Can Current Energy Techs Stop Global Warming? Probably Not

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In a remarkably interesting column in today's Washington Post, the invaluable Robert Samuelson discusses the prospects for significantly reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, especially CO2, over the next half century. His analysis lead him to believe that the prospect for deep cuts is dim. Samuelson correctly points out:

No government will adopt the draconian restrictions on economic growth and personal freedom (limits on electricity usage, driving and travel) that might curb global warming. Still, politicians want to show they're "doing something." The result is grandstanding. Consider the Kyoto Protocol. It allowed countries that joined to castigate those that didn't. But it hasn't reduced carbon dioxide emissions (up about 25 percent since 1990), and many signatories didn't adopt tough enough policies to hit their 2008-2012 targets. By some estimates, Europe may overshoot by 15 percent and Japan by 25 percent.

A new report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that global CO2 emissions will rise by 75 percent by 2030. So Samuelson is right–big cuts in GHG emissions will only be achieved if there are big tech breakthroughs in energy production.

During the Buenos Aires climate change negotiations, I looked at an analysis that showed just how hard it would be using current energy technologies to just stabilize emissions at current levels, much less cut them. All that being said, it would be silly to dismiss the possibility that such big breakthroughs may well occur. Always bet on human creativity.

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  1. Samuelson is just a climatological surrender monkey.

  2. So the logic here is, because there haven’t been big payoffs from demand-end changes yet, in a climate in which there isn’t a universally-accepted agreemnt to reduce emissions, it is therefore impossible for there to be big payoffs from demand-end changes going forward, even if there was a binding agreement to motivate the various actors to work towards those changes.

    Sounds pretty airtight to me.

  3. Hey, Ronald Bailey is finally right about something!

    I read Samuelson’s piece a day after glancing at the “Wired 40” list of innovative businesses. Many of those businesses are making progress on this front.

    Funny — this wouldn’t have been an area in which I would’ve expected business to be far ahead of government, but I’m happy to see it.

  4. a binding agreement to motivate the various actors to work towards those changes.

    And what is going to bind every country in the world to agree to destroy its economy?

  5. At least the neocons and GOPers are finally (1) calling it global warming, (2) admitting that we might be partially at fault, and (3) understanding that we should at least look into what we can do to change things. True, their obstinate denial of an obvious phenomenon make the GOPers look like oil company stooges, but they really didn’t need any help in that department. At least with some moderate and/or sensible GOPers on board, we have a scientific goal. That’s the real progress, not whether we have a solution yet.

  6. “So the logic here is, because there haven’t been big payoffs from demand-end changes yet”

    I don’t think that was the logic. I think the logic is that demand end changes have to be vast to be remotely meaningful, and that ain’t gonna happen. Reductions of less than those of gigantic proportions are all cost and no benefit, so there will not be any consensus to maintain the fiction when unemployment and growth are on the line.

  7. the other Chicken Little,

    You mean the way mandatory seatbelts, unleaded gosoline, and gas tank liners were going to destroy the American automobile economy by 1975?

    Or how reducing the emission of acid rain precursors was going to be so expensive that a viable market in credits would emerge?

    Maybe you should have a little more faith in the innovative capacity of industrial capitalism. They don’t just curl into a ball and die like you assume.

  8. Joe, I think I can sum it up even more elegantly:

    You see, because we cant reduce C02, we cant reduce the C02. See there now, bad policy. whoopsie.

  9. “No government will adopt the draconian restrictions on economic growth and personal freedom (limits on electricity usage, driving and travel) that might curb global warming.”

    I will always bet on human creativity to, if it is given a chance. The problem is that the people who are most concerned about global warming view the draconian restrictions Samualson refers to as a good in themselves and are not particularly interested in stopping global warming if doing so means technological breakthroughs rather than curbs on freedom and the market.

