Center Home Science Policy Photos University of Colorado spacer
Location: > Prometheus: Technology Policy Archives

Science and Technology Policy Report Roundup
   in Author: Bruggeman, D. | Science Policy: General | Technology Policy June 24, 2008

The New Global Growth Path
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy June 16, 2008

Why Costly Carbon is a House of Cards
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Science + Politics | Scientific Assessments | Technology Policy June 12, 2008

An Order of Magnitude in Cost Estimates: Automatic Decarbonization in the IEA Baseline
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy June 09, 2008

IEA on Reducing The Trajectory of Global Emissions
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy June 06, 2008

A Few Bits on Cap and Trade
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy June 04, 2008

Idealism vs. Political Realities
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy June 03, 2008

Air Capture in The Guardian
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy June 03, 2008

Meantime, Back in the Real World: Power Plant Conversion Rates
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy May 28, 2008

IPCC Scenarios and Spontaneous Decarbonization
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy May 25, 2008

Nature Letters on PWG
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Scientific Assessments | Technology Policy May 22, 2008

Iain Murray on Climate Policy
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Science + Politics | Technology Policy May 08, 2008

Elements of Any Successful Approach to Climate Change
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Environment | International | Sustainability | Technology Policy May 06, 2008

Germany's Energy Gap
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Energy Policy | R&D Funding | Technology Policy April 24, 2008

Joe Romm’s Fuzzy Math
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 23, 2008

The Central Question of Mitigation
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | R&D Funding | Technology Policy April 22, 2008

A Post-Partisan Climate Politics?
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Science + Politics | Technology Policy April 21, 2008

Please Tell Me What in the World Joe Romm is Complaining About?
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Science + Politics | Technology Policy April 21, 2008

Kristof on PWG
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 20, 2008

Geoengineering: Who Decides?
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Democratization of Knowledge | Science + Politics | Technology Policy April 17, 2008

Bush CO2 Plan in Context
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 17, 2008

Has German Policy Harmed Solar Power?
   in Author: Others | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 10, 2008

Interview with Frank Laird
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 09, 2008

Joe Romm on Air Capture Research
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 07, 2008

Gwyn Prins on PWG in The Guardian
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 07, 2008

Commentary in Nature
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Risk & Uncertainty | Technology Policy April 02, 2008

April Fool's Day as Teachable Moment?
   in Author: Bruggeman, D. | Technology Policy | The Honest Broker April 01, 2008

Interview at The Breakthrough Institute
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Energy Policy | Environment | Science + Politics | Technology Policy March 04, 2008

Matthews and Caldeira on the Mitigation Challenge
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy February 28, 2008

Air Capture in the U.S. Congress
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Technology Policy February 25, 2008

So Much for Peak Oil, Plug-In Hybrids, and Reliance on Foreign Dictators
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Technology Policy February 18, 2008

My Comments to Science on Hillary Clinton's Science Policy Plans
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Science + Politics | Science Policy: General | Technology Policy January 05, 2008

Climate Policy as Farce
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Technology Policy December 18, 2007

Chris Green on Emissions Target Setting
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy December 14, 2007

The Technological Fix
   in Author: Hale, B. | Climate Change | Disasters | Environment | R&D Funding | Science + Politics | Technology Policy November 15, 2007

Should the Gates Foundation fund Policy Research?
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Health | R&D Funding | Technology Policy | The Honest Broker May 09, 2007

The Politics of Air Capture
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Science + Politics | Technology Policy April 26, 2007

Frank Laird on Peak Oil, Global Warming, and Policy Choice
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy April 16, 2007

Where Stern is Right and Wrong
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Risk & Uncertainty | Technology Policy February 22, 2007

Air Capture Prize
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Technology Policy February 09, 2007

Profiling Frank Laird
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Climate Change | Energy Policy | Technology Policy January 02, 2007

The Politics and Economics of Offshore Outsourcing
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Gathering Storm | Technology Policy August 08, 2006

The Future Will be Blogged
   in Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Technology Policy May 26, 2006

June 24, 2008

Science and Technology Policy Report Roundup

A perfectly non-scientific sampling of reports on science and technology policy in the United States, some from organizations that may not be familiar to everyone.

The RAND Corporation - A long-standing science and technology research company, RAND started with national security issues and has branched out into many different areas. Until the early part of this decade, they ran the Science and Technology Policy Institute, and its predecessor, the Critical Technologies Institute, for the Office of Science and Technology Policy.

U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology - This monograph is a nice contrast to the occasionally overheated rhetoric about the impending collapse of the U.S. science and engineering enterprise. It notes the continued strengths of American research and development, noting that our leadership should not be taken for granted. Another interesting note (at least to me) was the notion that globalization can work both ways. from the research summary at the link above:

Counterintuitively, globalization and the rise of science and technology capability in other nations may prove to be economically beneficial to the United States overall. A future with more technologies invented abroad can benefit the United States, since domestic use of new technology, whether invented in the United States or elsewhere, can result in greater efficiency, economic growth, and higher living standards.

Adapting and adopting new technology - whether developed in the United States or elsewhere - is a useful skill in maintaining a competitive edge. That's an idea worth exploring and repeating.

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences - Not to be confused with that other AAAS, this Academy is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is nearly 70 years older, and draws from all fields when selecting its members.

The ARISE Report - ARISE stands for Advancing Research in Science and Engineering. The report is from the Academy's Initiative on Science, Engineering and Technology which is concerned about science literacy and the interactions of science, technology and society. The report's recommendation focus on encouraging high-risk research and supporting young researchers. While the second one may seem a no-brainer, I appreciate the attention provided the first concern. As forward thinking as universities can be, they are still very conservative institutions (in the traditional sense, not the contemporary left-right sense). The same can be said of the scientific communities that provide reviewers for government proposals. I think this report could have been stronger in its recommendations to peer reviewers about being more responsive to high-risk or transformative research, as well as being more supportive of early career researchers.

Woodrow Wilson Center - Named for the president, the center hosts a number of different projects meant to encourage policy scholarship in a number of areas.

OSTP 2.0 - Critical Upgrade A report from earlier this month that urges that the Office of Science and Technology Policy be better utilized. The recommendations are mostly nothing new: appoint a national leader in science and engineering as the OSTP Director, make the appointment quickly, and make high quality appointments to PCAST and related advisory boards. The new recommendation is to establish a Federal-State Science and Technology Council to share information between the states and the federal government. Two of the report's authors are former OSTP staffers.

Funding the Foundation: Basic Science at the Crossroads - A conference report from the center's Science, Technology, America and the Global Economy project. The report is based on an address by Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Renssalaer Polytechnic Institute, and a panel discussion of academic and industrial leaders in physical sciences. If you've followed the arguments before, during and after the release of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the basic arguments here will be familiar to you.

June 16, 2008

The New Global Growth Path


A very important new paper is forthcoming in the journal Climatic Change which has been published first online. The paper is:

P. Sheehan, 2008. The new global growth path: implications for climate change analysis and policy, Climatic Change (in press).

The paper argues that:

In recent years the world has moved to a new path of rapid global growth, largely driven by the developing countries, which is energy intensive and heavily reliant on the use of coal—global coal use will rise by nearly 60% over the decade to 2010. It is likely that, without changes to the policies in place in 2006, global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion would nearly double their 2000 level by 2020 and would continue to rise beyond 2030. Neither the SRES marker scenarios nor the reference cases assembled in recent studies using integrated assessment models capture this abrupt shift to rapid growth based on fossil fuels, centred in key Asian countries.

This conclusion strongly supports the analysis that we presented in Nature (PDF)not long ago, in which we argued that the mitigation challenge was potentially underestimated in the so-called IPCC SRES (and pre- and post- SRES) scenarios due to overly aggressive assumptions about future trends in the decarbonization of the global economy. Such overly optimistic assumptions are endemic in the literature, found in the Stern Review, and IEA and CCSP assessments, among others.

Sheehan comes to similar conclusions:

To the extent that NGP is a reasonable projection of global trends on current policies out to 2030, it follows that all of the SRES marker scenarios seriously understate unchanged policy emissions over that time, and do so because they do not capture the extent of the expansion in energy use and emissions that is currently taking place in Asia. Nor, as a consequence, do they capture the rapid growth in coal use that is also occurring. . .

The SRES scenarios were a substantial intellectual achievement, and have stood the test of time for almost a decade. But the central feature of global economic trends in the early decades of the twenty-first century—the new growth path shaped by the sustained emergence of China and India, in the context of an open, knowledge-based world economy—could not be foreseen in the 1990s, and is not covered by these scenarios. Many of the SRES scenarios are no longer individually plausible, and as a whole the marker scenarios can no longer be said to ‘describe the most important uncertainties’. As a result, and especially given the emissions intensity of the new growth path, there is an urgent need for new approaches.

Unfortunately, a major obstacle to discussing (much less achieving) new approaches are the very public intellectual and political commitments that have been advanced, based on the earlier assumptions. Unwinding these commitments -- as we have seen -- will take some doing.

PS. See also the NYTs Andy Revkin and Elisabeth Rosenthal on China's growing emissions here. As yet, the dots remain to be connected between such trends unfolding before our eyes and their incongruity with assumptions in energy policy assessments. But reality and policy assessments can diverge only for so long.

June 12, 2008

Why Costly Carbon is a House of Cards

How can the world achieve economic growth while at the same time decarbonizing the global economy?

This question is important because there is apt to be little public or political support for mitigation policies that increase the costs of energy in ways that are felt in reduced growth. Consider this description of reactions around the world to the recent increasing costs of fuel:

Concerns were growing last night over a summer of coordinated European fuel protests after tens of thousands of Spanish truckers blocked roads and the French border, sparking similar action in Portugal and France, while unions across Europe prepared fresh action over the rising price of petrol and diesel. . .

Protests at rising fuel prices are not confined to Europe. A succession of developing countries have provoked public outcry by ordering fuel price increases. Yesterday Indian police forcibly dispersed hundreds of protesters in Kashmir who were angry at a 10% rise introduced last week. Protests appeared likely to spread to neighbouring Nepal after its government yesterday announced a 25% rise in fuel prices. Truckers in South Korea have vowed strike action over the high cost of diesel. Taiwan, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have all raised pump prices. Malaysia's decision last week to increase prices generated such public fury that the government moved yesterday to trim ministers' allowances to appease the public.

Advocates for a response to climate change based on increasing the costs of carbon-based energy skate around the fact that people react very negatively to higher prices by promising that action won’t really cost that much. For instance, our frequent debating partner Joe Romm says of a recent IEA report (emphasis added):

. . . cutting global emissions in half by 2050 is not costly. In fact, the total shift in investment needed to stabilize at 450 ppm is only about 1.1% of GDP per year, and that is not a "cost" or hit to GDP, because much of that investment goes towards saving expensive fuel.

And Joe tells us that even these "not costly" costs are "overestimated."

If action on climate change is indeed "not costly" then it would logically follow the only reasons for anyone to question a strategy based on increasing the costs of energy are complete ignorance and/or a crass willingness to destroy the planet for private gain. Indeed, accusations of "denial" and "delay" are now staples of any debate over climate policy.

There is another view. Specifically that the current ranges of actions at the forefront of the climate debate focused on putting a price on carbon in order to motivate action are misguided and cannot succeed. This argument goes as follows: In order for action to occur costs must be significant enough to change incentives and thus behavior. Without the sugarcoating, pricing carbon (whether via cap-and-trade or a direct tax) is designed to be costly. In this basic principle lies the seed of failure. Policy makers will do (and have done) everything they can to avoid imposing higher costs of energy on their constituents via dodgy offsets, overly generous allowances, safety valves, hot air, and whatever other gimmick they can come up with.

Analysts and advocates allow this house of cards to stand when trying to sell higher costs of energy to a skeptical public they provide analyses that support a conclusion that acting to cut future emissions is "not costly."

The argument of "not costly" based on under-estimating the future growth of emissions so that the resulting challenge does not appear so large. We have discussed such scenarios on many occasions here and explored their implications in a commentary in Nature (PDF).

One widely-know example is the stabilization wedge analysis of Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow (PDF. The stabilization wedge analysis concluded that the challenge of stabilizing emissions was no so challenging.

Humanity already possesses the fundamental scientific, technical, and industrial know-how to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next half-century. A portfolio of technologies now exists to meet the world’s energy needs over the next 50years and limit atmospheric CO2 to a trajectory that avoids a doubling of the preindustrial concentration. . . But it is important not to become beguiled by the possibility of revolutionary technology. Humanity can solve the carbon and climate problem in the first half of this century simply by scaling up what we already know how to do.

In a recent interview the lead author of that paper, Pacala provided a candid and eye-opening explanation of the reason why they wrote the paper (emphases added):

The purpose of the stabilization wedges paper was narrow and simple – we wanted to stop the Bush administration from what we saw as a strategy to stall action on global warming by claiming that we lacked the technology to tackle it. The Secretary of Energy at the time used to give a speech saying that we needed a discovery as fundamental as the discovery of electricity by Faraday in the 19th century.

We also wanted to stop the group of scientists that were writing what I thought were grant proposals masquerading as energy assessments. There was one famous paper published in Science [Hoffert et al. 2002] that went down the list [of available technologies] fighting them one by one but never asked "what if we put them all together?" It was an analysis whose purpose was to show we lacked the technology, with a call at the end for blue sky research.

I saw it as an unhealthy collusion between the scientific community who believed that there was a serious problem and a political movement that didn’t. I wanted that to stop and the paper for me was surprisingly effective at doing that. I’m really happy with how it came out – I wouldn’t change a thing.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t things wrong with it and that history won’t prove it false. It would be astonishing if it weren’t false in many ways, but what we said was accurate at the time.

So lets take a second to reflect on what you just read. Pacala is claiming that he wrote a paper to serve a political purpose and he admits that history may very well prove its analysis to be “false.” But he judges the paper was successful not because of its analytical soundness, but because it served its political function by severing relationship between a certain group of scientific experts and decision makers whose views he opposed.

