The Cost of Carbon: Putting a Price on Pollution

When factories belch smoke, everybody pays. Shouldn’t polluters feel the sting? That’s the big idea behind carbon pricing. Putting a price tag on each ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere reflects its cost to the environment and fires up the search for the cheapest ways to fight climate change. Many policymakers accept that it’s the way to go, but they can’t agree on the best way to do it. Europe, parts of the U.S. and China use markets where companies buy and sell permits to pollute. So far, it’s not clear if that’s working better than a simple carbon tax.

The Situation

The effectiveness of carbon pricing is being debated at the United Nations-sponsored talks to forge a new global pact by the end of 2015 to combat global warming.  At least 20 countries or jurisdictions including the European Union have developed or plan to start emissions markets, known as cap-and-trade systems. At least 10 have a tax, ranging from $5 a ton planned for Chile to $157 a ton in Sweden. China, the world’s biggest emitter, will start a national pollution-trading system by 2017. Its pilot programs don’t try to cut the total pollution level, but instead aim to trim the emissions released per unit of industrial production. U.S. President Barack Obama tried and failed to start a national cap-and-trade system during his first term. Since the idea of a national carbon tax is unpopular in the U.S., he’s turned to direct regulation of power plants instead. In Canada, some provinces are joining California’s emissions market as the country shuns a national approach. Pollution levels have fallen in many of the areas covered by carbon trading, though much of the drop is attributed to the global recession and the lower price of natural gas, which is cleaner than coal or oil.

The Background

Carbon pricing provides incentives to invest in clean technology or switch to less carbon-intensive fuels. When a tax is used, it’s up to governments to set the levy at a level that’s high enough to encourage companies to act, but not so high that it forces factories to close or relocate. With cap-and-trade, governments typically set a target for how much pollution-cutting their economies can tolerate, then distribute or sell individual rights to release CO2. As the pool of permits is reduced over time, companies that clean up have more allowances than they need and can sell them. The EU was the first to require carbon dioxide permits, in 2005, only to see them plunge in value when industrial output and demand tumbled in the global recession, creating a glut. The price crawled back to about 8 euros ($9.20) a ton by the middle of 2015. Carbon markets of various forms have followed in the northeastern U.S., California, New Zealand and South Korea, all of them learning from the EU’s mistakes. As carbon pricing has spread, there have been setbacks. Australia repealed its carbon tax in 2014 and scrapped plans for permit trading after the measures were blamed for destroying jobs.

The Argument

In the emissions markets now up and running, the price probably isn’t high enough to change behaviors. That’s brought criticism from opponents such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who pulled out of the trading system used by nine other U.S. states, saying it cost too much and did little.  Advocates of cap-and-trade argue that it’s better than a tax because it ensures a certain level of cuts and uses a market mechanism to identify the cheapest opportunities to curb pollution. Many countries — including the U.K. and most Scandinavian nations — use both permit trading and targeted taxes on dirty fuels like coal. Emissions markets can also provide important price signals to drive investment in green technologies ranging from energy-saving lightbulbs to carbon capture and storage. Critics of all types of carbon pricing say it hits the poor hardest by raising household energy prices, though the burden can be offset by redirecting revenue raised from polluters to low-income families.

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Becoming an Eco Driver – Greg Hunt

Ok, I admit that I can be an impatient driver at times, but (touch wood) I don’t have accidents, I get to my destination safely and my passengers don’t have white knuckles. I also work in the environment sector with a work program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, wherever we find them. Transport accounts for about 14% of Australia’s emissions so when my employer, the South East Councils Climate Change Alliance (SECCCA) rolled out an Ecodriver project to reduce vehicle emissions, I signed on.

In my Subaru Forester, SECCCA’s driver trainer Rick led me to a local servo where we filled up to the first click on the bowser nozzle. We then drove a pre-planned 20 Km route that included freeways, arterial roads and suburban streets. Because Rick was beside me, I drove quite a bit more conservatively than I might have without anyone watching; just having an observer can improve accountability. As I drove and in the midst of our conversations, he would frequently write in the table on the clipboard he was holding.

We completed the route and returned to the same servo, the same pump and parked in the same position in relation to the pump. We were recreating the optimal conditions to refill the tank to the exact level as indicated by the first click of that bowser nozzle. Rick then explained we would retrace the route and told me how I was to drive this time.

“Scan the road ahead, about 300 metres ahead, to keep movement as smooth as possible time”. “Keep a safe space behind the next vehicle, watch the traffic signals so you don’t rush up to them and minimise accelerating away from a standing start.” “Watch your revs”. “Did I say to keep below 2500 revs per minute”? “Oh, and by the way, don’t over rev the engine”. “Move through the gears relatively quickly”. Don’t over rev, change gears before 2500 revs”. There was quite a bit of reinforcement of this message.

We would see that the lights up ahead had been red for a while and by slowing down a distance out, we could coast up to the lights, staying well behind the car in front and then move smoothly through the intersection when the lights changed. I checked the tachometer often and I spent a lot more time in 5th gear than I would normally. Otherwise, I didn’t think that my driving had changed.

On completion of the circuit, we went back to the same servo, same pump and same position. When the first click stopped the fuel flow, it was time to check the data, for Rick’s frequent entries in the table on his clipboard provided a detailed record of my driving. This is the before and after record on my driving.

Here’s the rub, for a reduction in fuel use of 19%, I was no faster or slower than normal, I used the brakes less often, the gears less often and I over-revved significantly less. And this was against a benchmark of me driving on my best behaviour on that first circuit as I had a driver trainer beside me.

I’m saving fuel, I’m reducing exhaust emissions and I’m causing much less wear and tear on the vehicle. We didn’t check tyre pressure, another significant influence on fuel economy, I was using the AC (it was a warm day, after all) and I had already taken my luggage racks off the top of the car. These three things also have an effect on fuel consumption.

