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. 

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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. 

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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Patent-Free Innovation

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.

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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.”

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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.

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Nuclear Is Cheaper Than Solar Thermal

New Vogtle Plant Costs Half As Much as Crescent Dunes Solar Facility

I’m a big fan of TIME reporter Mike Grunwald and often think that he and Breakthrough are among the only people who really understand that Obama’s signature climate policies are not fuel economy standards or power plant regulations, but the tens of billions invested in clean energy technology and innovation. 

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How Ambitious Are the EPA’s Proposed Carbon Dioxide Reductions?

Everything Depends on Your Assumptions About the Future

The Obama administration’s proposed carbon dioxide reductions are larger than what the government's Energy Information Administration (EIA) predicts would happen without regulations, and similar to reductions that would be achieved if the carbon intensity of the power sector declines at the same pace it did between 2005 and 2013, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis finds.

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To Carol Browner, Nuclear More Than Just Matters – It’s Essential

Former EPA Administrator on Why We Must Preserve Existing Nuclear Plants

In late April, Carol Browner, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, announced she was joining Nuclear Matters, an alliance of individuals, organizations, and businesses seeking to preserve America’s existing nuclear plants because of the benefits they provide. Browner has a long history with environmental policy. Not only was she the longest serving Administrator of the EPA, Browner also served as director of the Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy under President Obama. Although Browner never felt strongly opposed to nuclear energy, she came to the realization that, without it, we will likely fall short of our clean energy and carbon pollution goals. Breakthrough spoke with Browner about her new role with Nuclear Matters and the challenges facing the industry today.

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The Triumph of Climate Pragmatism

Wirth and Daschle Argue Against Binding Global Caps on Emissions

For the better part of two decades, a small group of policy scholars and climate policy advocates have argued that the United Nations' climate treaty efforts were doomed. Caps on emissions, and other efforts that make fossil fuels more expensive, would fail in world where competitive alternative fuels don't exist, and where billions of people need to consume more, not less, energy. As such, the recent call by former senators Tim Wirth and Tom Daschle to abandon binding emissions limits, and instead to embrace technology innovation to make clean energy cheap, can be fairly described as the triumph of climate pragmatism.

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The Best-Case Scenarios for Palm Oil

Why Rhett Butler is Optimistic About Forest Conservation

Two firsthand experiences with deforestation – one in Ecuador, another in Borneo – inspired Rhett Butler to launch the news site Mongabay, which was named one of the top 15 environmental websites by TIME, and remains one of the most popular sources for conservation and biodiversity news. Trained as an economist, Butler believes he comes to conservation with a broader view of what motivates people to act, and how certain conservation and land use policies are adopted whereas others aren’t. Most recently, he was an advisor to the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which features a prominent episode on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia. Breakthrough caught up with Butler to discuss the economic benefits and environmental hazards of palm oil production, with an eye toward the policies and trends that give us reason to be more optimistic about deforestation.

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Reducing Our Hoofprint

How Agricultural Intensification Can Boost Yields and Biodiversity

Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts. 

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Growth of Biomass Far Outstrips Growth of Solar and Wind

Absolute Growth of Biomass in US 2X Higher than Wind and Solar

If I asked you to think of renewable energy, what comes to mind? I imagine it is skyscraper-sized wind turbines, solar panels on suburban roofs, or massive hydroelectric dams. You probably do not think of burning wood or converting crops to liquid fuel to be used in cars. Yet throughout the world bioenergy remains the biggest source of renewable energy. In fact its growth in the last decade has been greater than or similar to that from wind and solar in most places, and those places include the European Union and the United States of America.

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Moderate Environmentalists Go Nuclear

The Incremental, Pragmatic, and Prudent Shift in Green Attitudes

Last year, many scoffed at the suggestion that support was growing for nuclear power. Before the release of pro-nuclear documentary Pandora's Promise, green magazine Grist wrote, "Of the 10 leading enviro groups in the US, zero support new nuclear power plants." In response to an open letter sent by climate scientists to environmental leaders last fall, Ralph Cavanaugh told CNN, "I've been in the NRDC since 1979. I have a pretty good idea of where the mainstream environmental groups are and have been. I have seen no movement.” 

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The Conservative Case for Climate Policy

And Why Adaptive Resiliency Is One Way Forward

It is not news to say that climate change has become the most protracted science and policy controversy of all time. If one dates the beginning of climate change as a top tier public issue from the Congressional hearings and media attention during the summer of 1988, shortly after which the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was set in motion with virtually unanimous international participation, it is hard to think of another policy issue that has gone on for a generation with the arguments—and the policy strategy—essentially unchanged as if stuck in a Groundhog Day loop, and with so little progress being made relative to the goals and scale of the problem as set out. Even other areas of persistent scientific and policy controversy—such as chemical risk and genetically modified organisms—generally show some movement toward consensus or policy equilibrium out of which progress is made.

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Can Palm Oil Deforestation Be Stopped?

Why Only Sustainable Intensification Can Save Indonesia's Forests

There has been growing interest among environmentalists and the public in recent years about palm oil and its role in tropical deforestation. Most recently, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously features palm oil plantations in Indonesia as one of its main narratives, explaining how carbon emissions from deforestation are a driver of climate change. Celebrity correspondent Harrison Ford gapes from a helicopter, looking down at the swaths of palm oil plantations that have replaced tropical forest.

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Can Any Tech Stop Asia’s Coal Future?

Solar, CCS, Nuclear, and Natural Gas Not Scaling Fast Enough

Coal will dominate China’s power landscape for decades to come and is increasing in Southeast Asia’s energy mix as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that coal will replace natural gas as the dominant power-generating fuel in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, energy consumption in this region is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that coal will account for approximately 83 percent of electricity production in the Asia-Pacific by 2035. In advance of the 2014 Pacific Energy Forum, NBR spoke with Armond Cohen, Cofounder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, to explore the implications of coal’s growing role in the fuel mix of China and ASEAN countries—as well as India—and assess the tools and policy options available to reduce the environmental impacts.

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Reinventing Libertarianism

Jim Manzi and the New Conservative Case for Innovation

Recent years have seen growing recognition of the critical role the US government has played in creating world-changing technologies. In several State of the Union addresses, President Barack Obama made mention of the role of government in creating the information-communications revolutions. And various scholars including Richard Nelson, Vernon Ruttan, Fred Block, Rob Atkinson, Michael Lind, William Janeway, and Mariana Mazzucato have described how the federal government financed the invention of manufacturing through interchangeable parts (for rifles), canals and railroads, dams and highways, jets and microchips, pharmaceutical drugs, and much more.

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How “An Inconvenient Truth” Contributed to Partisan Polarization on Climate

Joe Romm of Center for American Progress Misrepresents Polling Data

Scroll down to read an update from the authors, written on April 14, 2014

Joe Romm of Climate Progress misrepresented polling data in his critique of our recent New York Times op-ed when he claimed Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth did not contribute to partisan polarization of public attitudes toward global warming.

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Welcome New York Times Readers

An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute

Chairman of the Breakthrough Institute Ted Nordhaus gives the lead quote for the New York Times's analysis of President Obama's new rules to cut carbon emissions from power plants up to 30 percent by 2030, when compared to 2005 levels. The emissions cuts are less than some environmentalists were pushing for, but signals the administration's hope to reclaim climate leadership:

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The Psychology of Climate Change

The Science and Scholarship of How Humans Think and Feel about Global Warming

A growing body of scholarly and scientific studies finds that fear-based appeals around climate change backfire, resulting in increased climate skepticism and fatalism among much of the public.

This post summarizes scholarly and scientific articles published in peer-reviewed publications on the psychology of climate change. 

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When Renewables Destroy Nature

How Integrating Society Into Nature Can Be Bad For Both

The case against using trees and crops as fuel for cars and power plants has grown stronger in recent years. The expansion of corn for ethanol in the American Midwest has worsened water pollution and soil erosion, and has had no benefit in terms of reduced emissions. Europe’s biofuels mandate has resulted in a palm oil boom that has devastated the rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia, driving orangutans to the brink of extinction. And now efforts like those in Germany to burn wood for fuel, known as “biomass,” have been shown to be no better for climate change than coal—and perhaps even worse.

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Harmonic Destruction

How Greens Justify Bioenergy’s Assault on Nature

Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.

But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.

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On Keystone XL and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why Civil Rights Metaphors Are Inappropriate for Getting Off Oil

Writing on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” former green-jobs czar Van Jones invoked Dr. King to justify the environmental movement's singular focus on stopping the Keystone XL pipeline: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.”

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2014 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced

Five Distinguished Scholars Join Breakthrough Community

A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.

This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.

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2013: A Year of Hope and Change for the Environment

How the Green Ideological Nucleus Split

For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.

But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.

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The Myth of America’s Great Stagnation

The Age of Innovation Isn’t Over

Is the great age of American economic growth over? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. Despite recovering job growth—the US economy added an estimated 203,000 jobs in November—the United States is likely to experience slower GDP growth in the decades ahead. Since 1960, the rate has been 3.3 percent. But the Federal Reserve predicts a rate of 2.1 to 2.5 percent in the future, and JPMorgan even projects a rate of less than 1.75 percent. The longer trajectory is grim: US economic growth has been gradually decelerating for decades, from a 70-year average of 3.6 percent (1939-2009) to a 10-year average of just 1.9 percent (1999-2009).

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Emissions Impossible

United Kingdom & Australia Far From Decarbonization Targets

While I was working on The Climate Fix I published several peer-reviewed articles on climate policies in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. In recent months I have updated these analyses and will summarize the updates here. 

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Hendrik Hertzberg’s Nuclear Option

New Yorker Editor Endorses the Atom

Tucked into his New Yorker column on Congressional filibuster reform, Hendrik Hertzberg admitted his support for the expansion of nuclear energy: “Nuclear power plants have their drawbacks, as we’ve learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima,” Hertzberg wrote. “But global warming has changed the picture.” Echoing a recent letter written by four leading climate and energy scientists, which acknowledges the scaling challenges of solar and wind, the New Yorker senior editor argued, “breezes and rays are not enough.” In terms of a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, Hertzberg says, “the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.”

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Barriers to Climate Legislation Following the 2016 Election

Political Dysfunction Requires a New Paradigm for Climate Advocacy

Political forecasts are always difficult to make. But given the dysfunction in Washington and the fall out from Obamacare, as I write in a column at Ensia magazine this week, environmentalists would be wise to reflect on what are quickly appearing to be tough barriers to passing a major climate bill following the 2016 election. Even assuming that an experienced leader like Hillary Clinton is elected president, let’s take a moment to consider how these barriers are likely to shape up.

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Behind Japan’s Climate Fail

Nuclear Energy and Global Warming Commitments

Last week the Japanese government announced that it would adopt a new emissions reductions target:

A government panel on measures to tackle climate change approved on Friday a new goal to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by 3.8 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level ...

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he is sure that Japan can substantially contribute to global efforts to tackle climate change. The government will steadily implement necessary measures to achieve the new emissions reduction target, he said.

The new goal means a setback from the target of reducing emissions by 25 percent from 1990 by 2020, which was set in 2009 by the administration led by the Democratic Party of Japan. The DPJ is now an opposition party.

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The Great Green Meltdown

How Economic Arguments Against Nuclear Highlight Environmentalist Delusions

Two weeks ago, four of the world’s most respected climate scientists took the extraordinary step of sending an open letter to their long-time friends and colleagues in the environmental movement, urging them to reverse their longstanding opposition to nuclear power. The scientists told AP and CNN they felt the need to make public their displeasure after years of trying and failing to reason privately with green leaders, who believe solar, wind, and efficiency are enough to power the planet.

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Australia’s Climate Follies

Abbott Government the Bellwether of Global Carbon Debate

Australia’s longest-running tragedy is starting a new season with a new cast but the same familiar follies. Of course I am talking about Australian climate policy.

