The 400 private jets used to ferry participants to a conference on reducing emissions symbolise how international climate policy is made, argues Professor Emeritus of Government Aynsley Kellow.
The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26), held recently at Glasgow, highlighted many of the worst aspects of how international climate science and policy occurs. Close analysis also displays the extremely dubious premises on which the Morrison Government has committed to Net Zero by 2050. The figure of limiting Mean Global Temperature (MGT) to no more than 2°C above that which prevailed in pre-industrial times is the agreed goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. Of this, we have already seen, according to best estimates, a little under 1.2°C.
We must not forget the 2°C goal was driven not by science, but by politics, with the number a convenient political rallying point. The first to mention 2°C was an economist: William Nordhaus, in 1979. It featured in discussions by scientists at Villach and Bellagio in the late 1980s, but being discussed by scientists does not mean it had a scientific basis. It received a boost in 2009, when just before the G8 Summit of that year 47 environmental groups published an open letter to President Obama urging the G8 embrace a goal of staying below the 2°C target, and with his encouragement the G8 leaders adopted it.
It then found its way into the Copenhagen Accord (2009) and the Paris Agreement (2015), despite being criticised by scientific experts and economists for its implicit claim to certain knowledge about causes of warming, climate sensitivity, and responses to policy, as if there were a giant ‘thermostat’ on the climate system that allows us to dial in our desired outcome. As environmental policy scholar Joni Seager put it in 2009:
This conceit frames the climate as a machine that we can control—perhaps like an oven, that we can turn on and off or hold at a more-or-less steady temperature point.
The 2°C target has since been displaced as an aspiration by that of the even more arbitrary 1.5°C, but that too is political rather than scientific in origin. This was exemplified at Glasgow by Greenpeace, which sought to convey the impression it had already been agreed to, rather than just identified as an ambition. However, throughout proceedings the Chinese Government refused to budge. Beijing’s climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua insisted the 2°C maximum temperature rise agreed by world leaders in 2015 under the Paris Agreement had to remain the basis for discussion.
Australia has accepted an unachievable benchmark, and promised to meet it.
It is worth looking at how 1.5°C has, nevertheless, captured the heights of global climate policy making. In 2013 about 30 women—including Christiana Figueres, the executive secretary of the Framework Convention on Climate Change—met at Glen House, the impressive mid-19th century mansion in Scotland inherited by green finance activist Tessa Tennant from her father-in-law, Lord Glenconner (a one-time paramour of Princess Margaret). One participant was Farhana Yamin, an activist lawyer who had advised both the Association of Small Island States and the European Union. It was here that Net Zero originated and from whence it spread, initially ‘by 2100’ but in due course with the ‘by 2050’ gloss added by the IPCC.
First of all it was Glen House participant and World Bank climate envoy Rachel Kyte who ensured that in December 2014, then World Bank president Jim Yong Kim said a proposed global climate agreement should “provide a clear pathway to zero net emissions before 2100”. Then Jennifer Morgan of the World Resources Institute, who was close to the Merkel administration in Germany, succeeded in having Merkel secure G7 leaders’ approval in June 2015 for a statement stressing the need for “decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century”.
Then came Paris, when the 44-member Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) pushed for 1.5°C. With NGOs chanting ‘1.5 to stay alive’, the lower target attracted the support of over 100 countries, without any scientific basis. Part of the Paris outcome was a reference to the IPCC for a Special Report: Global Warming of 1.5°C, which it duly produced in 2018, and which called for Net Zero by 2050 if warming was to be limited to 1.5°C (or by 2075 if it was to be kept to 2°C).
The door to the cage so carefully constructed around Australia’s policy making was then closed in 2019 as UN Secretary-General António Guterres wrote to every head of state demanding they set out plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. This provided the basis for every NGO and state that saw advantage in Net Zero by 2050 to demand Australia and every other ‘recalcitrant’ state fall into line with something that they never agreed to and which lacks any sound scientific basis.
It important to note the International Energy Agency (IEA) has concluded that Net Zero by 2050 cannot be achieved with existing technology. This ‘technology gap’ is also present in the Australian Government’s Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan, which supposedly details how the target will be met. The Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, should have considered all the implications before signing up to such a target. Not only does it jeopardise the nation’s interests—especially its comparative advantage in cheap, high-quality coal—but it puts at risk our long-standing mantra (and practice) of delivering on what we sign up for. If the IEA is correct, by adopting Net Zero by 2050 as our goal, Australia has decided to accept an unachievable benchmark, and promise to meet it.
