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

getz_ice_shelf

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.


Under2 Coalition

24 November, 2016

I’ve been thinking hard about climate change since at least 2010. That’s why I started this blog. But the last couple years I’ve focused on basic research in network theory as a preliminary step toward green mathematics. Basic research is what I’m best at, and there are plenty of people working on the more immediate, more urgent aspects of climate change.

Indeed, after the Paris Agreement, I started hoping that politicians were taking this issue seriously and that we’d ultimately deal with it—even though I knew this agreement was not itself enough to keep warming below 2° C:

There is a troubling paradox at the heart of climate policy. On the one hand, nobody can doubt the historic success of the Paris Agreement. On the other hand, everybody willing to look can see the impact of our changing climate. People already face rising seas, expanding desertification and coastal erosion. They take little comfort from agreements to adopt mitigation measures and finance adaptation in the future. They need action today.

That is why the Emissions Gap Report tracks our progress in restricting global warming to 1.5 – 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. This year’s data shows that overall emissions are still rising, but more slowly, and in the case of carbon dioxide, hardly at all. The report foresees further reductions in the short term and increased ambition in the medium term. Make no mistake; the Paris Agreement will slow climate change. The recent Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol will do the same.

But not enough: not nearly enough and not fast enough. This report estimates we are actually on track for global warming of up to 3.4 degrees Celsius. Current commitments will reduce emissions by no more than a third of the levels required by 2030 to avert disaster. The Kigali Amendment will take off 0.5 degrees Celsius, although not until well after 2030. Action on short-lived climate pollutants, such as black carbon, can take off a further 0.5 degrees Celsius. This means we need to find another one degree from somewhere to meet the stronger, and safer, target of 1.5 degrees Celsius warming.

So, we must take urgent action. If we don’t, we will mourn the loss of biodiversity and natural resources. We will regret the economic fallout. Most of all, we will grieve over the avoidable human tragedy; the growing numbers of climate refugees hit by hunger, poverty, illness and conflict will be a constant reminder of our failure to deliver.

That’s from an annual report put out by the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP:

• United Nations Environment Programme, The Emissions Gap Report 2016.

As this report makes clear, we can bridge the gap and keep global warming below 2° C, if we work very hard.

But my limited optimism was shaken by the US presidential election, and especially by the choice of Myron Ebell to head the ‘transition team’ for the Environmental Protection Agency. For the US government to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and abandon the Paris Agreement would seriously threaten the fight against climate change.

Luckily, people already recognize that even with the Paris Agreement, a lot of work must happen at the ‘subnational’ level. This work will go on even if the US federal government gives up. So I want to learn more about it, and get involved somehow.

This is where the Under2 Coalition comes in.

The Under2 Coalition

California, Connecticut, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington have signed onto a spinoff of the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s called the Under2 Memorandum of Understanding, or Under2 MOU for short.

“Under 2” stands for two goals:

• under 2 degrees Celsius of global warming, and
• under 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted per person per year.

These states have agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 80-95% below 1990 levels by 2050. They’ve also agreed to share technology and scientific research, expand use of zero-emission vehicles, etc., etc.

And it’s not just US states that are involved in this! A total of 165 jurisdictions in 33 countries and six continents have signed or endorsed the Under2 MOU. Together, they form the Under2 Coalition. They represent more than 1.08 billion people and $25.7 trillion in GDP, more than a third of the global economy:

Under2 Coalition.

I’ll list the members, starting with ones near the US. If you go to the link you can find out exactly what each of these ‘sub-national entities’ are promising to do. In a future post, I’ll say more about the details, since I want Riverside to join this coalition. Jim Stuttard has already started a page about a city in the UK which is not a member of the Under2 Coalition, but has done a lot of work to figure out how to cut carbon emissions:

• Azimuth Wiki, Birmingham Green Commission.

This sort of information will be useful for other cities.

