Sunday environmental round up.

Jul 11, 2021

Greta Thunberg accuses world leaders of pretending to tackle climate change. Ecocide gets a legal definition – President Bolsonaro beware! Economic viability of gas power plants justified on false assumptions and lots of reasons why nuclear isn’t the answer either. Australia’s emissions per person not as praiseworthy as the government would have us believe.

Regular readers will have surmised already that I’m a bit of a Greta Thunberg groupie. Why wasn’t I as eloquent as her in my teens? Here she is at the recent Austrian World Summit accusing ‘you, the people in power, especially the leaders of high-income countries, of starting to act … not acting as in taking climate action but acting as in role playing. Playing politics. Playing with words and playing with our future. Pretending to wage war against fossil fuels while opening up brand new coal mines, oil fields and pipelines. [But] nature and physics are not distracted by your theatre’. There are many more gems in her allotted seven minutes.

I mentioned a few weeks ago a move to establish ecocide as a new crime in international criminal law, alongside war crimes, crimes of aggression, crimes against humanity and genocide. The Stop Ecocide Foundation has now released a ‘practical and effective’ definition of ecocide as an international crime:

  1. “ecocide” means unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.
  2. For the purpose of paragraph 1:
    1. “Wanton” means with reckless disregard for damage which would be clearly excessive in relation to the social and economic benefits anticipated;
    2. “Severe” means damage which involves very serious adverse changes, disruption or harm to any element of the environment, including grave impacts on human life or natural, cultural or economic resources;
    3. “Widespread” means damage which extends beyond a limited geographic area, crosses state boundaries, or is suffered by an entire ecosystem or species or a large number of human beings;
    4. “Long-term” means damage which is irreversible or which cannot be redressed through natural recovery within a reasonable period of time;
    5. “Environment” means the earth, its biosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere, as well as outer space.

The definition, formulated by an international panel of twelve jurists, has been released for comment and it is hoped that it will serve as the basis of consideration for an amendment to the remit of the International Criminal Court. It’s interesting to note that the panel’s report is dedicated to the contribution and memory of Australian jurist James Crawford who died recently.

The complex relationships between abuses of the rights of Indigenous peoples, criminal activities such as land theft, torture and murder, and the proposed new crime of ecocide are well illustrated in Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Bolsonaro’s defence of destruction of the Amazon is that he has a mandate from the people and that Brazil is a sovereign state that can do as it pleases within its own borders and has contributed very little to climate change anyway. Just the arguments any country might use to, say, justify its failure to take adequate action on climate change or avoid its obligations to international refugees and asylum seekers.

If, like me, you are not an engineer, to understand the next story you perhaps need to know that a power plant’s capacity factor is the ratio of actual energy produced to the plant’s maximum possible output over a year. Operate every hour of the year: capacity factor 100%. Operate every hour for 26 weeks or half a week every week: capacity factor 50%.

The Australian government is providing $600 million dollars to Snowy Hydro to build a new gas peaker or dispatchable gas power plant at Kurri Kurri in the NSW Hunter Valley. The government’s logic is that this is needed to maintain the reliability of the electricity grid after the Liddell coal-fired power station closes in 2023. The investment has been criticised as unnecessary. The Kurri Kurri plant is predicted to operate for only 2.5% of the year and there will be sufficient electricity supply to manage demand without it. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) has now also shown that the government’s financial modelling is based on a false assumption: specifically, that the new plant will maintain a constant capacity factor over its lifetime. History tells us that this is not the case. The two graphs below demonstrate that the average capacity factor of all the gas-fired power plants in Australia’s (eastern states) National Electricity Market fell from 27% in 2010 to 16% in 2020, and that the capacity factor of only the gas peaker plants fell from 12% to 7%.

On the basis of this evidence, IEEFA advises potential investors in future gas power plants to beware of cost projections based on the commonly used but false assumption that gas power plants maintain a constant capacity factor throughout their operating life. Just like coal-fired power plants, they don’t, and so their operating costs increase. And just like their coal cousins, they will rapidly become stranded assets, pushed aside by cheaper wind, solar and batteries.

Ten reasons why nuclear power is not a solution for climate change:

  1. Increasing the number of nuclear power plants (currently around 450 globally) increases the risk of a catastrophic accident caused by an extreme weather event – becoming more common with climate change.
  2. Nuclear plants consume vast amounts of water, a diminishing resource in a warming world, and uranium mining pollutes groundwater.
  3. Nuclear plants take 7-10 years to build – we need solutions that can be operational now.
  4. Nuclear power produces 88-146 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity. Wind power emits 5-12 grams.
  5. If we replaced 70% of global energy use with nuclear power we’d run out of recoverable uranium in six years.
  6. Nuclear plants are very expensive to build and often suffer cost blow outs along the way.
  7. Nuclear power is a precursor to nuclear weapons. More countries with nuclear power means more countries with the potential to produce nuclear weapons.
  8. Nuclear waste remains radioactive for millions of years and there’s still no safe way to store it.
  9. Uranium mining is unsafe for the environment and workers.
  10. Most uranium mines are on Indigenous lands.

Plus, eleven, nuclear power is a centralised power source that requires lots of up-front capital and a large distribution grid, and, depending on location, private ownership. Wind and solar provide lots of opportunities for local councils and communities to build facilities that are tailored to local needs, independent from the grid and community controlled.

The Morrison government repeatedly presents Australia’s (modest) reductions in CO2 emissions per person as evidence of their strong action on climate change. However, as a measure of achievement in reducing global warming, emissions per person is complete rubbish. Total emissions, not emissions per person, is all that matters. The government also loves to play the ‘look over there’ trick to justify not taking more action: ‘What about China? They produce far more emissions that we do’. Duh! – their population is 56 times larger.

But the emissions per person metric does have some uses – it demonstrates where moral responsibility lies and it highlights deception and obfuscation about action. The graph below illustrates these points in spades. Not only are Australia’s and the USA’s emissions per person at least twice as high as China’s but also note that all three countries’ levels remained remarkably constant between 2014 and 2019. If anything, Australia’s have increased marginally.

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