Thoughtful, Insightful, Intelligent Commentary

Stefan Rahmstorf has written a commentary in the Sydney Morning Herald urging Australians to step up on emissions cuts. It’s one of the most intelligent and persuasive such commentaries I’ve seen.

We’ve known that climate change is a problem for 50 years. As Rahmstorf says,

It’s now half a century since the first official scientific report, published in November 1965 by scientific advisors to US President Lyndon Johnson, warned that rising greenhouse gas emissions would cause global warming that “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings”. The predictions of that report, based on sound physical science, have turned out to be true. And despite myriad entrenched vested interests worldwide we are finally making headway in moving away from fossil fuels, the root cause of the unfolding climate crisis.

Another crucial point is that switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is not bad for the economy. It’s good for it. One example is Rahmstorf’s homeland, Germany:

My own country, Germany, moved early and wagered much public, private and political capital on a transformation to a modern sustainable economy. Today, our emissions are 27 per cent below 1990 levels while our GDP has almost doubled. The European Union as a whole has likewise grown its economy while reducing its emissions by about a fifth. We’ve effectively debunked the myth that reducing emissions harms the economy. Innovation and ingenuity seldom do.

And it’s not just a European story.

There’s more to learn from his essay. Did you know, for instance, that we spend $500 billion a year looking for new fossil fuels? If we invested that in renewable energy instead, we’d be well on the way to reversing the trend toward climate chaos.

I suggest you read his essay and take it to heart. It’s one of the few pieces on climate change that I have actually found encouraging.

26 responses to “Thoughtful, Insightful, Intelligent Commentary

  1. “And despite myriad entrenched vested interests worldwide we are finally making headway in moving away from fossil fuels, the root cause of the unfolding climate crisis.”

    We are not. CO2 rises more than ever. Fossil fuel bought ministers, cabinets are in general take-over (most recently Ireland and Britain).

    “… we spend $500 billion a year looking for new fossil fuels? If we invested that in renewable energy instead, we’d be well on the way to reversing the trend toward climate chaos.”

    But we don’t invest.
    There will be no decrease in CO2 growth, let alone decrease in CO2 absolute, for the foreseeable future.
    So societies will cease to exist, like Vanautu’s this year, like Syria past few years, like Yemen’s as we speak. In these countries there is no climate debate, there is only battle for survival and resources. That is our future.

    • You are too pessimistic. So far, it is true, there is no evidence of a slowdown in global emissions–and we just found out yesterday that Chinese emissions had been seriously under-reported for a number of years, amounted to the order of a billion more tons out of the remaining global carbon budget.

      Yet Canada rejected Stephen Harper decisively, in part because he had come to be seen as science-denying, and will now join the US as a newly-helpful presence at COP 21. Australian Liberals dumped the execrable Tony Abbott in favor of a leader who will at least moderate their climate obstructionism. And India–potentially the next big threat in emissions–is tempering her intentions to build more coal generating capacity with heavy lashings of solar and wind.

      For, contrary to your statement, we *are* investing pretty heavily in renewables. In 2014, we invested to the tune of $270 billion, according to UNEP:

      The result is that cumulative global installed RE capacity reached 1.8 TW by the end of last year. (Total generation capacity is around 5.5 TW, so renewables now account for upwards of 30% of global capacity.) And better than that, capacity growth continues to follow an accelerating trajectory:

      Click to access IRENA_RE_Capacity_Statistics_2015_slide_deck.pdf

      For wind and solar, there is a ‘virtuous circle’ effect going on, in which increasing deployments spur decreasing costs, leading to yet more deployment. According to IRENA:

      Regional, weighted average costs of electricity from biomass for power, geothermal, hydropower and onshore wind are all now in the range, or even span a lower range, than estimated fossil fuel-fired electricity generation costs. Because of striking LCOE reductions, solar PV costs also increasingly fall within that range.

      Given the installed costs and the performance of today’s renewable technologies, and the costs of conventional technologies, renewable power generation is increasingly competing head-to-head with fossil fuels, without financial support.

      The weighted average LCOE of utility-scale solar PV in China and North America – the world’s two largest power-consuming markets – and in South America, has also now fallen into the range of fossil fuel-fired electricity costs. For utility-scale solar PV projects installed in 2013 and 2014, the weighted average LCOE by region ranged from a low of around USD 0.11 to USD 0.12/kWh (in South and North America, respectively) to over USD 0.31/kWh (in Central America and the Caribbean).

      But for individual projects, the range of costs is much wider. In various countries with good solar resources, projects are now being built with an LCOE of USD 0.08/kWh, while a recent tender in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, resulted in a successful bid for a solar PV power purchase agreement (PPA) for just USD 0.06/kWh, without financial support. Where good resources exist and low-cost financing is available, utility-scale solar PV projects that are now being built (e.g., in Dubai, Chile and other parts of the world) will provide electricity at a lower cost than fossil fuels, without any financial support. PV’s growing competitiveness holds just as true in regions where indigenous fossil fuels are abundant.