UNITED STATES

Austin
California
Connecticut
Los Angeles
Massachusetts
Minnesota
New Hampshire
New York City
New York State
Oakland City
Oregon
Portland City
Rhode Island
Sacramento
San Francisco
Seattle
Vermont
Washington

CANADA

British Columbia
Northwest Territories
Ontario
Québec
Vancouver City

MEXICO

Baja California
Chiapas
Hidalgo
Jalisco
Mexico City
Mexico State
Michoacán
Quintana Roo
Tabasco
Yucatán

BRAZIL

Acre
Amazonas
Mato Grosso
Pernambuco
Rondônia
São Paulo City
São Paulo State
Tocantins

CHILE

Santiago City

COLOMBIA

Guainía
Guaviare

PERU

Loreto
San Martín
Ucayali

AUSTRIA

Lower Austria

FRANCE

Alsace
Aquitaine
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
Bas-Rhin
Midi-Pyrénées
Pays de la Loire

GERMANY

Baden-Württemberg
Bavaria
Hesse
North Rhine-Westphalia
Schleswig-Holstein
Thuringia

HUNGARY

Budapest

ITALY

Abruzzo
Basilicata
Emilia-Romagna
Lombardy
Piedmont
Sardinia
Veneto

THE NETHERLANDS

Drenthe
North Brabant
North Holland
South Holland

PORTUGAL

Azores
Madeira

SPAIN

Andalusia
Basque Country
Catalonia
Navarra

SWEDEN

Jämtland Härjedalen

SWITZERLAND

Basel-Landschaft
Basel-Stadt

UNITED KINGDOM

Bristol
Greater Manchester
Scotland
Wales

AUSTRALIA

Australian Capital Territory (ACT)
South Australia

CHINA

Alliance of Peaking Pioneer Cities (represents 23 cities)
Jiangsu Province
Sichuan
Zhenjiang City

INDIA

Telangana

INDONESIA

East Kalimantan
South Sumatra
West Kalimantan

JAPAN

Gifu

NEPAL

Kathmandu Valley

KENYA

Laikipia County

IVORY COAST

Assemblée des Régions de Côte d’Ivoire (represents 33 subnationals)

NIGERIA

Cross River State

MOZAMBIQUE

Nampula

SENEGAL

Guédiawaye


Global Carbon Emissions are Flat

24 March, 2016

 


About a year ago, the International Energy Agency announced some important news. Although the global GDP grew by 3.4% in 2014, greenhouse gas emissions due to energy use did not increase! We spewed 32.3 gigtonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning stuff to produce energy—just as we had in 2013.

Of course, leveling off is not good enough. Since carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere essentially ‘forever’, we need to essentially quit burning stuff. You can’t stop a clogged sink from overflowing by levelling off the rate at which you pour in water. You have to turn off the faucet!

But still, it’s a promising start.

And now the IEA is saying the same thing about 2015. While the global GDP grew 3.1% in 2015, we spewed just 32.1 billion gigatonnes of CO2 into the air by burning stuff to make energy. So these carbon emissions are flat or even slightly down from 2014!

The IEA put out a press release about this:

• International Energy Agency, Decoupling of global emissions and economic growth confirmed, 16 March 2016.

and here is some of what it says:

“The new figures confirm last year’s surprising but welcome news: we now have seen two straight years of greenhouse gas emissions decoupling from economic growth,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol. “Coming just a few months after the landmark COP21 agreement in Paris, this is yet another boost to the global fight against climate change.”

Global emissions of carbon dioxide stood at 32.1 billion tonnes in 2015, having remained essentially flat since 2013. The IEA preliminary data suggest that electricity generated by renewables played a critical role, having accounted for around 90% of new electricity generation in 2015; wind alone produced more than half of new electricity generation. In parallel, the global economy continued to grow by more than 3%, offering further evidence that the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakening.

In the more than 40 years in which the IEA has been providing information on CO2 emissions, there have been only four periods in which emissions stood still or fell compared to the previous year. Three of those—the early 1980s, 1992 and 2009—were associated with global economic weakness. But the recent stall in emissions comes amid economic expansion: according to the International Monetary Fund, global GDP grew by 3.4% in 2014 and 3.1% in 2015.

