State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Before Paris, Cause for Optimism

Solar and wind power are on the rise, but they will need better storage technology to make a big enough dent in our use of fossil fuels. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Solar and wind power are on the rise, but they will need better storage technology to make a big enough dent in our use of fossil fuels. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There is a lot more reason for optimism about the Paris climate talks than there was before Copenhagen in 2009. In particular, this time around, President Obama has taken clear steps to reduce U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases, mainly via executive action in the face of an intransigent Congress. Perhaps as important was the president’s recent cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, which was a largely symbolic move, but drew public attention to the issue of “stranded assets.” Why should fossil fuel companies continue to explore for more oil and gas, and produce fuel from increasingly low-grade reservoirs, using technically difficult methods, when identified reserves are already larger than any safe limit on total emissions?

COP21_ad1This said, the commitments made by various nations in advance of the Paris meeting are far too small to effectively curb increasing atmospheric CO2, as articulated by Steve Koonin in a New York Times op-ed a week ago, for example. There are two ways of looking at this. The first is Koonin’s: “The flood is coming, start building your ark.” No doubt he is right, to some degree. It seems probable that growth of fossil fuel emissions will continue, and atmospheric CO2 will exceed 600 ppm by mid-century. At that point, many expensive adaptations to climate change will already be underway. Also, the negative consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation may be clear enough to warrant implementation of a palette of methods for carbon-dioxide removal from air. (Interested readers should refer to the National Research Council report on this topic). Alternatively, we will be stuck with high greenhouse gas concentrations and continued warming for centuries to come.

Another perspective is that in Paris the international community will commit themselves to taking effective action designed to curb emissions and avoid warming beyond 2° C. Having made this commitment, together with some first steps, they may return in future years to amend their specific regulations, in order to succeed in their agreed goal. This is essentially what happened with regard to regulating CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) emissions in order to preserve the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer. The first international treaty, The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, committed nations to effective action. But the specific regulations in that treaty were insufficient for success. Because a commitment had been made, however, subsequent revisions were relatively easy to implement, and ultimately success was—more or less—achieved.

Peter Kelemen is the Arthur D. Storke Professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Photo: Sara Keleman
Peter Kelemen is the Arthur D. Storke Professor and chair of the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University. Photo: Sara Kelemen

Finally, it is just possible that Paris is less important than it seems. The dramatic fall in price for electrical generation using solar photovoltaic (PV) technology has been accompanied by 35 percent annual growth of PV capacity in this century, with wind power capacity growing in parallel at more than 25 percent per year. This is, in part, a success story for tax breaks and other incentives that have driven rapid growth, which in turn reduced the unit costs.

Conventional wisdom is that this rapid pace will soon diminish. When wind and solar electrical generation exceed a few tens of percent of the total, energy storage methods will become essential, to account for the temporally intermittent, spatially disbursed nature of renewable power generation. In turn, energy storage technology is improving very slowly, so most people think that a storage bottleneck will persist past 2050.

However, perhaps this conventional wisdom is wrong. If the international community were to fully understand the threat of climate change, and the likely cost of mitigation and adaptation, perhaps we would commit to continued tax breaks and incentives, and propel the renewable energy transition toward completion. In the long run, I am sure this would be less expensive than coping with the consequences of growth in greenhouse gas emissions through 2050. The energy industry can be incredibly nimble, as recently exemplified by 35 percent annual growth in fracked oil production in North Dakota. If solar PV and wind, including storage, were to become truly cost-competitive at the utility scale, there is no doubt that renewable capacity would continue to double every few years.

Finally, one more thought. The energy transition, and/or mitigation of CO2 emissions, will surely be expensive. However, it is not clear to me why this is considered to be a drain on the economy. We already spend plenty of money taking care of waste products, via sewage treatment and garbage disposal. It seems to me that large-scale replacement of energy infrastructure, or carbon dioxide removal from air, like the recent replacement of communications and data storage infrastructure, will serve to create jobs and economic growth. Of course, such processes will involve a net transfer of resources to some groups, away from others. Perhaps that is the main impediment to progress.

You can listen to Kelemen talk about subsurface capture and storage of carbon dioxide, one of the possible solutions for dealing with climate change, in a podcast on the site “How Do We Fix It?”

This post is one in a series reflecting on what has changed since the climate talks of 2009 in Copenhagen. Keleman was among those writing for State of the Planet about the Copenhagen talks in 2009. Here is an excerpt from his comments in 2009 (the full text is here):

… Somehow, some people have come to believe that if a single study suggesting human-induced climate change is incorrect, the entire scientific basis for the hypothesis is invalidated. A corollary, implicitly adopted by some “believers” and “skeptics” alike, is that predictions of warming due to human CO2 emissions must be almost certain in order to justify major efforts to reduce CO2 output.

… Nevertheless, everyone involved needs to embrace the idea that all scientists are skeptics; that all scientific theories are open to doubt; and in particular that future projections of climate change are subject to considerable uncertainty. Furthermore, the economic and environmental impacts of warming are also uncertain, as are the costs of CO2 mitigation. When scientists hide these uncertainties, or simply don’t discuss them, they lose credibility.

… Does this mean that no political action should be taken until scientific uncertainties are resolved? Of course not. … atmospheric CO2 concentration continues to rise, more rapidly and to higher values than recorded in gas trapped in glacial ice over the past 500,000 years. This is mainly due to use of fossil fuels, and it is pushing us further and further into uncharted territory. Though there are many other factors that influence global climate, there is no doubt that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. And, in addition to the threat of climate change, there are ample reasons to conserve energy and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. The longer we delay, the higher will be the cost of limiting CO2 in the atmosphere. The cost may be high now, but it will only get higher in the future.

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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