The following essay was published today on ABC The Drum’s Unleashed website. It’s a repackaging and honing of some of the key lines of argument that have been developed on BNC by me, my guest posters, and the blog’s many regular commenters. I hope you find it a useful pointer to the way forward — or at least a sounding board off which further ideas can resonate.
Climate debate missing the point
I’m increasingly of the view that the government, and indeed much of the classic ‘environmental movement’, are badly missing the point on climate change and energy security.
There’s a lot of recent debate about whether an emissions trading system is the right model for putting a price on carbon – or whether a simple tax, or a fee-and-dividend model, would be better. We argue about whether climate change is happening, or if it’s important, or whatever. Blah di blah.
There are also endless back-and-forth arguments about how much we need to cut our emissions by a given date, with no resolution. How many times have you heard an environmentalist cry “We must cut our carbon emissions by 80 per cent by 2030 to avoid catastrophic climate change”, only to have a politician or industry spokesperson say “Australia is taking an economically responsible course of action by aiming for a 5 per cent cut below 2000 levels by 2020”. Who’s right? How do you parse this?
The truth is that we can never be sure until after the fact. We can’t be sure how hard we (and the rest of the world) must cut back on carbon emissions, and we don’t know how fast we need to do it.
Current science says that humanity would be unwise to emit more than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon over the entire period of industrial civilisation, yet we’ve already used up about half of that long-term ‘budget’. So, the sooner we start to cut, and the deeper we cut, the more likely humanity is to avoid really serious climate disruption and its many unpleasant consequences.
Further, we really don’t know how fast or hard we CAN cut back, or how much this will cost. Sure, we can look at ways to increase the efficiency of our energy use, and we can consider the current economics of ‘clean’ (low-carbon) sources such as nuclear, wind and solar energy. But are these options scalable? Can we build them fast enough to replace fossil fuels and yet maintain a reliable electricity supply? Will the rest of the world follow our lead, even if we do succeed?
To have any hope of answering these questions, we need a realistic plan for implementation. Not just ‘the market will fix it’ dream, but an energy plan that achieves our desired goal, is likely to work in the real world (that is, it relies principally on established or demonstrated technologies), and is economically feasible. The plan then needs to be executed, via directed and sustained action.
Clearly, this will require bipartisan support – at least in terms of agreeing on the general need for implementation – even if the details are up for political ‘fine tuning’. However, I’m confident that we can get agreement for reasons well beyond climate change – avoiding local and regional pollution, long-term energy security, avoiding peak-oil-related shortages and fuel price escalation, increased need for desalination and intensive agriculture to support a growing population, and so on.
What would such a plan look like? Well, I’ve certainly got one in mind, but it’s probably rather different in detail to yours. Yet, disagreement doesn’t mean that it isn’t possible to get broad consensus on the desirable, pragmatic elements that are required for any workable plan.
First up, it can’t bankrupt us. Actually, I’d go further than that. If we really want to guarantee that a plan will get majority support, it can’t really afford to cost more than our current system. Here I’m reminded of a quote from a friend of mine, Californian entrepreneur Steve Kirsch:
Pouring money into token mitigation strategies is a non-sustainable way to deal with climate change. That number will keep rising and rising every year without bound. The most effective way to deal with climate change is to seriously reduce our carbon emissions. We’ll never get the enormous emission reductions we need by treaty. Been there, done that. It’s not going to happen. If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.
Is it possible to find ‘clean energy’ alternatives that are cheaper than coal, oil and gas? Not immediately, no, but it should be possible – indeed, inevitable, when future supply constraints are considered – if we avoid unnecessary and unfair regulatory and investment burdens. I suspect that if a proposed plan requires massive, permanent subsidies to work (such as ongoing feed-in tariffs, purchasing mandates or energy certificates), it’s probably a dead duck. Loan guarantees to kick-start private investment – which are not subsidies, but risk management aids – seem like one of the most effective forms of government intervention to making things happen.
Second, the plan must be logistically and technologically feasible. Massive transmission grids linking Australia to Asia to Europe might be a great concept, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Space-based solar arrays or fusion power are far distant prospects, probably well beyond our lifetimes. We need to get serious about what’s here and now, or at least just on the horizon.
Finally, it must be technology neutral. All systems that meet certain underlying goals (low carbon, safe, able to effectively manage waste, sustainable, and so on) should be allowed to compete on a level playing field. A plan that says “no nuclear” or “no carbon capture and storage”, or one that imposes severe regulatory burdens on some technologies but not others, is really risky. Why? Because there is a good chance that the cheapest and most efficient solutions will be ruled out on ideological grounds, or for short-term political convenience: always a bad idea.
My considered view is that nuclear power will end up forming the backbone of any effective real-world clean energy plan, but I’d be just as happy if other prospective technologies, such as concentrating solar power or enhanced geothermal systems, are able to take a major role.
Yet, even if you disagree with my plan (or anyone else’s for that matter), you shouldn’t seek to ‘block’ any qualifying technology. And if you wish people to take your plan seriously, you must be prepared to tell them how much it will likely cost, what sort of support it will need to be put into action, and consider its implications for electricity grid stability, energy storage and sustainability.
In short, real-world energy plans have to work in the real world. Does yours?
70 replies on “Climate debate missing the point”
One can’t argue with your characterization of the problem. Unfortunately, it is not that easy to properly do a cost comparison between any large-scale energy technologies, without first establishing common ground.
