China's rapacious coal plant building is neither moral nor sustainable, as discussed in Part I. Yet many supply-side alternatives, like nuclear and hydro, are problematic for the country. What should China do to satisfy its insatiable thirst for energy? Go back to their amazing energy efficiency policies of the 1980s and early 1990s. China's energy history can be divided into several phases, as we learn from Dr. Mark Levine, cofounder of the Beijing Energy Efficiency Center (see terrific video here). The first phase (1949-1980) was a "Soviet Style" energy policy during which there were subsidized energy prices, no concern for the environment, and energy usage that rose faster than economic growth (GDP). The second phase (1981-1999) was "California on steroids," when the country embraced an aggressive push on energy management and energy efficiency, surpassing the efficiency efforts California achieved since the mid-1970s. This came about as a result of Deng Xiaoping heeding the advice of a group of leading academic experts who suggested a new approach to energy. Chinese strategies included:
Yes, America's climate policy is immoral. But that doesn't make China's rapacious coal-plant building moral. The N.Y. Times has published the sobering numbers, which bear repeating: The country built 114,000 megawatts of fossil-fuel-based generating capacity last year alone, almost all coal-fired, and is on course to complete 95,000 megawatts more this year. For comparison, Britain has 75,000 megawatts in operation, built over a span of decades. China is now the main reason the world is recarbonizing -- the carbon content of the average unit of energy produced has stopped its multi-decade decline, as noted. Yes, America is still responsible for a great deal more cumulative emissions, which is what drive concentrations, and China is doing much of its dirty manufacturing for U.S. consumers (I never said our hands were clean). But China seems to have adopted a policy of building as many coal plants as humanly possible until they are forced to stop -- or, I suspect, until they get a deal that pays the country to shut them down (much as they have gamed the clean development mechanism under Kyoto). If China won't alter its coal policy to make its environment livable today even with the Olympics coming, it will require very strong international leadership (led by an America with a moral climate policy of our own) to have any chance at making them alter it to preserve a livable climate in the future. So why doesn't China pursue alternatives? The NYT story explains:
Buffy is back in Climate Progress. I'll take any excuse! Turns out former Buffy star Sarah Michelle Gellar is green, or at least green-tinged, like those monsters she used to fight. She brings her own reusable bag to Whole Foods. Why? "So I get a discount." Okay so the millionaire actress is cheap frugal. You got a problem with that? She also rides a bike, to the annoyance of her neighbors: Not only is it bright pink with the bell and streamers and the whole thing, but it has Hello Kitty tires. Every time I leave my apartment, my doorman just shakes his head. Interestingly, some of the demons on Buffy spin-off Angel were also green, figuratively speaking. For the sake of its vampire employees, the Los Angeles offices of Wolfram & Hart employ "necro-tempered" tinted glass, which "filters out the constituents of sunlight that are dangerous to vampires while leaving the brightness intact. Plus it's thirty percent more energy efficient!" And you thought TV was a vast wasteland.
Eleven years ago, I wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly with various predictions and warnings on oil and energy technology and climate. Since those subjects remain hot today -- concern over oil prices and peak oil is at a three-decade-high, and Shellenberger and Nordhaus have reignited the technology debate with a variety of historically inaccurate claims about the clean energy R&D message -- and since this is probably the best thing I wrote in the 1990s, I am going to reprint it here. It is a long piece so I will divide it up into several posts. "MidEast Oil Forever?" (subs. req'd), coauthored by then deputy energy secretary Charles Curtis, became the cover story for the April 1996 issue (click on picture to enlarge -- yes, that is a lightbulb, the sun, and a windmill about to go over the edge of a sea of oil). The backstory is that the Gingrich Congress had come in with its passionate hatred of all applied energy research, and the Clinton administration was desperately trying to save the entire clean energy budget from being zeroed out. I wrote most of the piece in the summer of 1995 and revised it in January 1996. The title was a warning that the U.S. would be stuck with its dependence on Middle Eastern oil if that happened. Hence the subhead for the article: Congressional budget-cutters threaten to end America's leadership in new energy technologies that could generate hundreds of thousands of high-wage jobs, reduce damage to the environment, and limit our costly, dangerous dependency on oil from the unstable Persian Gulf region.
