Is Paris Good or Bad?
What Does Syria Signing onto the Paris Agreement Mean for Global Climate Progress?
Here’s me, shortly after the 2015 climate negotiations, on why the Paris Climate Agreement is good.
Here’s me, shortly after the 2015 climate negotiations, on why the Paris Climate Agreement is good.
California cannot meet its greenhouse gas reduction targets without increasing density in already-developed cities, according to a recent analysis by the LA Times, the California Air Resources Board, and BuildZoom.
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.
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.
A 2015 Breakthrough Generation fellow, Suzanne Waldman is currently completing her doctoral degree in Communication Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she researches risk perception of nuclear power and nuclear waste. As we well know, questions surrounding both issues tend to dredge up a range of responses, from the technocratic to the anti-nuclear, that Waldman says correspond with different cultural “frames,” or worldviews. Drawing on research by Dan Kahan and others, she emphasizes that “we’re all in different tribes when we think about risk” and that these tribes each tell a particular kind of story. When it comes to the weighty question of disposing of our nuclear waste, she has set out to find, is it possible to engage these contradictory stories into some larger narrative, one that brings us closer to policy solutions?
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.
This week, Breakthrough announced that its seventh annual Breakthrough Dialogue will be themed “Democracy in the Anthropocene,” a topic that serves as a challenge in many ways to its participants of varying ecomodernist stripes. “If it turns out,” as the Dialogue’s description concludes, “that we’re not very good at being gods, is it possible to get better at it?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
In the past few years, decoupling – breaking the link between economic growth and environmental impacts – has become the new catchword in environmental debates. The OECD has declared it a top priority, and UNEP’s International Resource Panel launched a report series on the topic in 2011. And last year, interest in the idea shot up after the publication of An Ecomodernist Manifesto” which declared decoupling a central objective of ecomodernism.
Last week, Energy Policy published a peer-reviewed paper by my colleagues Jessica Lovering, Ted Nordhaus, and Arthur Yip.
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.”
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.
I wish I had written this great article by Ed Cumming in the Guardian. Titled "The scientists with reasons to be cheerful," it's a multi-profile of Ruth DeFries, Max Roser, Steven Pinker, and Hans Rosling, and other optimistic scholars.
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.
I was fascinated by this well-researched analysis of the energy usage of the Internet over at Low-Tech Magazine.
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.
“It wasn’t until I read the Manifesto that I felt I could call myself an environmentalist.” That’s the kind of thing we like to hear, in this case from Amy Levy, author of the brand new ecomodernistmom.org.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Two firsthand experiences with deforestation – one in Ecuador, another in Borneo – inspired Rhett Butler to launch the news site Mongabay, which was named one of the top 15 environmental websites by TIME, and remains one of the most popular sources for conservation and biodiversity news. Trained as an economist, Butler believes he comes to conservation with a broader view of what motivates people to act, and how certain conservation and land use policies are adopted whereas others aren’t. Most recently, he was an advisor to the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which features a prominent episode on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia. Breakthrough caught up with Butler to discuss the economic benefits and environmental hazards of palm oil production, with an eye toward the policies and trends that give us reason to be more optimistic about deforestation.
Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts.
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.
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.”
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.
There has been growing interest among environmentalists and the public in recent years about palm oil and its role in tropical deforestation. Most recently, the new Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously features palm oil plantations in Indonesia as one of its main narratives, explaining how carbon emissions from deforestation are a driver of climate change. Celebrity correspondent Harrison Ford gapes from a helicopter, looking down at the swaths of palm oil plantations that have replaced tropical forest.
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.
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.
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.
Look at the brochures of just about any environmental organization and what you will see are images of an energy system that appears to lie weightlessly on the land. Solar panels gleam atop suburban homes. Wind turbines sprout from fields where cows graze contentedly. It is a high-tech, bucolic vision that suggests a future in which humankind might finally live in harmony with nature, rather than waging ceaseless war with it.
But there are other images to consider as well. Trees clear-cut, chipped, and fed into boilers. Once diverse forests turned into monocrop plantations. Wild places sent under the plow. And melting ice caps from global warming. This is the underside of renewable bioenergy — biomass, biofuels, and biogases – one that is decidedly at odds with the ethos of pristine eco-friendliness described in the brochures.
A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.
This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.
For many people who care about the environment, 2013 was a dispiriting year. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million, the highest in three million years. Beijing choked on smog. Policy action on climate, whether at the United Nations or in Washington, appeared more remote than ever.
But in other ways, 2013 was an inspiring year. Declining US carbon emissions from cheap natural gas offered a picture of what climate mitigation looks like in the real world. Top environmental scientists, business leaders, climate advocates, and the world's largest economies embraced nuclear power. And a wide number of “ecomodernists” are coming to embrace an approach to saving nature that is strikingly different from the seventies-era "small-is-beautiful" model.
Is the great age of American economic growth over? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. Despite recovering job growth—the US economy added an estimated 203,000 jobs in November—the United States is likely to experience slower GDP growth in the decades ahead. Since 1960, the rate has been 3.3 percent. But the Federal Reserve predicts a rate of 2.1 to 2.5 percent in the future, and JPMorgan even projects a rate of less than 1.75 percent. The longer trajectory is grim: US economic growth has been gradually decelerating for decades, from a 70-year average of 3.6 percent (1939-2009) to a 10-year average of just 1.9 percent (1999-2009).