  10. I think the only thing which would stand any chance of being able to reduce global warming would be a widespread return to nuclear power, coupled with a sea change of conversion to electric or hydrogen cars running on electricity or hydrogen obtained from said nuclear power. (You can make hydrogen from nuclear through electrolysis). This would allow developed nations at least to significantly reduce CO2 emissions from cars and power plants.

    Of course, the idea of returning to nuclear power in a widespread way is, well, radioactive to many people.

    Environmentalists have to choose between fossil fuels and nuclear. No other option is realistic with our current technology. Fusion would change all that, but we don’t have that technology yet, and it’s not because we aren’t trying.

    In my mind, nuclear is the better choice. The ceramic-coated fuel “ball” instead of fuel “rod” technology which was invented in the 90’s is apparently much safer than the old technology when it comes to meltdowns. And as for nuclear waste, I think its embarassing that we cannot agree on finding a SAFE repository for it. Leaving the spent fuel in the reactors themselves seems, to me, to be even more dangerous over time than the idea of shipping it to some remote desert mountain.

  11. You mean the way mandatory seatbelts, unleaded gosoline, and gas tank liners were going to destroy the American automobile economy by 1975?

    No, you smarmy fucking prick. I’m asking what is the incentive for countries to abide by some Kyoto-like agreement. Government that impose high gas taxes or outlaw cars or whatever are going to get voted out the next time there’s a recession. Unless some evil genius gets some super-weapon and threatens to destroy the countries that emit too much CO2, I don’t see anyone agreeing to reduce emissions with current technology.

    New technology is the only way that CO2 emissions are going to be cut, not some stupid-assed international agreement.

    And quit being an asshole.

    Matt: Come again?

  12. Ron, your backpedalling on this has gotten a bit too fast. Ratchet it down a bit; we won’t be ready to jump to the “OK, we can tax carbon emissions” position for a couple more years.

  13. “No government will adopt the draconian restrictions on economic growth and personal freedom (limits on electricity usage, driving and travel) that might curb global warming.”

    I’m certain we’ll see some public officials babbling “CO2 emissions are a privilege, not a right.”

  14. Ah yes, I forgot about nuclear power. But again, we’re not going to spend the money to convert all our power to nuclear in order to satisfy some treaty with furriners. Just won’t happen in this country, and I suspect not in many others either.

  15. Ah yes, I forgot about nuclear power. But again, we’re not going to spend the money to convert all our power to nuclear in order to satisfy some treaty with furriners. Just won’t happen in this country, and I suspect not in many others either.

    Webmaster: If I buy you a real server, will you promise to use it? I’ve had it with the squirrels.

  16. “His analysis lead him to believe that the prospect for deep cuts is dim.”

    The past tense of lead is led.

  17. “Maybe you should have a little more faith in the innovative capacity of industrial capitalism. They don’t just curl into a ball and die like you assume.”

    Unfortunately, government-imposed solutions tend to focus on means rather than ends. (Ethanol, anyone?) The mavens of industrial capitalism, rather than rolling up their sleeves and working on solutions, roll up their sleeves and get to work manipulating the political process; to establish a regulatory advantage for their proprietary technology, and influence the outcome for their own greatest benefit.

    The price mechanism is a great motivator. A carbon tax, despite the antipathy of many people, would be vastly better than a specific technology solution picked/ backed by “experts” such as Ted Stevens.

  18. Jason Ligon writes: ” Reductions of less than those of gigantic proportions are all cost and no benefit, ”

    Not true. Companies that have taken steps to improve their efficiency have seen significant returns, often greater than the cost of the changes.

    The benefit as far as halting climate change may not be, or may not seem, significant, but that doesn’t mean there will be *no* benefit.

  19. P Brooks,

    I agree, but I’ll note that the operative word in your post is “tends.” It is not inevitable that public policy would go that route. Those mavens can only get away with such an act if they are not given cover by “business-friendly” constituencies.

    Wailing about taxes and regulations, for example, allows the mavens to insist that only subsidies and partnerships are politically viable.

