We’ve got a climate goal of 1.5 degrees – so how do we get there?


Kate Dooley, University of Melbourne and Doreen Stabinsky, College of the Atlantic

The Paris climate agreement, which commits countries to “pursue efforts” to limit global warming to no more than 1.5℃ above pre-industrial temperatures, sends a much-needed political signal that the world is ready to take serious action on climate change.

But how do we actually go about limiting warming to 1.5℃? The Paris Agreement acknowledges that developed countries need to lead on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but action in developing countries will also need to be swift, with poorer countries requiring support for a rapid transition to a clean energy future.

While the Paris Agreement has been interpreted as heralding the end of coal and ushering in a new age of renewable energy, it doesn’t explicitly say those things. But the more important question is to ask how the agreement sets the stage for a global energy transition of the scale and speed required to hit the 1.5℃ target.

Article 4.1 of the agreement (see page 22) outlines how global emissions should peak “as soon as possible” and should decline rapidly thereafter, to “achieve a balance between anthropogenic sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of this century”.

This ambiguous wording is intended to reflect the recommendation from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report that emissions will need to go to zero and then below (“net-℃zero”) in the second half of the century.

The Paris Agreement’s accompanying decision text suggests a specific pathway for getting below 2℃ of warming, which involves reining in global greenhouse emissions to 40 gigatonnes in 2030, rather than the currently projected 55 Gt. It also suggests commissioning a special report from the IPCC to look at the numbers that would get us to 1.5℃.

The problem with these numbers is that for 40 Gt by 2030 to be consistent with a 2℃ temperature limit, this would require large volumes of carbon to be removed from the atmosphere later in the century (known as negative emissions). Getting beyond this to ensure that we hit a 1.5℃ is likely to rely on even higher volumes of carbon removal later in the century.

What are negative emissions?

Achieving negative emissions involves a form of geoengineering known as Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR). Options for negative emissions include large-scale forest plantations, bioenergy crops with carbon capture and storage, or directly capturing carbon from the atmosphere. As well as technology limitations, these options are severely limited by the scale of land required.

Of the scenarios in the IPCC database with a 50% or greater chance of limiting warming to below 2℃, around 85% assume large-scale uptake of negative emissions. For 1.5℃, all scenarios rely on even larger volumes of negative emissions.

Relying on taking carbon out of the atmosphere later in the century brings a risk that we might delay action in the next few critical decades while waiting for the technology to catch up). This could result in runaway warming if the negative emissions options prove to be unfeasible or too expensive, or socially unacceptable.

What next?

Pathways for delivering the 1.5℃ goal will require unprecedented action. If we carry on burning fossil fuels at current rates, our likely chance of achieving 1.5℃ would be blown in just 6 years (a likely chance of 2℃ gives us 20 years of emissions at current rates).

Carbon Countdown
The Carbon Brief

This highlights that, rather than incremental action, immediate and aggressive emission reductions are needed in rich nations, in order to keep the need for negative emissions options to an absolute minimum, or (for a 2℃ pathway), to avoid relying on carbon drawdown at all.

The special report to be produced in 2018 by the IPCC will offer an opportunity for a more informed debate on the level of negative emissions that might be feasible, and the level of action that will be needed over the coming decade in order to limit our reliance on drawing carbon back out of the atmosphere in the second half of the century.

Keeping global warming below 2℃ or 1.5℃ of warming over pre-industrial levels is still within reach, but it will require an honest and informed picture of the scale of the challenge, and a clear-eyed appreciation of the risks if we delay.

The Conversation

Kate Dooley, PhD candidate, Australian German Climate & Energy College, University of Melbourne and Doreen Stabinsky, Professor of Global Environmental Politics, College of the Atlantic

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Turning up the heat: how the diplomatic push for 1.5℃ unfolded in Paris


Bill Hare, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

The inclusion of a 1.5℃ temperature limit in the new Paris climate agreement was a major victory for the poorest countries and island nations who came to Paris saying they wanted the world to act.

By placing the 1.5℃ limit alongside the legally binding goal to hold global temperatures “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”, the deal offered hope to the many who had begun to despair about the prospects of an ambitious enough global climate agreement ever being reached.

