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A Really Inconvenient Truth

• March 04, 2008 • 7:00 PM

The climate problem can be solved. But tackling it is going to be a lot harder than you’ve been led to believe.

When it comes to climate change, it sometimes feels as if there are two planets Earth. On one — the one where people watch An Inconvenient Truth and Al Gore wins Nobel Prizes — there is a sense that a true crisis is gathering. On the other, a studied obliviousness prevails, and a 35-miles-per-gallon fuel-economy standard counts as a “bold” step forward.

In December, President Bush signed an energy bill that brought the first fuel-economy increase in the United States since 1975, calls for a nearly eight-fold expansion of renewable fuels by 2022, and mandates that most standard incandescent light bulbs be phased out over the next six years. The Bush administration hailed the bill as a major step forward in the climate change battle.

Half a world — and maybe more — away, delegates from 187 nations gathered in Bali, Indonesia, to begin negotiating a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which will expire four years from now. The United States, which emits 22 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, has notoriously refused to sign the protocol, effectively blocking any real effort to rein in climate change. The day the Bali conference opened, Australia — the other holdout on Kyoto — finally signed, effectively defecting from the second Earth to the first and leaving the United States home alone on that other planet. The U.S. government’s emissaries to Bali were nearly booed off the dais for their obstructive tactics.

Meanwhile, back home, James Connaughton, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, told reporters that when President Bush signed the energy bill into law, “We translated talk in Bali into very concrete, legally accountable action here in the United States.”

Despite the cognitive distance between these two Earths, they do have one thing in common: an atmosphere that is rapidly filling with greenhouse gases that make the planet hotter. Late last year, the International Energy Agency, which serves as a sort of oracle of the future of the planet’s energy system — and, increasingly, that system’s effect on the climate — issued a prophetic proclamation: “The primary scarcity facing the planet is not of natural resources nor money, but time.”

Despite the angst in Bali and the bombast back in the U.S., a subtle shift in attitudes is under way, and the two Earths may finally be converging. Even on the Earth of Bush, climate change is an acknowledged fact.

But knowing there’s a problem doesn’t necessarily equate with knowing how to solve it. Even among people who agree on the need to act quickly and decisively to address climate change — which is to say, even in Gore World — there’s deep disagreement about what to actually do. One thing is clear, however: Fighting climate change could prove to be a lot harder than anyone’s telling you.

Marty Hoffert is an emeritus physics professor at New York University who has been closely involved in the effort to develop a strategy for stopping global warming. “What we actually have to do and what is being proposed,” he says, “are very far apart.”

Like any good health-improvement regimen, a plan to fight climate change starts with a target. The most ambitious goal — and the one that has come to serve as the basic, recurring motif in climate discussions — would be reached when the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was stabilized at 450 parts per million. (Today, they are around 384 ppm and growing.) Hitting that target would likely keep the average temperature of the planet from rising more than 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

And doing that would prevent a generalized unraveling of the planet. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — which shared last year’s Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore — holding the temperature rise to around 2.4 degrees Celsius could lower the risk of both extinction of as many as 40 percent of Earth’s species and “extreme weather events” such as Hurricane Katrina; keep the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets from shedding chunks of ice into the oceans, raising sea levels by as much as 33 feet; and prevent melting permafrost from accelerating warming by burping up huge amounts of methane, another greenhouse gas.

To hit the 450-ppm target, world carbon dioxide emissions would have to peak by 2015 and — because they are long-lived and continue to have a powerful effect in the atmosphere — then be reduced 50 to 85 percent below 2000 levels by the middle of the century. “The task we have is whether we can continue to grow the global economy at 3 percent a year,” Hoffert says, “and first hold CO2 constant, then phase it out.”

Doing that will require a massive technological exorcism to “decarbonize” the energy mix that powers the global economy. Eighty-five percent of human-caused carbon dioxide emissions come from the burning of fossil fuels to make energy. World energy use is projected to continue growing at 1.8 percent per year, about half the rate of GDP growth. The aggregate “burn rate” of the world’s energy infrastructure is staggering. Today, humankind produces about 15 terawatts — that’s 15 trillion watts — of electricity. That, plus the emissions from cars, planes, ships, cement factories and everything else that burns fossil fuel, pumps around 27 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the air each year. Holding carbon dioxide constant would require eliminating emissions from the equivalent of at least 11,000 coal-fired power plants, more than actually exist on the planet today.

