Carbon Emissions from Coal-Fired Power Plants

13 September, 2013

The 50 dirtiest electric power plants in the United States—all coal-fired—emit as much carbon dioxide as half of America’s 240 million cars.

The dirtiest 1% spew out a third of the carbon produced by US power plants.

And the 100 dirtiest plants—still a tiny fraction of the country’s 6,000 power plants—account for a fifth of all US carbon emissions.

According to this report, curbing the emissions of these worst offenders would be one of the best ways to cut US carbon emissions, reducing the risk that emissions will trigger dangerous climate change:

• Environment America Research and Policy Center, America’s dirtiest power plants: their oversized contribution to global warming and what we can do about it, 2013.

Some states in the US already limit carbon pollution from power plants. At the start of this year, California imposed a cap on carbon dioxide emissions, and in 2014 it will link with Quebec’s carbon market. Nine states from Maine to Maryland participate in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), which caps emissions from power plants in the Northeast.

At the federal level, a big step forward was the 2007 Supreme Court decision saying the Environmental Protection Agency should develop plans to regulate carbon emissions. The EPA is now getting ready to impose carbon emission limits for all new power plants in the US. But some of the largest sources of carbon dioxide are existing power plants, so getting them to shape up or shut down could have big benefits.

What to do?

Here’s what the report suggests:

• The Obama Administration should set strong limits on carbon dioxide pollution from new power plants to prevent the construction of a new generation of dirty power plants, and force existing power plants to clean up by setting strong limits on carbon dioxide emissions from all existing power plants.

• New plants – The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should work to meet its September 2013 deadline for re-proposing a stringent emissions standard for new power plants. It should also set a deadline for finalizing these standards no later than June 2015.

• Existing plants – The EPA should work to meet the timeline put forth by President Obama for proposing and finalizing emissions standards for existing power plants. This timeline calls for limits on existing plants to be proposed by June 2014 and finalized by June 2015. The standards should be based on the most recent climate science and designed to achieve the emissions reduction targets that are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of global warming.

In addition to cutting pollution from power plants, the United States should adopt a suite of clean energy policies at the local, state, and federal levels to curb emissions of carbon dioxide from energy use in other sectors.

In particular, the United States should prioritize establishing a comprehensive, national plan to reduce carbon pollution from all sources – including transportation, industrial activities, and the commercial and residential sectors.

Other policies to curb emissions include:

• Retrofitting three-quarters of America’s homes and businesses for improved energy efficiency, and implementing strong building energy codes to dramatically reduce fossil fuel consumption in new homes and businesses.

• Adopting a federal renewable electricity standard that calls for 25 percent of America’s electricity to come from clean, renewable sources by 2025.

• Strengthening and implementing state energy efficiency resource standards that require utilities to deliver energy efficiency improvements in homes, businesses and industries.

• Installing more than 200 gigawatts of solar panels and other forms of distributed renewable energy at residential, commercial and industrial buildings over the next two decades.

• Encouraging the use of energy-saving combined heat-and-power systems in industry.

• Facilitating the deployment of millions of plug-in vehicles that operate partly or solely on electricity, and adopting clean fuel standards that require a reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels.

• Ensuring that the majority of new residential and commercial development in metropolitan areas takes place in compact, walkable communities with access to a range of transportation options.

• Expanding public transportation service to double ridership by 2030, encouraging further ridership increases through better transit service, and reducing per-mile global warming pollution from transit vehicles. The U.S. should also build high-speed rail lines in 11 high-priority corridors by 2030.

• Strengthening and expanding the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which limits carbon dioxide pollution from power plants in nine northeastern state, and implementing California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB32), which places an economy-wide cap on the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon emitted per power produced

An appendix to this report list the power plants that emit the most carbon dioxide by name, along with estimates of their emissions. That’s great! But annoyingly, they do not seem to list the amounts of energy per year produced by these plants.

If carbon emissions were strictly proportional to the amount of energy produced, that would tend to undercut the the notion that the biggest carbon emitters are especially naughty. But in fact there’s a lot of variability in the amount of carbon emitted per energy generated. You can see that in this chart of theirs:

So, it would be good to see a list of the worst power plants in terms of CO2 emitted per energy generated.

The people who prepared this report could probably create such a list without much extra work, since they write:

We obtained fuel consumption and electricity generation data for power plants operating in the United States from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) 2011 December EIA-923 Monthly Time Series.

John Harte

27 October, 2012

Earlier this week I gave a talk on the Mathematics of Planet Earth at the University of Southern California, and someone there recommended that I look into John Harte’s work on maximum entropy methods in ecology. He works at U.C. Berkeley.

I checked out his website and found that his goals resemble mine: save the planet and understand its ecosystems. He’s a lot further along than I am, since he comes from a long background in ecology while I’ve just recently blundered in from mathematical physics. I can’t really say what I think of his work since I’m just learning about it. But I thought I should point out its existence.

This free book is something a lot of people would find interesting:

• John and Mary Ellen Harte, Cool the Earth, Save the Economy: Solving the Climate Crisis Is EASY, 2008.

EASY? Well, it’s an acronym. Here’s the basic idea of the US-based plan described in this book:

Any proposed energy policy should include these two components:

Technical/Behavioral: What resources and technologies are to be used to supply energy? On the demand side, what technologies and lifestyle changes are being proposed to consumers?

Incentives/Economic Policy: How are the desired supply and demand options to be encouraged or forced? Here the options include taxes, subsidies, regulations, permits, research and development, and education.

And a successful energy policy should satisfy the AAA criteria:

Availability. The climate crisis will rapidly become costly to society if we do not take action expeditiously. We need to adopt now those technologies that are currently available, provided they meet the following two additional criteria:

Affordability. Because of the central role of energy in our society, its cost to consumers should not increase significantly. In fact, a successful energy policy could ultimately save consumers money.

Acceptability. All energy strategies have environmental, land use, and health and safety implications; these must be acceptable to the public. Moreover, while some interest groups will undoubtedly oppose any particular energy policy, political acceptability at a broad scale is necessary.

Our strategy for preventing climate catastrophe and achieving energy independence includes:

Energy Efficient Technology at home and at the workplace. Huge reductions in home energy use can be achieved with available technologies, including more efficient appliances such as refrigerators, water heaters, and light bulbs. Home retrofits and new home design features such as “smart” window coatings, lighter-colored roofs where there are hot summers, better home insulation, and passive solar designs can also reduce energy use. Together, energy efficiency in home and industry can save the U.S. up to approximately half of the energy currently consumed in those sectors, and at no net cost—just by making different choices. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Automobile Fuel Efficiency. Phase in higher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for automobiles, SUVs and light trucks by requiring vehicles to go 35 miles per gallon of gas (mpg) by 2015, 45 mpg by 2020, and 60 mpg by 2030. This would rapidly wipe out our dependence on foreign oil and cut emissions from the vehicle sector by two-thirds. A combination of plug-in hybrid, lighter car body materials, re-design and other innovations could readily achieve these standards. This sounds good, too!

Solar and Wind Energy. Rooftop photovoltaic panels and solar water heating units should be phased in over the next 20 years, with the goal of solar installation on 75% of U.S. homes and commercial buildings by 2030. (Not all roofs receive sufficient sunlight to make solar panels practical for them.) Large wind farms, solar photovoltaic stations, and solar thermal stations should also be phased in so that by 2030, all U.S. electricity demand will be supplied by existing hydroelectric, existing and possibly some new nuclear, and, most importantly, new solar and wind units. This will require investment in expansion of the grid to bring the new supply to the demand, and in research and development to improve overnight storage systems. Achieving this goal would reduce our dependence on coal to practically zero. More good news!

You are part of the answer. Voting wisely for leaders who promote the first three components is one of the most important individual actions one can make. Other actions help, too. Just as molecules make up mountains, individual actions taken collectively have huge impacts. Improved driving skills, automobile maintenance, reusing and recycling, walking and biking, wearing sweaters in winter and light clothing in summer, installing timers on thermostats and insulating houses, carpooling, paying attention to energy efficiency labels on appliances, and many other simple practices and behaviors hugely influence energy consumption. A major education campaign, both in schools for youngsters and by the media for everyone, should be mounted to promote these consumer practices.

No part of EASY can be left out; all parts are closely integrated. Some parts might create much larger changes—for example, more efficient home appliances and automobiles—but all parts are essential. If, for example, we do not achieve the decrease in electricity demand that can be brought about with the E of EASY, then it is extremely doubtful that we could meet our electricity needs with the S of EASY.

It is equally urgent that once we start implementing the plan, we aggressively export it to other major emitting nations. We can reduce our own emissions all we want, but the planet will continue to warm if we can’t convince other major global emitters to reduce their emissions substantially, too.

What EASY will achieve. If no actions are taken to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, in the year 2030 the U.S. will be emitting about 2.2 billion tons of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. This will be an increase of 25% from today’s emission rate of about 1.75 billion tons per year of carbon. By following the EASY plan, the U.S. share in a global effort to solve the climate crisis (that is, prevent catastrophic warming) will result in U.S emissions of only about 0.4 billion tons of carbon by 2030, which represents a little less than 25% of 2007 carbon dioxide emissions.128 Stated differently, the plan provides a way to eliminate 1.8 billion tons per year of carbon by that date.

We must act urgently: in the 14 months it took us to write this book, atmospheric CO2 levels rose by several billion tons of carbon, and more climatic consequences have been observed. Let’s assume that we conserve our forests and other natural carbon reservoirs at our current levels, as well as maintain our current nuclear and hydroelectric plants (or replace them with more solar and wind generators). Here’s what implementing EASY will achieve, as illustrated by Figure 3.1 on the next page.

Please check out this book and help me figure out if the numbers add up! I could also use help understanding his research, for example:

• John Harte, Maximum Entropy and Ecology: A Theory of Abundance, Distribution, and Energetics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011.

The book is not free but the first chapter is.

This paper looks really interesting too:

• J. Harte, T. Zillio, E. Conlisk and A. B. Smith, Maximum entropy and the state-variable approach to macroecology, Ecology 89 (2008), 2700–-2711.

Again, it’s not freely available—tut tut. Ecologists should follow physicists and make their work free online; if you’re serious about saving the planet you should let everyone know what you’re doing! However, the abstract is visible to all, and of course I can use my academic superpowers to get ahold of the paper for myself:

Abstract: The biodiversity scaling metrics widely studied in macroecology include the species-area relationship (SAR), the scale-dependent species-abundance distribution (SAD), the distribution of masses or metabolic energies of individuals within and across species, the abundance-energy or abundance-mass relationship across species, and the species-level occupancy distributions across space. We propose a theoretical framework for predicting the scaling forms of these and other metrics based on the state-variable concept and an analytical method derived from information theory. In statistical physics, a method of inference based on information entropy results in a complete macro-scale description of classical thermodynamic systems in terms of the state variables volume, temperature, and number of molecules. In analogy, we take the state variables of an ecosystem to be its total area, the total number of species within any specified taxonomic group in that area, the total number of individuals across those species, and the summed metabolic energy rate for all those individuals. In terms solely of ratios of those state variables, and without invoking any specific ecological mechanisms, we show that realistic functional forms for the macroecological metrics listed above are inferred based on information entropy. The Fisher log series SAD emerges naturally from the theory. The SAR is predicted to have negative curvature on a log-log plot, but as the ratio of the number of species to the number of individuals decreases, the SAR becomes better and better approximated by a power law, with the predicted slope z in the range of 0.14-0.20. Using the 3/4 power mass-metabolism scaling relation to relate energy requirements and measured body sizes, the Damuth scaling rule relating mass and abundance is also predicted by the theory. We argue that the predicted forms of the macroecological metrics are in reasonable agreement with the patterns observed from plant census data across habitats and spatial scales. While this is encouraging, given the absence of adjustable fitting parameters in the theory, we further argue that even small discrepancies between data and predictions can help identify ecological mechanisms that influence macroecological patterns.

The Living Smart Grid

7 April, 2012

guest post by Todd McKissick

The last few years, in energy circles, people have begun the public promotion of what they call the smart grid.  This is touted as providing better control, prediction and utilization of our nation’s electrical grid system.  However, it doesn’t provide anyone except the utilities more benefits.  It’s expected to cost much more and to actually take away some of the convenience of having all the power you want, when you want it.

We can do better.

Let’s investigate the benefits of some changes to their so called smart grid.  If implemented, these changes will allow instant indirect control and balance of all local grid sections while automatically keeping supply in check with demand.  It can drastically cut the baseload utilization of existing transmission lines.  It can provide early benefits from running it in pseudo parallel mode with no changes at all by simply publishing customer specific real-time prices.  Once that gains some traction, a full implementation only requires adding smart meters to make it work. Both of these stages can be adopted at any rate and benefits only as much as it is adopted. Since it allows Demand Reduction (DR) and Distributed Generation (DG) from any small source to compete in price fairly with the big boys, it encourages tremendous competition between both generators and consumers.

To initiate this process, the real-time price must be determined for each customer.  This is easily done at the utility by breaking down their costs and overhead into three categories.  First, generation is monitored at its location.  Second, transmission is monitored for its contribution.  Both of these are being done already, so nothing new yet.  Third, distribution needs to be monitored at all the nodes and end points in the customer’s last leg of the chain.  Much of this is done and the rest is being done or planned through various smart meter movements.  Once all three of these prices are broken down, they can be applied to the various groups of customers and feeder segments.  This yields a total price to each customer that varies in real time with all the dynamics built in.  By simply publishing that price online, it signals the supply/demand imbalance that applies to them.

This is where the self correction aspect of the system comes into play.  If a transmission line goes down, the affected customers’ price will instantly spike, immediately causing loads to drop offline and storage systems and generation systems to boost their output.  This is purely price driven so no hard controls are sent to the customer equipment to make this happen.  Should a specific load be set to critical use, like a lifeline system for a person or business, they have less risk of losing power completely but will pay an increased amount for the duration of the event.  Even transmission rerouting decisions can be based on the price, allowing neighboring local grids to export their excess to aid a nearby shortfall.  Should an area find its price trending higher or lower over time, the economics will easily point to whatever and wherever something is needed to be added to the system.  This makes forecasting the need for new equipment easier at both the utility and the customer level.

If CO2 or some other emission charge was created, it can quickly be added to the cost of individual generators, allowing the rest of the system to re-balance around it automatically.

Once the price is published, people will begin tracking their home and heavy loading appliances to calculate their exact electrical bill.  When they learn they can adapt usage profiles and save money, they will create systems to automatically do so.  This will lead to intelligent and power saving appliances, a new generation of smart thermostats, short cycling algorithms in HVAC and even more home automation.  The result of these operations is to balance demand to supply.

When this process begins, the financial incentive becomes real for the customer, attracting them to request live billing.  This can happen as small as one customer at a time for anyone with a smart meter installed.  Both customer and utility benefit from their switchover.

A truly intelligent system like this eliminates the necessity of full grid replacement that some people are proposing.  Instead, it focuses on making the existing one more stable.  Incrementally and in proportion to adoption, the grid stability and redundancy will naturally increase without further cost. The appliance manufacturers already have many load predictive products waiting for the market to call for them so the cost to advance this whole system is fully redundant with the cost of replacement meters which is already happening or planned soon. We need to ensure that the new meters have live rate capability.

This is the single biggest solution to our energy crisis. It will standardize grid interconnection which will entice distributed generation (DG).  As it stands now, most utilities view DG in a negative light with regards to grid stability.  Many issues such as voltage, frequency and phase regulation are often topics they cite.  In reality, however, the current inverter standards ensure that output is appropriately synchronized.  The same applies to power factor issues.  While reducing power sent via the grid directly reduces the load, it’s only half of the picture.

DG with storage and vehicle-to-grid hybrids both give the customer an opportunity to save up their excess and sell it to the grid when it earns the most.  By giving them the live prices, they will also be encouraged to grow their market.  It is an obvious outgrowth for them to buy and store power from the grid in the middle of the night and sell it back for a profit during afternoon peaks.  In fact this is already happening in some markets.

Demand reduction (DR), or load shedding, acts the same as onsite generation in that it reduces the power sent via the grid.  It also acts similar to storage in that it can time shift loads to cheaper rate periods.  To best take advantage of this, people will utilize increasingly better algorithms for price prediction.  The net effect is thousands of individuals competing on prediction techniques to flatten out the peaks into the valleys of the grid’s daily profile.  This competition will be in direct proportion to the local grid instability in a given area.

According to Peter Mark Jansson and John Schmalzel [1]:

From material utilization perspectives significant hardware is manufactured and installed for this infrastructure often to be used at less than 20-40% of its operational capacity for most of its lifetime. These inefficiencies lead engineers to require additional grid support and conventional generation capacity additions when renewable technologies (such as solar and wind) and electric vehicles are to be added to the utility demand/supply mix. Using actual data from the PJM [PJM 2009] the work shows that consumer load management, real time price signals, sensors and intelligent demand/supply control offer a compelling path forward to increase the efficient utilization and carbon footprint reduction of the world’s grids. Underutilization factors from many distribution companies indicate that distribution feeders are often operated at only 70-80% of their peak capacity for a few hours per year, and on average are loaded to less than 30-40% of their capability.

At this time the utilities are limiting adoption rates to a couple percent.  A well known standardization could replace that with a call for much more.  Instead of discouraging participation, it will encourage innovation and enhance forecasting and do so without giving away control over how we wish to use our power.  Best of all, it is paid for by upgrades that are already being planned. How's that for a low cost SMART solution?

[1] Peter Mark Jansson and John Schmalzel, Increasing utilization of US electric grids via smart technologies: integration of load management, real time pricing, renewables, EVs and smart grid sensors, The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society 7, 47-60.

Azimuth on Google Plus (Part 6)

13 February, 2012

Lately the distribution of hits per hour on this blog has become very fat-tailed. In other words: the readership shoots up immensely now and then. I just noticed today’s statistics:

That spike on the right is what I’m talking about: 338 hits per hour, while before it was hovering in the low 80′s, as usual for the weekend. Why? Someone on Hacker News posted an item saying:

John Baez will give his Google Talk tomorrow in the form of a robot.

That’s true! If you’re near Silicon Valley on Monday the 13th and you want to see me in the form of a robot, come to the Google campus and listen to my talk Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do.

It starts at 4 pm in the Paramaribo Room (Building 42, Floor 2). You’ll need to check in 15 minutes before that at the main visitor’s lounge in Building 43, and someone will escort you to the talk.

But if you can’t attend, don’t worry! A video will appear on YouTube, and I’ll point you to it when it does.

I tested out the robot a few days ago from a hotel room in Australia—it’s a strange sensation! Suzanne Brocato showed me the ropes. To talk to me easily, she lowered my ‘head’ until I was just 4 feet tall. “You’re so short!” she laughed. I rolled around the offices of Anybot and met the receptionist, who was also in the form of a robot. Then we went to the office of the CEO, Trevor Blackwell, and planned out my talk a little. I need to practice more today.

But why did someone at Hacker News post that comment just then? I suspect it’s because I reminded people about my talk on Google+ last night.

The fat-tailed distribution of blog hits is also happening at the scale of days, not just hours:

The spikes happen when I talk about a ‘hot topic’. January 27th was my biggest day so far. Slashdot discovered my post about the Elsevier boycott, and send 3468 readers my way. But a total 6499 people viewed that post, so a bunch must have come from other sources.

January 31st was also big: 3271 people came to read about The Faculty of 1000. 2140 of them were sent over by Hacker News.

If I were trying to make money from advertising on this blog, I’d be pushed toward more posts about hot topics. Forget the mind-bending articles on quantropy, packed with complicated equations!

But as it is, I’m trying to do some mixture of having fun, figuring out stuff, and getting people to save the planet. (Open access publishing fits into that mandate: it’s tragic how climate crackpots post on popular blogs while experts on climate change publish their papers in journals hidden from public view!) So, I don’t want to maximize readership: what matters more is getting people to do good stuff.

Do you have any suggestions on how I could do this better, while still being me? I’m not going to get a personality transplant, so there are limits on what I’ll do.

One good idea would be to make sure every post on a ‘hot topic’ offers readers something they can do now.

Hmm, readership is still spiking:

But enough of this navel-gazing! Here are some recent Azimuth articles about energy on Google+.


1) In his State of the Union speech, Obama talked a lot about energy:

We’ve subsidized oil companies for a century. That’s long enough. It’s time to end the taxpayer giveaways to an industry that rarely has been more profitable, and double-down on a clean energy industry that never has been more promising.

He acknowledged that differences on Capitol Hill are “too deep right now” to pass a comprehensive climate bill, but he added that “there’s no reason why Congress shouldn’t at least set a clean-energy standard that creates a market for innovation.”

However, lest anyone think he actually wants to stop global warming, he also pledged “to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.”

2) This paper claims a ‘phase change’ hit the oil markets around 2005:

• James Murray and David King, Climate policy: Oil’s tipping point has passed, Nature 481 (2011), 433–435.

They write:

In 2005, global production of regular crude oil reached about 72 million barrels per day. From then on, production capacity seems to have hit a ceiling at 75 million barrels per day. A plot of prices against production from 1998 to today shows this dramatic transition, from a time when supply could respond elastically to rising prices caused by increased demand, to when it could not (see ‘Phase shift’). As a result, prices swing wildly in response to small changes in demand. Other people have remarked on this step change in the economics of oil around the year 2005, but the point needs to be lodged more firmly in the minds of policy-makers.

3) Help out the famous climate blogger Joe Romm! He asks: What will the U.S. energy mix look like in 2050 if we cut CO2 emissions 80%?

How much total energy is consumed in 2050… How much coal, oil, and natural gas is being consumed (with carbon capture and storage of some coal and gas if you want to consider that)? What’s the price of oil? How much of our power is provided by nuclear power? How much by solar PV and how much by concentrated solar thermal? How much from wind power? How much from biomass? How much from other forms of renewable energy? What is the vehicle fleet like? How much electric? How much next-generation biofuels?

As he notes, there are lots of studies on these issues. Point him to the best ones!

4) Due to plunging prices for components, solar power prices in Germany dropped by half in the last 5 years. Now solar generates electricity at levels only slightly above what consumers pay. The subsidies will disappear entirely within a few years, when solar will be as cheap as conventional fossil fuels. Germany has added 14,000 megawatts capacity in the last 2 years and now has 24,000 megawatts in total—enough green electricity to meet nearly 4% the country’s power demand. That is expected to rise to 10% by 2020. Germany now has almost 10 times more installed capacity than the United States.

That’s all great—but, umm, what about the other 90%? What’s their long-term plan? Will they keep using coal-fired power plants? Will they buy more nuclear power from France?

In May 2011, Britain claimed it would halve carbon emissions by 2025. Is Germany making equally bold claims or not? Of course what matters is deeds, not words, but I’m curious.

5) Stephen Lacey presents some interesting charts showing the progress and problems with sustainability in the US. For example, there’s been a striking drop in how much energy is being used per dollar of GNP:

Sorry for the archaic ‘British Thermal Units’: we no longer have a king, but for some reason the U.S. failed to throw off the old British system of measurement. A BTU is a bit more than a kilojoule.

Despite these dramatic changes, Lacey says “we waste around 85% of the energy produced in the U.S.” But he doesn’t say how that number was arrived at. Does anyone know?

6) The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) has a new report called The Long-Term Energy Efficiency Potential: What the Evidence Suggests. It describes some scenarios, including one where the US encourages a greater level of productive investments in energy efficiency so that by the year 2050, it reduces overall energy consumption by 40 to 60 percent. I’m very interested in how much efficiency can help. Some, but not all, of the improvements will be eaten up by the rebound effect.

How to Cut Carbon Emissions and Save Money

27 January, 2012

McKinsey & Company is a management consulting firm. In 2010 they released this ‘carbon abatement cost curve’ for the whole world:

Click it to see a nice big version. So, they’re claiming:

By 2030 we can cut CO2 emissions about 15 gigatonnes per year while saving lots of money.

By 2030 can cut CO2 emissions by up to 37 gigatonnes per year before the total cost—that is, cost minus savings—becomes positive.

The graph is cute. The vertical axis of the graph says how many euros per tonne it would cost to cut CO2 emissions by 2030 using various measures. The horizontal axis says how many gigatonnes per year we could reduce CO2 emissions using these measures.

So, we get lots of blue rectangles. If a rectangle is below the horizontal axis, its area says how many euros per year we’d save by implementing that measure. If it’s above the axis, its area says how much that measure would cost.

I believe the total blue area below the axis equals the total blue area above the axis. So if we do all these things, the total cost is zero.

37 gigatonnes of CO2 is roughly 10 gigatonnes of carbon: remember, there’s a crucial factor of 3\frac{2}{3} here. In 2004, Pacala and Socolow argued that the world needs to find ways to cut carbon emissions by about 7 gigatonnes/year by 2054 to keep emissions flat until this time. By now we’d need 9 gigatonnes/year.

If so, it seems the measures shown here could keep carbon emissions flat worldwide at no net cost!

But as usual, there are at least a few problems.

Problem 1

Is McKinsey’s analysis correct? I don’t know. Here’s their report, along with some others:

• McKinsey & Company, Impact of the financial crisis on carbon economics: Version 2.1 of the global greenhouse gas abatement cost curve, 2010.

For more details it’s good to read version 2.0:

• McKinsey & Company, Pathways to a low carbon economy: Version 2 of the global greenhouse gas abatement cost curve, 2009.

They’re free if you fill out some forms. But it’s not easy to check these things. Does anyone know papers that try to check McKinsey’s work? I find it’s more fun to study a problem like this after you see two sides of the same story.

Problem 2

I said ‘no net cost’. But if you need to spend a lot of money, the fact that I’m saving a lot doesn’t compensate you. So there’s the nontrivial problem of taking money that’s saved on some measures and making sure it gets spent on others. Here’s where ‘big government’ might be required—which makes some people decide global warming is just a political conspiracy, nyeh-heh-heh.

Is there another way to make the money transfer happen, without top-down authority?

We could still get the job about half-done at a huge savings, of course. McKinsey says we could cut CO2 emissions by 15 gigatonnes per year doing things that only save money. That’s about 4 gigatonnes of carbon per year! We could at least do that.

Problem 3

Keeping carbon emissions flat is not enough. Carbon dioxide, once put in the atmosphere, stays there a long time—though individual molecules come and go. As the saying goes, carbon is forever. (Click that link for more precise information.)

So, even Pacala and Socolow say keeping carbon emissions flat is a mere stopgap before we actually reduce carbon emissions, starting in 2054. But some more recent papers seem to suggest Pacala and Socolow were being overly optimistic.

Of course it depends on how much global warming you’re willing to tolerate! It also depends on lots of other things.

Anyway, this paper claims that if we cut global greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2050 (as compared to what they were in 1990), there’s a 12–45% probability that the world will get at least 2 °C warmer than its temperature before the industrial revolution:

• Malte Meinshausen et al, Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C, Nature 458 (2009), 1158–1163.

Abstract: More than 100 countries have adopted a global warming limit of 2 °C or below (relative to pre-industrial levels) as a guiding principle for mitigation efforts to reduce climate change risks, impacts and damages. However, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions corresponding to a specified maximum warming are poorly known owing to uncertainties in the carbon cycle and the climate response. Here we provide a comprehensive probabilistic analysis aimed at quantifying GHG emission budgets for the 2000–50 period that would limit warming throughout the twenty-first century to below 2 °C, based on a combination of published distributions of climate system properties and observational constraints. We show that, for the chosen class of emission scenarios, both cumulative emissions up to 2050 and emission levels in 2050 are robust indicators of the probability that twenty-first century warming will not exceed 2 °C relative to pre-industrial temperatures.

Limiting cumulative CO2 emissions over 2000–50 to 1,000 Gt CO2 yields a 25% probability of warming exceeding 2 °C—and a limit of 1,440 Gt CO2 yields a 50% probability—given a representative estimate of the distribution of climate system properties. As known 2000–06 CO2 emissions were 234 Gt CO2, less than half the proven economically recoverable oil, gas and coal reserves can still be emitted up to 2050 to achieve such a goal. Recent G8 Communiques envisage halved global GHG emissions by 2050, for which we estimate a 12–45% probability of exceeding 2 °C—assuming 1990 as emission base year and a range of published climate sensitivity distributions. Emissions levels in 2020 are a less robust indicator, but for the scenarios considered, the probability of exceeding 2 °C rises to 53–87% if global GHG emissions are still more than 25% above 2000 levels in 2020.

This paper says we’re basically doomed to suffer unless we revamp society:

• Ted Trainer, Can renewables etc. solve the greenhouse problem? The negative case, Energy Policy 38 (2010), 4107–4114.

Abstract: Virtually all current discussion of climate change and energy problems proceeds on the assumption that technical solutions are possible within basically affluent-consumer societies. There is however a substantial case that this assumption is mistaken. This case derives from a consideration of the scale of the tasks and of the limits of non-carbon energy sources, focusing especially on the need for redundant capacity in winter. The first line of argument is to do with the extremely high capital cost of the supply system that would be required, and the second is to do with the problems set by the intermittency of renewable sources. It is concluded that the general climate change and energy problem cannot be solved without large scale reductions in rates of economic production and consumption, and therefore without transition to fundamentally different social structures and systems.

It’s worth reading because it uses actual numbers, not just hand-waving. But it seeks much more than keeping carbon emissions flat until 2050; that’s one reason for the dire conclusions.

It’s worth noting this rebuttal, which says that everything about Trainer’s paper is fine except a premature dismissal of nuclear power:

• Barry Brook, Could nuclear fission energy, etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case, Energy Policy, available online 16 December 2011.

To get your hands on Brook’s paper you either need a subscription or you need to email him. You can do that starting from his blog article about the paper… which is definitely worth reading:

• Barry Brook, Could nuclear fission energy, etc., solve the greenhouse problem? The affirmative case, BraveNewClimate, 14 January 2012.

According to Brook, we can keep global warming from getting too bad if we get really serious about nuclear power.

Of course, these three papers are just a few of many. I’m still trying to sift through the information and figure out what’s really going on. It’s hard. It may be impossible. But McKinsey’s list of ways to cut carbon emissions and save money points to some things we start doing right now.

I, Robot

24 January, 2012

On 13 February 2012, I will give a talk at Google in the form of a robot. I will look like this:

My talk will be about “Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do.” Since I think we should cut unnecessary travel, I decided to stay here in Singapore and use a telepresence robot instead of flying to California.

I thank Mike Stay for arranging this at Google, and I especially thank Trevor Blackwell and everyone else at Anybots for letting me use one of their robots!

I believe Google will film this event and make a video available. But I hope reporters attend, because it should be fun, and I plan to describe some ways we can slash carbon emissions.

More detail: I will give this talk at 4 pm Monday, February 13, 2012 in the Paramaribo Room on the Google campus (Building 42, Floor 2). Visitors and reporters are invited, but they need to check in at the main visitor’s lounge in Building 43, and they’ll need to be escorted to and from the talk, so someone will pick them up 10 or 15 minutes before the talk starts.

Energy, the Environment and What We Can Do

Abstract: Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels is causing two serious problems: global warming, and the decline of cheaply available oil reserves. Unfortunately the second problem will not cancel out the first. Each one individually seems extremely hard to solve, and taken
together they demand a major worldwide effort starting now. After an overview of these problems, we turn to the question: what can we do about them?

I also need help from all of you reading this! I want to talk about solutions, not just problems—and given my audience, and the political deadlock in the US, I especially want to talk about innovative solutions that come from individuals and companies, not governments.

Can changing whole systems produce massive cuts in carbon emissions, in a way that spreads virally rather than being imposed through top-down directives? It’s possible. Curtis Faith has some inspiring thoughts on this:

I’ve been looking on various transportation and energy and environment issues for more than 5 years, and almost no one gets the idea that we can radically reduce consumption if we look at the complete systems. In economic terms, we currently have a suboptimal Nash Equilibrium with a diminishing pie when an optimal expanding pie equilibrium is possible. Just tossing around ideas a a very high level with back of the envelope estimates we can get orders of magnitude improvements with systemic changes that will make people’s lives better if we can loosen up the grip of the big corporations and government.

To borrow a physics analogy, the Nash Equilibrium is a bit like a multi-dimensional metastable state where the system is locked into a high energy configuration and any local attempts to make the change revert to the higher energy configuration locally, so it would require sufficient energy or energy in exactly the right form to move all the different metastable states off their equilibrium either simultaneously or in a cascade.

Ideally, we find the right set of systemic economic changes that can have a cascade effect, so that they are locally systemically optimal and can compete more effectively within the larger system where the Nash Equilibrium dominates. I hope I haven’t mixed up too many terms from too many fields and confused things. These terms all have overlapping and sometimes very different meaning in the different contexts as I’m sure is true even within math and science.

One great example is transportation. We assume we need electric cars or biofuel or some such thing. But the very assumption that a car is necessary is flawed. Why do people want cars? Give them a better alternative and they’ll stop wanting cars. Now, what that might be? Public transportation? No. All the money spent building a 2,000 kg vehicle to accelerate and decelerate a few hundred kg and then to replace that vehicle on a regular basis can be saved if we eliminate the need for cars.

The best alternative to cars is walking, or walking on inclined pathways up and down so we get exercise. Why don’t people walk? Not because they don’t want to but because our cities and towns have optimized for cars. Create walkable neighborhoods and give people jobs near their home and you eliminate the need for cars. I live in Savannah, GA in a very tiny place. I never use the car. Perhaps 5 miles a week. And even that wouldn’t be necessary with the right supplemental business structures to provide services more efficiently.

Or electricity for A/C. Everyone lives isolated in structures that are very inefficient to heat. Large community structures could be air conditioned naturally using various techniques and that could cut electricity demand by 50% for neighborhoods. Shade trees are better than insulation.

