The Urgency For Innovation

Innovation is an interesting word. It means introducing something new or different. Depending on what side of the political line you live on, innovation will most likely mean something drastically different than on the other side of the line.

To some, innovation means unconventional gas, tar sands, oil shale. These people most likely believe global warming is a myth, and may even be under the impression that Obama is pushing a “phony theology” on the American people.

On the other hand, innovation means finding new sources of clean, sustainable forms of energy. This group is most likely concerned with maintaining finite resources and keeping atmospheric greenhouse gas levels at bay.

Of course, depending on what side you’re standing on, the other seems to be in the wrong, but in either case the word “innovation” is becoming a source of contention. At present one innovation Obama is being assaulted over is research on algae-based biofuels.

Algae-based biofuels are like any other biofuel whose energy is made from biological carbon fixation. Unlike some biofuels, like bioethanol, which needs a lot of prime land space, algal fuels grow quickly and thrive in any type of water from seawater to sewage. A recent study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reports that the use of algal-biofuels could replace as much as 17% of U.S. oil imports. With exorbitantly high oil prices and energy security looming, it seems the natural progression of innovation is to invest money into researching the plausibility of algal fuels. Unfortunately, now Republican’s are launching an attack on this “goofy gas”, touting Obama’s $14 million offer towards “weird” algal fuel research.

While the cost of renewable energy (wind, solar, biofuels) is dropping, the technology to improve extraction of fossil fuels is improving. Now, instead of retiring oil fields or strip mined mountains, we’re able to suck every last drop of oil from the ground and dig for every last kernel of coal. Necessity fuels innovation. And right now the urgency to make a drastic shift to a non-fossil fuel based society doesn’t exist.

Even if there was urgency to switch from conventional sources of oil to renewables, supplies of tar sands still exist and are considered innovative enough to some, leaving clean energy pushed to the side once more. The fact the clean energy isn’t being associated with the need to deter the impacts of climate change–not to mention that climate change isn’t being mentioned at all–isn’t putting enough weight on how important clean, renewable energy is to our future.

In the past, necessity has spurred innovation. Right now we’re not forced to come up with an energy source on the fly, but at the same time that seems to be deminishing research of potential [innovative] fuel sources outside of fossil fuels. Somehow, we need to create an urgency to switch from fossil fuels to renewable resources, investing money into all sources, no matter how “weird” they may be.

Keystone XL: The Cockroach Who Refused to Die

The unrelenting pipeline project that aims to transport more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf is at it again. When TransCanada was told in January the project was being turned down, what do they do? They make plans to build the southern half of the pipeline while they “work out” a new route for the northern half which was slated to go through ecologically sensitive areas in Nebraska. The strangest part of all of this, is that TransCanada doesn’t need approval from the State Department, and even if they did, the Obama Administration has decided to back the idea.

The Southern half of the pipeline will divert tar sands from Oklahoma to Texas. It’s not technically the Keystone XL pipeline but will still provide the same service to oil companies that Keystone would.

Controversy around the Keystone pipeline stems from many avenues from potential oil spills to indigenous issues, but for most people their primary issue is climate change. Tar sands are more carbon intensive than mining conventional sources of oil, emitting between 5-15 percent more greenhouse gases. As Climatologist, James Hansen has stated, “it is essentially game over” for climate if tar sands are exploited along side coal reserves.

Obama took a lot of heat on his initial decision to reject pipeline construction from his rival presidential candidates. Rick Santorum claims going through with pipeline construction will lower gas prices. While Newt Gingrich has been swearing up and down that Obama’s playing favorites with “environmental extremists” instead of spending time lowering gas prices.

Other advocates of the pipeline argue the benefits of importing from our friendly neighbors to the North instead of the Middle East. Another benefit they claim, the creation of jobs–which has been a matter of intense debate as the numbers have ranged from 5,000-20,000–would mostly only be temporary positions. My own personal favorite argument (noted above by pipeline proponents Santorum and Newt) in favor of the pipeline is that it will lower gas prices. The fact is that once the oil from Canada reaches the Texas Gulf it will not be be pumped around the U.S. for domestic oil use. It will enter the global oil market from Texas refineries and is very likely to be shipped overseas. It will raise gas prices as much as 20 cents per gallon. It’s the same scenario with the “half-pipe” from Oklahoma to the Gulf: we’re looking at a rise in gas prices while remaining vulnerable to price spikes.

While people argue that the purpose of Keystone pipeline and the “half-pipe” is to lower gas prices for the American people, TransCanada’s plans don’t mesh. The construction of the pipeline will subject the U.S to increased costs of heavy Canadian crude oil. Philip Verleger, founder of PK Verleger LLC (an energy consulting firm) told Bloomberg, “The Canadian plan was to use their market power to raise prices in the U.S. and get more money from consumers”.

It’s a little disconcerting the “half-pipe” is moving forward in that there is little stopping the entire Keystone XL project from taking over the Midwest which would be harmful not only to gas prices, but that pesky thing we call Climate Change. There should be no “half-pipe”, no whole-pipe. We need to start making a concerted effort to get away from an oil based society instead of crawling back to the same fossil fuel burning, environment polluting energy sources.

