Twas the night before… the ETS

Tomorrow morning, a large chunk of New Zealand’s much debated Emissions Trading Scheme comes into effect. Forestry’s already been in it for two years, but July 1st is the day that the liquid fuels and electricity generation sectors start to have to account for their emissions, and it’s the first day that consumers might see a change in fuel and electricity prices that can be blamed on the ETS. Last week’s National Business Review had a pretty good overview of the state of play here. The scheme has also come in for some robust criticism in a new book, The Carbon Challenge, by Sustainability Council executive director Simon Terry and VUW economist Geoff Bertram (of which more in another post soon, I hope).

Federated Farmers have been out protesting in force — even though agriculture gets a free pass until 2015, and then gets 90% of its emissions “grandfathered” (effectively free). A few weeks ago Farmers Weekly editor Tim Fulton popped in for a cuppa and interviewed me about my views on climate change, agriculture and the ETS for an article that appeared a couple of weeks ago. Most of what I said won’t be news to Hot Topic readers, but I thought it worth passing on my thoughts on agriculture and the ETS to a wider audience:

Continue reading “Twas the night before… the ETS”

We call upon the author…

I must have been asleep last week when the IPCC announced its selection of authors for the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), due in 2013/14. As usual, NZ scientists are making a significant contribution:

  • Tim Naish is a lead author for Working Group 1 (The Physical Science Basis) chapter 5, Information from Paleoclimate Archives.
  • Jim Renwick is a lead author for WG1 Chapter 14, Climate Phenomena and their Relevance for Future Regional Climate Change.
  • David Wratt is a review editor for Chapter 14 (as is Kevin Trenberth)
  • Phil Boyd (NIWA) is a lead author for WG2 (Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability), Chapter 6, Ocean Systems.
  • Alistair Woodward is one of the two Coordinating Lead Authors for WG2, Chapter 11, Human Health.
  • Andy Reisinger is a Coordinating Lead Author for Chapter 25, Australasia, Paul Newton (AgResearch) and Andrew Tait (NIWA) are lead authors, and Blair Fitzharris is a Review Editor.
  • Ralph Sims is a Coordinating Lead Author for Working Group 3 (Mitigation of Climate Change), Chapter 8, on Transport.
  • Harry Clark is a lead author for WG3, Chapter 11, Agriculture, Forestry and Other Land Uses (AFOLU).
  • Complete author lists: WG1, WG2, WG3.

Congratulations to all. Now the hard work starts…

And a plug: Jim Renwick is giving a talk on climate change at the Hurunui Library (yes, the one in the heat pump ads) in Amberley on Monday, July 5th at 7-30pm. All welcome. I’ll be heckling from the cheap seats…

[Thanks to Frogblog]

[Nick Cave]

Electric cars take over

I recently watched the video of a TED talk by Shai Agassi. It dates from a year ago. I’m late catching up. But there may well be other readers who haven’t caught up with him either, so I’ll report my experience. He jumps straight to the point in his opening sentence: “So how would you run a whole country without oil?”

Agassi doesn’t intend his question to be hypothetical or far off. He’s talking about the near future.  And he considers the answer lies in electricity, preferably renewable, as a fuel for vehicles. Not a few vehicles, but 99% of them.  And cars as good as any that we have today, preferably more convenient and affordable. There’s no need to wait for further technological development. We have all we need already.

You can listen to his talk below. He sets out a compelling case, and an optimistic one. He is founder and CEO of Better Place, a company that works with governments, businesses and utility companies to accelerate the transition to sustainable transportation. Their website repays attention.  I’ll extract a few items from it here.

Electricity-powered transportation fits very well with the development of renewable energy sources.  Better Place accepts fully the imperative to stop the burning of fossil fuels.:

The economics of renewables create an extraordinary opportunity for transportation.  But the economics of transportation also create an extraordinary opportunity for renewables.

First, an electric vehicle (EV) system can take advantage of underutilized electricity, reducing oil consumption and providing resources for renewable development provided the EV system is complemented with a “smart grid” that optimally manages the flow of available electricity. Second, EVs can alleviate the problems of intermittency, unpredictability and off-peak generation that have hindered the progress of renewable energy in the past. Third, because EVs offer energy efficiency up to three times greater than that of gasoline-powered vehicles, EVs reduce the overall burden on energy resources.

The transition is already under way:

The electric car is becoming inevitable.  Nearly every major automaker has an active program to develop and introduce EVs, ultimately providing the consumer a broad range of options.  Better Place is currently working with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, which will be among the first to introduce EVs, and is also in discussion with major auto manufacturers around the world.

These electric vehicles will be distinctive in more respects than their zero tailpipe emissions.  EVs inherently provide instant torque, delivering smooth, seamless acceleration.  EVs also offer ultra-quiet operation.  And since these cars typically have half the moving parts of their gas combustion engine counterparts,  lower maintenance costs are expected.  All this means that in the coming decade, EVs will be at the center of mainstream personal transportation. (my italics)

The lithium-ion batteries are adequate to the task, and some of the details are discussed here on the website.  On performance:

Now, a 24 kWh lithium-ion battery (about 200 kg) in a competitively priced medium-sized sedan provides a range of about 160 kilometers on a single charge.

But EVs will need the same freedom to go anywhere that drivers of combustion engine cars enjoy today. That means battery switch stations:

At Better Place battery switch stations, drivers enter a lane and the station takes over from there. The car proceeds along a conveyor while the automated switch platform below the vehicle aligns under the battery, washes the underbody, initiates the battery release process and lowers the battery from the vehicle. The depleted battery is placed onto a storage rack for charging, monitoring and preparation for the another vehicle. A fully-charged battery is then lifted into the waiting car. The switch process takes less time than a stop at the gas station and the driver and passengers may remain in the car throughout.

Battery charging provision at places such as homes, offices and public areas is important to broad adoption of EVs. Better Place develops, installs and manages large networks of charge spots that will aim to give consumers the convenience and services they need to confidently make the transition to EVs.

I’m in no position to comment on the feasibility of what Agassi proposes. But I see he was considered worthy of inclusion in Time’s 100 most influential people list in2009. And I certainly enjoyed the buoyancy of his talk and of the website.  I took pleasure from some of the comments of a featured guest blog on the site from Gary Kendall of Sustainability:

A great indicator that disruptive innovations are nearing the all-important tipping point is when powerful incumbents start peddling nonsense masquerading as facts, to sow doubt about the viability of the emerging technology or business model… By scrambling to erect roadblocks to new market entrants that threaten their hegemony, oligopolies are only doing what comes naturally to an organism under attack by an existential threat. And if your job is to find, extract, refine, distribute and sell liquid fuels, then electric cars certainly qualify…

“You EV guys are very well meaning – and we wish you well – but until the world stops burning coal, allow motor manufacturers to continue tinkering with incremental efficiency gains while we drill, baby, spill!”.

Back in New Zealand I ponder a vehicle fleet powered by electricity from wind farms or wave power. Bad news for petrol stations and perhaps for oil companies undertaking the expense of deep sea drilling operations. Perhaps food for thought for the Minister of Energy?  Or is that expecting a bit much?

Straight Up

“I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to face unpleasant facts.” So writes Joseph Romm of blogging, in his new book Straight Up, a themed selection from the thousands of posts on his widely respected blog It’s as direct, lively and unequivocal as its title suggests. Romm, an admirer of George Orwell, knows how to express himself with admirable clarity and to satisfy what he describes as “a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk”.

The “status quo media” receive a drubbing. Romm is critical of their giving the same credence to a handful of US scientists, most receiving funds from the fossil fuel industry, as they give to hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists. Senior political reporters are writing more and more pieces as the issue becomes political; most know little about global warming and haven’t bothered to educate themselves. They stick with the “horse-race perspective”, measuring only who is up and who is down. In one post he criticises even Andy Revkin of the New York Times for suggesting that catastrophe is a marginal possibility and that campaigners for carbon dioxide curbs are suppressing the uncertainty in their picture. Revkin, says Romm, should know that catastrophe is not at the edge of the debate. The Washington Post he accuses of publishing unmitigated tabloid nonsense on climate change.

On the science Romm considers that the IPCC 2007 summary report underestimated likely climate impacts by not giving sufficient weight to positive feedbacks that accelerate warming and by assuming there would be aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The book includes a stunning post written in March 2009, where he reports on more recent scientific literature. Under five headings he relentlessly lists the evidence that points to catastrophic impacts this century under business-as-usual conditions — temperature rise of 5-7 degrees, sea level rise of 5 feet or more, dust-bowlification in the Southwest US, high loss of species on land and sea, and likely further unexpected impacts difficult to foresee. So we must stabilise at 450 ppm or below, or risk humanity’s self-destruction. The cost of action is maybe 0.12 percent of GDP per year or a little higher if we aim for 350 ppm. This is the reality that the scientific community and environmentalists and progressives need to start articulating cogently.

The solution is clean energy, a strong focus of Romm’s blogging. For a number of years in the mid-1990s he worked in the Department of Energy on energy efficiency and renewable energy. He considers that the US has all the clean energy technology it needs to start reducing emissions aggressively and cost effectively now. Deployment is the key. Electricity efficiency is high on his list. He points to McKinsey’s estimate that one third of the US greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 could come from electricity efficiency and be achieved at negative marginal costs. California is a model: if all America adopted their energy efficiency policies the country would never have to build another polluting power plant. Concentrated solar power is the technology on which Romm places most hope, because it generates primary energy in the form of heat which can be stored 20 to 100 times more cheaply than electricity –and with far greater efficiency. If all the renewable technologies that are commercial or nearly commercial today are deployed they will be enough to see the US through to 2050. He emphasises the steadily declining cost curve, due to economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve.

As peak oil approaches it’s crucial that we avoid the strategy preferred by most in the oil industry of ramping up unconventional oil. Oil from tar sands and shale will make global warming worse. Coal to diesel will be catastrophic. The way forward for vehicle transport is better fuel economy standards and a move to plug-in hybrids which he discusses in some detail.

Romm has two key questions for the US. Will they voluntarily give up fossil fuels before they are forced to do so after it is too late to stop the catastrophe? When they do give them up will they be a global leader in the new technologies, or will they have been overtaken by other countries, especially China?

Romm was an advocate of the “flawed” Waxman-Markey climate bill which finally made it through the House of Representatives in June 2009. How can his climate politics realism be reconciled with his climate science realism? He replies that the bill was the only game in town and its passing a staggering achievement. It didn’t do enough, but it began a process and established a framework that can be strengthened over time as the science warrants. His political realism is also on view in his optimistic take on the result of Copenhagen. High level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters seems to him a more likely way forward than the consensus process of the UN.

In right-wing US circles politics and climate disinformation have become entangled. Romm sees the conservative think tanks, media pundits and politicians as driving the disinformation campaign. He observes that while they can stop the country from taking the necessary action to avert catastrophe, they can’t actually stop the climate from changing. And some of the congressional conservatives are pushing policies that will lead to unimaginable planetary horror. Why? A post on a Krauthammer article in the Washington Post finds the heart of US conservatives’ hatred of climate science in the fact that it requires action by government, which is the same as socialism (except when it comes to government action on behalf of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries).

Misinformation has had a field day in the US. In part this is due to the organised campaign and the repeated broadcast of its messages by conservative pundits and politicians like George Will and Rush Limbaugh and Sen. James Inhofe. The “balanced” presentation favoured by the media hasn’t helped. But there are messaging failures from progressives in general and scientists in particular. Romm strongly opposes the notion that the impacts of global warming should be downplayed in communication to the public. Doing that would amount to unilateral disarmament in the battle to have the public understand what will happen if we continue on the path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. People need to know the truth.  However he considers that some of the simple rules of rhetoric need to be better used in getting the message across. He identifies three of them as simple language, frequent repetition, and skilful use of figures of speech, especially metaphor and irony. The posts discussing better techniques of communicating the science are well worth attention and clearly underly his own practice.

Romm’s industry as a blogger is phenomenal, as anyone who follows Climate Progress will know. The selection of posts that he has chosen for this book testify that quantity doesn’t rule out quality. They have translated well to the printed page. Many of them repay close reader attention and together they serve to highlight the major themes which guide his work. The urgency displayed in his 2007 book Hell and High Water is undiminished.

[Available from Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK)]

Which is the greater crime?

Alice Bows’ testimony evidently wasn’t enough to persuade the Aberdeen jury to acquit the nine Plane Stupid protestors accused of breaching the peace by their brief occupation of Aberdeen airport last year. A majority verdict yesterday declared them guilty, and the Guardian reports that they are likely to face heavy fines or jail terms.

Those undertaking acts of civil disobedience do not normally expect to escape legal consequences. One of the defendants, Don Glass, 25, of Glasgow, said afterwards he was not surprised to be found guilty. However he pointed out that the trial had served a useful purpose:

“ We were in the self-titled oil capital of Europe and to get climate change in front of a jury is an achievement in itself. To get one of the top sheriffs in Aberdeen to say let’s not dispute that climate change is man-made is an achievement.

“Two weeks talking about the important civil disobedience and protest and freedom of expression in the face of runaway climate change is an achievement. We now know the importance of non-violent direct action in the fact of inaction from the courts.”

What he meant by inaction from the courts is probably indicated by the comments of another protestor, Tilly Gifford, 24, from Glasgow:

“We set out to show in court that policies such as the aviation white paper contradict what the science demands. Now that the court has heard expert witnesses testify to the imperative need to cut emissions, they are mandated to prosecute the real criminals, the corporations who are profiting from polluting.”

There appears to be no legal structure to enable charges against corporations and feet-dragging governments with crimes against future generations and probably against existing populations in some parts of the world.  But the claim that acts of non-violent civil disobedience have legal excuse  because they aim to prevent a higher crime against humanity through carbon emissions is an entirely reasonable defence to offer. If Don Glass’s declaration post-trial that climate protesters now have to step up their campaigns of civil disobedience proves to have substance, we will see more such trials and hear more such defences. Even when they fail they will surely keep the question alive in the public mind. I salute those who are prepared to do that. And lament that it should be necessary. In a rational world it would by now be the chief focus of government and business to work furiously to decarbonise our economies.