Monday, October 23, 2017
Climate Pragmatism (Rightful Place of Science - series)
Book Review: Climate Pragmatism (Rightful Place of Science Series) – edited by Jason Lloyd, Daniel Sarewitz, Ted Nordhaus, and Alex Trembath (2017 - Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, Arizona State University
This is a great book by several contributors and the pragmatic environmentalists of the think tank Breakthrough Institute. The focus is threefold: 1) the importance of energy access for those in developing countries, 2) energy innovation - in both fossil energy and clean/renewable energy, 3) adaptation to potential climate threats from extreme weather and other sources.
The Breakthrough Institute advocates new climate, environmental, and energy policies that balance the needs of human development and climate change mitigation. Human development is primary, climate change mitigation secondary they argue. They also argue that adequate human development leads to better ability of societies to mitigate climate change and adapt to it. Climate change discourse had reached a level where in developing countries the perceived needs of mitigation were hampering efforts at quick, sufficient, and affordable energy access. An ‘either/or’ narrative between development and climate protection had developed.
Climate pragmatism is an approach focused on practical solutions rather than being problem-centric like previous environmental approaches. Near, mid, and long-term solutions are all examined in the model. It ditches the good/bad dichotomy for one of practical/impractical. Ted Nordhaus notes that human development requires not just energy access but modern levels of energy consumption. One end result of that is better overall resilience including better resilience to the effects of climate change, which he calls a ‘co-benefit’ of better living standards. Another co-benefit would be better ability to mitigate climate change. He praises the structure of the Paris agreement where individual countries made pledges that they would work toward decarbonization rather than getting binding agreements with everything tied to specific emissions reductions for each country. He favors human development as the center of policy rather than the environment. The authors favor technological approaches to human problems rather than anti-technological ones sometimes favored by other environmentalists. They like the Paris agreement because they see it as a more optimistic approach different than the squabbling disagreements of past climate conferences. Nordhaus defines the extremes as those like 350.org and others who want to keep emissions at levels which keep Temps from climbing 1.5 deg C and those like the Trump administration officials who do not even see climate change as a viable issue. They think CO2 will likely go higher than 450 ppm and temps will likely go higher than 2 deg C and realizing that we should focus more on adaptation. They also argue against seeing any of those numbers as red lines not to be crossed as uncertainties still abound.
The first section deals with energy access:
“Access to affordable and reliable energy is a prerequisite for human development.”
For many in the world such access has been and continues to be a way out of poverty and poor health. It also fosters education and empowers people in myriad ways. In addition to energy access another requirement is energy equity, or access to an equivalent relative amount of energy as in industrialized countries. This also requires and fosters economic growth. If too much focus is put on mitigating climate change through emissions requirements in these efforts towards energy access and modernization then those developing countries get short-changed, as in some UN initiatives that have been inadequate.
In a nutshell:
“… all humans deserve access to sufficient energy services to achieve the quality of life currently enjoyed by people in economically developed regions of the world. A high-energy planet with universal access to affordable, cleaner, and plentiful energy is the most practical way to secure this socioeconomic development while ensuring environmental protection.”
Economic productivity and social well-being have co-evolved and will continue to do so, even though there may be some potential decoupling in affluent developed countries. Energy access and economic productivity correlate to longer lifespans and better health. They note that today (2017) the poorest 75% of the global population uses just 10% of global energy. Over a billion people lack access to electricity, nearly half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Somewhere near 3 billion people cook over toxic fires made with wood, dung, coal, or charcoal, often indoors where the health consequences are far worse. It is estimated that this leads to 2 million premature deaths annually around the world as well as millions of cases of childhood lung diseases and pneumonia. They are fire hazards. It increases deforestation. Incidentally, the US State Department under Hillary Clinton initiated a program of providing access to safer cooking methods: safer wood, biomass, and propane stoves to impoverished countries around the world. This program was recently nixed by the new administration.
Urbanization encourages expanded energy access and energy innovation. Urbanization has been growing steadily throughout the world and continues. Higher population densities lead to more efficient societies with lower per capita energy requirements. Rural electrification is also important although less efficient. Overall rural populations are shrinking. Urban and rural energy needs and requirements differ. They argue that urban electrification should be prioritized over rural electrification in most circumstances since more people will be served faster. More people need adequate and safe electricity in the sprawling urban slums more than do in rural areas which have often been the past focus – or at least the archetypal image of energy poverty.
