The Hartwell Paper: Oblique strategies

…in The Economist 11 May 2010 there’s a discussion of the Hartwell Paper:

(…) Where the Hartwell paper becomes controversial is in its approach to decarbonisation. The authors argue that the large emerging economies are clearly fuelling themselves with renewables and nuclear as well as, rather than instead of, fossil fuels, for various reasons, and that this will not change soon. Nor, they imply, should it. They argue that there is something wrong with a world in which carbon-dioxide levels are kept to 450 parts per million (a trajectory widely deemed compatible with a 2 degree cap on warming) but at the same time more than a billion of the poorest people are left without electricity, as in one much discussed scenario from the International Energy Agency.

Their oblique approach is to aim instead for a world with accessible, secure low cost energy for all. The hope, intuition or strategy at play here is that since fossil fuels cannot deliver such a world, its achievement will, in itself, bring about decarbonisation on a massive scale. Following a path stressing clean energy as a development issue provides a more pleasant journey to the same objective.

(…) The Hartwellites do not disagree with the science in general and certainly don’t think there is no reason to act. They simply doubt that action along this one axis (carbon-dioxide reduction) can ever be made politically compelling. Instead, their oblique strategies (…) are to concentrate on easy opportunities and efficiency, energy and dignity.

In the comments I found the following observation from one of our favorite energy policy analyst/observers, the pseudonymous “harrywr2“:

One of the problems in the ‘energy debate’ is that various institutions use the ‘average’ price of coal to decide which actions may or may not make ‘economic’ sense.

The worlds greatest pile of coal sits in Gillette, Wyoming..where one can show up with a pickup truck and get a ton of coal for $12. There aren’t any ‘alternative’ energy options available that will ever compete against $12/ton coal.

In the ‘real’ world, coal has to be shipped to a market. That $12/ton coal in Wyoming ends up costing $100/ton by the time it is put on a train, hauled over the rocky mountains, put on a boat and floated across the pacific to China.

The Copenhagen folks I suppose could point to the level of investment the Chinese are making in hydro,nuclear and wind and congratulate themselves on finally convincing the Chinese on the need to be ‘environmentally friendly’.

Or one could take another view and conclude that the Chinese calculated the cost of importing coal from Wyoming and decided that ‘alternative energy’ was cheaper and as a bonus they would be congratulated by the Copenhagen folks for finally becoming ‘environmentally conscious’.

If one believes the later then the ‘Hartwell’ focus makes more sense.

Global treaties to reduce CO2 emissions are only going to happen if they coincide with the goal of ‘cheap plentiful electricity for all’.

As Harry outlines, my shorthand of “cheaper than coal” can be misleading unless regionally nuanced. I think that hurdle is valid for most Chinese utility investment decisions – but obviously does not incentivize a Wyoming region utility to choose a low-carbon option.