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What is your energy philosophy?

People seem to like to infer motives. (Perhaps it’s an inherent evolutionary trait, allowing anticipation of your prey’s or predator’s next move?) I find that a lot of people get me wrong about my position on energy and sustainability — often deliberately so, I suspect. So here’s a post to clarify my position, and allow you to let others know about your philosophy (in the comments below).

Consider this a personal view, but one I would justify as being informed by extensive reading, talking and thinking. It doesn’t mean I’m right, just that I’ve made the effort to properly contemplate. I think that’s all you can ask of anyone — you, or the people you’re debating!

General philosophy: Anthropogenic climate change is a very urgent problem — probably the most serious one now facing humanity. We must solve it: there is no choice here and hiding our heads in the denial sandpit is pointless. We must also deal with other issues of global sustainability, especially clearance and degradation of tropical landscapes, overfishing, fragmentation of natural habitats within urban-agricultural areas, and chronic pollution from fossil fuel combustion. Most of these problems have common solutions, centred on the need for abundant clean and sustainable energy (not less), ‘techno-fixes’, stabilisation of population, provision of viable economic and agricultural systems, and a functioning, realistic and pragmatic society. We need to use all practical, cost-effective and timely options at our disposal.

Climate change: Human activity, via the burning of fossil fuels and also through agricultural and forestry changes, is almost exclusively (>95 %) responsible for the substantial global warming witness in the last 3-5 decades (+0.5C). It is also mostly (>70%) responsible for the warming since 1910 (+0.8C in the last 100 years). The most likely trajectory for the next 40 years (through to 2050) is an additional +1.2C (to +2C compared to pre-industrial), and a further +3C by 2100. There is some (low) probability that feedbacks in the climate system will double the 2100 estimate (or more) — much as I’d like to, I cannot dismiss this possibility. Sea level rise by 2100 will be > 1 m, and will continue for centuries thereafter (probably >10 m by 2300). Some of this may be avoidable, but I doubt it — especially the +1.2C warming between now and 2050 and the ongoing sea level rise. We’re just too far committed to a fossil-fuel-intensive pathway now and for the next few decades, and it will take substantial time to ‘turn the ship around’. There is plenty of hurt on the way — we can adapt to some of it, but many impacts will be difficult to ameliorate.

Peak fossil fuels: We are depleting accessible supplies of coal, oil and gas substantially, and peak global production of traditional sources will almost certainly arrive within the next few decades — probably sooner rather than later (although locally, they will continue to be abundant, e.g. coal in Australia). This will increase extraction and processing costs, which will in turn spur increasing exploitation of unconventional supplies, including underground gasified coal, coal seam methane, fracked shale gas, tar sands and Arctic hydrocarbons. It may be that demand will outstrip supply by about 2030, after which there will be an increasingly compelling reason to manufacture synthetic fuels such as ammonia, methanol and (I hope), serious investigation of boron as an energy carrier. Carbon prices will accelerate this decision. Peak fossil fuels will not, in and of itself, lead to significant greenhouse gas abatement this century. Too little, too late.

Exponential growth: Nothing can grow forever — obviously. As a scientist who’s done research into regulation of natural populations, I appreciate the concepts of carrying capacity, birth-death balances, overshoot, and so on. However, I do not think it likely that the global human enterprise will ‘crash and burn’. There is a lot of inertia — and resilience — in our society, which frankly hasn’t been tested seriously since 1939. But it will get a good run over the next few decades. I suspect that growth in the next 50 to 100 years (I dare not look further than that) will increasingly shift to areas of the economy that are not dependent on — or at least reaching the limits of — primary natural resources. Areas of ongoing expansion might include knowledge systems, cyberspace, mineral resources, energy intensification, and so on. Most of the world’s fisheries will be exhausted, and perhaps 50 % of today’s tropical forests will be gone by 2050. About 10% of species will be extinct by then, and perhaps twice that percentage will be ecologically dysfunctional (and most of these committed to future extinction, once lags have played out). Mainstream ideas around a steady-state economy will gain traction in the coming decades (see Footnote), but will take many years, more national defaulting, and considerable soul searching, to achieve — if ever. Growth forever might be possible, if we make the break to outer space (I’m only half joking here).

Geoengineering: We will need to do this. The most plausible option is stratospheric aerosol seeding using high-flying aircraft, and an international agreement on this will be reached by 2040. The most attractive option is CO2-drawdown via enhanced weathering. I think we will do both, on a large scale, by around 2050.

GM crops and nanotech: Essential for adapting our agricultural production to climate change, lower fertilizer inputs, pesticide resistance and the need for increased productivity to meet rising population demands (increasing human population size [until around mid-century, topping out at 9 billion], and more kilojoules per person). Benefits of GM seem to far outweigh the risks, and a scientific approach should be taken to testing, deployment and monitoring. In a related matter, sea water desalination will be needed on a large scale. For desal, I also think the benefits generally outweigh the impacts, provided the energy inputs come from zero-carbon sources like nuclear, wave and solar.

Energy: My primary focus is to advocate for a decarbonisation of the global energy supply — encompassing electricity, transport fuels and industrial uses. To this end, I support a rational (science-, engineering- and economic-based) deployment of nuclear fission, fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, and various renewable energy technologies. I see costs and benefits for each choice, and I judge them primarily on the basis of carbon intensity, cost, sustainability, dispatchability, scalability, timeliness and risk. Landscape impacts, visual amenity etc. are a fairly low consideration for me, on balance. I would like to emphasise here that I am NOT a ‘pro-nuclear advocate’ (as some like to label me) in a way that I see all things nuclear as good and other options as bad. No — I simply see nuclear fission as ticking more boxes than any other current technology — and Generation IV nuclear especially so. However, if some improved form of solar, or geothermal, or whatever, can do better than nuclear on the balance of these criteria in the future, then I’ll switch my principle support to them. No problem — whatever works best, overall. By 2050, my best guess is that 40 % of global final energy will come from traditional fossil fuels, 35 % from nuclear fission, and 25 % from some mix of biomass, hydro technosolar renewables, and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage. I will flesh this out a bit in a future post.

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Where do you stand? (I’ve probably missed stuff — feel free to propose areas of global significance that I’ve overlooked).

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Endnote: This post was partly motived by a recent essay from George Monbiot, called Out of the Ashes. In it, he argues that now, 2011, is the time to start planning for a new economy, not dependent on growth. Whether you agree or not, I recommend you read it — it has a lot of useful material for underpinning an informed opinion on this matter.

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Footnote: You may have noticed on the BNC left sidebar that I now have a Facebook page for the site. If you’re so inclined, “Like” it! BraveNewClimate on Facebook

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

189 replies on “What is your energy philosophy?”

This is my energy philosophy for the US:

1)Nuclear power
2)CCNG @ 60% cycle eta (gas turbine w/ steam bottoming plant)
3)CCNG @ 70 % cycle eta if you include solar heat recovery (not PV) which uses the same steam turbine.
4) EV’s

On a world wide basis , since CHINA is a focal point, I would think they need to continue to do as much Nuclear as possible (and I think they are). Their neighbors in Japan fueled their whole industrial revolution on nuclear and did a great job.
Hopefully China does the same.

Meanwhile, I will get a Volt (you know it’s GM) (I already have my solar panels in) so I can drive a car that drives like a Mercedes but can run on either electric or gas as a backup.

GSB

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GeorgeS, on 5 September 2011 at 10:30 AM — With the latest NPP designs one can almost surely forgo the CCGTs for load following.

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@David M – “Anybody want to tell me what won’t improve with less people? Anybody want to tell me what won’t get worse with more people?”

Soylent: “Human capital. Our most precious resource and without which all other scarce resources are useless.”

We’re overstocked with human capital. We have a “too many cooks spoil the broth problem.”

My point stands. Once again, what problem is made better by producing more people when you already have 7 billion and growing?
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You’re probably right about the fossil fuel thing extending out due to more sophisticated extractive technology. Still with off shore and all it would seem you are getting into greater cost and spill potential and I think the public is going to demand oil and coal companies pick up more of the environmental and human costs of their externalities. And the tar sands business is kicking up quite a reaction. It also remains my impression that with all the extraction we have done we are drawing from a considerably smaller energy resource base even with the expanding exploitable potential of the rest.
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There are so many limits and danger zones we are hitting. Acidification of the ocean is one and the related killing of edible marine life. How far do you think fish farms and green houses can take us? You kill off the major biosphere system and the subsystems will die. And nothing contributes more directly to that problem than overpopulation driving the need for fossil fuel, using up our resource base, making ultimately every nation too poor to provide the capital to do the R&D and construction to respond to the general environmental challenges and making us stressed and crazy enough so we can’t think straight. We can’t afford enough nukes to provide for 200,000 new folks every day.

In my view either we get a handle on the overpopulation problem in very short order or expect catastrophe no matter what energy policy we pursue.

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Professor Brook,

I have been a, hitherto, silent follower of this site, probably contributing substantially to the nearly 3million hits. This is partly because I feel I need more technical expertise to make a useful contribution.

However, I would like to make some comments on my philosophy as to where we are. I agree ( if I’m not taking you too far) that if we have not reached the tipping point, then we are very close to it.
We do not have the luxury of waiting for renewables to save us; and anyway (while you say these things are not such a high priority for you), I do not want to see the landscape covered with wind farms, solar farms or any of these hugely area/habitat-consuming systems operating. I have spent too much of my life trying to preserve habitat, ecological systems and landscapes to accept those energy systems now destroying them. I am causing some grief to my conservation colleagues with my views.

From what I learn, most of the renewables will not cut the mustard in saving us from the impacts of climate change.

I consider, after quite a lot of reading, that the compact size of nuclear power generation, with the benefits of reduced mining impact (compared with coal, for example), doing something about the present amount of nuclear “waste”, and making the world safer from the nuclear proliferation problem, that we have to embrace the nuclear option.

Peak oil is a problem because we rely on oil for much more than fuel, and if we run out of it, then there are many things other than fuel that we will have to go without.

I recall that after spending many years of my life fighting for the environment, my father told me I was “wasting my time”. When I asked what he meant, he told me I should be doing something about the population. Well, that was too hard for me, but I acknowledged what he said, and got on with trying to save a little bit of the world. Either the population problem will solve itself (through catastrophe) or we will provide the energy needs without destroying the environment across the landscape. And to me, that means, going nuclear.

A few years ago, I was an anti-nuclear person, but I was living with ideas that were 40-50 years old. I hope that we can move on. And this site is contributing mightily to that.

Could I pose a question: are there any statistics on health effects on those who lived in nuclear submarines for example? They must have been as close to nuclear reactors as anyone.

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Peter Morgan, thanks for your comment, I appreciate hearing about your journey. In answer to your question:

are there any statistics on health effects on those who lived in nuclear submarines for example? They must have been as close to nuclear reactors as anyone.

Yes, there are some famous studies. For instance:

Nuclear shipyard worker study (1980–1988): a large cohort exposed to low-dose-rate gamma radiation, International Journal of Low Radiation,1: 463 – 478 (2005)
Abstract:
This paper is a summary of the 1991 Final Report of the Nuclear Shipyard Worker Study (NSWS), a very comprehensive study of occupational radiation exposure in the US. The NSWS compared three cohorts: a high-dose cohort of 27,872 nuclear workers, a low dose cohort of 10,348 workers, and a control cohort of 32,510 unexposed shipyard workers. The cohorts were matched by ages and job categories. Although the NSWS was designed to search for adverse effects of occupational low dose-rate gamma radiation, few risks were found. The high-dose workers demonstrated significantly lower circulatory, respiratory, and all-cause mortality than did unexposed workers. Mortality from all cancers combined was also lower in the exposed cohort. The NSWS results are compared to a study of British radiologists. We recommend extension of NSWS data from 1981 to 2001 to get a more complete picture of the health effects of 60Co radiation to the high-dose cohort compared to the controls.

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Pb. “I recall that after spending many years of my life fighting for the environment, my father told me I was “wasting my time”. When I asked what he meant, he told me I should be doing something about the population. Well, that was too hard for me, but I acknowledged what he said, and got on with trying to save a little bit of the world. Either the population problem will solve itself (through catastrophe) or we will provide the energy needs without destroying the environment across the landscape. And to me, that means, going nuclear.”

Your father may be wiser than you give him credit. There is a little problem that comes before convenient human catastrophe. It’s the me or nuclear question. Once a choice between expenditure on nuclear power and food is front and center guess which will be the favored option? And nuclear perhaps unfortunately is one major accident away from being taken off the table for a country. Consider Japan. The cost of nukes is huge, the need for security and regular monitoring substantial and that’s not even considering the effects of accidents or sabotage.and the IFRs unproven and in any case many billions and years away from coming on line if they work out.

It appears now that China with it’s accumulated surpluses is the only country expanding nuclear in a serious way(Correct me if I’m wrong) and I understand even they are concentrating more on the low end cheap nuke plants to save money, the ones that are less insured against accidents. With the population expanding and inevitably competing for resources, putting aside a lot of money for nukes really doesn’t seem in the cards into the future. I don’t see it going much of anywhere in the US.

However there is a solution that is low cost, safe and highly effective. You guessed it, lowering the population, particularly I might add in the more carbon intensive and generally polluting industrial states. That shows you are serious. Every other solution including nuclear if it doesn’t attach itself to negative population growth is simply nonserious because population growth will eventually eat the lunch of any system you apply.

If you can link negative population with nuclear then I wish you good luck. But then again if people really got the centrallity of overpopulation to the problem they would probably also get the idea of community living around environmentally friendly local energy systems.

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David M, to modify a Twainism: Everyone talks about population reduction, but no one says how they intend to achieve it.

Who stops having children? Who dies? How fast? What implementation policy? How to deal with the recalcitrants?

The fact is, ‘we must focus on population’ is, in and of itself, a banal truism with no actionable merit to recommend it. Of course we must, but that is a slow and inexorable process carrying with it a huge burden of demographic momentum that can only be hastened by death and misery on a massive scale. To try and argue that population reduction should be the primary focus of our efforts over the coming decades is at best an ill-thought-out motherhood statement and at worse a catastrophically certain pathway to failure, if climate change mitigation is your goal.

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Steve Darden, on 4 September 2011 at 9:20 PM said:

While LCOE is important, speed of delivery of new generation is also critical – it will probably be 20 years before China’s ability to install new generation catches up with demand growth. So ramping up the wind supply chain creates a growing stream of new generation capacity that does not conflict with the new-coal-plant supply chain

The Chinese are rationing coal at their existing coal fired plants.
Figure #10

Click to access coal-firedpowerplants.pdf


The Chinese can build 80 GW of coal fired plant in a year if they want to.

January 2007 China was the first month that China was net coal importer.
http://www.industryweek.com/articles/china_becomes_net_importer_of_coal_13657.aspx

In 2009 China was a net coal importer for the year
http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/bizchina/2010-02/23/content_9490004.htm

To make matters worse, Indonesia, the worlds largest steam coal exporter decided to stop honoring long term contracts at knock down prices this year.
http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/regulation-flares-indonesian-coal-prices/443212/

India and China account for 2/3rds of Asian coal reserves, neither can meet their domestic needs without imports. They are also #3 and #5 in terms of largest reserves in the world.

Page 30 of BP 2011 energy review has a table of benchmark prices.

Click to access coal_section_2011.pdf

Coal prices declined from 1990-2000 then reversed and continue to climb. Electricity generation projects always have long lead times and are based on ‘Best Available Information’ at the time of the decision.

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@david M “We’re overstocked with human capital. We have a “too many cooks spoil the broth problem.””

There’s no lack of science, engineering, retrofitting and upgrading of infrastructure to be done. There is no too-many-cooks problem because science and engineering is an “embarrasingly parallel problem”; there’s a ridiculous number of potential problems to explore(can’t solve problems before you correctly identify them, the better you understand all their mechanics the easier it is to solve them) and a ridiculous number of potential solutions to known problems.

To pay for all this you need some form of economic base to pay for it. A rapidly shrinking population has an inverted population pyramid with a lot of unproductive retired people at the “base” and a small productive work force spending much of their resources on supporting the “base”. That’s a fragile, dying society that cannot cope with anything.

“My point stands. Once again, what problem is made better by producing more people when you already have 7 billion and growing?”

Having a large number of people allows you to proceed further with specialization and economies of scale/volume. Scaling a solution up and applying it for 7 billion people is less than 7 times the work load of applying it for 1 billion people, with 7 times more people available for the time consuming and often rather luck/diversity based R&D phase and 7 times more people to do the work.

Cities are extraordinarily resource efficient on a per capita basis for any given level of GDP. To support a nuclear plant you need to have a fairly large gathering of fairly wealthy people; if you have a million agrarian poor scattered over a million square kilometers you cannot make any good use of a nuclear plant. Instead you will end up with a bunch of “decentralized micropower”(in Amory Lovins’ parlance), mostly biomass heating and cooking(with the associated robbing of net primary production from nature and food uses, deforestation and massive death toll from particulate pollution) and oil and diesel generators for electricity.

We’re not going to evacuate most countries, so having a large number of people is probably required in order to get most of them into cities.

Having fewer people doesn’t proportionately decrease pollution, environmental degradation or resource consumption. With less people, there’s less incentive to not pollute and use resources efficiently.

With 500 million people, well, hey why not use leaded gas and no catalytic converter in a car that gets 15 MPG? The atmosphere is big, right? The incentive to do something comes from the realisation that it is a somewhat urgent problem. Nature doesn’t care if you burn all the coal in 200 years or 500 years.

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I don’t buy the notion that for every baby that is born, someone must quickly die in order to avoid an “undesirable” increase in population. Nor do I believe that we can calculate the maximum acceptable future population, since we only have today’s technology.

The solar system is filled with an almost inexhaustible supply of mineral resources. The asteroid belt alone has a whole planet’s worth, already chopped up into low-gravity pieces. But only an energy rich society can have access to these resources.

It’s easy to say water is (or will be) a problem. But that is only because we use a very water-intensive process to produce food. Food is just a special form of chemical fuel. We can certainly make food for livestock (and impoverished people) from nuclear produced hydrogen via a chemical or biological process.

If we live (and harvest energy) sustainably, then large increases in human population are much less of a threat to the survival of humanity than the low birth rates from which many western countries suffer. If we are not careful, we could breed ourselves to extinction.

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India and China account for 2/3rds of Asian coal reserves, neither can meet their domestic needs without imports.