While I was working on The Climate Fix I published several peer-reviewed articles on climate policies in the United Kingdom, Japan, and Australia. In recent months I have updated these analyses and will summarize the updates here.
Tucked into his New Yorker column on Congressional filibuster reform, Hendrik Hertzberg admitted his support for the expansion of nuclear energy: “Nuclear power plants have their drawbacks, as we’ve learned from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima,” Hertzberg wrote. “But global warming has changed the picture.” Echoing a recent letter written by four leading climate and energy scientists, which acknowledges the scaling challenges of solar and wind, the New Yorker senior editor argued, “breezes and rays are not enough.” In terms of a realistic alternative to fossil fuels, Hertzberg says, “the nuclear option, though not the best of all possible worlds, is better than the one we’re living in.”
Australia’s longest-running tragedy is starting a new season with a new cast but the same familiar follies. Of course I am talking about Australian climate policy.
Before Julia Gillard was deposed she had announced that Australia’s carbon price, which had been implemented as a tax (following her pre-election promise not to institute a tax), would be linked with Europe's emissions trading scheme by 2015, cutting almost $20 from the per-tonne price of carbon that had been so hard won, leaving it in the low single digits.
Last month Republicans in the US House of Representatives launched a new offensive in the long-running battle over the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of air pollution under the Clean Air Act. For the first time in 21 years the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a subpoena requiring the EPA to hand over the data from two scientific studies, which provide the basis for most of the regulations.
Natural gas and nuclear have done more than any other fuel source to displace coal, and have saved the United States 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. In the past five years, natural gas alone has displaced coal and driven the country’s power sector emissions down 20 percent, leading to immense environmental and human health benefits. What follows is a response to Mark Bittman’s dreary diagnosis of natural gas.
It’s uncontroversial to note that the global information-communications-technology sector (ICT) uses a lot of electricity. But convert that observation into a per capita form, illustrated, for example, by how many kilowatt-hours an iPhone might use, and protests and invectives sprout up faster than windmills in Iowa.
In response to our new report The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, Big Power, some in the media got the point, but others seized on the comparison between an iPhone and refrigerator’s annual energy use and made claims of cherry picking and questionable assumptions. It should be obvious -- though apparently not for some -- that we are not talking about the few kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year needed to recharge the battery inside an iPhone, iPad, or their equivalents.
In the last few weeks an idea has been making the rounds that, when you count all of the required networks and cloud services, your iPhone uses more electricity than your refrigerator. This idea was first presented in a publication called The Cloud Begins with Coal by Mark Mills, and was quickly followed up with further analysis (and a different version of the calculation) by the Breakthrough Institute, “Bracing for the Cloud.” [Disclosure: I am proud to be a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.]
Since these articles make some very interesting points, I decided to dive into the data. I’ll share some observations here. At the end, I’ll take a closer look at the iPhone-fridge comparison. Teaser: I wouldn’t crank up the iPhone guilt just yet.
Given the explosion of information and communications technology (ICT) and the proliferation of tablets, smart phones, and other high tech devices, it is pertinent to investigate the potential climate change implications of an increasingly digital world. This is the topic of the Breakthrough blog post “Bracing for the Cloud,” which rightly points out that “we need to be thinking seriously about how we can power the information sector with cheaper, cleaner alternatives.”
The 21st century will almost certainly witness a transition to an overwhelmingly urban human population, and – hopefully – a low-carbon energy system. The former scenario, however, will have a significant impact on the latter because a fundamentally urban species cannot be powered locally.
The continued, and essentially unabated, accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may at times render considerations of the requirements of a decarbonized energy system appear somewhat self indulgent, but I must ask the reader to indulge me, and at a little length.
While historically conservatives have been the prominent supporters of nuclear energy, the urgency of climate change has recently compelled liberals and progressives to reconsider nuclear as the best zero-carbon source of baseload electricity for a world with rapidly rising energy demand.
A couple years prior to the release of Robert Stone’s documentary Pandora’s Promise, which follows five anti- to pro-nuclear converts, Breakthrough Senior Fellow Barry Brook, writing at his blog Brave New Climate, composed a list of the most prominent intellectual leaders and public figures who changed their mind about nuclear energy and now support it.
There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?
In the last month, the Breakthrough Institute has published two major reports that inject fresh and pragmatic perspective to the discourse on climate and energy. In contrast to the binary and simplistic conception of decarbonization that imagines a step-wise shift from fossil fuels to exclusively renewable technologies, we have aimed to simultaneously place the role of natural gas in the broader process of decarbonization and chart a new path for nuclear energy innovation. These two goals are neither replacements nor antecedents for continued support for renewable energy, but they do and should complicate dialogues over how best to transition to a high-energy, zero-carbon planet.
