Climate & Energy

We'll always have Hollywood

No American-made car meets China’s fuel standards

The Toronto Star reported an alarming factoid earlier this month: No gasoline-powered car assembled in North America would meet China's current fuel-efficiency standard. That's mainly because: Currently, their standard is much higher than ours. Their standard is a minimum-allowable efficiency standard rather than a "fleet-average" standard like ours. Our lame car companies don't make their (relatively few) most efficient vehicles in this country. As for our much-hyped new 35-mpg (average) standard -- in 2020, it will take us to where the Chinese are now (but not even to where Japan and Europe were six years ago). If we don't rescind it, that is. So whether you believe in human-caused global warming or peak oil, America remains unprepared to capture the huge explosion in jobs this century for clean, fuel-efficient cars. Oh, and by 2010, China will be the world leader in wind turbine manufacturing and solar photovoltaics manufacturing. No worries, though: our TV and movie sales overseas still kick butt. For now.

Giant Antarctic ice chunk collapses

A 160-square-mile chunk of ice — that’s seven times the size of Manhattan — has collapsed off of the Wilkins ice shelf in Antarctica. The entire ice shelf, which is approximately the size of Connecticut, is “hanging by a thread,” says climate scientist David Vaughan: “We’ll know in the next few days or weeks what its fate will be.” Scientists are not concerned that the ice breakage will have an immediate effect on sea-level rise, but, says researcher Sarah Das, such collapses are “more indicative of a tipping point or trigger in the climate system.” Which is so not what …

ECO:nomics: A chat with Jim Rogers

Duke Energy CEO defends the need for free permit allocations

One of the most interesting political dynamics emerging around climate policy is the clash between coal utilities and utilities that rely more on natural gas and nuclear. (Most of the former are regulated, while most of the latter are, to one extent or another, deregulated or restructured.) Gas and nuke utilities stand to benefit from a cap-and-trade program that prices carbon steeply and quickly, since their fleets are already (relatively) low-carbon. Coal utilities, on the other hand, are CO2-intensive and are pushing for measures to ease the transition to low-carbon technology. The main such measure is allocating — that is, …

How do you make people change?

What behavioral economics has to offer

Many critics of economists contend that because people aren't rational, economics has little predictive power. This is wrong for two reasons. First, people act relatively rational in many (if not most) circumstances; second, the deviations from rationality are predictable. As one of my professors at Berkeley used to say, it's not enough to say that people don't always act like perfect utility maximizers; the question is whether they do on average, and when they don't, what directions they take. It turns out that irrationality is not at all random, as claimed by some. What does this mean for environmentalists? A lot. Dealing with climate change and other major environmental issues will require major changes in behavior, and this is where behavioral economics comes in. There is an interesting piece in today's NYT on ways to get people to change their energy use; pay special attention to the "Further Reading" section near the top. And Monday on NPR, there was an hour-length program on behavioral economics entitled "Predictably Irrational," which offered a nice introduction to the field of behavioral economics. Educate yourself and enjoy.

Coal is not cheap: Kansas edition

Independent financial analysis finds that coal is a stinker of an investment for Kansas

We’ve been following the ongoing battle over coal in Kansas closely. (The latest is that Gov. Sebelius vetoed a bill that would have moved the plants forward and prevented her KDHE secretary from blocking future plants.) Today brings an interesting development. A new report from a leading financial research firm, Innovest, comes to a blunt conclusion: building the plants would put Kansas ratepayers at substantial and ongoing risk. They would be saddled with long-term, unpredictable-but-rising costs. Or, put another way: coal is not cheap. It’s somewhat startling that this is the first independent financial analysis that’s been done of the …

Focus on fossil fools

A different way to mark April Fools’ Day

Just one week until Fossil Fools Day! April 1 will mark a day of creative protest against global fossil energy industry hegemony, sparked by grassroots action group Rising Tide. Here's their list of suggested targets: New coal plants Proposed liquefied natural gas import terminals Proposed oil and natural gas pipelines Oil refineries Existing coal plants Local electricity providers Mountaintop removal mining sites near or connected to you Tar sands Check their site for suggested actions.

Climate change may cloud Lake Tahoe’s waters, study says

Climate change will likely cloud Lake Tahoe’s famously clear waters within a decade, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California at Davis. Warmer temperatures are likely to alter and eventually shut down the lake’s deep-water circulation, eventually turning the waters a murky green, researchers said. “A permanently stratified Lake Tahoe becomes just like any other lake or pond. It is no longer this unique, effervescent jewel, the finest example of nature’s grandeur,” said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center (and likely a closet Tahoe-brochure author). A water-circulation shutdown would almost certainly mess …

Why FutureGen had to die

The blind alley of more coal

Thomas Homer-Dixon, whose book I adore, has written an op-ed in The Globe and Mail arguing in favor of large government investments in carbon capture and sequestration technology. His advocacy of CCS has long confused me -- my reading of his book suggested (to me, anyway) that large-scale CCS was precisely the kind of technology we should avoid like the plague. To recap: Homer-Dixon builds on the work of Joseph Tainter, who argues that societies respond to pressures and challenges by investing in complexity. But these investments come with increasing costs as time goes on, until society finds itself investing more in complexity than the challenge/pressure actually costs. In Tainter's example of the Roman Empire, it eventually became more expensive to run the Empire than it was worth to the local peasant, whose taxes had gone nowhere but up for the previous century, so the peasants didn't put up much of a fight when the Goths came through. Paying tribute to the barbarian was less of a burden than paying taxes to Rome, so the Empire imploded -- not because the Empire was militarily weak, but because people had been living in a system of negative returns. Homer-Dixon's book argues that when we start getting to negative returns on increasing complexity, the proper response is new, more resilient systems, less about "efficiency" than resilience, withstanding the inevitable shocks that face any system. We are at a pretty crucial decision point, or indeed past it: Do we keep investing in fossil fuels and the systems required to sustain them, or do we invest in the more resilient energy system of the future? Prof. Homer-Dixon and I agree that the grid of the future should be more renewable and resilient, but he argues in his op-ed that the scale of the climate crisis means we need to be using CCS now. But the two futures are not compatible, and I think we need to understand some pretty fundamental flaws with industrial CCS:

Run your car on coal? Maybe not

CTL fuels: still a bad idea

As the price of oil rises, coal company executives smell a huge opportunity: they are planning to ramp up a new global industry to turn coal into liquid fuels (diesel, kerosene and jet fuel), plus basic feedstocks for the chemical industry to make plastics, fertilizers, solvents, pesticides, and more. The coal-to-chemicals industry is already going gangbusters in China. U.S. coal companies like Peabody and Arch plan to combine well-known coal-to-liquids technology and rapidly-evolving coal-to-chemicals technologies with untested methods of capturing carbon dioxide (or CO2, the main global-warming gas), compressing it into a liquid, and injecting it a mile below ground, hoping it will stay there forever. (Burying CO2 is called "carbon capture and storage," or CCS.) If coal executives succeed in convincing the public to pay for all this, low-carbon renewable energy systems and waste-free "green chemistry" will be sidelined for decades to come. The coal industry has nearly universal support in Congress. During President Bush's 2008 State of the Union address, one of the few lines that drew enthusiastic applause was, "Let us fund new technologies that can generate coal power while capturing carbon emissions." A few days later, the president announced his latest budget, with $648 million in taxpayer subsidies for "clean coal." A few days after that, the government announced it was ending its participation in the nation's first "clean coal" demonstration, the Futuregen project in Mattoon, Illinois. Obviously, Washington is experiencing policy angst over global warming, and "clean coal" lies at the heart of the debate. Both coal-to-liquids and coal-to-chemicals depend entirely on carbon burial being possible, affordable, and convincingly safe and permanent. Despite political support in Congress, "coal-to-liquid fuels" had its coming-out party earlier this year, and it did not go well. Here's the story:

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