The Climate Emperor has no clothes …


But maybe it doesn’t matter …

Hardly anyone seemed to notice at last weekend’s G20 meeting in Brisbane that the Climate Emperor had no clothes. Nor did I hear anyone remark on the obvious contradiction involved in issuing a communiqué which simultaneously committed participant nations, at least in principle, to taking effective action on climate change while also committing to achieving an additional 2.1% in world economic growth over the next few years. That sort of extra growth would make it more rather than less difficult to achieve any useful global carbon emissions reduction target in the near future.

Some commentators (although not many in the left-leaning sectors of the Australian media) did at least note that Friday’s climate change agreement between the United States and China had some elements of a “smoke and mirrors” or “pea and thimble” trick. China isn’t agreeing to cap its carbon emissions for another 16 years and in that time aims at explosive economic growth which will continue to spew more and more CO2 into the atmosphere, even if they do gradually move from building coal-fired power stations to less polluting energy sources. By that stage there is a high probability that the world will have already passed a tipping point where catastrophic atmospheric temperature increases will be unavoidable.

As for America, Barack Obama is the lamest of lame-duck Presidents since the implacably carbon-denialist Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress only a couple of weeks ago. Although there are some things that Obama can do to reduce American carbon emissions using his executive authority as President, he certainly won’t be able with executive power alone to implement the strong measures needed to achieve the large emission reductions to which he purported to agree last Friday. Legislation will be essential and neither he nor a future Democrat President like Hillary Clinton has any chance of getting it enacted with the Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. Moreover Obama’s agreement with China won’t even become binding on the United States unless it is ratified by the Senate, and that just isn’t going to happen.

Then there is Europe. Despite pious posturing, the European Union is still showing no convincing sign of tweaking its emissions trading scheme to achieve a carbon price high enough to have a significant effect on the capital investment decisions of major carbon-emitting industries. According to a relatively recent Guardian article, the EU carbon price currently stands at €4.13, far below the €30 analysts say is needed to be effective in cutting carbon.

It all suggests that my Troppo colleague Paul Frijters (see links list at the bottom of this post) is correct in suggesting that there is a range of perverse economic incentives (including the free-rider effect) which together mean that there is Buckley’s chance of achieving a workable international agreement for meaningful carbon emissions reductions in the foreseeable future.

However, it is at least conceivable that Paul is being unduly pessimistic and that there are already changes occurring in the marketplace that will make any formal agreement between nation states unnecessary. Prices for solar and wind-powered energy technologies have been falling quite dramatically over the last few years, and many suggest that they will be at least competitive with fossil fuel alternatives by around 2020. That could mean that the EU carbon price, derisory as it currently seems, might actually end up being enough to influence investment decisions in the right direction even without any regulatory adjustment.

Moreover, the prices of lithium-ion and similar new generation battery/energy storage technologies are also coming down fast. It was recently reported that Elon Musk, the billionaire manufacturer of Tesla motor vehicles, is building the world’s largest production facility for such batteries somewhere in the United States, although I suspect it has more to do with producing batteries for electric vehicles than large-scale backup energy storage facilities for a national or regional power grid. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that we may soon be in a position where the total price for large-scale solar and wind-powered generation facilities will be more than competitive with fossil fuel sources, even including the cost of backup power storage necessary to provide baseload capacity for the relatively small number of occasions each year when peak load is reached at times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

When or if that situation is achieved, the market will begin making investment decisions in favour of clean renewable energy technologies. The days of coal and gas as major energy sources will be over. Even without affordable large-scale energy storage capabilities, moving to arrangements where fossil fuel power stations are only used as a peak load backup when solar and wind sources aren’t enough, would probably in itself achieve something close to the total reductions in carbon emissions necessary to avoid catastrophic temperature increase. We may actually be getting quite close to the point where that is achievable now.  Perhaps it is only the increasingly shrill and desperate lobbying of the still-powerful fossil fuel industry and its shills like Tony Abbott that is inhibiting it. In any event, I suspect that some such scenario is a much more realistic possibility than the prospect of ever achieving workable real-world international agreements, as opposed to the meaningless pious posturing and bulldust we witnessed over the weekend at the G20.