As an adviser to the government of one of these vulnerable countries – St Lucia – I had the privilege of being at the epicentre of the Paris Agreement negotiations.

The inclusion of 1.5℃ surprised many governments and well-placed observers, given that in the run-up to the summit, preparations seemed fixed only on securing a 2℃ limit. But in truth, the scientific and diplomatic push for a stronger agreement had been going on for years, if not decades.

Backing the science

The formal 1.5℃ target is based on progressive improvements over 25 years in the science of understanding of the risks of climate change, and on the economics and technology of cutting greenhouse emissions. This huge body of work has now been translated into an international law that seeks to put a safe “speed limit” on the global climate.

For much of the time, the world was considering what has come to be seen as a more dangerous speed limit. The 2℃ goal emerged from the European Union in 1996 after ministers considered the outcome of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 1995 Second Assessment Report, and it was ultimately enshrined in the 2009 Copenhagen Accord.
But this ignored the fact that by 2009, more than 100 vulnerable countries, alarmed about the projected impacts for 2℃ described in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report – not to mention the impacts they were already beginning to see and feel – had already begun calling for an alternative 1.5℃ limit.

Taking the target to Paris

In Paris, despite the objections (from Saudi Arabia in particular), many more governments beyond the small islands and least developed countries began to join the call for 1.5°C to be included in the purpose of the agreement. By halfway through the summit, some 114 governments had backed the new, more ambitious target.

The reaction of negotiators from many of the big countries and groupings was one of surprise and, in some cases, shock that this issue had even come up. It shouldn’t have been that shocking really – the small island states and least-developed countries had been prominently inserting this goal into the draft text ever since the pre-Paris negotiations began, back in Durban in 2011. Yet negotiators from many of the big groups pushed back.

Nor could the scientific recognition that 2℃ was no longer a safe “guardrail” have been a surprise, given that a UNFCCC report had already reached this conclusion back in June. Yet, still the bigger emitters expressed surprise and shock at the idea of the purpose of the agreement reflecting the 1.5°C limit.

It quickly became clear to anyone paying attention that the inclusion of 1.5℃ in the agreement was a “red line” for many countries. Barbados’ environment minister Denis Lowe expressed it in almost Shakespearean terms, saying that he had not come to Paris seeking a sympathy vote – and that failing to include 1.5℃ in a meaningful, non-token way would be tantamount to a rejection of his people’s right to exist.

Barbados: too nice to lose.
Veronidae/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Country after country argued that they were already feeling the heat with 1℃ warming to date, and that by 1.5℃ they would be suffering extreme damage and risk, and that even this target would represent a significant compromise.

Luckily, the French organisers of the summit had been paying attention. They knew they would have to find a meaningful way to accommodate the 1.5℃ goal if they wanted to have any hope of clinching an agreement.

A difficult challenge

Of course the Paris Agreement is much more than the 1.5℃ limit, but the limit is a fundamental guide to how the agreement should be implemented, and a signal of the urgency with which nations must address climate change.

To limit warming below 1.5℃ by 2100, the best available science indicates that the world needs to reach zero greenhouse emissions between 2060 and 2080, or between 2080 and 2100 for a 2℃ limit. These time frames are now written into the long-term goal in Article 4 of the agreement, which commits countries collectively to reach zero global greenhouse emissions in the second half of the century.

The rate of global reductions, and hence the time at which zero global emissions are achieved, are to be “in accordance” with the best available science, an obvious, but hard-fought clause to ensure that regular scientific assessments play a role in defining when and how zero emissions need to be achieved.

Some observers and governments were concerned that the inclusion of a temperature limit could obstruct inclusion in the agreement of a time frame for deep 2050 emission reductions and for reaching zero emissions. From where I sat, it is hard to see how this could ever have been achieved without there being a temperature goal in the purpose of the agreement, as otherwise there are many parties who would have argued that there was no basis for setting any particular time frame.

Many would have preferred a reference to “decarbonisation” in the long-term goal, even at the expense of the temperature goal. However, there was deep opposition to this term, particularly among oil-exporting countries. Indeed, this allergy extended to nearly any term that mentioned the word “carbon”.

Five-yearly ambition cycle is critical

Some have expressed concerns that the Paris Agreement does not contain a concrete roadmap for how the necessary emission reductions will be achieved, and how effort is to be shared between countries with very different levels of economic development. But how could it, beyond prescribing the five-yearly reviews that will push each country to strengthen its ambition?

There are those who have questioned, or even denied, the feasibility of limiting warming to 2℃, let alone 1.5℃. But these are more expressions of personal political judgements rather than a description of what the science tells us is possible. One is entitled to be pessimistic about whether politicians will take the action needed to limit warming below 2℃, given the lack of progress to date. However, such pessimism is not a scientific opinion and should never be dressed up as such.

The Paris Agreement is historic and it should be no surprise that the challenges ahead in achieving its purpose will dominate the 21st century – as would its failure due to the damages, impacts, ecological and human dislocation that would be caused by just a few degrees of warming. The initial climate pledges submitted by governments are far from sufficient: without rapid improvement we are indeed heading for around 3℃ of warming.

The hard-fought ambition mechanism in the agreement establishes a common five-year global political moment, starting in 2020. If used effectively this will create the sustained political pressure to progressively improve each country’s climate pledges, gradually winding back global emissions towards zero on a time frame consistent with the the 1.5℃ limit.

No one, however, should underestimate the gravity and scale of the task ahead. The Paris deal has set the rules and fired the starting gun in the race to save the planet from climate change. How we run that race is now up to us.

The Conversation

Bill Hare, Visiting scientist, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Thanks to Paris, we have a foundation for meaningful climate progress


Robert Stavins, Harvard University

The Paris Agreement is a truly landmark climate accord, and checks all the boxes in my five-point scorecard for a potentially effective deal. It provides a broad foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the Kyoto Protocol and the past 20 years of climate negotiations.

In Paris, representatives of 195 countries (plus the European Union) adopted a new hybrid international climate policy architecture that includes: bottom-up elements in the form of “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs), which are national targets and actions that arise from national policies; and top-down elements for oversight, guidance, and coordination. Now, all countries will be involved in taking actions to reduce emissions.

Remarkably, 186 of the 196 parties to the agreement submitted INDCs by the end of the Paris talks, representing some 96% of global emissions. This broad scope of participation under the new agreement is a necessary condition for meaningful action – but, of course, it is not a sufficient condition.

Also required is adequate ambition of the individual contributions. But this is only the first step with this new approach. The INDCs will be assessed and revised every five years, with their collective ambition ratcheted up over time.

That said, even this initial set of contributions could cut anticipated temperature increases this century to about 3.5℃ – more than the frequently discussed aspiration of limiting temperature increases to 2℃ (or now, under the Paris deal, potentially to 1.5℃), but much less than the 5-6℃ increase that would be expected without this action. (An amendment to the Montreal Protocol to address hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) is likely to shave off a further 0.5℃ of warming.)

The problem has not been solved, and it will not be for years to come, but the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step toward reducing the threat of global climate change.

The new climate agreement, despite being pathbreaking and the result of what The New York Times rightly described as “an extraordinary effort at international diplomacy”, is only a foundation for moving forward. But it is a sufficiently broad and sensible foundation to make increased ambition over time feasible for the first time.

Whether this foundation for progress is effectively exploited is something we will know only 10, 20, or more years from now.

What is key in the agreement is the following: the centrality of the INDC structure; the most balanced transparency requirements ever promulgated; provision for heterogeneous linkage, including international carbon markets (through “internationally transferred mitigation outcomes” – ITMOs); explicit clarification in a decision that agreement on “loss and damage” does not provide a basis for liability of compensation; and 5-year periods for stocktaking and improvement of the INDCs.

So my fundamental assessment of the Paris climate talks is that they were a great success. Unfortunately, some advocates and some members of the press may characterise the outcome as a “failure,” because the 2℃ target has not been achieved immediately. But the Paris Agreement provides an important new foundation for meaningful progress on climate change, and represents a dramatic departure from the past 20 years of international climate negotiations.

Of course, the problem has not been solved, and it will not be for many years to come. But the new approach brought about by the Paris Agreement can be a key step towards reducing the threat of global climate change. In truth, only time will tell.

