Friday, February 01, 2013

What can we do to put a stop to global warming?

First, the good news. Here is an infographic about the U.S. contribution to global warming:

U.S. total energy-related carbon emissions are down 13% since 2007. That's huge. Although the U.S. refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, we managed about 70% of the emissions reductions mandated by that treaty (which is much better than most of the actual signatories!).

Renewable energy now provides 12.1% of U.S. energy. That is big.

Energy demand has fallen 6.4% since 2007, even though GDP is slightly higher. Hence, energy efficiency is responsible for the reduction in demand. That is good.

Gas is replacing coal. That is good, provided that wellhead methane emissions are not making up the difference.

Bottom line: If the U.S. were the world, the fight against global warming would be going well.

OK, now for the bad news: The U.S. is not the world. Global warming is global. The only thing that matters for the world is global emissions. And global emissions are still going up, thanks to strong increases in emissions in the developing world, notably China.

Figures released this week show skyrocketing Chinese coal use. China now burns almost as much coal as the rest of the world combined:

China consumes nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined

Meanwhile, Indian coal use is also increasing strongly.

If China and the other developing nations cook the world, the world is cooked, no matter what America or any other country does. China et al. can probably cook the world without our help, because global warming has "threshold effects" (tipping points), and because carbon stays in the air for thousands of years.

Bottom line: We will only save the planet if China (and other developing countries) stop burning so much coal. Any policy action we take to avert global warming will be ineffective unless it accomplishes this task.

What will accomplish this task? What can we do to influence the behavior of China? One thing that might help, on the margin, is to tax the carbon content of imports into the U.S. A second thing would be to tax U.S. exports of coal and other fuels.

But these measures - or any carbon-taxing measures taken only by rich countries - will have limited effects, due to the large size of the developing-world economy, which is set to pass the developed world in size very soon. What else can we do to slow developing-world emissions?

As I see it, there is only one thing we can do: develop renewable technologies that are substantially cheaper than coal, and give these technologies to the developing countries. China in particular is not a very globally responsible country; it will continue to pursue growth, economic size, and geopolitical power at any cost, and that means using the cheapest energy source available. The only way China will stop using coal is if it becomes un-economical to continue using coal.

Thus, the rich world should focus its efforts and money on developing renewable energy cheaper than coal. This mainly means solar; it also means better energy storage and transmission technologies. We should give these technologies away to China and other countries for free; the economic hit we take from doing so will help ease developing-country resentment over the fact that the U.S., Europe, Japan and others got rich by burning fossil fuels in the past.

Developing cheap renewable energy technologies requires research funding from the government. A carbon tax would also help, since it provides a subsidy for private firms to develop their own in-house technologies. However, it will not be possible to give privately owned technologies to China; for these to be rapidly adopted in China in time to save the world, we must rely on natural technology diffusion, or on Chinese espionage.

So, government research is the most important component. We need to increase government funding for solar, for energy storage, and for electricity transmission tech. And then we need to give the fruits of our research for free to the entire world, before it's too late.


  1. Which nation has the highest energy per capita consumption?

    1. But Qatar has the highest per capita carbon emissions.

  2. There’s what we should do and what we can do given our historically shameful and anti-science -- anti-thinking -- Republican Party.

    Nuclear is a next best solution, at least as a primary solution, but the Republicans in the house may allow to pass major expansions of nuclear power and increases in research to make it cheaper and safer. Realistically speaking, it may be one of the biggest things that’s accomplishable right now with a Republican house

    But a really interesting thing is, at the individual level how can you do the most against global warming, and the answer may easily be to contribute money to the Democratic Party and candidates. Millions in contributions can means billions in spending, even trillions over years, and major legislation. Imagine if Gore had even a few million extra for advertising in Florida.

    1. Except, of course, for executive and agency orders. I don't know a lot about these, but I do know they can be very strong and force private businesses to spend a lot on clean technology research to meet them.

    2. Richard, you seem confused.

      "With regard to nuclear power, the Pew survey found 70 percent of scientists in favor of building more nuclear power plants. For their part, 62 percent of Republicans favored more nuclear power plants, compared to 45 percent of Democrats."

