Sustainable Energy

Avoiding the "C" Words

Politicians and policy experts talk as if climate change can be an afterthought in energy policy. They should think again.

In his State of the Union Address this year, President Obama announced one of his administration’s most significant energy-related policy proposals, one that will have a wide-reaching and long-lasting impact if it becomes law. Together with large increases in energy R&D funding, his plan calls for 80 percent of the electricity in the United States to come from “clean sources” by 2035. After the speech, the White House released documents making it clear that this proposal is aimed at cutting the emission of gases that cause global warming. Yet President Obama didn’t mention carbon dioxide once in his speech. He didn’t say “greenhouse gas” or “climate change.” The closest he came was a passing reference to the need to “protect our planet.”

Confused: Policies to support energy independence often conflict directly with strategies to address climate change. Coal and other fossil fuels, such as shale oil, are obvious examples.

Obama’s rhetorical strategy—of arguing for climate-change policy without mentioning climate change—has become a common one in Washington. Since the defeat in Congress last year of cap-and-trade legislation, which would have set a specific limit on greenhouse-gas emissions, politicians who think climate change is an urgent problem have kept quiet about increasing temperatures, rising sea levels, and impending famines, even as they plan legislation to address these problems. Instead, when they talk about energy at all, they focus on developing “clean energy” to improve American competitiveness and promote energy independence.

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A flurry of recent energy reports from business leaders, policy experts, and think-tank analysts do sometimes mention climate change. But they often lump it together with other goals without saying which get priority, and many prescribe a one-size-fits-all solution: energy innovation. Most notably, “A Business Plan for America’s Energy Future,” from the American Energy Innovation Council, a group of business leaders that includes Bill Gates and GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt, calls for tripling the funding of energy R&D. The claim is that this would have benefits for the economy, national security, and even international diplomacy while addressing several environmental concerns, one of which is global warming.

The approach of talking around climate change, popular though it has become, is deeply flawed. Legislation that takes climate change seriously will look very different from legislation focused on, say, energy independence or job creation. If the legislation doesn’t focus specifically on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, the result could be much too weak to effect changes that climate scientists consider essential for averting disaster. Indeed, some policies designed to meet other worthy goals could actually increase carbon dioxide emissions. “There are a number of ways policy can go wrong if you aren’t explicit about the fact that your objective is reduced greenhouse-gas emissions,” says John Reilly, co-director of the Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change at MIT.

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Promoting energy independence by using more domestic resources can, in many scenarios, increase carbon dioxide emissions. Oil shale is just one example. It has recently been touted as a vast source of hydrocarbons in the United States, one that could supply enough petroleum for about 140 years at today’s rates of consumption. But producing oil this way releases enormous amounts of greenhouse gases, as much as five times more than producing it from conventional wells.

In other cases, the trade-offs aren’t as clear, and it’s especially here that a lack of clearly defined policy goals can wreak havoc. Federal support for biofuels was originally intended to help corn farmers. Massive ethanol subsidies have been continued in part because of arguments that they reduce oil imports and, more recently, greenhouse-­gas emissions. But researchers are finding that corn ethanol—which is often produced using fossil fuels—could actually result in more carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline. Even advanced biofuels, which use sources such as switchgrass and require much less fossil fuel to produce, might be no better than gasoline when the impact of converting land to produce them is taken into account. Increasing our use of domestically produced biofuels can help decrease our reliance on imported oil, but it won’t decrease carbon emissions unless well-considered policies provide incentives to do so. “If reducing global warming is the argument you want to make for biofuels, let’s look again,” says Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

If we are to begin reversing climate change, the reductions in greenhouse gases will have to be very large and accomplished very quickly, at least in the context of an energy industry where power plants last more than 50 years. And even strong advocates for such policies acknowledge that they will be very expensive (see Q&A). The economic justification for taking on this expense is that it will offset the far greater potential costs of global warming.

Could innovation change the economics? If solar power can be made cheaper than electricity from coal, the argument goes, the market will adopt it quickly and at a large scale, just to save money. It will be a win-win situation.

Such a vision, though, may be little more than a fantasy. Today, solar power is several times more expensive than electricity from coal plants, and it’s intermittent, requiring costly storage technologies if it’s to replace coal plants that run night and day. The situation is similar in transportation: batteries for electric vehicles are at least twice as expensive as they would have to be for electric vehicles to compete widely with gasoline-powered ones, and extensive recharging infrastructure is needed if people are to rely on electric cars for long-distance driving. Even if major breakthroughs can be achieved in the lab, it could take decades to commercialize them. Utilities and automakers are reluctant to adopt new technology at a large scale—it could prove unreliable or more expensive than expected. As a result, innovations might not take hold until well after greenhouse gases have reached dangerous levels. Low-carbon power is likely to need a boost from the government if it’s going to defeat fossil fuels, Reilly says: “Without a price on carbon emissions to reflect the climate implications of them, the hope that we’re going to invent our way out of this and never want to go back to fossil fuels seems overly optimistic.”

Stopping climate change will require huge-scale efforts that can’t be justified without talking about the dangers and costs of climate change itself. In the current political environment, some experts argue, it’s a good idea to hold off on serious climate legislation. “I was deeply disappointed in the failure of climate legislation in the last Congress, and that Obama did not push harder for it,” says Jon Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. But, he says, given the global economic crisis and political turmoil in the Middle East, it is understandable that addressing climate change has not been a top priority for many Americans. “Let’s get realistic here,” he says. “Especially right now, I’d argue that fixing the economy and ensuring energy security are more pressing issues.”

This argument may or may not make sense. The impact of greenhouse gases could be significantly smaller, or far larger, than mainstream estimates suggest. What is the right response to this uncertainty? What is the best strategy for dealing with risks that are by nature difficult to estimate? These are controversial issues, and the answers aren’t obvious. Perhaps what’s most insidious about the current strategy of tiptoeing around climate change is that it precludes a national discussion of these crucial questions. Effective climate policy can’t be created without answering them, and to do that, politicians and policy experts need to talk about the dangers, the costs—and, yes, the opportunities.

Kevin Bullis is Technology Review ’s energy editor.

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