But of course I might be wrong. I’m not an expert on international politics let alone energy technologies or climate science, just a deeply interested observer. But who wouldn’t be, given that the stakes are our children’s and our planet’s future?

Some Paul Frijters climate change article

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic at Charles Darwin University, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law) and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 12 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in he early 1990s.
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42 Responses to The Climate Emperor has no clothes …

  1. Paul Frijters says:


    thanks. You flatter me. I indeed have stopped writing on the climate circus as it really is the same story every time and I got tired of pointing out what should be obvious: the politicians engage in lots of posturing to appease the symbolic needs of the gullible, but the posturing is devoid of real content because growth is more important politically, countries will free-ride on each other and over time, and the politicians and bureaucracies simply do not have the power to truly control emissions even if they would put all their efforts into it. So the politicians posture because there is a huge demand for the posturing whilst in actuality their impotence is not really their fault. Political power seems to come at the price of having to promise the impossible.

    I have watched the technological developments with a lot of interests as our ultimate hope indeed must lie in some technological solution, either in the form of geoengineering or in some clean technology becoming truly competitive.

    I am less optimistic than you though at the latest developments. Yes, solar is getting close to competitive for base power on sunny days, but the glut of shale oil and gas has lead to sharp reductions in the fossil fuel prices and the nuclear option has come up against population anxieties. Solar thus still has to get a lot cheaper to be competitive and no major technological breakthroughs have been forthcoming when it comes to long-distance electricity transportation, which you need if you are going to stack the deserts full of solar panels in order to feed the cities a long way away. Also, batteries are becoming cheaper, but nowhere near cheap enough to provide the huge capacity we will need to smooth solar input over the seasons. Besides, just on airfuel alone, we would keep burning fossil fast enough to increase the CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and it is currently difficult to see electricity motors achieving the thrust you need to get off the ground. Ditto for various other applications. So solar, which is looking the best of the available non-fossil option, is still a long way behind fossil fuels in terms of the cheapest source of energy.

    So the realistic hope must still be for some geoengineering option to cool the planet down. Some scheme that a small set of countries can enact without the cooperation of others. There is a lot of research on this point, but no big breakthroughs as far as I know.

  2. Ken Parish says:

    In this article by Mark Diesendorf (linked from the primary post as well) he claims to have crunched the numbers and determined that the following mix of technologies not including any fossil fuel sources would meet all Australia’s energy needs including covering adequately for the largest peak load when there is no wind or sun:

    – Wind 46%;
    – Concentrated solar thermal (electricity generated by the heat of the sun) with thermal storage 22%;
    – Photovoltaic solar 20% (electricity generated directly from sunlight);
    – Biofuelled gas turbines 6%; and
    – Existing hydro 6%.

    Obviously I have no way of knowing whether he’s correct but it sounds plausible. The major development that maybe your assessment is ignoring is the extent to which individual Australian households have taken to installing photovoltaic installations at home. Despite cutbacks in government subsidies and less generous buyback terms, that will increase as solar cell prices keep coming down. To the extent that this occurs, long distance energy transportation breakthroughs are less important than you suggest. Twenty percent reliance on that source doesn’t sound implausible to me. OTOH I have no idea whether 22% solar thermal is plausible, and no doubt it WOULD rely on transporting the generated power over long distances in many cases.

    • paul frijters says:

      reports like these have come out almost weekly for the last 20 years and are usually a hidden request for subsidies for something. One can spend a lifetime debunking them. One should hope that a year will come in which the costs will be competitive. This one seems to only talk about the electricity needs of the grid (are airoplanes going to fly on wind-powered electricity or on bio-gas?). It sounds like an awful lot of wind to me :-)

      • Ken Parish says:

        Having done some more power Googling, I have to admit you appear to be right in this respect. This article by Ted Trainer fairly convincingly debunks numerous aspects of the claims of Mark Diesendorf. In particular his claims for the likely contribution of solar thermal energy would appear to be wildly optimistic, for a number of reasons including the cost of long-distance transmission and the fact that it appears large amounts of redundancy would need to be built into the system because even the most optimal location for a large solar thermal installation will have significant parts of the time when it produces very little energy.