It is impossible to make any fair comparison between natural gas and nuclear energy when the former is permitted to release tens of thousands of curies in radioactive radon to the atmosphere from one of its generating facilities, and the latter is threatened with closure because a few millicuries of tritium is found in the soil inside the plant fence.
It goes on. Coal, even with CCS, still is not held to the same standards nuclear is in respect to managing its solid wastes. Nor it would seem is it held to the same standards for environmental impacts in the mining of its fuel in many cases.
In some places there are demands for exorbitant insurance coverage for nuclear power plants, yet not for hydro dams capable of inflicting orders of magnitude more damage on the communities they threaten than a nuclear plant could.
I could list several more, but the point remains that until some level playing field is established, comparisons will inevitably remain poor tools for pursuing this topic.
No argument there DV8, and it’s a point Peter Lang has been hammering away at. I hinted at the above when I said:
… but there’s only so much of an argument one can develop with a ‘virgin’ audience in 1000 words…
I don’t know if you’ve heard this , Barry.
Is it possible to find ‘clean energy’ alternatives that are cheaper than coal, oil and gas
I heard from a well plugged in source that the Korean winning bid for those two nuclear plants in the Emirates came in 30% below the American bid. This is pretty significant information because it means the new base price for a nuclear plant is now 30% what is was before, as you can certain the other bidders will be figuring how the hell the Koreans came in so low.
I’m not sure if Peter Lang knows this as it came from word of mouth and I’m unaware of any publicity.
This is truly fantastic information as it shows the market is working.
Excellent blog – there is a disturbing report at SPN Headlines about climate change data procurement:
Keep smiling! :-)
DV8 – If I could suggest this, perhaps you could send the comparative radionuclide information to specific writers behind the imbalanced/out-of-context media stories, with links to academic and government sources of information so they can “see for themselves.” You can often find out who exactly they are. This is something that has potential value in advancing the debate, and anyone who is better informed about the science could do it. If a lot of people did it regularly and diligently, it might make the democratic “conversation” more informed.
Just a suggestion. No giving up allowed!
Oh, I do Frank, I have a collection of stock letters on these subjects, and I’ll fire one off under my real name when I run into articles that dwell on the subject. However in many cases, it is not so much that the popular media is antinuclear per se, as much as they are still breathlessly enthralled by renewable schemes.
There is also a real issue of editorial bias, whether one wants to face it or not. I have been following the coverage of the Vermont Yankee affair via the television and radio stations that I receive from the New England states, and via Meredith Angwin’s blog. She has uncovered information that should at the very least, been mentioned in the media, but of course isn’t.
For example: The Conservation Law Foundation, which is one of the more effective of the groups working to shut the plant down is directly affiliated with CLF Ventures, who’s major client at the moment is a AES Corporation which is building a 720 MW combined-cycle natural gas fired power plant, one State over, in New Hampshire. Guess what power generator they are going to replace?
CLF Ventures business also includes nuclear decommissioning services, and just happens (according to their website) to have a comprehensive Site Closure Plan for Vermont Yankee available, just in case its needed. No doubt we can assume they invested time and money into making this plan, as a public service.
Do you think one shred of this shows up in the local media there? No, however there are regular updates on the ‘mess’ being created by the presence of ‘dangerous carcinogen’ tritium at the nuclear plant, which isn’t even legally considered a release because it hasn’t been found outside the plant’s boundary. To give you an idea of how much material they are getting worked up about, a self-illuminating exit sign contains about 15-30 curies of tritium, and the leak at VY has let go a trillionth of a curie.
The bias of the media there in that fight is beyond question, and while I have written several of them on the subject, it is highly unlikely that the rantings of some random Canadian are going to make anyone lose sleep.
CCS is just a propaganda tool of the powerful fossil fuel lobby.It may be technically feasable but it can’t be scaled up and it is extremely inefficient.
In order to have a nation which has a sustainable system the steaming coal industry must be shut down,both for domestic power generation and for export.For base load,nuclear,geothermal and solar thermal are viable solutions.
To argue about cost is really to argue about whether you or your children are going to have anything better than a short,brutish existence.
Forget about what the rest of the world is doing.This is worth doing for the sake of our nation.Along with some other urgent actions(not strictly on topic)it is our only chance to survive as a nation.
Short of a violent revolution I don’t know how the present ruling oligarchy can be convinced to get off the Growth At Any Cost track.On that track the light at the end of the tunnel is the cliff edge but there are none so blind as the wilfully blind.
I’d add another criterion to your list of pragmatic elements: It must not depend on behavioural change.
While there are a small number of people who are prepared to make deep changes in the way they live, and another small group who are prepared to make minor changes, I see no evidence whatsoever that the vast majority of people are prepared to make any change to their lifestyle. And they’re not going to support, with their vote, any political party proposing a plan that requires they do so.
Any proposal that requires we act against our own simple convenience will fail just as surely as one that will bankrupt us.
Barry and commenters,
This is an excellent article. It pulls together really well the key points from articles and comments contributed over the past few months.
And the comments aqre excellent too. But all talking to the converted.
So, as suggestion: Could Barry copy these above comments (exceluding this one of mine) to the ABC The Drum’s web site.
A great place for comparisons of plans that actually can work is MacKay’s book ‘Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air’. Unfortunately it is rather light on the economics and regulatory and focuses mostly on the physics — how many windmills (or nuclear power plants or various mixes) would it really take to get off fossil fuels. The graphs and bar charts are great visual aids.
