An open letter to James Hansen on the real truth about stabilizing at 350 ppm

To James Hansen (and his fellow 350 ppm-ers):

You make a compelling case we must ultimately return atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million to avoid catastrophic climate impacts (see “Stabilize at 350 ppm or risk ice-free planet, warn NASA, Yale, Sheffield, Versailles, Boston et al”).

But you have made an uncompelling case about how President-elect Obama should go about achieving 350 ppm in your new draft essay Tell Barack Obama the Truth — The Whole Truth and in previous essays (see here). You are, for instance, overly dismissive of cap-and-trade and overly enamored of a carbon tax, when, in fact, neither holds any prospect whatsoever of achieving your goal. Your discussion of as-yet non-commercial 4th generation nuclear technologies is equally off the point, as we’ll see.

If the truth is that we must have a target of 350 ppm, then you must be equally truthful in insisting on national and international policies that could achieve that goal. So far, you haven’t. Nobody has.

I have yet to seen anybody lay out just what is required to achieve 350 ppm from an energy technology and policy perspective, so let me do so here using the incredibly demanding carbon targets from your paper:

[Note: Sadly the ship has sailed on your blue line. We hit global carbon emissions from fossil fuels of 8.5 billion metric tons (GtC) in 2007, according to the Global Carbon Project (see here).]

Absent such specificity, everything else is pure handwaving. The simplest tool for explaining the scale of the solution is the much misunderstood “stabilization wedges” approach of Princecton’s Socolow and Pacala (technical paper here, less technical one here, my discussion of its analytical problems here). Used properly, it is almost as good as an expensive economic and energy model (see “IEA report, Part 2: Climate Progress has the 450-ppm solution about right”).

Wedges are strategies that reduce emissions steadily until they achieve a 1 GtC/year saving — in 50 years in Princeton’s original framework, but for those in a hurry like all of us now are, it must be less.

The bad news about 350 ppm is that you need some 18 standard (50-year) wedges from 2010 to 2060, if I’m reading your paper right — plus a whole lot more after that — just to be on a path to get back to 350 ppm in 2150. The really bad news is that, to achieve your frontloaded reductions from shutting down all traditional coal plants in the next two decades, you need eight of those wedges by 2030.

Why is this bad news? Three reason:

  1. An individual wedge is a staggering amount of carbon-free energy
  2. There isn’t political support to do even a single 20-year wedge today.
  3. Doing eight such accelerated wedges simultaneously is far beyond the capability of the market on its own no matter how high a carbon tax you impose.

Here is one possible list of all the (20-year) wedges the world must achieve simultaneously starting almost immediately:

  • 1.5 wedges of concentrated solar thermal — ~2500 GW peak.
  • 1.5 of wind power — 1.5 million large (2 MW peak) wind turbines
  • 2 of efficiency — buildings, industry, and cogeneration/heat-recovery for a total of 10 to 13 million GW-hrs.
  • 1 of nuclear power — 700 GW
  • 1 of solar photovoltaics — 2000 GW peak [or less PV and some geothermal, hydro, and biomass]
  • 1 wedge of vehicle efficiency — all cars 60 mpg, with no increase in miles traveled per vehicle.
  • 1 of forestry — End all tropical deforestation.

Note 1: Links to my extended discussion of most of these wedges can be found at “An introduction to the core climate solutions.”

Note 2: I threw in an extra electricity wedge since I have no doubt that everybody will find something objectionable in at least 1 of these wedges. Again, I am NOT proposing these wedges, but based on my research and blogging they are the most plausible I have seen. If you don’t like one, you need to find a replacement strategy (look here, but most of the others are far less plausible, if not inherently impractical [I’m talking about you, would-be hydrogen wedges]).

Note 3: Bear in mind that another 10 or so accelerated wedges will be needed from 2030 to 2060.

Is it clear yet why a carbon price is hardly among the most important policies needed to achieve 350 ppm? A price isn’t what is needed to stop building any new coal plants and shut down every existing one in 10 years in rich countries and 20 years everywhere else — and replace all that power (plus growth) with carbon-free generation and efficiency.

Indeed, I can’t imagine how high a price would be needed but it is probably of the order of $1000 a ton of carbon or more starting in 2010. Talk about shock and awe. Remember, we are talking about a carbon price so high that it actually renders coal plants that have been completely paid for uneconomic to run. And once you stop new demand and start shutting down existing plants, the price of coal will collapse to almost nothing.

Once you start building all of the alternatives at this unimaginable pace, bottlenecks in production and material supply will run up their costs. The collapse in coal prices, making existing plants very cheap to run, together with the run up in the price of all alternatives will force carbon prices even higher.

But, in any case, if you want to replace all those existing coal plants with carbon free power that fast, again the carbon price is almost beside the point. How are you going to site and build all the alternative plants that fast? How are you going to site and build all the power lines that quickly? How are you going to allocate the steel, cement, turbines, etc? How are you going to train all the people needed to do all this?

There is only one way. As you and your coathors conclude:

The most difficult task, phase-out over the next 20–25 years of coal use that does not capture CO2, is Herculean, yet feasible when compared with the efforts that went into World War II.