Decarbonizing the energy mix means either replacing coal, which supplies a quarter of the world’s energy, with alternative energy sources that don’t emit carbon dioxide when they’re burned or figuring out a way to capture carbon dioxide from the exhaust of coal and other fossil-fuel electric plants and to then sequester it underground. It also means finding “carbon-neutral” replacements for the gasoline and other liquid fuels that power transportation.

And evidence is mounting that the task of stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide may be more challenging than even most climate scientists have thought. Most computer models of how climate change will unfold include an assumption that, even without dramatic efforts to combat global warming, the rate of growth in greenhouse gas emissions will slow somewhat. The energy mix has, in fact, already been decarbonizing for two centuries as efficiency has improved and natural gas, which is cleaner than coal, has come into wider use. The assumption that the trend will continue is a critical one because it forms the “business as usual” scenario from which the quantity of greenhouse gases would be reduced to achieve, say, a 450-ppm target.

But as it turns out, real-world emissions are outpacing even the worst-case scenario in the latest round of projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Last year, a number of climate researchers discovered that emissions of greenhouse gases have sharply accelerated since 2000, and a group of scientists led by Australian researcher Josep Canadell concluded that the world is now witnessing “the most rapid increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution.”

Much of the increase is driven by China. What is sometimes called “the Chinese miracle” may also prove to be a stupendous climatological hex. The country has been powering its record-setting economic growth with a slew of new coal-fired power plants: It builds a new one every seven to 10 days. Last year, China overtook the United States as the planet’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide.

“Things turned around so quickly that it caught everybody by surprise,” says Mark Levine, who leads the China Energy Group at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. How China (and, to a lesser extent, India) powers its way into the future is now the single biggest variable in the global climate equation. “It depends so critically on what China does for policy,” Levine says, “and if they can tame their energy growth or not.”

Per capita, carbon dioxide emissions in China are now one-fifth of those in the U.S., but they are rising. The International Energy Administration estimates that China will be responsible for fully one-third of the growth in world energy demand over the next 22 years.

China’s scenario-busting energy-and-emissions growth is also one of the shadow effects of globalization: A number of recent studies contend that the country’s exports account for somewhere between 23 and 34 percent of its total greenhouse gas emissions. By transferring much of their manufacturing to China, the U.S. and other developed nations have, in fact, amplified the climate footprint of those processes. Because China is so coal-reliant — and because the country’s coal-fired power plants emit 22 percent more carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than the global average — manufacturing a Mattel toy in China generates far greater emissions than it would in the U.S.

It doesn’t help that, in the rush to power the boom, as many as a quarter of the coal-fired power plants in China are essentially illegal, having been built without the approval of the central government. “There are some people, including Al Gore and Jim Hansen” — the NASA climate scientist whom the Bush administration famously tried to muzzle — “who say we need a moratorium on coal-fired power plants,” Hoffert says. “But that’s not going to happen. It’s certainly not going to happen in China, where the central government is a dictatorship, and even (it) isn’t able to exert control on the provinces to stop building coal-fired plants. We’re not gonna be able to get to them by moral suasion.”

And not just China but the entire world may well get dirtier. Conventional wisdom holds that high oil and gas prices will spur the development of alternative, renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. But high oil prices have, perversely, put a new shine on coal, which is not only cheap but also available in huge quantities.

“All those (climate) scenarios assume that there’s going to be a spontaneous decarbonization of the energy economy,” says Ken Caldeira, a Stanford University climate scientist. “But there’s far more coal available than anything else, and so the long-term trend has to be toward increased carbonization.” Indeed, recent studies indicate that the world energy mix has been recarbonizing since 2000. In its most recent projections, the International Energy Agency predicts that without aggressive climate policy changes, the number of coal-fired power plants in the world will increase 46 percent by 2030.

Similar concerns hold true for gasoline. Many people have assumed that as liquid petroleum is tapped out — as the world experiences “peak oil,” which, though its timing is subject to considerable uncertainty, will inevitably happen — greenhouse gas emissions will go down. That view is wrong.

“‘Peak oil’ is not the answer to the climate-change problem,” says Alex Farrell, a member of the Energy Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley. “It makes it worse.” The explanation for this counterintuitive reality is simple: Although conventional liquid petroleum may be dwindling, plenty of “unconventional” sources of petroleum, including tar sands and oil shale, lie waiting. All told, the amount of liquid hydrocarbons remaining on the planet — the tarry dregs in the genie’s lamp — may actually be 19 times more than has been burned to this point.