Why is this problematic? NYU’s Marty Hoffert has explained that the Pacala and Socolow paper was simply based on flawed assumptions. Repeating different analyses with similar assumptions doesn’t make the resulting conclusions any more correct. Hoffert says (emphases added):

The problem with the formulation of Pacala and Socolow in their Science paper, and the later paper by Socolow in Scientific American issue that you cite, is that they both indicate that seven "wedges" of carbon emission reducing energy technology (or behavior) -- each of which creates a growing decline in carbon emissions relative to a baseline scenario equal to 25 billion tonnes less carbon over fifty years -- is enough to hold emissions constant over that period. . . .

A table is presented in the wedge papers of 15 "existing technology" wedges, leading virtually all readers to conclude the carbon and climate problem is soluble with near-term technology; and so, by implication, a major ramp-up of research and development investments in alternate energy technology like the "Apollo-like" R&D Program that we call for, is unnecessary. . . .

The actual number of wedges to hold carbon dioxide below 450 ppm is about 18, not 7, for Pacala-Socolow scenario assumptions, as Rob well knows; in which case we're much further from having the technology we need. The problem is actually much worse than that, since the number of emission-reducing wedges needed to avoid greater than two degree Celsius warming explodes after the mid-century mark if world GDP continues to grow three percent per year under a business-as-usual scenario.

The figure below is from a follow-on paper by Socolow in 2006 (PDF) and clearly indicates the need for 11 additional wedges of emissions reductions from 2005 to 2055. These are called "virtual wedges" which is ironic, because their existence is very real and in fact necessary for the stabilization of emissions to actually occur. (Cutting emissions by half would require another 4 wedges, or 22 total).

If Pacala and Socolow admit that we need 18 wedges to stabilize emissions, and 22 wedges to cut them by half, and this is based on an rosy assumption of only 1.5% growth in emissions to 2055, then why would anyone believe that we need less? If it is conceivable that emissions might grow faster than 1.5% per year, then we will need even more than the 22 wedges. Perhaps much more. But analysts seeking to impose a price on carbon won't tell you this. Instead, some will resort to demagoguery, and others will simply repeat over and over again the consequences of assuming rosy scenarios. None of this will make the mitigation challenge any easier. But as Pacala says in the excerpt above, such strategies may keep more sound analyses out of the debate.

Policies based on the argument that putting a price on carbon will be "not costly' are a house of cards, and based on a range of assumptions that could easily be judged very optimistic. Looking around, what you will see is that the minute that energy prices rise high enough to be felt by the public, action will indeed occur, but it will not be the action that is desired by the climate intelligencia. It will be demands for lower priced energy. And policy makers will listen to these demands and respond. Climate policy analysts should listen as well, because there will be no tricking of the public with rosy scenarios built on optimistic assumptions.

Virtual Triangle.png

June 09, 2008

An Order of Magnitude in Cost Estimates: Automatic Decarbonization in the IEA Baseline

Last week I mentioned the conclusions of the IEA Energy Technologies Perspectives report. I have had a chance to look at the full report in some depth, with an eye to the assumptions in the report for the spontaneous decarbonization of the global economy.

All assessments of the costs of stabilizing concentrations of carbon dioxide start with a baseline trajectory of future emissions. The costs of mitigation are calculated with respect to reductions from this baseline. In the Pielke, Wigley, and Green commentary in Nature (PDF) we argued that such baselines typically assume very large, spontaneous decreases in energy intensity (energy per unit GDP). The effect of these assumptions is to decrease the trajectory of the baseline, making the challenge of mitigation much smaller than it would be with assumptions of smaller decreases in energy intensity (and a higher baseline trajectory). Obviously, the smaller the gap between the baseline scenario and the mitigation scenario, the smaller the projected costs of mitigation.

The annotated figure below is from the IEA ETP report (Figure 2.8, p. 74), and shows the assumptions of decreasing energy intensity in the baseline scenario (BASELINE), as well as the two mitigation scenarios (ACT [emissions stabilized at current values] and BLUE [emissions half current values]).

IEA Decarb.jpg

In the annotation I show with the red call out the difference between the BASELINE and BLUE scenarios, which the report identifies with a cost of $45 trillion. The magnitude of this difference is about 0.8% per year. However, the report assumes that about twice this rate of decarbonization of the global economy will happen spontaneously (i.e., the magnitude of the BASELINE reductions in energy intensity). With the green call out I ask how the baseline is actually to be achieved.

In numbers, the BLUE scenario assumes that by 2050 a trajectory consistent with stabilization at 450 ppm carbon dioxide will require reductions in emissions from 62 Gt carbon dioxide to 14 Gt. But what if we use a "frozen technology" baseline as recommended in PWG?

Using the assumptions from Annex B of the report for global economic growth (4.2% to 2015, 3.3% 2015-2030, and 2.6% 2030 to 2050 -- we could play with these assumptions as well) results in a frozen technology baseline of 115 Gt carbon dioxide. Thus, 53Gt of carbon dioxide are assumed in the BASELINE to be reduced by the automatic decarbonization of the global economy. This spontaneous decarbonization will occur without any of the technologies proposed in the report to get from the baseline to the mitigation level (otherwise the report would be double-counting the effects of these technologies). What these technologies are is anyone's guess, as the report does not describe them.

If the world does not automatically decarbonize as projected in the IEA baseline, then the costs of mitigation will be considerably higher. By how much?

If we take the report's marginal cost estimate of $200 to $500 per ton for mitigating carbon dioxide, then a simple estimate of the full costs from a frozen technology baseline would be an additional $210 to $530 trillion above the $45 trillion cited in the report. Yes, you read that right.

What if the assumption of automatic decarbonization was off by only 10%? Then the additional cost would be an additional $21 to $53 billion, or about the same magnitude of the IEA's total cost estimate of mitigation (i.e., of moving from the BASELINE to the BLUE trajectory) .

What does this exercise tell us about costs estimates of mitigation?

1. They are highly sensitive to assumptions.

2. Depending on assumptions, cost estimates could vary by more than an order of magnitude.

3. We won't know the actual costs of mitigation until action is taken and costs are observed. Arguments about assumptions are unresolvable.

Meantime, it will be easy to cherrypick a cost for mitigation -- low or high -- that suits the argument that you'd like to make.

Anyone telling you that they have certainty about the future costs of mitigation -- whether that certainty is about high costs or low costs -- is not reflecting the actual uncertainty. Action on mitigation will have to take place before such certainty is achieved, and modified based on what we learn.

June 06, 2008

IEA on Reducing The Trajectory of Global Emissions

The International Energy Administration released its Energy Technology Perspectives report today, with a view on the prospects of returning global emissions to present values by 2050 and also more aggressively cutting them by half in 2050.

The report has several interesting conclusions:

1. Its cost estimates for stabilizing emissions at current amounts have doubled over the past 2 years to $50 per ton of carbon dioxide.

2. Its estimates for halving emissions from today's levels are $200 to $500 per ton of carbon dioxide.

By contrast, the Stern Review's 2006 estimate of the average cost of a similar reduction in emissions to 2050 was $25 per ton of carbon dioxide (see Figure 9.5 here in PDF), with an uncertainty range that topped out at about $100 per ton. The IPCC AR4 scenarios led to costs ranging up to $200 per ton of carbon dioxide (consistent with a 550 ppm stabilization trajectory by 2050, as seen in figure TS.9 in this PDF). (Note: I am unclear as to how the report handles the baseline issue that we raised in our recent Nature paper, but if they handled it properly, the differences in cost estimates from Stern/IPCC may simply reflect a more transparent accounting.)

What to take from this? Estimates of the economic costs of mitigation are highly unstable and speculative. Consider that the Stern Review considered no costs of oil above $80/barrel. However, the trend in cost estimates is up, due to the higher costs of energy and infrastructure. Efforts to map out the costs of mitigation to 2050 (or 2030 for that matter) are little more than guesses, leaving plenty of room to find a pleasing result.

3. The IEA report sees no path to stabilizing or halving emissions without a massive investment in both nuclear power and carbon capture and storage (for coal and gas). These are both politically controversial and will generate resistance among some groups, perhaps limiting their future prospects. To the extent that this happens other avenues for emissions reductions will need to be found to meet these ambitious goals.

4. Here is what the IEA sees as necessary each year:

The average year-by-year investments between 2010 and 2050 needed to achieve a virtual decarbonisation of the power sector include, amongst others, 55 fossil-fuelled power plants with CCS, 32 nuclear plants, 17,500 large wind turbines, and 215 million square metres of solar panels. [Reducing 2050 emissions to half of today's] also requires widespread adoption of near-zero emission buildings and, on one set of assumptions, [by 2050] deployment of nearly a billion electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

5. Finally, while the report says that the technologies to stabilize emissions at current values by 2050 are, in principle, available, it observes that they are not for reductions below this level, and thus calls for:

A massive increase of energy technology Research, Development and Demonstration (RD&D) is needed in the coming 15 years, in the order of USD 10-100 billion per year.

In short, the IEA report should serve as a reminder that the challenge of mitigation is significant and costly. Consequently,the politics of adopting mitigation policies will continue to be difficult (to put it mildly). Efforts to couch mitigation policies as low cost (in the short term) or of immediate benefit will likely fail, because presently this simply is not true. Strategies that will have greater prospects for success will those that align the short term costs with short term benefits, by broadening the focus of mitigation policies beyond a narrow focus on long-term climate change, or, by capitalizing on technological advances that do in fact lead to demonstrable short-term benefits by reducing the costs experienced by consumers and voters.

Until this lesson is learned, climate policy will continue in its current form.

June 04, 2008

A Few Bits on Cap and Trade

The U.S. Senate is debating a cap and trade bill this week and next. Anyone wanting a look at the debate can find it on CSPAN-2.

Meantime here are a few minor related items:

I reviewed Earth: The Sequel by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn of the Environmental Defense Fund. Unfortunately, the book adds little to understanding of or debate on cap and trade. My review can be found at Nature Reports: Climate Change here.

Monday's Denver Post has a column by David Harsanyi (opposing the cap and trade bill) in which he quotes from an analysis I did of the effectiveness of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) of the Kyoto Protocol for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Unfortunately he confuses my analysis of the effect of the CDM with an assessment of the entire Protocol. For that analysis he would have wanted to look at a 1998 paper by Tom Wigley, and make a few adjustments based on actual participation and performance of Kyoto. The amount of delay in emissions from all of Kyoto would be measured in months not days.

June 03, 2008

Idealism vs. Political Realities

David Cox writes in the Guardian on climate change: "It's surely time for a change of tack. Or should we just wring our hands?"

A further excerpt:

Perhaps, it's time to get real. Climate change activists should come to appreciate what religious reformers, communist revolutionaries and other utopian visionaries have learned before them. You can't change human behaviour in the interests of the supposed greater good.

Nonetheless, warming hasn't gone away, even if its character is less clear-cut than has been suggested by those urging us to make obeisance to it. What should we do about it?

The answer is surely to switch our efforts away from trying to change human behaviour towards other approaches to the problem. The most obvious is technological research into methods of alleviating warming. Up until now, mentioning this route has been considered a sinful attempt to divert attention from the hairshirt remedies on which the prophets of doom have insisted. Perhaps partly as a result, such research is proving surprisingly skimpy.

He raises a good point, which I'd characterize as, if efforts to put a meaningful price on carbon fail, what is plan B?

Air Capture in The Guardian

Saturday's Guardian has a story about a potentially important breakthrough in air capture technology:

It has long been the holy grail for those who believe that technology can save us from catastrophic climate change: a device that can "suck" carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, reducing the warming effect of the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas produced each year.

Now a group of US scientists say they have made a breakthrough towards creating such a machine. Led by Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University in New York, they plan to build and demonstrate a prototype within two years that could economically capture a tonne of CO2 a day from the air, about the same per passenger as a flight from London to New York.

The prototype so-called scrubber will be small enough to fit inside a shipping container. Lackner estimates it will initially cost around £100,000 to build, but the carbon cost of making each device would be "small potatoes" compared with the amount each would capture, he said.

The scientists stress their invention is not a magic bullet to solve climate change. It would take millions of the devices to soak up the world's carbon emissions, and the CO2 trapped would still need to be disposed of. But the team says the technology may be the best way to avert dangerous temperature rises, as fossil fuel use is predicted to increase sharply in coming decades despite international efforts. Climate experts at a monitoring station in Hawaii this month reported CO2 levels in the atmosphere have reached a record 387 parts per million (ppm) - 40% higher than before the industrial revolution.

The quest for a machine that could reverse the trend by "scrubbing" carbon from the air is seen as one of the greatest challenges in climate science. Richard Branson has promised $25m (£12.6m) to anyone who succeeds.

Lackner told the Guardian: "I wouldn't write across the front page that the problem is solved, but this will help. We are in a hurry to deal with climate change and will be very hard pressed to stop the train before we get to 450ppm [CO2 in the atmosphere]. This can help stop the train."

My recent paper on the economics and politics of air capture is going to be obsolete before I even get the reviews back!! (Anyone wanting a copy of the paper as submitted just send me an email:

May 28, 2008

Meantime, Back in the Real World: Power Plant Conversion Rates

A reader writes in with positive things to say, but notes that as interesting as it is to see our focus on technical issues like the short-term predictive capability of models and the fidelity of IPCC pre/post/SRES scenarios we may also balance that out with some bigger picture stuff.

To that I say: guilty as charged, fair enough. I'll be returning to the short-term prediction stuff before long, but for today's big picture perspective, consider the following points on the scale of the mitigation challenge.

The Center for Global Development estimates that there are 25,339 power plants around the world that emit carbon dioxide. If the world starts replacing or converting these plants to carbon free energy production at the rate of one plant per day, then it will take 69 years to make all of these power plants carbon neutral, and an 80% conversion would take 56 years. If you'd like assume that most emissions come from the largest plants, you can cut those numbers in half or even by 2/3 and the point remains. At a conversion rate of one plant per week -- using only the top 1/3 emitters -- it would take 145 years to convert 80% of these 1/3 (162 years to convert the entire 1/3).

