Friday, August 24, 2012

The Economy is the Pied Piper

Those who claim that our economy can't afford to replace fossil fuels with renewables are mesmerising us with lies and leading us to a wasteland, just as the Pied Piper led the children of Hamelin off into the wilderness.
For he led us, he said, to a joyous land,
Joining the town and just at hand,
Where waters gushed and fruit-trees grew,
And flowers put forth a fairer hue,
And everything was strange and new;
The sparrows were brighter than peacocks here,
And their dogs outran our fallow deer,
And honey-bees had lost their stings,
And horses were born with eagles' wings.
Robert Browning

The glittering promises of a joyous future based on coal, oil and natural gas are as real as the Piper's promise of sparrows as bright as peacocks.

Every credible economic advisor says that tip-toeing around carbon emission reduction will cost more in the long run. Here's what the very excellent Australian Treasury (the guys whose advice has made Australia the stand-out OECD economy) says. 
Early global action is cheaper than delayed action. For economies like Australia, deferring action on climate change will only lead to higher long-term costs as emission-intensive technology, processes and outputs are locked in.

Nevertheless, we have governments that seem to be mesmerised by a magical Piper as they continue to subsidise fossil fuel industries and give permits to new coal mines, oil wells, and gas wells as though fossil fuels are not destroying our future with their carbon emissions.

In Australia, we have a government that brought in a carbon price of $23/tonne based on a world where CO2-e emissions can rise to 550ppm. Yes, 550ppm, not the 450ppm that gives a 75% chance to keep average global warming within the 2°C guardrail, and not the 350ppm that many credible scientists recommend as the maximum for a safe climate.

When will they wake from sleep and understand that countries can't be run to the misbegotten tunes of economists? As we come ever closer to the absolute resource limits of a finite planet, some economists are beginning to realise that growth economics is a fantasy.

Tim Jackson, economics commissioner on the UK government's Sustainable Development Commission says,
The idea of a non-growing economy may be an anathema to an economist. But the idea of a continually growing economy is an anathema to an ecologist.

So, don't be taken in by those who say that the 'joyous land' of the future will be based on coal, oil and natural gas. Recognise them for what they are - persuasive folk who spin yarns about horses born with eagles' wings.


In the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Browning describes how government officials responded when the Piper claimed his fee for ridding the town of rats.
A thousand guilders! The Mayor looked blue;
So did the Corporation too.
For council dinners made rare havoc
With Claret, Moselle, Vin-de-Grave, Hock;
And half the money would replenish
Their cellar's biggest butt with Rhenish.
To pay this sum to a wandering fellow
With a gipsy coat of red and yellow!
They refused to pay the thousand guilders and ended up paying a much higher price when the Piper led all their children away. Right now, we're acting like that Mayor and Corporation. We're not willing to pay the price of an immediate transition to a low-carbon economy. Our children and grandchildren will pay a very heavy price. As extreme weather events become daily fare, oceans acidify, and sea levels rise, many will pay with their lives.

We have to pay the piper, dance with the one who brought us.

We can't argue with Mother Nature, but we can, and must, side with ecologists against economists.


H/T David Oertel for noting that the economy is the Pied Piper.


Snippet from the Transformation tab.

China estimated it may spend $373 billion on projects for conserving energy and reducing emissions in the five years through 2015. The State Council announced a plan to reduce by 2015 the amount of energy it uses to produce every unit of gross domestic product by 16 percent from 2010 levels. In the five years through 2015, China is aiming for energy savings equal to 670 million tons of standard coal equivalent energy. Source: Bloomberg.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Gas reserves give us enough rope to hang ourselves

Like many other countries, Australia is in the thrall of gas. The Australian government identified gas as a stepping stone on the path to decarbonising our economy when it was believed that replacing coal generators with gas would be an effective interim measure in decarbonising our economy.

This position comes from politicians practising the art of the possible and throwing the fossil fuel industry a bone.
OK boys, we can't have as much coal, but, look!, we'll have gas instead.
It's a clever move because it pits one fossil fuel (coal) against another (gas). That makes it one set of guys in hard hats against another, which is much better than pitting the hard hats against the beanie-capped renewable brigade, or the Knitting Nannas, who can call upon moral principles that are more powerful than crude commercial arguments.

The art of the possible is modest. It lacks ambition and is hobbled by caution. It won't rouse us to the national effort that is needed for the energy revolution that lies ahead. So it is entirely deserving that the 'gas as transition' strategy has come unstuck in all kinds of ways.

The deep unpopularity of coal seam gas projects in local communities has unleashed a groundswell of local action expressed powerfully in the Lock the Gate campaign.

Another major problem with the 'gas as transition' idea is that emerging evidence shows that gas won't cut the mustard when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.

As the International Energy Agency says,
The high gas scenario shows carbon emissions consistent with a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5°C. A path towards 2°C would still require a greater shift to low-carbon energy sources, increased energy efficiency and deployment of new technologies including carbon capture and storage (CCS), which could reduce emissions from gas-fired plants.
If coal generators are replaced by gas generators that endure for 30-40 years, they will be emitting carbon dioxide for decades to come. This won't meet the timetable required to keep average global temperatures below the 2°C guardrail for a safe climate.

Yet another difficulty is the emerging data that gas is no cleaner than coal when things like fugitive emissions are taken into account.

No wonder that the hard-nosed Jeremy Grantham, former chairman and chief investment strategist for the $100 billion funds manager GMO Capital, recognises additional gas reserves as a trojan horse - beguiling but dangerous.
The major disadvantage of all of these extra (oil and gas) reserves, though, is that they will give us more rope with which to hang ourselves by frying the planet.

If we are to prevent dangerous global warming and keep the planet within the 2°C guardrail for a safe climate, 80% of gas, coal and oil reserves will need to be left alone. They will be stranded assets unless/until carbon capture and sequestration becomes commercially viable.

What to do?

Be informed. Have a questionning mind. Support the Lock the Gate campaign and the 100% Renewables campaign.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Don't ask little of me - you might get it.

We are a lucky generation – we're living at the dynamic beginning of massive global transformation. It's a time to ask big things of ourselves and of each other – just as Winston Churchill did in a speech to the British people at the beginning of WWII.
We are in the preliminary stage of one of the greatest battles in history. ...  I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.
Winston Churchill

Nothing calls the human spirit to effort better than the promise of great difficulty. The comprehensive energy revolution that lies before us is a massive task and this is the critical decade.

This is the decade when Australia needs to make a serious start on a national plan to shift electricity generation from 8% renewables to 100% renewables.

Beyond Zero Emissions, a climate policy think tank, has produced a roadmap that shows how Australia can do this over just 10 years, at a cost of 3% of GDP. The Zero Carbon Australia plan involves approximately 6,400 wind generators (7.5 MW capacity) and nearly 200 Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) plants spread across Australia's best solar and wind regions. Here's how it looks.

The new CST plants and wind farms would be built in clusters and joined to the national grid that will be enhanced with additional HVAC lines as well as some HVDC lines for longer distances. HVDC power lines lose only 3% of power per 1,000 km.

The focus on two technologies, CST and onshore wind turbines, is a result of several factors.
  • CST and wind turbines are commercial off-the-shelf technologies so there is no delay in getting started.
  • Australia has excellent solar and wind resources (e.g. we have plenty of room for onshore wind turbines so we don't need any of the more expensive offshore wind farms).
  • Together, CST and wind can deliver reliable baseload power that is sufficiently flexible to dispatch power at short notice and cope with variability of demand and changing weather conditions. CST with salt storage delivers electricity 24 hours a day because the molten salt stores heat from the sun to keep the turbines turning through the night.

Australia is not alone in planning continent-wide electricity grids that rely on renewables. Desertec has done similar planning for a grid that encompasses Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Like Australia, deployment is at an embryonic stage. A CST plant has been commissioned in Tunisia while Saudi Arabia and UAE are rolling out ambitious programs for utility scale solar power. They are positioning themselves for the post-oil era so they can continue to be energy exporters.

In the US, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) report Renewable Electricity Futures Study (RE Futures) demonstrates that the US (lower 48 states) could be 80% renewable by 2050.

The Australian government is comissioning its own study to show how Australia's electricity could transition to 100% renewables by 2030 or 2050.

So now the thought has been thought, it's hard to unthink it. We are at the beginning of an energy revolution. The transition to 100% renewables will be a battle, tooth and nail, with wealthy and powerful fossil fuel interests. They will oppose every step that reduces markets for their coal, oil and gas.

Churchill was lucky, the European theatre of war in WWII lasted only five years. In contrast, our battle with fossil fuel interests will last for decades. It will take toil, tears and sweat, and even blood. Plenty of blood has been spilt defending oil resources, and it is likely to happen again.

That's why I say we are a lucky generation. We live in times that ask a lot of us. Can we rise to the challenge?
Don't ask little of me, you might get it.


