Saturday, July 26, 2014

A Washington State climate policy that does the carbon math

Question: What would a climate policy look like that actually meets carbon reduction goals determined by science?

Answer: Carbon pollution from fossil fuels would be cut far faster and far deeper than is contemplated in climate policies now on the books or under consideration.

Washington State is currently moving toward a climate policy to cap statewide carbon emissions.  Gov. Jay Inslee’s Carbon Emissions Reduction Taskforce (CERT) will hear the proposed policy design in a meeting Tuesday.  It will inform the governor’s proposal to legally limit carbon pollution.  He is expected to put it before the legislature next year.

The effort builds on non-binding carbon goals set in 2008 legislation, SB6001. The bill, even when it passed, did not meet what science indicated was needed to stem global warming. It set a goal of only 50% carbon reductions by 2050 when 80% was the generally understood target. Now the science has moved even further, and global warming impacts are accelerating beyond the expectations of even just a few years ago.  Washington’s carbon goals must move with the science, and the times.

A recent article by James Hansen and his colleagues sets the bar for what a carbon reduction policy should require. Arguably the world’s top climate scientist, Jim Hansen has authored a landmark.  Of his many seminal journal articles, this one may prove to be the most important.   “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change,’” provides the carbon math that must guide policy.

The key points:

The source of global warming is an energy imbalance.  More solar heat is entering the Earth’s atmosphere than leaving it.

The way to even the balance is by reducing the capacity of the atmosphere to trap heat.  That means cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases, primarily carbon dioxide.  Achieving balance will require reducing atmospheric CO2 to 350 parts per million (ppm). CO2 is now around 400ppm and climbing fast. 

Achieving 350ppm by 2100 will require holding total fossil fuel carbon emissions to 500 billion metric tons, or gigatons (GtC), and soaking another 100GtC from the atmosphere into trees, other plants and soils.  Humanity has released 370GtC, so our remaining carbon budget is 130GtC

Staying within our carbon budget requires immediate carbon reductions of 6% per year.  The longer we delay the higher that annual percentage becomes and the greater will be the warming. 

The graph below illustrates how choices we make now will echo across the centuries.  The dotted line is the 350ppm point at which the atmosphere has crossed the line back into balance.  The left-hand graph shows the effect of the Hansen goals for 6% annual carbon reductions and natural carbon storage.  The planet is back in balance around 2100.  Contrast this with the solid blue line in the right-hand graph.  Even the still ambitious target of 5% a year delayed until 2020 pushes the balance point two centuries into the future to 2300. Note that the 450ppm carbon limit that has generally been accepted as the standard carbon boundary, the green line, does not produce climate balance even by 2500. Some curves reach out a millennium. If anything illustrates the urgency of deep carbon cuts beginning now, it is this graph:  

The scientists are not blind to the political difficulties. They note, “It is distressing that, despite the clarity and imminence of the danger of continued high fossil fuel emissions, governments continue to allow and even encourage pursuit of ever more fossil fuels. Recognition of this reality and perceptions of what is ‘politically feasible’ may partially account for acceptance of targets for global warming and carbon emissions that are well into the range of ‘dangerous human-made interference’ with climate. Although there is merit in simply chronicling what is happening, there is still opportunity for humanity to exercise free will. Thus our objective is to define what the science indicates is needed, not to assess political feasibility (emphasis mine).”

Nonetheless, Hansen and his colleagues add, deep and rapid carbon cuts are not beyond the realm of practicality.  “. . . it is not obvious to us that there are physical or economic limitations that prohibit fossil fuel emission targets far lower than 1000 GtC (the generally accepted goal in global climate negotiations – P.M.) even targets closer to 500 GtC. Indeed, we suggest that rapid transition off fossil fuels would have numerous near-term and long-term social benefits, including improved human health and outstanding potential for job creation.”

I asked a long-term colleague and one of the best carbon brains around, Roel Hammerschlag, to calculate the implications of a 6% annual reduction curve for Washington State in comparison with current goals.  Here is Roel’s graph:

The blue line shows the carbon emissions trajectory without policy change.  The dotted red line depicts Washington State carbon goals set under its 2008 climate bill,  The orange line plots the 6% annual carbon reductions curve for which climate science calls. 
Here are tables comparing the two sets of goals:

Annual CO2 Emissions in Metric Tons


Percentage Reduction in Emissions Compared to 1990


Note that the graph calls for its steepest emissions cuts between now and 2030.  This underscores the importance of immediate action. Each year adds to the accumulation of atmospheric carbon.  So hitting annual targets for carbon reduction as soon as possible is crucial to stem the carbon buildup and long-term effects.

Washington State is only a small part of the global picture.  But Washington is also a significant state in the nation that has put the most human-originated carbon into the atmosphere. The U.S. is responsible for 26% of the total. Washington also claims to be a climate leader.  To truly lead, Washington must adopt goals and policies that line up with the science.  This means going beyond SB6001 to adopt the Hansen 6% goal and with it an agenda to move Washington State off fossil fuels much more rapidly than current plans contemplate.

Rapid transition to 100% renewable energy, a comprehensive effort to retrofit most buildings for energy efficiency, and an accelerated move to electric vehicles are elements of the agenda.  Investments in forest carbon, soil-building agriculture and wetlands restoration add to the biological carbon storage side of the Hansen prescription.  Washington with its rich natural resources can make a disproportionate contribution in this area. The Northwest Biocarbon Initiative is advancing carbon-soaking land use practices.

It is not hard to understand why Washington must set a high bar for carbon cuts now.  Just think about 2100.  About how closely we are connected to the future. 

A 10-year-old in 2014 will have a child in 2029 when she is 25. 

Her child will bear her grandchild in 2054 when she herself is 25.

Her grandchild will have a daughter, also at 25, in 2079

Today's 10-year-old may well live to 2100. She would be 96. Her child will be 71 then. Her grandchild will be 46, her great grandchild 21.   

If we move now to achieve 6% annual carbon emissions cuts as soon as humanely possible and to leverage our landscape for biocarbon storage, their families could live in a world that has veered away from the worst danger.  Climate change will still be severe but beginning to stabilize.  

Or they might live in a world that remains in the danger zone for generations more, and where climate balance will not be achieved for centuries.   What we leave them depends on the choices we make today.  Washington State can choose to set carbon goals clearly indicated by science and model a climate leadership agenda for the world.  If that seems impossibly out of reach, just consider that 21-year-old. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

In a U.S. flying apart, regional climate action is central

This is the second part of a review of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard, a seminal book about the real political boundaries of the continent.  This part covers the implications of regional divisions for climate change policy in the U.S. and North America.  I suggest that readers first take in part 1 for a basic description of the regions.

When the landmark federal climate bill narrowly passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009 it illustrated deep regional divides on global warming policy in the U.S.  For most of the country one could almost predict how a representative would vote by the region from which they hailed. 

“ . . . the measure received near-unanimous support in New Netherland, the Left Coast, and Yankeedom,” Colin Woodard writes, while “the Far West offered near-unanimous bipartisan opposition, joined by the overwhelming majority of Appalachian and Deep Southern lawmakers.”  The exception – “Tidewater and The Midlands were divided.” 

That perfectly expresses the regionality of U.S. climate politics, and one that continues to hold.  The U.S. would have a carbon-limiting framework if it were up to people in the three climate-supportive regions.  Indeed these are exactly the regions that are pioneering regional climate policy in the U.S.  New York and the New England states instituted the nation’s first carbon cap, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for power plants. California has the first economy-wide carbon cap in the U.S., while British Columbia has instituted a carbon tax. Efforts are underway to bring carbon limits to Washington and Oregon. 

Meanwhile states making up the Deep South and Far West are hotbeds of climate change denial and obstruction.  When climate policy strategists look for a winning pathway to resurrect a federal climate bill - the first effort died in the Senate in 2010 - they write off most representatives from these regions.  They look to swing votes from Tidewater and the Mid-Atlantic-to-Midwest swathe of The Midlands. 

An indicative exception is Colorado, much covered by El Norte.  Latinos when polled express greater concern about global warming than any other ethnic group (including non-Latino whites).  This bodes well for the future of climate policy in the Southwest. 

For the nation as a whole the picture is more troubling.  The centrifugal tendencies seen in the federal climate vote are only intensifying as U.S. regions spin off in sharply different directions.  Washington state studies the effects of sea level rise on coastal communities, while North Carolina bans discussion of the topic from coastal planning. 

“Few (regions) have shown any indication that they are melting into some sort of unified American culture,” Woodard notes.  “On the contrary, since 1960 the fault lines between these nations have been growing wider, fueling culture wars, constitutional struggles, and ever more frequent pleas for unity.” 

Of all issues, global warming seems to exhibit the most centrifugal tendencies.  A recent poll shows climate has become even more divisive than abortion.  While national, the regional breakdown is predictable.   The increasing inability of Americans to agree on climate and a range of other topics has frozen action at the federal level.

In complete contradiction to the political gridlock, the acceleration of global warming impacts urgently calls for action.  It seems a hopeless dilemma for climate advocates, who do the best they can working at state and local levels.  If anything, the situation should underscore the critical importance of enacting effective state and local climate frameworks. 

