Climate Management 101 — 3. Changes and Times

September 1st, 2007 <-- by Richard Rood -->

Climate Management 101 — 3. Changes and Times

In the first blog of this series, I introduced the idea that here are both short-term and long-term considerations in the management of climate, and that policies and practices that are part of the short term may or may not be sustained in the long term. The management of climate? Given our population and our use of energy, we are managing the climate. The question is whether or not we do it with cognizance.

If we are to control emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, then we must examine our sources of energy and its consumption. To reduce the emissions, substantially, requires massive changes throughout society. During elections people always say they want change, but they really want someone else or something else to change.

My experience of trying to manage change in organizations is that:

1) There is a natural resistance to change. This is especially true if what is being done, currently, is viewed as successful.

2) A requirement to change implies that something is being done incorrectly. People don’t like to believe what they are doing is incorrect. This is especially true if what is being done, currently, is viewed as successful.

3) A requirement to change is often viewed as a threat, because it is viewed as a risk to resources. This is especially true if what is being done, currently, is viewed as successful.

There is inertia in the existing policies and practices. There is inertia in the installed infrastructure. There are standing investments and interests that resist change. Given that policy to address climate change implies changes to our energy consumption and challenges to societal success, there is an enormous existing base which will resist the changes necessary to address the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Often when trying to motivate or direct change, one idea is to provide incentives that expose or exploit the benefits of change. There is surely opportunity to benefit in addressing climate change, and some are embracing this opportunity. Another strategy to motivate change is to expose the risk of not changing. Many would say that this has been the “strategy” of the climate community.

Climate change sits in complex relation to many other societal challenges and priorities. There is an intrinsic attribute of climate change science that makes this complexity more difficult to untangle; that is, the very long time scale associated with global warming. If we were to imagine drastic action today to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, then it would many decades before we saw the environmental impact of that drastic action. It is not only a matter of whether our action has had a beneficial impact; it is also the fact that the benefit is realized by people other than our selves. We naturally discount the future, and when the benefits of climate change policy become a legacy issue, the impetus for our taking action becomes either working for the common good or, first and foremost, the emotions of the legacy that we will leave.

If we are going to be motivated to take action, then the role of near-term benefit needs to be elevated. We will innately respond to any near-term risk, but that may or may not impact the long-term increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The possibility of near-term benefit amplifies the impetus that comes from working for the common good or the quality of our legacy.

The notion of realizing tangible benefit from addressing climate change brings in several other time scales. Expenditures in energy infrastructure, for instance a power plant or a refinery, are expected to have lifetimes of several decades. The cost of conversion of existing technologies to more carbon friendly technologies or high efficiency needs to be spread over several years. Major expenditures in infrastructure, for example levies, must have useful lifetimes of decades. If one were to posit an environmental market as a way to control carbon dioxide emissions, then there needs to be assurances that that market can be expected to exist long enough for investments to be recovered, again, decades. Tax and fee-based programs must, again, operate on time scales that are long enough to assure that they have substantive impact on the climate, not simply transient incentives for a particular technology.

Consideration of these time scales provides a challenge for the policy maker. It is unlikely that the correct long-term policy will be implemented in the first instantiation. Therefore, policy needs to evolve. If the posited carbon market is the ultimate, central policy vehicle, then that market, which does not exist robustly today, needs to develop, perhaps, be built. Taxes and fees become a possible component of that construction. It is critical to enter into the development and management of climate policy with the realization that if the policy does not have some flavor of stability for decades, then there will be little buy in. If the policy does not have a lifetime of many decades or centuries, then it will have little impact on the management of climate. The value of our environment and of our shared resources needs to be included into the costs of our consumption.

Others in this series:

Climate Management 101 – 1
Climate Management 101 – 2
Climate Management 101 – 3
Climate Management 101 – 4

One Response to “Climate Management 101 — 3. Changes and Times”

  1. David B. Benson Says:

    I am going to offer the suggestion of an expedient policy, intended to last only until about the year 2050.

    The basis of the policy is that at 385 ppm, atmospheric carbon dioxide is about 100 ppm too high already, and it is clear that the oceans are already suffering. So we need to reduce this concentration. The suggestion is to reduce the concentration to 315 ppm quite rapidly. The choice of 315 ppm is not arbitrary. The concentration was, for a few thousand years, that high during the previous intergracial, the Eemian, obviously due to other than antropomorphic reasons. A concentration of 315 ppm is only an interim goal, probably, becuase during the Eemian the sea stand was about 5 meters higher. But that rise quite probably required hundreds or even thousands of years. In any case, by the year 2050 more will be understood about what is an appropriate concentration.

    I further assume that about 7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel and deforestation sources will be continue to be released into the atmosphere. The plan, then, is to sequester 14 billion tonnes of carbon per year. The additional 7 billion tonnes tthen lowers the concentration in the atmosphere. To remove 70 ppm from the atmosphere requires sequestering 210 billion tonnes of carbon. At 7 billion tonnes per year this requires 30 years. Since it will take some time to construct such a massive effort, I suggest this wold take until 2050.

    To estimate the cost, I will assume that all sequestration occurs via bio-coal, which it seems is competative in cost with fossil coal, at least in the The Netherlands and Germany. Current prices for coal used to generate electric power are around $36 per tonne in the U.S. However, the cost of producing and sequestering bio-coal in lower cost countries ought to be less. I will assume that this can be done for $20 per tonne. Thus $280 billion per year is required.

    While this cost ought, by some conept of fairness, to be bourne by all the developed countries, it is clear that the United States Government could pay the entire amount. Whether taxes are levied on fossil carbon or not, and how much, is a political decision which can be somewhat indepedent of starting immediately on the task of sequestering 210 billion tonnes of carbon derived from biomass…

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