Before Julia Gillard was deposed she had announced that Australia’s carbon price, which had been implemented as a tax (following her pre-election promise not to institute a tax), would be linked with Europe's emissions trading scheme by 2015, cutting almost $20 from the per-tonne price of carbon that had been so hard won, leaving it in the low single digits.

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Challenging the ‘White Hat Bias’

What’s At Stake With the Subpoena of EPA Data

Last month Republicans in the US House of Representatives launched a new offensive in the long-running battle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. For the first time in 21 years the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a subpoena requiring the EPA to hand over the data from two scientific studies, which provide the basis for most of the regulations.

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Deepening Democracy

Scientists & Experts Must Guide, Not Usurp, Climate Negotiations

Last Friday, Björn-Ola Linnér and I had an op-ed in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that discussed the role of experts in politics. We argue that, "a commitment to democratic governance means accepting that power rests with the people, and not the experts." An English translation appears below, courtesy Björn-Ola Linnér.

On Thursday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presented the first of four assessments, this one taking stock of the physical science of the climate system. The report’s reception and promotion highlights challenges that arise when expertise meets politics. 

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Mark Bittman Gets It Wrong On Gas

How New York Times Columnist Misunderstands Shale Revolution

Natural gas and nuclear have done more than any other fuel source to displace coal, and have saved the United States 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. In the past five years, natural gas alone has displaced coal and driven the country’s power sector emissions down 20 percent, leading to immense environmental and human health benefits. What follows is a response to Mark Bittman’s dreary diagnosis of natural gas.

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Climate Skeptics Against Global Warming

What Conservatives Can Teach Liberals About Global Warming Policy

Over the last decade, progressives have successfully painted conservative climate skepticism as the major stumbling block to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Exxon and the Koch brothers, the story goes, fund conservative think tanks to sow doubt about climate change and block legislative action. As evidence mounts that anthropogenic global warming is underway, conservatives’ flight from reason is putting us all at risk.

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The Bottom Line on iPhones vs. Refrigerators

"The Cloud Begins with Coal" Author Responds to His Critics

It’s uncontroversial to note that the global information-communications-technology sector (ICT) uses a lot of electricity. But convert that observation into a per capita form, illustrated, for example, by how many kilowatt-hours an iPhone might use, and protests and invectives sprout up faster than windmills in Iowa.

In response to our new report The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, Big Power, some in the media got the point, but others seized on the comparison between an iPhone and refrigerator’s annual energy use and made claims of cherry picking and questionable assumptions. It should be obvious -- though apparently not for some -- that we are not talking about the few kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year needed to recharge the battery inside an iPhone, iPad, or their equivalents. 

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The Cloud Needs More Precise Energy Accounting

Don’t Feel Guilty About Your iPhone Use Just Yet

In the last few weeks an idea has been making the rounds that, when you count all of the required networks and cloud services, your iPhone uses more electricity than your refrigerator. This idea was first presented in a publication called The Cloud Begins with Coal by Mark Mills, and was quickly followed up with further analysis (and a different version of the calculation) by the Breakthrough Institute, “Bracing for the Cloud.” [Disclosure: I am proud to be a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.]

Since these articles make some very interesting points, I decided to dive into the data. I’ll share some observations here. At the end, I’ll take a closer look at the iPhone-fridge comparison. Teaser: I wouldn’t crank up the iPhone guilt just yet.

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Betting Against Apocalyptic Thinking

The Simon-Ehrlich Wager

$576.07. That is how much money Julian Simon won from Paul Ehrlich, John Harte and John Holdren in 1990 in a bet about commodities prices. The wager was actually a proxy for competing ideological views about the role of humans on the Earth. The story of the bet between Simon and Ehrlich is told in a wonderful new book by Yale historian Paul Sabin, titled The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and the Gamble over Earth’s Future.

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No More Railing Against iPhones

ICT Ecosystem Must Be Part of Innovation Strategy

Given the explosion of information and communications technology (ICT) and the proliferation of tablets, smart phones, and other high tech devices, it is pertinent to investigate the potential climate change implications of an increasingly digital world. This is the topic of the Breakthrough blog post “Bracing for the Cloud,” which rightly points out that “we need to be thinking seriously about how we can power the information sector with cheaper, cleaner alternatives.”

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Decentralized Renewables Won’t Fuel Modern Cities

Why We Can’t Ignore Fundamentals of Power Density

The 21st century will almost certainly witness a transition to an overwhelmingly urban human population, and – hopefully – a low-carbon energy system. The former scenario, however, will have a significant impact on the latter because a fundamentally urban species cannot be powered locally.

The continued, and essentially unabated, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may at times render considerations of the requirements of a decarbonized energy system appear somewhat self indulgent, but I must ask the reader to indulge me, and at a little length.

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Liberals and Progressives for Nuclear

The Coming Atomic Age

While historically conservatives have been the prominent supporters of nuclear energy, the urgency of climate change has recently compelled liberals and progressives to reconsider nuclear as the best zero-carbon source of baseload electricity for a world with rapidly rising energy demand.

A couple years prior to the release of Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promisewhich follows five anti- to pro-nuclear converts, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Barry Brook, writing at his blog Brave New Climatecomposed a list of the most prominent intellectual leaders and public figures who changed their mind about nuclear energy and now support it.

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A Green Vision of Technology

How Ecomodernists Foresee Room for Nature

There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?

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A Deeper Climate Conversation

How Natural Gas and Nuclear Are Essential to Decarbonization

In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. In contrast to the binary and simplistic conception of decarbonization that imagines a step-wise shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, we have aimed to simultaneously place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.

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How to Advance Nuclear

Support Grows for Safer, Cleaner, and Cheaper Reactors

The last few years have seen a growing number of liberal and environmental heavyweights publicly call for more nuclear energy to deal with climate change. Today, the pro-nuclear ranks include Bill Gates, Al Franken, Richard Branson, and Barack Obama. Also on the list are superstar economist Jeffrey Sachs, the novelist Ian McEwan, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen. There are former environmental leaders, including former Greenpeace Executive Director Stephen Tindale, and former Friends of the Earth trustee Hugh Montefiore. And there are prominent scientists including Gaia hypothesis ecologist James Lovelock, former NASA climate scientist James Hansen, much-cited climate scientist Tom Wigley, and MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel.