But energy production from fossil fuel power plants is of course increasing, so these are conservative numbers. The rate of conversion from carbon dioixde emitting power plants currently is negative (they are growing in number, at a rate of, what, several per week? Good data sources appreciated in the comments), so the conversion clock is running in reverse. And, oh yeah, power plant emissions according to CGD are 29% of the global total.

The point of this post is not that mitigation is impossible, but that it arguably is much, much harder a challenge than typically advertised. Any guesses on when the power plant conversion rate will become positive, and a what rate it will occur? Will it occur at all?

May 25, 2008

IPCC Scenarios and Spontaneous Decarbonization

Joe Romm has helpfully posted up his full reply to Nature on PWG (PDF), and we are happy to link to it as promised. And after reading Joe's original letter and his comments, the source of his complaint -- and confusion -- is now clear. This post explains that Joe has confused the differences between different IPCC SRES scenarios with spontaneous decarbonization within each individual scenario.

Figure 1.png

The Figure above is from our Nature paper. It shows for the six SRES families (A1B, A1FI, A1T, A2, B1, B2) cumulative emissions to 2100. For now lets ignore the light blue part of each bar (which represents the spontaneous or automatic decarbonization that we discuss in the paper, and which I return to below).

Joe Romm points out in his critique:

The Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES), which the Commentary cites, makes clear that while the SRES scenarios don’t technically have climate policies, they can and do have energy efficiency and decarbonization policies, which are the same thing. That’s clear from examining the B1 scenario, which includes aggressive policies that help limit total global warming to about 2°C

He is correct in this assertion. The effect of these policies in the B1 sceanrio can be seen in the difference between the height of the green plus red (G+R) parts of the B1 bar and the same G+R portion of the bars for the other scenarios. Clearly, the B1 G+R is closer to the dotted line than any of the others (though A1T is also close). The "energy and decarbonization policies" that Joe Romm refers to are those that account for the difference in height between the G+R parts of the bars in our graph across scenarios -- which is completely different than the assumptions of automatic decarbonization within each scenario which are reflected in the light blue parts of the bars.

Automatic decarbonization occurs in the IPCC scenarios not because of specific policies that the report discusses, but because of assumptions that it uses within individual scenarios (specifically, assumptions of decreasing carbon and energy intensities). Whatever policies are associated with these assumptions are not discussed by the IPCC. The decarbonization of the global economy reflected by the light blue portions of the bars in the figure above are indeed accurately characterized as being "automatic" or "spontaneous."

In its editorial discussing our paper, Nature clearly understood this. Joe Romm apparently does not. He has confused the differences between aggregate emissions across scenarios with assumptions of automatic decarbonization within scenarios.

Now that Joe has released his original letter to Nature, it is clear why they asked him to correct his error of interpretation. It is also clear why his claims that we have made an error in our analysis is incorrect.

May 22, 2008

Nature Letters on PWG

The 8 May 2008 issue of Nature published 4 letters in response to the Pielke, Wigley, and Green commentary on IPCC scenarios (PDF). This provides a few excerpts from and reactions to these letters.

Vaclav Smil of the University of Manitoba writes:

I largely agree with the overall conclusion of Pielke et al. that the IPCC assessment is overly optimistic, but I fear that the situation is even worse than the authors imply.

Smil is realistic about the challenge of mitigation:

The speed of transition from a predominantly fossil-fuelled world to conversions of renewable flows is being grossly overestimated: all energy transitions are multigenerational affairs with their complex infrastructural and learning needs. Their progress cannot substantially be accelerated either by wishful thinking or by government ministers’ fiats.

But pessimistic about action:

Consequently, the rise of atmospheric CO2 above 450 parts per million can be prevented only by an unprecedented (in both severity and duration) depression of the global economy, or by voluntarily adopted and strictly observed limits on absolute energy use. The first is highly probable; the second would be a sapient action, but apparently not for this species.

Christopher Field, from Stanford University agrees with our analysis and its implications:

The trends towards increased carbon and energy intensity may or may not continue. In either case, we need new technologies and strategies for both endogenous and policy-driven intensity improvements. Given recent trends, it is hard to see how, without a massive increase in investment, the requisite number of relevant technologies will be mature and available when we need them.

Richard Richels, of the Electric Power Research Institute, Richard Tol, of the Economic and Social Research Institute (Ireland), and Gary Yohe, of Wesleyan University support our analysis and our interpretation of its significance:

Pielke et al. show that the 2000 Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES) reflects unrealistic progress on both the supply and demand sides of the energy sector. These unduly optimistic baselines cause serious underestimation of the costs of policy-induced mitigation required to achieve a given stabilization level.

This is well known among experts but perhaps not to the public, which may explain why some politicians overstate the impact of their (plans for) climate policy, and why others argue incorrectly that ‘available’ off-the-shelf technologies can reduce emissions at very little or no cost.

They also make an absolutely critical point about climate policy – it is necessarily incremental and adaptive:

The focus of policy analysis should not be on what to do over the next 100 years, but on what to do today in the face of many important long-term uncertainties. The minute details of any particular scenario for 2100 are then not that important. This can be achieved through an iterative risk management approach in which uncertain long-term goals are used to develop short-term emission targets. As new information arises, emission scenarios, long-term goals and short-term targets are adjusted as necessary. Analyses would be conducted periodically (every 5–10 years), making it easier to distinguish autonomous trends from policy-induced developments — a major concern of Pielke and colleagues. If actual emissions are carefully monitored and analysed, the true efficacy and costs of past policies would be revealed and estimates of the impact of future policy interventions would be less uncertain.

Such an approach would incorporate recent actions by developed and developing countries. In an ‘act then learn’ framework, climate policy is altered in response to how businesses change their behavior in reaction to existing climate policies and in anticipation of future ones. This differs from SRES-like analyses, which ignore the dynamic nature of the decision process and opportunities for mid-course corrections as they compare scenarios without policy with global, century-long plans.

Ottmar Edenhofer, Bill Hare, Brigitte Knopf, Gunnar Luderer Potsdam of the Institute for Climate Impact Research (Germany) suggest that the range of rates for the future decarbonization of energy in the IPCC reports is in fact appropriate:

Over the past 30 years, the decrease in energy intensity has been 1.1% a year — well above the 0.6% a year assumed in 75% of the energy scenarios assessed by the IPCC.

Developments in China since 2000 do raise concerns that the rate of decrease in energy and carbon intensity could slow down, or even be reversed. However, similar short-term slow-downs in technical progress have occurred in the past, only for periods of more rapid development to compensate for them. India, for example, does not show the decreasing trend in energy efficiency seen in China.

The figure of 75% of scenarios of the IPCC assuming 0.6% per year decrease in energy intensity is difficult to interpret. But here is what the IPCC itself says on this (WGIII Ch. 3, p. 183 PDF):

In all scenarios, energy intensity improves significantly across the century – with a mean annual intensity improvement of 1%. The 90% range of the annual average intensity improvement is between 0.5% and 1.9% (which is fairly consistent with historic variation in this factor). Actually, this range implies a difference in total energy consumption in 2100 of more than 300% – indicating the importance of the uncertainty associated with this ratio.

So if 5% fall below 0.5%, it is hard to understand what the authors mean by "0.6% a year assumed in 75% of the energy scenarios assessed by the IPCC." Contrary to the other letters Edenhofer et al. conclude:

The IPCC’s main policy conclusions stand: present technologies can stop the rise in global emissions.

The final letter is from Joseph Romm, of the Center for America Progress. He chooses to parse what is meant by the term "climate policies" in the vernacular of the IPCC:

They criticize the IPCC for implicitly assuming that the challenge of reducing future emissions will mostly be met without climate policies. But the IPCC’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios makes clear that, although the scenarios don’t technically have climate policies, they can and do have energy efficiency and decarbonization policies, which amount to the same thing

It is not clear why this semantic point matters for interpreting our analysis as it has no implications for either our technical analysis or its interpretation. Of course, the IPCC defined the notion of "climate policies" quite precisely for a reason -- because the policies that relate to improved energy efficiency and decarbonization assumed by the IPCC to occur in their scenarios in the absence of climate policy mean that these other policies would be implemented with no effort focused on the stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (no cap and trade, no Kyoto, no carbon tax, etc. etc.). These policies, whatever they are, would happen spontaneously or automatically without any concern for climate. This assumption was explicit in the terms of reference for the IPCC SRES exercise for the purpose of clearly identifying the marginal benefits and costs of climate-specific policies.

Romm then simply repeats the conclusions of the IPCC:

the IPCC report makes clear that we have the necessary technologies, or soon will, and focuses on creating the conditions for rapid technological deployment

Interestingly, with a letter in Nature Romm, who has been a strong critic of our paper on his blog, had a perfect opportunity to explain what might have been incorrect in our technical analysis, and did not. We can assume that he was unable to find any flaws and thus chose to focus on the implications of the analysis, which he does not enagage, choosing simply to restate a position that he held before our paper came out.

As can be seen clearly in the letters, there is not a consensus among energy policy experts on the role of technological innovation in efforts to mitigate climate change. This is a debate which has only just begun, and for which there are a range of legitimate and informed points of view, despite the efforts of some to demagogue anyone who disagrees with their views.

May 08, 2008

Iain Murray on Climate Policy

Over at his blog Iain Murray, who is with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, has a thoughtful response to my initial post on elements of any successful approach to climate change. I won't try to summarize Iain's lengthy post, so go there read it and come back. (Thanks to BP for the pointer.)

Here are some very quick responses of my own.

1. I appreciate Iain's efforts to "propose an alternative framework that may be more appealing to conservative policy-makers." In the U.S there is a wide gap between Democrats and Republicans on many aspects of climate policy. If this gap is to close in the form of shared agreement on action, it will result from having an open discussion of policies resulting in compromises, and not by the finger-pointing, name calling, and derision that so often accompanies political debates on climate change. As Walter Lippmann once wrote, the goal of politics is not to get people to think alike, but to get people who think differently to act alike.

2. On adaptation Iain and I see to agree more than disagree. I recognize that the concept of "sustainable development" carries with it much symbolic baggage and people read into the concept an awful lot. I don't see a Malthusian perspective in the concept, far from it. I actually see that technological progress that eliminates limits and opens possibilities as key to sustainable development. There is much more to say, but on issues of technology and trade, i see no real significant disagreements here.

3. Iain is correct in pointing out the real costs associated with making carbon-based energy more expensive. This is the main reason that I see that its political prospects are seriously limited. But even so, Iain probably recognizes that what he calls "costs" are viewed by many people as "benefits". That is, many people would like energy to be more pricier, even if it results in costs for some other people . For some, they focus on the non-market costs of carbon-based energy and thus evaluate the costs/benefits with some implicit valuation of the intangibles, but others simply prefer the outcomes associated with pricier energy. I have no expectation that people with vastly different values will come to agreement on costs and benefits associated with pricing carbon, hence, I see its prospects as limited in any case.

4. Iain likes the idea of making carbon-free energy "more affordable" but has some different recommendations than I do on how it might be done. Great. I don't think that anyone has a magic bullet solution, so agreement on the goal ought to be a enormous first step in its achievement. This is one reason why I listed a laundry list of options. I would hope that Iain would agree that the world really hasn't set forth in this direction in any real seriousness, at least not as compared to the intensity of action focused on pricing carbon. But we seem to agree on the goals here.

Iain has some more specific actions described at his blog that are worth a read. If anyone else wants to share their reactions to this discussion they are welcome to do so in the comments or as a guest blog.

May 06, 2008

Elements of Any Successful Approach to Climate Change

This post summarizes, in capsule form, what I believe to be the necessary elements of any successful suite of policies focused on climate mitigation and adaptation. This post is short, and necessarily incomplete with insufficient detail, nonetheless, its purpose is to set the stage for future, in depth discussions of each element discussed below. The elements discussed below are meant to occur in parallel. All are necessary, none by itself sufficient. I welcome comments, critique, and questions.

1. Adaptation

Whatever the world does on mitigation, adaptation will be necessary. And by adaptation I don’t simply mean adaptation to the marginal impacts of human-caused climate change, as presented under the Framework Convention on Climate Change. I mean adaptation to climate, and as such, a concept much more closely related to the original notion of sustainable development. Adaptation is therefore core to any approach to climate change that seeks to ameliorate the effects of climate on people and the environment. Much of my research over the past 15 years has focused on this subject, and long-time readers of this blog will know my position well.

2. Make Carbon Emissions Pricier

Unrestrained emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will no doubt have effects on the global earth system, including the oceans, atmosphere, and land surface. There is a chance that these effects could be relatively benign, but there is also a chance that the effects could be quite severe. I personally lean toward the latter view, but I recognize that there is ample scientific knowledge available for people to selectively construct any position they’d like along this spectrum. I have little expectation that climate scientists, despite their notable work alerting the world to the risks associated with unmitigated emissions, have much prospect for accurately predicting the evolution of the global climate system (and especially its regional manifestations) on the time scale on which decisions related to mitigation and adaptation need to be made. In fact, I think there is a very good chance that some enthusiastic climate modelers will overstretch their claims and hurt their own cause. Even so, I have concluded that it is only prudent to establish some cost to emitting carbon (a global carbon tax is the theoretical ideal).

At the same time, because the global energy system is driven almost entirely by carbon-emitting fuels, putting a price on carbon will necessarily result in higher costs for energy and everything that results from using energy. This is of course the entire point of putting a price on carbon. Anyone suggesting anything different is being misleading. Now some will argue that over the longer term putting a price on carbon will result in benefits, especially when non-market outcomes are considered. Perhaps this is the case, and for purposes of discussion I’d simply grant the point. But in the short term, it is equally true that the costs of energy will increase. For this reason I am not optimistic about the prospects of putting a meaningful price on carbon anywhere, much less via a global treaty. People will react strongly to increasing costs, whether they are associated with energy, food, transportation, or whatever. Strong reactions will be felt in the form of electoral outcomes and thus in policy positions (exhibit A = McCain/Clinton pandering with a gas tax holiday; exhibit B = Last week’s UK elections, etc.). I am certainly not opposed to efforts to put a price on carbon, but at the same time we also need to be fully aware of the realities of politics which suggest that putting a price on carbon may not actually occur or, if it does occur, may be implemented at a meaningless level in small parts of the global economy. Therefore, we’d better be ready with another strategy when these sorts of approaches inevitably fail.

