Here’s how a 100% renewable energy future can create jobs and even save the gas industry



File 20190123 122904 1whjg0s.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The gas industry of the future could manufacture and deliver renewable fuels, rather than mining and processing natural gas.
Shutterstock.com

Sven Teske, University of Technology Sydney

The world can limit global warming to 1.5℃ and move to 100% renewable energy while still preserving a role for the gas industry, and without relying on technological fixes such as carbon capture and storage, according to our new analysis.

The One Earth Climate Model – a collaboration between researchers at the University of Technology Sydney, the German Aerospace Center and the University of Melbourne, and financed by the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation – sets out how the global energy supply can move to 100% renewable energy by 2050, while creating jobs along the way.

It also envisions how the gas industry can fulfil its role as a “transition fuel” in the energy transition without its infrastructure becoming obsolete once natural gas is phased out.




Read more:
Want to boost the domestic gas industry? Put a price on carbon


Our scenario, which will be published in detail as an open access book in February 2019, sets out how the world’s energy can go fully renewable by:

  • increasing electrification in the heating and transport sector

  • significant increase in “energy productivity” – the amount of economic output per unit of energy use

  • the phase-out of all fossil fuels, and the conversion of the gas industry to synthetic fuels and hydrogen over the coming decades.

Our model also explains how to deliver the “negative emissions” necessary to stay within the world’s carbon budget, without relying on unproven technology such as carbon capture and storage.

If the renewable energy transition is accompanied by a worldwide moratorium on deforestation and a major land restoration effort, we can remove the equiavalent of 159 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (2015-2100).

Combining models

We compiled our scenario by combining various computer models. We used three climate models to calculate the impacts of specific greenhouse gas emission pathways. We then used another model to analyse the potential contributions of solar and wind energy – including factoring in the space constraints for their installation.

We also used a long-term energy model to calculate future energy demand, broken down by sector (power, heat, industry, transport) for 10 world regions in five-year steps. We then further divided these 10 world regions into 72 subregions, and simulated their electricity systems on an hourly basis. This allowed us to determine the precise requirements in terms of grid infrastructure and energy demand.

Interactions between the models used for the One Earth Model.
One Earth Model, Author provided

‘Recycling’ the gas industry

Unlike many other 1.5℃ and/or 100% renewable energy scenarios, our analysis deliberately integrates the existing infrastructure of the global gas industry, rather than requiring that these expensive investments be phased out in a relatively short time.

Natural gas will be increasingly replaced by hydrogen and/or renewable methane produced by solar power and wind turbines. While most scenarios rely on batteries and pumped hydro as main storage technologies, these renewable forms of gas can also play a significant role in the energy mix.

In our scenario, the conversion of gas infrastructure from natural gas to hydrogen and synthetic fuels will start slowly between 2020 and 2030, with the conversion of power plants with annual capacities of around 2 gigawatts. However, after 2030, this transition will accelerate significantly, with the conversion of a total of 197GW gas power plants and gas co-generation facilities each year.

Along the way the gas industry will have to redefine its business model from a supply-driven mining industry, to a synthetic gas or hydrogen fuel production industry that provides renewable fuels for the electricity, industry and transport sectors. In the electricity sector, these fuels can be used to help smooth out supply and demand in networks with significant amounts of variable renewable generation.

A just transition for the fossil fuel industry

The implementation of the 1.5℃ scenario will have a significant impact on the global fossil fuel industry. While this may seem to be stating the obvious, there has so far been little rational and open debate about how to make an orderly withdrawal from the coal, oil, and gas extraction industries. Instead, the political debate has been focused on prices and security of supply. Yet limiting climate change is only possible when fossil fuels are phased out.

Under our scenario, gas production will only decrease by 0.2% per year until 2025, and thereafter by an average of 4% a year until 2040. This represents a rather slow phase-out, and will allow the gas industry to transfer gradually to hydrogen.

Our scenario will generate more energy-sector jobs in the world as a whole. By 2050 there would be 46.3 million jobs in the global energy sector – 16.4 million more than under existing forecasts.




Read more:
The government is right to fund energy storage: a 100% renewable grid is within reach


Our analysis also investigated the specific occupations that will be required for a renewables-based energy industry. The global number of jobs would increase across all of these occupations between 2015 and 2025, with the exception of metal trades which would decline by 2%, as shown below.

Division of occupations between fossil fuel and renewable energy industries in 2015 and 2025.
One Earth Model, Author provided

However, these results are not uniform across regions. China and India, for example, will both experience a reduction in the number of jobs for managers and clerical and administrative workers between 2015 and 2025.