The two largest emitters, China and the United States, both registered a decline in energy-related CO2 in 2015. In China, emissions declined by 1.5%, as coal use dropped for the second year in a row. The economic restructuring towards less energy-intensive industries and the government’s efforts to decarbonise electricity generation pushed coal use down. In 2015, coal generated less than 70% of Chinese electricity, ten percentage points less than four years ago (in 2011). Over the same period low-carbon sources jumped from 19% to 28%, with hydro and wind accounting for most of the increase. In the United States, emissions declined by 2%, as a large switch from coal to natural gas use in electricity generation took place.

The decline observed in the two major emitters was offset by increasing emissions in most other Asian developing economies and the Middle East, and also a moderate increase in Europe.

More details on the data and analysis will be included in a World Energy Outlook special report on energy and air quality that will be released at the end of June. The report will go beyond CO2 emissions and will provide a first in-depth analysis of the role the energy sector plays in air pollution, a crucial policy issue that today results in 7 million premature deaths a year. The report will provide the outlook for emissions and their impact on health, and provide policy makers with strategies to mitigate energy-related air pollution in the short and long term.

To download annual energy-related CO2 emissions data, click here.

To read last year’s announcement about CO2 emissions, click here.

Decarbonization since the Paris Agreement

Here’s an optimistic assessment of what’s been going since the Paris Agreement was sealed on 12 December 2015:

Paris Agreement 100 days on: The dawn of a new era?, BusinessGreen, 21 March 2016.

It’s mainly interesting to me because it has a passage with lots of links. I’ll quote that part:

Just days after the agreement, the Obama administration pulled off another coup extending renewable energy tax credits and effectively engineering an acceleration of the country’s renewable energy boom. China followed a few months later with a Five Year Plan that majored on environmental progress and further fuelled speculation the superpower’s coal use has already peaked. Canada continued its rehabilitation from climate villain to climate champion, inking a comprehensive bilateral agreement with the US to crackdown on methane emissions and put another stake through the heart of Arctic drilling plans. Sweden edged forward with plans for a carbon neutral economy, as Japan revealed plans to accelerate its emission reductions through to 2030. And the UK government, sadly still a byword for climate policy contrariness, revealed it would take the over-arching goal of the Paris Agreement and enshrine it in national law through a new target to build a net zero emission economy.

This global policy push, coupled with inexorable technological progress (witness the latest record-breaking solar cells and the blistering pace of improvements in energy storage technology), is working. Just weeks after the Paris Agreement the clean energy investment and greenhouse gas emission data for 2015 started to come in, and the stats were better than anyone could have expected. Clean energy investment reached a record $329bn, as it became increasingly clear renewables are now the generation option of choice in multiple markets around the world. In industrialised countries such as the UK emissions kept falling fast, while the IEA suggested emissions globally are remaining flat, despite increasing wealth.

These mega trends are inevitably being felt at the coal face, so to speak, of modern business. Since Paris, US coal giant Arch Coal filed for bankruptcy and Peabody Energy warned it may have to do the same. In the UK, mainstream energy trade body Energy UK delivered its own Road to Damascus moment, announcing its members were primed and ready to deliver a low carbon transition. Iberdrola, one of the few European utilities closely associated with a full bore commitment to decarbonisation, became one of the few European utilities to report decent financial results. The march of the divestment movement continued, as savvy investors all over the world have internalised the logic of the Paris Agreement’s goals and recognised that carbon intensive business models’ days are numbered. The flight from high risk coal assets gathered pace, just as the development of high risk oil assets slowed.


The Case for Optimism on Climate Change

7 March, 2016

 

The video here is quite gripping: you should watch it!

Despite the title, Gore starts with a long and terrifying account of what climate change is doing. So what’s his case for optimism? A lot of it concerns solar power, though he also mentions nuclear power:

So the answer to the first question, “Must we change?” is yes, we have to change. Second question, “Can we change?” This is the exciting news! The best projections in the world 16 years ago were that by 2010, the world would be able to install 30 gigawatts of wind capacity. We beat that mark by 14 and a half times over. We see an exponential curve for wind installations now. We see the cost coming down dramatically. Some countries—take Germany, an industrial powerhouse with a climate not that different from Vancouver’s, by the way—one day last December, got 81 percent of all its energy from renewable resources, mainly solar and wind. A lot of countries are getting more than half on an average basis.

