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:

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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 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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 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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Time to Get US Wind Power Beyond Boom and Bust: Washington Post

In an editorial today, the Washington Post called on lawmakers to put innovation at the center of federal policies supporting wind power, in the latest endorsement of the findings in "Beyond Boom and Bust," a report by leading energy experts at the Breakthrough Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the World Resources Institute.

The endorsement followed congressional testimony on the role of government in energy innovation delivered last month by Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Policy Director and report co-author Jesse Jenkins before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Post expressed concern about the impending expiration of the federal production tax credit for wind (PTC), but said the proper solution is not to adopt a simple extension of the 20-year old subsidy.

"More clean energy is good," the Post said. "Achieving it with crude policy is not." As we wrote in our report, temporary subsidies without smart and dynamic incentives for innovation induce a cycle of boom-and-bust in emerging clean energy markets. The PTC, which will lapse at the end of the year, provides a blunt 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour tax credit without any policy criteria for cost reductions or technological innovation.

The Post said our report "offered plenty of ways to design subsidies that encourage less expensive renewables. Subsidy levels should decline over time, they could be set in an auction or they could be determined by the cheapest players in the market, stimulating improvement."

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Mr. Jenkins Goes to Washington

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In Senate testimony yesterday, Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Policy Director Jesse Jenkins urged lawmakers to adopt innovation-centered reforms that will drive advanced energy technologies to subsidy independence.

Appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jenkins called for changes to national energy policy on two fronts.

Congress should first reform its suite of deployment subsidies to "better drive and reward innovation" so that clean tech segments can become cost-competitive with fossil fuels without subsidy "as soon as possible," Jenkins said.

Despite important recent gains in performance and cost reduction, most advanced energy market segments - also referred to as "clean tech" - remain dependent on federal policies. "That policy support is now poised to turn from boom to bust," Jenkins warned.
 

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The Creative Destruction of Climate Economics

Why 18th Century Economics Can't Deal with 21st Century Global Warming

In the 70 years that have passed since Joseph Schumpeter coined the term "creative destruction," economists have struggled awkwardly with how to think about growth and innovation. Born of the low-growth agricultural economies of 18th century Europe, the dismal science to this day remains focused on the question of how to most efficiently distribute scarce resources, not on how to create new ones -- this despite two centuries of rapid economic growth driven by disruptive technologies, from the steam engine to electricity to the Internet.

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Beyond Boom and Bust: Summary of Recommendations

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The recent gains made by clean tech sectors in the United States are shadowed by the looming collapse of federal subsidy support, which has been a powerful driver of expanding clean energy markets. As documented in a new report -- published by energy experts at the Breakthrough Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the World Resources Institute -- federal investment in clean tech is slated to drop 75 percent over 2009-2014. The only solution to the policy-induced cycle of boom-and-bust endured by clean tech is to optimize federal support programs to drive innovation and cost declines so that clean energy technologies can ultimately thrive on their own in American markets without subsidy.

Click here to read the report overview and Executive Summary.

Click here to download the full report, titled "Beyond Boom and Bust: Putting Clean Tech on a Path to Subsidy Independence."
 

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Beyond Boom and Bust: Report Overview

Despite robust growth and recent improvements in price and performance, a boom in US clean energy technology ("clean tech") sectors could now falter as federal clean energy spending declines sharply, according to a new report published today by some of the country's top energy analysts.

To both sustain clean energy growth and put the United States' clean tech sectors on an accelerated path to subsidy independence and global competitiveness, analysts at the Breakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution, and World Resources Institute counsel a thorough revamping of American clean energy policies to prioritize innovation and cost declines.

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Obama and the New Climate Centrism

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama tacitly acknowledged how politically toxic climate change had become by not mentioning it once. His move angered many environmentalists who insisted there could be no significant action without a full-throated defense of the climate science against skeptics.

 

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But one year later, President Obama's shift can be understood as part of a new climate centrism, one focused less on climate science and carbon pricing and more on energy innovation and the regulation of conventional pollutants like mercury. In his 2012 address, Obama briefly mentioned the divisiveness of climate change as a segue to touting his energy policies.

Polls show that Obama's call for continued energy innovation funding was one of the most popular elements of his speech. Meanwhile, the EPA's new mercury regulations—which will result in the shuttering of some of America's dirtiest coal plants—have long been more popular with Independents and Republicans than carbon regulations.

These policies have a growing number of supporters on the right. Last week, John Tierney of the New York Times pointed to a new study in Science that touted the climate benefits of dealing with non-carbon pollutants:

After looking at hundreds of ways to control these pollutants, the researchers determined the 14 most effective measures for reducing climate change, like encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves, building more efficient kilns and coke ovens, capturing methane at landfills and oil wells, and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.

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The Future of Global Climate Policy: Slowing Warming by Cutting Methane and Pollutants

It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 examined why voluntary economic contraction is a not a viable strategy for reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.” Part 3 explained why implementing a robust clean energy innovation strategy is the key way to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thus enabling the rapid adoption of low-carbon energy sources and drastically reducing CO2 as quickly as possible. Part 4 discussed why adaptation through innovation is central to preparing for the impacts of a warmer world. Finally, Part 5 discusses how reducing a set of non-CO2 pollutants and greenhouse gases can make a significant, near-term dent in warming and buy time to decarbonize the energy system.