Our analysis shows how the various technical and economic barriers to implementing the Paris Agreement can be overcome. The remaining hurdles are purely political.The Conversation

Sven Teske, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Warming oceans are changing Australia’s fishing industry



File 20180710 122253 9yj55v.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Ocean fish are changing where they live due to climate change.
Annie spratt/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Alistair Hobday, CSIRO; Beth Fulton, CSIRO, and Gretta Pecl, University of Tasmania

A new United Nations report on fisheries and climate change shows that Australian marine systems are undergoing rapid environmental change, with some of the largest climate-driven changes in the Southern Hemisphere.

Reports from around the world have found that many fish species are changing their distribution. This movement threatens to disrupt fishing as we know it.

While rapid change is predicted to continue, researchers and managers are working with fishers to ensure a sustainable industry.




Read more:
Climate-driven species on the move are changing (almost) everything


Lessons from across the world

Large climate-driven changes in species distribution and abundance are evident around the world. While some species will increase, global models project declining seafood stocks in tropical regions, where people can least afford alternative foods.

The global concern for seafood changes led the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to commission a new report on the impacts of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture. More than 90 experts from some 20 countries contributed, including us.

The report describes many examples of climate-related change. For instance, the northern movement of European mackerel into Icelandic waters has led to conflict with more southerly fishing states, and apparently contributed to Iceland’s exit from negotiations over its prospective European Union membership.




Read more:
Loss of marine habitats is threatening the global fishing industry – new research


Changes in fish abundance and behaviour can lead to conflicts in harvesting, as occurred in the Maine lobster fishery. Indirect effects of climate change, such as disease outbreaks and algal blooms, have already temporarily closed fisheries in several countries, including the United States and Australia.

All these changes in turn impact the people who depend on fish for food and livelihoods.

Climate change and fisheries in Australia

The Australian chapter summarises the rapid ocean change in our region. Waters off southeastern and southwestern Australia are particular warming hotspots. Even our tropical oceans are warming almost twice as fast as the global average.




Read more:
Ecosystems across Australia are collapsing under climate change


More than 100 Australian marine species have already begun to shift their distributions southwards. Marine heatwaves and other extreme events have harmed Australia’s seagrass, kelp forests, mangroves and coral reefs. Australia’s marine ecosystems and commercial fisheries are clearly already being affected by climate change.

Summary of recent climate-related marine impacts in Australia. Warming on both coasts is also moving species southwards.
Author provided

In the Australian FAO chapter, we present information from climate sensitivity analysis and ecosystem models to help managers and fishers prepare for change.

We need to preparing climate-ready fisheries, to minimise negative impacts and to make the most of new opportunities that arise.

Experts from around Australia have rated the sensitivity of more than 100 fished species to climate change, based on their life-history traits. They found that 70% of assessed species have moderate to high sensitivity. As a group, invertebrates are the most sensitive, and pelagic fishes (that live in the open ocean sea) the least.

A range of ecosystem models have also been used to explore how future climate change will impact Australia’s fisheries over the next 40 years. While results varied around Australia, a common projection was that ecosystem production will become more variable.

As fish abundance and distribution changes, predation and competition within food webs will be affected. New food webs may form, changing ecosystems in unexpected ways. In some regions (such as southeastern Australia) the ecosystem may eventually shift into a new state that is quite different to today.

How can Australian fisheries respond?

Our ecosystem models indicate that sustainable fisheries are possible, if we’re prepared to make some changes. This finding builds on Australia’s strong record in fisheries management, supported by robust science, which positions it well to cope with the impacts of climate change. Fortunately, less than 15% of Australia’s assessed fisheries are overfished, with an improving trend.

We have identified several actions that can help fisheries adapt to climate change:

  • Management plans need to prioritise the most sensitive species and fisheries, and take the easiest actions first, such as changing the timing or location of operations to match changing conditions.



Read more:
For indigenous communities, fish mean much more than food


  • As ecosystem changes span state and national boundaries, greater coordination is needed across all Australian jurisdictions, and between all the users of the marine environment. For example, policy must be developed to deal with fixed fishing zones when species distribution changes.

  • Fisheries policy, management and assessment methods need to prepare for both long-term changes and extreme events. Australian fisheries have already shifted to more conservative targets which have provided for increased ecological resilience. Additional quota changes may be needed if stock productivity changes.

  • In areas where climate is changing rapidly, agile management responses will be required so that action can be taken quickly and adjusted when new information becomes available.

  • Ultimately, we may need to target new species. This means that Australians will have to adapt to buying (and cooking) new types of fish.




Read more:
Is fishing with electricity less destructive than digging up the seabed with beam trawlers?


The ConversationResearchers from a range of organisations and agencies around Australia are now tackling these issues, in partnership with the fishing industry, to ensure that coastal towns with vibrant commercial fishing and aquaculture businesses continue to provide sustainable seafood.

Alistair Hobday, Senior Principal Research Scientist – Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO, and Gretta Pecl, Professor, ARC Future Fellow & Editor in Chief (Reviews in Fish Biology & Fisheries), University of Tasmania

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

Why scientific monitoring of the effects of industry on our priceless WA rock art is inadequate



File 20171120 18578 1y881mz.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga, contains over a million individual works of rock art by the Yaburara people.
Shutterstock.com

John Black, University of Western Australia

Scientific studies used to monitor the impact of industry on Aboriginal rock art in north west Western Australia are inadequate, potentially exposing more than a million individual artworks to damage, according to a recent paper published by myself and co-authors in the journal Rock Art Research.

The rock art is located near the towns of Dampier and Karratha and is known as the Burrup Peninsula, or Murujuga. It is a priceless, irreplaceable, cultural and archaeological treasure. The peninsula is also home to industry including an iron ore export port, natural gas processing, liquefying and export facilities, an ammonia-urea fertiliser plant and most recently, an ammonium nitrate production facility for explosives.

The industry and port produce thousands of tonnes of acid-forming emissions each year, permitted under environmental regulations. The impact of these emissions has been monitored through several scientific studies, which claimed there was no consistent impact on the rock art.

However our paper shows that the four main studies cannot be used to monitor the impact of industry on the art due to methodological errors. For example, one study subjected rocks to acid-forming emissions and concluded that there was no consistent change in colour. But there were just not enough repeat measurements to gain any sensible conclusion about the effect of emissions on rock colour.

Another experiment examining the effects of varying acid and other chemical concentrations was conducted using iron ore, which has no relevance to the rocks on which the art is situated. Measurements of colour change between 2004 and 2014 were also made on the rock art and background rock at seven different sites. But the instruments used for measuring change in rock surface colour were designed for indoor use and were inappropriate for the highly variable, hot rock surfaces of Murujuga. Typically, instruments were located at only one place on the rock surface during a measurement each year and this was insufficient to represent the highly variable rock surface.

These studies form the basis for government regulation, which permits industry to release acid-forming emissions. While there is no conclusive evidence that industry emissions have damaged the rock art, recent measurements of the surface of rocks near industry by Dr Ian MacLeod, former Director of the Western Australian Maritime Museum, found acidity to have increased 1,000 times above pre-industrial levels.

We showed in another scientific paper published earlier this year that acid dissolves the outer surface layer of the rocks causing them to become thinner, lighter in colour and to flake away. Once the outer surface layer is removed, the rock art is lost.

The federal government is conducting a senate inquiry into the health of the Murujuga rock art, with a delayed final report due in late November. I argue that, at the very least, industry must install technology to reduce acid emissions and ammonium nitrate dust particles to virtually zero. Other rock art experts have called for a cessation of all industry on the peninsula in a recent editorial in Rock Art Research.

Priceless history

The Murujuga rock art captures over 45,000 years of human culture, activity and spiritual beliefs through ever changing environments from when the sea was more than 100 km from its current position and through the last ice age, 20,000 years ago.

The petroglyphs include some of the oldest known representations of the human face in the world. There are images of extinct mammals including megafauna, the fat-tailed kangaroo and thylacine. There are elaborate geometric designs that could have been used for navigation or an early form of mathematics. There are many depictions of hunting and cultural ceremonies as well as existing animals, birds and sea creatures.

Artwork depicting a thylacine, a species which has been extinct in the Pilbarra for 3,000 years.
Friends of Australian Rock Art

The Murujuga inhabitants created this rock art until February 1868, when virtually the entire Yaburara indigenous population was exterminated in a massacre.

Massacre of the Yaburara, only three years after European settlement in 1865, has deprived us from knowing the storylines and cultural meaning of the petroglyphs. Equally significantly, the massacre broke continuous inhabitation of the area, which has allowed successive Western Australian governments to develop in the midst of the rock art one of the largest industrial complexes in the Southern Hemisphere.

Industry and art

Construction of the industries is estimated by archaeologists working on Murujuga to have resulted in the destruction of over 30,000 petroglyphs through removal and physical damage. Atmospheric emissions from the industries are immense.

Dampier port, which is adjacent to the petroglyphs, is one of the busiest bulk-ports in the world with over 19,000 ship movements each year. These ships burn high sulphur bunker fuel, with one ship emitting as much as 5,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide per year.