The point continually needs to be made that all, absolutely all, power prodcution methods have to have no, absolutely no, externalities imposed on the environment, which includes people. Well, that’s the goal which cannot be fully met if for no other reason that occupying some land.
Just now especially coal is getting away with (literally) murder, at least in the USA. Since utilities are regulated, that should not be happening but unfortunately the various governing laws are not properly written.
As for the possibliy of electricity costing more, people adjust and various electrically operated things before more efficient over time given the proper incentives. A slow increase in the cost electricity won’t make much difference [but my cost just went down by 7% at the request of the local privately owned utility company].
John D Morgan: “While there are a small number of people who are prepared to make deep changes in the way they live, and another small group who are prepared to make minor changes”
I’d say the majority of people who are prepared to make deep changes in the way they live typically already have. It is my observation that people who have a very small energy use footprint began that way of life as they transitioned from teenagers to young adults.
The rest, those who are prepared to make minor changes, do so only in ways that don’t inconvenience their way of life. Eg, they will put more effort in to recycling, install roof-top solar, replace their hot water system at end-of-life with a heat-pump, but continue to drive their car 40 – 80k per day to work round trip.
“Any proposal that requires we act against our own simple convenience will fail just as surely as one that will bankrupt us.”
I couldn’t agree more, and this is one of the motivating factors that has caused me to gradually reduce the time I spend with the all-ready-done-it deep-changers. They are typically already so entrenched in their way of life and their views on energy use they can’t accept the science & numbers provided by real world data.
It must not depend on behavioural change – this was a major hurdle in shifting my own way of thinking about energy use, “if everyone just used less” isn’t always practicable.
I’m still pondering the Australian Energy Resource Assessment released by ABARE this week
It says no NP by 2030 and 2% wind, 33% gas fired which is arguably realistic. It doesn’t reflect my opinion there will be a huge swing to CNG as an oil replacement. I presume the implied emissions path 2010 to 2030 checks out against targets. However I’m not sure this path will be be affordable in terms of energy costs relative to income .
re: “If we really want to guarantee that a plan will get majority support, it can’t really afford to cost more than our current system”
Are you talking about the current financial costs of the current system, or the true economic, social and economic costs of the current system over coming decades?
If we wait until low emission technologies become price-competitive with coal (how is that not just ‘the market will fix it’ dream ?) we will be waiting a long time, and in all likelihood will have locked in dangerous warming.
Surely the “point” of the climate debate is whether and how the future costs of CO2 emissions should be reduced – the deniers say there are no future costs so the status quo is fine, the “alarmists” say the future costs are huge, and that the true cost of fossil fuels (climate change) should be accounted for when assessing the relative costs and benefits of any energy plan. The science says the alarmists are right, and the sooner we act the better. That is why the climate debate is so important, why deniers matter, and why I was disappointed to see a statement like this “We argue about whether climate change is happening, or if it’s important, or whatever. Blah di blah” in a forum where IPA ideologues are repeating the same old BS and trying to erode political will to do anything. It is happening and it is important, and experts should make that point as clearly as possible whenever given an opportunity to do so.
The point of the climate debate is not to win support for nuclear power, it is to reach agreement on the need (or not) to reduce emissions at a faster rate than would occur under business as usual. Only when there is majority (& bipartisan) support to reduce emission urgently will any energy source other than fossil fuels have any real hope of rapid, widespread adoption (esp. in coal rich Oz).
Considering the low level rubbish that the drum publishes – both as articles and as comments – that was a really good posting, and got a far better reception taht Clive hamilton’s piece (for example). Only a very few Boltian winged monkeys descended on it to try and poo all over it.
There is alsoready a recognition of that amongst the populace. But for the vagaries of the senate that part of the argument would have been affirmed at national level. We are paying a high price for the arcane senate structure.
I disagree. What is not recognised at the moment is the reality that renewables + energy efficiency/energy sacrificing + biosequestration as they are generally understood can’t reduce emissions much faster than B-A-U at acceptable cost. People allow themselves to be deluded about this because they want to feel good but don’t want the basic way things are done to change and most still harbour irrational fears over nuclear power.
The discussion I’ve seen over at The Drum is interesting in that a slice of the denier types have been wedged into sympathy for Barry’s position — some of them wrongly assuming he is skeptical of climate science.
There are a handful of “Limits to Growth” types but the commentary on both sides of the climate argument has been positive on nuclear.
I notice with some interest that one of the regulars here — Fran Barlow — is offering Barry’s position energetic support. I wonder if those who thought she was trolling here and prompted her to leave still think so?
Ewen Laver “…can’t reduce emissions much faster than B-A-U at acceptable cost”
what is an “acceptable cost”? Surely that depends entirely on what the costs of not reducing emissions are – which is what the “climate debate” is all about (within the press, political parties etc). If the costs if BAU are minimal, then the costs of renewable and probably nuclear are unacceptable (until fossils run out), if the costs of BAU are catastrophic for the planet, then even the mostly costly (and risky) low-emission fuels become acceptable. Maybe the reality lies somewhere in the middle, but the point is we can’t collectively decide what an acceptable cost of energy is until we collectively agree on the value of reducing emissions- and that is very difficult with vested interests and right wing ideologues undermining climate science. The ETS may have been “unlucky” in the senate, but the senators were largely reflecting what they at least perceived to be the will of the people – people who have been conned by deniers BS. It may be boring and frustrating, but the deniers have to be confronted at every opportunity and their BS exposed.
I’m not surprised that denier types are sympathetic to the position Barry presents in this post – he seems to be agreeing with them that any alternative energy plan has to be at least as cheap as fossil fuels! That is only the case if you have zero faith in a society’s ability to act in its own long term interests.
That’s about it in a nutshell. After being engaged in this whole process for quite some time, I have reached a position of having (close to) zero faith in a society’s ability to act in its own long-term interest. If you want to understand why, read back through the BNC archives.
Steve Meacher, yes, I’ve seen the abstract and will await the full plan with interest, especially whether they deal with reliability. I should note that even based on the abstract and their very optimistic costings, the BZE plan is 3 times more expensive than Peter Lang’s nuclear majority option.
The clandestine extension of the power agreement between Portland VIC ALCOA aluminium smelter and the Loy Yang generators out to 2030 something is an absolute disgrace. BNC and other blogs should be way out in front in condemning this sort of vandalism but at the very least it shows what we are up against in Australia.
Also notice that development proposals have been released in NSW for two new base load power generators – one at Bayswater, one at Lithgow – but with neither confirmed as to what fuel source will be used, coal or NG. In other words write your submissions on either proposal but the NSW Government is yet to determine the most important issue in both. This form of dishonesty seems to equal to equal that of the Brumby Government in Victoria.
Not quite. It depends on what people allow themselves to believe the probable costs of not reducing are for them, given their desire to hold onto the lifestyle which they have come to beleive they have earned — which is not at all the same thing as the scenarios the science tells us of. In their heart of hearts many people — plenty enough people — want to believe it won’t be so bad or that we will pull some last minute save out of the hat or that we will get lucky.
Were that not so people would be aggressively demanding tougher cuts everywhere, but they aren’t. Cognitive dissonance rules and we can expect they would hang on well past the time disaster would be unavoidable.
So for governments on a 3-year cycle, forcing their hand with a low-cost emissions technology is probably essential
Barry and Ewen –
So the only hope is for nuclear or some other low-emission technology to become cost-competitve with fossil fuels – without a carbon price – and politically palatable within the next 2 decades (https://bravenewclimate.com/2009/12/10/mind-the-gap/)?
dc, in Australia, yes, it seems that way. In the developing world, which is going to make-or-break 21st century carbon emissions, absolutely.
It has been for the last thirty years. Its not like we just discovered global warming, peak oil, solar power, wind and energy efficiency. I’ve been reading about this stuff since I was a kid.
In fact, I can even point to this cartoon from the incredible “Frontiers of Science” strip from 1965 which describes global warming in some detail. This strip was carried by the Sydney Morning Herald, and I would have read this sometime in the 70’s – I actually remember learning about the greenhouse effect from this cartoon for the first time when I was maybe 7 or 8.
The Heat Balance
Hey Barry, another solid article, very thoughtful. Slightly off topic, but I just don’t see how we could ever reach a truly global solution. Even if the political idealogues in the U.S. ever agreed to something- are we capable of instructing countries like China and India to follow our lead? I think we are fooling ourselves if we think other countries, particularly China, will due more than pay lip service to cutting emissions- I doubt they will surrender an iota of economic growth to ensure our joint long-term interests.
If you are suggesting that we should have technology neutral regulations, that the lowest cost solution should win and that we shouldn’t pick winners ahead of time then you are essentially saying that the public policy should largely be for the free market to decide the outcome. Yet you insist that instead of leaving it to the market we need a planned approach. This seems somewhat contradictory to me. What exactly do you think the public policy response should be? Planned or Lassiez Faire.
TerjeP, leaving it to the free market without first opening the market to all viable options and removing unfair/biased impediments, is wrong. Yet, that is the current approach of the CPRS.
The ETS cannot work in Australia whilst viable technologies such as nuclear power are ruled out on ideological/political grounds. The ETS will fail if the playing field is not level. It will also fail if the funds raised are misallocated towards vested interests or handed out as political favours.
I favour a fee-and-dividend model in combination with loan guarantees, but even this won’t work whilst Australia rules out viable options.
Getting a truly level playing field is the first debate we need to resolve in Australia. Arguing about an ETS or carbon tax is putting the cart before the horse.
I left a rather hasty critical response to Prof Brook’s Drum article in the comments which attracted some probably justified criticism. I will now re-frame my comments. Professor Brook writes: “Current science says that humanity would be unwise to emit more than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon over the entire period of industrial civilisation, yet we’ve already used up about half of that long-term ‘budget’. So, the sooner we start to cut, and the deeper we cut, the more likely humanity is to avoid really serious climate disruption and its many unpleasant consequences.”
He does not give a source for his assertion of the upper limits of GHG pollution but it is likely that the term ‘current science’ refers to the work of Allen, Meinshausen et al published in Nature in 2009 and widely discussed at the time. One trillion tonnes of GHG pollution is supposed to give us a 50/50 chance of not exceeding two degrees of warming which in itself is no guarantee of avoiding runaway climate change.