Keystone is like a cockroach. They’re difficult to kill, but it’s definitely not impossible.

A Climate Change Deal That Leaves Out CO2??

Leave it to the U.S. to come up with a climate change agreement that doesn’t aim to reduce CO2 emissions which the majority of climate pollution comes from.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton introduced this multinational partnership between the U.S. and several other countries aiming to reduce emissions from “short-lived climate pollutants”.

Short-lived climate pollutants refer to pollutants that don’t remain in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide (which likes to hang around up there for about 100 years) and in this case include methane, black carbon (soot), and hydroflurocarbons (used in refrigerants). Though pollutants like methane remain in the atmosphere for less time (12 years), they have about 25 times more warming potential than carbon dioxide. Hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) have a much shorter life in the atmosphere, but are hundreds of times more potent than carbon dioxide, making these important pollutants to decrease the emissions of.

According to recently published research in Science, reducing emissions from short-lived pollution has the potential to decrease warming .5 degrees Celsius by 2050. This may sound like an insignificant decimal, but considering that the goal is to stabilize temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.

Though this agreement is a step in the right direction, it has its flaws. Methane isn’t the talk of the town. It doesn’t pose any immediate benefits to capture it or reduce emissions. Unfortunately, one major cause of methane emissions comes from fugitive methane escaping from natural gas wells. I can guarantee that natural gas companies will balk until the cows come home about initiatives that keep fugitive methane from escaping as it will increase their costs.

It is also important to realize that by concentrating on these short lived pollutants, we aren’t addressing one of the main culprits of climate change: carbon dioxide.

The U.S. is doing very little to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It’s smart to implement practices that will decrease greenhouse gases across the board, but our primary responsibility should be cutting carbon dioxide. It seems like everyone except the U.S. is doing everything they can to decrease their carbon emissions…well not Canada…or China…okay maybe not everyone…but Scotland’s government is throwing money at any and every renewable energy option to try to go 100% renewable. Europe is at least looking to decarbonize the economy. All the while the U.S. is still hanging onto things like the Keystone XL pipeline.

This new climate change partnership will be a good step to decrease emissions, but is drawing some concerns that it’s not going to be enough.

Energy Efficiency, the Rebound Effect, and Climate Policy

You would think that if you needed less energy, you would use less energy. Oddly enough this isn’t the case. In a recent series of articles in Grist, author David delves into the idea of the rebound effect, how it effects energy efficiency, and the implications of these in terms of Climate policy.

It takes energy to make energy for the services we use. Energy efficiency refers to the use of technological innovations that give us the same level of energy service using less primary energy.

Energy efficiency is also less expensive–you can pocket the money saved from getting a more fuel efficient car, investing in solar–what have you. But what do you do with the money you save? If you buy an energy efficient car you may respond to the decreased costs by increasing your demand for that particular service; meaning, you might actually end up buying more  gas because you’re driving more. This is called the direct rebound effect.

On the other hand, you might choose to indulge yourself with the purchase of a new phone or a tablet or something you’ve always wanted but haven’t been able to get. But it takes energy to manufacture the item of your deepest desire, so though you might be driving less, your total energy use will increase–this is called indirect rebound effect.

If the economy as a whole is more energy efficient, it will decrease the cost of energy, which means faster growth. But growth is almost always accompanied by more energy use which overshadows the energy savings made by efficiency.

But we’re banking on energy efficiency.  Models to decrease climate pollution and greenhouse gas emissions 50% (and in some cases more) is due to energy efficiency–but these models are not factoring in the rebound effect. Policy projections could be anticipating energy efficiency savings at 30% by 2030, but including the rebound effect that number might be as low as 15% efficiency.

Unfortunately, the rebound effect is difficult to quantify and based on a variety of factors (the type of energy, socioeconomic statuses, time, location…other economist metrics I don’t understand), which makes it hard to predict how much the rebound effect will actually be. But it’s important to acknowledge the fact we’re overestimating the amount of efficiency that can be achieved.

Does the rebound effect in any way diminish the validity of energy efficiency? Absolutely not. Energy efficiency stimulates productivity, creates jobs, and decrease pollutants. It just means it is more important than ever to take into account the rebound effect–even if it is just anticipating it and having a backup plan, or “wedge“, that will close the gap.

Even if we found a carbon neutral way to generate energy, it would still take years to implement on a world wide scale. We need to decrease energy consumption to stay within our carbon budget–whether you think that’s 450 ppm or 350 ppm–and we need to do it quickly. Grist reports 6 tactics that need to be implemented to stay in the climate safety zone:

1. Aggressive innovation and deployment of clean energy sources, storage, and smart grids.
2. Aggressive innovation and deployment of energy efficient solutions.
3. Aggressive pricing of climate emissions–increasing the price of dirty energy (coal) to keep energy demand from spiking.
4. Behavioral and economic alterations, especially in developing countries, to increase conservation and stave off materialistic driven growth.
5. Behavioral and economic alterations in developing countries to skip the carbon intensive technologies that are usually found in the beginning stages of development.
6. (My personal favorite) “Any f*ckingthing else we can think of.”

