Archive for the ‘Solutions’ Category

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It’s high time we talked about coal

19 January 2013

Gillard two-faced

As Australia bakes in record-breaking heat and burns in devastating fires, the country’s political and media elites have yet again lined up to defend the industry driving global warming and cast those who speak out against it as extremists. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Doha climate talks: my priorities

3 December 2012

This is the third installment of a three-part blog post about the ongoing Doha climate talks (COP18). Part 1 recaps the history of the negotiations up to 2011; Part 2 covers this year’s battlelines; and this part outlines my opinion on what should happen in Doha and why it matters.

Most analysts treat Doha as relatively unimportant; they are wrong. Some Australian commentators treat Kyoto 2 as mainly a bargaining chip to get a global regime; they are also wrong. We need to start cutting global emissions now, we need binding targets, and in accordance with the principle of CBDR we need to start by cutting the developed world’s emissions, which means an ambitious Kyoto 2. Doha is crucial because it will decide Kyoto targets for willing rich countries for the next five or eight years. At worst those targets will be locked in until 2020; at best they will become the default pathway with a review process that keeps open the possibility of ramping up ambition later. As the negotiations currently stand, Kyoto 2 is shaping up to lock in meaningless action by Australia and inaction from the EU, further diluted by offsets and surplus permits and land-use creative accounting and who knows what other loopholes. And as for it acting as a bargaining chip, developing countries will not be impressed by unambitious Kyoto 2 targets.

Given the pathetically low ambition of current pledges, the likely outcome of Doha is extremely bad, but there is a glimmer of hope. Durban launched a process which could rescue the climate talks: the workplan on ambition. I agree with the AOSIS position that ambition must be the utmost priority. If all countries agree to raise their ambition in Doha, they should be able to sell that at home.

So far in Doha, ambition has been the most neglected element of the conference. Developed countries tend to prioritize the vision component of ADP. An unnamed European source complained to the Responding to Climate Change news website about AOSIS’s “unwillingness to sacrifice short-term ambition for the long-term common goals of securing a new legal treaty”. In reality, it is extremely misguided to focus on the mirage of a possible future agreement to be implemented when it’s too late. Meanwhile, developing countries other than AOSIS tend to prioritize Kyoto 2 and LCA. While I agree those two tracks should be properly completed, their outcomes will be inadequate without sufficient ambition, so the ambition component of ADP is vital.

So my priorities for Doha are, in the following order:

  1. Increasing countries’ pledges through the ambition component of ADP before Kyoto 2 targets are decided, ideally by enough to close the gap to <1.5°C
  2. A binding and enforceable five-year Kyoto 2 that covers as many countries as possible, does not lock in low ambition, and is not sabotaged by loopholes like dubious offset mechanisms, surplus permits, and the Australia clause
  3. Completion of the LCA mandate, including a shared vision that global emissions will peak soon and clear commitments on climate finance
  4. If possible bringing forward the implementation date of the vision component of ADP … and a distant
  5. Planning negotiations for the vision component of ADP

Delegates must not forget why these talks exist in the first place: to cut emissions fast enough to avoid dangerous climate change.

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The fossil-fuelled war on renewables

24 October 2012

In recent months, ~2 GW of Australian coal-fired electricity generation has been closed temporarily or permanently (~2.5 GW in winter), comparable to the 2 GW that would have been closed by the abandoned policy of contracts-for closure. Some might conclude Australia is finally beginning its transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy, and we can sit back and watch the federal carbon price and Renewable Energy Target (RET) drive it. But even if decarbonization was occurring fast enough (which is nowhere near the case), now is not the time to sit back, because the established electricity companies see their traditional business model disappearing down the drain, and they are fighting back. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Laggard to Leader

11 September 2012

A landmark report was launched a few weeks ago by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), Laggard to Leader: How Australia Can Lead the World to Zero Carbon Prosperity.

Laggard to Leader is at its heart a response to the oft-heard arguments that Australia is too small for our actions to make a significant difference to global warming, but it is much more than that. The report debunks Australia’s claims to be taking meaningful action at home and in UN climate talks. It comprehensively outlines a whole different way of thinking about the role of individual countries in climate change than that of the Australian government and political elite. It challenges the economic excuses for inaction. And it proposes an innovative set of bold actions Australia should take to make a real difference.

The report is professionally presented but accessible, as it is mostly written in plain language. It sometimes seems to confuse CO2 with CO2-equivalent, but its arguments are convincing.

The report begins by summarizing the urgency of the climate crisis and contrasting it with the lack of achievement in international negotiations. Humanity must rapidly phase out fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gas emissions, leaving the vast majority of the planet’s fossil carbon in the ground. The UN climate talks have gone on my entire life, but far from negotiators’ constant claims they are making progress, global fossil fuel CO2 emissions have risen by 50% since 1990 (and Australia’s emissions by 30%). The Kyoto Protocol has been sabotaged by offsets and creative accounting, and Canada has gotten away with completely flouting its obligations. Despite agreeing in 2010 to take urgent action to limit global warming to <2°C (a target which climatologists now realize is itself quite dangerous), countries’ national emissions targets do not remotely add up to that global objective, and the world remains on track for a catastrophic multiple degrees of warming. Most recently in Durban, they agreed to negotiate a global agreement that would not be implemented until 2020. But as the Australian government’s own Climate Commission says, this is the critical decade.

