A Global Quorum for Fee & Dividend?

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I felt more optimistic for a few seconds after reading James Hansen’s latest Assuring Real Progress on Climate. I won’t spoil your Holiday Spirit by enumerating the reasons my optimism quickly faded. Hopefully you will come back with compelling arguments why this time is different: multi-national negotiations will produce a binding commitment to Fee & Dividend. The main argument:

Alternative 2: Courageous leadership emerges. In this scenario, actions proposed in Lima are adopted, but also plans for a rising carbon fee to come into force once approved back home by a quorum of nations. Quorum is defined so that Protocol initiation practically requires acceptance by either the United States or the European Union and either China or a combination of nations such as India and Brazil. The gradually rising carbon fee would be accompanied by border duties on products from non-participating nations, collected by the importing country, unless the exporting country shows that no fossil fuel carbon was emitted in production of the product.

In Alternative 2 no single nation can blackmail humanity. Once a quorum is achieved, there is a huge incentive for other nations to join, to avoid economic disadvantage and enjoy the economic stimulation. A carbon fee, which would be collected at domestic mines and ports of entry, spurs an economy if the funds are fully distributed to the public. However, the fee becomes a tax and a drag on the economy if a government keeps the funds to expand its programs. Governments are prohibited from returning the funds to the fossil fuel industry as subsidies. Otherwise specific use of the fee is a national prerogative. However, it is noted that equal division of funds among residents tends to address income disparities, providing opportunities for low income people, while spurring essential efforts in conservation, energy efficiency and clean no-carbon energies. Alternative 2 is a challenge, but one that we must fight for with all our strength and intelligence.

I think the economic outcome will be net-positive over a couple of decades. I’m not confident the near term jobs & incomes data will be comforting to politicians who find themselves out of work after implementing a binding form of Alternative 2. What is our best evidence that Fee & Dividend will boost GDP per capita? Over what time frame?

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.)

(…snip…)

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”.

The Decline of Renewable Energy

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When green renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, they will take over the world. Instead of believing in the Tooth Fairy, we should start investing in green R&D. — B Lomborg

Bjorn Lomborg examines the long perspective on renewable energy trends. I liked this piece because it so concisely summarizes both the engineering and social realities of the popular but tragically expensive rush to solar and wind.

Solar and wind energy account for a trivial proportion of current renewables – about one-third of one percentage point. The vast majority comes from biomass, or wood and plant material – humanity’s oldest energy source. While biomass is renewable, it is often neither good nor sustainable.
Burning wood in pre-industrial Western Europe caused massive deforestation, as is occurring in much of the developing world today. The indoor air pollution that biomass produces kills more than three million people annually. Likewise, modern energy crops increase deforestation, displace agriculture, and push up food prices.

The most renewables-intensive places in the world are also the poorest. Africa gets almost 50% of its energy from renewables, compared to just 8% for the OECD. Even the European OECD countries, at 11.8%, are below the global average.

The reality is that humanity has spent recent centuries getting away from renewables. In 1800, the world obtained 94% of its energy from renewable sources. That figure has been declining ever since.

(…snip…)

The momentous move toward fossil fuels has done a lot of good. Compared to 250 years ago, the average person in the United Kingdom today has access to 50 times more power, travels 250 times farther, and has 37,500 times more light. Incomes have increased 20-fold.

The switch to fossil fuels has also had tremendous environmental benefits. Kerosene saved the whales (which had been hunted almost to extinction to provide supposedly “renewable” whale oil for lighting). Coal saved Europe’s forests. With electrification, indoor air pollution, which is much more dangerous than outdoor air pollution, disappeared in most of the developed world.

And there is one environmental benefit that is often overlooked: in 1910, more than 30% of farmland in the United States was used to produce fodder for horses and mules. Tractors and cars eradicated this huge demand on farmland (while ridding cities of manure pollution).

Of course, fossil fuels brought their own environmental problems. And, while technological innovations like scrubbers on smokestacks and catalytic converters on cars have reduced local air pollution substantially, the problem of CO₂ emissions remains. Indeed, it is the main reason for the world’s clamor for a return to renewables.

To be sure, wind and solar have increased dramatically. Since 1990, wind-generated power has grown 26% per year and solar a phenomenal 48%. But the growth has been from almost nothing to slightly more than almost nothing. In 1990, wind produced 0.0038% of the world’s energy; it is now producing 0.29%. Solar-electric power has gone from essentially zero to 0.04%.

Yes, Denmark gets a record 34% of its electricity from wind. But electricity accounts for only 18% of its final energy use.

Europe now gets 1% of its energy from wind – less than before industrialization, when cozy windmills contributed about 2% (and ships’ sails provided another 1%).The UK set its record for wind power in 1804, when its share reached 2.5% – almost three times its level today.

Moreover, solar and wind will still contribute very little in the coming decades. In the IEA’s optimistic scenario, which assumes that the world’s governments will fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide 1.34% of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42%. Global renewables will most likely increase by roughly 1.5 percentage points, to 14.5% by 2035. Under unrealistically optimistic assumptions, the share could increase five percentage points, to 17.9%.

So we are nowhere near switching back to renewables anytime soon. In the US, renewables accounted for 9.3% of energy production in 1949. President Barack Obama’s administration expects that number, almost a century later, to increase slightly, to 10.8% by 2040. In China, renewables’ share in energy production dropped from 40% in 1971 to 11% today; in 2035, it will likely be just 9%.

Yet we are paying through the nose for these renewables. In the last 12 years, the world has invested $1.6 trillion in clean energy. By 2020, the effort to increase reliance on renewables will cost the European Union alone $250 billion annually.

Spain now pays almost 1% of its GDP in subsidies for renewables, which is more than it spends on higher education. At the end of the century, Spain’s massive investment will have postponed global warming by 62 hours.

Current green energy policies are failing for a simple reason: renewables are far too expensive. Sometimes people claim that renewables are actually cheaper. But if renewables were cheaper, they wouldn’t need subsidies, and we wouldn’t need climate policies.

Former US Vice President Al Gore’s climate adviser, Jim Hansen, put it bluntly: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and [the] Tooth Fairy.”

The solution is to innovate the price of renewables downward. We need a dramatic increase in funding for research and development to make the next generations of wind, solar, and biomass energy cheaper and more effective.

Consider China. Despite the country’s massive investment in solar and wind, it mostly sells solar panels to Western countries at subsidized prices. Wind makes up just 0.2% of China’s energy, and solar accounts for 0.01%.

Meanwhile, China has 68% of the world’s solar water heaters on rooftops, because it is a smart and cheap technology. It needs no subsidies, and it produces 50 times more energy than all of China’s solar panels.