Why we must ‘think global, act local’ on climate change

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The economic and technological challenges presented by climate change shouldn’t be underestimated. We all need to pitch in.

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Many catchy slogans come and go: “Just do it”, “Carpe Diem”, “play hard.” But out of all of them, “think global, act local” is the one that resonates the most with me, and seems to apply best in this age when we are all connected but still have individual responsibilities.

It’s a slogan that’s become more and more applicable in an era of distributed energy when every consumer that wants to, can make a difference at the local level. Disruptive technology typically depends on many individuals making small individual decisions that collectively have large impacts on corporate behaviour. In that spirit and as part of the “cognitive surplus” its seems worthwhile to pull together three articles that summarise some well known, and some slightly less well known, features of the global context that underlies the unfolding energy transformation in Australia.

Article 1 today is a very brief and familiar summary of the global warming data and the primary contributors to CO2 emissions.

Article 2 will summarise the global renewable energy picture; and Article 3 will look at some of the recent global data and analysis, including China and India coal-fired electricity generation and economics.

Global temperature.

I prefer to look at the global temperature in percentage terms. That’s because, in my experience, 1 degree doesn’t sound like something very important to the man in street, who is used to daily fluctuations of 10 degrees or more. Using percentages has its own problems, as Centigrade percentages will differ from Fahrenheit and, for the truly obsessed, Kelvin scales. Our primary data source is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and we like to use a 20-year moving average as the most smoothed form of data.

The disadvantage of moving averages is that they are out of date and give equal weight to old observations This can be seen in the chart below. For that reason the ABS uses a “Henderson” trend for monthly and quarterly data, which gives more weight to the current observations and less weight to the older observations. Any stats-inclined people out there who want to calculate a 20-year Henderson weight, please get in touch. Here’s the chart then. The anomaly average for calendar 2016 year to date is 1.13°C, about 8 per cent above the 20th century average.

global 2

Carbon emissions

The assumptions that underlie our thinking are:
The climate sensitivity is 3. That is, a doubling of CO2 concentration would lead to a 3°C temperature change. This relationship is linear, and emissions stay in the atmosphere for thousands of years.

  • The current concentration is 397 ppm of CO2.
  •  To keep temperature change at 2°C relative to the 20th century average of just under 14°C, cumulative emissions need to peak at around 800 GT of carbon. 1GT of carbon = 3.66 GT of CO2.
  • Cumulative carbon emissions at the end of 2015 are estimated at 550-600GT, an increase of about 11 GT YoY.
  • At the current rate, 800 GT will bet reached in 2035.

The following chart shows the cumulative causes from 1870 to 2014 of the increase in CO2

global 1

From an economic perspective, electricity production is the No 1 cause of carbon emissions following by agriculture and industry.

global 3

And this chart shows that in recent years the increase in coal consumption is the main factor impacting the rate of change in carbon emissions.

global 4

Looking at emissions by geography, the impact of China – and to a lesser extent, India – is clear, but the chart also shows that the collective rest-of-world, including Russia and Eastern Europe, Africa and South America and the remainder of Asia, continues to show significant growth. Cumulative emissions show that China is rapidly catching Europe and even India can no longer reasonably state that they didn’t cause the problem, therefore they don’t have to worry.

global 5

It’s no great secret that the increase in coal is largely due to the growth of Chinese manufacturing. One view is that China has done the world’s “metal and chemical bashing” in the past decade and, as such, China is just a symptom of the global problem.

Even so, we can see that limiting future coal and oil use in China and India, and limiting global oil consumption, are the two main drivers of slowing down the rate of increase in global temperatures.
The global carbon budget, simply put, shows that limiting total human-induced warming (accounting for both CO2 and other human influences on climate) to less than 2°C relative to the period 1861–1880 with a probability of 66 per cent would require total CO2 emissions from all anthropogenic sources since 1870 to be limited to about 2900 GtCO2. That’s about 790 GtC. Recent emission rates are about 9.8 GtC per year and at that rate 2°C will be locked in by the mid 2030s.

global 7

At this point, any number of scenarios can be constructed about the rate of change and we will return to them over the next couple of articles. We close with the fact that, even based on the oil price (not the petrol or diesel price), the global oil industry has revenue of about $US1.7 trillion per year and the global coal industry about $US0.4 trillion. Gas and cement and land use loss of GDP from the efforts to reduce CO2 emissions are certainly not trivial. Annual emissions have basically been growing and are closely tied to GDP. In short the challenges facing the world and renewable energy industry shouldn’t be underestimated.


David Leitch was a Utility Analyst for leading investment banks over the past 30 years. The views expressed are his own. Please note our new section, Energy Markets, which will include analysis from Leitch on the energy markets and broader energy issues. And also note our live generation widget, and the APVI solar contribution.

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  1. Dennis Abbott 4 years ago

    If we think globally, what is the RE solution, logic suggests we utilize our most abundant forms of energy. Our Sun and Hydrogen, ideally a RE solution would not involve the use of toxic or rare chemicals. For instance electric cars appear attractive, however, on a global scale how much lithium is available, well, not enough to supply the World’s electric cars, cell phones, laptops and cordless battery tools for very long. Rich countries will feel good driving EV’s whilst the majority of the planet burns fossil fuels. A suggested solution to the World’s energy needs is: Electricity from The Sun (PV but mostly Solar Thermal with storage) Fuel for transport from water (Hydrogen from Sun made electricity ) The Automotive Industry already produces internal combustion engines (ICE), with minor adjustments our ICE vehicles can be powered by clean Hydrogen. Why re-tool an industry to produce EV’s when we know there is a limited amount of lithium for batteries.Of course a clean World scale battery may become available, but has not yet.
    Sun rich regions of The World may/can generate vast amounts of electricity some of which is turned into Hydrogen which fuels transport and replaces coal and gas in power generation. My opinion on thinking globally- a logical end goal. Acting locally – campaign for Solar Thermal with storage in Sun rich areas of Australia.

    • Jon 4 years ago

      Your assumption of a lack of lithium is wrong there is plenty of it. One thing that is rare however is Platinum, which incidentally is what fuel cells are made of.
      the energy required to produce hydrogen or browns gas to power an engine is worse than a battery ev well to wheel efficiency.

      • Dennis Abbott.. 4 years ago

        Thanks for your reply, 28 million tonnes of lithium sounds like plenty, lets assume no global population rise and no increase in demand for cars, presently 90 million (ff) vehicles per year = 23 years of lithium ion EV’s. There may also be demand for lithium from domestic and commercial stationary storage. Some lithium is easier to turn into batteries (from brine) whilst hardrock lithium used for glass and ceramics is more tricky to turn into batteries. Fuel cells use expensive membrane technology, chemicals and rare elements,which makes them less than ideal. A global solution to fuel transport may be direct hydrogen to our ICE’s .

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