The limits of climate negotiations
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.