The gas and fertiliser plants emit around 34,000 tonnes of acid forming compounds into the air each year. The recent starting up of the ammonium nitrate plant revealed a huge yellow-orange cloud of nitrogen dioxide with concentrations of over 1,000 parts per million. The emission of nitrogen dioxide from the plant will occur around six times each year, whenever certain industrial chemicals needed for ammonium nitrate production require replacing.

These emissions are permitted under state and federal environmental regulation. Both nitrogen and sulphur dioxide react with water to form acids which are deposited on the rock surfaces.

The construction of the LNG facility in 2008.
Friends of Australian Rock Art

Extraordinary origins

The rock art at Murujuga is threatened by acid because of its unique geological properties. The natural blue-grey rock, formed from cooling magma, weathers very slowly to form a yellow coloured weathering rind, which may grow by 5 mm in 30,000 years.

The yellow coloured rind is covered with a dark brown-black coating called a patina or rock varnish. The petroglyphs were formed by using hard pieces of rock to break through the patina and expose the rind.

This patina is an extraordinary substance. It is formed by specialised bacteria and fungi on the rock surface, where there is seldom moisture and rock temperatures can exceed 70℃. To survive the harsh conditions, the organisms build a mineral sheath. When they die, their body and sheath combine with clay from the dust to form the hard, dark-coloured patina.

Destruction of the outer patina results in disappearance of the rock art. There is evidence that the patina is flaking on some rocks with petroglyphs. The patina becomes thin and flakes away under acidic conditions.

Protecting the art

Elsewhere in the world countries have been vigilant in protecting natural and cultural heritage from acid emissions. In the US cars are banned or severely limited in many national parks because the acid formed from nitrogen dioxide, produced from vehicle exhaust, will damage the forests.

In France, the 1.4 million annual visitors to the 17,000-year-old Lascaux cave paintings do not see the actual paintings, but a replica in an adjoining cave because of the damage caused by emissions from human breath.

Similarly, the UK government announced in January this year they are building a £1.4 billion tunnel to remove cars form the vicinity of their 4,500-year-old heritage in Stonehenge.

The ConversationWhile removing industry may be the best solution to ensure the rock art’s safety, it may not be practical. Governments and industry must recognise their social responsibilities and ensure sufficient technology is in place to reduce acid forming emissions to near zero.

John Black, Honorary Research Fellow, University of Western Australia

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

How our research is helping clean up coal-mining pollution in a World Heritage-listed river



Image 20170329 1674 1tkl166
The Wollangambe River’s canyons are loved by adventurers.
Ben Green

Ian Wright, Western Sydney University

The Wollangambe River in New South Wales is a unique gift of nature, flowing through the stunning Wollemi National Park, wilderness areas and the World Heritage-listed Blue Mountains. It’s an adventure tourism hotspot, with thousands of people clambering through the river’s majestic canyons each year.

So it was with a sense of irony that bushwalkers noticed unnatural flow and discolouration in the river and suspected it was pollution. In 2012 they contacted Western Sydney University, which has since conducted ongoing investigations.

The pollution was traced back to the Clarence Colliery, owned by Centennial Coal. Our recent research confirms that this is one of the worst cases of coal mine pollution in Australia, and indeed the world.

For four years I and other researchers have been investigating the pollution and its impacts on the river. The NSW Environment Protection Authority (EPA) has verified our findings. In exciting news, the mine was in March issued a revised environmental licence, which we believe is the most stringent ever issued to an Australian coal mine.

This is appropriate given the conservation significance of the river and the current scale of the pollution. We are now hopeful that the pollution of the Wollangambe River may soon be stopped.

Water pollution damages the river and its ecology

The Clarence Colliery is an underground mine constructed in 1980. It is just a few kilometres from the boundary of the Blue Mountains National Park.

Clarence Colliery and Wollangambe River.
Ian Wright

Our research revealed that waste discharges from the mine cause a plume of water pollution at least 22km long, deep within the conservation area. The mine constantly discharges groundwater, which accumulates in underground mines. The water is contaminated through the mining process. The mine wastes contributed more than 90% of the flow in the upper reaches of the river.

The EPA regulates all aspects of the mining operation relating to pollution. This includes permission to discharge waste water to the Wollangambe River, provided that it is of a specified water quality.

Our research found that the wastes totally modified the water chemistry of the river. Salinity increased by more than ten times below the mine. Nickel and zinc were detected at levels that are dangerous to aquatic species.

We surveyed aquatic invertebrates, mostly insects, along the river and confirmed that the mine waste was devastating the river’s ecology. The abundance of invertebrates dropped by 90% and the number of species was 65% lower below the mine waste outfall than upstream and in tributary streams. Major ecological impacts were still detected 22km downstream.