Nuclear energy is at a crossroads. It supplies a substantial share of electricity in many developed economies — 19 percent in the United States, 35 percent in South Korea, 40 percent in Sweden, 78 percent in France — but these figures may decline as reactors built in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s retire. Meanwhile, developing countries are increasingly turning to nuclear to meet rapidly growing energy demand and to reduce pollution. China is currently building 28 reactors and has plans for dozens more; 11 are under construction in Russia, seven in India. Nevertheless, fossil fuels remain dominant worldwide, with coal the reigning king and natural gas production booming. The central challenge for nuclear energy, if it is to become a greater portion of the global electricity mix, is to become much cheaper.
Nobody who has paid attention to what's happened to solar panels over the last several decades can help but be impressed. Prices declined an astonishing 75 percent from 2008 to 2012. In the United States, solar capacity has quintupled since 2008, and grown by more than 50 times since 2000, according to US Energy Information Administration data. In 1977, solar panels cost $77 per watt. Today, they are less than a dollar per watt.
No technology is more enshrouded in myth than nuclear energy. The urgency of addressing global poverty and reducing emissions demands that we consider this technology without ideological blinders. The basic facts of the technology — both good and bad — must be confronted. This Breakthrough Institute Frequently Asked Questions is backed by primary sources and addresses the toughest questions asked of nuclear.
My conclusion so far is that unfortunately Germany’s ‘renewables revolution’ is at best making no difference to the country’s carbon emissions, and at worst pushing them marginally upwards. Thus, tens (or even hundreds, depending on who you believe) of billions of euros are being spent on expensive solar PV and wind installations for no climatic benefit whatsoever.
Although I have been unable to find clear figures for the changing CO2 intensity of German electricity (if anyone has them, please post in the comments below), nuclear’s fall of 1.7% almost exactly equals the rise in renewables of 1.6% between 2011 and 2012. This means that the dramatic and admirable increase in renewable generation in Germany is simply a story of low-carbon baseload from nuclear being replaced by low-carbon intermittent supply from wind and solar (which, incidentally, also raises system costs by making the grid harder to manage due to intermittency).
A few years ago, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology was seen as the best way to clean up coal and cut carbon emissions. And Europe was seen as the expected leader in the field. But instead, reports the science journal Nature, Europe has fallen behind North America in the race to create systems that separate carbon dioxide from exhaust gases.
And what’s worse, Europe is increasingly turning to coal, the most polluting of all sources of electricity. In some European countries, reports The Economist, the amount of coal-generated electricity is rising by up to 50% a year, at annualized rates. Ironically, some experts say CCS is the only way to eliminate coal emissions.
The theory of climate justice tells us that the gap between rich and poor and the looming threat of catastrophic climate change are not simply unfortunate circumstances that demand our attention and action, but rather the result of active efforts on the part of rich nations, wealthy elites, and powerful corporations to profit on the backs of the global poor and the environment. But demands for climate justice too often ignore basic practicalities of energy, poverty, and climate change, directing our gaze away from the issues that really matter to the future prospects of both the global poor and the planet and toward issues that don’t.
As the debate over climate policy picks up again in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and President Obama’s reelection, policymakers should prioritize efforts that will accelerate the adoption of zero-carbon technologies, especially the only proven baseload source available: next generation nuclear.
Whereas traditional nuclear reactors from the 1950s were designed in secret, advanced models are being researched, designed, and financed by innovative international collaborations. Take GE-Hitachi's PRISM, a joint American-Japanese venture to construct a power plant in the United Kingdom capable of processing plutonium. Or the recent announcement that South Korea's national electric utility, KEPCO, had been awarded a contract to build the first nuclear plant in the United Arab Emirates, using Australian-mined uranium for fuel.
An expanding international community recognizes the importance of developing advanced nuclear reactor designs to meet energy needs and address global warming. Thirteen countries have joined the Generation IV International Forum (GIF), for instance, a cooperative endeavor to encourage governments and industry to support advanced nuclear energy concepts. Member countries, which include the United States, Japan, Russia, and China, have agreed to expand R&D funding for advanced nuclear projects that meet stringent sustainability, economic, safety and nonproliferation goals.
Public opinion about climate change, observes the New York Times' Andrew Revkin, can be compared to “waves in a shallow pan,” easily tipped with “a lot of sloshing but not a lot of depth.” In a chapter published last year at the Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society, I review research that provides several explanations for the complex nature of U.S. public opinion. Environmental, political and media conditions will change over time, but the basic processes by which individuals and social groups interpret climate change will remain generally the same, and it is these processes that I highlight in the chapter.
I discuss studies identifying an "issue public" of Americans supporting political action and a similarly sized segment of Americans opposing action. Between these tail-end segments, more than 2/3 of Americans still remain relatively ambivalent about the importance and urgency of climate change. I also discuss how research is being used to identify and develop communication initiatives that empower and enable these publics to reach decisions and to participate in societal debates. Scholars are examining how values, social identity, mental models, social ties, and information sources combine to shape judgments and decisions.
Over the past few months there has been increased talk in Washington of taxing carbon emissions. Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) has introduced legislation, while former Rep. Bob Inglis has proposed replacing today's subsidies with a carbon tax.
The view among most economists is that a tax would be more efficient at reducing emissions than subsidizing clean energy. Over the years, Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, an advisor to George W. Bush and now Mitt Romney, along with President Ronald Reagan's economic advisers, Martin Feldstein and Arthur Laffer, have all endorsed carbon taxes, along with environmental economists, like Harvard's Robert Stavins.
