The lim­its of cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

If the world is to solve the cli­mate-change cri­sis, we will need a new ap­proach. Cur­rently, the ma­jor pow­ers view cli­mate change as a ne­go­ti­a­tion over who will re­duce their CO2 emis­sions (mainly from the use of coal, oil, and gas). Each agrees to small “con­tri­bu­tions” of emis­sion re­duc­tion, try­ing to nudge the other coun­tries to do more. The United States, for ex­am­ple, will “con­cede” a lit­tle bit of CO2 re­duc­tion if China will do the same.

For two decades, we have been trapped in this min­i­mal­ist and in­cre­men­tal mind­set, which is wrong in two key ways. First, it is not work­ing: CO2 emis­sions are ris­ing, not fall­ing. The global oil in­dus­try is hav­ing a field day – frack­ing, drilling, ex­plor­ing in the Arc­tic, gasi­fy­ing coal, and build­ing new liq­ue­fied nat­u­ral gas (LNG) fa­cil­i­ties. The world is wreck­ing the cli­mate and food-sup­ply sys­tems at a break­neck pace.

Sec­ond, “de­car­boniz­ing” the en­ergy sys­tem is tech­no­log­i­cally com­pli­cated. Amer­ica’s real prob­lem is not com­pe­ti­tion from China; it’s the com­plex­ity of shift­ing a $17.5 tril­lion econ­omy from fos­sil fu­els to low-car­bon al­ter­na­tives. China’s prob­lem is not the US, but how to wean the world’s largest, or sec­ond largest econ­omy (depend­ing on which data are used) off its deeply en­trenched de­pen­dence on coal. These are mainly en­gi­neer­ing prob­lems, not ne­go­ti­at­ing prob­lems.

To be sure, both economies could de­car­bonize if they cut out­put sharply. But nei­ther the US nor China is ready to sac­ri­fice mil­lions of jobs and tril­lions of dol­lars to do so. In­deed, the ques­tion is how to de­car­bonize while re­main­ing eco­nom­i­cally strong. Cli­mate ne­go­tia­tors can­not an­swer that ques­tion, but in­no­va­tors like Elon Musk of Tesla, and sci­en­tists like Klaus Lackner of Columbia Univer­sity, can.

De­car­boniz­ing the world’s en­ergy sys­tem re­quires pre­vent­ing our pro­duc­tion of vast and grow­ing amounts of elec­tric­ity from boost­ing at­mo­spheric CO2 emis­sions. It also pre­sup­poses a switchover to a zero-car­bon trans­port fleet and a lot more pro­duc­tion per kilo­watt-hour of en­ergy.

Zero-car­bon elec­tric­ity is within reach. So­lar and wind power can deliver that al­ready, but not nec­es­sar­ily when and where needed. We need stor­age break­throughs for these in­ter­mit­tent clean-en­ergy sources.

Nu­clear power, an­other im­por­tant source of zero-car­bon en­ergy, will also need to play a big role in the fu­ture, im­ply­ing the need to bol­ster pub­lic con­fi­dence in its safety. Even fos­sil fu­els can pro­duce zero-car­bon elec­tric­ity, if car­bon cap­ture and stor­age is used. Lackner is a world leader in new CCS strate­gies.

Elec­tri­fi­ca­tion of trans­port is al­ready with us, and Tesla, with its so­phis­ti­cated elec­tric ve­hi­cles, is cap­tur­ing the pub­lic’s imag­i­na­tion and in­ter­est. Yet fur­ther tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances are needed in or­der to re­duce elec­tric ve­hi­cles’ costs, in­crease their re­li­a­bil­ity, and ex­tend their range. Musk, ea­ger to spur rapid de­vel­op­ment of the ve­hi­cles, made his­tory last week by open­ing Tesla’s patents for use by com­peti­tors.