More good news: energy storage, from batteries particularly, is now beginning to take off because the cost has been coming down very dramatically to solve the intermittency problem. With solar, the news is even more exciting! The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt per year by 2010. When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we’re on track to beat it 68 times over.

We’re going to win this. We are going to prevail. The exponential curve on solar is even steeper and more dramatic. When I came to this stage 10 years ago, this is where it was. We have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the emergence of these exponential curves.

And the cost has come down 10 percent per year for 30 years. And it’s continuing to come down.

Now, the business community has certainly noticed this, because it’s crossing the grid parity point. Cheaper solar penetration rates are beginning to rise. Grid parity is understood as that line, that threshold, below which renewable electricity is cheaper than electricity from burning fossil fuels. That threshold is a little bit like the difference between 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 33 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero and one Celsius. It’s a difference of more than one degree, it’s the difference between ice and water. And it’s the difference between markets that are frozen up, and liquid flows of capital into new opportunities for investment. This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector. We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since. The projections for the future are even more dramatic, even though fossil energy is now still subsidized at a rate 40 times larger than renewables. And by the way, if you add the projections for nuclear on here, particularly if you assume that the work many are doing to try to break through to safer and more acceptable, more affordable forms of nuclear, this could change even more dramatically.

So is there any precedent for such a rapid adoption of a new technology? Well, there are many, but let’s look at cell phones. In 1980, AT&T, then Ma Bell, commissioned McKinsey to do a global market survey of those clunky new mobile phones that appeared then. “How many can we sell by the year 2000?” they asked. McKinsey came back and said, “900,000.” And sure enough, when the year 2000 arrived, they did sell 900,000—in the first three days. And for the balance of the year, they sold 120 times more. And now there are more cell connections than there are people in the world.

So, why were they not only wrong, but way wrong? I’ve asked that question myself, “Why?”

And I think the answer is in three parts. First, the cost came down much faster than anybody expected, even as the quality went up. And low-income countries, places that did not have a landline grid—they leap-frogged to the new technology. The big expansion has been in the developing counties. So what about the electricity grids in the developing world? Well, not so hot. And in many areas, they don’t exist. There are more people without any electricity at all in India than the entire population of the United States of America. So now we’re getting this: solar panels on grass huts and new business models that make it affordable. Muhammad Yunus financed this one in Bangladesh with micro-credit. This is a village market. Bangladesh is now the fastest-deploying country in the world: two systems per minute on average, night and day. And we have all we need: enough energy from the Sun comes to the Earth every hour to supply the full world’s energy needs for an entire year. It’s actually a little bit less than an hour. So the answer to the second question, “Can we change?” is clearly “Yes.” And it’s an ever-firmer “yes.”

Some people are much less sanguine about solar power, and they would point out all the things that Gore doesn’t mention here. For example, while Gore claims that “one day last December” Germany “got 81 percent of all its energy from renewable resources, mainly solar and wind”, the picture in general is not so good:



This is from 2014, the most recent I could easily find. At least back then, renewables were only slightly ahead of ‘brown coal’, or lignite—the dirtiest kind of coal. Furthermore, among renewables, burning ‘biomass’ produced about as much power as wind—and more than solar. And what’s ‘biomass’, exactly? A lot of it is wood pellets! Some is even imported:

• John Baez, The EU’s biggest renewable eneergy source, 18 September 2013.

So, for every piece of good news one can find a piece of bad news. But the drop in price of solar power is impressive, and photovoltaic solar power is starting to hit ‘grid parity’: the point at which it’s as cheap as the usual cost of electricity off the grid:


According to this map based on reports put out by Deutsche Bank (here and here), the green countries reached grid parity before 2014. The blue countries reached it after 2014. The olive countries have reached it only for peak grid prices. The orange regions are US states that were ‘poised to reach grid parity’ in 2015.