      Renewables aren’t the only area of progress, of course. China, in addition to stunning progress in the deployment of renewables, is also adding to her nuclear energy capability significantly. And <a href="; rel="nofollow"energy efficiency continues to make strides, too:

      Energy efficiency investments in the buildings sector totalled between USD 90 billion in 2014. In the electricity sector, energy efficiency has proved critical in flattening electricity consumption in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries, driving utilities to adapt their business models.

      Promoting and expanding energy efficiency markets is a worldwide phenomenon, and EEMR 2015 presents a number of case studies at the national, state and municipal level. These include examinations of Latin America’s two largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, which are looking to efficiency to boost productivity and social development. Energy-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia and the Russian Federation are also increasingly turning to efficiency to increase exports and reduce the costs of growing domestic energy consumption. In addition to national governments, major urban areas such as Tokyo, Seoul and Paris are increasingly enabling energy efficiency investment.

      Overall, I don’t know when the politics last looked better, despite setbacks such as the anti-renewable turn taken by the Cameron government. (Admittedly, ‘improved politics’ is a pretty low bar to clear, as the politics of energy and climate have been fairly dismal most of the time.)

      Am I saying that we are out of the woods? No. Getting close? No. As attentive readers will have noted several paragraphs back, $270 billion invested in RE is still considerably less than the $500 billion Stephan mentioned as being invested in fossil fuel exploration each year. Spending twice as much on investing in a search for yet more ‘energy heroin’ as actually developing and deploying the current leading alternative is clearly an extremely perverse situation that urgently needs to change.

      But at least we’ve picked up our pace significantly started to turn the ship.

    • It remains to be seen if continuing reductions in relative emissions intensity can grow and be sustained sufficiently to result in absolute emissions reductions. Certainly reductions via economic frugality remain so unpopular as to be off every mainstream agenda so aiming for prosperity with ever reducing emissions looks like a reasonable and politically achievable aim.

  2. And the good news in Australia is that Tony Abbott’s demise has been accompanied by a complete change of atmosphere. New PM, Malcolm Turnbull is showing good judgement in lots of ways. Lets hope emissions reduction is one of them.

    • Any ‘straws in the wind’ in that regard? Is he going to attend COP 21 personally, and are there any hints that Australia may bag fewer ‘Fossil of the Day’ awards this time? Crossing my fingers…

  3. I haven’t checked the figures for Germany but in the UK there is a catch.

    Counted on a production basis the UK’s carbon emissions have fallen since 1990. However, when counted on the basis of what we consume the emissions have risen because we now import carbon intensive goods from abroad. The closure of UK steel plants will lower our production emissions further but will cause more carbon dioxide emissions world wide if we import steel from less carbon-efficient plants. (See

    We should cut the consumption of all goods and sevices that produce greenhouse gasses. (including steel, cement, air travel,beef &etc). Mainline economists will tell you this is bad for the economy but it’s difficult to see how they can answer “No” to the question “Is green growth a fantasy?” without drastic changes in our lifestyles.

    I have done some crude calculations here: Corrections welcome.

    • You have definitely a point!

      That’s why i am pleading for a price on GHG emission – extended to the emissions used for imported goods, that haven’t already been taxed appropriately in their country of origin!

      The tax / emission allowance sum can be got back by the manufacturer when exporting. This has the effect, that the exporting industry has no economic disadvantage against countries not taxing emissions. OTOH it gives an incentive for these countries to tax emission, because their exported products will be taxed anyway, and by taxing themselves, they get the money into their own purses (instead that of the importing country).

  4. In other good news, Canada now has a science minister, and also a Ministry of Environment and Climate Change. From a previous government where high-ranking officials thought climate change was a hoax, or wasn’t a big deal, we now have an actual department with the words Climate Change—and this happened on the first day the new PM was sworn in.

    He’s also made sure his new cabinet has a 50-50 male-female split. When asked why, he said, “Because it’s 2015”, which is probably the best three word response from a PM since his father’s (one of our previous PMs) responded with “Just watch me” to a reporter telling him he couldn’t bring in the army to deal with the FLQ (a small proto-terrorist group).

    Hope our new PM continues to carry through with his promises, and have the openness to change his mind on other topics after he considers the evidence.

    • To illustrate how bad the Harper government was on addressing climate change, a Federal Finance Dept. document from June 30 of this year details how little the Cons had done to address CO2 reductions:

      The Cons knew all along that they would not meet even their own ridiculous target of a 17% reduction below 2005 levels by 2020, much less 30% by 2030, which would be only slightly below 1990 levels, the base line year used by practically everyone else:

      It was a Con job all along.

  5. There is no good news from Australia. That cabinet is property of the coal industry and will remain so during this new PM.
    Sorry – everyone, not just me, could have known that in September; in fact I simply, brutally assume everyone knew, including you, John. So why the hopeful remark, beats me entirely.
    Turnbull has explicitly and repeatedly said he would continue Abbott’s climate sabotage policies. Coal holds the true power.