Energy access is a public good and modernizing energy systems is a part of that access, they argue. Public participation with private utilities is required in modernizing energy systems. Electric grids are public/private partnerships. There are many different structures to such partnerships with varying levels of public and private components. Guaranteed profits are balanced with the need to provide inexpensive energy for consumers in some manifestations. Others are varying levels and types of monopolies. Loan guarantees, tariff structuring, legislative support, and incentives for some types of energy are other tools. Brazil, Indonesia, and Vietnam have vastly increased energy access through public/private partnership. This has led to higher standards of living among the poor in those countries.
Transitioning from biomass to electricity and hydrocarbons for cooking decreases pollution, carbon emissions, and deforestation. UN initiative insistent on energy access and transitioning in developing countries being as low-carbon as possible slows down such transitions since low-carbon technologies cost more and are less reliable. Thus, they argue, energy access and transitions should prioritize the lowest cost solutions over the lowest carbon ones. Government and private partnerships for electrification in Africa have been inadequate as very minimal amounts of electricity were deemed enough in some initiatives but are far lower than per capita consumption in developed countries. Thus, they are generally inadequate to really modernize energy systems. Barebones access to a few lights, a fan, and a few hours of radio is obviously not akin to modernized energy availability. Any new systems need to take into account that their consumers’ energy needs will grow and so the systems need to be scalable. Adequate base load electricity should be sought. In addition to households, energy is required for manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation as well as facilities like hospitals and schools. Those areas need long-term electrification strategies with scalability.
“On-demand grid electricity capable of powering commercial agriculture, modern factories, and megacities in the developing world will drive energy and development strategies for the foreseeable future.”
They point out that energy innovations often happen where and when new energy systems are being deployed, from the upstream development of technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for unconventional gas & oil resources in the 1990’s to current and the increasing of capacity factors in nuclear plants back in the 1970’s. These led to decreased carbon emissions in the case of the hydrocarbons and lower cost for nuclear at that time – although these days nuclear is very often in uneconomic territory compared to other energy sources. Thus, they argue, the expansion of energy access may lead to more innovation. China is an example. The authors claim that they have developed the lowest cost carbon capture and storage tech for coal plants as well as low-cost hydroelectric models. I am a bit skeptical on those numbers but agree places like China and India are ripe for innovation, especially as there are many energy innovation partnerships with the U.S. and Europe. The authors also highlight that energy access and transitions need to be context-appropriate. For instance, countries with significant coal reserves would be expected to utilize coal as it is cheap if produced domestically.
The authors advocate for a high-energy rather than a low-energy climate policy. Human development needs trump decarbonization needs, especially for the developed world. With urbanization and innovation happening in tandem with expanded energy access that process will be optimized for human development and secondarily for decarbonization. Environmental protection and climate mitigation become consumer concerns after initial basic energy and development needs are met. They argue that energy abundance and energy equity are moral imperatives. They argue in favor of a high-energy development model rather than low-energy development as some have proposed.
As energy use increases in developing countries there will be positive effects like moving away from dung, wood, and charcoal fires and negative effects like increased urban air pollution and more atmospheric CO2. The authors note that innovation tends to occur where there is the most demand growth for new technologies. They advocate international collaboration in energy innovation rather than competition. Competition among solar panel manufacturers led to problems for Western manufacturers as China came out clearly as the lowest cost producer of panels. Trade disputes over solar panel manufacture in the early 2010’s did cause problems for American and other Western manufacturers but the free market approach left China as the lowest cost producer and allowed more people to go solar. The decision currently before the Trump administration to put tariffs on Chinese panels will only theoretically help a couple U.S. companies and make going solar more expensive for everyone. The focus should rather be on (as it has) making sure Chinese panels are up to quality specs and environmental standards. Innovation tends to happen where technology is most employed so developing countries will likely see the most innovation.