Breakthrough Institute is on the record supporting a low carbon tax (here and here), subsidy reform, and increased federal spending on energy innovation. We were thus interested in calculating how much of a price incentive a carbon tax would offer for the deployment of solar, wind, nuclear, and natural gas, the leading low-carbon technologies.
What we found surprised us. A $20 per ton carbon tax would offer just one-half to one-fifth the incentive of today's zero carbon subsidies — but at nearly 10 times the cost. (Our full analysis can be read here, and an Energy and Environment story on the study follows below.)
Replacing large-scale fossil fuel energy production with zero-carbon sources will come with a big price tag. Yet compared with the other available options -- especially wind and solar -- nuclear is our best bet. High capital costs are simply a reminder that we can’t have something for nothing, least of all major new infrastructure. The ability to generate zero-carbon baseload power for decades to come is a public good worthy of limited government support.
The endorsement followed congressional testimony on the role of government in energy innovation delivered last month by Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Policy Director and report co-author Jesse Jenkins before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
The Post expressed concern about the impending expiration of the federal production tax credit for wind (PTC), but said the proper solution is not to adopt a simple extension of the 20-year old subsidy.
"More clean energy is good," the Post said. "Achieving it with crude policy is not." As we wrote in our report, temporary subsidies without smart and dynamic incentives for innovation induce a cycle of boom-and-bust in emerging clean energy markets. The PTC, which will lapse at the end of the year, provides a blunt 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour tax credit without any policy criteria for cost reductions or technological innovation.
The Post said our report "offered plenty of ways to design subsidies that encourage less expensive renewables. Subsidy levels should decline over time, they could be set in an auction or they could be determined by the cheapest players in the market, stimulating improvement."
In Senate testimony yesterday, Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Policy Director Jesse Jenkins urged lawmakers to adopt innovation-centered reforms that will drive advanced energy technologies to subsidy independence.
Appearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Jenkins called for changes to national energy policy on two fronts.
Congress should first reform its suite of deployment subsidies to "better drive and reward innovation" so that clean tech segments can become cost-competitive with fossil fuels without subsidy "as soon as possible," Jenkins said.
Despite important recent gains in performance and cost reduction, most advanced energy market segments - also referred to as "clean tech" - remain dependent on federal policies. "That policy support is now poised to turn from boom to bust," Jenkins warned.
In the 70 years that have passed since Joseph Schumpeter coined the term "creative destruction," economists have struggled awkwardly with how to think about growth and innovation. Born of the low-growth agricultural economies of 18th century Europe, the dismal science to this day remains focused on the question of how to most efficiently distribute scarce resources, not on how to create new ones -- this despite two centuries of rapid economic growth driven by disruptive technologies, from the steam engine to electricity to the Internet.
The recent gains made by clean tech sectors in the United States are shadowed by the looming collapse of federal subsidy support, which has been a powerful driver of expanding clean energy markets. As documented in a new report -- published by energy experts at the Breakthrough Institute, the Brookings Institution, and the World Resources Institute -- federal investment in clean tech is slated to drop 75 percent over 2009-2014. The only solution to the policy-induced cycle of boom-and-bust endured by clean tech is to optimize federal support programs to drive innovation and cost declines so that clean energy technologies can ultimately thrive on their own in American markets without subsidy.
Click here to read the report overview and Executive Summary.
Click here to download the full report, titled "Beyond Boom and Bust: Putting Clean Tech on a Path to Subsidy Independence."
Despite robust growth and recent improvements in price and performance, a boom in US clean energy technology ("clean tech") sectors could now falter as federal clean energy spending declines sharply, according to a new report published today by some of the country's top energy analysts.
To both sustain clean energy growth and put the United States' clean tech sectors on an accelerated path to subsidy independence and global competitiveness, analysts at the Breakthrough Institute, Brookings Institution, and World Resources Institute counsel a thorough revamping of American clean energy policies to prioritize innovation and cost declines.
In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama tacitly acknowledged how politically toxic climate change had become by not mentioning it once. His move angered many environmentalists who insisted there could be no significant action without a full-throated defense of the climate science against skeptics.
But one year later, President Obama's shift can be understood as part of a new climate centrism, one focused less on climate science and carbon pricing and more on energy innovation and the regulation of conventional pollutants like mercury. In his 2012 address, Obama briefly mentioned the divisiveness of climate change as a segue to touting his energy policies.
Polls show that Obama's call for continued energy innovation funding was one of the most popular elements of his speech. Meanwhile, the EPA's new mercury regulations—which will result in the shuttering of some of America's dirtiest coal plants—have long been more popular with Independents and Republicans than carbon regulations.
These policies have a growing number of supporters on the right. Last week, John Tierney of the New York Times pointed to a new study in Science that touted the climate benefits of dealing with non-carbon pollutants:
After looking at hundreds of ways to control these pollutants, the researchers determined the 14 most effective measures for reducing climate change, like encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves, building more efficient kilns and coke ovens, capturing methane at landfills and oil wells, and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.
