30 September 2009

Copenhagen in a Nutshell

This figure from the Washington Post and statement by Jose Barroso sums up what we can expect from the current Copenhagen process.

As Prof. Prof Schellnhuber, the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Change, said this week the chances of the getting a deal that could keep warming below two degrees was "pie in the sky".

11 September 2009

Forget about 2050, we're blowing the carbon budget right now

by David Spratt

Sick of hearing about greenhouse emission reduction targets for 2020 or 2030 or 2050? Now there's a new way to think about what we need to do in Australia, and its a million miles from the Canberra debate: The carbon budget for Australians to 2050 for a 2-degree target runs out in five and a bit years!

Focusing on targets decades ahead has a bad side to it, because it transfers responsibility for action to the future, rather than the here and now. Perhaps that's why the 10:10 campaign in the UK has picked up such a groundswell of support so quickly, because its action time horizon is the next year.

As the world head towards COP15 in Copenhagen this December, the question about how far / how fast emissions need to be reduced is always lurking. The mainstream public debate is still focused on the Kyoto Annex 1 (advanced industrial economies) reducing emissions by 25-40% compared to a 1990 baseline by 2020. But that is the wrong target and the Australian governments proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme won't reduce Australia's actual emissions below the 1990 level for another quarter of a century.

And there are some startling new figures about what we need to do, right now. Earlier this year this blog looked at two new research papers published this week in Nature on emissions targets.

One paper looked at how much carbon "budget" was left to 2050 to keep warming to 2 degrees. Now 2 degrees is not a good idea, but the results were sharp. They found that almost a third of that budget had been used in the first 8 years! From that work, a number of conclusions can be drawn:
  • If emissions keep growing at 3.5 per cent a year, then the carbon budget for 2 degrees runs out in 2021. That is, after that time, emissions would need to drop to zero immediately to have a 75 per cent chance of not passing 2 degrees.
  • If global emissions reduce 2 per cent a year from now, the carbon budget will run out in 2030 for 2C, and
  • With a 4 per cent annual reduction in global emissions, it will run out in 2040.
And in would take a miracle for COP15 in Copenhagen to produce a result that would even stabilise global emissions at their current level by 2020, in which case COP15 will blow the carbon budget to 2050 for 2 degrees in less than 20 year from now.

And that for a target that will that initiate large climate feedbacks in the oceans, on ice-sheets, and on the tundra, taking the Earth well past significant tipping points. Likely impacts include large-scale disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice-sheet; the extinction of an estimated 15– 40 per cent of plant and animal species; dangerous ocean acidification; increasing methane release; substantial soil and ocean carbon-cycle feedbacks; and widespread drought and desertification in Africa, Australia, Mediterranean Europe, and the western USA.

Now there's an even more compelling way to look at the issue, thanks to Potsdam Institute Director Hans Joachim Schellnhuber in The Guardian of 10 September: Developed countries are 'carbon insolvent'.

Applying his logic to Australia...
  1. The total carbon budget 2050 to have a 2-in-3 chance staying below a 2-degree temperature increase is 750 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2).
  2. If you take the world population now at 6.9 billion people (and assume no population increase!) and...
  3. Then assume that the world's population has an equal right to emit carbon (a starting point which ignores historic carbon debt and responsibility), then...
  4. The carbon budget per person to 2050 is 110 tonnes CO2 (750 divided by 6.9). Of course if you allow for increasing population (estimated at 9 billion by 2050), that figure is lower.
  5. We know that Australia emissions today are 20.58 tonnes CO2 per person per year, the world's highest per capita carbon dioxide emissions from energy use.
  6. Divide that budget of 110 tonnes by the yearly figure of 20.58 and the result is that:
  7. The carbon budget for Australians to 2050 for a 2-degree target runs out in 5 and a bit years!
Or do we reckon that we have some inherent right to pour more CO2 into the air that the billions in the developing world who lack the infrastructure and standard of living that our historically high emissions have bought us?

SEE also discussion in Sydney Morning Herald: Lost opportunities from the crisis.

Punting on coal is a loser, tell the Government

First published in The Age, 10 September 2009

Everyone else can see the folly of propping up polluting industries.

