No Room for Conservatives in Climate Politics?

Ecomodern Dispatches

This week, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted a nice riff on why American conservatives remain so uniformly opposed to climate action. Among other things, Hayes wrote that “At one level resistance to climate change is perfectly natural for the right. They’ve seen (wrong) apocalyptic predictions before, they suspect the science is a stalking horse for more state involvement, and it’s a movement/party hugely backed by fossil fuels.”

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All Pain, No Gain

Closing Diablo Canyon Will Cause Costs and Emissions to Rise

Last week, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced it intends to close the state’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, starting in 2024. Diablo Canyon, a 2200-megawatt plant just north of San Luis Obispo, generates 8–10% of California’s electricity every year with zero air pollution and zero carbon emissions. The closure is explained in a proposaldeveloped by the utility along with environmental and labor groups.

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Low-Carbon Portfolio Standards

Expanding existing state Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) into Low-Carbon Portfolio Standards (LCPS) would more than double the statutory requirements for clean energy in the United States. Such a policy shift would prevent the premature closing of many of Amer- ica’s nuclear power plants and assure that nuclear power plants will be replaced with low-carbon electrical generation when they are retired. 

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Passion and Pragmatism

Remembering David MacKay

I first met David MacKay in the summer of 2009 or thereabouts. Michael Shellenberger and I had just finished a talk co-hosted by Policy Exchange, a UK-based Conservative think tank, and IPPR, a think tank aligned with Labor. Afterwards, David was among the first people to approach me. He pushed a copy of Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air into my chest and told me, in his trademark manner (simultaneously respectful, polite, and direct) that while I was right that climate mitigation would require a clean energy revolution, I needed to stop banging on about renewable energy. 

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Not Dead Yet

Global Nuclear Industry Picked Up Steam in 2015

Despite all the obituaries, last year’s stats show the nuclear renaissance is alive and kicking—and keeping pace with wind and solar. Here’s how to keep it going.

Last year the success of wind and solar power made headlines as installations of new turbines and PV panels soared. Meanwhile, “nuclear is dead” think pieces mushroomed in the press as old plants closed and new projects floundered in delays and cost over-runs.

But while the “rise of renewables” is indeed reason to celebrate, the “death of nuclear” storyline has been greatly exaggerated. Far from being moribund, in 2015 the global nuclear sector quietly had its best year in decades. New reactors came on line that will generate as much low-carbon electricity as last year’s crops of new wind turbines or solar panels. The cost of building those reactors was less than one third the cost of building the wind turbines and solar panels, and typical construction times were under 6 years. The conventional wisdom that nuclear projects must be decade-long, budget-busting melodramas proved starkly wrong last year. In crucial respects the nuclear renaissance has hit its stride and is making a fundamental contribution to decarbonization—one that will accelerate if the industry gets recognition and support for what it is doing right.

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How Much Radiation Is Too Much?

An Interview with Edward Calabrese

Everyone knows that the dose is critical when you are taking a prescription medication: a small amount can provide significant benefit, but a large dose can kill you. This “non-linear” effect is taken for granted in pharmaceuticals, but is not generally adopted for regulating the risks of radiation. Dr. Edward Calabrese is a professor and toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. He has spent his career studying non-linear effects in different carcinogens. From hundreds of studies, he has concluded that radiation should be treated more like pharmaceuticals, and regulators needs to change how they think about radiation risks and harm.

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Ammonia is Everest Base Camp for Clean Energy

An Innovation Policy in Disguise

In September 1987 twenty four countries signed the Montreal Protocol, beginning the phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other materials that destroy the ozone layer. The international community decided the impact of a small group of industrial chemicals was simply too dangerous, and outlawed them.

Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at another industrial chemical with dangerous global warming impacts — ammonia. Specifically, ammonia that is produced from fossil carbon, with high CO2 emissions. Fossil ammonia.

A phaseout of fossil ammonia would do more than cut CO2 emissions from the fertilizer industry.  It is in fact an innovation policy in disguise. The real effect is to drive the technological innovation we need to take on the main game — the decarbonization of energy.

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Adaptation for a High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

Even as adaptation has more recently gained mainstream acceptance as an unavoidable response to rising global temperatures, it continues to be a sideshow to the main event of limiting greenhouse gas emissions through international climate negotiations. This misses enormous opportunities for effective action to reduce human suffering due to climate and weather disasters, and to lay a stable foundation for cooperative international efforts to address both climate adaptation and mitigation.

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Bill McKibben’s Misleading New Chemistry

Separating Fact from Fiction in the Fracking Debate

One could be excused for concluding, upon reading Bill McKibben’s latest anti-fracking jeremiad in the Nation, that a new Harvard study released in February has found that US methane emissions over the last decade have risen due to increasing natural gas production.   “This new Harvard data,” McKibben writes, “suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities.”

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Zero-Carbon in the 50 States

An Interview with 'Footprint to Wings' Founder Rezwan Razani

While the Clean Power Plan is embattled in the courts, Rezwan Razani wants states to start playing the game. Her organization, Footprint to Wings, encourages states to join the race toward net zero-carbon emissions and offers a playbook and coaching. Drawing on her experiences in Hollywood and regional planning, Razani works to create a new narrative around decarbonization that both inspires and motivates us to act more aggressively to reduce emissions. The race to zero carbon is kicking off with an actual race on May 21st this year, the Race to Zero Carbon 5k and 10k in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The event includes clean energy expositions and Zero Carbon Coaching for those that want to know about methods for dramatically reducing carbon emissions.

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Apples to Apples to Atoms

The Problem with Comparing Learning Rates Across Energy Technologies

Future energy scenarios are dependent on assumptions about the prices and scalability of energy sources, often relying on historic learning curves to predict the future costs of various fuels or generation technologies. But the academic literature has become overly focused on comparing learning curves for different energy technologies, often in an attempt to divine intrinsic economic qualities about different technologies. In particular, it’s common to highlight the difference between the trends for solar PV panels, which are often described as following Moore’s Law, contrasted with nuclear power, where costs appear to only increase over time. But the metric that matters most, cost of generating electricity, appears to follow no guaranteed trend for these technologies, as new data shows.

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Nuclear Costs Reconsidered

‘Negative Learning’ Not Inherent to Nuclear Power

Last month in Paris, the cognitive dissonance between environmental demands for immediate and rapid decarbonization of the global economy and the long standing rejection of nuclear energy by environmental NGO’s and advocates reached the breaking point. Four climate scientists, led by Dr. James Hansen, flew to Paris to reiterate their call for environmental leaders to reverse their opposition to nuclear energy. “The future of our planet and our descendants depends,” the four scientists wrote, “on letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”

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The Long Anthropocene: An Interview with Erle Ellis

Why Rush to Formalize a New Epoch in the Making?

Earlier this month, Science published a paper by the Anthropocene Working Group, or AWG, detailing the evidence of humanity’s impact on the planet. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” reads the title of their paper. Erle Ellis, one of the authors of the new paper and a Breakthrough Senior Fellow, has a somewhat unique view on the issue as an ecologist. Below is a lightly edited interview with Ellis. 

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The Year of the Good Anthropocene

Top Breakthroughs of 2015

In 2015, the Breakthrough Institute welcomed that debate. In April, several of us co-authored “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which states that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” The theme of our summer Dialogue this year was “The Good Anthropocene,” where Clive Hamilton debated Manifesto coauthor Mark Lynas on our stage. We also released the fifth issue of our Breakthrough Journal, themed “The Good Anthropocene.” 

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COP21 and the Shift Toward Climate Pragmatism

On December 12th, bleary-eyed negotiators walked out of the Paris-Le Bourget conference center to announce a global agreement to fight climate change. Reactions to the agreement have generally taken two forms  - overheated claims about the historic nature of the agreement from many proponents and dismissal from both those demanding stronger action and those opposed to any action at all, on grounds that the agreement represents little change from business as usual.

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Ecomodernism in Paris

The biggest news this week was the announcement by President Obama, Bill Gates, and other world and industry leaders that both the private and public sectors would step up their commitment to advanced energy R&D. Bizarre wet blanket skepticism from Joe Romm and Mark Jacobson nothwithstanding, this is huge.

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Seeds of a Good Anthropocene

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

The UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change's twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris is less than a month away. I'm not a huge fan of forums for hundreds of negotiators to figure out how to make business-as-usual sound like ambitious target-setting, but okay. 

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India — Re-Energized

Samir Saran Argues that India Must Hold Fast Against Western Climate Change Demands

What motivated you to write your recent essay about the double standard the West is trying to hold India to on climate change?