  20. Other Mark: I agree with you, we’re not going to switch to nuclear and hydrogen cars just to satisfy a foreign treaty. However, if a supermajority of Americans ever believes global warming is a threat to civilization like Al Gore believes, I think the public will be ready to make dramatic changes.

    I, myself, believe global warming is happening and that we are contributing to it, but I don’t believe it is going to end civilization as we know it. It might, however lead to some serious problems (mainly in the form of sea level rise) which will need to be addressed over the next few centuries.

    I fully expect the Democrats in 2008 to propose a “new-Deal” type program to convert us away from fossil fuels. I predict they will propose using massive amounts of government money to get people to switch to non-gasoline cars, and to create new power plants which are not dependent on fossil fuels. However, I can’t see them jumping onto nuclear as the way to do it, even though in my mind it is the only realistic way to go. Wind farms and hydro won’t cut it.

    I think it would be advantageous for us to make such a change, not just because it would reduce potential global warming but there would be less excuse for America to have a heavy-handed Middle Eastern policy which has been a factor in helping to breed terrorism. However, as a libertarian I don’t believe it is the job of the government to force us to make this change. Instead, we should allow the market to make the change by extricating ourselves from the Middle East, which may, without our “stabilizing” influence, allow the price of oil to spike to the levels where most people can agree that an alternative is needed, and let the market provide it. There is an answer, it will just take investment.

  21. The squirrels ate my reply to the other Mark.

    Mark, if you don’t want me to assume that you’re making irresponsible predictions about the cost of cleaner technologies, like those I mentioned above, then don’t try to steal bases with phrases like “…to agree to destroy its economy.”

    But to answer your question, the motivation to reduce greenhouse emissions comes in the form of the hurricaines, floods, droughts, crop failures, and other genuine catastrophes (not slightly more expensive gas, but things that actually kill people and ruin cities) that we are already seeing. The ones that have led the smelly hippies running the insurance companies to change their actuarial tables.

    Which, come to think of it, is also the motivation that led most of the world to sign onto the Kyoto Accord.

    And while you certainly won’t see it mentioned on Reason’s web site, the US Senate rejected Kyoto not because it imposed restrictions on the US, but because it didn’t impose sufficient restrictions on the China+ countries. It’s the free rider/competitive disadvantage problems that are restricting the success of Kyoto, not the absolute costs. The US didn’t want to be China’s sucker in the 1990s, and Europe doesn’t want to be America’s sucker in the 2000s.

  22. “The benefit as far as halting climate change may not be, or may not seem, significant, but that doesn’t mean there will be *no* benefit.”

    The end of reducing or arresting global warming is the only measure that matters in this story. Businesses can and will make efficiency improvements that increase their own output to input ratios.

    When I say that it is all cost and no benefit, I mean no benefit relevant to global warming. If you can’t see the effect in hundreds of decimal places of average temperature, you aren’t doing anything meaningful. You are, however, spending money to do that nothing.

    As joe suggests with his favorite seatbelt story, you can by universal mandate make it so that there is no competitive disadvantage to adopting a widget that adds marginally to costs. Unfortunately, the story changes when you are talking about universal effects that raise the price of doing everything, and not by just a little bit. A seat belt is a cost that may not kill the industry, but a requirement that all cars must have a 0% fatality rating in head on collisions would kill the industry.

    Then, too, you have the problem that by extension, our seatbelt laws would somehow have to apply to every other country on earth to eliminate the competitive disadvantage. Since international law is an unenforceable joke, there is no way to get universal compliance.

  23. Joe-

    Actually, it really is inevitable that “public policy” is the hostage of the lobbyists. Are you familar with the notion of regulatory capture? From the day the votes are counted, the incumbent works toward re-election, by peddling his influence to small, well funded, and highly focused special interest groups. The special pleaders kick back some portion of the gains they accrue due to the intercession of their pet representative, to further entrench him in his office; they may even, if they perceive it as a good investment, aid him in his attempts to attain higher offices, and greater influence.

