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Mission Impossible?

Dan Lashof

Posted May 19, 2013

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On Friday I had the honor of being the commencement speaker for Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group, where I obtained my Ph.D. 26 years ago. Here is a lightly edited version of my speech (some inside jokes removed).

Thank you for inviting me. It really is a great pleasure and a great honor. I’m always looking for a way to get back to Berkeley. In fact, when I moved to Washington after completing my degree at ERG I planned to move back to Berkeley in 3 to 5 years.

That was 26 years ago.

I am still planning to move back in 3 to 5 years, but I’m beginning to think that my impending return to Berkeley is like fusion power—always beyond the end of the current planning horizon.

So that brings me to my first piece of advice—and I understand that my job today is to impart advice, so let’s get started: Beware of Potomac Fever. It is highly contagious and can last for more than 20 years. Also beware of malaria. My wife, also an ERG graduate, managed to contract a case recently and she doesn’t recommend it. Fortunately, Diane has fully recovered with the help of modern malaria medications, which have improved a lot in the last 26 years. That’s good because the way things are going we may be seeing a lot more cases of malaria in formerly temperate countries in the years ahead.

Which brings me to my second piece of advice: Choose a career fighting climate change. You are guaranteed lifelong employment.

As you know, that fight hasn’t gone too well so far. Last week we reached a grim milestone. The daily average concentration of carbon dioxide near the top of Mauna Loa, Hawaii exceeded 400 ppm for the first time in human history. In fact, for the first time during the existence of humans as a species.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to keep CO2 from crossing 450 ppm.

This speech will not self-destruct in 30 seconds, or at least I hope it won’t. But the planet just might self-destruct in 30 years if you don’t take this mission. But really, no pressure. It’s entirely up to you.

Now there are many reasons to believe that this is Mission Impossible—but take heart, Tom Cruise always succeeds in the end.

But first, consider this: When I finished at ERG the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was 350 parts per million.  That means that in the next 26 you need to make sure that CO2 increases less than it did during the last 26 years. And during that period, the world’s population and per capita income will each have doubled.

Governments around the world have spent thousands of hours talking about climate change since 1990, but at least in the United States, we don’t appear to have much to show for it. The first IPCC report was published 23 years ago, just three years after I finished my degree. I was one of what at that time was just a handful of non-governmental observers when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher accepted the report from John Houghton, the Chairman of the science working group and Chief of the UK Met Office at the time. Some of you are too young to remember a time when climate science was not a partisan issue.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed just two years later. Although I was disappointed that the Convention did not include legally binding emission limits, it established the objective of stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at safe levels.

NGOs around the world pressed on, demanding that government leaders immediately resume negotiations on binding emission limits. Five years later I was in Kyoto when after nearly two weeks of stalemated talks Al Gore parachuted in. All the side meetings and conversation in the conference center stopped as delegates and NGOs waited to hear what the author of Earth in the Balance would say as Vice President of the United States. He wasn’t specific, but he told delegates that he had instructed U.S. negotiators to show greater flexibility. Forty-eight hours of non-stop negotiations later the Kyoto Protocol was adopted and a standing ovation erupted in the Conference hall.

I was euphoric, although that might have had something to do with sleep deprivation. While some critics on the left argued that the targets were too weak and critics on the right complained that China and India were exempt, I was convinced that the world had taken a critical first step toward combatting climate change. The world’s rich countries had agreed to legally-binding emission reduction commitments.

There were caveats, of course. The agreement lacked an enforcement mechanism; there were tricky issues to resolve about how to account for forest carbon; and key rules for implementing the Clean Development Mechanism needed to be hammered out. But negotiations would continue and surely improvements would be made over time.

Those negotiations are still continuing.

