Warming up the energy debate

A recent New Scientist editorial sets out a handy scoring mechanism for energy sources: “We want them to have a small environmental impact, yet be able to supply energy on a huge scale. We want costs to be low, the method of generation to be safe and for there to be plenty of available fuel. The International Energy Agency estimates that two-thirds of the extra energy demand over the next 25 years will come from developing countries, so whatever sources we choose must be tradable worldwide. Also, in the post-9/11 world, we want energy sources that cannot be abused by terrorists or rogue states.”

Where we got to last time was helpfully summarised in a comment from Will Howard:

“I think there is a gradient of ‘debatability’ in the global warming issue:

* Not debatable: The carbon dioxide concentration of the atmosphere is rising, due to burning of fossil fuels and of living biospheric carbon reservoirs. This rise will continue through the coming century at at least its present rate. Not much debate about this.

* Still debatable, but becoming less so: Global warming has begun already. BUT, the ‘detection and attribution’ problem remains: can a statistically significant trend be pulled out of the background variability, and if so, can its cause be pinned on human action? IPCC scientists has said, though with many caveats, yes. And many bodies’ data do back up the IPCC conclusions. (For example, the spatial pattern of warming in the atmosphere is consistent with that expected from the enhanced greenhouse effect.) Are they correct? Well, time will tell. In addition, the GHG buildup has set in train a number of processes that are not reversible, at least for decades, probably for centuries. These include the warming of the mixed layer of the ocean (approximately upper 100m), and the acidification of the upper ocean by dissociation of anthropogenic CO2.

* Debatable: What will the climate effects of this CO2 enrichment be? Most simulations yield a global temperature rise in response to the CO2 rise – no news here – but there’s large uncertainty as to how much warming will occur, and where, and how soon. The ‘skeptics’ have really jumped on the model uncertainties, and pointed out, rightly, that the models used to forecast climate change have large errors in their estimates of the magnitude, distribution, and rate of future temperature change. (They’d do well to bear in mind that the uncertainties run in two directions.)

“What about other climate effects? Rainfall patterns? Sea-level changes due to ocean warming and ice sheet melting? What about feedbacks, such as atmospheric clouds, soil moisture, vegetation? The models still have a tough time dealing with these. So the critics have a point – but again the uncertainty cuts both ways, and some feedbacks may just as well amplify the climate response as damp it.

* Debatable: What about the impact of the predicted climate changes? Isn’t it possible they will benefit humanity (say, longer growing seasons in temperate latitudes)? Here again the critics have their point, but here again they’re trapping themselves in their own logic: the effects of global warming may be beneficial (to some), but they may be even more harmful than even the most pessimistic forecasters anticipate. We just don’t know.

* Debatable: If society decides that the risk of the harm due to possible global climate change is great enough to warrant action, the costs (of limiting fossil fuel combustion) will outweigh the benefits, say the ‘skeptics.’ Beyond a certain point, perhaps they will. But up to a certain point at least, there are clear benefits to following the so-called ‘no-regrets’ policies (involving increased efficiency of energy use and conservation), in reduced energy costs and diminished local pollution. Here again the economic models that many put so much faith in are even cruder than climate models in predicting the economic response to emission limitations. But the ‘skeptics’ assert that emission limitations will impose unbearable economic costs.”

There have been some interesting interventions since then from all quarters of the debate, including some from completely opposite sides to what might have been expected. I noted in a comment last time that greenie George Monbiot had come in with a flick at wind and wave energy hopes, ‘An ugly face of ecology’, arguing that: “…there is no sustainable way of meeting current projections for energy demand. The only strategy in any way compatible with environmentalism is one led by a vast reduction in total use.”

Since then, another fascinating Guardian article – ‘And what if the skeptics are wrong?’ – from the outgoing leader of the Conservative Party in the UK, Michael Howard, coming in hard for the Precautionary Principle:

“There are those who say the risks have been exaggerated. To such people I say this: if we go your way and you are wrong we will save money in the short term but incur an immense penalty in the long term; if we go my way and I am wrong we will incur costs in the short term but with the reward of greener, cleaner technologies for saving and generating energy. Such technologies would improve air quality, avoid acid rain and reduce our dependency on imported gas and oil.”

So, the Tories attacking the Labour Government in the UK for not doing enough on climate change! How unlike the home life of our own dear Mr Howard.

The Bonn post-Kyoto meeting

The big event was the intergovernmental meeting of experts on what comes after Kyoto, held in Bonn 16-17 May 2005. The US continues to believe that climate change isn’t a problem – (see for example ‘New US move to spoil climate accord’) – because everyone important will be swept up into Heaven in The Rapture before it really matters, with the rest of us Left Behind, but in the real world there are some important changes in perspective under way.

According to the New Scientist report on the meeting: ‘Major developing countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and China no longer regard climate change as a problem only for the rich world [and] are starting to accept that they may have to accept emissions targets themselves. … China is improving its energy efficiency so fast that even its breakneck industrialisation has brought only minimal increases in greenhouse gas emissions in the past decade.’

