Lester R. Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute and author, most recently, of Plan B, Version 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, released a new study today called “Time for Plan B: Cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2020.” I was invited to participate in a conference call in which Lester explained many of the highlights of the plan; I will do my best to share what he said (any mistakes are my own).

First, it appears that the only comprehensive plan to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2020 is the one put out by Brown and his associates at the Earth Policy Institute. Partly this may be because Brown explicitly stated that he was not presenting what is politically feasible, but what is needed to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2020.

Cutting emissions by 80 percent by 2050, as he pointed out, is more politically comfortable because it means you don’t have to do much now, but it is not what is needed. He discussed Jim Hansen’s goal of getting CO2 emissions down to 350 parts per million, a goal which could be targeted after 2020, as the next step after reducing emissions by 80 percent.

80by20 graph

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Brown’s plan consists of three main goals: raising efficiency, moving from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and biosequestration — or basically, increasing the Earth’s forest cover. Most of his talk focused on moving to renewables.

The core of the plan is to replace 40 percent of the world’s electricity that is generated by coal — there are currently about 2,400 coal-fired electricity generation plants in the world — with wind power. This would mean, roughly, the construction of 1.5 million 2 MW wind turbines, which he said could be done over the next 12 years, using just the production capacity of idle U.S. auto factories. Although it seems like a huge amount of turbines, considering that the world produces 65 million automobiles a year, it’s really quite doable.

Brown noted that Texas is aiming to supply 60 percent of residential electricity with the construction of huge wind complexes in that state. Brown travels quite a bit to China, and he says that the Chinese could supply twice the total electricity they now generate, which is currently mostly coal plants, with the enormous wind potential that they have. As for the U.S., he pointed out that Texas, Kansas, and North Dakota contain enough wind potential to replace all of our energy needs, much less electricity.

Solar energy has three main potentialities, according to Brown: solar water heaters (40 million of which have been installed in China alone), solar cells, and solar thermal plants (concentrating solar plants). He pointed out that Algeria wants to construct a 6,000 MW CSP plant in their desert; they plan to be a major of exporter of electricity, which will replace their oil exports when those run dry.

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Next, Brown discussed transportation, and he pointed out that there is an inherent contradiction between cars and cities. While cars in rural areas confer much greater mobility, in cities they tend to lead to less mobility, and of course there are considerations of pollution and carbon emissions as well.

Instead, he proposed high-speed rail, light rail, bus rapid transit, and bike and pedestrian-friendly streets (with such programs as the Parisian Velib program). He pointed out that “high-speed” for rail generally means about 170 mph, and that in the Japanese system — now 40 years old — there has never been a fatality; the average late arrival time is all of 14 seconds.

In the question and answer section of the call, I asked about funding various transit initiatives. Brown pointed out that the Europeans and Japanese have been investing heavily in rail and transit for quite some time now, so we should be able to do the same; in addition, he suggested that as we move from a car-centered to a rail-centered society, much of the money from highway programs could be used to build-up the rail system. In addition, since 42 percent of U.S. freight rail is currently used to transport coal, when we eliminate the use of coal, we will free-up freight rail to be used to transport goods between cities — not from coal mine to coal plant.

Brown also stressed the importance of plug-in hybrids for the U.S, since 88 percent of America commutes by car, we drive 28 percent of the world’s cars, and they are the most inefficient and most traveled-in. He believes that plug-in hybrids, powered by wind-generated electricity, will be the way to go, and that vehicles so powered will get the equivalent of under $1 per gallon. Plug-ins can achieve those cost savings because they can be recharged at night — when electricity is cheaper — and because electric motors are much more efficient than internal combustion engines.

He also briefly discussed nuclear energy, which he says is not cost competitive if you include the following three costs into the price: 1) waste disposal, 2) plant insurance, and 3) the cost to decomission, which he says can be more than the original cost of construction (he would just let the current plants generate until they are decomissioned and halt future construction).

How do we get from here to there? Brown is a big supporter of carbon taxes as opposed to cap-and-trade schemes, although he feels that the two can be combined. He’d like to see a carbon tax, offset by reductions in income taxes, that would start at $20 per ton of carbon, increasing every year for twelve years to $240 per ton by 2020. He points out that if you calculate the carbon tax of the European gas taxes, it works out to $1815 per ton.

He feels that industry likes cap-and-trade because it gives them wiggle room, but he guesses that if you asked economists which was better, cap-and-trade or carbon tax, 95 percent would prefer the latter. He sees Europe’s cap-and-trade system of three years running as a failure at this point, showing that such systems can lead to no decrease in carbon emissions.

In his opening comments, Brown related a question asked of Amory Lovins by Elizabeth Kolbert, the award-winning New Yorker journalist: How do we get people to think ‘outside the box’? Lovins’ answer was, “There is no box.”

If you haven’t done so already, do yourself a favor and read his book Plan B — a rich compendium of problems and solutions, and as good an alternative to Plan A — business as usual — as there is. And don’t miss David’s interview with Brown from 2006.