Climate Change Policy is a Mess
The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) contained its usual element of overreach.
It purported to be a roadmap whereby the global economy could confine emissions in order to keep global warming to a limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius above the temperature at the time of the industrial revolution.
These included such draconian measures as the phase-out of coal from industrial processes by 2050 and a radical reduction in the consumption of meat as a protein source.
The IPCC does not shy away from the difficulty of implementing its policy approach: it is concerned that storage technology is not yet at a level where countries can rely on renewable energy to power the whole economy.
It makes the point that, if emissions from vehicles are to be reduced through the use of electric cars and trucks, the amount of electricity generation will have to be radically increased which would pose problems for an economy based on 100% renewables as suggested by the Greens and Dr Kerryn Phelps.
The Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has wrestled with this problem and has become an enthusiastic supporter of hydrogen as an alternative to fossil fuel.
The CSIRO has been working on a process for obtaining hydrogen from brown coal such as that found in the La Trobe Valley.
The process involves breaking down the brown coal into hydrogen and CO2.
The hydrogen can then be liquified and transported to be used in electricity generators and transport vehicles.
The CO2 has to be buried underground through a process of carbon capture and storage.
Dr Finkel believes that there is tremendous export potential for hydrogen in Asia, particularly in Japan.
In an interview with David Speers on Sky News last Sunday he also endorsed the use of natural gas as a transition fuel and nuclear energy provided that the safe use of small modular reactors can be validated.
The common sense of Dr Finkel contrasts with climate change zealots who want to adopt economically non-viable positions.
This includes the Labor Party which wants to impose a 45% renewable target but maintains a moratorium on conventional natural gas exploration in proven gas fields.
The federal opposition also seems prepared to maintain massive subsidies for renewables while declaring that they are the cheapest form of power generation.
The problem with emissions policy at the moment is that it is relatively expensive for the small amount of emission reduction achieved.
Moreover, much of the policy is not evidence based.
We do not know the real cost of renewables with storage or its capacity to meet demand response.
Proposals to reduce meat consumption take no account of innovations introduced by farmers to reduce methane production.
As Bjorn Lomborg pointed out in an article in ‘The Weekend Australian’ on the best peer-reviewed estimates, implementation of the Paris Agreement in its present form will cost between US$1 trillion and US$2 trillion a year from 2030 in increased electricity prices but will do almost nothing to reduce emissions if the emerging countries continue on their current growth trajectories.
The IPCC tentatively suggests electricity rationing could be introduced but countries like China and India are unlikely to cop this.
Lomborg agrees with Alan Finkel that more research needs to be done into alternatives to fossil fuels and that some of the extra money should be spent on this.
He suggests that the balance could more usefully be spent on health issues such as the eradication of TB.
There is strong research in Australia that indicates that we do not need a new emissions policy.
The ANU Centre for Climate Economics estimates that, under current policy settings, Australia will reach 50% power generation through renewables by 2025.
The one game changer could be the construction of Snowy 2.0. If the decision is taken this year to proceed with construction it will provide enough back up power, along with Tasmanian hydro power, to support the transition to renewable power generation.
This should give Australia time to explore the prospects for a transition to other forms of energy such as hydrogen, natural gas and nuclear energy from small modular reactors.
Apart from transport, the other areas that will have to face emissions cuts are agriculture and construction.
Meat has become the newest issue for virtue signalling. Richard Branson famously declared he was giving up eating it for the good of the planet while still flying thousands of jets, emitting massive amounts of carbon dioxide, through the atmosphere.
Global livestock production emits about 5% of human induced CO2 emissions.
Australia produces about 0.1% of these.
A 25% reduction on this number will have no discernible effect on the global temperature.
Nevertheless, farmers have been taking measures to make their meat production carbon neutral by measuring the methane output of their animals and changing feed to reduce it, as well as planting carbon storage vegetation.
Moreover, methane is a very short lived greenhouse gas which disappears after 12 years so it doesn’t accumulate in the way that CO2 does.
While this means that it is less dangerous, it also means that you get faster greenhouse gas reduction if you eliminate methane.
On the other hand, the global population is likely to increase by three billion by 2050 and meat consumption will grow accordingly.
It is apparent that climate change is going to be one of the key points of difference between the major parties at the next general election.
Unfortunately the key issue of whether the tax payer should continue to subsidise renewable energy in order to keep electricity prices down will be lost in claims about attitudes to global warming, political donations from ‘big coal’ and, potentially, campaigns against nuclear energy.
The discussion will not be helped by the media who will tend to see the whole debate through the prism of the culture wars.
Meanwhile technological development will continue so that, despite the current policy mess, we are all likely to have solar powered houses, hydrogen or electric powered cars and low methane meat by 2030.