Undoing Global Warming
What Do We Imagine When We Imagine We Stopped Climate Change?
“The present world is often surprising, i.e., less plausible than some of its alternatives.”
“The present world is often surprising, i.e., less plausible than some of its alternatives.”
We talk a lot about decarbonization in the electric power sector, possibly because there are so many solutions on the table: nuclear reactors, renewable energy, carbon capture, and on and on. But electricity is only about one-fifth of global final energy consumption, and decarbonization outside the power sector is pretty disappointing. If we want to really tackle the emissions challenge, we’ll need innovation and deployment of technological options far beyond zero-carbon power generation.
In a new report co-authored with Third Way, we argue that states could set more ambitious targets for decarbonization by expanding these renewables mandates into Clean Energy Standards, which would include renewables, nuclear, carbon capture, and other low-carbon sources.
It’s finally summer, and energy wonks know what that means: the annual release of energy data from BP. While the data can be extremely useful for all manner of analysis and modeling, it also serves as tea leaves, allowing people to proclaim the truth of their preferred narrative, clearly reflected in the mess of data.
Thank you for having me. It is an honor to testify before this committee. My name is Ted Nordhaus, and I’m the Founder and Executive Director of The Breakthrough Institute, an environmental think tank located in Oakland, California. My think tank counts among its senior fellows a number of prominent climate scientists, technologists, and social scientists. My testimony today will draw upon this work to present a synthesis — reflecting our assessment of the nature of climate risk, the uncertainties associated with action and inaction, and pragmatic steps that we might take today to address those risks.
Jason Hickel and I have exchanged a few rounds of public debate, prompted by his critique of ”green growth” published at Fast Company. The question being debated is whether decoupling offers a pathway towards a sustainable future. His core conclusion is that the answer is no, and that ecomodernists such as myself are indulging in magical thinking. “Even under best-case scenario conditions,” Hickel argued, “absolute decoupling of GDP growth from material use is not possible on a global scale,” and certainly is not enough to reduce material use sufficiently to stay within planetary boundaries. Consequently, he argued that slowing GDP growth is necessary to avoid environmental collapse.
The imperative to respond to climate change, as well as recent progress with electric vehicles and other alternatives to gasoline, has emboldened many countries to mandate a transition to zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) through a ban on internal combustion engines. Great Britain plans to ban the sale of new gasoline or diesel cars by 2040 and completely ban their operation by 2050. France will also ban new gasoline burning cars by 2040, though hybrids will still be allowed. Several other countries have adopted or are considering similar policies. Legislation under consideration in California would also end the sale of new internal combustion cars by 2040.
Earlier this month, I saw a lot of fanfare about Apple Inc’s announcement that it is now powered by 100% renewable energy. Based on the headlines alone, many will assume that total decarbonization is now a theoretically solved problem, if only other companies and countries had the eco-consciousness motivating them to replicate Apple’s success.
Nuclear closures are dramatic affairs. The past week has been a tragedy for FirstEnergy. It announced the planned retirement of three of its nuclear plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania, declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy for its subsidiaries, and requested an unlikely emergency subsidy — putting the fate of its nuclear plants in the hands of the federal government. The maelstrom of uncertainty surrounding FirstEnergy illustrates the challenges facing American nuclear as a whole. Nuclear is politically unpopular and economically undercut by natural gas; at least a dozen nuclear plants across the country are scheduled for retirement in the next ten years.
Does humanity’s growing use of materials mean that decoupling is impossible? In a word, no, and attempts to reduce all resource and environmental problems to our material footprint won’t help us solve problems of resource scarcity or environmental impacts.
The rapid growth of solar power in the 2010s, both in the United States and worldwide, is one of the big success stories in recent energy history. However, as many analysts have pointed out, this success is one government agencies failed to foresee. Why have forecasts consistently underestimated the growth of solar and how can forecasts be improved in the future? This is an important question, since as we think about the options for decarbonizing the world’s energy system, we need to know what different technologies can do.
We know the world is not decarbonizing fast enough to reach global climate targets. But it turns out that no single country, anywhere, ever, has even achieved emissions progress of the scale needed.
Here’s me, shortly after the 2015 climate negotiations, on why the Paris Climate Agreement is good.
While the recent election has many environmentalists worried that federal action on climate change has hit a dead end, others are finding silver linings in the actions of states and municipalities. Such is the case with this sharp report from Brookings, “Growth, carbon, and Trump: State progress and drift on economic growth and emissions ‘decoupling’,” by Mark Muro and Devashree Saha.
The last decade has seen tremendous progress in renewable energy. The cost of manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines has fallen precipitously. Thanks to ongoing policy support in the form of mandates and subsidies, world solar photovoltaic capacity reached 227 GW in 2015, up from just 40 GW in 2010. World wind capacity, meanwhile, has more than doubled since 2010, hitting 433 GW in 2015.
The election of Donald Trump has raised deep concern about the future of international efforts to address climate change. President-elect Trump has called climate change a hoax, and has vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, and end the so-called “War on Coal.” It is not yet clear, however, what impact these actions would have upon US or global emissions.