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Clean Energy Stagnation

Growth in Renewables Outpaced by Fossil Fuels

The world was moving faster towards reducing its reliance on carbon intensive energy consumption in the 1970s and 1980s than in the past several decades. In fact, over the past 20 years there has been little if any progress in expanding the share of carbon-free energy in the global mix. Despite the rhetoric around the rise of renewable energy, the data tells a far different story.

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How to Make Nuclear Cheap

Safety, Readiness, Modularity, and Efficiency

Nuclear energy is at a crossroads. It supplies a substantial share of electricity in many developed economies — 19 percent in the United States, 35 percent in South Korea, 40 percent in Sweden, 78 percent in France — but these figures may decline as reactors built in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s retire. Meanwhile, developing countries are increasingly turning to nuclear to meet rapidly growing energy demand and to reduce pollution. China is currently building 28 reactors and has plans for dozens more; 11 are under construction in Russia, seven in India. Nevertheless, fossil fuels remain dominant worldwide, with coal the reigning king and natural gas production booming. The central challenge for nuclear energy, if it is to become a greater portion of the global electricity mix, is to become much cheaper.

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President Obama, Coal Killer

How America's Climate Strategy Became Tied to Natural Gas

Last week, President Obama forcefully put natural gas at the center of his agenda to deal with climate change. "Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas," he acknowledged, recognizing the local controversies over fracking, "but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions." 

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Can the British Decarbonize?

Targets Require Complete Coal-to-Gas Switch in a Decade

If the United Kingdom is going to hit its short-term targets for the emissions of carbon dioxide, then it is going to have to accelerate its rates of decarbonization observed since the passage of its 2008 Climate Change Act by a factor of four. Since the passage of that Act the rate of decarbonization in the UK has slowed dramatically from the rate observed during the pervious decade. The enormous magnitude of the task called for in the Act has been overshadowed by a debate of the setting of targets for the decarbonization of energy supply, targets which are already implied by the 2008 legislation and thus unnecessary.

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Obama’s Climate Pragmatism

President's Proposals Signal New Era for Climate Politics

President Obama’s big climate speech this week was historic, but not for the reasons many observers have suggested. To his credit, Obama is following through on his promise to pursue climate policy in “chunks” in the fall of 2010, after cap and trade had died the summer before. But these chunks are not the old climate agenda in new clothing.

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How the Left Came to Reject Cheap Energy for the Poor

The Great Progressive Reversal: Part Two

Eighty years ago, the Tennessee Valley region was like many poor rural communities in tropical regions today. The best forests had been cut down to use as fuel for wood stoves. Soils were being rapidly depleted of nutrients, resulting in falling yields and a desperate search for new croplands. Poor farmers were plagued by malaria and had inadequate medical care. Few had indoor plumbing and even fewer had electricity.

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No Solar Way Around It

Why Nuclear Is Essential to Combating Climate Change

Nobody who has paid attention to what's happened to solar panels over the last several decades can help but be impressed. Prices declined an astonishing 75 percent from 2008 to 2012. In the United States, solar capacity has quintupled since 2008, and grown by more than 50 times since 2000, according to US Energy Information Administration data. In 1977, solar panels cost $77 per watt. Today, they are less than a dollar per watt.

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Planetary Emergency? Then Go Nuclear

Anti-Nuclear Greens Aren't Serious About Climate Change

Last week we published an oped in the Wall Street Journal that began like this:

Over the last several decades, the cost of electricity from solar panels has declined dramatically, while the cost of building new nuclear plants has risen steadily. This has reaffirmed the long-standing view of many environmentalists that it will be cheaper and easier to reduce global warming emissions through solar electricity than with new nuclear plants. But while continuing price declines might someday make solar cheaper than nuclear, it's not true today. Yet the mythmaking persists.

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The Irrelevance of Climate Skeptics

Why the Obsession with Deniers Impedes Climate Progress

Earlier this week, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times announced that the "climate skeptics have won." His comments echo those of former NASA scientist James Hansen who told an audience in Edinburgh last year that the skeptics "have been winning the public debate with the help of tremendous resources." The action needed in response to this situation was spelt out by Lord Stern – the eponymous author of the well-known 2007 report on the economics of climate changewho once called skeptics "forces of darkness" who had to be "driven back."

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Frequently Asked Questions About Nuclear Power

Going Green

No technology is more enshrouded in myth than nuclear energy. The urgency of addressing global poverty and reducing emissions demands that we consider this technology without ideological blinders. The basic facts of the technology — both good and bad — must be confronted. This Breakthrough Institute Frequently Asked Questions is backed by primary sources and addresses the toughest questions asked of nuclear.

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Ignoring Innovation

A Review of Michael Levi’s ‘The Power Surge’

The energy and climate challenge of the 21st century is easy enough to describe. For a world of 9 or 10 billion people to live at the per capita wealth and (highly efficient) energy consumption equivalent of present-day Germany, we will need three to four times as much energy as we consume today. If carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are to stop increasing, then nearly all of that future energy consumption must come from technologies that produce zero emissions.

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Europe’s Climate Fail

Why Cap and Trade Had No Impact on Emissions

After the European Parliament voted down a proposal to prop up its flagship emissions trading scheme (ETS), most observers finally admitted what has been obvious for a while: the program is contributing little to accelerating the decarbonization of the European economy. However, a few eternal but confused optimists see the program as working just fine. Here are a few thoughts in response to that bit of pushback.

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Climate Pragmatism in the White House

Obama Advisors Reject Climate Wars

In a refreshing break from the polarizing debates of recent years, President Obama’s science and technology advisors have released a new set of recommendations on climate policy that are indicative of a growing consensus around pragmatic, commonsense actions that may offer great prospects for implementing effective policies.

The recommendations mark a sharp departure from many of the divisive and politically toxic proposals that often characterize climate policy discussions and a repudiation of the most divisive approaches, such as found in the misguided campaign against Keystone XL.

