Why Having A Realistic View of Energy Efficiency Matters to Climate Change
A Response to Our Rebound Critics
In response to our New York Times op-ed about the limits of energy efficiency and the furious reaction to it from some quarters, Andy Revkin asks whether we can find room for agreement on the rebound effect.
To some degree we already have.
The Age of Us
The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part Two
The Case for the Proactionary Principle In the Face of Uncertainty
In part one of the interview with Steve Fuller, the professor of social epistemology at the University of Warwick discussed an emerging ideological axis in which the Left and the Right are replaced by Up-Wingers and Down-Wingers. Up-Wingers, Fuller says, are fundamentally opposed to the dominance of the precautionary principle in guiding policy. In the second part of the interview below, we explore the failings of the precautionary principle and the advantages of a proactionary state, which has a documented history throughout the United States and Europe.
The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part One
The Rise of the Up-Wingers Part One
Steve Fuller on the Proactionary Principle, Environmentalism, and Interstellar Flight
Cryogenically preserved at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, the transhumanist Fereidoun Esfandiary – “dead” since 2000 – might better speak to the future of politics than today’s prognosticators. The leader of a loose group of futurists and thinkers in the 1970s, FM-2030 (as he dubbed himself) believed that humankind’s full potential could be unlocked by advances in science and technology.
The Age of Us
Can People Power Drive Action on Climate Change?
In a new "Age of Us" column launching this week at The Conversation, I will be writing about research, ideas, and trends that shed light on why we disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental problems. A major focus will be on the strategies that can promote political cooperation on our tough, new planet. You will encounter not only my thoughts and ideas but also the voices and arguments of leaders in the fields of communication, journalism, political science, sociology, and the policy world.
Just as importantly, as readers and commenters, you will be sharing your own thoughts and conclusions, often challenging my ideas and those of others. At The Public Square, in combination with regular original essays, I will be expanding on columns at Age of Us as they are debated and discussed.
Ted Nordhaus and Linus Blomqvist to Debut New Report ‘Nature Unbound’ at RFF First Wednesday Seminar
Evidence abounds of humanity’s creative ability to produce more goods and services using fewer resources. In many cases, our use of natural resources is declining, particularly when measured in terms of GDP consumption per capita or per dollar. In fact, consumption of some natural resources (certain croplands, fuels, metals, and water) has plummeted, even as we produce more and more from these resources.
Breakthrough Institute Chairmain Ted Nordhaus and Director of Research Linus Blomqvist will discuss this evidence and highlight the ingenuity enabling reduced natural resource use on a panel at the RFF First Wednesday Seminar. The Seminar, entitled "Making Nature Useless? Global Resource Trends, Innovations, and Implications for Conservation" will discuss Breakthrough Institute's upcoming report, Nature Unbound, and probe the question, "can we credibly envision a peak environmental footprint?"
E2e Scholars Acknowledge the Importance of Rebound
E2e Scholars Acknowledge the Importance of Rebound
Despite Missteps, Latest Paper Signals Shift in the Right Direction
Gillingham et al.’s latest working paper is emblematic of the great progress realized in recent years to squarely confront the challenge of energy efficiency rebound by an ever-widening cadre of serious scholars.
Innovation Needed for Gas to Bridge to Somewhere
Innovation Needed for Gas to Bridge to Somewhere
New Nature Piece Tells Us What We Already Knew
A new research letter in Nature (McJeon et al 2014) concludes that globally abundant natural gas will not “discernibly reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions.” The paper models a scenario in which the US shale gas revolution is scaled globally. While natural gas displaces higher-carbon coal-fired power, zero-carbon power like nuclear and solar are also displaced, according to the model, and cheap gas encourages more energy consumption. The net impact is marginal: between 2 percent less and 11 percent more emissions in the authors’ “abundant gas” scenario:
Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: The Good Anthropocene
Ruth DeFries Announced as 2015 Paradigm Award Winner
Frequently Asked Questions About Renewables
What is renewable energy?
As a category, renewable energy encompasses a broad range of energy technologies and fuels, ranging from photovoltaic solar cells to the burning of animal dung for fuel in many poor regions of the world. Major sources of renewable energy –– in the rough order of the amount of energy they contribute globally –– include hydroelectric power, wood used for heating, cooking, and electrical generation, bioenergy produced from agricultural crops and waste, wind energy, concentrated solar power generated with mirrors and steam turbines, photovoltaic solar cells, geothermal energy, and tidal energy.
Why Energy Efficiency Can Increase Energy Consumption in Poor Countries
Pent-Up Energy Demand in Developing Economies Points to High Levels of Global Rebound
Over the last several decades there has been a broad consensus that energy efficiency is a cheap and easy way to reduce carbon emissions. Make our cars and light bulbs more efficient, the thinking went, and energy use will go down.
Welcome New York Times Readers
An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute
In a new opinion piece for the New York Times, Breakthrough cofounders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus comment on the recent bestowment of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to the trio of researchers whose work led to the creation of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus commend the researchers for their scientific achievements, but caution against the idea that LEDs will significantly reduce energy consumption, as touted by the Royal Swedish Academy in the award presentation. Shellenberger and Nordhaus conclude:
Breakthrough's Research Program provides an empirical basis for the Institute's mission. Our rigorous, data-driven, and original analyses are in service of accelerating the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.
Collection: Energy Efficiency
The Breakthrough Institute team works to publish up-to-date analysis on energy efficiency, centering around the economic benefits of energy efficiency, rebound and backfire, and relatedly, the limitations of energy efficiency as a climate mitigation strategy. Here is our collection of analyses and opinions on energy efficiency:
Ruth DeFries Announced as 2015 Paradigm Award Winner
How Humans Thrive in the Anthropocene
The Breakthrough Institute will honor Ruth DeFries, Denning Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology at Columbia University, with the 2014 Paradigm Award in recognition of her exceptional research on how humans transform their environments.
Lighting, Electricity, Steel
Jessica Lovering to Speak at American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting
Jessica Lovering will speak at the American Nuclear Society Winter Meeting's Opening Plenary entitled "Nuclear: The Foundation of Clean Energy" on November 10 at 8:00 a.m. The following day, November 11 at 1:00 p.m., Jessica will join panelists Vaughn Gilbert of Westinghouse and Ashley Finan of Clean Air Task Force to discuss public education and outreach tactics in nuclear science and technology on a panel entitled: "Finding Common Ground with New Audience".
Both sessions are part of the larger five-day conference, which will be held in Anaheim, CA from November 9-13. Beginning with the ANS Nuclear Technology EXPO on the November 9, the conference will explore topics including Aerospace Nuclear Science and Technology, Biology and Medicine, Decommissioning and Environmental Sciences, Fusion Energy, Isotope and Radiation, Reactor Physics, and Thermal Hydraulics. Register for the conference here.
Michael Shellenberger to Speak at Energy Africa Conference
Michael Shellenberger will speak at the 7th Annual Energy Africa Conference at Colorado School of Mines on November 13th. He will be joined by hundreds of private, public, non-governmental organizations and academicians as they dialog and invest in the work needed for African countries to supply energy that is affordable, accessible, efficient and clean. Access to affordable, reliable, clean and economically viable energy supply is essential to Africa’s economic growth and enhancing the standard of living of its citizens. To register for the conference, click here.
Lighting, Electricity, Steel
Energy Efficiency Backfire in Emerging Economies
Countries that expect to consume much more energy will likely experience higher levels of energy efficiency rebound, concludes a new Breakthrough report, released today. Rebound is the phenomenon in which energy efficiency measures increase demand for energy, which diminishes expected energy savings.
Lighting, Electricity, Steel: Energy Efficiency Rebound in Emerging Economies presents three historical case studies of when energy efficiency rebound occurred: lighting from 1700 to present, electricity generation in 20th century America, and iron and steel production from 1900 onward.
DOE Loans Are Only the Beginning for Much-Needed Investment in Nuclear
Hurdles Remain for Next-Generation Reactors
Last week, the Department of Energy announced a major investment in advanced nuclear power, a draft solicitation for up to $12.6 billion in loan guarantees across four categories of innovative nuclear energy technologies: front-end fuel cycle innovation, advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors, and upgrades or uprates to existing reactors.
IEA Acknowledges Rebound Effects
Clean Energy Equivalent of 4 to 19 Australias Required to Meet Gap Created by Rebound
A reversal in the International Energy Agency’s views on energy efficiency suggests that as much as 2,176 million tons of oil equivalent worth of extra clean energy consumption will be required by 2035 to meet the organization’s aggressive climate targets. That’s the equivalent of 19 Australias’ energy consumption. This finding is the result of a Breakthrough analysis of a new IEA report, which showcased a new position for the agency on what energy experts call “rebound effects” – a hotly contested phenomenon in energy consumption growth.
Breakthrough Dialogue 2014
For the past 40 years, rising energy production and consumption have been widely viewed as inherently destructive of nature. A steady stream of government, United Nations, and environmental proposals have identified lowered energy consumption as the highest goal of climate and environmental policy. But during that same period, global per capita energy consumption has risen by 30 percent. And over the next century, global energy consumption is anticipated to double, triple, or more. The reality of our high-energy planet demands that we rethink environmental protection. The question for Breakthrough Dialogue 2014 is, “How might a high-energy planet save nature?”
Not Solar Fast
Rapid Expansion of Solar Depends on Massive Subsidies and High Carbon Price
This week the International Energy Agency updated their technology roadmaps for solar photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal energy (STE). The bottom line is that significant policy and technological progress are required for solar to play a major role in electricity in the future. With that progress, IEA finds, solar PV could provide as much as 16 percent of global electricity by 2050, with STE providing another 11 percent –– making solar’s collective 27 percent the largest single contributor to global electricity in this IEA scenario.
Jessica Lovering to Speak and Moderate at Nuclear Science Week’s Big Event
Breakthrough Senior Analyst and coauthor of How to Make Nuclear Cheap Jessica Lovering will speak on the Nuclear Science Week 2014 Big Event's opening panel entitled "Nuclear in Pop Culture: Evolving Narratives About Energy" on Thursday, October 16th from 12:00-1:15 pm and moderate a panel on Nuclear Leadership on Friday, October 17th from 9:30-11:00 am.
