The Cost of Sucking

19 February, 2019

I’m talking about carbon dioxide scrubbers. This post will just be an extended quote from an excellent book, which is free online:

• David McKay, Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air.

It will help us begin to understand the economics. But some numbers may have changed since this was written! Also, the passage I’m quoting focuses on taking carbon dioxide out of the air. This not really what I’m researching now: I’m actually interested in removing carbon dioxide from the exhaust from coal-fired power plants, at least until we manage to eliminate these plants. But the two problems have enough similarities that it’s worth looking at the former.

Here is what McKay says:

The cost of sucking

Today, pumping carbon out of the ground is big bucks. In the future, perhaps pumping carbon into the ground is going to be big bucks. Assuming that inadequate action is taken now to halt global carbon pollution, perhaps a coalition of the willing will in a few decades pay to create a giant vacuum cleaner, and clean up everyone’s mess.

Before we go into details of how to capture carbon from thin air, let’s discuss the unavoidable energy cost of carbon capture. Whatever technologies we use, they have to respect the laws of physics, and unfortunately grabbing CO2 from thin air and concentrating it requires energy. The laws of physics say that the energy required must be at least 0.2 kWh per kg of CO2 (table 31.5). Given that real processes are typically 35% efficient at best, I’d be amazed if the energy cost of carbon capture is ever reduced below 0.55 kWh per kg.

Now, let’s assume that we wish to neutralize a typical European’s CO2 output of 11 tons per year, which is 30 kg per day per person. The energy required, assuming a cost of 0.55 kWh per kg of CO2, is 16.5 kWh per day per person. This is exactly the same as British electricity consumption. So powering the giant vacuum cleaner may require us to double our electricity production – or at least, to somehow obtain extra power equal to our current electricity production.

If the cost of running giant vacuum cleaners can be brought down,
brilliant, let’s make them. But no amount of research and development
can get round the laws of physics, which say that grabbing CO2 from thin air and concentrating it into liquid CO2 requires at least 0.2 kWh per kg of CO2.

Now, what’s the best way to suck CO2 from thin air? I’ll discuss four technologies for building the giant vacuum cleaner:

A. chemical pumps;
B. trees;
C. accelerated weathering of rocks;
D. ocean nourishment.

A. Chemical technologies for carbon capture

The chemical technologies typically deal with carbon dioxide in two steps.

  concentrate   compress  
0.03% CO2 Pure CO2 Liquid CO2

First, they concentrate CO2 from its low concentration in the atmosphere; then they compress it into a small volume ready for shoving somewhere (either down a hole in the ground or deep in the ocean). Each of these steps has an energy cost. The costs required by the laws of physics are shown in table 31.5.

In 2005, the best published methods for CO2 capture from thin air were quite inefficient: the energy cost was about 3.3 kWh per kg, with a financial cost of about $140 per ton of CO2. At this energy cost, capturing a European’s 30 kg per day would cost 100 kWh per day – almost the same as the European’s energy consumption of 125 kWh per day. Can better vacuum cleaners be designed?

Recently, Wallace Broecker, climate scientist, “perhaps the world’s foremost interpreter of the Earth’s operation as a biological, chemical, and physical system,” has been promoting an as yet unpublished technology developed by physicist Klaus Lackner for capturing CO2 from thin air. Broecker imagines that the world could carry on burning fossil fuels at much the same rate as it does now, and 60 million CO2-scrubbers (each the size of an up-ended shipping container) will vacuum up the CO2. What energy does Lackner’s process require? In June 2007 Lackner told me that his lab was achieving 1.3 kWh per kg, but since then they have developed a new process based on a resin that absorbs CO2 when dry and releases CO2 when moist. Lackner told me in June 2008 that, in a dry climate, the concentration cost has been reduced to about 0.18–0.37 kWh of low-grade heat per kg CO2. The compression cost is 0.11 kWh per kg. Thus Lackner’s total cost is 0.48 kWh or less per kg. For a European’s emissions of 30 kg CO2 per day, we are still talking about a cost of 14 kWh per day, of which 3.3 kWh per day would be electricity, and the rest heat.

Hurray for technical progress! But please don’t think that this is a small cost. We would require roughly a 20% increase in world energy production, just to run the vacuum cleaners.

Conclusion

Okay, this is me again: John Baez.

