The annual Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is underway in Honolulu. Trade representatives from the United States, China and 19 other countries will meet this week to discuss, among other things, a U.S. proposal for a Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade plan touted as the largest plan since the 1994 North America Free Trade Agreement. While most eyes will be focused on the TPP, another important agenda item worth following is the U.S. proposal for APEC countries to pledge to reduce tariffs on environmental goods – including green technologies like solar panels and wind and hydroelectric turbines – to 5 percent.
Supporters of the U.S. proposal have praised the Obama administration’s efforts to push the plan as a positive step in helping promote U.S. green economic growth. According to Reuters, “It's an environmental plan for the Asia-Pacific region that even President Barack Obama's harshest Republican critic could love: cut taxes paid by corporations and reduce market-distorting regulation.”
Despite slow economic recovery, the global green energy market continues to grow, with foreign markets offering significant opportunities for U.S. green energy companies. “A 2010 Commerce Department report said the global market for environmental technologies was $782.4 billion in 2008 and the United States was by far the largest single market, accounting for $299.5 billion of the total,” reported Reuters. That same Commerce Department report found that “foreign markets, particularly those of developing countries, continue to grow at a higher rate and offer the most opportunities for U.S. companies.”
There was a large spread in The New York Times yesterday on the coming age of unconventional oil and natural gas – that is, oil and natural gas from deepwater reserves, oil sands, shale rock formations and the Arctic. The article is worth reading at length to understand how technology is changing the landscape of available energy resources and what it could mean for heavy energy consuming states, especially in the near term.
“The United States may now have the means to reduce its half century of dependence on the Middle East. China and India may have the means to fuel the development of their growing middle classes. Japan and much of Europe may have the chance to reduce dependence on nuclear power,” The New York Times reported. “And, at least theoretically, poor African countries might be able to lift themselves out of poverty.”
There are important caveats to the above claims, of course. First, one must remember that relieving U.S. dependence on Middle East oil is in large part symbolic more than anything else. Oil is part of a global market where prices are set, and disruptions to the global oil market will affect the price of oil for everyone, everywhere, including oil produced from reserves in North America. Thus, price volatility will continue to be a concern as long as we are largely dependent on fossil fuels. And while The New York Times reports that “new fuels should moderate future price increases,” one must remember several trends too, including that as the global economy recovers and industrial production rebounds in developed and developing states, consumption will quickly increase and prices could also rise sharply if demand outpaces production. Finally, one must remember that continuing to develop fossil fuel resources will, as The New York Times cautions, “probably [make] solutions to climate change, and the development of renewable energy, even more difficult.” These are important externalities to keep in mind.
Last week we revisited the geoengineering debate in light of the recent Bipartisan Policy Center’s report recommending that the U.S. government be prepared to counter the effects of global climate change through climate remediation – that is, by engineering the climate. In particular, we emphasized the need to understand the foreign policy dilemmas that are likely to arise from engineering the global climate. This week we turn to the technical feasibility of actually doing it.
Later today Dr. Tim Persons, the Government Accountability Office’s Chief Scientist and author of the latest report, Climate Engineering: Technical Status, Future Directions, and Potential Responses, will discuss the future of climate engineering technologies at an event at the Wilson Center. Several of the GAO report’s findings are worth highlighting in advance of that discussion though. According to the report:
Climate engineering technologies are not now an option for addressing global climate change, given our assessment of their maturity, potential effectiveness, cost factors, and potential consequences. Experts told us that gaps in collecting and modeling climate data, identified in government and scientific reports, are likely to limit progress in future climate engineering research.
The report evaluated the most and least advanced options for engineering the climate. “To assess the current state of climate engineering technology, we rated each technology for its maturity on a scale of 1 to 9, using technology readiness levels (TRL)—a standard tool for assessing the readiness of emerging technologies before full-fledged production or incorporation into an existing technology or system,” the report stated. Any technology with a TRL score below 6 is considered immature by technical standards and “may face challenges with respect to potential effectiveness, cost factors, and potential consequences.”
The geoengineering debate is front and center in Washington again. Yesterday, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a report recommending that the U.S. government be prepared to counter the effects of global climate change by researching and testing options for “climate remediation” – which is the report’s term of art in lieu of geoengineering; “to mean intentional actions taken to counter the climate effects of past greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere.” The report is based on the findings of an 18-member panel convened by the Bipartisan Policy Center in March 2010.