It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 examined why voluntary economic contraction is a not a viable strategy for reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.” Part 3 explained why implementing a robust clean energy innovation strategy is the key way to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thus enabling the rapid adoption of low-carbon energy sources and drastically reducing CO2 as quickly as possible. Part 4 discussed why adaptation through innovation is central to preparing for the impacts of a warmer world. Finally, Part 5 discusses how reducing a set of non-CO2 pollutants and greenhouse gases can make a significant, near-term dent in warming and buy time to decarbonize the energy system.
As we have argued previously in this series, averting as much dangerous climate change impacts as possible hinges on our efforts to drive innovation and make clean energy cost competitive with fossil fuels. The cost of decarbonization is the key moderating force affecting the pace of carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions, and innovation is the key to lowering these costs and accelerating climate progress. However, CO2 isn’t the only powerful contributor to global warming, and scientists have identified opportunities to make a significant, near-term dent in warming by tackling other greenhouse gases and pollutants.
While we cannot effectively manage human impact on the climate over the long-run without decarbonizing the global energy system — a task that hinges on the energy innovation efforts described in Part 3 of this series — in the short term, we would do well to seize opportunities to reduce non-CO2 emissions, particularly those with immediate co-benefits (e.g. profitable byproducts, improved public health, or better agricultural yields) that align incentives for rapid action.
It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 examined why voluntary economic contraction is a not a viable strategy for reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.” Part 3 explained why implementing a robust clean energy innovation strategy is the key way to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thus enabling the rapid adoption of low-carbon energy sources and drastically reducing CO2 as quickly as possible. Part 4 discusses why adaptation through innovation is central to preparing for the impacts of a warmer world and buying us time to drastically cut emissions.
The door is closed to mitigating away all of the potentially dangerous impacts of climate change. We’ve simply waited too long to take sweeping action and provide a cheap and viable clean energy substitute to fossil fuels. In Part 1 of this series, we discussed that even so, the key objective of climate mitigation efforts is still the same – we must drastically cut emissions as quickly as possible (and Part 2 and Part 3 discussed how).
Yet the warmer world we have locked ourselves into does inform other policy choices. In particular, building our resilience to extreme weather and increasing our adaptive capacity is now equally as important as mitigation and should be treated as such. Advocating for adaptation and mitigation is nothing new – in fact it’s common place. The argument here is that adaptation must now be a cornerstone of all climate policy choices – domestic or otherwise.
When it comes to climate adaptation policymaking, a lot of work needs to be done, as it’s still a topic that has been largely ignored by U.S. decision makers. In fact, the most immediate hurdle is for decision makers to stop paying lip-service to the need for an adaptation policy and begin aggressively implementing real resilience efforts.
It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 examined why voluntary economic contraction is a not a viable strategy for reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.” Part 3 explains why implementing a robust clean energy innovation strategy is the key way to making clean energy cheaper than fossil fuels, thus enable rapid adoption of low-carbon energy sources and drastically reducing CO2 as quickly as possible.
As we wrote in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, our current climate trajectory and global political economy dictates that the only way we can limit potentially dangerous climate change impacts, above the dangerous impacts we’re already locked into, is to redouble efforts to reduce global CO2 emissions as quickly as possible. To rapidly decarbonize the economy requires greatly accelerating the replacement of fossil fuels with low or zero-carbon clean energy substitutes. Implementing the right strategies to do so raises numerous stark policy choices and issues.
It is time to take stock of our current climate trajectory, and consider what it means for climate policy. In Part 1 of this week long series, we argued that our current climate trajectory means we must 1) redouble efforts to reduce CO2 emissions as quickly as possible, and 2) we must proactively build resilience to the uncertain impacts of a changing climate. Part 2 in this series examines whether voluntary economic contraction is a key strategy in reducing emissions “as quickly as possible.”
In a recent commentary, Grist’s David Roberts notes that our current climate trajectory puts us on a path to dangerous climate impacts, demanding that we must reduce emissions dramatically over the near-term. His proposed strategy to reduce emissions as quickly as possible constitutes an “all-hands-on-deck mobilization” (including a carbon tax, efficiency standards, subsidies, tech development). He also argues that the time has come to consider “shared sacrifice” in the world’s wealthiest nations: a course of voluntary economic contraction in developed economies (thus reducing fossil energy consumption), while allowing developing nations time to shift from dirty to clean energy.
As we wrote in Part 1 of this series, we firmly agree that our climate trajectory demands that we redouble efforts to reduce global CO2 emissions as quickly as possible. They key question remains: what levers or strategies are central to determining how quickly we can reduce emissions. Is voluntary economic contraction a key climate strategy?
Significantly limiting humanity’s impact on the global climate is quite simply an enormous task. Unfortunately, thanks to budget austerity and federal gridlock, any hope of implementing sweeping U.S. climate/energy policy has been optimistically pushed back to 2013 or beyond (though some incremental improvement is possible). And even the most hopeful observers of the recent global climate negotiations in Durban find little real progress towards reducing emissions. Now more than ever, it is time to take a hard look at where we stand and figure out how to match our policies to our climate goals.
