My readers will pardon that it has taken me a full week to respond fully to David Roberts’ post in Vox, “The Awful Truth in Climate Change”. I’ve been busy as usual with other matters this last week, and frankly it took me a little while to fully articulate what I have to say here.
In the interim, there have been other critiques of Roberts’ piece, by no less than the legendary Joe Romm of Climate Progress, and Jonathan Koomey, whose work I am also a big fan of. These two critiques have focused issues around the record of the IPCC and the two degree limit that is a central theme of Roberts’ article, and the difficulties forecasting what will be done in future decades. This is all very well and good.
I have a somewhat different critique.
First, I have to acknowledge the value of Roberts’ piece, and the debate it has spurred. Roberts is absolutely right that we are running out of time to prevent a two degree Celsius increase in global temperature and that we are in for “some really awful shit” (as Romm correctly notes, this is true whether or not we stay under two degrees C).
I would like to add that the pending increase in global temperatures and what we’re doing about it is the important issue that we could be discussing at this time, which alone makes Roberts’ article more relevant than pretty much any article in the mainstream media last week.
But I’d like to focus on two of Roberts’ statements.
“Holding temperature down under 2°C — the widely agreed upon target — would require an utterly unprecedented level of global mobilization and coordination, sustained over decades. There’s no sign of that happening, or reason to think it’s plausible anytime soon.”
“The scenarios that show a high likelihood of avoiding 2°C also presume policy regimes that are positively utopian: a rising price on carbon, harmonized across every country in the world; the availability, maturation, and rapid deployment of every known low-carbon technology; all bets paying off, for 50 years straight. It would be quite a run of luck.”
It’s hard to comment on what will or will not keep us under 2 degrees C. However, in terms of the bigger picture of rapidly reducing emissions, these statements betray a failure to appreciate current trends and ongoing progress with renewable energy. This whole line of thinking hints at the sort of false determinism which Energy Historian Vaclav Smil put forward is his utterly flawed work “Energy Transitions”, which I debunked a year and a half ago.
And it’s a bit ironic that I’m reading this while getting around to finishing Tony Seba’s book Clean Disruption, which predicts that solar will become the predominant source of energy (not just electricity) by 2030, with electric vehicles (and self-driving, at that) completely replacing the existing automobile infrastructure.
You can debate the timing of Seba’s projections, as no one, including Tony, has a crystal ball. But the fundamentals that this argument is based on – that what is currently happening is a technology disruption, by an semiconductor-based energy technology (solar PV) that has zero marginal cost and a rapidly declining cost curve – is solid.
I can understand that if you are an American journalist primarily concerned with politics and policy at the U.S. federal level and international agreements, things look pretty dismal at this point. However, I’d like to point out that the amount of solar PV installed every year in the United States has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 82% from 2009 through 2013, and another 30% from 2013-2014 (a slow year).
This is particularly remarkable given that among first world nations, the United States has one of the weakest policy regimes to support renewable energy and has made some of the slowest progress. Compare the ~7% share of non-hydro renewable energy in annual electricity output in the United States to 60% in Denmark and 20%-30% in Portugal, Spain, Germany and Italy. Even the UK is far ahead, Japan is moving swiftly, China may have rounded the corner on increasing emissions thanks in part to rapid deployment of renewables, and India is increasing the ambition of its goals.
It’s worth noting that I consider Roberts to be one of the better journalists covering energy and Climate Change. These trends and overall progress in renewable energy has been largely missed and/or ignored by the mainstream American media, whose coverage of renewable energy is largely a collection of uncritically repeated mythologies, fossil fuel and nuclear industry propaganda, and outdated assumptions. But regardless of the shoddy job that our media is doing in terms of educating the public, the ongoing doubling of the global solar market every two to three years certainly points to “all bets paying off” in terms of replacing fossil fuels with solar and other forms of renewable energy in a few decades or less – and a subsequent crash in emissions. And it won’t take “every known” technology – just two or three successful ones.
I’d also like to point out that every major policy group – the International Energy Agency, the U.S. DOE’s Energy Information Administration, and even Greenpeace – underestimated the recent global growth of wind and solar in their projections over the last decade. Although Greenpeace came closest.
The deployment of renewables is still greatly dependent upon supportive policies. However, this does not mean that a “utopian policy environment” is necessary for ongoing rapid growth, as solar and wind are increasingly being deployed without subsidies or mandates.
A few examples:
- Chile will install 1 GW of solar this year, which is not supported by any subsidies. This includes solar projects which won national auctions competing directly against fossil fuels.
- GTM Research reported last month that there are 5.7 GW of utility-scale solar projects currently being procured outside of renewable energy mandates in the United States, including under PURPA.
These are isolated incidents, but as Tony Seba will tell you, this is just the beginning. As long as solar costs continue to fall as they have, we will reach a point where rooftop solar is cheaper to deploy than the cost of transmission. Already, utility-scale solar projects are closing in on that number. When that happens, it’s game over for fossil fuels in electricity.
I’m not saying that this will happen without a fight. As Seba points out:
“When the cost of solar hits the point of no return, the impediments to building 10 million, or 40 million, or 100 million solar rooftops in less than a decade will certainly not be technical. They will be legal, political and regulatory (They will likely be placed there by the incumbent energy companies).” – Clean Disruption, p. 35
However, as time goes on the favorable economics of solar will make this transition harder and harder to fight, with solar less dependent upon policy and the money to be made by being on the right side of history more and more obvious.
I agree fully with Roberts that the situation that we are in is dire and that we need to light a fire under the rear-ends of our politicians for swift action. However, it is critical that we understand current trends in energy, so that we can accelerate this transition with the right policies and right political pressures, instead of wallowing in hopelessness about a doomed future, or waiting for unproven technologies to save us (as the new nuke technology boosters and MIT Tech Review would prefer).
Will this keep us within the goalpost of two degrees Celsius? I don’t know. Ultimately this is the wrong question. We may have missed the window for two degrees C, and if we have then there is nothing we can do now. The essential issue is how rapidly we can transition entirely to renewable energy, because that is the only path with any real chance of saving our civilization.
This will not require “miracles”. It will merely require the acceleration of trends that are already happening, across the globe. The future has yet to be decided.