Roger Pielke Jr. notes that his recent book, The Climate Fix, was described as “the climate mess” at a conference in Italy. Which speaks to Pielke’s concern that there may not be a climate fix – in sense of solution. But there will be better and worse outcomes, and our ability to make progress will be a function of innovation.
Focusing on carbon dioxide targets, which only treats part of the climate problem, may push us toward a worse outcome. Looking at the recent lack of progress on climate policy and zeroing in on a few specific cases, Pielke argues that we’re pretty far off course.
The evidence: Copenhagen (a failure). Cancun (an agreement to meet again). Obama’s climate-free State of the Union. The UN Secretary General’s abandonment of climate change as a priority. EU carbon trading suspended because of fraud.
In short, the climate policy process is broken. It wasn’t leading and isn’t going to lead to meaningful reductions, as long as it’s mired in simplistic sloganeering and divided into good guy / bad guy camps (see Hulme, Why We Disagree about Climate).
The mainstream approach to fixing climate is this: Keep the increase in global average temperature below 2 degrees C by limiting CO2 concentration to no more than 450 ppm, through emissions reduction. Or better yet, reduce CO2 concentration from its current 390 ppm to a new “safe level” of 350 ppm (in other words, we’re in big trouble already).
So to stabilize global temperature, our net CO2 emissions have to go to zero, and then go negative (though biotic uptake and maybe carbon capture). We were headed toward CO2 reduction in 2009-2010 because of the global recession, but now we’re back on the CO2 growth track.
How might we move toward zero CO2? The Kaya Identity provides a simple equation to track the four policy levers for managing greenhouse gases: population, economic growth, efficiency, and carbon intensity. Managing population is like steering the Queen Mary with a paddle; it’s difficult and there’s a time lag. Reducing emissions by slowing economic growth violates Pielke’s “iron law of climate policy” (people will to pay for emissions reduction, but this price has its limit). Therefore climate policies should not cost too much, but better yet they should foster economic growth. So we’re left with increasing efficiency and reducing carbon intensity. In other words, innovation.
Good news: We may be making significant progress on poverty reduction according to the Brookings Institution. Bad news: Poverty reduction may increase CO2 emissions. Old news: Increasing jobs and GDP growth is at the center of national and global economic policy. Counter-intuitive news: Bimodal income distribution has been going unimodal and moving toward “middle-income” (what, the rich aren’t getting richer?).
In the battle between economic growth and emissions, growth always wins. At least up to now. We’re emitting over 1/2 ton of CO2 per $1000 of global GDP. Where do we have to get to? 1/4 ton? No. 1/10 ton? Wrong. We need to get to zero tons.
Look at the United Kingdom, with its carbon intensity of 0.42 tons per $1000 GDP (which is comparatively low). The UK needs to get to .15 to .2 tons/$1000 to meet its CO2 goal for 2022 (which would put them well behind their long-term goal). Which means they’d have to pass France’s (very low) carbon intensity of .3 tons/$1000 GDP by 2015. Which means the UK would have to build the energy equivalent of 40 large nuclear power plants in four years. Good luck with that.
How about another option? The UK could reduce or reverse economic growth. But that’s not politically possible. When’s the last time you heard a politician say, “My fellow Americans (or Brits, or Canadians) in order to reduce our impact on the planet, we’re setting the ambitious goal of shrinking our economy by 15% percent over the next ten years. So stay home, don’t shop, and we need 15% of you to quit your job.” So what’s the solution? Well it’s not doing insignificant things like foregoing a runway at Heathrow Airport (a current policy debate in the UK), when China is building 100 Heathrow-sized airports by 2020. Big picture, the UK itself doesn’t matter compared to China’s emissions.
Here’s the bottom line: To get to 450 ppm by 2050, we’d have to install 900 MW of power generating capacity every day for the next forty years.
To make things even more difficult, a billion and a half people around the world lack access to electricity. In other words, we need vastly more energy, on top of the CO2 reduction goal, and we need to make it cheaper.
How fast can we de-carbonize our global economy? We don’t know. Historically we’ve averaged one to two percent per year. The record is Japan, which briefly reached 4.4% de-carbonization when it off-shored its aluminium industry. Obama’s Copenhagen proposal offered 17% de-carbonization by 2020, which implies an unprecidented five percent rate, equivalent to 170 large emissions-free power plants. His State of the Union clean energy proposal implies 300 such plants by 2030! We’re nowhere close to building the 15 emissions-free power plants per year it would take to reach that goal.
Our current policies amount to targets and timetables that we don’t know how to hit. Cap and trade is rife with problems, shows little promise of moving through congress, and so far hasn’t reduced CO2 emissions at the rate we require. And a carbon tax – one large enough to change behavior by making fossil fuels expensive – is political suicide.
We’re using the wrong tools. We didn’t get an increase in life-span by capping death and trading death credits. Instead we focused on public health and diseases. We didn’t have a meeting in 1930 setting a life-span goal of “79.6 years by 2010!” In the same way, we need to focus on our two most promising levers for fixing climate: efficiency (which is like public health) and de-carbonaizetion (which is like medical technology).
Looking at a “night-time map” of the world, showing the glowing lights of civilization, you can ask, “how lit-up would the world be if everyone lived like North Americans and Europeans?” With today’s technology, it would be a very bright, energy-consuming, planet-stressing world. If we tackle the efficiency and de-carbonization policy challenges, it could just be a bright world without the resource stress, unleashing huge human potential. The 1.5 billion people without access to adequate energy are pushing toward this bright world. Innovation is how we’ll help them get there.
A few questions and answers:
Q: It’s great to get the global poor more energy, but from what planets to do we get resources for this new middle class, and how do we cut our emissions in developed countries? A: We know the demand is coming, so we need to ensure that the energy portion of those resources comes from renewables.
Q: What about clean coal? A: We shouldn’t exclude anything, but clean coal doesn’t exist right now. At any rate, we’re close to a place where nuclear energy may become less expensive than coal.
Q: Could “the iron law” melt a little if climate emergencies were to become more prominent. A: One problem is the time lag between implementing policy and getting results (e.g., fewer climate emergencies). Doing things today to avoid uncertain climate emergencies thirty years in the future is a tough sell.
Q: You’ve presented a huge challenge in terms of the work ahead. How do we scale up? A: The size of global energy sector is something like $5 trillion. A modest tax – not to change behavior, just to raise funds for R&D – would go a long way to spur the innovation we need. We spend $40 billion on medical R&D, $100 billion on defense R&D. We need $30 to 100 billion in energy R&D. (Note, this implies a 0.6 to 2.0 percent global energy tax. For comparison, Oregon utility customers already pay a 3% fee for energy innovation investment. This seems to be working statewide, so why not do it at the federal level?)
Q: Isn’t part of the benefit of renewable energy that it creates many more jobs than the fossil fuel energy? A: Let’s question the assumption that we want lots of jobs per megawatt produced. That makes renewable energy more expensive and less competitive. We want to provide technology rather than staffing call centers.
Q: Is it a priority for the green energy sector to get to the 1.5 billion energy-poor before fossil fuels do? Given that renewables have a return on investment (ROI) of 15 – 20 years, it’s not as compelling as cheap fossil fuel. How do we shorten that ROI? A: Energy access should mean more than its current definition: a 40-watt light bulb, four hours per day. “How can we allow the global poor to use as much energy as us?” is not a winning argument. We have to make these technologies much more competitive. We have under-invested in energy innovation for decades.
Q: Can the Department of Defense lead in innovation to create a better world rather than a more dangerous one? A: DoD is one of the more innovative organizations in the world (setting aside what you may think of its mission and operations goals). For example, it wants to protect supply chains, which cost $100 to deliver a gallon of fuel. They’re motivated to find solutions, things like modular 25 MW nuclear power plants, which power forward bases and provide power to surrounding communities.
Q: Haven’t we tried technology and the free market? It got us into this trouble in the first place. A: Correct, the free market won’t do it alone, neither will technology. But we haven’t tried directed technology like we might with a bit of government “intrusion” into the marketplace (like we have with medical research, public health, and transportation). The biggest problem right now is settling for the illusion of progress, which is where we are now.