Clean energy innovation is happening but so is fossil fuel innovation, particularly with natural gas and oil. In terms of cost natural gas is still much cheaper. A 2014 analysis by the Center for Global Development compared renewables only vs. natural gas only energy access for sub-Saharan Africa and found that natural gas could provide energy for 3-4.5 times the amount of people than could renewables alone at comparable cost. Why should the dangers of climate change force renewables instead of gas to provide energy for far less people? Of course, there could also be some combination of both technologies. The sunk costs of large centralized power plants in developed countries leave little incentive for innovation since they are banking on time to recoup the initial costs. Of course, each individual country has its reasons for their own energy paths. Defense concerns led to nuclear power development. Desire for a low-carbon economy led Germany and Denmark to go strongly wind and solar. Desire for energy independence (from OPEC and Qatar in the case of the U.S.) led to the R & D that resulting in the fracking revolution. Energy independence was also a factor in France and Sweden going nuclear. Energy consumption is not expected to grow much in OECD countries but quite a bit in non-OECD countries. They note that the fracking revolution occurred in the U.S. because the infrastructure, the equipment, the leasing policies, and the research was all in-place for a seamless transition. They refer to it as a “locked-in” energy system with “path dependency” – pipelines, power plants, electricity grid, etc. – and see this as a feature of some developed countries but virtually no developing countries. For developing countries fossil fuels are still largely more efficient than renewables albeit renewables are also being deployed knowing that they will continue to come down in price and innovations are likely. Most projections into the future still see fossil fuels as outpacing renewables in new energy development. China is strongly investing in clean energy – for competitive advantage, to alleviate pollution growth, and as a means to keep up an “all-of-the-above” strategy that incorporates energy diversity.
Development of four technology streams is recounted: shale gas, nuclear, carbon capture and sequestration, and solar PV. For each of these technologies there are global maps in the book but due to the small format of the book the lettering is very small as well as fuzzy so a complaint here.
They trace the development of hydraulic fracturing from its inception in the 1940’s to the boom of high-volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling that took off beginning around 2006 and in about 10 years became the dominant source of oil & gas and overall energy in the U.S. at the same time dropping U.S. carbon emissions to levels two decades past mainly through replacement of coal plants with natural gas plants. Other countries are as of yet unripe for such developments although a few are readying up: Argentina, China, Mexico, U.K, and Canada – although each of those countries yet have hurdles that the U.S. didn’t have. For example, China has poor pipeline infrastructure for gas, lack of available freshwater in the main fracking areas, and some geological issues. Progress has been very slow globally compared to the U.S. where further developments to keep natural gas, oil, and natural gas liquids cheap and widely available continue to improve.
Although the Breakthrough Institute folks really like nuclear it is the cost that is most problematic with it. They predict most nuclear energy growth in the coming decades in China, South Korea, and the Middle East with U.S. and European firms collaborating. New coolant and fuel designs are being explored in some of these projects. Molten Salt reactors and traveling-wave reactors utilizing spent fuel are a couple designs being explored. Russia is exporting sodium-cooled fast reactor designs they have been using since the 1980’s. There are plans to construct one in China. In contrast, Germany has been decommissioning their nuclear plants in response to the Fukushima disaster.
2014 studies indicate that China by 2030 will consume more electricity than all OECD countries combined and 83% of that electricity will come from coal. With more recent commitments to explore cleaner energy alternatives those numbers will likely drop a bit but still represent a massive growth of coal burning. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects are in progress in many places in the world with varying levels of success. Those with economic incentives like enhanced oil recovery (EOR) through CO2 flooding are more economically successful, such as the Petro Nova project in Texas. The Kemper project in Mississippi was recently abandoned due to cost overruns. U.S. companies are involved in CCS projects in China as well. China has a bigger immediate incentive to reduce air pollution than carbon emissions although CCS can do both. CCS deployment beyond the current pilot projects is still largely up in the air. Countries with energy poverty are more concerned with providing cheap energy than with climate mitigation. One issue is that CCS costs so much that it is hardly competitive against wind and solar let alone natural gas. Really, the future of CCS is unknown but it is very likely that it won’t play a major part in climate mitigation due to cost. Wide acceptance of carbon costing could enhance its deployment.
