8 Aug 2007

How the Numbers Stack Up

By Gideon Polya
Gideon Polya sets out the scientific argument for keeping coal and uranium in the ground

In his recently published book, Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy,  Australia's top sustainable energy expert, Dr Mark Diesendorf, argues that science, technology and economics all say that coal and uranium should ultimately remain in the ground and that renewables can meet our energy demands.

Diesendorf argues that the only residual argument is about politics and political support for uranium and fossil fuel miners and coal-based power corporations. Let's do what mainstream Australian media shy away from and examine Diesendorf's assertion critically by examining the numbers and asking questions of the kind, 'who says?' 'how many?' and 'how much?'

An overwhelming international scientific consensus agrees that Spaceship Earth is under dire threat from greenhouse gas-driven global warming. But how severe is the threat? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) Fourth Assessment Report  warns of the following disasters this century if mankind does not respond urgently: possible temperature increases of up to four degrees Centigrade, sea level rises of up to 0.6 metres, massive damage to agriculture and serious threat to huge populations, especially in Asia and Africa.

However a recent paper  by top American climate change experts, NASA's Dr James Hansen and colleagues, says that the IPCC Report actually under-estimated the rapidity of glacial melting and the effect of the loss of sunlight-reflecting white surfaces as ice and snow turn into sunlight-absorbing, dark sea .

In his recent book The Revenge of Gaia, Dr James Lovelock goes even further, suggesting that it may already be too late that we will now have to deal with the consequences of an actual failure of the Earth's climate control systems. Thus the atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration is currently 380 ppm (parts per million) but is increasing at a rate (3.3 per cent per year) corresponding to the worst scenario envisaged by the IPCC.  According to Lovelock, at 500 ppm the Greenland ice sheet will disappear and the ocean photosynthetic phytoplankton system (crucial for regulating CO2, cloud formation and global temperature) will be fatally damaged.

Urgent global action is demanded by an overwhelming international scientific consensus including notable scientific collectives such as the IPCC, the US National Academy of Science and the UK Royal Society. Former World Bank Chief Economist Sir Nicholas Stern has estimated that it will be vastly cheaper  for the world to act to minimise global warming by urgently acting now, saying: 'The earlier effective action is taken the less costly it will be.' His predecessor at the World Bank, Economics Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz, has argued that Stern was being conservative in his report.

Rational approaches to save the planet are resolutely opposed by the US (the world's worst greenhouse gas polluter) and Australia, the country with the highest annual per capita greenhouse gas pollution, and the world's biggest coal exporter.

Using data from the US Energy Information Administration  we can calculate that 'annual per capita fossil fuel-derived CO2 pollution' in tonnes CO2  per person is 19.2 for Australia (40 if you include Australia's coal exports), 19.7 for the US, 18.4 for Canada, 3.6 for China, 1.0 for India, 0.7 for Pakistan and 0.25 for Bangladesh. The world average is 4.3.

Neither the Bush-led US nor Bush-ite Australia will sign the Kyoto Protocol or cut greenhouse gas pollution but the countries facing devastation from global warming are the below-World-average polluting countries of China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Australia is the world's biggest coal exporter and if one includes our coal exports our annual fossil fuel-based carbon dioxide pollution per person is 160 times that of Bangladesh, 40 times that of India and 10 times that of China.

According to the UK Chief Scientist Sir David King, billions of people in the developing world are threatened by global warming and the decline in water, agricultural productivity and arable land for river delta communities. In a world already suffering from the effects of global warming, an estimated 16 million people die avoidably every year.

The cost in Australian cents per kilowatt-hour (Ac/kWh) of various sources of electricity is as follows:

3-4 coal, Australia;

18 the real cost  of coal, taking into account the environmental and health impact; according to a conservative Canadian Ontario Ministry of Energy Report;

15 nuclear via the UK's newest Sizewell B plant;

7.5-8.5 wind power, Australia;

15 concentrated solar power  or CSP;

25-45 standard silicon-based photovoltaics or PVs.

In other words, wind power and concentrated solar power are already competitive with the real cost of coal-based electricity only lying by omission makes them uncompetitive.

But this brief summary ignores ongoing dramatic developments in geothermal, wave, tidal, biomass and biofuel energy technology, which are making renewables even more competitive. Thus, the non-silicon organic thin film technology developed  by US Nobel Laureate Alan Heeger and his South Korean colleagues will reduce the cost of installing photovoltaic (PV) capacity by a factor of 20; the Swiss ETH CIGS non-silicon thin film system may be competitive with (un-corrected) coal within 5 years; Australian sliver silicon PV technology will drop silicon solar panel costs threefold; and balloon-based technology may drop the cost of solar energy by a factor of 10 within the decade.

The future dominance of renewables in energy provision is supported by the most recent expert scientific assessment of the global situation by a group of Chinese and German scholars:

Global, Europe-wide, and country-specific scenarios show 10 per cent to 50 per cent shares of primary energy from renewables by 2050. By 2020, many targets and scenarios show 20-35 per cent share of electricity from renewables, increasing to 50-80 per cent by 2050 under the highest scenarios.

Pro-mining, Bush-ite politicians and their supporters still have the nerve to promote the world-threatening options of coal and nuclear power (noting that carbon pollution associated with the overall nuclear fuel cycle from mining to waste disposal can be the same as for a gas-fired power station).

The proponents of continued abuse of fossil fuels are seriously threatening the welfare of our children and our grandchildren. However, corporate wealth can buy 'truth' and hence the serious lag in effective response in Bush America and pro-Bush Australia.

In Australia there is unfortunately bipartisan political agreement on Australia's remaining a major coal and uranium miner in stark opposition to the science, technology and costs outlined above.

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