Here I debunk an article in the Financial Times - although by the title it is supposedly about myths about green technology and renewables, it actually perfectly highlights most of the scientific and even financial myths about renewables propagated by some economists who claim that green growth is impossible.
I am annotating this article with Hypothes.is - the academic online web commenting tool. You may be able to read my annotations online here:
This is another article I'm writing to support people we help in the Facebook Doomsday Debunked group, that find us because they get scared, sometimes to the point of feeling suicidal about it, by such stories.
Do share this with your friends if you find it useful, as they may be panicking too.
In case you can’t see it here are screenshots of my annotations.
Many climate scientists think the IPCC’s backward-looking, consensus-based estimates are too optimistic,
This is just one climate scientist, Oppenheimer, a specialist in Geosciences, and his co-authors are a philosopher Dale Jamieson and a historian Naomi Oreskes. Their writings on this topic have lead to vigorous discussion amongst other climate scientists.
They haven't convinced many. In this discussion, most other climate scientists responded saying that their published papers just follow the science wherever it goes.
The IPCC don't do any research of their own. They do a systematic review of all the literature, a technique developed from medicine. As with medicine, this is needed because so many papers are published every year that it is humanly impossible for an individual expert to read them all. Instead, hundreds of scientists meet together to undertake this systematic review, coordinated by the co-chairs.
The aim is to include all the well supported research on the topic.
Yes they do work to a consensus but only a consensus on whether the well supported findings are included and summarized adequately. They summarize their findings here with words such as “low confidence” or “medium confidence” where these terms have precise scientific meanings. They come to a consensus on, say, whether a particular finding is low confidence, or medium or high confidence.
They don't attempt any kind of consensus about what the effects of climate change are.
If there is a wide variety of results in the literature they will say that it is low confidence and will discuss the range of findings. The climate reports often remark on particular studies that come to different conclusions from the others.
Sometimes the IPCC do underestimate. When this happens, it is because all the well supported published papers on the topic have underestimated, as happened with the Arctic sea ice. However, that wasn’t because of any tendency to conservatism. That was because of systematic issues with the models everyone used, with scientific issues modeling the detailed processes correctly. If all the studies say one thing, then a review of them will of course do the same.
They sometimes over estimate too. The climate sensitivity - a very important parameter - varies a lot and there are plenty of outliers in the direction of overestimating the amount of climate sensitivity.
They summarize the complete range of values there. Indeed current models are currently showing a sensitivity higher than expected. These are likely to be inaccurate just as the climate models for Arctic ice were inaccurate in the other direction, because the combined paleo, studies and instrumental observations don't support such a high sensitivity.
Global emissions are still rising, hitting a record last year. Meanwhile, the world’s population is growing.
This is the most ambitious P1 path from the IPCC report in 2018
Note that the IPCC also have the graph rising for the first few years, through to around 2020. It’s just not realistic to have it suddenly ramp down right away.
That's mainly because of the rapid industrialization of China and other countries and though China is rapidly increasing its renewables it takes a while for that industry to grow large enough to offset the increases in CO2 emissions due to coal. But renewables are growing as fast as any fuel in recorded history and it is well feasible for China to transition to mostly renewables as this continues.
For more on this:
- Yes emissions are expected to rise or stay the same for a while on all scenarios - Yes we are able to ramp down to zero emissions
We seem to be on track for the most rapid adoption of a new form of energy ever. So far it is tracking the early days of nuclear power, but that leveled off, while renewables is set to continue to grow. This is from the BP Energy Outlook 2019 edition, so is a forecast by a fossil fuel company:
Their RT or "Rapid Transition" is a 45% fall in emissions by 2040, while for the 1.5 C path without overshoot, we need to achieve this by around 2030, so is a faster transition than they show there.
But if we target 1.5 C then the transition will be faster than their Rapid Transition.
For more on this see my answer to:
Meanwhile, yes the population is still rising. However this is because we are living longer. We actually have almost the same number of children in the world as we had a decade ago and many countries have populations that are leveling off, and in the case of Japan and a few others, already decreasing. This is not because of any issues of fertility and not because of shortages of resources. It is because of prosperity and because worldwide in countries of all political and religious persuasions, as they become healthier, with more resources and as child mortality goes down, wealthy people are choosing to have fewer children, and a fair number are not having children at all.
The world population is expected to level off some time between 2050 (on the most optimistic projections) and 2100, with Africa the key. The World Population Division with estimate of 11 billion by 2100 project an increase of Nigeria’s population from 0.2 billion to not far off 0.8 billion, two thirds of the population of India in less than a third of its area. A population density much higher even than India. The upper limit of their projection for Nigeria here has more than the population of India into less than a third of its area. How likely is that?
There are signs already of the younger population having lower birth rates. If you factor in changes due to higher levels of education, the result can be anywhere between 6.9 and 12.6 billion by 2100 according to another study. See The human core of the shared socioeconomic pathways: Population scenarios by age, sex and level of education for all countries to 2100 Their summary is:
- Future fertility and hence population growth will depend on female education.
- In the median assumptions scenario (SSP2) world population will peak around 2070.
- By 2100 world population ranges from 6.9 (SSP1) to 12.6 billion (SSP3).
Either way, things are actually looking brighter than one might think. Which isn't to say it will be easy, but there is no reason why we have to ruin ecosystems on Earth.
Then, it may surprise you to know that we actually produce more than enough food to feed the world. We have starvation for political reasons at present. It's an income and distribution problem. As an example, the world had a food surplus of 510 kcal / cap / day in 2010 increased from 310 kcal / cap / day in 1965. All the indications are that we should be able to feed 10 billion people.
For more details and cites see my
And when people have money, they convert it into emissions. That’s what wealth is.
No, emissions are not wealth. You get no material benefit from extra CO2 in the atmosphere. Also, you don't need to create emissions in the process of making goods.
To take an example, if you grow a tree, cut it down and make it into furniture, you have removed carbon from the atmosphere, not added to it, in the process of making your furniture.
And global investment in clean energy projects fell to its lowest levels in six years in the first half of 2019, says Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
What this misses out is that the reason for this is the remarkable reduction in the costs of renewables in the last few years. It's more installed capacity for less cost.
Already in March 2018 Bloomberg were reporting that onshore wind was down 18% from the previous year as were solar panels without tracking, offshore wind down 5% and lithium-ion batteries down 79% since 2010
They reported even more striking falls for India. The benchmark onshore wind in March 2018 was $39 per MWh, down 46% from the previous year. Coal by comparison was $68 per MWh and combined-cycle gas was $93.
At the time of this report March 2018, the cost of wind plus battery and solar plus battery ranged widely in India from $34 to $208 per MWh for wind and from $47 to $308 for solar but the average cost was falling fast too.
With that background it should come as no surprise that in 2018 we installed much more than any previous year, increasing from 99 to 109 GW of new solar power installed world-wide, but at a lower cost than the previous year, declining 24% in dollar terms. Clean Energy Investment Exceeded $300 Billion Once Again in 2018 | BloombergNEF That makes it 69% of the price per GW of the previous year for solar power. Some news reports shared just this graph which makes it look like investment in solar power is going down:
But if you look at the power capacity added it’s gone up a lot - this is the amount added to the solar panels we already have in each year:
Far less cost, yes, but for far more panels! That’s excellent news.
What’s most interesting is that in many places solar power is now competing with fossil fuel economically. At that point then people will start installing solar panels for new power stations in preference to fossil fuels even without incentives so long as you don’t have incentives to prevent it.
It can really take off at that point. It’s already competitive in many places now including not only the usual sunny places - such as Spain, China, southern US and Australia but higher latitudes too. Even in the comparatively cold and cloudy UK for instance, solar power is competitive with the lowest cost fossil fuels.
Partly because of the Chinese initiatives, we now have low price solar panels throughout Asia Prices of solar panels and wind turbines continue to fall, faster than previous estimates, and of batteries also.
The Committee on Climate Change’s report: Net Zero The UK's contribution to stopping global warming, puts it like this:
One of the most positive and important developments since 2008 has been the very rapid cost reduction that has accompanied the global expansion of renewable electricity generation (especially for wind and solar power) and an accompanying fall in the cost of batteries.
They share this remarkable graph of the current and near future projected costs of onshore and offshore wind, and of solar-PV in the UK - both Solar-PV and the onshore wind are actually already competing with the lowest cost fossil fuels, without subsidies. Offshore wind is rapidly headed that way too. And this is for the UK which spans 50 to 60 degrees north, yet already is able to produce solar PV power competitive with fossil fuels:
So, the reason for this is not a reduction in the number of projects or the gigawatts. It is because of the huge decrease in the costs of wind and most especially solar photovoltaic which lets us build more clean energy for lower cost. Far from being a reason for pessimism this is a reason for optimism. Even in the UK solar photovoltaic is competitive now with the lowest cost fossil fuels.
Soon it will no longer make sense to build new fossil fuel plants.
And yes we can deal with the variability of renewables with peaking power (pumped hydro storage is the lowest priced way to do this but there are many other methods) and renewables don't take up more good agricultural land than fossil fuels once you take account of use of brownfield sites, roofs of houses, mixed use with agriculture, offshore wind, etc.
Also the very report they share explains that China's removal of subsidies for renewables had a lot to do with the drop in the first quarter of 2019 - of course with the renewables rapidly plunging in prices that's only going to have a temporary effect.
Bloomberg end the article:
Some possible good news for the clean energy industry: Spending may pick back up in the second half of the year as an auction for solar power in China triggers a “rush” of project financing and some big offshore wind deals come through, Wu said.
Spending in some countries including Japan and India rose. And despite the drop in Europe, investments in both Spain and Sweden took off, jumping by more than 200% in both countries.
But that’s mostly because these countries have offshored their emissions: much of their stuff is now made in Asia.
This is true to some extent. According to the Office of Climate Statistics, UK emissions peaked in 1972 but when you take into account imported emissions then UK emissions peaked in 2007. This is because the UK has transitioned from a manufacturing based economy to a services based economy, such as finance, professional services, and information and communication technology.
This is following the Kuznets curve - a theory that increases in GDP result in increased greenhouse emissions but then after a turning point, as an economy transitions to service-based industries the environmental damage gradually falls.
The EKC depicted in Figure 1 highlights the scale effect, which is the initial transition of the economy from agricultural production in rural areas to industrial production in urban areas. As industrial production intensifies, more energy is used, resulting in increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions through combustion. However, as the economy develops, there will be a structural change from manufacturing and industrial production to service-based industries. Higher economic development leads to better technology, environmental awareness and enforcement of environmental regulations resulting in the gradual decline of environmental degradation.
This is low emission, but means we import more goods from abroad with our earnings. The UK is the top emitter of CO2 in its imports in the countries they looked at, above even the US.
However our own manufacturing sector and our energy production sector are also following that curve, Even when you take account of the emissions associated with imported goods we have had a reduction since 2007.
Many of our imports are from China which is a large per capita net exporter of CO2 emissions locked into the goods it exports, and the world as a whole is still on its way up in the Kuznet curve. But as China transitions to renewables that part of our imports will also peak.
The UK's peak seems to have been around 1985
For the UK, the approximate turning point at which the decoupling of GDP per head and carbon dioxide emissions seemed to have happened was in 1985, with a GDP per head of £16,667 and corresponding CO2 emissions of around 586 million tonnes.
In the world as a whole we are still on the way up in the Kuznets curve
While the UK economy is a good example of Environmental Kuznets Curve theory and has shown signs of absolute decoupling following 1985, Figure 13 demonstrates that this has not been the case when looking at the same comparison globally. There is still a strong coupling between carbon dioxide emissions and real GDP per head.
This can't be turned around globally through transition to services as we still need to manufacture goods so it has to be done by technological change (e.g. transition to renewable) or environmental policies.
They comment that
At a global level, a structural change such as the one witnessed in the UK is unlikely because of the global demand for manufactured goods, therefore any potential global decoupling must be achieved through other factors such as technological change or environmental policies.
The Committee for Climate Change in their plan for zero emissions for the UK for 2050 is well aware of this and they say that it should not be done by offshoring emissions. For instance on electricity:
Our analysis assumes that the UK imports no more electricity than it exports in the future, to offset the risk of importing higher carbon power. Interconnection would still be valuable as a source of flexibility - importing at times of need and exporting at times of surplus.
With respect to emissions accounting, the group agreed that is important to monitor both the UK’s territorial emissions and the emissions associated with the goods and services consumed by the UK (consumption emissions). As Defra’s annual indicator shows, the UK’s consumption emissions are significantly higher than our territorial emissions, though they have also fallen significantly in the last decade
They talk about the importance of working on this together, for instance with imported biofuel.
If the biomass fuel used in UK BECCS plants is imported, there will need to be international agreements about the attribution of such negative emissions – and the extent to which they could be wholly claimed by the UK.
The Paris agreement is based on counting the emissions generated in the country that manufactures the goods - it has to be done this way because otherwise the emissions would be double counted and countries would be responsible for emissions that are not under their control.
The other side of this for industrialized countries is that they need to invest in the Green Climate Fund which is still under funded which helps the developing countries to achieve their climate goals. Most of them have two goals, the most ambitious they can manage by themselves without help and a more ambitious target that they can achieve with help from the Green Climate Fund.
This is one of the most cost effective ways the developing countries can reduce emissions - by contributing to this fund to reduce emissions in developing countries where the money goes further than in developed countries. They can also help them adapt to the changes. That also directly benefits the industrialized countries. For instance if Bangladesh is better adapted to sea and river flooding, it can feed its population more easily, becomes a vigorous economy with exports, and there is much less risk of migration in the future. This is a win for everyone.
- Rising Seas - Ingenious Ways Netherlands, Florida And Bangladesh Can Adapt - Barriers And Sponges - And Floating Gardens
The sad truth is that moving from dirty to green growth will take much more time than we have. The infrastructure we’ll be using these next crucial decades has largely already been built, and it isn’t green. Most of today’s planes and container ships will still be in use by 2040. There are no green alternatives yet, nor enough vegan burgers or sustainable clothes.
This infrastructure may become stranded assets. Renewables are already competing with fossil fuels to such an extent that the coal fired plants that China is building will not likely be used to capacity or will be retired early. It makes sense for them to build them because fossil fuel plants cost less to build than renewables, and most of the cost is on going, for the fuel. In the early days of renewables with them not yet proven at scale and high cost ,then it makes sense to rely on fossil fuels to keep the lights going. But now that they have proven renewables on a large scale and low cost, they are not likely to build many more coal plants in the future.
However those are expected to become stranded assets, no longer economic to run and will retire early as we transition to renewables. We already have too many coal plants to run them all for the industry average of 53% capacity for 40 years.
This doesn't mean that it's impossible to transition to renewables. It means that some of our coal plants will run at less than capacity or retire early if we transition to zero emissions by 2050.
- New study does NOT conclude that we have too many fossil fuel power plants and vehicles to stay within 1.5°C
The fossil fuel industry needs to start planning for these possibilities and indeed the share holders have required BP and Shell to do reports in which they include alternate planning for a 2 C future - they haven't yet done a 1.5 C future but can already see the way this can go at 2 C. They are diversifying, putting just a small fraction of their investment into renewables, instead of new oil fields. We will need oil and gas for the next 30 years as we taper down to zero emissions by 2050, but it's not clear that we need to open any new oil fields, and it is time to transition towards renewables. I cover this in:
The main thing that will help here is to stop the subsidies for fossil fuels. Instead we need to increase the subsidies that promote transitions to renewables and incentives for a circular economy. We need to encourage the international companies that are good actors on biodiversity and climate change and discontinue the incentives that encourage the bad actors.
We also need to stop the perverse agricultural subsides that promote destruction of ecosystems. The IPBES report in spring 2018 identified this as the number one thing we need to do to protect biodiversity as we transition to zero emissions. We must stop these perverse subsidies that subsidies destruction of the nature services we all depend on. This is hard as it goes against vested interests. But economically it makes sense as the nature systems have value for us, economic value too as well as social value.
Yes some of our planes will still be flying in 2040 - they typically last for around 30 years depending on the number of pressurization cycles. They can use carbon neutral fuels.
An oil tanker, typically only lasts 21 years now before they are replaced
- The average age of demolished crude oil tankers hits 21 – not much room left for demolition balancing the market!
And sustainable clothes are gradually taking off. See
These include use of climate friendly fabrics, such as linen, hemp, lynocell (made from wood pulp), bamboo (surprisingly), Alpaca, organic wool and silk.