This suggests Australia could have more influence on global CO2 by putting the squeeze on coal imports by those countries, as opposed to a lightweight carbon tax at home. Sure China and India could source coal elsewhere but with more difficulty. Despite the Australian government’s climate change talk new coal mines, rail tracks and loading ports are in a construction rush; example Wiggins Island.

In my opinion coal exports need to be carbon taxed 2012-2015 then capped thereafter consistent with the govt’s stated principles. By 2015 Australia’s emissions are supposed to be around 530 Mt CO2e (halfway between 580 and 480), a cut from now of 50 Mt but one estimate is that CO2 from exported coal will be over 700 Mt. Cut coal exports 10% and we’ll reduce global CO2 by more.

I think the signs are on the wall that coal is going to get expensive; for example Japan now paying $125/t for thermal coal. The make-or-break period could be around 2015-2035. With or without an enforced coal slowdown or recession I doubt we will be getting 40% of our electricity from it by 2050; it will be too expensive.

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A one line version of the above
Wouldn’t cutting Australia’s coal exports by just 7% achieve as much as the carbon tax but with more certainty?

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@ Jim Holm:
Correct.
Worrying about increasing population is entirely futile. The determinants of population growth are primarily development, prosperity, high energy availability and reliability and security. Societies which have all four tend strongly to decrease their birth rates to or below the replacement rate and societies which lack even one of the four tend to breed above the replacement rate.

Message: Work towards stable, prosperous, safe and energy-rich (ie not energy constrained) outcomes and the population issue solves itself.

The precursors thus include education, food, health, energy. Advocating small families, in the absense of strong progress towards the social conditions which result in stable or slowly decreasing populations, is bound to fail.

Sorry, Moderator, if this is trending off topic, but my primary reason for posting this is to rebut any notion that energy philosophy is somehow disconnected from the secondary, consequential, yet very desirable outcome, of population growth restraint. India, Africa, China and South America will continue to add to the world’s stock of people until they no longer are subject to the social circumstances which promote large families. Without massively improved energy supplies in these nations, fertility will remain at current levels.

The source, quantity, security and reliability of that energy is essential to the subject of this thread “What is your energy philosophy?”. To consider population reduction as the answer is to misunderstand the question.
MODERATOR
I am moderating this thread rather as a philosophical open thread so I judge you are not off topicwith this comment.

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@ John Newlands:
Taxing or curtailing Australia’s coal exports? Not so easy.
Think: World Trade Agreement. Retaliation e a huge negative.

Think Constitution. If the Federal Government takes property off somebody, it has to pay for it. Taking the coal export rights off miners would start a bigger fight than the battle regarding immigration that the government just spectacularly lost.

If only it was as simple as just turning off one of the many possible coal taps, of which Australia is but one.

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JB point taken but coal exports are growing not static so Big Coal is having quiet laugh at the low carbon movement. It’s like the vacuum cleaner salesman with one foot in the door who is intimidating the housewife into buying. In this case Big Coal is putting it over our federal government.

Upthread harrywr2 points out Indonesia is having a rethink about selling thermal coal too cheaply. I believe India’s steel industry would have to rely on South Africa if there was less coking coal coming out of Australia, but our export facilities are the biggest and getting bigger.

I propose a solution to the question of compensation; ask India, China and others if they would mind paying carbon tax on our coal as part of the climate change effort. Note they can get the tax back for green programs. It won’t look good for them if they decline. We could then justify protecting our steel industry.

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My energy philosophy is informed by my understanding of what energy means to the process of life. The directed transformation of energy into useful work is very nearly a definition of the activity of life. More energy means more life. Less energy means less life. This is true for biological organisms ranging in complexity from the simplest virus or bacteria up to the most powerful biological entity so far known on Earth, the modern human nation-state. Historians have rightly used figures on the consumption of modern energy sources as a measure of the vigour and capability of states through history, just as paleontologists debate the metabolic status of ancient animals to deduce their energy consumption, and thereby their behaviour, and their place in the story of the development of life.

The extinction of the dinosaurs holds many lessons for our species, and one of the most crucial deals with energy and its relation to life. In order to appreciate that lesson we need to know how the dinosaurs used energy; whether they were cold blooded like reptiles, or had a more advanced metabolism like modern warm-blooded birds. If the dinosaurs were cold blooded, like lizards or crocodiles, then their extinction and replacement by the mammals is the story of the evolutionary triumph of animals with more advanced energy utilisation over those with less capable equipment. Warm-blooded animals can maintain body temperature at the optimum for energy utilisation and power output at all times, making them more capable than cold-blooded animals, all else being equal. It’s no suprise that warm-bloods dominate over cold-bloods, so perhaps the rise of the mammals following the age of dinosaurs is the point when this evolutionary coup was carried out.

On the other hand if, as many paleontologists suspect, the dinosaurs were themselves warm-blooded and their extinction resulted from one or more cataclysmic events striking the biosphere, an entirely different and perhaps more pertinent lesson might be drawn. There is evidence that high metabolism was developed by the proto-mammalian reptiles which followed the Coal Age and eclipsed low-metabolism ancient reptiles such as Dimetrodon. The protomammals show signs of warm-bloodedness, and the dinosaurs which rose to displace them in all main ecological niches show even more signs of warm-bloodedness. The balance of evidence at the moment seems to be that the extinction of the dinosaurs was a result of a catastrophic asteroid or comet impact. This makes more sense if the dinosaurs were warm-blooded, becuase a global catastrophic event which disrupted the biosphere would hit large high-powered warm-bloods much harder than cold-bloods or small warm-bloods. A small warm-blooded animal might be lucky enough to get by scavenging the meager food available after the disaster, and cold-bloods can survive for long periods between meals, but a large warm-blooded animal needs a constant high-power food supply, or it must starve. A constant food supply needs a steady environment with not too many exceptional events disrupting the established flow of things. While crocodiles can survive on intemittent power sources, lions cannot, and apparently velociraptors couldn’t either.

So perhaps the lesson we most need to draw from this incident is that complex, advanced entities specialised for a high-power survival strategy cannot afford prolonged periods of energy starvation. To be forced to go without power for prolonged periods will reduce the level of complexity our society can reach, thereby impoverishing us and threatening our survival. The more advanced industrial and communications functions will be truncated by energy shortages until we can no longer rely on those services, and the population must suffer the consequences. It is far, far better to have a large, reliable power source which can be easily scaled up as needed and which can enable options lesser power systems cannot.

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Barry Brook, “The fact is, ‘we must focus on population’ is, in and of itself, a banal truism with no actionable merit to recommend it. Of course we must, but that is a slow and inexorable process carrying with it a huge burden of demographic momentum that can only be hastened by death and misery on a massive scale. To try and argue that population reduction should be the primary focus of our efforts over the coming decades is at best an ill-thought-out motherhood statement and at worse a catastrophically certain pathway to failure, if climate change mitigation is your goal.”

Population is not actionable? Surely you are aware of family planning clinics and how when they are brought to a community and women are educated, taught birth control and receive medical support women choose to have less children. It seems to me the main thing holding things up are religious and cultural attitudes and that could be said about attitudes toward slavery at one time which had a much bigger economic motive to boot.

I see a world far more ready to take on the relatively small investment and relatively high benefit of addressing population than the relatively high investment and relatively modest benefit of nuclear which in addition has major PR problems thrown in for obvious reasons.

I’m not in principle against nuclear power and have argued with one trick pony antinuke fanatics who don’t get that fossil fuel power is much worse, but that is a lot of money to steam water. I read a university study on Joe Romm’s site Climate Progress that estimated it would cost 6 to 8 trillion dollars to build and refurbish 1000 nuclear plants over a period of now to 2050. I think they were contemplating pretty powerful advanced reactors. That would according to the study substitute for something like 10% of the coal fired plants that would otherwise be built. That’s a solution?

I’ll take my chances with putting that money into family planning clinics and other approaches that encourage a lower birth rate and less destructive environmental practices and of course less carbon based energy use.

As for folks who keep pushing the meme that higher living standards lead to a lower birthrate I’d like them to consider the reverse logic. Lowering the population for a given resource area raises the living standards for those left. That would seem to be a far more sustainable approach than having material goods chasing a growing population.

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Lowering the population for a given resource area raises the living standards for those left. That would seem to be a far more sustainable approach than having material goods chasing a growing population.

Thats certainly true. This was the strategy pursued in the Rwandan genocide. I suppose its sustainable, but its an approach I’d like to avoid.

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Barry Brook and Peter Morgan:

I think that any studies of the health effects of radiation exposure of US Navy submariners (who would be the ones that live near naval reactors) would be classified and therefore not available to the public. I used to work for the company that designed the reactors for the US Navy. While I don’t have any direct knowledge of their exposures, it was usually believed by our organization that the typical sailor’s exposure while on the sub would be lower than if he spent the same time at the shore, since his exposure to cosmic rays is less, due to being shielded by the water around him.

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David M, on 6 September 2011 at 12:04 PM — My (amateur) study sees a strong desire for a ‘good’ life [which doesn’t imply having lots of money per se]. One aspect is certainly educating children, with girls’ education being the stronger need. But schools need light and homes need some light, not a lot, for studying if nothing else. So there is a strong desire for electricity.