This willingness of the developing world to discuss targets of course removes the key (stated) objection to Kyoto by the only important refusers, the USA and Australia. And even in America, an initiative started by Seattle mayor Greg Nickels on June 13 signed up the mayors of 165 US cities, representing more than 30 million Americans, to an agreement to:

• Strive to meet or beat the Kyoto Protocol targets in their own communities, through actions ranging from anti-sprawl land-use policies to urban forest restoration projects to public information campaigns;
• Urge their state governments, and the federal government, to enact policies and programs to meet or beat the greenhouse gas emission reduction target suggested for the United States in the Kyoto Protocol — 7% reduction from 1990 levels by 2012; and
• Urge the U.S. Congress to pass the bipartisan Climate Stewardship Act, which would establish a national emission trading system.

The biggest catch for the US internal campaign has been California Governator Arnie Schwarzenegger, who on June 1st announced a series of ambitious targets for cutting California’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% over the next half-century. “As of today, California is going to be the leader in the fight against global warming,” Schwarzenegger said, adding, “I say the debate is over. We know the science, we see the threat, and the time for action is now.”

The action in the Bonn meeting therefore moved to the potential form of greenhouse targets. As set out in the EU policy paper (pdf):

“The changes in emission trajectories that are required to meet the EU climate objective [[not more than 2degC rise]] will require strong emission reductions…It is clear that after 2012, the climate change commitments under the UNFCCC must be deepened and broadened. This raises the question of how to do this in a fair and acceptable way, particularly given the need for economic development in different parts of the world. Equity principles usually refer to general concepts of distributive justice or fairness. Among the key principles explored or invoked in the international climate negotiations up to now, one can identify:

• Egalitarian: each human being has an equal right to use the atmosphere;
• Sovereignty and acquired rights: all countries have a right to use the atmosphere and current emissions constitute a ‘status quo right’;
• Responsibility/polluter pays: the greater the contribution to the problem, the greater the share in the mitigation/economic burden;
• Capability: the greater the capacity to act or ability to pay, the greater the share in the mitigation/economic burden.”

Are you surprised to discover that in Bonn the developing countries favoured the egalitarian alternative, while the US came down on the ‘status quo rights’ one?

The EU is tending toward the egalitarian plus an enhanced emission rights trading scheme, which would later in the century probably lead to substantial transfers of cash from the rich to the poor to buy their carbon rights. Watch this space: the next meeting of the countries will be in Montreal 28 November to 9 December 2005.

The nuclear thing

SBS Cutting Edge viewers will have seen an interesting program The end of the world as we know it, where a sceptic was persuaded to the scared side, and, more interesting (to me at least) James Lovelock explained his pro-nuclear stance more clearly and succinctly than I’d heard it said before – essentially saying: ‘yes, there will be more Chernobyls, and hundreds of thousands if not millions more will die of cancers, but this is trivial compared to the effects of global warming‘. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the nuclear route, but at least clear.

Lovelock – like Monbiot – believes there isn’t time left to develop sustainable alternatives for energy production. Unlike Monbiot, he also believes that we can’t be weaned off energy use in time either, so thinks nuclear is the least worst of awful possibilities. Apart from the disaster/health stuff, he also agrees with the nuclear sceptics that nuclear is going to be damned expensive, but less expensive over the next century than climate change effects will be.

A recent New Scientist editorial sets out a handy scoring mechanism for energy sources: “We want them to have a small environmental impact, yet be able to supply energy on a huge scale. We want costs to be low, the method of generation to be safe and for there to be plenty of available fuel. The International Energy Agency estimates that two-thirds of the extra energy demand over the next 25 years will come from developing countries, so whatever sources we choose must be tradable worldwide. Also, in the post-9/11 world, we want energy sources that cannot be abused by terrorists or rogue states.”

Then they rate what’s on offer.

Nuclear gets ticks for environmental impact on greenhouse gases and…er…that’s it. Big crosses for the waste problem – “Despite 40 years of assurances from the nuclear industry that this is an ‘engineering problem’, no one has solved it.” – for international security, and perhaps most importantly for cost, with the lifetime cost of nuclear being certainly very high, but how high being unknown until the waste solution is fully known: “Nuclear power has certainly not won round free-market investors: no plants have been built within deregulated electricity markets.”

Renewables (wind, water, solar) get the obvious environmental ticks and are difficult to translate into terrorist threats, and generally make it on the cost front too. The debate is on whether they can deliver enough energy: the proponents say the total combination of all these sources plus biomass and improvements in energy efficiency could meet energy needs if we are less careless of wasted energy. Germany is on track to generate 50% of its energy needs from renewables by 2050. Lovelock would tell us that’s too late, and other opponents say it can’t be enough or cheap enough.

The proponents of nuclear are an interesting combination of those who say technology can solve any problem (and thus tend to be non-believers in the climate change problem) and those who say nuclear is dreadful and its technical problems probably unsolvable, but at least its not as bad as the prognosis for climate change. Together they could perhaps get a vote for nuclear Australia off the ground, but, as with the Republic referendum, disagreements between them on the detail of what to do might mean being unable to get approval for any actual real plan.