      You want either nuclear, or democratic voting. THey achieve opposite goals.

    3. Wonks Anonymous12:10 PM

      Is there good research on the effectiveness of campaign donations? Because the abject failure of self-funded candidates and the arms-race responses they inspire on the part of opponents makes me think that's not a good avenue.

  3. Anonymous1:47 AM

    Yes, lets negotiate with a small corrupt clique who have taken hostage the entire world for the sake of keeping their families in power and porches and Vancouver mansions they'be grown accustomed to thanks to Nixon's treasonous acts in the 70s.

  4. One of the main barriers to renewables is the distribution grid/power generator relationship, which is still tangled in the results of deregulation. The sad thing is that all of the problems induced by deregulation were forecast by scientists and engineers before they happened. See 'CCA's, Coal and Nukes' at (written back in 2008) which also contains links to the excellent AIP magazine article "What's Wrong With the Electric Grid" by Alan Lerner.

    All the problems noted by Lerner are still with us, with the result that US is losing its position in the high voltage transmission market to companies like ABB, whose HVDC systems are already in use world wide.
    See for a paper describing the use of a 952km HVDC link to stabilize 2 weak AC grids in Africa.

    As far as solar and renewables, many of the barriers noted in this 2000 NREL article still exist.
    Until there is regulatory and business practice reform, it's going to be a tough path to your view of a solar future.

    I can speak from some experience in this matter, having been involved in a couple of large home and office systems connected to our local utility, as well as extensive work on large scale wind turbines. I have a home which is off the grid, and the system has been functioning for 10 years with better power quality than the local rural utility, built at a fraction of the expense of paying for the power lines to connect to them, the cost of which would have been built into my bill for years to come.

    Combined with my own water supply, and waste disposal systems, my energy costs are only a small set-aside for battery replacement and routine maintenance. It's an interesting exercise, for one approaching retirement, to figure out just how much savings one needs to earn sufficient funds to pay ever increasing utility bills in metropolitan areas.

  5. Anonymous2:11 AM

    US has one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in the world. If the rest of the world was more like the US, total carbon emissions would be three times higher.

    It is also worth keeping in mind that the reduction of emissions seen in the US is largely due to the economic crisis. When the economy recovers, emissions will increase.



    1. Actually no, it would be (much) worse because it takes a lot (almost 50%) more energy in China to increase GDP 1 per cent than to increase GDP 1% in the USA. Their development is energy inefficient.

      Also you seem to have not understood the point that, while GDP has grown since 2007, energy use has declined. (USA)

  6. But the developing world is hugely export dependent. I think it would be better to phase in steep carbon tariffs.

    You are suggesting taxpayer funded research, the results of which we'll give to China. But it is never so simple as a few widgets that they can plug into their economy and then poof, green China. Their infrastructure, cities, factories, etc is inefficient and they build that way (still, and it's only getting worse) because of their incentives. To change their incentives, carbon tariffs are essential.

    1. Doc at the Radar Station6:01 PM


  7. Technological rather than legal solutions. The legal restrictive frameworks continue to do nothing. We need to deal with this in a way that doesn't require the agreement of a consensus governments and corporations, just those that care.

    One big step forward would be carbon scrubbers that can remove atmospheric CO2, and put out something valuable like material for a 3D printer.

  8. "Energy demand has fallen 6.4% since 2007, even though GDP is slightly higher. Hence, energy efficiency is responsible for the reduction in demand. That is good."

    Allright, but we should keep in mind that endogenous energy efficiency (chosen to reduce energy demand in response to or in expectation of higher prices) has different effects than exogenous energy efficiency increases that may actually raise energy consumption (-> Jevon's Paradox).

    "Gas is replacing coal. That is good, provided that wellhead methane emissions are not making up the difference."

    A problem is that gas substituting coal in the US partly leads to higher coal exports and depresses coal prices in europe.

    "Bottom line: If the U.S. were the world, the fight against global warming would be going well."