One way to provide reliable, on-demand, electric power is by nuclear power plants (NPPs). My study of current costs strongly suggest that (in 2010 dollars), one can readily build at the cost of less than US$4 billion per gigawatt (GW) nameplate capacity. Indeed, a consortium of South Korean companies is building right now in the United Arab Emerates for US$3.8 billion/GW.

But round up to the US$4 billion/GW figure. Then providing 1000 GW requires around US$4 trillion, which from your comment should be spread over 40 years; a mere US$100 billion/year. To put that figure in perspective, a recent Mother Jones article adds up the US expenditures related to the military and finds US$1200 billion/year. So a mere 8% of that suffices for your NPP plan.

For my own part, I’d consider something more like US$600 billion/year for some years to come, figuring that NPPs are vastly more worthwhile that such a bloated military budget.

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Jim Holm: “I link nuclear and population here on my web site:

http://www.coal2nuclear.com/electricity_prosperity_population.htm

Yeah, the higher the GDP the lower the number of children per woman. How does that work out in terms of carbon footprint and how many immigrants come in to service their richer clients? I understand born in America citizens give birth below replacement but with immigration, legal and illegal, and their children we are well above replacement, adding 3 million a year. That’s a lot of folks pushed into the higher energy use stream. Add to that a lot of the growing energy use in poor countries is employed to satisfy the consumer appetites of folks in rich countries.

I’d say that kind of compromises your GDP/Pop. graph a bit don’t you think? A little more simplicity in life style along with less energy use by the richer folks would seem to be in order. That’s a model to the world they could feel good about, instead of promoting mass consumption with high energy use.

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David M, you never answered my basic questions. Let’s look at one extreme example.

This year, about 50 million people will die: http://www.worldometers.info/

The world population is about 7 billion. So, if everyone on the planet stopped reproducing, now and forever, how long would it take for the human population to drop below, say, 1 billion?

50 million out of 7 billion is a mortality rate of 0.71% per year. Since everyone in this scenario would henceforth be aging, let’s say that the average mortality increases thereafter at a relative rate of 5% per year. So, in the year 2020 the mortality rate is 1.1%, by 2040 it is 2.9% and by 2060 it is 7.8% per year (i.e. 10 times higher than our 2011 rate). Under such (simplified) demographic assumptions, when would we cross the 1 billion mark? About 2065.

So, with the extreme measure of complete sterilization of the human population worldwide, the global population would still not reach anything even approaching a ‘low-tech sustainable’ number (e.g. low-energy-use agrarian society) within the next 50 years.

Did you ever do these sort of numbers to justify what you were saying?

Sorry, it’s a technological solution, or we’re stuffed. Demographic transitions will just take too long, unless global warfare and genocide are the modus operandi. As I said, the only way to hasten population decline is through mass deaths. I might do a post on this soon, where I work through this non-solution in a bit more detail.

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@ David M:

A little more simplicity in life style along with less energy use by the richer folks would seem to be in order. That’s a model to the world they could feel good about, instead of promoting mass consumption with high energy use.

Tinkering with marginal issues such as the frugality or otherwise of domestic and commercial electric power consumption is a dangerous distraction from the real issues we need to confront in order to provide the great increases in energy generation needed in the next few decades to provide continued supplies of water, fertiliser, fuel and construction material, not to mention power for geoengineering, should that prove necessary.

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“Lowering the population for a given resource area raises the living standards for those left. That would seem to be a far more sustainable approach than having material goods chasing a growing population.”

John Morgan. “Thats certainly true. This was the strategy pursued in the Rwandan genocide. I suppose its sustainable, but its an approach I’d like to avoid.”

I bet you win a lot of arguments with that approach. Try Japan unless you are addicted to the idea that human beings are only capable of responding to population overload with genocide.

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@ David M:

“A little more simplicity in life style along with less energy use by the richer folks would seem to be in order. That’s a model to the world they could feel good about, instead of promoting mass consumption with high energy use.”

Finrod: “Tinkering with marginal issues such as the frugality or otherwise of domestic and commercial electric power consumption is a dangerous distraction from the real issues we need to confront”

Getting folks to cut down their energy use by a half and even more is a dangerous distraction? Efficient use of energy is a distraction? I guess folks like Amory Lovins have just been wasting their time.

Finrod: “in order to provide the great increases in energy generation needed in the next few decades to provide continued supplies of water, fertiliser, fuel and construction material, not to mention power for geoengineering, should that prove necessary.”

So it’s all about more.

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That’s right, David M. All this nonsense about energy efficiency and Lovinsesque ‘negawatts’ ignores the rather stark reality that the areas where the efficiencies are being proposed are not our major sources of CO2, and that the underdeveloped world’s peoples’ basic energy needs as their countries develop will expand greatly, even if they don’t reach current western standards of consumption. We need to plan for the extra infrastructure unless it’s our intent to let several billion people starve.

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I hope I am not deluding myself in thinking that mass deaths on the scale of hundreds of millions will not be caused by the hand of man. Not directly, anyway.

Both history and the fossil record are punctuated by disasters. Climate change is certain to bring us disasters with increasing frequency. The scale of human loss in each catastrophe can indeed be far greater than it has ever been before, if only because far greater numbers of humans are here than ever before.

We don’t need to know the details of the nasty surprises ahead of us. Certainly in terms of diseases, every one which is anticipated will certainly get defences raised against it. The plagues of the future will probably be surprises.

If we are to bequeath a world that is robust to our absence, we should be thinking of installing systems, particularly autonomous systems, that require little skilled maintenance. Here again, a world of mass produced, autonomous, small nukes makes the best promise of survival of an energy-using civilisation, declining only in numbers.

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David M, if you want to lower the population rate faster than natural mortality allows, then you are indeed talking degrees of unpleasantness that I don’t want to encounter.

The Rwandan genocide was precisely an attempt to raise the living standards of a given resource area by lowering the population, as you put it.

Try Japan unless you are addicted to the idea that human beings are only capable of responding to population overload with genocide.

I’m addicted to the idea that populations are determined by an arithmetic of births and deaths, and no human ingenuity can alter that. If you want to reduce the population faster than Barry’s example of total sterilization, then the only way that happens is an increase in the rate of deaths. If you just want to match Barry’s example but without global sterilization, then you need to increase the rate of deaths.

I’m afraid I don’t know what point you are making about Japan.

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“David M, you never answered my basic questions.”

Sorry, I took them as being rhetorical. My general point was lowering population was a sine qua non for any solution to work. I’m trying to establish certain premises and then discuss the specifics. I certainly have no precision solutions.

BB.

“Let’s look at one extreme example.

This year, about 50 million people will die: http://www.worldometers.info/

The world population is about 7 billion. So, if everyone on the planet stopped reproducing, now and forever, how long would it take for the human population to drop below, say, 1 billion?

50 million out of 7 billion is a mortality rate of 0.71% per year. Since everyone in this scenario would henceforth be aging, let’s say that the average mortality increases thereafter at a relative rate of 5% per year. So, in the year 2020 the mortality rate is 1.1%, by 2040 it is 2.9% and by 2060 it is 7.8% per year (i.e. 10 times higher than our 2011 rate). Under such (simplified) demographic assumptions, when would we cross the 1 billion mark? About 2065.

So, with the extreme measure of complete sterilization of the human population worldwide, the global population would still not reach anything even approaching a ‘low-tech sustainable’ number (e.g. low-energy-use agrarian society) within the next 50 years.

Did you ever do these sort of numbers to justify what you were saying?”

Nope but your numbers are interesting. How about trying it for one child per couple average and perhaps we have something to work with. You give it roughly 55 years to get down to a billion. Since I don’t know the math I will for discussions sake double that and make it 2020 when we pass the billion mark. I realize for an initial period there will be a bump up.

I’m going to throw in a few social changes that I think will provide some additional downside. More emphasis on natural death and a generally more clinical level of healthcare but widespread. A more permissive attitude toward suicide. An acceptance of less infrastructure and a society that is less risk averse. So we would probably have a somewhat lower life expectancy. Since I expect some biosphere breakdown this is just being realistic. Folks can add on their own, just keep it reasonably civilized.

Once we establish we are moving in the right direction population wise my feeling is there will be an enormous relief and release of positive energy. People will wake up every morning with the knowledge that they are sharing a planet with less people and Mother Earth is being given a break and can now fulfill her more nurturing function. Compare that with the 200,000 new folks a day we experience now and the feeling of suffocating that entails with food riots and mass starvation daily. It will be a different and better world I believe and we will able to move ahead to an even better future with hope and in my view toward more self-sustaining communities, a modern version of our ancestral way of life.

Sorry, it’s a technological solution, or we’re stuffed.

One thing I’ve noticed in these commentaries is nearly everything is seen in strictly technological terms and oddly that takes folks to a strange unreality. You have responded to none of my points for instance.

With the costs how can you even come close to supplying a world of our size and growth with even a significant fraction of the energy they need at the cost that would be involved?

How do you make the compelling case for spending billions on nukes with all the various other demands on private and public capital?

How do you deal with the inherent negative public image of nuclear power with meltdowns and Hiroshima looming in the background and earthquakes and floods wrecking havoc? What other technology other than nuclear is put in peril by an extended power blackout.

Your little demographic journey is far easier to address than the kind of challenges your “Nukes will save us” belief will require.

