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IPCC warns 12 years to avoid climate tipping point

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their latest 'special report' this week, calling for 'urgent' action.

Why so urgent?

It turns out that contrary to previous claims, even if every country delivers on their Paris Climate agreement commitments, we won't actually achieve the goal of limiting temperature rise to 2°C, let alone 1.5°C by 2100.

From the Summary for Policy Makers:

Estimates of the global emissions outcome of current nationally stated mitigation ambitions as submitted under the Paris Agreement would lead to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 of 52–58 GtCO2eq yr-1 (medium confidence). Pathways reflecting these ambitions would not limit global warming to 1.5°C, even if supplemented by very challenging increases in the scale and ambition of emissions reductions after 2030 (high confidence). Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (high confidence).

The Paris Agreement

According to Climate Action Tracker, aside from Gambia and Morocco, the world has failed to meet the 1.5°C benchmark.

The IPCC report claims we have 12 years to act to avoid the 'tipping point' at which warming will be locked in—a 'point of no return'.

The report calls for:

  • Sourcing 70% to 85% of electricity from renewables by 2050
  • Putting a price on CO2 emissions
  • Using technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere

And what is the estimated cost of the action required?

The price envelope of worldwide marginal abatement costs for 1.5°C-consistent pathways reported in Chapter 2 is 135–475 USD tCO2 –1 in 2030 and 245–1100 USD tCO2 –1 in 2050. [Chapter 4, page 89]

The cost and scale of this call to action are tremendous, so it's understandable that our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, would be hesitant to adopt the recommendations blindly.

As a result, our PM has been called 'selfish' and the government 'breathtakingly stupid' for not immediately signing on to 'do more'.

But is this criticism valid?

Australia’s commitment under the Paris Agreement is to an absolute CO2 reduction of 26-28 percent from 2005 levels (171 million tonnes per annum).

That's more than a 50% reduction per capita. In terms of intensity, it's around 65% less.

How does that commitment compare to other countries?

Take India as an example. Renewable advocates often cite India as a shining example of climate action, citing its commitment to reducing emissions by 35% by 2030.


India has agreed to reduce its emissions intensity by 35%, not its absolute emissions. This is an important distinction that many renewable advocates conveniently get wrong. However, assessing whether Australia's commitments are fair or selfish is essential.

A simple analysis of the numbers demonstrates that if India achieves its goal, based on current projections, its CO2 emissions will increase from 1.826 Bn to 4.83 Bn tonnes, adding around 3 billion tonnes of CO2 annually to the atmosphere.

Similarly, China has committed to reducing its emissions intensity by 65%. This reduction will result in a 70% increase in absolute emissions of over 4 billion tonnes annually.

For context, Australia's total annual CO2 saving in 2030 of 171 million tonnes per annum will be offset in just nine days by China and India’s additional CO2 emissions.

The following charts show Australia's commitment to transitioning to a lower CO2 economy is fair and appropriate.

Will this IPCC report be taken seriously?

Notwithstanding that Australia's current Paris Agreement commitment seems entirely appropriate in the context of 'global action', the report's call to action faces an even greater hurdle: the legacy of failed climate 'tipping point' claims makes future claims suspect.

In 2006, Al Gore predicted a 20-foot sea-level rise, and James Hansen claimed we had ten years to implement the necessary changes to avoid a tipping point. Neither has acknowledged their failed predictions.

In 2007, Rajendra Pachauri, the former head of the IPCC, told us, “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late.”

In 2009, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown claimed we had only “50 days to save the world from global warming."

Contradicting Brown, in the same year, Prince Charles told us we had a mere 96 months before it was too late to save the planet. That 96 months was up last year.

This pattern of exaggerated or failed predictions has led to a credibility problem that may hamper any legitimate message.

At the very least, all governments should review the report in this light before making policy decisions.

Is the action technically and economically achievable within the timeframe?

Given the cost and scale involved, it's an understatement that a transition to 85% renewable energy within 12 years is a challenge.

Consider the cost: nowhere in the world does high wind and solar generation coincide with low-cost electricity. The trend is the opposite. Will voters accept the increasing cost?

Last year (2017), Australia generated just under 8% of its electricity from wind and solar, up from 1.1% ten years ago.

In Victoria, which has benefitted from the low cost of brown coal power generation for decades, the wholesale electricity price has tripled since 2015, with wind and solar increasing from 7% to about 10% following the sudden closure of ~22% of the brown coal fleet:

Source: AEMO

Consider scale: In 2017, the world generated 1,569 TWh of electricity from wind and solar, representing around 6% of consumption.

The IPCC target is 85% from renewables by 2050. This includes hydro and biomass, but most must come from wind and solar.

If the world took action starting now, bottlenecks in the supply chain for raw materials needed to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries would result in significant cost pressure.

Ironically, Australia's miners would prosper, with coal miners benefiting from the increased demand for energy required to make the iron and steel needed to reach 85% renewable energy, as wind and solar just can't provide the power and chemistry required to do the job.

If we somehow rally behind this unprecedented call to action, we believe our Coldry and HydroMOR processes would make an ideal transitional solution through to 2050, reducing CO2 intensity while maintaining affordability.