I’ll now challenge myself to see if I can maintain my ecodriving, perhaps putting a coin in the coffee-cup holder in the console for every time I go over 2500 RPM. And I’ll try some more measurements over longer distances to see how much I can reduce my $5,000 annual fuel bill.

Before my training, I had an intellectual commitment to the idea of Ecodriving. Now I have pragmatic self-interest of dollar savings to sit alongside my professional commitment of exhaust emission reductions.

Every driver should be an Ecodriver!

Becoming-an-ecodriver (2)

Philosophy in the Real World – The Conversation

Among the great crimes of the 20th century the most enduring will surely prove to be human disruption of the Earth’s climate. The effects of human-induced climate change are apparent now and will become severe this century, but the warming is expected to last thousands of years. That is so because extra carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a very long time, but also because changes in the climate are triggering changes in the Earth System as a whole, changes that cannot be undone.

If it is a crime to transform the Earth into a hot and less habitable place what are the offences committed by those responsible? A panel of eminent jurists this year published some principles to guide us. The Oslo Principles note that “all States and enterprises have an immediate moral and legal duty to prevent the deleterious effects of climate change”.

Corporations causing harm to people through their emission of greenhouse gases may be subject to tort law and may be sued for damages. The Principles observe that States are obliged to protect human life and the integrity of the biosphere through an existing network of national and international obligations.

Looking back on the last two decades of denial, delay and obstruction, there have been perhaps two hundred individuals who should be held most culpable, if not by the courts then by history, for failing to prevent harm or of obstructing others from taking measures to prevent harm.

Among the great crimes of the 20th century the most enduring will surely prove to be human disruption of the Earth’s climate. The effects of human-induced climate change are apparent now and will become severe this century, but the warming is expected to last thousands of years. That is so because extra carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere for a very long time, but also because changes in the climate are triggering changes in the Earth System as a whole, changes that cannot be undone.

If it is a crime to transform the Earth into a hot and less habitable place what are the offences committed by those responsible? A panel of eminent jurists this year published some principles to guide us. The Oslo Principles note that “all States and enterprises have an immediate moral and legal duty to prevent the deleterious effects of climate change”.

Corporations causing harm to people through their emission of greenhouse gases may be subject to tort law and may be sued for damages. The Principles observe that States are obliged to protect human life and the integrity of the biosphere through an existing network of national and international obligations.

Looking back on the last two decades of denial, delay and obstruction, there have been perhaps two hundred individuals who should be held most culpable, if not by the courts then by history, for failing to prevent harm or of obstructing others from taking measures to prevent harm.

Above all, in denying the evidence or failing to take action commensurate with the known danger, these individuals have been violating their duty to the truth. When something of immense importance is at stake—and what could be more important than the survival of the most vulnerable of the Earth’s citizens in the face of famine, flood, and epidemic – we owe an absolute allegiance to the truth, and must put aside any ideological or financial discomfort that the truth may cause.

A new dispensation

Duty to the truth and the obligation to avoid actions that harm others are powerful principles firmly rooted in the universal framework of legal and ethical codes. Yet before the enormity of what humankind has now done, I cannot help feeling that these grand constructions are frail and almost pathetic. Let me explain why.

Although we must not give up on working hard, against resistance, to limit warming to 2°C, the truth is that few experts believe that the nations of the world will act with the urgency and decisiveness needed to achieve it. Even under optimistic assumptions about global carbon abatement, the Earth is expected to warm by 4°C or more by the end of the century, making it hotter than it has been for 15 million years, and crossing several tipping points along the way that will make it impossible to stabilise the global temperature at any level.

Under human influence the Earth’s climate system is not only changing in its totality and over a geological time-scale; it is also rendered more unstable and unpredictable. Whereas industrialism’s essential aim has been to bring the natural world under human supervision, in practice the effect has been to leave it less controllable.

Moreover, Earth System scientists have been telling us that it is no longer possible to isolate the climate system from the rest of the Earth system. It is not just the climate system that is being disturbed but every component of the Earth system – the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the biosphere and even the lithosphere, that is, the crust and upper mantle.

They are all interconnected and all of them have been disrupted by human activity in the 20th century. Ice masses have been set on a melting course that seems unstoppable; the acidity of the oceans has soared by some 30 per cent and still rises; even the Earth’s crust is being transformed by global changes in the climate.

The last-mentioned is most illuminating. In his extraordinary book, Waking the Giant, geophysicist Bill McGuire describes the ways global warming is disturbing “the giant beneath our feet”. The Earth’s crust is responding to rising temperatures: volcanoes previously imprisoned below ice sheets are more likely to erupt; earthquakes in the Himalayas, the Andes and Alaska may be triggered as the ice load shrinks; and, the solid Earth beneath Greenland is bouncing back quickly as the ice above it melts, perhaps with the Antarctic land mass not far behind.

Let me mention one further fact that stopped me in my tracks when I first read it. It has been predicted that global warming from human activity in the 20th and 21st centuries will heat the Earth so much and for so long that it will suppress the next ice age, which is not due to arrive for 50,000 years, and quite possibly several ice ages beyond. Ice ages and the inter-glacial periods between them are caused principally by predictable variations in the way the Earth orbits the Sun and tilts and wobbles on its axis.

Yet these properties of the solar system must now compete against a new force – a creature that shifts vast amounts of carbon from deep underground storage into the atmosphere. In this way, writes geophysicist David Archer in The Long Thaw: How Humans Are Changing the Next 100,000 Years of the Earth’s Climate, “humankind has the capacity to overpower the climate impact of Earth’s orbit, taking the reins of the climate system that has operated on Earth for millions of years.”

