Greenhouse emissions in Australia

I thought I would take the opportunity today to talk about energy production and greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. The chart below shows the populations (blue bars) and population densities of the six Australian states plus the Northern Territory. Note that New South Wales, Victoria, and Queensland have the highest populations (8.2, 6.7, and 5.2 million respectively), while the Northern Territory has the lowest. However, given its smaller area, Victoria has the highest population density (29.4 people per sq km), while Western Australia and the Northern Territory have the lowest population densities (1.1 and 0.2 people per sq km respectively).

The next chart shows the per capita electricity production of the six Australian states and the Northern Territory, by type. These figures are adjusted for net electricity transfer between states. For example, Tasmania imports some mainland coal-fired power.

Notice that the totals are high in the less densely populated regions (Western Australia and the Northern Territory). The total is also high in Tasmania, because of the widespread use of hydro-electrically produced electricity for heating there.

Total per capita electricity production is lowest in Victoria, in part because of the widespread use of natural gas for heating and cooking (total gas use in Australia generally is about 4 times its use in electricity production). Victorian electricity is the dirtiest, however, with heavy use of brown-coal-fired production. Brown coal is by far the dirtiest fuel; it produces about 47% more greenhouse gases per MWh than black coal, and triple the greenhouse gases per MWh of natural gas.

South Australia has achieved 50% renewable energy, but this is not without its problems:

  • Wind and solar power are more expensive, so that South Australians pay about $360 per MWh for their electricity: 44% more than the two large states
  • The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow: this means that, in the absence of massive-scale energy storage, South Australia has to “borrow” coal-fired power from the East, although this is eventually repaid with interest
  • Solar and wind power cause substantial grid stability and grid synchronisation issues, which become very apparent at the 50% renewable level – good solutions are needed for this; South Australia currently copes by turning solar power off

To avoid “borrowing” electricity, massive-scale energy storage is required. South Australia would need several days worth of demand, at 40 GWh per day. Their famous Tesla battery has been expanded to a capacity of just 0.2 GWh, which is about a thousandth of what is needed. Batteries appear inadequate for energy storage at the required scale, and hydrogen storage is probably what we want.

Tasmania operates at a 92% renewable electricity level, thanks to multiple hydroelectric dams, which do not suffer from the problems of wind and solar (and availability is only an issue during lengthy droughts). In addition, hydroelectric dams can also provide energy storage for solar and wind power, simply by pumping water uphill. It is unfortunate that environmental groups in Tasmania have campaigned heavily against hydroelectric power.

The last chart shows the per capita CO2-equivalent emissions for state electricity generation, plus other emissions (including agriculture, other energy use, industrial processes, waste, forestry, and land use change). Agricultural emissions are highlighted in green. A note of caution, however: the electricity generation data is for 2019, but the total greenhouse emissions are for 2018 (the latest I could find). These numbers cannot be compared to those of other countries, unless the numbers for other countries are equally recent and also include the full range of emissions, per UNFCCC standards (some comparable national averages are shown on the left).

Note that net greenhouse emissions for Tasmania are negative, largely due to tree-planting. Per capita emissions for the large, less densely populated areas are higher than those for New South Wales and Victoria; in part due to transportation requirements (shifting commuters and freight from road to rail would help here). Agricultural emissions per capita are particularly high in the Northern Territory, because the impact of cattle farming is being divided among a tiny population of just 0.2 million people. The overall Australian average of 21.2 tonnes per capita is quite significantly affected by the inevitably high emissions for the large, less densely populated areas. There is also the question of whether emissions due to mining and agriculture should be attributed to the producing country, or to the country of final consumption.

Economically and geographically, Australia is in many ways more like a Central Asian country than a European one, given its large size and its heavy reliance on mining and agriculture (Australia’s greenhouse emissions are comparable to those of Kazakhstan, which produces 21.7 tonnes per capita). However, progress could be made in Australia with more energy-efficient housing and transportation.

It should also be emphasised that, given its small population, Australia’s greenhouse emissions make a neglible contribution to the global and regional climate. If increasing atmospheric CO2 has an effect in Australia’s region, that is due primarily to emissions by the large countries of the world, particularly China (which produces about a third of the world’s CO2). Australia should, no doubt, reduce its greenhouse emissions, but whether Australia does so or not will make no measurable difference to the global or regional climate.

