Decarbonizing the economy is easy and cheap

Since I wrote my post on good climate news for 2017, a couple of news items have caught my eye

* Britain now generates twice as much electricity from wind as from coal, and around 30 per cent from renewables in total
* More than half the vehicles sold in Norway are now electric or plug in hybrid

My thoughts on these examples over the fold:

TL;DR version: These examples show that, at least for developed countries, massive reductions in CO2 emissions are feasible right now, with no discernible effect on living standards.

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Why “extremely unlikely” climate events matter

I’ve just been advised that my latest article “The importance of ‘extremely unlikely’ events: Tail risk and the costs of climate change” has come out online in The Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics. For those who can use it, the DOI is 10.1111/1467-8489.12238. For everyone else, here’s a link to a pre-publication version. The main points are

* The IPCC convention is to use the phrase “extremely unlikely” to refer to outcomes (in particular, values of climate sensitivity) in the range of 0–5 per cent.
* Most of the risks against which we act to protect and insure ourselves (for example, car crashes, premature death in any given year) are “extremely unlikely” by this definition
* Around half, or even more, of the expected welfare loss from climate change arises from the worst-case 5 per cent of high values for climate sensitivity.

Nothing really startling here, but it’s the other side of the coin to the contrarian suggestion that since there’s a 5 per cent probability that global warming will turn out not to be a problem, we should do nothing.

Some good news on the global climate

I’ve published a couple of articles recently on climate issues. One, in Inside Story, is an expansion of a post here, making the case that 2017 was a good year for climate policy globally. One more item to add to the list: India’s additions of coal-fired generation capacity are running at the slowest pace since 2006.

The other, in New Matilda, was about the (lousy) economics of the Adani coal mine-rail-port project. It’s part of a series on the struggle against the mine by indigenous Wangan and Jagalingou (W&J) people. Publication has been a bit slow, so my article doesn’t keep up with all the latest events, which seem likely to ensure that this disastrous project won’t proceed. The most important has been the split between Adani and its main contractor EDI Downer, one of a handful of companies with the expertise to run a mine on this scale. Adani’s current claim that it will operate the mine itself seems untenable, according to everything I’ve read.

A good year for the global climate.

Ten years ago, when Bob Brown and the Greens called for a plan to end coal exports, their position was way outside the Oveandrton Window (the range of opinions taken seriously by the political class and commentariat). Ten years later, it’s entirely normal for financial institutions to announce that they will no longer fund coal projects, and for major national governments to join an alliance with the self-explanatory title Powering Past Coal.

The news isn’t all good. For a variety of mostly temporary reasons, China has increased its coal consumption in the last year, so that CO2 emissons are likely to have risen in 2017. But the general direction of public policy and energy investment is clearly right, and even reactionary governments like those of Turnbull and Trump have been powerless to do much about it. After all the posturing of the National Energy Guarantee, the coal lobby in the government had to swallow the announcement that the AGL Liddell power station would be closed and replaced by renewables.

More significantly, the threat that the massive (though low-grade) coal reserves of the Galilee Basin might be developed as a result of the Adani mine-rail-port proposal appears to have been staved off. Labor’s victory in the Queensland state election meant a veto of public loan funding through the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility (a veto which also encompasses a rival rail project put up by Aurizon) makes it highly unlikely that Adani will find any commercial lenders. This conclusion was confirmed by the announcement that Adani has parted ways with Downer EDI, with which it had a $2 billion agreement to operate the mine. Downer is just the latest in a string of Adani partners to walk, or be pushed away (Posco, Worley Parsons and the bankers who were lining up to lend a few years ago). In the US, Trump’s efforts to save coal have been similarly ineffectual.

Looking beyond coal, we’ve had major developments in battery technology, symbolised by Tesla’s 100 MWh SA battery, which has already proved its worth and discredited the Turnbull/Abbott rhetoric about the reliability of coal. That goes along with electric cars and the announced decision of numerous national governments and some carmakers to go all-electric.

None of this should cause complacency. Turnbull, Trump and various likeminded governments (mostly nascent or actual rightwing dictatorships) are still doing their best to sabotage the planet, and the urgency of the problem is clearer than ever. But overall, this has been a very good year for the global climate.

Victory in sight on Adani, but Aurizon still a threat

After years of campaigning, it finally looks as if the Adani mine-rail-port proposal in the Galilee Basin has been defeated. A week after the Palaszczuk government was re-elected on a promise to veto funding from the Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility, the two biggest Chinese banks have announced that they will not be lending to the project either.

The election outcome is particularly striking. Premier Palaszczuk executed a rather inelegant backflip on this question after it became apparent that her weak pro-Adani position was politically untenable (I hope my column on the subject may have had some small influence there). My expectation (widely shared, I think) was that this would cost the government seats in Townsville and Rockhampton, where the local governments had committed millions of dollars to be nominated as FIFO hubs. In fact Labor held all these seats, with the possible exception of Townsville, still in doubt. Meanwhile, the LNP proposal for a coal-fired power station gained them nothing in North Queensland and cost votes in the South-East. With the election over, Adani’s political leverage in Queensland is now non-existent.

The Chinese banking decision also welcome. Although China is rapidly moving away from coal in its domestic economy, the Chinese export finance machine is still pushing coal projects around the world, as long as they use Chinese equipment and expertise. Perhaps this announcement is part of a broader change, or perhaps the Carmichael mine project is too much of a dog even for pro-coal lenders.
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Renewables, coal and culture war

In the final week of the Queensland election campaign, I’ve been busy trying to do what I can to influence the result. I’ve put out a couple of opinion pieces about the choice between coal and renewable energy. This one, in The Guardian, focuses on the central role of the culture war in motivating rightwing opposition to renewable energy. In The Conversation, I look at the economics and business aspects and debunk the idea that ‘ultrasupercritical’ technology makes coal-fired power a high efficiency, low emissions technology

Also, in New Matilda, I’m collaborating with Morgan Brigg and Kristen Lyons of the Global Change Institute to produce a five-part series on Adani and the resistance to the project by the Wangan and Jagalingou people.

The end of fossil fuels: some data and quick calculations

The International Energy Agency recently released data showing that world coal production fell sharply in 2016, mainly because of big cuts in China. Looking at the graph, it appears that the peak in production was around 2013. The price of coal has experienced a “dead cat bounce” over the last year or so, essentially because China has been closing coal mines faster than it’s been closing or cancelling coal-fired power stations, but the picture tells the story for the future.

Global coal production (source IEA)

Until relatively recently, the decline of coal was the result of competition with gas, while new renewables weren’t even enough to cover the growth in demand. But a quick calculation shows that renewables will soon be taking out a bigger bite. Global electricity generation is currently about 20000 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year, growing at around 1.5 per cent, or 300TWh a year. Installations of solar PV and wind (I haven’t checked on hydro and other renewables) for 2017 look set to come in around 150 gigawatts (GW). Assuming 2000 hours of operation per year, that’s just enough to offset demand growth. So, any future growth in renewables must come directly at the expense of existing fossil fuel generation which in practice will almost always mean coal.

Turning to transport, regular commenter James Wimberley has an analysis of the prospects for peak gasoline (petrol) used in internal combustion engines. Summarising drastically, his best estimate for peak gasoline is 2032. Decarbonization requires an end to petrol-driven vehicle sales by around 2035. On this front, the good news is that quite a few countries, including the UK, France and India are pushing for an end by 2030.

Of course, all of this assumes that the attempts of Trump and Turnbull (along with likeminded culture warriors in Turkey, Poland and elsewhere) to bail out the dying coal industry come to nothing and also that Trump doesn’t manage to destroy the planet through nuclear war.