Posted by: David Hone

Thoughts on 10 Questions about Climate Change from Australia

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Over recent weeks one of the major Australian newspapers (The Melbourne Age) has asked readers to submit questions on climate change and at the same time opened a poll so that all readers could vote on the questions they most wanted to see answered. The newspaper pledged to investigate and attempt to answer the top ten questions. The poll closed last weekend and the questions are now in. As promised, The Age has started to answer them. Without getting too lengthy and also drawing on many previous postings (so excuse the links), here are some thoughts from me on the ten questions (with abbreviated questions as headings – but click here to see the full questions: 

1. Can Australia make a difference by taking action?

While it is true that Australian emissions are small on a global scale and that therefore even reducing them to zero wouldn’t be sufficient to affect levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, this isn’t a reason not to take action. Climate change is a collective issue, a tragedy of the commons, which requires collective action to solve. No one country, region or industrial sector can solve this unilaterally. Even if the big three, China, the USA and the major EU economies acted alone (with China reaching a plateau in the short term and then reducing by 50% by 2050 and the US and EU reducing by 80% by 2050), global emissions would plateau at best assuming that the rest of the world emissions grew by no more than 1.5% per annum over the next 40 years (in fact they have been growing at well over 2% p.a. over recent decades). So this issue needs a response from all nations, including Australia.


Will Australia inspire other nations? This isn’t the primary motivation of acting and in any case many nations around the world are beginning to move on this issue and take action. The responses still vary widely, but they are underway. For example, Canada is developing legislation to stop the further construction of coal fired power stations, unless carbon capture and storage is utilised. China is now very close to introducing a carbon price into some parts of its economy and California is starting up a cap-and-trade system. The list is long and growing, even though the sum total of global efforts fall short of the necessary level of ambition.

2. What about agricultural emissions?

There is no doubt that agricultural emissions are important. As such, they featured in some detail in a recent study released by WWF and Ecofys which looks at the feasibility of a near zero emissions world by 2050. Although the primary focus of the report is energy, there is much said about agriculture because of the growing interaction with the energy system. For example, see page 62 of the report for a series of recommendations that relate to food and agriculture.

3. Isn’t it true that the magnitude of future warming is not “settled science”, but in fact highly uncertain?

Climate change is all about uncertainty, but a great deal of work has been done in this field. The MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change focuses considerable effort on communicating the risk and uncertainty (The Greenhouse Gamble) related to climate change. But importantly it also demonstrates that a policy led approach to managing emissions can shift the risk and offer benefits over the long term.

4. Shouldn’t we just go nuclear?

At least for the time being, there is no single solution to this issue. We will need a broad range of solutions. Even in France where nuclear has grown to dominate (~80%) the electricity sector over the last 40 years, emissions have only fallen by 14% (from 435 MT to 374 MT from 1971 to 2008 according to the IEA).

5. Are climate skeptics funded by industrial concerns so as to maintain the status quo?

The origins of climate skepticism and the driving force behind it is examined in great detail by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their book “Merchants of Doubt”. This is an excellent read and turns up some surprising answers, linking those who question and challenge the issue of climate change with the same people and groups who challenged tobacco as a cause of cancer, acid rain and the destruction of forests, chlorofluorocarbons and the thinning of the ozone layer and so on.  

6. Why is there so little investigative journalism into the science and its flaws.

This is because the science isn’t flawed. Yes, there remains uncertainty, but new research is refining and improving our knowledge of the Earth’s climate system and how it is expected to respond to increasing levels of CO2. I discussed the science in some detail in a recent post.

7. Renewables are viable now, so why do we need coal and uranium for baseload power?

A number of renewable technologies offer a great deal of potential and some are being widely deployed, such as onshore wind. But there are limits to the rate at which these new technologies can be fully developed and deployed. As such, we will need a broad range of energy technologies for a long time to come. My colleagues in the Shell scenarios team wrote about these limits in an article published in Nature late in 2009 and I discussed it in a posting at that time.

8. Is it possible to have a fruitful debate on the science given existing belief structures?

As mentioned above, I discussed the science at some length in a recent posting. But we do seem to live in a world today that is becoming detached from science, despite our increasing dependency and love of technology. I wrote a post on this last year. Perhaps belief structures are getting in the way, an issue which is also discussed by Naomi Oreskes in the book mentioned above.

9. How do the Liberal Party’s policies compare with other centre-right policies around the world?

I don’t think there is such a strong link between political leaning and climate policy, despite the rhetoric on this subject. Policy approaches vary widely around the world as do the governments that set them. For example, in the EU where there are 27 Member States with governments covering a broad range of the political spectrum, including many centre-right governments, there is a comprehensive climate change policy framework now in place which includes emissions trading, long term targets and tough energy efficiency goals. This policy framework goes beyond any of the party proposals under consideration in Australia today, but equally it has been in development for nearly ten years. It started out very modestly. In North America where there has been little progress on climate legislation at the federal level, many US States and Canadian Provinces, again covering a broad range of the political spectrum, have implemented far reaching emissions management policies. In the United States it was the Republican Party (centre-right) which introduced cap-and-trade (emissions trading) to the world when they decided to use that policy instrument to manage sulphur emissions from power stations in the 1980s.

10. Why should we believe the science when there is no observed relationship between climate and atmospheric CO2?

There is really no question of a relationship between climate and atmospheric CO2. This was shown over 100 years ago and explains very clearly and without challenge why the surface of the planet is temperate where a simple heat / radiation balance calculation shows that it should be frozen. The issue is therefore how much more change will occur as we double or triple the level of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Authored by:

David Hone

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member and Chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Additionally, he works closely with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and has been a lead contributor to many of its recent energy and climate change ...

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September 30, 2011

Paul O says:

Another way of phrasing point 4 and 7 is thus: Nuclear won't reduce emissions, but "Viable Renewables" will.  Sorry, this seems wrong to me.

These alone should fuel even more skepticism.


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October 1, 2011

David Hone says:


These are two entirely different points. In the case of nuclear, I was only making the point in response to the question that a single focus on nuclear isn't the answer. Even in France where the power sector has been largely decarbonized by the application pf nuclear total national emissions haven't fallen by that much. This is because of the use of oil, gas and even coal in other sectors.

In the case of renewables, much of that industry still remains in its infancy (although not all) and our own analysis of historical rates of deployment of new technologies (and their supporting infrastructure) doesn't point to renewables as being ready or able to fill the gap in sufficient time.

If anything this is a bias to the status quo, but that isn't sustainable either due to the level of emissions.



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October 3, 2011

Paul O says:

David, The notion that "Renewables are viable now"  used as a premise is premature at best and suggestive of bias at worst.

Again I juxtapose this with the Starting point for Nuclear energy and I accept your explanation at face value and mean no personal affront to you. BUT, If the industry is at its infacy, then how can it be deemed as viable?

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October 2, 2011

Willem Post says:


The world's CO2 emissions graphic in your article is totally at variance with the world's energy consumption predictions of the US EIA. See my other comment below. 

The graph is likely made up by non-technical people who are not realisitc about energy issues, engage in wishful thinking, urged on by wind turbine vendors (Siemens, GE, Vestas, Iberdrola, etc,), project developers/owners, financiers managing tax shelters, trade organizations, etc.  

An article in the New York Times describes the reduced ability of the world's forests to absorb CO2. The forest area is getting smaller and what is left over is getting weaker, while the CO2 addition to the atmosphere has been, and will be, increasing for decades no matter what humans can reasonably be expected to do regarding renewables.

Global warming is a given. How could any reasonable person not agree? What people are willing to do about it is like tilting at windmills a la Don Quixote.

France made a wise decision to go nuclear about 50 years ago. While France will be enjoying low electric rates, its competitors, such as Germany, the US, etc., will be increasing their electric rates, because they need to invest trillions of dollars over several decades to get to France’s low CO2 intensity; a major competitive advantage for France.


- France produces about 570 TWh/yr, exports about 70 TWh/yr, consumes about 447 TWh/yr, T&D losses are about 53 TW/yr. 

- France has about 79% of its power from 19 nuclear plants with 58 reactors, and about 12% hydro. Some of its PWR nuclear plants are designed to be partially load-following, its hydro plants and other plants do the rest.  

- France has leading global nuclear companies, such as Areva, GDF-Suez and EDF.

- France reprocesses its “spent” fuel, and that of a few other nations, to make new fuel for nuclear reactors, thereby much better utilizing the uranium and greatly reducing waste. The nuclear fuel burnup is about 5% at the end of a 300-500 day refueling cycle. The other 95% is available for reprocessing. 

- France has among the lowest electric rates in Europe. 

- France has the lowest CO2 intensity, 0.37 lb of CO2/$ of GDP, of all industrialized nations.

- France built a national, 180-mph rail system that runs on nuclear power.  

- France is developing EVs to boost nighttime electric demand to better utilize its nuclear plants.

- Denmark, paragon of renewables, 0.43 lb of CO2/$ of GDP, has among the highest electric rates in Europe.


The wind industry is not in its infancy and neither is PV solar or Concentrated Solar Power, CSP. The technologies used to generate their power are just much more expensive than from fossil fuels, even though their "fuel" is for free.


Recent studies show wind energy does not reduce fuel and CO2 anywhere near to what proponents are claiming.


The US Energy Information Administration projects levelized production costs (national averages, EXCLUDING subsidies) of NEW plants coming on line in 2016 as follows (2009$) :


Offshore wind $0.243/kWh, PV solar $0.211/kWh (higher in marginal solar areas, such as New England), Onshore wind $0.096/kWh (higher in marginal wind areas with greater capital and O&M costs, such as $0.15/kWh on ridge lines in New England), Conventional coal (base-loaded) $0.095/kWh, Advanced CCGT (base-loaded) $0.0631/kWh.

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October 2, 2011

David Hone says:


Completely agree - it is just a hypothetical case to illustrate the point in the text - i.e. even if the USA, EU and China were to aggressively tackle emissions but others did little, global emissions would at best plateau. I am not trying to argue that this will happen, rather only address the issue that comes up a lot in Australia, "Why should we bother when our emissions are small compared to the global total?".


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October 2, 2011

Willem Post says:


You are right. Not only the Australians, but also other nations and states in the US have the same  "Why should we bother when our emissions are small compared to the global total?"

For that reason, there will be nothing done on the scale that is required, including some rather significant worldwide lifestyle changes.


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September 11, 2011

Rick Engebretson says:

I think the dilemma with fossil energy and environment has a parallel with the dilemma of nuclear weapons during the cold war.

The nuclear arms race could not be stopped by policy. Only when confronted by the Cuban missile crisis did Khruschev and Kennedy face the reality. Yet both were gone soon after. Robert McNamara shared insights to cold war reality. Reagan offered both a big stick (Star Wars optics technology) and a big carrot (internet optics technology) and the world opened to peace.

Similarly, we have invented a machine age that provides our needs and protects us. This technology relies on cheap energy or the machine stops and we perish. Climate and environment won't dominate our consideration until a Cuban missile crisis. Reason and fear are very different parts of the brain.

Until then it is up to scientists to craft better energy alternatives. I think some of our biggest challenges are people advocating worse energy alternatives, such as windmills.

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