Category Archives: Climate Change

Two carbon-reduction paths diverge in the European policy wood: United Kingdom takes less traveled, more interesting one

Steve Alpin has several excellent posts up on carbon reduction policies that work (as opposed to Kyoto-style emission reduction goals). In this series Steve references the quadrant-style matrix of carbon intensity vs. energy price. Of course what we strive for is Low-Intensity & Low-Price (Quadrant IV). The “feel good” German/Denmark policies have put those nations in Quadrant II (High-Intensity & High-Price). Steve’s graphic illustrates this nicely: 

An excerpt:

Germany’s much-touted and -admired route to carbon dioxide (CO2) reductions has, predictably, proved to be an embarrassing and expensive failure. The bubble chart represents electricity data from 2010. As you can see, German electricity was, kilowatt-hour for kilowatt-hour, the second-dirtiest of the 10 jurisdictions shown on the chart. Only British electricity contained more carbon (two grams more per kWh). The data on which the chart was based is shown in a table at the bottom of this article.

(…snip…) Given the enormous difference in France’s position on the Carbon-Price Matrix (deep inside Quadrant IV, where everybody wants to be) versus that of Germany (deep inside Quadrant II, where nobody wants to be), it is clear that the French walk the walk on carbon. Germany only talks the talk.

(…snip…) And it is going to get worse. German politicians, who have lectured the world for decades on the urgent necessity of cutting CO2 emissions, are now in full expectation-management mode: telling their citizens not to demonize coal.


To repeat, Germany is expanding its use of CO2-emitting coal-fired electricity generation because it needs to replace the output of the nuclear generating plants it is shutting down. Sadly, the wind turbines for which Germany is famous simply cannot do that job. They cannot do it today, have never been able to, and never will be able to.

That is why Germany is in Quadrant II of the Carbon-Price Matrix.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the British are gearing up to build a fleet of new nuclear plants. This is because the UK does not just profess to be concerned about climate change and anthropogenic CO2 emissions. It is because the UK clearly is concerned about cutting CO2.

Read the whole thing.

George Shultz: Achieving a Better Future


Today I listened to George Shultz's July 23rd conversation at the Commonwealth Club (audio). This was my second review of this talk and Q&A. Soon I will listen to the podcast a third time, but after I have finished reading his 2013 book on these topics: Issues on My Mind: Strategies for the Future.

True wisdom is a rare commodity, and usually expensive to acquire (because it often accrues from mistakes). If you can learn from the wisdom of other, then I recommend as much time as you can allocate to Shultz.

George has a view on most of the issues that I worry about. On the issues that I have studied I usually find that he “gets it”. If I don't know much about the issue I find his approach to be logical, consistent and direct.

Directness has been a Shultz trademark as long as I've been exposed to him. His mind cuts the shortest path to the essentials, and then just as directly to a solution can be realized politically. For an efficient review of what Shultz has accomplished please see his Hoover Institution page.


James Hansen et al “the accepted 2 degrees target is dangerously too warm”

“Although there is merit in simply chronicling what is happening, there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.

I have finally found the time to read the entire Hansen et al paper Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”. The complete paper was released December 3rd on the open access journal PlosOne as Assessing “Dangerous Climate Change”: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature.

I think this is one of the most important climate papers of 2013. James Hansen and 17 coauthors succeed to boil down the current state of climate research to 26 pages (including the five pages of references). The authors make a strong case that the two-degree-consensus is dangerous.  Unlike other high profile climate scientists, actions are proposed that will actually work, included the “N word” advanced 4th generation nuclear power.

To announce the paper Hansen and coauthor Pushker Kharecha published a letter outlining the case that two degrees is dangerous, then go straight into solutions: cooperative technology development and deployment, and especially, rapid deployment of gen 3+ and gen 4 nuclear power. 

(…snip…) Governments should also support technology research, development and demonstration of carbon-free energy including advanced generation nuclear power as well as renewable energy, especially in view of the urgency with which emissions from coal and unconventional fossil fuels must be eliminated. (Unconventional fossil fuels include tar sands, shale-derived oil and gas, and methane hydrates.)


A preferable approach, for the sake of both global climate and local pollution reduction, would be a combination of renewable energy and advanced (3rd and 4th) generation nuclear power plants2. Abundant affordable clean energy is essential to provide the energy needed to raise billions of people out of poverty, which empirical evidence indicates is a requirement for reducing fertility rates, thus lowering human population, and giving hope that we can provide the opportunity of a good life to all humanity while allowing other life on the planet to flourish.

When the world’s leading nations recognize the urgency of phasing out fossil fuel emissions, and realize that we are all in the same boat, it should be possible to agree on cooperative technology development and deployment. History, including World War II and the Apollo program, reveal how rapidly technology can be developed and deployed. Phase-out of most coal emissions and a substantial reduction of oil and gas use could be achieved rapidly. This would require agreement among leading nations not only to have common internal rising carbon fees, but also an agreement to cooperate in rapid technology development.

Surely rapid phase-down of coal emissions requires a major role for advanced-generation safer nuclear power. Nuclear technology has advanced significantly over the past few decades such that there is now the potential to produce modular 3rd generation light-water reactors that are passively safe, i.e., reactors that would shut down automatically in case of an anomaly such as an earthquake and have the ability to keep the nuclear fuel cool without an external power source. The same concept, modular3 simplified reactor design with factory production and shipping to the utility site, is appropriate for 4th generation reactors, and these should also be pursued to deal with nuclear waste, utilizing the waste as fuel.

Fortunately, the place where deployment of advanced nuclear technology is most urgently needed, China, is also the place that has the potential to rapidly build and grow the manufacturing capability. What is needed is cooperation with nations that have developed relevant technical abilities, especially the United States. Such cooperation has potential for enormous mutual and global benefits via development of scalable affordable carbon-free energy. Contrary to assertions of dedicated anti-nuke activists, such technology can be made more resistant than existing technology to exploitation by terrorists who may seek weapons material. Dangers from rogue states or terrorists will always exist, and the best way to minimize such danger is to cooperate in developing the safest technology, not to pretend that anti-nuclear activism will cause nuclear technology to disappear from the planet.

The principal policy allowing renewable energies to grow to almost 2% of global energy use has been laws imposing specified “renewable energy portfolio standards” (RPS) on utilities or other mandates for renewable energy use. These policies have aided growth of renewables, and by spreading costs among all utility customers of feed-in tariffs, added transmission lines, and the backup power needed for intermittent renewables (usually fossil fuel based), the electricity cost has been bearable as long as the portion of renewables is small. Now for the sake of moving rapidly to carbon-free power while minimizing electricity costs, the need is for “clean energy portfolio standards” (CPS), thus allowing nuclear energy to compete with renewable energies.

The previously discussed 3 November open letter ‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power’ has provoked much needed debate. Let us hope that this new paper and the PlOS ONE call for solutions papers builds on that interest to get something done.

there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will.

and free will means “be effective” not more failed “Kyoto commitments”.

Jeffrey Sachs: On climate, more ‘now’ and ‘how’ is needed

John Rennie interviews Jeff Sachs for The Gleaming Retort:

Sachs … is also a coauthor, with climatologist James Hansen and a multidisciplinary team of other specialists, of a recent report in the journal PLOS ONE that made a plea for 1 degree Celsius, not 2 degrees, as the appropriate ceiling for permissible warming in the future.

To get his impressions of the report’s content and of its policy implications, I spoke with Sachs a few days before the paper’s publication. What follows is a summary of that conversation.

2 °C is too much

Asked to describe the PLOS ONE report, Sachs calls it “one of the best, concise, up-to-date summaries” of current scientific understanding about the state of the warming problem, drawing on paleoclimate data, climate models, and empirical tracking of global temperatures. (He is also quick to credit it primarily to Hansen, who led the work.)