Brook does not mention that Allen also concluded that while … “It took 250 years to burn the first 500 billion tonnes on current trends we’ll burn the next 500 billion in less than 40 years.” In fact “…that means that if we continue emitting carbon at the same rate as we are now, we will exhaust what Allen calls the trillion-tonne “carbon budget for the human race” by 2040.” At that point unless we have achieved global carbon neutrality we either ‘turn the lights out or push the warming beyond two degrees.
In a separate paper Meinshausen et al calculate that we could exhaust the carbon budget within as little as 20 years with Bill Hare from the Potsdam Institute commenting that to have a 75% chance of keeping to the 2°C target (after all 50/50 is pretty lousy odds), “…we can burn less than one-quarter of known economically recoverable fossil-fuel reserves between now and 2050”.
Meinshausen further says that to have a good chance of staying below 2°C, global emissions must start falling after 2015. Achieving this will be no small feat indeed most would call it impossible: at present we emit between 1% and 3% more each year than we did the year before. That trend must be reversed within six years. This concurs with James Hansen’s comment that we have five years to begin to sharply reduce GHG emissions if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.
When the turn around time about which Allen, Meinshausen et al are quite explicit (but Prof Brook glosses over) is taken into consideration Brook’s discussion about technological neutrality and the comparative economic merits of this strategy vs that strategy become somewhat academic.
Brook may well be convinced by climate science but when driving towards the edge of a high cliff the result is the same if we fail to notice its existence, if we deny its existence or if we simply apply the brakes too lightly or too late.
Doug, those issues have already been worked over heavily on this blog. A few pointers to further reading/commentary:
We will achieve what we can achieve, and the determinants of that rate are not primarily scientific, they are socioeconomic and political. That’s the reality we are working with, globally and even in places like Australia. If you have a suggestion as to how it could be different, I’d love to hear it.
Actually DC my view is that there should be an effective price on carbon dioxide emissions (and others too) and that that should be internalised into all energy/industrail sources of public goods. I’d prefer a robust cap and trade system as I think this would work best.
That said I also understand that we propbably won’t get one. The political cycle probably won’t permit it to occur in the right form with the right players on the right timeline to get the job we need to get done, done.
In a slightly more rational world, programs spanning multiple jurisdictions and multiple governing regimes in time would be developed in an orderly way according to a consensus about “the public good”. Regrettably, much of our governance is driven by whimsy, tribalism and cynical opportunism.
We need to paint future governments into a corner by developing a program with strong longterm benefits that have sunk costs to great to write off.
Nuclear power is such a program. The initial costs would be substantial but acceptable. It will be most competitive when there is a substantial carbon dioxide price. It won’t be reversible once started. It will force down CO2 emissions (and also others as well). It can support switching vehicles onto the grid. If we had them, then it would be in Australia’s interests to push for a strong carbon price internationally. As China, India and Russia are gearing up with nuclear they would be on the same page.
I think the NSW baseload stations will be supercritical coal not coal seam gas which I think will be preferred for smaller combined cycle plants. The Vic aluminum smelters will continue to use brown coal fired electricity for decades since gas fired would impose a hefty price shock. Meanwhile coal exports to India and China may continue to increase at 100% (ie doubling) and 500% a year.
On Vic I also note that Melbourne will be drawing water from the Murray Darling system for the first time. The PM thinks we need 70% more population. I think we have to understand the State and Federal governments have no intention of cutting local or global CO2 until there is a crisis. Kinda strange when only back in 2007 the hot button issues were Work Choices and Kyoto.
Hello Prof Brook I’m encouraged to have another go by the apparent rationality of the discussion on your site. Had a look at the references you pointed me at and I can see that the time frames so much a part of the ‘current science’ you referred to in your Drum article have indeed been canvassed here although not on our ABC in this instance at least.
To me this gave the article a curious disconnect between the dire urgency of the drivers of the discussion and the unstated assumptions about aspects of our economic structures that we (apparently) must consider sacrosanct. To state the bleeding obvious we live in a world in rapid climatic transformation, one in which the dwindling availability of energy resources is rushing to meet the environmental unsuitability of utilizing them. Population is growing at unsustainable rates (although that problem will doubtless solve itself quickly enough). Increasingly availability of adequate food and water is a problem and will most likely become critical shortly.
You write “…Is it possible to find ‘clean energy’ alternatives that are cheaper than coal, oil and gas? Not immediately, no, but it should be possible – indeed, inevitable, when future supply constraints are considered – if we avoid unnecessary and unfair regulatory and investment burdens.”
Can the market viability of the power generation and other heavy industries (and the financial well being of their shareholders) really be allowed to stand in the way of addressing the crucial issues I touch on above?
To focus on Australia for now; surely rather than waiting for ‘future supply constraints’ we should be pushing for:
1. no expansion in domestic coal fired electricity generation – we are busy digging a deeper hole for ourselves by expanding coal fired generation wherever possible but a moratorium could simply be mandated. Can you think of a better way to kick start the shift to a carbon constrained energy base?
2. a staged phase out of coal exports on a climatically useful time frame which still allows time for the structural adjustment of the Australian economy.
3. a gradual increase in the cost of burning coal which only remains cheap by virtue of the enormous environmental subsidy granted by the society in which we live.
John Newlands’ March 4 post to your blog is terrifying madness and portrays a reality that must be resisted. Instead of waiting passively for the market to provide the framework for urgent change we must try to act ahead of the gathering storm. In your response to my post you wrote: “…We will achieve what we can achieve, and the determinants of that rate are not primarily scientific, they are socioeconomic and political. That’s the reality we are working with, globally and even in places like Australia.”
