PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 7 June 2020

The ‘politics of prevarication and inadequate action’ from Rio in 1992 to Paris in 2015 is followed by stories of the ongoing investment in fossil fuels rather than renewables by G20 governments and major oil and gas companies. China has the potential to generate 60% of its electricity from renewables by 2030 and solar microgrids deliver the goods in emergency situations.

So, what happened between the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 and the Paris Climate Accord in 2015? If you’d like a better understanding of how the ‘overarching international goal of ‘avoiding dangerous climate change’ has been reinterpreted and differently represented’ over those two decades, this is the paper for you (unfortunately, the full paper is behind a paywall). In only 3½ pages of text and a one-page diagram the authors summarise how the framing of climate policy targets, favoured mitigation technologies, climate modelling methods, scenario planning and political jockeying changed and interacted over the years.

In Rio the focus of discussion was on stabilising atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases at a safe level but this migrated to percentage cuts in emissions by a prescribed date in the Kyoto Protocol (1997), to disabling disagreements over targets and metrics in Copenhagen (2009), to cumulative CO2 emissions budgets in Durban and Doha (2011/12), and finally (so far) to a maximum safe temperature increase in Paris. The authors postulate that policies, politics, modelling, science and technology ‘co-evolved’ throughout this period without any single element driving matters along. Their conclusions are not pretty: each technological development and (often exaggerated) promise has ‘enabled a continued politics of prevarication and inadequate action […] in turn justifying existing limited and gradualist policy choices and thus diminishing the perceived urgency of deploying costly and unpopular […] options’; and each technological promise ‘reflected the dominant neoliberal ideology of the entire period in which market-based and technological innovations that could sustain economic growth were actively preferred over measures that might have threatened liberal individualism, markets and consumerism’. Policies which ‘promised future action, rather than immediate sacrifice, clearly made them more palatable to both industry and politicians.’

And right on cue to illustrate the final conclusion, during  the three years of 2016-2018 governments of the G20 countries provided an average of US$77 billion per year to finance fossil fuel projects through their international public finance institutions. This was almost the same as during 2013-2015 – i.e. signing the Paris climate agreement has not changed their behaviours. China was by far the biggest funder (averaging US$25 billion per year), followed by Canada, Japan and Korea (US$6-10 billion each per year). Most of the financing went to oil and gas projects, perhaps a consequence of 17 of the G20 nations having partial or full restrictions on funding coal projects but only three having any restriction on oil or gas. The main recipients of the financing were Russia (averaging US$9.5 billion per year), Brazil (US$8 billion), Indonesia (US$5 billion), Bangladesh (US$4 billion) and Canada, Kuwait and Egypt (US$3 billion each). In comparison, the G20 nations provided about US$24 billion per year to clean energy projects. The ‘Still Digging’ report (accurately subtitled ‘G20 governments continue to finance the climate crisis’) recommends that G20 nations should stop all public funding for fossil fuel developments, and scale up funding for renewable energy projects, energy efficiency, just transition and universal energy access; oh yes, and start matching their behaviour to their rhetoric!

It’s not only governments who are continuing to invest in fossil fuels. Over the next five years major oil and gas companies plan to invest US$17.5 billion in wind and solar projects. Far and away the major investor is Equinor with US$10 billion. Shell starts to invest more heavily in renewables in the second half of the ‘20s but total investment in renewables from 2026-2030 is about 20% less than during 2021-2025. However, the US$17.5 billion for renewables looks wan when compared with the same companies’ plans to invest US$166 billion in greenfield oil and gas projects over the next five years. Consider this next time you see an ad from BP, Shell or Total promoting their commitment to environmental sustainability. Amusingly, here’s what I found on BP’s website when I went searching for their green credentials just now:

Equinor, you may recall, is the large Norwegian state-owned energy company that recently dropped plans to drill for oil in the Great Australian Bight.

An argument advanced by proponents of ‘Australia is too small to make a difference to global climate change’ is that China is the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter (about 28% of the total) and they’re building more coal-fired power stations. It’s a little more complicated than that but it is correct that any global success depends on China’s rapid decarbonisation. Currently, about half of China’s CO2 emissions arise from electricity generation. Under the Paris Agreement China has committed to supply 20% of its energy from non-fossil fuel sources by 2030 – good but far from good enough. But a new study that has factored in the continuing plummeting costs of solar and wind power and battery storage (down 77%, 35% and 85% respectively between 2010 and 2018) suggests that 62% of China’s electricity could come from non-fossil sources by 2030, and be 11% cheaper than simply continuing current policies.

