Climate change basics I – observations, causes and consequences

Thanks to some strong community input, I now have a F.A.Q. page on BNC, which current has three posts: Take real action on climate changePart 1: The strategy and Part 2: Frequently Asked Questions, and A checklist for renewable energy plans. In its current form, the FAQ focuses on the action we should take to address the problem of climate change, but skirts around the issue of why I, and the indeed the vast majority of environmental scientists, consider anthropogenic climate change to be a crucially important problem to mitigate (and adapt to). To address this deficiency, I’ve written a couple of posts which attempt to explain the problem in a simple and easily understood way. Here is the first one — feedback welcome.

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What is climate change? Observations, causes and consequences

Earth’s climate has always been dynamic and changeable. In the distant past there have been bouts of intense volcanic activity, periods when vast deserts spanned much of the globe, warm epochs when forests covered Antarctica, and glacial ages when much of Europe and North America were entombed under miles of ice. When large climatic changes occurred rapidly, a mass extinction of species was the result. Life later recovered, but this process inevitably took millions of years.

Just one species – humans – are now the agent of global change. As we develop our modern economies and settlements at a frantic rate, we have caused deforestation and fragmentation of natural habitats, over-hunting of wild species we use for food, chemical pollution of waterways and massive draw-downs of rivers, lakes and groundwater. These patently unsustainable human impacts are operating worldwide, are accelerating, and clearly constitute an environmental crisis. Yet the threat now posed by human-caused global warming is so severe that it may soon outpace all others.

Recent global warming is caused principally by the release of long-buried fossil carbon, by burning oil, natural gas and coal. Since the furnaces of the industrial revolution were first ignited in the late 18th century, we have dumped more than a trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, as well as other heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide and ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons. The airborne concentration of CO2 is now 38 per cent higher than at any time over the past million years (and perhaps much longer – information beyond this time is too sketchy to be sure). Average global temperature has risen about 0.8°C in the last two centuries, with almost two-thirds of that warming having occurred in just the last 50 years. [play with some plots, here]

Complex computer simulation models of the atmosphere have been developed and refined for over 40 years. They are now sufficiently advanced that they can reproduce most of the major features of climate change observed over the last 150 years. Under a business-as-usual scenario, which assume a continued reliance on fossil fuels as our primary energy source, these models predict 1.8°C to 6.4°C of further global warming during the 21st century. There is also a real danger that we have reached or will soon reach tipping points that will cascade uncontrollably and take the future out of our hands. But much of the uncertainty represented in this wide range of possibilities relates to our inability to forecast the probable economic and technological development pathway global societies will take over the next few decades.

Year by year, our scientific understanding of climate science and responses of the Earth system continues to grow and mature.

In short, it remains within our power to anticipate many of the impacts of future global warming, and to make the key economic and technological choices required to substantially mitigate our carbon emissions. But will we act in time, and will it be with sufficient effort to avoid dangerous climate change?

Should we choose to take no effective action, we can expect increasingly severe consequences. For instance, beyond about 2°C of further warming, the Great Barrier Reef will be devastated. Extreme events will become much more frequent, such as storm surges adding to rising sea levels of many metres, threatening coastal cities. There is the possibility that a semi-persistent or more intense El Niño will set in, leading to frequent failures of tropical monsoonal rains which provides the water required to feed billions of people. Above 3°C, up to half of all species may be consigned to extinction because of their inability to cope with such rapid and extreme changes.

Worryingly, even if we can manage to stabilise CO2 concentrations at 450 parts per million (it is currently 387, and rising at 3 parts per million per year), we would still only have a roughly 50:50 chance of averting dangerous climate change. This will require a global cut in emissions of 50–85% by 2050 and certainly more than 90% for developed nations like Australia. Peak oil, global warming and long-term sustainability all require that we move rapidly to adopt sustainable, non-carbon energy sources, such as nuclear power and renewables (with the choice dictated largely by economic viability). Many credible studies show we can cost-effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions IF the right policies are in place. For details of the principal mitigation and adaptation options that are available, see the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence so far that we, as individual countries or as a global collective of humanity, are taking meaningful action. Indeed, ‘carbon intensity’ (expressed as gross domestic product per tonne of carbon emitted) in developed nations such as the United States and Australia has actually increased over the last decade, the global rate of emissions growth risen from 1% to 3% per year, and total carbon emissions from all sources now exceed 9 billion tonnes a year. China overtook the United States in 2006 as the single biggest greenhouse polluter and will be producing twice as much CO2 within little more than another decade at its present rate of economic activity.