The Conversation

Robert Stavins, Professor of Business and Government, Harvard University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Beyond Paris: what was really achieved at the COP21 climate summit, and what next?


Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

As French foreign minister Laurent Fabius brought his gavel down on the most ambitious climate deal ever struck, at 7:27pm on Saturday December 12, 2015, applause broke out throughout the sprawling conference centre in Le Bourget.

It spread even into the cavernous media centre that played host to an estimated 3,700 journalists. It was celebration mixed with relief – a punishing two weeks of negotiations were finally over, albeit 24 hours later than planned.

The result is the first agreement requiring all nations, rich and poor, to pledge action on climate change, with the stated aim of restricting global warming to “well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”, and to strive to limit it to 1.5℃.

Time to terminate greenhouse emissions? Hollywood star and former Californian Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger says it’s time to act.
Michael Hopkin/The Conversation, CC BY-SA

Alongside the politicians, negotiators, business leaders and celebrities at the Paris talks were dozens of The Conversation’s authors from around the world, as well as two Conversation editors. Before, during and after the conference, we have published more than 200 analysis articles, many commissioned from inside the summit.

We featured contributions from at least 140 academics at 74 universities. Those articles garnered nearly 1 million reads and were republished in media outlets worldwide, including Quartz, Newsweek, IFLScience, Scroll.in, RawStory, Mamamia, Economy Watch, SBS, The Brisbane Times, Phys.org, SciBlogs NZ and Business Spectator.

But as many of our authors have pointed out, the real test of whether Paris was a success will be seen in what happens next. So we’ve pulled together two dozen of the best articles on the big scientific, political and economic challenges beyond Paris.

As you’ll see, these highlights show the value of The Conversation’s global newsroom in bringing you insights from experts worldwide, working with all of our teams in France, the UK, US, Africa and Australia.

In case you want to catch up on your reading offline, we’ve also created a special report for you to download.

The big picture

For a fast overview, start with our infographic to see what was agreed at a glance.

A snapshot of our infographic, showing the big gap between pledged emissions cuts and achieving a 2℃ target.
CC BY

Then read why Boston University’s Henrik Selin and Adil Najam argue the agreement was good, bad and ugly.

Clive Hamilton from Charles Sturt University describes the emotional turmoil as the deal was being struck.

And Jackson Ewing from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University explains why China and the United States have finally found common purpose on climate change.

The scientific challenge ahead

Paris summit attendees in silhouette in front of a screen showing a global climate anomalies.
Reuters/Stephane Mahe

CSIRO’s Pep Canadell and Stanford University’s Rob Jackson explain why the Paris Agreement was an extraordinary achievement, but that our real work to cut emissions starts now.

That’s because, as Katja Frieler from Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research shows, global warming is already affecting us (2015 is about to set a new global temperature record) and we’re still heading towards a 2.7℃ world.

New research from the Global Carbon Project shows where in the world emissions are rising or falling, and how much we need to do to achieve a healthy global carbon budget.

Need a quick explainer on what greenhouse gases are? Université de Lille’s Céline Toubin can help. (And if you speak French, you can also read it in French, along with the rest of The Conversation France’s summit coverage.)

But emissions cuts are no longer enough; Oxford University’s Myles Allen argues we’ll also have to find ways to put carbon back in the ground. How? One answer is lying beneath our feet: carbon stored in soil is a bigger solution than you might realise, as a team from the University of Sydney explain.

Show me the money: economic trends to watch

The most surprising revelation of the Paris climate talks was, according to Clive Hamilton, “the astonishing shift” he saw among big business and investors over the past 12 months.

The University of Adelaide’s Peter Burdon was also struck by that shift, especially the way that a growing number of business leaders are now clamouring for a global carbon tax.

Talk is cheap, especially if it’s not backed up with serious funding.
Reuters/Stephane Mahe

But our experts had different views on the best way to price carbon. Katherine Lake from the University of Melbourne argues carbon markets – that is, trading permits to pollute – could play an essential role. However, Steffen Böhm from the University of Essex disagrees, warning that carbon markets have created more problems than they’ve solved so far.

