The recent United Nations climate negotiations in Bonn follow a tempo of occasional large meetings engineered to drive towards a huge outcome, like that in Paris, and others like the one that just wound up, designed to mostly handle technical issues. In either case, one can fairly ask whether the process is leading to a low-carbon future.
There’s good news and worrying news. The good news is most of the world has reached a political conviction on reducing energy sector greenhouse gas emissions, which represent 80 percent of total global warming. The worrying news is that few nations have managed to turn this general conviction into tangible, on-the-ground strategy. And that’s what matters.
At the end of the day, there is no abating climate change unless we commit to reaching four zeros in the energy-consuming economic sectors:
1. Zero-carbon grid
2. Zero-emission vehicles
3. Zero-net energy buildings
4. Zero-waste manufacturing
The way to judge any climate strategy is to see if it contributes at large scale to at least one of these four zeros. It turns out that about a dozen policies can make enormous contributions, while hundreds are essentially decorative.
For example, strong thermal building codes create extremely efficient buildings, which are an environmental asset for decades. A poor building code or no building code condemns the world to 50 or 100 years of carbon pollution. Likewise, standards for LED lighting, improved HVAC systems, or super-efficient refrigerators can wring out further emissions reductions. So, an obvious test of any nation’s commitment on climate change is to see whether they are using these standards to drive their buildings to zero net energy.
Utility regulations that rapidly expand clean energy and shut down coal, and then natural gas, are the only strategy that has rapidly decarbonized the grid. This process would be abetted by a carbon tax, but the core strategy must focus on utility regulation.
Utilities are complex businesses with deeply entrenched interests. They do not flip to clean energy overnight. The transition strategy runs through their regulators, who reward or penalize utilities for their operations. Utility commissions thus control the DNA that can drive this transition. It is well and good to build political pressure for climate action, but unless this is matched by deep, in-country technical assistance focused on reforming utility regulation, it won’t make much of a difference.
So, that covers two of the zeros – buildings and utilities. What about transportation? After all, transportation emissions are forecast to grow even as the power sector decarbonizes. The electric vehicle revolution is coming, and combining EVs with a zero-carbon grid creates zero-emission vehicles.
Media headlines trumpet the EV revolution, and announcements aplenty from automakers, cities, and states have sparked a sense that this is a rapid and inevitable future—but it is far too early to declare victory. Global EV sales are less than one percent of total automobile sales, and significant price gap and infrastructure problems mean this challenge is not yet solved. The EV revolution requires a mixture of incentives to sell EVs, mandates to produce them, and utility programs to build the infrastructure to charge them. No substitute exists for any of these three approaches, and it would be foolish to presume this revolution will happen in their absence.
That’s not all that has to be done for transportation, of course: The world will still build a couple billion new internal combustion engines, even with the fastest EV growth curves, so it is crucial that these engines be super clean and super efficient. Strong fuel efficiency standards and strong tailpipe standards, based on real-world performance, are the only proven ways to get this done at scale. That agenda must be pursued with vigor.
Then, of course, comes the question of dependence on cars in the first place. As the world gets wealthier and more crowded, cities reach saturation, and then oversaturation, with automobiles. It’s clear that no livable city in the world can handle all the cars that the people would like to stuff into it – even if they are electric. Doing so drives congestion, noise, pollution, and global warming. It’s time to move beyond cars, and build cities with world-class public transportation, biking and pedestrian amenities, compact sustainable urban design, and the basic precepts of car control.
It’s worth taking a moment on the idea of car control: A dozen cities around the world have recognized that too many cars ruin the city and so have developed a smorgasbord of experiments to reduce their cars. Beijing requires you win a lottery before you can buy a car. Shanghai makes you purchase a permit, which today costs about $13,000, before you can buy a car. Tokyo requires that you prove you have a parking place before you can get a car. San Francisco jacks up the price of parking when the city gets congested. London and Singapore charge you up to $40 to drive in the city center. This variety of car-control approaches will grow, and become stronger in the years ahead.
This brings us to the final zero: Zero-waste manufacturing. Until recently, manufacturing’s material and mineral sources, as well as manufacturing’s effluence, were considered to be free or near-free goods, provided in infinitude by nature. In a world that’s reached limits of effluence, like on carbon dioxide, this philosophy no longer holds. We need a new approach to manufacturing and design. For example, requiring the manufacturers of large appliances to take back the machines and recycle them at the end of their lives would increase recycling rates, but, perhaps more important, cause the manufacturers to design the machines for easy disassembly and recycling.
Other solutions exist to reach the manufacturing zero. Additive manufacturing (3D printing) can drastically cut waste by putting material exactly and only where it is required, rather than by starting with a huge chunk of material and carving it down to the ultimate product.
Substituting design for material is another exciting new frontier to reduce waste. A bridge designed as a simple rectangular slab wastes an enormous amount of material, but a bridge that is designed with material only where necessary to carry load can reduce mass 50 percent or more. The list for new manufacturing strategies goes on, but will require a carbon price and recycling standards in order to really explode.
The way to judge whether the world is making progress on climate is to see whether the world’s top two dozen GHG-emitting countries are moving toward these four zeros, at pace. The political proclamations in UN assemblies can be a useful impetus, but they are just words if they are not matched with in-country strategies in these four realms.
Government officials must match climate targets to smart, applied policies. By converting the business of these diplomatic processes into actual steel turbines in the sky, crystalline panels in the desert, and concrete in the ground, we’ve got a shot at a low-carbon world.
Hal Harvey’s Insights and Updates offers monthly thoughts and analysis on current energy and climate topics. These newsletters are written by Energy Innovation’s CEO Hal Harvey. Sign up here to receive Insights and Updates straight to your inbox.