So Really, How Will We Get to a Post-Carbon Future?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

A pair of features tackled the most fundamental barrier to the complete transformation of the planet’s energy system: scale.

The first, by David Biello, writing for Yale e360, is one of the most comprehensive assessments of the scale problem to appear in recent memory, and contemplates what it would take to “replace all of the power-producing infrastructure that we have today within 40 years.”

The second, by Mason Inman, writing for National Geographic, warns that limited availability of certain scarce resources, such as the rare earth elements used in many cleantech applications, could be the ultimate bottleneck to even approaching powering the planet with 100 percent renewables.

In Standpoint Magazine, John Constable addresses the costs of a large-scale transition to renewables as they are currently playing out for the U.K. — where, he argues, “in private, the best-informed analysts now agree that Britain’s environmental policies have put the country on track to have the world’s most expensive electricity.”

Speaking at the recent Cleantech Investor summit, former president of Shell Oil and founder of Citizens for Affordable Energy said the U.S. is going about energy policy “planlessly.” He blames this lack of coherent policy on two- and four-year election cycles.

This Year’s State of the Union Address: Whatever You Do, Don’t Call It Climate Change

For those who follow climate and clean energy, the most notable change between this year’s State of the Union address and previous speeches by President Obama is our commander-in-chief didn’t mention climate change — at all.

However, his speech did lead with a discussion of clean energy, ranging from the ambitious goal of getting the U.S. to 80 percent clean energy by 2035 to a pledge to eliminate subsidies to oil companies. The president also mentioned the cultivation of energy innovation through research and development, and the potential for the U.S. to reach 1 million electric vehicles by 2015 – a goal Alexis Madrigal of The Atlantic deems insufficiently ambitious.

Opinion on whether or not the president made the politically savvy move by failing to mention climate is divided. David Roberts of Grist says no, as does Joe Romm of Climate Progress; Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute says yes.

Meanwhile, the clean energy standard itself is up for debate; Michael Kanellos at GreenTech Solar argues by including natural gas, it pits a mature fossil fuel industry against renewables, with predictable results. ProPublica released a well-timed investigation questioning whether natural gas is all that “clean” in the first place, in terms of its benefits for the climate.

The oil industry panned the speech, of course, given that it included Obama threatening to take away what amounts to billions in tax breaks. The Heritage Foundation argued the focus on elimination of tax subsidies was misplaced; they’d like to see capital expenses handled differently in the first place, to make it easier for oil and gas companies to absorb the risk of drilling new wells.

The Hill has a more detailed account of the administration’s full proposal, which includes doubling spending on ARPA-E (the advanced research agency devoted to energy), doubling the number of “Innovation Hubs” devoted to energy, and increasing spending on research and development for specific applications, such as advanced batteries and vehicles.

Economics vs. People

“Estimates of lost world product due to climate change are moderate because the poor have so little to lose,” says Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling in Newsweek. He points out if the world’s poorest billion lost half their income to climate change, it would amount to but one percent of world income, but the damage to their quality of life would be inestimable.

A new run of the “Dynamic Integrated Model of Climate and the Economy” using estimates of the sensitivity of Earth’s temperature to levels of greenhouse gases from the upper end of the spectrum of published results suggests the best way forward under these assumptions is to very rapidly decarbonize humanity’s energy system, ending the century at nearly the same level of atmospheric CO2 as the present day.

Journalist Mark Hertsgaard has been covering climate change for 20 years, but it didn’t occur to him until the birth of his own daughter that 2 billion young people would spend their entire lives contending with the impacts of climate change.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Chinese Premier Hu Jintao’s Visit Prompts Soul Searching in U.S. Energy and Climate Circles

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

The truly astonishing amount of material that came out after a recent visit by China’s President Hu Jintao is a measure of how pivotal energy and climate change are between the U.S. and China. This includes a piece on the importance of energy cooperation between the two nations by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu himself.