The debate comes as momentum for any political action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through national legislation has stalled on Capitol Hill, and is likely to remain stalled through 2013 given the approaching presidential election season. According to The New York Times, several of the panel members that authored the report “hoped that the mere discussion of such drastic steps [that is, to engineer the climate] would jolt the public and policy makers into meaningful action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which they called the highest priority.”
“Managing risk is a central principle of effective climate policy,” the report states. “This task force strongly believes that climate remediation technologies are no substitute for controlling risk through climate mitigation (i.e., reducing emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases) and climate adaptation (i.e., enhancing the resilience of human-made and natural systems to climate changes). Most climate remediation concepts proposed to date involve some combination of risks, financial costs, physical limitations, or a combination of the three that make the concepts inappropriate to pursue except as complementary or emergency measures—for example, if the climate system reaches a ‘tipping point’ and swift remedial action is required. The United States needs to be able to judge whether particular climate remediation techniques could offer a meaningful response to the risks of climate change.”
I was riding my bike on Ohio Drive near West Potomac Park on Sunday and saw the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Decathlon, which reminded me that DOE just published its first Quadrennial Technology Review. The what, you ask? Yes, you’re reading that right: Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR).
“During this time of hard budget choices and fiscal challenge, we must ensure that our work is impactful and efficient,” Secretary of Energy Steven Chu writes in the opening message of the review. “The question we face is: ‘How should the Department choose among the many technically viable activities it could pursue?’ This first Quadrennial Technology Review (QTR), launched at the recommendation of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, lays out the principles I believe must guide these difficult choices.”
What’s notable about the review, according to Secretary Chu, is that it provides a framework for multi-year investments. This is critical in helping viable technologies scale up by providing a sustained demand signal from DOE that may give the private sector some added comfort in making capital investments in technology. “Energy investments are multi-year, multi-decade investments,” Secretary Chu acknowledges. “Given this time horizon, we need to take a longer view.”
The review provides a pretty solid primer on the energy landscape and the challenges that the United States faces. “An effective U.S. portfolio of technologies and policies to address these challenges must be based on three global realities,” the review states. These realities include: the choices that we make today about long-term infrastructure (i.e., the efficiency of buildings, etc.) will shape global energy consumption through the end of the century; to stabilize global carbon dioxide emissions (“the dominant anthropogenic GHG [greenhouse gas]”) in the long-term, energy technologies will have to be greener in the near-term given that the greenhouse gases emitted today impact the world tomorrow; and as global oil consumption increases, future crude prices and price volatility will increase sharply as the world depletes access to “easy” crude oil (i.e., cheaper and easier to access onshore resources).
Our friend and colleague Dr. Jay Gulledge has a terrific piece in the latest issue of Nature arguing that researchers must make a stronger case for funding climate science research against a backdrop of budget cuts and political divisiveness. (You can read the full piece here, but it requires a subscription.)
Jay does a great job emphasizing the important role that science and technology programs play in U.S. national security policy. Reaching back into history, Jay notes that “U.S. federal science spending has long been rooted in the national security agenda,” pointing specifically to the establishment of the National Science Foundation after World War II “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense,” and to the creation of NASA in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s. (As a side note, it is worth pointing out, too, that the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was founded largely as a science and engineering school.) Just as it was during the Cold War, science and technology programs are crucial to U.S. policymakers charged with protecting U.S. national security interests. Jay writes, “Neutralizing today’s threats — terrorism, biological and chemical weapons, nuclear proliferation, and cyberwarfare— is an intensely scientific undertaking.”
This week, leaders from industry, government and research institutions gathered in Las Vegas for the National Clean Energy Summit. The day-long event featured addresses from Vice President Joe Biden, Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus.
On Tuesday, Vice President Biden emphasized the need to “unleash” the innovative potential in the clean energy sector in order to compete with countries like China that are already making huge investments in their own industry so they can compete globally. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” President Obama said in his State of the Union Address earlier this year. “If we don’t develop renewable energy, we will make the biggest mistake in this nation’s history,” Vice President Biden told the Las Vegas audience.
