September 01, 2007
Experts Respond to "Dangerous Assumptions"
Some of the world's leading energy and climate experts have now officially responded to Roger Pielke, Tom Wigley, and Chris Green's May 8, 2008 "Dangerous Assumptions" article in Nature, which showed that the U.N. IPCC has radically underestimated the technological challenge of reducing emissions. (The reason? In a word: China.)
What stands out is that there is a clear consensus about the need for massive public investments to bridge the technology gap -- and a bit of humor about the enormity of the challenge.
Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba -- a big dog in energy circles -- writes:
I largely agree with the overall conclusion of Pielke et al. that the IPCC assessment is overly optimistic, but I fear that the situation is even worse than the authors imply.
Oy vey: there are actually people who think Pielke et al. are being overly optimistic.
The speed of transition from a predominantly fossil-fuelled world to conversions of renewable flows is being grossly overestimated: all energy transitions are multigenerational affairs with their complex infrastructural and learning needs. Their progress cannot substantially be accelerated either by wishful thinking or by government ministers' fiats.
Translation: the "fairy tale" (Nature's headline, not mine) that we can regulate our way to a completely new energy economy is, well, a fairy tale.
Next, Smil attempts a joke. Here's the wind up...
Consequently, the rise of atmospheric CO2 above 450 parts per million can be prevented only by an unprecedented (in both severity and duration) depression of the global economy, or by voluntarily adopted and strictly observed limits on absolute energy use.
...and then the punchline:
The first is highly probable; the second would be a sapient action, but apparently not for this species.
All right all right: Smil's no Jon Stewart. But that whole we-sapiens-aren't-being-very-sapient is about as good as it gets here in energy wonkville.
Of course, not everybody agrees with Pielke et al. on the basic analysis.
Analysts with the Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany say the IPCC is right about future decarbonization:
Developments in China since 2000 do raise concerns that the rate of decrease in energy and carbon intensity could slow down, or even be reversed. However, similar short-term slow-downs in technical progress have occurred in the past, only for periods of more rapid development to compensate for them. India, for example, does not show the decreasing trend in energy efficiency seen in China.
(Roger points out an error in their analysis here.)
Stanford's Christopher Field says that whether or not Pielke et al. are right on the specifics
it is hard to see how, without a massive increase in investment, the requisite number of relevant technologies will be mature and available when we need them.
More big dogs weigh in: Richard Tol, Richard Richels, and Gary Yohe. They agree with Pielke et al. They point out that policymakers chronically underestimate the challenge of stabilization.
This is well known among experts but perhaps not to the public, which may explain why some politicians overstate the impact of their (plans for) climate policy, and why others argue incorrectly that 'available' off-the-shelf technologies can reduce emissions at very little or no cost.
Now who would be these "others" who "argue incorrectly" that we have all the technologies we need?
[T]he IPCC report makes clear that we have the necessary technologies, or soon will, and focuses on creating the conditions for rapid technological deployment.
Part of my reaction to this is: whatever, Joe. You say "deployment," we say "development and deployment," let's call the whole thing off. (If you sing it, that last sentence sounds much friendlier, which is the tone I'm trying to convey here, however lamely.)
What I think we can all agree on is that Lieberman-Warner's Climate Security Act won't set a carbon dioxide price high enough to achieve any of Romm's 14 wedges, much less Hoffert's 18 wedges, or Pielke's 18 - 40 wedges. And the money the CSA invests in clean tech is feeble: $8 billion a year, out of $177 billion, will go to funding zero or low carbon energy. That's renewables + ccs +nukes. Less than $400 million a year for CCS, which wouldn't get you a single coal plant with CCS in a world with what, 7,000 coal plants? Joe: can we agree that that's lame?
But as for the substance of the Nature piece, Roger think's what's interesting is what Joe Romm doesn't say.
Interestingly, with a letter in Nature Romm, who has been a strong critic of our paper on his blog, had a perfect opportunity to explain what might have been incorrect in our technical analysis, and did not. We can assume that he was unable to find any flaws and thus chose to focus on the implications of the analysis, which he does not enagage, choosing simply to restate a position that he held before our paper came out.