Scientific American’s Dave Biello describes the relationship between the U.S. and China as the kind of detente that exists between “frenemies,” but one of the most comprehensive assessments of the current state of affairs was articulated by Daniel Firger of the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law. He says the year to come in China and U.S. energy news will revolve around three things:

-The U.S. complaint to the World Trade Organization about China’s green energy subsidies, which seems hypocritical in light of our failure to make similar complaints about EU subsidies (not to mention our own domestic subsidies), and could be a sticking point in U.S.-China relations;

-China’s burgeoning scientific engine, which could drive renewables to become economically competitive with fossil fuels in the U.S.;

-And lastly, the economies of scale achieved by China’s enormous domestic market, which could make renewables a reality for the billions of people whose only choice is between dirty energy and no energy at all

GOOD magazine made a similar argument in 2009, when it argued that Chinese innovation would revolutionize solar for the entire world.

China, UK: As Serious as a Heart Attack about Energy Efficiency

There are plenty of countries that talk a big game about energy efficiency, but how many are prepared to curb domestic growth and even ration energy in order to accomplish it?

In advance of China’s President Hu Jintao’s arrival in the U.S., last week China pledged to go as far as rejecting construction projects that pollute too much. This is the same country that just shut down a coal-fired power plant in the middle of winter in order to save energy. The plant was the sole source of heating for a town of 20,000 who are now facing sub-zero temperatures.

Meanwhile, in the U.K., a group of MPs is proposing an energy rationing regime aimed at preparing the country for energy shortages brought about by peak oil.

Justice Department Puts Its Dukes Up for the EPA

It’s not just Lisa Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, who is feeling feisty these days. The U.S. Justice Department is also girding for a fight with, for example, the state of Texas.

Climate Scientists: Eight Brand New Reasons This Is Going to Hurt

1) Warming arctic ice could mean more mercury in the environment.

2) Climate change, now as big a threat as nuclear war; warrants moving the minute hand on the “Doomsday Clock,” reports BBC News.

3) Year 2100 atmospheric CO2 levels could reach concentrations of 900 to 1,000 parts per million – three times the present value, and a level not seen in at least 30 million years.

4) So much for fish and chips: Scandinavian sea may become too warm for cod.

5) Melting ice is a more powerful feedback than scientists previously estimated, and will contribute to further warming as the Earth’s northern reaches become less reflective. “The conclusion is that the cryosphere (areas of ice and snow) is both responding more sensitively to, and also driving, stronger climate change than thought,” Mark Flanner, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, told Reuters.

6) Regional planners are dealing with rising seas now, not in some distant future. Rising seas threaten more than 30,000 homes in North Carolina, and Ventura County, California, is ripping out beach infrastructure and moving it inland. David Roberts of Grist says it’s time we started talking about “ruggedizing” our civilization against climate change.

7) Geoengineering deployed in the future in order to rescue Earth’s icecaps from disintegration could cool the tropics to temperatures below current levels, report scientists in the Journal of Geophysical Research. The reason is straightforward: the earth’s cryosphere will have disintegrated so thoroughly by that point that extra cooling measures will be required. After all, 93.4 percent of the warming of the Earth goes into the oceans, Skeptical Science reminds us.

8) Reinsurance giant Munich Re says 2010 included 950 natural disasters, the second highest number since 1980. Ninety percent were weather-related, providing “further indications of advancing climate change.”

The good news is that climate models are more accurate than ever.

 … But Maybe We Can Produce 100 Percent of Our Energy From Renewables by 2050

Studies appearing in Energy Policy argue wind, water and solar could replace existing fossil-fuel-based energy infrastructure by mid-century. If California’s current buying habits are any indication, much of that solar will be made in China. The Bureau of Land Management estimates 2.9 million MW of solar energy could be produced on federal lands alone.