PS. First off Barry I appreciate the opportunity to comment here and I hope you are not offended by anything I said. I’m just trying to offer my personal perspective, not beat anybody down.

Second how does one do that yellow quote thing?
MODERATOR
You can get information on formatting your comments on the BNC About page under the heading Notes from the drop-down list

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David M, I presume you mean 2120? However, this date is a long way from reality. To properly answer your question of what the numbers would be if the birth rate declined from current level of 2.5 per woman to 1, I would need to run an age-structured demographic model – which I may do for the BNC post. But for a brief back-of-the-envelope, let’s consider this:

Let’s say fertility rate (globally) drops from its present value of 0.0171 to 0.00684 (the equivalent of 1 child per woman) by 2030. In this case, there would be a constant supply of younger people, so the mortality increase I projected above would not be so steep – perhaps no more than a doubling over the next century as the demographics gradually skewed more and more towards the older generation (e.g. a new equilibrium might be reached in 2080 at 0.0141). Under this assumption, the 1 billion mark would be crossed in the year 2328.

Clearly, there is a big difference between total sterilization and reduction in fertility to 1 child per woman. These things are inevitably not linear.

I think you would agree that even if we could heroically convince to world to follow the 1 child per couple policy within the next 20 years, waiting around until the 24th century for population to return to moderately sustainable levels is not tenable.

For quoting and other formatting, see here: https://bravenewclimate.com/about/bnc-formatting-guidelines/ I’ve fixed your other post.

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David M said:

More emphasis on natural death and a generally more clinical level of healthcare but widespread. A more permissive attitude toward suicide. An acceptance of less infrastructure and a society that is less risk averse. So we would probably have a somewhat lower life expectancy. Since I expect some biosphere breakdown this is just being realistic.

So here we have it. Population reduction will be enforced by a ‘passive’ genocide policy involving the witholding of medical care and the degradation of agriculture until the masses are reduced to a starvation diet.

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JM: “I’m afraid I don’t know what point you are making about Japan.”

They have a dropping population and they have managed it without genocide, need I say.
(Deleted personal opinion on another’s motives/rationale, as per BNC Comments Policy)

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@ David M:

They have a dropping population and they have managed it without genocide, need I say.

Most of the industrialised world has achived the same thing. Such population increases as still occur are due to immigration (which by introducing more people to a high energy economy also cuts the immigrants’ demographic impact).

With clean nuclear power to tun our civilisation, there’s simply no need for your ghastly Revolution of Lowered Expectations.

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“David M said:

More emphasis on natural death and a generally more clinical level of healthcare but widespread. A more permissive attitude toward suicide. An acceptance of less infrastructure and a society that is less risk averse. So we would probably have a somewhat lower life expectancy. Since I expect some biosphere breakdown this is just being realistic.”

finrod: “So here we have it. Population reduction will be enforced by a ‘passive’ genocide policy involving the witholding of medical care and the degradation of agriculture until the masses are reduced to a starvation diet.”

Wow, folks are really moving into the fantasy zone. (deleted personal opinion)
Genocide is an act of commission. Everything I recommend simply recognizes harder times are coming and we need to be realistic about what we as a society can do and at the same time expand the personal options.
(deleted personal comment)

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Finrod: “With clean nuclear power to tun our civilisation, there’s simply no need for your ghastly Revolution of Lowered Expectations.”

This is the kind of incredible unreality that I am seeing with this tech religion. I hope you are picking up on this Barry.

Nukes are going to save us all.
(deleted personal comment)
MODERATOR
As per BNC Comments Policy, please keep the discussion civil and attack the argument not the person making it.

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Genocide is an act of commission. Everything I recommend simply recognizes harder times are coming and we need to be realistic about what we as a society can do and at the same time expand the personal options.

There’s hard times coming, all right. People are certainly going to die early and poorly over the next few decades who might otherwise have lived reasonable lives because of the choices our society is making right now, and has already made over the past four decades with energy policy. Some of us are working to ameliorate this building catastrophe. Others are committed to making it worse than it needs to be. (deleted personal opinion on others’s actions/motives)

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G’Day guys,
Have been up and down in the Flinders Ranges over the past few weeks but my Ockham’s Razor talk went to air on Sunday am, 4th Sept. Quite a few very favourable comments but of course, outnumbered by the ignorant who refuse to look at the facts. Nothing changes with the anti-nukes. If you want to hear the talk, log on to: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/ockhamsrazor. Cheers.

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Finrod, tone it down please, and try to rephrase in a more Socratic way.

Is it not permitted now to point out the consequences of people’s stated positions? Why was the content of my comment deleted? David should not be shielded from knowledge of the consequences of what he is advocating.

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Having only just come on to the blog this afternoon I am playing catch up with these comments and Barry is beating me to some of them, as with the last one. Please calm down and follow the basic rule of courtesy on BNC – attack the argument not the person making it.

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Ten hours and 30 comments back, I discussed population in the light of food, education, security, energy and more.

It seems to me that this discussion is polarising, with the few emerging as being in favour of everything short of genocide in order to preserve their little bit of the planet.

I simply cannot buy suicide as a rational response to population stress.

What I can contemplate includes the combined futures of the 70 or so very bright young Year 11 High School students who attended a Governor’s Reception yesterday; students with well above maths and science and personality scores, who are representative of those who my generation will hand the world to.

I cannot contemplate advising these smart, bright, young potential scientists, medico, engineers and so forth that, because this world is full, they must contemplate suicide/euthenasia, in the interests of those who remain.

I do hope that they develop skills and knowledge and social expectations which enable the very large human population of this world to at least not make the population problem any worse than it must be.

I expect them to work towards those sub-goals that I have listed, to improve their societies, not to tear at their foundations. I cannot conceive of them choosing a brutal world of agrarian or sub-agrarian existence, insecurity, resource wars, climate collapse and then ending their shortened lives by their own hands.

Please, David M, tell me that you don’t really mean what you have written.

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@ David M

With the costs how can you even come close to supplying a world of our size and growth with even a significant fraction of the energy they need at the cost that would be involved?

How do you make the compelling case for spending billions on nukes with all the various other demands on private and public capital?

Here is a good article on costs:

“The cost of ending global warming – a calculation”

I don’t think anyone in their right mind would claim this is an easy feat – but it makes a hell of a lot more sense than trying to reduce population to solve the climate, biodiversity et al. crises, as this feat would be nigh on impossible to achieve.

On a pragmatic note – wouldn’t it be better to advocate a position of population stabilisation by mid-century – at, say, 9 billion people – which puts much less of a burden on the world to implement technological solutions to many of our problems? E.g. providing 9 billion people with fresh water, food, sanitation and energy, without completely ruining the planet, would be much easier than providing that for 12 billion. Just a thought…

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“Barry Brook, on 6 September 2011 at 4:52 PM said:

David M, I presume you mean 2120? However, this date is a long way from reality. To properly answer your question of what the numbers would be if the birth rate declined from current level of 2.5 per woman to 1, I would need to run an age-structured demographic model – which I may do for the BNC post. But for a brief back-of-the-envelope, let’s consider this:

Let’s say fertility rate (globally) drops from its present value of 0.0171 to 0.00684 (the equivalent of 1 child per woman) by 2030. In this case, there would be a constant supply of younger people, so the mortality increase I projected above would not be so steep – perhaps no more than a doubling over the next century as the demographics gradually skewed more and more towards the older generation (e.g. a new equilibrium might be reached in 2080 at 0.0141). Under this assumption, the 1 billion mark would be crossed in the year 2328.

Clearly, there is a big difference between total sterilization and reduction in fertility to 1 child per woman. These things are inevitably not linear.

I think you would agree that even if we could heroically convince to world to follow the 1 child per couple policy within the next 20 years, waiting around until the 24th century for population to return to moderately sustainable levels is not tenable.”

Yes I would agree and I must say I’m a little shocked, but you’re the math guy. Oh yeah, thanks for doing the homework.

So where does that leave us? I’d say in a Mexican standoff. You have given me some impossible demographics and I think I have made the case that there really is no nuke solution. I haven’t noticed you or anybody else countering my challenges.

From my standoff because I think population is central to the problem and solution and I find nukes simply a palliative then that leaves 2 possibilities.
1. Nature will have her way which finally likely will be terminal.

2. Society will set rules that are as draconian as necessary to move us in a positive direction. I will start taking suggestions from the most nonviolent person on the forum.

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Tom Keen, on 6 September 2011 at 6:22 PM said:

@ David M

“With the costs how can you even come close to supplying a world of our size and growth with even a significant fraction of the energy they need at the cost that would be involved?

How do you make the compelling case for spending billions on nukes with all the various other demands on private and public capital?”

Here is a good article on costs:

“The cost of ending global warming – a calculation”

I don’t think anyone in their right mind would claim this is an easy feat – but it makes a hell of a lot more sense than trying to reduce population to solve the climate, biodiversity et al. crises, as this feat would be nigh on impossible to achieve.

