AskPablo: Climate Change Q&A with Hoff Stauffer

Hoff%20Small.jpgThis week we are honored to have climate change expert Hoff Stauffer answering reader submitted climate change questions. Thank you to all of you who submitted questions during the last week.


Given the science, we have to make reduction of carbon emissions a daily priority. What has happen to population control discussions? Even if I cut my use of carbon way down and the population continues at current rates, there is no end in sight.
I thought so too. But the model I developed has population as an explicit input, so that I can test the sensitivity of global CO2 emissions to global population growth. First, I found that the current population growth rates in the IEA models (World Energy Outlook) are reasonable in that they capture the recent declines in population growth rates and anticipate future declines with higher levels of per capita income, as is consistent with global history. Second, I found that a reasonable mitigation strategy can stabilize and then reduce global CO2 emissions, despite population and economic growth. Such a mitigation strategy includes energy efficiency, carbon capture and sequestration on coal-fired power plants, biofuels to replace natural oil and gas, and the reversal of deforestation, as described in Climate Change: Is It Prudent to Wait?. Third, I found that reasonable changes in population growth rates can not offset the powerful effects of such a mitigation strategy. Population growth and economic growth can occur independently of successful efforts to mitigate global warming. We don’t have to worry anymore about “draconian measures” that would limit either or both, if we adopt prudent policies soon.
While we in San Francisco are worrying about the carbon impact of where we buy our produce, what do we propose to do about those hundreds of millions of people who don’t even understand the urgency yet? Are we delusional enough to think they are going to give up the house, cars, jobs and toys that they have worked all their lives to get? Why would they?
Why would they indeed? I’m going to make a (ungrounded?) assertion that there’s currently not enough reason for them to do so. There’s no incentive or threat that’s big enough to override their desire to have their dreams fulfilled. Remember, it’s in our Constitution, that thing about the right to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Without something major to force them to alter their habits, everything will stay essentially the same.

The mitigation strategy described in Climate Change: Is It Prudent to Wait? would not require material lifestyle changes (for better or for worse) nor interfere with economic growth, particularly in the developing world. Perhaps the most inconvenience an individual would suffer would be to have his choices of autos restricted to more efficient autos that would probably save him money. However, he would still be free to buy the same auto as his neighbor; the only difference is that his neighbor would have a more efficient auto. The notion that “draconian measures” would be required to mitigate global warming is an unfortunate misperception that has inhibited meaningful action. All we need is reasonable government policies that require increased energy efficiency, cleaned-up coal-fired power plants, biofuels, and the reversal of deforestation. Technically and economically, this is not a hard problem. We need to help the political process overcome the misinformation and misguided conventional wisdom.
So what options do we have, as far as private citizens are concerned?

  • A Major government mandate, on the order of the 1 child policy in China, covering all aspects of environmental damage? (This would probably be near impossible to get passed)

  • A Major government mandate requiring a giant shift in energy-efficiency of cars, and a major effort in the energy efficiency of buildings, such as what Germany has taken on?
  • A huge push for eco-taxes? One of the reasons we fly so much, is because we don’t pay the cost of our damage to the environment. Same for cars. This would probably cause a huge shift in transportation development to trains.
  • A huge investment in technology, such as for clean air travel?

