As part of my ongoing series on core climate solutions (see links below), let’s examine biofuels.
If we are going to avoid catastrophic climate outcomes, we need some 11 “stabilization wedges” from 2015 to 2040 (see here). So if you want to be a core climate solution, you need to be able to generate a large fraction of a wedge in a climate-constrained world. And that is a staggering amount of low-carbon energy (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 1“).
Option 13: Biofuels. Fossil-carbon fuels can also be replaced by biofuels such as ethanol. A wedge of biofuel would be achieved by the production of about 34 million barrels per day of ethanol in 2054 that could displace gasoline, provided the ethanol itself were fossil-carbon free. This ethanol production rate would be about 50 times larger than today’s global production rate [actually, now more like 60 times current U.S. biofuels production], almost all of which can be attributed to Brazilian sugarcane and United States corn. An ethanol wedge would require 250 million hectares committed to high-yield (15 dry tons/hectare) plantations by 2054, an area equal to about one-sixth of the world’s cropland. An even larger area would be required to the extent that the biofuels require fossil-carbon inputs. Because land suitable for annually harvested biofuels crops is also often suitable for conventional agriculture, biofuels production could compromise agricultural productivity.
Biofuels thus have several problems as a large-scale medium-term climate solution:
… then you may have noticed I wasn’t on it. I was there, though. They got befuddled, and I had previous commitment on NPR at 1 pm. But I did get to sit in traffic for a couple of minutes while Tony Snow’s funeral procession went by.
July 17, 2008
A Generational Challenge to Repower America (as prepared)
D.A.R. Constitution Hall
Ladies and gentlemen:
There are times in the history of our nation when our very way of life depends upon dispelling illusions and awakening to the challenge of a present danger. In such moments, we are called upon to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes. Those who, for whatever reason, refuse to do their part must either be persuaded to join the effort or asked to step aside. This is such a moment. The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk. And even more — if more should be required — the future of human civilization is at stake.
I don’t remember a time in our country when so many things seemed to be going so wrong simultaneously. Our economy is in terrible shape and getting worse, gasoline prices are increasing dramatically, and so are electricity rates. Jobs are being outsourced. Home mortgages are in trouble. Banks, automobile companies and other institutions we depend upon are under growing pressure. Distinguished senior business leaders are telling us that this is just the beginning unless we find the courage to make some major changes quickly.
The climate crisis, in particular, is getting a lot worse — much more quickly than predicted. Scientists with access to data from Navy submarines traversing underneath the North polar ice cap have warned that there is now a 75 percent chance that within five years the entire ice cap will completely disappear during the summer months. This will further increase the melting pressure on Greenland. According to experts, the Jakobshavn glacier, one of Greenland’s largest, is moving at a faster rate than ever before, losing 20 million tons of ice every day, equivalent to the amount of water used every year by the residents of New York City.
Two major studies from military intelligence experts have warned our leaders about the dangerous national security implications of the climate crisis, including the possibility of hundreds of millions of climate refugees destabilizing nations around the world.
Just two days ago, 27 senior statesmen and retired military leaders warned of the national security threat from an “energy tsunami” that would be triggered by a loss of our access to foreign oil. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq continues, and now the war in Afghanistan appears to be getting worse.
And by the way, our weather sure is getting strange, isn’t it? There seem to be more tornadoes than in living memory, longer droughts, bigger downpours and record floods. Unprecedented fires are burning in California and elsewhere in the American West. Higher temperatures lead to drier vegetation that makes kindling for mega-fires of the kind that have been raging in Canada, Greece, Russia, China, South America, Australia and Africa. Scientists in the Department of Geophysics and Planetary Science at Tel Aviv University tell us that for every one degree increase in temperature, lightning strikes will go up another 10 percent. And it is lightning, after all, that is principally responsible for igniting the conflagration in California today.
The electricity sector is the largest producer of greenhouse gases in the United States, with its fossil-fired power plants and an obsolete power grid generating one-third of all our global warming emissions. Gore’s “unprecedented challenge” is a “moonshot” goal, but it is also on the scale of what is needed to avoid climate catastrophe. To stabilize the climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that industrialized nations need to cut emissions to 25 to 40 percent below 1990 levels. For the United States, whose emissions have risen 15 percent since 1990, that goal translates to 34 to 48 percent below today’s pollution. Transforming the grid would cut global warming pollution by 33 percent from current levels by 2018 — what we need for an even shot to halt our global fever.
Moving to all clean electricity would likely spur related reductions in the transportation sector, as the new “smart grid” of electricity distribution designed for renewable sources such as solar and wind power would be able to use plug-in hybrid vehicles for distributed electricity storage. Instead of everyone reliant on a few massive power plants controlled by large utilities, the system would allow both large and small-scale electricity production and storage. The giant wind farms of T. Boone Pickens would be complemented by millions of solar roofs, all feeding into the same dynamic electricity network.
Interestingly, the goal was announced in an interview with the Associated Press’s Ron Fournier, famed for his chatty relationship with Karl Rove. Fournier strangely mentions “ozone-killing coal plants,” though it is carbon dioxide, not ozone, that is the primary greenhouse gas produced by coal plants. However, Fournier’s mention of ozone does point out one of the significant corollary benefits to moving to clean energy — the elimination of the health threat of traditional pollution from coal plants, which cause about 24,000 premature deaths a year.
UPDATE: At Dot Earth Andy Revkin has the full text of Gore’s prepared remarks. Gore says of the simultaneous troubles of our economy, national security, and climate:
Yet when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges — the economic, environmental and national security crises. We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change. But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we’re holding the answer to all of them right in our hand.
While a goal of 100% of carbon-free electricity is probably unrealistic, it therefore seems possible to get pretty close to that, especially if nuclear and hydro are included in the mix. A plan that announced a specific goal of 40-50% of wind-generated electricity by 2020 and 10-20% of solar, with the appropriate feed-in mechanisms, demand guarantees for manufacturers and investment in the grid would therefore be realistic, make economic sense, and fulfill two major strategic goals: reduce carbon emissions, and lower fossil fuel demand.
Our guest bloggers are Daniel J. Weiss and Alexandra Kougentakis, a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy and a Fellows Assistant at the Center For American Progress Action Fund.
President Bush took the opportunity at his press conference on Tuesday to have his “I told you so” moments on high energy policies. He may be laughing but the joke is on us. The two oil men in the White House – supposed energy experts – brought Americans the highest energy prices ever. Just look:
- Gasoline prices have risen from $1.70 per gallon in May 2001 to $4.08 per gallon in June 2008
President Bush tried to claim his innocence in the devastating energy crisis:
Again, I don’t want to be a ‘I told you so,’ but if you go back and look at the strategy we put out early on in this administration, we understood what was coming.
It’s hard to see what he is complaining about. Over the course of 2001-2006, Congress for the most part did implement the Bush-Cheney energy plan. According to Administration officials, 60% was in effect by March 2002, 75% by December 2004, and 95% by March 2005. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said, as part of an online interactive forum on March 9, 2005, “During his second week in office, the President put together a task force to address America’s energy challenges… And over the past four years, we have implemented 95 percent of those recommendations.” In fact, today’s energy policies are primarily a creation of his administration.
“I have never seen an opportunity for the country like the one that’s emerging now,” Gore told The Associated Press in an interview previewing a speech on global warming he was to deliver Thursday in Washington.
Gore said he fully understands the magnitude of the challenge … $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years in public and private money. But he says it would cost about as much to build ozone-killing coal plants to satisfy current demand….
To meet his 10-year goal, Gore said nuclear energy output would continue at current levels while the nation dramatically increases its use of solar, wind, geothermal and so-called clean coal energy. Huge investments must also be made in technologies that reduce energy waste and link existing grids, he said.
Personally, I would have set the challenge at closer to 50% by 2020 and 90% by 2030. In particular, I’d like a few years for solar photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal to mature a little more, to see what are the very best strategies and technologies. And I’m not certain all the money in the world can get us a substantial amount of “clean coal” (presumably coal with carbon capture and storage) in a decade. So all that speaks to adding another decade. Also, I don’t know why we would want to shut down the combined cycle natural gas turbines, which is why I’d be more than happy to see this country with a 90% fossil-free grid in 2030.
Nonetheless, kudos to Gore for laying out such an ambitious “moonshot” goal.
[Note to the grises: Next time, spring for an editor who would cut the first "one" and punch up the first sentence for more impact -- "America is facing a long-term energy crisis that could become one of the most significant....]
We strongly recommend that you attach the highest priority to developing and implementing a strategic energy policy that has a long-term, commonsense vision and the full attention of our national leadership.
In short: “The sky is falling. Do something now.” So naturally they urgently recommend very specific policies, a 20% renewable portfolio standard by 2020, fuel economy standards to 55 mpg by 2030, 20% of new cars must be plug ins by 2020, an 80% cut in US greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, monkeys fly out of Joe Romm’s butt. Well, maybe not the first four. In fact, here is the kind of “pillar” they propose:
Reduce the Environmental Impact of Energy Consumption and Production
We must address the impact of our growing energy consumption on the environment and climate, while recognizing that any approach must be both economically viable and environmentally effective. We must not set targets for which technology does not yet exist or which threatens major economic displacement.We must give industry a predictable investment climate and incentives for innovation in clean energy. Costs and benefits must be transparent to consumers. We must commit to a course that promotes global participation while considering the priorities of the developing world.
How helpful. Let’s start with the unbelievable confusion in the notion of giving industry “incentives for innovation in clean energy” when earlier in this short letter they had written “We need to resist the temptation to rely on taxes or subsidies as the solutions of choice to meet our energy challenges.” I hope you are listening next President — we need incentives for innovation that aren’t subsidies and aren’t targets for technology.
[Note to the grises: Next time, actually read what you are signing.]
So who signed their name to this mush? Mostly conservative democrats and members of the BOP — Bland Old Party. It is simply inconceivable that these guys could endorse anything both useful and specific:
Edited by Joe Romm, we cover climate science, solutions and politics. Columnist Tom Friedman calls us "the indispensable blog" and Time magazine named us one of the 25 "Best Blogs of 2010." Newcomers, start here.