On a pragmatic note – wouldn’t it be better to advocate a position of population stabilisation by mid-century – at, say, 9 billion people – which puts much less of a burden on the world to implement technological solutions to many of our problems? E.g. providing 9 billion people with fresh water, food, sanitation and energy, without completely ruining the planet, would be much easier than providing that for 12 billion. Just a thought…

I looked at the linked article Tom. The guy certainly seems to have the background. I guess I’d like to see a really critical analysis from some outsiders who aren’t so sold on the nuke solution. 2 to 5% GDP to take care of all of our energy needs seems pretty low from stuff I’ve read. Of course what we are talking about is nuclear power for the entire world and this is just the US. Something tells me when the rubber hits the road this analysis is going to have a lot of flaws in it. It is just too mathematically varnished and devoid of nuclear powers complicated troubled history. A standard reality of nuclear power plants is they almost always come in way over budget. I didn’t see any reference to how many nuclear power plants would be built. Did you catch a number?

You can advocate stabilization at whatever level you want but how do you know folks are going to go along with it? There seems to be a very relaxed attitude about high numbers and carrying capacity over decades but what I’m reading just doesn’t support the idea we have that kind of time. We already are way into overshoot with many resources and global warming is coming at us like a tank, telling us a nice tipping point is showing up around the next corner. 7 billion folks is way too high as far as I can see and I just don’t contemplate we’re ever going to handle much higher without severe consequences.

Hope I’m wrong and the nuke guy knows what he’s talking about. In the mean time a total of 200,000 new folks are showing up each day. For me that just kicks the tar out of every techno solution around.

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I’ve posted, above, from an optimistic point of view.

Those with a pessimistic outlook might choose to consider the following: http://www.europeanenergyreview.eu/site/pagina.php?id=3189

The good Professor sees a Thirty Years’ War over energy, prompted by the collapse of liquid fuel resources, major corporations (BP, Exxon-Mobil, etc) and climate degradation. The issues he identifies are climate and energy, not population per se.

However, population will certainly be involved and affected.

There are firm grounds for considering this unpalatable scenario. Don’t expect me to argue its merits.

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@ David M

I didn’t see any reference to how many nuclear power plants would be built. Did you catch a number?

For the 5 % of GDP scenario he states the US would need 7.7 kW per person, for a population of 306 million (the 2008 population). 7.7*306 000 000 = 2 356 200 000 kW = 2356.2 GW. So I guess you’d need about 2356 nuclear power plants based on the 2008 population, assuming 1 GW nuclear plants are the average size build.

That sounds like a lot, but remember that it’s the third most populous nation on the planet, and this replaces all fossil fuels for electricity, transport and heating – a total decarbonisation, excepting forestry and agriculture. Obviously population will grow in the U.S. (how this will change the energy demand equation exactly, I’m not sure), but new energy infrastructure will obviously be built over a number of years, not overnight.

Another good read on energy demand and potential reactor numbers and build rates is this one, by Professor Brook:

“Can we build nuclear power plants fast enough to meet the 2060 target?”

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David M:

You can advocate stabilization at whatever level you want but how do you know folks are going to go along with it?

Surely just stabilizing population levels will be the first step, and much easier than forcing population to decline? If we cannot achieve stabilization, there is absolutely no hope for achieving declining population either. Let’s aim for a smooth decline and be happy if we can get stabilization at least.

There seems to be a very relaxed attitude about high numbers and carrying capacity over decades but what I’m reading just doesn’t support the idea we have that kind of time. We already are way into overshoot with many resources and global warming is coming at us like a tank, telling us a nice tipping point is showing up around the next corner. 7 billion folks is way too high as far as I can see and I just don’t contemplate we’re ever going to handle much higher without severe consequences.

It may well be that all possible solutions are too little too late, and we cannot stop or divert the mechanisms our cleverness and adaptability has unleashed. It may well be that much if not all of humanity is doomed to perish. It may well be that our achievements and intelligence will finally be our undoing, and that there is no way to stave off an impeding catastrophe.

Yet I, for one, will make a stand nevertheless. I will try to find and promote solutions, even partial ones, undismayed by the fact that “solving” this “problem” in a normal sense of word is probably impossible.

If nothing else, we have the means for making the fall not so crushing, the disaster not so complete, and the recovery not so uncertain. And, with luck, who knows? The future is not certain; maybe the disaster is avertable after all.

I guess that’s my energy philosophy.

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DavidM, lets take a step back and review premises.

I don’t think anyone here is denying population is a critical ecological problem.
We do need to reduce population to a safe carrying limit.
If we allow population to reduce organically, we’re looking at many generations to see substantial reductions (see Barry’s sums).
A response to climate change requires a much more rapid turnaround in emissions.
So we cannot address climate change by working on organic population reduction.
We could await a Malthusian catastrophe, to rapidly reduce population. This is not a solution for humans or the environment. A human population tearing itself down from 7 billion to 1 billion will burn every forest, cut down every tree and eat every animal they can catch in the process.
So population is not a lever that can be used to address climate change. Its not actionable, as Barry put it.
What we can do is change the emissions intensity per capita, by substituting low emissions energy, like nuclear, for high emissions energy, like fossil fuels.
This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for addressing climate change. Just because it is an incomplete solution does not mean it is not necessary. We have to do this, urgently.

We have to thread this camel through the needle’s eye. We need to avoid both climate change and Malthusian catastrophe over a long enough time to achieve meaningful organic population reduction. A massive rollout of nuclear is required to reduce the ecological impact of population, and create the conditions for its stabilization and reduction.

By the way, the “outsiders who aren’t so sold on the nuke solution” is most of us, who started by conscientiously trying to find a solution to these problems, and wound up understanding by critical analysis that nuclear power is necessary.

And like J. M. Korhonen, I am not interested in counsels of despair.

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David B. Benson, on 6 September 2011 at 12:37 PM said:

But round up to the US$4 billion/GW figure. Then providing 1000 GW requires around US$4 trillion, which from your comment should be spread over 40 years; a mere US$100 billion/year.

If we spread it over 40 years does it actually cost us anymore then what we would have had to pay for ‘normal replacement’ anyway?

I.E In the US in the next 40 years we are going to have to build 1,000 GW of something. That something is going to have a construction cost and a recurring O&M cost.

Should we not subtract out the cost of ‘building’ something from the cost of building an ‘environmentally friendly’ something?

If we look at the aging of the US Electricity Generation fleet 73% of coal fired capacity is already 30 years old.

http://205.254.135.24/energy_in_brief/age_of_elec_gen.cfm

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harrywr2, on 7 September 2011 at 12:07 AM — [I actually dislike all this economics and have to be brought to it kicking and screaming.]

That off my chest, yes, thank you. One should work out all those nifty details. For my purpose of demonstrating how modest the sums are, the more crude approach I used is, I believe, adequate.

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Don’t assume that every 40 year old coal fired power station will simply shut down and disappear without a fight.

I am very familiar with a four unit, 2000MW power station of that vintage. There are firm plans for it to continue for more to 2023 at least. Its retiring Manager said as he departed last week that he hopes that the old girl will keep generating for another 30 years.

Be prepared to push the old as well as pull the new. Remember, what is needed is less carbon consumption. Merely adding non-carbon new plant could lock us all into continuation of the current unacceptable levels of CO2 generation for well over 30 years. Chinese and Indian generators being added to thier grids weekly might still be around in 2080 or even later.

We need to consider much more than a business as usual replacement program for coal and for that matter, GT’s, a little further down the track.

The oldest GT’s I am familiar with are about 35 years. They are still in service on a standby basis, as are most other OCGT’s, although they have been retrofitted with new control systems. The mechanicals are essentially as first made by GE in the early 1970’s.

One reason I am in favour of carbon pricing is to drive the dinosaurs out.

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Tom Keen, on 6 September 2011 at 9:20 PM said:

@ David M

I didn’t see any reference to how many nuclear power plants would be built. Did you catch a number?

For the 5 % of GDP scenario he states the US would need 7.7 kW per person, for a population of 306 million (the 2008 population). 7.7*306 000 000 = 2 356 200 000 kW = 2356.2 GW. So I guess you’d need about 2356 nuclear power plants based on the 2008 population, assuming 1 GW nuclear plants are the average size build.

That sounds like a lot, but remember that it’s the third most populous nation on the planet, and this replaces all fossil fuels for electricity, transport and heating – a total decarbonisation, excepting forestry and agriculture. Obviously population will grow in the U.S. (how this will change the energy demand equation exactly, I’m not sure), but new energy infrastructure will obviously be built over a number of years, not overnight.

2356 nuclear power plants in the US. Tom, can you really contemplate a figure like that? I have to add that fossil fuel based agriculture fertilizers and pesticides contributing ghgs would not be a minor exception.

Another good read on energy demand and potential reactor numbers and build rates is this one, by Professor Brook:
“Can we build nuclear power plants fast enough to meet the 2060 target?”

From the Barry Brook linked piece – “The nuclear scenario I describe here requires around 10,000 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2060, to replace most of our current fossil fuel use.”

So given costs that have been thrown around here that would be 40 to 80 trillion dollars to achieve most fossil fuel replacement by 2060. Good luck.

It would also require a huge fossil fuel tax or out right ban on new fossil fuel extraction to make nuclear power a true substitute rather than simply an add on, cutting into fossil fuel only a little and paradoxically accelerating general energy growth, economic growth and population growth.

Which gets to my point. When you are dealing with matters that involve critical life support you need a limit. That means a stop sign, a go to jail law, whatever it takes to say no further. I think fossil fuel use would meet that criteria as would population growth, or increasing use of fresh water, further soil erosion practices, more clear cutting forests etc. etc.