No-one could disagree with this surely but you seem to regard socio-economic and political change as forces of nature, beyond our capacity to influence. You surely don’t believe you are acting as a scientist when you write articles for the ABC or engage in discussion via your blog. You are directly engaging in the processes of social/ cultural change that necessarily precede the political change that will produce a new economic order whether the current market likes it or not. We will indeed achieve what we can achieve and the extent and rapidity of the achievement is a direct function of how hard we push now.
You closed your response to my post with “…If you have a suggestion as to how it could be different, I’d love to hear it.” Of course I don’t – I suspect, along with Clive Hamilton and many others, that it is already way too late; but I know that change will come more quickly the harder we push for it.
It is incumbent on all who understand the stakes to engage in this process. You clearly understand the game. It is unconscionable not to use that understanding and the position you have in the debate to promote the necessary change.
Barry – removing regulatory obstacles is quite consistent with advocating free markets.
To their credit the Greens act as though they care
The ‘conservatives’ Labor and Liberal talk big but do nothing which in some ways I find more grating. I think Gen Y antinukes like Ludlam became fanatics through opposing Ranger mine. With baby boomer antinukes like Rann it dates back to the French N-testing in the Pacific. Who is worse, rabid antinukes or do-nothing conservatives? At least those who care might one day actually do something to bring things to a head.
Barry – are you a climate skeptic because Jack Herman from the Press Council seems to indicate you are
[…] Barry Brook here […]
John Newland, I am not sure what evidence you see of Green caring. The Green Senator in the story objects to a deal between the government and Ngapa clan offering to speak for the Ngapa clan. Quite frankly, I find the Senator’s conduct racist. Maybe you Australians do not understand what racism is. Here is another example of a white guy, offering to speak for dark skinned people without being authorized to do so. It is extremely racist to assume that members of the Ngapa clan can’t speak for themselves, or are incapable of authorizing spokes persons to speak for them.
To be honest Charles you can say what you want about Senator Ludlam’s opinions on nuclear power, but I think that accusing him of being racist is way off the mark. How is arguing that decent housing should be provided to communities regardless of the nuclear dump issue racist? “No dump – no housing” is not what I consider appropriate policy.
If there were 100 white people complaining I hope you’d not suggest they follow the wishes of the local Mayor in signing their land away. And if they enlisted an elected member of parliament to help them then surely that is democracy in action. One could argue that your attitude that white senators should only be allowed to actively work with white members of the community and leave indigenous folks alone is the racist attitude.
Australia is producing about 10 000 tonne of yellow cake a year and 800 million tonne of coal a year. There are three uranium mines and a much larger number of coal mines. The coal mines are in large part on the east coast, which supported many aboriginal peoples and nations.
I’ve heard a lot of noise about uranium mining on aboriginal land. I have never heard protests about coal mining on aboriginal land. Scott Ludlam thinks the aboriginals are being exploited. I think he’s right.
Matt Buckels, the linked story focused on what I would call Senator Ludlam’s posturing on aboriginal rights. I don’t know whether or not the Ngapa clan is being exploited, because the story does not give us enough information to tell us what they think. The media should focus on their stories, not on Ludlam’s grandstanding. Ludiam and the media are playing their own game, and part of that game denies the Ngapa clan independent voices in determining what their problem is. To my mind this is racist, and Australians appear to not understand what racism is.
It’s amazing how we never hear a damn thing about aboriginal affairs when we’re dealing with mining coal, oil, gas, iron, copper, nickel, diamonds or anything else, until we start talking about mining uranium – and then all of a sudden we start hearing about how we’re exploiting aboriginal land.
But we never hear it first from the aboriginal people, only white activists.
in view of your your judicious and rational nukie comments on BNC I am astonished at your misplaced moral dudgeon and sweeping generalisations about a faraway country with a population of over 20m.
However, it is true that when a “negro/coloured//black/Afro-american” (tick PC box for correct 2010 term, it makes no difference to de facto racial inequality within the USA ) US Army spokesman was challenged by a white journalist on US Iraq policy at a Qatar press briefing, the US neocon shockjock Bill O`Reilly got his sycophantic listeners to attack the man for “racism”. So anything is possible.
Kindly refer to:
You will gather that the AU indigenous are split on this issue and that there is no evidence of Ludlam “grandstanding”, as you allege.
Well Charles all I can say is that as a local west australian fairly familiar with Senator Ludlam (I don’t personally know him, but I know folks that do) I can assure you that your are putting your own values on possible media spin and imposing them on Senator Ludlam who is a genuinely decent and pro-indigenous politician. Who just happens to be wrong about nuclear power. But pushing waste dumps on remote communities does nothing to sell the clean image of nuclear power, nothing at all. Mind you I admit that getting paid large sums of money for accommodating a relatively benign facility is a great deal – they can have my backyard for that sort of cash!
Matt, My judgement is based on the linked story, which depicted Ludlam as posing as a spokes[person for the interest of the Ngapa clan, without any evidence that he had been authorized to do so. This would be usurpation if it were in fact the case. My view is that it is all too easy for white politicians to patronize people of color, and I have seen it done for much of my life. There is nothing wrong with opening the door for them, or introducing them when they have something to say to the media, but posing as their protector is racist, unless you have their permission. A white politician can certainly represent people of color, but he should do so, only if the people chose him to speak for them.