We shared our early research findings with the NSW EPA in 2014. The authority called for public submissions and launched an investigation using government scientists from the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Their study confirmed our findings.

Progress was interrupted when tonnes of sediment from the mine were dislodged in 2015 after heavy rainfall and the miner and the EPA focused on cleaning the sediment from the river. This incident has resulted in the EPA launching a prosecution in the NSW Land and Environment Court.

We recently compared the nature and scale of pollution from this mine with other coal mine pollution studies. The comparison confirms that this is one of the most damaging cases of coal mine water pollution in Australia, or internationally.

Even 22km below the waste outfall, the Wollangambe is still heavily polluted and its ecosystems are still degraded. One of the unique factors is that this mine is located in an otherwise near-pristine area of very high conservation value.

New licence to cut pollution

The new EPA licence was issued March 1, 2017. It imposes very tight limits on an extensive suite of pollutant concentrations that the mine is permitted to discharge to the Wollangambe River.

The licence covers two of the most dangerous pollutants in the river: nickel and zinc. Nickel was not included in the former licence.

The new licence now includes a sampling point on the river where it flows into the World Heritage area, about 1km downstream from the mine. The licence specifies vastly lower concentrations of pollutants at this new sampling point.

For example, the permitted concentration of zinc has been reduced from 1,500 micrograms per litre in the waste discharge, in the old licence, to 8 micrograms per litre.

It can be demoralising to witness growing pollution that is damaging the ecosystems with which we share our planet. This case study promises something different.

The actions of the EPA in issuing a new licence to the mine provide hope that the river might have a happy ending to this sad case study. The new licence comes into effect on June 5, 2017.

The ConversationOur current data suggest that water quality in the river is already improving. We dream that improved water quality, following this licence, will trigger a profoundly important ecological recovery. Now we just have to wait and see whether the mine can improve its waste treatment to meet the new standards.

Ian Wright, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Science, Western Sydney University

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

New coal plants wouldn’t be clean, and would cost billions in taxpayer subsidies


Frank Jotzo, Australian National University

Following a campaign by the coal industry, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has argued for new coal-fired power stations in Australia. But these plants would be more expensive than renewables and carry a huge liability through the carbon emissions they produce.

Major Australian energy companies have ruled out building new coal plants. The Australian Energy Council sees them as “uninvestable”. Banks and investment funds would not touch them with a barge pole. Only government subsidies could do it.

It may seem absurd to spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money on last century’s technology that will be more costly than renewable power and would lock Australia into a high-carbon trajectory.

But the government is raising the possibility of government funding for new coal plants, with statements by Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Treasurer Scott Morrison and Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg. The suggestion is to use funding from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. For this to happen, presumably the CEFC’s investment mandate would need to be changed, or the meaning of “low-emissions technologies” interpreted in a radical way.

It should come to nothing, if minimum standards of sensible policy prevailed.

But an ill wind is blowing in Australia’s energy and climate policy debate. The situation in parliament is difficult, and the Trump presidency is giving the right wing in the Coalition a boost.

Definitely not ‘clean’

Proponents of new coal plants call them “clean coal”. They have appropriated a term that normally means burning coal in power stations with carbon capture and storage, a technology that filters out most of the carbon dioxide. But this is expensive and has made little progress.

Turnbull and others are simply suggesting Australia build the latest generation of conventional coal-burning plants. They are not clean – merely marginally less polluting than the old plants running now.

A new high-efficiency coal plant run on black coal would produce about 80% of the emissions of an equivalent old plant. An ultra-supercritical coal plant running on black coal emits about 0.7 tonnes of CO₂ per megawatt hour of electricity, or about 0.85 tonnes using brown coal. That is anything but clean.

For comparison, typical old “dirty” black coal plants in operation now emit around 0.9 tonnes, so the improvement from replacing them with the latest technology is not large. Gas plants produce between 0.4-0.6 tonnes, much less than the suggested new coal plants. Gas has the added benefit of being able to respond flexibly to demand. A plant with carbon capture and storage might emit around 0.05 tonnes, and renewables zero.

The Australian grid average right now is around 0.8 tonnes and gradually falling. New coal would tend to keep that average higher over the long term.

A single typically sized new coal plant could blow out in the order of 5 million tonnes of CO₂ each year – about 1% of Australia’s current annual emissions – and would have an expected lifetime of 40-60 years. It would also pollute the air locally, as all coal plants do, causing damage to people’s health.

If we wanted to make up for the extra coal emissions by doing more in industry, transport or agriculture, then this would come at a cost in those parts of the economy. In-depth research has shown that decarbonisation of Australia’s economy needs to have zero-carbon electricity supply at its core.