Yes, this is a WWII-style effort, as I noted in the conclusion to my book:

This national (and global) re-industrialization effort would be on the scale of what we did during World War II, except it would last far longer. “In nine months, the entire capacity of the prolific automobile industry had been converted to the production of tanks, guns, planes, and bombs,” explains Doris Kearns Goodwin in her 1994 book on the World War II homefront, No Ordinary Time. “The industry that once built 4 million cars a year was now building three fourths of the nation’s aircraft engines, one half of all tanks, and one third of all machine guns.”

The scale of the war effort was astonishing. The physicist Edward Teller tells the story of how Niels Bohr had insisted in 1939 that making a nuclear bomb would take an enormous national effort, one without any precedent. When Bohr came to see the huge Los Alamos facility years later, he said to Teller, “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” And we did it in under five years.

But of course we had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, the world was at war, and the entire country was united against a common enemy. This made possible tax increases, rationing of items like tires and gasoline, comprehensive wage and price controls, a War Production Board with broad powers (it could mandate what clothing could be made for civilians), and a Controlled Material Plan that set allotments of critical materials (steel, copper, and aluminum) for different contractors.

That is what you are talking about — or should be — not “tax & dividend” and fourth-generation nuclear power. Indeed, you spend way too much time — 2 out of your 8 pages — on nuclear power when it simply is not more important a solution than any other, certainly not more important than, say, concentrated solar thermal, which you mention not at all.

NUCLEAR: The single nuclear wedge requires building 35 nukes a year — roughly 10 times the current production rate, more than 50% higher than the greatest rate the world ever sustained for even a single decade, and far in excess of what current production bottlenecks would allow. Nuclear plant prices in this country have already tripled since 2000 to nearly price themselves out of the market (see “The Self-Limiting Future of Nuclear Power, Part 1”).

Is it now clear why your extended nuclear power discussion is off the mark? You point out that

The common presumption that 4th generation nuclear power will not be ready until 2030 is based on assumption of ‘business-as-usual”. Given high priority, this technology could be ready for deployment in the 2015–2020 time frame.

Sorry, too late. The incomprehensibly fast scale up of low carbon generation we need for 350 ppm leaves no time for such hypotheticals, no time for hoping things get commercialized within 10 years. After all, somebody has to build the massive manufacturing capacity right now, and somebody has to train all of the people needed to build these reactors right now (not to mention training people to run them), and somebody has to contract for all of the relevant raw materials pretty damn soon.

Maybe fourth-generation nukes could be useful in the next set of post-2030 wedges, which is why a major ramp up of R&D remains incredibly valuable. But for getting off of coal in two decades, we gotta go with what we have.

Again, I’m not advocating building 700 nuclear plants over the next 20 years, and certainly agree with the myriad failings of existing commercial nuclear plant designs that you describe. I am merely pointing out what the logical technology and policy implications of your paper is.

RENEWABLES: I am very, very bullish on renewables, but each of these renewable wedges are immense undertakings. For instance, 3000 GW of wind in 20 years, is 150 GW a year. “Last year’s global wind power installations reached a record 20,000 MW, equivalent to 20 large-size 1 GW conventional power plants.” So we’ve got to quickly increase the production capacity by a factor of seven fast and then sustain it. The good news is that wind has been on a very fast ramp up, so this isn’t completely implausible, but the siting, the material, the construction, the transmission, and, the energy storage required to enable the deployment and use of that much wind that fast is simply beyond the capacity of the marketplace to manage on its own.

And the other renewable wedges require an even more challenging ramp up. Solar thermal electric (aka solar baseload power) holds perhaps the most promise of all renewables because it can be integrated with low-cost high-efficiency storage to provide power when it is most needed, because it has no obvious production bottlenecks, and because the United States, China, and India have vast solar resources. The market might plausibly achieve 50 to 100 GW a year of growth, but only after a steady ramp up for the next 5 to 10 years. If you wanted to do that faster, you’d again need the WWII-style approach.

EFFICIENCY: Just one 20-year wedge of efficiency requires, by my rough calculation, every country in the world doing as much efficiency in five years as California did over the last three decades — and then repeating that again, again, and a fourth time. And that is no mean feat, since California had to change its utility regulations, adopt aggressive building codes, train lots of people in every aspect of energy efficiency, and have a very smart, very well-funded Energy Commission pushing, funding, and fine tuning this.

Interestingly, China may be the only country poised to scale efficiency up fast enough, since they did it before. But, of course, they used a government-led effort that is, arguably, near-WWII-style (see “China’s immoral energy policy — Part II: The efficient alternative”).

CONCLUSION: You end your impassioned plea to President-elect Obama:

Frank communication with the public is essential. At present, all around the world, governments are guilty of greenwash, an implausible approach of goals and half-measures that will barely slow the growth of CO2. The world, not just the United States, needs an open honest discussion of what is needed.

I could not agree more. That is precisely why I blog and why why I have written this open letter.

I have no argument with proposing politically unrealistic strategies. Indeed, I have an ongoing multi-part series on just how politically unrealistic stabilizing at 450 ppm currently is (see, most recently, “Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 7: The harsh lessons of the financial bailout”). If avoiding catastrophic climate impacts were politically plausible today, both of us would find better things to do with our time.

But the staggering and immediate price shock you propose is more than unrealistic — it just won’t get your job done, as I’ve explained, no matter what tinkering around the edges you do with R&D, building codes, and the like.

I am not entirely convinced that 350 ppm is needed this century from a purely scientific perspective. But I am utterly unconvinced that you have a technology and policy strategy needed to achieve 350 ppm or come anywhere close.

For now, I’ll stick with 450 ppm.