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Australian climate change protesters have held rallies nationally to show their support for the environment before Cop21, the UN Conference on Climate Change talks to be held in Paris later this week, with the intention of forming a legally binding agreement on climate change. Pictured: Tim Flannery
© Richard Milnes/Splash News/Corbis
8 January 2016 13:02

The Carbon Brief Interview: Tim Flannery

Leo Hickman


Leo Hickman

08.01.2016 | 1:02pm
InterviewsThe Carbon Brief Interview: Tim Flannery

Prof Tim Flannery is one of Australia’s most prominent voices on climate change, with a varied range of roles, such as scientist, explorer, broadcaster and writer. His books include The Future Eaters, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and his most recent title, Atmosphere of Hope. From 2006-2010, he chaired the Copenhagen Climate Council. He is also chief commissioner of Australia’s Climate Council and was named Australian of the Year in 2007.

Carbon Brief: I wanted to begin by talking about that decade or so since your landmark book, The Weather Makers, and moving on to your new book, Atmosphere of Hope. Can you just reflect on that decade period. What has happened? What have been the differences between then and now?

Tim Flannery: Sure. Well, look, I suppose the biggest thing to say is that over the last ten years the Earth has been following a worst-case scenario emissions trajectory for greenhouse gases. And, so, last year we put 40Gt of CO2 into the atmosphere – huge volumes that the impact of which will be felt now for decades, if not centuries. So, we’re starting very late in the process now, as we meet here in Paris. It would have been much better, I think, to have addressed the issue a decade ago, but we lost that opportunity. On the other side of the ledger, the cost of electricity from solar panels has been declining 10% year-on-year over that decade, the cost of wind has declined, and we’ve seen other renewables come to look more promising. So, it’s been both things going on, but, overall, I characterised the last decade really as the decade of lost opportunity.

CB: So, you have the word “hope” in the title. Can you now look at the decade ahead? What needs to happen in the decade ahead? There’s the outcome of Paris, but there’s also the real-world economy and what’s happening. Can you just, sort-of preview the decade ahead and what needs to happen?

TF: Sure. Well, look, the Paris meeting promises to unlock opportunity I think for the world to address this issue in a way we never have before. A global agreement is a very strong foundation to do that and, moreover, the adoption of 1.5C cap or limit, or 2C even, but certainly 1.5, should be driving some significant ambition. And, really, I wrote Atmosphere of Hope in order that people could understand properly what was required. We need to cut emissions really hard and fast now in a way that is unprecedented in our history to date. But that alone won’t get us even below 2C; we can’t change energy systems fast enough. So, we need to develop a series of new technologies that I call the “third way” technologies, that have the potential to draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere at the gigatonne scale; at the scale that makes a difference to our climate future. So, those two things have to run in parallel: emissions cuts and large investments in these technologies. That will probably take several decades to mature, but which will be essential to staying below a 2C threshold.

CB: Are you talking around concepts which are on paper at the moment, not at a commercial scale, like BECCS – bio-energy and carbon capture and storage – which the most recent IPCC report mentions as probably the most cost-effective version of a negative emissions technology? Is this the sort of thing you’re talking about? If so, can you just talk us through what that means?

TF: Sure, look, BECCS is one option, but the land-based biosphere, terrestrial biosphere is limited in its capacity to capture carbon, relative to the scale of the problem. So, to reduce atmospheric concentrations of CO2 one part per million we need to be drawing out 18Gt of CO2. If you wanted to use forests of tree planting to draw down just four gigatonnes, you’d need to cover an area the size of Australia. So, the terrestrial systems are limited. They’ll be a useful addendum, a useful part, perhaps, of the approach, but we really need to look elsewhere for the large-scale drawdown, I think.

CB: So, can you talk me through what these other examples might be?

TF: Look, there are desktop studies suggesting that macroalgae farming, kelp farming, may be a useful way to go. You know, kelp grows 30-60 times faster than land-based plants. It can grow half a metre a day. There are large parts of the oceans where you could have floating seaweed farms. If we could cover 9% of the world’s oceans with seaweed farms you draw down the equivalent of all global emissions going up as of 2015. So, we’re never going to get to 9% of the world’s oceans covered in seaweed farms by 2050, that’d be an area four and a half times the size of Australia – very, very large. But you see there an approach that offers us a way forward, at scale. Beyond that there is the use of silicate rocks. These are a natural part of Earth’s system for drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere. As they weather, they absorb CO2. If you would enhance the weathering process by quarrying the rock and then grinding it up, and strewing it on beaches and so forth, if you did that with five or six gigatonnes of silicate rock you’d be drawing three of four gigatonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Of course, at the moment, we burn fossil fuel to quarry, so we have to green-up our energy supply before we can apply that at scale. But there are also things like carbon-negative concretes. Concretes are responsible of 5% of global emissions, the development of carbon-negative concretes offers a huge opportunity now to both avoid emissions in the making of cements and concretes, but also to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere into the concretes as they cure and mature. There are direct technologies such as plastics from atmospheric CO2, the manufacture of carbon fibres from CO2, and these again open significant opportunities. Hard to imagine at the gigatonne scale, but they are there. On top of all of that, we have to look at some of the carbon capture technologies which are also quite interesting.

CB: Do you think talking of raising the idea of some of these – of what some might describe as “techno-fix solutions” that are probably in reality a few decades away, even with a big R&D push starting from now – do you think that sends a signal to the current generation of politicians that says: “Don’t worry, there’s a big fix coming. Those guys in the next few generations can sort it. We can all just relax a bit about turning down the dial on our fossil fuel use now”?

TF: Look, I agree with you that there’s a potential moral hazard in bringing this issue up, particularly now when we should be focused so much on emissions reductions. And I’ve thought long and hard about that, and I decided that there is actually a moral hazard both ways. There is actually a moral hazard in raising the prospect of these technologies, but there’s also a moral hazard in not mentioning them, because it is absolutely clear that we’re going to need to start developing the R&D cycle now if we want to have these technologies at the gigatonne scale by mid-century. So, in my book I say that we have to do both. We’ve got to cut emissions hard and fast, we’ve got to start growing these technologies. Neither approach alone will get us to where we want to get to and, moreover, what we now know about these third way technologies for drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere in terms of cost offers you a good benchmark, really, of what a carbon price should be. So, for example, if it costs $100/tonne to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere across a basket of approaches currently, surely it’s reasonable to ask polluters to pay $100/tonne for putting the pollution into the air in the first place.

CB: That, obviously, leads on to a crucial question – which doesn’t feel like it’s going to directly come out of Paris – you know, for years, if not decades, people have been talking about a global carbon price, or even a network of regional carbon prices, somehow aligned over time. How do we get to that moment when you can effectively put a price on carbon, you know, $100/tonne on carbon. At the moment that almost feels, probably, decades away to try to be in the process to drive that kind of switch and development of these third-way technologies…

TF: I do agree with you that the deployment of a global carbon price at $100/tonne or thereabouts seems like a distant pipe-dream at the moment. And, indeed, the development of many of these third-way technologies to scale seems like sci-fi to many people, because, you know, they range in preparedness from, say, desktop studies through to some very early demonstration plans or laboratory demonstrations, through to a very few small-scale nascent industries. And I just say to people: give free reign for your imagination to comprehend what 2050 might be like. Just think about 1915-1950. So, you know, in 1915 people were living in the horse-drawn era. By 1950, there were jet aircraft and nuclear weapons in the world. There 35 years brought massive change. Change has accelerated in the 21st century, so from 2015-2050 we have to give our imaginations the license really to think about the world in a somewhat different way. I agree with you that the carbon price is absolutely necessary to get some of these third-wave technologies to scale and pay for them. Not all of them, but some of them. And it’s that necessity, in fact, that gives me hope that it will be done. By 2050 the gas that is already in the air and that has yet to be put in will still be there driving ever more adverse climate change. We know the problem that the people of 2050 will be trying to solve. We know what that problem is. And we know we have to find mechanisms to solve that so, as difficult as it seems at the moment to imagine those mechanisms, I think that the imperative is there to see that they’ll be taken up.

CB: One of the changes between, say, six years ago at Copenhagen and now in the present, around the Paris agreement, is the idea that back then it felt like science had identified an urgent problem that needed fixing. Now the narrative among some quarters seems to be that, actually, there’s a solution that is worth grasping because of the co-benefits etc. Do you feel that that narrative has shifted in that time? Describe the difference between now and Copenhagen.

TF: Well, I was deeply involved in the Copenhagen process. I chaired the Copenhagen climate council for three years, which was a business group, effectively, and I know the discussions that I had with business leaders around the world, principally focused on cost. There was some attention to opportunity, but people were principally worried about cost. That’s no longer the case. When I talk to business people here at this meeting, the focus overwhelmingly is on opportunity. And that’s because the cost of renewables has come down so strongly. The cost of PV, for example, between the Copenhagen meeting and the present, has declined by 50%. So, we have seen big changes in terms of affordability that have turned what was previously a cost into an opportunity. So I think the world is now ready to take action in a way that it wasn’t five years ago.

CB: Can we talk a little bit about how the media maybe has changed around the reporting of climate change between Copenhagen and Paris? So, obviously, as a resident of Australia, the Australian media, perhaps, much like the Anglosphere media – the UK, US and Australia media – has been pretty critical around climate science, and hostile even in some newspapers and outlets. Can you describe the differences between then and now? Or do you think there’s actually still some similarities?

TF: Five years ago – in Australia, at least – there were still some newspapers that were trying to speak to the community as a whole. In the intervening years we’ve seen a fragmentation. It’s been driven by declining circulation across all newspapers, but particularly by the fact that those newspapers have responded by targeting a segment of society. So, the Australian newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, is focused on conservative males over 65 years old, who are likely to be climate sceptics. The Guardian Australia is focused on younger people, or more liberal people, who can see the opportunity in addressing climate change. So that segmentation is very evident now, in a way it wasn’t quite evident five years ago.

CB: You’ve mentioned the Australian and some of the other newspapers within that country have been particularly sharply hostile of you, and you’ve come up under probably personal attacks. How have you absorbed that or responded to that over the years?

TF: Well, during the time that I was climate commissioner for Australia I had to have federal police protection, and was abused in the street, and threatened at public meetings and all sorts of things. I found refuge in writing a work of fiction, actually. I had to find a refuge somewhere and I couldn’t leave the public stage. I couldn’t leave that job. I needed to find one elsewhere. But there is a cost to be paid in terms of that sort of thing. I think we’re through that era now, though. I really do believe that that sort of unreasonable behaviour by people is likely to be censored now, and likely to be looked down upon, rather than admired.

CB: Can we talk a bit about that Climate Commission era and the fact that it shifted to the Climate Council? You had this kind of moment of crowdfunding, or…it felt like an extraordinary journey. Can you just talk about those two different entities or organisations, and that shift between them?

TF: Well, I was appointed Australia’s first, and probably only, climate commissioner in 2011, by the Gillard government, a Labour government. And for three years I had really the immense privilege of talking to Australians, ordinary Australians, around the country about climate science, about what was happening elsewhere and what some of the economic opportunities were. I discovered through that period there was just an enormous well of common sense in the Australian public. I really did. I think people, given the chance to understand, come up with sensible solutions. However, a new government was elected, and their very first act was to abolish the Australian Climate Commission, and take down our website. Now myself and my fellow commissioners felt that taking down the website was unreasonable. It was used by many thousands of Australians, and it just contained factual information. And, incidentally, we weren’t radicals by any means; one of my fellow councillors ran a fossil-fuel company in Australia for many years. We decided that there was still a need for a public education in Australia so we crowd-funded a new group but with the same mission and the same people, called the Australian Climate Council, back into existence four days after we were abolished. Five days after that we had a million dollars in our pocket from donations from ordinary Australians, and I think it showed the government that people really care about this issue. They really don’t want to be left in the dark; they want to be involved in the discussion, the dialogue, and the solutions. So, today, we run an organisation three times the size of the one that I ran in government, and it’s very effective. So I think there’s a lesson there for governments, particularly, that want to deprive their citizens of access to information.

CB: So, the current government, which obviously wound down the commission, is under new leadership in the past few months. Do you detect a shift? It feels from the international perspective, looking at Australia, that there has been a shift, you know particularly leading up to Paris. But can you just explain your own view of that?

TF: Yeah. So, what’s happened is that in the last few months in Australia we’ve had a decision by the government to replace the prime minister. So there hasn’t been an election, but a new prime minister has been appointed by the political party that he is a member of in Australia. There’s been no overt change of policy in the climate area, in fact, the new prime minister has said there won’t be a change until he wins an election. But I think that the Australian public and the international community as a whole have really given the new government the benefit of the doubt. They’ve been much more positive and constructive in their engagement with the international negotiations and there are signs that they’ll be moving in a more positive direction within Australia. But I think we are still all in a phase of suspended judgement, and we’ll see over the coming year whether that judgement will be positive or adverse.

CB: Can we talk about the role of coal in Australian life, politics, the economy? Obviously, famously so, Australia digs out and exports a lot of coal which goes off to China, India, etc. And there’s also been the extra complication that it’s had to have an impact on the [Great] Barrier Reef in getting these shipments out. Can you just talk about the role of coal in Australia?

TF: Sure. I think for those who don’t live in Australia it’s difficult to understand how central coal has been… that the coal industry has been to the energy sector and, indeed, to government energy policy. It’s a long-standing arrangement that probably goes back a century or more. And because coal is such a large part of our commodities export market, it’s very influential. So, until a few years ago, for example, Australia controlled more of the seaborne coal trade than Saudi Arabia did of the seaborne oil trade. We really were the Kings of Coal. We still have large coal mines, we still have 76% of the nation’s electricity supply coming from the burning of coal, which seems paradoxical in a country as sunny and as windy as Australia, but there you have it. And policy, government policy until recently was being written by lobbyists from the coal industry for government. Even today, if you go to where electricity is generated, the Latrobe Valley or the Hunter Valley, you see the health costs there of people dying on average five or six year prematurely, compared with the rest of the country. Now the hospitals are full of people with pulmonary diseases and heart diseases. We have some of the most antique and polluted coal-fired power plants operating on the planet. So, it really is well and truly time to move on, but the industry is deeply embedded in the policy area and the government area, and it’s not going to be easy for Australia to shift away from coal, but we know it must be done and it must be done soon.

CB: From your background, can you talk about the differences between a 1.5C and  2C world, like the impact on the Barrier Reef, for example, and the wider biosphere?

TF: This [Paris] meeting’s been so interesting in that this 1.5C limit has now been introduced and it has several implications. On the limit side, for example, if we look at how many emissions we can put into the air before we can get to 1.5C or 2C, the carbon budget for 1.5C is only half as large as that as for 2C. So that means instead of 1000bn tonnes of CO2 as our budget we have 500m. That means a really rapid phase-out of coal and, indeed, fossil fuels. There’s no way around it, the budget’s too limited to do anything else. On the positive side, a world where we limit warming to 1.5C is a lot more hospitable. For example, we’ll still – possibly – have a Great Barrier Reef, we’ll limit sea-level rise to around 1m, rather than ongoing, up to several metres. Impacts on heatwaves, on bushfires, on all of the other problems we’re now seeing and on biodiversity, are likely to be less as well. So, for me, a 1.5C world, while not ideal, is sort of manageable, a 2C world I think is on the threshold of real danger.

CB: So, the subject of attribution of linking, you know, extreme weather events and heatwaves – obviously in Australia you’ve seen floods, heatwaves and bushfires, etc – can you just talk about the science of attribution, the tricky ground around communicating what the science says and what the science doesn’t say about attribution of climate change?

TF: Over the last 12 months, there’s been a real breakthrough in the way scientists analyse heatwaves, for example, which allows us to very clearly attribute them to a human cause. So, what they do, though a series of computer runs, they take, they feed in data about the way the climate system works, and so they can feed in all of the data, for example, except for the human emissions. So, if you do that for, for example, the heatwave that cancelled the Australian Open in 2014, if you do that exercise you find that you almost never get conditions as extreme as actually occurred during the tennis open – once in 12,000 runs when you get those conditions eventually. But if you add into those same computer models the greenhouse gases that humans put into the atmosphere, you find that those conditions arise quite frequently, so what that is telling us is that it is virtually impossible we would have seen heatwave conditions such as those we saw at the Australian Tennis Open without the human greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So the science is in a state of flux. We can’t do that with all of the extreme events by any means yet, but that new method is allowing us to attribute more clearly, I think, and precisely various aspects of extreme weather to the human-caused emissions.

CB: Can we talk a little bit about nuclear energy, if we can? I think it’s fair to say in the recent decade or more there has been a global decline in nuclear energy to some extent. We’ve seen events such as Fukushima and we’ve seen what’s happened in Germany, for example. But in the UK, for example, the UK government is putting in, whatever the sum is, £24bn in a brand new design in Somerset. So how do you see the nuclear industry – its role kind of globally, or maybe pick out some countries – over the next decade or two, and is it an essential part of our global energy mix if we’re going to stabilise temperature?

TF: A decade ago, when I wrote The Weather Makers, I anticipated that nuclear energy would be a significant ongoing part of the global energy mix, but looking back from the current perspective, you see that that’s less and less likely to be the case. For example, the total share of global electricity production from nuclear has declined from about 17% a decade or more ago to about 12% today. The total megawatts of electricity generated has also declined for nuclear. And I think that’s coming about for a number of reasons. You know, if you’re a capitalist with some capital to invest, are you likely to put £24 billion into a nuclear power plant that will take 50 years to pay off, and you have to sink all that capital now and it’ll take years to develop and produce and so forth? Or are you more likely to put some money into solar panels or wind turbines, which are modular and you can do as much as you want, you can invest as much capital as you require for your immediate needs? And the payback periods are much shorter. So you’re looking at the 50-year investment horizon for nuclear, you’re making a bet that the renewables are not going to be more, much cheaper than what nuclear could generate 50 years from now, so capital is increasingly reluctant to flow to nuclear power plants. It’s only in countries like China that nuclear is now really being developed on a large scale. I think it’s about 18 new plants being developed in China. There’s one or two capitalist countries where governments will put in the capital and accept the risk, such as the UK, but increasingly we’re seeing the capital markets favour renewables, just because they give you a much more secure return on your capital.

CB: So, in the UK, we’ve got this move to build new nuclear. We’ve also got a coal-to-gas switch being signalled or promoted by the current government. Do you think that switch — obviously, I think most parties agree that coal is not sustainable in the mid- to long-term because of the emissions and the health impacts – but do you think switching to gas is a wise move, particularly with the promotion of technologies like fracking?

TF: Are you talking about Drax there, or just generally?

CB: No, I mean the UK government has signalled that it wants to phase out its coal plants by the mid-2020s, but the small print of that is it wants to switch to gas, rather than leapfrogging to a clean mix of variable renewables, for example…

TF: Sure. Look, the story of gas is very varied around the world. In the US, gas is effectively free. It’s very, very cheap, and there’s been a mass switch from coal to gas. In other parts of the world, gas remains a relatively expensive fuel and, therefore, in Germany, for example, there were gas turbine plants built that have never been switched on, just because gas is too expensive. The capital returns on gas-fired power plants are over about 30 years, so you’re locking yourself into a significant period of time where you’ll be burning gas if you make those investments. My personal guess is those investments are looking increasingly risky because the competition is wind and solar, solar declining in cost 10% year-on-year and ongoing, and that relentless cost out business of manufacturing that solar is now seeing is making gas look more expensive into the future. Wind even more so. The revolution that’s occurring in the wind business now is astonishing. We will at some point in the future, and perhaps in the next five years, have windmills which are entirely containerised, so they’ll arrive in shipping containers, constructed on site, they’ll have 3D printers on their blades running up and down to keep them absolutely in pristine condition, minimising maintenance costs. There’ll be gearless wind turbines, again with so few moving parts you’re really minimising the maintenance cost. There are some projections that the cost of electricity from wind will halve in the next five years, so I think that for gas it’s looking risky.

CB: So, on renewables, there are some critics of renewables, particularly wind as you probably know in Australia. In the UK, some people either point, or point to both issues, either the aesthetic aspect — they’re ugly and they’re a blot on the landscape — or they say they’re intermittent, they’re variable, and we’re still going to need some baseload, whether it’s nuclear or gas, or whatever. How do you see that playing out in the future? Are they right about that? Or do you see some people who promote 100% renewables future – how is that going to play out?

TF: Look, first turning to the aesthetics. We’ve had the same argument in Australia about wind turbines, and we find that at least some of the argument in Australia is premised on an economic basis. So, if you have a farmer who’s getting paid $10,000 per wind turbine on his land, and a farmer next door who’s getting nothing, but has to look at the wind turbines, then it all of a sudden becomes a problem. There are ways of installing wind power through a proper social engagement process, so it minimises those difficulties. And let’s hope governments learn lessons and companies learn lessons and start doing that in a wiser manner and a fairer manner. In terms of the intermittency issue, that is an issue for the renewables, there is no doubt about it. The country that’s probably most advanced in this is Germany. They’ve got a large installed capacity for both wind and solar. Some days in Germany the renewables are running 60-70% of the total energy requirements of the country. They’re finding what they’re getting really is what you might call wavy baseload. So. the wind is always blowing somewhere, or the sun is shining somewhere, you’ve got some biomass somewhere, you’ve got some stored energy from hydro somewhere in the system — but at times there is oversupply, particularly overnight in Germany, when there’s a large component of wind energy coming in, and people are wondering how to manage that. Now, some of the interesting work done around third way technologies is happening in Germany, where people are taking that cheap electricity and working out how you can sequester CO2 using it. One option is to have a weak solution of CO2 in water, run an electric current through it, and you start developing long-chain hydrocarbons. There’s other companies creating hydrogen as a storage mechanism from that. You can reform CO2 into natural gas with extra electricity, too, and just feed it into the gas stream. So, as we move forward and install larger quantities of renewables, I think that this issue of baseload will diminish, and of course then there’s batteries, there’s electric vehicles, there are other options which are on the horizon, but which I think probably in five or ten years’ time will be making a significant difference in terms of giving us access to reliable, clean energy 24 hours a day.

CB: So, just finally, what signal do you think the Paris agreement will give to the world in the years ahead?

TF: I think that the Paris agreement will be looked back upon as the tipping point, really. It’ll be the moment the world came together and said: “Yes, we can do it — even if it’s at 1.5C.” It’s the moment that unlocks opportunity for those who are interested in this sector and I really do think we’ll see an acceleration of change from now on.

CB: OK, fantastic. Thank you very much.

Main image: 29 Nov 2015, Sydney, Australia. Australian climate change protesters have held rallies nationally to show their support for the environment before Cop21, the UN Conference on Climate Change talks to be held in Paris later this week, with the intention of forming a legally binding agreement on climate change. Pictured: Tim Flannery. © Richard Milnes/Splash News/Corbis.
Videos by Rosamund Pearce for Carbon Brief.

The interview was conducted by Leo Hickman at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris on 11 December 2015.

Sharelines from this story
  • The Carbon Brief Interview: Tim Flannery
  • Tim Flannery on Australian climate policy, carbon price, coal, and a post-COP21 world
  • Leo Hickman interviews Prof Tim Flannery - one of Australia’s most prominent voices on climate change

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