Podesta: Obama Administration is ready for the carbon revolution

John Podesta, chief of the Obama Transition team, spoke frankly on Friday about the severity of the consequences we face due to the interconnected challenges of fossil fuel dependence, climate change, global recession, growing national debt, and lack of U.S. global leadership.

Podesta, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress and former Clinton chief of staff warned of a “climate crisis” in his speech:

“The world seems to be spinning out of control and it’s difficult to determine where the new administration should start. But I believe we can begin tackling many of these pressing challenges if we focus closely on one overarching issue: the crisis of global warming and our unsustainable use of energy.

Rethinking our relationship to the climate crisis opens a dialog on each of these issues: building a more prosperous global economy, rethinking and modernizing our infrastructure to unleash new productivity, creating safer and more secure relationships among developed and developing nations, and investing in the long-term stewardship of the planet. Global warming offers a point of entry into the most pressing issues, and it also creates a context for new and more exciting solutions to these long-standing structural problems of war and recession, poverty and pollution.

These problems are united through a common solution: The transition to a clean energy economy. Both in my home country, the United States, and globally today, we see clearly how building a low-carbon economy can be a source of increased business opportunities, innovation, and competitiveness; job creation; stronger, more prosperous communities; and improved energy and national security. This is a moment when we desperately need progress and renewal, and in the solution to this global crisis, we have a project around which to organize the best of our efforts….

This clean energy transition must be at the heart of America’s energy policy, at the core of our efforts to re-engage the global community of nations, and at the center of a strategy for economic recovery and reinvestment.

Podesta’s urgent tone was matched by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu’s comments last week.

As a young twenty-something who came of age almost entirely during the Bush years, hearing the people running the country talk about climate change with such urgency and nuance is like a shock to the system. Pinch me, am I dreaming? It seems almost too good to be true.

In contrast, I remember when Bush tacitly acknowledged the possibility that anthropogenic climate change might be real in 2006:

“And in my judgment we need to set aside whether or not greenhouse gases have been caused by mankind or because of natural effects and focus on the technologies that will enable us to live better lives and at the same time protect the environment.”

It seemed like choirs were singing and the heavens had opened just to hear Bush’s vague and insubstantial concession that maybe we should give up on the “debate” over whether or not greenhouse gasses have been caused by mankind.

The difference in the discourse now is absolutely staggering.

But words are easy. Action is hard–especially in a political climate where the mainstream still doesn’t quite grasp the relationship between the coming carbon revolution and opportunities for economic growth.

The McKinsey Global Institute has posited that to meet the carbon emissions reductions targets outlined by the IPCC, our economy is going to have to undergo a carbon revolution of comparable scope to the industrial revolution. According their June 2008 report, the “carbon productivity” of the global economy (the dollars of GDP generated by burning one ton of carbon) will have to increase by a factor of ten in the next forty years. For comparison, it took 125 years of industrial revolution for average labor productivity (dollars of GDP generated by the average man hour of labor) to increase by a factor of ten.

Luckily, McKinsey says that the first seven annual gigatons of carbon abatement will be cost negative for the global economy. “In other words, these actions would earn a positive economic return derived largely from savings in energy costs.”

The next 27 gigatons they say can all be abated for less than $50 per ton, for a net cost of between 0.6 and 1.4 percent of annual GDP. These estimates lie conveniently around the midpoint of the IPCC’s own estimates of 0.2 and 3.0 percent of annual GDP.

Even for those 27 gigatons that do have a net cost, those spent dollars will create jobs and generate economic activity, just like dollars spent on other critical items like these. With a cap and trade system, those dollars spent don’t even have to come from the government, they can come from the private sector.

McKinsey is not exactly a partisan entity, nor is it secretely funded by Al Gore. Environmentalists aren’t making this stuff up. Stopping global catastrophe isn’t really going to be as expensive as the right wing fears, and the low hanging fruit, the stuff that we are likely to be preoccupied with for the first half-decade or so anyway (throughout the end of this recession in any event), is actually going to create wealth. I’m thankful that this administration is being put together by people who understand this.

— Sean P.

2 Responses to Podesta: Obama Administration is ready for the carbon revolution

  1. Here, Here! I too am glad that this administration’s energy policies are being put together by people who really understand the gravity and scope of the issue. Having said that, I hope that as they move forward, they are careful to consider all of the options while fostering a full and open debate. I’ve been disheartened lately listening to politicians and opinion leaders talk more about solutions based on political expediency than on sound economic and environmental principles. And while I understand the urgency, I think it behooves us to have the best solution, rather than a fast-but-flawed solution.

  2. Conservation, smart grid, IGCC, biofuels, wind, solar — these will have minuscule effect on global climate change because the increasing demand for baseload power requires more and more coal (or natural gas, or nuclear). Sure these green options should be developed, but meanwhile something needs to be done, urgently, about coal emissions, which are the main contributor to the CO2 problem. And let’s not forget acid rain, fly ash, and toxic ash ponds.

    So the problem is: how do we capture and deal with CO2 and other pollutants in post-combustion treatment? It is a gas separation problem. Also a cracking problem, because captured CO2 cannot be dumped underground safely, and must be dissociated. Here is a possible mechanical solution for CO2 capture (stripping the nitrogen ballast) and SO2/fly ash turbulent scrubbing: Electrolysis using wind power could do the cracking, and thereby produce valuable products. Those could be the basis of the next industrial revolution: carbon nanotubes, which are 100 times stronger than steel, and near superconductors.

    No known gas separation process has any chance of being effective. Chemical carbon capture (amine scrubbing) is OK for natural gas or IGCC, where the CO2 is clean and not hidden by nitrogen ballast, but for flue gas it is absurd (75% of flue gas is harmless N2). Sequestration or other dumping options are ridiculous. But those are what all of the money is going to. Plus hydrogen cars, another boondoggle.

    So the “stimulus package” may actually do more harm than good by exhausting the nation’s debt capacity on these dry holes, leaving nothing for the discovery and deployment of something better. Hip shot solutions may stimulate jobs, but will impede progress on global climate change in time to make a real difference.