As we have argued previously in this series, averting as much dangerous climate change impacts as possible hinges on our efforts to drive innovation and make clean energy cost competitive with fossil fuels. The cost of decarbonization is the key moderating force affecting the pace of carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions, and innovation is the key to lowering these costs and accelerating climate progress. However, CO2 isn’t the only powerful contributor to global warming, and scientists have identified opportunities to make a significant, near-term dent in warming by tackling other greenhouse gases and pollutants.

While we cannot effectively manage human impact on the climate over the long-run without decarbonizing the global energy system — a task that hinges on the energy innovation efforts described in Part 3 of this series — in the short term, we would do well to seize opportunities to reduce non-CO2 emissions, particularly those with immediate co-benefits (e.g. profitable byproducts, improved public health, or better agricultural yields) that align incentives for rapid action.

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The Future of Global Climate Policy: Building Resilience via Climate Adaptation Innovation Policy

It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 examined why voluntary economic contraction is a not a viable strategy for reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.” Part 3 explained why implementing a robust clean energy innovation strategy is the key way to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thus enabling the rapid adoption of low-carbon energy sources and drastically reducing CO2 as quickly as possible. Part 4 discusses why adaptation through innovation is central to preparing for the impacts of a warmer world and buying us time to drastically cut emissions.

The door is closed to mitigating away all of the potentially dangerous impacts of climate change.  We’ve simply waited too long to take sweeping action and provide a cheap and viable clean energy substitute to fossil fuels.  In Part 1 of this series, we discussed that even so, the key objective of climate mitigation efforts is still the same – we must drastically cut emissions as quickly as possible (and Part 2 and Part 3 discussed how). 

Yet the warmer world we have locked ourselves into does inform other policy choices. In particular, building our resilience to extreme weather and increasing our adaptive capacity is now equally as important as mitigation and should be treated as such. Advocating for adaptation and mitigation is nothing new – in fact it’s common place. The argument here is that adaptation must now be a cornerstone of all climate policy choices – domestic or otherwise.

When it comes to climate adaptation policymaking, a lot of work needs to be done, as it’s still a topic that has been largely ignored by U.S. decision makers. In fact, the most immediate hurdle is for decision makers to stop paying lip-service to the need for an adaptation policy and begin aggressively implementing real resilience efforts.

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The Future of Global Climate Policy: Clean Energy Innovation Imperative

It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 examined why voluntary economic contraction is a not a viable strategy for reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.” Part 3 explains why implementing a robust clean energy innovation strategy is the key way to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thus enable rapid adoption of low-carbon energy sources and drastically reducing CO2 as quickly as possible.

As we wrote in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, our current climate trajectory and global political economy dictates that the only way we can limit potentially dangerous climate change impacts, above the dangerous impacts we’re already locked into, is to redouble efforts to reduce global CO2 emissions as quickly as possible. To rapidly decarbonize the economy requires greatly accelerating the replacement of fossil fuels with low or zero-carbon clean energy substitutes. Implementing the right strategies to do so raises numerous stark policy choices and issues.

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The Future of Global Climate Policy: Is Economic Contraction a Climate Solution?

It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 in this series examines whether voluntary economic contraction is a key strategy in reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.”

In a recent commentary, Grist’s David Roberts notes that our current climate trajectory puts us on a path to dangerous climate impacts, demanding that we must reduce emissions dramatically over the near-term. His proposed strategy to reduce emissions as quickly as possible constitutes an “all-hands-on-deck mobilization” (including a carbon tax, efficiency standards, subsidies, tech development). He also argues that the time has come to consider “shared sacrifice” in the world’s wealthiest nations: a course of voluntary economic contraction in developed economies (thus reducing fossil energy consumption), while allowing developing nations time to shift from dirty to clean energy.

As we wrote in Part 1 of this series, we firmly agree that our climate trajectory demands that we redouble efforts to reduce global CO2 emissions as quickly as possible. They key question remains: what levers or strategies are central to determining how quickly we can reduce emissions. Is voluntary economic contraction a key climate strategy?

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The Future of Global Climate Policy: Taking Stock of Our Climate Outlook

Significantly limiting humanity’s impact on the global climate is quite simply an enormous task. Unfortunately, thanks to budget austerity and federal gridlock, any hope of implementing sweeping U.S. climate/energy policy has been optimistically pushed back to 2013 or beyond (though some incremental improvement is possible). And even the most hopeful observers of the recent global climate negotiations in Durban find little real progress towards reducing emissions. Now more than ever, it is time to take a hard look at where we stand and figure out how to match our policies to our climate goals.

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Collateral Damage From Not Knowing What You Are Talking About

A group called CO2 Scorecard, whose efforts to compile energy data I have praised in the past, has issued a report which argues that so-called "energy rebound" at the micro-level might be in the range of 30% or less rather than the higher levels that have been argued by my colleagues at The Breakthrough Institute. While longtime readers of this blog and readers of The Climate Fix will know that I think that the debate over the rebound effect is largely inconsequential to the debate over efforts to decarbonize the economy, the report and reaction to it provide a great opportunity to highlight a key intellectual challenge that we all face when overwhelmed with information - beware promoting bad analyses simply because they accord with your tribal convictions.