        Nevertheless, it does look as if we will in the very near future be able to generate at least 60% of our total grid electricity requirements from clean renewable sources especially wind and photovoltaic cells. If we can also substitute gas for coal to generate a substantial part of the remainder, and perhaps even actually develop affordable “clean coal” technologies, then it seems to me we would easily be able to achieve the 60% reduction in atmospheric carbon emissions that is said to be necessary to avoid large global temperature rises.

        The recent agreement between the New South Wales and Northern Territory governments to move towards building a gas pipeline from Central Australia to connect with the New South Wales gas grid suggests that at least the Baird government is seriously looking at conversion of existing coal-fired power stations to gas as an important part of its strategy. If Western Australia with its huge gas resources also connects, we would have a truly national gas pipeline grid that would make it feasible for power stations throughout south-eastern Australia to be converted to gas. If Tony Abbott wasn’t a lamebrain who believes global warming is somewhere between myth and left-wing conspiracy, he would be devoting a substantial part of federal infrastructure funding to that objective.

        I’m assuming here that people like Elon Musk will soon succeed in driving down the price of lithium-ion batteries thereby making electric vehicles a much more attractive choice for individual urban transportation. That would effect a major reduction in the contribution of vehicles to global carbon emissions.

        It seems to me that the bottom line is that, although some of the claims of clean renewable energy boosters like Mark Diesendorf are exaggerated, the world is quite close to a situation where very large reductions in global carbon emissions will be achieved through a combination of technological advances and market forces, without any need for draconian and probably unachievable multilateral agreements between nation states. I don’t think it is likely to be necessary to resort to the desperate expedient of large-scale geo-engineering.

  3. I would take issue with several of your arguments, Ken.

    1. Economic growth targets are not incompatible with climate change mitigation. Just because it is difficult to combine the two does not mean we should not try. This blog is a supporter of non-GDP measures of progress, so trying to maximise both GDP and non-GDP elements of wellbeing together seems to be to be congruent with the Lateral Economics approach.

    2. You are falling into the Mitch McConnell trap of using language that assumes that the Chinese will do very little to nothing at all until 2030. To achieve the cap target, China will have to undergo a radical transformation of its economy – starting now. The graph of its emissions is currently almost asymptotic, and to slow down the pace of emission rises implies a lot of work to change the way Chinese industry works.

    3. What is the alternative to allowing China to keep raising its emissions to 2030? Those emissions are (partially) lifting the Chinese poor out of the Middle Ages and into the 21st century. Would you deny them the opportunity to join the middle class by the millions? Would you have them confined to rural rice paddies forever? What gives us in the Western world the right to lecture them, when our historical emissions to get us to our level of wealth far outstrip theirs?

    4. You assume that Hillary Clinton won’t have control of both houses of US Congress. Have you seen her polling numbers? At this (admittedly early) point, the outcome that she will enjoy the same complete power that Obama did in his first two years from 2016-18 is the most likely one. Don’t fall for the meme that the latest electoral wave is permanent. They never are.

    5. You seem to be pushing the argument (stop me if I’m wrong) that agreements such as the US/China one is not necessary since the market will solve the problem. Why do you think that solar, wind and electric cars are approaching the cost levels of fossil fuel technologies? Because of government intervention, mostly. The Chinese now dominate the solar industry due to massive public investment in solar R&D and production capacity, which is not really Adam Smith approved. The American green investment fund that lost big on Solyndra, among others, is now making a profit due mainly to pouring money into Tesla. A laissez-faire environment would have never produced such innovation, especially in recent years where it’s hard to get funding for anything other than mining.