All of them key off of population. Once you get a set of limits in place I think a whole panoply of technologies and practices can be meaningfully brought into play.Joe Romm’s wedge based idea would seem to be one place to start thinking about substitutes, including nuclear.

PS. This is my first attempt at employing the hyper link so if it doesn’t work, sorry.

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David M, on 7 September 2011 at 9:00 AM — Again you cost estiamtes for future NPPs is too high and your understanding of the potentially available wealth appears overly limited.

(1) US$4 billion/GW [2010 dollars; nameplate GW] is an upper bound on the construction costs for NPPs. Nonetheless, be conservative and assume no improvement.

(2) GWP is around US$67,000 billion/year. Using Barry Brook’s figure of 10,000 GW in 50 years means, assuming even growth rate, constructing 200 GW of NPPs per year, requiring at most US$800 billion per year; about 1% of GWP per year. Certainly appears to be affordable if the will is there.

(3) Other technologies will surely have some role to play, especially regarding transportation. That does not change the basic strategy of eliminating all forms of burning coal, petroleum and natgas.

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John Bennetts, on 7 September 2011 at 8:58 AM — Yes, how to drive out dinosaurs?

(1) CalTech professor David Rutledge estimates that world minable coal reserves are vastly overestimated; he predicts “peak coal” in a few decades. Spot price trends for thermal coal seem to suggest he isn’t completely wrong. [Of course, that leaves to coal gasification problem.]

(2) A FCOAD (Fossil Fuel Open Air Disposal) fee (carbon tax) resolves the issue for all of coal, petroleum and natgas; luck in establishing such world-wide.

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David M, on 7 September 2011 at 9:00 AM said:

The nuclear scenario I describe here requires around 10,000 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2060, to replace most of our current fossil fuel use.So given costs that have been thrown around here that would be 40 to 80 trillion dollars to achieve most fossil fuel replacement by 2060.

In 50 years almost none of out existing generating capacity will be functioning

The levelized capital costs of a coal plant are about 70% of a nuclear plant.

Click to access 2016levelized_costs_aeo2010.pdf

So if I accept the estimates for nuclear we are going to be spending $28 trillion to $56 trillion anyway. So the difference between going ‘all coal’ or ‘all nuclear’ on the low end is $12 trillion over 50 years. $240 billion per year.

Then there is the matter of substantial fuel cost savings.

If I use a low estimate of an average global price for steam coal of $40/ton(most places are paying more then double that) and the world is currently consuming 6 billion tons then we are spending $240 billion on coal annually already.

Where the most difficult financial burden take places is replacing fossil fired generating units prior to ‘end of useful life’. The question isn’t whether or not something ‘has’ to be built anyway. The question is whether we should stop using something that still works.(At least in the minds of many).

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harrywr2, quite right. In Prescription for the Planet, Tom Blees does a similar (detailed calculation) based on the estimated $26 trillion that will need to be spent by 2030 globally. He finds that going nuclear would be about $20 trillion (which sounds huge) but this is actually cheaper than the “null” fossil fuel option. People so often forget that ‘doing nothing’ actually means business-as-usual, which still implies lots of $$$ spent.

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David B. Benson, on 7 September 2011 at 9:35 AM said:

David M, on 7 September 2011 at 9:00 AM — Again you cost estiamtes for future NPPs is too high and your understanding of the potentially available wealth appears overly limited.

(1) US$4 billion/GW [2010 dollars; nameplate GW] is an upper bound on the construction costs for NPPs. Nonetheless, be conservative and assume no improvement.

(2) GWP is around US$67,000 billion/year. Using Barry Brook’s figure of 10,000 GW in 50 years means, assuming even growth rate, constructing 200 GW of NPPs per year, requiring at most US$800 billion per year; about 1% of GWP per year. Certainly appears to be affordable if the will is there.

Just to make it clear David I have no argument with you over present wealth. The future may be another question. As to power plant costs 4 to 8 billion a piece for a large plant is what I’ve seen bandied about.

As for the world kicking in 800 billion dollars a year to go all out nuclear it is hard to see it with all the other competing interests, even if it is just 1% of GDP, particularly as I said when limits aren’t in place to see that nuclear power would seriously replace fossil fuel rather than simply be an add-on. I think Hansen’s fossil fuel tax with its public kickback feature would be a good start. Who knows, maybe something can be worked out.

And just when are IFR’s expected to be operational? Isn’t that the nuclear Merlin, with its 99% nuclear waste eater characteristics that is going to save us all?

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@ John Bennetts. Thank you for your statement. With your permission, I’ve posted it as part of the text on the first page of my web site.

With all this talk about new build nuclear, it’s obvious no one understands the what or why of my web site.

So be it.

Thank you all anyway.

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David M, on 7 September 2011 at 11:33 AM — Your ‘bandied about’ figures are just wrong; I previously wrote about one sample point and I can provide several others. To reiterate, construction costs are less than US$4/W.

As harrywr2, on 7 September 2011 at 11:03 AM, just pointed out the ‘all coal’ alternative is no less expensive, even not included CO2 effects.

On Open Thread 18 there is an exchange regarding fast reactors.

But the bottom line is that about 1% of current income has to go to replenishing the electric power production facilities.

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@ Tom Keen >”US would need 7.7 kW per person, for a population of 306 million … = 2356.2 GW. So I guess you’d need about 2356 nuclear power plants” Presumably at 1 GWe.

If you distinguish thermal power from electric power, the amount of NP needed is much less. For Australia at least, those 8 kW are all thermal energy. Very approximately, 3 kW are used to make 1 kW of electricity, then another 2 kW to make transport, then the other 2 kW domestic and industrial heating.

If all of those demands were to be supplied by nuclear-generated electricity, the numbers would halve, and then with combined heat and power, reduce further. That would be a different world, with different users of power however.

Of course, you could measure the NPPs in terms of their thermal output. However that does not scale with size. I imagine that 30 MWth heat from a 10 MWe reactor in Alaska or Mongolia would be distributed locally, whereas the 12 GWth from a 4 GWe NPP in a big-city energy park would just be wasted.

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Below altered to correct attribution error.

harrywr2, on 7 September 2011 at 11:03 AM said:

Barry Brook: “The nuclear scenario I describe here requires around 10,000 GWe of nuclear capacity by 2060, to replace most of our current fossil fuel use.”

David M: “So given costs that have been thrown around here that would be 40 to 80 trillion dollars to achieve most fossil fuel replacement by 2060.”

In 50 years almost none of out existing generating capacity will be functioning

The levelized capital costs of a coal plant are about 70% of a nuclear plant.

Click to access 2016levelized_costs_aeo2010.pdf

So if I accept the estimates for nuclear we are going to be spending $28 trillion to $56 trillion anyway. So the difference between going ‘all coal’ or ‘all nuclear’ on the low end is $12 trillion over 50 years. $240 billion per year.

Then there is the matter of substantial fuel cost savings.

If I use a low estimate of an average global price for steam coal of $40/ton(most places are paying more then double that) and the world is currently consuming 6 billion tons then we are spending $240 billion on coal annually already.

Where the most difficult financial burden take places is replacing fossil fired generating units prior to ‘end of useful life’. The question isn’t whether or not something ‘has’ to be built anyway. The question is whether we should stop using something that still works.(At least in the minds of many).

Good points Harry. The sticker price of nuclear needs to be put in context with the alternative and as you indicate getting people to shut down fossil fuel power plants before the end of their useful life may be the biggest impediment.

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@ David B. Benson, on 7 September 2011 at 10:07 AM:

Spot price trends for coal might be higher at present due to transport constraints. Newcastle, Australia, is just down the road from me. It is the world’s busiest exporter of coal. It seems that the main export ports are constrained either by rail to the port or by shiploading capacity, or both.

They’re working flat out.

I presume that at least part of the recent price rises reflect the scarcity not of coal, but of ports.

I expect, therefore, that future steaming coal prices could well trend back down quite a bit.

There must be an expert site out there which could elaborate on my musings, but please remember that I am no expert, only an observer, one with a bit of experience constructing rail facilities in this environment. Export coal has had, for a couple of decades at least in the Hunter Valley, priority over coal destined for domestic consumption. At times, it better resembles a race than a marketplace.

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I’m puzzled by the high price of thermal coal when crude oil is retreating WTI $87 Brent $113 Tapis $120 per barrel. If crude oil production peaked in 2006 (per IEA) and subsequent volume makeup has less net energy (biofuel, tar sands, condensates, refining gains) you would think we’d be closer to the $147 of mid 2008.

Outside of South Africa there is no real coal-to-liquids industry so in general terms activity levels of making stuff and transporting stuff should be correlated. Thus you’d think oil and coal prices would move in tandem. Perhaps there is a Fukushima effect with Japan stockpiling coal for next winter.

Put it this way if thermal coal goes over $200/t and crude oil over $200/b and stays there we don’t need no carbon tax to make us switch to cleaner energy.

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Coal pricing is not a Fukishima effect. Prices have been rising since somewhat before the tsunami.

Here’s an article from 2004 blaming the Chinese for pushing the spot price of steaming coal up. Check out Figure 1.4, charting F.O.B. prices ex-Newcastle. http://eneken.ieej.or.jp/en/data/pdf/258.pdf

Here’s a Newcastle Herald news item from 2009. Supposedly the Chinese again, but this time at twice the price.