    If the US were the world, we would not need to talk about climate policy, as the CO2 concentration would already have been much higher decades ago. It is cherry picking to talk about recent changes only and ignore the levels. Also, we cannot rely on massive natural gas discoveries under every country in the world.

  9. The US leans heavily on China and India over any number of issues (Iran, pharmaceuticals, IP for starters - you can add to the list) with some effect.

    If it took this issue seriously, it would and could exert very heavy pressure to minimise coal use - financial sanctions, trade costs, technology transfers and embargoes. If it acted in concert with the EU, it is likely that both China and India would rapidly improve their emmissions record.

    Noah has loaded the question by taking most of options off the table at the start.

    1. Are you serious?? What if we instead impose a transfer mechanism from those countries with above-average per-capita greenhouse gas emissions to those below average?

    2. Are you serious?
      You need to address the problem where it exists. Address this, or we're doomed:
      "China now burns more coal than the rest of the world combined."

  10. If the USA really wanted to do something, it could. There are examples of best/better practice in other countries. Denmark, Germany, Spain, the EU as a whole. They're not ideal, but if the USA joins the fray in stead of being another roadblock .. it might help. One thing is clear: we don't necessarily need only more breakthrough research, but deployment is just as important. Germany has shown us that, by nearly single handedly pushing down the prices of wind and photovoltaics. And the quagmire of global climate negotiations proves that things could be better if the USA could stop blocking change, maybe even exert some of its influence in positive ways to change the amounts of coal being burnt. What about a more constructive way to work with the EU on reducing co2 from airlines?

  11. I have not seen any numbers for the US, but in Europe the reductions in carbon emissions seem to have more to do with the outsourcing of energy intensive manufacturing. I.e. looking at the emissions caused as a result of the final demand for different goods, European emissions is way up - even if it is way down when you look at the amount that is emitted from that particular geographic area.

    1. nemi,

      that's about what several accounts about the Kyoto states say - every mole (if not more) CO2 reduced domestically has been leaked. Here is one account:

      There is a case to be made that this is partly a result of wrong policies, i.e. targeting renewables over enforcing an emission cap. There is a wide-spred illusion that one can avoid the problems of a carbon tax if one does something else, e.g. subsidise the implementation of renewables. This is not at all clear. It basically overlooks that a carbon tax, at least in a first-best policy setting, is itself first-best. Other solutions are therefore rather more expensive. As long as you do not burn fossiles until what Hotelling says forbids it, you are already doing mitigation policy. And absent a tax reflecting marginal damage costs of emissions, it's probably not optimal. Europe's has been very costly - even though this is not reflected in the official carbon price (i.e. the price of emission certificates):

      And the more expensive you are, the more emission you will leak. So if one argues that a carbon tax would only lead to carbon leakage, one should at least suggest a demonstrably cheaper option, or clearly state why the first-best is not available as a matter of principle.

      There is some fuss about how a carbon tax would distort markets and/or result in welfare loss. But this is mainly the laziness of people to look up what a Pigovian tax is, or to read an econ101 textbook, for that matter. There are more sophisticated arguments referring to the obviously not first-best (fiscal) policy setting, but this is not what you'll usually get.

      So, not to go all Hayek, but it is astonishing how many people go around and just KNOW what to do. Arguments pertaining to solar costs remain hollow as long as implementation costs are not assumed as actual function. Solar won't help much, if a 5 percent penetration is super, but a 10 percent penetration prohibitively expensive (numbers freely invented). Why not reinvest all in nuclear fusion reactor? Or carbon capture? How do people know for so sure what the optimal solution ought to look like? Also, the effect on emissions should be considered: renewables that do nothing more than help to phase out nuclear (as in Germany) should be seen very critical. From an emission (and other) perspective phasing out nuclear doesn't even make sense in Japan, on the contrary:

      As long as solar cannot shut down fossils it is not a very useful option - even if it is cost-competetive in a high-school sense of this notion. Or rather, it is useful if you only care about private costs and not about emissions; then, of course, replacing nuclear with solar plus some backup makes perfect sense. But that would be weird: after all, the fact that private costs for emissions do not reflect their social costs, is the one reason why we have this discussion.