    I am not an expert on any of these things either, Ken, but I do read a lot and these facts are out there if you look for them.

    • Ken Parish says:

      I’m not suggesting that it was a bad idea for there to be an agreement between China and the United States, nor that China isn’t serious about controlling and eventually reducing its carbon emissions (for whatever reasons), nor that it could realistically do so much quicker than it is promising.

      The point I’m making is that the agreement has been overhyped by many parts of the Australian media. It doesn’t mean that it is likely that there will be any effective broad-ranging global climate control treaty any time soon, if ever. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying, but it does mean we should be pushing our government to move towards decreasing reliance on fossil fuels much faster, irrespective of progress on a treaty. I’m nowhere near as pessimistic as Paul Frijters about the prospects of technology advances and falling prices for renewable technology reaching a competitive point with fossil fuels some time soon. That’s where I think our efforts should be directed, not at the fantasy of achieving a meaningful global treaty in isolation from such developments.

      • Fair enough, Ken. I guess the media made a big deal of it mostly because of how much it embarrassed the PM. To that extent, the media is piling on the pressure you are seeking, even if it’s slightly overblown. Given how overblown Abbott’s rhetoric was in the first place, he’s only got himself to blame for blowback being such a bitch.

  4. conrad says:

    Expanding a bit on point 5 of PM’s post above, surely these sorts of agreements are most likely to accelerate technological progress even if countries only take them half-seriously. So if we assume this is the main way forward, then I can’t see how they are doing any bad.

    I also think that the Chinese are likely to have signed this deal because it’s pretty clear that they understand that the current situation needs to be turned around due to the immediate effects of pollution alone, which has serious side effects not only on human health (I doubt they care about people dieing early), but also on crop yields, which they certainly would care about due to its immediate effect. I presume India is in the same boat. In a 30 year time span, they can basically wait until all of their old power plants live out their life expectancy whilst replacing them with alternative technology as it gets better and cheaper. So they can hardly lose from such an agreement. This just gives you some guesses about how quickly they think alternative power sources are likely to get cheaper than fossil fuel ones.

    On an entirely different note, surely the most obvious large reductions in fossil fuel usage in the near future are going to come from electric cars. Who wouldn’t buy an electric car for the same price as a normal one and then add a 5K solar panel they can stick on their roof of their garage without the need for any expensive within-house connections if it mean no more fuel costs ever? I’d change my car over tomorrow, and I doubt this too far around the corner.

  5. I am still Not Trampis says:

    well We certainly cut emissions as Hugh Saddler has shown and it had little effect on our GDP growth.
    The reasons why we have had tepid growth has nowt to do with combating climate change.

    Strange article.

  6. Tyler says:

    I guess i’d make two points.
    I don’t think we can assume too much about the behaviour of the republican party after they lose to Clinton. Widespread conservative support (albeit feigned) for genuine action on climate change was a fait accompli as little as 8 years ago. The nihilistic destructiveness of the american/australian/canadian right on this issue seems driven by spite more than anything, they’ll jettison it if it seems to be standing in the way of power.

    Secondly whilst not a factual argument something that seems important to me at least is the fact that retaining/generating hope must have some value. Despairing of the likely consequences of the seemingly suicidal recklessness of the powers that be doesn’t seem that likely to motivate people to actually try and achieve something.

  7. john Walker says:

    The one thing that is completely missing from the US china agreement is- Carbon trading. Pragmatically this could be a good thing, waiting for global agreement on the who/what/which of a global Carbon trading scheme looks like waiting for Godo.

  8. paul frijters says:

    ps, Ken, the announced intention to increase world GDP growth by 2.1% is so stupid, that it really says more about the audience than about the G20. You might as well promise that everyone will soon have 10 birthdays per year, live to 200, and have a house on the moon. It treats the public with contempt.

  9. Ken, Ray Pierrehumbert’s article at Slate is worth a read, for a more optimistic take on China.

    Also, it was noted in Nature Climate Change recently that Chinese summers have very clearly grown hotter. The country is likely not one that can ignore the reality of climate change, and it appears communists accept science more than libertarians.

