A challenge for the IPCC doom and gloom brigade

Local media coverage of the latest UN climate change report has focused on theatrics, glossing over the monumental scope of what is being proposed and what it will take to get there.

The radical pro-renewables brigade want us to believe that the latest UN climate change report is a harbinger of doom for anything other than the generation modes they embrace.

In this, they are being aided and abetted by media coverage that, for the most part, has run with the “no fossil fuels by 2100” line.

No one has done the theatrics better than Greens leader Christine Milne, whose declaration “Do you want death or do you want coal?” is now a runaway leader for 2014 Al Gore Prize for Alarmist Hyperbole.

Popular media, however, have largely failed so far to pick up a major aspect of the IPCC assessment report, one of great significance for Australia, given our prominence in the international supply of coal, gas and uranium.

For a start, the report, which the UN has backed, says unrestricted use of fossil fuels must be phased out by 2100.

A key scenario the report presents is the need to increase the global share of low-carbon electricity supply from 30 per cent now to 80 per cent mid-century, using renewables, nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

The report adds that the target should be 90 per cent power supply from these sources by the end of the century by which time, it says, fossil fuel generation without CCS should have ended.

While media and NGOs keep referring to wind and solar, the IPCC acknowledges that hydro-power is a major part of renewables, a considerable geo-political challenge in regions such as Africa and Asia.

Critically, the report is unequivocal that there is no single solution to the challenge. It is less clear in presenting the fact that excluding technologies such as CCS and nuclear will lead to substantial increases in abatement costs, but the assertion is there.

To be most cost-effective, the IPCC says, mitigation of emissions needs a combined approach that includes enhancing carbon sinks as well as decarbonising energy supply (which, of course, includes transport and the direct use of natural gas, a major contributor to manufacturing).

Equally importantly, the ‘time is running out’ spiel that has dominated much of media coverage this week is aimed at getting global governments to reach agreement on a strategy, specifically with an eye on the UN talks in Lima later this month and Paris next December, and not at slamming on the energy brakes (and sending economies into a ditch) right this minute.

The IPCC implementation agenda is targeted, in effect, on the expected life span of a child born in Australia today: more than eight decades.

This is not a message reaching Australians through the media.

In this context, one of the key points missing or glossed over in coverage is the monumental scope of what the UN is proposing.

It goes well beyond electricity generation and includes stopping deforestation and making major changes to agricultural processes.

It requires not only a commitment to a strategy but also a raft of supporting activities that can only be implemented over a long period.

One journalist with his eyes on the bigger picture is the highly-regarded Andrew Revkin of The New York Times.

In his review of the situation, Revkin comments that debate is still heavily oriented towards the belief that a price on carbon and some shifts in policies (subsidies, for instance) are all that’s needed for a swift and affordable transition from conventional use of fossil fuels.

“But,” he says, “without a substantial boost in basic research and development and large-scale demonstration projects relating to technologies like mass energy storage, capturing and storing carbon dioxide, grid management and a new generation of nuclear plants, it’s hard to see timely progress.”

Revkin argues that there is a clear and consistent disconnect between the perceived risks of climate change and investment in the R&D needed to limit such risks.

Until the world gets real about the sustained investment needed for “the grand energy transition,” he says, “global warming and the global slumber party will continue.”

Another respected commentator, Shell’s climate change adviser David Hone, adds this important point: in energy abatement, the emphasis to date has been on promoting the use of renewables and on greater usage efficiency, but it’s possible that even large-scale adoption of these measures won’t cause global CO2 emissions to fall.

The IPCC work, Hone says, shows that carbon mitigation costs will be 1.5 times greater in a world which does not deploy CCS.

Others are already pointing to a new focus on nuclear power being no less important.

By coincidence, the UN paper has appeared in the deadline week for submissions to the Abbott government on its energy green paper.

A proper understanding of what the IPCC is saying raises some big questions for the shape of the forthcoming white paper and is as much a challenge for Labor as the Coalition because only a bipartisan, long-lasting and economically smart energy approach will be of any real value.