The “Pennsylvania Environmentalist” is intended for members, friends, and stakeholders of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council and provides a periodic perspective on the issues we face and the manner in which we address them.
Deep Decarbonization and the Global Race to Halt Climate Change
The debate about global climate change is over. No longer merely a prediction, it is already happening.
There, we said it.
So if you are among the 30% of Americans or three percent of climate scientists who don’t believe that the Earth’s climate is changing due to human activity, then you can probably stop reading here.
But if you are like most Americans and nearly all of the scientific community, read on.
Climate scientists now believe that it is already too late to prevent all of the impacts of climate change, as some impacts are already being seen and felt across the globe. However, with global resolve to mitigate the current rate of warming, a potential full-scale climate disaster might still be avoided.
Now, within the climate change community, there is a new debate that foreshadows the race to halt these dire trends.
This new debate is not over whether climate change is real or not. It is about how massive the global effort needs to be to curb emissions of greenhouse gases.
So urgent and overwhelming is the threat of climate change, says one camp, that the only comparison in world history that comes close is the allied effort in World War II. The other camp, weary of the WWII metaphor, prefers other comparisons.
But M. Granger Morgan, co-director of the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that the WWII metaphor not only fits, it doesn’t go far enough.
“It’s going to take a WWII-like effort across the board,” says Morgan. “It can be done, but it’s going to take that kind of effort all around the world.”
In the end, both sides of this debate agree on one fundamental point: climate change is real and the clock is rapidly ticking against a deadline to do something about it.
The Jury Is In
The Earth’s climate has been changing throughout the last 4.5 billion years. In just the last 650,000 years alone, glacial ice has advanced and retreated seven times, most recently only about 7,000 years ago. And on this fundamental point, there is universal agreement.
The weight of scientific evidence proving human influence on climate change is as overwhelming as it is convincing, leaving virtually no doubt that the planet is in the midst of profound warming unprecedented in at least the past 1,300 years.
Since records were first kept in 1880, the 15 warmest years have all been since 1998. In each of the past two years, the average global temperature has been the warmest on record.
What’s more, the 2015 Pennsylvania Climate Impacts Assessment Update, completed by Penn State researchers for the state Department of Environmental Protection, paints a grim and sobering picture of just how climate change will impact Pennsylvania.
This report found that Pennsylvania’s average yearly temperature has warmed nearly 2°F over the past 110 years. It forecasts that by the middle of the 21st century, Pennsylvania will be about 5.4°F warmer than it was at the end of the 20th century, closely resembling the climate of present-day Washington, D.C.
In the same 110-year period, according to the National Climate Assessment, precipitation in the northeast United States increased by approximately five inches, or more than ten percent. Coastal flooding also increased due to a rise in sea level of approximately one foot. This is projected to have significant impacts in low-lying areas in southeastern Pennsylvania which are affected by the tidal Delaware Basin.
Worldwide, levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides — are the highest ever recorded. Ocean surface temperatures are also the highest on record. Sea levels have risen three inches since 1993 and continue to rise steadily each year. And precipitation extremes–flooding in many parts of the world and severe drought in others–have increased dramatically in just the past few years.
“We’re well past ‘the jury is out’ on climate change,” says Armond Cohen, co-founder and executive director of the Clean Air Task Force.
“Everyone now is jockeying around a solution set rather than debating whether there’s a problem” he adds. “And unless you have a diversified suite of technologies, you’re not going to get near zero.”
Morgan agrees. “We should have started all this a decade or two ago,” he says. “If we’re really going to limit climate change, we have to get serious and we have to do it very quickly.”
The Case for Deep Decarbonization
As worldwide momentum builds for curbing global warming, CMU’s Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making is looking at how to make decisions regarding climate change without running into costly and halting “dead ends.”
“Dead ends” are short-sighted policy decisions that lock policy-makers into an inescapable trajectory, much like the federal investment in synthetic fuels in the 1970s which cost billions in federal investment over more than a decade but never advanced beyond the R&D stage. CMU maintains that such decisions are ultimately ineffective and deplete the political and financial support needed for real solutions.
Lindsay Baxter, program manager for energy and climate at the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, says that decisions regarding climate change should focus on the end, not the means.