This exponential growth in carbon-based energy, if sustained, will mean that over just the next 25 years, humans will emit into the atmosphere a volume of carbon that exceeds the total amount emitted during the 250-year industrial period of 1750 to 2000. Of particular concern is that long-lived greenhouse gases, such as CO2, will continue to amplify global warming for centuries to come. For every five tonnes added during a year in which we dither about reducing emissions, one tonne will still be trapping heat in 1,000 years.

It is a bleak endowment to future generations.

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49 Comments

  1. I have been following the notion of global warming for many years now. I am happy to see your first post. I agree that the earth has gone through many cycles. a look at the last 2000 years in addition to the last 30 may also be helpful. that view seems to indicate we are in a 200 year warming cycle exiting a little ice age.
    If that is true it would be prudent not to single out a single source. While it is true that there is as increase in carbon in our atmosphere, much ofthat could and should be blamed on population increase rapid, deforestation, Increased animal husbandry, etc. There is no doubt that some of the current temperature rise is do to man as well as some (maybe more due to other causes in our universe. Panic is never the correct answer. I strongly believe that the best first step would be reforestation. If the information available is correct we are not yet as warm as the last part of the Roman years. I suggest more slow and deliberate steps. As a physisist and engineer acconted with nuclear power I wonder why that is not included in your solutions if it turns out that carbon is a part of problem.

  2. That’s some rather grim bed-time reading, thanks for that Barry.

    One slight correction, the last paragraph should read “the 150-year industrial period of 1850 to 2000″, not 1750. Sorry to nit-pick!

  3. Len Rubenstein obviously never bothered to read any of the rest of this blog.

    “As a physisist and engineer acconted with nuclear power I wonder why that is not included in your solutions if it turns out that carbon is a part of problem.”

    A fairly laughable comment to make about BNC these days. I also wonder what sort of physicist can’t spell “physicist”. The “physisist” sort I guess.

  4. Len, you didn’t read the article very carefully I guess.. Nuclear power is of course in there.

    It is key to understand the nature and severity of the global warming threat. When driving full-speed towards a cliff edge, it is not enough to take “slow and deliberate steps”.

  5. Thanks Tom K for picking that 150 yrs error up, and for Joffan for noting that Len didn’t actually read my article, or even glance sufficiently at the blog to see ‘nuclear power’ stickers on the sidebars — I guess he feels he has a lot of places to replicate that post, and little time to consider where he’s posting.

  6. Well put, and a useful new resource. I wouldn’t pose the question of nuclear power quite like that (my key misgiving is with the time-lines), but the way Barry has phrased it is an invitation to reasoned debate. A small point – carbon intensity is better expressed as tonnes of carbon emissions per unit of GDP (the big number becomes the threatening one).

  7. I am with Barry on all the horrible things we are doing to the planet such as fishing entire species close to extinction and setting the stage for pandemics that will make the “Black Death” look like a gentle breeze.

    When it comes to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere I see the consequences as mostly beneficial yet I support a sharp reduction in the burning of fossil fuels for other reasons.

  8. I think AGW is real and of sufficient concern that we should transition to nuclear power. I’m also open to a modest carbon tax targeted at electricity generation and transport if the revenue raised is used entirely for the purposes of reducing other taxes. The economic consequences of a carbon tax are not good but nor are the economic consequences of income tax or other taxes at all favourable.

    The idea that the cost of AGW under business as usual will be high does not seem to be supported by the literature. If my may quote an extract from an arcticle by economist and friend John Humphreys:-

    http://johnhumphreys.com.au/2010/06/05/benefit-cost-analysis-for-the-ets/

    Despite thousands of peer-reviewed papers having been written about climate science, surprisingly there has been only 14 complete peer-reviewed studies of the costs of climate change. Of these, only 10 were based of the IPCC mid-point projection for future warming (3 degrees warming by 2100). While the results are reported in terms of money, the studies attempted to include non-financial costs such as deaths and environmental changes.

    The average conclusion of the peer-reviewed studies was a cost of 0.9% of GDP, with the highest individual estimate being 2.5% of GDP by 2100. (Some of the studies suggested a zero cost, or even a small benefit.)

    There have been some high-profile non-peer reviewed estimates of AGW costs, the most famous of which was the Stern Review done in the United Kingdom. Using a range of more pessimistic assumptions (which have been widely criticised elsewhere in the literature), the Stern Review estimated a cost of AGW at about 2.9% of GDP by 2100.

    Of course, if we have more warming, then the costs will be higher. In one of the peer-reviewed studies, Nordhaus looks at what will happen with more warming, and finds that the costs could be as high as 5% of GDP by 2100.

    Given this context, it is surprising that the Garnaut Report found a cost of about 10% of GNP… some three times higher than the Stern Review. (The costs were 8% of GDP, but GNP is a better measure for human welfare.)

    I remain unpersuaded by the need for anything beyond modest responces to AGW. Very little convincing evidence exists that the magnitude of this problem warrants significant expenditure on a solution. Mostly we should just adapt.

  9. Barry a great article. I realise that there is so much tht could be included that i left out to make it simple. Even so, to improve it I’d include a bit about the carbon cycle and the calcium cycle. some thing like :

    ” While about 10% of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (~ 700 Gt as carbon) is cycled throught the the biosphere and returned each year (~60 Gt as carbon, NASA Data http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Library/CarbonCycle/carbon_cycle4.html), the draw down of CO2 out of the atmosphere is very slow.

    The paleo record shows slow reduction in CO2 levels over tens of thousands of years (ice core data: http://www.daviesand.com/Choices/Precautionary_Planning/New_Data/) , by the release of minerals from the weathring of rocks that eventually form insoluble carbonates and are sequestered in sediments and marine shells.

    Len our “physisist” seems a little light on environmental chemistry and the above addition might head off similar confusions.

  10. Renfrey Clarke,

    It is clear that by any measure, the required build rates of low CO2 electricity generation infrastructure are extremely challenging – no matter what the technology.

    It is worth reflecting on the fact that 16% of the worlds electricity is currently generated by nuclear power stations and probably less than 2% by solar and wind combined.

    France is the only OECD country with acceptably low CO2 emissions from electricity generation with the exception of those with really big hydro resources. It’s reactor fleet was built in less than 20 years. Despite all the noise, publicity and substantial expenditure on wind and solar, other European countries such as Denmark and Germany are nowhere near what France has already achieved.

    It is nuclear, not renewables that has the track record, and this should be a powerful consideration in evaluating claims that build rates for renewables are by the nature of the technology better than for nuclear.

  11. The US National Academies of Science and Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council have just published a new report on climate stabilization targets and climate change impacts.

    Near-Term Emissions Choices Could Lock In Climate Changes For Centuries To Millennia

    According to the summary, we will have already locked in 2C equilibrium global rise within about a decade if a medium climate sensitivity is assumed. We have already passed that if climate sensitivity turns out to be at the upper end of the range.

  12. 2C could be a big deal for agriculture depending on changes to seasonal patterns. For example some crops (like apples) need a winter chill others like wheat need a dry summer for ripening. Out of season frosts and heatwaves could decimate some harvests as is happening right now in the northern hemisphere. Hard baked soil may not use water efficiently and some plants will dislike increased CO2. If summer temps approach 50C ( Baghdad was 54C recently) it will have profound effects on food production, public health, electricity distribution and fire control. Add to that major depletion of oil and phosphate. As the song says you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

  13. Spot on John Newlands. And that’s probably just the beginning of the “ain’t seen nothin’ yet” tune.

    gallopingcamel said

    “When it comes to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere I see the consequences as mostly beneficial”

    I’m unsure why anyone would think that the biosphere will respond well to continued and rapid rises in global temperature, and hence be a good thing. The world’s ecosystems are now so depleted, fragmented, overun by invasive species and polluted, that there is probably no time in history, since the Cambrian explosion, when the biosphere was less resilient to climatic variation than now.