By Alex Trembath and Emma Brush
Well, that was surprising.
Last week, those of us working in the energy and environment space joined the rest of the world in adjusting to the unexpected election of Donald Trump. Environmental forecasting is always hard, and perhaps only more so in pursuit of predicting what a Trump Administration’s environmental policies will look like.
Last week, the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Peter Wynn Kirby, a social anthropologist at Oxford, alleging that the United Kingdom promoted the Hinkley Point C project as “a stealth initiative to bolster Britain’s nuclear deterrent.” The author’s argument is entirely dependent on a “painstaking study” authored by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex.
The Breakthrough Institute has named Calestous Juma the recipient of the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. Professor Juma will accept the prize on stage at the Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California next June.
The Paradigm Award recognizes accomplishment and leadership in the effort to make the future secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling for all the world’s inhabitants on an ecologically vibrant planet. Past recipients of the award include Mark Lynas, Emma Marris, Jesse Ausubel, Ruth DeFries, and David MacKay.
The invocation of war—in situations other than where people in uniforms are firing guns at each other—is the last political stop before despair. In declaring war on crime (Hoover 1930s), cancer and drugs (Nixon 1970s), and terror (Bush 2001), politicians have long demonstrated their frustration in the face of intractable problems that seem to defy all efforts to resolve them. So it was only a matter of time before someone declared war on climate change. “World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing,” Bill McKibben wrote this month in an article for The New Republic titled “A World at War.”
The release of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” last year sparked a variety of critiques. Some took issue with ecomodernism’s embrace of large-scale agriculture. Others differed with the Manifesto’s focus on growth and modernization, arguing for the opposite: degrowth and lower consumption. And of course there are the traditional environmental bugaboos. Nuclear power. Industrialization. GMOs.
If we, as a
species global society loosely cooperative set of nation states, really want to stop climate change, it would be nice to have some sort of historical success story on which to model our policies and actions.
Dr. Wade Allison taught and studied at the University of Oxford for over 40 years, where he is now an Emeritus Professor of Physics. His two books, Radiation and Reason and Nuclear is for Life, provide great introductions and references for those looking for a deeper understanding of how radiation affects the environment and public health.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Since 2011, Breakthrough Institute has sought to understand the origins of the shale revolution, primarily for environmental reasons. Cheap shale gas has allowed the US power sector to move away from coal, which has in turn reduced US carbon emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2013. What lessons could the shale revolution have for future energy transitions, whether to solar, nuclear power, electric cars, or fuel cells? How can public and private energy innovation efforts achieve future technological breakthroughs that are similarly disruptive?
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.
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.
States that close existing nuclear power plants will be allowed to increase carbon dioxide emissions under a final EPA rule regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis finds.
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.
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.
The poor will need to increase their consumption of modern energy if the world’s nations are to ensure more equitable human development, said a panel of energy and development experts at the fifth annual Breakthrough Dialogue. To achieve this, the international community will need to think beyond providing the poor with access to household-scale electricity or placing other restrictions on energy consumption in the name of climate mitigation.
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.
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.
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.
This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.
After decades of incipient growth, it seems that wind and solar power are finally ready for prime time. These two renewable energy resources are growing rapidly and are beginning to move the needle in global energy supplies.
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.”
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.
Democratic lawmakers in Washington are demanding information about funding for scientists –– including Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. –– who publicly dispute their party’s arguments on climate change, hoping to find information linking the scientists to the notorious Koch brothers or other fossil fuel interests.
On April 23, 2010, the Attorney General of the state of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, initiated an investigation into the research of climate scientist Michael Mann. Mann is the creator of the so-called “hockey stick” graph, which used tree-ring measurements and other proxies to show that average global temperatures have spiked dramatically since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Mann’s research was cited by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but was controversial among climate skeptics.
Last week, Stony Brook professor and economics blogger Noah Smith published a blog post titled “Nuclear will die. Solar will live.” In the post, Smith argues that nuclear power plants are incredibly large, capital-intensive, and complex investments, while solar power “can be installed in large or small batches” and continues to benefit from cost reductions. Smith ties solar’s success to nuclear’s challenges and criticizes Breakthrough Institute for our “anti-solar antipathy.”
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.
"Did the US kill OPEC?"
This is the question that New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter asks today, referencing Breakthrough Institute’s research, which found that 35 years of public-private investments led to the technologies that allow for the cheap extraction of natural gas and oil from shale.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Arthur van Benthem is an Assistant Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at Wharton. His research specializes in environmental and energy economics. His recent work focuses on unintended consequences of environmental legislation and natural resource taxation.
What motivated you to write your article “Has Leapfrogging Occurred on a Large Scale?”
I worked for a couple of years in the long-term energy scenarios team at Shell in my home country of the Netherlands. We made assumptions on tech leap-frogging occurring. The assumption was energy-efficient technologies would result in China’s future growth in energy consumption being lower than that of rich countries during their development.
