WASHINGTON – The Paris event on climate change will probably yield nothing really concrete. The fact is that, despite the rhetoric and the contrived “emergency mode”, there is a huge disconnect between the desired result to stop and possibly reverse global warming and the tools available for this enormous undertaking.
Whatever the environmentalists may preach or demand, it is essentially impossible to put the entire world, or even most of it, on a stringent, low-carbon diet. Western politicians who claim that they have a plan are pandering, posturing, or dreaming. We could do this only if we had viable, truly cost-effective technological alternatives. And we do not have them. At least not yet.
Renewable energy? Not quite here yet
Of course, there is renewable energy, the miracle cure. We have solar and wind power, and a lot more. But, so far at least, these are not really cost-effective solutions. Otherwise, they would have been already adopted –on a massive scale.
Sure, today we can install solar power plants in Namibia and Arizona or Morocco, and in other countries where there is a lot of sunshine all year round. As prices for this technology are coming down, this is beginning to make economic sense. But what about Sweden, Siberia, or Belgium? Not much sun there.
Mandates are a bad idea
The worst public policy mistake has been to mandate the adoption of still imperfect renewable energy technologies, so that politicians could show that “we are doing something”. This is a bit like governments, circa 1980, mandating the purchase for every public office of the first generation of PCs running on the first Microsoft operating system. This would have created a rent position for PC manufacturers and for Microsoft, therefore diminishing the incentives to innovate and out-innovate each other.
Real innovation, not subsidies
Indeed, if I know that whatever renewable technology I produce today, it will be adopted for political –rather than cost-effectiveness– reasons, why bother to invest more, refine it, perfect it and make it wonderful, as opposed to barely passable? I know that, because of the mandates, utilities are forced to buy my stuff. I make enough money this way. Then why push the envelope?
No real results out of Paris
So, here is the thing. The big Paris gathering may yield something. But it will not be much. And we can be sure that measures promised eventually will not be implemented, at least not in full.
By the same token, it is obvious that poor countries do not have the luxury to tax carbon, or to subsidize solar.
In fact, guess what, the use of coal –by far the most hated carbon-based fuel– is going up, worldwide. Yes, up.
More coal plants in Japan
Look at Japan, for instance. The Japanese have come up with a new generation of cleaner burning, lower emissions, coal-fired plants. They are better, for sure. But they still pollute a lot more than comparable gas-fired plants. Let alone zero emission solar.
And yet the Japanese are merrily marching ahead. And they are actively marketing their “clean coal” plants in Indonesia, and elsewhere. India depends heavily on coal. And so does China. Ditto for America, even though coal in the US has been gradually displaced by cheaper (and much cleaner) natural gas.
Add to the mix parts of Africa, beginning with South Africa, the number two economy in the Continent, heavily dependent on coal. So, forget about abolishing coal. Right now, it simply cannot be done.
Can this change? Of course it can. But we need some truly disruptive innovation in non carbon energy that does not need political coercion for early adoption.
Look, imagine that tomorrow we get state of the art, truly affordable and super efficient solar power. At the same time, Tesla or some other manufacturer comes up with a really cheap electric car that you can drive for 400 miles without recharging. Assuming all this, we are done.
It would take no more than a few minutes for millions and millions of price conscious consumers, and later on the whole world, to switch to the new technologies.
The end of coal, gas and oil
Millions would install cheap and highly efficient solar panels on their roofs, this way making their own electricity, at home. Then they would dump their cars with gasoline engines and buy an electric vehicle that they can charge at home at almost zero cost. People would make this switch not because they are pious environmentalists, but because they want to save money.
This way, in no time we would have eliminated coal, natural gas (power generation fuels) and oil (transportation fuel) as our key energy sources. Think of that. And we would have achieved the dream of a mostly carbon-free world.
Not enough R&D
This is what we should aim for. Whereas, right now we get little investment in R&D in new energy technologies, and plenty of mandates, regulations, and subsidies for still rudimentary renewable energy solutions.
We should spend real money on “Moon Shot” projects. Bold stuff, out of the box ideas. Of course, most of these efforts will lead to nothing. Lots of money will be burnt on crazy ideas. But this is what happens when you go into uncharted territory.
Fantastic energy future?
Nobody really knows what our main source of energy will be in 50 years. I hope it will be something fantastic, clean and cheap. But if we continue at this pace, chances are that in 50 years we will continue to have debates about “clean coal”, and “lower emission”, gasoline-fired internal combustion engines.
And, if that is so, forget about “solving” global warming.