This two-day public symposium will be hosted the week before Nuclear Science Week at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Interested individuals can pre-register for the symposium here.
Collection: Natural Gas
The Breakthrough Institute team works to publish up-to-date analysis on natural gas, centering around the history of the shale revolution, pragmatic climate policies, and technological innovation. Here is our collection of analysis on natural gas:
Frequently Asked Questions About Natural Gas
Understanding the Shale Gas Revolution
What is natural gas?
Natural gas is methane (CH4), a combustible gas than can be used as fuel for automobiles, for industrial process heat, for residential uses like cooking, and for electricity generation in power plants.
Natural gas is found in a variety of geologic formations, including coalbed seams, sandstone, limestone, shales, and, frozen methane hydrates under the ocean floor. The extraction of natural gas from the ground also produces natural gas “associates” or “gas liquids” like propane, ethane, and butane, that are typically separated from methane and used for other commercial purposes. Because natural gas takes so many different forms and exists in so many different formations, vast quantities of it are found in most parts of the world.
The Left vs. the Climate
Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein's Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet
Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before.
Real-World Barriers to Carbon Pricing
Economists’ ‘One-Page’ Climate Plans Won’t Work
Ask an economist how to combat climate change, and you’re likely to get a pretty simple answer: put a price on carbon.
“If you let the economists write the [climate] legislation, it could be quite simple,” MIT business school economist Henry Jacoby told NPR last year, implying that the whole plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions could “fit on one page.”
In short, tax fossil fuels in proportion to the amount of carbon they release. Make coal, oil and natural gas more expensive. “That’s it; that's the whole plan,” as NPR’s David Kestenbaum put it.
Saudi Arabia Fast-Tracks to Nuclear
Royal Family Plans for Nuclear to Provide 15 Percent of Power in 20 Years
Last Tuesday, energy officials in Saudi Arabia announced plans to become a major nuclear energy state, assuring the reactors would be used only for peaceful purposes (The Nuclear Wire). They intend to move fast, beginning construction by year’s end.
Today, more than a billion people lack adequate access to electricity and modern energy services. But modernization across the developing world, from China to sub-Saharan Africa, reveals that humanity is rapidly closing this energy gap. These trends point to the future as a high-energy planet, and recognition of this crucial trend is essential to energy scholars and policy makers.
Economists have long recognized innovation's central importance to economic growth, but have still not come to terms with the reality that “general-purpose” technologies like electricity, microchips, and the Internet often emerge from long-term public-private partnerships. And since no two technologies are exactly alike, case studies of successful innovation policy must be carefully analyzed to spur similar successes in the future.
Real political action on climate change will require pluralistic policy approaches that appeal to both the Right and the Left using a positive vision of the future – a dream, not a nightmare. In fact, a growing body of social science reveals that apocalyptic, “doom-and-gloom” messaging prompts feelings of apathy and actually hinders climate policy progress.
Make clean energy cheap — that's the key to addressing climate change and meeting human development needs. In contrast to the tried, tested, and failed model of emissions reduction commitments, policy makers should replace targets and timetables with a pragmatic framework that emphasizes energy innovation, resilience, and human development.
Climate change is one of the biggest environmental, technological, and developmental risks in human history. Confronting the risks posed by increasing global temperatures requires a deep understanding of energy and agricultural policy, the needs of urbanizing and industrializing populations, and non-climate environmental and public health risks.
Forests are home to vast proportions of the world’s biodiversity, but are under threat from agricultural expansion. The experience of past development shows that to prevent widespread deforestation, there have to be effective substitutes for the services forests provide. Reducing demand for wood and new agricultural land will be the most important way to ensure that the Amazon and Earth’s other great remaining forests can be preserved.
Preserving biodiversity is one of ecomodernism’s key goals. The largest threat to global biodiversity is habitat loss. By reducing the human footprint on nature, we can leave more room for wild landscapes where diverse and fascinating species live. If we can meet our needs without requiring more land, water, or resources, we can free the world’s biodiversity from human pressures and let it be something humans can appreciate for its aesthetic and spiritual values.
Food and Farming
Feeding a population approaching 10 billion will require major innovations in the way we grow, distribute, and think about food. To meet demand with minimal environmental harm, we will need to sustainably intensify agriculture, growing more food and livestock on less land and using less water, fertilizer, and pesticides. Genetic modification and advanced technologies like lab-grown meat and high-rise greenhouses are needed to meet food demand efficiently and with minimal environmental harm.
Decoupling refers to the way new technologies and substitutes can help humanity meet its needs while treading more lightly on nature. Whether it’s growing more crops using less land, water, and fertilizer, or producing more energy with fewer natural resource inputs, decoupling is the key trend that explains how humans can save nature in a modern, globalized world.
Energy efficiency is great for economic growth, but it is not a surefire way to reduce energy consumption. Energy efficiency has improved for centuries, and during the whole time we have used more energy. The study of “rebound effects,” where energy efficiency improvements lead to increases in energy demand (thereby eroding expected emissions reductions) is critical to understanding how much energy we expect to consume in the future and, relatedly, our greenhouse emissions.
Renewable energy technologies – including solar, wind, hydroelectric, and bioenergy – are essential tools in the path towards modern, low-carbon energy systems. But like all energy technologies, they have significant costs and impacts. Understanding their scalability and effects on the landscape will prove essential in crafting renewable energy innovation policy.
The United States is transitioning from coal to natural gas thanks to government-supported technological breakthroughs known collectively as the shale revolution. A model for accelerating decarbonization to deal with global warming, the shale gas revolution is emblematic of both 21st century innovation and how we transition to new fuels.
Nuclear energy is an essential source of zero-carbon, efficient, and reliable power that also does not heavily intrude upon the land. But for nuclear to rapidly displace dirty fossil fuels, it must become safer and cheaper. Given their growing populations, industrializing countries like China and India are leading the development and deployment of advanced nuclear technologies.
Decarbonization refers to the 200-year-old process in which societies use less carbon-intensive fuels. Economies have achieved decarbonization by transitioning from dirtier, energy-diffuse sources like wood, coal, and oil, to cleaner, energy-dense ones like natural gas, to ultimately zero-carbon sources like advanced nuclear and renewable energy technologies. Technological innovation will be necessary to speed up this transition from dirty to cleaner fuels.
Technology has allowed humankind to transcend natural limits that otherwise would have kept us as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. Continuous innovations, both radical and incremental, will help us achieve a world in which all the world’s inhabitants can lead prosperous, secure lives while diminishing our impacts on wild, beautiful places.
We live on a planet whose natural processes are now widely impacted by human activities. The Anthropocene, or “Age of Humans,” presents new challenges and opportunities for conservation, which must ask how a world population going on 10 billion people can lighten its footprint on the planet to leave room for vibrant, diverse natural landscapes. Embracing technology, urbanization, and human ingenuity is key to navigating this age of opportunities and hard choices.
Climate of Extremes Part Two
Dialogue – Not Diatribes – Needed for Bipartisan Action
This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.
As Bill McKibben has focused on building a new progressive grassroots movement, Tom Steyer and his political advisors have sought to spend his vast wealth to influence key U.S. Senate and Governoratorial races. This strategy is intended to lay the groundwork for climate change to be a dominant issue during the 2016 presidential election, while positioning Steyer as a candidate for future electoral office.
Access to affordable and reliable energy is absolutely essential for human development; but energy production takes a heavy toll on the environment. With demand for energy expected to grow for decades to come as developing nations emerge from poverty, substantial innovation into clean energy technologies will be necessary to achieve our ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
Ecomodernism is a pragmatic philosophy motivated by the belief that we can protect beautiful, wild places at the same time as we ensure that the seven-going-on-ten billion people in the world can lead secure, free, and prosperous lives. Ecomodernists are optimistic about humanity’s ability to shape a better future – a “good Anthropocene.”
Climate of Extremes: Part One
How Polarizing Global Warming Strategies Backfire
This is first of two articles on climate activism and political polarization, the second of which can be found here.
In August 2011, writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben along with a few dozen other environmentalists spent several nights in a Washington, DC jail. They were the first among thousands who would be arrested in front of the White House as part of a series of intensifying protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In jail, McKibben’s “mind was running fast: things I needed to tweet or blog, messages I needed to get to the media,” he would later recall. The protests organized by his advocacy group 350.org, he believed, marked “a turning point, the moment when insider, establishment environmentalism found itself a little overtaken by grassroots power.”1
Environmental Affairs Symposium: We the Anthropos
Environmental Affairs Symposium 2014 at Lewis & Clark College explores this era of the Anthropocene via keynote dialogue, a wide range of scholarly sessions, and other events designed for participants to forge new environmental identities with eyes wide open to contemporary ideas—ultimately to recapture imagination and hope in a world shaped by the earthbound.
Touching the Wild
Emma Marris on Staying Connected to What We Conserve
Emma Marris today: obsessed with wolves, peeved that kids can’t play in the National Parks — and a little put off by being called a “new” conservationist?
That last bit will surprise many who know Marris mainly through her 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (Bloomsbury), which is widely seen (and sometimes reviled) as one of the manifestos of the new conservation movement, such as it is.
Alex Trembath Speaks at SUNY-ESF Symposium on New American Environmentalism
A group of leading environmental scientists and policy experts will gather Sept. 11 at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) to discuss a New American Environmentalism. Participating in a symposium held in connection with the inauguration of ESF's new president, the panelists will represent ESF and several other institutions: Syracuse University, the Mohawk Council of the Akwesasne, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Breakthrough Institute, and the University of Manchester, UK.
Titled "Foundations for a New American Environmentalism," the symposium's objectives are to invite reflection on the values, visions and strategies that have characterized environmentalism in the past, lay the groundwork for a continuing national conversation informed by science and compassion, and motivate and empower a new generation of students, citizens and young academics to re-imagine and reinvent the future in ways that enrich and strengthen relationships with the communities that form the living planet.
