Incrementalists ‘Brick It’

Written By: - Date published: 7:00 am, July 16th, 2017 - 10 comments
Categories: capitalism, Environment, global warming, Politics, Propaganda, science, spin - Tags: , , , , ,

I’d characterise incrementalists as people who acknowledge the science and seriousness of global warming, but who maintain it’s possible to use capitalism as a way to counter it. In that vein, we’re talking about such things as getting the right price on carbon, building ‘green’ infrastructure and ‘green’ growth, developing ‘utopian’ technology (eg Bio-Energy Carbon Storage and Capture) and whatever. But we’re most certainly not talking of asking any fundamental questions about the socio-economic paradigms that have shaped and that continue to shape the world we live in.

‘Bricking it’ is when you shit your pants with fear btw. I don’t know if it’s a Kiwi expression, so I’m just explaining for the sake of any who may be unfamiliar with it.

Here’s a newspaper report on what Christiana Figueres and her colleagues published, and here’s the full length piece in ‘Nature’.

It’s an upbeat piece in spite of the header.

It offers up six milestones for where “the world needs to be” by 2020. The measures relate to goals within the sectors of energy, infrastructure, transport, land, industry and finance.

By way of analogy, I’d characterise the whole piece as – If we keep on running optimistically down the rail track we’ll not get collected by the train and being out of puff means we’re getting somewhere.

It’s basically a thoroughly misleading piece that rests on very dubious and downright dishonest interpretations of data and science. Given the influence that Figueres and her colleagues no doubt have (noticed the sudden enthusiasm by some governments for banning cars in the coming decades?) it’s downright dangerous.

There isn’t space here to unpack the entire piece and so I’ll only mention a few things.

Perhaps most obviously, there is the notion that CO2 emissions can be brought down to zero. This is the graph used in the Nature piece…

That’ graph, and therefor any conclusion being drawn from it, is a nonsense. Aside from anything else, there is absolutely no way to achieve zero emissions. There is a ‘floor’ made up of releases from agricultural and other land uses. These can be minimised, but not eradicated.

Then there’s the explanation of carbon budgets implying they are ‘hard set’ and that ‘x’ amount of carbon = ‘y’ degrees of warming – ie – “the maximum amount of the gas that can be released before the temperature limit is breached.” So that’s nice. We’ll be okay until such times as that maximum amount of gas for any given resultant temperature increase is released. Unfortunately that’s bullshit.

Temperature increases are linked to amounts of atmospheric carbon and according to different assumptions around climate sensitivity. If we can say with scientific certainty that the budget for 1.5 degrees or 1 degree is gone, then that doesn’t mean warming will be 1.6 degrees or 1.1 degree. It means the chances for warming remaining below 2 degrees, 3 degrees or even 4 degrees have become slimmer – ie, the odds have shortened, and you can place your bets on whether or not we’re there yet. If that’s your thing. (A longer explanation here if required)

Drilling down into the piece just a little, we come across a lot of absolute smash like the following –

In 2016, two-thirds of China’s 5.4% extra demand for electricity was supplied by carbon-free energy resources, mostly hydropower and wind. In the European Union, wind and solar made up more than three-quarters of new energy capacity installed; coal demand was reduced by 10%. In the United States, almost two-thirds of the electricity-generating capacity installed by utility companies was based on renewables.

Very up beat, yes? Very “on the right track, let’s keep going’, almost inspirational type stuff.

Okay. Here’s a graph for global energy use that puts that upbeat “2/3rds of 5.4%”, “3/4rs of new energy capacity”, 10% reduction in coal demand” and “2/3rds of new electricity-generating capacity” into perspective.

Note the growth in oil and gas that’s outstripping the growth in ‘other renewables’ (smaller percentage increase, but from far higher numbers)? Essentially, total energy demand is growing and oil and gas is replacing coal and fueling most of that growth.