Solar photovoltaics continue to come down in cost but compared to fossil fuels are quite expensive and provide lower amounts of intermittent and unreliable energy. With storage mainly as lithium-ion battery banks solar PV tech is more reliable but the batteries also significantly increase the cost. It is still not close to being competitive although it can be quite useful for niche applications like off-grid capability and microgrid deployment (typically combined with other energy sources) for applications that require uninterrupted power. As more large (>100 MW) solar power plants get built their capabilities, economics, and long-term prospects can be better evaluated. If solar (and wind) penetration on the electric grids grow there is the issue of overgeneration during sunny (and windy) hours and what to do with the excess energy which adds additional costs either through storing and converting the excess, exporting it, or simply losing it. Thin-film and organic PV are two research trends that may yield better and cheaper solar power at some point in the future but the speed and future effectiveness of solar innovation is still uncertain. The same is true for battery storage and other forms of energy storage.
The authors assert that clean energy and clean energy innovation should be acknowledged as a public good and that responsibility for its development should be shared among nations. Global collaboration is the best way to enhance a public good as history shows. Private-public-philanthropic partnerships are a main way forward. Energy innovation is not cheap and requires society-level funding. Elon Musk collected over $500 million in taxpayer subsidies for the Tesla Model S as well as the technology benefitting from billions invested by governments for EV research over the years. Even fracking and the unlocking of shale gas (and oil) involved initial government research that was invaluable – the Eastern Gas Shales Project and Western Gas Shales Project of the DOE in the 1980’s and further DOE research was instrumental. Thus shale fracking can be seen as a successful public-private partnership that has led to very significant carbon emissions reductions, much cheaper energy, employment, and very significant improvement in air quality. The China-U.S. collaboration on nuclear plants in China with salt-cooled reactors is also a very important partnership with climate mitigating possibilities. Philanthropic input can be referenced to the Green Revolution in agriculture where much of it was funded by research through the Rockefeller and Ford foundations. These days the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is highly invested in energy innovation as well as innovation to develop solutions for many human problems. Philanthropic input transcends geographic boundaries and works on long timelines.
Adaptation is the last of the three focuses. The authors believe we have largely neglected to focus on adaptation to events precipitated and influenced by climate change. I think one problem specific to the U.S. is that adaptation is often depicted strictly as adaptation to climate change rather than adaptation to extreme weather and climatic events regardless of cause. This is problematic here because climate change is a politically polarized subject. I think the focus should be on disaster preparation without reference to the causes and influences. A recent case in point is Hurricane Harvey. Legislatures in the state of Texas had introduced bills to better prepare Houston and other Texas Gulf coastal areas for extreme weather events but they were voted down, likely since they were worded as climate change preparedness rather than disaster preparedness. Since it seems unlikely that we will be able to significantly prevent some serious effects of climate change it also seems important that we begin to focus more on adaptation to specific events that might occur. Thus far, they say, we have over-focused policy on mitigation and neglected adaptation. Neglecting to prepare is seldom a good idea in hindsight. Realistically it is difficult to determine how much of any specific event is attributable to man-made climate change, natural climate change, or weather cycles. People have been dying in hurricanes and extreme weather events long before the industrial age.
The authors state that the international framework on climate adaptation is in disarray because the framework on climate mitigation is in disarray but this need not be so. The goal should be to reduce deaths and injuries due to natural disasters. There are many needs and opportunities to do this in known vulnerable areas. This can happen in many ways: land and resource management, urban planning, hazard insurance, building codes, evacuation planning, and recovery planning.
“Losses caused by disasters are the result of three factors: hazards, exposure, and vulnerability.”
Hazards are events like flooding, wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, or hurricanes. Exposure is acknowledgement that much of the global population lives in low-lying coastal areas vulnerable to flooding, storm surges, and tropical storms. Vulnerability takes preparedness into account. If people living in exposed areas are prepared then they are less vulnerable. Poor people are often more vulnerable as are those living in energy poverty. Decreasing vulnerability to hazards should be much prioritized over climate mitigation simply because it directly saves lives in the near-term. Climate mitigation would have been most effective if it was implemented in the 1980’s but then the uncertainties about global warming were much more than today so it would have been disastrous in terms of slowing the alleviation of poverty due to lack of development and subsequent energy access. According to climate scientists we are now stuck with some effects of climate change already “in the pipeline” as the global climate systems adapt to temperature increases on the scale of decades and centuries. It is true that the risks to the future are still uncertain, that avoiding mitigation now could make things much worse. However, that is not known for sure. We do know that reducing vulnerability saves lives and so that focus should come first. Mitigating carbon emissions now does not affect current vulnerabilities but rather future vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability reduction can also be stated as increasing climate resilience. The IPCC definition of climate resilience is the ‘ability of coupled human and natural systems and their constituent parts’ “to anticipate, absorb, accommodate, or recover from the effects of a hazardous event in a timely and efficient manner.”
