Climate Progress Doesn’t Have to be Limited by Politics

In a time of high frustration over the state of US political engagement with climate change, it’s important to acknowledge the progress being made around the world on climate change and the environment. Even if, as Ed Waisenen noted in Climate Blue’s last blog post, environmental progress is stalled or reversed at the national level, there’s still innovative and impactful work being done by a global community. As American climate researchers, we can continue to engage on a broader level, support work being done elsewhere, and learn from others so that we’re ready to act once given the opportunity.

Last week, I traveled to Monrovia, Liberia to learn from that community through a workshop on “Renewable Energy for Development”. Attended by over 60 stakeholders, including policymakers, aid organizations, private sector, and students, this event was an opportunity to share successes and failures and, more importantly, come together as a community to brainstorm the best ways to help electrify rural Liberia.


It was amazing that, in a country of only 4 million, the centralized grid generates only about 60 megawatts of electricity (for reference, the same population in the US would use 100 times that much); and yet everyone we spoke to still cared about the environmental impacts—including GHG emissions—of potential energy projects. Many participants deeply understood the need for rural electricity, but they were committed to providing it without sacrificing their environment. For example, our discussion of biomass energy delved deeply into land use and carbon cycle impacts, despite the position of biomass as by far the cheapest current option for rural electrification.

(For the record, the population of Liberia is so small and diffuse that land use change wouldn’t have major impacts; but in a country where well over 90% of the population does not receive electricity, can you imagine caring about this?)

The nexus of energy and development is something I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand–even though my degree is in physics, I just don’t know how you optimize for so many issues! In the case of Liberia, here are some of the most pressing concerns:

  • Low up-front cost: Small rural communities are can’t afford expensive infrastructure. Diesel generators are the cheapest to buy and install.
  • Low cost over time: Energy generated with hydro or biomass doesn’t require expensive fuel (in fact, the inputs are essentially free—the river always runs and plants on a farm always grow). These two options are by far the cheapest to the consumer in the long-run, but the up-front costs can be daunting
  • Speed: The sooner electricity is delivered to communities, the sooner they are advantaged. Systems like solar or biomass require infrastructure development and training for operations and maintenance, which could slow things down.
  • Funding: Funding was, by far, the biggest concern voiced by Liberian stakeholders. Aid agencies like USAID, GIZ, and the European Commission help with a lot of electricity projects, but it’s still not enough to electrify all of Liberia.

The point, I suppose, is that the high-level conversations and US engagement on global climate change are important, but climate change impacts happen on the ground level regardless. The policy implications of conferences like the COP are meant to trickle down to individual countries and communities, where we can implement actual projects to bring about actual change. In Liberia, energy poverty is a real issue, and projects can and do go on regardless of the international political climate. As spoken by an anonymous speaker in Marrakech: “Political events do not and cannot change the reality of climate change … We all have important work to do and we need to get on it.”

United States Policy at COP22

Today in the morning, US Secretary of State John Kerry paid a visit to COP 22.  In his remarks he talked about the danger as well as the thrill of preaching to the choir, aka the attendants of the conference.  With a sense of optimism, he lauded the COPs for their progress in achieving steps towards attending to climate change issues.  However, he also warned that there is still much more work to be done moving forward because the Paris Agreement, on its own, isn’t enough.

With regards to the ramifications of the recent elections, Secretary Kerry said the markets are going to drive clean energy so a Trump presidency wouldn’t be detrimental to the progress we are currently making.  Brazil, India, and China are already investing in clean energy, so it just makes sense for the US to also do so.  He then emphasized the need to let go of coal as a source of energy because it produces 50% of greenhouse gases but only 30% of energy.  One of the main ways that this can be effectively achieved is through innovative entrepreneurship efforts.  Secretary Kerry then emphasized the morality behind climate change and finished with a note that it should not be a partisan issue.