      For first-best policy options here is Tol's newest overview (working paper has been around for some time) - he retweeted Noah some days ago, so there:

  12. Anonymous8:35 AM

    So we should aggressively move towards a technology (Solar) that:
    a) without storage, is hideously expensive (~3X coal or nuclear at best) and can, at best, displace a small fraction of our conventional power production or
    b) with storage (which we don't begin to have an idea how to do), will solve the problem by making electricity too expensive for anyone to afford?

    Brilliant. Just... brilliant.

    How about, instead, a massive nuclear buildup. Which will leave us with excess nuclear build capacity to export. Nuclear plants *do* shutter coal plants, unlike solar and wind farms, which, history shows, don't. Witness the French, who did just this, and have a very clean grid: it is a proven strategy!

    1. I've held that opinion for a long time, but it is not going to happen. Hydroelectric is tapped out, wind and solar can not do the job, and people fear nuclear based on the disasterous flaws of 1960s engineering. So we will burn coal.

  13. all those solar panels and wind turbines are being made in China. hmmm.

    Fundamentally the kind of technology we need to invent is something that takes the suns irradiance and carbon dioxide and combines them in a way that removes it from the atmosphere. wait, its coming to me...

  14. What is your opinion on feed- in -tariff programs as a method of encouraging this technological development?

  15. Mark Jamison11:18 AM

    Two countries you didn't mention: India and Russia. India's growth will have a tremendous impact. In Russia the permafrost is thawing in ways that promise a tremendous feedback loop. Apart from the fact that Russia is unlikely to participate in any global regimen, there may actually be some advantages to Russia from warming. It's likely, with the Russian mindset, that they would be highly uncooperative.
    Scary as it may seem it might be time to start looking at policies of adaptation including (and this is scary)geo-engineering.
    The sad fact is that growth is occurring in places that aren't likely to be cooperative while our house will continue to be far from order as long as the Republican mindset remains the same.

    1. Okay, let's "look at" geo-engineering, while we implement carbon tariffs.

      Why the hands off attitude to carbon tariffs?

    2. Mark Jamison6:05 PM

      Not hands off, simply realistic. Getting carbon tariffs in place in a meaningful way that isn't subject to manipulation or corruption is going to be a very heavy lift politically. Should we try? Yes, at this point we need to try pretty much anything and everything from carbon tariffs to, supporting renewables, to trying to modify growth patterns, to adaptation, to geo-engineering.
      Carbon tariffs are fine, maybe the money they generate can be directed towards investment in renewables but let's not kid ourselves. There will be problems with universal implementation - do you see the Republicans signing onto anything like that in the foreseeable future?. There will be problems with manipulation by corporate and national interests. By the time we sort that out and there's an effect regime we will have lost much of the battle due to feedback loops.
      How do we get China and India to grow smarter? How do we get Russia to be anything close to an honest broker?
      How do we prevent investment in renewables from crowding out necessary investments in adaptation? Here in North Carolina our wonderfully unenlightened legislature keeps rebuilding infrastructure in coastal areas and barriers islands that are pretty much doomed - stopping that and the inevitable push to compensate owners will suck up a good bit of capital. In North Carolina we need to move back from the coast but that's not practical for a place like New York city. There they need to make huge investments in adaptation because even if we got CO2 levels down we're still going to see a significant rise in sea level and we're still likely to have more weather events like Sandy.
      When a significant part of the world is still in the doubters corner, marshaling the political will to get meaningful reductions is going to take more time than we have.
      Geo-engineering comes with a whole bag of nightmarish outcomes but it may end up being a least worst choice until we can turn other things around. We better be thinking about it and other means of adaptation sooner rather than later.

  16. Something else we (the US and Europe) can do: carbon sequestration. Yes, really.

    Something like $2 Trillion, spread over about 50 years, would have a meaningful impact. That's about 1.3% of 2050's gross world product, or over 50 years, 0.027 percent of each year's GDP on average.

