Thursday, February 17, 2011

Technology-led climate policy

Today we talked about “Energy and climate change” in the sustainability class. In preparation for this, I stumbled upon a piece by two economists at McGill University entitled “An Analysis of a Technology-led Climate Policy as a Response to Climate Change”. The paper explains why climate change mitigation poses a much more difficult challenge than some economists like Nicholas Stern want us to believe and why the current target-based approach to climate change mitigation is doomed to fail as it puts the “cart” (large cuts in emissions) before the “horse” (the technological means for making the cuts).

Unfortunately, as the authors correctly point out, the debate on climate change has been almost exclusively about the ends (how much emissions are to be cut) rather than the means (how emissions are to be cut). While there is clearly room for demand-side mitigation (such as more energy efficient building codes, more trains instead of cars and less meat consumption), the simple fact that we are now seven billion people on this planet makes it imperative that we develop new means of producing vast quantities of carbon emission-free energy.

Access to such emission-free energy would not only provide immediate mitigation by replacing coal and other fossil primary energy sources, it would also pave the way for electric cars, large-scale desalination of sea water and other crucial components in a more sustainable future world. The list of possible technologies includes things like nuclear fusion, deep geothermal energy and biological hydrogen production. The problem is that such technologies are still decades into the future and will require a lot of basic research and development. Many people will argue that we do not have the time to wait until such new energy sources can be developed. While they may be right that we should immediately do what we can in terms of demand-side mitigation, it is clear that without radical new supply-side technologies, climate stabilization will be nearly impossible:

“On the face of it, attempts to directly control global carbon emissions will not work, and certainly not in the absence of ready-to-deploy, scalable, and transferable carbon emission-free energy technologies. The technology requirements cannot be wished, priced, assumed or targeted away.”



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