As the negotiations currently stand, the best-case outcome will be far too little far too late. BZE argue therefore we cannot rely on the UN process and its associated top-down model of climate action, which they describe as “Treaties, Targets, and Trading”. The aim of Treaties, Targets, and Trading is for all countries to agree a global binding treaty in which national emissions targets add up to achieve a safe global objective, and countries may trade pollution rights. (Laggard to Leader skips an important nuance here: this is Australia’s particular view of the ultimate aim of climate talks, as advised by Ross Garnaut.)

In accordance with UN accounting, Australia is generally considered responsible only for emissions occurring within its borders. The problem is we do not yet have a global framework in which national targets add up. Thus we need to look beyond our domestic emissions to a larger “sphere of influence”, which also encompasses emissions from the burning of fossil fuels we export and the manufacture of products we import. Global trade means countries have overlapping spheres of influence. This shared responsibility makes more sense from an ethical and practical point of view. Read the rest of this entry ?

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Government admits renewables becoming cheap

2 August 2012

The Australian Energy Technology Assessment (AETA), a little-publicized report about energy costs released on Tuesday by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE), dropped a bombshell. This government body admits the government’s prior estimates on renewable energy costs have been spectacularly wrong. In contrast to the Draft Energy White Paper, which assumed renewable energy technologies would remain more expensive than fossil fuels for decades, the new projections say wind and solar PV will be the cheapest energy technologies within 10-20 years.

The result itself is not news. We already knew from a report commissioned by the Garnaut Review that renewable energy technologies were cheaper than the Australian government’s estimates. And the revised estimates are still not perfect: the future cost estimate for solar thermal is probably still too high, and the estimate for nuclear seems unrealistically low. However, the AETA report does represent a significant turnaround in the government’s beliefs.

Similarly, in June the government admitted for the first time that renewable energy can reduce electricity prices (because solar PV removes demand from the grid, and because renewable generators have no fuel costs). Just 12 months ago, the government dismissed these facts about renewables as the ravings of irrational green ideologues. Could the government be backing away from its fossil fuel addiction?

Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy will lead to cheaper energy in the long run. While the costs of fossil fuels will ultimately rise because they are nonrenewable resources, the costs of renewables are falling rapidly as they are deployed, and – crucially – can be further reduced by scaling up deployment.

To the extent that fossil fuel technologies still appear cheap, it is only because current policies fail to fully account for their climate costs. The true cost of CO2 emissions could be up to US$893/tonne (AU$852/tonne). In other words, there is a significant risk the damage is so high that practically any measures to move to a zero-carbon economy are worth taking.

The revised cost estimates are yet more reason for Australia to stop planning for a fossil-fuelled future and start planning for a 100% renewable one.

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It’s the climate, stupid

8 April 2012

It is now clear that the Australian Government’s main priorities for this year are getting the budget into surplus, and removing regulations to appease businesses. Both objectives are leading the Government to cut climate change and renewable energy policies. It seems they have chosen to completely ignore the climate crisis.

I should at this point restate a fact which should be obvious by now, yet is still denied by many: in the words of US paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson, “global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.” We need urgent and radical change to the global economy. The extent of climate impacts centuries and millennia from now will be determined by policy decisions taken in the near future. The Government’s own Climate Commission has identified the 2010s as the “Critical Decade” for climate change mitigation. To avoid passing tipping points for dangerous climate change, humanity must return the Earth to energy balance, which means reducing atmospheric CO2 to ~350 ppm. Because of the long lifetime of CO2 in the atmosphere, to reduce its concentration everybody needs to cut fossil fuel emissions to zero or near-zero within a couple of decades. We cannot afford to burn most of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. The central solution is to switch to 100% renewable energy as rapidly as possible.

Credit where it’s due: last year, the Gillard Government legislated a carbon price (albeit one riddled with flaws) which will come into effect from July. Gillard has also promised a Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC). These policies are a first step but more decisive action is urgently needed. But business groups are lobbying hard for the carbon price to be watered down or scrapped, and pushing even harder for the CEFC and all other non-market climate policies to be cancelled. And the government is listening. Read the rest of this entry ?

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China could cap coal consumption

14 March 2012

China is expected to announce in the first half of this year a national cap on coal consumption. If the reports are accurate, the cap will begin in 2015 at 4.1 gigatonnes (Gt), with budgets for each individual province. This would be the world’s first direct cap on a fossil fuel.

Policies China is already implementing include a 17% cut in emissions per GDP by 2015, an 11% target for non-fossil-fuel energy by 2015, an increase in forest area, feed-in tariffs for small-scale and large-scale solar energy, and trials of emissions trading schemes.

Of course, China, like everyone else, should be doing more. Even if China goes ahead with the cap, its coal consumption in 2015 will still be 18% higher than the 2011 figure of 3.5 Gt (however, under the current growth rate of 7.5%/year it would grow twice as much, to 4.7 Gt).

All of China’s actions should shame governments of the developed world into acting consistently with our greater wealth, per-capita emissions, and historical responsibility for the emissions that have already accumulated in the atmosphere. Rich countries like Australia should move towards phasing out coal and other fossil fuels as rapidly as possible, and provide financial and technological support for emerging and developing nations to follow in our footsteps.

A Chinese consumption cap would lower the global demand for coal. This should make Australia reconsider its plans to exponentially expand our coal exports.

Whatever China decides this year, the urgency of rapid emissions cuts required to meet even the target agreed by the world’s governments means the market contains a bubble of high-carbon investment, and it is inevitable this bubble will burst sooner or later. As the Executive Director of India’s largest energy company, Tata, said last week: “Why would anyone want to invest at this stage in a coal project?”

Why indeed?