But of course there are other issues: the intermittency of solar power, the difficulties of storing energy, etc. How optimistic should we be?


Ken Caldeira on What To Do

25 January, 2016

Famous climate scientist Ken Caldeira has a new article out:

• Ken Caldeira, Stop Emissions!, Technology Review, January/February 2016, 41–43.

Let me quote a bit:

Many years ago, I protested at the gates of a nuclear power plant. For a long time, I believed it would be easy to get energy from biomass, wind, and solar. Small is beautiful. Distributed power, not centralized.

I wish I could still believe that.

My thinking changed when I worked with Marty Hoffert of New York University on research that was first published in Nature in 1998. It was the first peer-reviewed study that examined the amount of near-zero-emission energy we would need in order to solve the climate problem. Unfortunately, our conclusions still hold. We need massive deployment of affordable and dependable near-zero-emission energy, and we need a major research and development program to develop better energy and transportation systems.

It’s true that wind and solar power have been getting much more attractive in recent years. Both have gotten significantly cheaper. Even so, neither wind nor solar is dependable enough, and batteries do not yet exist that can store enough energy at affordable prices to get a modern industrial society through those times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.

Recent analyses suggest that wind and solar power, connected by a continental-scale electric grid and using natural-gas power plants to provide backup, could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from electricity production by about two-thirds. But generating electricity is responsible for only about one-third of total global carbon dioxide emissions, which are increasing by more than 2 percent a year. So even if we had this better electric sector tomorrow, within a decade or two emissions would be back where they are today.

We need to bring much, much more to bear on the climate problem. It can’t be solved unless it is addressed as seriously as we address national security. The politicians who go to the Paris Climate Conference are making commitments that fall far short of what would be needed to substantially reduce climate risk.

Daunting math

Four weeks ago, a hurricane-strength cyclone smashed into Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula, for the first time in recorded history. Also this fall, a hurricane with the most powerful winds ever measured slammed into the Pacific coast of Mexico.

Unusually intense storms such as these are a predicted consequence of global warming, as are longer heat waves and droughts and many other negative weather-related events that we can expect to become more commonplace. Already, in the middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, average temperatures are increasing at a rate that is equivalent to moving south about 10 meters (30 feet) each day. This rate is about 100 times faster than most climate change that we can observe in the geologic record, and it gravely threatens biodiversity in many parts of the world. We are already losing about two coral reefs each week, largely as a direct consequence of our greenhouse-gas emissions.

Recently, my colleagues and I studied what will happen in the long term if we continue pulling fossil carbon out of the ground and releasing it into the atmosphere. We found that it would take many thousands of years for the planet to recover from this insult. If we burn all available fossil-fuel resources and dump the resulting carbon dioxide waste in the sky, we can expect global average temperatures to be 9 °C (15 °F) warmer than today even 10,000 years into the future. We can expect sea levels to be about 60 meters (200 feet) higher than today. In much of the tropics, it is possible that mammals (including us) would not be able to survive outdoors in the daytime heat. Thus, it is essential to our long-term well-being that fossil-fuel carbon does not go into our atmosphere.

If we want to reduce the threat of climate change in the near future, there are actions to take now: reduce emissions of short-lived pollutants such as black carbon, cut emissions of methane from natural-gas fields and landfills, and so on. We need to slow and then reverse deforestation, adopt electric cars, and build solar, wind, and nuclear plants.

But while existing technologies can start us down the path, they can’t get us to our goal. Most analysts believe we should decarbonize electricity generation and use electricity for transportation, industry, and even home heating. (Using electricity for heating is wildly inefficient, but there may be no better solution in a carbon-constrained world.) This would require a system of electricity generation several times larger than the one we have now. Can we really use existing technology to scale up our system so dramatically while markedly reducing emissions from that sector?

Solar power is the only energy source that we know can power civilization indefinitely. Unfortunately, we do not have global-scale electricity grids that could wheel solar energy from day to night. At the scale of the regional electric grid, we do not have batteries that can balance daytime electricity generation with nighttime demand.

