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New Book Presents Plan to Tackle Climate Change

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An important new climate book was recently published entitled A Plan to Save the Planet by Glenn Weinreb. He is the Director of The Manhattan 2 Project, a climate think tank based in Cambridge, MA, USA. This is the first-ever book that offers a comprehensive plan to decrease CO2 emissions to zero, at the lowest cost, and in a politically viable way. An exciting aspect is it is open-source, which means others can use its contents and spreadsheets as a starting point for creating their own plans to tackle climate change. 

The book is also a powerful tool for those looking to save the planet, using economics, mathematics and spreadsheets to calculate the easiest, laziest, and simplest way to resolve climate change. You can view a 10-minute TEDx video summary by the author here or read the first 4 chapters for free here.

Decarbonization scale and cost

Articles on climate change often focus on the impacts and causes of CO2 emissions. However, two important factors are often overlooked: Decarbonization Cost and Scale. When putting together a decarbonization plan, one is forced to contend numerically with these parameters. 

Cost refers to the amount of money required to reduce CO2 emissions by one metric ton, and is typically measured in dollars per metric ton of CO2 reduced ($/mt). Scale, on the other hand, refers to the amount of CO2 emissions reduced each year. For example, if the goal is to eliminate the U.S. 5 billion tons per year emissions over a 30-year period, then one would need to reduce by 170 million tons each year on average. This is because 5 billion divided by 30 years is 170 million.

Figure 1: Theoretical U.S. decarbonization over 30 years at a constant rate.

Moving forward at large scale and low cost

According to the book, in the near future there is only one way to reduce CO2 emissions at low cost (e.g. < $50/mtCO2), large scales (e.g. 170M ton/yr reduction in the U.S.) and with government oversite. This is to enact a federal law that requires power companies to decarbonize electrical power generation. They typically do this by building new solar farms, new wind farms and new hydroelectric dams.

Already the state of California requires its power company to decarbonize power generation by approximately 3% each year. For example, if 50% of their electricity is green today, then 53% would be green after one year, 56% after two years, etc. If this was implemented at the federal level and increased to a rate of 6% each year, it would be possible to reduce emissions by approximately 170 million tons each year for approximately 9 years.  

What does this cost?

Yet how much would this cost consumers? According to the book, the answer is complicated since required decarbonization would result in reducing the consumption of natural gas, and this would cause the price of this fuel to decrease. And savings from lower fuel costs would offset the cost of building more solar farms and wind farms. Yet to what extent?

To get an accurate assessment one would need government engineers to calculate the impact of specific decarbonization legislation on fuel price. In theory, lawmakers can request this; however, government engineers’ ability to satisfy requests is limited by their time.

If one does not model the impact on fuel price and decarbonizes at $40-per-ton of CO2 reduced, for example, then 170M tons would cost the U.S. $7B in year #1 (170Mt x $40), 340M tons would cost $14B in year #2, etc. This would cost each U.S. citizen $20 in year #1 ($7Bt / 330M population), $40 in year #2, $60 in year #3, etc. In the typical case, this would pay the mortgage on new solar farms and new wind farms, minus the cost of carbon-based fuel that was not burned due to being replaced with green electricity. Ultimately, these expenses would appear as an increase in the cost of goods and services.

Two-phase decarbonization strategy

According to the book, if the U.S. wanted to reduce 170M tons each year over 30 years at the lowest cost, it would end up with two decarbonization phases. Phase I would be approximately 9 years and would be achieved mostly with electrical power decarbonization. And the following 21-year Phase II would involve other areas that are more costly. To better prepare for Phase II, one could do more R&D during Phase I. 

Figure 2: Two-Phase decarbonization strategy.

Decarbonization law

A federal law that implements the above strategy would have two main provisions:

  1. U.S. electricity is required to decarbonize at 6% per year, over a period of 9 years, at the lowest cost. In other words, power companies are required to build more solar farms, more wind farms, etc.
  2. A new R&D laboratory is set up to further reduce decarbonization costs.

Decarbonization laboratory

The U.S. government currently operates dozens of national laboratories, an example of which is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California. They develop gadgets that explore outer space with a $3B/yr budget.  In theory, the U.S. could set up a new laboratory to tackle climate change, perhaps called “The National Decarbonization Laboratory”. Many of the book’s chapters explore what one might do with a new lab.

Past decarbonization efforts have been mild

In the U.S., the amount of green electricity as a percentage of total increased from 35% to 37% over the last 5 years. In other words, U.S. electricity is decarbonizing at a rate of 0.5% each year ((37.6% – 35.4%) / 4yrs). Alternatively, if the U.S. fully decarbonized its electricity over 10 years, for example, this increase would need to be 6% each year ((100% – 38%) / 10yrs)). Other countries, like China, are similar.

Future decarbonization efforts are not expected to improve

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is an organization within the U.S. government that studies energy and CO2 emissions. They expect CO2 emissions over the next 30 years to remain approximately constant, as shown in the graph below. In other words, according to the U.S. government, the U.S. is not reducing CO2 emissions to zero. Other countries are similar.

Figure 3: U.S. government’s official projection of CO2 emissions from the U.S. over the next 30 years in units of billions of tons each year

The reader may have seen decarbonization scenarios that show CO2 emissions dropping to zero over several decades. These show what would happen if decarbonization did occur, an example of which is the Green Line in figure 3. Projections, on the other hand, are based on existing laws and observed behavior.

Significant decarbonization does not occur unless required by law

If a consumer has a choice between buying a product that emits CO2, and one that does not, they often ignore CO2 and select the lower-cost option. Many people consider their own CO2 to be insignificant and prefer the world’s other inhabitants buy green and pay more. This is observed behavior and is consistent with economic theory. Subsequently, to do the Green Line in figure 3, decarbonization would need to be required by law.  

Decarbonization politics

There are two kinds of regions — those that produce and export carbon-based fuels, and those that import fuels. One might think of these as fuel exporters and fuel importers. The book states: 

There is only one thing you need to know about climate change politics. Regions that produce a fuel will not politically support eliminating it. If one understands this, they will understand what is happening politically with climate change, and understand how to fix it.

Fuel exporters are hurt by decarbonization. However, the opposite is true for importers. They benefit in two ways:

  1. Local green jobs are created when nearby wind and solar farms are constructed. This occurs while carbon jobs are lost elsewhere.
  2. Money is saved when decarbonization causes fuel prices to decrease, due to less fuel consumption, due to decarbonization.   

Two-thirds of U.S. states do not produce natural gas or coal. Therefore, a majority of U.S. lawmakers should be inclined to support electricity decarbonization. However, this is not occurring for multiple reasons, as explored in the book.

Why does the world have trouble with decarbonization?

According to the book, the world has trouble with decarbonization primarily for two reasons:

  1. a) The world’s current economic decarbonization strategy is to encourage individuals, companies, cities and states to reduce CO2 At first glance, this seems reasonable. However, it is flawed since these entities rarely have the physical ability to do this at the lowest cost. This is due to the overhead costs of each small project. Power companies, on the other hand, do not have this problem since they operate at large scales.
  2. b) Decarbonization policy in the U.S. is controlled by a political coalition of environmentalists, labor unions, the automobile industry, and domestic manufacturing companies. Unfortunately, labor and manufacturers must focus on their own financial interests, and not getting to zero at the lowest cost. 

How do we fix this?

According to the book, to fix the climate problem, federal lawmakers need to realize three things:

  1. They need to lead (e.g. require electricity decarbonization and more R&D) instead of delegate to cities, states, companies, and domestic manufacturers. 
  2. To gain the support of conservative lawmakers, decarbonization legislation must rely on R&D and markets (e.g. builders of solar/wind farms compete to drive down costs).
  3. Majority support is likely to come from regions that import carbon-based fuels.

Why decarbonize electrical power generation first?

There are roughly three areas that need decarbonizing: (a) electrical power generation, (b) fabrication of materials and chemicals, and (c) transportation.  Electricity can be decarbonized now at large scales and low costs; whereas other areas have a scale problem, a cost problem, or both. And one can improve these other areas with R&D while decarbonizing electricity.

Transportation is not ready to decarbonize at large scales and low costs

The book looks at transportation through the lens of Decarbonization Scale and Cost, and focuses on the U.S. to simplify. The U.S. currently makes approximately 1 million EVs each year and each EV reduces CO2 by approximately 3.5 tons a year, for a total reduction of 3.5 million tons each year (1M x 3.5mt). This is far short of the 170 million needed to get to zero over several decades. In other words, we currently have a scale problem with transportation. One could supposedly increase production; however, this would entail trying to keep the cost of rare materials down as increased consumption makes them more rare. 

According to the U.S. Government, the average EV cost $0.47/mile, the average gas car cost $0.30/mile, the average EV emissions is 179gCO2/mile (grams of CO2 emissions per mile), and the average gas car emissions is 425gCO2/mile. One can do a little math to calculate decarbonization cost of $691 per ton of CO2 reduced (($0.47 – $0.30) / ((0.425 – 0.179) / 1000)). In other words, transportation currently has a decarbonization cost problem. 

Manufacturing is not ready to decarbonize at large scale and low cost

Many manufacturing processes use high-temperature heat to make chemicals (e.g. hydrogen, ammonia) and to make materials (e.g. plastics, metals, ceramics, glass, cement).

The wholesale cost of heat from burning natural gas is approximately $3 per gigajoule of energy ($3/GJ), the cost of heat from solar farms and wind farms is approximately $9/GJ, and the CO2 emissions from 1GJ of natural gas is approximately 0.05 metric ton. We can do a little math to calculate decarbonization cost of $120 per ton of CO2 reduced (($9 – $3) / 0.05). In other words, if one is paying money to reduce CO2 in the near future, they would favor decarbonizing electricity over material production since each decarbonization dollar goes approximately 3-times further. And after electrical power is decarbonized, one could look at decarbonizing material and chemical production at large scales.

Tracking systems are required

If we have a market for green cement (made without emitting CO2) and non-green cement, then “entrepreneurs” will move the lower-cost non-green cement to a green cement warehouse (at 3 am). Economists refer to this as “shuffle”. In other words, it is easier to claim a product is green, than to actually make a green product. Therefore, an international system would be needed that tracks production, transportation, storage and consumption of materials and chemicals. This system does not exist; yet, in theory, could be developed. Fortunately, electricity does not have this problem since electrical power meters and anti-tamper laws are already in place.


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