All those indications, Sachs says, lead to the same conclusions: that the impacts of climate change are already being felt, that they will multiply tremendously in the future, and that feedbacks in the climate system could greatly amplify both the future warming and the consequences associated with it.

No matter whether one favors the limit for future warming to be 1 °C or 2, Sachs says, “we’re off course for either,” with current mainstream projections suggesting that future warming could be headed toward 3-4 °C. But the PLOS ONE paper argues that even the 2 °C target accepted in past global discussions is potentially far more dangerous than was realized. “That two degree figure, which is taken as optimistic by most mainstream observers, is itself wildly complacent,” Sachs says.


‘To Those Influencing Environmental Policy But Opposed to Nuclear Power’

James Hansen, arguably America’s most famous climate scientist, has been a forceful advocate for nuclear power, including fast reactors such as the IFR that convert nuclear “waste” into zero carbon electricity: James Hansen on Kool-Aid, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy.

(…) people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work. This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation.

The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy

The insightful cynic will note: “Now I understand all the fossil fuel ads with windmills and solar panels – fossil fuel moguls know that renewables are no threat to the fossil fuel business.” The tragedy is that many environmentalists line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry, advocating renewables as if they, plus energy efficiency, would solve the global climate change matter.

On 3 November Dr. Hansen and three other top climate scientists joined together in an open letter directed at the Baptists in the “Bootleggers and Baptists” coalition that have made it impossible to make any real progress decarbonizing the global economy. Some examples of the Baptists are Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FOE), and National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). We expect Bootleggers such as Peabody Energy to promote coal powered electricity. The tricky part is that the Bootleggers support the Baptists – who claim to be concerned about the environment. At the same time they contradict themselves by blocking every effort to deploy the one energy option that can scale affordably to achieve a zero carbon economy. If it isn’t affordable, reliable clean energy, then China, India et al are not going to stop building coal plants.

Based upon what I have read in recent weeks, the November 3rd open letter has had more impact than the individual scientist’s efforts. The letter has launched a long-avoided conversation about the critical importance of nuclear in the zero carbon energy mix. Regular Seekerblog readers will be familiar with signatory scientists Caldeira, Emanuel, Hansen and Wigley. Here’s the full text of their letter:

To those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

We call on your organization to support the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as a practical means of addressing the climate change problem. Global demand for energy is growing rapidly and must continue to grow to provide the needs of developing economies. At the same time, the need to sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions is becoming ever clearer. We can only increase energy supply while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions if new power plants turn away from using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires. While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power

We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer. And modern nuclear technology can reduce proliferation risks and solve the waste disposal problem by burning current waste and using fuel more efficiently. Innovation and economies of scale can make new power plants even cheaper than existing plants. Regardless of these advantages, nuclear needs to be encouraged based on its societal benefits.

Quantitative analyses show that the risks associated with the expanded use of nuclear energy are orders of magnitude smaller than the risks associated with fossil fuels. No energy system is without downsides. We ask only that energy system decisions be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases that do not apply to 21st century nuclear technology.

While there will be no single technological silver bullet, the time has come for those who take the threat of global warming seriously to embrace the development and deployment of safer nuclear power systems as one among several technologies that will be essential to any credible effort to develop an energy system that does not rely on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.

We ask you and your organization to demonstrate its real concern about risks from climate damage by calling for the development and deployment of advanced nuclear energy.


Dr. Ken Caldeira, Senior Scientist, Department of Global Ecology, Carnegie Institution

Dr. Kerry Emanuel, Atmospheric Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Dr. James Hansen, Climate Scientist, Columbia University Earth Institute

Dr. Tom Wigley, Climate Scientist, University of East Anglia and the National Center for Atmospheric Research

What does this mean for citizens? China, India, Brazil et al are focused on economic growth, and hence on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. “Cheaper than Coal” is the only energy policy path that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases.

