Monday, June 02, 2014

How to really beat global warming

At Bloomberg, I give my thoughts on how we can really beat global warming:
First, the good news. President Barack Obama’s proposed rules on coal-fired power plants aren't a last-ditch, desperate measure. They’re designed to keep a good trend going -- the U.S. is already decreasing its carbon emissions, thanks to cheap natural gas and to the fact that Americans are driving less
The drop in emissions has stalled in the last couple of years, due to the economic recovery and a recent spike in the price of natural gas. So the idea of Obama’s new rules is to resume the shift toward gas, and also to force the dirtiest coal plants to clean up. Fortunately, cutting emissions at dirty old coal plants is proving to be a lot cheaper than the industry’s defenders told us. So don’t worry -- Obama’s new rules aren't going to crash the U.S. economy. 
That’s the good news. Now here’s the much bigger bad news: No matter what the U.S. does, global emissions will keep skyrocketing in the near future. This is because most of the rise in emissions is being driven by China. Check out this chart from Vox. China’s carbon pollution has soared in the last 15 years, and is now about double the U.S. level. The rest of the increase has come from oil-producing countries and from other, more slowly developing Asian nations. But China overshadows all of the other sources...
Read on to discover my five policy proposals for getting China to release less carbon into the atmosphere. Carbon taxes will be part of the mix, but they won't do the heavy lifting.


  1. I understand that China is the biggest area of concern for CO2 emissions, but if we start subsidizing them, wouldn't other countries want to be subsidized as well? Maybe some countries may even refuse to provide any government support for reducing CO2 emissions unless they were subsidized by the US in the first place. That sort of proposal, where the US is trying to influence markets outside of its direct control with subsidies strikes me as potentially resembling the cobra effect.

  2. Anonymous5:03 PM

    I agree with the policy choices in the article. However, one small quibble...while SO2 scrubbers are readily available for coal fired plants, the currently available tech of CO2 scrubbers just can't do the job. In the final analysis it's the ERoEI. The moment the Energy Returns on Energy Invested for renewables matches or exceeds that of coal then we'll be (cooking with gas) making progress on GHG emissions...

    1. In other words, the cheapest way to remove CO2 emissions from coal turns out to be leaving the coal in the ground and not burning it.

    2. Anonymous12:59 PM


  3. beat the global war ming of mongo with ....5:38 PM

    Minor mag. 2.1 earthquake - YAYKIN-AKHISAR (MANISA) on Monday, 2 June 2014
    I felt this quake
    Date & time: Mon, 2 Jun 19:03:32 UTC
    Magnitude: 2.1
    Depth: 3.6 km
    Epicenter latitude / longitude: 39.1393°N / 27.9415°E [Map]
    Nearest volcano: Kenger .....kenger kong

  4. I agree with and like your article, though there is one very important point about solar that isn't very widely appreciated. If we are ever going to replace base-load power sources such as coal/gas/nuclear with solar, we will require grid-level storage, which is about as difficult as developing nuclear fusion energy ( I'm a physicist working on nuclear fusion energy, and it is a hard problem. Grid-scale energy storage is an equally hard problem, and most of the money spent on subsidising solar panel production/deployment would be much better spent on storage research.

    1. Pumping water uphill with a reversible power generator/motor, or simply holding it above a dam, are forms of grid power storage. They are low tech and have been around for a long time. It's not rocket surgery.

      Of course, we'd like to have more efficient and distributed forms of grid storage, but I'm seeing a whole wave of emerging battery tech coming out now, resulting from high levels of public and private investment in R&D in recent years. I think the change you are seeking is actually already occurring.

    2. We know of plenty of ways to store energy, the issue is doing it at a large enough scale that you could confidently shut down coal/gas/nuclear plants without risking power outages. If you look into the comments of the article I linked to, there's a discussion on how much water you would have to pump to what height to provide enough storage. I'll quote the simple estimate there: "We would need to pump water in all lakes about 408m high to have 7 day worth of reserves for USA."

      The issue is scale and no technology in existence is anywhere near being able to provide that much energy storage. It may be possible but we aren't there yet and pretending we are only discourages resources from being used to get us there. The proper mindset is "This is an extremely difficult problem and there are no known solutions. We need to pursue all possible ideas and think of new ones." That requires money, and nobody seems to realise that this is an important problem.