And, greenhouse gas-wise, it’s extremely dirty petroleum. Refining unconventional petroleum releases up to twice the amount of greenhouse gases involved with “regular” petroleum — which means that a transition to unconventional fuels would torpedo efforts to rein in climate change. “We’re not running out of oil,” Farrell says. “We’re running out of atmosphere.”

Several teams of climate scientists have proposed blueprints for the kind of massive transformation of the global energy system that would need to happen to stabilize carbon dioxide levels. The best known of the bunch comes from Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, two researchers at Princeton University who built their plan around existing energy technologies. “I was so infuriated by the Secretary of Energy’s (Spencer Abraham’s) speeches that we needed a discovery as revolutionary as the (invention of electric motors) by (Michael) Faraday in order to get started,” Pacala says. “I thought, ‘That’s just preposterous.’ We had every tool we needed right now to put ourselves on the track we needed to get on.”

In the original formulation of their plan, published in Science in 2004, Pacala and Socolow proposed assembling a package of greenhouse gas reduction measures, or “stabilization wedges.” Each wedge can ultimately replace 1 billion tons — or one gigaton — of carbon emissions per year. The two researchers proposed 15 possible wedges and suggested that seven would be needed to achieve a roughly 450-ppm target.

If, for example, the fuel economy of 2 billion cars rose from 30 miles per gallon to 60 over the next half century, that would generate one wedge of emissions reductions. Conservation measures, such as improving the energy efficiency of appliances and buildings, could yield a wedge. Another wedge could be generated by sequestering the carbon dioxide from 800 large coal-fired power plants. Increasing ethanol production by 50 percent would yield a wedge, as would adding 2 million one-megawatt wind turbines. Doubling the size of the world’s existing fleet of nuclear fission reactors would create yet one more wedge — but a politically problematic one, given public concern about nuclear safety and waste disposal.

In reality, each of those wedges represents a daunting challenge. Producing enough ethanol for one wedge would require about one-sixth of the world’s cropland — if the ethanol were carbon-emission free. Recent studies have, however, estimated that corn-based ethanol produces only 2.4 percent less in emissions than conventional gasoline. Adding 2 million megawatts of wind power would require installing 50 times the wind-turbine capacity that’s already in operation worldwide; creating one wedge with photovoltaic panels would require 700 times today’s solar capacity. And creating seven wedges would not be cheap: Last year, the International Energy Agency estimated that the cheapest conceivable cost for a blueprint of this sort would be about $22 trillion, or roughly seven years of the entire budget of the U.S. government.

In addition, some physicists and engineers say that Pacala and Socolow may have oversold the promise of what they classify as “existing” technologies. “The amount of additional carbon-free energy that we would need is roughly double what (they) estimated,” says Caldeira, the Stanford researcher. And it’s not just the amount of energy that’s in dispute. “I think Pacala and Socolow are wrong in the sense that we don’t really have the off-the-shelf technologies to solve the problem,” Caldeira says.

For instance, carbon capture and sequestration have been touted as a way to continue using coal and other fossil fuels to produce electricity. Howard Herzog is a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the leading proponents of sequestration technology. Last year, he and his colleagues issued a widely quoted study about the feasibility of working carbon sequestration into new coal power plants. “We wanted to have a gigaton (of carbon reductions) — that’s a wedge,” Herzog says. “It’s just not there.”

“There is an in-house debate about this,” Caldeira says. “Pacala and Socolow said, ‘We can more or less solve the problem with existing technologies.’ The other school … says, ‘Well, we don’t really have the existing technology, but we have the capability to develop that technology.’”

“We all agree that this is a catastrophe in the making,” says Hoffert, the NYU physicist who, along with Caldeira and several other colleagues, has proposed his own blueprint. That carbon dioxide-stabilization plan relies on a more futuristic package that includes nuclear fusion, “high-altitude wind energy” generated by kite-mounted turbines in the jet stream, and space-based solar power, gathered by satellites and beamed down to Earth.

None of the three technologies now exists on anything like an industrial scale. But beyond the high-flying techno-wizardry, Hoffert and Caldeira say, the important point is the need to take the scope of the challenge seriously. “Ultimately, when you plug something into the wall, it needs to come from some (new) power source,” Caldeira says. “We need a revolution in our infrastructure, and not just patches to the existing infrastructure.”

Pacala, for his part, concedes that the challenge may be more daunting than he and Socolow have long portrayed it. “If we are on a faster trajectory, then we’re going to run out of existing technologies sooner rather than later — but it’s still going to be decades before we run out,” he says. “We still can put ourselves on a trajectory to get to 450 or 500 (ppm) right now. We don’t have to wait.”

But no matter who’s right, by the second half of this century, Pacala says, “We have to have a crash research program to invent some magic bullets, or we’re screwed.”

For whatever disagreement exists about which type of carbon dioxide-reducing path to take, there is wide agreement among experts on one point: As new, low-carbon or carbon-free technologies develop, they should be threaded into the evolving energy mix. But that raises a fundamental conundrum: How do you keep your options open when you have to start making drastic energy-use changes immediately? No one knows what the energy mix is going to look like in 2050.

“If you knew where to make the investment, then you would make it. But no one knows,” says Farrell, the UC Berkeley energy researcher. “This is like the famous cartoon of Dilbert’s boss going to Dilbert and saying, ‘Well, I understand that only 5 percent of our research projects actually are successful. I want you to figure out which 5 percent, and let’s not do the others.’”

The trick to reaching carbon dioxide stabilization, Farrell says, is to promote a fair competition among the various contenders in the energy technology race. He has taken to brandishing a PowerPoint montage of four race cars, representing fossil fuels, biofuels, electric batteries (which could be charged with, say, wind power) and hydrogen. Farrell’s presentation calls to mind not An Inconvenient Truth but Talladega Nights.

The key, Farrell says, is a good set of rules for the race. But writing those rules is a huge challenge. “While we want to have all these technologies compete on an even playing field,” he says, “the industries that produce them are not on a level playing field, in any way.

“Every one of these teams deserves support — for R&D and to compete on a level playing field,” Farrel says. But, he adds, “The kind of support that is the wrong kind of support is mandates for particular technologies.” Put another way: The government shouldn’t pick winners before the race is even run.

Yet that is exactly what is already happening. The ascendant American ethanol industry — and its new shine as a sort of corn-fed climate balm — has been made possible by just the sort of unlevel playing field that Farrell worries about. The new energy bill mandates that 36 billion gallons of ethanol and other biofuels be used in 2022. About 60 percent of that is to come from cellulosic ethanol, refined from agricultural wastes such as straw and switchgrass, which require far less water and fertilizer to grow than corn.

Research by Mark Delucchi at the University of California, Davis indicates that the total greenhouse gas emissions for each gallon of corn-based ethanol may only be 2.4 percent less than for conventional gasoline, while cellulosic ethanol — a technology that is far from perfected — may yield just a 50 percent improvement in carbon dioxide emissions versus gasoline. That’s to say, Congress mandated and gave incentives for massive investment in a technology that would create only minor reductions in emissions.

Meanwhile, the energy bill failed to renew federal tax credits for carbon-free renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines. The existing credits for such technologies will expire at the end of the year.

Despite Congress’ haphazard and pork-laden approach to the climate change problem, there is a growing sense that the House and the Senate are beginning to take global warming seriously. Stephen Schneider is a Stanford University scientist who has, for decades, been making the journey to Washington, D.C., to speak about climate change. “In the ’70s, when Roger Revelle and I were testifying in Congress, it was a theoretical problem. (But) it was a problem that we believed would be real because we thought the theory was so solid,” says Schneider. In the 35 years since, he says, “Nature is cooperating with theory.”

Schneider has had a front-row seat to watch the political gyrations that, particularly from the late 1980s until two years ago, stymied any real U.S. action on climate change. But he says that with the 2006 election, which broke Republican control of Congress and ushered climate skeptic James Inhofe out of his powerful position as chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the tenor of the discussion about how to mitigate global warming is changing. In December, Schneider said, “I’ve done three (congressional hearings) this year, and every one of them reminds me of the ’70s. It was a time warp. It was back to the future.

“Katrina made a big difference. Al Gore made a big difference. Congress tipped. That made a difference because they weren’t daily hearing the palaver of the Crichtons,” Schneider added, referring to Inhofe’s infamous 2005 invitation of the anti-environmentalist novel writer Michael Crichton to testify about climate change. “Heat waves, fires in the West, Arctic melting, pictures of collapsing ice shelves in Antarctica — all these things were on the news, and the problem took on credibility.”