3. Make Carbon Free Energy Cheaper

The flip side to making carbon pricier is to make carbon-free energy sources relatively cheaper. The first step in this part of the strategy is to shift the massive subsidies that government provides to fossil fuel to non-carbon fuel energy sources. This by itself won’t make carbon-free energy systems cheaper, but it will facilitate the deployment and adoption of some currently pre-commercial technologies that may be on the wrong side of being competitive. I can see no justification for continued subsidies of dirty energy, but here as well we need to recognize the political challenges of displacing entrenched interests, keeping in mind for instance the example of the challenges of removing agricultural subsidies around the rich world. Energy subsidies will be equally difficult to displace.

Therefore, perhaps more important are measures that focus government investments on accelerating the development and deployment of carbon-free energy technologies. These measures include robust public funding for research from exploratory to applied; pilot programs to test and demonstrate promising new technologies; public-private partnerships to encourage private sector participation in high risk ventures; training programs to expand the number of scientists and engineers working on a wide variety of energy R&D projects; government procurement programs to provide a predictable market for promising new technologies; prizes for the achievement of important technological thresholds; multilateral funds and international research centers to help build a global innovation capacity; as well as policy incentives to encourage adoption of existing and new energy-efficient technologies, which in turn fosters incremental learning and innovation that often leads to rapidly improving performance and declining costs.

If there are to be targets and timetables associated with international negotiations, then they should focus on the development and deployment of carbon-free energy systems in the context of ever-increasing global demand for energy. Such a focus will be far more meaningful than the easily gamed, mostly symbolic, and reality-detached focus on concentration targets or, even worse, degrees Celsius.

4. Energy Modernization

The world needs more energy, vastly more so. So a central element of any national or international energy policy will necessarily include creating access to reliable, cheap energy. Consider that something like 2 billion people have no access to electricity around the world. It is a, in my view, simply a moral obligation of those around the world with high standards of living to help those who do not. This means focusing on energy modernization, but doing so in full recognition that carbon-based energy technologies, which are so readily available in much of the developing world are poised for ever more intensive development. I recommend a focus on energy modernization not simply for altruistic reasons, but in full recognition that it is in the narrow self-interests of the rich world to help foster new markets, new trading partners, and a growing global economy. In the future the greatest potential for this growth is in the developing world.

5. Air Capture Backstop

All of the hand wringing, name calling, and finger pointing in the world won’t change the fact that steps 2, 3, and 4 may not limit the growth of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere at levels now deemed to be acceptable in policy discussions (pick your number – 560, 500, 450, 350, 280, whatever). Sorry, but it is true. Thus, so long as policy makers want to limit the growth in concentrations (which I think makes good sense), then they will want to focus on developing the capability to directly remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – a technology called “air capture”.

Even if approaches under 2, 3, and 4 above prove wildly successful I really doubt that such social policies can hit any target concentration within a few hundred ppm anyway. So the development of air capture technologies represents not only a backstop, but also a way down the road to fine tune carbon policies focused on concentrations, should that be desired. I have absolutely no doubts that with air capture as the focus of R&D over a few decades it can be achieved at pretty reasonable costs (but they will still be costs) using approaches today not yet commonly discussed. In fact I view the technical challenges of air capture much (!) more optimistically than suggestions that we can change the lifestyles and energy using habits of more than 6 billion people. In addition, the costs of air capture provide a hard estimate of the true costs of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and thus provide a valuable baseline for evaluating other approaches based on social engineering. In my view air capture is the only form of geoengineering that makes any sense whatsoever.

6. Recognize that Climate Change is Not Only Carbon Dioxide

Stabilizing concentrations of carbon dioxide makes good sense, but we should not fool ourselves into thinking that carbon dioxide emissions are the sole meaningful human forcing of the global earth system at local, regional, or global scales. Thus, we might with some effort successfully modernize the global energy system, and in the process decarbonizes it, but then find ourselves looking squarely at other human activities that affect the climate, and thus have human and environmental impacts.

These activities include other greenhouse gases, but also aerosol emissions, land use change, irrigation, chemical deposition, albedo effects, and others. We have entered an era where humans have a large and profound impact on the world, and to think that it is just carbon dioxide (or that carbon dioxide is all that matters) is myopic and misleading.

These are the elements that I believe together to be necessary in any approach to climate adaptation and mitigation that has any prospects to succeed. I will focus future posts on further discussing the specifics of each element, providing references and justifications, and connecting them each to actual policies that are the subject of current discussion.

April 24, 2008

Germany's Energy Gap

Germany's Energy Gap.jpg

Der Spiegel has an excellent article on the future of Germany's energy supply. Even with projections of a falling population, Germany has a looming gap between the energy it needs and the energy it projects to be available. Why is this? According to the article:

Nuclear power is too dangerous. Coal is too dirty. Gas involves too much dependence on Russia. And renewables are insufficient. So just where is Germany going to get its power from?

How did Germany, with its forward-thinking renewable policies and ecologically sensitive populace, get into this situation?

The problem is that up until now the Germans have been too passive in working towards achieving an energy supply that satisfies all requirements; in other words, one that is environmentally friendly, safe and cost-efficient at the same time. They have chosen to fritter away the fruits of their prosperity on day-to-day problems instead of investing them in intelligent preparations for the future -- in other words, in energy research.

In fact, Germany actually offers the ideal conditions to achieve even more impressive technological advances than in the past. The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), with its 7,500 staff, is a perfect illustration of this potential.

Engineers on the campus of the KIT are testing, for example, a prototype system that converts straw into fuel. In another lab, engineers are developing a highly efficient geothermal power plant, and in yet another, physicists are building giant magnets for the experimental ITER fusion reactor to be based in France.

Everywhere at KIT, solutions are being developed which will not only help Germany, but also the rest of the world, to overcome the most serious energy problems. But the engineers and scientists at the Karlsruhe technology park sense -- precisely because they are so ambitious -- the limits of what they can do. Peter Fritz, the institute's head of research, says that the threat of an energy gap in Germany is not the only reason that "a great deal of know-how and money needs to be mobilized very quickly."

In comparison to the size of the problem, energy research in Germany has tended until now to be somewhat relegated to the sidelines. But it is also a decisive weak point, including in the debate over the expected power shortfall. This is because cutting-edge research offers the best way to limit the costs associated with a massive expansion of renewable energy.

From a global perspective, government research expenditures have hardly increased since the early 1970s, and the situation is especially bleak in Germany. After the 1973 oil crisis, annual expenditures for energy research, adjusted for inflation, were almost doubled to €1.5 billion ($2.37 billion). But then, as the pressure of high oil prices subsided, research budgets were gradually reduced before reaching a record low of just under €360 million ($569 million) in 2001.

Energy research budgets have gone up again since then, but far too slowly. Ironically, the grand coalition makes no secret of its pride in having brought the government's energy research budget back up to above €500 million ($790 million).

KIT research director Fritz isn't surprised that so many important questions still haven't been answered, including the issue of long-term storage of nuclear waste. "It is critical that we bring expenditures back up to €1.5 billion ($2.37 billion)," he says, and he even has a provocative idea to offer: "The government should sell extended operating periods for German nuclear power plants at auction and invest the proceeds in research."

It's a provocative idea: Use yesterday's dirty technology to make a clean future possible? Nuclear money for the great efficiency revolution?

Even Foreign Minister Steinmeier, the architect of Germany's nuclear phase-out, sometimes succumbs to temptation. "Longer operating lives for nuclear power plants would certainly be the easier approach," he says, but adds: "However, accelerated technology development is much better in the long run and provides us with new export markets."

There is a technology policy lesson for the U.S. to be learned in Germany's energy policies. Specifically, yes do everything that you can in the short-term to make energy more secure, more efficient, and more clean -- and above all, available. But don't forget that to invest in innovation, lest you find yourself in an impossible situation.

April 23, 2008

Joe Romm’s Fuzzy Math

[UPDATE: Joe Romm replies in the comments: "Roger -- Thanks for catching my C vs CO2 error.those are very hard to avoid. And thank you for this post. I probably should have elaborated on this issue already -- so I'll just do it in a new post, which will take me a few hours to put together. As you'll see, there actually isn't a gap in my math -- there is a gap in Socolow's and Pacala's math that most people (you included) miss. I'll leave it at that, for now, and Post the link when I am finished."]

Readers here will know that Joe Romm has been extremely critical of the idea that we need any new technological advances to achieve stabilization of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at a level such as 450 ppm. Now Joe helpfully lays out his plan for how stabilization at such a low level might be achieved. It turns out that there is a significant gap in Joe’s math. Even the remarkably ambitious (some would say impossibly fantastic) range of implementation activities that he proposes cannot even meet his own stated goals for success. The only way for him to close the mathematical gap that he has is to rely on – get this -- assumptions of spontaneous decarbonization of the global economy (and by this I mean specifically reductions in energy per economic growth and reductions in carbon per unit energy). In fact, the emissions reductions that he needs to occur automatically (i.e., assumed) for his math to work out are larger than those he proposes through implementation.

Joe relies on a useful concept from Pacala and Socolow (2004, PDF) called the "stabilization wedge" defined as follows:

A wedge represents an activity that reduces emissions to the atmosphere that starts at zero today and increases linearly until it accounts for 1 GtC/year of reduced carbon emissions in 50 years.

Each wedge thus equates to a reduction of 25 GtC over 50 years.

Joe starts out by observing that we are at about 8.4 GtC ("30 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year") and "rising 3.3% per year" (for consistency I am expressing all units in GtC, though do note that Joe switches back and forth with carbon dioxide). He says that "We need to peak around 2015 to 2020 at the latest, then drop at least 60% by 2050 (to 4 billion tons a year or less)." Here I think that Joe actually means 4 GtC and not carbon dioxide, which we’ll adopt as Joe’s chosen mid-century target value. Joe presents 14 proposed wedges worth of implementation: 4 are focused on efficiency, 4 on sequestration, and 6 on carbon-free energy totaling about 12.5 terawatts (compare).

OK, let’s look at the math that Joe provides and how his proposed actions square with his goal. Let’s set aside political realism and all that, and just focus on the simple arithmetic of mitigation. If emissions continue to rise at 3.3% per year then by 2058 total global emissions will be about 42 GtC. With Joe’s 14 wedges all successfully implemented that would equate to an emissions reduction of 33% to 28 GtC per year, falling 24 GtC (i.e., 24 wedges)short of his goal of 4 GtC.

Well, you might say that emissions rising at 3.3% per year is unrealistic; after all, in the last two decades of the last century the global economy became more efficient and the world relied on less carbon intensive sources of fuel. The rate of this decline from 1980-2000 was about 1.0% per year, so maybe it’ll happen again at this rate from 2008-2058. Why not? Increasing emissions at the lower rate of 2.3% per year would indeed make a huge difference, meaning that total emissions in 2058 would be about 26 GtC – representing a reduction equal to the contribution of 16 wedges!! Yet even with this generous assumption of 16 free wedges, after we subtract Joe’s 14 wedges we’d still be left with an annual emissions gap of 12 GtC.

But wait, the careful reader might object, and report to us that Joe already assumes vast improvements in efficiencies -- in fact 4 total of his 14 wedges. Is it reasonable to assume that we can get 20 (16 free + 4 from Joe) wedges of improved energy efficiency and decarbonization of the energy supply? Maybe, maybe not, but the assumption sure helps the math. And yet it still doesn’t get us all of the way to Joe’s goal.

What about if we shorten the time frame? Joe did suggest that we need to implement each wedge over four decades and not five: "If we could do the 14 wedges in four decades, we should be able to keep CO2 concentrations to under 450 ppm." Of course, one wedge over four decades is equal to 20 GtC not 25 GtC, so we’ll call this a "short wedge."

A 3.3% growth in emissions to 2048 would result in annual emissions totaling about 31 GtC. Subtracting 14 of Joe’s short wedges would still leave us 13 GtC short of his goal of 4 GtC. OK, I guess that it’s probably time to invoke those assumptions again. With a return to the 1980-2000 rate of decarbonization of the global economy and a 2.3% rate of emissions increase, the 2048 emissions would be about 21 GtC. If we subtract out Joe’s 14 short wedges that still has Joe missing his target by 3 "short wedges," which we could probably erase by upping the assumed decarboniztion of the global economy to about 1.5% per year.

In short, the only way that Joe Romm’s ambitious solution even comes close to the mark is by assuming a significant spontaneous decarbonization of the global economy (i.e., reductions in energy and carbon intensities). Because Joe does not tell us how these spontaneous reductions will occur, his math is, at best, fuzzy. It seems quite odd that Joe, who has said that the fate of the planet is at stake, is willing to bet our future on baseline carbon dioxide emissions increasing at a rate of less than 2.0% per year, plus some fantastically delusional expectations of the possibilities of policy implementation (and the political realism of Joe's solution will have to wait for another post). It may be unwelcome and uncomfortable for some, but Joe’s fuzzy math explains exactly why innovation must be at the core of any approach to mitigation that has a chance of succeeding.

Is it possible that assumed decarbonization of the global economy carries the weight of future emissions reductions? Sure, its possible. Is this something you want to bet on? Maybe some do, but I'd be much more confident with an approach that can succeed even if carbon dioxide growth rates exceed 2.0% per year.

April 22, 2008

The Central Question of Mitigation

[Updated: In the comments Skipper points out a units error (Thanks!). That would be 20,000 nuclear plants, not 2,000!]

The central question can be found at the bottom of this long, technical post. In 1998 Hoffert et al. published a seminal paper in Nature (PDF) which argued that:

Stabilizing atmospheric CO2 at twice pre-industrial levels while meeting the economic assumptions of "business as usual" implies a massive transition to carbon-free power, particular in developing nations. There are no energy systems technologically ready at present to produce the required amounts of carbon-free power.

