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When Is the Right Time to Act on Global Warming?

Joe Romm of Climate Progress has been challenging Roger Pielke this week to admit that he was wrong, wrong, wrong in his Nature article. In the Nature piece, Pielke argues that technological breakthroughs are necessary before we can really tackle climate change in a big way. Romm points out that this debate is at the heart of climate policy:

This issue of insisting we must wait for energy technology breakthroughs that rarely come (as explained here) vs. deploying our existing or near-term technology as fast as is humanly possible is perhaps the central climate debate of the day, one we can’t afford to lose. That’s why I blog so much on it.

The problem with this is the “versus.” Using existing technology to reduce CO2 emissions and other pollutants that cause global warming should go hand in hand with working actively toward technology that can bring large-scale emissions reductions. It can’t be one or the other. Policy should reflect both the importance of spending money on R&D for new technology and the importance of using what we have now to reduce emissions as quickly as possible, in as many places in the world as possible.

Romm makes a good point that policy changes can achieve goals where technological breakthroughs would be of no help.

How can breakthroughs overcome the classic hurdles like utility regulations that favor generation over efficiency, or hurdles that favor large central generation over more distributed generation, or that grandfather dirty coal plants or a thousand other well-documented hurdles that can only be fixed by changing policy?

But I actually think Pielke has a point too. Not just on the need for technological breakthroughs, but on the idea that we need to think about climate change in a new way. We need new approaches and we need to be realistic about what we are able to accomplish now.

Romm said earlier this week that technological breakthroughs dramatically changing the way we use energy are rare. But, as Jeffrey Sachs pointed out last month in Scientific American, new technologies that think about energy consumption in a different way have already been developed. It’s just a matter of scaling up their deployment — which requires policy changes. Sachs:

Technology policy lies at the core of the climate change challenge. Even with a cutback in wasteful energy spending, our current technologies cannot support both a decline in carbon dioxide emissions and an expanding global economy. If we try to restrain emissions without a fundamentally new set of technologies, we will end up stifling economic growth, including the development prospects for billions of people. The key is new low-carbon technology, not simply energy efficiency.

Economists often talk as though putting a price on carbon emissions—through tradable permits or a carbon tax—will be enough to deliver the needed reductions in those emissions. This is not true. Europe’s carbon-trading system may or may not have modestly reduced emissions, but it has not shown much capacity to generate large-scale research nor to develop, demonstrate and deploy breakthrough technologies. At the margin, a trading system might marginally influence the choices between coal and gas plants or provoke a bit more adoption of solar and wind power, but it will not lead to the necessary fundamental overhaul of energy systems.

For that, we will need much more than a price on carbon. Consider three potentially transformative low-emissions technologies: carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), plug-in hybrid automobiles and concentrated solar-thermal electricity generation. Each will require a combination of factors to succeed: more applied scientific research, important regulatory changes, appropriate infrastructure, public acceptance and early high-cost investments to “ride the learning curve” to lower costs in the long term. A failure on one or more of these points could kill the technologies.

Concentrated solar power is already starting to take off. Plug-in hybrids and CCS are also well on their way. But the one thing standing in the way of large-scale deployment of these technologies? Costs are still too high.

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