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A National Clean Energy Testbeds Program

In a series of policy briefs released last month by the Breakthrough Institute, we document the challenges faced by clean energy innovators and entrepreneurs working to bring advanced energy technologies from the lab to market and offer policy proposals for carrying nascent technologies across the clean energy "Valleys of Death." One detailed proposal offers recommendations for the establishment of a National Clean Energy Testbeds Program, or N-CET, which would employ public lands as dedicated demonstration sites for proving innovative energy technologies at scale.

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Bridging the Clean Energy Valleys of Death

In a new report from the Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Program, we document the challenges facing American energy entrepreneurs seeking to commercialize advanced energy technologies to enhance US energy, economic, and environmental security. Innovative public policy solutions are needed to support private sector innovation and overcome the "valleys of death" that trap too many promising advanced energy ventures.

Download the full report, "Bridging the Clean Energy Valleys of Death" (pdf) here, and read on for the introduction to the report.

See two related reports, also out today:

  • "A Clean Energy Deployment Administration: Unlocking Advanced Energy Innovation and Commercialization"

    "A National Clean Energy Testbeds Program: Using Public Lands to Accelerate Advanced Energy Innovation and Commercialization"

 

INTRODUCTION

The United States faces an urgent national imperative to modernize and diversify its energy system by developing and deploying clean, and affordable advanced energy technologies. Domestically, developing new energy supplies and ensuring affordable energy prices will bolster American competitiveness and economic growth. Reducing the cost of advanced energy technologies is the key to finally ending a dependence on volatile global oil markets that holds the American economy hostage, compromises our foreign policy, and bleeds more than a billion dollars a day out of the US economy.

Abroad, the military has already begun deploying innovative clean energy technologies to reduce the high cost, paid in both lives and money, associated with transporting fossil fuels across war zones. Moreover, the impending risks posed by climate change compel the accelerated improvement and widespread deployment of low-carbon energy technologies. Countries around the world are already recognizing the critical need for new advanced energy technologies and are positioning themselves to lead the next wave of energy innovation.

Global energy demand is rising steadily, straining the ability of conventional energy systems to keep pace. For security, economic, and environmental reasons, the global energy system is thus modernizing and diversifying. Developing and developed nations alike are seeking new forms of advanced energy technologies that reduce dependence on foreign nations, insulate economies from volatile energy markets, and are cleaner and thus less costly from a public health perspective. Supplying this $5 trillion global energy market with reliable and affordable clean energy technologies thus represents one of the most significant market opportunities of the 21st century.

Despite this clear energy innovation imperative, the United States and the world remain overly reliant on conventional fuels and exposed to the price volatility and persistent public health impacts that reliance entails. The necessary course of energy modernization remains impeded by the high cost and barriers to scalability of today's clean energy technologies. These are barriers that only innovation can overcome.

However, two obstacles currently block the progress of energy innovation, obstacles which can only be addressed through effective public policy. Due to pervasive market barriers, private sector financing is typically unavailable to bring new energy innovations from early-stage laboratory research to proof-of-concept prototype and on to full commercial scale. This leads to two market gaps that kill off too many promising new energy technologies in the cradle. These gaps are known as the early-stage "Technological Valley of Death" and the later-stage "Commercialization Valley of Death." This pair of barriers is endemic to most innovative technologies yet is particularly acute in the energy sector. As a result, many innovative energy prototypes never make it to the marketplace and never have a chance to compete with established energy technologies. These valleys of death particularly plague capital-starved start-ups and entrepreneurial small and medium-sized firms, the very same innovators that are so often at the heart of American economic vitality.

In effect, the current lack of public policy to address this pair of barriers acts to protect today's well entrenched incumbent technologies from full market competition, while hamstringing American entrepreneurs and innovative ventures seeking to develop and deploy advanced energy technologies. The implementation of creative policies to effectively deal with the Technological and Commercialization Valleys of Death will foster vibrant competition in the energy sector and help drive technological innovation and job creation throughout the economy as a whole.

In the past, the United States has driven immense and far-reaching technological transformations. As the pioneering global innovator of the 20th century, the United States built the world's largest economy because of the ingenuity and creative enterprise of its entrepreneurs and citizens. Each step of the way, proactive public policy has played a crucial role in driving American innovations, from railroads and jet engines to microchips, biotechnology, and the Internet, unleashing long waves of economic growth and shared prosperity. New and advanced clean energy technologies afford the same opportunities to the United States today--if public policy is shaped in a way that allows American innovators to thrive once again.

 

 

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European Commission Report Warns Policy Makers to Attend to Rebound Effects

A new report on energy rebound published by the European Commission surveys the wide range of evidence and academic literature and concludes that rebound effects can and do limit the lasting reductions in energy use achievable by energy efficiency measures and policies. Efficiency, the report finds, reduces the implicit price of energy services, and triggers a rebound in demand that can erode a substantial portion of expected energy savings. By examining case studies and empirical data, the report determines:
 
The rebound effect can limit the environmental improvements possible through SCP [sustainable consumption and production] and sustainable products policies and technologies and, in particular, the goal of decoupling resource consumption from economic growth.

 

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Global Energy Intensity on the Rise

New analysis from the WorldWatch Institute shows that energy intensity of the global economy has been on the rise for the past two years, reversing a decades-long trend of increasing energy efficiency. As computerized and digital services have paved the way towards technological innovations and the "knowledge economy," global economic energy intensity has declined an average of 0.8 percent per year since 1981. However, since the economic crisis of 2008, the energy inputs required to produce the same level of economic output has been increasing, by 1.35 percent in 2010 alone.