    If you think that is some sort of hysterical libertoonian paranoia with no basis in fact, take a look at the tax code.

  24. There is no way that China and India will come on board in the absence of new clean technology that is price competitve. They will simply refuse to remain dirt poor while Europe, the US, Canada and Japan live the high life.

    Additionally, most of the European governments deliberately cheated on Kyoto from the get go. This is not shocking when you think about it, although it makes future progress via international treaty yet more dubious.

    On the plus side there is in fact gobs of investment being made in “alternative” technologies right now. By the private sector. There is nothing like having high energy prices to spur new investment in alternatives. If Ron Bailey got peak oil panic wrong, then things will get really ugly on prices pretty soon. Even if he got it right, I am not at all convinced we will ever see cheap oil any time soon, as in at least a decade. Rising global demand from China and India and elsewhere may well continue to meet or beat new supply coming onto the market.

    There is also the fact that the professional doomsayers are trying to paint things as bad as possible, which leads me to believe that we aren’t really in dire shape given the full spectrum of projections.

    The best path, and most likely path, near term seems to be to let the best conservation system ever invent work. That is, supply and demand. It is also the best system to get cost effective substitues that won’t require government guns to get people to use.

  25. P Brooks,

    I am well aware of that dynamic. My point is that it is not the only one out there, and can be overcome by countervailing pressures. Or reinforced by cooperative pressures.

    To date, the contribution of the “free markets” advocates has been to tamp down the countervailing pressure, while providing intellectual cover for the poormouthing of the world’s richest energy conglomerates.

  26. To date, the contribution of the “free markets” advocates has been to tamp down the countervailing pressure, while providing intellectual cover for the poormouthing of the world’s richest energy conglomerates

    I love it. Industry special interests have captured govt power and recruited it to enforce anti-competetive regs and rules, and the answer is more regulatory power for govt.

    If only we had the *right* people in charge it would be great. We just need to keep trying.

    nmg

  27. Joe-

    Before I was twenty (many moons ago) it was obvious to me that anybody who WANTED to be in Congress should be automatically excluded from consideration (I currently tend toward the thesis that they should be rounded up and gassed). Please don’t take this as a personal attack, but I think you are pretty naive if you think that your elected representatives have the interests of anyone but themselves in the forefront of their consciousness. The only motivation for “public servants” is the sociopath’s: self- aggrandisement, power, control, and the desire to tell other people what to do, and how to do it.

    That holds for any politician, anywhere. And, lest you think I am giving them a pass, I categorize corporate executives as a subspecies of politico (that’s why they are so good at lobbying). The skills required to rise to the position of CEO are not the same as those required to create and build a successful and ethical business enterprise.

  28. ?But to answer your question, the motivation to reduce greenhouse emissions comes in the form of the hurricaines, floods, droughts, crop failures, and other genuine catastrophes (not slightly more expensive gas, but things that actually kill people and ruin cities) that we are already seeing. The ones that have led the smelly hippies running the insurance companies to change their actuarial tables.?

    Poor reasoning. If you want to claim that a given catastrophe or set of catastrophes is somehow caused by a global mean temperature increase cite some credible scientific research (good luck, it?s sparse and intentionally soft and ambiguous). Citing insurance companies is like using Vegas odds to back a point. Because the actuaries tell us an 18-year-old male will likely wreck into my car doesn?t mean one will. In fact, the whole proposition is a bit suspect; they are making money on the bet after all.

  29. Got it. Current technology and a loosely-adhered-to Kyoto treaty can’t counter the full effects of whatever greenhouse emissions continue in the short run. Therefore, the “proactionary” response is to throw one’s hands up, reject the available half-mesaures, and sit around waiting for the amazing yet-to-be-devised technology that will solve the problem in one grand stroke.