  10. Paul Frijters says:

    Hi Ken,

    explains nicely why solar and wind are still way more expensive than fossil fuel. Same story comes back under the guise of ‘grid costs’ in this 2012 OECD report:

    with the story even more simply explained in my 2012 blog on solar (including the comment section where I go through some hypotheticals on what it would cost to set up solar grids), since when nothing major has really changed in terms of the basic tradeoffs (the last one on your list!):

    • I am still Not Trampis says:

      Well John Quiggin and Noah Smith have found otherwise in recent times.
      A price on carbon would facilitate the change to renewables.

  11. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Speaking of John Quiggin, as an admirer of John, I was really quite disappointed with his column in the Guardian on the US-China agreement. Not a word of doubt – it was the Real Deal. I kept reading for some acknowledgement that the countries might not do as they said they’d do, but, though I admit I started skimming, I didn’t find it.

    • Economists are all about making assumptions and then rarely looking back at them, Nicholas… I guess Prof Q just decided his base assumption was to take the agreement on face value. :)

    • Ken Parish says:

      Yes, JQ’s column is distinctly Pollyanna-ish about the Obama-China agreement. This document and this one suggest that the agreement doesn’t need Senate ratification because it isn’t a treaty (which presumably means it won’t have the force of law, which it would have in the US if it was a treaty and had been ratified).
      It is also suggested that Obama would have a quite a bit of scope to implement the agreement via executive power under existing regulations under then Environment Protection Act. however a hostile Congress could thwart implementation to a major extent by blocking appropriations etc:

      But while Obama and the executive branch agencies that he controls, like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), can act on their own to implement the agreement, under the US constitution’s system of checks and balances, Congress pulls the pursestrings. When the next bill containing the EPA’s budget – or the next omnibus piece of legislation to keep the entire government running – comes round, Republicans can attach provisions called “riders” that would undermine, defund and restrict parts of the climate plan. Clinging to an unrelated bill like legislative barnacles, riders could, for example, prevent the EPA from using any money to actually enforce the rules and regulations necessary to implement the agreement.

      There isn’t much doubt that this is precisely what the GOP will do, which means progress on implementation of the Obama-China agreement will be slow at best until after the 2016 Presidential election. What happens after that will depend on who wins and who controls the House and Senate respectively.

      • john Walker says:

        That is pretty much what I have been told about the situation in the US re another ( unrelated) Democrat legislative/regulatory proposal . In fact it seems that the GOP intends to keep the US government on a bread and water diet, in general.

      • Mitch McConnell has ruled out shutting down the government again, and Obama showed steel on this kind of hostage-taking the last time the Republicans tried it. The GOP will lose that game of chicken, based on recent historical precedent. Even if you disagree that it’s 100% certain, it’s the right call to assume that they will lose it and that the government will continue to be funded to allow Obama to further the terms of the agreement. It’s a very defensible assumption that Prof Q makes.

        • john walker says:

          Controlling both houses, I think, means that the GOP can amend appropriation bills, rather than just reject or pass them,yes ?

        • Patrick says:

          They don’t need to shut anything down, it would be Obama being forced to veto things: the shoe is on the other foot, hence McConnell’s generous promise!

  12. derrida derider says:

    Sorry, Ken, but this is quite confused on the issues linking economic growth and a carbon price. For instance:

    According to a relatively recent Guardian article, the EU carbon price currently stands at €4.13, far below the €30 analysts say is needed to be effective in cutting carbon.

    Indeed, but why do you think the price is currently only 4.13? Might it have something to do with low growth? And if the Europeans do kickstart growth (unlikely, IMO) what do you think will happen to that price? And if that price soars, what do you think that will do to the carbon-intensivity of the new growth?