What if we don’t care about the climate?

Building coal power plants is expensive. The average lifetime cost of producing power with ultra-super critical plants in Australia is estimated at around A$80 per megawatt-hour. This assumes financing is available at standard interest rates and that the plant runs at high capacity.

Given the risk that the plants will be liable under stricter carbon limits in the future, the financing costs are bound to be higher, probably north of A$100 – and may be as much as A$160. If the plant is not fully utilised, as is already the case for existing coal plants, average costs will be even higher.

By comparison, wind farms now get built at an average cost of A$75 per megawatt-hour, and solar parks at around A$110. Both are expected to come down to perhaps A$50 by 2025. New coal plants take many years to prepare and build, so 2025 is the relevant comparison.

In fact, the overall comparison costs for renewables are even lower. This is because wind and solar built in 2025 would be replaced in the 2050s with even cheaper systems.

There are extra costs associated with wind and solar – for instance, through pumped-hydro storage or more gas-fired power plants to balance supply. But these costs are far less than the underlying cost of renewables.

So renewables including system integration costs will be cheaper than new coal plants, perhaps by quite a margin. Let’s say, very conservatively, that renewables are A$20 per megawatt-hour cheaper. For the coal plant that’d be an extra cost of A$150 million per year, or A$6 billion over 40 years. The extra cost could be much higher if the plant was retired before the 2060s or not run at full capacity.

The subsidy required would be potentially billions of dollars for each plant. That’s billions of dollars from the taxpayer or electricity user, in order to supply power with high carbon emissions that are then locked in for half a century. It should not happen in a country that prides itself on rational economic policy.

Instead, government should set its sights on the long-term economic opportunities for Australia in a low-carbon world, and chart a path for the transition of the energy system.

Turnbull referred to Australia’s position as a coal exporter. But a revolution is under way in energy technologies. While coal will continue to be used in existing plants, the times of growing coal use are over. Already more than 70% of the world’s annual power sector investment goes to renewables.

Australia is lucky in that there are no limits to the amount of renewable energy that could be produced. New industries can be built around it. We should invest in the industries of the future, not sink more money into the technologies of last century.

The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

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

The Paris Agreement won’t stop coal, but future climate talks might


Luke Kemp, Australian National University

The global climate deal reached at the Paris climate talks has left a big question unanswered: what do to about coal? It isn’t even mentioned in the agreement text.

There is growing recognition that continued expansion of fossil fuels is incompatible with stopping dangerous climate change. If the international community wishes to limit global warming to a maximum of 2℃, only 886 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO₂) can be emitted between 2000 and 2050. Locked in the ground is 2,795 billion tonnes, 65% of which is coal.

Given this simple maths, only one-fifth of these fossil fuels can be dug up. Most fossil fuel reserves cannot be used. Creating new coal mines or searching for new sources is not compatible with avoiding dangerous climate change. It is simply wasted investment.

This has provided the basis for the “no new coalmines” campaign. It is an idea that has gained traction around the world. So is it legally possible to undertake such a drastic international action?

Growing support

A global moratorium on new coal mines is rapidly gaining international support. The idea has even passed the lips of world leaders. On the summit’s opening day, Kiribati’s president Anote Tong told the assembled heads of state:

I have issued a call for a global moratorium on new investments on coal mines as endorsed by my fellow Pacific Leaders and I invite you all to join this call.

The climate talks have traditionally focused on tackling fossil fuel demand by attempting to limit countries’ overall greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond the negotiations, restricting the supply of fossil fuels is becoming the centre of attention.

The divestment movement has experienced considerable success in persuading concerned citizens and institutions to pull their money out of fossil fuel companies. The Obama administration recently rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, partly on the rationale that it undercuts US climate leadership.

Political support is increasing rapidly and could soon reach a tipping point that leads to international legal action either through, or outside of, the UN climate negotiations.

Through the climate convention

While Paris will not deliver a global moratorium on new coal mines, or even a dialogue about it, it could still happen in the near future. There are climate conferences every year and each one adopts a set of new decisions.
Countries could decide in the future to develop further rules for the pledging process, including putting forward what national actions are being taken to limit fossil fuel extraction.

Another option would be simply to amend the text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or the Paris agreement at a later date. For the UNFCCC this could be done by a three-quarter majority vote (although the changes would only apply to countries who vote for and ratify the amendment).

The UNFCCC’s subsidiary body for science and technology could also be empowered to make recommendations on fossil fuel extraction, given a 2℃ carbon budget. This body has looked at carbon budget issues previously and has reviewed the temperature target.

