Tuesday, October 21, 2014
6

The Limits of Climate Negotiations

NEW YORK – If the world is to solve the climate-change crisis, we will need a new approach. Currently, the major powers view climate change as a negotiation over who will reduce their CO2 emissions (mainly from the use of coal, oil, and gas). Each agrees to small “contributions” of emission reduction, trying to nudge the other countries to do more. The United States, for example, will “concede” a little bit of CO2 reduction if China will do the same.

For two decades, we have been trapped in this minimalist and incremental mindset, which is wrong in two key ways. First, it is not working: CO2 emissions are rising, not falling. The global oil industry is having a field day – fracking, drilling, exploring in the Arctic, gasifying coal, and building new liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities. The world is wrecking the climate and food-supply systems at a breakneck pace.

Second, “decarbonizing” the energy system is technologically complicated. America’s real problem is not competition from China; it’s the complexity of shifting a $17.5 trillion economy from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives. China’s problem is not the US, but how to wean the world’s largest, or second largest economy (depending on which data are used) off its deeply entrenched dependence on coal. These are mainly engineering problems, not negotiating problems.

To be sure, both economies could decarbonize if they cut output sharply. But neither the US nor China is ready to sacrifice millions of jobs and trillions of dollars to do so. Indeed, the question is how to decarbonize while remaining economically strong. Climate negotiators cannot answer that question, but innovators like Elon Musk of Tesla, and scientists like Klaus Lackner of Columbia University, can.

Decarbonizing the world’s energy system requires preventing our production of vast and growing amounts of electricity from boosting atmospheric CO2 emissions. It also presupposes a switchover to a zero-carbon transport fleet and a lot more production per kilowatt-hour of energy.

Zero-carbon electricity is within reach. Solar and wind power can deliver that already, but not necessarily when and where needed. We need storage breakthroughs for these intermittent clean-energy sources.

Nuclear power, another important source of zero-carbon energy, will also need to play a big role in the future, implying the need to bolster public confidence in its safety. Even fossil fuels can produce zero-carbon electricity, if carbon capture and storage is used. Lackner is a world leader in new CCS strategies.

Electrification of transport is already with us, and Tesla, with its sophisticated electric vehicles, is capturing the public’s imagination and interest. Yet further technological advances are needed in order to reduce electric vehicles’ costs, increase their reliability, and extend their range. Musk, eager to spur rapid development of the vehicles, made history last week by opening Tesla’s patents for use by competitors.

Technology offers new breakthroughs in energy efficiency as well. New building designs have slashed heating and cooling costs by relying much more on insulation, natural ventilation, and solar power. Advances in nanotechnology offer the prospect of lighter construction materials that require much less energy to produce, making both buildings and vehicles far more energy efficient.

The world needs a concerted push to adopt to low-carbon electricity, not another “us-versus-them” negotiation. All countries need new, low-carbon technologies, many of which are still out of commercial reach. Climate negotiators should therefore be focusing on how to cooperate to ensure that technology breakthroughs are achieved and benefit all countries.

They should take their cue from other cases in which government, scientists, and industry teamed up to produce major changes. For example, in carrying out the Manhattan Project (to produce the atomic bomb during World War II) and the first moon landing, the US government set a remarkable technological goal, established a bold timetable, and committed the financial resources needed to get the job done. In both cases, the scientists and engineers delivered on time.

The example of atomic bombs might seem an unpleasant one, yet it raises an important question: If we ask governments and scientists to cooperate on war technology, shouldn’t we do at least the same to save the planet from carbon pollution?

In fact, the process of “directed technological change,” in which bold objectives are set, milestones are identified, and timelines are put into place, is much more common than many realize. The information-technology revolution that has brought us computers, smart phones, GPS, and much more, was built on a series of industry and government roadmaps. The human genome was mapped through such a government-led effort – one that ultimately brought in the private sector as well. More recently, government and industry got together to cut the costs of sequencing an individual genome from around $100 million in 2001 to just $1,000 today. A dramatic cost-cutting goal was set, scientists went to work, and the targeted breakthrough was achieved on time.

Fighting climate change does depend on all countries having confidence that their competitors will follow suit. So, yes, let the upcoming climate negotiations spell out shared actions by the US, China, Europe, and others.

