Two hard constraints: climate science, and clean coal

Climate scientist James Hansen and Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder debate how to secure the future of coal, New Zealand, and the world

Dr Hansen wants coal left in the ground, to save the world, for future generations. However, it is Dr Elder's job to dig it up, to grow the cake: most of the world, he says, which is poor, has a right to a share of our wealth (and we can get richer, too).

I thought I heard Elder crying out for help, in a way, because, until someone tells him not to, he has no choice but to try to dig up any and all coal he can find. If he doesn’t, Solid Energy's competitors will.

Coal-fired emissions are 43 per cent of global emissions. If we don’t tackle coal, in short, as the Institute of Policy Studies and friends spent Tuesday doing, the emissions cuts project is extinct, along with a whole lot else.

Dr James Hansen, “grandfather” of climate science, who took the science to the US congress 20 years or so ago, gave the keynote speech.

The UN has an atmospheric CO2 target of 450 ppm, for a ‘safe’ level of 2 degrees C global warming — with a 50% probability of staying beneath that level: a throw of the dice. Countries’ emissions cut pledges (like our ‘50 by 50’) are inadequate, and will overshoot; but that, according to Hansen, isn’t the real bad news.

In his view, the science demands a goal of 345 ppm atmospheric CO2, this century, to stabilise the climate. The current level is 390 ppm. His view on a ‘safe’ level of warming is more in the region of 1 degree C.

His mission these days is doggedly explaining why, over and over again: laying out, piece by piece, the evidence for human-induced climate change, and all the other bits of the puzzle, that point to ‘350 by 50’.

If fossil emissions stopped today (or actually, in January, last January), atmospheric levels would peak, then begin to drop, and the target would be achieved in around 2050. If they ceased after 2050 — roughly, the UN goal — atmospheric CO2 would peak at over 500 ppm, and drop back eventually to the 450 ppm target. That sees global temperatures rising to unsafe, unprecedented (for humans) levels, and persisting there for more than a century.

Hansen therefore argues that it is not just about getting to the target, but when, without exceeding tipping points, like ice loss at the Poles, and release of frozen methane from the tundra. Both paleoclimatology, and contemporary ice melt measures, already show us in the red, if you like — pushing the danger zone.

He says it is not too late. It can be done, he thinks, if we act fast, with emissions cuts starting now, and reforestation, but not if we continue burning fossil fuel.

He calculates our remaining carbon budget would be spent, by burning all conventional oil and gas reserves. We must, he insists, leave coal, or as much coal as possible, and unconventional oil (eg, lignite, tar sands) in the ground.

The International Energy Agency backs him up, saying that the limit on coal is not scarcity, it’s how to reconcile its use with the growing global momentum to stabilise (and reduce, as per Hansen) atmospheric greenhouse gases.

According to economist Geoff Bertram, the entire debate hinges on whether carbon capture and storage, to sequester emissions from coal, “is a complete fairy story”. It does all hinge on that, and about half of Tuesday was about it, but I am parking it, because Dr Elder gave such an informative talk, and Bertram’s “hard constraints” were more fun. CCS would need regulation, too, so the basic point I'm about to make is the same.

Elder was reminded how, six years ago, he assured us CCS technology was just around the corner. Well, he said, it was. Still is; about where it’s been for thirty years, as others remarked. It’s a tricky corner, he said.

Geoff Bertram laid out some “economists’ ground rules” for picking projects. They included full social cost-benefit analysis; and fully costing environmental and other externalities, like strategic risks. He talked about the “risk of hitting global energy policy coming the other way”, having sunk billions of dollars in stranded assets, for lignite conversion.

By contrast, see posts here and here on Solid Energy’s Southland lignite approach.

Examples of economic costs being ignored might be those of floods, droughts and storms, or delaying adaptation (as per Lord Stern, et al). An example of a strategic cost was supplied later in the day, by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright: “The Chinese look at us, and say well, you’re quite rich. If you won’t stop burning coal, why in the world should we?”

If you really want to harness the power of capitalism, Bertram said, to revolutionise the economy, as we must, that depends on “hard constraints”, like Roosevelt’s war-time prohibition on auto-manufacture. Hard constraints force capitalists to innovate, and find new market solutions. That is the beauty of the market, and the whole reason it exists — for individuals to think creatively, in their different ways.

The market will work best, in short, if for some things we make a policy decision to just say “no”.

Elder, however, wanted all of the options on the table, and a smart public conversation about them, at the end of which people would say “yes”.

He wanted us to grasp the amount of wealth at stake; and, I’m sure, he was happy that we’d heard about the tiny size of New Zealand’s coal resource (and pollution risk), in world terms. His motive was twofold — humanitarian, as well as profit-driven; his starting point developing countries’ right to develop, using coal.

He said we're responsible not just to ourselves, but future generations, and the developing world. I think he meant — this is my summing up, not his words, but you didn’t have to look very far between the lines — the responsibility of us all, to get rich.

He reiterated Solid Energy's definition of sustainable business practice, and its undertaking to meet global environmental “commitments”. It was framed in the language of “commitments”, instead of “moral obligations”, say, or simply “what the science requires”.

He referred at one point to the ETS, to describe his stance on regulation. He himself wouldn’t do the job that way; if a government felt that an objective was sufficiently important, to justify such a cumbersome scheme, it ought to simply regulate.

Pressed on what his commitment to environmental responsibility actually meant, he said it was naïve to expect that he could or would bind future boards and shareholders, by promising to permanently sequester all carbon. (As opposed to, presumably, binding future boards and shareholders by sinking billions into plant, which would be a different thing entirely.)

Solid Energy has, according to Bertram, told the ETS review panel in its submission that 'fugitive emissions' (such as venting methane out of coal mines) should be exempt from the scheme, because to include them would be a hazard to safe practice, using Pike River as an example.

Jeanette Fitzsimons, from the floor, asked what might the venue be, for that kind of intelligent, open public conversation, since she very much wanted one too, and agreed it was exactly what was required?

Partial accounts of the day's events — like this very blog, I daresay — would not be helpful, Elder said, sternly. He had been advised against attending the forum, but it was no part of his brief to duck that kind of responsibility. 

There were good reasons, he asserted, for Solid Energy's lawyers to write to the Southland local authorities, asking for their briquetting pilot plant resource consents to proceed non-notified; it was “no different, really, to you building a deck in your back yard”. There were reasons, too, for withholding information from the PCE, for her lignite report (though she worked it out by herself, in the end). It was “inappropriate” [corrected: ed] for Dr Hansen to come down to New Zealand and start [lecturing us about morality]. Other audience questions got a gruff report, for being asked too slowly, or too long.

For a man who exhorted us to nuanced open-minded conversation, it was shame then, that he went on to characterise his opponents as follows, in big letters, on powerpoint: “no mining in national parks”, NIMBY, and BANANA.

Any gaps or errors in the climate science part of this post are all mine.

Hansen's own explanations are here (a presentation, about the same as the one he delivered in New Zealand: “Human-Made Climate Change: A Moral, Political and Legal Issue”, given at Blue Planet award ceremony on October 27, 2010 in Tokyo, Japan), and here (a draft paper to be submitted for publication: “The Case for Young People and Nature”).