Universities should unequivocally add their weight to tip the scales in favor of climate action. End the delay by ending the silence.
Academia can break the political logjam that holds up action on climate. Other essential pieces of the climate solution are ready and will fall into place.
Legacy energy interests delay the inevitable collapse of the fossil fuel model by keeping the public confused. Elected policy makers, always wary of losing office, delay the renewable energy transition in exchange for support.
Complicit in this conspiracy of confusion are two institutions currently failing their fundamental obligations to truth, the press and academia.
Not all the 4th estate is guilty. Individual voices clamor for action, but these are overwhelmed by media corporations who decide what is the news, and on balance, truth on climate is not served.
The other truth teller seems to be held hostage by endowments and philanthropy. Within this community, not all are failing. Professors and students recognize the severity of the threat to habitability and individually speak out.
But universities as institutions are too often silent. They try to be above politics and claim that neutrality in any public policy debate is essential to maintaining the purity of the knowledge water that flows from their well.
Is it honest prioritization, or more damningly, money corruption of our highest level institutions? Regardless, it is mistaken. We face an existential threat that may eliminate the human species if worst case scenarios play out.
The possibilities for future generations range from challenging, to suffering on a scale never previously experienced. There is no chance of zero harm if measures are not taken to reduce anthropogenic global warming. Any person who has risen to a position of university governance has to know this. No-one with modest understanding of risk can ignore this reality. “I’m not a scientist” doesn’t wash.
It’s time for the university to put its prestige on the line with an unequivocal and loud demand for action. If it does, the press will follow. The confusion will clear and policy makers will have no choice but to follow.
The policy changes required are quite simple, eliminating subsidies to fossil fuels and putting a price on carbon pollution. Including other externalities would add weight, but for now these two will suffice. The economic superiority of renewable energy will be obvious and market predictability will trigger investment decisions that rapidly obsolete the use of fossil fuel.
What to Expect
- Faster installation of solar and wind electricity capacity
- Faster adoption of electric vehicles
- Replacement of shorter range air service with electrified rail
- Investment in energy efficiency in new and retrofit buildings
- Retirement of the dirtiest electricity producing and transportation equipment
- Movement of investment capital into all non-fossil fuel energy technologies
- Investment optimization for long term climate protection and improved economic performance
- Copying of the strategy in other parts of the world
Which proposals are included in your plan and how do they fit together?
Sweeten the Carbon Deal
This linked proposal offers an understandable and uncomplicated framework for instituting a substantial tax on CO2 emissions. $60/ton CO2 should be levied at the point of entry into the commerce stream, the wellhead or port of entry for imported processed goods.
Taxes collected, estimated initially at $333 billion/year are distributed back through a 1/3 tax cut in FICA (payroll) rates. This will return $333 billion to workers and employers in equal shares.
United States Climate Action Plan 2015
An all-options-on-the-table approach is required. It will bear the greatest fruit if economic incentives are properly aligned.
Ending subsidies of fossil fuel and costing externalities into their price are key, fair and smart steps that will enhance the nation’s wealth.
A $60/ton CO2 tax is appealing because it is sufficient to make much of current fossil fuel consumption habits uneconomic. A straightforward tax will be efficient because of low administrative costs. Simplicity reduces the opportunity for cheating.
Energy (Electricity Production)
Electricity is essential high quality energy that no longer needs to be produced through combustion of fossil fuels. This source of CO2 emissions can be completely eliminated. Some nuclear generation may remain in the mix, but most needs can be met with renewable sources. Wind and solar electricity production are already competitive in much of the country even without accounting for existing subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. With no subsidies, distributed generation solar electricity can be delivered at less than 8¢/kWh for residential scale solar electricity systems and probably less than 6¢ at commercial scale. This compares to 10-12¢ for conventional (subsidized) grid power. Not only is the solar alternative cheaper now, it will not see any of the price escalation likely for grid electricity over the next 25 years.
To what extent wind and solar generated electricity can carry the entire load is the subject of informed speculation and debate. Nuclear power may be an integral part of the eventual no-carbon system. But nuclear power is not cheap. 20¢/kWh is the probable low end price for delivered electricity from a nuclear power plant in the planning stage of development today. The size of the nuclear contribution will be determined by the level of success in developing the other key technology that is just now starting to show progress toward economic viability, large scale batteries.
