An Earth Day Climate Assessment

I’m in Australia, where I’m from and am staying for the duration of the pandemic, which has led me to look at the earth from this vantage point.

In the Australian Academy of Science report “The Risks to Australia of a 3 degree warmer world,” the reality of climate science is well summarized.

“Limiting climate change to 1.5°C is now virtually impossible. A rapid transition to net zero greenhouse gas emissions is required if the international community is to limit warming to ‘well below 2°C’ in line with the Paris Agreement. As with the COVID-19 pandemic, acting early and urgently reduces the scale of the impacts and can save many lives and livelihoods. This also has significant potential benefits in terms of health and regional development and embracing the new economic opportunities associated with a move to net zero greenhouse gas emissions.”

But if we consider the engineering of the solution, which is a challenge you might describe as replacing the problem, the situation is more stark. Assessments of “committed emissions” or emissions of CO2 by machines that exist today which will live out their “natural” working life will take us beyond 1.5 degrees and close to a 2 degree target. Absorb that reality for a moment. Cars live for around 20 years, your hot water heaters and furnaces for 15, your stoves and ovens for 15–20, natural gas power plants for 30–40, infrastructure such as gas pipelines often for more than 50.

So on this Earth day, to summarize where we are at succinctly, we cannot build any more machines that use fossil fuels, and we need to purchase non CO2 producing machinery at every purchasing decision from now into the future. We have enough fossil infrastructure — mines, rigs, pipes, generation facilities, to taper down our fossil fuel use as we ramp up our electrification of everything. Your next car should be electric. Your next heating system in your house an electric heat pump. Your next stove an electric induction stove. Natural gas shouldn’t be thought of as a transition fuel anymore, but a fuel to be phased out as rapidly as possible, just like coal and oil.

Of course we don’t have the capacity to manufacture and sell everyone an EV or a heat pump at their next purchase of one and won’t until we have built out the industrial capacity. This is going to be an enormous creator of jobs. Mining the lithium, the silicon, the copper, the rare-earths, the steel and the aluminum for all of these new machines. They will then need to be manufactured into solar panels, wind turbines, pumped hydro facilities, heat pumps, electrified household appliances and electric vehicles. It is a huge undertaking that will create 5 jobs for every fossil job that is being phased out — — quite possibly many more for Australia which if it chooses too can be a major contributor to the success of this necessarily global project.

From a climate science perspective the task for the engineers and technicians is now very clear. Build the industrial capacity to replace our fossil infrastructure (including our vehicles and major household appliances which by virtue of being connected to our super-grid will be part of our national electrical infrastructure) as quickly as possible. The necessary rate for a 2 degree target or better is to halve emissions by 2030, and be as close to zero as we can by 2040, and then solve the remaining emissions problems and get steady cadence on carbon drawdown by 2050. This is 1 generation of machines. It will be installed over the lifetime of the incoming generation of the world. The retiring generation of fossil fuel workers will retire at a similar rate to the fossil fuel machines they operate and maintain.

The “climate inactivists” as Michael Mann elegantly puts it will continue with distracting delay tactics. These include things that may sound good, but are no longer commensurate with the task and the timeline — a hydrogen economy, carbon capture, a carbon tax — things we can waste our time pontificating about instead of getting to the task at hand which requires a wartime mobilization of industry to build the industrial capacity to make the electric machines we need, as well as an enormous training and certification program to build the workforce to install it all and retire machines passed.

In Australia, we need 10 million rooftop solar systems, 3–4 million heat pump heating systems, 10 million electric cooktops and ovens, 10 million heat pump water heaters, 10 million home batteries, 18 million electric vehicles, 10 million smart new breaker-boxes, thousands of km’s of new transmission lines, an overhaul of the 8.5 million utility poles that bring power to our homes and businesses, not to mention tens of thousands of wind turbines, many GW more of industrial solar plants, some pumped hydro storage facilities, even some hydrogen production and storage and perhaps a nuclear reactor or two. If we electrify our dirt bikes and our jetskis too we can round up and call it 100 million machines.

In the US we need a billion machines. 250 million EV’s, 70 million heat pump furnaces, 63 million heat pump water heaters, 41 million electric ranges, 20 million electric dryers, 8 million induction cooktops, 100 million smart breaker boxes, 80 million solar roofs, 100 million home batteries, 150 million EV chargers.

Globally it is 5 times that. The numbers are big, but being able to clearly outline what it is going to take emphasizes the opportunity, and the speed and scale required.

We know historically that for every doubling of production capacity we significantly lower the cost of goods. This is called the learning rate and is around 10% cheaper for every doubling of wind power production, 20% for solar and more than 20% for batteries. The global scale of this decarbonization effort is so large that we’ll further halve the cost of solar, wind and even moreso for electric vehicles. Australian’s already know how cheap the electiricity from the solar on their roof is and because of it we have the highest penetration of rooftop solar in the world. We haven’t yet learned the Californian lesson that electric cars are much cheaper to own and operate than ICE’s. Because of the abundance of Australian renewables and because of the nature of our infrastructure, Australian’s stand to save more money on all of their energy than any other country on earth. If we aggressively decarbonize on the schedule above we should see $2000-$4000 savings per year per household on our costs for driving and heating and cooling our homes. We stand to win so much.

Every day is earth day, but annually we are reminded by ritual to contemplate where we are going. Australia has been denialist and even obstructivist on the issue of climate change for decades. We now have the opportunity to lead the world. We are the country that is closest to living in the future by virtue of our abundant and cheap solar, our mild climate, modern grid and well trained workforce. We must demand more from our federal politicians who continue to be inactvists. State governments are doing much more and are more aggressive on climate and because no-one knows exactly how it will all work and because the solution set will necessarily be regional, are fabulous crucibles for the innovation required to glue it all together.

The Academy’s report went further — “Reaching net zero emissions by mid-century is an absolute minimum if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.” I agree. We must do better and we must demand better of other global leaders. Australia can, and should, lead the world. As it is it appears we are less a leader than more of a peer to petro-states like Russia and Saudi Arabia.

100 million machines to build and install. Grab a tradie and their apprentice and let’s get going.

Founder / Principal Scientist at Otherlab, an energy R&D lab, and co-founder/Principal Scientist at Rewiring America, a coalition to electrify everything.

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