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Heritage Foundation Gets Rebound Effect Backwards in Fuel Economy Attack

In an all-to-predictable swipe at new fuel economy standards currently being negotiated by the White House and the auto industry, the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation invokes rebound effects as the latest reason to oppose increased auto efficiency:

 

When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, The Atlantic's Megan McArdle notes that fuel efficiency standards will reduce carbon dioxide emissions, "but not by as much as advertised, because more fuel efficient cars make driving cheaper, so people will do more of it. This 'rebound' effect robs about 25% of gains, and also means more congestion, and more wear-and-tear on roads." The rebound effect also takes away some of the estimated cost savings and oil reduction.
 

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Climate Pragmatism: Innovation, Resilience and No Regrets

Climate Pragmatism, a new policy report released July 26th by the Hartwell group, details an innovative strategy to restart global climate efforts after the collapse of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. This pragmatic strategy centers on efforts to accelerate energy innovation, build resilience to extreme weather, and pursue no regrets pollution reduction measures -- three efforts that each have their own diverse justifications independent of their benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. As such, Climate Pragmatism offers a framework for renewed American leadership on climate change that's effectiveness, paradoxically, does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases.

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UNIDO: Does Energy Efficiency Lead to More Energy Consumption?

In the pages of United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)'s Making It quarterly magazine, Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Policy Director Jesse Jenkins and Senior Fellow Harry Saunders published an article explaining the impact and implications of the energy demand "rebound effect" spurred on by energy efficiency.

The article builds upon the Breakthrough Institute's "Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena", a comprehensive literature review pointing to the expert consensus and evidence that below-cost energy efficiency measures drive a rebound in energy consumption that erodes much of expected energy savings.

 

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Analysis: Germany’s Plan to Phase Out Nuclear Jeopardizes Emissions Goals

One week ago, the German government released a report outlining its plan to close all of its 17 nuclear power reactors by 2017 and power the country without causing electricity shortages. That plan hinges heavily on the construction of 16 GW of new fossil-fired power pants. This analysis finds that Germany's new strategy would make achieving the country's ambitious 2020 climate goals far more difficult. To both achieve emissions reduction goals and fully displace nuclear power, renewable energy would need to scale up from 17% of the country's power supply today to a full 57% of total electricity generation in just nine years' time.

Replacing Lost Nuclear Capacity and Electricity Generation

Table 1 below, excerpted from the report, outlines the German government's plan for replacing the 21.4 Gigawatts (GW) of lost nuclear power generation capacity.

The plan indicates that--in the absence of nuclear power--Germany will continue to be heavily reliant on fossil-fuel generation for the bulk of its electricity supply. The report calls for the construction of 5 GW of new natural gas power plants, in addition to 11 GW of new coal-fired power plants currently under construction in the country. This will leave the country with a net increase of 5 GW in coal-fired electricity capacity, after the retirement of some 6 GW of older, and more carbon-intensive, coal-fired power plants.

The report also proposes an increase in the country's capacity to generate electricity from biomass by 1.4 GW.

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Rebound and Rigor: NRDC’s Entry Into Rebound Effect Debate Stuck in the Past

recent article in Electricity Policy by Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) analysts (David Goldstein et al.) purports to offer a fresh look at the question of energy consumption rebound resulting from cost-effective efficiency improvements. But rather than advancing the ongoing discussion about rebound among serious energy analysts, NRDC attempts to turn back the clock, relying on outdated and recycled citations dating from as far back as the early 1990s and asserting that conclusions about rebound effects must be testable against "rigorously framed hypotheses" while failing to apply that standard to their own claims regarding the historic success of efficiency policies in reducing energy use.

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Socolow:  Climate Stablization Wedges Were a Mistake

Here are a few choice excerpts from the National Geographic article:

 

When the torrent of predictions about global warming got too depressing, there were Robert Socolow's "wedges."

The Princeton physics and engineering professor, along with his colleague, ecologist Stephen Pacala, countered the gloom and doom of climate change with a theory that offered hope. If we adopted a series of environmental steps, each taking a chunk out of the anticipated growth in greenhouse gases, we could flatline our emissions, he said. That would at least limit the global temperature rise, he said in a 2004 paper in the journal Science.

The Princeton colleagues even created a game out of it: choose your own strategies, saving a billion tons of emissions each, to compile at least seven "wedges," pie-shaped slices that could be stacked up in a graph to erase the predicted doubling of CO2 by 2050.

It was a mistake, he now says.

"With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn't impossible, so it must be easy," Socolow says. "There was a whole lot of simplification, that this is no big deal."

He said his theory was intended to show the progress that could be made if people took steps such as halving our automobile travel, burying carbon emissions, or installing a million windmills. But instead of providing motivation, the wedges theory let people relax in the face of enormous challenges, he now says.


Socolow takes issue with how his work has been misused by advocates for action:
 

Socolow said he believes that well-intentioned groups misused the wedges theory. His theory called for efficiency, conservation, and energy alternatives that could keep greenhouse gas emissions at roughly today's levels, offsetting the growth of population and energy demands. Global temperatures would rise by 3°C.