Hoffert et al. provide a figure which illustrates the amount of carbon-free energy that will be needed assuming that concentrations of carbon dioxide are to be stabilized at 550 ppm, and the global economy grows at 2.9% per year to 2025 and 2.3% per year thereafter. I have updated this figure to 2008 (estimated) values as indicated below.


The figure shows carbon free energy required to achieve stabilization at 550 ppm carbon dioxide as a function of the rate of average energy intensity decline. The figure also shows 1990 total energy consumption (about 11 terawatts, TW) and the share of this valuefrom carbon-free sources (about 1.2 TW). I have updated both of these values to 2008 using data from the EIA, which I extrapolated to 2008 values, for which I arrive at 17.4 TW of total energy consumption of which 2.4 TW are carbon-free.

Hoffert et al. estimated that we'd need 10-30 TW of carbon free primary energy production by 2050, assuming energy intensity declines of 1.0-2.0% over the first 5 decades of the 21st century. So far at least, that assumption has proved optimistic, as actual energy intensity has increased, as indicated by the blue dot on the leftward-extended horizontal axis. If energy intensity does not improve beyond this value then the world will need 22 TW of carbon-free energy by 2025, and if this value works out to a net 0.5% decline through 2025, then this figure would be halved to 11 TW. For 2050 the values are 51 and 25 TW respectively.

The units of energy can be difficult to interpret. How much is 10 TW of energy? A run-of-the-mill nuclear power plant provides about 500 megawatts; so if you have 2,000 of these then you have 1 terawatt. So 20,000 nuclear plants -- or the equivalent -- by 2025 would do the trick of providing 10 TW.

In a subsequent paper in Science 2002 Hoffert et al. discuss the options available to meet technological challenge of providing 10 TW of carbon-free energy:

Combating global warming by radical restructuring of the global energy system could be the technology challenge of the century. We have identified a portfolio of promising technologies here--some radical departures from our present fossil fuel system. Many concepts will fail, and staying the course will require leadership. Stabilizing climate is not easy. At the very least, it requires political will, targeted research and development, and international cooperation. Most of all, it requires the recognition that, although regulation can play a role, the fossil fuel greenhouse effect is an energy problem that cannot be simply regulated away.

They responded to critiques of their 2002 paper with this (emphasis added):

Market penetration rates of new technologies are not physical constants. They can be strongly impacted by targeted research and development, by ideology, and by economic incentives. Apollo 11 landed on the Moon less than a decade after the program started. We are confident that the world's engineers and scientists can rise to the even greater challenge of stabilizing global warming. But it does not advance the mitigation cause to gloss over technical hurdles or to say that the technology problem is already solved.

Any discussion of the technologies needed to stabilize carbon dioxide concentrations is incomplete without showing the arithmetic of energy production and consumption. This simple math is too often overlooked in the highly politicized to and fro over mitigation.

The central question of the mitigation challenge is thus the following: What technologies will provide the world's future power needs, and do so in a carbon-free manner? Show your work.

April 21, 2008

A Post-Partisan Climate Politics?

Californina Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger provides a positive and optimistic view of of climate policy in a speech yesterday at Yale. You can watch it here. Here is an excerpt:

So I urge you to continue to be open‑minded on our environment. Do not dismiss or do not accept an idea because it has a Republican label or a Democratic label or a conservative label or a liberal label. Think for yourself. This is especially true on environment. So I have great faith in your ability to find new answers and to find new approaches. Don't accept what the old people say. Don't accept the old ways. Don't accept the old ways or the old politics of Democrats and Republicans. Stir things up. Be fresh and new the way you look at things.

Is a post-partisan climate politics possible?

Please Tell Me What in the World Joe Romm is Complaining About?

Joe Romm has continued his hysterical, content-free attacks on me and my colleagues for daring to suggest a view not 100% the same as his own. How dare we. After taking a close look at some of Joe’s writing, it turns out that he seems to agree with just about everything I’ve written on energy policy, and his continued (mis)characterizations of my views simply don’t square with what I’ve actually written.

Here are some examples:

On whether current projections of future emissions growth may possibly underestimate the mitigation challenge, Joe agrees with us that they just might:

[Socolow and Pacala] assume "Our BAU [business as usual] simply continues the 1.5% annual carbon emissions growth of the past 30 years." Oops! Since 2000, we’ve been rising at 3% per year (thank you, China). That means instead of BAU doubling to 16 GtC in 50 years, we would, absent the wedges, double in 25 years. That would mean each wedge needs to occur in half the time, assuming our current China-driven pace is the new norm (which is impossible to know, but I personally doubt it is). . . A similar problem to this is that many of the economic models used by the IPCC assume BAU rates of technology improvement and energy efficiency that are very unlikely to occur absent strong government action, so they are probably overly optimistic.

This last statement is of course exactly what we say in our Nature paper. So our argument about the possibility of understating the magnitude of the mitigation challenge that that Romm has criticized repeatedly (without actually questioning our numbers, but writing a lot of overheated prose), he in fact agrees with. Interesting. Weird.

In addition, I have never written anything against the deployment of existing carbon-free technologies. Quite the opposite. So when Romm says that I have called for an R&D-only approach he is either ignorant or lying, to be blunt. In fact I have argued for a vigorous short-term focus, such as in testimony before the U.S. Congress in 2006 (PDF:

When it comes to effective substantive action on mitigation, I would argue that the available research and experience shows quite clearly that progress is far more likely when such actions align a short-term focus with the longer-term concerns. In practice, this typically means focusing such actions on the short-term, with the longer-term concerns taking a back seat. Examples of such short-term issues related to mitigation include the costs of energy, the benefits of reducing reliance on fossil fuels from the Middle East, the innovation and job-creating possibilities of alternative energy technologies, particulate air pollution, transportation efficiencies, and so on.

And last year Dan Sarewitz and I wrote more specifically of how such a challenge would be met in practice (PDF. After reading Romm's writings, I cannot figure out at all what in the world Joe Romm would disagree with in the following:

Nevertheless, the broad and diverse portfolio of policies and programs necessary to catalyze a long-term technological transformation to a low-carbon energy system is reasonably well understood, even if the path and timing of the transition cannot be precisely engineered. These measures include robust public funding for research spanning the gamut from exploratory to applied; pilot programs to test and demonstrate promising new technologies; public-private partnerships to incentivize private sector participation in high risk ventures (such as those now used to induce pharmaceutical companies to develop tropical disease vaccines); training programs to expand the number of scientists and engineers working on a wide variety of energy R&D projects; government procurement programs that can provide a predictable market for promising new technologies; prizes for the achievement of important technological thresholds; multilateral funds for collaborative international research; international research centers to help build a global innovation capacity (such as the agricultural research institutes at the heart of the Green Revolution); as well as policy incentives to encourage adoption of existing and new energy-efficient technologies, which in turn fosters incremental learning and innovation that often leads to rapidly improving performance and declining costs.

In fact, significant aspects of such a portfolio were proposed and modestly funded during the Clinton Administration in the mid 1990s (Holdren and Baldwin, 2002), but they were politically doomed from the outset because they were too narrowly promoted as climate change policies, rather than as advancing a broad set of national interests and public goals and goods. They did not survive into the Bush Administration; nor did they significantly find their way into the international climate regime. Indeed, the Kyoto approach is a disincentive to implementing many of the sorts of measures listed above because they will not contribute to a nation’s ability to meet its short-term targets.

So Joe Romm’s continued, overheated, and plain weird attacks are difficult to interpret given that that he (a) has written that he agrees with our analysis of the possibility that current baseline expectations for future energy use may underestimate the challenge of mitigation, and (b) he completely ignores the fact that I have consistently supported a broad approach to innovation, including a focus on R&D, but much more. It is true that Joe Romm and I disagree about the value of adaptation, but his complaints of late have been about mitigation. But even if we disagree a bit on the specifics of climate policy, so what? Is his energy really best spent attacking others trying to address this challenge in good faith?

I certainly can’t figure out his incessant attacks and name-calling, but it looks increasingly like they have nothing to do with the merits of our views on mitigation, since they appear to be pretty compatible. Should Joe continue to play the mischaracterization and attack game, I will respond as needed, but I am hoping that he can instead focus on making positive arguments for particular policies, and leave the junior high school chest thumping where it belongs.

April 20, 2008

Kristof on PWG

Nicholas Kristof has a column in the Sunday NYT on the recent Nature paper by Tom Wigley, Chris Green, and me. Here is an excerpt:

Three respected climate experts made that troubling argument in an important essay in Nature this month, offering a sobering warning that the climate problem is much bigger than anticipated. That’s largely because of increased use of coal in booming Asian economies.

For example, imagine that we instituted a brutally high gas tax that reduced emissions from American vehicles by 25 percent. That would be a stunning achievement — and in just nine months, China’s increased emissions would have more than made up the difference.

China and the United States each produces more than one-fifth of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. China’s emissions are much smaller per capita but are soaring: its annual increase in emissions is greater than Germany’s total annual emissions.

Please read the whole thing.

And if you are new to our site -- Welcome! -- and you can find our Nature paper here (in PDF), a short essay on adaptation here (in PDF), and my book The Honest Broker, here.

April 17, 2008

Geoengineering: Who Decides?

An April 16 interview on the BBC (mp3) on the topic of geoengineering by Sarah Montague with Ken Caldeira of Stanford and David Keith from the University of Calgary raises some interesting issues about how the climate science community seeks to influence political outcomes through its decisions about what research to conduct and discuss in public.

Dr. Keith was first asked if geoengineering offers a "realistic prospect for a solution to global warming":

Keith: I think that "solution" is much too big a word. The sort of things we are talking about are not solutions in the sense that they would not compensate for the environmental damage of all of the carbon dioxide we’re putting in the air, but they might still be things that in some bad circumstances we’d want to do to limit the worst damage of that carbon dioxide. So I think of these more as band aids, but band aid is a pejorative word, but it is also something that we use.

Sarah M: And could contribute?

Keith: Yes

After Ken Caldeira recommends doing more research to evaluate the potential effectiveness of geoengineering he is asked whether such strategies could indeed provide "part of the solution";

Caldeira: Yes, none of these solutions will completely reverse the effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, but as David points out it looks as if many of these schemes have the potential to reduce the consequences of carbon dioxide emissions. . .

The conversation next turned to the political implications of geoengineering, and specifically its effects on what options are considered in debate on climate change.

Sarah M: I suppose the problem with any idea like this [geoengineering] Professor Keith is that you are possibly distracting from the business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

David Keith: Absolutely, I think that this has been people’s biggest fear in talking about this at all, that the idea that some of this risk management or band aid solutions are out there might make people less committed to cutting carbon dioxide emissions and I think that was a sort of universal fear that you heard at the conference [of the European Geosciences Union] and among various people who work on these technologies is exactly that.

So, to recap: scientists think that geoengineering has the potential "to reduce some of the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions" but some scientists think that scientists should not discuss the prospects for geoengineering because it will distract from other approaches to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions. Thus, decisions about what research to conduct and what is appropriate to discuss is shaped by the political preferences of scientists. This won’t be news to scholars of science in society, but it should be troubling because it is unfortunately characteristic of the climate science community. I personally have seen this dynamic at work when engaging in discussions of adaptation and also the true magnitude of the mitigation challenge.

Of course, neither Caldeira or Keith are among those who want to limit research or talk about geoengineering, but they obviously are well aware of those people among their colleagues (as am I). The interview ends with an rather glib policy recommendation by Caldeira:

Caldeira: . . . The question of which is better to do, which is more environmentally sensitive, to let the polar bears go extinct or put some dust in the upper atmosphere? And I think that it is not clear that choosing the extinction of polar bears is the more environmentally friendly choice.

Perhaps this question was meant to provoke an intellectual "thought experiment," but since it wasn’t presented as such, I’d be interested in hearing from Ken or anyone else about any available research that might suggest that geoengineering offers the prospect of altering the probabilities of future polar bear extinction. It is exactly this sort of imprecise, scientifically unsupportable discussion of policy alternatives that the scientific community should avoid.

Finally, let me make my own position clear. I prefer that both research and discussion of geoengineering take place. I am confident that the vast majority of such technologies can be shown to be a very bad idea on the merits of the policy arguments for and against. The one exception I'd suggest is the direct air capture of carbon dioxide, which some people don’t even include as a geoengineering technology. One thing I am sure of is that scientists should encourage political debate over policy options for responding to accumulating greenhouse gases to take place out in the open, involving policy makers and the public, and resist the urge to try to tilt the political playing field by altering what they allow their colleagues to work on or discuss in public. The climate debate has too much of this behavior already.

Bush CO2 Plan in Context

For those of you who might wish to place the plans announced by President Bush yesterday into context, according to data from the US EIA (xls):

US CO2 emissions from 2026-2030 are projected to increase by only 0.84% per year. So stabilizing at 2025 levels is not an ambitious goal, given the small rate of increase projected to be occurring for the US at that time. To put this another way, the average annual increase in US emissions from 2025 to 2030 will be equal to about 2.5 days of China’s projected 2030 emissions also using projections from the EIA (which in fact probably represents a dramatic underestimate of where China’s emissions are actually headed, as we suggested in Nature two weeks ago). For those wanting to spin things the other way, you might point out that the proposed five year effects on carbon dioxide of Bush's plans 2026-2030 are about twice the magnitude of the proposed five year effects of the Clean Development Mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol.

April 10, 2008

Has German Policy Harmed Solar Power?

A Guest Post by Greg Nemet, University of Wisconsin.

The Economist has an article this week with the title "bureaucratic meddling has harmed solar power."

The article points out correctly that the cost of solar power has stopped falling in the past couple of years as a result of scarcity of purified silicon, the main material used to make solar panels. It's an informative article…as long as you ignore the headline and the conclusion that governments should not interfere with the development of new technologies.

Any subsidy program will put upward pressure on prices in the near term, as people are generally willing to pay more for something when someone else pays part of the cost. The important question is what happens in the longer term. And despite the recent rise in prices, the subsidy program in Germany and the market for solar it has created over the past eight years, have set in motion promising trends: new purified silicon plants are coming on line that will make the input material for solar panels much cheaper, the rise in silicon cost has led to rapid reductions in the amount of material used, and the scale of demand has made it worthwhile for German machine tool companies to develop PV-specific manufacturing machinery that they now export to low-cost PV factories in China. These developments are highly promising for cheaper PV; and they are very closely tied to important policy innovations, also known as "bureaucratic meddling."