Earlier this year I was speaking at a premier Washington DC think tank around the time India announced it wouldn’t commit to overall emissions reductions at the climate negotiations. Someone in the audience said to me, “Why can’t India play by the same rules everyone else is agreeing to?” My response was “Why can’t India develop like everyone else did?”

Where are Indians when it comes to energy for development?

Today Indians with grid connectivity spend at least 20 – 25 percent of their income on energy. This only allows them a fraction of energy that the developed world consumes. Indians on an average consume one-fifth of the average coal consumption of an American and one-third of a European. The Chinese, Americans and Japanese all spend less on procuring renewable energy relative to their incomes than do Indians.

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Worse Than Fossil Fuels? Why Bioenergy Is Not Green

An Interview with Princeton Research Scholar Tim Searchinger

The fundamental idea behind bioenergy is that it’s carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that plants absorb when they grow, and thus does not add carbon to the air. Why is this wrong?

It’s a common misunderstanding. Burning biomass of course emits carbon, just like burning fossil fuels. The assumption is that the plant growth to produce that biomass offsets the emissions. But the first requirement for a valid offset, whether for carbon or anything else, is that it is additional. If your employer wants to offset your overtime with vacation, they have to give you additional vacation, not just count the vacation you’ve already earned. Similarly, you can’t count plant growth as an offset if it was occurring anyway. Plant growth can only offset energy emissions if it is additional. Counting plants that would grow anyway is a form of double-counting.

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Nope—There’s No Thyroid Cancer Epidemic in Fukushima

A New Study on Child Thyroid Cancer Gets Widespread Attention From the Media—While Another Study Proving It’s Wrong Gets None

A new study comes out with claims of a giant epidemic of thyroid cancer among kids exposed to radioactive iodine from the Fukushima nuclear accident. It’s disproven by another recent study showing that thyroid cancer rates are no higher in Fukushima than in distant regions uncontaminated by the accident. Which study gets lots of attention? And which one gets none?

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Keeping Nuclear Plants Open

Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement

Last week could have been better for the world's fleet of nuclear power plants. Entergy announced they were closing the 680-megawatt Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts, despite the plant having been relicensed in 2012 for an additional 20 years of operation. German utility Eon has also decided to shutter two units at Sweden's Oskarshamn plant. As we've seen everywhere from Germany to California to Japan, natural gas and coal fill in where nuclear falls off, which is the opposite direction from where we should be heading. For more on the situation in the States, check out the latest Energy Gang podcast, where MIT's Jesse Jenkins explains why it will be difficult to meet US carbon goals with so many threatened nuclear plants.

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David MacKay Announced as 2016 Paradigm Award Winner

Scholar Has Opened Pragmatic Discourse for Meeting Future Energy Needs

The Breakthrough Institute will honor David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, with the 2016 Breakthrough Paradigm Award in recognition of his excellence in energy and climate change analyses. 

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Natural Gas Methane Problem Overstated

Research Shows CH4 Leakage A Minor Factor, Within Acceptable Ranges

Public positions on natural gas are strongly influenced by interpretations of the science on fugitive methane emissions. These vary significantly. The self-identified anti-natural gas wing includes professors like Robert Howarth and popular media figures like filmmaker Josh Fox. Other scholars, such as Cornell’s Lawrence Cathles and Council on Foreign Relations’s Michael Levi, have essentially concluded that fugitive methane is mostly a red herring in the coal-versus-gas conversation, and that natural gas can be a suitable “bridge fuel” in power-sector decarbonization. Other institutions like the Environmental Defense Fund concede that natural gas can be an “exit ramp” toward a clean energy future, but insist that fugitive methane must be tightly regulated to ensure that a coal-to-gas transition provides a warming benefit.

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Clearing the Air

EPA Climate Rule Not Designed to Keep Nuclear Plants Open

This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Michael Shellenberger

The recently released final rule of the EPA Clean Power Plan projects to reduce US power sector carbon emissions by 32 percent under 2005 levels by 2030. That's awesome. But by allowing existing nuclear capacity to close and be replaced by fossil fuels, the CPP jeopardizes almost one-half of EPA's emissions reduction goals from 2013 to 2030.

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The Diablo We Know

The Case for Keeping California’s Last Nuclear Plant

Diablo Canyon is California’s last nuclear power plant. It has been the state’s most famous and most controversial plant ever since it divided Sierra Club members in the late 1960s. Perched amidst spectacular natural beauty on the California coast, Diablo faces threats on many fronts. State regulators are demanding that it build expensive cooling towers to ease its impact on marine life. Harsh claims are being made about its vulnerability to earthquakes. And there are lawsuits filed by environmental groups aimed at shutting it down.