"I said hundreds of times the world should be very pleased with itself if the amount of emissions was the same in 50 years as it is today," he said.

But those inspired by the theory took it farther. If Socolow's wedges could stabilize emissions with a 3-degree rise, they said, even bigger wedges could actually bring greenhouse gases back down to a level resulting in only a 2-degree rise. (This is the goal that 140 nations have pledged to try to achieve in the Copenhagen Accord.)

"Our paper was outflanked by the left," Socolow said. But he admits he did not protest enough: "I never aligned myself with the 2-degree statement, but I never said it was too much."

In holding out the prospect of success, adherents stressed the minimal goals, and overestimated what realistically could be achieved.

"The intensity of belief that renewables and conservation would do the job approached religious," Socolow said.


Of course, no one has abused the "wedges" analysis more than Joe Romm who did exactly what Socolow is critical of -- Romm super-sized each one of the wedges, doubled the number needed, and then claimed based on his perversion of the Socolow/Pacala analysis that we have (or soon will have) all the technology needed to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 (or even 350) ppm. It is hard to imagine that Socolow's comments can be in reference to anyone other than Romm, who has probably done more to confuse issues of mitigation policy than anyone. Back in 2008 I pointed out Romm's egregious misuse of the wedges analysis to imply that achieving deep emissions cuts would be technologically and economically possible with technologies currently (or soon to be) available. The exchange with Romm was precipitated by a paper with Chris Green and Tom Wigley in which we explained how the IPCC had made a similar error in its analysis (here in PDF).

Socolow's strong rebuke of the misuse of his work is a welcome contribution and, perhaps optimistically, marks a positive step forward in the climate debate.

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UPDATED ANALYSIS: The Costs of Canceling Japan’s Plans for Nuclear Power


Updated 5/13/2011 to include construction costs for Japan's proposed 14 nuclear reactors.

On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the country would scrap its plans to increase nuclear power's contribution to electricity generation to 50 percent by 2030, in response to the crisis at Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear complex. Replacing nuclear power's sizable role in Japan's energy system with a greater reliance on imported coal or liquefied natural gas (LNG) could increase Japan's CO2 emissions by up to 26 percent relative to current levels while damaging the nation's trade balance, while replacing nuclear with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy would require a roughly 50-fold increase in the electricity provided by these sources, as well as considerable replacement costs.

Japan's Nuclear Plans on Hold

Prior to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, Japan had planned to increase nuclear power's share of national electricity generation to 50% from roughly 30% today. To achieve this increase, Japan had planned to construct fourteen new nuclear power reactors and raise the capacity factor of the country's existing nuclear power plants to 90%, an increase from roughly 72% in 2009 to a level equivalent to the capacity factors maintained by the U.S. nuclear industry. Existing nuclear plants would have their operating life extended wherever it was deemed safe to do so.

In the following scenarios, we consider the challenge of replacing nuclear power's role in Japan's energy system with fossil and renewable energy alternatives. We consider the new generation required to replace the electricity provided by the fourteen nuclear reactors planned by 2030, as well as assume that Japan does not grant license extensions to any existing plants during this period. By 2030, we therefore assume the retirement of thirty-eight existing Japanese reactors built before 1990, including the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, totaling 28,431 MW or 61% of the nation's current nuclear capacity.

The total nuclear power generation 'lost' in this scenario totals 399 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2030. We have assumed that the country will still raise the capacity factor of the remaining twenty-one reactors still operating by 2030, providing 21,555 MW of capacity. Under this scenario, nuclear power would still provide almost 15% of Japan's projected electricity demand in 2030.

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Weighing in on the Gas Tax Debate

Kevin Drum's recent post on the low price elasticity of demand for oil has reignited an old debate over gas taxes and energy innovation.

Drum draws our attention to some "eye popping" figures for price elasticity of demand for oil from the IMF. According to Drum, these elasticities mean that, in the short term, a 50 percent increase in price leads to a 1.2 percent decrease in consumption. In the long term, it leads to a 4.7 percent decrease.

Conservative blogger Jim Manzi rightly points out that, with elasticities as low as these, a gas tax at any politically realistic level is not going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Specifically, to the extent that we continue to progress in making non-fossil-fuels technology cheaper and more effective for an ever wider array of applications, we can accelerate the ongoing de-carbonization of our economy. The idea of economists to use artificial scarcity pricing to do this is aggressively marketed in blogs, magazines and TV shows, but is extremely unlikely to work, because the current price elasticity of oil is so low. The work of engineers and physical scientists, however, is likely to be determinative.

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Esty and Porter’s Call for a Carbon Tax Misses Badly

Cross-posted with permission from the Innovation Policy Blog at ITIF

In yesterday's New York Times, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection chief Daniel Esty and Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter issued a call for an "emissions charge" (i.e. a carbon tax) to address the nation's oil dependence and climate risks, joining a long line of others who continue to do the same. Specifically:



The best way to drive energy innovation would be an emissions charge of $5 per ton of greenhouse gases beginning in 2012, rising to $100 per ton by 2032. The low initial charge, starting next year, would make the short-term burden on consumers and businesses almost negligible.... Our proposal would apply to all greenhouse gas emissions, so that everybody, and every fossil-fuel-dependent form of energy, would be included...Yes, these costs would be passed on to consumers, but this is what motivates changes in behavior and technological investments.