THE REAL COSTS OF RENEWABLE ENERGY
How should it respond to the challenge laid down by Net Zero by 2050? Many Australians are under the impression it can achieve the goals easily and relatively cheaply, given sufficient government will (and cash). ALP leader Anthony Albanese stated in an interview on 20 October 2021, that renewables were now the cheapest form of electricity, suggesting wind generators, solar panels and electric transportation would make the response an easy one. But this was wrong, and typical of the mistaken beliefs of many renewables enthusiasts.
The ‘Climate Emergency’ came not from science, but from a Melbourne council.
Non-hydro renewables have indeed become much cheaper when measured by what is called the Levelised Cost of Energy (LCOE), a tool used for comparing energy sources on a supposed ‘apples for apples’ basis. But LCOE misses many of the disadvantages and costs of renewables in an electricity system. What matters is the System Levelised Cost of Energy, on which basis renewables cannot compete. Moreover, while their cost has declined markedly, the cost curve for wind and solar has followed that typical of new technologies and flattened out. This suggests that most of the cost reductions have already been achieved.
Renewables are intermittent and depend on the weather. Solar cannot produce electricity at night and output is reduced when there is heavy cloud. Wind is variable and ‘wind droughts’ occur for hours or even days. Renewables also incur substantial network costs. Non-hydro renewables have a very low density and considerable land-use requirements. To transmit the energy generated vast additional transmission resources are required, and must be capable of coping with peak generation, but with only 25-30% utilisation.
The value of renewables initially increases, but declines as its share of total generation increases. Australia’s renewables share has now passed 20% and the value of additional renewables capacity will in future decline considerably as backup and network costs accumulate. Moreover, if renewable electricity is to replace petroleum fuels for transportation (directly or in hydrogen fuels), huge amounts of additional capacity will be required. A heavily renewables system requires storage, and storage Is expensive, driving its cost above coal. Much is made of the Hornsdale batteries for backup installed in South Australia, yet 696 of these would be required to provide just four hours of backup power for the Australian grid.
University of Oxford professors Peter Edwards and Peter Dobson with Dr Gari Owen calculated the cost of backup required for a 50% renewables UK and a 100% renewables UK. Their estimate for 50% was £1.5 Trillion ($A2.75T) and £3 Trillion ($A5.5T) for 100% renewables. If anything, this was an underestimate, because it assumed 100% efficiency of storage. The Morrison government should commission a similar analysis for Australia.
THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY
Much of the real work of COP26 appeared to diminish substantially after the leaders’ meetings concluded, and took on somewhat bizarre overtones. Friday of week one was ‘Youth and Public Empowerment Day’ and on cue Greta Thunberg put on a display of public scatology. This was outside the venue because she was not invited to address the conference (How Dare They!), but–with the blessing of Price Charles—about 10,000 or so quit school to hear her. Unsurprisingly, Thunberg labelled Glasgow as the “most excluding COP ever”.
The ‘Climate Emergency’ came not from science, but from local government: from the City of Darebin in Melbourne in December 2016, to be precise. Assisted by Green party councillors, it spread primarily among local governments globally. Then it was picked up by that merry band of millenarians, the Club of Rome, who presented their ‘Climate Emergency Plan’ in December 2018.
Only on 5 November 2019 did scientists get in on the act, when the biology journal BioScience published an article endorsed by 11,000 scientists from 153 nations, declaring that planet Earth was facing a climate emergency. Then, pushed by Extinction Rebellion and Greta’s Friday for the Future, it was picked up by some national governments and then UN Secretary-General António Guterres in December 2020.
CORPORATIONS, ESG, AND MICHAEL BLOOMBERG
One notable feature at Glasgow was the willingness of business to step up for ‘climate action’; especially companies that are sensitive to ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) concerns. Much of this has been driven by pressure from investment funds and groups such as Climate Action 100+, an investor group with 545 members managing a combined $52 trillion of assets.
BHP, Rio Tinto and Anglo American are not divesting their coal assets by closing mines, but simply by seeking to remove them from their portfolios. In other words, they are insulating themselves from ESG pressures rather than helping avoid climate change by leaving the coal in the ground. Activist financial groups have succeeded mainly in forcing ESG-sensitive corporations to divest ownership of coal mines to companies lacking a global presence, which are less vulnerable to pressure from the activist funds. There is, in fact, finance available for coal; just not finance vulnerable to ESG activism.