History, geography, and the Western genre

Once Upon a Time in the West, Rio Grande, High Noon. We know the films – and the many books.

The bray of a lazy burro broke the afternoon quiet, and it was comfortingly suggestive of the drowsy farmyard, and the open corrals, and the green alfalfa fields. Her clear sight intensified the purple sage-slope as it rolled before her. Low swells of prairie-like ground sloped up to the west. Dark, lonely cedar-trees, few and far between, stood out strikingly, and at long distances ruins of red rocks. Farther on, up the gradual slope, rose a broken wall, a huge monument, looming dark purple and stretching its solitary, mystic way, a wavering line that faded in the north. Here to the westward was the light and color and beauty. Northward the slope descended to a dim line of canyons from which rose an up-flinging of the earth, not mountainous, but a vast heave of purple uplands, with ribbed and fan-shaped walls, castle-crowned cliffs, and gray escarpments. Over it all crept the lengthening, waning afternoon shadows.” – Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage (1912)

But why are the films and books all set in the United States? Didn’t the very similar continent of Australia have similar stories? Well, up to a point.

Click map to zoom

If we want to know why things are the way they are, the answers often lie in history and geography (Jared Diamond makes an especially strong case for geography in his Guns, Germs, and Steel). European settlement in the US began several centuries ago. The Appalachian Mountains (rising to 2,037 m or 6,684 ft) formed a barrier to westward expansion, but hardly in insurmountable one. The eastern US is also blessed with many navigable rivers, especially the Mississippi and tributaries such as the Ohio, Missouri, Platte, and Arkansas. The eastern US is also blessed with good rainfall.

Click map to zoom

Western expansion in the US constantly outran organised government. This created a degree of chaos that lasted for a surprisingly long time. The Oklahoma Panhandle, for example, was “No Man’s Land” from 1850 until 1890 – not part of any state or territory. The western part of the Minnesota Territory had the same status between 1858 and 1861. In addition, some of the organised territories in the contiguous US (Arizona and New Mexico) did not become states until 1912.

One tool for dealing with this situation was the resurrection of a thousand-year old English law enforcement strategy: posse comitatus or “power of the county.” Law enforcement was provided by a sheriff, who was authorised to call on armed citizens as needed. Part of the drama of Western stories lies in the sheriff deciding when this was actually needed.

Click map to zoom

In contrast to the US, Australia is significantly drier. The Great Dividing Range in the east is somewhat loftier than the Appalachians, with the highest point being Mount Kosciuszko (2,228 m or 7,310 ft). A significant part of the water falling on the west of the range winds up underground in the Great Artesian Basin, a vast bed of porous sandstone holding up to 64,900 cubic kilometres (15,600 cubic miles) of water, capped by an impermeable layer of rock. In places, the basin is 3 km (2 miles) deep. The basin was discovered in 1878, and only after that date did cattle stations or sheep stations in certain parts of the country become feasible, thanks to water from deep bores.

Click map to zoom

Politically, the Australian situation was quite different from the US as well. The entire continent east of 135°E was initially part of the British colony of New South Wales, and by 1829 all of the continent had been claimed. Colonial boundaries shifted several times before Federation in 1901 (and the Northern Territory was transferred to federal control in 1911), but the US situation of unorganised territory was nonexistent.

Law enforcement in Australia was initially military, and early police forces were composed of military personnel. In 1853, Victoria was the first colony to merge law enforcement into one colonial police force. However, law enforcement was never decentralised, as it was in the US.

The vast size and relatively small population of Australia meant that there was plenty for law enforcement to do, of course. Stage coaches and gold miners were robbed, and what Americans call “rustling” also took place. In 1870, a daring theft of around 800 head of cattle took place at Bowen Downs Station in Queensland. Harry Redford and four accomplices overlanded the stock to outback South Australia, where the brands would not be recognised (a distance of about 1,300 km or 800 miles). Employees of Bowen Downs successfully tracked the herd, but Redford was acquitted by a working-class jury who didn’t much mind rich graziers being robbed.