Examples of effective adaptation strategies are given. One is Nepal’s strategy to alleviate hunger and increase food security. Farmers, breeders, NGO’s, organizations, and government are the collaborators. However, I have heard of totally ineffective recovery in Nepal from the 2015 earthquake partly due to incompetence and corruption. The agricultural initiative and collaboration however is deemed here to have been largely successful with appropriate technologies put in place to prevent future problems with food security. Increasing food security can also be seen as a kind of climate adaptation that increases resilience.
The next example is the one most associated with climate adaptation: flood mitigation engineering in the Netherlands. With an extensive system of dams, dikes, spillovers, and gates the Dutch have been heading off centuries long sea level rise and land subsidence for a long time and have proven that it indeed can be done and done well. They have dealt with the hazard. They also need to continue to keep exposure and vulnerability down through smart land-use and economic policies. This should be seen as a model for long-term disaster preparedness. The Dutch have been working on this collectively since at least the 13th century.
The next example is for cyclone preparedness in India. In October 1999 Cyclone 05B made landfall in northeast India killing 10,000 people. Preparation was minimal. In 2013 Cyclone Phailin hit the same province further south with similar winds and surges but only 44 people were killed. The difference is that after Cyclone 05B India embarked on a preparation strategy that included warning systems, shelters, evacuation plans, and temporary housing. Thus, resilience has been significantly increased. This has been true for other Southeast Asian countries as well. Tsunami preparedness has also been improved since the December 2004 tsunami that killed hundreds of thousands.
The authors argue that socio-economic development leads to decreased vulnerability to climate disaster among the poor. Effective democratic government is also helpful.
80% of households in sub-Saharan Africa use charcoal for heating and cooking indoors. This is appalling. Areas around cities have been deforested to make charcoal. This increases soil erosion which in turn makes agriculture more difficult. Risks for landslides are increased by local deforestation and erosion. This was likely a factor in the recent deadly landslide in Sierra Leone that killed over 400 people. Deforestation also reduces carbon uptake by the land. Sub-Saharan Africa needs modern levels of energy and energy services to improve quality of life. It will also increase socio-economic opportunity for those in a poor part of the world with currently low opportunity for advancement. It will also likely increase agricultural yields in areas of food scarcity due to more energy available to run agricultural equipment and irrigation systems.
Heat waves also tend to disproportionately kill vulnerable people such as the elderly and the poor. Access to air conditioning and transportation can help. This was the case during the 1995 heat wave in Chicago that killed 739 people. Both healthy social and economic conditions help decrease vulnerability to heat waves, wildfires, floods, droughts, storms, and other natural disasters. Better social and economic conditions are often correlated to better energy access and energy modernization. More energy = more adaptive capacity. Better resilience can also feed back to further economic (and social) development. One simple example of this is the clear connection/correlation between more air conditioning availability and more labor productivity. People suffering less discomforts are generally more productive. Thus, human development is synergistic with climate adaptation and is arguably the best climate adaptation strategy.
Effective adaptation can also show the power of collaboration in improving the quality of life and the effectiveness of governments, institutions, and businesses. An improved sense of security is another plus. Adaptation and increased resilience should be built in to development initiatives. By adapting to potential events and increasing resilience we are not only preparing for climate change but preparing for any natural disaster no matter the main or secondary causes. The pragmatic imperative is that preparedness and increased resilience trumps emissions mitigation as a priority. Mitigation seeks to avert catastrophe but no one knows whether or how or when catastrophe will be averted. Adaptation assures that if catastrophe visits in the form of extreme weather events either at historical levels or at levels enhanced by climate change then people will be prepared. Economically, disaster preparedness also saves money as losses are reduced so in that sense it can also be seen as an investment that results at least in palpable damage reduction. For near-term costs we can manifest near-term protection.
We have always adapted and continue to do so. They give some examples: food preservation, using materials like aluminum that resist environmental degradation, satellites for more accurate weather prediction, antifreeze for keeping our engines running, vaccines, insurance, forest management, etc. etc. – it is a vast list and we humans have long been adapters. The evidence is clear that by adapting we can reduce unnecessary deaths and property damage.