Many climate scientists say it’s time to capitalize on shifting congressional attitudes to get government intervention that puts a “price” on carbon emissions, either through a cap-and-trade system — which limits the quantities of emissions and sets up a market that would sort out the price for putting, say, a ton of carbon dioxide into the air — or through an outright carbon tax. Either approach would help “internalize” the environmental costs of fossil-fuel emissions, which now can be sent out the top end of smokestacks free of charge, and would more accurately reflect their real costs — especially as compared with those of renewable technologies such as wind.

Because such costs continue to go externalized, progress toward any sort of clean technology has been impeded. The development of carbon sequestration, for example, is moving painfully slowly. Because there is no price or penalty for emitting carbon dioxide, spending money to cut CO2 emissions makes no economic sense.

That may soon change. This year, Congress will consider a raft of climate-change bills, the most aggressive of which was introduced by Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and John Warner, R-Va. The Lieberman-Warner bill sets aggressive emissions targets that may actually put the U.S. on track toward meeting its share of the reductions necessary to stabilize greenhouse gases at 450 to 500 ppm.

But the bill puts a price on carbon emissions by instituting a cap-and-trade system, and there’s considerable debate about just how effective cap-and-trade really is. Under the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union created an Emissions Trading Scheme, but it may only achieve a quarter of the emissions target by the time the protocol expires in 2012. And critics of cap-and-trade point out that, by creating a market in tradable emissions allowances, it also creates opportunities for profit and manipulation.

A carbon tax, on the other hand, is relatively simple to implement and enforce, since it would mean simply adding a tax to the production of, say, coal and natural gas — resources that are already taxed — rather than creating a new market from scratch. Revenues raised with a global carbon tax could be redistributed to help poorer countries invest in climate-friendlier technologies. But placing significant new taxes on energy is a politically dicey proposition just about everywhere, especially in the U.S.

Regardless of the debate over cap-and-trade versus a carbon tax, it is becoming increasingly clear that market forces won’t sort out climate change on their own. “Let’s just take hydrogen cars, for example,” says Stanford’s Caldeira. “Nobody can sell a hydrogen car today because there’s no hydrogen filling stations. At some point, there needs to be a public policy decision that says we’re going to move to a hydrogen infrastructure, and we’re going to build these uneconomic filling stations to allow new technology to penetrate the market.

“The markets are good at improving devices that can be sold into existing markets, but they’re not good at generating the kind of system-level transformation that you need,” he says. “A purely price-driven approach locks you into development paths where every device you sell has to fit in to the common infrastructure.”

Even though many climate experts warn that the government shouldn’t get into the business of picking winners in the carbon-free energy race, they have called for federal assistance for research and development on a massive scale. Despite the mounting crisis, energy R&D investment is now just half of what it was in the wake of the 1970s energy crisis. Last year, Hoffert, Caldeira and 35 colleagues signed a petition asking Congress to devote $30 billion a year to R&D. Hoffert points out that much of the technological innovation in the 20th century that led to gas turbines, jet aircraft and satellites was not market driven but came through government research-and-development spending. “We did that stuff,” he says, “because we thought the Russians were gonna incinerate us with a hydrogen bomb.”

Hoffert and company frequently reach even farther back in time for analogies and have taken to comparing the effort needed to fight climate change — whether it be cranking out wind turbines on a massive scale or throwing the nation’s innovative muscle behind more exotic technologies like space-based solar power — with the airplane-production effort in World War II. “The rapidity with which we changed technology in World War II is mind-boggling,” Hoffert says. “At the beginning of (the war), we started at the bottom of a deep industrial depression, and by ’43 or ’44 we were producing 100,000 airplanes a year. We could do the same thing if we had the right leadership.”

Schneider allows  that “it’s going to be a while before we get really good, powerful climate policy, but we’re at least on the road.” Still, for all the talk about gigatons of carbon and terawatts of power, “Katrinas” might become the standard unit of measure for the sort of shock it will take to finally inspire a meaningful political reaction to climate change.

“You could generate a World War II-type response and probably within a decade revolutionize our entire energy system,” Caldeira says. “But our brains are evolved to where planning for the future means having enough nuts to last the winter. We’re the kind of animal that does nothing until there’s a crisis — and then takes care of the problem.

“The question is, how bad does it have to get before people respond to it? Will it take a bunch of Katrinas?” he asks. “Or can we be intelligent enough to do this without a big crisis?”

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Matt Jenkins
Matt Jenkins is a freelance writer and contributing editor to High Country News. He is the 2006 winner of Stanford University’s James V. Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism and lives in Berkeley, Calif.

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