by Joan Harvey
Where will you be in 2045?. . .
All of us right now can testify
Take a stand, radical man, oh
—Prince Rogers Nelson “2045 Radical Man”
Amid all the despair about our future (and there are plenty of reasons to be despairing), it also seems as if finally, maybe, the times they are a changin’. Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, 16, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her work combating global warming. The Green New Deal, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as one of the more outspoken advocates, has the support of more than 80 percent of registered voters, according to a joint Yale and George Mason University survey. Increasingly people recognize that these mega-storms and fires, these terrible cold waves and cyclone bombs, these long droughts and flooded farms are related to global warming. Young people tragically understand that they will have a degraded future unless they act now. From the group of youth suing the U.S. government over their future, to Isra Hirsi, also 16 (daughter of Ilhan Omar), one of the three youth leaders planning the U.S. component of the March 15 International Youth Climate Strike, the world is waking up.
Extreme weather has become the devastating new normal. And everything is accelerating. Just the release of methane and carbon as tundra permafrost melts across Russia, northern Canada, and Alaska can add a couple of degrees to the heating of the globe. Wildfires release carbon and create smoke which traps more heat. Arctic sea ice used to be a shiny white surface that reflected sunshine, but now with ice melt we get a dark surface that absorbs heat. We’ve entered an age of runaway feedback loops. We kick off the loop and nature accelerates it. Ice is melting so fast that the science can’t keep up. We also need to remember that CO2 in the atmosphere stays there, with a half-life of millennia. Meanwhile in 2018, CO2 emissions in the U.S. rose 3.4 percent from the previous year. That is the second largest gain in in the last two decades, and one we can’t afford.
Everyone agrees time is of the essence. In a report released in October, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that if the world is to contain the rise in global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius, carbon emissions must be reduced by about fifty per cent before 2030, and completely phased out before 2050. There’s no time for shilly-shallying. Swift, decisive, smart action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is imperative.
I’m a member of 350.org, Bill McKibben’s project, as I suspect many 3QD readers are.
He’s been enormously influential in getting the word out about climate change. But up until recently, when his tactics have shifted, he has taken the huge political capital he raised and spent it somewhat poorly. 350.org focused on divestment, which is not an effective strategy to reduce carbon emissions. Coal-fired plants don’t shut down because of capital shortage. They shut down because the demand for coal is crushed with efficiency policies, and because renewables are now cheaper than coal. Divestment campaigns feel great and set a moral tone, but they don’t actually function well to change carbon consumption. And we don’t have time for the wrong choices. Unfortunately many of the new idealistic groups forming to fight climate change still don’t recognize that it is imperative to focus on strategies that work.
Many complicated solutions have been offered, but doing a little bit of everything is not going to save the planet. If we’re going to solve this problem on which the future of humanity depends, we need focus. For the layman, the question becomes: Are you a green consumer? Or are you a green citizen? A green consumer may own a Prius, recycle diligently, and worry about plastic straws. A green citizen focuses on policy, and makes sure the people they elect also understand good energy policy. They recognize which policies will actually be able to move us toward zero emissions in the next three decades and push for these.
Energy Innovation, an energy and environmental policy firm, has done a comprehensive analysis of carbon emissions over the globe. From this they have determined what are the most effective strategies needed to actually bring carbon emissions toward zero. Here, then, are the strategies that work.
First, because the largest 20 countries generate 75% of global emissions, the focus must be on them. Next, excluding land and agriculture use, there are four sectors that generate 80% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Unless you are working to drive these four sectors toward zero, you’re not in the game. The four are the electric grid, transportation, buildings, and industry. Without reducing carbon emissions in these areas, eating less meat or getting your university to divest will do almost nothing to solve the problem. Furthermore, in these four sectors there are a few policies that are more effective than others.
