I’ve held off on doing this post for more than a week now. Insider backbiting is tremendously entertaining, but it leaves the spectators (and the scribe) feeling somewhat tawdry for enjoying it a bit too much. That said, it is indeed fun, so here goes.
As readers of this blog know, I have played a minor supporting role recently in the worsening catfight between the climate policy world’s two most prominent bloggers – the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin and the Center for American Progress’ Joe Romm. Revkin has positioned himself as a centrist and an advocate of the breakthrough technologies camp, while Romm is an avatar of the more liberal camp that advocates an immediate broadening of regulations mandating the use of energy-efficiency technologies.
Last week, Revkin posted a new attack on Romm (and, briefly, me). The subject was the back-and-forth debate over a study by the California Council on Science and Technology earlier this year. Revkin pointed to a new research study published last month in Science, The Technology Path to Deep Greenhouse Gas Emissions Cuts by 2050: The Pivotal Role of Electricity. Revkin claimed it offered further proof of his position that California and the United States should put top priority on a massive infusion of government funds to clean energy R&D projects. His essay (and associated video excerpts) focused on Romm, Romm and more Romm.
... it’s different than people [i.e. Romm] who would tell you that we have all the technology we need and we just need the political will and let’s be done with it. That’s not what any technically knowledgeable panel concludes.
You can see Revkin's arteries nearly bursting with anger:
One thing Romm forgets (or chooses to ignore) when he tries to rebut me is that I’m not debating him; I’m consuming his arguments, along with output from a host of people directly involved in energy research and analysis.
I'm not debating you, I'm consuming you! Oohhh.
But beyond the schoolyard putdowns, let's look at the actual results of the new Science study. Like the California Council study, it concludes that new technologies are indeed needed to reach the ultimate goal of 80 percent reduction from 1990 levels by 2050. But both also seem to agree that stiffened energy efficiency rules and other regulatory policies can reach more than 50 percent reduction by 2050. Here is the breakdown of emissions reductions projected in the Science study:
- 28 percent: energy efficiency, especially from the buildings sector.
- 27 percent: low-carbon electricity generation, such as renewable energy, nuclear power, and fossil fuel-powered generation coupled with carbon capture and storage.
- 16 percent: electrification of cars, space and water heaters, and industrial processes that consume fuel and natural gas.
- 15 percent: measures to reduce non-energy related CO2and other greenhouse gas emissions, such as from landfill and agricultural activities.
- 14 percent: various unrelated technologies and practices such as "smart growth" urban planning, biofuels for the trucking and airline industry, and rooftop solar photovoltaics.
How much of all that reflects technologies that are not currently existing, in the pipeline or to be expected under current levels of R&D funding, and how much would require markedly greater levels of funding? The study doesn't say.
That's the crucial question, of course. It's the crux of the dispute between the Revkin camp and the Romm camp, and it hasn't been answered fully by anyone. But the Science study does offer a reasonable conclusion that broadly supports Romm's conclusions: while R&D breakthroughs are needed for the long term, the first step in any coherent strategy for emissions reduction must be stricter energy efficiency regulations, which in turn will help drive the development of new technologies:
Infrastructure deployment and technology investment require coordination. (…) we found that achieving the infrastructure changes described above will require major improvements in the functionality and cost of a wide array of technologies and infrastructuresystems, including but not limited to cellulosic and algal biofuels, CCS, on-grid energy storage, electric vehicle batteries, smart charging, building shell and appliances, cement manufacturing, electric industrial boilers, agriculture and forestry practices, and source reduction/capture of high-GWP emissions from industry.
Not only must these technologies and systems be commercially ready, they must also be deployed in a coordinated fashion to achieve their hoped-for emission reduction benefits at acceptable cost.
(...) The logical sequence of deployment for the main components of this transformation is energy efficiency first, followed by decarbonization of generation, followed by electrification. This transformation will require electrification of most direct uses of oil and gas.
A recent report by ClimateWorks Foundation came to similar conclusions. The report, Policies That Work: How to Build a Low-Emissions Economy, emphasized 10 central policy initiatives, with a primary focus on regulatory strengthening and energy efficiency:
- Vehicle performance standards
- Fuel and vehicle levies
- Energy efficiency standards and labels
- Clean energy supply policies
- Utility-scale energy efficiency programs
- Industrial energy efficiency programs
- Effectively enforced building codes
- Properly aligned economic incentives
- "Smart growth" urban design
- Support for R&D and innovation
(Disclosure: I have previously done consulting work for ClimateWorks, although I am not doing so now and did not work on that report.)
The basic message of all these reports is akin to Romm's mantra: Deploy, deploy, R&D, deploy, deploy -- but all simultaneously.
Still, catfighting is more fun, and it replicates the broader centrists-vs-liberals ideological divide in environmental politics and the Democratic Party. Don't expect it to subside anytime soon.
Note: This post has been updated.