My view is that people. no matter what their color, should be both allowed and encouraged to speak for themselves, and we patronize them if we profess to speak for them. I know of no circumstance in Australia that would exempt a Australian politician from this rule.
I see no reason to designate a nuclear waste facility as dirty, nor do I imagine there is something bad about locating it on first nation lands. I further believe that it is quite possible for a first nation community to both knowingly and willingly to enter into an agreement to locate a nuclear waste facility on their lands. I would further imagine that such a facility might provide both a first nation community and its individual members with income through rent and employment. A white politician who tells us the contrary with out the permission of the First Nations community, is speaking out of turn, and demonstrates a level of disrespect that I would describe as racist.
Matt I have known many decent people who thought that they were doing what is best for dark skinned people, but who ignored what those people wanted. They did so because they believed that they knew better than the dark skinned people did, what was good for them.
Peter. I read your link. It indicates that there is a disagreement among the aborigines. What I miss in all these stories is the failure to get the aborigines perspective. The issue I am pointing to here is the politics of voice. The issue of whether or not the aborigines.are adults who can speak up for themselves, and tell us what is in their interest,, or whether they need a patron, like Ludlam take over even if they have not consented too it. If Ludlam was authorized to speak for the Ngapa clan, then that is cool. But if he is imposing himself between the Ngapa clan and the media without there permission, then he is being a racist.
Logically I think the N-dump should be the site already acquired in the Woomera rocket range area. There are no permanent indigenous occupants to my knowledge. I also understand it is about 50km from Olympic Dam so that there is long established security and transport. The dump could be upgraded from low level to additional high level with deep burial of casks.
However the anti-nuclear Rann goverment (which faces an election in a fortnight) vetoed that site back in 2004. Note the announcement on the OD expansion is expected in July. Apart from nuclear waste disposal I believe the Rann govt also opposes ‘upgrading’ of uranium concentrates (from U3O8 to UF6 ?) and wants uranium bearing copper concentrate exported to China for processing. It also somehow wants more water and more jobs.
Ludlam is young, idealistic and a bit player. Rann is older and entrenched and is in a position to seriously curtail the world uranium industry.
How’s about we don’t call it a “Nuclear Waste Dump.” How is it waste if it can be re-used in a fast breeder reactor? Nuclear waste dump sounds terrible, no wonder no one wants to live near it except perhaps myself and Matt Buckels – I’ll happily sit on nuclear fuel for a fraction of $12 million!
And as John D Morgan pointed out, I’ve also never hear of anyone complaining about coal mining on aboriginal land. Why is that?
I count 32 coal mines in Australia and 3 uranium mines.
I’m starting to understand the green-left less and less, because that truly doesn’t make any sense. Coal’s contribution to GHG emissions = monstrous. Uranium’s = zilch, even if it completely replaced coal it’d still be so next to nothing in comparison.
Is there a word for an illogical fear of radiation? I’m beginning to think it’s actually a diagnosable psychological condition.
“How’s about we don’t call it a “Nuclear Waste Dump” how about Nuclear Fuel Repository?
“Is there a word for an illogical fear of radiation? I’m beginning to think it’s actually a diagnosable psychological condition.”
That was easy, thanks.
I’ll happily sit on nuclear fuel for a fraction of $12 million!
Hell, I’ll pay you $12 million to take it off your hands, so long as I get title to the material. I’ll turn a profit on the technetium alone before I sell the rest on to India to start up their fast reactors.
According to Crikey there could be not one but two coal fired power stations in the Woomera area
That’s OK they’ll have CCS. I read somewhere the coal in the Arckaringa Basin contains uranium washed down from the bedrock the swamps grew in. The flue gas that passes scrubbing will therefore contain some uranium. Good thing it’s not nukular.
The very idea of a nuclear fuel repository gives credence to the term nuclear waste. Once the actinoids are buried and gone they are yet another wasted resource. It’s backwards thinking.
[…] and Energy Policy I love the smooth logic of Barry Brook. In his blogpost “Climate debate missing the point” Barry states that “real-world energy plans have to work in the real world. Does […]
[…] His 2040 plan ends up with 42% nuclear, 12% natural gas, 5% plasma arc syngas, 6% bio/geo/tides/waves, 5% hydro and 30% wind/solar. For the latter, he says 30% is really the upper limit he can conceive, with any probable shortfall being met by more nuclear. Cost? About $6 trillion in direct investment over 30 years, but which results in an economy-wide cost saving equivalent of $8.5 trillion (mostly from no longer needing to purchase foreign oil, plus efficiencies etc.). All in all, it’s a plan well worth looking at, and fits nicely with the ‘real-world applicability’ criteria I described here. […]
That’s incorrect because “repository” is a long word for “cache”. It is is a place where the stuff reposes, which is to say, is buried but not gone; retrievably buried.
(Boron: A Better Energy Carrier than Hydrogen?)
The radioactive waste we’re dealing with in Australia is different from power reactor fuels.
It’s largely low-level waste from hospitals, universities and scientific institutions and radioisotope production at ANSTO.
So it’s not really material that can be constructively used.
Ewen Laver, on 3 March 2010 at 16.21 Said:
I thought she offered no solutions only throwing up endless political meandering observations.
DV8 seems to think politics is the main problem to overcome, so perhaps she was on the right track after all. I wish she could have condensed her stuff down though. I’m still suspicious the intent was to use up time and space and cloud the issue – we need to find a way to convey the message “Nuclear is good and necessary” in a short and convincing fashion.
As someone who is actively engaged in the struggle to get useful political action on climate change I find it hard to disagree with Prof Brook’s March 3 post where he states “…After being engaged in this whole process for quite some time, I have reached a position of having (close to) zero faith in a society’s ability to act in its own long-term interest.” The signs are all bad, the problem seems to be too large, too complex and too abstract for those who hold the reins of power to deal with. However not to engage in the struggle for political change is to be complicit in the degradation perhaps destruction of our future as a species. I will not do this while I have the strength to resist. I note media discussion of the possibilities of nuclear power and the virtues of the next generation of reactors but to believe in the capacity of the world to scale up nuclear power generation sufficiently and sufficiently quickly to make a substantial contribution to the climate emergency is not more rational than cargo cultism (and somewhat akin to it). I note Prof Brook’s comment on the importance of technological neutrality in any plan to combat climate change but question whether this might mean global governments sitting on their hands while the market decides (likely in the current circumstances in which the fossil fuel lobbyists hold sway) or global governments actively promoting all possible options equally and letting the individual circumstances of nations decide the way ahead ( an unlikely but perhaps still possible outcome of pressure on governments from the bottom up). I repeat not to engage in the struggle for political change is to be complicit in the degradation perhaps destruction of our future as a species.
On another but related matter – perhaps the breakthrough claimed by Google on the construction of mirrors will have the desired effect of reducing the cost of solar thermal power generation below that of coal fired power generation without the necessity of carbon pricing that the nuclear path seems to rely on. They appear to be claiming it will.
I don’t get it Doug. Nuclear power has an energy intensity one million times that of anything else. If you want to scale up clean energy, how can you think that anything else could be scaled up faster? Realistically, how could anything else be scaled up at a rate anything even approaching nuclear power?
Doug, as Lawrence said, don’t expect any miracles with CSP. There are the laws of physics dictating energy density that cannot be overcome. From this piece in Friday’s Age:
… and that’s a statement from an optimist of the technology. EPRI estimated much higher costs.
Prof Brook’s posts on March 3 that “…After being engaged in this whole process for quite some time, I have reached a position of having (close to) zero faith in a society’s ability to act in its own long-term interest.” I beg to differ.
The sun’s determinative effect on climate points towards not only the end of the “modern maximum” that warmed us during the latter part of the 20th century but now we can expect significant global cooling over the next several decades. This event will be associated with a sharp decline in agricultural output, just as occurred during the Maunder and Dalton solar minimums, when many died of starvation.
Just in time humanity’s activities may be increasing the level of atmospheric CO2, which will raise crop yields to offset partially the agricultural output decline due to a cooler earth. Furthermore, the idea that CO2 increases will cause harmful warming is being unmasked as intellectual garbage. Developing countries such as China and India will block it. Nothing now stands in the way of continuous and sharp increases in CO2 levels. Brook is dead wrong in presuming society cannot act in its own interests.
(Moderator: This post corrects a slight error I made in my previous post. Thank you).
fred g, on 8 March 2010 at 6.33 — Your predicion flies in the face of the known physics. Here is a decadal prediction for you
much hotter in the 2010s.
Here is a pdf file explaining much more about the sun than you seem to know
Ah Fred G if only it were so! Still, if it makes you feel more comfortable go ahead and keep believing whatever you want. What YOU think won’t make one iota of difference to the outcome. You’ve just proved that Prof Brook is right – with people like you blocking action, it seems society cannot be persuaded act in a logical, scientific manner – in it’s own interest.
It all depends on WV/cloud feedback. If it is 3 or 4 as some scientists claim we are in trouble. OTOH if the number is .5 as others claim – nothing to worry about. And you know what? It is the least understood part of the science.
As to fusion? I like the Polywell Fusion Reactor work being done by the US Navy.
And then there is the coming ice age. Very hard to grow crops under ice. Talk about glacier melt – Chicago about 18,000 years ago was under a mile of ice.
Oh, yes. All this hand wringing in the US/developed world is moot if China and India can’t be persuaded to curb their coal emissions.
M. Simon, Said:
“Oh, yes. All this hand wringing in the US/developed world is moot if China and India can’t be persuaded to curb their coal emissions.”
The fact is that in Asia they want to stop, and will as soon as they can. In the West we are still left with forces that want to keep using carbon based fuels.
[…] Nuclear century outlook – crystal ball gazing by the WNA Posted on 1 April 2010 by Barry Brook I’ve talked recently on BNC about various recent energy plans. which seek to replace fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives. On the whole, I’ve been left dissatisfied. For instance, there was the Scientific American article ‘A path to sustainable energy by 2030‘ (technology = renewables only, critiqued by me here) and the UK Royal Academy of Engineering study Generating the future: UK energy systems fit for 2050 (technology = renewables + nuclear, critiqued here). Neither pass muster, even when evaluated on general principles. […]
[…] think this advocates the right sort of path. I elaborated further on this idea in my two pieces: Climate debate missing the point and Energy in Australia in 2030; in the latter, I explored a number of potential storylines, […]
[…] think this advocates the right sort of path. I elaborated further on this idea in my two pieces: Climate debate missing the point and Energy in Australia in 2030; in the latter, I explored a number of potential storylines, […]