    Except, what if all the inadequate, partial meausres that are available are the very “technologies” that will buy the modern world the time it needs to devise the better technologies that will stave off the worst-case consequences?

    Aren’t global regulatory treaties like Kyoto themselves proactionary technologies, in that rapid air travel and modern global telecommunications make it practical for the entire developed and developing world to hammer out and track compliance with such treaties in the first place?

    Heck, maybe the contemporary science of climatology, with its array of satellites, weather stations and ice-core analysis data that tell us substantial climate change is underway, is also a technology. Crazy. I know.

    To say that the problem-solving technology is yet to be invented, and the available technologies are inadequate to bring about a full resolution and therefore failures and not worth employing at all, is a bit like someone circa 1910 complaining that the technology did not yet exist to record Enrico Caruso in high fidelity, that then-current phonographic technology was woefully inadequate, and thus opting not to make recordings of him at all.

  30. If the grand problem is the size of Lake Michigan, the proactionary measure being discussed is the use of a drinking straw. Up to a minimum level of efficacy, you are doing nothing but wasting resources in an attempt to ‘do something’.

  31. If the grand problem is the size of Lake Michigan, the proactionary measure being discussed is the use of a drinking straw. Up to a minimum level of efficacy, you are doing nothing but wasting resources in an attempt to ‘do something’.

    Well said Jason. I would only add that government “inaction” is not doing nothing. We are letting human instincts work via the free market mechanism of supply and demand to create alternatives, and we are letting the same process work to fabulously conserve scarce resources.

    If something is in low supply and high demand, its price will be high. This will spur people to use cheaper alternatives which by definition will be more plentiful resources. It will also spur people to create cheaper alternatives than previously existed.

    This process is already working for energy. The US is not doing nothing merely because it is not wasting money “doing something”. We most definitely are doing something. We are letting prices work the way they are supposed to.

  32. If the grand problem is the size of Lake Michigan, the proactionary measure being discussed is the use of a drinking straw. Up to a minimum level of efficacy, you are doing nothing but wasting resources in an attempt to ‘do something’.

    If as you conceded earlier the implementors can gain efficiency advantages, and the only problem is that these actions don’t cure the global problem, in what sense is this a waste of resources? It seems like a rational economic decision to implement changes which help your bottom line. Where is the waste?

  33. Could it already be too late if man-made CO2 is the major factor in global warming? This from
    FORBES, July 3: “China burned 1.9 million metric tons of coal in 2004. By 2020, predicts the China Coal Industry Development Research Center, it will burn 2.9 billion tons a year. That increment alone will send as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 3 billion Ford Expeditions, each driven 15,000 miles per year.”
    Yes, billions! I ran this by a chemist friend, who advocates draconian measures to end man-made
    CO2. He agreed it would be impossible to slow down CO2 as long as some nations were allowed to continue burning fossil fuel, etc. His solution: the developed world will coerce the undeveloped, through trade sanctions, to stop their growth. And if they don’t, then nuclear destruction must be an option! If CO2 induced global warming is this far along, and essentially non-stoppable short of returning to the Stone Age, then “we” had better use resources to figure out how to best evacuate or protect coastal areas, develop crops that will grow in radically changed climates, etc. But killing half (or more) of the world’s populations is crazy talk.

  34. I’ve read that planting a giant forest that would soak up lots of CO-two would solve the problem. The estimated size ranges from Arizona (doable, I guess) to Australia (tougher, definitely). But either one would also give useful jobs to all those American farmers currently living off the Ag. Dept.’s dole. As for Robert Samuelson, I do read his column, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call him “invaluable” until he 1) lightens up on immigration and 2) loses the moustache.

  35. “It seems like a rational economic decision to implement changes which help your bottom line. Where is the waste?”

    Some changes of some types may help some bottom lines, but that is pretty thin gruel as bases for regulatory changes go.