    Civilisation relies upon these ecosystems to function and survive. The extinction of up to 50% of the world’s species (as Barry mentioned) would have ramifications for civilisation beyond most people’s wildest imaginations. I don’t understand why people don’t get this.

  14. You need a diagram that depicts how thin the atmosphere is in porportion to our Planet. Carl Sagen ounce said that the atmosphire is as thin as a coat of varnesh on a large globe. Any ilistrations that don’t show this are misleading.
    “Live Long And Perspire,
    Work For Peace,
    And A Sustainable Future.”
    David Johnson
    sunbowmountain@yahoo.com

  15. John Newlands – who knows you may be correct. However the peer reviewed cost estimates for AGW suggest that the cost of doing nothing isn’t very high. Should we just ignore the result of the peer reviewed literature?

  16. one more point I would look for a way to add is that the paleoclimate record clearly shows abrupt change taking place over a few decades and even a few years that is far greater than jwhat many thinki a more intense longer lasting or semi permanent El Nino would be today.

    Eg. Richard Alley wrote Abrupt Climate Change in 2004 http://geoclasses.tamu.edu/ocean/loup/MARS281/AbruptClimateChange%28Alley2004%29.pdf

    “Despite the potentially enormous consequences of a sudden climate transformation, the vast majority of climate research and policymaking has addressed gradual shifts….”

  17. Barry, maybe you should consider revising the Barrier Reef devastation statement. I have dived both the Great Barrier Reef and in the far warmer waters of the Solomons and coral seems to do just fine in both environments.

  18. There is the unlikely event that the Blog Owner, demonstrable peruser of neoliberal Business Week and the neocon Washington Times among others, could wish to consider the nature of political power in the world and reach out to what he and his political allies tend to term “Losers” ie the South.

    In that event, he might be well advised to cease “socialising the losses and privatising the profits” in his choice of rhetoric.

    That is, I have lost count of the number of times he sanctimoniously or quite unconsciously uses the first person plural, viz. – we and our and us – in this article. As if the current crisis has been caused by some fictitious referent, homo sapiens, and not by a small fraction of humanity.

    Tell an African herder or Bolivian water carrier that they themselves have caused the droughts and receding Andean glaciers.

    The Blog Owner may have seen cumulative C02 emission graphs by country, showing the history of industrialisation: as I recall, the UK where he originated genetically speaking was among the top three per capita emitters since 1800.

    He refers to carbon intensity for USA and AU, without naming any of the figures which are otherwise such a feature of his argumentative style on BNC month by month: one could have mentioned that AU as coal exporter has now knocked off Saudi Arabia as No. 1 imputed C02 exporter.

    He then proceeds to China-bash as a sort of “Copenhagen revisited”, overlooking the fact that per capita emissions in China are a fraction of those in eg. Anglosphere countries. And that C02 emissions there are to a quantifiable degree for consumer export goods bought in the West.

    This point has been made repeatedly by the Chinese govt. of course.

    Given that he is a nuclear power proponent and appears from previous writings to agree with those who want cheap power for all those currently deprived of it on the planet so as to avoid future resource wars, it is strange that when writing about climate change, he does not drill down to any more detailed level of analysis than “the global collective of humanity” or “individual countries”.

    Nothing of what I have written above has not already been said and at (frequent) length on eg the blog of George Monbiot in the context of the Cochabamba summit, etc.

    Given Gwynne Dyer’s recent book of April:;

    http://www.amazon.de/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?__mk_de_DE=%C5M%C5Z%D5%D1&url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=climate+wars&x=0&y=0

    outlining the climate war planning of the US military, I am left to assume that Brooks is confident in the presence of ca 20 US bases in his country. Possibly he thinks that this will solve the problem of social equity involved in climate change.

  19. Peter Lalor, you are a raving lunatic. I’ve never read such an unrepresentative reflux of bile and acid, purged from the pit of a stomach that has absorbed a multitude of intellectual nutrients and then digested them into a foul-smelling black ichor of ideological biases. Go away, you pathetic, pseudo-judgmental, trumped up scum. This is a blog for serious discussion, not a place for you to try and indulge in your fantasies about being some high-minded sage.

  20. “However the peer reviewed cost estimates for AGW suggest that the cost of doing nothing isn’t very high. Should we just ignore the result of the peer reviewed literature?”

    TerjeP the results of any cost-benefit analysis on climate change is highly dubious, and most of the authors themselves acknowledge the high level of uncertainty of such modelling, including the likes of Richard Tol. Until someone produces a cost-benefit analysis which considers scenarios right up to a worst case scenario (e.g. Venus Syndrome), and looks at a large variety of mitigation options and costs, we should accept these cost-benefit analyses for what they are – inherently limited, with a high degree of risk.

    We know that mitigation can fix the problem, continuing to compound risks with a “mostly just adapt” approach makes little sense. To say it makes good economic sense to just adapt and then drive half the world’s species to extinction would be madness. The precautionary principle makes good sense.

  21. Barry – Thank you. I had seen and read your post but had not remembered it. The other article has given yours and the WNA NCO piece more context.

    There are several other articles on that site, particularly those that pertain to electrified and mag lev rail, that are quite thought-provoking.

    BTW, I try to refer people to your site whenever I leave a comment on an energy topic, as your TCASE series is an excellent resource.

  22. Pingback: Climate change basics II – impacts on ice, rain and seas « BraveNewClimate

  23. Re carbon emissions output figures [2nd last paragraph].
    “From all sources they now exceed 9 billion tonnes/year” and in providing these figures you reference an article in the Guardian.
    However, the Guardian’s figures are a bit more than this: 12 billion tonnes/year just from China & the USA. It emphasises that the Chinese figure of 6.2 billion tonnes does not include emissions from transport, deforestation, gas flaring & underground coal mines {& other greenhouse gases [methane & NO2]}.

    Would you comment on these figures considering the qualifications put on the Guardian stats, the exclusion of countries like India and the 33% difference between this BraveNewClimate article and its Guardian reference.

  24. Jeff Blake, the 9 billions of tonnes per year comes from fossil fuel combustion only — I should have been more explicit about this, and will be so when I revise the above following a further week or so of comments. Thanks for picking this up.

    We reach 15+ billion tonnes of carbon when land use change, agricultural emissions etc. are also factored in.

  25. “There is also a real danger that we have reached or will soon reach tipping points that will cascade uncontrollably and take the future out of our hands.”

    Er – no there isn’t. The climate is no more changeable now that it ever has been, or ever will be. The idea that we can control it is a fantasy exploited for the purposes of a government-sponsored career in ‘climate science’.

    North Africa dried up, forcing the Romans to leave. Northern England got colder and wetter forcing the Romans to leave. If Australia dries up – history shows you what to do about it.

  26. Tom – full credit for trying to refute my point where others seem to have ignored it. Having said that I don’t buy your argument. Basically I view the precautionary principle as bunk. It is the precautionary principle that is invoked to oppose nuclear power. I could claim that the Pol Pot scenerio may be a consequent result of invoking AGW mitigation arguments and as such the precautionary principle can be employed to oppose any advocacy for CO2 mitigation. As you can see hollow rhetoric and banter of all manner can be built on this empty principle. Worst case scerios are irrelevant to the debate without some notion of the credibility and probability of such scenerios. With only 14 peer reviewed documents having examined the trade offs between action and inaction and given they show a prepondance towards modest low cost action only I think you have to be something of a zealot to argue that public policy action should promote expensive solutions. The evidence to justify such action is missing from the peer reviewed literature. The cost of AGW is probably low and we should act accordingly.

  27. TerjeP. I see your point about the precautionary principle. I think there’s more to it, but we’ll leave it at that.

    I think the key thing is this – you say that you’d have to be a zealout to argue for expensive solutions to climate change. I’d simply say you’d have to be irrational to argue for super expensive solutions, as it isn’t necessary – it can be done cost effectively.

    Nuclear power is not expensive (compared to other energy sources), and we will have to transition to it at some stage anyway. Not knocking down our forests and other critical ecosystems is not expensive, and the benefits go far beyond climate mitigation. Better agricultural practices and land management isn’t expensive, and can actually lead to MORE productive land. Transitioning to electric vehicles will probably cost a bit, but hey, peak oil and cheap nuclear energy will sort that out soon enough.

    Having said that, I still don’t buy the argument that some economist can just put a price on climate change. The risk of wars, famine, destroyed natural resources, water shortages, millions of refugees etc. is too great to ignore. As I said earlier, compounding risks makes little sense when we know mitigation can probably fix the problem.

  28. ” quokka, on 19 July 2010 at 13.58 Said:
    It is clear that by any measure, the required build rates of low CO2 electricity generation infrastructure are extremely challenging – no matter what the technology.
    It is worth reflecting on the fact that 16% of the worlds electricity is currently generated by nuclear power stations and probably less than 2% by solar and wind combined. ”

    16% of the world’s electricity from NPP’s built in the 60′s, 70′s and 80′s. Add the current 9GW in ongoing new NPP construction to go to 17% by 2020.

    Hereunder a link to what is happening in the wind power sector, starting from the year 2000. Wind is apparently being installed more rapidly that NPP’s, seen in electricity production percentage terms.

    I hope the moderator will leave my comments as it stands. And Peter lalor has valid arguments.

    http://www.renewableenergyworld.com/rea/news/article/2010/07/btm-wind-market-report?cmpid=WNL-Wednesday-July21-2010

    Back in 2000, wind power generated just 0.25% of the world’s electricity. That year’s BTM Report made the astonishing forecast that by 2010 wind could provide as much as 1.78% of the world’s electricity consumption. While the actual figure of 1.6% is 10% lower than this, it is strikingly accurate for a prediction made a decade ago. Assuming this year’s report is as accurate, wind power really should have a good chance of hitting the milestone of 10% of the world’s electricity by 2020. Clearly any forecast this far out becomes a lot more speculative, but, pinning their colours to the mast, BTM suggest that by 2019 the global wind turbines world market might reach 126 GW installed per year and total capacity of over 950 GW.

  29. Tom – I don’t have much objection to low cost initatives that are in general low regret. I don’t think we should have electric cars until the price drops more but there isn’t much point anyway from a CO2 perspective unless we go nuclear.

    If economists can’t weigh the costs and benefits for the purposes of making judgements about public policy then what makes you think some other group of experts can. And if we don’t put the costs and benefits on a scale and test the virtue of a given course of action then anything is permitted. We may as well do stupid things such as building wind farms just because it feels nice for a while. Next month we can paint our highways green and put solar cells on electric trains. Personally I’d much prefer that we carefully weigh the costs and benefits of any public policy initative before we embark on it. However if you prefer to go with whim then at least you won’t be alone because most of the population seems to prefer their public policy to be evidence free.

  30. TerjeP,

    I’m sorry to say that I think that is just a whole lot of nonsense. What possible credence can be placed on economic models projecting 40 or 90 years into the future? You are demanding public policy be built on a house of cards and a world built on some sort of technocracy ruled by economists. Unfortunately economics is riddled with ideological biases. No thanks.

  31. Quokka – what model do you propose we use in dealing with an issue that is occuring over a 40 to 90 year time scale? Should public policy just be based on whim. If so let’s just paint the highways green and that will fix the problem.

  32. Terje, you said

    “If economists can’t weigh the costs and benefits for the purposes of making judgements about public policy then what makes you think some other group of experts can”

    A multifaceted research approach makes most sense, drawing from disciplines such as the physical sciences, biology, sociology and economics. The IPCC comes closest to this, and their conclusion is (more or less) that urgent action needs to be taken.

    I’m unsure why you think economics is the sole best indicator for policy approach. Many biologists are suggesting the ecological costs from unabated climate change will be dire. As this post mentioned, above 3 degrees of warming could lead to up to 50% of species going extinct. That’s far from a worst case scenario temperature increase – it’s roughly a middle point for IPCC projection ranges by 2100, and even close to the upper range of projections by 2050.

    I’ll emphasise this again – we (as a civilisation and as individuals) rely on these ecosystems to function and survive. Innovation might get us so far, but 50% of species going extinct in a world of 9+ billion people would very probably yield intolerably high casualties.