Allison Arieff of GOOD proposes a market for efficiency – or negawatts – to help close the gap.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

Amidst a Giant Snowstorm, 2010 Declared Hottest Year Ever

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

Not everyone can have the media savvy of Snooki, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s timing couldn’t be worse: with snow in every state but Florida (yes, even Hawaii), the agency just announced 2010 tied with 2005 as the warmest year for global temperature. And scientists wonder why they continue to see polls like this.

Looking at just the United States it was merely the 23rd warmest year on record, no doubt a factor in the aforementioned poll. A quick glance at NOAA’s 2010 temperature anomaly map revealed the most significant warming not only took place throughout the Arctic, but also across Europe and Africa. Canada, being a country with significant arctic territory, smashed all previous records.

Given the relationship between hotter temperatures and a revved up hydrological cycle, it’s not a huge surprise 2010 was also the wettest year on record. And that we probably smashed all previous records for CO2 emissions.

Inverse Relationship Between Earth’s Temperature and Congress’s Willingness to Do Anything About It Continues to Hold True

Politico reports the “GOP-led House [is] expected to easily pass a measure to handcuff the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority [to regulate greenhouse gases].”

Meanwhile, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif) said she will “use every single tool available” to thwart efforts to block EPA climate regulations.

In case you missed it in previous editions of The Climate Post, there continues to be every indication the House Science and Technology Committee is going to probe the “quality” of climate science.

The Breakthrough Institute issued their latest missive, “Why Climate Science Divides Us But Energy Technology Unites Us,” a treatise eerily reminiscent of Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass) speech in which he declared America is facing a “new Sputnik moment.”

He added, “the decisions we make – or fail to make – in this decade on new energy sources, on education, infrastructure, technology, and research — all of which are going to produce the jobs of the future […] will without doubt determine whether the United States will continue to lead the world – or be left to follow in the wake of others, on the way to decline, less prosperous in our own land and less secure in the world.”

Meanwhile the Sierra Club is suing over approval of a giant solar plant in California, arguing it could damage rare plant and animal species.

Climate Change to Continue for 1,000 Years; Coal’s Reign to End Sometime Before Then

Like a giant ship with a tiny rudder, Earth’s climate has tremendous inertia, according to the results of a new modeling effort. Humanity’s energy system also has a great deal of inertia, says Umeå University Associate Senior Lecturer Finn Arne Jørgensen, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t reaching the beginning of the end for coal-fired power, according to Steve LeVine at Foreign Policy.

Renewable Ramp-Up

Solar panels are becoming so cheap they threaten the giant solar thermal developments states such as California are pouring money into, says a new analysis. Even so, investment in cleantech is shifting from production to efficiency. And where will these panels come from? President Obama just signed a law dictating the U.S. Department of Defense must buy American-made solar panels.

Worldwide, clean energy investment just reached $234 billion, and in Texas, wind is now 7.8 percent of the electrical supply.

Just as financial firms announce they need better information on climate change “to help clients manage increasing risks ranging from heat waves to rising sea levels,” a company that specializes in large weather monitoring networks launches its latest venture, an effort to blanket the planet in greenhouse gas monitoring equipment.

Australia’s Extreme Weather a Punch in the Gut for Coal

Queensland is experiencing flooding of “biblical” proportions, and it’s shut down one of the world’s most important exporters of coal. Draining the mines could take weeks, leading to a surge in demand for U.S. coal.

All of this was in some sense presaged in 2008 by The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, says Gregory Unruh in a Huffington Post blog entry, and constitutes an object lesson in how the kind of extreme weather brought about by climate change can disrupt the fossil fuel–powered energy system that brought it about in the first place.

The Christian Science Monitor reports this is Australia’s moment to become a leader in climate change adaptation.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

In an Energy-Scarce World, Is Energy Efficiency Finally King?

The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University

In 1865 William Stanley Jevons pointed out something paradoxical: historically, the better we get at efficiently using a resource, the more of that resource we use. Known as the “Jevons paradox,” it’s been the elephant in the room for advocates of energy efficiency, who cite it as one of the core technologies that could reduce the carbon intensity of our industrial civilization. But perhaps it’s time to lay this “rule” to rest, says Energy Circle Founder Peter Troast, who points out that increased resource usage has always taken place in the context of ever-increasing supplies of energy and an expanding economy.

In the same vein, a new study from researchers at Stanford suggests the appetite for travel has reached saturation in the developed world, meaning further gains in transportation energy efficiency “could leave the absolute levels of [transport-related greenhouse gas] emissions in 2020 or 2030 lower than today.”

Meanwhile, oil prices are creeping back up, leading the chief economist at the International Energy Agency to warn that the price of a barrel of crude imperils the current global economic recovery.

EPA’s New Climate Rules Spur Intense Debate

The industry response to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s forthcoming regulation of greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act has led to a war of words at the National Journal, where representatives from the National Mining Association and the George C. Marshall Institute duke it out with the likes of Jon A. Anda of UBS Securities, who says EPA regulations “may hurt today’s economy, but not materially because de-carbonization will come gradually over decades, new energy technologies tend to be more domestic and labor-intensive, and U.S. investment in long-lived plant and equipment is already stymied by policy uncertainty.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) equates the new regulations to “a new gas tax.”

“The fight [over EPA’s new climate rules] has gotten so ugly that the EPA took the unprecedented step this month of announcing it will directly issue greenhouse gas permits to Texas industries beginning in January after the state openly refused to comply with new federal regulations.” Predictably, the tussle has since been cited by a member of the Texas Nationalist Movement as the latest, best reason for the state to secede.

The New York Times says the new regulations carry significant political risk to the current administration.

Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones reports Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) – the incoming chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is currently formulating ways to block the rules – used to advocate for action on global warming, but has since expunged his website (and public pronouncements) of this view.

White House Science Advisor John Holdren Thinks Forthcoming Congressional Hearings on Climate Science Will Be “Educational”

“I think in the new Congress, there will unquestionably be hearings on climate science – I think those hearings are going to end up being educational. I think we’ll probably move the opinions of some of the members of Congress who currently call themselves skeptics, because I think a lot of good scientists are going to come in and explain very clearly what we know and how we know it and what it means, and it’s a very persuasive case,” Holdren told Energy Now.

Related: Climate change is still a national security threat.

Will It Be Centuries Before Warming-Enhanced Storm Damage Is Quantifiable?

A controversial new paper argues that extracting the signal of climate change effects from the noise of variable weather in order to put a price tag on global warming could take centuries, but Climate Progress cites a report by the reinsurer Munich Re, “Large number of weather extremes as strong indication of climate change,” as a counter-example.

Depending on your opinions on the issue, it might seem ironic that even as this debate is taking place, biblical levels of extreme weather in Australia have shut down exports of coal.

World Population of Cars to Hit 2 Billion, Good Thing For These New Sources of Solar Power, Nuclear Energy and Liquid Fuel

Growth in the developing world – all right, mostly China – will soon push the number of cars on the planet past the 2 billion mark, reports Scientific American. In other words, a new method for thermochemically creating automotive fuel directly from sunlight might come in handy. Qantas is also testing jets run on biofuels made exclusively from waste.

Or, if you prefer getting off the internal combustion engine altogether, Slate’s gadget guy loves the new all-electric Nissan Leaf, calling it a “Prius-killer.” If you’d like to charge up that Leaf with electricity from something other than fossil fuels, free solar panels are real, and they’re here – as long as you’re ready to pay for the cheaper-than-market-rate electricity they produce. Todd Woody of Grist points out that solar thermal power – easily the cheapest form of solar energy we have, per watt – is experiencing boom times.

Chinese media are reporting the country’s scientists have come up with a new way to reprocess spent uranium, one which will ensure “China [will] have sufficient nuclear fuel for at least 3,000 years.” Nuclear power aside, the European Union is on target to produce one-fifth of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.