Top climate scientist slams coal, carbon trading

Issue 

If the world's foremost scientific authority made a point of condemning what we were doing, most of us would at least pause to wonder if we were getting things right.

But not, it seems, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his climate change minister, Penny Wong.

In a letter to US president-elect Barack Obama on December 29, James Hansen, head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Research and widely considered the world's leading climate scientist, attacked the irresponsibility of a string of rich countries on coal use and greenhouse emissions. His most stinging rebukes were reserved for Australia:

"Switzerland finances construction of coal plants, Sweden builds them, and Australia exports coal and sets atmospheric carbon dioxide goals so large as to guarantee destruction of much of the life on the planet."

The response from Rudd and Wong? So far, not a word.

Saving the Earth from climate disaster is still feasible, Hansen indicates in his letter. But science must dictate policy.

Meanwhile, "There is a profound disconnect between actions that policy circles are considering, and what the science demands for preservation of the planet", he writes.

One of the clear lessons of the science, Hansen points out, is that policy devices such as emissions reductions targets and cap-and-trade schemes — the choices of Rudd, Wong and Obama — simply will not work.

This is because only about half of the carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burnt is absorbed within a few decades by various carbon "sinks".

Much of the carbon dioxide given off by Robert Stephenson's "Rocket" locomotive in 1829 is still in the atmosphere and heating the planet. Around 20% will still be present in thousands of years.

If carbon dioxide continues to be released, even at the reduced rates now proposed, the amounts that remain will build up. With present-day levels already posing real dangers, today's policies of emissions reduction and carbon trading represent merely a slightly slower road to climate apocalypse.

The lesson, Hansen argues, is that the bulk of the Earth's remaining fossil fuels must be left untouched. Meanwhile, he maintains, "nobody realistically expects that the large readily available pools of oil and gas will be left in the ground". The savings must therefore come at the expense of coal — specifically, through a "moratorium and phase-out of coal plants that do not capture and store CO2".

"Coal plants", he states bluntly, "are factories of death."

Carbon emissions from all sources, Hansen continues, must be subject to a rising price. The most effective way he sees of achieving this is through a carbon tax, levied at the well-head or port of entry.

Since this would flow through into a near-general rise in prices, all revenues from it — a 100% dividend — should be returned to the population, in equal shares deposited in bank accounts.

In its impacts on the social distribution of wealth, such a scheme would be highly progressive. Heavy users of fossil fuels would be penalised, while people with modest consumption would gain. Responding to the new price structure, everyone would have an incentive to reduce their carbon footprint.

No one, Hansen points out, would get rich from such a tax. "Unlike cap-and-trade, no millionaires would be made at the expense of the public …. Cap-and-trade generates special interests, lobbyists, and trading schemes …. The public is fed up with such business."

Moreover, and unlike cap-and-trade schemes, a carbon tax would provide a straightforward basis for international agreements. "In contrast to the impracticability of all nations agreeing to caps, and the impossibility of enforcement, a carbon tax can readily be made near-global."

With a carbon tax in place, and coal being phased out, how would humanity's energy needs be met? "Energy efficiency, renewable energies, and a 'smart grid' deserve first priority in our effort to reduce carbon emissions", Hansen states. "With a rising carbon price, renewable energy can perhaps handle all of our needs."

Perhaps — but the question is not settled, and according to Hansen, "most experts" are unconvinced that renewables will suffice. If problems with his preferred solutions were to leave a large contingent of coal plants still operating in 25 years, Hansen notes, "such a result would be disastrous for the planet, humanity and nature".

This leads him to a series of arguments that are already proving sharply controversial.

"Fourth generation nuclear power … and coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and sequestration … at present are the best candidates to provide large baseload nearly carbon-free power (in case renewable energies cannot do the entire job).

"Moreover, improved (third generation) light water reactors are available for near-term needs."

These sections of Hansen's letter leave out of account the vast promise, outlined by Cornell University professor Johannes Lehmann, of carbon "drawdown" from the atmosphere using pyrolysis of crop residues and other organic waste, followed by incorporation of the resulting biochar in soils.

Coal-fired plants with carbon geo-sequestration, meanwhile, seem unlikely ever to be economically competitive with a number of emerging renewable energy technologies whose potential Hansen does not explore.

The third-generation nuclear reactors Hansen alludes to have most of the dangers of the present, second-generation plants. Fourth-generation (integrated fast reactor) nuclear plants, which do not require uranium mining and which "burn" existing nuclear wastes, are in something of a separate category. Whether they represent a plus for overall nuclear safety, and should be resorted to, will need to be a topic of informed, careful debate.

Climate activists should be ready to engage calmly and without rancour in such discussion — which will take place on a different intellectual planet from the denial and foot-shuffling of coal industry toadies like Rudd and Wong.