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Can Economic Growth Be Green?

How Prosperity Enables Environmental Progress

Against projections of unsustainable growth, industrializing countries are poised to enter an era of “green growth,” explained a panel at Breakthrough Dialogue. To encourage this transition, however, requires better metrics for valuing public goods like clean air and longer lifespans.

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How to Think About Climate Risk in the Anthropocene

Climate Change Politics Post-Two Degrees

Increasingly few people believe humans are likely to prevent global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. How then should we think about likely impacts — and possible responses? Those were the questions debated at a Breakthrough Dialogue concurrent session on climate risk.

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Approaching Backfire

Efficiency Rebound Highest in Places Where It's Least Understood

Energy consumption is going to explode in poor countries this century –– over 90 percent of the growth in energy consumption through 2050 will occur in non-OECD countries. These countries are also where the International Energy Agency (IEA) hopes to reduce future demand growth the most in the name of mitigating climate change –– 77 percent of the modeled demand reductions in the IEA’s 450pmm scenario come from non-OECD countries.

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2015 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Research on Global Challenges

A rollercoaster enthusiast who traveled to India to study tribal women’s empowerment; an energy analyst interested in the impacts of innovation on geopolitics; an engineer who has worked on alternative transportation and urban development; and a former scholar of the Victorian era who now writes on energy technologies and risk perception. These are among the seven outstanding thinkers who will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting pragmatic, new solutions to major environmental challenges.

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A Look at Wind and Solar

Part 2: Is There An Upper Limit To Intermittent Renewables?

This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.

This is a two-part series on the future prospects of renewables. Read Part 1 here.

In our last post, we offered a survey of the progress made so far in wind and solar deployment at the grid-wide scale throughout the world. An accurate and honest accounting of variable renewable energy (VRE) is essential to our goal of building zero-carbon power systems on a high-energy planet. In this follow-up post, we’ll consider what we can glean from VRE performance and modeling about scaling wind and solar further this century.

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The Grid Will Not Be Disrupted

Why Tesla’s Powerwall Won’t Catalyze a Solar Revolution

The announcement two weeks ago of Tesla Motor’s cheap new lithium-ion storage batteries set the renewable energy world on its ear. Breathless commentators pronounced them a revolutionary advance heralding cheap, ubiquitous electricity storage that would make solar power a 24/7-power source for the masses. Elon Musk, Tesla’s wunderkind CEO, fed these hopes at the glitzy product launch for the 10 kilowatt-hour (KWh) Powerwall home storage battery.

“You could actually go, if you want, completely off the grid,” he told them. “You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs, and that’s all you use.”

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The Fossil Fuel Subsidy Red Herring

Subsidies to Fossil Energy Aren't the Low-Hanging Fruit We Might Wish They Were

Every few months — or constantly, depending on your attention span — we hear another round of passionate recommendations that fossil fuel subsidies be phased out to level the playing field for clean energy. Most recently, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim emphasized that “we need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now” in his agenda for promoting clean energy.

Sounds like a sensible goal, but there’s reason to think that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies wouldn’t be nearly as transformative as is often suggested. In this post, I’ll briefly explain why that’s the case.

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The End of the Clean Energy Race

The 'Cooperative Advantage' in Energy Innovation

Last year, the Breakthrough Institute and ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes released High-Energy Innovation. In the report, my colleagues and I argue that rapidly growing energy demand in emerging economies and increased multilateral investment represent the next great opportunity to accelerate energy innovation.

We contrasted this to a framework embraced over the last few years: the idea that the United States was in a race to capture the jobs and industries associated with clean energy technologies like solar panels, batteries, and advanced nuclear reactors.

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The Year of Our High-Energy Planet

Top Breakthroughs of 2014

If 2013 was the year of hope and change, 2014 will be remembered as the year of the high-energy planet. The “small is beautiful” ethos crumbled as global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever in recent years, despite the financial crisis, a global recession, and fears of “secular stagnation in the West.  

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High-Energy Innovation: The Case of Shale Gas

The Global Quest for Natural Gas

The recent boom in natural gas production in the United States, brought about through technical innovations in the recovery of natural gas from previously inaccessible shale rock formations and land-use policies that favor private development, has helped lower electricity costs and benefitted the petrochemical and manufacturing industries. Even more significantly, it has contributed to a drop in US carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest levels in two decades, as inexpensive natural gas accelerates the closure of aging coal plants around the country.

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Natural Gas Overwhelmingly Replaces Coal

New Analysis of US Regional Power Generation Between 2007 and 2013

The growth of natural gas generation in the US power sector has overwhelmingly displaced coal generation, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis of regional power generation data finds. There is little evidence in the aggregate regional power generation data that cheap gas has displaced other low-carbon sources of electricity, such as renewables, nuclear, or hydro. Nor is there evidence that increased gas generation has induced new demand. 

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US-China Climate Deal Underscores Need for Substantial Energy Innovation

China to Add More Electric Power From Coal Than From Nuclear, Wind, or Solar

Talks at the UNFCCC COP20 in Peru undoubtedly have been buoyed by the recent US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. While the pledges by the two largest players may represent a political breakthrough, a new Breakthrough analysis of China’s energy plans shows there is reason for concern. Despite unprecedented efforts, China will likely replace existing coal consumption with more new coal power generation than that from new nuclear, or from new wind and solar power generation combined. 

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High-Energy Innovation

A Climate Pragmatism Project

Clean energy innovation and decarbonization efforts will be overwhelmingly concentrated in rapidly industrializing countries, where demand for energy is high and deployment opportunities are broad, says a new report from a group of 12 energy scholars.

High-Energy Innovation evaluates four clean energy technologies – shale gas, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, and solar – and finds that, in all cases, industrializing countries are making significant investments and leveraging international collaborations in order to make energy cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable. 

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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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Lighting, Electricity, Steel

Energy Efficiency Backfire in Emerging Economies

Countries that expect to consume much more energy will likely experience higher levels of energy efficiency rebound, concludes a new Breakthrough report, released today. Rebound is the phenomenon in which energy efficiency measures increase demand for energy, which diminishes expected energy savings. 

Lighting, Electricity, Steel: Energy Efficiency Rebound in Emerging Economies presents three historical case studies of when energy efficiency rebound occurred: lighting from 1700 to present, electricity generation in 20th century America, and iron and steel production from 1900 onward.

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IEA Acknowledges Rebound Effects

Clean Energy Equivalent of 4 to 19 Australias Required to Meet Gap Created by Rebound

A reversal in the International Energy Agency’s views on energy efficiency suggests that as much as 2,176 million tons of oil equivalent worth of extra clean energy consumption will be required by 2035 to meet the organization’s aggressive climate targets. That’s the equivalent of 19 Australias’ energy consumption. This finding is the result of a Breakthrough analysis of a new IEA report, which showcased a new position for the agency on what energy experts call “rebound effects” – a hotly contested phenomenon in energy consumption growth. 

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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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Real-World Barriers to Carbon Pricing

Economists’ ‘One-Page’ Climate Plans Won’t Work

Ask an economist how to combat climate change, and you’re likely to get a pretty simple answer: put a price on carbon. 

“If you let the economists write the [climate] legislation, it could be quite simple,” MIT business school economist Henry Jacoby told NPR last year, implying that the whole plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions could “fit on one page.” 

In short, tax fossil fuels in proportion to the amount of carbon they release. Make coal, oil and natural gas more expensive. “That’s it; that's the whole plan,” as NPR’s David Kestenbaum put it.

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Saudi Arabia Fast-Tracks to Nuclear

Royal Family Plans for Nuclear to Provide 15 Percent of Power in 20 Years

Last Tuesday, energy officials in Saudi Arabia announced plans to become a major nuclear energy state, assuring the reactors would be used only for peaceful purposes (The Nuclear Wire). They intend to move fast, beginning construction by year’s end.

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Climate

Climate change is one of the biggest environmental, technological, and developmental risks in human history. Confronting the risks posed by increasing global temperatures requires a deep understanding of energy and agricultural policy, the needs of urbanizing and industrializing populations, and non-climate environmental and public health risks.

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Decarbonization

Decarbonization refers to the 200-year-old process in which societies use less carbon-intensive fuels. Economies have achieved decarbonization by transitioning from dirtier, energy-diffuse sources like wood, coal, and oil, to cleaner, energy-dense ones like natural gas, to ultimately zero-carbon sources like advanced nuclear and renewable energy technologies. Technological innovation will be necessary to speed up this transition from dirty to cleaner fuels. 