The Western genre tells stories of human drama and resourcefulness on the frontier, and in that it resembles the science fiction genre. But to a large extent the Western genre is also a celebration of the land. To quote one of my favourite contemporary short stories (a Christmas story, actually), from novelist Elisabeth Grace Foley:

A million diamonds glinted in the smooth, untouched white curve of snow in the basin, struck out by the sun that pierced the bright silver-white sky. The bitter wind whisked across it, kicking up little powdery swirls. Cal Rayburn turned up the collar of his sourdough coat with one hand, hunching his shoulders a little so the collar half covered his ears. He squinted at the blinding-bright landscape, and one side of his cold-numbed lips twisted back a little in a half-smile.” – Elisabeth Grace Foley, “The Bird of Dawning

Australians may have lost contact with the land to a greater extent than Americans have, so that the genre of Australian colonial stories has largely faded away. Australia was formed as a collection of colonies with coastal capitals (and with the national capital only 100 km or 60 miles inland). That, together with the dryness of the interior, facilitated a drift to the cities, so that 70% of the population now lives in the 8 capitals.

In contrast, the US has many landlocked states which seem to retain a greater connection to the land. The state flag of Kansas, to pick just one state, seems to tell an entire story, including Indians hunting bison on the Great Plains, a steamboat on one of the navigable rivers, a settler ploughing his field, and a wagon train heading west. There is scope for all kinds of literature and cinema right there (as Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louis L’Amour, Howard Hawks, John Sturges, Clint Eastwood, and many others have shown). Let us hope that people will keep telling those stories.

September 22 is Hobbit Day

Back in 2013, I posted about a fascinating study from the University of Bristol, describing some climate modelling of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The accompanying paper (credited to “Radagast the Brown”) is also available in Elvish. I thought that I would revisit the idea for Hobbit Day (September 22, the shared birthday of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins).

Predicted temperatures in Middle-earth, from the Bristol study

In the model, predicted temperature and rainfall for The Shire are, not surprisingly, similar to those of Lincolnshire and Leicestershire in the UK or the area around Dunedin in New Zealand (annual average temperatures of around 7°C and annual rainfalls of around 61 cm). Mordor, on the other hand, is warmer and drier, with a climate similar to that of Los Angeles, western Texas, or Alice Springs. As the authors of the paper so eloquently put it:

The authors also predict vegetation to go with the predicted climate. They suggest extensive tree cover, which we know from the book and the film is not quite correct (and I can confirm that from my own visit to Rohan, many years ago). Happy Hobbit Day!

Me, at Edoras in Rohan

Sea levels in the Pacific

I recently visited Port Vila, capital of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu (the photo above is from the Port Vila waterfront). Port Vila is the site of a sea-level measuring station. It is interesting that, although local newspapers are deeply concerned about sea level rise, the average sea level rise between 1993 and 2017 at Port Vila was essentially zero (see chart below, which uses LOESS smoothing of monthly measurements).

How can this be? Aren’t global sea levels rising at 2–3 mm per year? Well, “global sea level” is a rather theoretical concept. Ocean temperatures are not uniform. Some islands are rising out of the ocean. Others are sinking. Air pressure, and the El Niño Southern Oscillation cycle, have a huge effect on sea levels too. As they say, it’s complicated.

The NASA map below shows that some areas of the Pacific have actually seen a long-term reduction in sea level (independent of any upward or downward movement of land). Other areas, of course, have seen quite rapid increases (the increases and decreases average out to a rise of about 3 mm per year). The map covers data only up to 2008, however. Since 2008 was roughly the peak for the Port Vila data, it doesn’t quite explain the last decade of the graph above. If I had to guess, I’d assume that some of those sea-level-decrease areas on the map had shifted a bit.

Climate Fiction

Someone told me the other day about climate fiction (cli-fi). I had no idea that it had become a genre. The difficulty with climate change, of course, is that it is slow. Anthropogenic climate change has been going on for more than a century, and is likely to continue for decades to come. The slowness of the process creates challenges for managing it, and also challenges for the novelist. It is a little like tying the hero to the railway tracks, and then having a train head to him at walking pace from miles away. The hero is doomed, but nothing dramatic will happen for a while. How does the reader sustain interest in the hero’s dilemma?

One solution for the novelist is to speed up the process, most commonly through a scenario involving a shutdown of the Gulf Stream. This would cause massive freezing in the US, a huge increase in Arctic ice, a consequent increase in albedo, and hence global cooling. This scenario has been explored in the film The Day After Tomorrow and in a trilogy of novels by Kim Stanley Robinson – Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). There seems to be a flood of recent novels following in Robinson’s footsteps.

More usually, novelists assume that a particular climate change scenario has happened, and set their novel in the aftermath. This literary approach has existed for a while. The novel may be primarily dystopian, as in The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard (1962) or Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003).

Alternatively, the effects of climate change can simply be part of the setting, with the plot of the novel concentrating on other things. Much recent science fiction would fall in this category. A good example would be the “Event Horizon” trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton – Mindstar Rising (1993), A Quantum Murder (1994), and The Nano Flower (1995). However, I’m not sure it makes sense to describe such novels as “cli-fi” – they are simply novels in which climate change forms a significant part of the setting. What do my readers think?

Update: see also this 2016 article by Sarah Stankorb and this website with incredibly annoying background music by Dan Bloom (who claims to have coined the term “cli-fi”).

A fable about science and climate change

This post will tell a simple fable. The characters are fictional, although the scenario is based on reality. At the end of the fable are some questions that puzzle me.

The smelter at Davy before it closed (photo: Jmchugh)

Billy-Bob Smith lives in the small town of Davy in the US South. He worked in the aluminium smelter there, until pressure from environmentalists closed it down. He is now unemployed (and rather bitter).

Aluminium production is very energy-intensive (the metal has been called “crystallised electricity”), and the smelter at Davy was fed by coal-fired power. Its demise is part of the general decline in US aluminium smelting (see the chart below, produced from this data).

Of course, demand for aluminium doesn’t just go away – world aluminium production is actually increasing. The plant at Davy was replaced within the year by a new plant in China, which was also fed by coal-fired power. In fact, in 2015 about two-thirds of Chinese electricity production (900 GW) was coal-fired. Chinese coal-fired power generation is projected to increase by 20% to 1100 GW in 2020 (making up about 55% of overall Chinese electricity production in that year, given the non-coal power plants that will also be coming on line). For comparison, the new coal-fired capacity being added in China each year is roughly equal to the entire generation capacity of Australia.

Billy-Bob Smith is very cynical about the environmentalists who effectively outsourced his job to China, with (as he correctly points out) no net benefit to the planet, and no net reduction in carbon emissions. In fact, Billy-Bob believes that the environmental activists in his state were funded by the Chinese government to destroy American jobs. Needless to say, he voted for Donald Trump in the recent US election.

Coal-fired power plant in Shuozhou, China (photo: Kleineolive)

Alicia Jones is a professor of atmospheric physics at a university not far from Davy. She has made significant advances in climate modelling, improving the way that radiative forcing is handled in computer models. There is even talk of nominating her for a Nobel Prize one day. Outside of her university work, she regularly gives talks to schoolchildren on the threat of climate change and the need to address the problem before it’s too late. She also frequently appears on local television. She was part of the group which lobbied to close down the smelter at Davy, in the recent US election she voted for Jill Stein, and she has marched several times in Washington, DC.

US Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein (photo: Tar Sands Blockade)

My questions are these:

  1. What makes an intelligent person like Alicia Jones believe that simply moving carbon emissions to China actually addresses climate change?
  2. Being fully aware of the usefulness of computer modelling, why did Alicia Jones not do any economic modelling on the expected follow-on effects of closing the Davy plant?
  3. Is virtue ethics, deontological ethics, or consequentialism the best ethical framework for handling questions of this kind?
  4. In general, does the expertise of scientists lend any credibility to their economic, political, or philosophical pronouncements? Should it do so?
  5. What does it say about Alicia Jones’ ability to communicate scientific issues that over 50% of people in her state (people like Billy-Bob) do not believe in anthropogenic climate change at all? What does it say about scientific communication in general?
  6. Do problems with peer review affect the public perception of science?
  7. What does it say about the education system in the USA that Billy-Bob does not even believe that the earth is warming? After all, many US cities have temperature records going back over a century. Mean temperatures for Newport, RI, for example, show a 1.7°C rise between 1893 and 2016 (see chart below – the blue line is a cubic interpolation, while the red line is the result of loess smoothing).
  8. What can be done to improve this particular debate?

