Of Plan B and the Hail Mary Pass on emissions: our non-renewable future

(Cross post from Gen Adaptation)

For those of us with a keen interest in adaptation – and possible future scenarios – this week has seen two important developments.

Firstly, the progress – albeit tentative – achieved at Durban. At first glance, it appears as though we may get a binding treaty to supersede Kyoto that includes both developed and developing nations.

The second is the release of the energy futures paper by the Australian government. What is important about this document is its explicit acknowledgement that Australia’s energy sector will remain very much reliant on fossil fuels, and that we’re a long way off from large-scale implementation of “alternative” energy sources.

Was anything achieved at Durban?

Before we get too excited about Durban, let’s consider a few facts:

  • it’s a road map towards the drafting of a treaty yet to come into force
  • under the best scenario (a binding treaty that sees the world attempt to reduce CO2 emissions) temperature rises will continue

Anything past the “2 degree” limit is regarded as more than risky. The kind of targets being discussed will most likely see a 3+ degree rise in temperatures. It’s more akin to playing Russian Roulette with three loaded chambers rather than one. 

A 3.5 rise in temperature greatly increases the risk of positive feedback loops, thus pushing temperatures even higher. For those readers less familiar with the concept, there are vast reserves of CO2 locked in natural “sinks” such as methane clathrates and frozen plant matter in the Siberian tundra.

When temperatures rise, this hitherto sequested CO2 will be released in a massive “pulse” that may (actually most likely) push temperatures well past 3.5 degrees into the more catastrophic 6+ degrees.

If you want to know what a 6+ degree world was like, take a peak at the world during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.

At this point reducing anthropogenic emissions would be the least of our concerns.

Cheer up already, Durban is a great result!

I suppose I could be accused of being unduly pessimistic.

But then recall that under Kyoto greenhouse emissions have been growing in excess of what is regarded as “safe”. It’s also asking future players to commit to emission reductions: we can’t know the future or the individual players.

We’ll be asking them to do the very thing we’ve failed to do for the last two decades: take positive action.

Once more we’re deferring the problem to the future.

Graeme Readfearn in a post on The Drum sums it up:

“… So the cold-hard reality (or should that be increasingly warm and unpredictable reality) is that even if all these negotiations go to plan, the world’s emissions will continue to rise sharply up to 2020. That’s almost a decade’s worth of continues growth in emissions.

… To give the planet (that’s us, folks) a “likely” chance of limiting global warming below 2C, global human-caused emissions need to peak at about 44 Gt of greenhouse gases by 2020.

But those UN analysts and scientists for Climate Analytics, say current pledges on emissions will instead see the world emitting more like 55 Gt by then.

This looks like a commitment to warm the planet by about 3C by the end of the century. BBC science correspondent Richard Black says some analysts are projecting that current pledges will in fact deliver 4C of global warming. Yet the science suggests that a world warmed by 2C, considered the threshold for “dangerous” climate change, is still a radically changed place.

Among some of the probable impacts in a 2C+ world, are widespread coral bleaching, sea level rises of a metre, more extended droughts, decline of crops, dieback of the Amazon rainforest, sharp rises in species extinction rates, more frequent extreme weather events such as floods and heatwaves and a broad array of human health impacts…”

Thus I regard Durban as nothing more than a statement of our species aspirations. Well meaning and a much better result than the Copenhagen debacle. But we’re yet to see the holy grail of binding agreements.

Still, Durban did cheer me a little.

Australia’s fossil fuel future and Gillard’s Hail Mary Pass

While the climate change scep… oops, deniers may believe climate change is all part of some massive conspiracy to transfer wealth to hippies so they can cover the globe with wind farms, the recent white paper on Australia’s energy paints a much more realistic picture of our energy future.

If Gillard and the “massive conspiracy” were really keen on destroying the Australian economy and enslaving us in some sort of dystopian future where the electric light-bulb is banned, then tinkering around the edges of the energy industry is not the way to do it.

Afterall, exempting new power stations from emissions targets is a funny way to introduce a one-world-government.

Fossil fuels will continue to dominate well until 2050, while alternative sources with energy sources such as solar expected to contribute a measly amount. One only has to look at Chapter 3 of the white paper to see just how much fossil fuels will continue to dominate.

Oh and in case you missed it, by 2035 coal exports are expected to almost double from >10,000 petajoules in 2010-2011 to <18,000 petajoules in 2034-35:

Note the very, very small drop in consumption.

Yes folks, our future will remain very much depended on Ol’ King Coal.

All this of course makes the claims of the denial movement even more absurd. Gillard & Co envision us producing and exporting even more coal than we do today. Not quite the war on the mining industry and “life-as-we-know-it” is it?

The report also hints that nuclear energy, although not supported (cough) by the government (cough) may be on the table under future governments.

So it remains to be seen whether the Liberals or Labor will take the plunge. At this point my money is on either party committing us to a “nuclear future”.

And please, don’t tell me we can achieve the target of 100% renewable energy in a decade or so.

Its time we gave up that fantasy.

The powers-that-be are too well entrenched, and our political system so fixed in favour of fossil fuel interests, that such a radical approach to changing our energy mix is a still-born strategy.

Consider the fact the Gillard government has dropped the “election promise” to devise rules to limit greenhouse emissions on new power plants: 

“…THE Gillard government has dumped an election promise to introduce rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.

Launching a long-awaited energy policy paper, Energy Minister Martin Ferguson said the proposed emissions standards – which Prime Minister Julia Gillard said would mean an end to the building of ”dirty” coal power plants – had become redundant, given Australia was introducing a carbon price.”

Short sighted?

Sure.

To be expected?

Of course.

The introduction of the carbon price can now rightly be seen as the Gillard government’s “Hail Mary pass” for reducing greenhouse gases. It might – or might not – work, but what the heck let’s give it a shot! At the very least, we’ll have the fig leaf of doing something.

Or as Greg Combert, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency, put it in an article in “The Australian” today:

“We have a head start on low-carbon revolution… 

…Some people have claimed that the 2020 timeframe for a new international legal agreement is too far off and that this will be a “do nothing decade”. This could not be further from the truth.”

Yes, some people Greg just don’t get it do they?  

That would be the scientists and those with an understanding of just how risky pumping that much CO2 into the atmosphere is.

But let’s talk what is being ignored, or studiously avoided. We’ve entered the age of climate disruption. It will be hotter, wetter and with more extremes of weather.

And on that basis, your “low-carbon revolution” looks rather underwhelming.

Conclusions: Plan B is now Plan A

Firstly, let me state we should continue to encourage the development and deployment of alternative energy sources. Secondly we should continue to strive for global treaty that seeks to reduce greenhouse emissions.

These are all worthy goals and should be simultaneously pursued.

But taken together, the events of the last week demonstrate once again just how hard it will to restrain emissions, switch our energy sources and avoid an inevitable rise in global temperatures.

We need to accept the near inevitability of an average rise in global temperatures of 3+ degrees before century’s end.

For some time adaptation was seen as a kind of “Plan B” with the hope that we could curtail climate change and emissions the “Plan A”.

Plan A is flailing.

Time for “Plan B” to become the new “Plan A”.

And that means preparing for a very different world.

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