On Becoming an Ecomodernist
A Positive Vision of Our Environmental Future
The last few years have seen the emergence of a new environmental movement — sometimes called ecomodernism, other times eco-pragmatism — that offers a positive vision of our environmental future, rejects Romantic ideas about nature as unscientific and reactionary, and embraces advanced technologies, including taboo ones, like nuclear power and genetically modified organisms, as necessary to reducing humankind’s ecological footprint.
Forging an Ecomodernist Vision of the Future
From Water Consumption to Whales, Generation Fellows Conduct Cutting-Edge Research
Have the construction costs and duration of new nuclear builds always increased over time? How did humans move away from hunting whales for oil and lubricants? What will innovation look like in the 21st century given that it is increasingly complex? These are a few of the big questions Breakthrough Generation Fellows 2014 tackled this summer, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, environment, and innovation.
Ted Nordhaus Speaks on “Innovation and a Carbon Tax: Unexpected Views from the Right and Left”
Australia has just repealed one, South Africa is just getting one going, and British Columbia has a popular one that nobody seems to know about. In the United States, it is generating ever more divisiveness — or is it? Discover the unexpected areas where the right and the left agree and disagree on a carbon tax. Learn their thoughts on innovation and climate policies through a thought-provoking panel co-organized by the R Street Institute and Future 500.
The Polarization Trap
A Disappearing Center is Bad News for Liberals
With the GOP threatening in November to gain seats in both the House and the Senate, many liberal activists and commentators are likely to continue to point to changing demographic trends as a sign that the electoral setback is a temporary blip, reflective of the predictable electoral swing against an incumbent President's party during his second term and a particularly unfavorable mix of world events and domestic conditions.
Many will also continue to blame a perceived political spending advantage on the part of conservatives including the growing network of groups funded by the billionaire Koch brothers.
For these liberal activists, donors, and fundraisers, November's electoral defeats will just be another point of evidence that they need to dedicate themselves to raising ever greater sums of money and invest in even more aggressive forms of "in your face" activism on issues ranging from climate change to social inequality.
Among the perceived encouraging trends that liberals are likely to point to are survey findings this past summer from the Pew Research Center showing that over the past twenty years the number of Americans who can be rated as "consistently liberal" in their worldviews has increased four fold, from 3 percent in 1994 to 12 percent today.
In a country considered center-right, 34 percent of Americans today score as consistently/mostly liberal in their outlook compared to 27 percent as consistently/mostly conservative, a reversal from 20 years ago.
Moreover, those in the middle (e.g. who can't be classified in either ideological camp,) have declined over the past decade by 10 points to 39 percent.
It's not only that Americans have grown more divided in their worldviews, but the constant demonization and outrage expressed at liberal and conservative media outlets, blogs, and by political leaders and commentators has cultivated deeply unfavorable views of the "other," to the point that according to Pew, a third of Democrats and Republicans believe that the other side is a "threat to the future of the country."
For liberals, who have purposively invested over the past 15 years in an ideological message machine of closely aligned media organizations, think tanks, bloggers, donor networks, and activist groups to rival that of the Right, the Pew poll findings are likely to be perceived as demonstrating the effectiveness of such echo chamber efforts.
To be sure, demographic changes and geographic sorting/mobility play a role, but for many liberal strategists and activists the intense polarization and antipathy for the "other side" reflected in the Pew findings will likely be cited as an example of successful movement building.
But such an attribution overlooks how the liberal and conservative movements fundamentally differ. For liberals, the more polarized the country becomes, the more difficult it will be to enact major policy changes or to hold together a successful electoral coalition.
For conservatives, on the other hand, increasing polarization favors their goals of downsizing government, blocking policy reforms, and limiting political participation among young people and minorities.
Is Coal Really “Peaking” in China?
Better Technologies Needed for Emissions to Start Falling
“While uncertainty over the changes in coal stockpiles still exists, we’re confident that the unbelievable may be at hand: peak coal consumption in China.” So concludes a recent blog post from the Sierra Club’s Justin Guay and Greenpeace International’s Lauri Myllyvirta, the latter of whom recently published an analysis suggesting that Chinese coal consumption dropped in the first half of 2014:
Making Social Science Relevant Again
Engaging Students Via Politicized Social Problems
Over the past decade, among the most frequently voiced criticisms of higher education is that universities are not adequately preparing students to be successful professionals, engaged citizens, and/or informed consumers of information. The social sciences and the humanities are among the most vulnerable to these charges; as fields like communication, sociology, and political science are charged with lacking rigor and or relevance.
In these fields students are inundated with intensive-reading about jargon-heavy theories or statistically driven bodies of research related to, for example, the psychology of media effects or public opinion formation. The dynamics of political controversies such as those over climate change, childhood vaccination, or obesity are reduced to convenient opportunities to run ever more advanced experiments or survey analyses that test or replicate a theory, rather than analyzed as significant social problems worthy of study in their own right.