    This automatic feedback mechanism is in fact one of several important virtues of an ETS over other methods of reducing global CO2 known to economists. But instead we get the strange misalliance of the Deep Greens (cutting carbon will kill growth and hence capitalism. Aint it great!) and Big Carbon (cutting carbon will kill growth and hence capitalism. Aint it terrible!), where the premise of both arguments is quite wrong.

    • Ken Parish says:

      I’m certainly not arguing that an emissions trading scheme is a bad idea, indeed I accept that it’s probably the most economically efficient way to go about reducing carbon emissions. However, I do agree with Paul Frijters that the political chances of getting meaningful broad-based schemes operating in the foreseeable future are minimal. The European Union’s ETS is a classic example of what I’m talking about.

      Low current economic growth is only one reason why current EU permit prices are ridiculously low, and not the most important reason. The central reason is that they released far too many permits when the scheme first started, allowed lots of international credits for alleged carbon reduction efforts in developing countries et cetera et cetera. Moreover, despite numerous proposals to reduce the excessive number of permits in the system, nothing much is being done to fix it. Current estimates are that it will take more than a decade to wash the excess permits out of the system, even if Europe does return to respectable rates of economic growth in the near future. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Europeans, like everyone else, are not serious and are just making token gestures in the direction of climate change policy.

  13. John Goss says:

    Paul Fritjers’ concerns were valid 5 years ago, but each year since then the world has made signficant progress in addressing these problems, and on current trends it will easily address the remaining problems over the next 10 years.
    To take one example, China expects it’s coal consumption to peak in 2020, and it is quite likely to peak before then. The costs of renewable techologies are dropping much faster than I expected, and you have to give John Quiggin credit for his foresight in this area. Given that the technology costs have changed so rapidly, it is no surprise as Ken says, that the realpolitik is catching up. And it has been predicted by many that China and the US would lead the pack in agreements given they account for 40% of emissions between them. They are significant enough that their actions alone can impact on climate change, so on self-interest grounds alone we would expect them to act. The surprising thing in fact is they have not acted in concert before on this issue.
    The pessimists like Paul Fritjers and Clive Hamilton are being shown to be in error on this issue, but I don’t expect them to admitt it for another 5 years or so.
    PS If you want to see some critiques of Ted Trainer’s stuff Ken, John Quiggin’s blog has a number of posts on this.

    • paul frijters says:

      You are easily fooled then, John. From an emissions point of view, the news the last couple of years has been nearly all bad. Most ominously, it now appears that vast reserves of shale gas and oil can be commercially exploited in many areas around the world, meaning that whilst in the shorter-run the emission levels will drop a bit in the countries rich in this relatively lower-emissions fossil fuel, in the longer run the amount of fossil fuel we can go through has increased a lot. The building up of lots of new infrastructure to get at this gas and oil and to then distribute it should make it clear to you what the smart money thinks is going to happen the next 20 years or so.

      World emissions similarly have kept increasing. You do see the displacement in energy use from the most advanced countries to the catch-up countries, but this does not help the planet at all. And meanwhile the window-dressing keeps going.

      Ever since the 80s the story has been the same: whilst the gullible proclaim the imminent world adoption of a new way of life that will save the planet from rising emissions and a high stock of CO2, the reality remains that governments and businesses are planning the continued use of lots more fossil fuels…..

      • john Walker says:

        There is one thing that would change thinking radically -food, if the mostly reliable climate/rainfall of the main food producing areas of China and America was to significantly more unpredictable i.e major crop failures on a regular basis then …

      • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

        well Hugh Saddler certainly showed it was working here!

      • conrad says:

        I think you are too pessimistic on this Paul. This is because any technology that happens to get cheaper than fossil fuels will basically cause a switch en-masse, so I don’t think one can draw a linear line from some time in the past and the assume nothing will happen based on that. Fast, serious, and unpredictable change is one of the hallmarks of the 20th century, and I don’t see why we are suddenly going to slow down, especially when the winner is going to make a zillion dollars out of it.

        For example, everyone thinks about solar, wind etc. and perhaps they’ll get there and the storage constraints will be overcome. But almost no-one thinks about nuclear fusion, which curiously just recently Lockheed Martin was suggesting they’d solved (no-one believes them as far as I can tell). So to me there’s a lot of hard to predict human ingenuity going on out there that could change things quite quickly (and more obvious things to predict, like electric cars) — for example, if someone really did solve nuclear fusion in 10 years time, that would pretty much be it for most of our current power problems.

  14. John Goss says:

    The changes I was referring to Paul in recent years were with regard to the cost of renewable energy technologies and the rate of growth of renewable energy. Of course emissions are still increasing – largely driven by China’s increases – and they will continue to increase for some time. Renewables are growing from a low base so it will take some time for renewables (and nuclear energy) to have a major impact in countries like China and India. China will need to continue to build new coal fired power stations at a rapid rate for some years (at the same time as it closes some of its old highly polluting coal fired stations). But if you project forward based on what has been happening in the last few years, there is no question that renewables will be dominating additions to energy production by 2025 at the latest.

    And for those who think that the China-US climate deal is insignificant, Reneweconomy reports today that ‘Citigroup says the impact of the China-US climate deal signed earlier this month could total $US3.9 trillion ($A4.5 trillion) – that’s the loss in revenue for Big Oil and Big Coal over the next 15 years from the joint undertaking on greenhouse gas emissions by the world’s two biggest economies.
    And in a stinging rebuke to the fossil fuel lobby, the Abbott government and conservative commentators, Citigroup analysts say that a carbon price in Australia is inevitable, suggests thermal coal is on a permanent decline, and that investments in infrastructure surrounding the Galilee basin contain significant risk’.

  15. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    here is an old article from Noah Smith on solar energy. At odds with Paul

  16. Paul Frijters says:

    Few more reality checks for the gullible out there as to what is truly happening at the aggregate level:

    India is now projected to overtake the EU’s emissions within 10 years. Its own environment minister, Pakrash Jawadekar, just in September of this year signalled that he expected India’s emissions to keep rising for the next 30 years, though of course mumbling a bit about the importance of renewables in this mix (

    A handy rule of thumb to have in mind is that the earth is reabsorbing around 5 billion tonnes (net) of CO2 per years ( This of course is great news in a way as it signals more life on this planet has been enabled by the higher CO2 in the air, though it is expected that the reabsorbtion rate will reduce as forests and oceans get saturated.

    However, in the context of global emissions even this explosion of new life is paltry in comparison to the additional CO2. World emission levels are now close to 40 billion tonnes per year, rapidly rising around 3% a year, including in such places as the US and China. China alone hence belches out more emissions than the whole world’s ecosystem reabsorbes, and China has just announced that it will keep increasing its emissions till 2030, though even that is a non-binding commitment.

    The scale of the problem should thus start to dawn on you: the world would have to reduce its CO2 emissions by some 90% just to keep the stock of Co2 in the atmosphere constant, let alone decrease it. The re-absorption rates are so low that it furthermore hardly matters whether CO2 emissions are postponed by a decade or so: efforts that slightly reduce emission flows but that do not prevent them from happening at a later date, are close to futile from a world emissions perspective. In terms of their effects on temperatures, there is almost no difference between a scenario in which the world halves its emissions but simply keeps using up the fossil fuels till some cost parity number is reached, or whether it races ahead and reaches the cost parity earlier.

    It gets worse. Its not just India on its own, China on its own, and several fast growing regions on their own (like the Asian tigers or Latin America) that are set to emit more than the world can reabsorb. The airline industry alone, which was outside of the Kyoto agreements, is also, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization, on route to 3-5 billion tonnes of emissions by 2050. So just on its own, the airoplanes would emit enough to keep CO2 stocks constant and slightly growing.

    So I hope you start to see the scale of the task and the number of players involved. Couple that with the free-rider problem and the bureaucratic difficulties in measuring emissions (which are truly formidable), and you should realise that no-one, not even the US and China, can make much of a difference. Given the measurement difficulties and the pre-commitment problems, even a truly global agreement wouldnt make much difference. What one needs is for the costs of alternatives to go down enough (which is still a long way off, unfortunately), and for geoengineering to take center stage as a way of cooling the planet down.