Michael Bloomberg, who in 2018 was appointed by the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as the UN Special Envoy for Climate Ambition and Solutions, was at Glasgow calling for an end to coal. He is a huge donor to anti-coal organisations and, it would seem, a beneficiary of their campaigns. Bloomberg made his billions in finance and through the creation of the eponymous financial information/media platform, and served three terms as Mayor of New York. He spent US$676 million of his own money unsuccessfully seeking the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2019-20 in the most expensive self-funded campaign in history.
Climate science lost its independent status long ago.
Bloomberg promised US $15m to the UNFCC by way of an apology for Trump withdrawing the US from the Paris Agreement, so Guterres appointing him Special Envoy is unsurprising. Between 2010 and 2018 he also donated $164m to the ‘Beyond Coal’ campaign of the Sierra Club, which is the largest and most influential environmental campaign organisation in the US. Meanwhile, Bloomberg.com continues to operate as an enthusiastic cheerleader for Net Zero by 2050, with ‘impartial’ reporting typified by headlines such as ‘Australia Could Reap $650 Billion From Stricter Climate Goals’.
The $30 billion personal and philanthropic fortune of Bloomberg reported by Naomi Klein in 2015 had increased to $59 billion in September 2021. His wealth is managed by investment group Willett Advisors, which Klein noted invests in a range of assets including oil and gas. Bloomberg has been a longstanding advocate for gas, and in 2017 announced he was taking his campaign to Europe with funding of $50m. Bloomberg has not just profited from campaigning against coal, he has been active in creating the alarm over a ‘Climate Emergency’.
Together with his fellow Democratic Party candidate Tom Steyer and Hank Paulson he created the think tank Risky Business, which lobbied successfully for the extreme emissions scenario RCP8.5—which assumes per capita coal consumption will increase six-fold—to be included as a ‘business as usual’ scenario in the US national document and by the IPCC.
HOW AND WHY FALSE CLIMATE CONSENSUS IS MANUFACTURED
At Glasgow, former US President Barack Obama lambasted those who politicise climate change, singling out Russia and China, and endorsed the view that in place of politics we should defer to ‘The Science’. He defended President Biden’s (lack of) progress, because he had been “constrained in large part by the fact that one of our two major parties has decided not only to sit on the sidelines but express active hostility toward climate science and make climate change a partisan issue”.
In fact, there is no linear relationship between science and public policy. It cannot, for example, tell us what the balance should be between mitigation (measures to prevent climate change) and adaptation (measures to prosper safely within a warming world). Climate science lost its independent status long ago. It would be hard to find an example of an area of science more prone to what I have called virtuous (or noble cause) corruption. Two brief examples illustrate the point.
When Australian sceptic Warwick Hughes sought access to raw temperature data from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the UK, the director Phil Jones wrote to Hughes stating:
We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?
This remains one of the most profoundly anti-scientific statements I have ever encountered.
My other example relates to the key assumption of the climate models that modest climate forcing by increasing carbon dioxide will increase the atmospheric concentration of water vapour, the dominant greenhouse gas. Garth Paltridge, a former Chief Research Scientist at CSIRO Atmospheric Research, and two co-authors, reanalysed the data on tropospheric humidity for the period 1973-2007, and in March 2008 submitted a paper to the Journal of Climate concluding that water vapour feedback over the last 35 years had been negative rather than positive. They found that if the pattern continued into the future, water vapour feedback in the climate system would halve rather than double the temperature rise due to increasing CO2.
The paper was rejected, with the rather remarkable statement from one referee that:
The only object I can see for this paper is for the authors to get something in the peer-reviewed literature which the ignorant can cite as supporting lower climate sensitivity than the standard IPCC range.
The editor who rejected the paper at the Journal of Climate was Andrew Weaver, who happened to be the Green Party leader in British Columbia. The paper was then accepted by Theoretical and Applied Climatology journal.
At Glasgow some progress was made on a ‘New collective quantified goal on climate finance’, with some pushing for a $US1.3 trillion figure. Developing countries continually linked the provision of finance to agreeing to the key elements of a Glasgow ‘agreement’ sought by the UK Presidency.
Claims rely on models previously proven to be inaccurate.
The demands from developing countries were unsurprising, given the rich world is asking them to forego the very kind of development that provided them with the wealth they enjoy, in order to prevent warming. If the approximately one billion people in the 48 sub-Saharan African countries, responsible for less than 1% of cumulative global carbon emissions, were to triple electricity generation using only natural gas, global emissions would only increase by about 1%. If they used their coal resources in state- of-the-art advanced ultra-supercritical (AUSC) coal-fired stations such as those developed by GE, then the increase would only be slightly higher. Such stations can achieve 49% efficiency and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30-45% over the global fleet average.
Yet the policies proposed by developed countries at Glasgow would prevent this, leading Breakthrough Institute energy and development director Vijaya Ramachandran to decry ‘green colonialism’ in an essay in Foreign Policy magazine. Ramachandran is particularly scathing of Norway which, she points out, is the most fossil fuel-dependent affluent country in the world.
Fully 41% of Norway’s exports, 14% of its GDP, 14% of its government revenues, and between 6 and 7% of its employment derive from crude oil and natural gas. Yet Norway, along with the rest of Europe, the USA, and much of the global north is attempting to dictate that the global south should forgo developing its coal and gas and oil resources, stay poor, and stop developing. As she puts it, “Let’s call a spade a spade: Norway is advancing the green version of colonialism.” She doesn’t mince words: “Failing to be honest about the energy needs of the developing world is inhumane, uncompassionate, and immoral.”
HIDING BEHIND THE ENERGY GIANTS
COP26 in Glasgow ended in the manner largely predicted at the outset: with an ambiguously worded ‘Glasgow Pact’ containing little of substance. Being a ‘Pact’ rather than a ‘Treaty’ avoids any need for ratification by the US Senate, which would end in a rejection humiliating for President Biden.
The IEA considered that, if honoured and implemented, the aggregated Nationally Determined Contributions would probably limit post-industrial revolution temperature increases to 1.8°C. However, these claims rely on models previously proven to be inaccurate and do not engender great faith they will be any more accurate in future.
Australia’s current target, submitted as part of the Paris Agreement, is for a 26-28% reduction on 2005 emission levels by 2030, but the government’s projections show a reduction of up to 35% will be reached and has also specified some low emissions technology ‘stretch targets’. Nevertheless we are constantly excoriated as climate laggards, and were again in Glasgow, being given the ‘Colossal Fossil’ award in one of the many stunts pulled by those who seem to be stuck in a kind of undergraduate student politics.
Glasgow was the first last chance since the last last chance was not taken.
Not only do the climate activists simply ignore China in all this, but they give Europe a free pass. Under Paris, the EU accepted a target of a 40% reduction—but one carefully based on a base (comparison) year of 1990, one coinciding with the collapse of communism. Like the UK, the EU benefitted from closing uneconomic coal mines and a reduction in industrial capacity, and took to Glasgow a reduction of at least 55% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990. The trick was in the selection of the base year.
The ‘last chance’ at Glasgow was the first last chance since the last last chance was not taken, despite the presence of the numerous business leaders and celebrities who flew into Glasgow for COP26 in 400 private jets. And so on to the next last chance, and then the one after that. The presence of the Great and the Good, including Prince Charles, may well have hindered rather than helped progress, as the sight of the extremely affluent preaching to the poorest nations that they must forego the development that made them wealthy was hardly a good message.
As expected, developing countries, led by China and India, gutted attempts by the UK and the EU, which have largely exhausted their cheap coal resources, to impose the same disadvantage on them. Their group of 22 ‘Like-Minded Developing Countries’ at one stage even demanded the removal of the whole section on ‘mitigation’ (efforts to slow climate change).
We are left with something of a ‘Potemkin’ accord that will deliver very little of consequence. This is not a bad thing for Australia, which was able to hide its national interests behind those of China, India, Iran and others. Australia actually waved through the penultimate text that called for a ‘phase out’ of ‘unabated’ coal-fired generation, and it was left to India and China to insist the text be changed to ‘phase down’. Australia was silent during the final plenary.
Aynsley Kellow is Professor Emeritus of Government, University of Tasmania, and was a Special Correspondent for the Institute of Public Affairs for its daily Say No To Glasgow Bulletins issued during COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021. This is an edited extract of his contributions, the originals of which can be found at climatechangethefacts.org.au/blog (where you can also sign up to receive the IPA’s regular climate change science and policy bulletin).