A turning point looms for electricity and climate

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Bhutan vulnerable to climate change (photo Asian Development Bank)

bhutan vulnerable to climate change (photo Asian Development Bank)

To prevent catastrophic global warming, the world may have to issue a moratorium on new fossil-fuel power plants, writes David Fullbrook, senior consultant with DNV GL Energy’s Clean Technology Centre in Singapore. If that turns out to be politically impossible, project developers must start protecting electricity infrastructure from the impacts of a warming climate.

“…if [Asia] implements the coal-based plans right now, I think we are finished,” Jim Yong Kim, World Bank president, told Washington’s Climate Action Summit in early May.

Kim’s frank comments about plans by China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam to build some 340 GW of new coal power plants by 2020 – three-quarters of the world’s total – were widely reported.[1] Kim’s concerns followed dispiriting research results demonstrating that the world cannot have both more fossil-fuel power plants and less than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming.

In April Dutch research consultancy Ecofys concluded that building high-efficiency low-emissions coal power plants would not keep global warming below 2 Celsius.[2] Adding costly capture and storage technology to pump greenhouse-gas emissions deep underground did not change the conclusion, said Ecofys.

Such a massive mobilization and redirection of industry has been successfully undertaken before, during World War Two

In February, an Oxford University team found that for an even chance of staying below 2 Celsius power plants built after 2017 must be zero carbon.[3] However, carbon capture and storage is not yet ready for thousands of coal and gas power plants planned worldwide.

Slipping prospects for 2 Celsius have since May been reinforced by research from around the world indicating that without a sea change in policy there is little hope for capping warming at 1.5 Celsius, the aspirational goal introduced at the Paris climate conference last December.[4]

Global moratorium

How the world decides to respond to the climate challenge has great implications for policy, planning and investment in energy, the primary source of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, as well as for security of supply.

One option is a global moratorium on new greenhouse-gas emitting fossil-fuel power plants from 2017. This could be done in combination with grants and cheap international loans to help countries that are cancelling fossil-fuel power plants to rapidly develop energy efficiency, solar and wind.

Technically that’s a challenge but doable for two reasons. One, China and India are proving solar and wind can be built quickly at scale. Two, such a massive mobilization and redirection of industry has been successfully undertaken before, during World War Two. Carbon capture and nuclear power[5] could part of such a global project, if costs fall.

If a moratorium remains out of reach, electricity infrastructure being built from now on must plan for the impacts of a world warming beyond 2 Celsius on food, water and security to secure supply

Remarkably, the effort to hasten decarbonization of energy could quickly pay for itself. Co-benefits for health, prosperity and security may exceed the costs of scrapping fossil fuels, reckons the Global Commission for Economy and Climate.[6] In 2014 fossil fuels caused harm costing nearly 50 times more than subsidies for renewable energy, calculated International Monetary Fund analysts.[7] That year direct subsidies for fossil fuels were almost 5 times those for renewable energy, estimates the International Energy Agency.[8]

Politically a moratorium looks like a tall order. Still, when the stakes are high states sometimes move swiftly. The global bailout of banks in 2008 is one example. Another is the Montreal Protocol to protect the ozone layer, agreed two years after discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985.

Plan for impacts

If a moratorium remains out of reach, electricity infrastructure being built from now on must plan for the impacts of a world warming beyond 2 Celsius on food, water and security[9] to secure supply. It is an endeavour clouded by uncertainty because interdependencies and feedbacks between climate and food-providing ecosystems, societies and security are complex, dynamic and potentially surprising.

Long-held design assumptions must be revisited to ensure electricity infrastructure performs as we need under an increasingly harsh climate. Engineering must pay greater attention to social stress, rising seas, and, most critically, competition for water. Steps must be taken to ensure the workforce is not undermined by climate impacts. Adapting conventional approaches generally raises costs affecting risk and return for investors committing to decades-long projects like electricity infrastructure.

This could be a golden opportunity, particularly in Asia, where so much electricity infrastructure is yet to be built

But second-guessing global policy over the next few years and trying to figure out the best way to adapt new infrastructure may be something of a fool’s errand. A less risky and future-proof option for planners and investors might be to fundamentally rethink how they build electricity and energy systems, preferring technologies and designs which simultaneously tackle greenhouse gas emissions and increase operational resilience to climate change. This could be a golden opportunity, particularly in Asia, where so much electricity infrastructure is yet to be built.

Energy efficiency, batteries, solar modules and wind turbines are less vulnerable to climate change impacts and policy than conventional alternatives. Costs for renewable energy technologies are falling fast too, making for attractive investments, whether or not a moratorium comes to pass.

Editor’s Note

David Fullbrook, an ecological economist, is senior consultant strategy and policy with DNV GL Energy in Singapore. He writes on DNV GL’s blog Energy in Transition.

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/05/climate-change-coal-power-asia-world-bank-disaster; http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/speech/2016/05/05/remarks-world-bank-group-president-jim-yong-kim-climate-action-summit;

[2] Wong, L., de Jaeger, D., van Breevoort, P. 2016. The incompatibility of high-efficient coal technology with 2 Celsius scenarios. Utrecht: Ecofys http://www.ecofys.com/en/news/even-most-efficient-coal-puts-global-climate-goals-out-of-reach/

[3] Alexander Pfeiffer, Richard Millar, Cameron Hepburn, Eric Beinhocker, The ‘2°C capital stock’ for electricity generation: Committed cumulative carbon emissions from the electricity generation sector and the transition to a green economy, Applied Energy, Available online 24 March 2016, ISSN 0306-2619, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.apenergy.2016.02.093

[4] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4962079/ ; http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v534/n7609/abs/nature18307.html ; http://www.climatecentral.org/news/world-flirts-with-1.5C-threshold-20260 ; https://theconversation.com/we-have-almost-certainly-blown-the-1-5-degree-global-warming-target-63720

[5] B. K. Sovacool, A. Gilbert, and D. Nugent, “An international comparative assessment of construction cost overruns for electricity infrastructure,” Energy Res. Soc. Sci., vol. 3, pp. 152–160, Sep. 2014; Jonathan Koomey, Nathan E. Hultman, Arnulf Grubler, A reply to “Historical construction costs of global nuclear power reactors”, Energy Policy, April 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2016.03.052; Alexander Gilbert, Benjamin K. Sovacool, Phil Johnstone, Andy Stirling, Cost overruns and financial risk in the construction of nuclear power reactors: A critical appraisal, Energy Policy, April 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.enpol.2016.04.001.

[6] GCEC, “Better Growth Better Climate,” The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, Washington, DC, 2014.

[7] D. Coady, I. Parry, L. Sears and B. Shang, “How Large Are Global Energy Subsidies?,” International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC, 2015.

[8] IEA, “World Energy Outlook 2015: executive summary,” International Energy Agency, Paris. http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/weo-2015-special-report-energy-climate-change—executive-summary—english-version.html

[9] http://www.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2016/02/20160204t1830vOT.aspx; http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v8/n12/full/ngeo2559.html


  1. Pixilico says

    Too late now. Developing countries – not just in Asia – want to industrialize fast. It’d be disingenuous to deny their societies’ aspirations. Gaia will eventually find a way to take care of herself as she’s always done and get rid of most of us in the process.

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