It's the neoclassical view that's reverberated throughout the debate for years: get the prices right, get government out of the way, and let the market do its thing. Andrew Revkin has a point when he refers to the piece's "retro feel."

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FAQ: Rebound Effects and the “Energy Emergence” Report

On February 17, the Breakthrough Institute released a new, comprehensive survey of the literature and evidence concerning the rebound effects triggered by many energy efficiency improvements. 



"Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena" explains why energy efficiency measures that truly 'pay for themselves' will lower the cost of energy services – heating, transportation, industrial processes, etc. – driving a rebound in energy demand that can erode a significant portion of the expected energy savings and climate benefits of these measures. 



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Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena

There is a large expert consensus and strong evidence that below-cost energy efficiency measures drive a rebound in energy consumption that erodes much and in some cases all of the expected energy savings, concludes a new report by the Breakthrough Institute. "Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena" covers over 96 published journal articles and is one of the largest reviews of the peer-reviewed journal literature to date.

The findings of the new report are significant because governments have in recent years relied heavily on energy efficiency measures as a means to cut greenhouse gases. "I think we have to have a strong push toward energy efficiency," said President Obama recently. "We know that's the low-hanging fruit, we can save as much as 30 percent of our current energy usage without changing our quality of life." While there is robust evidence for rebound in academic peer-reviewed journals, it has largely been ignored by major analyses, including the widely cited 2009 McKinsey and Co. study on the cost of reducing greenhouse gases.

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Six Misconceptions About Rebound and Backfire

David Owen's recent New Yorker article on energy efficiency and rebound phenomena has sparked a lively debate in a number of blog posts but it has also resulted in some confusion. The purpose of this post is to lend clarity to the rebound debate by dispelling some misconceptions about rebound.

Rebound comes from several sources, requiring important distinctions. Typically, rebound analysts distinguish consumer-side effects from producer-side effects. A second distinction frequently called upon is between so-called direct and indirect rebound. On top of these rebound classifications, some analysts identify a so-called macroeconomic effect.

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The U.N. Climate Negotiations’ Last Breath

The upcoming climate negotiations may be the last under the direction of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), according to some negotiators. The mood at the run-up to the negotiations, which are set to take place in Cancun, Mexico at the end of November, is largely austere as even negotiators recognize the increasing futility of the U.N. emissions reduction framework.

 

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"Post-Partisan Power" - Report Overview

It is time to hit the reset button on energy policy, according to scholars with American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution and the Breakthrough Institute, who are today releasing a new report, "Post-Partisan Power," which calls for revamping America's energy innovation system with the aim of making clean energy cheap.

The new report calls for increasing federal innovation investment from roughly $4 today to $25 billion annually, and using military procurement, new, disciplined deployment incentives, and public-private hubs to achieve both incremental improvements and breakthroughs in clean energy technologies. The authors point to America's long-history of bipartisan support for innovation.

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Why Energy Efficiency May Not Decrease Energy Consumption

One of the most curious facts about energy is that economies continue to use more of it even as they use it more efficiently. This strikes us as strange because it has become an article of faith that making cars, buildings, and factories more energy efficient is the key to cheaply and quickly reducing energy consumption, and thus pollution.

But energy experts have never seen this as particularly mysterious. As energy historian Vaclav Smil notes, "Historical evidence shows unequivocally that secular advances in energy efficiency have not led to any declines of aggregate energy consumption." A group of economists beginning in the 1980s went further, suggesting that increasing the productivity of energy would increase economic growth and energy consumption. Efficiency advocates dismiss the evidence of rebound in energy use pointing to direct behavioral changes at the household or business level that are easiest to measure. But the most significant energy rebounds are indirect -- in the production of energy, raw materials, and consumer goods -- not in the "end use" of consumer products.

Below, a leading energy economist, Harry Saunders, explains why energy efficiency does not decrease energy consumption in the way we conventionally understand it. In the process, Saunders clarifies the controversy over his recent co-authored study for the Journal of Physics, which reviews 300 years of lighting history to predict the impact of new solid-state lighting technologies (e.g. LEDs). Against the widespread belief that new lighting technology will reduce energy consumption, Saunders and his colleagues found that they will likely increase it -- greatly expanding the global use of lighting in the process, especially in developing countries. Saunders clarifies some important questions, and explains the basics of "the rebound effect."

With the new study, rebound has firmly moved from the theoretical to the empirical, and the implications of it must now be dealt with by all of us who were counting on efficiency to be an easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

-Michael Shellenberger, President, Breakthrough Institute

Why Energy Efficiency May Not Decrease Energy Consumption

By Harry Saunders

I recently co-authored an article for the Journal of Physics ("Solid-state lighting: an energy-economics perspective" by Jeff Tsao, Harry Saunders, Randy Creighton, Mike Coltrin, Jerry Simmon, August 19, 2010) analyzing the increase in energy consumption that will likely result from new (and more efficient) solid-state lighting (SSL) technologies. The article triggered a round of commentaries and responses that have confused the debate over energy efficiency. What follows is my attempt to clarify the issue, and does not necessarily represent the views of my co-authors.

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China Admits Energy Efficiency Goals Unrealistic

The NYT reports today that China does not expect to meet its short-term energy efficiency targets.

Despite huge investment in new technologies, China is finding it difficult to make its economy more energy-efficient, a senior official said Thursday.