Looking at the implications of fossil fuel extraction would be a logical step forward, and well within the body’s abilities. This could provide the basis for recommendations to the wider negotiations on what reaching 2℃ means for coal. Spoiler: new coal reserves are not compatible with the 2℃ threshold.

A political problem

The UN is not the only game in town. Some of the most powerful international institutions, such as the World Bank and World Trade Organisation (WTO), operate outside of the UN.

It’s feasible that a small group of countries could forge ahead to create their own semi-global agreement outside of the UN. This is not without precedence. The WTO was originally the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT) with only 34 members.

Such an agreement could involve a group of countries pledging to ban the creation or expansion of coal infrastructure within their own sovereign borders, and to encouraging others to do so. They could even create regulations to forbid the purchase of coal from specific sources (new coal mines), although this would probably face technical issues and be challenged as arbitrary discrimination under the WTO, as has previously happened for Venezuelan gas exports.

At the very least, an agreement could establish a ruling for governments to divest from projects or companies involved in the expansion and creation of coal mines, or of fossil fuels in general.

Such a move may seem fruitless given that it would be taken by a coalition of the willing and would probably not involve major coal exporters. But as pointed out above, agreements rarely stay frozen in time. If designed correctly they can grow in membership and influence.

A multi-country agreement on no new coal mines could help to create a powerful new international norm, and help to signal a market push away from new coal mines and coal in general.

Stopping the creation and expansion of coal mines is not a legal problem. Numerous legal avenues to implement a moratorium on new coal exist. It is a purely political problem.

The world appears to be awakening to the simple fact that limiting warming to 2℃ means we cannot use existing coal reserves, let alone seek out new ones. The question is who will act first: the UN climate talks, or a critical mass of willing countries?

The Conversation

Luke Kemp, Lecturer and PhD Candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

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

Explainer: how the OECD agreement deals another blow to coal worldwide


Luke Kemp, Australian National University

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have agreed to limit subsidies for the export of inefficient coal-fired power plant technologies.

Export credit funding will be limited to coal-fired power generators using only the most efficient, and least polluting, “ultra-supercritical” technologies. The deal will come into force in January 2017 and be reviewed in 2019. This will limit the public financing of coal-fired power generation worldwide.

Australia unfortunately continued its role as a climate laggard by negotiating for the inclusion of a clause allowing for exceptions.

Due to the clause tabled by Australia and South Korea, developing countries can receive funding for the construction of smaller (500 megawatts or less) less efficient “supercritical” coal-fired power plants. Regardless, the deal will encourage movement away from inefficient coal-fired power generation towards the most efficient technologies and substitutes such as renewable energy.

The timing of the deal two weeks before the Paris climate summit was probably an intentional move to help further build international momentum towards an ambitious deal.

While Australia does not finance coal plants through these schemes, other major economies such as Japan devote billions to them. In the past five years OECD export credit agency funding has provided around US$11 billion for coal power plants.

How will the deal affect coal production worldwide?

This agreement is likely to add to several existing trends to undermine coal demand and investor and government confidence in coal production. Early estimates suggest that the agreement could cut OECD export credit financing to coal plants by around 80%.

Exceptions and the allowance of funding for efficient technologies undermine the impact of the deal. This is not the end to OECD coal subsidies that many were calling for. But in any case, it is a significant step in the right direction. Ultra-supercritical plants are both more expensive in up-front costs and more efficient in their coal usage, meaning that the agreement is likely to result in reduced demand for thermal coal.

The deal could undermine up to 850 coal plant projects that were previously eligible for subsidies.

This adds to a number of other factors, including the plummeting price of renewable energy sources such as solar PV, which will work to constrain worldwide coal demand and production in the coming years.

Could it affect coal production in Australia?

This agreement will add to other structural changes that are undermining the feasibility of new coal mine construction and expansion in Australia. Australia is already likely going to need to prematurely retire some thermal coalmining assets due to overinvestment during the mining boom.

Two of Australia’s largest export markets, India and China, have plans in place to limit thermal coal imports and prioritise domestic coal use over the coming years.

A successful Paris agreement would likely further compound this restriction in coal export demand and strengthen the case for limiting coal mine construction and expansion in Australia.

This agreement contributes to a number of growing forces which all have one clear signal: the future of coal production in Australia is bleak.

The Conversation

Luke Kemp, Lecturer and PhD Candidate in International Relations and Environmental Policy, Australian National University

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

Desert farms could power flight with sunshine and seawater


John Mathews

The aviation industry is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011 aviation contributed around 3% of Australia’s emissions. Despite improvements in efficiency, global aviation emissions are expected to grow 70% by 2020 from 2005. While the industry is seeking new renewable fuel sources, growing biofuels takes up valuable land and water that could be otherwise used to grow food.

