December 1, 2015
The pledges that countries have signaled they will make in Paris over the next two weeks to cut emissions will inevitably fall short of what is needed to solve the problem of climate change.
But many political leaders gathering there — including governors, mayors, and provincial cabinet secretaries — are pushing for more aggressive cuts. By the dozen, they are signing a voluntary agreement committing their jurisdictions to faster and deeper reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases than their national governments have promised.
“We are not moving fast enough,” Gov. Jerry Brown of California, who is helping to lead the effort, said in an interview. “We’ve got to do more.”
All of which raises a provocative question: What would a truly ambitious plan to tackle climate change look like?
ACTIONS NEEDED TO LIMIT THE MOST SEVERE EFFECTS OF GLOBAL WARMING:
- Increase efficiency of buildings, transportation and industries.
- Eliminate burning fuels wherever possible in favor of using electricity.
- Generate electricity with clean power sources — such as wind and solar — and eliminate coal- and gas-fired power plants.
- Phase out gasoline, diesel engines.
Despite the intensity of the debate around global warming, the question has long been considered theoretical, and few people have spent much time studying potential steps to “deep decarbonization” — certainly not at the level of detail needed for a concrete plan.
Lately, that has started to change. But the recent analyses make clear just how difficult a worldwide transition to a clean energy system is likely to be.
“The arithmetic is really brutal,” said Jeffrey D. Sachs, a prominent Columbia University economist. “We’re in such a dreadful situation that every country has to make this transformation, or else this isn’t going to work.”
Dr. Sachs helped start what is perhaps the most serious effort to draw up a detailed road map for the energy transition: the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, based in Paris and New York. Over the past couple of years, the effort enlisted teams from 16 countries, which account for the large majority of global emissions, to devise such plans.
The analysts used conservative assumptions about current technologies and their costs. They also presumed that developed countries would not be willing to make big changes in their way of life — that people would continue to insist on transportation, refrigerators, electric lights and so forth — and that poor countries would keep striving to reach higher standards of living, requiring more energy.
The experts also made a point of ruling out energy miracles, such as technologies like nuclear fusion that could help enormously if they became available but are still largely on the drawing board. “If we couldn’t put on a hard hat and go visit a technology in the field, at least in pilot stage, then we didn’t include it in our analysis,” said Ben Haley, a senior consultant at Energy and Environmental Economics, a consulting firm involved in the work.
With those assumptions, the experts focused on a specific question: Can emissions be cut enough from now to 2050 to meet an international target designed to head off the worst effects of climate change?
“It can still be done — barely,” said Guido Schmidt-Traub, the executive director of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which helped organize the effort.
Technologies Fall Short
Perhaps the single most crucial finding of the project is that the technologies available today, while good enough to get a running start on the transition, are probably not good enough to finish it.
That means experts who have long argued for a more intensive research program on clean energy have a point. The 16-country analysis suggests that many technologies, like electric cars and offshore wind turbines, have to become cheaper and better.
Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, has long argued for a more intensive focus in energy innovation, and on Monday he announced in Paris that he had corralled a group of billionaires to invest huge sums in developing new technologies. Twenty countries, including the United States, also pledged to double their own investment in basic energy research.
In an interview, Mr. Gates said that poor countries would be reluctant to switch to clean energy technology unless it becomes better and cheaper, “and the only answer to that is innovation.”
Yet the new research on decarbonization also suggests that the environmentalists who have long called for a rapid expansion of existing clean-energy technologies also have a point: The very process of rolling them out helps to spur innovation, and as they spread beyond niche markets, economies of scale drive down the costs.
Solar power offers a stunning example, with costs of the panels plunging 80 percent in the last decade, a direct result of subsidies and other policies meant to create a larger market. In many places, solar power is still more expensive than power produced from fossil fuels, but the difference has narrowed considerably.
Wind turbines have been a big winner, too, in recent years. They supply almost 5 percent of the electric power in the United States, and in a handful of American states and some smaller countries, that figure has moved into double digits. Wind power is so abundant in Texas that one company there is giving away electricity at night.
The good news about wind and solar power has inspired claims that they could carry the entire load of the energy transition. Mark Z. Jacobson, an engineer at Stanford University, has drawn attention with a finding that the entire world could operate on 100 percent renewable power by 2050.
Yet such scenarios would involve an extraordinary push. Dr. Jacobson’s plans would require, among many other actions, that 156,000 wind turbines be built off American coasts in the next 35 years, and twice as many on land. In 20 years of effort, European countries have managed to build about 3,000 offshore turbines.
In an interview, Dr. Jacobson cited a scientific paper that calculated the oil and gas industry has been building 50,000 new wells a year in North America since 2000. Each of those, he said, is as complicated as erecting a wind turbine, and building tens of thousands of turbines a year would be well within the nation’s industrial capability.
“We think it’s technically and economically feasible,” Dr. Jacobson said. “It ultimately does come down to political will. If people don’t want to do it, it’s not going to happen by itself.”
Dr. Jacobson has often cited the United States’ mobilization during World War II as an example of what can be done by a determined society. But to some other experts, that very argument speaks to the political and economic impracticality of his plans.
“I just don’t see a World War II-style mobilization happening for anything other than a world war,” said Jesse Jenkins, an energy analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “We’re not going to do that. So the question is, what are we going to do?”
The scenarios laid out by the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project echo Dr. Jacobson’s plans to a degree, in that they call for substantial amounts of renewable power. But these scenarios also suggest that the energy transition would be easier and cheaper with additional technology options, including some that are disliked by the environmental movement.
For instance, in some countries with growing power demands, like China, the research found that nuclear power would be essential for staying within a strict emissions budget. Mr. Jenkins said that new nuclear plants would also be needed in some American states that had few other options.
And many experts believe the United States, even if it does not build many new nuclear plants, would be foolish to shut down the ones it has, given that they supply 19 percent of the country’s electric power with minimal emissions. Yet some of them have shut down lately, occasionally because of safety fears but mainly because of low power prices prompted by the abundance of natural gas.
The research also suggests that to meet strict targets, some countries might need to keep burning coal or natural gas to generate power while capturing the carbon dioxide emerging from smokestacks, compressing it and injecting it deep underground.
Governments have discussed the need for this technology, known as carbon capture and storage, for decades. But they have put little effort into developing it, and it has not advanced much beyond the demonstration scale, though a few projects are starting to come online. Environmental groups have been wary of the technology, and Germany, among the most determined countries in battling global warming, has largely decided not to pursue it.
Most fossil-fuel companies do not appear to be putting much effort into the approach, either, even though it may be the only way for some of them to stay in business over the long haul.
“It is a highly contested technology, but if they want to save their industry, they should be investing like crazy in proving the technology,” Dr. Sachs said.
Perhaps the most compelling finding of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project is that governments could easily flub the energy transition by failing to plan far enough ahead. Most countries are setting 10- and 15-year targets that can be met with incremental changes.
Yet that almost guarantees that the toughest problems, like perfecting the carbon-capturing technology, will be tackled too late to meet the long-term goal of zero emissions, the researchers found.
“By the time you get to the hard things, you’ve lost too much time,” Mr. Schmidt-Traub said. Instead, governments have to figure out where they want to be in 2050, he said, and then work backward to plot the necessary technological path, while remaining open to new inventions.
While the best technology mix varies by state or country — wind is a good option in Iowa, solar power in Arizona or Australia — the researchers found some themes across all the countries they examined.
To achieve the emissions goals, the entire economy, including transportation, needs to be electrified as much as possible. That might mean cars’ running on batteries, but it could also mean cars’ running on hydrogen, created by using nighttime electricity from nuclear reactors or wind turbines to split water molecules.
Either way, the implication is that the internal-combustion engine that has powered cars since the 19th century is a technological dead end in the 21st. So countries like the United States that are spending a lot of effort trying to make gasoline cars more efficient may be going down a blind alley.
The scenarios for the United States, according to the Deep Decarbonization project, do not envision broad adoption of electric cars until the 2030s. But that is only 14 years away, suggesting an urgent need to make the cars better and cheaper, and to roll out charging stations by the millions.
Another potential dead end, the research suggests, would be an overreliance on natural gas. Gas is a lower-carbon fuel than coal, and switching power plants to run on gas can achieve big emission reductions in the short run. The Obama administration, with its Clean Power Plan, is trying to lock in such a switch in the United States.
But the deep-decarbonization research suggests that gas has to go away within a few decades, which means that heavy investment in natural gas pipelines and power plants now could wind up undermining the long-term goals.
What Government Can Do
If it is mayors and city councilors and governors who are most determined to move forward — as the pledge they are signing before and during the Paris conference makes clear — what effect can they have on their own, without much support at the national level?
Some answers are fairly obvious, experts said. In some countries, including the United States, state and local governments control the building codes, many of which still do not include tough requirements for reducing energy demand in new buildings. Cities like Austin, Tex., have shown how to set strict codes and enforce them.
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