    Sceptical? So was I. The downsides: it means a *large* ramp-up in nuclear power. Anyway, this is worth a read:

    The key paragraphs in the piece talk about reducing CO2 levels from a position of having stabilised them, but it's just a question of different rates. If more is being emitted, then more needs to be removed, which means more investment. The piece estimates $1T.

  17. Hmm, let's see. Renewable energy technology is a non-rival, excludable good. Romer says the development of such goods depends on IP laws. How exactly is this "giving" approach supposed to work again?

  18. I think there are many different paths to development. China seems to have invested heavily in renewables while another country (say India) might rely on coal. Who can tell if one path is better for economic growth than the other. I assume China thinks its chosen path is both good for development and minimises the impact on the climate. Does that not meet the standard of global responsibility? I understand China does ask the US to transfer technology at a cheap price. Should a globally responsible US give this technology to China?

    1. Kien,

      global warming is a global externality (d'oh), and we know that further emissions have a net negative impact. It is indeed possible, that some regions might not expect much damage from some further warming (i.e. above what we are already expecting), but that is at the cost of geographically and/or economically disadvantaged regions. This is why one usually applies equity weights in CBA analyses.

      Note that CBA analyses usually work under the Hicks-Kaldor Criterion, so there is no reason to believe that we do not already throw some countries under the bus under an optimal abatement scenario. Also note there are already rather bleak outlooks for countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo under the SRES scenarios of the IPCC - and that those scenarios work under the assumption that the Solow growth model applies, even though we know that it has not been true for countries of sub-Sahara Africa (i.e. no convergence has been observed). They are used for convenience, better models are scarce.

      That is to say, putting a price a carbon that would either reduce consumption or find low-carbon replacments of equal costs is the least we can do. I don't think that a "Who knows what is good for us" approach is worth much if you produce an externality that is concerning others, probably more than yourself. In fact, an externality that spells utter catastrophy for some.

  19. Currently, China outspends in absolute terms the USA in renewable technology (China Leads The World In Renewable Energy Investment,

  20. Noah to understand the situation in China you really should watch the last ten minutes of this video. It is terrific (w/ Richard Brubaker who teaches at a business school and lives in Beijing).

  21. Anonymous8:48 PM

    Noah, what do you think about more focus on nuclear energy use and research?

    1. I think it would be a good idea, except that the kind of uranium plants we have now are a total dead end, with the safety concerns and the eventual fuel scarcity. I think instead our research should focus on making thorium, and small modular molten-salt reactors, a reality.

    2. Anonymous9:25 PM

      I disagree on all the uranium plant points (they are safe, and there is a lot of fuel available), but that isn't the question I'm asking now. The question I'm asking it: if you think nuclear is a good idea, then why are you advocated for anything else?!

      Nuclear is cheaper (vastly so) than renewables. Nuclear *can* be the backbone of electric grids economically (see France) while renewables can't (see Germany, Denmark, who have spent vast sums trying). See the utter lack of any grid-scale storage... or even vague plans for grid-scale storage. Nuclear can also be built up fast (see France).

      So again, why haven't your recent posts been about how we need an immediate, massive nuclear buildup?

  22. Reading your colleague James Fallows at the Atlantic leads me to believe that the Chinese will have to slow growth in coal consumption or they will all collapse from brown lung. Look at some of those pictures.

  23. Nationalize the US fossil fuel industry. It's a powerful impediment to progress. We'll never be able to get anywhere as long as that industry is around to fund lobbyists and other efforts that stand in the way. We can run the industry to generate public profits and pour those profits into alternative research and development. The industry has huge techical, human and scientific resources that can be leveraged for the job.

    We don't need to nationalize any car companies. If we're carrying out an alternative fuels industrial policy, the auto companies will have adapt or die. It's to stop pussyfooting around with individual incentives and market based approaches.

  24. Anonymous10:57 PM

    More likely that China will develop the technology and subsidize their sales to the rest of the world.

    jonny bakho