In addressing climate change, one problem is that short and long term issues are not always the same. As we’ve noted before, conservation is a legitimate short-term issue but not a primary long-term goal.
You can go a step farther with that: there is technology we don’t want at all long-term that is still the best we’ve got for now. That’s not just a matter of saving a little extra carbon dioxide; more importantly it’s buying time.
What the scientists have given us is not so much a schedule as a carbon budget—how much CO2 we can produce without irretrievable harm. Many of the technologies we need to get off of fossil fuels completely are not 100% up to snuff. What that means is that we can’t jump immediately into what we see as the right solution—more money won’t help. That means accepting non-optimal technologies that cut some CO2 now.
Cutting CO2 buys time. We need that time.
Here’s are a few areas that need work. It’s too easy to wish them away:
– Electric cars are still too expensive and slow-charging to replace current technology. This is a little like self-driving cars—the expectations have gotten ahead of the reality.
– Solar and wind may be cheap, but they’re not everywhere and not all the time. For electric power generation that’s a problem. In-network power storage is not up to the task of twenty-four hour operation. With the current US grid, solar power in Arizona is not going to drive the rest of the country.
As an example, California’s aggressive deployment of solar electricity has forced external contracting to handle power peaks. Currently the peaks are supplied by CO2-intensive fossil fuel plants in nearby states.
Local power generation can displace some residential and commercial demand, but at best that’s only 10% of the picture:
– For heavy industry—steel and cement for example—CO2 production is not just a matter of power consumption, it’s intrinsic to the industrial processes. There are no simple solutions to change that. Flue-based carbon capture just has to get better. (Direct air capture of CO2—despite much enthusiastic press—is even farther off.)
Prospects for fixing all of this are good, but we’ve got to buy time to get there. That means taking steps with what we’ve got now. Here are a few examples:
– We should think more about hybrid cars. That’s increasingly cheaper technology, it saves considerable gas, and recent plug-in hybrids save more (perhaps leading even to upgradeable batteries). The biggest problem with the technology is that, despite improving sales, we’re still not selling enough of it. Initial carbon pricing should be aimed at universal hybrid penetration. Tesla is great, but it’s not going to have a big enough impact now.
– Replacement of coal by gas saves 50% of CO2 production. There aren’t always alternatives, for the reasons listed above. Furthermore, lumping all fossil fuels together makes it easy to excuse coal. When Germany and Japan closed nuclear plants, they didn’t go to gas, they went to coal.
While we’re currently seeing more growth of CO2 emissions with gas than with coal, it’s easy to draw the wrong conclusion. Coal and oil still represent the vast part of CO2 production, and any replacement is a win.
– Carbon capture is unavoidable. The first focus is on flue-based technologies, even if direct air capture is sexier. This needs real money, because the industrial sector is huge worldwide.
To those items we should add one more difficult bit of reality: the US needs a vastly improved national electric power network as a near-term prerequisite for much future work. That means more high-voltage power interconnections. That in turn means dealing with environmental issues and protection for the poorer neighborhoods that normally bear the brunt of such things. One way or another this has to be made to happen, even though it involves competing concerns.
All of this underlines the need for a real plan—with both domestic and international aspects. That needs to be a step-by-step prescription for what we should do about climate change. That is what money needs to be spent on what technologies when and where. For all their strengths, neither the Green New Deal nor the CCL’s carbon pricing is anything like a comprehensive plan.
Carbon pricing in particular remains a source of considerable confusion. Since it is a critical component, we end with a few comments to avoid misunderstanding.
– Carbon pricing has to be a clear signal to industry of where the world is going. It may start relatively low (as we’ve just discussed), but planned increases must send the message that the fossil fuel world is ending. We need to get to at least $100 a ton in 5-10 years. As such, proposals of $40 a ton with only nominal increases (coming from oil industry sources among others) are dead on arrival. Carbon pricing is not good or bad in the abstract; it’s good or bad based on the numbers.
– Carbon pricing is not a tax, it’s killing a silent subsidy. Carbon in the atmosphere costs all of us money in current and future climate change disasters. Keeping it free represents an annual subsidy to the fossil fuel industry in the US of approximately $1T yearly (lower numbers are based on flawed cost models and just plain wrong). That huge perversion of the economy has to end. The money belongs to the public; it’s not there for the taking. It needs to be given back in a way that mitigates the regressive effect of higher oil prices. If we need more money for climate change or anything else, that needs to be done through the tax and budgeting system. That’s where we make decisions about who pays.
– Carbon pricing will not solve all problems. Government has many active roles to play, for example in putting together the new national electric power infrastructure that will be critical for progress. Also government will need to address the enormous social consequences of remaking the economy. We need to have carbon pricing to prevent perversion of the economy, but it’s only one element in a comprehensive plan.