From the Fabius Maximus website, By Larry Kummer
Summary: The news media overflows with scary stories as we approach November’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. The latest are fears about the coal apocalypse, based on forecasts that the fuel of the 21st Century will be that of the 19th C: coal. This is the basis for the IPCC’s projections. Like most aspects of climate modeling, these tales are often told with undeserved certainty — and omit mention of the contrary case (or that there is a contrary case).
The IPCC’s ominous projections assume that we will burn off almost all of Earth’s fossil fuel reserves, especially its massive reserves of coal. As David Rutledge (Prof Engineering, Caltech) explains:
“Now that Working Group 3 has put its chapters on line, all six thousand pages of the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report have arrived. Coal is the specter that looms.
“In the IPCC’s business-as-usual scenario, Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5, coal accounts for half of future carbon-dioxide emissions through 2100, and two-thirds of the emissions through 2500. The IPCC’s coal burn is enormous, twice the world reserves by 2100, and seven times reserves by 2500. Coal so dominates that it is not an exaggeration to say that the IPCC and climate-change research programs depend on this massive coal burn for their existence. Without the threat of coal, the IPCC could close up shop and the research program funding would drop to a small fraction of what is spent on research in weather forecasting.”
The following graph shows this scenario for 21st Century energy use, from “RCP 8.5: A scenario of comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions” by Keywan Riahi et al in Climate Change, November 2011. See how the dark stain of coal use grows, reversing the past 3 centuries of evolution to more efficient energy sources.
The IPCC foresees a hot dirty future for the world, in which coal use increases to become the major source of power for the world.
There is an analytical basis for these forecasts in papers such as “Drivers for the renaissance of coal” by Jan Christoph Steckel et al in the Proceedings of the National Academies, predicting that coal use will increase not just in China and India, but also poor fast-growing countries. Popular articles push this story in articles such as “There are 2,100 new coal plants being planned worldwide — enough to cook the planet” by Brad Plumer at Vox.
The IPCC’s projections assume no decarbonization of world power sources from new technology (solar, wind, and perhaps fusion) or regulations (to reduce not just climate change but also air pollution and toxic waste produced by mining and burning this dirtiest of major energy sources). It’s not as certain as we’re told.
The rest of the story
The IPCC’s projections might be wrong if 2012 was the start of a new trend: world coal consumption fell by 98 million short tons, 1.2% (typically climate stories would translate that into a meaningless statistic, in terms of the height of the Empire State Building, or energy consumed by a Paris home in a century).
World coal consumption peaked in 2011. North American use peaked in 2005; 2012 was down an astonishing 21% since then (USA use in Q1 2015 was -24% from Q1 2005). Europe peaked in 2007, after 6 of its 9 largest consumers peaked: UK and Poland in 2006; Czech, Germany, and Greece in 2007; and Turkey in 2011. Africa peaked in 2008 and Asia in 2011.
History shows that as poor nations grow into the middle income brackets, people become willing to pay for a cleaner environment. That means regulations on the mining and burning of coal, which raises its cost (in the US perhaps going to uneconomic levels). We see the first signs of that now in India and China, although the IPCC’s projections don’t.
China has been the largest driver of global commodity consumption, including coal. Excluding China, world coal use is flat for 5 years, up only 13% for 10 years, and up only 7% in the previous 25 years. A March report by the Sierra Club describes the situation:
“From 2005 to 2012, worldwide coal-fired generating capacity boomed, growing at three times the previous pace. The increase in the global coal fleet was twice the size of the entire existing U.S. coal fleet. That boom is now busting. In India, projects shelved or cancelled since 2012 outnumber project completions by six to one, and new construction initiations are at a near-standstill. In both Europe and the U.S., the coal fleet is shrinking, with retirements outnumbering new plants. China faces a looming glut in coal-fired generating capacity, with plant utilization rates at a 35-year low.”
China cleaning up, shifting away from coal
China has shown little concern about climate change, but air pollution from coal is a major public policy problem. “The cost of China’s reliance on coal: 670,000 smog-related deaths a year“. “Beijing to Shut All Major Coal Power Plants to Cut Pollution“. There are headlines like this every month, as public pressure grows for drastic action.
The Sierra Club report describes this and other reasons for China’s shift away from coal:
“Within China, the following policy trends are playing a significant role in determining future coal capacity: (1) Small Plant Replacement Policy, (2) air pollution mitigation, (3) economic restructuring, (4) expanding renewable, gas, nuclear, and hydro power sources, (5) climate policies, (6) energy efficiency initiatives, and (7) shifts in the regional distribution of generating capacity.”
Of course, alarmists have swung into action to minimize the significance of this: “China’s CO2 emissions have been plummeting lately. What’s going on?” by Brad Plummer at Vox.
More good news
Has the IPCC underestimated the improvements during the next 20 years? That would drastically change their forecasts for the 2nd half of the century. For example, use of solar and wind is skyrocketing as these technologies improve. Even more important, we’re using energy more efficiently — as shown in this graph of energy efficiency from the World Bank. We’ve improved much in a mere 7 years, with great potential for the future.
GDP per kilogram of oil equivalent of energy use
More speculatively, new tech to produce energy might lie in our future. There are dozens of advanced nuclear and fusion projects under development. A new report by Third Way describes what’s happening…
“The American energy sector has experienced enormous technological innovation over the past decade in everything from renewables (solar and wind power), to extraction (hydraulic fracturing), to storage (advanced batteries), to consumer efficiency (advanced thermostats). What has gone largely unnoticed is that nuclear power is poised to join the innovation list.
“A new generation of engineers, entrepreneurs and investors are working to commercialize innovative and advanced nuclear reactors. … Third Way has found that there are nearly 50 companies, backed by more than $1.3 billion in private capital, developing plans for new nuclear plants in the U.S. and Canada. The mix includes startups and big-name investors like Bill Gates, all placing bets on a nuclear comeback, hoping to get the technology in position to win in an increasingly carbon-constrained world.”
Global coal consumption has been volatile over time, so we should not rejoice yet. These ominous IPCC projections rely on a large-scale shift of the world’s power generation mix to coal, and a massive rise in power use. Current trends show that neither of these is inevitable. Even if the major climate models have the science right (a large assumption), many of the inputs are little more than guesses.
This doesn’t mean that we should close our eyes and rely on hope. We need to prepare for extreme outcomes. But there are many threats in addition to climate change. For example, our destruction of the oceans is a serious and imminent threat (details are here and here). We need to allocate spending by an overall risk assessment, not by what special interest group generates the most fear in the public.
However there are logical measures that should command support of Right and Left (and so both sides ignore them). Increased funding for and supervision of climate research (e.g., our satellite sensors are inadequate and aging). A massive increase in energy research and development, to provide ample, cheap, clean energy for the future. Most important, prepare for reoccurrences of past extreme weather (hurricanes hitting east coast cities, decade-long droughts in the southwest).
“We don’t even plan for the past.”
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