    If the question is what helps a given business’s bottom line, clearly the local knowledge of the business owner is superior to that of a regulator who is not remotely interested in promoting growth. The waste is in lost opportunity for the business to have invested that money in something that would make them more competitive still.

  36. “From 2003 to 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow from 6.4 billion people to 9.1 billion, a 42 percent increase. If energy use per person and technology remain the same, total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (mainly, carbon dioxide) will be 42 percent higher in 2050. But that’s too low, because societies that grow richer use more energy.”

    That’s an interesting forecast if accurate. Someone could draw strange conclusions from that if they didn’t account for rising energy costs in real terms with increased demand.

    “…Unless we condemn the world’s poor to their present poverty — and freeze everyone else’s living standards — we need economic growth. With modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions more than double by 2050.”

    Isn’t it likely that consumers will demand less energy from fossil fuels if costs rise in real terms? …Won’t they look for substitutes? Might not substitutes, perhaps presently unprofitable without support, become profitable in such a situation?

    What is needed is a justification for taking infrastructure to scale using a number of different technologies, not technological breakthroughs or government support. I contend that what government support I’ve seen to date seems counter productive to me–if the goal is eliminating CO2 emissions.

    If the availability of hybrids is a function of government mandates, to what extent do hybrids ultimately solve the problem of CO2 emissions? If I had access to a hydrogen car (I understand there are a few in a lab somewhere), how big would a liquid hydrogen tank have to be to go the same distance I go on a tank of gas now? To what extent will ethanol from corn ultimately solve the problem of CO2 emissions?

    …and yet the government squanders our time and resources on these things.

  37. It seems to me that you either accept the significant negative potential of global warming or you don’t. If you don’t think it exists at all (lots of research to the contrary notwithstanding), then doing nothing is acceptable. If you do, then clearly steps must be taken, regardless of how politically unpalatable they may be.

    On the other hand, the pseudo-centrist mental contortions required to accept the catastrophic downsides of global warming, while claiming that mitigating it in any way is impossible because it would be economically unpleasant, is simply unhinged. At least global warming skeptics (I, for one, have been largely convinced) are consistent.

  38. It seems to me that you either accept the significant negative potential of global warming or you don’t. If you don’t think it exists at all (lots of research to the contrary notwithstanding), then doing nothing is acceptable. If you do, then clearly steps must be taken, regardless of how politically unpalatable they may be.

    There’s a word for that: bifurcation.

    One can recognize the problem and still ask, what makes the government uniquely suited to solve this problem? …and remain consistent.

  39. A different view based on results…

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5128478.stm

  40. A different view says that it depends on what kinds of demand based changes you make…

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/5128478.stm

  41. Trying … to … post …

  42. ?Actuarial tables don’t predict what any one individual or event will do ??

    Uhh ? I suppose that is a more terse way of rephrasing my post. And the point of repeating it?

    ?? ; they exist for the purpose of drawing conclusions from aggregate data.?

    Sure, for auto accidence and so forth; but GW initiated catastrophes? This is simply a conservative long odds bet by some insurance companies. Aggregate data my ass. If there were such a thing the debate would be over.

  43. Some changes of some types may help some bottom lines, but that is pretty thin gruel as bases for regulatory changes go

    Pardon me, I didn’t read your post as relating to imposed changes, but rather to voluntary ones.

    If a business makes changes that positively impact it, they’re in no sense a waste just because they have no impact on the larger problem.

    We can certainly agree that any changes, mandated or otherwise, with no demonstrable positive effect in either realm are a bad thing.

  44. You have to hand it to liberal Democrats. They have been wrong about 95 percent of the time on basic economic issues, just how bad the Soviet Union or Maoist China was, or resource and food depletion predictions, and any number of other statist polices. You would think that abysmal record would lead to a little humility. But they get one win with global warming and all that smugness comes back so easily, as though their abysmal record on past economic or environmental predictions, or failed tecnocratic policies, had never existed.

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