1) The grid. The power sector is responsible for about 25% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions today. One important fix is better grid connectivity. Increased transmission and distribution infrastructure can balance out supply and demand and enable a two-way flow of electricity for people with rooftop solar who produce more energy than they need. And, if people in Seattle use electricity in different amounts and at different times from people in San Diego or Arizona, demand can be smoothed out if there is more grid. Instead of two sharp demand curves, there would be two modest-use curves. There are also solutions available that cost almost no money. For example, pre-cooling skyscrapers a degree or two at night means the amount of air-conditioning needed in the day is much less, less energy is required in peak hours, and less load is placed on the grid. Data centers, which are huge energy users, can be located where there is excess energy. There may still be times when natural gas is needed, but those times are minimized.
Renewable portfolio standards set targets for utilities to get a fixed portion of their generation from renewable sources by a certain date. It is important that the focus be on outcomes, not technologies. For example, California state law SB 350 requires that by December 31, 2030, 50 percent of electricity generated and sold to retail customers must be from eligible renewable energy resources. The cost of solar photovoltaic technology has dropped 80% in just over ten years and new technology makes it increasingly efficient. Offshore wind has also dropped in price 50% over the last four years. LEDs have dropped 95% in price over the past four years. These curves show that the technological solutions are increasingly available, and deliberate policy can drive these curves. A move toward zero carbon can happen much more quickly and cheaply than people realize. A better grid is also fantastic for enabling progress in the other three sectors: if everything is electrified and the electricity comes from renewables, we’re on our way.
2) Transportation. We need to electrify transportation where possible. And rapidly. And make charging stations convenient. In terms of public vehicles, it is smart to electrify garbage trucks, buses, and delivery trucks as they run 50 % of the time instead of 5%; this also helps reduce harmful exposure of the public to the carcinogens in diesel exhaust. Unfortunately we also need to be cognizant that the internal combustion engine is not going away. An estimated 2 billion more internal combustion engines will be built and sold worldwide. So, those engines need to be incredibly clean and efficient. Fuel efficiency standards have been the single most important energy policy America has ever adopted, but today we’re not doing well. Sixty-seven percent of vehicles sold in America last year were SUVs or pick-up trucks, 6000-pound trucks carrying around one person who weighs maybe 160 pounds. But, as we’re somewhat pathologically attached to these trucks, they can be made lighter and more aerodynamic. Vehicles can be de-massed, while being both stronger and safer. Low rolling resistance tires can save fuel. There is paint that reduces heat so that the air conditioner is not such a drag on the system. Auxiliaries like fan belts, power steering, and heating can be made electric. People who think it can’t be done should remember the nation’s resistance to airbags and seat belts.
Performance standards for automobiles should set minimum requirements for energy efficiency, renewable energy uptake, or product performance, and these should be technology neutral. Vehicle performance standards that increase yearly allow companies to use whatever technology they choose to regulate the amount of CO2 emitted. Essential in this sector is the idea of continuous improvement at something like 4% a year. A known schedule for vehicle performance standards helps companies plan.
3) Buildings are the third sector that uses huge amounts of energy. But it is possible to build zero net energy buildings. Low-e glass is like clear insulation; it can heat in a cold climate and cool in in a warm climate. Buildings with great insulation, great windows, thermal mass, and the right orientation and overhangs can result in huge improvements in energy. California, which has 16 different climate zones, has the best building codes in the world, with continuous improvement built in.
We can see how this works when we look at how appliances have improved. The energy consumption of refrigerators dropped 80% even as price went down and volume and reliability went up, due to energy efficiency standards for appliances. If policies give manufacturers enough lead time, employ continuous improvement, and liberate them to figure out how to get there, they’ll come through.
Unfortunately as of yet, there isn’t enough momentum to change building codes. Justin Gillis in the New York Times writes:
When the energy codes started, proponents of better buildings made some amazing gains; over the course of two code cycles a decade ago, projected energy use in buildings was cut by more than 30 percent. But the last two times the vote was held, important changes to the model building code were voted down, in some cases by relatively few votes.
It is imperative for green citizens to push their communities to enact better building codes.
4) Manufacturing is the fourth area where there is huge energy use. In some sectors there is a relatively simple solution. Oil and gas extraction leak huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere, which can be prevented mostly by better plumbing. Colorado is one state working to pass a bill that would require oil and gas facilities to install continuous emission monitoring equipment to monitor for hazardous air pollutants and minimize dangerous emissions.