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The Solar Energy Bubble Bursts

Why Germany’s Solar Miracle Failed

My recent post about the costs of Germany’s policy of subsidizing solar energy inspired predictable attacks by true believers in a future powered by solar energy. I was criticized for citing the German magazine Spiegel, a center-right popular magazine. Well, I cited Spiegel for certain facts, and if you don’t believe Spiegel, perhaps you will believe the reputable environmentalist writer Mark Lynas, whose sources are German government statistics. (And if you think Lynas is discredited because he supports GMOs and nuclear energy, even as he thinks global warming is real and dangerous, then you cannot be reasoned with.)

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EDF: Lock In Soft Energy, Not Coal-Killing Gas

Why We Can't Leave Emissions Reductions to Establishment Greens

In response to our last blog post about how celebrity fracktivists have reversed the longstanding support of national environmental organizations for a coal-to-gas switch, the Environmental Defense Fund's climate and energy communications director Keith Gaby wrote us to say we had taken Fred Krupp's position on gas out of context.

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Chinese Nuclear and the Future of Energy Innovation

Between Nuclear and Fracking or Coal and Pollution, the Choice Is Clear

Over the past few years I've given the New York Times’s Justin Gillis a (deserved) hard time for some of his reporting. I'm now happy to given him some well-earned praise on the occasion of his first monthly column at the Times on climate change. Gillis wisely chose to write his first column on energy innovation, with a focus on nuclear power and China:

We have to supply power and transportation to an eventual population of 10 billion people who deserve decent lives, and we have to do it while limiting the emissions that threaten our collective future. 
 

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Germany and the Solar Revolution

The Slow Death of Green Ideology

During the Cold War, the radical anti-capitalist left (a group quite distinct from mainstream capitalism-taming liberals) was perpetually searching for a country that would prove by example the viability of socialism, defined as government ownership of all industry and major enterprises. The socialists in the West who had not already soured on the Soviet Union mostly turned against it by the mid-1950s, following revelations about Stalin’s atrocities. From that point until the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, the dwindling numbers of true believers claimed to find a successful socialist experiment in one country after another:  Mao’s China, Tito’s Yugoslavia, Castro’s Cuba, even, for a time among, some Western militants in the early 1970s, North Korea. They didn’t deny that these countries had certain, ahem, problems—police-state repression and mass exoduses by fleeing citizens, among other minor defects. But they wanted to believe that, whatever its faults, the utopia du jour proved that you could successfully run a modern economy along the lines of Marxist-Leninist theory.

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Against Technology Tribalism

Why We Need Innovation to Make Energy Clean, Cheap and Reliable

The following is a speech delivered at the Energy Innovation Conference in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2013.

About once a month we at the Breakthrough Institute get an email or, as often, a carefully hand-typed letter, from someone who politely if sternly informs us that they have invented the solution to all of the world's energy needs. This incredible technology, they explain, has none of the problems that plague other energy technologies. It's so cheap as to be almost free. It emits zero pollution. It's safe. And it's totally reliable.

Unfortunately, they explain, the investors they've shown their design to just don't get it. They are writing in the hopes that we might get it — seeing as we’re committed to paradigm shifts and all — and help them to secure modest up-front financing required to demonstrate this miracle for all of the world to see.

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A Squandered Opportunity

Germany's Energy Transition

My conclusion so far is that unfortunately Germany’s ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country’s carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards. Thus, tens (or even hundreds, depending on who you believe) of billions of euros are being spent on expensive solar PV and wind installations for no climatic benefit whatsoever.

Although I have been unable to find clear figures for the changing CO2 intensity of German electricity (if anyone has them, please post in the comments below), nuclear’s fall of 1.7% almost exactly equals the rise in renewables of 1.6% between 2011 and 2012. This means that the dramatic and admirable increase in renewable generation in Germany is simply a story of low-carbon baseload from nuclear being replaced by low-carbon intermittent supply from wind and solar (which, incidentally, also raises system costs by making the grid harder to manage due to intermittency).

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Europe’s Climate Fail

How Renewable and Carbon Capture Policies Brought Back Coal

A few years ago, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology was seen as the best way to clean up coal and cut carbon emissions. And Europe was seen as the expected leader in the field. But instead, reports the science journal Nature, Europe has fallen behind North America in the race to create systems that separate carbon dioxide from exhaust gases.

And what’s worse, Europe is increasingly turning to coal, the most polluting of all sources of electricity. In some European countries, reports The Economist, the amount of coal-generated electricity is rising by up to 50% a year, at annualized rates. Ironically, some experts say CCS is the only way to eliminate coal emissions.

 

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Why Economists Don’t Get Technology

Beyond Behavior Change

The gap between the cultures of technology and academic economics was on display at the 2013 meeting of the American Economic Association in San Diego last Friday and Saturday. On Saturday, January 5, Rice University’s Kenneth Barry Medlock moderated a panel entitled “The Future of Energy: Markets, Technology and Policy” that featured Jim Sweeney of Stanford, Dale Jorgenson of Harvard, and Adam Sieminski of the US Energy Information Administration.

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Obama’s Climate Cunning

Gas, Clean Tech, and the Path Ahead

The New Year will not mark a clean slate. Congress and the president will re-convene their hostilities. And while the impasse will prevent legislative action to fix the level greenhouse gas emissions, the president is nevertheless preparing a more insidious attack on climate change.

Re-election to the White House is giving President Obama the oomph he needs to tackle the effects of global warming — a topic that has been legislatively off-limits. To achieve his objectives, Obama is remaining persistent and is pursuing a high-tech, clean-tech economy in conjunction with his administration’s recently enacted environmental regulations.

“Addressing climate change is urgent,” says Michael Shellenberger, president of the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank based in Oakland, Calif. “Energy transitions take a long time and we need to get started.”

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On Justice Movements

Why They Fail the Environment and the Poor

The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.

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Let Them Eat Solar Panels

The Hypocrisy of Western Greens on Energy Poverty

Imagine the United States sending low-calorie food aid to Ethiopia in response to the global obesity epidemic. Absurd, right? Even if global waistline trends are worrisome, Ethiopians didn't create the problem. Such a policy would be futile since it would have no noticeable impact on the global aggregate.

