Why will China buy your plan?

Australia is fighting over a proposed carbon tax. Meanwhile Britain has adopted aggressive 2020 emissions targets and is fighting over 2050 targets. Most OECD countries are similarly in a lather about emissions targets, trading or better yet, carbon taxes. Very few are focused on practical pathways to actually decarbonize their economy. Very few are focused on helping the big future emitters, such as China, to adopt electrical plant designs that will support expanding access to clean, affordable energy.

It is certainly a “good thing” for Australia to have a carbon price, or for Britain to set aggressive emissions targets. I am very much in favor of a global, harmonized carbon tax. The problem is that a global carbon tax is not going to happen politically. And emissions targets do not translate into decarbonization policy. So neither policy will make any real difference in total GHG in the atmosphere 100 years from now. These kinds of policies are politically popular, making it easy for politicians to avoid the leadership required to shift public opinion towards policies that are actually effective. The billions wasted on ineffective energy options like solar and wind will be spent for little result — while those investment funds will be gone, no longer available to invest in energy innovation and in the existing energy pathways that will actually reduce emissions, such as nuclear electricity or conversion to electric vehicle fleets.

Similarly none of these “feel good” activities offers China an energy pathway that is “Cheaper than coal” — a shorthand for energy options that will actually be adopted by China, India, Brazil or Mexico.

For any energy option to appeal to China et al it must have an honest Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE) competitive with dirty coal, and be scalable to keep up with their expected demand growth. China will use some wind in the “fat pitch” geographic locations. But China isn’t going to achieve a low carbon economy near mid-century by subsidizing “renewables” like the rich Danes and Germans. The Chinese (Indian) leaders have little interest in “feel good” activities unless they are economically competitive. They certainly not interested in damaging their economic growth.

China, India and the rest of the developing world have some 1.5 billion people with no access to electricity, which usually means no access to clean water. So NGO’s like Greenpeace, that are spending huge sums of “feel good” money to fight electrification are horribly on the wrong side. Consider how much good could be done if Greenpeace put their money and influence behind new nuclear plants that are safe and “Cheaper than coal”.

The key question that all these proposals need to answer is “show me why the Chinese will buy your idea”. If China doesn’t go for it, it really does not matter.

Wind and solar PV are largely distractions (except in favored geographic locations), chewing up precious investment funds that need to be spent productively. How do we create the urgency? Politicians are not engineers, and their focus is largely re-election. So I don’t think selling politicians is going to work.

Selling the public directly, bypassing media elites might work. Some examples: Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth“. Recently, “Waiting for Superman” (US education policy). Both are examples of skillful story-telling that resonated with the public and the media elites. That is what we need. And I don’t mind if Al Gore gets the credit, though Gore is unlikely to take up the Hartwell banner (too nuanced and complex for political symbology).

Everyone interested in making real progress on reducing GHG emissions will benefit from reading Roger Pielke’s Climate Fix, Gwyn Prins et al Kyoto Wrong Trousers: Radically Rethinking Climate Policy, and the Hartwell Paper. Keep in mind Roger Pielke’s “Iron Law” which reminds us that we will surely fail by insisting that people simply must sacrifice and use less energy.

We must fight for energy policies that directly support innovation and industrial scale proofing of safe, clean energy that is “Cheaper than coal”. Coming soon – a proposal for working with China and India to produce clean energy at industrial scale.

Footnote: we use “cheaper than coal” as a shorthand for what Vinod Khosla calls the “Chindi Price”. Vinod’s phrase is another shorthand for the crossover price for low-carbon energy that is sufficiently cheap to induce the developing countries to stop building fossil plants in favor of the alternative technology. “Cheaper than coal” is not an absolute number, varying by region – even within a nation, because the price of coal at the power plant is very sensitive to transportation costs. “Cheaper than fossil” would be a better shorthand, because gas is not the solution either. Gas is a pathway to continued addiction to fossil fuels, and by definition cannot be a part of the zero emissions economy that we must achieve. But people are able to remember the concepts behind “cheaper than coal” which is why Bill Gates and Google both use that shorthand descriptor.