Paris COP21: Climate talks may not matter, because coal and oil will be redundant anyway

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PARIS: There is considerable concern in Paris – and elsewhere – about whether the deal negotiated at the UN climate change conference will be strong enough to drive the global decarbonisation effort that everyone recognises is needed.

Tony Seba, a leading academic from Stanford University, says it doesn’t matter.

He says the plunging costs of technology will sweep away political inertia and the resistance of vested interests. So much so that by 2030, he believes coal, oil and gas generation and usage will be all but obsolete.


Seba’s claims are not new. We reported on them last year, and more recently when he talked about God Parity and the decline of centralised generation, but 18 months after completing his book, Clean Disruption, Seba is now more convinced than ever that he is right.

“It’s happening,” he told RenewEconomy on the sidelines of the Paris climate talks.


Tony Seba

“When you look at the industry from a technology cost curve and the adoption of the market of technologies such as solar and electric vehicles, and energy storage, and the astonishing progress in self driving cars, it’s actually happening more quickly than I predicted.”

Seba’s predictions are based around observations of what has occurred in other major technology breakthroughs – such as digital photos, the internet, mobile phones and then smart phones. Once costs fall below a certain point, the growth is both exponential and unstoppable.

“In technology, those kind of adoption curves are not unusual,” Seba says. “We went from film cameras to digital photos in a couple of years. What the resource-based industries don’t get is that technology adoption happens in an exponential manner. It never happens in linear fashion.

“So it may take a long time to get to a critical point. But once it does, it happens so quickly.”

Which is why Seba is not that concerned with the outcome in Paris, and the fact that it will likely fall short of the ultimate goal – a binding agreement to limit global warming to well below 2°C.

His views contrast with those of Elon Musk, the founder of electric vehicle and battery storage developer Tesla, who said this week that he wants a global carbon price, because without it the transition may take twice as long.

Both agree that the transition to renewable energy and battery storage could happen within 15 to 20 years, they just disagree on what would drive that transition. And Musk is a lot more conservative on the shift to clean transport.

One thing that Seba and Musk do agree on is the need to remove fossil fuel subsidies, which some would suggest includes the lack of a carbon price.

“If they achieve that, that is a huge goal,” Seba says. “Some of these targets will be pretty irrelevant. 2°C is not a target. Zero emissions is a target. We cannot control 2°C, but we can control zero carbon.”

Seba notes that many critics of renewable energy dismiss the technologies because they contribute so little on a global scale right now, just a few per cent of total electricity in the case of wind or solar.

“You’ll get mainstream media and politicians and even well-meaning folks complaining that it has taken solar so long to get to 1%. What they don’t see is that getting to 1% is the hard part.

“Solar has been doubling installed capacity for years. But it started from a small base, so you ask yourself how many more doublings do you need to get to 100 per cent?

“In the case of solar, all we need is 7 more doublings – and that could happen in 13 or 14 years.

Clearly, though, many vested interests see this as a threat, which is why they are, with the help of regulators, pushing back on policies – removing carbon prices, cutting renewable energy targets, reducing feed-in tariffs, raising fixed charges, and other means designed to slow the uptake.

“It is called regulatory capture, and the fossil fuel industry has perfected it,” Seba says. “Because of this regulatory capture, governments and regulatory bodies will push back, but they can’t stop it.”

That’s because the regulators and the vested interests will lose control. For more than a century, energy generation has been centralised and all the decisions were made by big banks and regulatory agencies. Consumers had no input.

That is now changing. The uptake of solar PV is consumer driven, and it will be the same with electric vehicles and battery storage.

“When something is consumer driven and distributed, it is different. The conventional industry either doesn’t understand that, or doesn’t want to understand that,” Seba says.

But some people are listening. Seba is now in hot demand from large super funds – including some in Australia – who are seeking his advice about the changes that will take place.

This, says Seba, is underlying some of the major divestment decisions. “Getting out of fossils is not a moral decision, it is a smart decision. Any money you put into a new plant you will lose, because it is not going to last 40 years.”

