Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Where Obama Is Wrong on Coal

Update! While Environmental Organizations are outraged, the recent Budget Bill in Congress rescinded the Obama Administration's banning of the Export-Import Bank to finance any coal power plants.

Coal Use in Developing Countries: As part of it's policy initiatives to reduce global carbon emissions, the U.S. is ending support for new coal-fired plants around the world. Except in "rare" situations of poverty (whatever that means), the U.S. will no longer contribute to coal projects financed by the World Bank and other international development banks.

Like other top-down attempts by governments to control carbon emissions (taxes, treaties), this U.S. "no new coal" policy uses an incorrect paradigm, and will not result in meaningful and needed global reductions.

A correct approach must always balance present humanitarian and economic needs with long-term climate science objectives -- utilizing a bottom-up model, tailored to provide multiple pathways to develop and sustain individual economies with needed lower carbon standards.

The Other Inconvenient Truth: While the below facts are on India (EIA data), these harsh realities are found throughout the developing world where poverty is common, not rare (e.g., India, Asia, Indonesia, Africa).

India suffers from severe shortages of electricity, where only 60% of rural households have access to electricity.

Rural areas rely on traditional biomass for cooking, heating, and lighting because they lack access to other energy supplies.

The biomass used in "open burning" is 62.5% from firewood, 12.3% from agricultural wastes, and 12.3% from animal dung.

Nearly one-fifth of today’s global population – 1.2 billion people – lives without access to electricity. Two-fifths of the population – 2.8 billion people – still relies on solid fuel such as wood, charcoal, cow dung, and coal in low-tech cooking and heating.

Often, it seems as though Industrialized Nations and Environmental Organizations become so overwhelmed by the specifics of Climate Change science (e.g., CO2 PPM) that they lose focus on people -- where 35% of the Earth's population (2.5 billion people) don’t even have access to a basic human need of having a toilet.

A correct paradigm recognizes that reducing global carbon emissions is intrinsically linked to reducing world poverty. Addressing this just isn't about industrialized countries providing direct financial aid, but includes issues such as international trade and technology transfers to developing countries.

Size of World If Scaled by Poverty:
(43% of the world population lives on $2 a day or less.)

World Coal Use: In writing this blog, the issue of "tone" is always important. Criticism of the U.S. No-Coal Policy is not saying that world coal use isn't a major concern (where 43% of current CO2 emissions from fuel combustion are from coal). The problem is the rigidity of a "One Size Fits All" Policy for every developing economy.

A chart from the latest U.S. Department of Energy's (EIA) International Energy Outlook to 2040 illustrates this point.

The future global Climate Change problem with coal use is overwhelmingly from China, not "all" developing countries.

For example, while coal use in India and the U.S. is projected to be approximately equal, India has 4 times the U.S. population (~1.2 billion versus ~300 million people) -- resulting in much lower emissions per-capita (per person).

Carbon Emissions Per Capita: The disparity in carbon emissions per-capita between industrialized countries versus developing economies has and will continue to be a major stumbling block in achieving any consensus on needed global actions.

In the U.S., carbon emissions are currently over 19 tons per person -- a consumption rate over 17 times that of India (~1 ton per person).

Can International Treaties Ever Work?: At the latest U.N. sponsored conference on Climate Change in Warsaw, three events continue to raise "red flags" on the potential effectiveness of making international treaties the "centerpiece" in efforts to reduce global carbon emissions.

(1) The Double Standard Argument: There is increasing skepticism whether "any" meaningful agreement between industrialized and developing countries can ever be reached. Brazil's recent proposal (supported by 130 developing countries) would use carbon emission levels dating back to the industrial revolution to set limits on future emissions. Not surprisingly, the U.S. and EU rejected this proposal.

(Nations Scaled By Cumulative Emissions)
Developing countries argue that because Western industrialized nations have been emitting tremendous volumes of greenhouse gases for over 200 years, they must bear the most responsibility to rein in greenhouse gas emissions.

(2) Can Treaties Really Ever Be Binding?: Japan (the world's fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter) announced a scale-back in its plans to reduce carbon emissions from 25% to just 3.8% (which is actually a ~3% increase from 1990 levels). While Japan's action is certainly understandable resulting from the 2011 tsunami and earthquakes -- this raises a question whether any international treaty could ever be truly binding. Exceptions, ranging from natural disasters (as again recently demonstrated in the Philippines with typhoon Haiyan) to economic hardships will always be present.

(3) Money, Money, Money: As in prior Climate Change conferences, the critical issue of "who pays for necessary actions" was again never seriously addressed (with political reality). The general number tossed around is needed financial support (direct aid, loan guarantees) from industrialized to developing countries of $100 (€73) billion per year.

When Rigid Ideologies Drive Policy: While most environmental groups are applauding this U.S. "no new coal" policy, both they and the Obama Administration are wrong in the paradigm they have created. This policy action is yet another example of the rigid ideological polarization that divides America on so many things today -- where issues are routinely defined (and demonized) in terms of a black-or-white (either/or) paradigm with no gray area that could lead to positive and productive compromise.

The U.S. "no new coal" policy exemplifies this polarization of black/white ideology in solving complex problems. While coal use is clearly a problem, it isn't "the only major" problem. Not only is this U.S. Policy position laden with hypocrisy (coal use per capita in the U.S. economy), it defies the reality that coal will continue to be a major energy resource in the developing world.

Size of World if Scaled by Coal Use:
A constructive approach is how to make coal use more efficient, where a multitude of technology options exist. Especially in manufacturing, production efficiency gains can be much more than marginal improvements.

(No unilateral U.S. action will achieve major global reductions in coal use.)
(A "My Way or the Highway" approach
isn't pragmatic or productive.)

The Case For Different Pathways: Perhaps the best illustration of providing flexibility through "multiple pathways" to lower carbon emissions is Germany, which is:
-- Dramatically transitioning their energy sector to renewable energy.
-- Investing heavily in energy efficiency ("Smart Grid" infrastructure).
-- Achieving high economic growth.
-- Sizeably reducing carbon emissions
-- Also bringing new coal-fired generation on-line.

Germany's share of electricity produced from renewables has increased from 6.3% to over 25% since 2000. Relative to 1990, Germany has also reduced its carbon emissions by 25%.

However, contradictory to the U.S. "no new coal policy", Germany is currently implementing its biggest new-build program for coal stations in over a decade -- increasing its coal-fired generation capacity by 33%.

Is this a picture of a vase or two
people looking at each other, or both?
The Need For A Mental Reboot: Just because a view doesn't "fit" or "appears" contradictory to a established paradigm/model doesn't necessarily mean its wrong. There's usually always more than just one way in viewing and solving complex problems.

The goal is to achieve a productive "end-result" -- not ideologically pure ways (e.g., no new coal) of how to get there.

Moving Forward: To achieve meaningful and sustainable reductions in global carbon emissions a major "paradigm shift" is needed -- moving away from rigid black/white ideologies (which the U.S. no coal policy represents) to a lower carbon standard (LCS) model (a comprehensive approach as being used in Germany).

As stated in previous blogs, it is strongly believed that international trade should be the centerpiece of this new paradigm. A good starting point is to create the equivalent of "Enterprise Zones" within developing countries (especially free markets economies of India and Indonesia) providing: (1) significant and unprecedented new trade incentives into U.S. and European markets for manufactured products using a "Low Carbon Standard" (LCS); (2) Significant transfers (including financial assistance and less restrictive patent protection) of advanced energy and manufacturing technology into these Enterprise Zones.

Sometimes the pathway in developing countries may look like what has been accomplished in Western Industrialized Economies -- sometimes it may not. Most often, a LCS pathway in developing economies will require a "bridge approach" (with definitive benchmarks that must be achieved to keep new trade incentives) in transforming to the LCS objective.

An example of needing a "bridge approach" is the argument that scaling up renewable energy technologies (intermittent wind, solar) have been demonstrated to be competitive with base load fossil fuel generation. What this argument fails to mention is that this competitiveness is highly dependent on having an advanced large (national, regional) transmission "Smart Grid" (which does not yet exist in developing countries).

Liberal versus Conservative?: Only by using bedrock conservative principles of de-centralization and free markets will the prize of sustainable reductions in carbon emissions be attained.


Additional Stories:
In War on Coal, Coal is Winning (C.S. Monitor)
Kenya postpones Wind and Solar Energy Projects because of high costs.
Geothermal energy crippled in Philippines from Typhoon Haiyan.
World Coal Consumption To Surpass Oil By 2020
NY Times Op/Ed: Coal use in developing countries
More opinions on poverty and coal use in developing countries
Trade/Climate Change Policy: U.S. Liquid Natural Gas Exports?
U.S. Hypocrisy to Undermine EU LCS Standards on Tar Sands Exports
Public Opinion Polls: Views on Global Warming -- U.S. Versus World
Germany set records in coal use.
Wall St. Investment Firm Backs Away From Major Coal Export Project
Solar and Wind Vs. Coal in South Africa
U.S. Regulators Struggle on Writing New Coal Regulations
Climate Change Can't Be Solved on Backs of the World's Poor.


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