the missing piece of the climate change puzzle

There are three pieces to the climate change puzzle and so far the mainstream political parties have only grasped two of them. The three pieces are based on misconceptions that many people hold about acting on the issue. These misconceptions are outlined in Chapter 2 of Roger Pielke jr’s book, The Climate Fix:

1) We lack political will
2) We must trade off the economy for the environment
3) We have all the technology we need

Pielke’s book argues at length that each of these assumptions is false. I won’t attempt to duplicate that here but rather illustrate the argument through the stance of the Labour / Green alliance and The Coalition in Australia.

Gillard has announced her intention to tax carbon. This is based on her correct belief that the people want some action on climate change. Given public opinion on this issue her political estimate is that it is more dangerous to do nothing than to do something.

Abbott has announced his opposition to a carbon tax and that, if elected, he will rescind any carbon tax introduced by Labour. This is based on his correct belief that the people will not tolerate any serious infringement of living costs based on a carbon tax. He knows that people will not accept a trade off of the economy for the environment.

The latest opinion polls show a sharp drop in Gillard’s support in response to her carbon tax plan. It would be a mistake to interpret this as meaning that the public is not concerned about climate change. All the polls show consistently that the public is concerned about climate change. Gillard’s bad polling is more to do with her broken election promise and the perception that Labour will not develop effective policies about climate change.

Of course, Gillard will not introduce a large carbon tax because that would mean she would lose the next election. But on the other hand a small carbon tax will not contribute significantly to reducing carbon emissions to the target set down at the failed 2009 Copenhagen conference (to reduce CO2 emissions from the burning of fossil fuels to a level 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050), even if applied across the whole world and not just to Australia, whose contribution to CO2 emissions is tiny on a world scale.

What is missing in this dialogue from both sides of Australian (and world politics) is the fact that we currently can’t reduce carbon emissions to desired levels AND maintain living standards with our current alternative energy technologies.

This is the missing piece of the climate puzzle. What needs to be done is a massive increase of R&D into energy technologies. This is the position that has been put forward by both political middle of the roaders such as Roger Pielke jnr and Bjorn Lomborg and arrived at independently by radicals such as Arthur Dent in his debate with Brave New Climate’s Barry Brooks (November 2010 The Monthly Argument: Climate Change: Is Nuclear Power the Answer?, see The Monthly Argument videos)

The puzzle is why no mainstream world politician with any real influence or prospect of coming to power has put the need for massive R&D funding to the forefront. Surely, this would make more sense than the political suicide performed by Kevin Rudd, which could well be repeated by Julia Gillard? Why don’t they get it?

In thinking about this puzzle I recalled a rare time in recent history that capitalism did support massive R&D. This followed the 1957 Sputnik scare when it appeared possible that the Soviet Union was overtaking the USA in their scientific achievements. In response the USA initiated massive educational reform and increased funding for R&D. One of the outcomes of the research effort then was the internet. But it appears in “normal times” that capitalism does not support massive R&D. Why not?

I think the answer lies in the dynamics of the capitalist economy. Capitalists support some R&D but not too much. R&D is used to produce new technology which enhances efficiency but is expensive and it takes some time for that expense to be recuperated. Hence the said capitalist does not want superior replacement technology to come on stream too soon. The commitment of capitalists to R&D is limited. In this respect, the demand for massive R&D represents a threat to the normal workings of capitalism. It could also help explain why the answer to the climate puzzle is taking a very long time to reach the ears of mainstream politicians.

4 Responses to “the missing piece of the climate change puzzle”

  1. 1 Dalec

    You are on the money. R&D is the essential component for the solution to excessive CO2 emissions and this is missing.
    The myth that the “market” can solve every problem will be a long time dying.
    The “Greens” have a fundamentally metaphysical world view that seems to manifest itself as a number of mantras “solar power”, “energy efficiency” and so on. It is clear from their statements that they do not really understand the technologies.
    The real elephant in the room is energy storage; in particular, large scale distributed energy storage would make intermittent “renewable” resources cost competitive with all forms of base-load generation including nuclear. It would also make the electricity supply network far more efficient as it would no longer have to supply peak loads.
    There is no low cost electricity storage system available today. There are a number of prospective technologies but they need very big investments.

  2. 2 Arthur

    Wow! An unambiguously positive and correct comment from Dalek!!!

    Storage is indeed a key aspect, especially for transport.

    Could also be an enabler for renewables but would need really long term cheap storage for removing seasonal peaks.

    Using renewables to create fuel that can be stored and used later might work but it seems really hard to compete with simply reducing the cost of using nuclear fission or fusion and accepting the inefficiency at peaks.

    At any rate Lomborg’s proposed USD $1 billion per year R&D should be applied to all aspects of the various related problems, including fundamental research.

    We need to develop a good understanding of why capitalism is having difficulty simply going for this “obvious common sense”.
    There is a deep connection with both actual interests in preserving existing capital investments (including fossil fuel plants and resource rents like those from Australia’s coal industry) and ideological blinkers favouring only incremental innovation motivated by market forces and instinctively opposed to large scale publicly funded research for the public domain.

    Lomborg is clear on supporting the latter but offers only naive explanations about the motivations of politicians for explaining why it hasn’t caught on.

    We also need to spell out some institutional mechanisms for funding collection, allocation and management consistent with both immediate global implementation and future transition from capitalist nation states.

    Capitalist bureaucracies are indeed notoriously inefficient and this is a major factor helping keep the ideological blinkers in place.

  3. 3 Arthur

    PS I just noticed a typo. $1 billion should be $100 billion. Also the cleanenergycouncil link was a random accidental paste of no relevance.

  4. 4 Dalec

    I have built some computer models that demonstrate that a load of up to 60 kWh/day can be supported by an energy storage capacity of only 5kWh. This is an extreme load for a typical home. This model requires a load limit of 3.2kW. More typically a 20 kWh/day load can be supplied with about a 1 kW load limit.
    The really interesting thing is that about 24 GWh per day, of energy is available for load shifting – if a 7 kW/5 kWh unit is installed in each of the roughly 8 million homes in OZ. Given suitable central control.
    In essence this means that all intermittent resources can be “soaked” up by the system.
    Also it will provide distributed power factor and voltage control.
    The really interesting thing is that I trialled real world versions of this over 10 years ago. The energy storage system is the missing link, huge research program is required.

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