A group called CO2 Scorecard, whose efforts to compile energy data I have praised in the past, has issued a report which argues that so-called "energy rebound" at the micro-level might be in the range of 30% or less rather than the higher levels that have been argued by my colleagues at The Breakthrough Institute. While longtime readers of this blog and readers of The Climate Fix will know that I think that the debate over the rebound effect is largely inconsequential to the debate over efforts to decarbonize the economy, the report and reaction to it provide a great opportunity to highlight a key intellectual challenge that we all face when overwhelmed with information - beware promoting bad analyses simply because they accord with your tribal convictions.
In a series of policy briefs released last month by the Breakthrough Institute, we document the challenges faced by clean energy innovators and entrepreneurs working to bring advanced energy technologies from the lab to market and offer policy proposals for carrying nascent technologies across the clean energy "Valleys of Death." One detailed proposal offers recommendations for the establishment of a National Clean Energy Testbeds Program, or N-CET, which would employ public lands as dedicated demonstration sites for proving innovative energy technologies at scale.
In a new report from the Breakthrough Institute Energy, we document the challenges facing American energy entrepreneurs seeking to commercialize advanced energy technologies to enhance US energy, economic, and environmental security. Innovative public policy solutions are needed to support private sector innovation and overcome the "valleys of death" that trap too many promising advanced energy ventures.
Download the full report, Bridging the Clean Energy Valleys of Death (pdf) here, and read on for the introduction to the report.
See two related reports, also out today:
A Clean Energy Deployment Administration: Unlocking Advanced Energy Innovation and Commercialization
A National Clean Energy Testbeds Program: Using Public Lands to Accelerate Advanced Energy Innovation and Commercialization
The United States faces an urgent national imperative to modernize and diversify its energy system by developing and deploying clean, and affordable advanced energy technologies. Domestically, developing new energy supplies and ensuring affordable energy prices will bolster American competitiveness and economic growth. Reducing the cost of advanced energy technologies is the key to finally ending a dependence on volatile global oil markets that holds the American economy hostage, compromises our foreign policy, and bleeds more than a billion dollars a day out of the US economy.
Abroad, the military has already begun deploying innovative clean energy technologies to reduce the high cost, paid in both lives and money, associated with transporting fossil fuels across war zones. Moreover, the impending risks posed by climate change compel the accelerated improvement and widespread deployment of low-carbon energy technologies. Countries around the world are already recognizing the critical need for new advanced energy technologies and are positioning themselves to lead the next wave of energy innovation.
Global energy demand is rising steadily, straining the ability of conventional energy systems to keep pace. For security, economic, and environmental reasons, the global energy system is thus modernizing and diversifying. Developing and developed nations alike are seeking new forms of advanced energy technologies that reduce dependence on foreign nations, insulate economies from volatile energy markets, and are cleaner and thus less costly from a public health perspective. Supplying this $5 trillion global energy market with reliable and affordable clean energy technologies thus represents one of the most significant market opportunities of the 21st century.
Despite this clear energy innovation imperative, the United States and the world remain overly reliant on conventional fuels and exposed to the price volatility and persistent public health impacts that reliance entails. The necessary course of energy modernization remains impeded by the high cost and barriers to scalability of today's clean energy technologies. These are barriers that only innovation can overcome.
However, two obstacles currently block the progress of energy innovation, obstacles which can only be addressed through effective public policy. Due to pervasive market barriers, private sector financing is typically unavailable to bring new energy innovations from early-stage laboratory research to proof-of-concept prototype and on to full commercial scale. This leads to two market gaps that kill off too many promising new energy technologies in the cradle. These gaps are known as the early-stage "Technological Valley of Death" and the later-stage "Commercialization Valley of Death." This pair of barriers is endemic to most innovative technologies yet is particularly acute in the energy sector. As a result, many innovative energy prototypes never make it to the marketplace and never have a chance to compete with established energy technologies. These valleys of death particularly plague capital-starved start-ups and entrepreneurial small and medium-sized firms, the very same innovators that are so often at the heart of American economic vitality.
In effect, the current lack of public policy to address this pair of barriers acts to protect today's well entrenched incumbent technologies from full market competition, while hamstringing American entrepreneurs and innovative ventures seeking to develop and deploy advanced energy technologies. The implementation of creative policies to effectively deal with the Technological and Commercialization Valleys of Death will foster vibrant competition in the energy sector and help drive technological innovation and job creation throughout the economy as a whole.
In the past, the United States has driven immense and far-reaching technological transformations. As the pioneering global innovator of the 20th century, the United States built the world's largest economy because of the ingenuity and creative enterprise of its entrepreneurs and citizens. Each step of the way, proactive public policy has played a crucial role in driving American innovations, from railroads and jet engines to microchips, biotechnology, and the Internet, unleashing long waves of economic growth and shared prosperity. New and advanced clean energy technologies afford the same opportunities to the United States today –– if public policy is shaped in a way that allows American innovators to thrive once again.
New analysis from the WorldWatch Institute shows that energy intensity of the global economy has been on the rise for the past two years, reversing a decades-long trend of increasing energy efficiency. As computerized and digital services have paved the way towards technological innovations and the "knowledge economy," global economic energy intensity has declined an average of 0.8 percent per year since 1981. However, since the economic crisis of 2008, the energy inputs required to produce the same level of economic output has been increasing, by 1.35 percent in 2010 alone.
