Friday, February 7, 2020

Climate 2020: Still on a glide-path to diaster, part three ("Peak Coal")

In Parts One & Two, I illustrated how the probability of ongoing exponential economic growth makes RCP8.5 (or something even worse) a quite plausible future. But what are the arguments against RCP8.5 as a plausible future?

Thus Zeke Hausfather in Carbon Brief:

One particular aspect of both the RCP8.5 and the new SSP 8.5 scenarios that has drawn quite a bit of criticism from energy researchers are their assumptions around future coal use. Reaching the CO2 emissions in these scenarios requires a large-scale increase in coal use – with 6.5 times more coal use in 2100 than today.…

With global coal use having declined slightly since its peak in 2014, it is hard to envision a world where coal expands this dramatically in the future even in the absence of new climate policies. This is particularly true given the falling prices of alternative energy technologies in recent years. A forthcoming “expert elicitation” – where energy experts were asked to assess the likelihood of various outcomes – gives RCP8.5 only a 5% chance of occurring among all the possible no-policy baseline scenarios.

Argument I: Coal use peaked in 2014 [or 2013, depending on the source], and is likely to continue to decline, making the expansion of coal use posited in RCP8.5 implausible.

 Truly, it's hard to dispute that, just look at this graph of global coal consumption annually:

Not Really

 No, I'm only kidding! That's part of a graph of global temperatures:

 Here's the real data on annual coal consumption:

Except I'm obvisously still kidding, because I've just taken the September Arctic sea ice area and inverted it:

This is -- I promise, joke over, the real thing -- global annual coal consumption:


You can see that the record-highest annual coal consumption was in 2013. This is true, just as it is true that the record-highest average temperature of the Earth was in 2016, and the record-lowest September Arctic sea ice extent was in 2012. But we cannot say coal consumption "peaked" in 2013 any more than we can that global temperatures "peaked" in 2016. What we can say is that 2013 had the highest coal consumption on record, and the second highest was -- 2018 (the last year for which we have data. We also can say that the last eight years of the data (2011-2018) contained the eight highest coal-consuming years.

When it comes to short-term noise in a long-term trend, climate realists have been round and round this bend before. All the good-faith voices on the climate know the the denialist short con of "no warming since [insert current warmest year on record.] I would suggest we apply the same skeptical attitude to "peak coal."

Certainly these trends are not exactly analogous. We know the temperature record will be broken again (and again, and again) because of the remorseless laws of atmospheric physics. No law of human behavior is half so ironclad. It may be that after the false spring of 2017 & 2018 (when coal consumption appeared to resume its upward march) will be a blip, and 2013 truly will stand as the peak, as the rest of the world follows the United States and Western Europe in aggressively phasing out coal. But is that really the most likely scenario here?

The primary reason for the decline in coal consumption from 2014-2016 (it doesn't sound that impressive when we put dates on it, does it?) was that the rapid growth in Chinese consumption abated and their consumption was steady, not rapidly rising, over the past decade:

This coupled with the continued reduction in coal use in the United States and Europe accounts for coal's modest decline. Will this decline spread rapidly to the rest of the world? Or, to put it another way, is China's transition a function of their increasing wealth and sophistication (intolerance of air pollution, desire to be a leader on climate change, need to develop clean energy exports) or is it a function of global structural change (perhaps caused by inexpensive renewables) which will spread to all corners of the globe BEFORE said corners are as wealthy and powerful as China?

A definitive answer to that question is beyond my powers, but we can check in on some of the large, poor countries who, if they emulate China and the United States, could easily push coal consumption to the levels seen in RCP8.5.

Let's start with India, soon to be the most populous country in the world, currently averaging 6-7% GDP growth annually.
Not much sign of a coal phase-out there. How about in Africa? Data for the whole of Africa or Sub-Saharan Africa as a region is hard to come by (if you have a source, put it and your thoughts about my poor research skills in the comments.) The largest country in terms of population is Nigeria, is coal declining there?
It doesn't seem so. If anything, it seems like it's just getting revved up. Another fast-growing economy, neglected by Western pundits doubtless due to the long shadows of CHina and India, is Indonesia, with a population of 264 millions and average annual GDP growth of 4-6% over the last 20 years. How is the post-coal future unfolding on the great Pacific archipelago?
India has another important neighbor besides China, their former compatriots and current mortal enemies, the Pakistanis. Unfortunately, though they have their share of differences, in regards to burning the dirtiest fuel on Earth, they seem to be of one mind.
You can see a similar pattern in other large developing countries like Brazil, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Vietnam (all with rapidly growing economies and with over half a billion people between them):

I have probably contributed substantially to global warming with the bits consumed by all of these graphics, but the point is this: the decline in coal consumption from its "peak" was short-lived, was almost entirely driven by the decisions/economic circumstances of a few wealthy countries and one huge middle-income country (and aspiring superpower) (China.) The trend, if it can even be called that, is not nearly enduring enough, dramatic enough, or widespread enough to lead us to abandon the default assumption that more growth leads to more energy use, and more energy use, in the absence of strong collective political action, means burning more coal.


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