Posted by Jeff Condon on April 29, 2010
My least favorite aspect of AGW is the political one, however, Tom is completely fearless, imagine if Real Climate gave me an opportunity to guest post on the politics of global warming.
The odds are exactly equal to rolling 23,000 sixes in a row. Be nice.
Roger Pielke stepped into a hornet’s nest here a few days back. I think one of the reasons is the name he chose for his intended solution, ‘decarbonisation,’ has a bad ring to it in some quarters, and one of those quarters is headquartered here at The Air Vent.
I believe that global warming is real and that we should do something about it. But I don’t believe the consensus that it is going to be catastrophic and that we need to completely reorganise every aspect of our lives to face it.
So I’m caught in the middle between skeptics like Viscount Monckton who think nothing at all needs to be done (slight exaggeration) and Al Gore, who thinks that a massive Cap and Trade program is a good beginning.
Roger Pielke and his unfortunately named solution actually offer me a convenient place to park. So let’s call it decaramelisation instead of decarbonisation and discuss.
It really is the simplest and most straightforward of concepts, and could easily be titled ‘Let’s Get More Bang for the Buck.’ What it refers to is increasing the energy intensity of the economy by producing more units of GDP for each unit of energy consumed. As there are more ways to skin this cat, it gives us more options. As it looks at processes rather than mythical targets, it allows us to set benchmarks that are achievable and refer to real-world systems, rather than airy pronouncements that we must reduce our CO2 emissions by 20% below 1990 totals.
One of the most convenient things about this approach is that we’re already on the right track. We are already getting more bang for our buck. Our total energy usage has leveled off since 1995, and our per capita consumption of energy has declined markedly, from 357 billion BTUs per person to 326 bbtu today. Recession has reduced demand to the point that our total energy use has dropped for the past two years, although nobody wants the same reason to drive further declines. We’ve done so well that the Department of Energy last month released a new forecast showing a steeper decline in energy intensity over the next 20 years.
Taking it to the absurd extreme, if one wooden match could power our entire economy we wouldn’t be polluting much or emitting very much CO2 at all. Moving in that direction will take us further than Cap and Trade. That’s the logic. And it’s individuals and businesses that will make the decisions on what moves are best.
Our use of energy has become more efficient for two hundred years–about 1% each and every year since we were burning wood as our primary energy source. What Roger Pielke wants is to give a boost to the innovations that make us more efficient in the hopes of having a surge in efficiency–he thinks we need to have a fair period of about 2.5% to 4% per year to make a difference in climate change. The good news is that the innovations we come up with are fairly marketable–even if China does the grunt work of stamping out solar panels, American intellectual property does generate a lot of income, from Hollywood movies to IPhone apps. Also from licensing of patents for green energy.
Another advantage of Pielke’s approach is that conservation is just as relevant to achieving the final goal as improved generation. The U.S. Department of Energy has calculated that all of the estimated increase in American use of energy over the next 20 years (they think we’ll rise from 101 quads today to about 114 quads by 2030, mostly related to population growth), could actually be contained in the expected HVAC requirements for new commercial buildings. As between 30% and 50% of energy use in commercial and residential buildings is wasted, we could really bend the curve down doing things we know how to do right now.
There’s a ‘green building’ certification scheme put out by LEEDS, but I’ve seen a study that indicates that the difference between certificate holders’ use of energy is dramatic–just establishing a best practice benchmark and telling people to achieve that would be very big.
Another scheme that would be useful is making small scale investment in green technology less painful, by loaning homeowners money for things like ground source heat pumps at low interest, and having payments tacked on to their utility bills. We’re doing similar things on a piecemeal basis in various states for solar power–what we need is to make them more widely available.
None of this sounds radical, does it? This is Jimmy Carter stuff, not Mao Tse Tung. If you think that Cap and Trade has too much pork and too many exceptions, but you also think that we need to do something about CO2 emissions (and energy independence and conventional pollution), Pielke’s idea is just common sense.
The difference between his idea and conventional talk about small savings is that he tries to show it at a national and international scale that can be discussed as a policy option for addressing a world problem.
Readers here who reacted strongly to discussion of this would not be physically or mentally harmed if they read a bit more of his approach to this issue. I give you my word on that. Reading about an alternative to Al Gore and James Hansen is not a bad thing–it may stimulate ideas of your own, and at least it is nice to know that people are discussing such alternatives.
Besides, I hate caramel.