And, of course, the U.S. never ratified the agreement. We knew ratification would be a challenge. After all the Senate had voted 95-to-nothing for a resolution cautioning President Clinton not to sign onto an agreement that did not include specific commitments for developing countries. But contrary to some revisionist history, that vote was not a specific rejection of Kyoto. It occurred prior to the final Kyoto negotiations, and the vote count reflected a strategy by Kyoto supporters, led by John Kerry our current Secretary of State, who knowing the resolution would pass, wanted to downplay its significance by voting for it and interpreting it as consistent with the modest reporting requirements Kyoto was expected to include for developing countries.

That strategy failed miserably.

In fact the Clinton administration started back pedaling on Kyoto as soon as the plane of returning delegates landed. It was never submitted to the Senate for ratification. Nor, more importantly, did the Clinton administration ever try to pass implementing legislation, which would have “only” required 60 votes, rather than the nearly-impossible 67 votes needed to ratify a treaty.

This brings me to lesson 3: In powerful countries, such as the United States and China, international agreements can’t drive domestic policy.

The international process can put things on the agenda, but without an organized domestic constituency, international agreements are just words on a page. Even a ratified, legally-binding agreement with an enforcement regime that’s strong in theory may not mean much unless it is backed by political will. Powerful sovereign states will ignore, or withdraw from, agreements that have no domestic support.

This lesson my sound pretty obvious—I’m sure it’s taught in International Relations 101—but it took me a long term to learn it. When I realized that the NGO party, rather than the Conference of Parties itself had become the main reason to attend, I shifted my focus to domestic policy and politics.

So how has that worked out?

Well, once again, I really thought we were on the threshold of a breakthrough when the House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey bill on June 26th, 2009. For the first time we had a bill pass a Chamber of Congress that would have established national limits on global warming pollution. And these limits really would have been binding—enforced by U.S. law and U.S. courts.

Again, critics on the left said it wasn’t strong enough, that it included too many corporate giveaways, and that the use of offsets would undermine real emission reductions. Critics on the right said that it was a job killing energy tax, that it was part of president Obama’s assault on freedom, and that it was useless for the United States to act alone against global warming.   

Proponents had well-reasoned responses to each of these charges: The requirements did start out modestly, but they got stronger every year, culminating in an 80 percent reduction; the free allowance distribution was designed so that at least 80 percent of the value would provide public benefits, not corporate windfalls; cap-and-trade was a market-friendly policy, previously embraced by Republicans, designed to minimize costs to the economy.

Proponents also had President Obama in the White House, with John Holdren as his Science Advisor and Steven Chu as his Secretary of Energy. We had Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and 60 Democratic votes in the Senate.

It wasn’t enough.

Look, I didn’t call it Mission Impossible for nothing.

Lately there has been a lively discussion among some academics about what went wrong in the campaign for cap and trade legislation. Theda Skocpol has argued that the Waxman-Markey bill was too much of an insider deal, designed to bring interest groups on board rather than build a broad social movement. She and other have criticized the bill’s central policy mechanism of cap-and-trade, suggesting that cap-and-dividend or a carbon tax would have been better.

There may be some validity to these critiques, but I’m highly skeptical that any tweaks to the policy mechanism would have altered the outcome. The politics of any climate bill in the U.S. has a strong regional component that depends on each state’s mix of energy resources. That meant that, despite the presence of 60 Democrats in the Senate, the only plausible strategy to get 60 votes required building a bipartisan coalition. And bipartisanship was simply not in the cards after the rise of the Tea Party in the summer of 2009.

Which brings me to Lesson 4: Never under estimate how hard it is to get legislation through the U.S. Senate.

But I still believe that, like Tom Cruise, you will succeed in the end. Call that a triumph of hope over experience if you like, but I think there are many solid reasons for hope. And besides, what other choice do we have?

The reasons for hope start right here in California, where ERG and its partners at LBL have had a profound influence. Ever since Jerry Brown was governor the first time, California’s energy and environmental policies have established a model for the country and the world to emulate.

Energy efficiency policies pioneered in California have meant that per capita electricity consumption here has been level for over 20 years.

California was the first state to adopt greenhouse gas emissions standards for passenger vehicles. After a dozen other states followed suit, and after the Supreme Court confirmed that EPA had the authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, the Obama administration was able to parlay California’s standards into a national program that will cut new car tailpipe CO2 emissions in half by 2025.

California has also been at the forefront of renewable energy policy. California produced more electricity from wind than any other state for decades, despite having middling wind resources. Recently Texas surpassed California in that department. I know there is little love lost between Californians and Texans, but this is a good thing. It shows that the industry is maturing -- building where the resources are best, not just where the policy support is strongest.

And of course there is California’s groundbreaking Global Warming Solutions Act, which is now up and running. While the Waxman-Markey bill was dying a slow and painful death in the Senate, Californians were rallying to defend this law against Proposition 23, which would have effectively killed it. Not only did the No on 23 campaign succeed, but it out-polled any other line on the California ballot in 2010, showing that a smart, disciplined, well-resourced campaign could defeat the conservative backlash. Of course it helped that Prop. 23 could be fairly characterized as the product of two Texas oil companies at a time win the San Francisco Giants were battling the Texas Rangers in the World Series.

November 2010 was a good month for California as both the Giants and the No on 23 campaign won by lopsided margins. It was not such a good month in the rest of the country as climate change deniers took control of the House of Representatives, ending any hopes for a near-term revival of legislation like Waxman-Markey.

Indeed, with John Boehner taking over as Speaker of the House from Nancy Pelosi with the help of a sizeable anti-government, anti-science Tea Party Caucus, the battle shifted from passing sweeping new environmental legislation to defending the bedrock laws already on the books.

Since then the House has passed dozens of bills that would restrict or outright repeal EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases. One went so far as to repeal climate science by overturning EPA’s formal determination that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare.

At the beginning of the 112th Congress many strategists thought that the best possible outcome would be to accept a delay in EPA’s ability to enforce greenhouse gas standards in exchange for retaining its underlying authority. But thanks, in part, to a very successful federal campaign modeled on the No on 23 effort, every attempt to constrain EPA that was eagerly passed by the House was defeated in the Senate.

This brings me to Lesson 5 (corollary to Lesson 4): It’s a lot easier to block legislation than to pass it.

That means that President Obama began his second term with the Clean Air Act intact. After a period of near silence during the campaign, the president used his Second Inaugural and Fifth State of the Union speech to recommit to confronting climate change. A December 2012 NRDC report showed that, contrary to popular belief, the Clean Air Act could be used to make big emission reductions from power plants at low cost. A February report from the World Resources Institute shows that the 17 percent by 2020 reduction target contained in the Waxman-Markey bill and embraced by President Obama is still within reach using only laws that are already on the books.

Make no mistake, this won’t be easy. Republicans in the Senate are currently holding up the nomination of Gina McCarthy to head EPA, knowing that delay is their most effective tactic to prevent President Obama from fulfilling his pledge to continue reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even though he is only four months in to his second term, time is already running out because it takes years to propose, finalize, defend, and implement carbon pollution standards under the Clean Air Act. But it is doable. Congress can and will try to interfere, but ultimately, if necessary, the president can veto any legislation designed to block EPA rules.

So the policy landscape is not as bleak as it appears. But what makes me even more optimistic is what is happening with energy technology and energy markets.

For almost forty years there has been a lot of talk about soft energy paths, centered on energy efficiency and what used to be called “alternative energy.” Potential study after potential study, many of them produced right here in Berkeley, showed that it was possible for the United States to cut its energy consumption 30, 50, or 80 percent, and shift to renewable energy for 25, 80, or 99 percent of our supply.

But while real progress was being made on energy efficiency and renewable energy projects were springing up in various places, these efforts weren’t keeping up with growing population, the explosion of electronic devices, and the seemingly inexorable demand for more, bigger, faster cars. And at the same time progress was also being made in fossil fuel extraction—with techniques such as Mountain top removal mining, tar sands development and fracking--putting off, apparently indefinitely the exponential increase in fossil fuel prices Hotelling predicted.