    Until then, business as usual and political pantomime to please the gullible.

    • I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

      avoiding the question again.

    • Julie Thomas says:

      Paul, you seem to be bothered by the “gullibility” of other people. I’m not sure I understand what you think gullibility is.

      And what makes you ungullible so that you see the real truth?

      Have you ever thought that the gullible (and even those dreaded “free-riders”) that bother you so much are not what you think we are?

      Rhetorical questions, I don’t particularly expect to provide any answers. But maybe you could consider this suggestion? Perhaps some of us are optimists because we can see potentials and possibilities in human nature that will provide the behaviour changes on a world wide scale that will be needed.

      • conrad says:

        I don’t think you need to see the potential in human nature to solve the problem (at least not what I suspect you would consider positive potential), but you just need accept that people and corporations are greedy and that the prize for getting cheaper than fossil fuels is billions upon billions upon billions of dollars, and that really is a big prize worth winning. Encouraging entrants into the race is therefore a good thing.

        For example, why is Lockheed Martin (as in the corporation whose main business is using advanced physics to make and sell weapons and other things) trying to work out nuclear fusion? It’s because if they get there all of their share holders can probably retire happily and their managers will get a bonus they certainly won’t be able to spend easily.

        So to me, the bet is really on when technology advances, which is like reading tea leaves for some things (possibly not for solar), and not whether countries make agreements with each other — I agree with Paul that the latter of these will only make differences around the edges if nothing else happens since the agreements at best will simply slow things down a bit, and presumably we need much more than that. But I don’t see why technology won’t win out unless there is some fundamental constraint like there is on fossil fuels that no-one is talking about.

        • Julie Thomas says:

          True that, Conrad but again surely your faith in human technological ability to solve problems is because you are able to see the potentials, patterns and possibilities – dynamics? – in this particular way that people respond to their environment.

          I think that there are the other ways that human natures could self-organise to solve problems – not only the climate change – problem but the real problem of solving conflicts in an overcrowded world.

          I’m not sure why you would assume that selfishness is a ‘negative’ human potential. Yin and yang are not good and bad.

          I don’t agree that it is always profit and self-interest that drives innovation; the relationship that you note between motivation to innovate and create, and profit is a limited viewpoint of what we humans can and will do.

        • john Walker says:

          The more energy and money that goes into research on alternative supplies of energy (and storage of that energy) the more chance that it will become cheaper than fossil fuel sources, and that is our best hope. BTW Could be wrong but controlled/cold Nuclear Fusion (wonderfull as ot would be) still looks to me like the ‘winning lottery ticket’ from Nigeria.

        • conrad says:

          I don’t think it’s just greed either. But greed can certainly help. You have both going on now — there are big government projects looking at fusion and big private ones too, and the same is true of research into other alternative energy sources.

        • conrad says:

          I just use nuclear fusion as an example. I have no ability to evaluate it, although quite a few years ago one of my friends who was a nuclear reactor inspector in France and really did have good insight thought it wasn’t getting too far (basically, the energy going in was still more than the energy coming out). But Parisians often lack optimism :).

        • john Walker says:

          Apart from fusion , there are things like thorium reactors that intrinsically can not go critical and can not be used to make bombs, gather the main problem is a ‘inertia path dependancy’ one ; the very first reactors were explicitly built to make bombs and were only later adapted to energy production.

        • conrad says:

          John, I think the main drawback isn’t just inertia, it’s cost — nuclear is exceptionally expensive. I personally like it because in places like most of Asia, I’m happy to take the risk of accident versus breath in smog which kills people no matter what.

        • john Walker says:

          Agree that cost is a major factor, but unless somebody comes up with either a really good/affordable way of storing energy on a large scale, or with a really affordable/effective way of transporting electricity over very large distances, nuclear really looks like the best option for when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, no??

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