Originally published in the California Tech, January 7 2015.
Obama reaches emissions agreement with China
In mid-November it was announced that China and the US had reached a secretly negotiated carbon emissions deal that, for the first time, injected some hope into the apparently moribund issue.
In 2010, the US emitted around 5.5 gigatons of CO2, shrinking at about 1% per year. China emitted around 8 gigatons with 7% growth per year. The EU emitted about 4.5 gigatons, shrinking also at about 1% per year. While much of the US reduction has been due to the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent displacement of coal by gas, the EU, a signatory to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, has committed to reduce their emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, and is already halfway there. Together, the US, China, and the EU account for half of the world's CO2 emissions. The US and China did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol and nearly two decades later the world is rapidly approaching the 1000 gigaton net CO2 limit understood to limit global temperature rise to below 2 °C.
Exceeding 2 °C global temperature rise will not fry people in the street nor end microbial life as we know it. Instead, we can look forward to a slow, agonizing death to be completed by the end of our children's natural lives. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), intensifying weather, changing rainfall patterns, and salt water incursions across much of the world's arable land will cause mass hunger, poverty, and war. A destabilized west-Antarctic ice sheet will break up and, over a decade or so, drown every coastal city beneath an ever-rising tide of up to 30 feet. Such a bleak future is not inevitable, however.
Under the new deal, the US commits to reduce emissions by 26% below its 2005 peak by 2025, and China commits to reach peak emissions by 2030, and to increase zero-carbon energy generation to 20%. Ipso facto it would seem the US got the raw end of the deal, but there is more to the Chinese commitment than meets the eye. With 7% annual growth in emissions, peaking by 2030 implies a rapid and concerted effort to decouple ongoing exponential economic growth from carbon emissions, to which such growth has traditionally been tied, since the industrial revolution. In other words, both parties will need to take positive and comprehensive action to bolster low- and zero-emission power generation methods.
During the 1930s, the Hoover dam was built in Nevada to tame the Colorado and provide vast quantities of energy for Los Angeles. Much of the technical detail surrounding the high voltage transmission of power over long distances was developed at Caltech. Today, Caltech still occupies a position at the forefront of power generation innovation, and it is into the vacuum of a post-carbon future that many of today's students' efforts will be directed.
In 2009, world leaders met in Copenhagen to attempt a comprehensive UN treaty limiting carbon emissions enough to keep global temperature rise below 2 °C. The meeting failed due to an impasse between China and the US. In particular, limiting CO2 was seen as strongly economically deleterious and all parties bargained so aggressively that no deal was established. What has changed since then? While it is impossible to say for certain, the Chinese political landscape has evolved, while the ongoing environmental and health catastrophes wrought by fossil fuels in China are now impossible to ignore.
With that in mind, it seems more likely that the upcoming Paris accord will consist more of individual countries making their own commitments rather than a broad umbrella agreement on emissions. This approach gives each country more flexibility to tailor its response to its current and projected economic needs. Crucially, it also gives world leaders an opportunity to grandstand. Rather than submitting to a restrictive global deal, countries can enter a competition or rivalry, wherein technological prowess and political maturity can be proven on the world stage. And, unlike the space race, everyone is a winner.
The consequences of this deal go deeper than that, however. Today's technology-based economies, which include all the major carbon emitters, recognize that a post-carbon future is inevitable. Already the rising prices of resource extraction (to say nothing of the unpriced externality of exhaust dumping) have opened the market to utility-scale solar and wind generation. Regardless of timing, if civilization is to continue, it must necessarily transition away from finite fossil fuels. With that in mind, whoever gets there first will enjoy an enormous technological and economic advantage. For too long climate discussions and emissions targets have painted a picture of either economic stability and rising emissions, or economic collapse and a green future.
This need not be the case. Technologies both mature and emerging are beginning to illustrate a powerful future where our accomplishments as human beings are limited not by the width of an oil drill casing but only by the colossal power of the sun. There are substantial technical challenges to generating almost all our power from solar energy, but given a smart grid and distributed storage mechanism for responsive demand, solar farms covering but half the desert military bases in California and Nevada could power the entirety of North America. Similarly, solar panels covering the exclusion zone of a nuclear power plant would generate more power and at less than one-third of the amortized cost. Challenges remain, but never before has need, ability, and raw economic opportunity aligned in so powerful a way.
Today, five-sixths of the coal and oil reserves remaining must stay in the ground if we are to avoid the crucial 2 °C temperature rise. No fossil fuel producer, country, or mining company will accept anything other than an economic argument to discontinue mining. Investment in extraction today assumes profitable returns given a minimum coal price ten years from now, when infrastructure is in place and production can begin. Already, the Rockefeller group has led a partial divestment in fossil fuels, perhaps due to moral obligation but more likely due to economic expedience. Consumer-level solar deployment such as SolarCity and Varengo is leading the charge to drive up future fuel price uncertainty, but many pieces of the puzzle remain unsolved. A future in which coal is as uneconomic to mine as sand is the future in which we leave the planet for our indefinitely many descendants better than when we found it.