The bigger problem, that the article misses, is that the solar technology being used today is unlikely ever to get cheap enough for truly massive deployment, even if the factors above engender substantial cost reductions in the next several years. In a recent study (PDF), we compared the effects of subsidies and R&D on the cost of solar power and found that you can't get to really cheap solar with subsidies alone. Subsidies can help enable economies of scale and learning-by-doing, but they are not enough. Technology breakthroughs are also needed if PV is going to get cheap enough to compete with coal or gas or, eventually, nuclear power—even with high carbon prices. Some of the technical improvements that will enable commercialization of cheap PV are certainly best left to the private sector. But the history of technology policy suggests that the fundamental breakthroughs required will need to come from more bureaucratic meddling in the form of publicly sponsored R&D funding.

Posted on April 10, 2008 02:13 AM View this article | Comments (0)
Posted to Author: Others | Energy Policy | Technology Policy

April 09, 2008

Interview with Frank Laird

Center faculty affiliate Frank Laird is interviewed over at the Breakthrough Institute on energy policy and climate change.

April 07, 2008

Joe Romm on Air Capture Research

Joe Romm, whose voluminous, hysterical attacks on me and my co-authors Tom Wigley and Chris Green have become somewhat cartoonish, has far more in common with my views than he thinks. Here is what he says on a recent Real Climate post on air capture:

But we should surely do a fair amount of research on air capture, since, by not later than the 2020s, we’re going to get desperate for emissions reductions, and by the 2030s, we’re going to be very desperate and willing to pursue expensive options we that aren’t yet politically realistic.

Investment in research to support a potential breakthrough new technology -- what a great idea Joe!

Gwyn Prins on PWG in The Guardian

Gwyn Prins, a professor at the London School of Economics who is also a friend and collaborator, has a thoughtful op-ed in The Guardian with his views on the significance of our Nature commentary of last week. Here is an excerpt:

The global economy is not decarbonising - it is recarbonising. This was noticed by the experts in the IPCC but not reported in its Summary for Policymakers, the politically negotiated document mostly read by politicians and journalists. If the free rider of decarbonisation is not available, the challenge to move quickly to a radically different type of global climate policy is all the greater.

What would a materially effective policy do? It would break the link between poverty reduction and carbon emission. It would recognise that the developing world needs to consume - and will consume - more energy, not less. It would recognise that attempting to control human-created carbon emissions by setting binding output targets and relying on artificial carbon markets and dodgy offsets, as Kyoto does, has not and never will work.

Such policy would shift to the input side, and concentrate on radical improvements in the production and use of energy. It would focus first on the sectors of all economies that are the heaviest consumers of energy: power generation, building, cement and metals production. The sectors that western environmentalists have prioritised hitherto, such as road and air transport, should be much further down the list. If all automobile use in the US stopped tonight, the reduction in global emissions would be less than 6%. Instead, there must be a much larger commitment to fundamental energy technology research and development.

Read it here.

April 02, 2008

Commentary in Nature

[Update #4: The guys at Grist Magazine apparently have not yet read our paper, which probably explains why one of their commentators explains that everything we say is right but common wisdom, while another says that everything we say is wrong. At least they have their bases covered. Why don't these guys at Grist actually read the paper before commenting? One wonders.]

[Update #3: Andy Revkin of the NYT provides some comments as well here.]

[Update #2: John Tierney of the NYT times provides excerpts of an extended set of comments that I shared with him here.]

[Update: Here is a short interview I did with Scitizen link.]

Tom Wigley, Chris Green, and I have a Commentary in today's Nature on the technology challenge of stabilization. It has already generated some discussion and this discussion will be the focus of some of my posts over the next weeks.

Meantime, please have a look at this summary that Tom, Chris, and I prepared:


The challenge of stabilizing the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere may be much more difficult that currently realized. In a commentary published April 3, 2008 in Nature, Roger Pielke, Jr. (University of Colorado), Tom Wigley (National Center for Atmospheric Research) and Chris Green (McGill University) argue that the magnitude of the technology challenge associated with stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may have been significantly underestimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The reason for this underestimate lies in the assumptions of decarbonization common to all scenarios of future emissions growth used by the IPCC. These assumptions may be far too optimistic, and if so, will hide from view the magnitude of the technology challenge associated with stabilizing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In this commentary the authors reveal these assumptions, and discuss their significance for policy making.

Indeed, the authors present evidence that the first decade of the 21st century has seen greater emissions of CO2 than projected by IPCC due to rapid economic development, particularly in Asia. In recent years, the world as a whole has begun to re-carbonize, breaking a long-term trend in which carbon dioxide per unit energy was assumed instead to continue to decline indefinitely.

Stabilization of the concentrations of CO2 and other greenhouse gases is the primary objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), approved by almost all counties, including the USA. Stabilization requires, eventually, reducing the emissions of these gases by large amounts relative to today, a task commonly referred to as "mitigation." For CO2, mitigation requires replacing current and likely future fossil-fuel-based energy systems by carbon neutral energy sources -- that is, sources of energy that are either fossil-fuel free, are accompanied by the capture and storage of CO2, or are otherwise carbon-neutral.

The costs of mitigation are generally estimated by comparing emissions under a baseline scenario where emissions evolve in the absence of climate policies, with a scenario in which the emissions are reduced (via climate policy) to achieve a chosen atmospheric concentration, called a stabilization target. Pielke, Wigley and Green note that the standard baseline scenarios considered for these calculations already include large amounts of carbon-neutral technologies that are assumed to be developed and implemented spontaneously. In the cases the authors consider, 57 to 96% of the cumulative emissions reduction required for CO2 stabilization at around 500 ppm have been assumed by IPCC to occur automatically, meaning that the majority of the emissions reduction needed to stabilize concentrations is assumed to occur automatically..

Rather than starting with assumptions about future spontaneous technological innovations, the authors’ calculations begin with a set of "frozen technology" scenarios as baselines, i.e., emissions scenarios in which energy technologies are assumed to remain at present levels. This contrasts with previous approaches, which use baselines that already include major technology changes, and, consequently, large spontaneous increases in carbon-neutral energy sources. With a "frozen technology" approach, the full scope of the carbon-neutral technology challenge is placed into clear view.

With the full scope of the technology challenge placed into view, the question then arises as to how much of this challenge will occur spontaneously, and how much must be driven by new policies. Pielke and his colleagues suggest that the amount of spontaneous development of carbon-neutral energy sources has been overestimated in previous analyses, diverting attention away from technological innovation, thereby underestimating the need for policy-driven technology development.

The authors conclude by saying "… there is no question whether technological innovation is necessary – it is. The question is, to what degree should policy focus explicitly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that the spontaneous advancement of technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions, rather than focusing on those conditions necessary and sufficient for such innovations to occur."

April 01, 2008

April Fool's Day as Teachable Moment?

Today there are no doubt a plethora of jokes bouncing through the interwebs. Whether this is reflective of the mindset in Washington or an attempt at stealth advocacy, I've noted the following from Public Knowledge, a public interest group focused on intellectual property rights.

Public Knowledge Slams New Intellectual Property Legislation

As the title of this post suggests, this is indeed an April Fool's joke. The execution is a bit subtle, but those who dig into the comments embedded in the associated legislation should figure it out.

At the risk of further ruining the joke, I wonder how effective it is to devise a piece of legislation that cobbles together worst case scenarios for content users and throw it into a gag. It's worth noting what parts of their gag legislation are reflective of actual legislation, but I'm not sure how many people will read deeply enough into this that weren't already aware of the issues.

So let me raise this question, independent of the April 1 baggage - how effective can worst-case alarmist scenarios be in evoking meaningful action? Does it depend on the issue?

March 04, 2008

Interview at The Breakthrough Institute

I've gladly accepted an invitation to join The Breakthrough Institute as a 2008 Senior Fellow. They have an interview with me up on their blog here. And I'll be blogging over there regularly.

If you are not familiar with their advocacy efforts, check them out and add their blog to your blogroll.

February 28, 2008

Matthews and Caldeira on the Mitigation Challenge

Just when you thought that the mitigation challenge was dismal, Matthews and Caldeira publish a paper in GRL suggesting that things are in fact worse than that:

In the absence of human intervention to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere [e.g., Keith et al., 2006], each unit of CO2 emissions must be viewed as leading to quantifiable and essentially permanent climate change on centennial timescales. We emphasize that a stable global climate is not synonymous with stable radiative forcing, but rather requires decreasing greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere. We have shown here that stable global temperatures within the next several centuries can be achieved if CO2 emissions are reduced to nearly zero. This means that avoiding future human-induced climate warming may require policies that seek not only to decrease CO2 emissions, but to eliminate them entirely.

Have we mentioned that air capture is coming? And that is whether we like it or not.

February 25, 2008

Air Capture in the U.S. Congress

Senator John Barosso (R-WY) has introduced a bill promoting a technology policy for air capture research, including prizes for technological achievements. From the press release:

U.S. Senator John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has introduced a bill aimed at developing technology to remove existing excess green houses gases from the atmosphere and permanently sequester them.

The "Greenhouse Gas Emission Atmospheric Removal Act," or GEAR Act, will establish an award system for scientists and researchers.

"My proposal takes a new look at climate change," Barrasso said. "This approach removes excess greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere. The GEAR Act aims to tap into human potential and the American spirit to develop the technological solutions we need to address climate change."

"Where ever you find yourself on the issue of climate change, we can agree on one important dynamic – change not only awaits us - it is banging on the door. We need to change it on our terms before Washington ’s massive bureaucracy changes it for us."

"It makes sense that we explore proposals to remove and permanently sequester excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere to slow or reverse climate change. The best way to develop the technology we need to achieve this is through a system of financial awards, or prizes, for achieving technological goals established by Congress."

"Putting strict limits on our economy is not the answer to climate change. A healthy economy that spurs American ingenuity makes more sense to me."

Mark Northam, Director of the School of Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming , said: "Removal of greenhouse gases directly from the atmosphere is the Holy Grail of climate change mitigation solutions. As currently envisioned, successful technologies will mimic natural processes and over time will help to stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at acceptable levels."

The full text of the bill follows after the jump.

S. 2614

To facilitate the development, demonstration, and implementation of technology for use in removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.



Mr. BARRASSO introduced the following bill; which was read twice and referred to the Committee on Environment and Public Works



To facilitate the development, demonstration, and implementation of technology for use in removing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


This Act may be cited as the "Greenhouse Gas Emission Atmospheric Removal Act" or the "GEAR Act".


It is the policy of the United States to provide incentives to encourage the development and implementation of technology to permanently remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere on a significant scale.


In this Act:

(1) COMMISSION.-The term "Commission" means the Greenhouse Gas Emission Atmospheric Removal Commission established by section 5(a).

(2) GREENHOUSE GAS.-The term "greenhouse gas" means-

(A) carbon dioxide;

(B) methane;

(C) nitrous oxide;

(D) sulfur hexafluoride;

(E) a hydrofluorocarbon;

(F) a perfluorocarbon; and

(G) any other gas that the Commission determines is necessary to achieve the purposes of this Act.

(3) INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY.-The term "intellectual property" means-

(A) an invention that is patentable under title 35, United States Code; and

(B) any patent on an invention described in subparagraph (A).

(4) SECRETARY.-The term "Secretary" means the Secretary of Energy.


The Secretary, acting through the Commission, shall provide to public and private entities, on a competitive basis, financial awards for the achievement of milestones in developing and applying technology that could significantly slow or reverse the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by permanently capturing or sequestrating those gases without significant countervailing harmful effects.


(a) Establishment.-There is established within the Department of Energy a commission to be known as the "Greenhouse Gas Emission Atmospheric Removal Commission".

(b) Membership.-

(1) COMPOSITION.-The Commission shall be composed of 11 members appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, who shall provide expertise in-

(A) climate science;

(B) physics;

(C) chemistry;

(D) biology;

(E) engineering;

(F) economics;

(G) business management; and

(H) such other disciplines as the Commission determines to be necessary to achieve the purposes of this Act.


(A) TERM.-A member of the Commission shall serve for a term of 6 years.

(B) VACANCIES.-A vacancy on the Commission-

(i) shall not affect the powers of the Commission; and

(ii) shall be filled in the same manner as the original appointment was made.

(3) INITIAL MEETING.-Not later than 30 days after the date on which all members of the Commission have been appointed, the Commission shall hold the initial meeting of the Commission.

(4) MEETINGS.-The Commission shall meet at the call of the Chairperson.

(5) QUORUM.-A majority of the members of the Commission shall constitute a quorum, but a lesser number of members may hold hearings.

(6) CHAIRPERSON AND VICE CHAIRPERSON.-The Commission shall select a Chairperson and Vice Chairperson from among the members of the Commission.

(7) COMPENSATION.-A member of the Commission shall be compensated at level III of the Executive Schedule.

(c) Duties.-The Commission shall-

(1) subject to subsection (d), develop specific requirements for-

(A) the competition process;

(B) minimum performance standards;

(C) monitoring and verification procedures; and

(D) the scale of awards for each milestone identified under paragraph (3);

(2) establish minimum levels for the capture or net sequestration of greenhouse gases that are required to be achieved by a public or private entity to qualify for a financial award described in paragraph (3);

(3) in coordination with the Secretary, offer those financial awards to public and private entities that demonstrate-

(A) a design document for a successful technology;

(B) a bench scale demonstration of a technology;

(C) technology described in subparagraph (A) that-

(i) is operational at demonstration scale; and

(ii) achieves significant greenhouse gas reductions; and

(D) operation of technology on a commercially viable scale that meets the minimum levels described in paragraph (2); and

(4) submit to Congress-

(A) an annual report that describes the progress made by the Commission and recipients of financial awards under this section in achieving the demonstration goals established under paragraph (3); and

(B) not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, a report that describes the levels of funding that are necessary to achieve the purposes of this Act.