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Climate of Extremes Part Two

Dialogue – Not Diatribes – Needed for Bipartisan Action

This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.

1.

As Bill McKibben has focused on building a new progressive grassroots movement, Tom Steyer and his political advisors have sought to spend his vast wealth to influence key U.S. Senate and Governoratorial races. This strategy is intended to lay the groundwork for climate change to be a dominant issue during the 2016 presidential election, while positioning Steyer as a candidate for future electoral office.

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Energy

Access to affordable and reliable energy is absolutely essential for human development; but energy production takes a heavy toll on the environment. With demand for energy expected to grow for decades to come as developing nations emerge from poverty, substantial innovation into clean energy technologies will be necessary to achieve our ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions. 

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Climate of Extremes: Part One

How Polarizing Global Warming Strategies Backfire

This is first of two articles on climate activism and political polarization, the second of which can be found here.

In August 2011, writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben along with a few dozen other environmentalists spent several nights in a Washington, DC jail. They were the first among thousands who would be arrested in front of the White House as part of a series of intensifying protests against the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In jail, McKibben’s “mind was running fast: things I needed to tweet or blog, messages I needed to get to the media,” he would later recall. The protests organized by his advocacy group 350.org, he believed, marked “a turning point, the moment when insider, establishment environmentalism found itself a little overtaken by grassroots power.”1

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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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US Coal Exports Do Not Offset Massive Emissions Reductions from Natural Gas

A Response to CO2 Scorecard

Despite declining emissions, cleaner air, and falling energy prices, natural gas opponents continue to look the gift horse that is the US shale gas revolution in the mouth. The latest canard comes from CO2 Scorecard, the policy wing of environmental consultancy Performeks LLC. Some readers will recall that last year, CO2 Scorecard released a study claiming that rising natural gas generation accounted for only about a quarter of US emissions reductions from 2011 to 2012. Now, in a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, they claim that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.

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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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How the US-Africa Summit Can Catalyze Africa’s Rise

Gas and Hydro Set to Dominate Africa’s Energy Sector

When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, next week for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers. 

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A High-Energy, Low-Footprint Planet

Why We Can Expect Peak Impact by the End of this Century

Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife. 

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Are Bike Sharing Programs Truly Green?

In London, Bike Sharing Adds Cars to the Road

Bike share programs might seem like the ultimate environmentally-friendly mode of urban transportation. As more people hop on bikes, the thinking goes, the use of cars will drop.

But researchers have found that the math isn’t quite so simple. According to a new study, London’s bike share program actually increases the number of automobile miles driven per year, partly because trucks are needed to ferry bikes between stations.

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High-Energy Africa

Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.

Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels. 

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High-Efficiency Planet

Efficiency Gains Have Driven Cost Declines and Increases in Energy Consumption – Will the Trend Continue or Peak?

When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of modern amenities, like their squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs. But according to one of the world’s experts on the history of energy, lighting has become more efficient for 700 years — and much cheaper as a result. 

“Over the last 700 years, there has been a 10,000-fold decline in the cost of lighting,” explained London School of Economics professor Roger Fouquet at Breakthrough Dialogue. “Between 1800 and 2000, there was a 1,000-fold increase in lighting.”

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Unleashing Africa

How the US Can Light Up the Futures of the 1.4 Billion People Living Without Electricity

What is “energy poverty”?

Energy poverty simply means a lack of affordable, reliable electricity needed to support a comfortable, prosperous standard of living. Billions of the world’s energy poor aren’t connected to any power source. And for those who are connected to the grid, the actual flow of electricity is sporadic and blackouts frequent.

Because of outdated and insufficient infrastructure, many countries do not generate enough electricity to meet growing demand, leaving actual consumption at extremely low levels. The average American uses about 13,200 kWh/year. By comparison, here are the averages for citizens in a few African countries (and Todd’s fridge):

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Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections

World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.

“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”

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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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Embracing Creative Destruction

Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World

Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.

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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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American Pastoral

How Romantic Elites Became the Eco-Puritan Left

For years, political divisions over the environment have had the seemingly odd feature that Americans farthest from the open country have tended to be most supportive of protecting the environment, while those nearest to it — farmers and other rural residents — have been most resistant. This split has been muddled in recent years as nature lovers have retired to the countryside, country folk have realized the business advantages of environmental tourism, and political polarization has increasingly subsumed specific issues. Still, when contentious topics such as the Keystone Pipeline or expanding national parks come up, the nature purists tend to be upscale urbanites. The General Social Survey asked how willing respondents would be to “accept cuts in your standard of living in order to protect the environment;” highly educated, white liberals in metropolitan areas were the most willing.