Writing for Conservation Magazine, reporter John Carey spotlights an ongoing debate over "rebound effects" simmering amongst academic and energy policy making communities. "The Efficiency Catch-22" notes that as economies and consumers become more efficient, demand for the services we derive from energy rebounds, eroding some or even all of the initially expected energy reductions.
In an all-to-predictable swipe at new fuel economy standards currently being negotiated by the White House and the auto industry, the arch-conservative Heritage Foundation invokes rebound effects as the latest reason to oppose increased auto efficiency:
When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, The Atlantic's Megan McArdle notes that fuel efficiency standards will reduce carbon dioxide emissions, "but not by as much as advertised, because more fuel efficient cars make driving cheaper, so people will do more of it. This 'rebound' effect robs about 25% of gains, and also means more congestion, and more wear-and-tear on roads." The rebound effect also takes away some of the estimated cost savings and oil reduction.
Climate Pragmatism, a new policy report released July 26th by the Hartwell group, details an innovative strategy to restart global climate efforts after the collapse of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. This pragmatic strategy centers on efforts to accelerate energy innovation, build resilience to extreme weather, and pursue no regrets pollution reduction measures -- three efforts that each have their own diverse justifications independent of their benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation. As such, Climate Pragmatism offers a framework for renewed American leadership on climate change that's effectiveness, paradoxically, does not depend on any agreement about climate science or the risks posed by uncontrolled greenhouse gases.
In the pages of United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)'s Making It quarterly magazine, Breakthrough Institute Energy and Climate Policy Director Jesse Jenkins and Senior Fellow Harry Saunders published an article explaining the impact and implications of the energy demand "rebound effect" spurred on by energy efficiency.
The article builds upon the Breakthrough Institute's "Energy Emergence: Rebound and Backfire as Emergent Phenomena", a comprehensive literature review pointing to the expert consensus and evidence that below-cost energy efficiency measures drive a rebound in energy consumption that erodes much of expected energy savings.
One week ago, the German government released a report outlining its plan to close all of its 17 nuclear power reactors by 2017 and power the country without causing electricity shortages. That plan hinges heavily on the construction of 16 GW of new fossil-fired power pants. This analysis finds that Germany's new strategy would make achieving the country's ambitious 2020 climate goals far more difficult. To both achieve emissions reduction goals and fully displace nuclear power, renewable energy would need to scale up from 17% of the country's power supply today to a full 57% of total electricity generation in just nine years' time.
Replacing Lost Nuclear Capacity and Electricity Generation
Table 1 below, excerpted from the report, outlines the German government's plan for replacing the 21.4 Gigawatts (GW) of lost nuclear power generation capacity.
The plan indicates that--in the absence of nuclear power--Germany will continue to be heavily reliant on fossil-fuel generation for the bulk of its electricity supply. The report calls for the construction of 5 GW of new natural gas power plants, in addition to 11 GW of new coal-fired power plants currently under construction in the country. This will leave the country with a net increase of 5 GW in coal-fired electricity capacity, after the retirement of some 6 GW of older, and more carbon-intensive, coal-fired power plants.
The report also proposes an increase in the country's capacity to generate electricity from biomass by 1.4 GW.
A recent article in Electricity Policy by Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) analysts (David Goldstein et al.) purports to offer a fresh look at the question of energy consumption rebound resulting from cost-effective efficiency improvements. But rather than advancing the ongoing discussion about rebound among serious energy analysts, NRDC attempts to turn back the clock, relying on outdated and recycled citations dating from as far back as the early 1990s and asserting that conclusions about rebound effects must be testable against "rigorously framed hypotheses" while failing to apply that standard to their own claims regarding the historic success of efficiency policies in reducing energy use.
Here are a few choice excerpts from the National Geographic article:
When the torrent of predictions about global warming got too depressing, there were Robert Socolow's "wedges."
The Princeton physics and engineering professor, along with his colleague, ecologist Stephen Pacala, countered the gloom and doom of climate change with a theory that offered hope. If we adopted a series of environmental steps, each taking a chunk out of the anticipated growth in greenhouse gases, we could flatline our emissions, he said. That would at least limit the global temperature rise, he said in a 2004 paper in the journal Science.
The Princeton colleagues even created a game out of it: choose your own strategies, saving a billion tons of emissions each, to compile at least seven "wedges," pie-shaped slices that could be stacked up in a graph to erase the predicted doubling of CO2 by 2050.
It was a mistake, he now says.
"With some help from wedges, the world decided that dealing with global warming wasn't impossible, so it must be easy," Socolow says. "There was a whole lot of simplification, that this is no big deal."
He said his theory was intended to show the progress that could be made if people took steps such as halving our automobile travel, burying carbon emissions, or installing a million windmills. But instead of providing motivation, the wedges theory let people relax in the face of enormous challenges, he now says.
Socolow takes issue with how his work has been misused by advocates for action:
Socolow said he believes that well-intentioned groups misused the wedges theory. His theory called for efficiency, conservation, and energy alternatives that could keep greenhouse gas emissions at roughly today's levels, offsetting the growth of population and energy demands. Global temperatures would rise by 3°C.
"I said hundreds of times the world should be very pleased with itself if the amount of emissions was the same in 50 years as it is today," he said.