Could any of these work? Does the country have the will to institute such harsh measures?
First, please see my two responses above. Second, “harsh measures” would not be required. Third, the way to do this is with a combination of performance standards and “eco-taxes” (or the equivalent such as cap and trade). I prefer performance standards because they would ensure that increased efficiency will be built into the new capital stock, including buildings, appliances, and transportation. But “eco-taxes” in the form of cap and trade are very much in vogue and have a powerful constituency. The two big problems with eco-taxes are that they are relatively ineffective in stimulating energy efficiency, and they would likely not accomplish very much, because the political process will not risk major economic impacts. Please see A New Standard which elaborates on these problems. Hence, I have shifted to a hybrid approach that includes both performance standards and “eco-taxes.” From my point of view, the performance standards would get the job done at modest economic costs, whereas the “eco taxes” would satisfy the academics and advocates of the conventional wisdom. I noticed recently that Natural Resource Defense Council has adopted the hybrid as well; they had previously advocated cap and trade exclusively.
What can private citizens do? Lead by example. Lean on your elected representatives to take meaningful steps soon. Work to unwind the misinformation and mis-guided conventional wisdom. Progress is being made. We all need to keep up the good work and solicit all the help we can get.
Is the point of the carbon footprint calculation to paint a picture of personal consumption patterns, or establish an accurate benchmark for a more robust carbon offset program? Using four different carbon footprint calculators (Environmental Defense, Inconvenient Truth, Carbon Footprint, and BP) I calculated my carbon footprint at anywhere from 5 – 17 tons annually, a surprisingly disparate range. While I applaud the attempt to begin to organize a framework that forces individuals to place a more tangible association on their carbon output, to see where they can improve, it is clear that these calculations do not provide an accurate number.
Very interesting. Although I believe my own footprint is relatively low (I use passive solar heating and cooling, solar hot water, biofuels for supplemental heat, efficient appliances and autos, and lots of public transportation), I have never attempted to measure my footprint. My focus has been on developing mitigation strategies that will solve the global problem and on public policies that would ensure such a strategy is implemented soon. I encourage others to work on the broader problems as well.
Would Mr. Stauffer care to comment on a geological opinion that global warming is due to the Earth’s periodic wobbling on its axis rather than carbon emissions? This is an opinion which I had heard for the first time a few weeks ago and wondered about any credence it might have. Would you be able to inform us of any National or Global (Perhaps the UN) efforts to create a definitive, uniform, transferable evaluation system, depicting both qualitative and quantitative status change in respect to sustainability. Wouldn’t it be prudent to try to create a universal, definitive domain?
I believe the state of the science is most authoritatively summarized in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Climate Change: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policy Makers (February, 2007), which concludes that global warming due to man-made emissions is occurring. However, there is an aspect of that report became controversial almost immediately. This relates to the melting of the polar ice caps and sea-level increases. The report suggests that the melting will be slow and the sea-level increases in this century will be modest. I routinely follow the work of Jim Hansen at NASA. He has been saying for a few years now that positive feedbacks will accelerate the melting of the ice caps and increases in the sea level, by amounts that would make a big difference in this century, perhaps a sea level of rise of more than several meters. He complains that the IPCC process is too cumbersome to assimilate this new information for the recent publication. I find his arguments persuasive. Please see Scientific Reticence and Sea Level Rise, March 4, 2007, available from James Hansen.
In the latest Economist there was an interesting article about solutions to climate change. The solutions highlighted were typically very expensive technological solutions ranging from deploying a “sun shade” into space at a certain point between the earth and sun, seeding the ocean with iron to stimulate algae, to having mobile wind-powered ships that blast sea-water vapor into the sky to encourage reflective
cloud formation. The article ended with the supposition that attempting to mitigate the effects of what is already an unpredictable experiment on earth’s climate with yet another experiment might be “risky to say the least”. What is your reaction to these various schemes, and is there a palatable non-technical solution that people might buy into?

This is the “geo-engineering” issue. Pat Mooney had a piece on this issue in Foreign Policy In Focus The Quick Fix Is In. I found this piece to be both interesting and disturbing. I did not realize that such “geo-engineering” is being seriously considered. Geo-engineering is potentially replete with unintended consequences. Given the current state of knowledge, it is a very dangerous option—that fortunately is not needed now. Yet, we can keep it as a contingency option, in the event that climate change mitigation does not go as well as desired. And we can explore the geo-engineering options carefully in the interim, so that if and when they are needed, the risks inherent in their use are minimal. Clearly, Pat Mooney is correct: “Experimentation … should not proceed without thorough and informed public debate … and only with UN authorization.”
What do you think of the various “industry groups” that are advocating taking action on global warming soon?
I applaud these efforts. If the current administration is going to keep its head in the sand on global warming inter alia, society’s other leaders must step forward to do whatever they can. For the most part I believe these groups are motivated by a genuine desire to do what is right for society, together with some self-interest, which is OK. Some of these corporate leaders have developed technologies that would benefit from policies to mitigate global warming. Others understand that the uncertainty is crippling their planning, leading to inefficient contingency strategies; they want the uncertainty reduced.
But I am concerned about some of the proposals. Recently a group recommended a cap and trade system, but only if it were implemented on an economy-wide basis. Perhaps they have theoretical or ideological reasons for taking this position. But perhaps they understand the real-world implications. It would be possible to design a cap and trade program that cost-effectively reduced emissions in the electricity sector to needed levels, without the risk of major unforeseen economic impacts. However, this is not the case for other sectors of the economy; we simply don’t know enough. Hence, a cap and trade program for the other sectors would be designed by the political process to avoid the risk of major unforeseen economic impacts and hence would accomplish very little, in the electricity sector and other sectors as well. Further, the design of such a program would be so complicated that it might never be enacted. Calling for cap and trade on an economy-wide basis amounts to calling for very little and perhaps major delays. I am worried. We can not afford further delay in implementing a meaningful program.
This is another reason I advocate performance standards in addition to cap and trade. Performance standards by themselves can accomplish almost all that should be accomplished, cost-effectively. A well-designed cap and trade program would be marginally helpful, but enacting such a program might not be feasible for a long time. Hence, we can rely on performance standards to make major progress and appreciate whatever additional help cap and trade provides. But it would be foolish to rely exclusively on cap and trade alone, which unfortunately would likely be too little too late.
Interestingly, the California program relies on performance standards (including for new power plants) and provides the option to adopt cap and trade in addition. Europe started with cap and trade, but now appears ready to adopt performance standards for both power plants and for autos. Some of the recent legislative proposals incorporate performance standards. Hopefully, performance standards will be an important part of whatever legislation is adopted.
What are the most important things to do first?
The most important thing to do first is to deal with new coal-fired power plants, since a lot are being planned and since uncontrolled emissions from these plants would exacerbate the global warming problem for a very long time.
One approach would be to require that all new plants control at least 85% of their CO2 emissions, beginning right away. Since carbon capture and sequestration technology has not yet been commercially demonstrated, the effect of such a requirement would be (a) to stimulate the development of the CCS technology and (b) to delay new coal-fired plants. The delay would require the electricity industry to use other options, such as end-use efficiency, renewable technologies, and probably more natural gas. All of these are cleaner than coal, and the natural gas generation would be substantially replaced by coal-fired generation from the new coal-fired power plants when they come on line.
If such a requirement were deemed too harsh, the requirement could be relaxed such that 85% removal would not be required until a later date, such as 2020. Importantly though, no new coal-fired power plants (new from today) would be “grandfathered;” all would have to meet the 85% removal requirement by a date certain.
Another approach would be to give each new plant a life-time CO2 emissions budget, calculated to require 85% removal over the life of the plant (perhaps 60 years) at a base load capacity factor (perhaps 75%) (1). This would enable to plant to have higher emissions in the initial years, as the carbon capture and sequestration technology is being perfected, but to have lower emissions in subsequent years. Whatever the emissions profile of the plant over time, the life-time total emissions of the plant would not exceed the established life-time budget.
Whatever the requirement, the penalty for non-compliance would be set by Congress. It could be a schedule that increases over time (such as $25/ton in 2015 increasing every year by $1/ton), or it could be fixed (such as at $35/ton in real terms). This automatic penalty would facilitate enforcement and provide clear financial incentives.
The next most important thing to do is to deal with new buildings, since the effects of inefficient buildings would be felt for a very long time. A national building code (with regional variations) would ensure that all new buildings meet minimum efficiency standards. There are good starting points for such a code, such as the Energy Star program, the International Energy Conservation Code, the Advanced Building Guidelines by the New Buildings Institute, and the Home Energy Rating System. Hence, an initial code could be implemented relatively quickly and then refined and updated over time.
In addition, these codes could be modified to deal with the large house problem. All the codes require certain efficiency per square foot of living space. Just as for autos, the energy use of the average house has not decreased, because the effects of more stringent codes and efficiency gains have been offset my larger houses. This phenomenon could be arrested by modifying the codes to set a limit on total energy use at a certain house size (perhaps 2000 square feet). The codes could continue to require certain efficiency per square foot, but they would be truncated at a certain house size. The total energy use of that house size at code would be calculated, and then no larger house could use more energy. This would mean that those fortunate enough to be able to afford a larger home would have to pay for additional energy efficiency, in whatever ways they chose (more insulation, less infiltration, heat exchangers to condition outside air on the way in, passive solar, solar hot water, photo voltaic electricity generation, wind generation, or other renewables such as various forms of biomass for heating).
In developing the national building code and all the performance standards, Congress should specify the key economic and financial assumptions to be used is calculating the cost and benefits of the options. The discount rate should be a social discount rate such as the 3.5% used in the Stern report. The fuel prices should be the higher of the current price or $50/bbl for oil and $6/mmBtu for gas. A value of CO2, such as $35/ton, should be added as cost to each option. Electricity prices should represent the economic (marginal) costs as opposed to current rates that are based on average costs, which are much lower than marginal costs, particularly on hot summer days.
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(1) For example, a 1000 MW coal-fired power plant operating at a 75% capacity factor with 85% CO2 removal would emit about 70 million tons of CO2 over a 60 year period. 1000 MWs times 8760 hours per year times 75% equals 6.57 million MWhs per year. The emissions rate (lbs/MWh) at 85% removal would be 206 lbs/mmBtus (uncontrolled emissions) times (1-85%) times a heat rate with carbon capture and sequestration of about 11,440 btus/kwh divided by 1000 KWs/MW equals 353 lbs/MWh. Then, 353lbs/MWh times 6.57 millions MWhs per year divided by 2000 lbs/ton equals 1.16 million tons per year times 60 years equals a lifetime total of 69.7 million tons of CO2.