THERE'S an irony in the rushed construction of a new security fence around the Hazelwood power station, in anticipation of a community protest this weekend.

The Government, it seems, is more in interested in protecting Hazelwood from protesters, than protecting our climate from Hazelwood.

Victoria has been shamed as the least climate-friendly state, running three of Australia's four dirtiest power stations. And Hazelwood is one of the dirtiest in the developed world, scheduled to close this year but in 2005 given a lifeline by the State Government to 2031.

The timing is significant, because it reflects the climate policy strategy of the major parties: hang on with dirty coal till 2030-35, and hope that by then carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will work. For now, pour money into CCS research, but stall on serious emission-reduction strategies.

This is reflected in the proposed carbon pollution reduction scheme. Treasury modelling for the defeated legislation shows that Australia's actual emissions don't drop below the 1990 baseline until 2035, when it assumes CCS will be commercially viable. Meanwhile, the ''decrease'' in emissions is engineered by buying carbon credits at the lowest price, likely from Papua New Guinea and Indonesian forest offset schemes, which are beginning to look like scams in the making.

Another indication of the punt on coal is the Federal Government's expansion of Australia's coal export capacity. The two infrastructure projects announced in 2008 will alone result in destination nation emissions 17 per cent greater than Australia's total emissions.

If you are going to bet your house on a horse, you need to be assured that it is going to hit the winning post first. But already CCS is stumbling, and the 2030 timeframe is being pushed further into the future.

Recent analysis from a team at the Potsdam Institute in Germany, whose work was influential in the emissions reduction work published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is startling. Assuming a global warming target of two degrees - now far too high according to IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri - they find that the carbon budget from 2000 to 2050 has already been one-third consumed. If global emissions can be cut 2 per cent a year in Copenhagen, which is highly unlikely, the carbon budget to 2050 will run out by 2030. If emissions keep growing at the present rate, the carbon emissions budget for the two degrees target will run out in 2021!

The increasingly grim observations of global warming impacts demand that we move to a zero-emissions energy system quickly. CCS simply cannot deliver such an outcome in the relevant time-frame, if it is ever proven to work at scale. Recently the British Government admitted that proposals to require existing power plants to fit CCS technology would force their closure on cost grounds.

Retrofitting current generators isn't cost-effective, so CCS depends on building a whole new array of coal-fired power stations, at which point our carbon budget will already be in planet-threatening deficit. Waiting to see if CCS is technologically viable at scale, let alone cost-competitive in two or three decades time, defies the principles of sensible risk management.

It just doesn't add up. A recent Harvard University study finds that electricity costs could double for first-generation CCS plants. At the same time, innovation continues to lower the cost of renewable energy at an estimated 10 per cent a decade, and increasing scale of renewable plants is also moving that cost curve down.

China says it is more interested in spending resources on energy efficiency and building renewable energy capacity than adding CCS to coal power stations.

It plans a national feed-in tariff for large-scale solar plants by the end of 2009, paying up to half of the price of solar power systems of more than 500 megawatts, with support rising to 70 per cent in remote regions. ''The idea that carbon capture has to happen in China is a Western idea,'' says Stanford University researcher Richard Morse.

Former Queensland premier Peter Beattie, now his state's trade commissioner in Los Angeles, says time is running out for coal: ''The traditional markets for its product will start slowly shutting down as green energy becomes more price-competitive and public policy continues to demand greener outcomes.'' The result in the US is that plans for 100 coal-fired power plants have been stopped in the past 18 months.

The writing is on the wall. Robin Batterham of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences says that if within three years from now ''we don't see some of these large-scale plants actually happening, then people are going to say, 'This is not a real alternative'.'' Large-scale CCS plants in three years is a pipe dream, a bet on a horse that isn't going to make it to the starting gate.

Clean coal has become a cargo cult for government and the coal industry, but what may descend from the skies is less likely to be salvation than the recognition that the dirty, big cloud overhead is killing our planet's wonderful diversity of life and habitat.

That fence around Hazelwood is locking in a disaster, but it will not keep its critics at bay.

David Spratt is the co-author of Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action, shortlisted for the 2009 Victorian Premier's Literary Awards.