The answer could be blowing in the wind
Well into the first week of the U.N. Conference on Climate Change, the haves and have nots of the world are still divided over who should pay for the cleanup of the planet. Poor countries want rich countries to cough up more ambitious goals for emissions cuts and developing technologies.
To kick off today’s discussion, we posed the question to our panel of climate experts: What technology could be the most successful solution to global warming?
Dr. David Suzuki, geneticist and journalist:
There is no silver bullet when it comes to solving global warming. Global warming pollution is created any time we produce or burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas. Industries that use energy, most sources of electricity, and forms of transportation other than walking or biking are all complicit. So we will rely upon many technological solutions to attain a sustainable world.
Nonetheless, there are a handful of technologies that will likely contribute more. Energy efficiency will have to play a big role, since we waste so much of the energy we use. The cleanest form of energy is the energy we don’t use. More efficient building designs, more efficient vehicles – including electric cars (that should be powered with clean electricity) – and more efficient industrial processes will all be necessary.
Clean, renewable electricity sources such as wind will be key. More efficient electricity storage technologies will allow us to rely more on clean but intermittent energy options like wind. Green heat options—such as solar hot-water heaters and geothermal systems—could heat our homes, offices, and water.
Many of these technologies are viable and cost-effective right now, especially if we stop allowing polluters to emit global warming pollution into the atmosphere for free. Public policies that make polluters pay will give them an incentive to reduce energy use and shift to clean, renewable energy. Those policies will also drive the research and development of the next generation of sustainable energy technologies.
Dr. Gidon Eshel, physics professor at Bard College:
I don’t know. I doubt anybody does.
Tax carbon, and we will all see what really stands the test of time and economic reality.
I know what will not work and should never be embarked on: geo-engineering.
For the uninitiated, let me explain that there are people, very distinguished scientists among them, who believe that we should go right ahead and employ mechanisms we currently have, at least in principle, to reduce downward solar radiation and thus global mean temperatures.
It is true that some physically plausible ideas exist, like spraying the stratosphere (the layer of the atmosphere immediately above where weather as we know it in daily life exists) with sulphur aerosols, thus emulating what happens for about a year or two after a major explosive volcanic eruption. There are also ideas that put Jules Verne to shame.
In either case, our record as stewards of the planetary system is clear. Epic incompetence comes to mind, as does Rumsfeld-class recklessness. Against the backdrop of this long and never failing record of failure, the idea that we should influence the climate system more, instead of less, is, to my mind, a blatant absurdity.
Karen Alderman Harbert, president and CEO, Institute for 21st Century Energy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce:
When it comes to clean energy technologies, it’s been said that there’s not a silver bullet, but a lot of silver buckshot.
No agreement and no government should be in the business of picking winners and losers because success is borne out of diverse options not narrow options.
How rapidly-advanced energy technologies are developed and adopted commercially will be the most important factor in determining how quickly and at what cost greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.
Existing technologies can make an important contribution, but they alone are not capable of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale and at an acceptable cost.
New and in some cases revolutionary energy technologies, many still years if not decades over the horizon, will have to be developed and adopted commercially along with the infrastructure to support them.
But there is a great deal of uncertainty about how fast, or even if, these technologies will progress.
An accelerated program to improve the performance and lower the costs of advanced alternative energy technologies can, if successful, broaden the range of economically and politically viable policy options available to decision makers.
Nevertheless, while we’ll need a broad suite of technologies, it’s also true that as a practical matter, some clean energy technologies are likely to be of greater importance than others.
But ultimately, the mix and the match should be up to the market, which will support the most cost-effective and efficient solutions.
Instead of picking winners and losers, I think it’s important for a new agreement to be technology neutral. The Kyoto Protocol is flawed in many ways, but perhaps not more so than in its discrimination against specific technologies without which no ambitious target can be met, namely carbon capture and storage and especially nuclear power.
If we’re really serious about reducing global carbon dioxide emissions, we shouldn’t be taking off the table the one emissions-free source of reliable base load power we have available today —nuclear energy.
For nuclear power to achieve its potential, we have to redouble our efforts at home to accelerate permitting and licensing timelines and forthrightly address nuclear waste.
It’s time to discuss the scale and scope of the technology challenge—which often gets overlooked in the public discussion—and recognize the need for investment in all viable technologies to meet the world’s energy and climate challenges. Simply put, point and shoot climate policy doesn’t work.
Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist:
So far, there has been little commitment to solving the technological challenge of ensuring that there is an affordable replacement for fossil fuels.
If governments try to cut carbon through taxes and trading schemes without effective replacements, we will make virtually no difference to climate change in the future, while in the shorter term there will be significant damage to economic growth, leaving more people in poverty.
Nations need to commit to a dramatic increase in public funds on research and development. As the Copenhagen Consensus on Climate advocated, research and development investments to the order of at least $100 billion a year will be needed.
That is fifty-fold more than is spent by governments now, but remains a fraction of the cost of proposed costly, ineffective carbon cuts.
We cannot rely on private enterprise. As with medical research, many of the required early, innovative breakthroughs will not reap significant financial rewards, so there is no strong incentive for private investment today.
Dramatically increasing public funding into research would resolve many of the political challenges with the Kyoto approach. Developing nations like India and China would be much more likely to embrace a cheaper, smarter and more beneficial path of innovation.
Carbon taxes could play an important role in funding research and development. But it is vital that new funding goes into genuine research and development – to achieve the breakthroughs that are needed – rather than into subsidizing existing, inefficient technology. These subsidies are often lauded, but do not withstand scrutiny.
Consider two European examples: Denmark has subsidized wind, while Germany has subsidized solar energy.
An oft-repeated claim is that Denmark receives a fifth of its power from wind, making it by far the highest share in the world, and has easily generated green jobs and cheap energy. The reality, shown by a recent study by the Danish Center for Political Studies, is that less than 10 percent of the nation’s electricity demand is met by wind, because much of the power is produced when there is no demand, selling it at very low cost to other countries.
This also means much less CO2 reductions in Denmark, where a ton of CO2 is reduced at a cost more than six times the current EU costs.
Danes pay the highest electricity rates of any industrialized nation, on average about US$.38 per kWh compared to US$.08 in the United States.
The Danish wind industry is nearly completely dependent on taxpayer subsidies to support a modest workforce. Each new wind power job costs the Danish taxpayer at least $119,000 per year.
The government subsidy has shifted employment to less productive employment in the wind industry, meaning that Danish GDP is approximately $270 million lower than it would have been if the wind sector work force was employed elsewhere.
Germany pays a huge amount to cut tiny amounts of carbon through supporting solar power. This support costs €0.43 per kWh, which is equivalent to spending €716 to cut every ton of CO2. Yet the expected climate damage of each ton is about €4.
The price-tag is phenomenal – estimated at €53bn for the solar panels installed between 2000-2010 – yet the maximum effect will be to postpone global warming by just one hour, at the end of this century.
Actually, such an estimate is even optimistic. Because Germany is part of the ETS, when a solar panel reduces emissions, it simply means that other countries can burn fossil fuels cheaper – the net effect is actually very close to nil.
The massive technological hurdle to solving global warming is too often ignored. If we are to respond effectively to climate change, this is a hurdle that we need to recognize and confront.
What do you think? Do our experts have it right?
(Photo shows a worker at the top of a power-generating windmill turbine in a wind farm in Fruges, near Saint Omer, northern France, Jan. 9, 2009. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol)