Think, now, about the next question. What is the appropriate success standard for the American energy sector?
Some would say “energy independence.” Drill as aggressively as possible and reduce American dependence on foreign oil.
Environmentalists have argued for “emission reduction” as our success standard.
This book argues for a swift transition to a post-fossil fuel energy future, for a clean energy future that powers our economy while averting any further global warming, climate change, and ocean acidification. A clean energy economy truly achieves energy independence.
A competent public knows that the endless consumption of oil, coal, and natural gas yields an endless increase in the stock of atmospheric CO2. It yields an endless upward creep in global temperatures. It pulls one climate trigger after another. It slowly but inexorably produces ocean acidification and eventual massive extinctions for marine species.
A competent public knows that we have a vast abundance of raw solar energy. If we are smart and aggressive, we certainly have the ability to power the entire American economy with clean energy.
It is time to set aside “Emission Reduction” as the success standard we hope to achieve. It is time to affirm Clean Energy as our true success standard. Let’s reorganize ourselves so that in three decades we will have the tools to run the American economy at full speed without any further consumption of oil, coal, or natural gas.
A competent public knows that a slower consumption rate for fossil fuels doesn’t solve anything. The total stock of carbon dioxide continues to rise, global warming continues to rise, climate change thresholds get crossed, and the ocean continues to acidify. Growing the total stock of carbon dioxide by 50 billion tonnes a year instead of 150 billion tonnes a year doesn’t solve anything. Either way, the stock of atmospheric CO2 eventually tops out at very nearly the same level. Topping out quickly or slowly makes little difference over the long run. One eventually triggers the same string of global disasters either way. "Emission reduction" is just another way of saying "losing end game."
A Clean Energy success standard calls for a different way of thinking about our solution strategy.
We need to think holistically. The entire framework of fossil fuel energy needs to be replaced. All the user technologies that rely on fossil fuels need to be phased out; all the source technologies that deliver fossil fuel energy need to be phased out. But none of what we need can be phased out till we are also prepared to phase in an effective portfolio of replacements. We need an efficiency strategy, a new technology phase-in strategy, an old technology phase-out strategy.
How do we do that, and do it as effectively and swiftly as possible?
It is important to give ourselves ambitious deadlines. No more gasoline-fueled cars on the road after 2040. No more natural gas furnaces or heating oil furnaces in use after 2040. No more electricity generated from coal or natural gas or oil after 2040. No more manufacturing carried on with fossil fuels after 2040. No more imports after 2040 from nations that still burn fossil fuels.
There is but one exception. Any fossil fuel application that sequesters one hundred percent of its CO2 will be permitted to remain in operation. Will that be a small exception or a large one? At this point in time, no one can know.
It is important to bring business fully on board. Every industry that’s likely to play a major role in this transition ought to be asked to prepare its own clean energy transition plan. Tell the nation, by 2015, how you will approach this. Describe the issues you expect to face. Suggest ways in which public policy can take away major obstacles and help you move forward.
Each of the major conversion challenges described above will require a guiding policy framework. Imagine a National Energy Efficiency Act, or perhaps a series of State Energy Efficiency Acts. Imagine a Clean Energy Buildings Act. Imagine a Clean Energy Vehicles Act. Imagine a Clean Energy Factories Act. Imagine a Clean Energy Foreign Trade Act.
Imagine a Clean Energy Electricity Act. Imagine a Clean Energy National Grid Act. Imagine a Clean Energy Liquid Fuels Act. Imagine a Clean Energy Heat Act. Imagine a Clean Energy Siting Act.
Should we also imagine a Clean Energy Carbon Tax? We should. Three design concepts ought to be incorporated in the shaping of a Clean Energy Carbon Tax.
1) Carbon taxes should be market specific. In some markets, it won’t take much of a carbon tax to tip the market away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. In other markets, a somewhat higher carbon tax will be needed to move matters toward clean energy. We don’t want carbon taxes to be pegged any higher than necessary; a market-specific approach will moderate the overall impact.
2) Carbon taxes in all markets should start low and then rise slowly but steadily over time. The prospect of higher taxes in the future is often sufficient; one need not impose high tax rates on Day One.
3) The proceeds from Clean Energy Carbon Taxes should be split three ways. Some of the proceeds should fund Clean Energy R&D. Some of the proceeds should fund conversion costs and retirement program costs for communities whose economies depend heavily on coal or oil. And some of the proceeds should be returned to the American people on a per household basis.
American business needs to know what the rules of the game are to be so that planning can be done. It is a gross injustice to say to business that emission reduction is the name of the game. That soundbite has always pointed us in the wrong direction. We are in the clean energy transition business, not the emission reduction business, and the capital budget implications for business are significantly different. Business needs to be given a responsible set of signals and then helped to move forward toward responsibly-defined goals.
Growing Our Competence
By taking this on properly, we can learn together what it means to be more competent as a people.
Core Principles. By insisting that integrity at scale become the operating standard for the energy sector, we learn to flex our own civic muscle as champions of integrity. There is only one global atmosphere; we are all in this together.
Descriptive Worldview. We learn what it means for Earth to maintain temperature equilibrium. Infrared Energy Out has to balance Solar Energy In. We learn the logic chain that ties technology to consumption, consumption to emissions, emissions to overall stocks, overall stocks to rising temperatures, and rising temperatures to the crossing of climate thresholds. We learn as well to understand the consequences for the world’s oceans
Directional Worldview. We learn to understand the steep rise in carbon dioxide now taking place. We grow smarter about irreversibility, climate risk, and Uncompensability. We begin to visualize the clean energy future we need.
Success Standard. We set aside the false success standard of emission reduction. We affirm clean energy as the success standard that halts climate change and blocks the advance of ocean acidification.
Solution Strategies. One names the goal. One defines the deadline. And then all the players come together in skull sessions. In football, players need to run the proper routes. In civic life, something similar is just as important.
One-time CEO Jack Welch is known for saying, “Face reality, communicate honestly, control your destiny.” Live by this principle and we will make America a far stronger and more capable nation.
Steven Howard Johnson, 9.4 Version 2011-06-27