No, I don't mean cost, safety, waste, or proliferation -- though those are all serious problems. I mean the Achilles heel of nuclear power in the context of climate change: water. Climate change means water shortages in many places and hotter water everywhere. Both are big problems for nukes: ... nuclear power is the most water-hungry of all energy sources, with a single reactor consuming 35-65 million litres of water each day. The Australians, stuck in a once-in-a-1000-years drought, understandably worry about this a lot:
You'll be glad to know The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has launched a major climate program whose goals are to ensure that: the increased energy prices that are an essential part of climate-change legislation do not drive more households into poverty or make poor households poorer; and climate-change legislation generates sufficient revenue both to protect low-income households and to address other needs related to the fight against global warming, so that it does not increase the deficit. CBPP is a great group. But they need to understand that a central strategy for fighting the impact of higher energy prices on low-income consumers is an aggressive energy efficiency strategy to keep overall bills from rising, which I don't see in their work so far.
This post is by guest blogger Auden Schendler, executive director for Community and Environmental Responsibility at the Aspen Skiing Company. Named a "Climate Crusader" in Time magazine's 2006 special issue on climate change, Auden once worked for Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute. You can read his full bio here. Auden has unique insights into the difficulties of corporate sustainability in the absence of government leadership and a price for carbon. ----- Recently, Businessweek covered Aspen Skiing Company's work on emissions reduction as part of an article titled "Little Green Lies." The article has received considerable coverage in the blogosphere because it addresses the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to business claims on the environment. Joe asked me if I'd like to clarify that story, and I jumped at the opportunity. My main point, which probably didn't get across in the article, is that even at a remarkably progressive company like Aspen Skiing Company -- which has strong support from ownership, management, and staff -- cutting CO2 emissions is very difficult. Imagine how hard it must be in most standard businesses that don't have this level of buy-in. This statement may seem obvious, but it cuts against conventional wisdom. Most entities involved in emissions reduction have a stake in saying it's profitable, relatively easy, and sometimes fun. The NGO community makes its living on this perspective. The government needs its own programs to look good. And corporations have a stake in their perceived success as well.
Global warming threatens our 4th of July celebrations with droughts that have forced communities to scrap plans for fireworks displays. And it threatens our White Christmases with winter heat waves. And our Arbor Days with record wildfires. Now it imperils our Halloweens. In a story headlined, "Rain, Drought, Wipe Out Pumpkin Crops Across U.S.," Fox News reports the frightening news: Scorching weather and lack of rain this summer wiped out some pumpkin crops from western New York to Illinois, leaving fields dotted with undersized fruit. Other fields got too much rain and their crops rotted. Pumpkin production is predicted to be down for the second straight year. One expert ominously predicts a run on pumpkins: "If you've got to have them for your 5-year-olds, I certainly would not wait a long time to get them." Even Stephen Colbert has reported on what he calls the War on Halloween (though, characteristic of his out-of-the-mainstream politics, he doesn't make the obvious link to global warming). The bottom line, however, is clear: Pumpkins (like most people) hate extreme weather. Sadly, global warming means more droughts and more deluges. What exactly does extreme weather do to pumpkins?
The remarkably low fueling cost of the best current hybrids (like the Toyota Prius) and future plug-in hybrids are major reasons I don't worry as much about peak oil as some do. James Kunstler, for instance, argues in his 2005 book The Long Emergency (see Rolling Stone excerpt here) that after oil production peaks, suburbia "will become untenable" and "we will have to say farewell to easy motoring." In Rolling Stone, Kunstler writes, "Suburbia will come to be regarded as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." (No -- that distinction probably belongs to China's torrid love-affair with coal power.) But suppose Kunstler is right about peak oil. Suppose oil hits $160 a barrel and gasoline goes to $5 dollars a gallon in, say, 2015. That price would still be lower than many Europeans pay today. You could just go out and buy the best hybrid and cut your fuel bill in half, back to current levels. Hardly the end of suburbia.