Sunday environmental round up

Sep 26, 2021
Wind farm feature
(Image: Unsplash)

The pressure rises before the Glasgow COP meeting. The end of coal may be on the distant horizon but 80 per cent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels and corporate America is preparing to fight Biden’s climate action plans.

Technology not taxes. If the [insert fossil fuel guzzling country of choice] doesn’t buy our coal and gas, they’ll simply buy it from somebody else … and our coal is cleaner than everybody else’s so we’re doing the world a favour. Australia generates so few greenhouse gases, reducing our emissions won’t make any difference. It’s the Chinese and Indians who need to make all the effort. Ho hum … we’ve heard it all so often. The ALP may not make statements such as these quite so publicly as the Coalition but they are both tarred with the same brush when it comes to (in)action to reduce Australia’s fossil fuel exports. But…

… with only six weeks to go before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, it’s not only developing nations and NGOs that are bellowing their concerns and demands for the COP outcomes. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (and here), UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and US President Joe Biden have all issued desperate warnings that current national commitments and scales of action are woefully inadequate for averting a climate catastrophe.

Mistrust between developing and developed nations, lack of ambitious goals among both developed and emerging economies, failure of 40 per cent of nations to keep their promise to update their greenhouse gas reduction commitments, and the failure of rich nations to provide the promised US$100 billion per year financial assistance to poor nations to help them mitigate and adapt to climate change are poor omens for success in Glasgow. G20 nations (this includes Australia), that are responsible for 75 per cent of emissions, are particularly being called on to lift their game.

Guterres bluntly states: ‘We are on the verge of the abyss. When you are on the verge of the abyss, you need to be very careful about what the next step is. And the next step is COP 26 in Glasgow,’ and Johnson pessimistically (or maybe optimistically) estimates that there’s only a six in 10 chance of getting the breakthroughs needed in Glasgow to avoid catastrophic rises in global temperatures.

Is the end of coal on the horizon?

The good news on coal (and for the Paris Agreement) is that since 2015 the global pipeline of proposed coal power plants has collapsed by 76 per cent from 1553GW in 2015 to 482GW in 2021 (figure below). Since 2015 44 governments have committed to no new coal and a further 40 have no projects in the pre-construction phases. Market realities, government policies and civil society pressure are the driving forces behind this change.

China has reduced its list of internal planned projects by an impressive 74 per cent since 2015 but in 2021 it is still responsible for just over half of all pre-construction and construction projects. India, Vietnam, Indonesia, Turkey and Bangladesh are the next five largest remaining coal power developers. Action by China and these five countries (and by wealthy countries to assist them) could remove over 80 per cent of remaining pre-construction projects.


The pie chart shows the global size of planned coal power plant projects in 2015 and 2021.

The histogram shows the number of global planned coal power plant projects that were cancelled and became operational. The numbers are cumulative from year to year.

Xi Jinping’s announcement this week that China will stop financing overseas coal power plants is a welcome additional choke in the pipeline. Maybe the end of construction of new coal plants across the globe is just visible on the horizon.

Reinforcing this point, Tim Buckley at IEEFA is confident that a global tipping point has been crossed — not a climate change tipping point but a climate action tipping point. Buckley presents a range of evidence to support his contention that 2021 will see the bulk of investments in energy production going to renewables. He concludes that:

“The world is belatedly accepting the climate science and recognising a global effort is required to solve this global, existential threat. All of Australia’s key global trading partners are rapidly ratcheting up their pledges of combined action. Global financial institutions are aligning as well, acknowledging the growing stranded asset risks of continued investment in new fossil fuels, as well as realising there is a massive new investment opportunity globally to deliver on the solutions required. With the richest man in India [Mukesh Ambani] vying with the richest man in Australia [Andrew Forrest] to lead this global pivot, IEEFA is increasingly confident the weight of money globally has pivoted in 2021. Belatedly, but decisively. The Australia government must catch up.”