Earth mobilised

In short, the Earth System as a whole has been mobilised so that everything is now in play. Once disturbed these processes may take an eon to settle down. This is why Earth System scientists are telling us that, like tectonics, volcanism and fluctuations in solar radiation, humans have become a force of nature, so much so that, in the prophetic words of Will Steffen and his colleagues, the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”.

So powerful have we become that we have taken the planet into a new geological epoch, leaving behind that happy 10,000 years of climatic stability and clemency known as the Holocene to enter the Anthropocene. The International Commission on Stratigraphy is now going through a formal process of deciding whether it should add the Anthropocene to the Geological Time Scale, the scale on which the entire 4.5 billion year history of the Earth is divided.

And so Earth scientists are now writing of human impact on a geological time scale. It is a development that calls into question modernity’s understanding of history, expressed in the nineteenth century by Jacob Burckhardt, that history is “the break with nature caused by the awakening of consciousness.” In Dipesh Chakrabarty’s profound observation: Human history and geological history have now converged.

These dazzling facts force us to rethink the place of humankind in deep history. A long time after we modern Prometheans disappear, or retreat to a position where we are no longer interfering in the Earth System, the great processes that drive planetary change – orbital forcing, plate tectonics, volcanism, natural evolution and so on – will overwhelm human influence.

But the planet will not settle into a state that looks anything like the Holocene; it has been diverted onto a different trajectory and there is no going back. We must concede what seemed impossible to contemplate – humans have become agents changing the course of deep history.

What does all this mean for justice and ethics? I would like to suggest that, without relieving individuals of culpability, when we step back and survey these Earth-shattering events our established ethical categories and legal principles appear banal and feeble. If the human impact has been so powerful that it has deflected the Earth from its natural geological path, describing the state of affairs as “unethical” or “unlawful” seems to be some kind of category error

And that is the theme I take up in the second part of this essay

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Centre for Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE) at Charles Sturt University

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Oil and Gas Majors Call for Carbon Pricing

Major oil and gas companies, BG Group plc, BP plc, Eni S.p.A., Royal Dutch Shell plc, Statoil ASA and Total SA, today announced their call to governments around the world and to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to introduce carbon pricing systems and create clear, stable, ambitious policy frameworks that could eventually connect national systems. These would reduce uncertainty and encourage the most cost effective ways of reducing carbon emissions widely.

The six companies set out their position in a joint letter from their chief executives to the UNFCCC Executive Secretary and the President of the COP21. This comes ahead of the UNFCCC’s COP21 climate meetings in Paris this December.

With this unprecedented joint initiative, the companies recognize both the importance of the climate challenge and the importance of energy to human life and well-being. They acknowledge the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions is in excess of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed to limit global temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade, and say they are ready to contribute solutions.

As the chief executives write:

“Our industry faces a challenge: we need to meet greater energy demand with less CO2. We are ready to meet that challenge and we are prepared to play our part. We firmly believe that carbon pricing will discourage high carbon options and reduce uncertainty that will help stimulate investments in the right low carbon technologies and the right resources at the right pace. We now need governments around the world to provide us with this framework and we believe our presence at the table will be helpful in designing an approach that will be both practical and deliverable.” (Helge Lund, BG Group Plc; Bob Dudley, BP plc; Claudio Descalzi, Eni S.p.A.; Ben van Beurden, Royal Dutch Shell plc; Eldar Sætre, Statoil ASA; Patrick Pouyanné, Total SA).

The chief executives also sent an additional letter that has been published today in newspapers, setting out this position on carbon pricing and also the role that natural gas can play in reducing carbon emissions.

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Energy storage is crucial, but it’s not the only piece in the puzzle

A few years ago, it was rooftop solar. Now battery storage is the new silver bullet to solve our energy problems. Storage is a great step forward, and it will play an important role in our sustainable energy future. But it is just one piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is our energy future.

That’s worth keeping in mind, given the recent hype over Tesla’s new storage appliances, including its 10 kilowatt hour Powerwall for energy storage in the home.

Storage frees us from the need to match electricity generation and supply to demand on a “real-time” basis. This is a game-changer.

But it still costs money, incurs energy losses and has environmental impacts. So practical and economic strategies will involve several elements, which complement each other.

It’s all about efficiency

First, energy-efficient appliances, equipment and buildings are fundamental. With them, we need much less energy to deliver a given service. The best LED 100 cm television now uses 30 watts, compared with an old plasma TV that uses up to 400 watts.

The best reverse-cycle air conditioner provides heating at a sixth of the cost of an electric fan heater. LED lighting is delivering up to 80% energy savings. And so it goes on. With lower daily energy consumption, the size of battery needed is reduced.

Combining an energy-efficient building with efficient appliances makes an even bigger difference.

My 7-star reverse cycle air conditioner cools and heats my 35 square metre insulated and shaded living room on a 38C or 10C day using less than 250 watts – equivalent to just four halogen downlights, a reduction of over 90%. No hair shirts here as I bank the savings!

Energy efficiency cuts energy use but also cuts peak energy demand, avoiding costly energy infrastructure investment.

Other pieces of the puzzle

Second, smart appliances and energy management systems allow us to manage appliance operation to reduce peak demand, maximise utilisation of on-site solar generation and maximise the benefits of storage.

New air conditioners can be remotely controlled to limit peak demand. Motorised shading can be managed automatically or remotely. Appliances can include their own forms of storage.

For example, some refrigerators now have “cold packs” built into their walls, so they can avoid damage to food during power blackouts and can be switched off during peak energy demand periods. They also have variable speed compressor motors, which improve efficiency and flexibility.

Hot water services can store heat in tanks, so water can be heated at times when cheap energy or excess solar energy is available.

Third, distributed energy-generation technologies such as rooftop solar allow us to generate electricity on the consumer side of the meter.

Fourth, for many households and businesses, it increasingly makes sense to shift from gas appliances to high-efficiency electric technologies. This can cut energy use, cost and greenhouse gas emissions (even when using grid electricity), while also avoiding fixed gas supply charges.

It makes battery storage and energy efficiency more important, as shifting from traditional gas-using activities such as cooking and heating potentially adds to peak electricity demand.

From consumers to partners

Combining all of these pieces of the jigsaw means many households and businesses can consider radical options such as going “off-grid”. If they stay on-grid, the nature of their relationship with the electricity supply industry is fundamentally changed from “consumer” to “partner”.

This means the electricity industry will need to make it worthwhile to stay “on-grid”. In the new world, a household or business could agree never to call for power when the network was under stress, to limit maximum rate of draw-off to a few hundred watts, and even offer to export power to “help out” at critical times. Exports in sunny times could be sold to others and all could share the profits.

There are other options. A group of off-grid homes could share a single back-up generator (running on renewable fuel), and share electricity to help each other.

A shared grid connection could also work, as the group’s peak demand on the grid could be kept within the capacity of a single household connection cable. Storage would cope with usage peaks. These options illustrate the “microgrid” approach.

An electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid adds an extra dimension to the possibilities. It could top up and export power and be charged from on-site generation.

There may be scope for new businesses that monitor how much stored power a home has, and then travel around (in an electric vehicle, of course) to top up those who need more electricity, as liquefied petroleum gas suppliers now do. They could also buy up excess stored electricity to sell to others.

The technology packages, relative costs, financing packages, reliability and convenience offered to households and businesses will drive choice. Laws limiting transfer of electricity across property boundaries (to protect the “right to profit” of electricity networks) may also influence outcomes, although it seems fairly easy to creatively circumvent such anti-competitive laws.

Also, as storage and renewable energy prices fall, there is less and less scope for electricity network operators to charge much for a connection. They simply can’t expect us to keep subsidising them when we have other options. That’s the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

Alan Pears, Sustainable Energy & Climate Researcher, RMIT University

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Top five ways to talk about Solar – MEFL’s suggestions

Many of us with solar systems on our roofs understand that it is a great thing to do. Not only does it save money but also reduces our dependence on fossil fuels for our energy and helps slow down the effects of climate change. However, talking about solar with friends, neighbours and family can sometimes feel like a dinner-party topic we are supposed to be avoiding – like politics and religion!

Here are our top five ways to talk about solar:

1 Tell them your story – The best case study is the one that comes from a real person. If you can explain why you think solar is great that will reach people quicker than technical information.

2 Despite the low feed-in tariff solar can still save you money. People hear about the low feed-in tariff and think that the incentive is gone, but this is not the case. Some behaviour change may be required to make the most of a solar PV system, but if a household can install a system that covers around half of their usage, the payback period will be about six years.

Solar systems have come down in price. Many people still view solar as a luxury item that costs upwards of $10,000 but the truth is that most households will be looking at $3,000- $8,000 for a good quality system, which will last around 25 years.

Like any product, you get what you pay for! Of course there are less expensive options available on the market but if you want premium quality you can expect to pay more. However the longevity and efficiency of the systems means that the price difference is generally justified.

Be open-minded. Remember that solar power is not for everyone! If someone tells you that they hardly use any electricity and they can never use it during the day, then maybe solar is not the best option for them. Encourage them in the efforts that they have already made and see if they can give you any tips on saving too

Moreland Energy Foundation

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The Year the Dam of Denial Breaks – Ready for the Flood?

This is the year the “dam of denial” will break and the momentum for climate action will become an unstoppable flood. It will be messy, confusing and endlessly debated but with historical hindsight, 2015 will be the year. The year the world turned, primarily because the market woke up to the economic threat posed by climate change and the economic opportunity in the inevitable decline of fossil fuels. That shift will in turn unlock government policy and public opinion because the previous resistance to action argued on economic grounds, will reverse to favour action on economic grounds.

Before I argue for this conclusion, let me explain what I mean by the “dam of denial” and why the concept is so important to understanding what’s underway.

Anyone who “gets” the urgency of the climate issue and the scale of economic transformation it necessitates, is bewildered by those who don’t. How can so many otherwise intelligent and logical people – such as company executives, politicians and investment managers – not see the obvious urgency or the equally obvious economic risk? It is so illogical it can only be seen as denial.

This is not climate denial but an example of “implicatory denial”, the rather bizarre ability of humans to accept a risk but then stop processing the implications, just because those implications are so overwhelming. It is well covered in a study by Kari Marie Norgaard, described in her book “Living in Denial”.

Studying history, particularly WWII, while writing my book The Great Disruption led me to accept this type of denial as largely inevitable. As I wrote there, it is exactly because the implications are so great, that the denial is so strong. And because the implications get more dramatic and costly every year, the longer we delay the stronger implicatory denial becomes!

It is now so late in the process that the implications of ending denial are truly mind-boggling. For a start to have even an 80% chance (clearly too low) of limiting warming to the agreed 2 degree target (clearly too high) requires us to eliminate fossil fuels – one of the world’s largest and most powerful industries – and replace it in less than a few decades. This scale of change has enormous social and economic implications in any time scale but to do so within decades is without precedent outside war – not to mention terrifying for the owners and managers of such businesses (and so denial inducing)!

But it being mind-boggling and without precedent unfortunately doesn’t change the facts. This is what is necessary and so it must be done. That’s why I called that chapter “When The Dam of Denial Breaks” – because with the pressure constantly building, at some point it becomes so great the dam bursts.

If you think that’s wrong, you have to accept the alternative – that as the food supply collapses, extreme weather accelerates and military conflict over water scarcity, refugee flow and famine erupts, we will idly stand by and observe it getting steadily worse without response. That idea is so absurd it can be ignored, and that’s why the dam of denial breaking is inevitable. But when?

This is certainly debatable but my judgement is this is the year. Why?

Despite our obsession with it, the science is now largely irrelevant in this process. If the scientific evidence was going to shift the system, it would have done so by now – it is after all overwhelmingly clear on the urgency and the risk. What we have to look for instead is evidence of shifts in the human response, not the ecological one.

In this regard I look to politics and economics. In both cases there are confusing and contradictory signals but I think there are grounds to conclude we’re at the edge of something very significant. I think there are 6 key indicators.

  1. The US China Climate deal – how change really occurs

One of the most interesting and least appreciated is the US China climate deal. Not for its practical impact on emissions but as the emergence of what I called in my book a kind of “Coalition of the Cooling”. The historical significance of the two most powerful countries in the world agreeing that climate action is so important it is worthy of such an agreement will be appreciated in hindsight – not least for its likely multi trillion dollar impact on markets.

  1. Collapse in oil prices

The collapse in oil prices, considered by many to be bad news for clean energy, is quite the opposite. It’s probably one of the most powerful market influences for what I see coming. There are a variety of positive impacts from these low prices, well summarised in this article from Assaad Razzouk in the Independent.

But the most important one is the intriguing idea of global energy price deflation driven by renewables, especially solar, undermining investor confidence in fossil fuels. The Economist recently concluded on future investment in fossil fuels that “….the prospect of much cheaper solar power and storage capability may put investors off. The story may be not so much what falling oil prices mean for clean energy than what the prospect of clean energy will mean for the oil price.

  1. Solar price falls set to continue

The collapse of renewable energy’s costs, especially solar, will be seen historically as perhaps the single biggest driver of transformational change in energy markets, particularly when paired with the interconnected developments in batteries, storage and electric vehicles. The key is not just how far solar costs have fallen but the likelihood that they’ll keep falling. Critics point to the very low share of global total energy demand provided by solar. I point to the same thing to make my case. If solar is competitive on price at less than 1% of global supply, imagine what will happen when it truly scales. That’s why considering the earlier analysis on oil prices, The Economist referred to solar as a “dagger in the heart of the fossil fuel industry”, particularly when combined with clever financing and business models by fast growing disruptive solar companies like Solar City and Sungevity.

Part of this analysis is the idea of the virtuous circle of rapid growth and lowering prices leading to abundant cheap energy. There are those who argue intelligently that this is a techno-optimists pipe dream, such as Richard Heinberg in this well considered sceptism but we will soon find out given the pace at which it is all moving.

  1. Market prices reflect economic disruption

Of course given all this, anyone who thinks markets are rational, at least over time, would ask “if this is all so clear, why doesn’t it reflect in prices?” It is, and dramatically so. Consider these examples:

  • Some pure coal companies like Peabody have lost over 75% of their value in the last three years. Their carbon bubble has well and truly burst. And while prices will vary over time, the coal industry is not coming back and we should politely bid farewell. To quote a recent Goldman Sachs analysis:  “Just as a worker celebrating their 65th birthday can settle into a more sedate lifestyle while they look back on past achievements, we argue that thermal coal has reached its retirement age.”
  • The European Utility sector lost half a trillion Euros by misreading the influence of renewables and energy efficiency. There were other factors as well, as always, but it was renewables that meant, like coal, this is not cyclical but existential. The Economist again: “Renewables have not just put pressure on margins. They have transformed the established business model for utilities.”
  • Tesla, which produced just 30,000 cars in 2013 is valued at nearly half of GM which produced around 9 million cars. And the oil price slide seems to have had no material impact. With Tesla’s likely move into home storage for solar and rumours of an Apple/Tesla tie up, the future is looking very interesting. In response, the market has looked at history and concluded that old companies like GM mostly won’t get it; they’ll just be replaced.

So while many climate activists focus on the political power and influence of the fossil fuel industry, I see an industry scrambling to defend itself against overwhelming forces that will see it destroyed – not in a mighty moral crusade but something far more brutal and fast – the market turning on it. Of course these companies don’t believe that is possible, and nor do many of us. But to quote Mandela, who knew a few things about driving change: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

  1. The political power of big business starts to shift sides

A key part of the process of fossil fuels’ decline is the separation of the business community into those who feel threatened by climate action and those threatened by the lack of it. Thus we should note as a major development, the recent call by a group of major global businesses for the world to have zero net CO2 emissions by 2050, thus effectively ending companies like Shell and Exxon, at least in their current form. This separation, on self-interest grounds, within business is of huge significance. Watch that space.

  1. Physical impacts accelerating and driving economic and security impact

As I argued above, the science becoming clearer won’t trigger the end of denial. Black and white getting blacker and whiter can’t influence those who don’t want to see. Which is a shame given the evidence is emerging that blacker is getting very black indeed, as argued here by David Spratt. But physical climate changes impacting the economy and public opinion will be very influential. That’s why accelerating physical impacts matter a great deal.

The most powerful symbol of this right now is the largest city in South America, Sao Paulo, Brazil facing the risk of collapse due to a punishing drought worsened by climate change and deforestation as explained here by Tom Friedman in the NYT. This is not symbolic for the people of Brazil who are facing rolling water and power cuts, businesses shut down, widespread protests and a drought reduced coffee crop driving up global prices by nearly half. It is not hard to imagine a series of events triggering the effective collapse of the Brazilian economy and the country’s descent into chaos. With 93 cities now affected and key reservoirs in both Sao Paulo and Rio down to 1 – 5% of capacity, they’re praying for rain. I hope they’re prayers are answered, but even with Pope Francis now on board, I think this may require more earthly intervention.

There are countless examples of the economic and related geopolitical significance of climate change impacts. The way climate change helped trigger the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS. How climate is driving food prices, which is driving global conflict. How an Arctic methane burst could pose a multi-trillion dollar risk to the global economy.

