Climate catastrophe or inevitable after COP26?

Train in flood

Often during the last twenty years, climate activists have had high hopes that humanity will avert a climate catastrophe.

Thousands of scientists warned us not once, not twice but four times – in 1992,2017, 2019 and 2021. On each occasion it was that humanity was on a collision course with nature.

A search on “climate action” yields 26 million results. There are climate action groups all over the world. Even in New Zealand with a population of 5 million, there is a Climate Action Network comprising major groups like 350.0rg, Gen Zero etc. In 2017, former Green Party leader Jeanette Fitzsimons got 3000 people to sign Our Climate Declaration. Now we have Extinction Rebellion and a myriad of local groups to add to this list.

Various IPCC reports have warned us how urgent this all is.

Political interference again

COP26 is now just days away.  The Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC was compiled by thousands of scientists. But BBC revealed a leak that “Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.”  The leak also revealed Argentina, Norway and Opec talking up the possibility of CCS (carbon capture storage). They want to emit in the hopes that new technologies will capture their carbon from the atmosphere. IPCC scientists doubt that technology is good enough.

There was still some hope in 2015 with the Paris Agreement. In 2018 the IPCC warned there was just a decade to get climate change under control.  They warned “emissions would have to be on an extremely steep downward path by 2030 to either hold the world entirely below 1.5 degrees Celsius, or allow only a brief “overshoot” in temperatures.” But emissions kept rising.

In the US, Democrat Senator Joe Manchin is blocking effective action on climate. Not surprisingly he is a recipient of fossil fuel money. The Guardian reports, “In the current electoral cycle, Manchin has received more in political donations from the oil and gas industry than any other senator, more than double the second largest recipient.”

In Brazil Bolsonaro has presided over the destruction of about 10,000 square miles of the Amazon rainforest, one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet. The destruction started around 2002 but was slowing down at the time Bolsonaro became president in 2019. By July 2021 the Amazon, instead of being a carbon sink, has become a carbon source.

So when COP26 fails are we to blame Mohammed bin Salman, Bolsonaro, Scott Morrison and Joe Manchin?

Five years ago a Pakistani delegate on his way to COP21 in Paris,  Adil Najam wrote in the Guardian, “I am not a cynic – just old. Old enough to remember the dashed hopes of Kyoto (COP 3, 1997), the purposeful energy of Berlin (COP 1, 1995), the naïve optimism of Rio de Janeiro in 1992 where the UN framework convention on climate change (UNFCCC) was first adopted, and even the calls for urgency when the negotiation process was first launched by the United Nations in 1990.”

The big emitting countries

China, India, the EU, and the US contributed around 60% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion in 2017. Add  Canada, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Australia and the percentage rises. Few of these apart from some EU countries have reduced emissions since COP25 in 2019.

The UN warned that more than 70 countries are expected to submit revised (stronger) plans to curb emissions before Glasgow. This summit COP26 was originally scheduled for 2020 but because of Covid it is 2021. We are not holding our breath.

Only 113 countries have come up with improved plans so far for COP26. BBC News said, “Analysis of the climate plans submitted so far shows that emissions are actually set to rise by 16% by 2030, which could lead to a temperature rise of 2.7C (4.9F) above pre-industrial levels.”

Hope is fading

Ever since 1992 when UN climate summits started, global emissions have steadily risen. Despite flashes of hope throughout those many years, the relentless upward trend continues. And now that big emitters have signalled their desire to water down ambitions, our hope is fading fast again.

We could spend a great deal of time assigning blame for this succession of failures. We could blame Bolsanaro or Trump, no trouble. After 2015 the Bolivian president was one of many low emitting nations to blame capitalism.

Political tensions add to the roadblocks for COP26, with President Joe Biden stepping up the rhetoric on Taiwan, angering China. Russia hasn’t had its natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 approved by all the European nations yet. So Putin may be punishing them by sending them less gas. Or else Russia simply needs the gas now for their own domestic purposes.

Then there is the problem of not transitioning to renewables early enough. After shutting its nuclear plants and setting up wind farms Germany has had to return to gas fired electricity generation when the wind died down. So it is experiencing high natural gas prices (they are now six times higher than at the beginning of the year). This in turn is leading to high power prices.

Britain is also coping with Brexit, a truck driver shortage and a natural gas shortage. There are going to be many Europeans and English people shivering this coming winter.

The outlook in northern China is bleak. They are paying the price for not transitioning to renewables in time. Their coal prices have soared and their coal mines have been flooded more than once. And this is at the time that Xi Jinping has decreed that coal usage must reduce in order to meet their climate goals.

Transitioning to renewables anywhere will not be smooth or easy and anyway renewables are less energy intense than fossil fuels.  In America coal fired power generation is on the rise because of high natural gas prices.

While there is a tiny chance significant progress could be made, given the difficulty of transitioning to renewables together with the interference by nations dependent on fossil fuels, it is more likely that COP26 will fail. 

 

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

Renewables – can we ever get there – when energy and climate clash

Hydrolakes in Aotearoa/New Zealand have had many years of low rainfall, but it is now happening more frequently. In dry years we revert to coal generation, making the transition to renewables harder.

When New Zealand hydroelectric power stations ran low last summer, we beefed up electricity generation with another coal fired unit in Huntly. Environmentalists were shocked. How was New Zealand going to meet its climate targets now?

Genesis Energy had planned to close Huntly station in 2018 but is still using it. Greenpeace has wanted it shut for years. The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal. As Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel. RNZ reported that more coal was burned in the 2021 March quarter than each of the years 2016, 2017, and 2018.