Seba says that the unsubsidised cost of solar PV on the rooftops of Ikea, WalMart and malls and factories is going to fall below the cost of transmission very quickly, in every single market in the world.

“That means that you can generate coal, gas or nuclear, and invest in fusion. If you can do that for zero, you will still not compete with rooftop solar.”

Still, Seba says that a grid will survive, even if the economics of solar and storage will make it very cheap for those who want to leave the grid to do so.

“I don’t think most people will. There is resilience in the network. For instance, 80 per cent of us live in cities. But that means that networks also need to be valued appropriately, because as the technology costs fall, consumers will make an economic choice, and the existing business model will be obsolete.

“You cannot compete with zero marginal cost technologies. That is what killed Kodak.”

So, why doesn’t this register with mainstream media, and why is there such demonisation of wind and solar technologies? At RenewEconomy, we can’t remember mainstream media defending fixed landlines and film cameras with quite the same vigour.

Seba points to the fossil fuel industry revenues of some $8 trillion a year. “That buys you a lot of advertising, and a lot of PR. In the US, it can buy elections. But it is just noise and propaganda. That is not unlike what the tobacco industry did.”

Fossil fuel interests boosted by Macfarlane shift

Fossil fuel interests will no doubt be heartened by the reported defection of former industry minister Ian Macfarlane from the Liberal Party to the LNP, which could lead to him becoming the party’s leader, and therefore deputy prime minister.

As energy minister in the Howard and Abbott governments, and energy and industry spokesman under Malcolm Turnbull, Macfarlane has played critical roles for the fossil fuel industry.

He ensured there was ample compensation written in to the CPRS he negotiated with Penny Wong, and in both the Howard and Abbott governments he effectively brought a successful and well functioning renewable energy target policy mechanism to a grinding halt. More recently, he is said to have had a critical role in persuading Turnbull not to sign the deal to remove fossil fuel subsidies at the Paris climate talks.

As Labor’s energy spokesman, Gary Gray once said: He, Macfarlane and former energy minister Martin Ferguson were likes peas in a bod. Ferguson is now lobbying for the oil and gas industry, Gray is an enthusiastic supporter of the Carmichael coal project, and many other coal mines, Macfarlane looks like he is about to be deputy prime minister.

Climate sceptics get ready to take centre stage

Climate sceptics are taking a relatively low profile at these talks, choosing to lob in criticism from a distance. But next week will be their time in the spotlight, or at least on a red carpet.

Marc Morano, the founder of Climate Depot, is hosting an “invitation only red carpet event” in Paris, showing his film Climate Hustle, the counterpunch to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth which supposedly provides interviews with “30 renowned scientists” that lays out “compelling evidence that devastates the global warming scare.”

The film is produced by the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which has gotten cash from fossil fuel interests including ExxonMobil and Chevron. Morano promises on his website that the film is “set to rock” the climate talks. As for invitation only – it turns out that all media has been invited. At least there will be champagne.

Progress in the talks, by the numbers

As for the COP21 talks, an updated draft text of the proposed Paris Agreement was released, revealing there was still a lot of work to resolve differences, which are flagged as “bracketed text”.

The bad news? The number of disputed brackets have increased in number from 1,617 to 1,718. Even at this late stage, rather than reduce disagreements, negotiators are raising new specific issues of contention. This would seemingly suggest that negotiations are moving backwards.

The good news? Bracket creep is a feature of multi-lateral negotiations, particularly in the early days. The actual size of the package had reduced from 54 to 50 pages, and the number of words is down 8 per cent, and the large blocs of discord has fallen to 205 from 228.
There are no brackets around the implementing body for the new Paris Agreement, and much progress has been made on the transparency system and framework that will guide the agreement. Still, that is bound to leave plenty of work for the French to do in the second week of the negotiations.
Fossil award for Denmark 

In the not too distant past, Denmark was an inspiration for many clean energy and climate change advocates, setting ambitious targets and rolling out wind energy.

