Ken Caldeira: Natural Gas Is ‘A Bridge To A World With High CO2 Levels’, Deployment Is To R&D As Elephant To Mouse

Earlier, I wrote about a paper co-authored by climatologist Ken Caldeira. A key point of the study is that we can’t slow projected warming with natural gas, you need “rapid and massive deployment” of carbon-free power.

I asked Caldeira about the implications of his work for the right mix of clean energy deployment vs. R&D

I have long been a big supporter of greatly expanded R&D for new near-zero-emission energy systems, but R&D is not a substitute for early deployment.

We will learn by doing. We need to do what we know how to do. We will learn a lot by doing that, and we will learn more (and different sorts of things) with a targeted R&D program. R&D cannot substitute for deployment, but R&D can made deployment cheaper and more effective. An R&D program without a deployment program is a sterile exercise.

Most technologies will be more expensive than the monetized costs of coal. What is the motivation to research and develop something if there is no plausible marketplace for the fruits of that research and development effort?

Caldeira elaborated on these points:

Whether it is prices or standards, we need drivers to deployment. Markets for near-zero-emission energy technologies will spur a lot of R&D in the private sector. There is also a role for public R&D, but public R&D cannot substitute for drivers for deployment.

Put it this way: I think we need both policies that drive deployment and public support for clean energy R&D. It is at least conceivable that drivers to deployment could spur the innovation we need to build the near-zero-emission energy and transportation systems of the future. However, it is inconceivable that public R&D alone can achieve that goal. So, if we had to choose one or the other, drivers to deployment or publicly funded R&D, I would pick drivers to deployment. However, we don’t need to make this either or, and we can do both.

In terms of dollars, the real cost is deployment. Globally, deployment costs will be in the trillions of dollars, while R&D costs might be in the tens of billions. We are talking about the elephant and the mouse.

I have tended to think that when we get truly serious about avoiding catastrophic global warming, we’ll want to spend at least 10 times as much money on deployment as R&D, as I’ve written before (see “Study Confirms Optimal Climate Strategy: Deploy, Deploy, Deploy, Research and Develop, Deploy, Deploy, Deploy“ — and yes we need to do those simultaneously, the repetition was always meant to represent the relative spending levels).


But Caldeira is probably right than when we are spending the requisite trillions of dollars on deployment, “Markets for near-zero-emission energy technologies will spur a lot of R&D in the private sector.” I certainly agree with him that if one were forced to choose, one would pick the “drivers to deployment” — prices or standards (preferably both of those). BUT that is a forced choice only folks who don’t understand climate science or clean energy technology the way Caldeira does would ever think of making.

I also asked Caldeira about his view of natural gas as a bridge fuel. He replied bluntly:

I see natural gas as a bridge fuel; unfortunately, it is a bridge to a world with high CO2 levels, melting ice caps, acidified oceans, etc.

Energy demand is going up exponentially. Dependence on fuels with fractionally lower emissions in the context of exponentially increasing overall demand is a recipe for increasing greenhouse gas emissions. So, if the goal is turn the Earth’s climate into something like what it was when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, natural gas is a good way to get there.

If we are serious about solving this problem, we cannot be further entrenching a fossil fuel industry that depends on using the atmosphere as a waste dump.

Dependence on natural gas is a delaying tactic. I just don’t understand the logic: “We will delay building the energy infrastructure that we need to solve the energy-carbon-climate problem, and build CO2 spewing natural gas plants instead, but you should be thankful that these engines of global warming aren’t as bad as what we could have built.”

The goal is not to do something that is fractionally less bad than what we are doing now; the goal is to deploy energy systems that can actually solve the problem.

Power plants, with retrofits, last 75 years or longer, so we are already building the energy infrastructure of the second half of this century. If that infrastructure is not based on near-zero-emission energy systems, we’ll find ourselves back in the Cretaceous, except this time we’ll be the dinosaurs.

These comments should be no surprise to anyone who follows Caldeira’s work. Back in 2009 he had written to me about the error-riddled book SuperFreakonomics, which had grossly mischaracterized his views:

I compare CO2 emissions to mugging little old ladies”…. It is wrong to mug little old ladies and wrong to emit carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.

Here’s a video of Caldeira discussing the paper: