Can it be cheap and easy to solve the climate problem? Yes!

Rosenfeld curve.jpg


Some news outlets this week have been discussing perceived challenges to meeting a serious climate change prevention goal. The concerns focus on: 1) the credibility of technology studies that show how we can solve the problem at low (or zero) cost, and 2) the supposed lack of a detailed roadmap for solving the climate pollution problem. But history in California and elsewhere shows otherwise.

The discussion began with a thoughtful blog by Dave Roberts, also referred to in a New York Times blog. Mr. Roberts notes that preventing catastrophic climate change will require large changes in many existing trends, especially in the amount of economic output that can be produced per unit of energy consumption. Changing this trend would require much greater energy efficiency.

He also laments the apparent lack of a roadmap for solving the problem.

I say apparent because NRDC and others in the environmental and academic communities have been putting forward such roadmaps--along with calculations of technological potentials, since at least 1975. Perhaps they have not attracted sufficient attention in the media or in national energy policy debates, but they have been made available on a recurring basis.

In California they were taken most seriously as a policy guideline, and followed with varying levels of commitment for 40 years. The outcome is astonishing to people who have not seen them: California now emits about half the carbon pollution of the rest of the country, resulting mostly from reducing its per-capital electricity consumption by some 40% (and also reducing gas use). Virtually all of the reduction followed the period 1973-5, when the state made a major commitment to reducing the impacts of its utility energy use. See figure 1.

Figure 1: California's electricity consumption trend departs from United States average beginning about 1973



The gains were augmented by policies to replace oil as an electric generation fuel with gas and renewable energy sources, and more recently by the nation's first tailpipe emissions standards for greenhouse pollution from cars, a requirement to plan transportation and land use to minimize auto travel and thus emissions, and policies to encourage cleaner transportation fuels.

Changing large-scale economic trends takes a lot of effort, but most Californians don't see this because the effort is limited to work by government agencies and companies in the energy sector. Some of the effort is made by companies that didn't realize at the time that they were in the energy sector, such as lighting manufacturers and refrigerator producers.

Concentrating on the level of work it takes to solve climate can be damaging because it makes the public think that they will suffer if the nation takes on the responsibility of solving the problem--that the hard work it will take will burden their families or their businesses. This is the line that climate deniers consistently take: they foment fears that controlling climate pollution will require expanded government control of the economy at a loss of personal and business freedom.

There are plans to control climate pollution

The authors of both articles are both right in that I cannot find a single short and readable source that both analyzes technical potential and sets forth a roadmap for realizing it. But there is a reason this work is not in the national dialogue: you can't set forth either the technology potential or the roadmap for achieving it in the space of a blog, nor for that matter even in a single book, unless you count all the material in the references.

But that does not mean that no one has one.

NRDC and three other national nonprofits collaborated on such a technology study/policy roadmap some 25 years ago, resulting in America's Energy Choices 1992, a multi-hundred-page technology and policy blueprint for the whole country, which stands up to 22-year retrospective analysis. There are numerous other such studies--I found some 45 good ones when writing Invisible Energy. The fact that journalists and policymakers do not know of them does not mean that they are not there. )

Invisible Energy, a more recent book based on post-2000 insights, charts out the key component of an implementable strategy: policies for increasing energy efficiency.

We know this strategy is realistic because the most important parts of it have already been implemented and evaluated to be acceptable for the largest (but not all) major energy uses and in some jurisdictions. For example, smart growth planning that reduces the need to drive and to invest in expensive highways and parking has worked well in places such as Portland, Oregon, which was among the first to adopt them, and unleashing utilities to provide energy efficiency services to their customers has been a dramatic success in Massachusetts and Vermont. So a zero-emissions future simply means doing more of what we are already doing in leading jurisdictions, and extending their successful programs to other jurisdictions.

Not only do environmentalists have extensive plans and documentation on how to do this, but more importantly, the policies to implement the plan are already being effected in California. The California Air Resources Board is implementing a climate pollution reduction plan now, and it includes sector-specific regulatory changes--some increases in regulation and some decreases--and a cap-and-trade system that helps fund some of the market-based policy initiatives, to meet a legally established 2020 goal and a more ambitious administratively established 2050 goal. And the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed such a roadmap for emissions from the power sector.

They are long and complicated plans, developed in a real political environment with a lot of contending stakeholders. But at least in the case of California, they are in place. And while they are complicated and difficult for the agencies that are implementing the policies, they are invisible to families and to business owners: no one sees them working other than to experience the lower bills, more choices for personal transportation and housing, and the enhanced business climate for clean energy.

Look at California

California faced a challenge as serious as upsetting the trends to climate change starting in the electricity sector in 1970--forecasts showed the need for large coal or nuclear plants every three miles along the coast from Oregon to Baja California, and the state Legislature found this prospect unacceptable. I submitted my first scenario for what California would do to reduce its need for new electricity supply in 1975. The scenario included embraced mostly those savings that the newly established California Energy Commission could achieve itself through codes and standards, so the policies were implicit in the forecast. Overall consumption was growing at about 7 percent annually, with conventional forecasts projecting a slowdown to 5 ½ percent, and more aggressive scenarios prepared by an outside consultant that looked at how efficiency could produce further reductions in growth including, in the extreme case, a reduction to 3 percent.

My role, working with Art Rosenfeld and others at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was to show that a growth rate of 1% percent was achievable, which would result in there being no need for all of the new large powerplants proposed in California: some 17,000 Megawatts of new coal and nuclear power plants. These subsequently were canceled. They would have cost some $100 billion to construct. Even after those cancellations, California experienced excessive power plant supplies by the late 1980s.

The authorities in California took these lower projections seriously, and changed course. The outcome was to cut the growth rate to 2% while adding large amounts of renewable power sources like wind and solar. Both the efficiency and renewables policies implemented by California were unprecedented in their ambition, and they worked. California has held per-capita electricity use to no growth since 1975 while the state is on track to meet its goal of 33% renewables by 2020 and the governor has proposed raising it to 50% as of 2030.

The point is that past results do not predict the future. Large and persistent trends, such as the growth rate of energy consumption or the fuel mix between oil, gas, and renewables, can change course quickly, especially if we set enforceable policy goals and provide the resources to meet them.

(They can change in either direction: median family income in the United States was on a steady growth path until 1973, and then suddenly switched over to a pattern of stagnancy. This evidence, along with other analysis described in Invisible Energy, suggests that the failure to implement consistent energy efficiency policy that would have changed energy intensity much earlier and made solving the climate problem easier is in part to blame. Thus solving the climate problem could be the key to reigniting growth in median income.)

What do we mean by cheap and easy?

Those of us who claim that solving the climate pollution problem can be cheap and easy mean by those words that the average citizen or business will not be confronted with unexpected new costs or burdens, and that this average user will not have to do anything difficult.

This does not mean that solving the climate pollution problem does not involve harnessing large amounts of money or that NO ONE will have to work hard to do it.

Efficiency and renewables both cost money, and it is clear that tens of trillions of dollars of investments will be needed to deploy as much of them as we need to solve the climate problem. But clean energy is still cheap if the investment requirements for business-as-usual are even larger, which they are. If we fail to pursue climate-friendly policies, we will need to invest even more tens of trillions in highways, power plants, oil wells, airports, and other infrastructure, which will result in higher costs to families and businesses for accessibly and for utility bills.

The detailed policies needed to implement climate solutions take a lot of work and are "hard" in this sense, but no one would know it unless they participate in the rulemaking process at the regulatory agencies. They are not hard from the consumer perspective or from the point of view of a small business owner whose buildings or equipment are subject to the policies. Usually, they increase the level of choice available and provide free technical advice on how to be greener, and they create a better business climate by producing more local jobs and lower energy and transportation expenses. They also produce more jobs.

Are technology studies too optimistic?

Mr. Roberts seemed concerned that studies of clean energy such as those of the International Energy Agency are overly optimistic, based on models that are no more than guesses. This argument is flawed in two ways. First, there is a difference between models and firm goals. Modeled market behaviors such as the rate of economic growth, the number of new homes, etc., are hard to get right, but planned goals are more achievable. Planned goals for how much efficiency to acquire have guided the actions of the Northwest Power Planning Council for 35 years, and their achievement of them shows that this process can work.

And there is something really fishy about saying these models that project "cheap" or "easy" transitions to a low carbon economy are overly optimistic and long on ambition: the Internationl Energy Agency is an organization of government bureaucrats. Bureaucrats tend to be cautious, not ambitious. Specifically, a government official who projects large carbon abatement potentials that are found to be overly ambitious in even one category out of 100 may find his career at risk, whereas there is no professional penalty for caution.

The second problem with Roberts' seeming dismissal of these studies is that the uncertain or guess-based modules of the models are not where the action is: changing them does not lead to differences that are of interest to the public. The real issue is the credibility of the assumptions concerning efficiency, since efficiency is by far the largest component of the studies' emissions savings potential.

I have reviewed and occasionally written such scenarios that project efficiency potential beginning with my 1975-vintage California report. Over those 40 years, I have found a consistent pattern of excessive caution and pessimism underlying the studies. I found nine explicit reasons that all of these studies systematically understate the efficiency resource and I describe the first 8 of them in Invisible Energy.

Why Public Optimism is Justified

Implementing a policy agenda such as what has been undertaken by the California Air Resources Board, or along the lines of what I put forward in Invisible Energy, provides significant non-environmental benefits. It also means we will be saving money, reducing overall infrastructure needs by canceling plans for expensive infrastructure such as highways, airports, coal mines, powerplants, etc., and replacing them with cheaper but still trillions-of-dollar investments in lower cost railroad, transit, smart growth communities, and efficiency in buildings and industry.

As an example, the business plan for the California High Speed Rail Authority shows that the project will cost almost $70 billion, some of which will be provided by the private sector, while the investment in airport capacity, freeways, etc., that would be avoided by the railroad investment would have cost $180 billion, almost all of it from government.

This agenda explains why we can say that decarbonization is cheap and easy. Cheap in the sense that it will provide energy services that are more affordable to citizens and business, and be less expensive that the alternative dirty energy system. Easy in the sense that we have had the basic roadmap for decades, and it will not require a big lift on the part of citizens and businesses. (See, for example, America's Energy Choices).

But of course, doing this will be hard politically and administratively. Just like other big tasks--gearing up for World War II and winning it, recovering from the Great Depression, establishing civil rights for people of color and for women and gay people, and cleaning up the air and water.

This observation is important because a broad policy agenda is hard to get consensus on as long as the public is afraid that it will be expensive and disruptive. As Thomas Friedman has said, if you are on the Titanic and you see the iceberg ahead but think nothing that you can do will prevent the shipwreck, your attitude will be "party on". But if you see a real possibility of avoiding the collision, you will make sure the captain is aware of the problem and you will demand action of him.

The example of World War II illustrates this: until 1938 we had little idea of what we needed to do and no plausible political strategy for doing it. When the attack on Pearl Harbor settled the politics and defined the broad strategic goal, we had no armed forces to implement it and no plan for developing them on the scale that we soon did. And we could not predict some of the technologies that we wound up needing to in order to succeed: radar, code-cracking hardware and software, tidal-prediction computers to plan the Normandy landing, nuclear weapons, and many more. If we had not thought that America could win the war if we decided to fight, the politics would have been quite different.

I focus on the war effort to compare to solving the climate problem for one key reason: both are big problems, and for both the key strategic step was very simple: agreeing that there is a big problem and then deciding to solve it.