    3. Provided you have a big enough grid - continental size, "no wind" or "not sunny enough" is a lesser problem. If generation is big enough, storing energy isn't that important.

      The question is really what to do about peakers - the gas and oil plants that run during peak demand. Why is that a big problem? Solar can provide the majority of energy or at least enough to stop additional emissions. Non-renewable peakers can remain in use.

      An additional economic solution is to simply reduce the peaks by charging more during peak hours - they are fairly easy to predict. The Nest thermostat has this feature:

      Different energy generation methods have +-, so that is why its important to have:

      a) a mix of them
      b) a market for electricity that is constrained enough not to to emit too much CO2, but free enough to efficiently produce it. Creating carbon caps and adding pigovian taxes is a better framework than outright banning traditional methods of producing electricity.

    4. Even the article you linked admits to this - if you settle with not getting rid of the peakers, you can do mainly renewable generation.

    5. I assume the quote you're referring to is: "A distributed grid helps, and an armada of gas-fired peak-load plants would offset the need for full storage." He's just pointing out that if we kept using peak-load gas plants, maybe we would only need renewables to produce say 60% of our energy, and then we only need 60% of the storage he calculates. We are still nowhere near being able to store 10% of the figure he calculates, so this doesn't change the urgency for energy storage research at all.

      There is also a discussion about this in the comments of the article I linked to. The conclusion there was that any time you get more than 20% of your power from renewables, actual storage is needed - it's just too expensive to keep coal or gas plants just sitting around waiting as a backup system in case there's a few cloudy weeks.

      That seems about right given the situation here in Germany - in 2012 about 22% of electricity generation came from renewables, though a big chunk of that was hydroelectric and biomass. However there are already enormous problems with distributing this energy, and the fact that many coal plants have to modulate their output to offset the fluctuating wind/solar makes them less efficient and cancels out any benefits in CO2 emissions that the wind/solar provide. (Turning off the nuclear plants didn't help as well as they are being replaced with lignite). Germany won't be able to get much more power from wind/solar without either massively upgrading the energy grid, or without grid-scale storage _which doesn't exist yet_. It is not even close to existing. This is a serious unsolved problem!

    6. A few links about the problems in Germany:

    7. Anonymous2:05 PM

      The Department of Energy released a report on grid level energy storage, back in December 2013.

      Much of the interest in grid level storage seems to be in improving the reliability of the grid rather than storing power for time shifting the output of renewables. The work seems to be more in using energy storage to handle unexpected increases in demand and responding to variations in power output from renewable sources. Also, the report is fairly through and discusses technologies still in development like fly wheels, electrochemical capacitors, and Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage (SMES). Fly wheels, compressed air storage, and pumped hydro don't seem especially useful. OTOH, Sodium-Sulfur batteries show some promise, both are fairly common elements. Granted, both the sodium and sulfur are molten so the battery runs at temperatures around around 500F.

      As it is now, renewable energy sources, even hydroelectric dams, have a somewhat variable output with unexpected drops in output. They also cannot not generate power all of the time. On the average, in the US, photovoltaic solar plants can produce their rated power about 25% of the time, depending on location it can vary from 22% to 32%. OTOH, onshore wind is usable 35% of the time on the average, though it varies from 31% to 45% depending on location.

  5. Bill Ellis6:36 PM

    Noah, leaving the political difficulties aside, I'm all for 1 and 2 on your list: "Transfer technology to China." and " Pay China to implement these technologies..."

    A good way to do this would be to set up a collaborative effort between the US and China to develop the tech, with the US footing the lion's share of the funding with both equally sharing access to the tech.

    Developing great tech would not be the only good to come out of it. It's great diplomacy too. I am a firm believer that interdependence makes war less likely because cooperation becomes the clear best choice. And interdependence on a large scale about diverting world wide disaster would be an incredibly powerful symbol...

    There are a lot of people on the right who would hate to see it get back to the political practicality issue.