(d) Public Participation.-In carrying out subsection (c)(1), the Commission shall-

(1) provide notice of and, for a period of at least 60 days, an opportunity for public comment on, any draft or proposed version of the requirements described in subsection (c)(1); and

(2) take into account public comments received in developing the final version of those requirements.

(e) Peer Review.-No financial award may be provided under this Act until such time as the proposal for which the award is sought has been peer reviewed in accordance with such standards for peer review as the Commission shall establish.


(a) In General.-Title to any intellectual property arising from a financial award provided under this Act shall vest in 1 or more entities that are incorporated in the United States.

(b) Reservation of License.-The United States-

(1) may reserve a nonexclusive, nontransferable, irrevocable, paid-up license, to have practiced for or on behalf of the United States, in connection with any intellectual property described in subsection (a); but

(2) shall not, in the exercise of a license reserved under paragraph (1), publicly disclose proprietary information relating to the license.

(c) Transfer of Title.-Title to any intellectual property described in subsection (a) shall not be transferred or passed, except to an entity that is incorporated in the United States, until the expiration of the first patent obtained in connection with the intellectual property.


There are authorized to be appropriated such sums as are necessary to carry out this Act.


The Commission and all authority of the Commission provided under this Act terminate on December 31, 2020.

February 18, 2008

So Much for Peak Oil, Plug-In Hybrids, and Reliance on Foreign Dictators

In the New York Times Kenneth Chang reports on a novel application of air capture of carbon dioxide that promises carbon neutral gasoline forever. If commercially viable the technology could prove enormously disruptive to all sorts of interests.

The idea is simple. Air would be blown over a liquid solution of potassium carbonate, which would absorb the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide would then be extracted and subjected to chemical reactions that would turn it into fuel: methanol, gasoline or jet fuel.

This process could transform carbon dioxide from an unwanted, climate-changing pollutant into a vast resource for renewable fuels. The closed cycle — equal amounts of carbon dioxide emitted and removed — would mean that cars, trucks and airplanes using the synthetic fuels would no longer be contributing to global warming.

Although they have not yet built a synthetic fuel factory, or even a small prototype, the scientists say it is all based on existing technology.

"Everything in the concept has been built, is operating or has a close cousin that is operating," Dr. Martin said.

The Los Alamos proposal does not violate any laws of physics, and other scientists, like George A. Olah, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Southern California, and Klaus Lackner, a professor of geophysics at Columbia University, have independently suggested similar ideas. Dr. Martin said he and Dr. Kubic had worked out their concept in more detail than previous proposals.

There is, however, a major caveat that explains why no one has built a carbon-dioxide-to-gasoline factory: it requires a great deal of energy.

To deal with that problem, the Los Alamos scientists say they have developed a number of innovations, including a new electrochemical process for detaching the carbon dioxide after it has been absorbed into the potassium carbonate solution. The process has been tested in Dr. Kubic’s garage, in a simple apparatus that looks like mutant Tupperware.

Even with those improvements, providing the energy to produce gasoline on a commercial scale — say, 750,000 gallons a day — would require a dedicated power plant, preferably a nuclear one, the scientists say.

According to their analysis, their concept, which would cost about $5 billion to build, could produce gasoline at an operating cost of $1.40 a gallon and would turn economically viable when the price at the pump hits $4.60 a gallon, taking into account construction costs and other expenses in getting the gas to the consumer. With some additional technological advances, the break-even price would drop to $3.40 a gallon, they said.

If their economic numbers are even close to the mark then air capture is coming to a refinery near you. Are you ready?

Posted on February 18, 2008 05:32 PM View this article | Comments (21)
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Technology Policy

January 05, 2008

My Comments to Science on Hillary Clinton's Science Policy Plans

I was recently asked by Eli Kintisch at Science to comment on Hillary Clinton's recent discussion of science policies. Eli quotes a few of my comments in this week's Science, which has a special focus on the presidential candidates. My full reaction to Eli is below:

Hi Eli-

The document seems typical for this early stage of the campaign -- that is, it blends a heavy dose of political red meat, with the entirely vacuous, with hints of some innovative and perhaps even revolutionary new ideas, accompanied with a range of budget promises that almost certainly can't be met. But most significantly is the fact that she has put some science policy ideas forward to be discussed, which is far more than most other candidates of either party have done related to science.

*The red meat is all of the "I'm not George Bush" type statements, such as the stem cell proposal and re-elevation of the science advisor position.

*The vacuous includes the comment that you starred on political appointees. The meaning of this statement depends entirely on the definition of "legitimate basis" and "unwarranted supression" -- well, what is "legitimate" and "unwarranted"? -- as written it is a political Rorschach test, which can be good politics but certainly does nothing to clarify the specific science policies she would enact. Also, the idea that civil servants and scientists are free from politics in regulatory decision making probably needs more thinking through -- but balancing accountability and expertise probably requires more wonky discussion than a campaign sound bite can provide.

*The most innovative idea is the $50 billion strategic energy fund, which is short on details, but promises real money to an area desperately in need of support. This stands out as something really new and potentially very exciting.

*The promises that probably can't be met include keeping the Shuttle contractors in business while pursuing a new human spaceflight program, while at the same time fully funding earth sciences research and a new space-based climate research program, while putting NIH on a doubling trajectory over the next 10 years, not to mention a bit for aeronautics and the $50 billion for energy research. Good luck finding room in the R&D budget for all of that. But again, more politics than science policy, this time aimed at more specific constituencies looking to see that their concerns get some play.

The biggest criticism I have is the comment about the NIH budget, which her husband set on a doubling trajectory and which was completed under Bush. To suggest that NIH has suffered a lack of support is not a great argument. Also, a minor criticism, the part about the U.S. national assessment on climate change says that Bush hasn't released one for 6.5 years, but Clinton/Gore took more than 7 years to release theirs. The national assessment is more political red meat, and probably tangential to where the action is on climate issues anyway.

Hope this helps, please follow up if clarification is needed . . .

Best regards,


Roger Pielke, Jr.
University of Colorado

December 18, 2007

Climate Policy as Farce

According to The Telegraph to deal with the issue of climate change the UK's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor Sir David King, has encouraged a "cultural change" among women to prefer men who save energy, rather than hog it, such as by driving Ferrari's. And for those of you unfamiliar with UK newspapers, it is important to point out that The Telegraph is not the UK's version of The Onion.


Here is an excerpt:

Professor Sir David King said governments could only do so much to control greenhouse gas emissions and it was time for a cultural change among the British public.

And he singled out women who find supercar drivers "sexy", adding that they should divert their affections to men who live more environmentally-friendly lives.

His comments were greeted with anger by sports car drivers who insisted that their vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions were tiny compared with those from four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Sir David, who is due to retire as the UK's Chief Scientific Adviser at the end of the year, said individuals needed to change their behaviour.

"I was asked at a lecture by a young woman about what she could do and I told her to stop admiring young men in Ferraris," he said.

"What I was saying is that you have got to admire people who are conserving energy and not those wilfully using it."

Sir David, who persuaded the Government to start using the Toyota Prius, a hybrid car that claims to have lower emissions than most conventional cars, added: "Government has so many levers that it can pull - when it comes to the business sector it is quite effective.

"As soon as you come to the individual, however, they will buy a Ferrari, not because it is cheap to run or has low carbon dioxide emissions, but because young women think it is sexy to see men driving Ferraris. That is the area where a culture change is needed."

Meanwhile, Europe is divided about strengthening regulations on emissions from autos:

Emergency talks aimed at setting EU targets to reduce CO2 car emissions are being held today amid fears that bitter wrangling between car manufacturing countries could delay or even derail the process entirely.

The European Commission is due to adopt a draft regulation tomorrow on reducing carbon emissions from passenger cars to 120 grams per kilometre within five years, but a bitter fallout between European heavyweights has plunged the key negotiations into crisis. Member states with car manufacturers that traditionally produce heavy, energy-hungry cars are concerned that the emission targets will unfairly benefit those businesses that make lighter, more efficient vehicles.

France and Germany, in particular, are believed to be at loggerheads over the Commission's proposals. French manufacturers such as Peugeot-Citroen have already reduced their carbon emissions to 140g for their cars, whereas German companies such as BMW, Mercedes and Daimler still lag behind on emission targets because their vehicles are heavier and higher performance models. Sweden, which also tends to make larger cars, is also thought to be unhappy about the proposals, while Italy is backing France.

What is lost among this empty moralizing and trade disputes is that a zero-emission Ferrari would require no need to change the libidinal desires of young women (granting Prof. King's dubious premise), nor an embarrassing trade dispute between countries committed to reducing emissions.

These anecdotes -- frustrating and farcical as they may be -- illustrate a serious underlying point: Much of climate debate is exactly backwards. Advocates are spending far too much time arguing over how important that it is that others change their behavior, usually in ways that those doing the advocating would want regardless of climate change. In this way climate change becomes not a problem to be solved but a political weapon in service of other goals. The alternative to the dominant approach to climate change would be to initiate those steps that will actually make a difference, thus enabling political compromise. As Dan Sarewitz and I have often argued it is often technological advances that enable compromise rather than vice versa. And in the case of climate change those steps that will actually make a difference begin with making the costs of producing alternative energy cheaper than fossil fuels (as Shellenberger and Nordhaus have argued, and now Google), and working to make people and ecosystems more resilient/less vulnerable to climate impacts. Of course many groups are doing exactly this, but they are certainly not those leading the charge on climate policy.

December 14, 2007

Chris Green on Emissions Target Setting

Chris Green, an economist from McGill University (Canada), has written an op-ed for the Global and Mail explaining why he thinks that the setting of long-term emissions targets just kicks the can down the road. This is sure to be an unpopular opinion among many in the climate debate, but ultimately I think he is right. Here is an excerpt:

It is not difficult to set forth the outlines of a potentially effective climate policy. Unfortunately, what may be effective is not necessarily politically acceptable. It now seems that the main barrier to an effective climate policy is the obsession with emission targets — a legacy of the Kyoto Protocol. Emission targets stand in the way of concentrating on actions whose payoff is mainly beyond the targeted time frame. Worse, because of an effective effort by climate-change "campaigners" to portray the Kyoto Protocol as humankind's last best hope on climate change, emission targets have now taken on a life of their own, particularly in political arenas susceptible to grandstanding behaviour. The evidence is all around us.

The fundamental problem with mandated emission reduction targets is that they focus on ends rather than on the technological means of achieving those ends. Because targets are assessed only rarely in terms of what is doable but usually in terms of what pressure groups think ought to be done, target-based policies lack credibility in virtually the same proportion in which they are politically popular. The Conference of the Parties session in Bali will indicate whether there is a sufficient number of countries prepared to say that the target-setting emperor has no clothes, and are ready to put a moratorium on this failed approach to climate policy.

The op-ed is distilled from a longer piece from the magazine Policy Options, and a PDF of that essay can be found here. It is well worth a read regardless of your views on the climate issue.

November 15, 2007

The Technological Fix

On Monday we had Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus kindly give a lecture on their new book Break Through. It was great to have them stop by, and nice to have an opportunity to get answers to questions about their book. Turnout was in the 100 range, judging by the size of the room. If you haven't read the book yet, you can either buy it, camp out in Borders with a cup of joe, or check out a three minute overview given by Geoff McGhee and Andrew Revkin of the NY Times covering the "New Environmental Centrists."

I want to respond to at least one of their claims, as well as a claim that appears to be circulating in the blogo-ether as what Revkin is calling the "Centrist" position, regarding the thought that we should encourage technological fixes to our problems. The reason I want to respond to this claim is both because I think it's right; and because I think it's, well, not right.

So let's talk about technological fixes.

I'm something of a technology buff. I like gadgets. I like science. And I like what technology does for me and the world. I also like what came about as a result of the ramped up R&D funds during the nineties. Moreover, I've never been totally enthusiastic about some of the neo-luddite language that once passed as environmentalist, so I agree with Shellenberger and Nordhaus (S&N) that we should all be encouraging, funding, supporting, and promoting technologies that help our civilization and our country advance. In fact, I also agree that environmentalists should be considerably more aspirational than desperational.

S&N argue persuasively that the "politics of limits" -- which is, roughly, the idea that regulation can serve as a cure-all to the world's environmental problems -- ought to be replaced with a "politics of possibility" -- which is kind of hopeful thinking about new possible worlds. Their argument runs primarily along political strategy lines and is buttressed by many studies that show that Americans don't respond well to the pessimism and "scare tactics" of environmentalism. The book's central idea should be familiar to anyone who has read their earlier work, Death of Environmentalism. In the end, it hangs on this dichotomy of political orientations: limits versus possibility.

And in this dichotomy lies the problem. It's a false concretism, supported mainly by S&N's choices of what counts as an environmental issue. Much of their book is geared to address concerns that relate to climate change. That's fine and well, of course, because climate change is one of the major hurdles that has been motivating the environmental movement for the past ten years or so. But it is also true that environmentalists have been dealing with many more problems than climate change for quite some time now. To declare the death of environmentalism, or to suggest that the positive panacea to the chicken-little environmental frame of mind is through technological and economic fixes, and that these fixes run contrary to the politics of limits, is to undermine a critical ethical thread that runs through environmental thinking altogether.

The greatest real-world instance of this thread is the relatively wide range of environmental issues that don't fall under the category of climate change; that were, prior to Al Gore and the Prius, central environmental issues. Here I'm thinking of issues like deforestation, desertification, extinction, habitat encroachment, water depletion, and so on. Environmental issues span the gamut, and many of them deal with human activities in and around nature. These issues can never be handled by technological or economic fixes, precisely because they are not problems of technical or economic failure. Some issues, for instance, relate to the problem of urban sprawl or to overconsumption, which cannot possibly be solved by appeal to technological or economic fixes. The "over" in 'overconsumption' isn't determined by what other people don't have (though that, surely, is part of it); it's determined by how much a person is entitled to and how much a person can reasonably use. Even Locke recognizes prohibitions against spoilage. These are primarily ethical and philosophical notions.