Look, I claimed in the header for this post that these people have ‘bricked it’. Of course, it could be that they’ve twisted and warped oodles of stuff they ought to be familiar with because they’re very, very stupid, and not because they’re simply scared and completely out of ideas about what to do with the information they have at hand. But remember the wizard from the Wizard of Oz and how he hid behind a curtain? Well, I’m thinking the world’s leaders are crowding out his cubby hole.

Anyway, finally and on a bit of a personal note – this is for those who will inevitably and boringly accuse me of just ‘using’ global warming to peddle an anti-capitalist message; of just wanting to ‘burn it all to the ground’ as it were. If that was what I wanted, then I’d be out there utilising fossil for all I was worth in whatever direct or indirect way I could. Because that most certainly ends very badly for capitalism. (Yup, and much else besides. But hey! Omelettes and eggs and all of that.)

10 comments on “Incrementalists ‘Brick It’”

  1. Gristle 1

    The first paragraph of Christians Figueres article starts with an upbeat news that the CO2 emission rates from hydrocarbons world wide are stable over the last 3 years: great news.

    But why do the CO2 atmospheric concentration rates keep going up over this same period?

    • barry 1.1

      Hi Gristle,
      Rates being stable means we are still burning far more than the world can cope with, which means that atmospheric concentrations keep going up. If rates dropped to near zero then concentrations will level off and slowly drop.

  2. One Two 2

    ‘The Deniers’ are those who believe ‘The Capitalists’ may alter course or relinquish centuries, if not a millennia of control…

    Control may be taken from them, or forced away from them, but relinquishing the position locked around the neck of this planet, and all of its species, will not happen…

    ‘Capitalism’ is nothing more than the vehicle de jour…

  3. barry 3

    Bill, you are a bit hard on the Nature graph. It is a bit simplistic, but shows the need for action. It is possible (although unlikely) to get to nett zero emissions. There is real scientific debate about the available budget to avoid 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees above (some arbitrary baseline which is not always clearly specified).

    At least it shows the sort of efforts that will have to be made if we are not going to change our way of life. It tells people why we have to start now instead of waiting for some magical technology, or future prosperity to make it easier.

    yes, I agree that being optimistic because some percentage (even 2/3 or 3/4) of new energy generation is non-carbon fuels is laughable. The fact that any fossil fuel plants are being build is unfathomable stupidity and a crime against the future.

    • Bill 3.1

      At least it shows the sort of efforts that will have to be made if we are not going to change our way of life.

      Our way of life is going to change.

      Now, we either choose to make the necessary changes now and “proceed to the exits in an orderly fashion”, or we sit back and wait for the aimless stampede that will be coming when global warming thrusts chaotic change on us in the future.

      Pretending that we can somehow not bother our heads with radical change and also avoid the effects of global warming, results in that aimless stampede.

      • David Tong 3.1.1

        It is not merely “possible but unlikely” to get to net zero emissions; it is essential to do so. Unless we radically reduce our emissions soon, to net zero by 2050, we may need to make our emissions net negative by the second half of the 21th century – that is, draw down more carbon dioxide equivalent gases than we emit to have a chance at 2C. And that’s a scary and very problematic prospect.

        Ultimately, though, your first scientific criticism of Figueres et al’s piece is based on you mixing up gross and net emissions, and criticising a graph showing net emissions for doing something we can’t do with gross emissions.

        There has been a huge amount of work, globally and in New Zealand, to normalise the idea (based on IPCC projections and other modelling) that achieving the Paris targets requires net zero emissions by 2050 – and, championed by climate NGOs and the 47-strong Climate Vulnerable Forum developing state bloc, of the need to get to 100% renewable energy (energy not just electricity!) on the way to net zero. Almost one quarter of the world’s states have now set a 100% renewable energy goal. Many states (and cities and businesses) have set a net zero or carbon equivalent neutral goal for 2050, or earlier. The Vivid Economics report GlobeNZ released in March shows that New Zealand can feasibly hit net zero by 2050 (within our current economic paradigm).

        Your second criticism is an attack on the entire idea of climate budgeting based on uncertainty around climate sensitivity. Most scientists would agree that we cannot set a precise carbon budget, which is why carbon budgets generally have big margins of error. But that doesn’t mean simplified carbon budgets aren’t useful tools for decision-makers. You’re basically arguing that scientific communications to the public need to be more technical and complicated – which plain doesn’t work.

        Now, I have a fairly public record of personal disagreement with Christiana going back to the start of the Paris negotiations, so please don’t take this as me sticking up for her, or for the current economic and political paradigm. But your scientific criticisms just aren’t sound.

        • Bill 3.1.1.1

          The graph displays CO2 emissions attributable to us of ~ 40 Gt per year. As I understand it, that 40Gt equates to our emissions from energy and land use. Are you saying that’s not a gross figure – that our emissions are actually higher than 40Gt? If you are, can you please explain how a net 40Gt is calculated ? (ie, what’s taken into account, or what assumptions are made to arrive at a net 40Gt.)

          In the absence of a clear indication that the figures in the graph are the result of subtracting sequestered CO2 from emitted CO2, then the graph shows a need to get to zero emissions in absolute terms. And that’s not possible.

          Achieving (more or less) absolute zero from energy (ie, not just electricity based energy) is feasible and necessary, while getting land use emissions down to net zero ,or as close to net zero as possible, is also necessary.

          Time scale wise, and taking commitments of equity into account as per signed agreements (eg Copenhagen), NZ is required to do all that before 2050 in order that the entire world can achieve that state of affairs by 2050.

          Given the time scale, it’s simply not logistically possible to “build our way out” by installing renewable energy sources. We need to reduce demand drastically while we’re laying in that renewable infrastructure.

          On carbon capture – given that only roughly half of that 40 Gt we emit is sequestered by earth’s natural carbon cycle, the implication is that we’d need to somehow engineer something equivalent to the capacity of the entire bio-sphere to hold CO2 levels steady – if we carry on as today and with no further increases in emissions.

          I’ve no criticism of carbon budgets. None at all. My criticism in the post is over how the carbon budgets are portrayed in the article. The article suggests that some given amount of atmospheric CO2 will result in a given increase in temperature. But the reality is, that if there is a 2-1 chance that given levels of atmospheric CO2 will result in some temperature rise in excess of 1.5 degrees, then there is also a chance (longer odds) that those same CO2 levels will result in 2 degrees warming or 3 degrees warming.)

          • David Tong 3.1.1.1.1

            If you click through to the source, you can work through the maths – and from my quick look, I think it works as a net figure once you take sinks and LULUCF into account – and the numbers are off if you just use the gross emissions from that source. I’m more used to the WRI CAIT data than this source, but CAIT puts our gross at closer to ~50Gt/yr.

            If you want to know how Figueres et al used Rahmstorf et al’s data, and what Rahmstorf et al factored in and out, then, uh, don’t ask me. Review Rahmstorf’s data.

            When it comes to land use etc (AKA LULUCF) emissions, we shouldn’t be after just net zero – but net negative. That’s feasible.

            I don’t really understand your reference to Copenhagen. Cancun largely replaced the (non-binding) Copenhagen Accord, and our diplomats have stated outright that our 2020 conditional Copenhagen pledge was, in their view, replaced by our Paris NDC.

            More generally, it looks like you’re appealing to common but differentiated responsibilities and broader principles of climate justice in saying NZ needs to hit zero before 2050. And, yeah, I agree – but international diplomacy has rolled back CBDR heavily since the Convention was signed. Durban was a one-size-fits-all mandate, and Paris is a one-size-fits-all deal.

            • Bill 3.1.1.1.1.1

              So let’s try it this way David.

              The graph is explicit in stretching the available budget out to 800Gt (the 2025 peak).

              For what you’re saying to make sense, we’d have to assume a nonsense – that they constructed a graph about gross emissions that produced a scenario around net emissions.

              And they didn’t do that. 40Gt is a gross annual total – ~ 90% of which is from fossil.

              And equity hasn’t been dropped from any Agreements post Copenhagen.

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