For really recent spot prices, look here: http://member.afraccess.com/media?id=CMN://6A553671&filename=20110818/WES_01208347.pdf Scroll down to P31 or thereabouts.

Fukishima had little or nothing to do with this year’s changes in the spot prices of Australian steaming coal.

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@ harrywr2, on 7 September 2011 at 11:03 AM:

You misunderstood the meaning of the figures in your excellent reference to levellised cost comparisons. The costs are not for capital, but for energy sent out.

Regarding coal prices, see above. Goodness knows what the price of steaming coal will be in two years’ time – it has been on a roller coaster for the past 6 or seven years (see my last post).

What steaming coal will cost in 20 or 40 years is anybody’s guess. If a few large consuming nations outlaw construction of new coal fired plant, the market could again collapse, as it did during the financial collapse of 2007+. Existing mines would bid themselves into the market at their marginal costs, rather than closing down.

Economist-speak: The suppliers are likely to be inelastic. If demand drops, their prices drop off a cliff.

Also, coal prices are quite possibly not related in any meaningful way to oil or gas prices. Each of these market segments has different suppliers, different market conditions and different elasticities of both supply and consumption. Ever tried to stockpile a million tonnes of coal? Easy. It is done every day. All it needs is a D11 and a paddock.

Stockpiling a million tonnes of natural gas without a huge, waiting pressure vessel or a spare long, fat pipeline is somewhat more difficult. The spot price for gas may thus be far more volatile than that for coal, all other things remaining constant.

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The way I see it the Australian coal industry should be capped from 2015. That’s the year we ‘go international’ buying billions in foreign offsets and moving to an ETS. Presumably the domestic CO2 cap will be consistent with an international amount. That is Australia cuts CO2 by x% in 2016 because the world total must be cut by x% that year. To me that means both domestic coal consumption and export production must be capped from 2015 onwards.

As I’ve said before any reduction (say 5%) in coal exports would do more than the domestic carbon tax with ~700 Mt (Pearse) and 580 Mt being the applicable recent CO2e totals, the latter including contributions from oil and gas not just coal. If the 2015 cap presumption is correct big coal firms like QR and BHP should not be building new rail tracks and loading terminals. Perhaps the coal industry knows it is safe since we are not serious about the alternatives. No doubt supportive governments will have explanations ready when the coal industry keeps growing not shrinking.

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JN:
The Australian Government and the Opposition are united on at least one point, which is that they will only count as Australian C)2 emissions the CO2 which is emitted to from Australian territory.

Partial justification for this stance is that by so doing, exported coal or even timber is not counted each time it is moved around, but only when it is converted to CO2.

You have several times advocated taxing or limiting coal production at the source, but this will get nowhere unless within a consistent framework of regulation which avoids scams and double-counting.

You do have friends within the Greens Party who advocate taxing at the mine gate. Perhaps there is something within their policies explaining the details.

As things stand, however, real CO2 (the gas) is not counted, not potential CO2, which is still coal.

I wonder: What stances have been adopted by the international community and the scientific community? AFAIK, CO2 is counted only as gaseous emissions to the atmosphere.

Your suggestions have merit, but they will not gain traction unless they are aligned with international protocols.

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John Bennetts, to be consistent in scoping exported emissions, we would also have to factor in a significant abatement resulting from Australia’s 10,000 tones of exported uranium. Whilst this doesn’t offset our 300 million tonnes of exported coal, it comes close.

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JB the problem seems to be all those countries who buy our coal and LNG seemed to have had a memory lapse on the way home from the climate conference. We could help them remember their fine words. The hypocrisy of our carbon exports (greater than Saudi Arabia someone said) is a ticking time bomb. When power prices go up next July some will point to all the coal ships leaving Newcastle to help make cheap electricity overseas. Same goes for our coking coal used in imported steel. The 1,000 sacked Pt Kembla steelworkers might feel rightly aggrieved though other cost factors apply.

At this stage it really seems to be the EU and a handful of small countries committed to CO2 cuts, with some doubt as to whether EU is fiddling the books with dodgy offsets. It’s not clear if action by these few countries can be imposed on the rest of the world. We don’t have the most coal but we have lots of ports and political stability. We do have the most uranium and we’ll be second to Qatar as an LNG exporter. You’d think that gives us unique leverage.

This could all be getting ahead of ourselves. Between now and 2015 I expect there will oil price shocks, extreme weather and a nuclear phaseout reversal by Germany and Japan. At home the announced 2 GW coal to gas switch will bomb due to regional lack of gas. If cash is short at home there will outrage at buying foreign offsets. Meanwhile we must keep pointing out the hypocrisy of increased carbon exports.

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I agree with your observations, John N, but not your analysis.

Perhaps issues of climate change and resource depletion simply won’t be addressed until it is too late to avoid the 30-years war that I have been reading about.

So, I wish you the best of luck, I but don’t share your optimism.

Once energy really starts to run out, it is too late for long range planning.

Whole nations will endure civil upheaval, food and transport shortages, corporations intent on defending their business models right or wrong, military intervention and worse.

There is no hope than under these conditions, cool heads will prevail and decades-long terradollar projects will embarked upon for the good of the planet.

Waiting till the collapse is waiting too long.

Quite possibly, the greatest issue holding back effective action against climate change is the nuclear power industry’s own inglorious past and current smelly reputation. Extreme regulation and public risk aversion appear to have driven the industry’s managers, worldwide, to operate in an intellectually lazy business-as-usual manner in secret whilst maintaining a public facade of full compliance.

Perhaps those who, like me, now see that nuclear power has a huge role to play really should turn a spotlight onto the organisations that have caused this loss of public confidence.

More regulation won’t work, neither will another million risk assessments.

Where is the nuclear power industry’s public face? Where are the good news messages about plant improvement, safety successes, efficiency, affordability, reliability and a strong future in partnership with the community?

The shame of it all is exposed by the need for Barry’s BNC site and George Monbiot’s blog and similar to work to heal the wounds that the fission industry has inflicted on itself and is continuing to do as it attempts to hide from public view.

Hopes that chaotic events like energy shortages (peak coal, peak oil, etc) will enhance long term outcomes are optimistic. Civil unrest, insecurity – even war, famine, energy shortages and the like do not result in long range enlightened decision-making.

By then it will be too late.

We will all have lost.

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The identification of uranium use as a carbon offset does present us with a marvellous debating point.

If our greenies are vigilant, they will be able to discredit as fraud most offsets schemes that purport to create negative carbon dioxide. In that event, we can argue that emitters should be allowed to count any investments in uranium exploration.

Similarly, any attempts to move the source of offsets overseas, away from local auditors, could be countered by inviting the emitters to invest in an overseas fuel-reprocessing facility.

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The notion of uranium offsetting carbon can be traced back to 2005 when proposed by Alexander Downer a Howard government minister
http://www.abc.net.au/am/content/2005/s1451510.htm
I seem to recall the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team used nuclear offsets but green reporting has that all twisted
http://www.treehugger.com/files/2007/04/baseball_stadiu.php

I don’t like the idea that one person’s carbon avoidance can be sold or transferred to another. What if the first person was going low carbon anyway? What if NP is additional to coal, not instead of? Doesn’t it negate the carbon saving? When we see that heat haze from the Hazelwood chimney stacks we’re supposed to say ‘at least Aussie uranium is preventing coal use somewhere else’. Maybe not. I’d prefer if it was Hazelwood that was replaced by NP.

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John N:
Whether NPP will replace or add to existing coal burners ultimately appears to depend on price. Price of new coal, price of retrofitting CCS (Don’t hold your breath for that at large scale), price of carbon emissions.

As I have said before, the waste disposal fee per tonne for solid waste at my local rural NSW tip is $150. That waste is simply covered and forgotten, which makes it somewhat more benign than CO2. The bulk of the fee goes to the NSW government’s pocket.

On that basis, what is wrong with a price for CO2 which ratchets up well beyond the proposed $23?

If coal burners envisage a strong possibility that carbon tax will within 20 years be even half of $150 in real (ie, indexed) 2011 dollars, new nuclear looks even cheaper than life extensions on existing plant. To my mind, that is the best way to address the issue of closure of existing coal burners and even gas turbines.

By the way, solid waste disposal at that same tip 20 years back cost exactly nothing for domestic users. Payment of quite substantial dumping fees, even without Labor’s proposed tax reductions, rebates for exports and industrial sweetners, has been achieved across NSW without blood on the streets. Why not for the whole country, in relation to CO2?

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Nothing wrong with carbon debits and putting a price on them. It’s lower priced carbon credits that are suspect. Direct action puts an implicit price on CO2 not an explicit price, as underscored by the Productivity Commission. Their studies included PV, wind and home insulation if I recall so they advocated carbon pricing. I’m not sure if the PC also approve the line of least cost adjustment using offsets or credits.

I understand when when we go to an ETS in 2015 the CO2 floor price will be $15/t, a drop from ~$29 I think. If not repealed recession, collusive tendering, free permits and appeals for clemency could all reduce that. There’s no guarantee that the CO2 auction price will increase; look at oil, the price is going down but it’s running out. A high CO2 price could conceivably occur say in 2050 if NP was abundant but we needed to make jet fuel from coal. We’re not on that path however.

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