Maybe the tap for new fossil fuel developments is being slowly turned off, and yes, that’s very good news, but the fact remains that over 80 per cent of the world’s total energy supply is still provided by fossil fuels (see below). The power provided by solar and wind may be skyrocketing but it still accounts for less than 5 per cent of total global energy. It isn’t enough to stop building the fossil fuel supply chain, we have to rapidly close down the existing infrastructure to have any chance of keeping global warming under 1.5oC.

Fuel shares in world total energy supply 2019

In 2015 research indicated that a third of oil reserves, half of gas reserves and 80 per cent of coal reserves need to stay in the ground for any reasonable hope of keeping global warming under the 2oC maximum agreed by the world’s nations. But in Paris later in 2015 the nations also committed to pursue efforts to keep warming under 1.5oC. Six years on it is widely agreed that warming of 2oC is far too dangerous to allow to happen and that 1.5oC is a safer target — but not by any means a “safe” target, as evidenced by the changes produced by the current 1.1oC of warming on weather patterns, ecosystems and human health.

New modelling has looked at the requirements for keeping warming under 1.5oC in 2100 and found that 60 per cent of oil and gas reserves and 90 per cent of coal reserves (95 per cent for Australia) will need to stay underground. But, mark this, this is for only a 50 per cent chance of keeping warming under 1.5oC. I know it’s a hackneyed comparison but who would board a plane with a one in two chance of landing safely? Plus, the authors admit that their figures are probably underestimates as they (1) have not included Earth system feedbacks in the modelling and (2) assumed that the global average temperature increase will temporarily overshoot 1.5oC after 2050 and be brought back under 2oC before 2100 with carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technology — a much-hyped technology that have so far failed to deliver optimism, never mind results. Overshooting 1.5oC also increases the risk of catastrophic consequences arising from crossing one or more Earth system tipping points. The authors are clear that while their modelling is focused on 2100, action by fossil fuel producing nations is necessary now to peak production in the next few years. Anything less is simply passing the buck to the next generation — selfish negligence by the current generation of decision makers.

Corporate America fights back

It’s good to know that the major oil and gas companies have taken the leave-it-in-the-ground message on board — NOT! According to a co-author of a new Carbon Tracker report:

“Oil and gas companies are betting against the success of global efforts to tackle climate change. If they continue with business-as-usual investment they risk wasting more than a trillion dollars on projects which will not be competitive in a low-carbon world.”

In 2020 alone, ExxonMobil, Petrobras, Woodside, Shell and Total committed US$18 billion over the next decade to the development of five major oil fields. Which leads nicely into the question …

“Why does Mickey Mouse want to destroy civilisation?” No, this is not the hook for a new horror movie co-produced by Disney and Hammer Films. It’s the opening line of an article titled “Corporate America is lobbying for climate disaster” by Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman. According to Krugman, corporate giants in the USA including Disney, ExxonMobil and Pfizer are campaigning against Biden’s “last-chance” plan to spend US$3.5 trillion on climate action.

Biden’s intention is to drive decarbonisation of the electricity generation industry, and then widespread electrification of vehicles, business and buildings, with two measures: fines and subsidies to stop power companies burning fossil fuels, and tax credits for clean energy. This will be funded by higher taxes on corporate profits and tougher government bargaining on the price of prescription drugs. Hence the pushback, which Krugman regards as understandable but irresponsible and unforgivable. Krugman’s main point, however, is that there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity for the Democrats to make this happen because it’s quite possible that after the mid-term elections in November 2022 the climate-denying Republicans will control both houses of Congress. The Republicans are a lost cause for Krugman, so he proposes that the Democrats work on mobilising corporations that increasingly want to promote their “green” credentials publicly.

Krugman closes with: ‘This isn’t an ordinary policy dispute, which can be revisited another day. This is zero hour, and those who don’t do the right thing now won’t get a second chance’.

Identify that bird!

Bored with Covid? Give the little grey cells a workout with 10 Australian bird identification questions. Here’s one to get you started.

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