out.  

Although China has continued to develop and finance coal projects, other Asian countries, most notably Korea, have gone the other way.  In India, it is already clear that solar PV, even with firming is cheaper than new coal. Most Indian electricity generators, including Adani, are moving in this direction, even as Adani pushes ahead with projects that rely on political connections to secure an above-market prices.

The rise of renewable energy has been reflected in a sharp decline in the market price of thermal coal, which has fallen 40 per cent since the revised version of the Adani project was announced in November 2018



Jobs



The central claim made in support of the Carmichael project is that it will generate large numbers of jobs. All sorts of numbers have been bandied about, but the current claim is that the construction phase of the project will generate 1500 direct jobs and many more indirect jobs. A year after the final approvals, and halfway to the announced date for shipping the first coal, there is no sign of these jobs.



Adani’s own jobs portal is currently advertising only a handful of jobs with the company. The “Carmichael jobs” website which includes ads from contractors such as Martinus rail, as well as Adani itself, has advertised less than 30 jobs in the last month. Adani is currently claiming that there are 500 workers on the project, a number that is almost certainly overstated.







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A pre-pandemic energy policy

The government has released a report on energy policy it commissioned from former Origin Energy boss Grant King. I prepared a brief response for the Australian media science centre

The government’s thinking remains five to ten years behind the times.  Although the idea of new coal-fired power stations seems finally to have been abandoned, the report focuses heavily on technology options that seemed promising in the past but have now been abandoned everywhere in the developed world, such as nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration. More important is the failure to recognise that gas-fired electricity generation is increasingly being supplanted by the combination of renewables and battery storage. The policy remains fixated on extractible resources such as coal and gas, ignoring our massive endowment of solar and wind resources.

The more fundamental problem is that the approach to climate policy that underlies all of this is the same as the denialist approach to the pandemic, exemplified by Trump – since dealing with impending disaster will be inconvenient, let’s just keep ignoring it. After all, it might never happen.

Getting off coal: Orderly exit or last-minute stampede

I’m one of 10 000 Australian academics who signed an open letter to Unisuper (our industry superannuation fund) calling for a policy of divestment from carbon-based fuels. The first step in such a policy has to be divestment from thermal coal. Purely on fiduciary grounds, getting out of thermal coal is now a matter of cashing out before the assets are completely unsaleable. Just in the last week, here’s a list of investors, ranging from small institutions to financial giants that have made announcements along these lines

  • JP Morgan
  • Moody’s (saying that insurance companies should divest to reduce climate litigation risk)
  • The Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • The Jesuit Order in the UK
  • Creighton University (Jesuit University in the US)
  • Bristol University (UK)
  • Danish pension fund APG (selling its holding in KEPC)

That’s certainly a partial list, indicating that divestment decisions are now being announced on a daily basis, with many more happening quietly.

As the Wall Street Journal reported today, the exodus has reached the point where many coal companies have only a handful of institutional shareholders. These institutions, are too put it mildly, exposed to a lot of risk. And, for any other investors, a divestment decision by one of the remaining institutional shareholders would imply a big drop in the share price and therefore a capital loss.

Part of this flight is the toxic reputational risk associated with coal. As coal industry magazine CoalZoom has observed, reporting a study by Alva Group the bushfire catastrophe has had a huge impact in this respect to the point that

public awareness and a latent activist momentum which may only take one more high-profile incident to trigger concerted action have been built.

Sooner or later (as Moody’s notes above) that concerted action will include attempts to recover the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions first from emitters, and then from their financiers and insurers.

Baristas and coal miners: apples and oranges

ABC Fact Check has a piece looking at a claim by the Young Greens that “making lattes provides more Australian jobs than the entire coal industry.” The detail of the tweet included the claim that there were 86000 barista jobs compared to 52000 in the coal mining industry

The Fact Check Unit observed that the quoted firgure is for total employment in the cafe industry, not just barista. By comparing an estimate of the number of baristas to total employment in coal mining, the Fact Check Unit concludes that the claim is Incorrect.

There is an apples and oranges problem here. There are two reasonable ways to do this comparison

(a) Treat “barista” as shorthand for “someone who works in a coffee shop”. Then compare employment in the coffee shop sector, including “permanent, part-time, temporary and casual employees, working proprietors, partners, managers and executives within the industry” with employment in the coal mining sector, including managerial, professional and clerical staff, general trades workers and others.

(b) Define “baristas” to refer to the occupation of making coffee, and “coal miners” to refer to the occupation of “Drillers, Miners and Shot Firers”, that is, people whose occupation is extracting coal from the ground. Based on the proportion for mining as a whole, the latter is about 20 per cent of total employment in the mining industry.


Either approach, applied consistently, would imply that there are more baristas than coal miners. The fact check uses the first, broader definition for miners and the second narrower one for baristas. This is an apples and oranges comparison, and should be corrected.

The worst case is happening

A couple of years ago, I published an article on why “extremely unlikely” climate events matter. The central point was that climate outcomes with a probability of 5 per cent or less (“extremely unlikely” in IPCC terminology) were still much more likely than risks we take seriously in our daily life, like dying in a car crash). As an illustration, at the time the piece was written, it seemed less than 5 per cent probable that, within two years, many countries in the world (including Australia) would see catastrophic fires on the scale of those that have actually happened.

I made this point in an interview for an ABC story on economists’ views of the likely costs of 3 to 4 degrees of climate change. Most of those interviewed agreed with me that the costs were likely to be much higher than suggested by economics Nobelist William Nordhaus (with whom John Horowitz and I had a debate in the American Economic Review quite a while ago). We pointed out, among other problems, that a paper he had co-authored implied an optimal July temperature of -146 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nordhaus declined an interview, but his viewpoint was represented by Richard Tol. Longstanding readers will remember Tol as a commenter here who eventually wore out his welcome.

The other point I made in the interview was that the abstruse debate about discount rates central to much of the debate between Nordhaus and Nicholas Stern has turned out to be largely irrelevant. The premise of that debate was that the costs of unmitigated climate change would be felt decades into the future while the costs of mitigation would be immediate.

As it’s turned out, the costs of climate change have arrived much sooner than we expected. And the only mitigation options adopted so far have been low cost or even negative cost choices like energy efficiency and abandoning coal (more than justified by the health costs of particulate pollution).

That doesn’t mean discount rates are completely irrelevant. If we manage to decarbonize the global economy by 2050, benefits will keep accruing well after that. But even if we stopped the analysis at 2050, we would still have a substantial net benefit. The likely cost of near-complete decarbonization now looks to be less than a two per cent reduction in national income. Reducing the frequency and severity of disasters like the bushfires will more than offset that.

More news from the apocalypse (crosspost from Crooked Timber)

I’m still writing furiously (in both senses of the word) about climate change, the fire disaster in Australia and the responsibility the entire political right bears for this catastrophe, along with those of the centre and left who have shirked the struggle. Australian writer Richard Flanagan, in the New York Times, has compared our leaders to famous traitors like Benedict Arnold, Vidkun Quisling and Mir Jafar, and that’s a pretty good summary of how large numbers of Australians feel.

Over the fold, links to some of my latest commentary

An Open Letter on Australian Bushfires and Climate: Urgent Need for Deep Cuts in Carbon Emissions from 80 current and former Australian Laureate Fellows (our most prestigious research award, across natural and social sciences and humanities).

Humans are good at thinking their way out of problems – but climate change is outfoxing us (The Conversation)

Invest with the best, Inside Story (the case for divestment)

Neoliberalism is declining, but the Right wing refuses to die