“It’s not a question of nuclear, renewables, or fossil fuels,” she says. “The common enemy is carbon emissions. So, the real question is ‘What information and tools do we have at our disposal to ensure that we can achieve meaningful carbon reductions and affordability’”?
“Is growing our renewable energy base the right goal?,” she asks. “Or is it cutting emissions?”
Given that, how can the U.S. make a significant impact on greenhouse gas reductions in the short term?
“There is a developing idea called ‘deep decarbonization,” says Davitt Woodwell, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. “It is a guiding principle that leads you toward eliminating carbon emissions entirely while minimizing the risk of dead end strategies.”
“By setting our sights on the end target, rather than smaller, incremental targets, we can begin charting a path to get there in the most affordable, equitable way possible. In contrast, the most feasible way to achieve 30% reductions in emissions may not be the most feasible way to get to 80% or beyond,” says Baxter.
The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, a global collaboration of energy research teams, shows that this strategy is both technically feasible and affordable. What’s more, it can lead to dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 with the added benefit of putting the major economies of the world on track to full decarbonization by around 2070.
Deep decarbonization will be the topic of a two-day conference in Pittsburgh this March, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. The conference, Achieving Deep Carbon Reductions: Pathways for Pennsylvania’s Electricity Future, will focus on deep decarbonization of the electricity sector. Woodwell hopes it will start a conversation about whether this strategy makes sense for Pennsylvania – and, if so, how it will be constituted, and what policies and programs will be needed to get there.
Foundations of Deep Decarbonization
The concerns over “dead-end” energy policies, the urgency of climate impacts already at work, and the limitations of an all-renewable electricity grid are fueling the interest in deep decarbonization.
Woodwell explains that in the electricity sector, deep decarbonization is akin to a four-legged stool: a sustained investment in renewables, carbon capture and storage for fossil fuel generation, increases in energy efficiency and conservation, and a recommitment to nuclear power technology.
PEC’s Baxter says that the idea of 100% renewable energy is achievable, but may be a long way off, so the time to begin aggressively pursuing development is now.
“While there are undeniable benefits to the environment and human health from a switch to cleaner energy sources,” she says, “increasing levels of renewables will require changes to the existing electricity business model and infrastructure.”
And that kind of change, Baxter adds, will take time.
“We need to be focusing on cutting carbon on a timescale that matches the urgency of climate change, which requires us to consider political and economic feasibility.”
She cites as an example the energiewende, or “energy transition” taking place in Germany, which had established goals to source 80% of electricity from renewable sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as 95% by 2050. And yet, the program has endured criticism for not achieving expected GHG reductions.
In contrast, the United States Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, released in November 2016, takes a more balanced approach, projecting that solar and wind energy capacity will increase by roughly 30 GW per year between 2016 and 2035, increasing to more than 50 GW per year between 2035 and 2050. This represents an increase in yearly growth of 6% beyond “business as usual” projections.
Carbon Capture and Storage
There is widespread, though certainly not universal, consensus that fossil fuels will and should continue to play a role in America’s short-term energy future.
Baxter and Cohen agree that fossil fuels could very well be a part of a portfolio of energy sources, if they can be used cost effectively and without producing air emissions.
Cohen’s Clean Air Task Force supports carbon capture and storage as a practical and cost-effective component of any deep decarbonization strategy. “We don’t see a serious way forward without it,” he says. “There’s just too much oil and gas in the world, so if you don’t have a way to use fossil fuels without carbon, you’re not going to reach [carbon emissions] targets.”
Even the National Coal Council, says Cohen, has shifted its focus. “They’re not disputing that the world is moving in this direction, so let’s get on with carbon capture and storage.”
But Cohen also allows that public policy in support of carbon capture will have to catch up with that of renewable sources in order to enable fossil fuels to continue playing a viable role in energy production.
“The coal, oil, and gas part of the equation is in transition,” he adds. “It’s going to be very hard to manage down to zero [emissions] without it. And the developing world is going to have to take the lead on it.”
Energy Efficiency and Conservation
A 2009 study by McKinsey & Co. found that the United States could dramatically improve the efficiency of its homes, offices and factories, through such simple strategies as sealing leaky building ducts and upgrading old appliances. By doing so, McKinsey estimated, the country could save $680 billion dollars over ten years, the climate equivalent of taking all of the nation’s cars off the road and eliminating 100% of vehicle emissions.