As an aside, our own government continues to try to pull the wool over our eyes by emphasising how Australia’s CO2 emissions per capita are falling, ignoring that the really important metric, total emissions, is predicted to increase to 2030. But it’s worth noting that emissions per capita in 2017 in Australia were a massive 15.6 tons, while in China they were 6.5 tons. India, with its booming economy and population, emitted only 1.6 tons per person.

Here’s a terrific idea from the USA and Mexico that might have multiple applications in Australia: a solar microgrid that can be set up in a couple of days to power temporary camps, for instance following a cyclone or bushfire, or during an outbreak of a highly infectious disease in a remote community, or to accommodate climate refugees from islands in the Torres Strait or Pacific Ocean. The microgrid is less polluting, healthier, cheaper to run, quieter and more reliable than traditional diesel generators. This may be old-hat to the engineers among you but to a pen-pusher such as me it sounds promising.

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Peter Sainsbury is a retired public health worker with a long interest in social policy, particularly social justice, and now focusing on climate change and environmental sustainability. He is extremely pessimistic about the world avoiding catastrophic global warming.

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4 Responses to PETER SAINSBURY. Sunday environmental round up, 7 June 2020

  1. Avatar Gavin O'Brien says:

    Thanks Peter,
    Quite depressing reading at first sight, but there are promising developments on the horizon. Here in Canberra, the ACT Government has floated the concept of a new suburb’s roof top solar panels , and we have plenty on Canberra roofs, including our own, being connected to a large storage battery in the suburb which then supplies the residences connected to it with electricity. Each pays household for the supply.I personally think it is a great concept . No doubt remote communities would embrace such a concept.We lost power three times, totaling 65 minutes in all, last evening in our suburb due to a supply fault- very annoying for the wife who was trying to cook tea!

  2. Avatar Peter Farley says:

    In addition to the Western oil majors mentioned above Chinese and Indian coal majors are also investing in solar. On the home front, quite a number of off-grid mines are now building wind/solar/diesel hybrids which are slashing diesel/gas use and a number of towns whose grid connection was damaged by bushfires are installing local solar+ storage farms to get essential services going, and at least three universities have large micro-grids running.while coal and gas generation on the NEM is heading for 140 TWh from a high of 193 TWh in 2007, and 168 TWh as late as 2017
    Britain has not only run for 58 days without coal, its gas use for power generation YTD is down 23% on 2016. Similarly in Germany where Fossil fuels and nuclear have fallen from 410 TWh in 2006 to 348 TWh in 2013 to a projected 153 TWh this year. In the US coal is now less than renewables and on current trends all renewables will outproduce coal this year and by 2024 Wind will replace coal as the US no.2 fuel and renewables combine will probably replace gas by 2027

  3. Avatar Ian Webster says:

    Dear Peter,
    As usual, thank you for keeping us up to date on these important issues in our environment.

    I am not an energy expert or engineer, but I am aware of some fine projects in the Faculty of Engineering at UNSW on micro-grids which can, at a local level, accept and then distribute energy/power from a range of renewable energy sources for small communities – urban, regional and remote. These are important developments for agriculture as well.

    It is encouraging that there are major streams of teaching and research in renewable energy in Australian Faculties of Engineering as well as at UNSW. Australia has an enviable reputation in the development of solar voltaic systems and related developments in renewable energy, but governments need to invest and support this research, its development and commercialisation.

    We all appreciate your dedication to keeping us better informed about the changing environment and climate.

  4. Avatar Tim Buckley says:

    While BP’s actions of the last decade entirely justify your comments, I am watching with real interest to see if there is a fundamental pivot commencing in the European oil majors, led by BP’s new CEO Bernard Looney. New Paris aligned commitments from Total & Shell follow meaningful targets by ENI of Italy, Repsol of Spain + Equinor of Norway in 2020. We saw this week Total commit to invest £1.5bn in offshore wind in Scotland, following investments in solar across Spain, France, Qatar and India. Along with divestment of oil & gas assets, this pivot in capex is promising. It is early days, time will tell if it is sustained and strengthened to deliver on their Paris commitments.

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