But since the election of a minority, right-wing government, things have changed. The Danish Environment Minister, Lars Christian Lilleholt, said in Paris he is in favour of scrapping his country’s ambitious national carbon reduction target of 40 per cent by 2020, and he has also slashed the climate finance budget in half.

And that’s what earned them the Fossil of the Day award at the Paris climate talks on Friday.  

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  • Ken Dyer

    A must watch video from the FIRe conference. It makes the pollies at COP21 irrelevant.

    • Geoff

      These guys need to talk to Elon Musk and Bill Gates

      • MaxG

        Thanks Ken1 Good find… interesting.

    • Miles Harding

      This should be mandatory watching for the donkeys running the country’s electricity systems.
      As sony Seba says: this change is inevitable, the only questions are when and with how much pain.

      I feel that Elon Musk is also correct in that the additional forcing from a carbon price (and end of FF subsidies?) will accelerate the transition, although I suspect that timing may not change that much because of resource and build capacity limitations.

  • D. John Hunwick

    Thanks to Ken Dyer for providing this FIRe video – it explains a lot for me.

  • Jacob

    Giles, could you make the audio downloadable so we can listen off line?

    Unfortunately the default setting on SoundCloud is to have downloading disabled.

  • MaxG

    It’s just a show, where ‘they’ appear to be doing something. Money rules!

  • Ben

    I like the sound of this “God Parity”. Is this when Atheists start to outnumber the religious and we see peace on earth on the horizon?

  • Robin_Harrison

    I couldn’t agree more. Economics is one major force driving the change and other forecasters seem to have neglected the properties of exponential growth.
    Another major driving force is the almost universal growth of environmental concern over the last 50 years. In effect, this is our entire species changing the way we view our earth. With that changed perception comes a changed response, automatically and inevitably. We are now experiencing the exponential growth of that changed response.
    Fortunately, the products of that changed response are also economically smarter. So we have at least 2 powerful driving forces which, try as they may, ‘business as usual’ are finding irresistible.

  • Count me in on de ‘Tony Seba’ side. The technology is unstoppable.

  • Pedro

    Well worth listening to Tony Seba. Hope Turnbull listened to him as well.

  • Barri Mundee

    The switch from coal & gas needs to happen before widespread adoption of EV’s otherwise it may extend the life of FF generation?

  • Rob G

    It always looked that the coal industry were behind the move to push Macfarlane into the NATS and then back into his old portfolio. Amusingly this may see the LNP booted out of government. The honey moon is oversee for MT, watch the implosion in the next 9 months. (Unless MT acts on CC… watch this space).

  • Technology and the market will always eventually decide what happens and what doesn’t. The only things that governments can do is slow it down or speed it up or stuff it up.

  • john

    “Carbon Dioxide & Water Vapor Cool Earth’s Atmosphere” is a paper that is being featured along with the film “Climate Hustle”.
    The paper in house reviewed in other words not sighted by any scientists, maintains that CO2 Methane and water vapour are cooling agents.
    Well high cloud can reflect incoming radiation that is correct however low level cloud has the reverse effect.
    As to the movie it supposedly shows how this whole moving away from FF is a plot and has had all these scientists in a terrible crime against the good of you the ordinary person.
    Delusional may be a polite way to describe the movie let alone the ever smaller band of people associated with it.
    The disruption of the internet to postal, banking and even manufacturing with 3D printers is obvious to all.
    The disruption to .newspapers, television, music, film, film cameras and land lines by both the internet and mobile equipment is another.
    The gradual and it would appear ever increasing disruption to the centralised generation and distribution industry can be averted, if the central players get into the provision of both distributed energy and storage as well as control systems to their benefit.
    Just putting barriers up will only leave them out of the loop as more regions first at the extremities go off grid and this would be welcome with $600 million being the subsidy in Qld for instance paid by the more populous south east corner.

    • Dano2

      Climate Hustle is agitprop from the American Swift Boat Propagandist and former PR guy of the Senator who brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to “debunk” global warming.