Worse, while obesity may be a very real concern, Ethiopians are understandably more focused on undernourishment. The United States should aim instead to increase caloric intake in that part of the world. To punish those we should be helping when we can't even tackle the obesity problem at home makes the policy not only misguided, but also morally dubious.

Sadly, that is pretty much what the United States does on energy. In response to rising global carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. government put restrictions on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that is a principal tool for promoting investment in poor countries. A recent rule, added in response to a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, imposes blind caps on the total CO2 emissions in OPIC's portfolio, which ends up barring the agency from nearly all non-renewable electricity projects.

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Why Renewables Need Gas

Our Hybrid Energy Reality

Does renewable energy need to be backed up by fossil fuels? The answer is yes, at least until large scale methods of energy storage are invented. However, the question is one that I would argue is uninformative. A more relevant question is: Can renewable energy supply electricity when demand is at its highest?

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Gas Continues Assault on Coal

The Disruptive Innovation of the Shale Revolution

The ongoing displacement of coal by natural gas in the US electric generating sector was neatly illustrated in two recent articles. The Washington Post examined it from the perspective of utilities faced with expensive decisions about which fuel to bet on for the future, while the Wall St. Journal looked at the resource and tax implications of this trend for states. The intensity of competition between coal and gas would have been hard to imagine just a few years ago, when the price and energy security advantages of the former seemed insurmountable. The shale gas revolution continues to upend conventional wisdom on energy.

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Why Urban Density and Renewables Don’t Add Up to a Climate Solution

Alex Steffen’s Faulty Arithmetic

The argument that increased urban density has very significant climate benefits has been well made by Edward Glaeser, David Owen and others. The US writer Alex Steffen has joined the ranks of those with books out arguing for promoting density, with the view that we simply cannot reduce emissions enough through low carbon energy alone. Urban density will do the trick. He appears to believe that cities can reduce energy use by 90%, but only seems to provide hand waving explanations of how this is possible.

However, a statement he made in a recent interview to The Atlantic is reflective of a common problem with solutions to climate change: the unwillingness to do basic arithmetic. He says:

For example if you have a more distributed energy system, you can have the energy system in one neighborhood go down, and energy systems in other neighborhoods remain unaffected. By distributing things, you make it possible for disaster to strike, and not have everything go down if something fails.

Now, presumably Steffen doesn’t have neighborhoods being powered by small modular reactors or gas plants with CCS in mind. So, he must somehow believe that neighborhoods can be powered entirely by local renewables, with perhaps some yet to be invented storage technology providing back up. A fundamental problem is that his vision of high urban density and localized energy production are in conflict.

Consider New York City. This city certainly fits the category of high urban density. However, think about what would happen if New York tried to power itself entirely from renewables within city limits: constant blackouts. This is a simple consequence of its high population density and the laws of physics. An author such as Steffen who claims to have thought deeply about climate change, urbanization and energy really ought to be aware of this. So, why can New York not power itself from local renewables?

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Energy “Access” Is Not Enough

Why We Need to Talk About Energy Poverty

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).

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The Carbon Tax Fantasy

Why Carbon Pricing Won’t Drive the Clean Tech Revolution

This week, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Brookings Institution, the International Monetary Fund, and Resources for the Future co-hosted a daylong conference on designing a U.S. carbon tax. The event came on the heels of closed-door discussions of the topic at AEI and “a cascade of carbon-tax advocacy in recent days from the chattering classes and a slate of academic work over the summer,” as the Wall Street Journal noted, lending credence to the newspaper’s article title: “Carbon Tax Idea Gains Wonkish Energy.” Nevertheless, talk of a U.S. carbon tax – while a positive step forward – is not enough to address climate change if such a tax is not structured to support innovation. Ultimately, much of the enthusiasm over the idea of a carbon tax can be attributed to the misconception that it is a sort of climate change-silver bullet, as driven by neoclassical economic thinking.

According to the neoclassical economic doctrine, as detailed in the ITIF paper Economic Doctrines and Approaches to Climate Change Policy, the economy is a “large market of goods and services that is generally in equilibrium and usually best left to itself.” Climate change is viewed by doctrine adherents as a rare market failure, but one that can be addressed by simply implementing a market signal to control for the negative externality of greenhouse gas emissions. The paper thus concludes, “Neoclassical economists believe that setting a price on carbon—through a carbon tax or cap and trade—is the principal and often sole policy response needed to address climate change.” Case in point: Paul Krugman’s observation in his New York Times column that “If you seriously believe in markets, you should believe that given the right incentives — namely, putting a price on emissions, through either a tax or a tradable permit scheme — the economy will find lots of ways to emit less.”

Nevertheless, a Brookings paper released last week by Mark Muro and Jonathan Rothwell throws yet another bucket of cold water on the idea that a carbon tax is a “one and done” climate change solution:

Numerous scholars have demonstrated that, while the scale of the needed carbon emissions reductions is extremely large, price-based systems by themselves are not likely to induce sufficient technology change to deliver the needed reductions, particularly given the “lock-in” of cheap, readily available dirty technologies and the modest pollution prices that are tolerable to politicians…A major problem with all carbon pricing solutions is the fact that the private sector will not (for recognized reasons) invest adequately on its own in low-carbon solutions and technology change – even in the presence of carbon pricing.

 

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Next Nukes

How U.S.-European Cooperation Can Deliver Cheaper, Safer Nuclear Energy

As the debate over climate policy picks up again in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and President Obama’s reelection, policymakers should prioritize efforts that will accelerate the adoption of zero-carbon technologies, especially the only proven baseload source available: next generation nuclear.

Whereas traditional nuclear reactors from the 1950s were designed in secret, advanced models are being researched, designed, and financed by innovative international collaborations. Take GE-Hitachi's PRISM, a joint American-Japanese venture to construct a power plant in the United Kingdom capable of processing plutonium. Or the recent announcement that South Korea's national electric utility, KEPCO, had been awarded a contract to build the first nuclear plant in the United Arab Emirates, using Australian-mined uranium for fuel.

An expanding international community recognizes the importance of developing advanced nuclear reactor designs to meet energy needs and address global warming. Thirteen countries have joined the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), for instance, a cooperative endeavor to encourage governments and industry to support advanced nuclear energy concepts. Member countries, which include the United States, Japan, Russia, and China, have agreed to expand R&D funding for advanced nuclear projects that meet stringent sustainability, economic, safety and nonproliferation goals.

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Why Governments Must Pick the Right Energy Policy ‘Winners’

Carbon Pricing Will Encourage Gas More Than Renewables

There are almost audible sighs of relief in parts of the Whitehall establishment at today's news that Japanese firm Hitachi is set to buy the Horizon nuclear power project from German firms E.ON and RWE – a slender lifeline to the UK's stalling "nuclear renaissance." At the same time, others in Whitehall – including a worrying number of Conservative ministers – are driving for a new dash for gas and casting doubt on renewable energy.

 

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Don’t Leave Our Clean Energy Choices Up to Environmentalists

A Smarter Way to Fight Climate Change

Extreme weather has become the new normal. Despite another year of unprecedented drought in Midwestern states, historic wildfires and devastating storms such as Hurricane Sandy, there hasn’t been a groundswell of support for climate-change policy from Middle Americans. The problem is not that Middle America is indifferent to the well-being of the planet or more frequent natural disasters; the problem is that most climate and environmental advocates are indifferent to the needs of Middle America.

Many environmentalists argue that the best way to address climate change is for Americans to change their lifestyles and make sacrifices for the good of the planet. Americans are told they must consume less, waste less and spend more to buy clean energy. While David Brooks’s “Bourgeois Bohemians” may be able to retrofit their homes with solar panels and drive Chevy Volts, most of us can’t.

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What a Carbon Tax Is – and Isn’t – Good For

New Revenues Should Fund the Clean Tech Revolution

There sure is a lot of carbon tax chatter this fall.  With the “fiscal cliff” looming and global warming alive and well, numerous voices are suggesting that if we need to raise revenue we should “just do it” and place a moderate fee on carbon emissions.

The economist Robert Frank; the sociologist Theda Skocpol; the blogger Ezra Klein; and my Brookings colleagues Warwick McKibben, Adele Morris, and Peter Wilcoxen have all in the last few months proposed enacting a carbon tax for purposes of averting “Taxmageddon” and discouraging carbon pollution.  For its part the MIT Global Change Institute has laid out how such a tax might work in practice.  And likewise, Rep Jim McDermott (D-WA) has introduced legislation, while former Rep. Bob Inglis has proposed replacing today’s slew of clean energy subsidies with a carbon fee.

This is all welcome.  Yet, it leaves something out: It neglects to think deeply enough about the use of the revenues and the need to make direct investments—soon—in clean energy technology development and deployment.

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Asia Returns to Nukes

Post-Fukushima Moratoria in China and Japan Give Way to Energy Reality

Asia’s two main economies appear to be winding down their moratoria on nuclear power.  The latest is China, which says it is starting to build nuclear reactors again, 19 months after the Fukushima disaster in Japan triggered a nuclear power pullback around the world. By 2015, China will have 40 GW of nuclear power capacity, or 10 GW less than planned prior to Fukushima. The resumption fits into China’s aim of developing the world’s largest non-fossil-fuel energy sector.

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Our Unproductive Climate Debate

Broadening and Diversifying Public Concern

Public opinion about climate change, observes the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, can be compared to “waves in a shallow pan,” easily tipped with “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.” In a chapter published last year at the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, I review research that provides several explanations for the complex nature of U.S. public opinion. Environmental, political and media conditions will change over time, but the basic processes by which individuals and social groups interpret climate change will remain generally the same, and it is these processes that I highlight in the chapter.

I discuss studies identifying an "issue public" of Americans supporting political action and a similarly sized segment of Americans opposing action. Between these tail-end segments, more than 2/3 of Americans still remain relatively ambivalent about the importance and urgency of climate change. I also discuss how research is being used to identify and develop communication initiatives that empower and enable these publics to reach decisions and to participate in societal debates. Scholars are examining how values, social identity, mental models, social ties, and information sources combine to shape judgments and decisions.

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Coming Budget Cuts Threaten Energy Innovation and Growth

The Costs of Sequestration

Congress has yet to come up with a plan for handling the threatening consequences of sequestration, or the blunt, automatic across-the-board budget cuts enacted by law by the Budget Control Act of 2011, a consequence of Congress’s failure to agree on a bipartisan deficit reduction plan. As a result, the first installment of cuts goes into effect January 1st of 2013 which, according to the Energy Innovation Tracker, will have significant impacts on clean energy innovation that will severely handicap America’s already underfunded clean energy innovation ecosystem.

Under the Budget Control Act of 2011, the sequester calls for the reduction of the federal debt by $2.4 trillion over a ten year period; $1.2 trillion of the savings are slated to come from discretionary spending, which funds the federal government’s education, science, technology and research programs, among others. A report recently released by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Eroding our Foundation: Sequestration, R&D, Innovation and U.S. Economic Growth, verifies concerns over the future of U.S. competitiveness if Congress fails to come up with a viable debt reduction alternative. The report concludes that because R&D is critical to economic growth, reduction in R&D investments – which under sequestration would be cut by roughly 8 percent from FY2011 levels and held at this level until 2021 – would result in GSP losses of between $203 billion and $860 billion between 2013 and 2021. The report states, “We agree that deficit reduction is clearly a necessary task. However, as growth is a key component to achieving that task, the evidence presented clearly shows that cutting R&D expenditures will in fact negate efforts to reduce the deficit.”

Using ITIF’s analysis in coordination with the Energy Innovation Tracker budget database, we can assess how these cuts would specifically impact clean energy innovation programs across the federal budget. To estimate future trends under sequestration, ITIF’s report assumes R&D intensity remains constant in the future – meaning the proportion of R&D investments to total investments remains constant through 2021.