So will these 6 drivers be enough? Will the economic impacts of collapsing fossil fuels and collapsing cities force the invisible hand of the market to do what governments have failed to do? Not by itself, but it could tip a system that is primed and ready. Changing systems requires many interconnected parts to shift. That’s why in my writing and speaking I try to summarise such complex inter-related drivers – to help us see the whole and recognise emerging patterns.

Of course the role of government remains key – let’s not forget that the market and technology marvel that is the accelerating solar industry only arrived because government policy initiated the process, especially in Germany, the US and China. But government is just part of a system that no one is really in charge of. So while the Paris climate talks this year will be an important step in a process they are not as fundamental as many think. Such negotiations tend to follow rather than lead the system change process. That’s why Paris this year is an indicator rather than a driver of system change and we should look at what drives action to understand emerging tipping points.

This is why I attach such importance to the direct economic shifts outlined above and also to the resulting more aggressive calls for action by sections of the business community. This last point could even be the most important development of 2015 because, for all the complaints about the influence of corporates on policy, that very influence could now tip the debate in favour of action.

Given all these indicators, I think there are enough cracks in the dam of denial to argue it is about to break. That does not mean the problem is fixed. But it would mean we stop this absurd game of implicatory denial and get to work on driving and managing the massive economic transformation that starts when denial ends.

When we try to understand and forecast change, we tend to look for big symbolic events – the global political deal, the massive economic crash or the extreme weather event that destroys a city. The reality is that change, especially system change, is just messy. It’s chaotic, confusing and often hard to see when you’re in the middle of it. But many are smelling a big shift, like the International Business Editor of the UK’s conservative broadsheet The Telegraph Ambrose Evans-Pritchard who summed it up well: “These historic turning points are hard to call when you are living through them but much of today’s fossil fuel industry has a distinct whiff of the 19th Century canals, a pre-modern relic in a world that is moving on very fast.”

This will be the year it moves a whole lot faster.

Paul Gilding, Independent Writer & Advisor On Sustainability.

Read full article here

Wind turbine studies: how to sort the good, the bad, and the ugly

Yesterday, The Australian ran a front-page article about what it called a “groundbreaking” new study on wind turbines and their associated health impacts.

The study supposedly found a trend between participants’ perceived “sensations” and “offending sound pressure”.

The Australian’s environment editor Graham Lloyd claimed the (non-peer-reviewed) study shows that “people living near wind farms face a greater risk of suffering health complaints caused by the low-frequency noise generated by turbines”, adding that it may help to “resolve the contentious debate about the health impact of wind farms”.

Carried out by Steven Cooper of The Acoustic Group, the study was commissioned by energy company Pacific Hydro near its Cape Bridgewater wind farm in southwest Victoria.

But this study is an exemplary case of what we consider to be bad science and bad science reporting. Far from “resolving the contentious debate”, it’s much more likely inflame an already fractious and fraught situation.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you read this and similar studies.

Is it a good study or a bad study?

This study asked six specifically selected participants from three houses in the Cape Bridgewater area, all within 1.6 km of a wind turbine, to keep a diary of “perceived noise impacts”. Objective sound measures were also taken inside and outside homes. Though Cooper has said he is “not qualified in any shape or form to discuss the illness side”, the symptoms described in the diaries were assessed against the sound measure differences between periods when turbines were in normal operation and shut down. All participants had previously complained to Pacific Hydro about health effects related to the nearby wind farm.

So what do we have?

We have a study with a very small group of specifically selected participants, with no control group for comparison and based on self-reported data – without medical research supervision – when participants were well aware of the experimental conditions (that is, when turbines were turning or not).

And what does this mean?

It is virtually impossible to validly extrapolate these findings to other residents of Cape Bridgewater, or to those living near other wind farms around Australia.

It is impossible to meaningfully compare their experience with a control group of other residents.

Even if all six of these participants experienced their symptoms legitimately, we can’t establish cause and effect. Though Lloyd reported Cooper as claiming his study showed a clear “cause and effect” relationship, it just can’t.

But most importantly, you can’t trust the data. These participants were all clearly unfavourably disposed towards the wind farm beforehand, and were motivated to perceive and report symptoms in line with the wind turbine syndrome theory.

This is not to say that the participants – and perhaps others – do not experience adverse health effects when close to a wind turbine. But it is important to acknowledge the limitations of this type of diary-style data. Last year, New Zealand researchers found that almost 90% of the general population experienced many of the common symptoms associated with wind turbine syndrome within a given week.

When a study is designed with a specific, motivated sample group and a clear hypothesis from the outset, it is a bad one.

It’s a study that wouldn’t have done very well if put up for peer review – or submitted for assessment in an undergraduate science degree. So how did it make it to the front page of a major Australian newspaper?

Crucial context

The context of any study is crucial, particularly when commissioned and conducted by private companies.

In this case, there appears to be a level of motivated reasoning, both in the findings of the study and in its coverage by The Australian.

Statements from study participants are revealing. One called it “confirmation of the level of severity we were and are enduring”; another felt “absolute relief” at the results. It suggests that their feelings of anger, distress and injustice have been brewing for a long time. Despite the poor quality of the study and the limited findings, they feel vindicated.

Lloyd has been a long-time critic of wind farms and has repeatedly reported on studies that claim to show a link between wind turbines and ill health.

Division, personal attacks and vitriolic rhetoric from both sides have marred this issue for many years. So it is also important to note that although Pacific Hydro has since gone into damage control, with external relations manager Andrew Richards keen to emphasise the small sample size and complexity of the issue, the company deserves respect for commissioning this study and allowing The Acoustics Group full access to its wind farm operation.

Yet any steps to build a bridge to those who are opposed to wind turbines must be taken very carefully. Giving unfettered and un-reviewed methodological control to someone endorsed by anti-wind-turbine groups is a bit like giving Dracula the keys to the blood bank. It should be possible to work with opponents to investigate a shared problem scientifically – but this is not the way.

