The immense opportunity of climate change

Dealing with climate change has always felt like a slog. Like we need to take our medicine in order to fight off calamity. In some respects this is correct, especially for countries without access to a lot of low-emissions power.

But reading Superpower by Ross Garnaut makes me realise that there is a huge opportunity. Especially for countries with access to large quantities of wind, solar, hydro and tidal power.

…Australia’s resource base placed it well for the energy transition: it had a wide range of high-quality renewable energy resources and economically favourable opportunities for geosequestration of emissions from traditional coal and gas generation… Australia’s hydro-electric resources and potential for pumped hydro-electric storage (PHS) in the Snowy Mountains and Tasmania, and perhaps its proximity to the immense hydro-electricity resources on the island of New Guinea, would play big roles in balancing solar and wind….

There’s already a company raising funds to supply a fifth of Singapore’s energy via an undersea cable from a solar farm in Australia.

But Garnaut goes further, pointing out that the more other countries put a price on carbon, the greater advantage there is for a country with Australia’s capacity to generate low-emissions electricity.

A price on embedded carbon would make imports from polluting industries and countries more expensive.

Australia is the largest exporter in the world of mineral ores requiring energy-intensive processing for conversion into metals. Australia in the post-carbon world could become the locus of energy-intensive processing of minerals for use in countries with inferior renewable energy resource endowments. Second, there are opportunities for export of hydrogen produced by electrolysis from renewable energy, through liquefaction or through ammonia as a hydrogen carrier. The natural markets are the renewable-energy-resource-poor countries of Asia, notably Japan and Korea.

Tackling climate change could move Australia up the industrial stack. It could rejuvenate manufacturing, countering some of the advantages of automation, geography and low cost labour. It should even benefit regional areas, as manufacturing is located near power generation.

But, most importantly, this isn’t just an argument for investment in renewable energy. Countries like Australia have a clear incentive to encourage everyone to cap, price and reduce emissions, to invest in moonshot technologies.

The more action on climate change the more competitive we become.

Tab dump

Tab dump

Are there fundamental limits?

Looking through history, especially the history of thought, you often come across pronouncements of profound limitations. Only for a paradigm shift to leave these notions in the dust.

The “Malthusian Trap” may be the best example of this. It shows how easy it is to get caught in modern paradigms, extrapolating only from what is currently possible or emphasised.

But are these limits always transitory, or can they actually be more fundamental?

I’ve been wondering this after a recent interview where Vaclav Smil posits that we are on the cusp of the limits of energy efficiency:

If you look at the fundamentals of human existence, the yield of crops, the energy which we save by making materials, the energy we save by making better converters, no matter if it’s turbines, or cars, all these things which run our economy are basically improving at a rate of one, or two, or at best about 3 percent a year…

It’s actually becoming more and more difficult to wring out even those 3 percent, because there are many things here. We are approaching thermodynamic or straight pneumatic limits with many of these things. This idea of dematerialization, decreasing the energy intensity — fine, you can keep doing it, but you cannot do it forever. If I built a house, I can make it lighter, but I will still need some steel, some lumber, some tiles, some glass. I cannot make it not using material. This is another kind of false god — dematerialization and decrease of energy efficiency. Energy efficiency is helpful, it’s happening all the time, but it has its own thermodynamic and material limits.

Can we simply innovate our way past continued consumption growth and trust compounding efficiency to make up the difference? Or are we up against something more fundamental?

(My emphasis)

Climate coverage isn’t just about prevention

Building my daily news emails, it’s staggering the dearth of good climate coverage. It’s few and far between, and much of what exists is caught up in prevention.

Absolutely we need to reduce emissions and avoid 2 degrees. But we have also already locked in a certain amount of pain that will need to be managed.

This is especially true in countries like Sri Lanka that have (relatively) negligible per person emissions and little scope for further reduction. Many of these areas will also bear the brunt, thanks to geography and economics etc.

One example of it being done well is The Guardian reporting on a heatwave that shut down some Scottish distilleries for up to a month last year. The quotes towards the end suggest this is just the beginning of a shift.

Experts fear that last year’s conditions may not be unusual in future. This week the environment agency is hosting a “drought summit” in London with water company bosses, as fears grow over similar temperatures this summer. Research has shown that last summer’s heatwave was made about 30 times more likely by the human-caused climate emergency. Some estimate that such heatwaves could be happening every other year by 2050 if emissions continue to increase…

…Helen Gavin, who researches climate breakdown and drought at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, said such extreme events place stress on the environment and the economy. “There’s an impact already,” she said. “It’s not just hot and dry summers, but strange weather like we’ve just had – 18C in February, that’s just weird. And that messes up biological and agricultural cycles.”

This isn’t isolated. And, interestingly, some distilleries appear to have foreseen and planned for this. That can be replicated as long as the problem is made salient.

Around the world we’re already seeing the impact of increased climate variability in droughts, floods, heatwaves etc. We have to start dealing with it, and that means drawing attention to the increased probability of weather events.

It means highlighting what policy makers should do about city planning and building codes, helping people and businesses that are disproportionately affected, sorting out food and other supplies etc. etc.

We have to stop treating the 2 degree limit as if it’s the finish line of a race that hasn’t started.

As usually my emphasis