Batteries, or other energy storage schemes will be essential to the future power grid. Solar and wind electricity production is already the low cost technology. The missing piece for the system is the method to make that low cost electricity available at all times. There is good news on this account.
The Tesla Powerwall is by no means the ultimate refinement of battery technology. But it is good, and it offers a very good reference point for understanding how close we are to having a solution to the renewable energy intermittency problem. The Tesla 7kWh unit has a 10 year guaranteed life if discharged and charged daily. That works out to 16¢/kWh round-trip for the energy stored in it. The cost for using this electricity also must include the cost of generating it. Add 8¢ if it comes from a small solar array on the roof, total 24¢. That’s kind of pricy electricity, but only a portion of the day’s total usage must cycle through the battery. If half is used directly off the roof and half must be drawn through the battery, the average cost would be 16¢.
The point is that totally non-polluting electricity is feasible now. No breakthroughs in physics or chemistry are needed to move rapidly beyond fossil fuels, with virtually no net cost increase to the economy. It may be that in some geographies central electricity generation using nuclear energy will be the economic choice. If so, the penalty will be in the measurable cost of energy produced, but there will no longer be the extra cost burden imposed on future generations by CO2 pollution.
Surface transportation energy can be electricity, especially in the case for short range travel needs. When the electricity is generated without CO2 emissions, transportation becomes truly zero emission. The payload mix for rail and road traffic will resolve as battery technology develops. Grid tethered rail likely wins on a cost per payload-unit-mile basis, but lacks final point to point flexibility. For freight the economic competition will be between rail and battery powered trucks, with trucks winning a larger share as battery capabilities continue to improve.
Battery powered cars are already an obvious viable alternative. Witness the success of Tesla’s offerings and the fact that all major manufacturers are scrambling to offer their own electric versions. Electrics offer performance advantage and do, or soon will, win on the basis of economics. A Nissan Leaf will serve a typical driver’s daily travel for about $1 at today’s residential electricity rates. A similar size gasoline powered car will burn $2 worth of fuel—even at today’s depressed $50/barrel crude oil prices. If oil goes back to $100, the gas-burner will cost $4/day.
Air travel will likely remain fossil fuel powered. Biofuels may become available eventually, but demonstrated production technologies seem out-of-reach-expensive at this point. Efficient use of fuel through maximizing payload and routing for minimum flight time and at optimum altitude has long been standard airline practice. There is minimum opportunity for operational improvement to lower environmental impact.
There is opportunity, however, for moving people and freight traffic off of aircraft and onto cleaner (solar electric powered) rail. Shorter range air travel should be replaced by electric rail.
Even with success at switching from air to rail for some traffic we should plan on living with perhaps 10% of current total carbon emissions untouchable due to continued use of petroleum for long distance travel. This inconvenient reality of physics makes reductions in all other sectors even more pressing.
Shipping is another possible untouchable emission source. The challenge, as with air travel, is the need to carry on board the total energy required to go very long distances without refueling. Energy density is the fossil fuel attribute that makes it difficult to replace for some uses. Shipping emissions is not as intractable a problem as the one for air travel, however. Nuclear propulsion is an obvious possibility, having been demonstrated in continuous use by the U.S. Navy for more than 60 years.
Net-zero-energy buildings are no longer expensive, exotic experiments. The ones already built show what is possible when design for energy efficiency is a key attribute and lifecycle costs take priority over construction cost. Two problems hold this back from translating into easy massive reductions in buildings’ carbon footprint.
First, much of a building’s lifecycle cost is operating expense, including the cost of lighting and comfort. Occupants pay this expense, and the designer and developer who is the original owner feel no pain from energy waste. First owners minimize the cost of design and construction, and unless constrained by code or other specification will not incur extra cost to reduce energy consumption. The designer-architect-developer team has no skin in the game for energy consumed or CO2 produced.
Secondly, a later owner of a leased or rented building has responsibility for infrastructure improvements but probably doesn’t pay utility expenses either. It’s hard for this owner to capture return on investment to improve carbon footprint. The tenant might be willing but is inhibited by knowing that he/she will move before the investment fully pays for itself. Energy improvements aren’t very portable.
These situations could be addressed with a system of tradable credits that reflect the present value of the total contribution of sustainable energy investment over its lifetime. For example, a PV solar system costing $170,000 might deliver a stream of dollar savings of $200,000 after paying off the original investment and have a discounted value (net present value) of $100,000. Somebody will receive this net value over the life of the system. Tradable credits would allow the person committing the original investment to capture a big piece of it. The incentive will be in front of the decision maker. To balance the trade, the building occupant or the utility could own the electricity produced in exchange for purchase of the credit. This mirrors the SREC trading scheme already in use in some states, but is aimed specifically to enable a value trade between a building owner and the building’s occupant.
Land Use, Waste Management and Adaptation
This Climate Action plan relies heavily on market response to new incentives designed to correct flaws in the existing market system that encourage excessive energy use. Subsidies for fossil fuel production and taxpayer funded development of highways that encourage mass use of automobiles are now destructive to long-term sustainability. A carbon tax will address much of the current incentive mismatch. It will also lessen the waste management challenge because “discardable stuff” will be more costly to produce so there should be less of it.
Eliminating fossil fuel subsidies and instituting a carbon tax may not serve sufficiently to direct future land use, however. Planning and command management for land use may be more appropriate than simple reliance on market response in order to minimize societal cost.
Two guiding considerations:
Land must be reserved for transportation infrastructure. For the foreseeable future, people and goods will move by air, rail and highway. Planning should anticipate relocation of much of the attendant infrastructure in response to rising sea levels. Examples of vulnerable existing facilities include airports in New Orleans, San Francisco, Miami and other coastal cities.
Additionally, best climate estimates should be used in planning for the location of population centers. Building in places that will become uninhabitable should be discouraged or prohibited. A location currently at just 2 feet above sea level it should not be developed if the water is forecast is to rise 3 feet by end of century.
Land use planning may have climate mitigation potential, but quantification seems more difficult than for an immediate and drastic reduction in GHG emissions. The primary need now is to anticipate adaptation needs. Large scale population displacement from coastal areas before the end of the century seems highly probable.
Industrial process energy choices should respond to the pricing in of external costs, including a price on CO2 emissions. Tradable credits, as described in the section on buildings above, would eliminate or reduce the disincentive caused by the fact that energy efficiency and renewable energy investments produce a long stream of returns that may not accrue to the party having to make the up-front investment.
When externalities are properly accounted for each of the impact areas, and outdated subsidies on fossil fuels are removed, quick migration will occur to low carbon energy technologies and processes. Land use planning and adaptation preparation may best be served by command and control rather than the market. The climate problem won’t present as smooth evolving change. Crises must be anticipated. “The big one,” a category 4 or 5 hurricane rolling into Miami on an exceptionally high tide will displace hundreds of thousands. Better to have some of the post flood adaptations thought out in advance.
Explanation of the emissions scenario calculated in the Impact tab
What are the plan’s key benefits?
- This is doable because it appeals to named actors, university academics, who are already aligned with the immediate first step goal, a price on CO2.
- The plan is substantive. The recommended price of $60/ton will make the worst fossil fuel current usage patterns clearly uneconomic.
- The plan is comprehensive in that it will be effective across the energy usage sectors that are most responsible for carbon emissions.
- The plan will have follow-on benefits because university leadership in the United States will likely bring in university communities in other parts of the world.
What are the plan’s costs?
There are no net costs. The recommended path is to eliminate current subsidies, which do have costs and to institute a new tax that can be used to offset exactly a cut to other existing taxes.
What are the key challenges to enacting this plan?
- Sabotage by incumbent energy interests which will suffer loss as the transition to non-polluting alternatives accelerate.
- Misplaced notions of academic purity by individuals hypersensitive about losing respect for the university as a politically neutral institution
- Now—Academics accept the challenge.
- December 2015—Pressure university governing boards during or shortly after the Paris Climate Conference (COP21).
- January 2017—Coordinated university announcements that coincide with presidential inauguration and installation of new congress.