There are two ways to look at state carbon policy efforts.  One sees passage of state policies as primarily significant in building momentum to eventual federal action.  So the internal efficacy of the policy is not so important as the larger political and symbolic impact.  The second sees state policies as important not only for the potential larger impact, but also as significant policy measures to achieve substantial carbon reductions on their own.  So efficacy of the policy becomes a prime consideration.

We should hope that enacting policies in states such as Oregon and Washington will provide national momentum, and that the national picture will improve sufficiently to pass federal policy by 2018 or so.  But with prospects for a Republican Senate in 2014, continued national divisions and an uncertain 2016 presidential result after eight years of a Democratic White House, conditioning state policy design on national policy success is a risky game.  It may be the 2020s before a federal carbon limit can pass.

Thus state carbon policies must be designed to be internally effective.  In other words, they should be geared to reduce state carbon emissions to levels consistent with the need to keep overall global temperatures under 2°C, the line at which catastrophic feedbacks become likely.  It should not be assumed that state policies have prime significance as leverage points to pass an eventual federal policy that will really get the job done.  State policies should fully model what a federal policy should do in terms of carbon reduction necessities.  Their successful implementation in ways that demonstrate actual economic benefits will be the most powerful driver for passage of national climate policy.

Economic success is crucial.  Pro-climate states must show they can outcompete anti-climate states in the marketplace. They must demonstrate that policies that cut carbon provide better economic performance by improving efficiency and bringing new technologies to bear.  There are many studies that indicate this is the case, for example with the BC carbon tax.  

That leads to a further critical point.  State and provincial policies can go far to reduce carbon emissions.  But to reduce emissions deeply enough and fast enough to stay under that 2°C limit is highly challenging.  Emissions must be reduced at least 2 percent annually over a long period, and cuts of 6 percent per year would be required to stabilize climate by 2100. Accomplishing these goals with carbon caps and pricing alone could raise competitive difficulties and shift polluting activities to other nations.  See these posts on BC and Britain. 

Climate policy opens another avenue though, generation of substantial revenues. For a carbon framework to have a realistic chance of meeting the 2°C goal, a significant share of the revenues must be invested in effective low-carbon solutions.

The most effective would be to create a large pool of low-cost capital to finance mass-scale, deep energy efficiency retrofits that capture opportunities at a 20-year rate of return, rather than the general 3-year low-hanging-fruit projects that typify efficiency investments.

Large loan guarantee pools could de-risk private capital investment in low-carbon solutions including renewable power generation, power grid modernization, sustainable fuels production and agricultural practices that build soil carbon. 

A tremendous upgrading of transit and options to auto travel by individual drivers is also a high-return low-carbon investment.  Options can include van and ride pools, telecommuting, bicycle and pedestrian access, and measures to site housing close to jobs.

Investments in forest carbon storage, whether by outright public purchase or conservation easements, are highly necessary for climate stabilization.  Financial models that govern industrial forestry will not allow the long harvest rotations needed to adequately increase forest carbon reserves. Buying forest carbon in competition with board feet becomes expensive and can only go so far. 

These investments would  build state economies and new economic sectors.  States and regions can make themselves investment engines to build new low-carbon economies that indeed do demonstrate the competitive edge of pro-climate states. 

There will be large temptations to use carbon revenues for many other underfunded needs of fiscally pressed state governments, such as education, or to simply rebate the money, as does BC.  Some level of rebating is needed to defray the impacts of higher energy prices on low- and middle-income people.  Meeting state funding gaps is another important goal, but this should not be done on the back of climate policy.  Elected leaders must offer overall revenue solutions. Carbon revenues should be spent on carbon reduction. 

In a nation seemingly flying apart on multiple issues, none more than climate change, it is crucial that state and regional policies do the most effective job they can.  They must be designed to meet ambitious carbon reduction goals consistent with the needs of climate stability and our children’s generations.  Let us hope that eventually the national balance will tip to an effective carbon limit.  But for now in a U.S. that is flying apart, state and regional climate policies are central.  They must be made to work as if they are the only game in town. For some years to come they probably are. 

The final installment will cover how to win on climate in the climate-intractable regions of Far West, Greater Appalachia and Deep South, as well as in swing regions The Midlands and Tidewater. The imperative is to join in building a broader progressive coalition advancing economic justice and democracy, one that makes rapid clean energy transition a key goal to achieve those ends.   

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Eyes on the Prize: 100% Renewables Now!

Here is the talk I gave at the No Oil Trains! No Way! Rally on the Seattle Waterfront July 12 organized by 350 Seattle.  The event was to commemorate the oil train explosion that devastated Lac Megantic, Quebec a year ago on July 6, 2013, vaporizing 47 people and leaving the center of the town a toxic wasteland to this day.  Oil trains carrying the same unstable Bakken shale crude are regularly moving through Seattle and other Northwest cities threatening similar death and destruction.  We need to stop them.  We have the renewable energy technology to make exploiting oil shale, tar sands and other unconventional fossil fuels unnecessary. That was the topic of my talk. 

Video of part of my talk as well as Washington House 43rd District candidate Jess Spear and Abby from youth climate group Plant for the Planet is here.  Especially watch Abby!  She is a super youth climate leader!  

No Oil Trains! No Way! July 12 Rally stages symbolic blockade of Seattle waterfront train tracks.

We hear all too much bad news today. Often it just weighs us down.  But there is at least one genuinely great story happening in our world now, and it is coming just when we need it most.  Solar and wind power are becoming the world’s biggest new energy sources. Renewable energy is finally breaking through.

In 2000 the big news was that the world had just produced its first billion watts of solar. It took 27 years to get there.  Last year the world produced 38 billion watts.  It could produce 55 billion watts this year.  That is more solar panels made in one week than in all of those first 27 years.  The U.S. now has four times the solar power plants it had in 2010.

Wind power is surging too.  By the end of 2013 the world had 318 billion watts of wind turbines. World wind power has grown over 10 times in just over the last 10 years.

Germany, the world’s fourth largest economy, powered itself one-third on the sun, wind and other renewable sources the first half of this year.  In the middle of the day a couple of months back Germany drew a full three-quarters of its electricity from renewables. 

Wind is already economically competitive with fossil energy, and of course nuclear. Solar is closing in, and is already there in some regions.  Solar panels hit an all-time low price just in the past few months.

The only disadvantage solar and wind now have competing with fossil and nuclear is that wind and sunlight vary so power generation varies. But economical batteries to store renewable energy eliminate this disadvantage. And the growth of electric vehicles is dramatically bringing down battery costs.

That’s the other good news piece of the story, and the one that comes home to this event today.  We don’t need these toxic, explosive oil trains rolling though our cities and along our waters. We can run much of our transportation system on renewable electricity.  
We can get our cars off oil.   Electric vehicle sales are climbing rapidly.  Tesla Motors projects it will sell a half-million electric vehicles by 2020, and that this will bring down the cost of batteries by one-third.
We can run our trains on electricity like they do in countries all over the world.  Running a ton of freight on electrified rail instead of a truck takes one-twentieth of the energy.  That’s right.  Just 5% as much.  Let’s take coal and oil off trains and put truck freight on them.
The world is already one-fifth powered by renewables.  Even conservative projections say it could be one-third in 20 years.  But we need to move faster than that.  Because global warming impacts are moving fast.  Faster than was expected even just a few years ago.  Polar ice is disappearing, storms are intensifying and dust bowls are spreading. Fossil fuel carbon pollution is responsible. We need to switch to 100% renewable energy as quickly as possible.  We need a major global campaign to make this happen.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and early '60s succeeded because the people of the movement kept their eyes on the prize, an end to legalized discrimination against African-Americans. (Of course the fight for economic justice continues.) All of us now moving for climate and our children’s world should put our eyes on this prize - 100% renewable energy now!

Our governor, Jay Inslee, has created a task force to design a climate policy for Washington state.  It’s expected to propose a cap and price on carbon pollution.  These tools can be helpful but they alone are not enough.  We need to go further and set a goal to move Washington state to 100% renewable energy as rapidly as possible. 

I’ve known Jay Inslee for 15 years since he was a congressman.  I know it’s easy to be cynical about politicians, and a lot of politicians deserve it.  But I also know that Jay Inslee is genuinely worried about global warming and what it’s doing to our state and world.  And I know he knows the tremendous potential of renewable energy.  He wrote a book about it. 

So I call on Governor Inslee to set a 100% renewables goal for Washington, to ask his climate task force to design a policy that will get us there as fast as humanely possible, and to work on the full range of policies we need to achieve 100% renewables beyond carbon caps and pricing.  

We could use the bonding power of the state to secure low-cost energy financing.  We could create a state green bank to fund energy transition.  We could provide inexpensive loans to make homes efficient and renewable powered. We could provide high payments for feeding renewable energy into the grid, which is how Germany achieved its success. 

We can do it.  The Salish Sea needs it.  Our children need it.  Our world needs it. 

Let’s put our eyes on the prize - 100% renewable energy now!