Censoring climate science?

I’ve been seeing a number of panicked reports recently about climate science in the USA being censored. So far, however, every US Government climate-related website I’ve checked is still online:

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

“NCEI provides analyses of weather and climate events, placing them into proper historical perspective, understanding their unusualness, and increasingly comparing recent events to expectations of future climate conditions… NCEI publishes the most recent national and international reports on the state of the climate as well as various other peer-reviewed papers and articles.” – Climate pages online.


“The mission of ‘Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet’ is to provide the public with accurate and timely news and information about Earth’s changing climate, along with current data and visualizations, presented from the unique perspective of NASA, the world’s leading climate research agency.” – Climate pages online.


“EPA partners with more than 40 data contributors from various government agencies, academic institutions, and other organizations to compile a key set of indicators related to the causes and effects of climate change. The indicators are published in EPA’s report, Climate Change Indicators in the United States…” – Climate pages online.

USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture

“The National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides leadership and funding for programs that advance agriculture-related sciences…” – Climate pages online.


“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” – Climate pages online.

We’ll see if that changes, I guess. There does seem to have been a dispute about politically-charged tweets from official NPS Twitter accounts. That dispute underscores the guideline that official tweets should be, well, official. Like other social media, Twitter allows people to blur the line between personal opinions and official announcements. Being rapid, it also does not fit well with an official publication approval process, which can lead to problems. In the case of the disputed tweets, NPS social media guidelines may well have been breached, so a reaction was hardly surprising. I do hope that the NPS as a whole doesn’t intend to be politically active, though, since that could end rather badly for both the NPS and the USA – the job of the NPS is an important one.

The climate of Middle-earth

Predicted average annual temperatures in Middle-earth, from the Bristol study

A fascinating study by staff at the University of Bristol, also reported at Strange Maps, describes some climate studies of (among other things) Tolkien’s “Middle-earth,” using the HadCM3L climate model. The accompanying paper, credited to “Radagast the Brown” (PDF, 5.2MB), is available in English, Elvish, and Dwarvish. The author’s map above shows model-predicted temperatures, while the map below shows predicted vegetation.

Predicted vegetation in Middle-earth, from the Bristol study

The paper notes that “the vegetation model does not take account of disturbance of vegetation from its ‘natural’ state (such as forest fires caused (inadvertently or otherwise) by dragons, deforestation by dwarves, the growing of pipe-weed by hobbits, or the wanton destruction by orcs).Supernatural effects on the climate of Mordor by Sauron are not included either, of course (the mathematical properties of those effects being somewhat unclear).

The paper also addresses the question of which places on Earth are most like famous Middle-earth locations. Los Angeles, western Texas, and Alice Springs in Australia have climates resembling Mordor in its natural state. In contrast, Belarus, Lincolnshire & Leicestershire in England, and northern Otago in New Zealand have Shire-like climates (annual average temperatures of around 7°C and annual rainfalls of around 61 cm).

All in all, this paper is a fascinating read, and effectively communicates what climate modelling is about. Well worth a look!

Was Mordor like this? (photo: Nigel Malone)

How the Irish saved climate research

Ruins of Baltinglass Abbey, County Wicklow, Ireland

We have heard about the role Irish monks played in preserving Western Civilization. Now a new article in Environmental Research Letters looks at climate records preserved by the monks for the period 431–1649 AD.

The records include remarks like this one from the Annals of Connacht for 1465:
Exceeding great frost and snow and stormy weather this year, so that no herb grew in the ground and no leaf budded on a tree until the feast of St. Brendan, but a man, if he were the stronger, would forcibly carry away the food from the priest in church, even though he had the Sacred Body in his hands and stood clothed in Mass-vestments.

The article authors find an interesting and significant (99.7% confidence level) association between such episodes of cold in Ireland and episodes of volcanism, as revealed by the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2. A creative and successful use of historical data!