The Alliance to Save Energy reports that the U.S. economy is far less energy-efficient than many other industrialized nations, including Japan, France, and Germany. Boosting energy efficiency could save money and have a significant impact on lowering carbon emissions.
But energy waste isn’t limited to buildings. Our current energy infrastructure relies on centralized, often remote power plants, where thermal energy capture is somewhat inefficient. Further, the transmission and distribution of power results in a 7-10% line loss. Deep decarbonization drives a new, more holistic way of thinking to make the entire system more efficient through solutions such as distributed generation, combined heat and power, and smart grid technologies.
The proposed Clean Power Plan includes a major investment of $4.3 billion in energy efficiency improvements in Pennsylvania.
The Wall Street Journal reports that a number of prominent environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are reconsidering their longstanding opposition to nuclear power, marking a significant shift in the antinuclear movement as environmentalists’ priority shifts to climate change.
Stewart Brand, environmental author and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, rhetorically asks: “Can you be an environmentalist and be pro-nuclear?” He then adds, “In light of climate change, can you be an environmentalist and not be pro-nuclear?”
A 2014 letter signed by 71 ecologists and conservation researchers strikes a similar chord. And climate researchers from the Carnegie Institution, MIT, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the Earth Institute of Columbia University have concluded that “in the real world, there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.”
If all of this sounds perfectly reasonable to you, you are not alone. So why hasn’t deep decarbonization been more widely embraced before now?
While most of the world’s developed countries are moving ahead with deliberate urgency posed by climate change, a Pew Research Center poll taken in early 2016 found that the U.S. trails the rest of the world in recognizing the threat of a warming planet and acknowledging its severity.
“Very few people in the political sphere view this as a major crisis,” says Morgan. “We’ve had the warmest year on record for several years now, but it’s a slow, creeping characteristic.”
Mike Griffin, Morgan’s colleague at CMU’s Center for Climate Decision Making, compares it to the “frog in the frying pan” analogy.
“Was Hurricane Sandy a result of climate change?” asks Griffin. “Could be…probably was…but we don’t know for sure. But if two or three Sandy’s happened in a row, and we said, ‘the reason is climate change,’ then the public in the U.S. would be up in arms. But we don’t have those kinds of cataclysmic events.”
“We don’t have worldwide agreement on climate mitigation strategies,” he adds. “The U.S. is certainly a leader in stalling. We’ve got a divided government and a divided society and a significant portion of society thinks that climate change is simply a conspiracy theory.”
“I think Europe is ahead of the U.S. society in accepting that climate change is real.”
“The political ground has shifted,” adds Cohen. “Everyone is jockeying now around a solution set rather than debating whether there’s a problem.”
That’s the good news. The bad news, says CMU’s Morgan, is that this realization should have occurred a decade or two ago.
Morgan is quick to admit that the agreement reached by the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris earlier this year is an essential step in the right direction, but worries that it may not be enough to bring about the kind of rapid change needed to stave off a crisis.
The Paris convention brought 196 countries together for the purpose of building consensus behind a global effort to reverse the threat of climate change. What the delegates agreed to was a commitment to take whatever measures are necessary to limit the rise in temperatures to 2° Celsius (3.5° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by 2050. Scientists believe that while a 2° C increase in global temperatures will still have a significant impact on climate patterns, it will be less devastating than allowing those temperatures to rise unchecked.
Moreover, the COP21 agreement concedes that even if every signatory meets its current obligation for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, the world will still surpass 2° C of warming.
“If we’re going to really limit climate change,” Morgan says, “we have to get serious and we have to do it very quickly.”
Energy Policy Lags Global Urgency
The proposed federal Clean Power Plan provides emissions targets for Pennsylvania and has staked a goal of a 32% reduction in CO2 emissions from the electricity sector by 2030 from the baseline year of 2005.
In 2007, Pennsylvania’s sources that are subject to the rule were emitting 134 million tons of CO2. By 2014, that number had dropped 20% to 107 million tons due largely to the recession, changes in the electricity markets including fuel switching to cheap natural gas, and compliance with other environmental regulations.
Regardless of the Clean Power Plan’s future in the Trump administration, Pennsylvania will enter the compliance period in 2022 with a target of 106 million tons of CO2 – only a million tons less than we’re emitting today. Then, over the next eight years, by 2030, the state will have to reduce emissions to 91 million tons, a decrease of only 16%.