Luke Kemp from the Australian National University looks at how the Paris Agreement left a big question unanswered: what about coal? And no matter what we do now, most people agree adaptation is crucial – yet as the University of Minnesota’s Jessica Hellmann explains, we’re still too hazy on what that will cost.

What could we do if we were really serious about climate change? University College London’s Chris Grainger makes the case to invest as if we were in a global ‘space race’.

Voices of the many, not just the few

Campaigners and those representing poorer nations kept the pressure on right to the end.
Reuters/Jacky Naegelen

Speaking with Matt McDonald from the University of Queensland, Saleemul Huq – who has attended all 21 UN climate summits – reflected on the “very significant change” in negotiating blocs at Paris, which saw vulnerable countries making themselves heard more loudly than before.

Ambuj D Sagar from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi explains why developing countries need more than betting billions on clean energy breakthroughs. Maria Ivanova from the University of Massachusetts Boston highlights the work of 15 female climate champions around the world – but we still need far more.

Stellenbosch University’s Anthony Mills shows what Africa can learn from China about climate change.

COP21: one of the few places where your work is scrutinised by a giant animatronic polar bear.
Michael Hopkin/The Conversation, CC BY-SA

Many climate activists won’t be satisfied by the Paris deal, and will keep pushing for action on fossil fuel use, energy market reform and more, as the University of Sydney’s Rebecca Pearse explains.

And there’s a good reason why, according to the University of Lapland’s Ilona Mettiäinen: polar bears aren’t the only ones facing climate impacts in places like the Arctic – those impacts also affect people, locally and globally.

Thank you to all of our authors, editors and readers around the world for your interest in our Paris 2015 climate summit coverage.

As The Conversation continues to grow in 2016 and beyond, we hope to bring you even better, more comprehensive expert coverage of the biggest global issues we face – all of which will always be free to read, share and republish.

* Download your complete copy of our Beyond Paris special report.

The Conversation

Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

After Paris: now what for Australia’s climate policy?


Tim Nelson, University of New England; Judith McNeill, University of New England; Mahinda Siriwardana, University of New England, and Sam Meng, University of New England

Under the Paris climate agreement, Australia has stated that it will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% by 2030 compared to 2005 levels.

The Paris Agreement will aim to limit warming to 1.5C.
Tim Nelson, Author provided

To limit temperature increases to less than 2°C, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere need to be limited to 450 parts per million or lower . This would require reductions in global emissions of between 40% and 70% by 2050 and complete decarbonisation of the world economy by 2100.

The Climate Institute has found that under the most “generous” emission reduction methods, Australia’s total carbon budget between now and 2050 would need to be 10 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases or lower.

This budget would be depleted by around 2033 if Australia continued to emit greenhouse gases at current levels.

If the budget was exhausted more gradually at a fixed reduction rate, Australia would need to reduce its emissions by 4% each year to 2050 – approximately 45% lower than today in 2030.

Current policy settings likely to require enhancements

Achieving these emission reductions will be challenging under current policy settings. Australia needs to consider how it will implement long-term emission reduction policies that allow for existing capital stock, such as fossil-fuel-fired power stations in the electricity sector, to transition to low/zero emissions.

Australia’s policy initiatives should also focus on the strategic importance of our resources – primarily coal, gas and uranium. Australia has 33%, 10% and 2% respectively of the world’s uranium, coal and gas resources and around 25% of Australia’s goods export revenues are sourced from the sale of mineral fuels. Given the importance of these exports for the economy, greater consideration of appropriate and cost-effective policy mechanisms for these resource industries would be sensible.

Much of the public policy discussion is focused on whether a carbon price (a carbon tax or emissions trading scheme) should be introduced. Alternatives may be worth considering, particularly in capital intensive industries such as electricity.

In the US, new performance standards establish separate greenhouse gas limits for coal and gas generators. Coal plants will be required to meet a 12-month rolling average of 0.5 tonnes per megawatt-hour. Gas-fired generation facilities will be required to meet a limit of between 0.45-0.5 tonnes per megawatt-hour depending on their technical characteristics.

In Canada regulations force the retirement of power stations that are greater than 50 years old, or must be retrofitted with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology to achieve an emissions profile of around 0.4 tonnes per megawatt-hour – equivalent to an efficient gas turbine.