The acknowledgment of difficulties by Zhang Laiwu, deputy minister for science and technology, comes as China has become the world’s largest auto market and is spending heavily on high-speed rail and other infrastructure projects that require a lot of steel and cement, which are energy-intensive to make.

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Munroe:  Offshoring Manufacturing Threatens U.S. Leadership in Innovation

In a new column at the San Jose Mercury News, economist and business leader Tapan Munroe writes that the United States is unlikely to maintain its edge in innovation if manufacturing continues to move offshore en masse.

Manufacturing, writes Munroe, is an integral part of the national "innovation ecosystem":
 

... manufacturing is not just a stage where ideas are transformed into products. It is an essential element of the innovation ecosystem.

There's more to it than that. An abundance of entrepreneurs, access to investment capital and a well-trained workforce also contribute to a successful innovation ecosystem. The presence of manufacturing enhances the level and the quality of innovation and therefore should not be separated from research and development (R&D).


 

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Cap & Fail: The Collapse of our Climate Policy Paradigm

Cap and trade has died. Last week, Democrats pulled the plug on an ill-fated climate and energy bill. The climate policy paradigm that reigned supreme for over a decade has finally collapsed under its own weight. And - believe it or not - that is a good thing for us all.

Cap and trade was structurally flawed from the outset. From Kyoto to Copenhagen, it left a trail of failed climate conferences, false promises and stillborn bills in its wake. It is time to move on and embrace a bold new approach in our fight against climate change - one revolving around epic government investment aimed at unleashing a clean energy revolution. Rather than trying in vain to make fossil fuels more expensive, we should focus our efforts on making clean energy cheap.

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Famous Last Gore Words

 

Al Gore at U.N. Copenhagen meeting, December 15, 2009:
 

We also know that between now and then the U.S. Senate will vote on legislation to cut the emissions of global warming pollution. I can tell you having worked with the members of the United States Senate that they are very close to having sufficient votes to pass this legislation.

 

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Myths About the Death of Cap and Trade

With many obituaries still being written about the now-dead Senate climate bill and theories offered as to who is to blame, it's important to examine the most prevalent theories regarding the demise of cap and trade and see how well they stack up against the evidence.

Here is a Q&A wherein we find reason to be skeptical with several of the theories commonly cited in the last 48 hours and discuss the real culprit behind the death of cap and trade.

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Time to Bury Cap and Trade: Planning Anew for Clean Energy Progress

Cap and trade is dead. Again. For real this time.

Reports put the time of death at 1 P.M. EST, July 22nd, 2010. That is when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid emerged from a meeting of the Democratic Caucus without enough support for even a severely weakened and scaled-back emissions cap on the utility sector.

With that, recognition has finally set in everywhere: the United States Senate is not going to enact any form of cap and trade. Not this year. And probably not any time in the foreseeable future.

Worse yet, clean energy progress this year has gone down with the long-sinking cap and trade ship.

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The Death of Environmentalism

In the fall of 2004, Breakthrough co-founders, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, triggered a firestorm of controversy with their essay, "The Death of Environmentalism." In it they argued that the politics that dealt with acid rain and smog can't deal with global warming. Society has changed, and our politics have not kept up. Environmentalism must die, they concluded, so that something new can be born.

The essay received front-page coverage in The New York Times, The Economist, Salon, and publications around the world. The essay can be downloaded by clicking here.

In 2011, Nordhaus and Shellenberger revisited the essay with a major speech at Yale University on "The Long Death of Environmentalism."

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Obama Signals Need for New Energy Agenda

The biggest news from President Obama's Oval Office address is that cap and trade legislation is probably dead for the foreseeable future, and the administration is seeking new ideas.

Instead of using last night's prime-time opportunity to push cap and trade in the form of the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act -- as many climate advocates saw as their last hope for "comprehensive" climate reform -- President Obama pressed the reset button on energy and climate policy, saying he was "happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party, as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels." He made no mention of setting a price on carbon or establishing an emissions cap and trade system.

As Andrew Revkin observed at New York Times Dot Earth, the president "signaled that he is leaving open a variety of paths on energy and climate policy and no longer hewing tightly to the idea of a cap and trade system for restricting heat-trapping emissions -- which he never wavered from during his campaign." David Roberts of Grist, one of the few remaining hopefuls for cap and trade reform, wrote "Final thought: Obama didn't drive the carbon cap tonight, so there won't be a carbon cap in the energy bill this year."

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The Power to Compete: Benchmarking the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act on Clean Energy Innovation

A new policy brief released today by the Breakthrough Institute and Americans for Energy Leadership provides the first independent analysis of how the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act would impact U.S. competitiveness in the global clean energy industry, benchmarking its provisions against key policy components for technological innovation and industrial development in the low-carbon power and transportation sectors.

The policy brief, titled "The Power to Compete: Analysis of Key Clean Energy Technology and Competitiveness Provisions in the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act of 2010," assesses the proposal's key technology provisions, including research and innovation, manufacturing, and domestic market demand -- the central pillars of a national clean energy competitiveness strategy -- as well as supportive mechanisms in infrastructure, workforce development, and industry cluster formation.

Download Full Briefing (PDF)

Federal energy policy has become a primary U.S. national priority in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and amidst the ongoing Senate debate over comprehensive climate and energy reform. The May 2010 release of the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act (APA) currently represents the flagship proposal for comprehensive reform in the Senate, and its future within the context of broader energy legislation will be determined in the weeks ahead.

The renewed urgency for energy reform arrives among growing national concern that the United States is falling behind its competitors in the growing clean energy industry. Thus, in addition to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, one of the core objectives of the Kerry-Lieberman proposal is to enhance U.S. competitiveness in clean energy technology markets. As Senator Kerry declared in the opening of the APA release press conference, "The bill that we are introducing today and revealing today, the American Power Act, will restore America's economy and reassert our position as a global leader in clean energy technology."

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Strengthening Clean Energy Competitiveness: Opportunities for America COMPETES Reauthorization

In response to numerous reports documenting a sharp decline in U.S. clean energy competitiveness, experts at three leading U.S. think tanks have issued a new policy report calling on Congress to strengthen U.S. innovation and competitiveness policies in this key industry through the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act. The report, "Strengthening Clean Energy Competitiveness: Opportunities for America COMPETES Reauthorization," was released today by the Breakthrough Institute, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), and the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

Congress first passed this flagship competitiveness legislation in 2007 in response to concerns that the United States was losing its ability to compete economically with other nations. On May 28, 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the COMPETES reauthorization by a vote of 262-150 and the bill is set to be debated in the Senate. The reauthorization comes at a time when the United States seeks new sources of growth in a fiscally constrained environment. The clean energy market is one such growth industry--expected to surpass $600 billion by 2020--but the U.S. faces unprecedented global competition.

In "Rising Tigers, Sleeping Giant," an authoritative report on international clean energy competitiveness, the Breakthrough Institute and ITIF recently demonstrated how U.S. leadership on a number of clean energy competitiveness metrics has declined in the last decade. The United States' historic lead in energy innovation is slipping as other countries implement national innovation strategies. America now lags economic competitors in Asia and Europe in the manufacture of virtually all clean energy technologies. And the U.S. lags its economic rivals in preparing its future workforce with critical science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM).

The new report argues that to regain leadership in the global clean energy market, the United States must prioritize major investments in clean energy technology and embrace bold new paradigms in clean energy education, innovation, and production and manufacturing policy.

"Meeting the aggressive challenges to U.S. clean energy leadership will require both increased funding for critical education and technology programs as well as new ideas for how the federal government can foster innovation in the clean energy industry, from basic research to full-scale commercialization," said Mark Muro, Director of Policy at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Project.
 

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Hartwell Paper: A New Approach on Global Climate Policy

Global climate policy should be radically overhauled in the wake of the failure of the United Nations process, an international group of 14 climate policy experts and scientists argue in a new paper. The Kyoto-Copenhagen focus on national emissions targets and timetables was bound to fail because it proposed a single over-arching framework to deal with a "wickedly' complex problem. Instead what's needed is a focus on expanding access to energy for the poor, quickly reducing non-CO2 climate forcings, and adaptation to changing climate.

The paper brings together a set of ideas that have been developing over the last decade. The meeting was convened by Gwyn Prins of London School of Ecomomics and Steve Rayner of Oxford University, who wrote "The Wrong Trousers," a 2007 critique of Kyoto. The group included, among others, East Anglia University climate scientist Mike Hulme, author of "Why We Disagree About Climate Change," Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute, the economist Chris Green, co-author of a 2002 Science article calling for advanced energy research to stabilize climate emissions, and University of Colorado's Roger Pielke and Arizona State's Dan Sarewitz, authors of a 2000 Atlantic magazine story arguing climate policy to shift focus to technology innovation and adaptation. Green, Pielke, and Sarewitz are all Breakthrough Senior Fellows.

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Sinophobia and the Collapse of Copenhagen Climate Talks

Update: In the New York Times, Keith Bradsher writes that as China's economy balloons it may struggle to meet the energy efficiency goals it set in December prior to the Copenhagen summit, due to rapidly rising energy demand and increasing energy intensity:

A failure by China to meet its own energy efficiency targets would be a big setback for international efforts to limit such emissions...

The issue has major economic implications for China and for global energy markets. The nation's ravenous appetite for fossil fuels is driven by China's shifting economic base -- away from light export industries like garment and shoe production and toward energy-intensive heavy industries like steel and cement manufacturing for cars and construction for the domestic market.

Also read: The Contrivance in Copenhagen (Pt 1), (Pt 2)

Newly released audio tapes of world leaders negotiating at Copenhagen climate talks last December reveal how global warming politics has become a forum for sinophobia and the decline of European influence on a global stage. Der Spiegel has run a three part series (translated into English) and created a video special which reveals Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's Gordon Brown, and France's Nicolas Sarkozy badgering the Chinese government to agree to 20 percent emissions reductions by 2020. Obama tells the Chinese government representative that the developed world's funding of developing world actions on climate change depend on the emissions reduction commitment.

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Who Killed Cap and Trade, Part II

Who killed cap and trade? Harvard economist Robert Stavins and the New York Times' John Broder blame a conservative political environment. Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke's not having it:

"[Stavins'] argument is wrong in at least two dimensions. First, since the 2008 elections the US has large Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate (including a Senate "supermajority" for much of 2009) and a Democratic President. This fact alone renders Stavins argument flawed. The problem was not a lack of political support, but failed policy design despite the strong political support."

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