In the TÃ¤llberg event we talked a lot about the deal we need, without really defining what was meant by that. I think it has at least four dimensions:
What science drives the goal? Is it 350ppm? 450ppm? 550ppm? 2C?
What regions or sectors will move first, and what transfers will the rich or the winners use to induce the poor or the losers to play along? Do transfers consist of money, intellectual property, or both?
What form will commitments take, who will make them, and how will they be implemented? Will the mechanism favor taxes or trading, for example? Will standards be expressed as intensities or absolute emissions or … ? How will goals and mechanisms adapt as we learn about uncertainties?
We don’t have a deal now because we don’t have the coalition needed to make it happen. Some combination of the public, politicians, media, religion, education, etc. needs to come together to create critical mass behind a policy. We have fragments (the EU, California) but not a whole. I rather doubt that there is a quick, transformative solution (unless catastrophe drives us to one, which I’d rather not contemplate).
I say “critical mass” deliberately, because what we’re all implicitly searching for is a reinforcing feedback that will grow policy out of its current dysfunctional state. The question is, what is that loop? My guess is that it involves starting gradually. Don’t shoot for the moon and fail. Instead, take a little medicine at first. Impose a modest carbon tax. Observe that the economy doesn’t collapse, and efficiency is cheap or even profitable. Greentech gets a little more profitable, and the more numerous low-carbon voters grow to enjoy their tax rebates. Enlisting their support allows the tax to be ratcheted up further, and soon you’re rolling toward real emissions controls. But is the gain on that loop high enough to yield emissions reductions in time to avoid catastrophe?
Jim Hansen kicked off the TÃ¤llberg panel with a succinct summary of the argument for a 350ppm target in Hansen et al. (a short version is here). As I heard it,
- The dangerous level of GHGs in the atmosphere is lower than we thought.
- 3C climate sensitivity from fast feedbacks is confirmed; the risk is slow feedbacks, which are not as slow as we thought.
- There is enough warming in pipeline to lose arctic ice, glaciers, reefs.
- Good news: we need to go back to the stable Holocene climate.
- The problem is solvable because conventional oil and gas are limited; we just need the will to not burn coal, oil shale, etc., except with CCS.
- Among other things, that requires a price on carbon; for which a tax is the preferred mechanism.
- The only loser is the fossil fuel industry; we simply need to bring them to heel.
Hansen was a little impatient with our bit of the forum, and argued that our focus on regions (and the challenges in reaching a regional accord) was too pessimistic. Instead, a focus on fuels (e.g., phasing out coal) provides clarity of purpose.
My counterargument, which I only partially articulated during the session, for fear of driving the conversation off on a tangent, is as follows:
As a technical solution, phasing out coal and letting peak oil run its course probably works. However, phasing out coal by 2030 implies a time constant of seven years or a rate of decline in coal utilization of about 10%/year (by the 3-tau rule of thumb). Coal-fired power plants have a long lifetime, so the natural rate of decline, assuming no new coal investment, is more like 2.5% or 3%/year. Phasing out coal at 10% per year implies not only halting construction, but also abandoning many plants before their natural economic lifetime is up. Age structure complicates things a bit, perhaps making it easier in the US (where plants are disproportionately old) and harder in China (where they’re new). Closing plants ahead of schedule is going to make the fossil fuel interests that Hansen proposes to control rather vocally upset. Also, eliminating coal emissions that fast requires some combination of rapid deployment of efficiency, noncarbon energy sources, and CCS above natural rates of capital turnover, and lifestyle change to pick up the slack. That in itself is a significant challenge.
That would be doable for a coalition with enough political power to either overpower or buy off the owners of stranded assets. But that coalition doesn’t now exist, and therein lies the reason that this is a political problem more than a technical one.