Final tip

If a credible, scientifically rigorous study were to show a link between wind turbine operation and health effects, it should absolutely be taken seriously. There are people throughout Australia who genuinely believe their lives, health and well being are being affected by living near wind farms.

If good science can prove them right, then we must take it into account. But no one benefits from bad science.

Jacqui Hoepner, PhD candidate, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

Will J Grant, Researcher / Lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science, Australian National University

Tribute: Tony McMichael – the man who linked climate change to global health

Tony McMichael has written more than 300 papers on how erratic weather and climate can cause health problems. He died in September. James Giggacher/Courtesy of Australian National University

When I asked climate change expert Tony McMichael back in March how he thought the world would deal with climate change, he said, “It’s likely to be an extraordinary century and we’re going to have to have our wits about us to get through it.”

But the legions of scientists he inspired will have to go on without him. McMichael died in September in his native Australia from complications of pneumonia, leaving behind the fledgling field he founded — determining the health effects of climate change.

As we look back on the people we lost in 2014, McMichael stands out as a pioneer and prophet.

One of his prime motivators was a sense of social justice. Before going to medical school, McMichael spent a summer volunteering at a leper colony in India. Then he trained in Australia as a physician and epidemiologist. He made a name for himself early on by defining the effects of lead on children and establishing some of the basic rules of epidemiology.

Then McMichael took on a bigger task — determining how the global environment affects human health. In 1993 he led the health team for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s second report. That same year, he published Planetary Overload: Global Environmental Change and the Health of the Human Species, the first scholarly look at the health effects of climate change.

McMichael laid out the climate change challenge in moral terms: “While the rich countries have caused most of the increase in greenhouse gas emissions to date, the whole world will experience the consequences of climate change.” And poor people, he noted, will be least able to adapt.

Many of his 300-plus scientific papers describe how increasingly erratic weather and climate can cause health problems. It may seem obvious that heat waves, ice storms, droughts, floods, and disease-carrying insects expanding their habitat can all maim and kill. But before McMichael, few people thought about climate change in those terms.

McMichael used basic epidemiology to predict an increase in these deaths. During his stints at the University of Adelaide, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Australian National University, he trained fellow scientists to watch for early signs. For example, he co-authored a study showing that death patterns in Sydney, Australia, which has been hit by an unusual number of heat waves in the last couple of decades, are changing, so that there are more deaths in the summer than in the winter. And he’s inspired research on the mental health effects of climate change. Already, epidemiologists are noticing higher rates of anxiety and depression among people in both drought-stricken and flooded areas.

When I interviewed McMichael this year, I asked what focusing on a grim future all day every day does to a person. “I’m aware that my grandchildren may live in a very different and very unpleasant world,” he told me. He worried that governments might not be able to survive the economic, social and political stresses brought on by a changing environment.

He said what kept him going was the conviction that replacing airy handwaving with hard epidemiological science would galvanize leaders to make changes.

But it was a long haul for him.

Government funders just weren’t interested. “It doesn’t seem like real science to them,” he said. The health effects of climate change are “big, unbounded, and complex. There aren’t going to be any single bottom-line answers that come out of it.” In McMichael’s own country, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called climate change science “crap.” The month McMichael died, he was the first author on a plea to Abbot to put climate change and health onto the agenda of an upcoming G20 meeting. Abbott didn’t — but other countries did.

One of McMichael’s last publications in a scientific journal was a request to health professionals to speak out about climate change. He noted that what he and others have predicted is now happening — more droughts, heat waves, floods, storms, fires and the like, leading to job loss, impoverishment, migration and conflict, which in turn make people more prone to illness, depression and premature death. He cited ideological rigidity and an anti-science ethos in his own Australia — his “land of droughts and flooding rains” (from a popular poem published in 1908), he wrote, has become a “land of doubts and fuddled brains.”

McMichael worried that the human health dimension of climate change has long been overlooked: “Concerns have focused on risks to tangibles ‘out there’ — coastlines, property damage, electricity costs, iconic species and ski slopes.” All important, he said, but it’s perhaps even more important to recognize that climate change threatens people’s health, and that in turn threatens social stability all over the world.

Joanne Silberner, a former health policy correspondent for NPR, is now a freelance journalist and also teaches journalism at the University of Washington

Read the full article here

As shepherds watched, it got hotter and hotter

Human health – and that of other animals and even plants – is likely to become an ever more pressing public issue as temperatures rise with global warming, cities grow and populations age.

If Australia’s test cricketers suffer heat stress during the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne or January’s match at the Sydney Cricket Ground, it won’t be for want of trying.

Earlier this year, in preparation for the series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates, players were dispatched for intensive training in Brisbane and Darwin to examine their response to heat extremes.

Aside from the standard ice baths and cool drinks – Esky-chilled beverages at 4 degrees turn out to be ideal – players swallowed capsule-sized thermometers to help team dietician Michelle Cort monitor which of them struggled most to shed heat.

“It allowed us to keep an extra watchful eye on specific players and make sure they were doing everything they needed to do to keep the core temperature down,” Ms Cort said.

Across the summer, sports medicine will be getting a work out. In an increasingly crowded season, cricketers are vying for attention with the upcoming Asian Football Cup in addition to the regular fare of the Tour Down Under cycling, the A-League, and tennis at the Australian Open – all potentially taking place during a heatwave.

The issue of heat, though, isn’t just confined to playing fields and accompanying concrete stadiums packed with fans of the spectator variety.

The heat is on: How scientists predict Sydney’s climate will warm over the next 50 years. Graphic: Remi Bianchi, Photo: Quentin Jones

Human health – and that of other animals and even plants – is likely to become an ever more pressing public issue as temperatures rise with global warming, cities grow and populations age.