The Transformation tab reports examples of progress towards a low-carbon future. Here are recent snippets.

Morocco, Saudi Arabia, UAE and South Africa are building utility-scale solar generators using Concentrated Solar Thermal technology. Source: ConstructionWeek

Morocco maintains a national renewable energy and energy efficiency strategy that includes renewable energy sources meeting 42% of electricity demand by 2020. Source: Cleantechnica

Friday, August 17, 2012

Superhero Costumes Optional

Climate Haka, Knitting Nannas and now Don't Just Sit There, Do Something. There are hundreds (thousands? millions?) of authentic voices calling for action on climate change. They come in every accent and flavour, and each one has its tribe of followers.

Joylette Portlock's voice blends her solid science background (PhD in Genetics) with a sense of fun and the down to earth practicality of raising two small boys. The result is Don't Just Sit There, Do Something – a series of videos where Joylette plays multiple roles to present climate change issues.

The six-minute videos showcase reliable information with lots of humour and, best of all, each video ends with two recommended actions – one personal and one aimed at systemic change. For example, Episode Six about air quality ends with a personal recommendation to set your airconditioner a little warmer, and a systemic recommendation to sign a petition to support safer limits on particle (soot) pollution.

For me, the best thing about these videos is that they pull no punches about the impact of climate change AND the actions they recommend match this level of seriousness. The actions are  very do-able, and the systemic actions are especially important for driving large-scale change.

I don't know about you, but I find it mind-numbing to sit through presentations that warn that 100 million Bangladeshis are likely to be displaced by rising sea levels and then to be told that I can help prevent it by sharing my lawn mower with my neighbour. It feels like a woefully inadequate response.  Individual actions are important, but we also need radical reform of energy systems at the global level.

If you like a little humour with your climate messages check out the inspiring videos from Don't Just Sit there, Do Something. They'll put a smile on your face and inspire you with hope.

Then share them with everyone you know!

Yep - that's a recommended action. 


The Transformation tab reports examples of progress towards a low-carbon future. Here's a recent snippet.

US Wind capacity has reached 50GW and will hit 60GW by end of 2012.  50 GW of wind power capacity represents the generating power of 44 coal-fired power plants, or 11 nuclear power plants. Source: RenewablesBiz.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Stick to your knitting

"Stick to your knitting" is good advice for modern distracted minds. When we stick to our knitting, we mind our own business and stay on task.

In Australia, Knitting Nannas Against Gas are minding the business of farming women and focusing their efforts in a campaign against the Coal Seam Gas wells that are damaging Australia's farmland. A convoy of women (calling themselves Knitting Nannas Against Gas) is visiting Queensland farming properties where gas wells and pipelines cross the countryside. At one farm they say:
They talk about not making judgements until you've walked a mile in someone's boots. Celia Makay doesn't have a lot, and certainly not shoes to spare. Today, Nannas and others walked a mile in the unnatural mud of the CSG pipeline dividing her property. I tremble with indignation.
A few days ago, I wrote about macho climate activists with visible tattoos and quoted Bill Clinton's call for salt-of-the-earth working men to stand up for renewable energy. Strong and energetic men are a powerful force in any community, and once they are roused to action they can move mountains.

Women have a different kind of power that is just as effective. When those patient women who knit intricate clothes, shawls, blankets and toys for their loved ones are roused to action, we REALLY take note. It takes a lot to stir our Nannas to hit the campaign trail.

Knitting Grandma by Antonia Lanik-Gabanek

Each of the 'tribes' that make up our community – macho workers, loving Nannas, students, tech geeks, policy wonks, minorities, parents, educators, hobbyists/club members and more – has its own style. Climate activism and environmental protection needs all of these different styles, from Knitting Nannas to Climate Haka and all the hybrids in between.

So, ask yourself, what is YOUR tribe? What is your style of activism? Who will you team up with to counter the lobbying dollars of the fossil fuel incumbents?

It is not our grandmothers' weather any more, fossil fuels will be stranded assets, and our governments need to hear from all the tribes in society.


UPDATE: 20 February 2013. Knitting Nannas had a big win this week when the State government announced new restrictions on CSG.  The new rules will protect homes and some agricultural activities, but the Nannas won't give up till the rules also protect water.


The Transformation tab reports examples of progress towards a low-carbon future. Here's a recent snippet.

The US Export-Import (Ex-Im) Bank has signed an agreement with South Africa's Industrial Development Corp.  pledging $2 billion in finance for solar, wind and other clean-energy projects that use U.S. technologies products and services. South Africa has set a target to reduce carbon emissions by 34% by 2020 and by 42% by 2025.   Source: SustainableBusiness.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Climate activism with tattoos

Are renewables too girly? Is energy efficiency too tame? Are EVs for milksops? Where's the challenge for the testosterone-endowed warriors in the silent acceleration of an electric car? What is big and bold about recycling and using LESS of something?

Social responsibility doesn't usually jive with a macho image and Edwin Stafford and Cathy Hartman argue here that climate communication needs to be more macho if it is to reach new audiences.

As an example, they note the success of the Don't Mess with Texas anti-littering campaign that reduced roadside littering by 72% in the first two years and went on to become  a cultural phenomenon.  The slogan has been popularly appropriated by Texans, appears on memorabilia merchandise and is even the official motto of the Virginia-class submarine USS Texas.

In my part of the world, tattooed Rugby League players are the epitome of macho. When tough Rugby League players like Tongan Fuifui Moimoi or Samoan Frank Puletua are aroused to defend their families they can wear shell necklaces and feather skirts and no one messes with them.

With his ever-accurate social radar, Bill Clinton put his finger on it recently when he said -
The more people with visible tattoos who advocate for clean energy, the more success it will have in Washington. You win the tattooed vote and we’ll have the damnedest environmental policy anybody ever saw.

While Texans are tough, nobody does 'don't mess with me' better than New Zealanders. The ancient Maori haka is presented before every Rugby Union game - check out this 2010 international game.

It's time for a climate haka.

It's time for machos with tattoos to carry green shopping bags with attitude.

It's time for tough men to stand up to defend their homeland so that no one messes with the future of their children and grandchildren.


The Transformation tab reports examples of progress towards a low-carbon future. Here's the latest snippet.    

The Chinese government has confirmed it has increased its target for solar energy by 40 per cent, pledging to deploy 21GW of capacity by 2015. The move is is accompanied by new minimum targets for renewable energy use that will be imposed on energy firms and grid operators, and means that renewables will account for 9.5 per cent of the country's energy mix by 2015. Source: BusinessGreen

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Popcorn catastrophe

Ken Ward observes that when climate activists cry catastrophe! and then list benefits like green jobs and reduced oil imports to be gained if we take preventative measures, [it] is odd and confusing behaviour, like running into a crowded movie theater and shouting "Fire! -- and don't forget to buy popcorn on the way out, with all the unexpected traffic, it's on sale!".

This reminds me of one of my disappointments with Australia's current government. Despite heads rolling, it has succeeded in passing the Clean Energy Legislation that puts a price on carbon, compensates low income households and small businesses, and invests in renewables. In the weeks leading up to implementation, it ran an ad campaign about it. What did they say?

Did they mention that this legislation is a response to the catastrophe of climate disruption, like "We know the cinema is on fire, here comes the fire brigade!"

Did they say, "We're on the job, making Australia a safer place for future generations."

No, they ran ads of soothing domesticity that said, "You'll get some money. Aren't we nice?"

That's it. Nothing else. Indeed, they didn't even mention the legislation!

This is like addressing the crowd in the cinema and not mentioning the fire that has started in the projection room, saying instead, "There's a street parade outside they are throwing coins to the crowd."

Little wonder that Australians are disappointed and confused by their government.

Nevertheless, muddled as they are, the Government is better than the Opposition who have promised to undo the Clean Energy Legislation. That's like disbanding the Fire Brigade. I guess that their messaging is consistent. Given that they don't fully acknowledge climate disruption, it's like saying, "There is no fire so we don't need a Fire Brigade."

Eventually, all countries will get onto war footing to fight climate disruption. In the meantime, as individuals we can match our words and actions to the magnitude of the problem and call a spade a spade, as the very excellent James Hansen does in this Washington Post article today.

UPDATE: Researchers note that altruism and personal gain tend to cancel each other out. Appeals to self-interest can backfire and accidentally encourage people to behave selfishly in other areas. Source: NatureClimateChange. There's another reason that governments should encourage pro-environmental behaviour for the greater good and not just for personal monetary gain.


The Transformation tab reports examples of progress towards a low-carbon future. Here's the latest snippet.   

British supermarket chain Sainsbury has installed over 69,500 solar panels on its stores, laying claim to the title of Europe's top solar generator. The company said that it has 16MW of solar capacity spread across 169 of its 572 UK supermarkets, meaning that collectively the firm manages the largest solar array in Europe. Source: BusinessGreen