Motors are another big waste of energy, as many currently work with a valve on the pipe, which is like putting a brick on a gas pedal and adjusting the speed with brakes only. Varying the motor’s speed with electronic control is far more efficient than such mechanical throttling. In other areas there are creative ways to save energy as systems are optimized. For example, 3D printers can be used to print the components of houses and bridges, with designs that save huge amounts of concrete.
Because the industrial sector is so heterogeneous, carbon pricing works well. This can be done through a carbon tax, levied directly through a per-unit charge on emissions of CO2. A carbon cap, or cap and trade, indirectly prices carbon through a requirement that large emitters acquire carbon allowances. Pricing carbon has several advantages, including that it is technology neutral and creates incentives across all sectors of the economy.
Governor Jay Inslee of Washington is so far the only presidential candidate running on a platform whose number one focus is combatting climate change. He’s had success with some policies in Washington state: they passed a renewable portfolio standard in 2006, and went from zero to a billion-dollar wind industry in the last several years. Washington ranks third in the nation in electric cars, and has a respectable electrical charging station grid. Inslee talks repeatedly about a silver buckshot rather than a silver bullet approach to climate change, aligning with the dozen or so strategies listed here.
Many young people probably find it more intuitive and better feeling to give up meat and protest pipelines than to go to stuffy meetings to pressure local municipal officials for better building codes. I understand. But there isn’t time to mess around. The platform for Zero Hour, a youth group centered around climate and environmental justice, has a couple of smart goals, followed by things that feel good but that overall are not effective enough to make real change. They’re still focused on divestment, and their Reduce Energy Consumption platform reads in its entirety: “Work together in communities to create solar and wind powered grids. ∙ Urge local elected officials to create affordable mass transit systems and bike lanes in small towns as well as large cities. ∙ Reduce dependency on extractive corporations by only buying what you need. ∙ Share tools, clothes, appliances, housing and cars to help each other. ∙ Create collectives within your community to teach skills such as building, permaculture, plant-based cooking, etc.” There is nothing in its platform about building codes or industry, or working for policy except for bike lanes and mass transit. It is completely wonderful how many committed young people there are, but I hope that there’s also commitment to deeper understanding of what is necessary to actually get to zero.
Hal Harvey of Energy Innovation also stresses that there is a precision form of intervention, one few people pay attention to. Half the carbon in the U.S. economy goes through monopoly pipes and wires, and these are controlled by Public Utilities Commissions in each of the 50 states. Each has five members, so there are 250 individuals who control half the carbon in the country. They operate in a quasi- judicial way, there are public goals they have to meet, and they allow public testimony. If you go to them with an ethical or technical argument, they will listen to you. Furthermore, 20 states are small, so they needn’t have the highest priority, which gets down to 150 people—but you only need a 3-2 vote for a PUC to take a position on a policy. That gets it down to 90 individuals who control close to half the carbon in the economy, and they’re paid to listen to you. This is relatively easy leverage. That matters. But few people are aware of how this works. For another amazing example—of 500 self-interested people who held back building codes, and how we fix that—check out Justin Gillis’s New York Times article. Remember: 40 percent of U.S. energy goes into buildings. Let’s get them right! Gillis’s recipe is precision intervention.
Prince’s 2045 song was mostly about AIDS, which, due to major activism, is no longer the fatal disease it once was. But he was prescient about 2045 — if we don’t drastically reduce our carbon emissions by 2050, the world spins into runaway change. Under Jerry Brown, California (the fifth largest economy in the world) has set the goal of going zero-carbon by 2045. Many experts think this goal is realistic, as the rate of growth of solar energy has already far exceeded projections. We have the technology; we just have to use it intelligently. While I’m often tempted to pessimism, perhaps we can take heart from the progress that activism made with AIDS. Fortunately there are plenty of smart, dedicated, rational people out there determined to save our lives. We need to be sure we have their backs.
Harvey, Hal, Robbie Orvis, and Jeffry Rissman. Designing Climate Solutions. Island Press, 2018.