  33. At this point in time there have only been 14 peer reviewed papers that weigh costs and benefits and they lead to a conclusion that we should do little. However if somebody wants to do a multi disiplinary review of costs and benefits and subject it to peer review then you won’t see me objecting. However we can’t draw conclusions from papers that don’t exist.

  34. “ TerjeP, on 22 July 2010 at 8.14 Said:
    We may as well do stupid things such as building wind farms just because it feels nice for a while. Next month we can paint our highways green and put solar cells on electric trains. Personally I’d much prefer that we carefully weigh the costs and benefits of any public policy initative before we embark on it. However if you prefer to go with whim then at least you won’t be alone because most of the population seems to prefer their public policy to be evidence free. “

    Well, I have some personal real life costs and benefits evidence for you.

    My home retail electricity rate is now 18 cents per kWh, I am receiving electricity from a 100% renewable supply utility called Ecopower cvba, and this since 2006, day and night.

    My previous utility called Electrabel invoiced me the same rate, while using an 100% imported nuke + FF energy mix to produce it’s electrons. Therefore ‘cheap’ nuke power isn’t translated into cheaper home retail rates to me, since I pay the same rate for a 100% renewable energy mix.

    Of course, today, Electrabel also provides an alternative choice in the form of also 100% renewable sourced electricity supply, but they charges 5% more than their regular nuke + FF power plant mix for the privilege of using that sort of fuel.

    My utility Ecopower cvba sources its fuels from 52% biomass (CHP using locally grown switch grass or wood pellets shipped from Belgium, Austria, Ukraine, Scandinavia, Canada, USA) and biofuels (locally grown vegetable oil producing crops, oil burned in ICE power generators), 2% from run-of-river hydro power, 38% from wind turbines, 6% from solar PV parks and a few small scale biogas digester powering gas turbines supplying the rest.

    And the cheapest power plant is the one you do not build. Even 13 cents per kWh new western NPP’s cannot compete with that assumption.

    About some existing real cost and benefits papers evidence :

    http://www.treehugger.com/files/2010/07/energy-efficiency-twice-the-impact-of-renewables-nuclear-clean-coal-combined.php?campaign=weekly_nl

    Energy Efficiency : Twice the Impact of Renewables, Nuclear and Clean Coal. Combined.
    “The International Energy Agency estimates that energy efficiency will deliver 65 per cent of worldwide carbon cuts in the energy sector by 2020, and 54 per cent by 2030. This means that in 2020 energy efficiency could have almost twice the impact of renewable energy, nuclear power and clean coal combined.”
    They cite, for example, one company who has discovered they can save so much energy at one plant that it would equal to powering 100 000 homes. And that’s but one business. The report notes that “just 220 companies, mainly in manufacturing, mining, and construction, use more than 40 per cent of the energy consumed in Australia.” As the Sydney Morning Herald points out this is “almost twice as much power as all households combined.”
    The Jevons Paradox (search vimeo for a great video on it) unfortunately undoes the benefits of energy efficiency by making energy cheaper and thus promotes greater usage. Efficiency is important but it won’t get us where we need to go. We need to cut down usage and the only way that’ll happen is by increasing the price of energy.
    Energy efficiency doesn’t make expanded generation and distribution unnecessary, it just delays it a few years, unless you intend to reduce the standard of living and stop population growth. Letting prices rise to fund expanded energy supply is in fact the best encouragement for energy efficiency. Requiring pollution sources to pay for the demonstrable effects of the pollution is another tool for correctly pricing energy, and therefore energy efficiency. Even absent a carbon price, this can be very significant, as chemical pollutants like Mercury are quite toxic.

    http://biomassdigest.net/blog/2010/07/16/the-busy-persons-guide-to-a-20-percent-renewable-power-standard/