The administration has continued to support its vision for a clean energy future, most recently by authorizing the Departments of Agriculture, Defense and Navy to invest $510 million over three years to stimulate the biofuel industry. “The combined effort of these three departments is a powerful force that will decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil, position American companies to be global leaders in the production of advanced drop-in biofuels, and create jobs for American farmers and American companies,” Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus said on Tuesday.
The U.S. Navy’s Task Force Climate Change recently released its latest assessment in support of the Navy’s Arctic Roadmap. What I found particular interesting given our work on the gap between the climate science and national security policy communities (see Lost in Translation: Closing the Gap Between Climate Science and National Security Policy) was the explicit mention of the Navy’s need to generate its own scientific assessments and information to shape its decision making. The Navy conducted its own assessment in part because the pace at which the independent scientific information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is produced is not adequate to support the military’s Program Objectives Memorandum (POM) cycle – that is, the memo guiding the services’ 6-year programmatic needs. It is important to note that “Significant force structure and end-strength changes, as well as major system new starts must be identified” in the POM (see my post yesterday on the need to make hard choices about naval capability and force structure in Arctic). According to the Navy’s report:
This first biennial report provides a comprehensive assessment of the state of the Arctic environment, including the oceanography, hydrography, meteorology, fisheries, ice-extent, and climatic trends. This is important because the IPCC refresh rate is too long to meet the budget POM cycle, so this assessment will periodically synthesize existing scientific reports to inform POMs, specifically POM-14; this allows the Navy‘s decisions to be based on sound science, and not use one source only, but a consensus of accepted sources. (Emphasis added)
Another interesting point that is worth mentioning is the Navy’s assessment of Arctic fisheries, and the potential challenges that could loom as Arctic nations jockey for resources in the High North. “The impact of current and future Arctic fisheries on the marine environment and marine biodiversity in the Arctic is not likely to be fundamentally different from impacts to the marine environment and biodiversity in other parts of the globe,” the report found. “However, the challenge in enforcing fishing regulations is much different due to the harsh nature of the Arctic environment. Increased access to Arctic fisheries could lead to over-exploitation of target species and a variety of impacts on non-target species, for instance on dependent species due to predator-prey relationships, on associated species due to by-catch and on benthic species due to bottom fishing techniques.”
Yesterday, the Obama administration made a huge investment in U.S. energy security by announcing that the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Navy will invest $510 million over the next three years to stimulate the biofuel industry. “Biofuels are an important part of reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home,” said President Obama in a White House release. “But supporting biofuels cannot be the role of government alone. That’s why we’re partnering with the private sector to speed development of next-generation biofuels that will help us continue to take steps towards energy independence and strengthen communities across our country.”
According to the White House release, the administration hopes “to produce advanced drop-in aviation and marine biofuels to power military and commercial transportation” through joint cooperation between the three departments. The military has been actively testing advanced drop-in biofuels in its air fleet for several years, with the Navy in particular helping drive demand for liquid fuels derived from feed stocks such as algae.
In December 2010, the Obama administration released a bipartisan report from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform that, among other things, recommended the administration to establish a disaster fund to “budget honestly for catastrophes.” “Any given disaster may itself be unpredictable, but the need to pay for some level of disaster relief is not,” the commission found. “Yet federal budgets rarely set aside adequate resources in anticipation of such disasters, and instead rely on emergency supplemental funding requests.”
"The last-minute legislation approved by Congress last week [August 2] to raise the debt ceiling creates a disaster fund that will carry billions of dollars for recovery in hard-hit areas," Evan Lehmann of ClimateWire reported last week. As the government navigates the increasingly constrained fiscal environment, a disaster fund sounds like a practical solution. Lehmann noted that, “The fund could reduce stress on the deficit by preventing the need for emergency supplemental appropriations made in the wake of a crisis. Those unplanned expenses are not included in the budget, so it amounts to new debt.”
The challenge, though, is that the fund may be insufficient for providing relief to Americans reeling from climate-related disasters that today may be consider historical, but tomorrow may be more frequent. “The disaster fund budget authority (BA) will be limited to the rolling average of disaster spending in the most recent 10 years, excluding the highest and lowest year,” according to the commission report. “That rules out mega-outliers like Hurricane Katrina, which required an emergency outlay from Congress amounting to $122 billion,” Lehmann reported.