But let’s stop pretending that this is a poker game, rather than a scientific and technological puzzle of the highest order. We need the likes of Musk, Lackner, General Electric, Siemens, Ericsson, Intel, Electricité de France, Huawei, Google, Baidu, Samsung, Apple, and others in laboratories, power plants, and cities around the world to forge the technological breakthroughs that will reduce global CO2 emissions.

There is even a place at the table for ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Peabody, Koch Industries, and other oil and coal giants. If they expect their products to be used in the future, they had better make them safe through the deployment of advanced CCS technologies. The point is that targeted and deep decarbonization is a job for all stakeholders, including the fossil-fuel industry, and one in which we must all be on the side of human survival and wellbeing.

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  1. CommentedLili Fuhr

    I don't agree that there is a "place at the table for ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Peabody, Koch Industries, and other oil and coal giants". They are the ones manipulating politics and funding climate sceptics to secure their business model while wracking the planet. The 90 biggest of these "carbon majors" are together responsible for roughly two thirds of global emissions since the industrial revolution. And even in the most optimistic IEA scenario CCS can only increase the global carbon budget by a few percent - and thus it cannot count as a solution!

  2. CommentedJohn Smith

    Jeffrey Sachs says: "The information-technology revolution that has brought us computers, smart phones, GPS, and much more, was built on a series of industry and government roadmaps."

    That's not true. "Directed technological change" does not work. No one can predict the future. Technology evolves quite like biology. Market selection acts like natural selection. Technology advances as the fittest survive and the weakest die. Failure advances technology as much as success.

    In other words, government tends to be more of a problem than a solution, as it distorts market influence and lets the weak survive at the expense of the fittest. As in General Motors and Chrysler, which the government found to be too big to fail.

  3. CommentedVincent Champain

    Yes innovation is the main solution to climate change. But to ensure innovation on low carbon technologies pays, we need a global carbon price, so that whoever finds a way to reduce carbon emissions can make a profit out of it. And for this the most realistic solution is regional carbon prices + imported carbon taxes. This is what countries should be negociating !

      CommentedStepan February

      Carbon tax only makes sense as a gentle encouragement of a switch to an alternative that has lower negative externalities but costs about the same as the legacy alternative. Otherwise, it is just punishment for action that cannot be avoided.

      Low carbon costs MUST come down much more before the tax is instituted. And to achieve that, we need the princes to coordinate their enormous resources to advance science and technology.

      You can tax people all you want, no one is going to build you a low-carbon moonshot, because markets do not solve negative externality problems. But government-sponsored basic research can change the landscape so that markets flow to the lower cost alternative. Tax can only channel the flow, it cant push water up the hill, because it would drown the economy.

  4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    There is an even deeper problem.

    Let us say suddenly everybody agrees that we have to change and 'save the planet", be in harmony with nature and so on.
    We simply have no idea what it means.
    We do not even know nature.

    We are operating in the dark, without real coordinates, we base everything on our own artificial perception that we created independent of nature.

    Perception is based on equivalence of form.
    In order to start understanding nature we would need to take on its form.

    Nature (including our own biological bodies) is based on general balance, a very dynamic, sensitively regulated homeostasis.
    It is a system with global and integral interconnection and "mutual guarantee" in between its parts.
    As science is showing us nature operates as a single organism.

    With our present, individualistic, fragmented, subjective approach and perception we are completely incompatible.
    The only way humanity could integrate with this system, understand how to adapt to it is to adjust global human society to the laws and principles of nature.
    This means mutually complementing cooperation and the use of "wisdom of the crowd", "collective intelligence".

    The system is vast and infinitely more powerful than a single species, even if this species is humanity. Thus the system is not going to change, only we can and have to change.

    But since human beings are the only creatures that can make such changes consciously, by free choice, we could become benevolent partners with the system in total control with an effortless and qualitatively much higher life.

  5. CommentedStepan February

    Wholeheartedly agree. Guilt-based negotiations are intractable if the guilty control no remedies that can right the wrong. It just descends into defensiveness and buck-passing.

    If the world agrees on a high-intensity program to research and develop carbon-reduction technologies, political solutions will flow out of the results. As Steve Jobs said, "Its not impossible, I know you can do it."

    The negotiation that needs to happen now is how much money each polluter will put in and how many and which paths to research.

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