If you want to read about the other methods—trees, accelerated weathering of rocks, and ocean nourishment, go to McKay’s book. I’m not saying that they are less interesting! I am not trying, in this particular series of posts, to scan all technologies and find the best ones. I’m trying to study carbon dioxide scrubbers.


Climeworks

17 February, 2019

This article describes some recent work on ‘direct air capture’ of carbon dioxide—essentially, sucking it out of the air:

• Jon Gerntner, The tiny Swiss company that thinks it can help stop climate change, New York Times Magazine, 12 February 2019.

There’s a Swiss company called Climeworks that’s built machines that do this—shown in the picture above. So far they are using these machines for purposes other than reducing atmospheric CO2 concentrations: namely, making carbonated water for soft drinks, and getting greenhouses to have lots of carbon dioxide in the air, for tastier vegetables. And they’re just experimental, not economically viable yet:

The company is not turning a profit. To build and install the 18 units at Hinwil, hand-assembled in a second-floor workshop in Zurich, cost between $3 million and $4 million, which is the primary reason it costs the firm between $500 and $600 to remove a metric ton of CO₂ from the air. Even as the company has attracted about $50 million in private investments and grants, it faces the same daunting task that confronted Carl Bosch a century ago: How much can it bring costs down? And how fast can it scale up?

If they ever make it in these markets, greenhouses and carbonation might want 6 megatonnes of CO₂ annually. This is nothing compared to the 37 gigatonnes of CO₂ that we put into the atmosphere in 2018. In principle the technology Climeworks is using could be massively scaled up. After all, Napoleon used aluminum silverware, back when aluminum was more precious than gold… and only later did the technology for making aluminum improve to the point where the metal gained a mass market.

But can Climeworks’ technology actually be scaled up? Some are dubious:

M.I.T.’s Howard Herzog, for instance, an engineer who has spent years looking at the potential for these machines, told me that he thinks the costs will remain between $600 and $1,000 per metric ton. Some of Herzog’s reasons for skepticism are highly technical and relate to the physics of separating gases. Some are more easily grasped. He points out that because direct-air-capture machines have to move tremendous amounts of air through a filter or solution to glean a ton of CO₂ — the gas, for all its global impact, makes up only about 0.04 percent of our atmosphere — the process necessitates large expenditures for energy and big equipment. What he has likewise observed, in analyzing similar industries that separate gases, suggests that translating spreadsheet projections for capturing CO₂ into real-world applications will reveal hidden costs. “I think there has been a lot of hype about this, and it’s not going to revolutionize anything,” he told me, adding that he thinks other negative-emissions technologies will prove cheaper. “At best it’s going to be a bit player.”

What actually is the technology Climeworks is using? And what other technologies are available for sucking carbon dioxide out of the air—or out of the exhaust from fossil-fuel-burning power plants, or out of water?
I’ll have a lot more to say about the latter question in future articles. As for Climeworks, they describe their technology rather briefly here:

• Climeworks, Our technology.

They write:

Our plants capture atmospheric carbon with a filter. Air is drawn into the plant and the CO2 within the air is chemically bound to the filter.

Once the filter is saturated with CO2 it is heated (using mainly low-grade heat as an energy source) to around 100 °C (212 °F). The CO2 is then released from the filter and collected as concentrated CO2 gas to supply to customers or for negative emissions technologies.

CO2-free air is released back into the atmosphere. This continuous cycle is then ready to start again. The filter is reused many times and lasts for several thousand cycles.

What is the filter material?

The filter material is made of porous granulates modified with amines, which bind the CO2 in conjunction with the moisture in the air. This bond is dissolved at temperatures of 100 °C.

So, it seems their technology is an example of ‘amine gas treating’:

• Wikipedia, Amine gas treating.

In future posts I’ll talk a bit more about amine gas treating, but also other methods for absorbing carbon dioxide from air or from solution in water. Maybe you can help me figure out what’s the best method!


Exploring New Technologies

13 February, 2019

I’ve got some good news! I’ve been hired by Bryan Johnson to help evaluate and explain the potential of various technologies to address the problem of climate change.

Johnson is an entrepreneur who sold his company Braintree for $800M and started the OS Fund in 2014, seeding it with $100M to invest in the hard sciences so that we can move closer towards becoming proficient system administrators of our planet: engineering atoms, molecules, organisms and complex systems. The fund has invested in many companies working on synthetic biology, genetics, new materials, and so on. Here are some writeups he’s done on these companies.

As part of my research I’ll be blogging about some new technologies, asking questions and hoping experts can help me out. Stay tuned!




The Mathematics of the 21st Century

13 January, 2019

 

Check out the video of my talk, the first in the Applied Category Theory Seminar here at U. C. Riverside. It was nicely edited by Paola Fernandez and uploaded by Joe Moeller.

Abstract. The global warming crisis is part of a bigger transformation in which humanity realizes that the Earth is a finite system and that our population, energy usage, and the like cannot continue to grow exponentially. If civilization survives this transformation, it will affect mathematics—and be affected by it—just as dramatically as the agricultural revolution or industrial revolution. We should get ready!

The slides are rather hard to see in the video, but you can read them here while you watch the talk. Click on links in green for more information!


California’s “State of the State”

29 January, 2018

On January 25th, Jerry Brown, governor of California, gave his last annual State of the State speech. It’s about looking forward to the future: tackling hard problems now. I wish more politicians were focused on this.

You can see the whole speech annotated here. Here is the first part. The last line states the vision:

The bolder path is still our way forward.

State of the State (first part)

Good morning. As our Constitution requires, I’m here to report on the condition of our state.

Simply put, California is prospering. While it faces its share of difficulties, we should never forget the bounty and the endless opportunities bestowed on this special place—or the distance we’ve all traveled together these last few years.

It is now hard to visualize—or even remember—the hardships, the bankruptcies and the home foreclosures so many experienced during the Great Recession. Unemployment was above 12 percent and 1.3 million Californians lost their jobs.

The deficit was $27 billion in 2011. The New York Times, they called us: “The Coast of Dystopia.” The Wall Street Journal saw: “The Great California Exodus.” The Economist of London pronounced us: “The Ungovernable State.” And the Business Insider simply said: “California is Doomed.”

Even today, you will find critics who claim that the California dream is dead. But I’m used to that. Back in my first term, a prestigious report told us that California had the worst business climate in America. In point of fact, personal income in 1975, my first year as governor, was $154 billion. Today it has grown to $2.4 trillion. In just the last eight years alone, California’s personal income has grown $845 billion and 2.8 million new jobs have been created. Very few places in the world can match that record.

That is one of the reasons why confidence in the work that you are doing has risen so high. That contrasts sharply with the abysmal approval ratings given to the United States Congress. Certainly our on-time budgets are well received, thanks in large part to the lowering of the two-thirds vote to a simple majority to pass the budget.

But public confidence has also been inspired by your passing—with both Republicans and Democratic votes:

• Pension reform—and don’t minimize that, that was a big pension reform. May not be the final one, but it was there and you did it, Republicans and Democrats;

• Workers’ Compensation reform, another vote with Republicans and Democrats there;

• The Water Bond;

• The Rainy Day Fund; and

• The Cap-and-Trade Program.

And by the way, you Republicans, as I look over here and I look over there, don’t worry, I’ve got your back!

All these programs are big and very important to our future. And their passage demonstrates that some American governments can actually get things done—even in the face of deepening partisan division.

The recent fires and mudslides show us how much we are affected by natural disasters and how we can rise to the occasion—at the local level, at the state level and with major help from the federal government. I want to especially thank all of the firefighters, first responders and volunteers. They answered the call to help their fellow neighbors, in some cases even when their own homes were burning. Here we see an example of people working together irrespective of party.

The president himself has given California substantial assistance and the congressional leadership is now sponsoring legislation to help California, as well as the other states that have suffered major disasters—Texas, Florida and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

In this regard, we should never forget our dependency on the natural environment and the fundamental challenges it presents to the way we live. We can’t fight nature. We have to learn how to get along with her. And I want to say that again: We can’t fight nature. We have to learn how to get along with her.

And that’s not so easy. For thousands of years this land now called California supported no more than 300,000 people. That’s 300,000 people and they did that for thousands and thousands—some people say, as long as 20,000 years. Today, 40 million people live in the same place and their sheer impact on the soils, the forests and the entire ecosystem has no long-term precedent. That’s why we have to innovate constantly and create all manner of shelter, machines and creative technologies. That will continue, but only with ever greater public and private investment.

The devastating forest fires and the mudslides are a profound and growing challenge. Eight of the state’s most destructive fires have occurred in the last five years. Last year’s Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties was the largest in recorded history. The mudslides that followed were among the most lethal the state has ever encountered. In 2017, we had the highest average summer temperatures in recorded history. Over the last 40 years, California’s fire season has increased 78 days—and in some places it is nearly year-round.

So we have to be ready with the necessary firefighting capability and communication systems to warn residents of impending danger. We also have to manage our forests—and soils—much more intelligently.

Toward that end, I will convene a task force composed of scientists and knowledgeable forest practitioners to review thoroughly the way our forests are managed and suggest ways to reduce the threat of devastating fires. They will also consider how California can increase resiliency and carbon storage capacity. Trees in California should absorb CO2, not generate huge amounts of black carbon and greenhouse gas as they do today when forest fires rage across the land.

Despite what is widely believed by some of the most powerful people in Washington, the science of climate change is not in doubt. The national academies of science of every major country in the world—including Russia and China—have all endorsed the mainstream view that human caused greenhouse gases are trapping heat in the oceans and in the atmosphere and that action must be taken to avert catastrophic changes in our weather systems. All nations agree except one and that is solely because of one man: our current president.

Here in California, we follow a different path. Enlightened by top scientists at the University of California, Stanford and Caltech, among others, our state has led the way. I’ll enumerate just how:

• Building and appliance efficiency standards;

• Renewable electricity—reaching 50 percent in just a few years;

• A powerful low-carbon fuel standard; incentives for zero-emission vehicles;

• Ambitious policies to reduce short-lived climate pollutants like methane and black carbon;

• A UN sponsored climate summit this September in San Francisco; and

• The nation’s only functioning cap-and-trade system.

I will shortly provide an expenditure plan for the revenues that the cap-and-trade auctions have generated. Your renewing this program on a bipartisan basis was a major achievement and will ensure that we will have substantial sums to invest in communities all across the state—both urban and agricultural.

The goal is to make our neighborhoods and farms healthier, our vehicles cleaner—zero emission the sooner the better—and all our technologies increasingly lowering their carbon output. To meet these ambitious goals, we will need five million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2030. And we’re going to get there. Believe me. We only have 350,000 today, so we’ve all got a lot of work. And think of all the jobs and how much cleaner our air will be then.

When you passed cap-and-trade legislation, you also passed a far-reaching air pollution measure that for the first time focuses on pollutants that disproportionately affect specific neighborhoods. Instead of just measuring pollutants over vast swaths of land, regulators will zero in on those communities which are particularly disadvantaged by trains, trucks or factories.

Along with clean air, clean water is a fundamental good that must be protected and made available on a sustainable basis. When droughts occur, conservation measures become imperative. In recent years, you have passed historic legislation to manage California’s groundwater, which local governments are now implementing.

In addition, you passed—and more than two-thirds of voters approved—a water bond that invests in safe drinking water, conservation and storage. As a result, we will soon begin expending funds on some of the storage we’ve needed for decades.

As the climate changes and more water arrives as rain instead of snow, it is crucial that we are able to capture the overflow in a timely and responsible way. That, together with recycling and rainwater recapture will put us in the best position to use water wisely and in the most efficient way possible. We are also restoring the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds to protect water supplies and improve California’s iconic salmon runs.

Finally, we have the California Waterfix, a long studied and carefully designed project to modernize our broken water system. I am convinced that it will conserve water, protect the fish and the habitat in the Delta and ensure the delivery of badly needed water to the millions of people who depend on California’s aqueducts. Local water districts—in both the North and South—are providing the leadership and the financing because they know it is vital for their communities, and for the whole state. That is true, and that is the reason why I have persisted.

Our economy, the sixth largest in the world, depends on mobility, which only a modern and efficient transportation system provides. The vote on the gas tax was not easy but it was essential, given the vast network of roads and bridges on which California depends and the estimated $67 billion in deferred maintenance on our infrastructure. Tens of millions of cars and trucks travel over 330 billion miles a year. The sun’s only 93 million miles away.

The funds that SB 1 makes available are absolutely necessary if we are going to maintain our roads and transit systems in good repair. Twenty-five other states have raised gas taxes. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called for a federal gas tax because the highway trust fund is nearly broke.

Government does what individuals can’t do, like build roads and bridges and support local bus and light rail systems. This is our common endeavor by which we pool our resources through the public sector and improve all of our lives. Fighting a gas tax may appear to be good politics, but it isn’t. I will do everything in my power to defeat any repeal effort that gets on the ballot. You can count on that.

I’m looking for that one Republican. A brave, brave man.

Since I have talked about tunnels and transportation, I will bring up one more item of infrastructure: high-speed rail. I make no bones about it. I like trains and I like high-speed trains even better. So did the voters in 2008 when they approved the bond. Look, 11 other countries have high-speed trains. They are now taken for granted all over Europe, in Japan and in China. President Reagan himself said in Japan on November 11, 1983 the following, and I quote: “The State of California is planning to build a rapid speed train that is adapted from your highly successful bullet train.” Yes, we were, and now we are actually building it. Takes a long time.

Like any big project, there are obstacles. There were for the Bay Area Rapid Transit System, for the Golden Gate Bridge and the Panama Canal. I’ll pass over in silence the Bay bridge, that was almost 20 years. And by the way, it was over budget by $6 billion on a $1 billion project. So that happens. But not with the high-speed rail, we’ve got that covered.

But build it they did and build it we will—America’s first high-speed rail system. One link between San Jose and San Francisco—an electrified Caltrain—is financed and ready to go. Another billion, with matching funds, will be invested in Los Angeles to improve Union Station as a major transportation hub and fix the Anaheim corridor.

The next step is completing the Valley segment and getting an operating system connected to San Jose. Yes, it costs lots of money but it is still cheaper and more convenient than expanding airports, which nobody wants to, and building new freeways, which landowners often object to. All of that is to meet the growing demand. It will be fast, quiet and powered by renewable electricity and last for a hundred years. After all you guys are gone.

Already, more than 1,500 construction workers are on the job at 17 sites and hundreds of California businesses are providing services, generating thousands of job years of employment. As the global economy puts more Americans out of work and lowers wages, infrastructure projects like this will be a key source of well-paid California jobs.

Difficulties challenge us but they can’t discourage or stop us. Whether it’s roads or trains or dams or renewable energy installations or zero-emission cars, California is setting the pace for the entire nation. Yes, there are critics, there are lawsuits and there are countless obstacles. But California was built on dreams and perseverance and the bolder path is still our way forward.

What’s next?

On January 26th, the governor’s office made this announcement:

Taking action to further California’s climate leadership, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. today signed an executive order to boost the supply of zero-emission vehicles and charging and refueling stations in California. The Governor also detailed the new plan for investing $1.25 billion in cap-and-trade auction proceeds to reduce carbon pollution and improve public health and the environment.

“This executive order aims to curb carbon pollution from cars and trucks and boost the number of zero-emission vehicles driven in California,” said Governor Brown. “In addition, the cap-and-trade investments will, in varying degrees, reduce California’s carbon footprint and improve the quality of life for all.”

Zero-Emission Vehicle Executive Order

California is taking action to dramatically reduce carbon emissions from transportation—a sector that accounts for 50 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and 80 percent of smog-forming pollutants.

To continue to meet California’s climate goals and clean air standards, California must go even further to accelerate the market for zero-emission vehicles. Today’s executive order implements the Governor’s call for a new target of 5 million ZEVs in California by 2030, announced in his State of the State address yesterday, and will help significantly expand vehicle charging infrastructure.

The Administration is also proposing a new eight-year initiative to continue the state’s clean vehicle rebates and spur more infrastructure investments. This $2.5 billion initiative will help bring 250,000 vehicle charging stations and 200 hydrogen fueling stations to California by 2025.

Today’s action builds on past efforts to boost zero-emission vehicles, including: legislation signed last year and in 2014 and 2013; adopting the 2016 Zero-Emission Vehicle Plan and the Advanced Clean Cars program; hosting a Zero-Emission Vehicle Summit; launching a multi-state ZEV Action Plan; co-founding the International ZEV Alliance; and issuing Executive Order B-16-12 in 2012 to help bring 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles to California by 2025.

In addition to today’s executive order, the Governor also released the 2018 plan for California’s Climate Investments—a statewide initiative that puts billions of cap-and-trade dollars to work reducing greenhouse gas emissions, strengthening the economy and improving public health and the environment–particularly in disadvantaged communities.

California Climate Investments projects include affordable housing, renewable energy, public transportation, zero-emission vehicles, environmental restoration, more sustainable agriculture and recycling, among other projects. At least 35 percent of these investments are made in disadvantaged and low-income communities.

The $1.25 billion climate investment plan can be found here.


The Irreversible Momentum of Clean Energy

17 January, 2017

The president of the US recently came out with an article in Science. It’s about climate change and clean energy:

• Barack Obama, The irreversible momentum of clean energy, Science, 13 January 2017.

Since it’s open-access, I’m going to take the liberty of quoting the whole thing, minus the references, which provide support for a lot of his facts and figures.

The irreversible momentum of clean energy

The release of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) due to human activity is increasing global average surface air temperatures, disrupting weather patterns, and acidifying the ocean. Left unchecked, the continued growth of GHG emissions could cause global average temperatures to increase by another 4°C or more by 2100 and by 1.5 to 2 times as much in many midcontinent and far northern locations. Although our understanding of the impacts of climate change is increasingly and disturbingly clear, there is still debate about the proper course for U.S. policy — a debate that is very much on display during the current presidential transition. But putting near-term politics aside, the mounting economic and scientific evidence leave me confident that trends toward a clean-energy economy that have emerged during my presidency will continue and that the economic opportunity for our country to harness that trend will only grow. This Policy Forum will focus on the four reasons I believe the trend toward clean energy is irreversible.

ECONOMIES GROW, EMISSIONS FALL

The United States is showing that GHG mitigation need not conflict with economic growth. Rather, it can boost efficiency, productivity, and innovation. Since 2008, the United States has experienced the first sustained period of rapid GHG emissions reductions and simultaneous economic growth on record. Specifically, CO2 emissions from the energy sector fell by 9.5% from 2008 to 2015, while the economy grew by more than 10%. In this same period, the amount of energy consumed per dollar of real gross domestic product (GDP) fell by almost 11%, the amount of CO2 emitted per unit of energy consumed declined by 8%, and CO2 emitted per dollar of GDP declined by 18%.

The importance of this trend cannot be overstated. This “decoupling” of energy sector emissions and economic growth should put to rest the argument that combatting climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living. In fact, although this decoupling is most pronounced in the United States, evidence that economies can grow while emissions do not is emerging around the world. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) preliminary estimate of energy related CO2 emissions in 2015 reveals that emissions stayed flat compared with the year before, whereas the global economy grew. The IEA noted that “There have been only four periods in the past 40 years in which CO2 emission levels were flat or fell compared with the previous year, with three of those — the early 1980s, 1992, and 2009 — being associated with global economic weakness. By contrast, the recent halt in emissions growth comes in a period of economic growth.”

At the same time, evidence is mounting that any economic strategy that ignores carbon pollution will impose tremendous costs to the global economy and will result in fewer jobs and less economic growth over the long term. Estimates of the economic damages from warming of 4°C over preindustrial levels range from 1% to 5% of global GDP each year by 2100. One of the most frequently cited economic models pins the estimate of annual damages from warming of 4°C at ~4% of global GDP, which could lead to lost U.S. federal revenue of roughly $340 billion to $690 billion annually.

Moreover, these estimates do not include the possibility of GHG increases triggering catastrophic events, such as the accelerated shrinkage of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, drastic changes in ocean currents, or sizable releases of GHGs from previously frozen soils and sediments that rapidly accelerate warming. In addition, these estimates factor in economic damages but do not address the critical question of whether the underlying rate of economic growth (rather than just the level of GDP) is affected by climate change, so these studies could substantially understate the potential damage of climate change on the global macroeconomy.

As a result, it is becoming increasingly clear that, regardless of the inherent uncertainties in predicting future climate and weather patterns, the investments needed to reduce emissions — and to increase resilience and preparedness for the changes in climate that can no longer be avoided — will be modest in comparison with the benefits from avoided climate-change damages. This means, in the coming years, states, localities, and businesses will need to continue making these critical investments, in addition to taking common-sense steps to disclose climate risk to taxpayers, homeowners, shareholders, and customers. Global insurance and reinsurance businesses are already taking such steps as their analytical models reveal growing climate risk.

PRIVATE-SECTOR EMISSIONS REDUCTIONS

Beyond the macroeconomic case, businesses are coming to the conclusion that reducing emissions is not just good for the environment — it can also boost bottom lines, cut costs for consumers, and deliver returns for shareholders.

Perhaps the most compelling example is energy efficiency. Government has played a role in encouraging this kind of investment and innovation. My Administration has put in place (i) fuel economy standards that are net beneficial and are projected to cut more than 8 billion tons of carbon pollution over the lifetime of new vehicles sold between 2012 and 2029 and (ii) 44 appliance standards and new building codes that are projected to cut 2.4 billion tons of carbon pollution and save $550 billion for consumers by 2030.

But ultimately, these investments are being made by firms that decide to cut their energy waste in order to save money and invest in other areas of their businesses. For example, Alcoa has set a goal of reducing its GHG intensity 30% by 2020 from its 2005 baseline, and General Motors is working to reduce its energy intensity from facilities by 20% from its 2011 baseline over the same timeframe. Investments like these are contributing to what we are seeing take place across the economy: Total energy consumption in 2015 was 2.5% lower than it was in 2008, whereas the economy was 10% larger.

This kind of corporate decision-making can save money, but it also has the potential to create jobs that pay well. A U.S. Department of Energy report released this week found that ~2.2 million Americans are currently employed in the design, installation, and manufacture of energy-efficiency products and services. This compares with the roughly 1.1 million Americans who are employed in the production of fossil fuels and their use for electric power generation. Policies that continue to encourage businesses to save money by cutting energy waste could pay a major employment dividend and are based on stronger economic logic than continuing the nearly $5 billion per year in federal fossil-fuel subsidies, a market distortion that should be corrected on its own or in the context of corporate tax reform.

MARKET FORCES IN THE POWER SECTOR

The American electric-power sector — the largest source of GHG emissions in our economy — is being transformed, in large part, because of market dynamics. In 2008, natural gas made up ~21% of U.S. electricity generation. Today, it makes up ~33%, an increase due almost entirely to the shift from higher-emitting coal to lower-emitting natural gas, brought about primarily by the increased availability of low-cost gas due to new production techniques. Because the cost of new electricity generation using natural gas is projected to remain low relative to coal, it is unlikely that utilities will change course and choose to build coal-fired power plants, which would be more expensive than natural gas plants, regardless of any near-term changes in federal policy. Although methane emissions from natural gas production are a serious concern, firms have an economic incentive over the long term to put in place waste-reducing measures consistent with standards my Administration has put in place, and states will continue making important progress toward addressing this issue, irrespective of near-term federal policy.

Renewable electricity costs also fell dramatically between 2008 and 2015: the cost of electricity fell 41% for wind, 54% for rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) installations, and 64% for utility-scale PV. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, 2015 was a record year for clean energy investment, with those energy sources attracting twice as much global capital as fossil fuels.

Public policy — ranging from Recovery Act investments to recent tax credit extensions — has played a crucial role, but technology advances and market forces will continue to drive renewable deployment. The levelized cost of electricity from new renewables like wind and solar in some parts of the United States is already lower than that for new coal generation, without counting subsidies for renewables.

That is why American businesses are making the move toward renewable energy sources. Google, for example, announced last month that, in 2017, it plans to power 100% of its operations using renewable energy — in large part through large-scale, long-term contracts to buy renewable energy directly. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, has set a goal of getting 100% of its energy from renewables in the coming years. And economy-wide, solar and wind firms now employ more than 360,000 Americans, compared with around 160,000 Americans who work in coal electric generation and support.

Beyond market forces, state-level policy will continue to drive clean-energy momentum. States representing 40% of the U.S. population are continuing to move ahead with clean-energy plans, and even outside of those states, clean energy is expanding. For example, wind power alone made up 12% of Texas’s electricity production in 2015 and, at certain points in 2015, that number was >40%, and wind provided 32% of Iowa’s total electricity generation in 2015, up from 8% in 2008 (a higher fraction than in any other state).

GLOBAL MOMENTUM

Outside the United States, countries and their businesses are moving forward, seeking to reap benefits for their countries by being at the front of the clean-energy race. This has not always been the case. A short time ago, many believed that only a small number of advanced economies should be responsible for reducing GHG emissions and contributing to the fight against climate change. But nations agreed in Paris that all countries should put forward increasingly ambitious climate policies and be subject to consistent transparency and accountability requirements. This was a fundamental shift in the diplomatic landscape, which has already yielded substantial dividends. The Paris Agreement entered into force in less than a year, and, at the follow-up meeting this fall in Marrakesh, countries agreed that, with more than 110 countries representing more than 75% of global emissions having already joined the Paris Agreement, climate action “momentum is irreversible”. Although substantive action over decades will be required to realize the vision of Paris, analysis of countries’ individual contributions suggests that meeting mediumterm respective targets and increasing their ambition in the years ahead — coupled with scaled-up investment in clean-energy technologies — could increase the international community’s probability of limiting warming to 2°C by as much as 50%.

Were the United States to step away from Paris, it would lose its seat at the table to hold other countries to their commitments, demand transparency, and encourage ambition. This does not mean the next Administration needs to follow identical domestic policies to my Administration’s. There are multiple paths and mechanisms by which this country can achieve — efficiently and economically — the targets we embraced in the Paris Agreement. The Paris Agreement itself is based on a nationally determined structure whereby each country sets and updates its own commitments. Regardless of U.S. domestic policies, it would undermine our economic interests to walk away from the opportunity to hold countries representing two-thirds of global emissions — including China, India, Mexico, European Union members, and others — accountable. This should not be a partisan issue. It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends. And it is smart planning to set long term emission-reduction targets and give American companies, entrepreneurs, and investors certainty so they can invest and manufacture the emission-reducing technologies that we can use domestically and export to the rest of the world. That is why hundreds of major companies — including energy-related companies from ExxonMobil and Shell, to DuPont and Rio Tinto, to Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Calpine, and Pacific Gas and Electric Company — have supported the Paris process, and leading investors have committed $1 billion in patient, private capital to support clean-energy breakthroughs that could make even greater climate ambition possible.

CONCLUSION

We have long known, on the basis of a massive scientific record, that the urgency of acting to mitigate climate change is real and cannot be ignored. In recent years, we have also seen that the economic case for action — and against inaction — is just as clear, the business case for clean energy is growing, and the trend toward a cleaner power sector can be sustained regardless of near-term federal policies.

Despite the policy uncertainty that we face, I remain convinced that no country is better suited to confront the climate challenge and reap the economic benefits of a low-carbon future than the United States and that continued participation in the Paris process will yield great benefit for the American people, as well as the international community. Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.

Of course, one of the great advantages of our system of government is that each president is able to chart his or her own policy course. And President-elect Donald Trump will have the opportunity to do so. The latest science and economics provide a helpful guide for what the future may bring, in many cases independent of near-term policy choices, when it comes to combatting climate change and transitioning to a clean energy economy.


Give the Earth a Present: Help Us Save Climate Data

28 December, 2016

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We’ve been busy backing up climate data before Trump becomes President. Now you can help too, with some money to pay for servers and storage space. Please give what you can at our Kickstarter campaign here:

Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project.

If we get $5000 by the end of January, we can save this data until we convince bigger organizations to take over. If we don’t get that much, we get nothing. That’s how Kickstarter works. Also, if you donate now, you won’t be billed until January 31st.

So, please help! It’s urgent.

I will make public how we spend this money. And if we get more than $5000, I’ll make sure it’s put to good use. There’s a lot of work we could do to make sure the data is authenticated, made easily accessible, and so on.

The idea

The safety of US government climate data is at risk. Trump plans to have climate change deniers running every agency concerned with climate change. So, scientists are rushing to back up the many climate databases held by US government agencies before he takes office.

We hope he won’t be rash enough to delete these precious records. But: better safe than sorry!

The Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project is part of this effort. So far our volunteers have backed up nearly 1 terabyte of climate data from NASA and other agencies. We’ll do a lot more! We just need some funds to pay for storage space and a server until larger institutions take over this task.

The team

Jan Galkowski is a statistician with a strong interest in climate science. He works at Akamai Technologies, a company responsible for serving at least 15% of all web traffic. He began downloading climate data on the 11th of December.

• Shortly thereafter John Baez, a mathematician and science blogger at U. C. Riverside, joined in to publicize the project. He’d already founded an organization called the Azimuth Project, which helps scientists and engineers cooperate on environmental issues.

• When Jan started running out of storage space, Scott Maxwell jumped in. He used to work for NASA—driving a Mars rover among other things—and now he works for Google. He set up a 10-terabyte account on Google Drive and started backing up data himself.

• A couple of days later Sakari Maaranen joined the team. He’s a systems architect at Ubisecure, a Finnish firm, with access to a high-bandwidth connection. He set up a server, he’s downloading lots of data, he showed us how to authenticate it with SHA-256 hashes, and he’s managing many other technical aspects of this project.

There are other people involved too. You can watch the nitty-gritty details of our progress here:

Azimuth Backup Project – Issue Tracker.

and you can learn more here:

Azimuth Climate Data Backup Project.