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The week in carbon: 2/18/2007

It was a week of many meetings dealing with carbon emissions and climate change: The American Association for the Advancement of Science held its annual meeting in San Francisco last week. Pacific Gas and Electric hosted a distinguished panel exploring solar policy futures. The SF Bay Area regional government organizations help the first of series of public forums to discuss what in the world to do. And a wave of climate teach-ins is simmering on the back burner.

(The Bay Area isn't the only region moving into high gear on these issues, of course. It happens to be where I'm physically located, and offered plenty to keep up with this week.)

Climate change prime topic at science summit is the headline, a first among equals theme running through many of the 200 scheduled symposia and lectures. Highlights here and here.

John Holdren also "told reporters in a somewhat gloomy breakfast talk" that scientists should get up off their duff and do their part to protect the planet.

He wants researchers to "tithe 10% of their time" towards "thinking about" how their work impacts larger societal problems or devising solutions. He identified four major challenges in a depressing litany: protecting the environment, nuclear proliferation, what he calls the "energy-atmosphere-climate conundrum" and poverty. While the world is more or less booming economically, he said, "Most of the other dimensions of the human condition are in some trouble."

PS: Have you been wondering about "food miles"? Eli Kintisch writes, citing Friederika Ziegler of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology in Göteborg, that “it takes some 300 megajoules of energy to bring 1 kilogram of this crustacean from a trawler in the North Sea to consumers in Sweden.” Producing a kilo of bread? Eighteen megajoules."

Solar policy
PG&E Vice President Fong Wan moderated a symposium on Solar Policy Leadership, along with California PUC Chairman Michael Peavey, noted VC Vinod Khosla and EuroSolar head and German parliamentarian Hermann Scheer. (author of "Energy Autonomy").

Peevey recounted the energy policies that have enabled California to hold per capita energy use flat over the past 30 years, while it's increased by 50% nationally -- and spoke of California's next big push with AB32 -- to reduce emissions 80% by 2050. The costs of renewable may be high, Peevey acknowledged, when measured by conventional accounting methods.

But they're not the right measures to use. If we could account for true costs, renewables, including solar, would be far more attractive, far sooner. But we need to incentivize performance, not just capacity.

Khosla argued that much renewable technology and investing has been greenwashing, and that any viable strategies have to meet three conditions:

1. If it isn't cheaper than the alternatives, it won't work
2. It should be scalable
3. It should be amenable to rapdly declining cost due to tech
4. It should become economical viable relatively quickly, without subsidy

He dismissed wind, PV -- and in fact most distributed generation -- as "uneconomic" and as "investment in the wrong direction, asserting that

Solar thermal is the most promising -- it's dispatchable, contractable, and in a horse race w clean coal. The right policies can give us biofuels below $1/gallon.

Scheer also spoke forcefully about the limits of conventional energy economics.

The economists discovered [as one effect of the German "feeding tariff," which requires utilities to buy power from all providers, large or small, "without discrimination") that renewables have no fuel costs! Economists are part of the problem, you see. With the exception of biomass, all renewable energy costs are only for technology; they decrease with mass introduction & improvement. Conventional energy can only become more expensive, because of depletion -- fuel becomes more expensive, plus environmental costs, plus security costs, plus other costs, such as water. Conventional energy production demands high water use -- as does solar thermal.

Postponements [of renewables] make energy futures more expensive.

But he didn't agree with Khosla:

It's a mistake to concentrate renewable energy futures on one technology. Solal thermal is ok -- it was there before PV -- but if it had been the focus, nothing would have happened w wind or PV....

What's possible in Germany -- with a large population in a small area, with a high industrial density -- is possible everywhere. We need to not wait for international treaties, but make national decisions. Cities must not wait for states. Individuals must not wait for policies.

Regional responses
In the first of a series of public dialogs, four regional umbrella agencies -- the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) -- and their umbrella agency, the Joint Policy Committee (JPC), convened an overflow meeting room to explore strategies for dealing with the rising tide of concern. They framed the meeting with the acknowledgment that since a) it's serious and b) no one has all the answers, then c) open dialogs, open minds and broad engagement are key to charting a wise course.

Suggestions were all over the map: tax carbon, reduce vehicle miles travelled, guiding planning and development toward smart growth, "fast track" climate friendly development. This meeting (to be repeated next Friday afternoon, February 22) was more about framing questions and generating options than coming to conclusions. The hardest question, in my mind: how to balance investment in prevention and adaptation.

Speaking of the map, it ain't pretty.

Mn Bay Shoreline

While the Bay Area has done a good job designing for earthquakes, it hasn't done so for sea-level rise, said Will Travis, executive director of the bay conservation agency, which approves shoreline development. Aside from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Travis said, "The amount of planning and preparing that we do is really what will affect how severe the impacts are here.''

Cities can protect vulnerable shorelines with sea walls and levees, but the fixes and maintenance would cost billions of dollars. Officials will have to decide what to save and what to let go... Travis said.

The Bundestag's Dr Scheer wasn't at this meeting, but something he'd said the day before rang in my ears:

There may be an unbridgeable contradition between speed & consensus. International conferences have to work with consensus. Given the crisis, we have to give the emphasis to speed. We must do this in decades. There is not more time.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a sea level rise of about a half a meter, or roughly 18 inches, over the next century. But NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen asserts that this estimate may be far too low

That was the headline from a Living on Earth interview with Dr. Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, about the Gorilla of Sea-Level Rise.


I would have preferred an even clearer statement about the dangers of future sea level rise if the ice sheets begin to disintegrate. And I think that a business as usual scenario will guarantee future disintegration of West Antarctica and parts of Greenland.

Why is that important?

The last time a large ice sheet melted sea level went up at a rate of five meters per century. That's one meter every 20 years. And that is a kind of sea level rise, a rate which the simple ice sheet models available now just cannot produce because they don't have the physics in them to give you the rapid collapse that happens in a very nonlinear system.

Or in the more sober language of a Brevia contribution to Science magazine of Feb 1, Hansen and colleagues wrote:

The data available for the period since 1990 raise concerns that the climate system, in particular sea level, may be responding more quickly to climate change than our current generation of models indicates.

(The climate skeptics scoff at the prospect of catastrophic, non-linear effects of climate change. Cato Institute Senior Fellow Patrick J. Michaels, as I reported two weeks ago, dismisses "a small, but very vocal, band of extremists have been hawking a doomsday scenario, in which Greenland suddenly melts, raising sea levels 12 feet or more by 2100. Aside from not understanding the science -- the Greenland scenario is not that it suddenly melts, but that it rapidly slides into the ocean, rather than just melting in place -- they seem to come up short on risk management as well: long odds x huge impact = something worth at least some attention. I wonder if climate skeptics wear seat belts.)

Teaching and learning
The Living on Earth interview was flagged by Focus the Nation, which is coordinating a nationwide, interdisciplinary discussion at over a thousand colleges, universities and K-12 schools in the United States about “Global Warming Solutions for America”, leading to national symposia across the country on January 31, 2008.) Other stops on the climate teach-in circuit include the 2010 Imperative Global Emergency Teach-in, an interactive web-cast broadcast live from New York City on February 20th, 2007 "to over 500,000 students, faculty, administrators, design professionals and government officials." The 2010 Imperative is produced by Architecture2030 (see The 2030 Challenge for some background and perspective.) And Step It Up 2007 is organizing a "national day of climate action" for April 14 2007.

Climate's not the only thing that's heating up.


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