In other words, market forces alone have brought Pennsylvania within striking distance of its 2030 emissions reduction targets.
And PEC’s Woodwell wants to see Pennsylvania reach for much higher standards. Why? Because they are achievable.
“Getting to a 32% reduction really isn’t a big deal,” says Woodwell. “Pennsylvania is likely to meet that goal simply by fuel switching.
“What is a big deal,” he adds, “is an 80% reduction…or greater. Fuel switching and conservation are the ‘low-hanging fruit,’ but to get to an 80% reduction will be more difficult, requiring a change in thinking and new ideas.”
Unfortunately, nearly half of the states have a different view. Last year, 24 governors sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court over its authority to enforce the Clean Power Plan.
Ironically, it was the promise of the Clean Power Plan that gave the U.S. an air of credibility during the Paris climate conference, and the emissions targets set in the U.S. plan gave impetus for other countries to follow suit.
“Actions to reduce climate change, such as the Clean Power Plan, are necessary to slow these consequences and prevent worse from occurring,” according to court papers filed by 20 climate scientists.
“We view the Clean Power Plan and its promise as an effective tool for reducing one of the primary sources of anthropogenic carbon, as a welcome tool for preventing and reducing the negative impacts of human-caused climate change.”
So while the Clean Power Plan winds its way through the courts, climate experts in the U.S. are looking to see how the rest of the world moves forward in meeting the carbon reduction goals agreed to in Paris.
The Danger of “Muddling Through”
“I think there is widespread acceptance that the only way this is going to happen is if we have affordable solutions,” says Cohen. “This is why there is so much focus on innovation, bringing down the cost of renewables…nuclear…carbon capture, and making it compatible with the grid.”
CMU’s Morgan agrees.
“We’re closing nuclear plants around the country because they can’t compete with cheap gas,” he warns. “We’re looking at whether advanced reactors can be developed and come online quickly enough to achieve this sort of trajectory, and the answer is ‘no.’”
He worries that the uncertainty of the federal litigation over the Clean Power Plan will lead to a policy of “muddling through” to meet the 2030 emissions targets.
“And ’muddling through’ has serious repercussions,” writes Morgan.
“More environmentalists are embracing the idea that you have to think outside the wind and solar box,” he says.
Around the world, including in the United States, the race is on to reduce carbon and greenhouse gas emissions. And with the deadline visible on the horizon, many climate policy experts feel a sense of urgency to make decisions aimed at meeting emissions reductions goals in time to have an impact.
“The alarming thing,” says CMU’s Morgan, “is that to hit 2°C, you have to get everything done in the next few decades.”
Morgan and Griffin warn that national policies that set the U.S. on a course for a multi-billion dollar investment in certain technologies or energy sources could consume taxpayer resources to the point that there would be insufficient time and money to change course if those investments were unsuccessful.
The Pennsylvania Laboratory
Perhaps the best news, says PEC’s Woodwell, is that Pennsylvania is arguably the country’s best laboratory for developing a model for how deep decarbonization could work on a national scale.
“Pennsylvania is a fascinating place in terms of energy,” he says. “We really have it all.”
Indeed, Pennsylvania has a long history of energy innovation and production. Today, Pennsylvania is the nation’s second-largest gas producer, the fourth-largest coal producer, 15th-largest in installed wind power production, and is home to extensive expertise in nuclear technology development and commercialization, not to mention a vibrant academic community focused on energy technology R&D.
But experts caution against blind haste in deciding on what formula will work best to meet the U.S. carbon emission reduction goals of the Paris agreement.
For CMU’s Morgan, any successful strategy that achieves dramatic carbon emissions reductions will have to include some kind of direct or indirect cost on CO2 production. The Clean Air Task Force’s Cohen stresses affordability and bringing down the cost of renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture. And Griffin warns against “dead end” policies that lead nowhere and leave the U.S. with no pathway to compliance with the Paris agreement.
“We don’t know all the answers,” says Woodwell, “but these are the questions that we and a lot of others are starting to ask,” he says.
“But the 80/20 rule is likely to apply here. About 80% of the reductions we need should be easy to get. It’s the last 20% that will be the hardest to achieve.”
–Pennsylvania Environmentalist, January 2017–