By Eduardo Porter, The New York Times, June 23, 2015
Is the American approach to combating climate change going off the rails?
Last year, President Obama set a goal of reducing carbon emissions by as much as 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, only 10 years from now.
Now, environmental experts are suggesting that some parts of the strategy are, at best, a waste of money and time. At worst, they are setting the United States in the wrong direction entirely.
That is the view of some of the world’s top environmental organizations, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club. On Tuesday, they argued in a letter to the White House that allowing the burning of biomass to help reduce consumption of fossil fuels in the nation’s power plants, as proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, would violate the Clean Air Act.
It’s also the view of economists from the University of Chicago and the University of California, Berkeley, who on Tuesday released the disappointing results of a field test of the federal Weatherization Assistance Program, the government’s largest effort to improve residential energy efficiency.
It turns out that burning biomass — wood, mainly — for power produces 50 percent more CO2 than burning coal. And even if new forest growth were to eventually suck all of it out of the atmosphere, it would take decades — perhaps more than a century — to make up the difference and break even with coal.
One study commissioned by the state of Massachusetts concluded that the climate impacts of burning wood were worse than those for coal for 45 years, and worse than for natural gas for about 90 years. Humans do not have that kind of time.
The energy efficiency push has a different problem: It is much too expensive. The weatherization improvements cost more than twice as much as households’ energy savings. Even after including the broad social benefits from less pollution, it was still a bad deal. Indeed, the program spent $329 per ton of CO2 it kept out of the air, some eight times as much as the administration’s estimate of the social cost of damages caused by carbon.
These are not small setbacks. Most of the scenarios that keep the rise in global temperatures under a 2 degree Celsius ceiling, the point at which scientists fear the risk of climate upheaval rises significantly, rely heavily on bioenergy, including biomass for power generation and other biofuels, which face similar problems . Coupled with carbon capture and storage systems, they are wishfully expected to deliver “negative emissions” in the second half of this century.
Efficiency gains are also critical. The Obama administration’s plan for the electricity generating industry has not been completed yet. But the E.P.A.’s original proposal estimated that energy efficiency would account for almost one-fifth of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector.
There is plenty of opportunity on the efficiency front, according to Amory B. Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, one of the nation’s most prominent energy experts. He says improvements in energy efficiency have the capacity to take the United States economy almost two-thirds of the way toward phasing out oil, coal and nuclear power by 2050.
The International Energy Agency also relies on energy efficiency gains to deliver almost half of the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 in its projected policy scenarios.
Mr. Lovins, a longtime advocate of investment in energy efficiency, argues that such targets are easily achievable. “There is a lot of cheap efficiency to be bought out there,” he told me.
But forecasts like his must contend with the fact that worldwide improvements in energy efficiency are slowing. While there may be great investment opportunities, residential retrofits do not seem to fit the bill.
What this evidence suggests is that climate change strategies too often lack strong analytical foundations, and are driven more by hope than science. Policy makers would be making a mistake to proceed as if their favored methods are working, when the data shows they aren’t.
The task of replacing the world’s entire energy system within the next few decades requires experimenting intensely along many technological avenues, learning quickly from failures and moving on. Yet too often the goal of bringing the world’s carbon emissions under control is put at the service of other agendas, ideological or economic, limiting the world’s options.
Driven by the imperative to find ways to decarbonize the human footprint — yet unwilling to consider potentially fruitful strategies, such as nuclear energy or genetically modified agriculture — many policy makers and environmental advocates have hung their hopes on implausible forecasts for their favored tools, like energy efficiency, or implicitly assumed that much of the world will get by without energy.
This was eloquently illustrated in Pope Francis’s environmental encyclical “Laudato Si’” released last week, in which he made a forceful call to combat climate change and at the same time condemned technology and market mechanisms like carbon trading.
The pope sees in climate change an opportunity to reform humanity’s ways. So he called on the world to address the challenge by tempering overconsumption. In so doing, however, his encyclical deprived people of the tools humanity will need to prevent climatic upheaval.
“We need to look at it as a program of carbon management, not of reforming society,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.
Michael Greenstone, who runs the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and was one of the authors of the energy efficiency study, puts that in practical terms. “There is a limited appetite to devote resources to mitigating carbon emissions, so we should aim to pursue the least expensive ones,” he said. “There is a risk that we do a bunch of policies that make us feel better about ourselves but do not hit the climate target directly.”
We are losing time in many ways. Investment in carbon capture and storage technologies is virtually nonexistent. Nuclear energy, the only proven technology to have produced zero-carbon energy at a large scale, has been pushed off the menu in many countries.
“People are taking things off the table that historically have worked, and only putting things on the table that are untried,” Mr. Cohen said.
He welcomes investment in newfangled renewable energy, but argues for much more experimentation with nuclear power, too. Powering an entire grid with the wind and sun, he notes, requires building generation capacity to satisfy peak demand many times over, to keep the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun is down. Or it requires a fossil-fuel-based backup grid with the capacity to satisfy 100 percent of peak demand.
The biomass industry, meanwhile, is in full throttle. Angus King, the independent senator from biomass-rich Maine, has even proposed a bill in Congress that would direct the E.P.A. to assume that forest biomass emissions do not increase CO2 accumulation as long as forest stocks are not decreasing. The same concept has showed up in a rider to the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies appropriations bill moving through the House and Senate.
Mary Booth, an expert on bioenergy who heads the Partnership for Policy Integrity, said that was like legislating that the sea level cannot rise more than eight inches.
The King Canute strategy cannot protect us and our children from climate change. We need experimentation that will deliver genuine breakthroughs. And that requires putting wishful thinking and phobias aside and letting science guide the way.