Friday, January 1, 2010

New Year's resolution - it's about renewables, not carbon

My New Year's resolution is going to be pretty easy for me: stop stressing carbon. It will be especially easy for me because I do not think the emphasis should be on carbon emissions anyway, and I was not interested in the recent conference in Copenhagen at all.

Basically, I believe we need to ramp up renewables, and doing so would reduce carbon emissions anyway, so if you want lower carbon emissions, you would get what you want. The opposite is unfortunately not true: reducing carbon emissions does not necessarily mean increasing renewables. We can lower carbon emissions by a number of other ways:

  • Nuclear power
  • Carbon capture and storage (at least, if the technology ever works)
  • A whole slew of trading mechanisms involving carbon offsets, carbon sinks, and a lot of other things that will require a tremendous amount of monitoring, oversight, and penalties

Michael Hoexter does a pretty good job of pointing out how all of this carbon trading business is going to be a bureaucratic mess (I wonder how we can even measure carbon emissions today), so I won't go into all of that here. Suffice it to say that carbon trading came about because so many people believe that the market will come up with the best (by which "cheapest" is always meant) solution if left alone. The fact that the perfect market does not exist -- no market is perfectly transparent to begin with -- is rarely mentioned. If so many of us did not see the subprime crisis coming because we did not understand the bank products we had purchased, why do we think that markets work so well? And why do we think that the figures that the US and China will report on carbon emissions will be in any way reliable? (Are they reliable today?)

The issue of monitoring emissions has fortunately moved into the foreground recently, with the focus in English of course on whether China would allow international monitors to audit its published figures -- as though Americans would not game the system, when actually gaming the system is the first thing Americans would try to do (cf. Enron, the current banking crisis, Madoff, S&L from two decades ago, etc.).

I know a way to lower emissions without any kind of monitoring or penalties. And it even entails less governmental involvement than current US/UK policy (PDF), which, while claiming to be "market-based" actually involves approval procedures -- and your project can also be rejected.

The policy I am talking about would lower carbon emissions by switching to renewable energy. You would not need to monitor anything, and there would be no penalties because you would blow past all your targets anyway, instead of failing to reach them.

Granted, there is very little paperwork to be done, so bankers and lawyers will not make a lot of money in the process. We should therefore not expect to see a lot of these people interested in this policy, aside from the basic fact that the policy I am talking about creates investment security (PDF from Deutsche Bank), unlike fluctuating prices on some exchange.

The policy I am talking about is feed-in tariffs.

Twenty years from now, the next generation of political leaders would not have much to talk about when they meet, so they just might forgo another Copenhagen/Kyoto. After all, there would be no need to talk about failure to comply; the focus would instead be on preventing the market from overheating (= renewables growing too fast). And since there is no renewable fuel source to fill up our airplanes with, flying will become prohibitively expensive even if we continue to exempt kerosene from fuel taxation. So this next generation of leaders just might choose to do what they did this time around: convene via the web, such as in Google Wave.

Politicians might then not be able to fly around the world as much to meetings whose pointlessness overshadows their importance. But that would also lower emissions. (Keep in mind that claims about a further increases in carbon emissions are based on the notion that we will actually be able to increase our consumption of oil and coal. My money is on oil production dropping over the next 20 years, though I am not sure about future coal production rates. But the point is that emissions of do in fact drop, even without any carbon trading, when we run out of fossil energy.)

Which leaves us with nuclear. So if you want nuclear power in the future, remember that renewables are intermittent, and we will therefore increasingly need power plants that can be switched on and off quickly, which nuclear plants cannot. And if you still want nuclear, please send me your address so we can put some of these "dry casks" in your driveway.

And if you'll handle the nuclear waste, in return I'll be happy to have solar panels on my roof and windmills on a nearby hill in plain sight, thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Craig

    I was so excited I screwed up the quote from Patton. I should have said: "Morris you magnificent basterd, I read your book"

    You are correct as to carbon being a distraction. I believe we need to focus on the Sun as much as possible. The carbon offsets will come along naturally. I would also argue that nuclear power can be ignored for the most part. Brain drain has decimated the nuclear ranks and their long dreamed for renaissance is stillborn. The nuclear cashews have been barking about AGW/Carbon for a long time now and it hasn't gotten them anywhere. Let them have this bone and leave them to it.

    Happy New Year