Guest essay by Eric Worrall
According to Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith, untold suffering is pretty much locked in, but we won’t have to dismantle Capitalism, because cheap solar energy will soon eliminate the need for fossil fuel.
Worst Case for Climate Change Doesn’t Look Realistic
A major overhaul of energy production is still needed, but not a dismantling of capitalism. By Noah Smith
But a growing chorus of climate scientists and energy policy analysts has begun to question whether the dreaded RCP8.5 scenario should be taken seriously. The scenario assumes that after a brief flirtation with natural gas and renewable energy, the world returns to fueling industrialization primarily with coal. But it seems vanishingly unlikely that the global coal industry will increase sevenfold, as RCP8.5 envisions, even if natural gas proves to be a temporary phenomenon.
First of all, there probably just isn’t that much accessible coal in the ground. Second, burning coal creates air pollution in addition to greenhouse gases, which gives countries an additional incentive to reduce its use. Third, the price of renewables has dropped to the point where building new coal plants is simply not economical in most places. Despite China’s new plants, overall global coal use fell 3% in 2019. India is turning away from coal, and so is Southeast Asia:
And as renewables get cheaper, it will become economical to retire existing coal and gas plants. McKinsey predicts that this will be the case in most of the world by 2030. Banks are already beginning to pull out of the coal-power industry, not because of environmental pressure (since they’re still funding coal for other industrial uses), but because they know there’s just no future in coal plants. Gas won’t be far behind, though a few gas plants will probably remain in service to back up solar plants when the sun isn’t shining.
Now for the bad news: 2.5 degrees of warming will still be catastrophic for many people and countries, and 3 degrees even more so. Heat waves will become unbearable without air conditioning, even in high latitudes. All coral reefs will probably die. Many major cities will be drowned. Even just 2 degrees of warming, which will be exceeded in any business-as-usual scenario, will have very serious global repercussions.
…Read more: https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-12-23/worst-case-for-climate-change-doesn-t-look-realistic
According to author Noah Smith’s bio, he was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, so he probably understands how to do a few financial calculations, but he’s clearly skipped a few steps in this calculation.
The limiting factor of renewable energy is not just the cost of solar and wind installations, its the cost of making renewable energy dispatchable. Most winters in the Northern Hemisphere there are at least a few periods of bitterly cold winter high pressure weather systems, with very little wind over a vast area, and only a few short hours of sunlight to charge the frost covered solar cells.
A “few gas plants” won’t suffice as backup in such conditions, you need backup capacity which can supply 100% of winter peak demand, for at least a few weeks. This implies either a complete duplicate set of fossil fuel power infrastructure, maintained at hot idle until required at who knows what cost, or an enormous battery backup system, topped up by whatever vast additional renewable over-capacity is required to keep the batteries topped up during brief periods of favourable conditions, to cover winter weeks or months when the solar and wind power let you down.
No plausible drop in renewable energy prices can make either of these scenarios affordable in the forseeable future.
As for two degrees making heatwaves unsurvivable, Noah has no idea what he is talking about. One of my first jobs was operating a heavy, hot plate hydraulic press inside a poorly ventilated chemical factory in Australia whose humid, fume filled interior routinely reached 130F / 55C during Summer, for most of the work day. The only thing you needed to do to “survive” this human induced heatwave was to dress lightly and drink rehydration fluid every 5 minutes.
Plenty of people right now, such as bakers, factory workers, miners, laundry workers, machine operators and many others, routinely work in such conditions.
Only people who have studied and worked in air conditioned offices all their life think any plausible heatwave is a major threat to human survival. When climate academics make absurd claims about the terrifying 110+ heatwaves which will make entire nations uninhabitable, they lose the members of the audience who actually experience such conditions on a regular basis in their every day working lives.