Flat White

Blah, blah, blah – and then you’re broke

26 October 2021

6:44 PM

26 October 2021

6:44 PM

Your correspondent is now a climate commentator. Self-identifying is accepted methodology. 

If you were even half sensible you would stop reading now to go and read Numbers Don’t Lie: 71 Things You Need to Know About the World (2020) by Distinguished Professor Emeritus Vaclav Smil. He has done the maths. 

I don’t know anything about the climate but that never stopped anyone. In the strict academic sense of the word, this article is bullshit. But with climate commentary that is not a metric from which any conclusions may be drawn. 

In reality, I will just copy and paste an outdated graphic from ourworldindata.org, pick one number, misquote it and go on to make a preformed political point using, as a rhetorical device, a complex geophysical system about which I know nothing. The rest is also just stuff I found on the internet. That seems to be the general approach of climate commentators; so here goes.

It is certain that the planet’s atmosphere is warming as it has been for 12,000 years. Even assuming all warming since 1800 is anthropogenic, Australia is currently responsible for about 1% of global CO2 emissions. 

Australia could cut CO2 emissions to zero and it would, at best, slow global warming by 1%. 

Significant cuts to CO2 emissions will cause economic and social dislocations, unknowable in form or magnitude, even if real GDP is maintained. As always, any detriment will fall disproportionately on the already disadvantaged and the young. I will call that Hawke’s Law to honour a political hero. 

Every Australian government is haemorrhaging cash at wartime levels with stonking deficits lined up to the horizon. Most Australians are heavily indebted. Our financial system depends on maintaining house and iron ore prices. Our population is ageing. Having crawled out of the GFC the global monetary system and physical economy have experienced a severe shock from covid-19. The geopolitical situation is the most unstable for a generation. 

The Liberal Party wants net-zero emissions by 2050 with no plan on how to build it, pay for it or whether it will achieve any measurable atmospheric benefit. The Labor Party wants that too and for us all to buy Teslas; as if buying a new car is going to save the planet. 

China, the United States, the European Union, Russia, India and Japan are responsible for two-thirds of global emissions. They are the only jurisdictions that can do anything meaningful about emissions because physics. 

Europe, Japan and the US reduced their emissions by exporting them to China. China’s emissions are still growing though at a slowing rate. India is likely only getting started. 

If African nations industrialise—why shouldn’t they?—it must be through fossil fuels. There is no other affordable way even where geography permits hydro-generation. There are 1.2 billion people in Africa. 

An energy increase, not reduction, is needed. Globally, 3 billion people already suffer energy shortage. Sufficient energy supplies must be maintained to house, clothe, feed and transport a population of 7.9 billion, expected to peak around 9.6 billion in the 2060s. 

Just the global CO2 emissions needed to transform the existing fossil fuel infrastructure to renewable infrastructure dwarfs anything Australia could achieve by cutting emissions. All solutions demand global scale civil engineering and that needs correspondingly large CO2 emissions. 

The intermittency of wind and solar generation means large scale and scalable backup generation and storage capacity is also required. 

Steel is humanity’s most valuable material. Almost all modern artefacts incorporate it—including all wind, solar and hydro installations. Steel also has a finite service life and all steel structures must ultimately be replaced. Current technology does not permit cheap steel without CO2 emissions. 

Fossil fuels permeate every aspect of food and energy supply chains and in many situations, there is no substitute. 

Energy efficiency will assist at the margins but is not a solution. 

If there is to be a global energy transformation the engineering problems must be solved and then it must all be built at an affordable cost. Australia’s most practical contribution would be to use its high-quality coal, iron ore, natural gas and uranium to drive the transformation to lower- and zero-emission generation. 

Australia has a lot of advantages: 

  • we’ll sell to anyone openly and competitively 
  • reliable, efficient and environmentally responsible mining companies 
  • a well-regulated financial system 
  • an independent judiciary and contractual enforceability (except Western Australia) 
  • large scale existing mining and export infrastructure with the embedded-CO2 already emitted 
  • Australian black coal is almost pure anthracite—its substitution for lower quality coal in the world’s existing coal infrastructure would reduce future emissions 
  • abundant high-quality iron ore and natural gas 
  • one-third of the world’s uranium reserves and Australia already accounts for 10% of global production. 

But even if Australia does not exploit any of those advantages; Australia’s tiny share of global emissions means the prudent course is to wait for the big emitters to reduce their emissions and, if they succeed, copy their approaches. On the climate timescale, Australia waiting a few decades to cherry-pick other countries’ successes and avoid their failures does not matter. 

Hawke’s Law is right though. That isn’t bullshit. 

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