In terms of climate policy, the rebound effect is definitely not good news. It means we’re overestimating the amount of efficiency we can achieve compared to what we’re actually going to get. In reality though, it doesn’t discount the importance of energy efficiency and how large a role it will have in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and shaping climate policy. It does however, show how daunting our task is–even more so than perhaps previously thought–and that we need to stop the masochistic behavior of denying and delaying change.


We Have a Plan! Kind Of.

There’s a lot of buzz regarding the Durban climate change talks. One being that that’s all that occurred: talk.

But don’t worry guys, we made a deal…to make a deal in 2015, but that deal won’t come into effect until 2020. Then there is the quandary of having all nations sign off on said deal. That’s…promising?

Of course there were some countries (cough…China…cough) who wanted just to extend the original Kyoto Protocol which expects developed countries to sharply lower emissions, where as developing nations are exempt. Unfortunately for China, I wouldn’t exactly classify them as a developing country anymore, not to mention the fact that they are the world’s biggest carbon emitter.

Though developing countries are expected to be behind a rise in emissions in the coming decades, they will also be the hardest hit by climate change. According to the Guardian, developing nations have been promised $100bn a year by developed nations until 2020, however no mention of where these funds would be procured was mentioned.

BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India, and China) are at a crossroads: still in the midst of development, and fearing the harm that could come to their economic growth by being forced to adhere to stringent climate regulations. They’re receiving pressure not only from developed countries, but from groups like Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), and Least Developed Countries (LDC) whose futures literally ride on the outcomes of climate change, and the decisions made today in climate talks like Durban. As Karl Hood, chairman of AOSIS, put it, “While they develop, we die; and why should we accept this?”

Though a rise of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) above pre-industrial levels is the agreed, estimated limit before disastrous, and irreversible damage is done by climate change, in actuality the temperature rise is looking more like 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees F).

Even if nations followed through with every proposal, and implemented every action plan, temperature rise will still be around 3.5 degrees Celsius–and we run the extreme risk of triggering a positive feedback loop that would throw any hope of wrangling in the effects of climate change out the window, according to the Climate Action Tracker.

After the Durban climate talks, we have rising emissions, rising temperatures, and developing nations whose fate hangs in the hands of developed, and BASIC countries to make serious strides as far as reducing emissions. Unfortunately, we don’t have serious strides–we have a plan…to implement a plan…in eight years.

Governments are unwilling to take the steps to implement serious change, and instead are viewing climate change as a distant problem, pushing the solutions even more out of reach.

Heat Waves, and Floods, and Droughts, Oh My!

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report concluding that climate change will make heat waves, floods, droughts and other natural disasters not only more common, but more intense, in the coming decades. These impending disasters will (hopefully) force nations to rethink the way they deal with natural disasters not only as they occur, but taking preventative measures that could save lives, money and resources.

The IPPC report notes that on a global scale, frequency and intensity of daily temperature extremes will be seen in the coming century. Meaning that it is very likely the length and virulence of heat waves will also increase. Imagine those historically hot days that come around once every few decades, and visualize them happening once a year.

Though the IPCC report found greenhouse gas emissions from human activities have “likely” caused more extreme heat waves and storm surges, it is less sure about the link between man-made climate change and increased floods as river flood causes are complicated to begin with. It’s no secret, however; global carbon emissions rose a record amount last year.

The IPCC report states it is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation will increase in the coming decades, and though the report doesn’t concretely link man-made climate change with increased floods, I would bet heavier precipitation would lead to increased flooding, especially in low lying areas and areas built in floodplains. Furthermore, a recent study in Nature found that the increased greenhouse gases from human actions are driving heavier rainfall patterns in the high latitudes and tropical regions. Though tropical cyclones may hold steady or even decrease in their frequency, those that do form are likely to be more virulent and mixed with rising sea levels could make for disastrous consequences for low lying island states.

Perhaps the biggest fear with worsening climate predictions might undoubtedly be droughts. With a steadily growing population to feed, 7 billion to be exact, food scarcity might become problematic…to say the least. And with the population expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050, flooding might look trivial compared to millions of starving people.

Of course, critics and skeptics question the IPCC models used to make climate change predictions. But the proof is in the pudding: from Hurricane Katrina, to historic droughts in Moscow and Texas, to rising sea levels swallowing islands whole, I say it doesn’t matter what the skeptics crow. We can see these changes with our naked eyes.

Since anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions aren’t going to disappear overnight, and these climate changes are going to rage along despite our deepest hopes, what can be done?

A preemptive strike is probably our best bet at this time: spending time and money taking action now, instead of waiting til the damage is done. Beef up defenses in vulnerable areas–early warning systems, better land use planning, protecting and restoring buffer areas (like wetlands and marshes), weather proofing infrastructure–and continue taking measurable steps to reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

It would be foolish not to anticipate and act in accordance with the changes we know are coming. Instead of criticizing the IPCC, we should be thankful we even have the opportunity to plan defensive, and preventative strategies, lest we incur worldwide devastation.

Hope Sign