What will it take to decarbonize on time?

By William S. Becker

Several committees in the new House of Representatives have put climate disruption on their agendas — a long overdue departure from silence, snowballs and stupidity when deniers are in control of Congress. If the committees discuss America’s energy mix – which they should since fossil fuels are what’s changing the climate – things could get very interesting.

Why? It will be interesting not only because the carbon cartel will flex its muscles publicly and privately to prevent any talk about keeping its assets in the ground.  It will be interesting, too, because environmentalists, climate hawks, advocacy groups and citizens might not agree on how to do what we must: achieve a net-zero carbon economy within 30 years.

In other words, we will have to take as much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as we put in. In broad strokes, this requires that a) we dramatically increase our energy productivity; b) we reduce, if not completely abandon, the use of fossil fuels to provide electricity, transportation fuels, industrial energy requirements and so on; and c) we improve the ability of nature and technology to snatch carbon dioxide out of the air and keep it out.

Despite the disagreements that are bound to occur, this is a conversation the American people seem to want. Nearly half of the nation’s voters say they have personally experienced the effects of global warming; half or more think that they, their family or people in their community will be harmed by climate change.

What shall we do about it? A year ago, 69% of Republicans told pollsters they want carbon dioxide regulated as a pollutant; 56% of Republicans said they favor strict limits on CO2 emissions from power plants; 60% of Republicans wanted the United States to remain in the Paris climate accord; 62% of Republicans said they want more solar energy; but only 12% thought we should use more coal, 16% favored more oil, 42% liked natural gas and 26% thought we need more nuclear energy. In other words, the energy opinions of most Republicans in the United States are 180 degrees from President Trump’s.

Public opinion seems to be awakening to how deadly climate change has become. Some 5,000 people worldwide were killed by extreme weather last year. With three months still to go in 2018, 35 people in the U.S. had been killed by Hurricane Michael and 51 by Hurricane Florence. In 2017, more than 3,000 people died during Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. With a new discipline known as attribution science, experts now confirm that warmer ocean waters are supercharging these storms. They are bigger and longer-lasting.

As I write this, the Weather Channel is reporting that 22 people have been killed so far in the brutal cold that broke records when the Polar Vortex dropped into Midwestern and Eastern states. Scientists are debating about whether climate change played a role. One explanation is that melting Arctic ice and changes in the jet stream, both caused by global warming, opened the fence that usually keeps the Vortex farther north.

Scientists have told us for years that disasters like this would happen, and that they will get much worse unless we do something about greenhouse gas pollution. Now they say we are in crisis mode. Any hope of avoiding much more deadly and destructive impacts, including some that would be irreversible, requires “rapid far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” Those changes include decarbonizing our economy by mid-century. Other countries must do the same.

A generation or two ago, this would not have been so hard or expensive. Now, with time so short, we can’t take baby steps. We need to make a giant leap. It means that our unwavering objective must be to use only the energy resources that will get us to zero-carbon. It also means that those who oppose nuclear power might have to swallow hard. We need to install as much carbon-free renewable energy as we can, but in the final analysis there’s a  chance we’ll need some amount of nuclear energy, too.

Nuclear power is not the only type of energy that stirs people’s emotions. There are  people who do not like wind and solar farms and who object to offshore wind turbines for aesthetic reasons. There are people who believe erroneously that wind and solar at sufficient scale would use up too much land, and that central-station power plants are better. On the other hand, there are people who advocate all renewable energy all the time, even though some renewable resources are not carbon free.

Add to this that we have no consensus on national energy or climate policies in the United States. There is no national requirement, as there is in many states, that renewable energy must provide a significant source of our electricity in the years ahead. There is no national energy productivity goal or standard. Congress still cannot pass climate-action legislation because the Senate and White House are controlled by people who won’t admit that climate change is real. And America’s carbon emissions are on the rise again.

In what could be considered a crime against humanity — and I use those words advisedly — President Trump’s objective is to make the United States the dominant producer and exporter of fossil fuels just as the rest of the world has agreed to back away from them. It appears to frustrate him that China, not the U.S., holds the title now.

Trump, like President Obama before him, says the nation’s energy mix must include “all of the above”. That’s wrong. Our policy should be the “best of the above” — those that power our prosperity without jeopardizing our future.  To use a football analogy, our energy policy must be “everybody is welcome to try out”, but the only players who make the team are those that can get us to the end zone before the clock runs out.

This means at least two things. First, as climate blogger David Roberts recently pointed out, we don’t have time to argue. Second, every person, community, state or business that has set the goal of getting 100% of their energy from renewable resources – from the advocates of the Green New Deal to the scores of communities with 100% goals – may have to recalibrate. For the next 30 years, the primary goal is not 100% renewables; it’s 100% less carbon.

For sure, Job No. 1 is to deploy all of the zero-carbon renewable energy technologies we can. The mansion owners on the Eastern seacoast will have to decide whether some barely visible wind turbines far offshore are worse than having their property swallowed by the ocean. Then if renewables can’t take us all the way to a net-zero carbon economy, we may have to count on types of energy we’ll want to phase out after 2050.

It’s not ideal, but it’s the reality to which all of us, including Congress and the energy sector, must adjust.

Credit: Thanks to David Roberts of Vox, whose observation that we have no time to argue triggered these thoughts. 

Charts: The energy flow diagram illustrates the long way to go to achieve a net-zero carbon energy mix; the chart illustrating U.S. carbon dioxide emissions shows they are on the rise again after several years of declining; the graph shows the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s reference case of how the nation’s energy mix could change for electric generation in the years ahead.

Next: Learning to speak the same language

February 1st, 2019|home, Uncategorized|