We should do what we know how to do. But all the while, we need to be thinking about what we don’t know how to do. We need to find better ways to generate, store, and transmit electricity. We also need better zero-carbon fuels for the parts of the economy that can’t be electrified. And most important, perhaps, we need better ways of using energy.

Energy is a means, not an end. We don’t want energy so much as we want what it makes possible: transportation, entertainment, shelter, and nutrition. Given United Nations estimates that the world will have at least 11 billion people by the end of this century (50 percent more than today), and given that we can expect developing economies to grow rapidly, demand for services that require energy is likely to increase by a factor of 10 or more over the next century. If we want to stabilize the climate, we need to reduce total emissions from today’s level by a factor of 10. Put another way, if we want to destroy neither our environment nor our economy, we need to reduce the emissions per energy service provided by a factor of 100. This requires something of an energy miracle.

The essay continues.

Near the end, he writes “despite all these reasons for despair, I’m hopeful”. He is hopeful that a collective change of heart is underway that will enable humanity to solve this problem. But he doesn’t claim to know any workable solution to the problem. In fact, he mostly list reasons why various possible solutions won’t be enough.


Fires in Indonesia

2 November, 2015

I lived in Singapore for two years, and I go back to work there every summer. I love Southeast Asia, its beautiful landscapes, its friendly people, and its huge biological and cultural diversity. It’s a magical place.

But in 2013 there was a horrible haze from fires in nearby Sumatra. And this year it’s even worse. It makes me want to cry, thinking about how millions of people all over this region are being choked as the rain forest burns.

This part of the world has a dry season from May to October and then a wet season. In the dry season, Indonesian farmers slash down jungle growth, burn it, and plant crops. That is nothing new.

But now, palm oil plantations run by big companies do this on a massive scale. Jungles are disappearing at an astonishing rate. Some of this is illegal, but corrupt government officials are paid to look the other way. Whenever we buy palm oil—in soap, cookies, bread, margarine, detergents, and many other products—we become part of the problem.

This year the fires are worse. One reason is that we’re having an El Niño. That typically means more rain in California—which we desperately need. But it means less rain in Southeast Asia.

This summer it was very dry in Singapore. Then, in September, the haze started. We got used to rarely seeing the sun—only yellow-brown light filtering through the smoke. When it stinks outside, you try to stay indoors.

When I left on September 19th, the PSI index of air pollution had risen above 200, which is ‘very unhealthy’. Singapore had offered troops to help fight the fires, but Indonesia turned down the offer, saying they could handle the situation themselves. That was completely false: thousands of fires were burning out of control in Sumatra, Borneo and other Indonesian islands.

I believe the Indonesian government just didn’t want foreign troops out their land. Satellites could detect the many hot spots where fires were burning. But outrageously, the government refused to say who owned those lands.

A few days after I left, the PSI index in Singapore had shot above 300, which is ‘hazardous’. But in parts of Borneo the PSI had reached 1,986. The only name for that is hell.

By now Indonesia has accepted help from Singapore. Thanks to changing winds, the PSI in Singapore has been slowly dropping throughout October. In the last few days the rainy season has begun. Each time the rain clears the air, Singaporeans can see something beautiful and almost forgotten: a blue sky.

Rain is also helping in Borneo. But the hellish fires continue. There have been over 100,000 individual fires—mostly in Sumatra, Borneo and Papua. In many places, peat in the ground has caught on fire! It’s very hard to put out a peat fire.

If you care about the Earth, this is very disheartening. These fires have been putting over 15 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air per day – more than the whole US economy! And so far this year they’ve put out 1.5 billion tons of CO2. That’s more than Germany’s carbon emissions for the whole year—in fact, even more than Japan’s. How can we make progress on reducing carbon emissions with this going on?

For you and me, the first thing is to stop buying products with palm oil. The problem is largely one of government corruption driven by money from palm oil plantations. But the real heart of the problem lies in Indonesia. Luckily Widodo, the president of this country, may be part of the solution. But the solution will be difficult.

Quoting National Public Radio:

Widodo is Indonesia’s first president with a track record of efficient local governance in running two large cities. Strong action on the haze issue could help fulfill the promise of reform that motivated Indonesian voters to put him in office in October 2014.

The president has deployed thousands of firefighters and accepted international assistance. He has ordered a moratorium on new licenses to use peat land and ordered law enforcers to prosecute people and companies who clear land by burning forests.

“It must be stopped, we mustn’t allow our tropical rainforests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palms,” Widodo said early in his administration.

Land recently burned and planted with palm trees is now under police investigation in Kalimantan [the Indonesian part of Borneo].

The problem of Indonesia’s illegal forest fires is so complex that it’s very hard to say exactly who is responsible for causing it.

Indonesia’s government has blamed both big palm oil companies and small freeholders. Poynton [executive director of the Forest Trust] says the culprits are often mid-sized companies with strong ties to local politicians. He describes them as lawless middlemen who pay local farmers to burn forests and plant oil palms, often on other companies’ concessions.

“There are these sort of low-level, Mafioso-type guys that basically say, ‘You get in there and clear the land, and I’ll then finance you to establish a palm oil plantation,'” he says.

The problem is exacerbated by ingrained government corruption, in which politicians grant land use permits for forests and peat lands to agribusiness in exchange for financial and political support.

“The disaster is not in the fires,” says independent Jakarta-based commentator Wimar Witoelar. “It’s in the way that past Indonesian governments have colluded with big palm oil businesses to make the peat lands a recipe for disaster.”

The quote is from here:

• Anthony Kuhn, As Indonesia’s annual fires rage, plenty of blame but no responsibility.

For how to avoid using palm oil, see for example:

• Lael Goodman, How many products with palm oil do I use in a day?

First, avoid processed foods. That’s smart for other reasons too.

Second, avoid stuff that contains stearic acid, sodium palmitate, sodium laureth sulfate, cetyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate and related compounds—various forms of artificial grease that are often made from palm oil. It takes work to avoid all this stuff, but at least be aware of it. These chemicals are not made in laboratories from pure carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen! The raw ingredients often come from palm plantations, huge monocultures that are replacing the wonderful diversity of rainforest life.

For more nuanced suggestions, see the comments below. Right now I’m just so disgusted that I want to avoid palm oil.

For data on the carbon emissions of this and other fires, see:

Global fire emissions data.


1997 was the last really big El Niño.


This shows a man in Malaysia in September. Click on the pictures for more details. The picture at top shows a woman named a woman named Gaye Thavisin in Indonesia—perhaps in Kalimantan, the Indonesian half of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. Here is a bit of her story:

The Jungle River Cruise is run by Kalimantan Tour Destinations a foreign owned company set up by two women pioneering the introduction of ecotourism into a part of Central Kalimantan that to date has virtually no tourism.

Inspired by the untapped potential of Central Kalimantan’s mighty rivers, Gaye Thavisin and Lorna Dowson-Collins converted a traditional Kalimantan barge into a comfortable cruise boat with five double cabins, an inside sitting area and a upper viewing deck, bringing the first jungle cruises to the area.

Originally Lorna Dowson-Collins worked in Central Kalimantan with a local NGO on a sustainable livelihoods programme. The future livelihoods of the local people were under threat as logging left the land devastated with poor soils and no forest to fend from.

Kalimantan was teeming with the potential of her people and their fascinating culture, with beautiful forests of diverse flora and fauna, including the iconic orang-utan, and her mighty rivers providing access to these wonderful treasures.

An idea for a social enterprise emerged , which involved building a boat to journey guests to inaccessible places and provide comfortable accommodation.

Gaye Thavisin, an Australian expatriate, for 4 years operated an attractive, new hotel 36 km out of Palangkaraya in Kalimantan. Gaye was passionate about developing the tourism potential of Central Kalimantan and was also looking at the idea of boats. With her contract at the hotel coming to an end, the Jungle Cruise began to take shape!