The Bizarro World of Bjorn Lomborg and the NY Times’ “Post-Pollution” Solution to Climate Change

The Bizarro World of Bjorn Lomborg and the NY Times’ “Post-Pollution” Solution to Climate Change NY Times, through blogger Andy Revkin, is pushing Bjorn Lomborg’s alternative-universe “Post-Pollution” solution to global warming — more research and development (R&D).  Revkin is also misrepresenting a Center for American Progress report, which is why I am going to debunk this too-little, too-late strategy for the umpteenth time.

As Andrew Light, the lead author of the CAP report, explains, “I think Andy read our piece too quickly” and “I’m disappointed to see once again here the false dichotomy” that “somehow an agreement on CO2 is mutually exclusive with a mechanism to grow clean technology and sustainable development solutions.  It’s a completely uninformed view.“  I’ll repost his statement in full at the end.

False dichotomy is what the do-little crowd traffic in, sadly, and it mucks up the debate — see Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, DeployNo, that abbreviated description of the optimal strategy has never been my suggestion for the sequence of investments [!] but for the ratio of spending needed!

See also this post by a leading journalist and climate expert, Robert Collier, noting “The basic message of all these reports is akin to Romm’s mantra: Deploy, deploy, R&D, deploy, deploy — but all simultaneously.”  Precisely.

We do need a vast increase in clean energy R&D spending, as I have been arguing for more than two decades.  But averting catastrophic warming requires spending several times more on deployment than on R&D.

I would have thought that the recent International Energy Agency report would have made clear to all that aggressive deployment, not R&D, must be where we put most of our money ASAP:

On planned policies, rising fossil energy use will lead to irreversible and potentially catastrophic climate change.

… we are on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F]….  Delaying action is a false economy: for every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”

The IEA is one of the few credible international bodies with a combined global economic and energy model that allows them to come to quantitative conclusions rather than just the hand-waving that dominates most discussions.  And by handwaving, I specifically mean this nonsense from Lomborg (Revkin’s comments are in italics at the end):

“In reality, the COP17 negotiations missed an important opportunity to change tracks. Instead of following the same path, that has failed since Rio in 1992 — prescribe large, immediate and implausible carbon cuts to unwilling nations — it should focus on the main problem. As long as green energy is much more expensive than fossil fuels it will always be impossible to get significant reductions. If we instead focused on innovating the green energy price down below fossil fuels. If we could achieve that, we would have solved global warming. Therefore we should rather spend 0.2% of GDP on research and development of green energy. This would be a massive increase of green R&D, have much greater long-term impact and yet much cheaper than any standard climate deal.”

I largely agree, noting that developed countries (the United States particularly) should, of course, be doing far more within their borders with efficiency standards, innovation, education and, where appropriate, tightening regulations.

This Lomborg “solution” is bizarre bizarro on so many levels.  First off, it is BS handwaving to simply assert with no supporting analysis that a big ramp-up in R&D would have a “much greater long-term impact” and be “much cheaper than any standard climate deal.”  Real analysis, by the IEA and others, makes clear that delay is costly.  While it’s true that future clean energy will be cheaper, the cost of building all the wrong infrastructure year after year is staggeringly unaffordable.

Indeed, if we keep listening to the Lomborgs and Revkins, then by 2017, we’ll have locked in 450 ppm “unless emitting infrastructure is retired before the end of its economic lifetime to make headroom for new investment. This would theoretically be possible at very high cost, but is probably not practicable politically,” according to the EIA.

As many people have pointed out, absent a CO2 price, we’re not going to get the cost of new renewables below the cost of existing coal in any plausible timeframe, if ever.  So the R&D-centric strategy means building lots of polluting infrastructure that can only be shut down at great cost.

Second, the “long-term impact” of having emissions keep rising is enormous because of the very long lifetime of carbon dioxide and the increasing evidence that removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere will be very expensive – far, far more expensive than mitigation.

Third, renewables have  been dropping sharply in price — but aggressive deployment programs have played a large role, arguably the dominant role, along with huge investments by the Chinese that go far beyond R&D.  It is a false dichotomy to say that a big ramp up in R&D by itself is the key to continuing down the learning curve of renewables.  Many of the keys to cutting costs in renewables come from economies of scale, learning what works in the real world, and non-technological innovations that require large-scale the appointment.  In short, cutting costs requires deployment — see “The breakthrough technology illusion.”

It’d be great to spend 0.2% of GDP on clean energy R&D.  I’m all for it.  But we need to spend some 2% of GDP (or more) on clean energy deployment if we want to have a shot at averting catastrophe.

Revkin’s piece is titled “A Post-Pollution Path to Global Climate and Energy Progress.”  For the foreseeable future, however, we live in a pollution-filled, rapidly-warming world and efforts to minimize that warming will necessarily have to focus on that pollution, particularly carbon dioxide.  As climatologist Ken Caldeira famously said, “Carbon dioxide is the right villain, insofar as inanimate objects can be villains.“  As he wrote me in 2009:

Every carbon dioxide emission adds to climate damage and increasing risk of catastrophic consequences. There is no safe level of emission.

Revkin, however, seems to think that there is somehow a movement away from focusing on CO2 — and that CAP is part of it.  Not!

Revkin writes:

This shift away from CO2-centric emissions debates is also evident in a group blog post by analysts at the Center for American Progress, who propose a “multiple multilateralism” approach on climate that, among other things, seeks quick steps on sources of warming other than carbon dioxide – particularly sooty Arctic pollution and gases already considered under the existing ozone-protection treaty. As with President Obama’s efforts outside the treaty, this prescription echoes policies pursued in President George W. Bush’s second term.

No, that isn’t an accurate representation of CAP’s analysis.  What echoes policies pursued in Bush’s second term is not CAP’s strong push for stabilizing at 2°C, including a high and rising carbon price, strong deployment programs plus, of course, big increases in R&D.

Ironically, what echoes policies pursued in President George W. Bush’s second term is the R&D-centric approach of Revkin and Lomborg — see my 2007 post, Bush climate speech follows Luntz playbook: “Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah.” In Bush’s 21-minute speech on climate he used the word “technology” 19 times.  He stated Lomborg’s basic do-little message well:

Our investments in research and technology are bringing the world closer to a remarkable breakthrough – an age of clean energy where we can power our growing economies and improve the lives of our people and be responsible stewards of the earth the Almighty trusted to our care.

Sound familiar?

And here’s Bush in 2008: “We must all recognize that in the long run, new technologies are the key to addressing climate change.” Lomborg could have been his speechwriter.

CAP Senior Fellow Andrew Light sent me this response to Revkin’s post:

Unfortunately, I think Andy read our piece too quickly.  He’s correct that reducing CO2 is certainly not the only thing we’re after but it’s clearly on both ends of our analysis.  Our path forward to close the international ambition gap this decade wouldn’t work at all if it were not for the CO2 pledges which came out of the Copenhagen Accord in January 2010 and then were solidified into the UNFCCC system a year later in Cancun.  It’s those pledges which make the ambition gap remotely small enough to be  addressed  by temporarily focusing more effort on other forcers.

On the other side of it, our analysis doesn’t only focus on getting other reductions this decade from non-CO2 sources but also anything we can do to get CO2 reductions from the Major Economies Forum (MEF), the G20 and anything else available.  Some of those mechanisms will be technology driven just because some of those forums are more likely to see traction through a more technology focused agenda because they’ve already been aimed in that direction — such as the MEF’s Clean Energy Ministerial process that has now spun off from State and the National Security Council to DOE.  The sweet spot here is that so long as the UNFCCC remains — which is sacrosanct to the developing countries who are most at risk right now to climate change — alternative international solutions outside of it can’t step on its toes.  So whatever agreements you get outside of it have to be either on specific sectors or otherwise smaller piece of the emissions pie.

Finally, I’m disappointed to see once again here the false dichotomy, which is ubiquitous in the analysis of Breakthrough affiliated scholars, the Hartwell Paper and elsewhere, that somehow an agreement on CO2 is mutually exclusive with a mechanism to grow clean technology and sustainable development solutions.  It’s a completely uninformed view. As we argued in multiple columns and forums throughout the year the most important thing that could emerge from Durban was not the grand bargain about a future climate treaty but pulling the trigger on the governing instrument for the new Green Climate Fund and the associated Clean Technology Center and Network.

The fund will do the bulk of the lift for fulfilling the Copenhagen-Cancun pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually for mitigation and adaptation by 2020.  Obviously, what this money will pay for is not new climate treaties but projects on the ground in efficiency, renewables, and land use change, in other words exactly the kind of technology and development focused agenda that the academic “experts” Andy cites in this post say the UNFCCC is not doing.  If Durban would have blown up over the future of the Kyoto Protocol the Green Climate Fund would have been put on shelf for at least another year and perhaps for good as you drew out the possibility that 194 parties could open up the implementing agreement and pick it apart undoing the work of the 40 finance ministries that cooperated in creating it over the last year.  In part due to the hard line the U.S. took on negotiating this document it now has a larger mandate for mobilizing private finance, which if successful gets you well over $100 billion a year, and the fund will have independence from the UNFCCC so that climate negotiators aren’t controlling its agenda.  Nonetheless, those who think the UNFCCC is useless might ask themselves why no other forum was capable of creating something like the Green Climate Fund when the need for something like it is obvious.

In any event our approach to this will all be clearer when we publish our full multiple multilaterialism report early next  year.  As we indicate in the post, the piece Andy is reacting to is just a teaser so you can’t see all the different mechanisms we’ll unpack.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Revkin continues to push his vague R&D-focused “energy quest” and criticize those of us (including the National Academy of Sciences) who push for strong emissions reductions starting now.  Since Revkin refuses to tell us what level of concentrations he thinks the world should aim for – even a broad range, say 450 ppm to 550 ppm — he retains the luxury of attacking those who are willing to state what their target is while maintaining a faux high ground that they are being politically unrealistic while he can pretend his do-little strategy is scientifically or morally viable, which it ain’t.

Let me end with the words of Jigar Shah, a solar-industry rock star who founded the pioneering solar company SunEdison and has led the Carbon War Room.  In the first Climate Progress podcast, he candidly shared his views on why doubters of today’s renewable energy technologies are so wrong:

It depends on the person … but often they’re just too ignorant to know better. For some people, technology is not their sweet spot. They have other skills. And so when someone tells them, “technology is not ready,” they just eat up those words … hook, line and sinker and then decide that’s what their talking points are going to be. And with those people it’s just sad that they don’t read more.

Then there are actually people who are diabolical…  This is by far the most interesting way to foil the progress of new technologies. That is, by saying that they’re not ready. You know, you see this with the big oil companies. They’ll say: “we need all of the above.” Or they say: “we are huge supporters of solar and wind if only their costs would come down by 20%. Then, you know, if there were big breakthroughs in the technology, we’d be huge supporters.”

No, that actually just means that they don’t love solar and wind. It actually means that they hate those technologies and that, in fact, they are trying to figure out, using white lies, how to undermine those technologies. So we just have to call their bluff, as opposed to saying: “oh my god, they’re our friends because they said something that seems to resonate with me.” They’re not your friend. They’re actually trying to figure out how to play a nice PR trick to marginalize you.

Jigar actually thinks we could reduce CO2 emissions about 50% cost-effectively with existing technologies, but that by the time we finished doing so in a couple of decades, we’d have another array of cost-effective strategies to take us down another 50%.

The time to act is now.  Anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about — or is intentionally deceiving you.

Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research & Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy.  Simultaneously.


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