The dyes make a difference too - traditional dyes use a lot of water to process, and the dye washes out of the fabric into rivers in the developing world. White cloth also is dyed. Natural and low impact dies and natural fabrics are least impact.
They can also use recycled materials, or directly use second hand clothes through upcycling.
For more on this, see:
Electric vehicles won’t save us: their lifetime emissions are unacceptably high.
The lifetime emissions for electric cars depend on where the components are manufactured. For instance if you make the batteries in Denmark where there are high levels of renewables then the CO2 emissions imbedded in the car are far less than if you manufacture them in a country with higher emissions such as Germany. They also run on electricity which is still produced from fossil fuels in many parts of the world.
So, the effectiveness of an electric car in reducing emissions depends on how much renewables power is available to manufacture it and then for the electricity it runs on. It also depends on the technology used to make the vehicle which is constantly improving.
Carbon brief in their fact check find that EVs are already responsible for considerably lower emissions over their lifetime across Europe and that this benefit will increase as the countries decarbonize electricity generation.
But as William Jevons pointed out in 1865, when fuels become cheaper and more efficient, we use more of them
This is Jevons's thesis, that technological efficiency gains actually increase overall consumption. It's called the Jevons paradox. See for instance discussion here. If that was right one would need interventions of some sort, regulations on top of improvement in efficiency.
However in practice, this hasn't actually happened. When LED lights gave us the same light for a tenth of the amount of electricity we didn't use more LED lights. The UK has seen a reduction in energy use at the same time as its population grows.
The yellow line there is what we should have seen with constant per capita consumption of electricity.
Short story about it:
It is for the academics to discuss why this is possible. But it is clear that, for whatever reason, you can reduce energy use by improving efficiency, and that in practice you do not have to impose regulatory caps to prevent this leading to an increase in use.
stop most flying, meat-eating and clothes-buying until we have green alternatives, ban privately owned cars and abandon sprawling suburbs
This is not what the scientists say. Flying is only 2% of emissions and there are many ways to deal with it. Right now we can use carbon offsetting mainly, however there are planes already flying on low carbon fuels which were made with biofuels. In future we can make aviation fuel using renewable power. From water, and CO2 or other methods. This may sound like science fiction to make fuel from water, electricity and CO2, but actually, it is already feasible.
Audi for instance already produce carbon neutral biodiesel. Here are some of the demonstration plants.
- Carbon-neutral fuel - Wikipedia They get the CO2 from the flue exhausts of power stations. So they are offsetting the CO2 by turning it into biodiesel which of course eventually is burnt, so it is really using the CO2 twice.
But they could later on use CO2 from biofuel plants, for instance from agricultural wastes, or algae. In that case, the biofuel is already carbon neutral because it grows again each year. Turn its CO2 emissions into aviation fuel and you then have aviation fuel for free.
There is also research into electrically powered planes which are just beginning to become feasible due to increases in battery power densities. Small short haul planes in Norway, where there are lots of flights over short distances as you can imagine. There is a company that is already working on electric planes. This is a small two seater plane that took off and flew around Oslo airport.
It works only for small planes at present but those ones with maybe half a dozen passengers are often used in remote rural places.
They hope to start commercial flights by 2025.
- Norway's plan for a fleet of electric planes Also, in the IPCC projections they have an offset due to reafforestation. Things that are hard to reduce to zero quickly can be offset like that. They can also do carbon capture and storage directly from the atmosphere, if that technology is mature. Or carbon capture and storage of the output from biofuel plants. If agricultural wastes are being burnt as biofuel, and some of them are converted into fuel for planes, that would mean zero emissions. If the CO2 from the biofuel power stations is also captured, the result would be net negative.
I cover aviation in more detail in my
The aviation industry is currently commited to carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onwards and to cut CO2 emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050. It's one of the few global industries to take on such a comprehensive target industry wide.
A long economic depression might be enough to keep the planet habitable.
None of this is about an uninhabitable Earth. As Almud Arneth, one of the experts for the IPBES report, put it::
None of the scenarios we've been exploring would indicate that we cannot feed the world or cannot provide water cannot provide shelter that's for sure. But we can do it in a sustainable way or we can do it in an unsustainable way and that is really our choice.
- We can grow enough food for everyone through to 2100 and beyond on all scenarios
- No we are not headed for an ‘Uninhabitable Earth’ - debunked: David Wallace-Wells’s book and articles such as ‘The end of the world and you are responsible’
- Some of the worst doomsday fear fact checking errors in the mainstream press - most are about climate change
We are not going to find out. No electorate will vote to decimate its own lifestyle. We can’t blame bad politicians or corporates. It’s us: we will always choose growth over climate.
Actually we are gong to find out. Many countries are already pledged to zero emissions by 2050 or earlier. It never was the idea that they would all have 1.5 C compatible pledges right away. For instance, China had to build up an entire renewables industry from almost nothing before it can become within striking distance of such a pledge. The renewables have also fallen in price hugely since 2015 making many things feasible in 2020 that were impossible in 2015.
Although there are of course a few notable under achievers such as Australia, Canada, the US and Brazil, most nations are over achieving on the 2015 pledges. They are likely to have more ambitious pledges by 2020 and indeed some already have increased their commitment (e.g. the UK).
They are showing by doing that electorates do vote for a green future. Finland aims for zero emissions by 2035 and after that will be carbon negative. The UK has committed to zero emissions by 2050, California has also. If California was counted as a separate economy then California would be the firth and the UK the sixth largest economies in the world. The UK is the first G7 country to commit to this. The EU is committed to an 80% reduction by 2050 and it is within reach of increasing that to zero emissions. Emissions are already going down in many countries worldwide. That includes the US which has reducing emissions.
On a personal level there are many things you can to too, and many people are choosing low energy devices, insulating their homes or building passive houses, eating less meat or eating low intensity meat (you don't have to be vegan - 20% less will make a huge difference, equivalent worldwide to saving a region larger than the amazon to be reafforested or used for agriculture or whatever you want).
Though one person can’t do so much by themselves, collectively through our life choices we can make enormous changes that will help transform the planet. This is part of the transformative change that the experts say is needed at all levels in our society to combat climate change and biodiversity loss. This is empowering because it means there is much we can do ourselves already, even if we are in a country where the government is not yet doing anything.
The transformative change IPBES and the IPCC refer to requires changes at a personal level complemented by changes at community levels, and government levels. It also involves intergovernmental co-operation and co-operation of cities and communities that cross national boundaries as well as collaboration between governments and local communities.
To take a familiar example, recycling would never work if people didn't separate their rubbish and put it in the appropriate recycling bins. That was a transformative change that happened in my lifetime - in the 60s and 70s hardly anyone recycled. Now just about everyone does, in the UK at least.
There is much less awareness of the issue of food waste. Just as with recycling, you can’t compel this, but once consumers realize that it is a significant issue for the environment and the planet, then just as for recycling, they can voluntarily choose to act to reduce the amount of food they waste in the kitchen.
One thing that’s come out of recent research is the enormous impact our diets have on the world. It’s the same also with meat, not the idea of compelling people to eat less meat or choosing less intensively farmed meat. It is about informing them, and then many may choose to eat less meat. This is working already.
back to top
Seven tips for dealing with doomsday fears
If you are scared: Seven tips for dealing with doomsday fears which also talks about health professionals and how they can help.
If in the middle of a panic attack, see
- Breathe in and out slowly and deeply to calm a panic attack by Robert Walker on Debunking Doomsday
- Tips from CBT - might help some of you to deal with doomsday anxieties
- STOPP skill
Useful links to bookmark
- Search Doomsday Debunked (Facebook)
- Search Debunking Doomsday
- List of debunks
- Search Quora for articles by 'robert walker' (insert whoever you want to search for)
- Search Sites rated Very High for Factual
- Search Doomsday Debunked Wiki
Tip, bookmark those links to search for debunks more easily. Here is a screenshot of my bookmarks
Facebook support group
Facebook group Doomsday Debunked has been set up to help anyone who is scared by these fake doomsdays.
If you need help
Do message me on Quora or PM me on Facebook if you need help.
There are many others in the group who are available to support scared people via PM and who can also debunk fake Doomsday “news” for you if you get scared of a story and are not sure if it is true. See our debunkers list
If you are suicidal don’t forget there’s always help a phone call away with the List of suicide crisis lines - Wikipedia