Until recently, public health authorities would issue a warning whenever the temperature was likely to exceed a certain level.

However, heatwaves are also related to the conditions people are accustomed to. To reflect that, the Bureau of Meteorology last year pioneered a heatwave service that predicts the severity of coming heatwaves based on both how far temperatures are likely to deviate from historical averages but also taking into account the previous month’s weather.

How scientists predict Sydney’s climate will warm over the next 50 years. Graphic: Remi Bianchi

In a further tweak, the bureau has added charts to assess the impact of each heatwave after it’s hit. That’s needed because people often don’t realise the damage to health can come from exposure to prolonged warmth rather than a particular temperature spike.

“If the body doesn’t have time to recover overnight, or for some period during 24 hours, that’s when significant problems start to emerge,” said Alasdair Hainsworth, assistant director of hazard prediction services at the bureau.

“We know that Australia is warming … and we believe we should provide some level of warning associated with that,” Mr Hainsworth said, adding the charts may one day be common features of weather reports.

Indeed, of the emerging signals of climate change in Australia, rising temperatures and increasing heatwaves are the probably the clearest.

For New South Wales, average maximum temperatures have already risen by half a degree over the last two decades or so. They are likely to increase by another 0.7 degrees by 2030 and as much as 2.6 degrees by 2070, according to research released by the state government and the University of NSW earlier this month.

“We know heatwaves have a big impact,” said Matthew Riley, director of climate and atmospheric science for the Office of Environment and Heritage. “They are the costliest natural disaster in terms of the loss of human life in Australia.”

While Victoria’s 2009 Black Saturday bushfires killed 174 people, at least 370 people died during the heatwave that preceded the fires – drawing much less public or media focus.

NSW Health has identified people aged over 75, infants and those taking prescription medicine that restricts perspiration as among those most at risk from heat stress.

Human physiology means that excess warmth starts to undermine health for most of us when body temperatures exceed 37.8 degrees. Similar damage is inflicted on plants when certain thresholds are crossed .

When overlaid on Australia’s famously variable climate, the existing temperature rise is also associated with heatwaves becoming more intense, more common, lasting longer, and starting earlier in spring.

Research published in August in the Journal of Climate predicts Sydney will experience as many as 42 heatwave days each summer by the end of the century, assuming greenhouse gas emissions remain at the high end of trajectories. That tally would exceed even Perth’s 40 such days and Melbourne’s 12.

“Definitely we’ll see more heatwaves and the number of heatwave days will increase,” said Sarah Perkins, a heatwave expert at UNSW’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science and one of the report’s authors. “It’s not a good story.”

By contrast, Sydney had just three heatwave days on average 60 years ago and about six to seven now, Dr Perkins said. A heatwave is defined as having at least three days in a row with temperatures in the top 10 per cent for those days.

The government-backed study, meanwhile, generated scenarios down to 10km resolution for the first time, giving local governments greater clarity on what to expect as the climate shifts.

For now, Sydney as a whole averages fewer than 10 days of 35 degrees or warmer weather each summer. In the city’s west, residents sweat through 10 to 20 such days.

By 2030, the city can expect four more 35-plus degree days and 11 more each year by 2070, the report said.

But in the city’s west and the Hawkesbury region, the increase will be 5-10 such days by 2030 and a doubling of 10-20 more hot days by 2070.

Human health – and that of other animals and even plants – is likely to become an ever more pressing public issue as temperatures rise with global warming, cities grow and populations age.

Until recently, public health authorities would issue a warning whenever the temperature was likely to exceed a certain level.

However, heatwaves are also related to the conditions people are accustomed to. To reflect that, the Bureau of Meteorology last year pioneered a heatwave service that predicts the severity of coming heatwaves based on both how far temperatures are likely to deviate from historical averages but also taking into account the previous month’s weather.

The longer-term estimate is based on a business-as-usual emissions scenario which, if governments get serious about addressing global warming, may be too pessimistic.

On the other hand, there are reasons why the scenarios, grim as they are for heat, may be optimistic not least because they did not account for population growth.

Sydney’s population is projected to swell by 1.6 million by 2030, with most newcomers likely settle in the growth corridors in the city’s south-west and north-west .

By geography, these two areas already have furnace-like potential as demonstrated by last month’s heatwave.

Penrith set a November record maximum of 44.9 degrees – albeit in data only going back about two decades – while Richmond hit 45.3 degrees in Bureau of Meteorology records from 1939.

During a February 2011 heatwave, a Landsat satellite passed over Sydney taking infrared pictures identifying the city’s hottest spots.

Brent Jacobs, research director of the Institute of Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney, is among those examining the heat mapping to help planners limit current and future effects of the warmth.

Dr Jacobs says developers of new housing estates usually leave little in the way of green spaces and water features that – while costly to maintain – would help counter the inevitable heat-island effects.

He is also scathing of the layout of residential roads that often loop around, ending up cul-de-sacs.

“You’re talking about an area that’s already hot,” Dr Jacobs said. “All you’re doing is creating canyons that trap in the hot air. There’s no air movement through that suburb so there’s no way for that heat to get out.”

Cricket Australia dietitian Michelle Cort, meanwhile, says people who are overweight or particularly muscular are among those who should pay special heed to warnings about heatwaves.

“The more body fat people have, the less able they are to dissipate the heat,” Ms Cort said, adding that the $100 single-use thermometer capsules will be little use for the wider public without expert monitoring.

As for the players, two provided surprising responses. NSW fast bowler Mitchell Starc proved able to dissipate heat better than his work-rate and muscle mass would imply, while Victorian all-rounder Glenn Maxwell struggled more than expected.

In the finish, the team wilted to a series thrashing to Pakistan, but managers couldn’t blame the heat.

Read full story here

Peter HannamEnvironment Editor, The Sydney Morning Herald