As a consequence, students learn (often reluctantly) about a multitude of theories or research methods, but are left unable to critically apply this knowledge to their lives as professionals, advocates, or consumers. There is also a cost for communication scholars, sociologists, and political scientists as the design of these courses reflects the approach to their own research, an approach that is increasingly viewed as politically tangential, intellectually obscure, and unworthy of funding by policymakers, philanthropists, journalists, and the public more broadly.
US Coal Exports Do Not Offset Massive Emissions Reductions from Natural Gas
A Response to CO2 Scorecard
Despite declining emissions, cleaner air, and falling energy prices, natural gas opponents continue to look the gift horse that is the US shale gas revolution in the mouth. The latest canard comes from CO2 Scorecard, the policy wing of environmental consultancy Performeks LLC. Some readers will recall that last year, CO2 Scorecard released a study claiming that rising natural gas generation accounted for only about a quarter of US emissions reductions from 2011 to 2012. Now, in a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, they claim that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.
The Romance of Ecomodernism
Pragmatism, Romance, and Urban Renewal at Breakthrough Dialogue 2014
People will be drawn to an ecomodernism when it combines a romantic love for nature with the pragmatic use of technology and development. That was the advice offered by Emma Marris, Mark Sagoff, and Reihan Salam in the final panel of Breakthrough Dialogue 2014.
“Environmentalism has many characteristics of a religion — a religion I’m a member of,” said Marris. “But if we care about outcomes, pursuing personal eco-sainthood is not the most efficient means of getting to those outcomes,” Marris said. “Can we have a movement with excitement and enthusiasm but without the religiosity?”
Stop Blaming China for the Epidemic of Elephant Killings
Habitat Loss, Not Rising Ivory Demand, Is Long-Term Driver of Decline
A new epidemic of elephant slaughter is sweeping across Central and East Africa –– one of the worst outbreaks in decades. You may remember seeing similar headlines before, in the mid-1970s and again in the late 1980s. If so, you could be forgiven for dismissing the headlines as rather overwrought. But that would be a mistake. We are indeed in the midst of a crisis, just not the one you have been reading about.
Dot Earth, Vox and The Upshot?
Why We Need Knowledge-Based Journalism
Over the past several decades, a growing body of research has informed our understanding of why political leaders, activists, and the expert community disagree so strongly about climate change and other environmental controversies, providing insight on strategies that might broker greater political cooperation.
As I detailed in a recent series of essays, this research on what the U.S. National Academies calls the “science of science communication,” has focused on topics including the communication strategies of the expert community; the impact of worldviews on acceptance of expert advice; and the relevance of the media to public opinion.
Yet largely overlooked by this growing body of research are the specific journalistic practices and media structures that might enable more constructive public debate relative to climate change and other issues.
In a co-authored paper that will appear in a forthcoming special issue of the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, my colleague Declan Fahy and I detail the role that journalists and their news organization can play as influential knowledge professionals in the climate change debate and other environmental controversies.
Energy For All* – But Make Sure to Read the Fine Print
Why We Need to Be Careful with How We Generalize Energy Needs
Meet Doña Maria (pictured above). She is a mother, housewife, agricultural worker, and shopkeeper, who lives with her two daughters in a rural community located approximately 30 kilometres from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Until recently, she was one of 1.4 billion people on this planet without access to electricity.
That was until Doña Maria participated in a program that provided her family with a solar home system (SHS). The SHS means that Doña Maria has electric lighting – she no longer suffers the polluting kerosene lamp or strains her eyes with the low luminescence of a candle. Doña Maria can power a limited number of small devices, which means she does not have to travel to the nearest grid-connected town to recharge her mobile phone.
Alex Trembath is a senior analyst at the Breakthrough Institute. His research has been covered by the New York Times, Foreign Policy, CNN, Resources for the Future, the American Energy Innovation Council, and the National Bureau of Economic Research, among other media and academic outlets. He is a rising young thought leader on energy transitions and innovation policy, and for the last three years has co-directed Breakthrough’s annual Generation fellowship. Follow him on Twitter @atrembath.
A Wilder Bay Area
Decoupling Will Return More Land to Nature – Just Not the Kind You Expect
Michael Lind has written a useful critique of the linked ecomodernist notions of ecological decoupling and rewilding. Although Lind is a friendly critic, his objections are harsh, as he sees little possibility for meaningful ecological restoration. But Lind’s dismal views stem in part from his tendency to unduly extrapolate from current trends and to frame as universal phenomena of limited geographical scope.
Electrify to Adapt
Tanzania to Use More Natural Gas and Coal to Combat Energy Poverty
Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy.
The east African nation has suffered from a growing energy deficit in the last several years, caused partly by recurring droughts that have crippled hydropower capacity. Critics say the government has mostly failed to tap the country’s other renewable energy potential to help bridge the power gap.
How the US-Africa Summit Can Catalyze Africa’s Rise
Gas and Hydro Set to Dominate Africa’s Energy Sector
When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, next week for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers.
A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet
Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century
Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife.
“Let It Go”
Japan's Fukushima Ice Wall is Unnecessary and Fuels Irrational Fears
What if Iceman from the X-Men could put a frozen ice wall around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant so that no radiation could get out? I’d be all for it.
