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The Urgency of a Low-Carbon Economy

Daniel Kammen

In the run-up to the December 2009 Copenhagen Climate convention, scientific meetings have become almost constant where different groups of researchers update the global community on the state of climate change.  The news is not good.  Climate change is progressing as fast, or faster than expected, and changes in sea ice, the timing of seasons, and extreme weather events are all showing up as clear changes from what we would expect without human greenhouse gas emissions.  While acknowledging the many areas where the details of the climate story need added investigation, we clearly need to accelerate the process of implementing policy measures and technology transitions to truly launch the low-carbon economy.  I’ll be at the meeting, so it will be interesting so see how this unfolds.    An interesting upshot of the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to President Obama is that he will now certainly be ‘in the neighborhood’ (in Oslo) at the time of the Copenhagen meeting.  After not scoring a victory in Copenhagen last month over the Olympics, this could be a great time to return and hit a home run on climate issues.

The lingering downturn in the global economy makes the challenge of launching significant new programs all the more politically challenging.  An energy agenda focused on innovation and sustainability provides the opportunity to usher in a new energy system that combines significant job creation[1], stabilized energy costs, and global leadership for an economically and environmentally sustainable 21st Century.

The international scientific consensus is that an 80% or more reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions is needed.  This is the conclusion of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (the IPCC) for which I have served in the past and do so again today on a major study of renewable energy systems.  The combination of our technological and policy capacity, and the climate imperative mean that we need to:

Establish and make operational a clear overall vision of an integrated energy and climate policy framework.  This is job #1.  The scope and complexity of the energy sector demand that any effort to make such a profound change reach across all government agencies, from national to state, regional and local, and across all aspects of our society.  This degree of integration requires a framing vision.  U. S. President Obama and a number of other world leaders have already voiced such an inclusive and clear vision.  The challenge for the next several years is to make this exceptional vision operational.

Develop and utilize metrics that permit an evaluation of the climate and energy security impacts of our energy and economic choices.  Today the energy and greenhouse gas implications of many of our decisions from personal to household to city, state, and federal levels are hidden from us.  Without metrics that make the life-cycle impacts of our choices explicit, it is impossible to ask diverse government agencies, private citizens and industries to make low-carbon planning an integral part of their decision-making process.  Life-cycle, or ‘cradle to grave to cradle’ methods also facilitate the vital expansion of sustainable energy and efforts across the economy – from the management of water resources, forests, and agricultural practices to our purchases of goods and services.  One such calculator we developed for the state of California is online as an interactive resource for individuals, families, and municipalities[2].

Invest seriously in energy research, development and deployment. Total investment in all areas of research and development (R&D) in the US as a whole, for example, stands at roughly three per cent of the U. S. gross domestic product, but, for energy, it is only about one-tenth of that level.  By contrast, research and development investments in the medical and biotechnology field are roughly 15% of sales, a staggering 40 times more than for energy.    With energy vital to our economic, geopolitical and environmental security, the R&D investment needs to be increased dramatically and then sustained.  An R&D – or ‘demand push’ — portfolio is vital, but history has shown that it will not be effective without a clear market opportunity, or ‘demand pull’.  While the price for carbon emissions will ideally in the long-term provide sufficient pull, sectoral targets and specific policies such as renewable energy portfolio standards (RPS) or Feed-in Tariffs (FIT) can be expanded as effective interim policies.  Public investments of this sort in the United States have been repaid many times over.  A well-organized and successful campaign to double the federal medical/biotechnology R&D budget during the 1990s resulted in an eleven to twelve-fold increase in private-sector investment and innovation. The recent run-up in investment in nanotechnology is already paying off at a ratio of almost 20 to 1.  Innovation, simply put, is good business and good for business.

Implement a price for greenhouse gas emissions.  Without a price on greenhouse gas emissions we fight an uphill, and potentially impossible battle.  A price signal not only rewards clean energy decisions, but also unleashes diverse powers of innovation.  The current debate over the best form of this price — through a cap and trade, cap and dividend (return), direct carbon fee, or some additional mechanism – is a vital debate, but it must be one where everyone approaches the issue knowing that some price is necessary.  Without this long-term certainty, the difficult task of coming to agreement on how to implement this vital policy runs the risk of spiraling into endless and destructive political infighting.

Encourage, reward, and learn from low-carbon innovations at all scales. A global network of cities, provinces, and states have implemented a range of innovative low-carbon policies.  These efforts are vital to making a sustainable energy economy pervasive, and these diverse and distributed efforts serve as the vital test-bed for efforts that can be adapted and implemented at the national and international level.  An example is the development of innovative financing mechanisms that reward energy efficiency and clean energy investments.  A number of cities are developing ‘municipal financing districts’ where the a bond is used to provide the up-front costs so that property owners can install efficiency and renewable energy with no up-front payments, and pay for this on added property tax assessments[3].  This is a program we developed in Berkeley, California, and is one that can save money and carbon emissions right away.

Invest aggressively in energy efficiency. Energy efficiency efforts in a number of cities, states, and in a range of federal programs have proven to be exceptionally good investments – in many cases returning the investment at once to a matter of weeks, months, or few years.  Even without the aggressive and pervasive energy efficiency efforts, annual savings from the best lighting, heating, and insulation programs save the nation several hundred billion dollars per year.  A national commitment to energy efficiency – as laid out for example in the Think Efficiency report of the American Physical Society[4] – can save huge amounts of money and carbon emissions.  Importantly, a national commitment will send the strongest signal to the global consumer electronics, appliance, lighting and other industries that want to sell to the U. S.

Focus on sustainable transportation.  A range of low-carbon transportation options exist, and a greatly increased set of technologies and practices are needed.  Low-carbon and ecologically sustainable fuels, the significant expansion of the use of plug-in hybrid and fully-electric vehicles[i], greatly increased mass-transit options, all have potential to reduce the environmental (and economic) impact of our transportation options.  The slow turnover of vehicle fleets and the high-cost of new many new technologies (e.g. batteries) demand a significant federal role.  Federal insurance programs against PHEV battery failure, ‘feebate’ programs that tax polluting vehicles and reward the purchase of efficient and low-carbon vehicles, and congestion charging are all tools that warrant analysis and deployment in an integrated effort between federal and state transportation efforts.

Make sustainable communities a hallmark of overseas development assistance and poverty alleviation.  The poor worldwide suffer directly and most immediately from indoor air pollution from unimproved cooking fires, from high energy costs and poor service, and from a lack of locally sustainable energy resources for economic development.  Sustainable energy can also directly improve the social and economic opportunities for disadvantaged minority groups, women and children.


[1] http://rael.berkeley.edu

[2] http://www.coolcalifornia.org/

[3] http://rael.berkeley.edu/financing

[4] http://www.aps.org/energyefficiencyreport/



[i] Lemoine, D., Kammen, D. M., and Farrell, A. E. (2008) “An innovation and policy agenda for commercially competitive plug-in hybrid electric vehicles”, Environmental Research Letters, 3, 1 – 8.

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