In response to our New York Times op-ed about the limits of energy efficiency and the furious reaction to it from some quarters, Andy Revkin asks whether we can find room for agreement on the rebound effect.
To some degree we already have.
A new research letter in Nature (McJeon et al 2014) concludes that globally abundant natural gas will not “discernibly reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions.” The paper models a scenario in which the US shale gas revolution is scaled globally. While natural gas displaces higher-carbon coal-fired power, zero-carbon power like nuclear and solar are also displaced, according to the model, and cheap gas encourages more energy consumption. The net impact is marginal: between 2 percent less and 11 percent more emissions in the authors’ “abundant gas” scenario:
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:
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.
Last week, the Department of Energy announced a major investment in advanced nuclear power, a draft solicitation for up to $12.6 billion in loan guarantees across four categories of innovative nuclear energy technologies: front-end fuel cycle innovation, advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors, and upgrades or uprates to existing reactors.
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.
This week the International Energy Agency updated their technology roadmaps for solar photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal energy (STE). The bottom line is that significant policy and technological progress are required for solar to play a major role in electricity in the future. With that progress, IEA finds, solar PV could provide as much as 16 percent of global electricity by 2050, with STE providing another 11 percent –– making solar’s collective 27 percent the largest single contributor to global electricity in this IEA scenario.
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.
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.
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.
This is the second of two articles on climate activism and political polarization. The first can be viewed here.
As Bill McKibben has focused on building a new progressive grassroots movement, Tom Steyer and his political advisors have sought to spend his vast wealth to influence key U.S. Senate and Governoratorial races. This strategy is intended to lay the groundwork for climate change to be a dominant issue during the 2016 presidential election, while positioning Steyer as a candidate for future electoral office.
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
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.
“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:
Over the past decade, among the most frequently voiced criticisms of higher education is that universities are not adequately preparing students to be successful professionals, engaged citizens, and/or informed consumers of information. The social sciences and the humanities are among the most vulnerable to these charges; as fields like communication, sociology, and political science are charged with lacking rigor and or relevance.
In these fields students are inundated with intensive-reading about jargon-heavy theories or statistically driven bodies of research related to, for example, the psychology of media effects or public opinion formation. The dynamics of political controversies such as those over climate change, childhood vaccination, or obesity are reduced to convenient opportunities to run ever more advanced experiments or survey analyses that test or replicate a theory, rather than analyzed as significant social problems worthy of study in their own right.
As a consequence, students learn (often reluctantly) about a multitude of theories or research methods, but are left unable to critically apply this knowledge to their lives as professionals, advocates, or consumers. There is also a cost for communication scholars, sociologists, and political scientists as the design of these courses reflects the approach to their own research, an approach that is increasingly viewed as politically tangential, intellectually obscure, and unworthy of funding by policymakers, philanthropists, journalists, and the public more broadly.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of modern amenities, like their squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs. But according to one of the world’s experts on the history of energy, lighting has become more efficient for 700 years — and much cheaper as a result.
“Over the last 700 years, there has been a 10,000-fold decline in the cost of lighting,” explained London School of Economics professor Roger Fouquet at Breakthrough Dialogue. “Between 1800 and 2000, there was a 1,000-fold increase in lighting.”
The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarized opinions. Energiewende — literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” — has two main elements — a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the use of renewable energy.
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):
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?”
In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus among scholars and wonks that the rest of the world will follow the West in living modern lives complete with modern infrastructure, industry, and development. The question is not whether poor countries will develop and lead high-energy lives, but how much more energy they will consume, and how much of it will come from low-carbon sources.
The 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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Amy Harder, "Can the US Government Revive Nuclear Power?" November 23, 2014
Tim McDonnell, "Obama's Deal with China Is a Big Win for Solar, Nuclear, and Clean Coal," November 12, 2014
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "The Problem With Energy Efficiency," October 8, 2014
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Allay or Adapt? The Real Climate Change Debate is About Technology," October 2, 2014
Walter Russell Mead, "Fuzzy Math Can'd Hide Shale Boom's Green Credentials," August 21, 2014
Fred Pearce, "World's poor need grid power, not just solar panels," August 5, 2014
Brad Plumer, "There's a big gap between Obama's climate ambitions and his actual policies," June 9, 2014
Jim Manzi, "Energy in the Executive," June 4, 2014
Justin Gillis and Henry Fountain, "Trying to Reclaim Leadership on Climate Change," June 1, 2014
Jim Manzi, "The New American System," April 2014
Jennifer Dhouly, "Some Say Keystone Fight Distracts From Broader Climate Aims," February 16, 2014
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, "Environmentalists Made a Big Mistake By Focusing All Their Attention on Keystone," February 6, 2014
Ben Geman, "Greens Still See Red On Nuclear," February 2, 2014
Ben Geman, "Environmentalists Face a Day of Reckoning on Keystone Pipeline," December 30, 2013
CNN Crossfire, "Is Nuclear Power Safe?" Debate Between Ralph Nader and Michael Shellenberger, November 7, 2013