The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run The Huntly power station was commissioned in 1982 to run on gas and coal. As Māui gas supplies began to run out in the early 2000s, coal increasingly became the major fuel.

Aotearoa/ New Zealand is hooked on coal, importing more than one million tonnes of low-grade coal from Indonesia last year. The fuel was burnt at the Huntly to keep the lights on, as hydro and gas failed to meet demand.

Due to rising greenhouse gas emissions we are experiencing warmer winters and drier summers.

So will we painlessly transition to renewables as we had hoped? As we face our climate predicament, we have to realise that over 80% of the world’s energy use still comes from fossil fuels. Let that sink in. It’s big. So it’s going to be really hard to wean ourselves off them.

Of course, the low rainfall for our hydropower dams was not new. But climate change is going to make matters worse decade by decade.

Perhaps many thought then we were the only country having to revert back to fossil fuels.

Far from it. And it is often happening because an extreme weather event cut hydropower generation.

Due to rising coal prices and power rationing, there are power cuts in China, leaving families in the dark

It is happening elsewhere but sometimes it is accompanied by geopolitical tensions as well. Southern China for instance, when its hydropower capacity ran low after droughts, reverted to coal. And this happened at the same time as China, angry at Australia’s support for an enquiry in the Wuhan Covid origins, stopped importing Australian coal.

In Europe there has been a big move towards renewables, with wind and solar beefing up. But solar and wind are intermittent and less reliable. Wind comprised 27% of Germany’s generation mix in 2020. But this all changed in 2021 when the winds died down and the percentage of the total generation dropped to 22%. So they had to revert to natural gas. A great deal of their gas came from Russia. Over the last decade the EU has imported more and more gas from Russia as their own gas ran out. Gas prices have skyrocketed along with electricity prices.

The apparent reluctance of Russia to release gas at the onset of winter has been attributed by many commentators to its desire to put pressure on the remaining EU countries to approve the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany. Nord Stream 2 is a twin pipeline under the Baltic Sea. It had already cost US$11 billion and was ready to go. Eastern European Countries like Ukraine and Poland and the Baltic States withheld approval for two reasons. 1) Because Russia had annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 leaving 14,000 dead over seven bitter years and 2)because they feared it would give Russia too much leverage over EU and Putin too much power.

As the price of natural gas rises, so does electricity. The TV agency WION reports (28 Sept 2021) that electricity prices are spiralling out of control in France (up 149%), Spain (up 250%, UK 298%, Germany (up 119%) and the situation will get worse as winter closes in. Governments are already warning of blackouts and factories will be forced to shut down. Inflation has already arrived.

They finish by saying, “European countries are going to learn just how much their economies are reliant on natural gas.”

Brazil has also had to ramp up its gas fired generation after a bad drought.

Energy and Climate Clash in China

There is also the move from high energy coals to lower energy coals. In Northern China where coal mines were flooded in an extreme weather event in May 2021, they had to move quickly to find other coal sources for electricity. In early October 2021 a heavy downpour in China shut down 27 coal mines. So Chinese officials have ordered more than 70 mines in Inner Mongolia to ramp up coal production.

At the other extreme there is growing demand for air conditioning. CNBC said Japan, China and South Korea had extremely hot weather so the demand for power rose.

As if all this weren’t enough as the global mega-economy gets more and more complex, we just need more and more electricity.  Despite a slight drop during Covid, by July 2021 a headline reported the International Energy Agency saying, “Global electricity demand is growing faster than renewables, driving strong increase in generation from fossil fuels.”

Oh yes that’s because we have to have economic growth at all costs. More, more, more as comedian John Clarke says. Everything flows from growth as he says.

Smooth transitioning to renewables is looking a great deal more difficult than we ever imagined.

At a time when climate induced droughts, extreme precipitation and heat waves are disrupting hydropower generation and storage all over the world, governments are reverting to some form of fossil fuel to generate their electricity. And this all comes at a time when electricity from air conditioning and gas or power to heat homes is under pressure. Even if Europe and UK insist they want to meet their climate targets at COP26, politicians will be faced with the alternative of leaving their families in the dark without cooking facilities – or effective climate action.

Politicians want to get re-elected. That’s why my bet is that they will choose to care for their citizens and to try to ensure its factories don’t close down through lack of electricity. China has already stated its power rationing is in order to keep its climate targets and doesn’t seem to have a renewable alternative.

And all this is without ever discussing the physics or the geology of it all. For a start fossil fuels are used in the production of solar and wind power. Secondly the energy return on energy invested for solar and wind is much less than with oil, coal, diesel or gas leaving less for the economy. Thirdly there is matter of the metals required.

Are there enough metals to transition to renewables?

Professor Simon Michaux of the Geological Survey of Finland has done a remarkable study of the probable  metals  required for all the batteries for all the vehicles involved worldwide and his answer in the case of cobalt, nickel, graphite and lithium is a loud NO. He says,

“The current system was built with the support of the highest calorifically dense source of energy the world has ever known (oil), in cheap abundant quantities, with easily available credit, and seemingly unlimited mineral resources. The replacement needs to be done at a time when there is comparatively very expensive energy, a fragile finance system saturated in debt, not enough minerals, and an unprecedented world population, embedded in a deteriorating natural environment. Most challenging of all, this has to be done within a few decades. “

The zen riddle for our Government is will they recognise the predicament we are in or will they opt for Business As Usual, thereby disappointing millions of climate activists once again? In my view COP26, like 25 other COPs before it, will fail once again and to a few it will be no surprise. But they might just entertain a fleeting thought…”If only….”

 Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail