Subjective Historical Determinism

I’ve made a philosophical, historical and ethical hypothesis I’m calling ‘Subjective Historical Determinism’.  

Hypothesis of Subject Historical Determinism:

1. The uniqueness of our existence and glory of consciousness is so unlikely that we cannot have wished the past to have been any different were it to impact our chance of being born. 

2. Therefore, every ethical, historical and philosophical judgement that we make prior to our existence has primarily to be a calculation of how we may have been born to a given circumstance. For instance, one may have to assume gratefulness because of mass migration, even within the context of terror or disaster. 

3. To make an effective moral statement about the past one has to adopt the position, for instance, that while I am thankful that the Roman invasion of AD 43 led to my creation, I am of the opinion that the Roman Conquest was completely unjust. Therefore, all morality, ethics and problem solving must be founded on the conditional calculation of your being born, which, very often, leads towards embracing gravely immoral events and philosophical doctrines.

4. After someone has been born, they have the ability to make assertions on the present and future, yet must be aware that events they call  immoral or unjust will inevitably lead towards the greatest level of individual justice and morality through creating the unique conditions into which certain individuals will be born.

More than half of current coal power capacity is in China. A key strategy for meeting China’s 2060 carbon neutrality goal and the global 1.5 °C climate goal is to rapidly shift away from unabated coal use. Here we detail how to structure a high-ambition coal phaseout in China while balancing multiple national needs. We evaluate the 1037 currently operating coal plants based on comprehensive technical, economic and environmental criteria and develop a metric for prioritizing plants for early retirement. We find that 18% of plants consistently score poorly across all three criteria and are thus low-hanging fruits for rapid retirement. We develop plant-by-plant phaseout strategies for each province by combining our retirement algorithm with an integrated assessment model. With rapid retirement of the low-hanging fruits, other existing plants can operate with a 20- or 30-year minimum lifetime and gradually reduced utilization to achieve the 1.5 °C or well-below 2 °C climate goals, respectively, with complete phaseout by 2045 and 2055.

Three key elements are featured in the proposed strategy. First, successful implementation of the pathways depends on an immediate halt of new construction of conventional coal plants in China. The sooner new construction stops, the lower the cost of deep decarbonization will be in the future. Cancellation of planned projects can reduce the risk of stranded assets and enhance the feasibility of existing plants’ phaseout. Second, a small set of existing plants (18%) is eligible for rapid shutdown in the near term, since they perform poorly across all the technical, economic, and environmental criteria assessed. Third, remaining plants can operate through a minimum guaranteed lifetime of 20 (or 30) years, but with gradually and responsibly reduced hours mainly for meeting peak load demand in China’s power system.

The three-part strategy is compatible with an accelerated coal phaseout in 2045 (or 2055) under the 1.5 °C (or 2 °C) climate goal. It also suggests a possible range of coal phaseout pathways in the power sector to achieve China’s 2060 carbon neutrality goal: without new builds, majority of existing coal plants can operate over a minimum lifetime between 20 and 30 years to achieve a phaseout of unabated coal power generation around 2050. However, such a pathway highly depends on taking immediate actions of the “no new coal” strategy, where continued coal builds will accelerate the retirement of all plants and the phaseout timeline.

An accelerated coal phaseout will be accompanied with increasing electricity generation from intermittent wind and solar power. Accommodating high penetration of intermittent electricity from wind and solar is not a unique challenge to China and would require substantial grid management and forward planning. Studies consistently show contributions of well over 50% of generation are viable but will require substantial evolution of grid management approaches25,26. This includes some amount of reliable generation capacity to complement intermittent sources. It also includes modernizing grid transmission and distribution, developing next-generation storage and other flexibility technologies, and deploying demand-side management technologies. A deeper assessment of this question is essential to a successful coal transition in China and needs to be answered by future research.

Finally, a successful coal phaseout needs to be equitable. It is also referred as a just transition27,28,29, where potential financial losses, and economic and social impacts, are well managed during the transition. Not only the overall magnitude, but also the distribution of these potential impacts across different regions, different stakeholders, and different demographic groups needs to be evaluated. Moreover, new research should focus on such impacts through the entire supply chain, while at a finer resolution. For example, although employment at coal power plants is only a marginal share of total population (less than 0.1% in most Chinese provinces, Supplementary Fig. 10), the number of employments in coal mining are much larger, and especially in certain regions where local economies and communities are heavily centered on coal. To answer those questions, more research is needed to integrate more research from other disciplinaries (i.e., social behavior, economics) into the coal phaseout strategy in China.

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