A second problem is that many of the classic environmental issues, among which climate change is only one, are best characterized as conflicts of interest, not just between two actors, but also between one actor and the environment. I want a cherry dining set, you want a cherry dining set, and there ain't enough cherry growing fast enough to give us both what we want. Moreover, when I take that cherry for my cherry dining set, I deprive the world of that cherry tree. In this case, it's not just any cherry tree; it's that cherry tree; that cherry tree under which Harold kissed Maude, under which Abe told his truth, under which Erma held her bowl. So too for many environmental problems: I want a ski slope, so I take that mountain. I want a fountain, so I take that reservoir. I want a McMansion development, so I take that open space. Taking specific features of nature yields particularized conflicts of interest; but even more than this, particularized clashes over what is and what is not permissible. Again, permissibility is an ethical issue, only loosely and tangentially related to the so-called "politics of limits."

What I'm expressing here isn't at all pessimism about technology. Far from it. As I've said, I like and support technological innovation. I'd even root for a budget that included a lot of it. I'm hoping to point out that S&N's "politics of limits vs politics of possibility" dichotomy has many rough edges; inattention to which heralds a premature call for the death of environmentalism.

For more on this, my colleague Michael Zimmerman, Professor in the Philosophy Department and the Environmental Studies Program, as well as an outspoken advocate of an expansively multidisciplinary approach to environmental issues, Integral Ecology, has his own new blog and has further comments on S&N here:

May 09, 2007

Should the Gates Foundation fund Policy Research?

Well, according Hannah Brown writing in BMJ the answer is "yes" (h/t It turns out that simply investing money in scientific research or technology development is not sufficient to realize benefits on the ground. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has already changed he world for the better, and has much future potential, so it is good that it is learning the limitations of the so-called "linear model" of science and society sooner rather than later. Here is an excerpt from Brown's commentary:

Ask anyone with a passing interest in global health what the Gates Foundation means to them and you'll likely get just one answer: money. In a field long fatigued by the perpetual struggle for cash, the foundation's eagerness to finance projects neglected by many other donors raised high hopes among campaigners that its impact on health would be swift and great. And with the commitment last June by America's second richest man, Warren Buffet, to effectively double the foundation's $30bn (£15bn; {euro}22bn) endowment,1 hopes of substantial health achievements grew higher still.

But despite Bill Gates's prediction at a press conference to mark Buffet's pledge that there was now "No reason why we can't cure the top 20 diseases"2 observers are starting to question whether all this money is reaping sufficient rewards. For although the foundation has given a huge boost to research and development into technologies against some of the world's most devastating and neglected diseases, critics suggest that its reluctance to embrace research, demonstration, and capacity building in health delivery systems is worsening the gap between what technology can do and what is actually happening to health in poor communities. This situation, critics charge, is preventing the Gates's grants from achieving their full potential.

Read the whole thing.

April 26, 2007

The Politics of Air Capture

A while back we prepped our readers to get ready for air capture. This article from a New Jersey newspaper, the Star-Ledger, describes how one air capture technology is progressing and how different interests are already taking political positions on its merits:

Klaus Lackner's invention has been called many things -- a wind scrubber, a synthetic tree, a carbon vacuum, even a giant fly swatter.

The energy guru, inventor and professor at Columbia University prefers to call it an "air extractor." By any name, however, Lackner predicts that the giant machines he is building will one day stop global warming in its tracks.

After three years of intensive experiments, Lackner and scientists at Global Research Technologies LLC, in Arizona, have produced a working model of the device, which can sop up carbon dioxide, the dreaded greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.

"Look, it's one arrow in the quiver," said Lackner, reached by telephone. "This begins to offer a solution to an overwhelming problem."

Others were more expansive.

"This significant achievement holds incredible promise in the fight against climate change," said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia. "The world may, sooner rather than later, have an important tool in this fight."

Here is one reaction to the technology:

"There's no magic bullet to save us from the problem of global warming," said Kert Davies, an energy expert for Greenpeace USA in Washington, D.C. Removing greenhouse gases so readily will not encourage people to develop alternate, renewable technologies, he said, and strive for energy efficiency.

Such techno-fixes also miss the point of the environmental degradation brought on by the use of fossil fuels, he said.

Carbon scrubbers won't stop oil spills, habitat-destroying strip mining and ozone, he said. "It's like having cancer and putting a Band-Aid on it," he added.

Besides, Davies said, the devices, which will in principle be larger than the prototype, will be eyesores. "Can you imagine thousands of acres of giant fly swatters across the land?"

If reducing fossil fuels is not really about carbon dioxde, as the Greenpeace spokesman suggests but also about many other benefits, then why shouldn't these benefits play a more central role in energy policy debates? And being so quick to abandon the carbon dioxide argument is not an effective strategy for compelling action on carbon dioxide. Greenpeace has come out in favor of wind power and the required acres of windmills across the land. This is hard to square with CO2-removal technologies as eyesores, unless one recognizes that the aesthetics of a technology appear to be a function of its political role.

I have no idea if Professor Lackner's ideas will prove to have technical merit or not. However, I do believe that all options should be on the table, and we should resist efforts to limit choice prematurely.

April 16, 2007

Frank Laird on Peak Oil, Global Warming, and Policy Choice

Frank Laird, from the University of Denver and also a Center affiliate, has the lead article in our latest newsletter. His topic is peak oil, climate change, and policy choice. Here is an excerpt:

A recent spate of books and articles proclaim the end of oil and an imminent crisis for the world. Likewise, global warming alarms sound from almost every corner of the press. What are policy makers to do? How should policy analysts help decision makers frame the debate and assess the alternatives? Many advocates are trying to do exactly the wrong thing: narrow policy makers’ options through a rhetoric proclaiming that policy makers will have no choice but to adopt their favored technology, so the sooner they get to it, the better. This approach both misunderstands how policy making works and does a disservice to policy makers. . .

Ironically, both renewable and nuclear energy advocates see themselves as possessing the key to an energy-abundant and climate-safe future. Both advocacy communities have been around for decades, have a history of mutual hostility, and think their time is nigh. Yet both groups are using a language of inevitability that suggests a naïveté about public policy, short-changes the policy process, and makes it all the harder to have intelligent, nuanced discussions of the difficult policy choices that lie ahead.

Their central point is that society or governments will have “no choice” but to adopt their preferred solution. They believe that the problems of peak oil and climate change present such severe problems to our society that policy makers will realize that they must adopt nuclear or renewable energy, that the lack of choice will be plain.

This language distorts the reality of policy making and short-changes society by trying to close off debate over the many and possibly creative solutions that policy could bring to bear on these problems. The central fact of policy making is that governments always have a choice. No circumstance, no matter how dire, leaves them with only one choice. To be sure, not all choices are equally good, and anyone familiar with history will know that sometimes governments make bad, even disastrous, choices. But they always have choices to make. Pretending otherwise just misunderstands all we know about public policy.

Read the whole thing.

February 22, 2007

Where Stern is Right and Wrong

The Christian Science Monitor adds a few interesting details to Nicolas Stern's recent U.S. visit. On mitigation Stern explains why the debate over the science of climate change is in fact irrelevant:

Even if climate change turned out to be the biggest hoax in history, Stern argues, the world will still be better off with all the new technologies it will develop to combat it.

If mitigation can indeed be justified on factors other than climate change, which I think it can, then why not bring these factors more centrally into the debate?

Stern also dismissed two other arguments for inaction: that humans will easily adapt to climate change and that its effects are too far in the future to address now. Putting the burden of dealing with climate change on future generations is "unethical," Stern said.

Once again adaptation is being downplayed as somehow being in opposition to mitigation. Stern may in fact believe that we need to both adapt and mitigate, but that is certainly not what is conveyed here. The Stern Review itself adopted a very narrow view of adaptation as reflecting the costs of failed mitigation. When framed in this narrow way there is no alternative than to characterize adaptation and mitigation as trade-offs, and in today's political climate guess which one loses out?

February 09, 2007

Air Capture Prize

This prize looks to raise the stature of air capture technologies that we have discussed here before (Hat tip: James Annan).

January 02, 2007

Profiling Frank Laird

Andy Revkin’s article in the New York Times yesterday suggested that there are an untapped set of views on climate policy that might be worth hearing from. We thought it might be worth profiling some of these voices periodically. One such perspective is provided by Frank Laird, a professor in the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Frank is also a friend and a faculty affiliate at our Center at CU.

One of Frank’s areas of expertise is energy policy, and specifically renewable energy policies. His excellent 2001 book Solar Energy, Technology Policy, and Institutional Values, (Cambridge University Press), was a finalist (one of the top 3) 2004 Don K. Price Award for the best book in science and technology policy or politics, awarded by the American Political Science Association. I reviewed his book in 2002 for the journal Policy Sciences and you can see my review here in PDF. Frank's book illustrates how technologies become objects onto which political partisans map their valued ends and means. While values don’t always change quickly, a technology – in this case solar energy and nuclear energy -- can be favored at different times for difference reasons by different political camps. Politics does make strange bedfellows. Consequently we should be careful in linking a particular technology with a political perspective. In the case of solar energy, Laird argues, success in making such a linkage is one factor which arguably held back the further expansion of solar technologies in the 1970s. Laird also shows quite convincingly how energy policy decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s have shaped where we are at today.

Frank has written on climate change as well. In 2000 he wrote Just Say No to Greenhouse Gas Emissions Targets in Issues in Science and Technology. In that article he wrote:

The critiques in this paper are not based on skepticism about the nature and seriousness of climate change, and they are not intended to give aid and comfort to the diminishing band of greenhouse skeptics. I assume for this analysis that the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are correct. . . . Although the science still contains substantial uncertainty, as climate scientist Stephen Schneider and others remind us, that uncertainty cuts both ways, so that the effects of climate change could be significantly worse than the models predict. That downside potential is all the more reason why we need policies that will actually help us to put off and cope with whatever changes will come. The Kyoto Protocol emissions targets will only hinder our collective ability to do that.

His critique remains current today:

Effective international actions to cope with climate change should be based on three principles. First, the international institutions that will implement climate change treaties must be understood as catalytic, not regulatory. Second, actions on climate change need to make effective use of the substantial institutional developments already in place around the globe. Third, the goals of the treaty must be process-oriented, not descriptions of some final outcome. . .

The Protocol requires a major overhaul. It is based fundamentally on the monitoring, reduction, and trading of GHG emissions: a foundation that guarantees stiff political opposition and years of arcane technical arguments, absorbing the time, energy, and money of many participants. Nations, the UN, and NGOs organizations have so many diplomatic, financial, and technical resources tied up in Kyoto that it would be tragic for it to fail now; such a failure would set back international climate change efforts for years. It is time to let go of the failed emissions targets and seek new paths that will better serve everyone's needs.

I encourage everyone to read the whole article. It is short essay but prescient. Frank is current studying renewable energy policies in the United States and Germany.

August 08, 2006

The Politics and Economics of Offshore Outsourcing

Anyone wanting to understand the debate over outsourcing should have a look at this paper by former Bush insider Greg Mankiw and Philip Swagel:

The Politics and Economics of Offshore Outsourcing
NBER Working Paper No. 12398
Issued in July 2006
link (free to .gov and universities that subscribe to NBER, follow link titled "Information for subscribers and others expecting no-cost downloads")

Abstract: This paper reviews the political uproar over offshore outsourcing connected with the release of the Economic Report of the President (ERP) in February 2004, examines the differing ways in which economists and non-economists talk about offshore outsourcing, and assesses the empirical evidence on the importance of offshore outsourcing in accounting for the weak labor market from 2001 to 2004. Even with important gaps in the data, the empirical literature is able to conclude that offshore outsourcing is unlikely to have accounted for a meaningful part of the job losses in the recent downturn or contributed much to the slow labor market rebound. The empirical evidence to date, while still tentative, actually suggests that increased employment in the overseas affiliates of U.S. multinationals is associated with more employment in the U.S. parent rather than less.

May 26, 2006

The Future Will be Blogged

There is a long and interesting article in today's Chronicle of Higher Education on the role of blogs in contemporary politics. Here is an excerpt:

Media attention to blogging has exploded, in part because of a number of what I call blogthroughs, events that allowed bloggers to demonstrate their powers of instant response, cumulative knowledge, and relentless drumbeating. Those incidents included bloggers' role in challenging the memo about President Bush's National Guard service revealed on CBS, which may have led to Dan Rather's resignation as anchor of the network's evening news; video logs of the tsunami in Southeast Asia; and the high-profile use of blogs by Howard Dean's campaign for the last Democratic presidential nomination. Now, according to various measurement and rating services such as Technorati and BlogPulse, tens of millions of Americans are blogging on all kinds of subjects, like diets, relatives, pets, sports, and sex. Bloggers include journalists, marines in Afghanistan, suburban teenagers, law-school professors, senators, and district attorneys.

Of greatest interest to modern students of politics are the blogs that focus on public affairs. Mainstream political news media regularly check what blogs are saying about a given story — or how they created it. Surveys by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and other organizations have found that most contributors to those blogs follow campaigns and political debates and are extremely likely to vote in elections. Politicians and activists are naturally eager to get their message to such a target audience while also bypassing the mainstream media's editorializing and heavy fees for advertising. Yet, as one political consultant I know put it, "The $200-million questions are: What are blogs? How can we use them? What exactly are they good for?"

Even experts cannot answer those questions because political blogs are in a state of flux. Are they a revolution or an evolution in political speech and activism — or a return to the more partisan press of the nation's early days? Will political bloggers challenge or complement traditional politics, political work, and politicians? Are bloggers representative of other Americans, or are they a minority of politically active citizens? How much impact will blogs have on political discourse and, ultimately, on voting behavior? Are they further Balkanizing American politics, with liberals reading only leftist blogs and conservatives reading only rightist ones?

The author of the article is David D. Perlmutter, of Louisiana State University, who runs a blog here that discusses blogs in politics among other subjects.

Posted on May 26, 2006 05:08 AM View this article | Comments (1)
Posted to Author: Pielke Jr., R. | Technology Policy

Sitemap | Contact | Find us | Email webmaster