Or how about moving virtually entire cities to cooler climates during the hot months? That is what people used to do. Take a train North for the summer. If the destinations are low-resource destinations, this can be a huge reduction for the city. Again, getting to this state is hard without changing a lot of parts together.

These problems are not technical, or political, they are economic. We need the economic systems that support these alternatives. People want them. We’ll all be happier and use far less resources (and money). The economic system needs to be changed, and that isn’t going to happen with politics, it will happen with economic innovation. We tend to think of our current models as the way things are, but they aren’t. Most of the status quo is comprised of human inventions, money, fractional reserve banking, corporations, etc. They all brought specific improvements that made them more effective at the time they were introduce because of the conditions during those times. Our times too are different. Some new models will work much better for solving our current problems.

Your idea really starts to address the reason why people fly unnecessarily. This change in perspective is important. What if we went back to sailing ships? And instead of flying we took long leisurely educational seminar cruises on modern versions of sail yachts? What if we improved our trains? But we need to start from scratch and design new systems so they work together effectively. Why are we stuck with models of cities based on the 19th-century norms?

We aren’t, but too many people think we are because the scope of their job or academic career is just the piece of a system, not the system itself.

System level design thinking is the key to making the difference we need. Changes to the complete systems can have order of magnitude improvements. Changes to the parts will have us fighting for tens of percentages.

Do you know good references on ideas like this—preferably with actual numbers? I’ve done some research, but I feel I must be missing a lot of things.

This book, for example, is interesting:

• Michael Peters, Shane Fudge and Tim Jackson, editors, Low Carbon Communities: Imaginative Approaches to Combating Climate Change Locally, Edward Elgar Publishing Group, Cheltenham, UK, 2010.

but I wish it had more numbers on how much carbon emissions were cut by some of the projects they describe: Energy Conscious Households in Action, the HadLOW CARBON Community, the Transition Network, and so on.

What’s Up With Solar Power?

13 December, 2011

What’s going on with solar power? On the one hand, I read things like this:

• Paul Krugman, Here comes the sun, New York Times, 6 November 2011.

In fact, progress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.

This has already led to rapid growth in solar installations, but even more change may be just around the corner. If the downward trend continues–and if anything it seems to be accelerating—we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

This would be a big deal! As you may have noticed, attempted political remedies for global warming aren’t working too well yet. Cheap solar power won’t be enough to solve the problem: even if we can build a grid that deals with the intermittency of solar power, the problem is that electric power only accounts for some of the fossil fuel burnt. But it could help.

On the other hand, I read things like this:

• Jackie Chang, Half of China solar firms halt production, says report, Digitimes, 9 December 2011.

About 50% of the firms in China’s solar industry have suspended production, according to the country’s Guangzhou Daily.

The daily cited the solar energy division of CSG Holding as claiming that half of the solar firms have stopped production, 30% have halved their output and 20% are trying to maintain certain levels of production.

Digitimes Research’s findings have indicated that only tier-one solar firms in China had capacity utilization rates over 80% in the first half of 2011 while tier-two and tier-three firms were already facing falling capacity utilization rates.

Guangzhou Daily stated that oversupply and significant price drops are the reasons for the firms to shut down production.

The report also indicated that China firms have been facing increasing production costs following news on September 2011 that one of the large-size solar players had a chemical leak at one of its plants that polluted a nearby river. This means the other solar firms now face increasing costs to prevent such pollution while suffering from sharp price drops and low demand.

And this:

• Yuliya Chernova, Chinese solar industry fueled by unsustainable debt, analysts say, Wall Street Journal, 8 December 2011.

Even now, as the U.S. reevaluates its federal loan and other subsidy programs for renewable energy, some lawmakers invoke the strong support the Chinese government offers to its own renewable energy industry as a call for the U.S. to match up with its own support.

Indeed, easy access to low-interest loans over the past three years helped Chinese solar makers build up capacity, and quickly take over market share from European and U.S. manufacturers. In 2010 alone, the China Development Bank made $35 billion in low-interest credit available to Chinese renewable energy companies, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a figure cited by Energy Secretary Steven Chu in his testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in mid-November.

But, perhaps an unintended consequence of this easy access to capital was that the cheap, plentiful production of solar panels resulted in a cutthroat pricing competition, which, in turn is now starting to suffocate the very same large, leading Chinese manufacturers.

“We remain concerned about debt levels across the solar manufacturing complex given the compression of profit margins,” wrote Think Equity analysts in a recent report. “With increasing net debt and reduced module prices, it is hard to imagine absolute gross margin dollars growing enough to offset existing OpEx and interest payments.”

It’s hard to know who to trust. Of course all three of these news reports could be true! Or none.

Do you know what’s really going on with solar power?

American Oil Boom?

26 September, 2011

If this is for real, it’s the biggest news I’ve heard for a long time:

Two years ago, America was importing about two thirds of its oil. Today, according to the Energy Information Administration, it imports less than half. And by 2017, investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts the US could be poised to pass Saudi Arabia and overtake Russia as the world’s largest oil producer.

This is from:

New boom reshapes oil world, rocks North Dakota, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 25 September, 2011.

The new boom is due to technologies like fracking (short for hydraulic fracturing) and directional drilling. According to an estimate in this article, in the last few years advances in these technologies have made available up to 11 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken formation under North Dakota and Montana. There’s also a lot under the Canadian side of the border:

This map is from:

• Jerry Langton, Bakken Formation: Will it fuel Canada’s oil industry?, CBC News, 27 June 2008.

How big is this boom going to be? What will it mean? The National Public Radio story says this:

Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University says in the next decade, new oil in the US, Canada and South America could change the center of gravity of the entire global energy supply.

“Some are now saying, in five or 10 years’ time, we’re a major oil-producing region, where our production is going up,” she says.

The US, Jaffe says, could have 2 trillion barrels of oil waiting to be drilled. South America could hold another 2 trillion. And Canada? 2.4 trillion. That’s compared to just 1.2 trillion in the Middle East and north Africa.

Jaffe says those new oil reserves, combined with growing turmoil in the Middle East, will “absolutely propel more and more investment into the energy resources in the Americas.”

Russia is already feeling the growth of American energy, Jaffe says. As the U.S. produces more of its own natural gas, Europe is free to purchase liquefied natural gas the US is no longer buying.

“They’re buying less natural gas from Russia,” Jaffe says. “So Russia would only supply 10 percent of European natural gas demand by 2030. That means the Russians are no longer powerful.”

The American energy boom, Jaffe says, could endanger many green-energy initiatives that have gained popularity in recent years. But royalties and revenue from U.S. production of oil and natural gas, she adds, could be used to invest in improving green technology.

What do you know about this news? Is it for real, is it being hyped? What do the smartest of the ‘peak oil’ crowd say?

I’ve read about the environmental impacts of fracking, and the consequences for global warming are evident. Since ‘carbon is forever’, to reduce carbon dioxide levels we need to either stop burning carbon or figure out a way to sequester CO2. A new oil boom won’t help us with that. And in the long run, we’ll still run out.

But the short run could last decades. Suppose people go ahead, ignore the dangers, and ‘drill, baby, drill’. How will geopolitics, the world economy, and the environment be affected?

Opinions are fine—everyone’s got one—but facts are better… and facts with references are the best.

Environmental News From China

13 August, 2011

I was unable to access this blog last week while I was in Changchun—sorry!

But I’m back in Singapore now, so here’s some news, mostly from the 2 August 2011 edition of China Daily, the government’s official English newspaper. As you’ll see, they’re pretty concerned about environmental problems. But to balance the picture, here’s a picture from Changbai Mountain, illustrating the awesome beauty of the parts of China that remain wild:

The Chinese have fallen in love with cars. Though less than 6% of Chinese own cars so far, that’s already 75 million cars, a market exceeded only by the US.

The price of real estate in China is shooting up—but as car ownership soars, you’ll have to pay a lot more if you want to buy a parking lot for your apartment. The old apartments don’t have them. In Beijing the average price of a parking lot is 140,000 yuan, which is about $22,000. In Shanghai it’s 150,000 yuan. But in fancy neighborhoods the price can be much higher: for example, up to 800,000 yuan in Beijing!

For comparison, the average salary in Beijing was 36,000 yuan in 2007—and the median is probably much lower, since there are lots of poor people and just a few rich ones. On top of that, I bet this figure doesn’t include the many undocumented people who have come from the countryside to work in Beijing. The big cities in China are much richer than the rest of the country: the average salary throughout the country was 11,000 yuan, and the average rural wage was just 3,600 yuan. This disparity is causing young people to flood into the cities, leaving behind villages mostly full of old folks.

Thanks to intensive use of coal, increasing car ownership and often-ignored regulations, air quality is bad in most Chinese cities. In Changchun, a typical summer day resembles the very worst days in Los Angeles, where the air is yellowish-grey except for a small blue region directly overhead.

In a campaign to improve the air quality in Beijing, drivers are getting subsidized to turn in cars made in 1995 or earlier. As usual, it’s the old clunkers that stink the worst: 27% of the cars in Beijing are over 8 years old, but they make 60% of the air pollution. The government is hoping to eliminate 400,000 old cars and cut the emission of nitrogen oxide by more than 10,000 tonnes per year by 2015.

But this policy is also supposed to stoke the market for new automobiles. That’s a bit strange, since Beijing is a huge city with massive traffic jams—some say the worst in the world! As a result, the government has taken strong steps to limit car sales in Beijing.

In Beijing, if you want to buy a car, you have to enter a lottery to get a license plate! Car sales have been capped at 240,000 this year, and for the first lottery people’s chances of winning were just one in ten:

• Louisa Lim, License plate lottery meant to curb Beijing traffic, Morning Edition, 26 January 2011.

Why is the government trying to stoke new car sales in Beijing while simultaneously trying to limit them? Maybe it’s just a rhetorical move to placate the car dealers, who hate the lottery system. Or maybe it’s because the government makes money from selling cars: it’s a state-controlled industry.

On another front, since July there has been a drought in the provinces of Gansu, Guizhou and Hunan, the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, and the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, which is home to many non-Han ethnic groups including the Hui. It’s caused water shortages for 4.3 million people. In some villages all the crops have died. Drought relief agencies are sending out more water pumps and delivering drinking water.

In Gansu province, at least, the current drought is part of a bigger desertification process.

Once they grew rice in Gansu, but then they moved to wheat:

• Tu Xin-Yi, Drought in Gansu, Tzu Chi, 5 January 2011.

China is among the nations that are experiencing severe desertification. One of the hardest hit areas is Gansu Province, deep in the nation’s heartland. The province, which includes parts of the Gobi, Badain Jaran, and Tengger Deserts, is suffering moisture drawdown year after year. As water goes up into the air, so does irrigation and agriculture. People can hardly make a living from the arid land.

But the land was once quite rich and hospitable to agriculture, a far cry from what greets the eye today. Ruoli, in central Gansu, epitomizes the big dry-up. The area used to be verdant farmland where, with abundant rainfall, all kinds of plants grew lush and dense; but now the land is dry and yields next to nothing. All this dramatic change has come about in just 50 years—lightning-fast, a mere blink of an eye in geological terms.

Rapid desertification is forcing many parties, including the government, to take action. Some residents have moved away to seek better livelihoods elsewhere, and the government offers incentives for people to relocate to the lowlands Tzu Chi built a new village to accommodate some of these migrants.

Tzu Chi is a Buddhist organization with a strong interest in climate change. The dramatic change they speak of seems to be part of a longer-term drying trend in this region. Here is one of a series of watchtowers near Dunhuang, once a thriving city at the eastern end of the Silk Road. I don’t think this area was such a desert back then:

Meanwhile, down in southern China, the Guanxi Zhuang autonomous region is seeing its worst electricity shortage in the last 2 decades, with 30% of the demand for electric power unmet, and rolling blackouts. They blame the situation on a shortage of coal and the fact that the local river isn’t deep enough to provide hydropower.

On the bright side, China is investing a lot in wind power. Their response to the financial crisis of of 2009 included $220 billion investment in renewable energy. Baoding province is now one of the world’s centers for producing wind turbines, and by 2020 China plans to have 100 gigawatts of peak wind power online.

That’s pretty good! Remember our discussion of Pacala and Socolow’s stabilization wedges? The world needs to reduce carbon emissions by roughly 10 gigatonnes per year by about 2050 to stay out of trouble. Pacala and Socolow call each 1-gigatonne slice of this carbon pie a ‘wedge’. We could reduce carbon emissions by one ‘wedge’ by switching 700 gigawatts of coal power to 2000 gigawatts of peak wind power. Why 700 of coal for 2000 of wind? Because unfortunately most of the time wind power doesn’t work at peak efficiency!

So, the Chinese plan to do 1/20 of a wedge of wind power by 2020. Multiply that effort by a factor of 200 worldwide by 2050, and we’ll be in okay shape. That’s quite a challenge! Of course we won’t do it all with wind.

And while the US and Europe are worried about excessive government and private debt, China is struggling to figure out how to manage its vast savings. China has a $3.2 trillion foreign reserve, which is 30% of the world’s total. The fraction invested in the US dollars has dropped from 71% in 1999 to 61% in 2010, but that’s still a lot of money, so any talk of the US defaulting, or a drop in the dollar, makes the Chinese government very nervous. This article goes into a bit more detail:

• Zhang Monan, Dollar depreciation dilemma, China Daily, 2 August 2011.

In a move to keep the value of their foreign reserves and improve their ratio of return, an increasing number of countries have set up sovereign wealth funds in recent years, especially since the onset of the global financial crisis. So far, nearly 30 countries or regions have established sovereign wealth funds and the total assets at their disposal amounted to $3.98 trillion in early 2011.

Compared to its mammoth official foreign reserve, China has made much slower progress than many countries in the expansion of its sovereign wealth funds, especially in its stock investments. Currently, China has only three main sovereign wealth funds: One with assets of $347.1 billion is managed by the Hong Kong-based SAFE Investment Co Ltd; the second, with assets of $288.8 billion, is managed by the China Investment Corporation, a wholly State-owned enterprise engaging in foreign assets investment; the third fund of $146.5 billion is managed by the National Social Security Fund.

From the perspective of its investment structure, China’s sovereign wealth funds have long attached excessive importance to mobility and security. For example, the China Investment Corporation has invested 87.4 percent of its funds in cash assets and only 3.2 percent in stocks, in sharp contrast to the global average of 45 percent in stock investments.

What’s interesting to me is that on the one hand we have these big problems, like global warming, and on the other hand these people with tons of money struggling to find good ways to invest it. Is there a way to make each of these problems the solution to the other?

The Stockholm Memorandum

1 June, 2011

In May this year, the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium produced a document called The Stockholm Memorandum signed by 17 Nobel laureates, presumably from among these participants. It’s a clear call to action, so I’ll reproduce it all here.

I. Mind-shift for a Great Transformation

The Earth system is complex. There are many aspects that we do not yet understand. Nevertheless, we are the first generation with the insight of the new global risks facing humanity.

We face the evidence that our progress as the dominant species has come at a very high price. Unsustainable patterns of production, consumption, and population growth are challenging the resilience of the planet to support human activity. At the same time, inequalities between and within societies remain high, leaving behind billions with unmet basic human needs and disproportionate vulnerability to global environmental change.

This situation concerns us deeply. As members of the 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium we call upon all leaders of the 21st century to exercise a collective responsibility of planetary stewardship. This means laying the foundation for a sustainable and equitable global civilization in which the entire Earth community is secure and prosperous.

Science indicates that we are transgressing planetary boundaries that have kept civilization safe for the past 10,000 years. Evidence is growing that human pressures are starting to overwhelm the Earth’s buffering capacity.

Humans are now the most significant driver of global change, propelling the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems.

We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial. We must respond rationally, equipped with scientific evidence.

Our predicament can only be redressed by reconnecting human development and global sustainability, moving away from the false dichotomy that places them in opposition.

In an interconnected and constrained world, in which we have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, economic development, and social justice.

Our call is for fundamental transformation and innovation in all spheres and at all scales in order to stop and reverse global environmental change and move toward fair and lasting prosperity for present and future generations.

II. Priorities for Coherent Global Action

We recommend a dual track approach:

a) emergency solutions now, that begin to stop and reverse negative environmental trends and redress inequalities in the inadequate institutional frameworks within which we operate, and

b) long term structural solutions that gradually change values, institutions and policy frameworks. We need to support our ability to innovate, adapt, and learn.

1. Reaching a more equitable world

Unequal distribution of the benefits of economic development are at the root of poverty. Despite efforts to address poverty, more than a third of the world’s population still live on less than $2 per day. This needs our immediate attention. Environment and development must go hand in hand. We need to:

• Achieve the Millennium Development Goals, in the spirit of the Millennium Declaration, recognising that global sustainability is a precondition of success.

• Adopt a global contract between industrialized and developing countries to scale up investment in approaches that integrate poverty reduction, climate stabilization, and ecosystem stewardship.

2. Managing the climate – energy challenge

We urge governments to agree on global emission reductions guided by science and embedded in ethics and justice. At the same time, the energy needs of the three billion people who lack access to reliable sources of energy need to be fulfilled. Global efforts need to:

• Keep global warming below 2°C, implying a peak in global CO2 emissions no later than 2015 and recognise that even a warming of 2°C carries a very high risk of serious impacts and the need for major adaptation efforts.

• Put a sufficiently high price on carbon and deliver the G-20 commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, using these funds to contribute to the several hundred billion US dollars per year needed to scale up investments in renewable energy.

3. Creating an efficiency revolution

We must transform the way we use energy and materials. In practice this means massive efforts to enhance energy efficiency and resource productivity, avoiding unintended secondary consequences. The “throw away concept” must give way to systematic efforts to develop circular material flows. We must:

• Introduce strict resource efficiency standards to enable a decoupling of economic growth from resource use.

• Develop new business models, based on radically improved energy and material efficiency.

4. Ensuring affordable food for all

Current food production systems are often unsustainable, inefficient and wasteful, and increasingly threatened by dwindling oil and phosphorus resources, financial speculation, and climate impacts. This is already causing widespread hunger and malnutrition today. We can no longer afford the massive loss of biodiversity and reduction in carbon sinks when ecosystems are converted into cropland. We need to:

• Foster a new agricultural revolution where more food is produced in a sustainable way on current agricultural land and within safe boundaries of water resources.

• Fund appropriate sustainable agricultural technology to deliver significant yield increases on small farms in developing countries.

5. Moving beyond green growth

There are compelling reasons to rethink the conventional model of economic development. Tinkering with the economic system that generated the global crises is not enough. Markets and entrepreneurship will be prime drivers of decision making and economic change, but must be complemented by policy frameworks that promote a new industrial metabolism and resource use. We should:

• Take account of natural capital, ecosystem services and social aspects of progress in all economic decisions and poverty reduction strategies. This requires the development of new welfare indicators that address the shortcomings of GDP as an indicator of growth.

• Reset economic incentives so that innovation is driven by wider societal interests and reaches the large proportion of the global population that is currently not benefitting from these innovations.

6. Reducing human pressures

Consumerism, inefficient resource use and inappropriate technologies are the primary drivers of humanity’s growing impact on the planet. However, population growth also needs attention. We must:

• Raise public awareness about the impacts of unsustainable consumption and shift away from the prevailing culture of consumerism to sustainability.

• Greatly increase access to reproductive health services, education and credit, aiming at empowering women all over the world. Such measures are important in their own right but will also reduce birth rates.

7. Strengthening earth system governance

The multilateral system must be reformed to cope with the defining challenges of our time, namely transforming humanity’s relationship with the planet and rebuilding trust between people and nations. Global governance must be strengthened to respect planetary boundaries and to support regional, national and local approaches. We should:

• Develop and strengthen institutions that can integrate the climate, biodiversity and development agendas.

• Explore new institutions that help to address the legitimate interests of future generations.

8. Enacting a new contract between science and society

Filling gaps in our knowledge and deepening our understanding is necessary to find solutions to the challenges of the Anthropocene, and calls for major investments in science. A dialogue with decision-makers and the general public is also an important part of a new contract between science and society. We need to:

• Launch a major initiative on the earth system research for global sustainability, at a scale similar to those devoted to areas such as space, defence and health, to tap all sources of ingenuity across disciplines and across the globe.

• Scale up our education efforts to increase scientific literacy especially among the young.

We are the first generation facing the evidence of global change. It therefore falls upon us to change our relationship with the planet, in order to tip the scales towards a sustainable world for future generations.


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