  6. I'm not sure what happened to my last comment, but anyway:

    A very important area is HVAC - heating, ventilation and Air Conditioning and both China and America do very poorly in it, because of poor insulation. Since a lot of China is hot and humid (just like the American South) and just starting to use AC to achieve the same level of comfort Americans enjoy, America should take the lead and reduce its AC bills! In 20 years or less electricity use in India and Africa will explode due to the same reason.

    HVAC is typically 40% of total *energy* demand and bound to increase.

    1. AC has gotten much more efficient, but is mainly a housing issue. I'm starting to believe there should be a cap of how much energy (electricity, gas, etc.) a house-hold is using from the grid. If you want to use more, you better install your own solar panels.

      The US cannot yet export its experience for this to China as suggested in the article, because it does so poorly.

  7. This is kind of an odd list for an economist, seeming to emphasize difficult to quantify "technology" more than hard incentives.

    Anyway, one thing worth pointing out is that, as the #2 carbon emitter in the world, it still does matter what the US does. Just because emerging market emissions are increasing doesn't mean our actions don't matter, even just talking about the direct effects (rather than the moral and political standing it gives us to seek a global agreement for mitigation).

    What I'd like to see is a global agreement on emissions limits, with each country free to meet them as they see fit (which for most, if they are smart, is a cap and trade system or variable tax). The developing world should be allowed to expand emissions at a slow rate, while the rich world cuts at a gradual but higher than offsetting rate. We can and should seek this by using our status as the chief customer(s) for the exports of export dependent nations like China, and the threat of import tariffs is the stick that gets us to an agreement.

    Rather than an incentive for technology that later gets transferred, I think, like most economists might, that the biggest effect of carbon taxes/pricing shemes are to directly reduce carbon emissions.

  8. Anonymous10:54 PM

    A massive worldwide depression and collapse in economic activity would also cut carbon emissions. Exactly what sort of costs are we supposed to suck up, alongside what benefits? Maybe we ought to do nothing, maybe we ought to collapse civilization. I'm impressed that current politicians care so much about future generations.

    1. Anonymous5:27 PM

      Incredidumb. I'm sorry, for all of us, that you thought this was worth posting.

    2. Anonymous7:29 PM

      No, it's called economics. Are we exactly "saving the world", or what sort of benefit will there be? Bottom line, how much will it cost, and is it worth the benefit? Will there be benefits? Worldwide depression is just a way of thinking about all costs upfront.

  9. Well, how about the 2007 Eli Rabett's Simple Plan to Save the World

    Nations wishing to make major progress on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions should introduce emission taxes on all products. These taxes should be levied on imports as well as domestic goods at the point of sale, and should displace other taxes, such as VAT, sales taxes, and payroll (e.g. social security, health care) in such a way that tax revenues are constant, and distributed equitably.

    These should be introduced as an Emissions Added Levy (avoiding the bad jokes). EAL would be imposed on sale for emissions added in the preceding step and inherent to the consumption of the product, as would be the case for heating oil and gasoline. Manufacturers would pay the EAL on electricity they bought, and incorporate this and the levy on emissions they created into the price of the product they sell.

    Imports from countries that do not have an EAL would have the full EAL imposed at the time of import. The base rate would be generic EALs based on worst previous practices in the countries that do have EALs, which would be reduced on presenting proof that the actual emissions were lower.

  10. Interesting list, particularly #1. Seems like policy is currently moving in the opposite direction, though-

  11. Noah,

    Chinese will solve their problems - they are chocking in pollution. They already have the technology and also they are working on the problem - do some research, like contacting Chinese ministries and institutes. What proven technologies we have that we can give poor and backward Chinese?

    We need to focus on ourselves. We use nearly 25% of the energy produced; Chinese population is four times ours and they aspire to live a better life - meaning they are using more energy. Same for India and most other countries.... China, India and many other countries are embracing solar and wind at much faster rate.

    Energy consumption is not going to go down in aggregate; we need to move away from fossilized carbon based energy. For an economist, the challenge is how to move away from fossilized carbon based energy as well as how can be capture fossilized carbon by products and put to some use.

    I do not think you have really thought through the problem. I also feel that you have an urge to publish, or a desire to stay in the limelight; you need to reconsider your approach to the glory.

  12. Heh, that reminds me of Monty Python's "How to do it" sketch.