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2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.

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Making Fossil Fuels Irrelevant

Why Raising the Price of Fossil Fuels Is A “Waste of Effort”

On Monday, under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act, President Obama proposed regulations requiring significant reductions in greenhouse gases produced by each American state. Using 2005 as a baseline, states, on average, will be required to achieve a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. If the courts allow it, a year from now, those regulations would go into effect and about two years from today, on June 1, 2016, the states would be required to tell EPA how they will achieve those reductions. The president's move is long overdue, but remains a significant step. It says that global warming is an established scientific fact and American public policy and law will now turn to the long-term goal of mitigating climate change. 

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Fracking’s War on Coal

Why Tech Innovation Matters Far More to the Environment than Pollution Regulations

In 1981, an independent Texas natural gas producer named George Mitchell realized that his shallow gas wells in the Barnett gas fields of Texas were running dry. He had sunk millions into his operation and was looking for a way to generate more return. Mitchell was then a relatively small player in an industry that by its own reckoning was in decline. Conventional gas reserves were limited and were getting increasingly played out. 

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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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EPA Points to Nuclear as Climate Solution

Advanced Nuclear and Preventing Retirement of Plants Key to Carbon Reductions

The Environmental Protection Agency is encouraging states to consider building new nuclear power plants, and keeping older ones open, to meet federal carbon dioxide targets. State incentives could "discourage premature retirement" and “encourage deployment of nuclear unit designs that reflect advances over earlier designs,” wrote the EPA in its proposed carbon dioxide rule, issued by the Obama administration on Monday. 

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

Former EPA Administrator on Why We Must Preserve Existing Nuclear Plants

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

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The Triumph of Climate Pragmatism

Wirth and Daschle Argue Against Binding Global Caps on Emissions

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

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Why Innovation Should Be at the Heart of Climate Policy

An Interview With Matthew Stepp of CCEI

As a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Matthew Stepp was frustrated by the fact that the major climate change policies under debate – carbon pricing, electric vehicle subsidies, feebates – weren’t enough to deeply cut carbon. He was also skeptical that the climate advocacy’s vague call for movement building could change the political economy calculus.

At the Breakthrough Institute, where Stepp was a Generation Fellow, he found others who shared his frustration and were attempting to outline new policies that could effect technological change. Four years later, and Stepp is now the leader of the first think tank in Washington, DC, that is dedicated to spurring clean energy innovation, much like what was accomplished with the shale gas revolution

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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 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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Cheap Nuclear

UC Berkeley's Per Peterson Pursues Radical New Design with Off-the-Shelf Technologies

What is the best design to make next generation nuclear reactors safer and cheaper? That’s the question everyone from Bill Gates to the Chinese government is asking. The US Department of Energy has recently bet that smaller will be cheaper, funding small modular reactors with passive safety features. But much of the action is on molten salt reactors, which are being pursued by Gates-backed Terrapower, Transatomic, and UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Professor Per Peterson. 

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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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USS Reagan Sailors’ Lawsuit Found ‘Lacking’

Nuclear Expert Questions Link Between Radiation Exposure and Health Woes

A group of Sailors and former Sailors who served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan during the US relief efforts following the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami have been periodically making the news for their belief that their ailments are caused by radioactive fallout from the Fukushima reactor accidents.  

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Five Energy Challenges Confronting India

Stronger Infrastructure Reforms Could Release Nation from Energy Poverty

On March 12, 2014, India and the United States renewed talks regarding cooperation on clean energy. The talks concluded positively with memorandums of understanding for the two countries to cooperate on research and development, more extensive use of environmentally friendly technologies, and greater coordination on scientific development.

It is a positive development that the United States (and many others) are paying attention to India’s energy needs. With a growing middle class and a population of 1.27 billion people, 50 percent of whom are under age 25, India is expected to have some of the fastest growing energy needs that are certain to dramatically impact the global economy and its energy market. With this in mind, here are 5 key things to know about energy in India.

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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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Our High-Energy Planet

A Climate Pragmatism Project

More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor. 

According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.

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