Tech­nol­ogy of­fers new break­throughs in en­ergy ef­fi­ciency as well. New build­ing de­signs have slashed heat­ing and cool­ing costs by re­ly­ing much more on in­su­la­tion, nat­u­ral ven­ti­la­tion, and so­lar power. Ad­vances in nan­otech­nol­ogy of­fer the prospect of lighter con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als that re­quire much less en­ergy to pro­duce, mak­ing both build­ings and ve­hi­cles far more en­ergy ef­fi­cient.

The world needs a con­certed push to adopt to low-car­bon elec­tric­ity, not an­other “us-ver­sus-them” ne­go­ti­a­tion. All coun­tries need new, low-car­bon tech­nolo­gies, many of which are still out of commercial reach. Cli­mate ne­go­tia­tors should there­fore be fo­cus­ing on how to co­op­er­ate to en­sure that tech­nol­ogy break­throughs are achieved and ben­e­fit all coun­tries.

They should take their cue from other cases in which govern­ment, sci­en­tists, and in­dus­try teamed up to pro­duce ma­jor changes. For ex­am­ple, in car­ry­ing out the Man­hat­tan Project (to pro­duce the atomic bomb dur­ing World War II) and the first moon land­ing, the US govern­ment set a re­mark­able tech­no­log­i­cal goal, es­tab­lished a bold timetable, and com­mit­ted the fi­nan­cial re­sources needed to get the job done. In both cases, the sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers de­liv­ered on time.

The ex­am­ple of atomic bombs might seem an un­pleas­ant one, yet it raises an im­por­tant ques­tion: If we ask gov­ern­ments and sci­en­tists to co­op­er­ate on war tech­nol­ogy, shouldn’t we do at least the same to save the planet from car­bon pol­lu­tion?

In fact, the process of “di­rected tech­no­log­i­cal change,” in which bold ob­jec­tives are set, mile­stones are iden­ti­fied, and time­lines are put into place, is much more com­mon than many re­al­ize. The in­for­ma­tion-tech­nol­ogy revo­lu­tion that has brought us com­put­ers, smart phones, GPS, and much more, was built on a se­ries of in­dus­try and govern­ment roadmaps. The hu­man genome was mapped through such a gov­ern­men­tled ef­fort – one that ul­ti­mately brought in the pri­vate sec­tor as well. More re­cently, govern­ment and in­dus­try got to­gether to cut the costs of se­quenc­ing an in­di­vid­ual genome from around $100 mil­lion in 2001 to just $1,000 to­day. A dra­matic cost­cut­ting goal was set, sci­en­tists went to work, and the tar­geted break­through was achieved on time.

Fight­ing cli­mate change does de­pend on all coun­tries hav­ing con­fi­dence that their com­peti­tors will fol­low suit. So, yes, let the up­com­ing cli­mate ne­go­ti­a­tions spell out shared ac­tions by the US, China, Europe, and oth­ers.

But let’s stop pre­tend­ing that this is a poker game, rather than a sci­en­tific and tech­no­log­i­cal puzzle of the high­est or­der. We need the likes of Musk, Lackner, Gen­eral Elec­tric, Siemens, Eric­s­son, In­tel, Elec­tric­ité de France, Huawei, Google, Baidu, Sam­sung, Ap­ple, and oth­ers in lab­o­ra­to­ries, power plants, and cities around the world to forge the tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs that will re­duce global CO2 emis­sions.

There is even a place at the ta­ble for ExxonMo­bil, Chevron, BP, Pe­abody, Koch In­dus­tries, and other oil and coal gi­ants. If they ex­pect their prod­ucts to be used in the fu­ture, they had bet­ter make them safe through the de­ploy­ment of ad­vanced CCS tech­nolo­gies. The point is that tar­geted and deep de­car­boniza­tion is a job for all stake­hold­ers, in­clud­ing the fos­sil-fuel in­dus­try, and one in which we must all be on the side of hu­man sur­vival and well­be­ing.

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