A new, authoritative study has concluded that California can reduce its total greenhouse gas emissions by 60 percent from 1990 levels by 2050 using technologies that already exist or are in demonstration. By nearly any measure, that's good news. It shows that serious action on global warming is feasible right now and does not require futuristic technological breakthroughs that might never come to fruition.
But this message appears to have been bungled with a miserably bad communications strategy by the report's managers. As a result, the report is being spun as bad news that undercuts California's strategy of using energy efficiency regulations to reduce emissions.
The study, California's Energy Future -- the View to 2050, was released in May by the California Council on Science and Technology, an independent state advisory panel. The document received almost zero coverage by the mainstream and new media, and it sank like a stone from the public view.
This past week, however, the study's co-author, Jane Long, a top official at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, wrote an article published in the scientific journal Nature that subtly changed her own report's emphasis.
Long focused on the glass half empty -- the fact that California's global warming law mandates that 2050 emissions reflect a reduction of 80 percent, not 60 percent. She explained at length the perfectly valid point that reaching 80 percent would require major technological breakthroughs. Yet she twisted a knife into the report's main strategy for getting to 60 percent:
Some say that we can radically reduce emissions with only a major emphasis on efficiency, or just by changing our behaviour. But what if it doesn't add up?
One might reply that in the current and foreseeable political climate, simply reaching 60 percent would be a colossal achievement. Getting to 80 percent is a pipe dream. Starting now with the politically accessible, low-hanging fruit -- regulation-driven efficiency improvements -- is what's needed.
A cynic also might say that Long's spin dovetails with Livermore Lab's deep vested interest in obtaining research funding for so-called "breakthrough technologies." Unlike the nearby Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, with which it is often confused, Livermore Lab focuses most of its energy/climate work on next-generation technologies, such as carbon capture and storage and nuclear fusion. Berkeley Lab, in contrast, is the Vatican of energy efficiency work, and it has played a central role in the development of California's global warming policies.
But the real spinning of the report was done by Andrew Revkin at the New York Times. Revkin is a prolific and often interesting blogger who also is a highly partisan advocate of the "breakthrough technologies" camp in climate politics.
Revkin devoted a long column Friday to Long's article. He gave only a brief, dismissive mention to the 60 percent angle and made a not-so-sly dig at his longtime nemesis in the intramural climate wars, blogger and energy efficiency guru Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress:
Given that California is a best-case scenario compared to other states (and, of course, countries) far more dependent on coal, Long’s piece and the underlying report pose a strong challenge to those calling for a “deploy, deploy, deploy” approach to cutting climate risks.
But let's look at the report itself. It says that getting to the 60 percent mark can be accomplished through several key strategies:
- Aggressive efficiency measures for buildings, industry and transportation.
- Every existing building will either be retrofitted to higher efficiency standards or will be replaced.
- Electrification of transportation and heat wherever technically feasible.
- Developing emission-free electricity production with some combination of renewable energy, nuclear power and fossil fuel accompanied by underground storage of the carbon dioxide emissions, while at the same time nearly doubling electricity production.
- Finding supplies of low-carbon fuel to supply transportation and heat use which cannot be electrified, such as for airplanes and heavy duty trucks, and high quality heat in industry.
- 60 percent of light-duty vehicles will use electricity, so that the average fuel economy will be roughly 70 miles per gallon.
- The electricity generating capacity of the state will be almost entirely replaced and then doubled, and all with near zero-emission technology.
- Infrastructure to produce biofuels - costing tens of billions of dollars - will have to be built.
Not easy, but not impossible. Certainly a good strategy for the short and medium terms. Why has this good news gone so unheralded?
* Update: Joe Romm at Climate Progress has reposted this item and added extensive commentary of his own. Check it out.
* Update 2: This debate has grown legs. My follow-up post is here, with more to come.