But those inspired by the theory took it farther. If Socolow's wedges could stabilize emissions with a 3-degree rise, they said, even bigger wedges could actually bring greenhouse gases back down to a level resulting in only a 2-degree rise. (This is the goal that 140 nations have pledged to try to achieve in the Copenhagen Accord.)
"Our paper was outflanked by the left," Socolow said. But he admits he did not protest enough: "I never aligned myself with the 2-degree statement, but I never said it was too much."
In holding out the prospect of success, adherents stressed the minimal goals, and overestimated what realistically could be achieved.
"The intensity of belief that renewables and conservation would do the job approached religious," Socolow said.
Of course, no one has abused the "wedges" analysis more than Joe Romm who did exactly what Socolow is critical of -- Romm super-sized each one of the wedges, doubled the number needed, and then claimed based on his perversion of the Socolow/Pacala analysis that we have (or soon will have) all the technology needed to stabilize concentrations of carbon dioxide at 450 (or even 350) ppm. It is hard to imagine that Socolow's comments can be in reference to anyone other than Romm, who has probably done more to confuse issues of mitigation policy than anyone. Back in 2008 I pointed out Romm's egregious misuse of the wedges analysis to imply that achieving deep emissions cuts would be technologically and economically possible with technologies currently (or soon to be) available. The exchange with Romm was precipitated by a paper with Chris Green and Tom Wigley in which we explained how the IPCC had made a similar error in its analysis (here in PDF).
Socolow's strong rebuke of the misuse of his work is a welcome contribution and, perhaps optimistically, marks a positive step forward in the climate debate.
Updated 5/13/2011 to include construction costs for Japan's proposed 14 nuclear reactors.
On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan announced that the country would scrap its plans to increase nuclear power's contribution to electricity generation to 50 percent by 2030, in response to the crisis at Fukushima's Daiichi nuclear complex. Replacing nuclear power's sizable role in Japan's energy system with a greater reliance on imported coal or liquefied natural gas (LNG) could increase Japan's CO2 emissions by up to 26 percent relative to current levels while damaging the nation's trade balance, while replacing nuclear with renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy would require a roughly 50-fold increase in the electricity provided by these sources, as well as considerable replacement costs.
Japan's Nuclear Plans on Hold
Prior to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis, Japan had planned to increase nuclear power's share of national electricity generation to 50% from roughly 30% today. To achieve this increase, Japan had planned to construct fourteen new nuclear power reactors and raise the capacity factor of the country's existing nuclear power plants to 90%, an increase from roughly 72% in 2009 to a level equivalent to the capacity factors maintained by the U.S. nuclear industry. Existing nuclear plants would have their operating life extended wherever it was deemed safe to do so.
In the following scenarios, we consider the challenge of replacing nuclear power's role in Japan's energy system with fossil and renewable energy alternatives. We consider the new generation required to replace the electricity provided by the fourteen nuclear reactors planned by 2030, as well as assume that Japan does not grant license extensions to any existing plants during this period. By 2030, we therefore assume the retirement of thirty-eight existing Japanese reactors built before 1990, including the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, totaling 28,431 MW or 61% of the nation's current nuclear capacity.
The total nuclear power generation 'lost' in this scenario totals 399 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh) in 2030. We have assumed that the country will still raise the capacity factor of the remaining twenty-one reactors still operating by 2030, providing 21,555 MW of capacity. Under this scenario, nuclear power would still provide almost 15% of Japan's projected electricity demand in 2030.
Drum draws our attention to some "eye popping" figures for price elasticity of demand for oil from the IMF. According to Drum, these elasticities mean that, in the short term, a 50 percent increase in price leads to a 1.2 percent decrease in consumption. In the long term, it leads to a 4.7 percent decrease.
Conservative blogger Jim Manzi rightly points out that, with elasticities as low as these, a gas tax at any politically realistic level is not going to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.
Specifically, to the extent that we continue to progress in making non-fossil-fuels technology cheaper and more effective for an ever wider array of applications, we can accelerate the ongoing de-carbonization of our economy. The idea of economists to use artificial scarcity pricing to do this is aggressively marketed in blogs, magazines and TV shows, but is extremely unlikely to work, because the current price elasticity of oil is so low. The work of engineers and physical scientists, however, is likely to be determinative.
Cross-posted with permission from the Innovation Policy Blog at ITIF
In yesterday's New York Times, Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection chief Daniel Esty and Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter issued a call for an "emissions charge" (i.e. a carbon tax) to address the nation's oil dependence and climate risks, joining a long line of others who continue to do the same. Specifically:
The best way to drive energy innovation would be an emissions charge of $5 per ton of greenhouse gases beginning in 2012, rising to $100 per ton by 2032. The low initial charge, starting next year, would make the short-term burden on consumers and businesses almost negligible.... Our proposal would apply to all greenhouse gas emissions, so that everybody, and every fossil-fuel-dependent form of energy, would be included...Yes, these costs would be passed on to consumers, but this is what motivates changes in behavior and technological investments.
It's the neoclassical view that's reverberated throughout the debate for years: get the prices right, get government out of the way, and let the market do its thing. Andrew Revkin has a point when he refers to the piece's "retro feel."