But what if you could grow biofuels on land nobody wants, using just seawater and sunlight, and produce food at the same time?

That’s just what a new project in Abu Dhabi is seeking to do. The Integrated Seawater Energy and Agriculture System, or ISEAS, will grow sustainable food and aviation fuel in the desert, using seawater and sunshine, in a way that is eminently transferable to similar arid regions around the world.

The project was announced in January 2015 and is now under construction.

So, how does the project solve the biggest environmental problems?

A triple dilemma

Energy, water and food problems frequently compound each other, each making the others more difficult to resolve.

Examples abound: think of wasteful irrigation coming up against water limits and threatening reductions in food production. But there are some projects that turn the issue around and bring water, energy and food issues into positive relations, each strengthening the others.

One example of this is the Sundrop Farms project in South Australia, on which I previously wrote on The Conversation, where abundant sunshine and seawater are used to produce electric power and fresh water to cultivate greenhouse crops like tomatoes.

The Sundrop Farms project is moving ahead, and has won substantial financial support from the global venture capital firm KKR in addition to its earlier support from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, as well as a contract to supply fresh produce to supermarket chain Coles over the next ten years.

The Abu Dhabi project is even more ambitious and is called “seawater farming”. It involves the use of salt-tolerant plants like mangroves and the oil-rich Salicornia as well as aquaculture of seafood such as shrimps and fish.

Salicornia is a salt-loving plant that doesn’t mind getting wet.
Cristiano Cani/Flickr, CC BY

The project was developed through the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium in Abu Dhabi. It involves as partners the airline Etihad Airways, the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (from the UAE), as well as corporate giants Boeing, General Electric and UOP Honeywell. These corporations provide the funding and a potentially (vast) market.

The idea is to rapidly scale up various options for securing the biomass and complementing it with associated activities to generate a closed loop operation.

How does it work?

First, seawater is used in aquaculture ponds, where (2) fish and/or shrimp varieties can be grown (= food). Then (3) the wastewater from the aquaculture, which is rich in organic nutrients, is used to irrigate a salt-tolerant crop of Salicornia.

This crop is harvested (4) and the oil extracted from the seeds (= aviation biofuel). Water is then drained from the salt-tolerant crops (5) and fed into a mangrove wetland, where it is naturally purified and carbon can be sequestered (6).

Outside this sequence there is solar energy input to drive the crop production and energy production needed for pumping.

A chart of the process is shown here:


ISEAS

Solving complex problems

The project solves the problem of waste disposal with fish farming (aquaculture) by channelling the organic wastes as irrigation to act as fertiliser for the cultivation of the Salicornia plants. The Salicornia plants themselves (known as halophytes, or salt-resistant species) need only the seawater and grow on arid land.

The project eliminates the problem with most biofuels that they are perceived as taking away water and arable land that could be used for food production. Instead the Abu Dhabi project produces fuel and food and recycles everything.

The current pilot farm is entirely closed-loop, with the seawater drawn originally from the ocean passing through the various stages and finally fed to mangrove plantations. The water is filtered through the mangroves, extracting the final nutrients, and the water can either be fed back to the ocean or recycled to the fish farms. All energy used (such as for pumping the water) is generated with a solar array – so there is no fossil fuel input at all.

The project is achieving remarkable success because it is backed financially by large players – Etihad itself as the principal airline, the Masdar Institute of S&T, and corporate giants like Boeing.

The project will scale up quickly. The pilot project is a plant covering 2 hectares, but in three years it is expected to grow to a 200 ha demonstration scale involving around 140 ha for the Salicornia cultivation, 30 ha for the aquaculture and 20 ha or more for the mangrove plantation.

Could Australia do the same?

Australia is a country with vast arid areas, copious quantities of seawater and sunshine – all the ingredients needed for a similar solar biofuel and food project.

It has a national air carrier in Qantas that has already experimented with various kinds of aviation biofuels. It has a national R&D organization in CSIRO that could organize such a project.

Australia has long experience in development of agricultural models that can cope with high salinity levels. There is a strong research tradition cultivated in West Australia with the CRC for Plant-based Management of Dryland Salinity and its successor the Future Farm Industries CRC – which had to close its doors in mid-2014 for lack of continued support.

Such a project would produce food, both for domestic consumption and export; it would produce aviation biofuel and help restore a fuel processing value chain and again a domestic as well as an export product; and it would utilise water in a way that can promote a means of halting desertification and restoring fertility in arid areas. It is a big idea for a big country.

The Conversation

John Mathews is Professor of Strategic Management, Macquarie Graduate School of Management at Macquarie University.

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