The role of natural gas

Both Australia and the US are experiencing “gas revolutions”, but the outcomes with regards to gas prices could not be more different.

In Australia, gas prices and availability are being impacted by unprecedented increases in east-coast demand associated with the development of an east-coast LNG export industry.

Even without rising gas prices, to replace coal-fired power plants with gas turbines would take a carbon price of around A$110 per tonne.

This carbon price is more than four times higher than the previous Australian fixed carbon price of A$23 per tonne and would result in electricity price uplifts of roughly A$90 per megawatt-hour – an increase of 30% on a residential bill . The A$23 carbon price caused household electricity bills to rise by around 10% during the two years of its operation.

Barriers to exit and an ageing power station fleet are another key consideration for policy makers. Around 75% of the existing thermal (coal and gas) generation plants have passed their original engineering life. More importantly, around 20% are more than 40 years old.

While carbon pricing is likely to be difficult to implement due to political opposition and the effects of potentially higher gas prices, regulatory and legislative instruments are in place which have the effect of reducing emissions.

The most prominent of these is the Large-Scale Renewable Energy Target (LRET). Globally, such a policy is well founded – with 144 countries having support mechanisms for renewables of some type.

Electricity sector decarbonisation could be achieved with a renewable energy target if it was coupled with a policy to close old coal-fired power stations. This would be an adaption of performance standards for new electricity generators (such as those proposed in the US) and a closure policy (as adopted in Canada).

The role of carbon, capture and storage

It may also be in Australia’s interests to expand the Renewable Energy Target to include projects using coal and gas with zero or negligible emissions.

As a major exporter of coal and gas, Australia’s export revenues could be significantly curtailed without carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. Importantly, CCS should not be given a free-ride but would be required to compete with renewable sources.

Australia could advocate for other nations to adopt such a policy through international negotiations. This may create a deeper, liquid market for CCS-style technologies which would provide potential opportunities for Australian energy exporters.

If the policy objective is to structurally decarbonise the Australian economy, international permit trading may not result in greenhouse gas reduction actually taking place within Australia.

It may also do nothing to address the risks to Australian energy exports in a world where significant efforts are being made to substitute coal and gas.

In contrast, expanding the quantity and eligibility of zero-emissions abatement under the renewable energy target, combined with a Canadian-style generator closure policy, could both decarbonise the Australian electricity sector and provide opportunities for Australian energy exporters to compete in a zero emissions future.

This article is based upon a forthcoming article in Economic Papers titled, ‘Australian climate change policy: where to from here?’

The Conversation

Tim Nelson, PhD candidate, University of New England; Judith McNeill, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Rural Futures, BCSS, UNE, University of New England; Mahinda Siriwardana, Professor of Economics, School of Business Economics and Public Policy, University of New England, and Sam Meng, Researcher in economics, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

After Paris, the future of Australian coal is downhill


Gary Ellem, University of Newcastle

The ink is barely dry on the Paris climate agreement and the debate has already started on how the deal will affect the future of fossil fuels, particularly coal.

Following the deal on Sunday, the mining industry has responded that Australian coal will remain an important provider of affordable energy to developing countries. The industry argues new low emissions technologies will keep coal in business as the world cuts carbon.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop echoed the sentiment in Paris last week, stating “coal-fired power generation is here to stay.”

The agreement aims to limit global temperature rise to less than 2℃, with an aspiration of 1.5℃. So what is the future of coal in a world that meets these temperature limits?

Who’s going to build the new coal infrastructure?

Keeping warming “well below 2℃ above preindustrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5℃” essentially means all new electricity generation from now on must be zero emissions or have a short amortisation life. Current emissions-intensive generation will also have to be phased out in line with the end of its initial design life.

Most coal in Australia is mined to be exported. For Australian coal exports to continue to play a significant role in our balance of trade, we must have international customers.

Australia produces both thermal coal for electricity and metallurgical coal for manufacturing, which is exported mainly to countries in Asia. Some of these customers, such as China and India, have their own coal production sectors, which produce significantly more coal than Australia. Others, such as Japan, are completely import dependent.

Whichever way the coal is used, it will add to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere unless these emission are captured by carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies.

The infrastructure that will power our international customers’ electricity grids, steel and cement plants in 2050 largely hasn’t been built yet. In a less than 2℃ world, all of this infrastructure will have to be close to zero emissions. In a 1.5℃ world, any remaining emissions will have to be offset.

This means that if our customers decide to stay with coal, they will have to replace their existing infrastructure with new infrastructure incorporating carbon capture and storage, and even further offset emissions for a 1.5℃ future with the use of biomass.

It’s clear that China has already opted for an anything but coal policy. The policy future for India is not so clear, but they are clearly planning to be more self sufficient in coal production regardless of climate objectives. Neither of these look good for the future of Australian coal exports in either the short or long term.

The competition is heating up

The Australian coal export sector is threatened by both the rise of competing technologies and other suppliers.

Competing technologies in the electricity generation space are numerous and include nuclear as well as a swathe of renewable energy technologies that are becoming cheaper and more practical.

It’s clear that carbon capture and storage technologies have failed in the current competition environment as a cheap alternative to the other low and zero-emissions technologies such as renewables. Coal has rapidly ceded ground to gas, wind, hydro and solar in key markets such as the US and China.

The long-term outlook for coal for electricity then, is shaky at best. Australia is competing for market share in a shrinking market. The International Energy Agency report quoted by the Minerals Council for a rosy coal future is very clear that the modelling is based on the continuation of pre-Paris trends rather than the Paris agreement.

Even the well-trodden claims that intermittent renewables can’t supply the baseload power normally supplied by coal are looking flaky. Energy storage in the form of batteries in particular is rapidly getting cheaper and building in production capacity. A number of different battery types including lithium ion, sodium ion, aluminium ion and liquid metal batteries are all in development with on grid storage markets in mind.

The outlook for metallurgical coal may be more promising, simply because there are fewer technologies to compete.

Coal is used predominantly in blast furnaces to convert iron ore into metallic iron. Blast furnaces use coking coal to hold iron ore in place, while cheaper Pulverised Coal Injection (or PCI) coal is used to remove oxygen from the iron.

PCI coal can be replaced by charcoal from plants, reducing emissions by 18% to 40%. But there’s no current replacement for coking coal used in a blast furnace.

The Hismelt process from Rio Tinto can convert iron ore to new iron without the need for coking coal. But this technology is in its commercial infancy.

Should we rely on the Australian coal industry?

The coal industry has played an important role in the development of Australia as a modern industrialised economy. It has formed the basis for energy security in the Australian electricity sector and our domestic steel sector.

In more recent times, coal has been a major export commodity for Australia and has also powered the export-focused aluminium sector. Despite all of these great achievements, it’s hard to see a long-term positive future for the industry in a global marketplace looking for competitive solutions to their 2℃ and 1.5℃ needs.

Innovation is borne of constraint however, and it will be good for all of us if carbon capture and storage could be made cheap enough and deployable enough for widespread use. There are reasons for pursuing this technology besides coal. Carbon capture and storage can be combined with bioenergy in the form of BECCS to develop one of the few large-scale ways in which we may actively remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Given the likely demise of this substantial national export industry over the next few decades, we would be wise to think about what other innovative opportunities we can draw from the sector while it still has scale. Our coal miners are in the energy industry, but we would be foolish and simplistic if we think the only replacement industries emerging from coal is renewable energy.

We have a coal export industry simply because we have an area of natural advantage in coal i.e. high quality coal resources with rail and port access. We are yet to identify an equivalent area of natural advantage in renewables that could power a similarly scaled export industry. Yes we have sun and wind in abundance, but there is no real mechanism yet to export that to an international market.

But all is not lost. Mines are large consumers of energy and technology resources and have management responsibilities for significant tracts of the Australian landscape.

With the right guidance and incentives, the industry may yet lay the foundations for a sustainable legacy for our national economy and local communities in exportable products such as an innovative approach to professional services, transport technology and high intensity food production.


Gary will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 10 and 11am AEST on Wednesday, December 16, 2015. Post your questions in the comments section below.

The Conversation

Gary Ellem, Conjoint Academic in Sustainability, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.