  6. I think you’re misreading Malcolm Turnbull, cRR. He lost the leadership of the coalition party when they were still in opposition because of his stance on climate change. Since then he has never changed his tune; he’s always believed in the importance of doing something about climate change. In the recent move to get rid of Tony Abbott, to get the numbers he apparently had to make promises to the Nationals, who are in a coalition with the Liberals (conservatives; not to be confused with “liberal” in the US sense) and are a bunch of deniers. He made promises that he would not make changes to their current “direct action” policy on carbon emissions. He’s a bit hamstrung in how much he can do because of that deal, but I think he will try to find a way to tweak the policy to improve it or increase the reduction targets without appearing to break his promise and upsetting the Nationals. Anyway the elections here are possibly less than a year away, so I’m sure that if nothing has been done with regards to that pitiful “direct action”_ which is nothing more than wishful thinking, offering a big pot of money to polluters in the hope that it will tempt them to reduce their emissions, but no penalties for any who chose to do BAU _ he will take it to the electors and try to get a mandate to reverse the current policy and go for a price on carbon, which most economists think is the best option. We can only hope. But I have faith in him.

  7. Denmark is a small country, but its policies have inspired others. In June a “center”-right government was elected.
    It has lowered Denmark’s climate targets, and plans to significantly reduce money spent on climate related projects and energy research.

  8. Sorry to be OT, but the Exxon post comments are now closed.

    New York State Attorney General now investigating Exxon

  9. excuse me, i’m not on the subject..

    I search a graph you publish. it show in the same temperature year La nina and El-nino , also the mean. You explain difference between La-nina et El-nino year. Can help me ?


  10. Faith based politics, Jp?

  11. Jean-Luc–much of the world’s tropical temperature is controlled by the surface temperature of the Pacific Ocean. Normally trade winds blow from east to west across the Pacific and move surface waters from South America to pile up near New Guinea. This piles up the heated surface water, making a thick warm layer of about 30degC. Cooler subsurface water upwells in the east, about 24degC. During a La Nina year, the trade winds blow harder, piling the warmest waters into a smaller area. Since the surface area of 30 degree water is smaller, the average global temperature is cooler.

    During an el Nino year, the trade winds fail and the warm water that is being dynamically held in the west slides back across the Pacific, covering over the cooler water and vastly increasing the surface area of 30 degree water. This greatly increases the average global temperature during an el Nino year.

  12. Is it possible that in the early 1970’s fossil fuel interests saw an opportunity arise to discredit an existing, science based concern, as raised by President Johnson’s advisors in 1965 that too much fossil fuel burning would warm the world and be deleterious? A bit paranoid, given cooling concerns were also based around excess pollution from, also, fossil fuel burning, probably, yet given the historically foresighted behaviour of leadership within some major corporations to shape public opinion to their long term advantage I retain a small bit of suspicion.

    • If they were really all that foresighted, would they still be in the fossil business?

      • They are still aren’t they? The tipping point where the big end of town bails out – presumably leaving legal liabilities behind – may be approaching but it’s not been reached yet. Coal may go first but gas and oil look like ‘good’ investments with long futures. It would be nice to be wrong – better storage for grids and homes or higher density for electric trucks, cars, trains and planes, or something ‘out there’ like working nantennas would be even nicer.

      • That’s one dimension of what I meant. The other is perhaps too obvious to mention (but I will anyway): the extremely foresighted will choose a business model that leaves society better off over the long-term over one that does the reverse, regardless of whether or not the latter still qualifies as a good investment. Well, unless they are also sociopaths.

  13. Ken Fabian –
    As you undoubtedly know, there was no cooling consensus among scientists in the 1970s.

    Exxon’s climate research was publicly available and antedated the company’s attempts to cast doubt on the science.
    That doesn’t support the idea that the original research was part of a plan to discredit existing evidence.

    • Cosmicomics – Just expressing some of my more suspicious musings out loud, or at least, in public. BTW has National Academies Press managed to get the 1975 US National Academy of Sciences/National Research Council Report “UNDERSTANDING CLIMATE CHANGE: A program for action” available online yet? Seems like an excellent review of what was and wasn’t known about climate change in the 70’s – yet too rarely referenced in my view.

  14. In an earlier comment I noted that the current Danish government plans to reduce future climate related commitments. Despite this, the plans that already are in place should lead to 84% of our electricity and CHP coming from renewable sources in 2020.
    I should also mention that environmental technology now makes up approximately 20% of Danish commodity exports, and that the sector’s growth far exceeds average growth and provides a large number of jobs. The sector organization, Dansk Energi, is a constructive voice in climate and energy discussions, and I’m not aware of any Danish business organization outside of agriculture that plays the destructive role of the corresponding ones in America.

    Globally, the cost of renewable energy continues to fall
    and gives further grounds for optimism:

  15. Ken Fabian,

    Regarding your comment above.

    Coal may go first but gas and oil look like ‘good’ investments with long

    You may be right and Obama has said as much himself but that was before Inside Climate broke the news that ExxonMobil was one of the global leaders of the ecocide industry. Below is a link to their share price over time. For a few weeks after the story broke on Sept 19th or so the share price shot up but in the last 10 days it had a fairly sharp decline. Then this week stabilized around $82. This needs to be driven down to zero….and it can be,{“range”:”6mo”,”allowChartStacking”:true}