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You Didn’t Frack That

How Energy Innovation Happens

Governor Mitt Romney doubled-down on his criticisms of President Barack Obama’s energy policies in last night’s town hall debate, saying the president has stood in the way of the private sector’s full exploitation of America’s fossil fuel resources.

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No Nukes? Then Say Yes to Global Warming

How the Anti-Nuclear Movement Undermines Climate Efforts

Japan has proposed to phase out nuclear power by 2040 in reaction to last year's Fukushima Daiichi incident, drawing cheers from many environmentalists and anti-nuclear activists. Japan's turn from nuclear, however, means the country will use more fossil fuels, resulting in greater amounts of harmful emissions and all the costs to public health and the environment such a path entails.

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The Prius Paradox

How American Efficiency Boosts Chinese Oil Consumption

Many Prius drivers take pride in their reduced carbon footprint, as satirized in a 2006 South Park episode. But a new study shows that lower oil consumption in the United States, Europe, and Japan will allow developing countries to increase their oil use.

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The Other F-Word of Shale Drilling

Where the Interests of Greens and Industry Converge

If you think fracking is a deal-breaker, then you have not thought much about “flaring.” Both controversies could undo the shale gas industry, although the burning off of natural gas found alongside oil discoveries is something that oil drillers and green groups alike would prefer to minimize. But how?

Shale gas derived from sedimentary rocks deep underground needs to be captured, piped and processed before it is consumed. That requires the development of an infrastructure, or the pipelines necessary to carry the fuel to the utilities that would burn it to make electricity. Beside piping it, the energy companies are considering liquefying the gas and creating LNG that would be globally shipped.

In the absence of either option, the gas is flared, meaning it literally goes up in smoke — in the form of all types of types emissions. That inflames not just the environmentalists who are concerned about greenhouse gases but also investors who furthermore say that such fuels are valuable assets that must be monetized.

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Should We Swap Energy Subsidies for a Carbon Tax?

The Surprising Reality

Over the past few months there has been increased talk in Washington of taxing carbon emissions. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) has introduced legislation, while former Rep. Bob Inglis has proposed replacing today's subsidies with a carbon tax.

The view among most economists is that a tax would be more efficient at reducing emissions than subsidizing clean energy. Over the years, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, an advisor to George W. Bush and now Mitt Romney, along with President Ronald Reagan's economic advisers, Martin Feldstein and Arthur Laffer, have all endorsed carbon taxes, along with environmental economists, like Harvard's Robert Stavins.

Breakthrough Institute is on the record supporting a low carbon tax (here and here), subsidy reform, and increased federal spending on energy innovation. We were thus interested in calculating how much of a price incentive a carbon tax would offer for the deployment of solar, wind, nuclear, and natural gas, the leading low-carbon technologies.

What we found surprised us. A $20 per ton carbon tax would offer just one-half to one-fifth the incentive of today's zero carbon subsidies — but at nearly 10 times the cost. (Our full analysis can be read here, and an Energy and Environment story on the study follows below.)

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New Nukes

Why We Need Radical Innovation to Make New Nuclear Energy Cheap

Not long after a tsunami washed over Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plants in March 2011, causing a partial meltdown, it appeared to many that humankind's half-century experiment with nuclear power might be in permanent jeopardy. Although nuclear energy provides 15 percent of the world's electricity, all without spewing greenhouse gas emissions, many countries seemed ready to forgo nuclear for deadlier but less viscerally frightening power sources. And sadly, while U.S. political leaders, including those at the just-concluded Democratic National Convention, are quick to trumpet their embrace of natural-gas drilling, the word "nuclear" is scarcely ever mentioned.

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Nuclear Costs in Context

A Viable Public Good

Replacing large-scale fossil fuel energy production with zero-carbon sources will come with a big price tag. Yet compared with the other available options -- especially wind and solar -- nuclear is our best bet. High capital costs are simply a reminder that we can’t have something for nothing, least of all major new infrastructure. The ability to generate zero-carbon baseload power for decades to come is a public good worthy of limited government support.

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Are Fast Breeder Reactors A Nuclear Power Panacea?

Debate Heats Up Over Next Generation Technology in the UK

Plutonium is the nuclear nightmare. A byproduct of conventional power-station reactors, it is the key ingredient in nuclear weapons and leaves behind a million-year radioactive waste legacy. But a new generation of "fast" reactors can burn plutonium, turning a health and security risk into cheap, low-carbon energy. It sounds too good to be true. Are the techno-optimists right -- or should the conventional environmental revulsion at all things nuclear still hold?

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Worldwide Nuclear Energy Expansion Continues

Japan's Shutdown Only a "Speed Bump"

New estimates predict global production of nuclear energy will see significant gains in coming decades, as dampened enthusiasm for the atom in the wake of last year's nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi appears to be only temporary. East Asia will lead the expansion, as China has resumed construction on new plants and appears intent on pursuing more advanced domestically produced reactor models. Meanwhile, momentum builds for next generation nuclear technologies in the United States.

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A New Climate Paradigm

Gas-Driven Carbon Reductions

U.S. emissions have plummeted 7.7 percent since 2006, thanks to the rapid switch from coal to cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Where did all this cheap gas come from? A concerted, public-private effort dating back to the mid-1970s to cheaply extract gas from shale. There is a clear lesson for those concerned about global warming: seek public-private investments in technological innovation to make clean energy cheap.

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Coal Rising in Europe: Gas Eyes the Throne in the US

Despite highly touted climate policies, European utilities are rushing to capitalize on the cheapest and dirtiest source of electric power in the continent: coal. A combination of low carbon permit prices under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and increased coal imports from the United States has made coal the most profitable fuel for power generation. Meanwhile, the ongoing American shale gas boom -- powered in part by decades of federal investments in shale drilling technologies -- is accelerating the closure of US coal-fired power plants.

According to Bloomberg, demand for coal grew 3.3 percent last year, the fastest pace since 2006. Coal's resurgence is as big a surprise to European environmentalists as the shale revolution is to their US counterparts -- natural gas remains relatively expensive in Europe, and the emissions penalty levied by the ETS has dropped so low in recent months that coal has become much more competitive than gas for European utilities.
 

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