    The busy person’s guide to a 20 percent Renewable Power Standard. To meet the 2050 global carbon goals and provide power for a world population growing in numbers and affluence, a 20 percent RPS is a minimal standard, no more or less than a material first step. The United States generates about 4000 terawatts of power per year. We produce about 10 percent of our needs today from renewables. In a 20 percent scenario, we’ll need 10 more – or 400 terawatts. Hydro and geothermal have development limits, solar is a beautiful infant, nuclear takes forever, and there’s only so much wind that can be built at one time. In a five-year, near term scenario, we’d be darn lucky to add 11 terawatts from all those sources. Even so, we’d be doubling the capacity of that entire sector. What’s left? Biomass. Whether you think of it as the “friendly fuel” or the “scourge of mankind”, its infrastructure and capital light. Co-firing or conversion, its the near-term technology that’s available. Usually, we burn wood when we burn biomass, but wood takes quite a while to grow, and the near-term play is in energy grasses. Since you get about 1000 kilowatt hours per ton of switchgrass, you need 250 million tons to produce the extra 250 terawatts of power from new generation. That uses up about 30 million acres, at 8 tons an acre. Switchgrass will cost 10 cents per kWh on a good day. Coal costs around 5 cents per kWh. Doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly. The differential is around $15 billion. That can be absorbed in the form of tax, or rate increases. Throw in a few pennies for the impact of other new renewables generation, and we look at $20 billion per year in added cost, excluding the capital cost of new generation from wind, solar and geo. That’s about $200 per household per year, $4 per week, or about 60 cents per day. That’s the kind of metric that can really cheese off an annoyed electorate, fed up with government spending. But look at it another way. Hurricane Katrina caused $125 billion in total damages. And anyone who thinks that global warming will cause less economic impact than Katrina hasn’t been looking at the numbers. Global warming skeptic : Still sounds like an affordable hedge, with a pay-off in lower rates down the line, should all the carbon chat turn to nothing and tons more coal fuel resources be uncovered. Capacity builds can be tough asks for investors and financiers, but they always, always pay off for the end-user.

  35. So with all the uncontrollable heating-up that is taking place all over the planet – how is this winter shaping up, temperature wise, in Australia?
    Can anyone enlighten me?

  36. Bill said:

    “So with all the uncontrollable heating-up that is taking place all over the planet – how is this winter shaping up, temperature wise, in Australia?
    Can anyone enlighten me?”

    A good place to check weather and climate data for Australia is at the Bureau of Meteorology website (www.bom.gov.au). You can check weather and climate trends there, such as national climate summaries. Perhaps that is what you are looking for?

    For example, the national monthly climate summary for June (the start of this winter – naturally the July summary is not available yet) can be found here (via the menus):

    Bureau Home > Climate > The Recent Climate > Regular statements

    It starts with:

    “Nationally averaged temperatures were slightly above normal. Both maximum and minimum temperatures were 0.25°C above the long-term average, ranking 25th and 30th highest on record respectively.”

    Of course monthly weather fluctuations on a regional scale are not a true indicator of long term global trends.

    Does that help?

    Andrew

  37. @TerjeP

    At this point in time there have only been 14 peer reviewed papers that weigh costs and benefits and they lead to a conclusion that we should do little. However if somebody wants to do a multi disiplinary review of costs and benefits and subject it to peer review then you won’t see me objecting. However we can’t draw conclusions from papers that don’t exist.

    We gain nothing by assigning unrealistic precision to economic models projecting 40 or 90 years out. Even with near perfect climate forecasting (which is nothing like the case in reality) it still would be a nonsense to give too much credence to this stuff. But no doubt such studies would echo around the denialsphere, and serve a political purpose.

    Despite years of warnings about derivative mountains, especially of the over the counter variety, and soaring private debt levels, did economics (as a whole) successfully predict the GFC? Now try 50 years ahead.

    The best we can do is to draw inferences from the physical and biological sciences.

    We are talking of a very different type of risk from ordinary economic or investment risk. In these cases, people (hopefully) learn from their errors and move on, possibly with somewhat fewer dollars.

    There is no confidence whatsoever that what humans are doing to climate can be reversed out. It is a risk that cannot be hedged in any meaningful way. What’s more the upper bound on the risk is huge. it is the kind of risk that should make any self respecting risk manager shiver.

    If you noticed I’ve posted about the new study in Nature about the 40% decline in phytoplankton. This could very likely have extremely serious consequences. But to put a meaningful $ cost on those consequences is just plain impossible. And this is illustrative of the general problem. So much is unknown that risk cannot reasonably be capped.

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