Later on in the day,  I visited the North American mid-century strategy meeting where Mexico, Canada, and the US presented the goals of their respective states for the year 2050. Brian Deese (a senior advisor to the President) laid out the US’s 2050 goals, which were submitted to the UNFCCC earlier in the morning.  The goals are open to the public and can be found here:

These goals include plans to reduce emissions by 80% from 2005 levels. Mr. Deese stated that a low emission strategy is pro-life, pro-jobs, and pro-income growth.  Like Secretary Kerry in the morning, Brian Deese emphasized how market forces are already leading the way to clean energy. When asked about if the plan factored in a Trump presidency, he commented that the 2050 goals did not include political factors in development.

This blog is a contribution of OJ Adhikari, one of our Week 2 delegates.

The Business of Free. Something to learn for climate change?

“We could have saved [the Earth] but we were too damned cheap.”  -Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., A Man Without a Country.

Recently, I became aware of a Pew Research Center poll that found overwhelming support for requiring better fuel efficiency for vehicles (79%), funding for alternative energy (74%), and strong support for spending more on mass transit (63%) and tax incentives for hybrid or electric vehicles (60%).

Americans seem very willing to spend public funds on improving energy efficiency and developing alternative sources of energy that have lower greenhouse gas emissions. Not surprisingly, however, given the American allergy to taxes, support for internalizing the cost of greenhouse gas emissions into the price of energy is not popular. The Pew Center poll did not even bother to ask about increasing prices for carbon-heavy energy.

Many economists tell us that this is a mistake. Market-based policies such as taxes are more efficient than fuel economy regulations or R&D funding. We could pay less overall for the same greenhouse gas reductions by implementing the unpopular polices in place of the popular. In a departure from Kurt Vonnegut’s line above, many Americans are willing to spend public funds on relatively expensive policies but not on the cheaper ones. So why do they prefer the more expensive options?

When presented with this question, I can’t help but think about the strategies of monetizing free content from online media. People don’t want to pay for climate pollution when it has been so conveniently free for so long. Facing the same situation with free media content, many media companies are developing pay strategies that are presumably more acceptable to their customers than tacking a price sticker on a service that was free yesterday. One strategy, which the NY Times is now following, is to allow free content up to a specific limit after which the consumer must pay. Another is to add content at the same time as levying a charge so that consumers feel they are gaining more from the service for their money. Extending this analogy to paying to abate climate change, perhaps Americans are comfortable paying for higher fuel-efficient vehicles, R&D, and mass transit because they feel like they are getting more in return for their money.

Does this notion really relate to climate pollution? I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth looking into. A BBC World Service poll in 2007 reported that 46% of Americans supported paying more for coal and oil but this support rose to 74% if the revenue was devoted to improving efficiency and developing new sources of energy.


The future of oil and the wedge of hope

Most greenhouse gases that people emit come from fossil fuels, so understanding how much fossil fuels we’re likely to burn in the coming decades is a crucial climate issue. I’ve been learning a lot about “peak oil” and related ideas lately, and have been having some heretical thoughts—or at least they feel heretical to me, since I’ve been dedicated to covering climate science for the past few years.

It seems to me that a lot of the worst-case scenarios for climate change presented in the IPCC reports and the media may not be real possibilities, if the peak oil camp is right, and if there’s less oil, natural gas, and coal that is actually feasible to burn than climate-concerned people like myself had believed. This issue of fossil fuel reserves is huge and highly fraught, of course, so I’ll just cover one aspect of it here, building off a recent news article I wrote.

The future of oil depends a lot on what we can call “the wedge of hope.” That’s the name my wife came up with in a snap, when I showed her the graph below:

It’s from the International Energy Agency’s new World Energy Outlook, published yesterday, with the “wedge of hope” being the light blue triangle in the middle, representing “fields yet to be found.” (It doesn’t say “the wedge of hope” on the original graph, of course, or else my wife wouldn’t be very clever. I added that in myself.)

As I reported for National Geographic News (“Has the world already passed ‘peak oil’?”), the IEA said that the world may have passed the all-time peak of crude oil production, back in 2006. (That’s the dark blue hump forming the base of oil production.)

Whether we’ve already passed the peak of crude oil, the IEA says, depends on countries’ climate policies, the demand—and hence the price—of oil, and other factors. In their “New Policies Scenario,” which takes countries at their word that they’ll stick to the climate change commitments that they’ve made over the past couple of years for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Assuming they’ll stick to these commitments might be overly optimistic. But on the other hand, these pledges are fairly weak compared with what most scientists say is necessary to avoid severe climate change. So we’d better hope that they would at least stick to those commitments.

In any case, it’ll take probably another decade or so to see for sure whether we’ve passed the all-time peak.

After the peak in 2006, the IEA is now forecasting only a slight dip, and then a plateau for the next 25 years. But this plateau is strangely flat, suspiciously flat. It this plausible? How did they arrive at this?

One way of approaching it is to look at the wedge of hope. It starts off as a sliver, right now, and then gradually grows until, in 2035, it’s responsible for about 20 million barrels a day of production. However, it takes time to get new fields online—several years, at least—and it’s taking longer all the time, as the projects become more expensive and more technically difficult , and oftentimes more politically fraught.

Kashgan, a huge oil field in Kazakhstan’s part of the Caspian Sea, was discovered in 2000, and its first oil is expected by 2012, according to one site, Offshore Technology. That might be overly optimistic. But even if it pans out, that’s a 12-year lag between discovery and first oil, and then it would still take at least a couple of years for its production to ramp up to its peak.

I think the wedge of hope may have to be shifted into the future, about a decade. If so, it looks to me like there wouldn’t be a flat plateau for 25 years, but instead would be a decline of crude oil. It would be a real, clearly defined peak—and that would be a real problem for industrial civilization, which is so dependent on oil.

If this picture I’ve painted is roughly right, then the big climate question is: How will people cope with a decline of oil production? Will they turn to coal-to-liquids to keep their gas tanks full? Will economies crash? (The Great Recession took a big bite out of yearly CO2 emissions, so an economic meltdown seems like it can be good for the planet, at least in the short run.)

Sometimes it seems that people who care about climate change and those who care about peak oil are at odds with each other. But here’s a case where getting them to talk to each other more could help highlight positive overlaps. Clean energy that doesn’t involve fossil fuels would help with both peak oil and climate change, for example. And clean energy might be easier to sell as a way of planning for or coping with peak oil than a more distant, more abstract threat of climate change.

Written by MASON INMAN.

Limit Mountaintop Removal, and the World Will End…

I love this short post from James Kwak over at Baseline Scenario.

Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

“Nice Economy You’ve Got There . . .”

That, I believe, was a line from Nemo in a comment long ago, on how the megabanks were holding the federal government hostage by threatening to collapse and take the financial system with them.

The coal industry seems to have learned something. Now that the EPA is recommending revoking a mountaintop mining permit (mountaintop mining is when, instead of drilling holes to get at coal underground, you simply blow the top off the mountain), the coal company in question has this to say:

“If the E.P.A. proceeds with its unlawful veto of the Spruce permit — as it appears determined to do — West Virginia’s economy and future tax base will suffer a serious blow.

“Beyond that, every business in the nation would be put on notice that any lawfully issued permit — Clean Water Act 404 or otherwise — can be revoked at any time according to the whims of the federal government. Clearly, such a development would have a chilling impact on future investment and job creation.”

No, every business would be put on notice a permit could be revoked for a project that ”would bury more than seven miles of the Pigeonroost Branch and Oldhouse Branch streams under 110 million cubic yards of spoil, killing everything in them and sending downstream a flood of contaminants, toxic substances and life-choking algae.” Which to me seems about the right message to send.

But this is the basic position of every big corporate interest: if you don’t let us do what we want to do, the economy will suffer.

(If you want to see what mountaintop mining looks like, go to this Google Maps mashup and zoom in. It’s the big gray scars in the green mountains.)

Additionally, can’t we make the case that better regulating mountaintop mining would, at the expense of some sweet profits, lead to creation of more jobs? Take heart, stockholders!!! Relatively more labor-intensive methods of extraction will not ruin you, state economies, or the U.S. economy.

Written by NICK.