So from 1987 to 2005, U.S. CO2 emissions increased by 25 percent and the official government energy forecast at the time projected a further 34 percent jump by 2025. Not a very good track record for nearly 20 years of effort.

Then a funny thing happened. Even as Congress was busily killing comprehensive energy and climate legislation, emissions started going down. The data for 2012 show that U.S. emissions were 12 percent below their peak level of five years earlier. That means that 2012 emissions were back down to 1995 levels.

Now there were lots of reasons for that. About half of that reduction can be attributed to the recession. Another chunk is attributable to temporary fuel switching from coal to natural gas.

But dig a little deeper and a more interesting picture emerges.

First, total electricity consumption in 2012 was virtually identical to 2005 levels, even though the economy is now almost 8 percent larger, despite the recession.

Second, there was a dramatic increase in wind power, which produced 3.5 percent of total net generation in 2012 compared with just 0.4 percent in 2005.

Third, new passenger vehicle emissions-per-mile have decreased by 16 percent since 2005 while total miles driven has stabilized.

What all this means is that the energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies we have been talking about for more than thirty years have finally gone to scale.

Since 2005, utility energy efficiency program budgets have increased from less than $2 billion per year to more than $8 billion. And this is showing up in the electricity consumption data.

In the last five years total non-hydro renewable energy capacity has doubled to 86 GWs. The U.S. added 17 GW last year alone, 3 GW of which was solar. Let me say that again. Last year the U.S. installed 3 GW of solar capacity. Not MWs as we were talking about just five years ago—GWs, and I know this audience appreciates the difference.

Solar, in particular, is now poised to be a global game changer. The global PV industry is already capable of churning out over 50 GW of solar modules per year. And with that scale, the long-predicted price reductions have occurred. The Holy Grail price point for solar, which again, we have been talking about for decades, was finally achieved last year when module costs fell well below $1 per Watt.

This has all happened so quickly and after such a long wait, that almost no one has really internalized the implications. Or at least no one who grew up before the internet.

What about China? When I finished at ERG, China’s emissions were half those of the United States. Now they are approaching double, and continuing to increase at an alarming rate.

Yet there are signs that China’s emissions path could change as dramatically in the near future as its economy has in the recent past.

First, urban pollution levels in China have reached such untenable levels that they threaten the stability of the regime, leading Li Keqiang to put a higher priority on environmental protection than economic growth in his first speech as Premier.  Second, China is already strongly hedging its energy bets, investing heavily in wind, solar, and nuclear power even as it continues to build about one new coal plant per week. And third, China is experimenting with regional cap-and-trade programs and giving serious consideration to establishing a carbon tax in its next five year plan. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if China had a carbon tax before the United States.

So perhaps your mission is not impossible after all.  And while you don’t have the flying squirrel suit and souped up BMW that Tom Cruise has, I know that as ERG graduates you have the tools, the passion, and the network to succeed.

First of all, you have your Energy Data Cards. Don’t tell me ERG no longer issues Energy Data Cards! Of course my eyes are no longer good enough to read the fine print. But I sleep better at night knowing that I have all the conversion factors I will ever need tucked away in my wallet. Yes, before iPhones, before the internet, even before the lowly IBM PC, we could still convert furlongs per fortnight to meters per second using our trusty Energy Data Cards. 

And let me tell you, knowing how to do basic unit conversions and the difference between KWs and KWhs is a critical skill that will serve you well. More importantly you understand which numbers are important and why. And you understand that getting the numbers right is necessary but not sufficient for solving the critical challenges we face.

So if you choose to accept this mission—and as I said before, no pressure—no one is better positioned or better equipped than you are.

I know you will choose wisely.

Thank you.

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Paul BaerMay 21 2013 03:06 AM

Excellent advice! You've been a role model for me and many others, ERGies and otherwise, for a long time. I hope this introduction to the new cohort is inspirational in both directions...


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