Actually, that’s more likely than you might imagine.
For the past three years, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has faced an uphill battle of restoring public trust in their ability to manage the ongoing cleanup of the crippled Fukushima Daichi plant.
Are Bike Sharing Programs Truly Green?
In London, Bike Sharing Adds Cars to the Road
Bike share programs might seem like the ultimate environmentally-friendly mode of urban transportation. As more people hop on bikes, the thinking goes, the use of cars will drop.
But researchers have found that the math isn’t quite so simple. According to a new study, London’s bike share program actually increases the number of automobile miles driven per year, partly because trucks are needed to ferry bikes between stations.
The Education of an Ecomodernist
From Eco-Romanticism to Radical Pragmatism
Environmentalism came readily to many of us who grew up on the mushrooming fringes of major metropolitan areas in the 1960s. I grew up in Walnut Creek, some 25 miles east of San Francisco, amidst a patchwork of new housing tracts and old orchards: prime playgrounds for boyhood adventure. My friends and I found our paradise along the Walnut Creek, a modest stream with a few passable swimming holes and a surprisingly rich array of wildlife.
But as I grew older, the orchards steadily gave way to yet more housing tracts while Walnut Creek itself was turned into a nearly lifeless concrete channel by the Army Corps of Engineers. Suburbs like Walnut Creek, which had promised the best of urban amenities and rural repose as the epochal decade began, had by its end come to seem grimly conformist. The transformation of formerly pleasant and diverse outskirts into manicured tracts of generic houses molded by the automobile seemed emblematic of modernity gone astray in its unthinking devotion to progress
How Cars Saved the Urban Environment
In 1898, delegates from across the globe gathered in New York City for the world’s ﬁrst international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse manure.
The horse was no newcomer on the urban scene. But by the late 1800s, the problem of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. The growth in the horse population was outstripping even the rapid rise in the number of human city dwellers. American cities were drowning in horse manure as well as other unpleasant byproducts of the era’s predominant mode of transportation: urine, ﬂies, congestion, carcasses, and trafﬁc accidents. Widespread cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.
Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa
Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.
Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels.
There’s No Way Around the Need for Innovation
How Jonathan Chait Misunderstands the “Technology-First” Approach
Usually the best response to the name-calling that so often passes for public discourse over climate policy is to ignore it, but Jonathan Chait’s June 17 piece in New York Magazine deserves discussion because it unintentionally illustrates the most underappreciated source of climate gridlock today: the partisan groupthink that often prevents liberals from engaging in any kind of conversation about creative ways to finesse the barriers to progress.
Can California Desalinate Its Way Out of a Drought?
New Technologies Promise Lower Costs and Fewer Environmental Impacts
This article was first published at Yale Environment 360 and is reprinted with permission.
A ferry plows along San Francisco Bay, trailing a tail of churned up salt, sand, and sludge and further fouling the already murky liquid that John Webley intends to turn into drinking water. But Webley, CEO of a Bay Area start-up working on a new, energy-skimping desalination system, isn’t perturbed.
The Need for Speed
Four Basic Instincts Have Determined Human Mobility
The following essay was first delivered as the William & Myrtle Harris Distinguished Lectureship in Science and Civilization at the California Institute of Technology on April 30, 2014, and was revised on May 18, 2014.
Thanks to the Harris Family and the Cal Tech community, especially Jed Buchwald and Diana Kormos Buchwald, for the honor to speak with you about cars and civilization. The first speaker, my long-time research partner Nebojsa Nakicenovic, concluded his remarks with the transition from sail to rail about 1830. My title page shows both a horse-drawn coach, the Brewster Park Drag, custom made in 1892 for the Vanderbilt family, who made their fortune in shipping and railroads, and the 1964 Chevrolet research vehicle CERV II with a top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph), and the power of 500 horses. In November 2013 Sotheby’s auctioned the horse-drawn coach for $253,000 and the Chevy for $1,100,000.
Efficiency Gains Have Driven Cost Declines and Increases in Energy Consumption – Will the Trend Continue or Peak?
When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of modern amenities, like their squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs. But according to one of the world’s experts on the history of energy, lighting has become more efficient for 700 years — and much cheaper as a result.
“Over the last 700 years, there has been a 10,000-fold decline in the cost of lighting,” explained London School of Economics professor Roger Fouquet at Breakthrough Dialogue. “Between 1800 and 2000, there was a 1,000-fold increase in lighting.”
The Power of Nationalism
The Romantic Roots of the Antinuclear Energiewende in Germany
The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarized opinions. Energiewende — literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” — has two main elements — a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the use of renewable energy.
The Cooperative Advantage
The Cooperative Advantage
How Innovation Rewrote the Rules of Foreign Policy
If you wish to conduct some latter-day colonial expansion on behalf of the US government, look no further than US Code 48, Chapter 8: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano” — dried bat or bird droppings — “on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”1
In short: find an unoccupied rock in international waters on which a seagull has relieved herself and you can claim it for America.
How the US Can Light Up the Futures of the 1.4 Billion People Living Without Electricity
What is “energy poverty”?
Energy poverty simply means a lack of affordable, reliable electricity needed to support a comfortable, prosperous standard of living. Billions of the world’s energy poor aren’t connected to any power source. And for those who are connected to the grid, the actual flow of electricity is sporadic and blackouts frequent.
Because of outdated and insufficient infrastructure, many countries do not generate enough electricity to meet growing demand, leaving actual consumption at extremely low levels. The average American uses about 13,200 kWh/year. By comparison, here are the averages for citizens in a few African countries (and Todd’s fridge):
Can We Grow More Food on Less Land?
Sustainable Intensification Needs to Continue For Trend to Last
Slash and burn agriculture. Palm oil plantations. Deforestation in the Amazon. The environmental news about the natural habitat being converted to agriculture has been pretty grim.
When you consider that we will need 70 percent more food by 2050 (assuming that we don’t make serious progress in reducing waste, slowing population growth, or halting the increase in consumption of animal products, FAO 2011) it’s hard to feel hopeful about the future. Without improving yields, that 70 percent increase in food would require over 34,000,000 km2 of new farmland and ranches to be created, an area larger than the entire continent of Africa (FAO 2014).
Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn
International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections
World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.
“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”
The Low-Energy Club
Sierra Club Report Calls for Universal Electricity Access at 0.15 Percent California Levels
In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus among scholars and wonks that the rest of the world will follow the West in living modern lives complete with modern infrastructure, industry, and development. The question is not whether poor countries will develop and lead high-energy lives, but how much more energy they will consume, and how much of it will come from low-carbon sources.
The Green Urbanization Myth
Suburban Sprawl and Self-Driving Cars May Reverse Land Sparing Efforts
Once a fringe idea, the notion of using technology to allow humanity to “decouple” from nature is winning new attention, as a central element of what the Breakthrough Institute calls “ecomodernism.” The origins of the decoupling idea can be found in 20th century science fiction visions of domed or underground, climate-controlled, recycling-based cities separated by forests or deserts. A version of decoupling was promoted in the 1960s and 1970s by the British science writer Nigel Calder in The Environment Game (1967) and the radical ecologist Paul Shepard in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game (1973). More recent champions of decoupling include Martin Lewis, Jesse Ausubel, Stewart Brand, and Linus Blomqvist.
Jesse Ausubel Bestowed 2014 Breakthrough Paradigm Award
Environmental Scientist Has Demonstrated How Humans Save Nature
Modern humans are destroying the planet. Once, there was a time in which people lived in harmony with nature, but those days are long gone. In order to save the Earth, we must roll back the clock and live like pre-industrial civilizations lived. Or so goes the classic environmental narrative, which blames industrialization, modernity, and human development for what ails Mother Nature.
But as environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel argues in his landmark paper, “The Liberation of the Environment,” human beings have been committing sins against the environment for thousands of years. And contrary to conventional wisdom, modernity, development, and technology are not drivers of human-led destruction of the environment. Rather, Ausubel contends, human development is the liberator of the environment.
The Energy Innovation Imperative
If Carbon Pricing Is Primary Solution, Climate Change Won’t Be Solved
The following article first appeared in Christian Science Monitor and is reproduced with the authors’ permission.
Carbon pricing has been the go-to solution for economists and environmentalists alike since climate change was identified as one of the foremost social and environmental challenges of our time.
Want a climate rescue plan? Carbon pricing. Want to raise revenue for clean energy deployment? Carbon pricing. It's the "silver bullet" for other things, too. Want to reduce reliance on foreign oil? Or raise revenue to correct other tax inefficiencies? Carbon pricing.
Why Tesla Giving Up Its Intellectual Property Is the Model for Clean Tech
Late last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced he would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who uses the patents for Tesla’s technologies. In effect, Tesla’s competitors can now freely take advantage of the company’s designs for sunroofs, vehicle parts, and batteries.
Given Musk’s celebrity status as an inventor, it is no surprise that most of the press has devoted its coverage to analyzing his rationale. On the face of it, letting others openly copy the technologies and ideas you have painstakingly developed doesn’t seem like a sensible business plan. In the long-term, however, Musk’s decision shows how greater knowledge sharing and looser patent regulations could accelerate innovation in the clean tech industry.
Embracing Creative Destruction
Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World
Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.
Solar Panels Are Not Cell Phones
The Developing World Won’t Leapfrog the Traditional Grid to Solar Microgrids
“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”
This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”
Proposed EPA Rules Are Kryptonite to New Nuclear
Why Regulating a Harmless Emission Could Make Nuclear More Expensive
I like the proposed carbon emissions rules from Environmental Protection Agency. They address the real issue of balancing our energy mix and may be the only way to move forward in the absence of congressional leadership.
But the EPA has gone a little wild with their latest proposal. This new proposed emissions rule (actually a re-do of parts of 40CFR190 that may result in a rulemaking) is for nuclear power plants (Federal Register). An operating nuclear power plant has very low emissions of any kind except water vapor. No carbon emissions and almost no radioactivity emissions.