Nuclear is the only option that can deliver Cheaper than Coal at scale. And nuclear can compete sooner and more successfully if the technology leaders such as UK, America, France and Sweden help China et al to deploy mass manufactured nuclear power. But sadly, the anti-nuclear campaigns of the Baptists have been so successful that there is no hope of holding the line at 2°C. Almost all of the nuclear plants that could have been built have been replaced with coal [*]. 

Some of the more informed discussion of the scientists’ open letter has been at Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth.

[*] Today in a few specific markets, such as America, many methane (gas) plants are being deployed. Burning methane initially produces 50% of the CO2 per MW that coal generates, but any methane that leaks is 20 times as bad for warming. And those plants won’t be destroyed until they have lived out their lives – which means 40+ years that could have been zero-carbon power.

A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy

Roger Pielke Jr. summarizes the most critical points from his work on climate and energy policies that work. Hint, Kyoto is not one of these policies. Any proposed policy should be analyzed in the context of the Kaya Identity. Which of the four factors does the policy act on?

Carbon emissions = C = P x (GDP / P) x (TE / GDP) x (C / TE) [where TE is total energy]

In the following excerpt Dr. Pielke examines why effective decarbonization must be grounded on accelerating energy innovation (C / TE)): 

By now there is really no excuse for any professional involved in climate policy not to understand the implications of the Kaya Identity. The risks of not understanding the Kaya Identity is that one can get caught out proposing magic as the main mechanism of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Developed by Yoichi Kaya, a Japanese scientist, in the 1980s as means of generating emissions projections for use in climate models, the identity is also an extremely powerful tool of policy analysis, because it encompasses all of the tools in the policy toolbox that might be used to reduce emissions. The identity is comprised of four parts:

  • Population
  • Per capita wealth
  • Energy intensity of the economy (energy consumption/GDP)
  • Carbon intensity of energy (carbon dioxide emissions/energy consumption)

If we wish to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide with the goal of stabilizing its concentrations in the atmosphere, then we only have four levers, represented by each of the factors in the Kaya Identity.

In The Climate Fix, I simplify even further by combining population and per capita wealth, the result of which is simply GDP, and by combining energy intensity and carbon intensity, the product of which is carbon intensity of GDP.

That means that there are only two ways to reduce emissions to a level consistent with stabilization of concentrations at a low level (pick your favorite number, 350, 450, 550 ppm — the policy implications are identical). One is to reduce GDP. The second is to reduce the carbon intensity of GDP — to decarbonize. While there are a few brave/foolish souls who advocate a willful imposition of poverty as the remedy to accumulating carbon dioxide, that platform has not gathered much political steam. (See discussion of the Iron Law in TCF).

Instead, the only option left is innovation in how we produce and consume energy. That is it — innovation is the only game in town. Consequently, the correct metric of progress in innovation is a decrease in the ratio of carbon to GDP. For those who wish to stabilize carbon dioxide emissions, the proper policy debate is thus how do we stimulate energy innovation?

Read the rest of Roger’s essay, then buy The Climate Fix.

A Common Fallacy in the Energy and Climate Debate

Schalk Cloete is a South African research scientist, currently working in Norway on fluidized bed reactor research. Schalk has recently published a string of excellent energy policy essays, including the captioned piece explaining why it is the developing world that matters. If one only follows the usual media you would have been taught that saving the planet from climate change depends on America passing “cap and trade”, or German citizens paying extraordinarily high energy prices to subsidize wind and solar.

The reality is the developed world must help the developing world to rapidly decarbonize at levelized costs comparable to building more coal plants. The following charts summarize where future CO2 emissions are going to come from – both are courtesy of ExxonMobil’s recent “Outlook for Energy“: 

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In the real world China, India, Brazil and the other developing regions are going to be focused on growth, on expanding their energy supplies as rapidly as they can. That means cheap energy. As the Google Foundation phrased it “Cheaper than Coal” is the only way forward that doesn’t lead to massive emissions increases. In brief the Greenpeacers trying to shut down American nuclear plants should be helping the Chinese climb the nuclear deployment learning curve safely and rapidly.

I highly recommend Schalk’s essay, which I believe is accurate in all the quoted facts. My only disagreement is that I think he is much more optimistic than I that CCS will play an important role in decarbonization. The essay concludes with this summary (emphasis mine):

What does this mean?

People participating in the energy and climate debate should be very careful of always approaching these issues from a developed world point of view. This view is simply not applicable to the part of the world where the most energy is consumed and the most CO2 is emitted. In fact, two short decades from now, the developing world may very well emit triple the amount of CO2 of the developed world.

It is vital that we accept the objective reality that developing world citizens will not prioritize pollution reduction (CO2 and other) over economic growth unless it is very cheap and highly practical. Clean solutions need to come pretty close to a steady, dispatchable coal-fired electricity supply at $0.04/kWh, practical and reliable new cars at $10000 apiece, and direct industrial heat at $0.01/kWh (coal at $70/ton).

Realistically, this implies CO2 capture and storage (CCS), nuclear and large hydro for electricity, a great focus on more efficient internal combustion engines and hybrids for transportation and CCS for direct industrial applications. The green dream of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries and EVs quite simply is nowhere close to being able to facilitate rapid developing world growth (see this previous article for example).

In addition, the green dream is still just a dream even in the developed world (non-hydro renewables provide only 3.1% of OECD energy), implying that decades of typically slow trial and error are still required before this largely theoretical world of distributed and intermittent electricity generation, intercontinental super-grids, smart demand management and large scale energy storage can become a reality. The developing world doesn’t want slow trial and error, it wants proven systems that can drive rapid growth on a very large scale right now.

Unfortunately, the developed world has neglected CCS and is abandoning nuclear, thereby leaving renewables as the only clean energy alternative that can be copied by developing nations. Given this state of affairs, it should come as no surprise that traditional energy sources accounted for fully 96.1% of the non-OECD energy consumption increase from 2011 to 2012 – a value very similar to the 96.5% average over the past 5 years.

Realistically speaking, if the developed world wants to make a real contribution, it should develop and mature clean energy technology that can be seemlessly integrated into the traditional energy systems currently being copied and expanded rapidly by developing nations. CCS is arguably the most important of these with fourth generation nuclear as an important longer-term prospect. It is also important that the developed world curbs its current anti-nuclearism so that this resistance does not prevent the buildout of third generation nuclear in developing nations.

Yes, the green dream is ideologically extremely attractive, but, as this article has hopefully demonstrated, it is simply not compatible with billions of developing world citizens flocking to megacities in search of higher living standards. The premature pursuit of this dream will do little other than sustain the rapid increase of CO2 emissions in the developing world while further worsening the already highly fragile economic situation in the developed world. There really is no need to make things so hard for ourselves.

It really doesn’t matter what a Manhattan party hostess thinks or wants. What matters are the decisions taken by the Beijing bureaucrats.

Climate Pragmatism in the White House

This is good news. The American administration appears to have been reading the Hartwell Paper [PDF] and The Climate Fix. My science policy mentor Roger Pielke Jr. discusses the implications of the newly released Obama advisors’ PCAST report on climate policy. Roger has very good reason to be pleased with the shift towards effective policy:

(…) Overall, while there are a few differences in tone and nuance, the report of PCAST represents an emerging, pragmatic perspective on climate policy that has been years, if not decades, in the making. Perhaps our efforts have contributed in some small ways to helping shape that agenda. Of course, good ideas are the offspring of many proud parents.

“Many proud parents” indeed. Now there’s just the small problem of implementation – which depends on leading the world away from the failed Kyoto-style feel-good policies towards attention to the Kaya Identity and  spending a tiny fraction of GDP on energy innovation to foster what Bill Gates terms “energy miracles”.  

Do read Roger’s whole essay. And if you’ve not already read the Climate Fix I can’t recommend it highly enough. As I wrote a while back in A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy, “Kyoto is not one of these policies”.