Recently on Facebook Craig Kelly wrote about plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
- He inferred that it is impractical for the world to reach this goal.
- To achieve it we’d have to build “one new nuclear power plant every day for the next 30 years”.
- Those who support net zero are “under the delusion that this will stop bad weather”.
1. The jury is still out. The UN says we must do it, 20 countries are committed to it and another hundred are working on it. Australia is moving towards it. But it may not happen.
2. Mr Kelly has grossly overstated the impact of climate action. Most existing power generation facilities will need to be replaced before 2050 for economic reasons.
3. This is nonsense. No-one who supports climate science thinks this. But achieving net zero will reduce climate change and help limit the increase in bad weather.
What Craig Kelly said
On 9th November, Craig Kelly made this post on Facebook.
I’ll start with the easiest ones first.
3. Stopping bad weather?
I have never seen anyone under this delusion except those who oppose climate action. It is nonsense.
The world is warming and our climate is becoming more dangerous. But we will always have “good” and “bad” weather, now and in the future. Ameliorating climate change won’t stop bad weather, but it will limit the frequency of bad weather.
This is a “straw man” argument that can only come from gross misunderstanding or misrepresentation.
2. Nuclear power?
Craig Kelly has suggested that addressing climate change will necessitate the building of a nuclear power station per day for 30 years. There are three reasons why this statement should be questioned.
(1) Nuclear power?
The use of nuclear power is contentious. The operation of a nuclear power station produces low emissions, and when the full life cycle is considered, its carbon footprint is low to moderate – better than fossil fuels and almost as good as wind and solar. But the dangers of nuclear power and the difficulty of disposing of waste makes it an unattractive option for many.
A number of countries currently use nuclear power. Nuclear power will certainly be part of the mix worldwide, but most countries will focus more on solar, wind and other renewable sources.
For example, it has been estimated that, for China to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060, as currently planned, it will require a 16 times increase in solar, 9 times increase in wind, 6 times in nuclear and a doubling of hydro power.
(ii) How much power?
It is hard to see where he gets the figure of one nuclear power station per day for 30 years. Power stations come in many sizes, from less than 1 GW up to at least 8 GW and he didn’t nominate what size he was considering. I have assumed he is talking about relatively small 1 GW stations.
Now for some maths (sorry, skip this paragraph if you like). There are about 10,960 days in 30 years. Building one 1 GW station per day will allow about 86 million GWh of power to be produced. But according to the US Energy Information Administration, current usage (which was Mr Kelly’s assumption) is about 25m GWh, projected to rise to about 45m GWh in 2050.
So it seems Mr Kelly’s figures significantly overstate the needs. (I am happy to be corrected on this by anyone who understands it better than I do.)
(iii) It will happen anyway (regardless of climate change)
This is the most important point. Coal-fired power stations have an economic life of about 46 years. As emission standards get tighter and stations age, they become less efficient and uneconomic. Meanwhile, low carbon power generation has become cheaper than coal-based generation. So many coal-fired power stations will become less economic and are expected to be retired in less than 35 years.
So even if we continued with fossil fuel based energy, the majority of existing coal-fired power stations will need to be replaced by 2050.
The problem Mr Kelly raises isn’t a climate issue but simply one of asset management and replacement.
1. The net zero goal
Mr Kelly is certainly correct in his inference that this goal is ambitious, and it is probably unlikely to be met. But we can say:
- the UN says the world MUST achieve this goal;
- the International Energy Agency has outlined how this might be achieved using a range of measures (renewable power, improved building insulation, electric motor vehicles, etc);
- Twenty countries have already committed to this goal, and a hundred more are considering it.
No problems for Australia?
More importantly, despite the lack of leadership by Mr Kelly’s government, Australia is actually heading towards this goal.
- All states and territories have set net zero by 2050 as a goal. For example, the NSW Government has recently released details of Stage 1 of its plan to reach net zero by 2050, including $11.6bn of investment, creation of 2,400 new jobs and the reduction in electricity prices.
- The Australian Climate Roundtable, which includes business, investment and energy representation, released a report in August 2020 urging the government in the strongest terms to take decisive climate action, or risk our nation’s prosperity.
- The economics are against coal. Renewables are now cheaper, and experts say coal and gas powered electricity is a thing of the past.
- There hasn’t been a coal-fired power station built in Australia since 2009.
Almost everything Mr Kelly posted was either mistaken or irrelevant.
- Australia is already replacing its ageing coal-fired power stations with renewable energy generation that will assist us reach net zero by 2050.
- Most existing power generation infrastructure around the world will be replaced by 2050, regardless of climate change.
- None of this will stop bad weather, but it will certainly make a difference to weather, climate and human life in Australia (by slowing the worsening of heatwaves, dangerous bushfires and drought).
- Solar, wind and nuclear have ‘amazingly low’ carbon footprints, study finds. CarbonBrief, 2017.
- Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. International Energy Agency, October 2020.
- What Does “Net-Zero Emissions” Mean? 6 Common Questions, Answered. World Resources Institute, 2019.
- What does net zero emissions mean? Climate Council.
- Combatting climate change. On this website.