What to Do Next
The Climate Next panelists debate new strategies for curbing global warming.
Read the rest of the Climate Next project, starting with the introduction.
Roberts, meanwhile, attacks the law's rhetorical use.
Stated as an absolute, it's obviously wrong. The public has an illustrious history of supporting, in some cases demanding, policies that are a drag on economic growth. Motivated minorities have secured farm subsidies, trade barriers, regulatory loopholes, and many more policies which impose higher costs on the public in exchange for benefits that are uncertain or, more often, concentrated in a very few hands.
Consider, to take an example, that energy efficiency is currently going for around 4 cents a kwh, while coal electricity is around 10 cents a kwh. By opting for so much coal and so little efficiency, the public appears to be breaking the Law, only in reverse—paying extra, sacrificing economic growth, for environmental disbenefits.
Michael and Ted stick to their guns, though, refocusing the discussion on the technological challenges they see in renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.
Argue all you want about the Iron Law, what should be clear now is that whatever tolerance political economies around the world may have for raising energy prices and slowing economic growth does not begin to approach the levels that would be necessary to price carbon high enough to actually drive substantial emissions reductions or deploy low carbon technologies at any meaningful scale. Fossil fuels are remarkable sources of energy—energy-dense, easily-deployed, well-suited to provide baseload power, and still reasonably abundant in one form or another in most parts of the world. Present day alternatives, by contrast, cost too much and can't effectively serve the demands of modern energy economies.
The near-term prospects for green technology really matter, too. Here in the United States, the key upcoming climate policy decision will be what to do with old coal plants. Over the next decade or so, many plants may be shut down because of environmental concerns and aging, as the Sierra Club's Michael Brune explains:
What's happening here is that many of the pollution costs of burning dirty coal are now being internalized. That is, when utilities are forced to make a decision to either invest in upgrades to minimize a coal plant's pollution or to shut down that plant and invest in cleaner energy resources, it is expected that many utilities and regulators will choose the latter. For example, in a July 2010 report that examined just two federal rules—those governing air toxics such as mercury and another to limit soot and smog—Bernstein Research estimated reductions in coal-fired generation from these two rules of over 10 percent in just the next 4 to 5 years. Industry analysts ICF International estimates more than a 25 percent reduction under "modest regulation" between now and 2015-2016.
What's going to replace the energy services those plants provided? There are a host of alternatives, ranging from building new coal power plants to deploying natural gas or solar. (Or maybe we should just use less energy.) A lot of our e-mail discussion focused on that short-term problem—and opportunity. Levi provides a good starting point.
I'll reinforce a point from my initial essay: the first priority should be to replace retired coal-fired power plants with anything but other traditional coal-fired power plants. Those replacements would either be zero-carbon, which would be great, or natural gas, which would allow them to be easily replaced with zero-carbon sources later. Ideally, the replacements would be renewable, nuclear, or [carbon-capture-and-storage] based, which would provide a platform for zero-carbon technology development and learning.
Armond Cohen of the Clean Air Task Force wasn't so sure that more gas-fired plants would be a good idea.
If a meaningful amount of US coal capacity is to be retired, it is important that we think about policies that will avoid the obvious default replacement—natural gas without CO2 scrubbing. Since half the molecules of CO2 we emit today will be with us several centuries from now, it's highly likely that we need to move the system, over a multi-decade period, to zero emissions if we want a shot at stabilizing CO2 concentrations at manageable levels. Natural gas replacements would chop CO2 in half or more relative to coal, but then that's the end of the drop and the beginning of a plateau. Do we want to create another generation of better-but-still-not-great-for-CO2 incumbent generators defending their turf? It looks like that's where we're headed.
Brune was even more forceful in his take on new power deployments. He derided nuclear power and coal with carbon capture.
Say what you want about nuclear power, but you can't call it cheap. There's a reason why Wall St. is reluctant to finance nukes in the U.S. without loan guarantees. Even if we ignore the persistent problems nuclear power poses regarding mining, radioactive waste, safety and proliferation dangers, the cost to build nuclear plants is high, and rising, compared to other forms of energy.
The same is true for coal gasification and carbon sequestration. One example: the Duke Edwardsport plant that the Sierra Club opposed but others supported will not capture a single molecule of carbon. But the cost to build the plant has doubled, and there is a criminal investigation underway about misdeeds between Duke and the PUC. Is this a good deal for ratepayers? Every billion dollars we invest in nuclear power or so-called "clean coal" is a billion dollars much better invested in energy savings and clean energy. Clean energy will create more jobs, cut air, water, and greenhouse gas pollution, and make our country more competitive. As for costs, just look at the trends: efficiency is cheap and always has been. The cost of new coal plants and nuclear plants is rising, and the cost of solar and wind is dropping. Which side of the equation do we want to get on?
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor for TheAtlantic.com. A former staff writer for Wired.com, he's the author of the forthcoming history of clean energy in America, Powering the Dream.
Photograph of coal power plant by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.