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Is green the new lemon?

 
 
 

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Is green the new lemon?

(Updated 8 October)

This week I nervously downloaded the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). If the scientists had addressed a very long-standing  structural problem, then perhaps I might sell lots more copies of From Smoke to Mirrors.

I was nervous because it seemed almost too much to hope that this time, the IPCC would highlight the long-term effects of fossil and mineral carbon dioxide emissions. Previously they left this critical information out of their technical and top-level summaries. Commenting on this blunder in 1997, Brian C. O'Neill, Michael Oppenheimer, and Stuart Gaffin* wrote, “the door to misinterpretation had been left open. Others have and continue to walk through it.”

What an understatement that was.

Solomon et al, 2007

The long atmospheric lifetime of carbon dioxide means it is impossible to stabilise man-made global warming without totally phasing out emissions of fossil carbon dioxide. When we burn fossil fuels, we transfer carbon from rocks to the atmosphere and oceans. Carbon very slowly drops out of the atmosphere and oceans, in the form of fossil materials and mineral carbonates, but this process takes many tens of thousands of years. This means fossil carbon dioxide emissions permanently increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans. The new IPCC report puts it like this: “Most aspects of climate change will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped. This represents a substantial multi-century climate change commitment created by past, present and future emissions of CO2.”

That’s better. Taking an engineering approach, I usually explain the situation like this: We can suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, turn it into petrol, and burn it up, without affecting the climate, because we are not changing the amount of carbon in circulation. But as long as we dig up fossil carbon and release it into the atmosphere, the world will go on heating up. Practically forever. I learned from researching From Smoke to Mirrors that technologists can make petrol and diesel out of pretty-much anything that contains carbon. If you tell a young technologist that the world is about to run out of petrol, and if he has any gumption at all, he’ll take that as a challenge. There’s enough fossil carbon tucked away in rocks to keep the world in petrol for hundreds of thousands of years, and I reckon humans are more than smart enough to figure out how to make every last skerrick of it into petrol and diesel. Call me an optimist if you like. But that’s what humanity is all about. We are technology.

IPCC, 2013, WGI, TGE.8, Figure 1.International climate negotiations for more than twenty years have focussed on the erroneous belief that climate can be stabilised by reducing the annual rate of emissions from burning fossil fuels, and by channelling money from “rich” countries (that is, the West) to “poor” countries. They could get away with that because most people only read the summary. Since 1990 various reports from the IPCC have been the fundamental source of climate wisdom. Right up until the fourth report, published in 2007, the IPCC's top-level summary said nothing about the long-term effect of carbon dioxide. Now, for the first, time, it’s right up there in the “summary for policy-makers,” a 36-page chapter you can read over a cup of coffee. Better. The concept of a cumulative limit on fossil carbon dioxide is a "Thematic Focus Element", complete with an updated version of the chart showing how much warming can be expected for specified cumulative fossil carbon emissions. It's better than the chart I've been using (even though it has a minor typo), but the message has not changed. I'm pretty-much over the moon about this. The graph should help eliminate a major misunderstanding.

The looming gravy-train-smash

This has very profound implications for the Kyoto gravy-train. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of bureaucrats and social scientists have built lucrative careers upon their knowledge and understanding of the Kyoto Protocol’s byzantine complexities and implications. Now they are deep in the brown stuff. The primary objective of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. You can only do that by totally eliminating fossil carbon dioxide emissions. It’s physics. No amount of social scientific mumbo-jumbo can change that. Although it was set up under the UNFCCC, the Kyoto Protocol makes no attempt to eliminate fossil carbon dioxide emissions. Some people think it has driven the development of tools that will be useful under some future climate agreement. I’m not convinced. For example, the Kyoto Protocol established an enormous trans-national bureaucracy that built and maintains an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions. We don’t need to count any greenhouse gas emissions right now. It will be many decades until anyone needs to think about an emissions inventory. The very long-lived greenhouse emissions need to be phased out. Until that happens, there’s no point dealing with shorter-lived gases such as methane. The only sensible thing to do with the massive expensive emissions inventory bureaucracy is to scrap it.

Shortly after I published From Smoke to Mirrors I saw first-hand how climate bureaucrats and academics might cope with the approaching gravy-train-smash. I sat down with an environmental economist and worked through the implications of Barry B. Bannister’s commodity cycle chart (Figure 20.0.1, p. 242, in From Smoke to Mirrors). That chart was (and still is) the only objective evidence relevant to global carbon pricing, whether it is a carbon tax, or emissions trading. The only rational conclusion we could draw was that carbon pricing will not change the relative market prices of fossil and carbon-neutral energy. A global carbon tax would simply drive up the cost of all energy. In the long-term, fossil energy will remain cheaper than carbon-neutral energy.

I thought, naively, that this economist might adapt his lectures to take account of what was obviously a very useful piece of economic evidence. Or maybe start teaching conventional economics. Nope. He still lectures about the supposed urgency of putting a price on carbon. The thing is, as long as nobody ever does anything about fixing climate change, he has a job. But he has to play to his audience. Some people don't want to know that science has clearly demonstrated the need for a hard technical solution to this particular environmental problem. They want to hear about social scientific solutions, so that's what he gives them. Change the public’s behaviour by slapping a tax on their self-indulgent naughtiness. Tut-tut. How dare we drive cars?

Most people don’t like being conned. Greenies have been telling us for more than twenty years that the world must have an emissions trading scheme or a carbon tax, and the world must support the Kyoto Protocol. Even conservatives who wouldn’t dream of supporting extreme-left economic policies think they might somehow cheat their grandchildren if they do not accept an emissions trading scheme.

It’s codswallop. And now the IPCC has made it practically impossible for the greenies to get away with it.

A direct, progressive ban on fossil carbon emissions requires no specific behaviour change on the part of the public. Energy companies such as electricity generators and oil producers must change how make their products. Industrial coal and gas users will have to change their energy supply. Fuel prices will gradually increase during the transition. However, improved vehicle efficiency and economic growth should more than offset increasing fuel and electricity prices, so there is no particular reason why anyone should change their lifestyle just to help stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Catch the train if that makes sense. Just don’t claim you’re doing it for the climate.

The public has every right to get incredibly pissed off about this. If they do, greenies will be the legitimate target. They have sold us a multi-trillion dollar fraud. If my environmental economist acquaintance had been correct, the carbon tax would need to be significantly above two hundred (US) dollars per tonne of carbon dioxide. That’s more than two trillion dollars per year at current fuel consumption levels. The tax would need to stay in place for as long as it takes to force the transition, at least, in my opinion, until 2080, by which time world consumption of liquid fuels and electricity should have doubled. (If it doesn’t, Africa will be a disaster area). All up, we’re looking at a minimum of about $US180 trillion, without taking account of interest or inflation. This will be a total loss. It cannot work.

Make no mistake. A fossil-fuel ban will be expensive. But it will work. Some people might get away with calling it an investment. Spread over a sixty year period, we could be looking at up to two percent of gross world product. That’s about 1.4 trillion dollars per year. For that, my grandchildren get a guaranteed result. And they get to keep driving their cars.

What does this mean for Technology Valley?

From the marketing perspective, public opinion is crucial. The “green” brand is under threat. The public has every right to ask: “If we can’t trust the greenies on climate policy, can we trust them on anything?”

Manufacturers, especially food manufacturers, will need to listen carefully to what’s happening in their markets. Niche green markets won’t dry up overnight. Some will survive intact. So far, my environmental economist acquaintance is doing just fine, telling people what they want to be told. But he is not a vacuum cleaner salesman. His students expect him to tell the truth. I suspect the ones who read this new IPCC report will figure it out.

This doesn’t mean “green” products cannot be profitable. Some people will buy them just because they can. Some products satisfy real markets that have absolutely nothing to do with the environment. The solar photovoltaic (PV) panel is an excellent example. I first worked on a solar PV system back in the late 1970s. In that case, it was cheaper to put in a solar panel than to run power cables several miles along a remote ridge, just for the sake of a 10-Watt radio. Every time solar PV technology moves forward, the market gets bigger. A flurry of papers this year suggest another step forward might be just around the corner. Great news if you specialise in solar PV systems. Just don’t assume solar PV technology will take over the world. Customers will assess every project on its merits, just as they have always done.

Some Kiwi manufacturers may need to distance themselves from “green”. That does not necessarily mean they’ll run into trouble. It simply means they need to connect with people who want to buy their products. If the customers don’t trust green, paint it blue.

It doesn’t worry me that the green brand might be discredited. Green does not automatically suggest environmental health. Green water in a river may indicate excessive nutrient content, which is often caused by sewage from riverside cities. If I find a green potato I throw it away. The first time I saw leek and potato soup I thought it was something out of the food synthesiser on Lexx. It seems to me that the world could do with a new, more honest, environmental brand. Any colour but green.

I’ve been told that brand capital is very difficult to build up and easy to lose. What happens to “green” will depend on how the greenies respond to the latest IPCC report. If they abandon irrelevant policies and embrace a commonsense approach based on hard science and practical engineering, the green brand should survive intact. If they continue pushing for carbon taxes and trading schemes, and if they oppose a world-wide ban on fossil carbon dioxide emissions, the public will have every right to think greenies don't want our descendants to enjoy a broad, stimulating, and satisfying range of life-style options.

If that happens, future marketing professors will hold up the green brand as one of history’s great lemons.

 

* Quoted as Gaffin, 1997, in David Archer et al, 2009: “Atmospheric Lifetime of Fossil Fuel Carbon Dioxide.”

Postscript

Shortly after I wrote this post a couple of interesting stories hit the 'net.

A scientist who was in on the negotiations sent me a link to a New York Times account of negotiations over the key paragraph in the IPCC report, specifying the need for a cumulative limit on net carbon dioxide emissions. Interestingly, the story credits to US delegation with helping get those key words, "cumulative emissions" into the report, in the face of opposition from countries such as China, Brazil, and Saudi Arabia. The reporter worries that it might not be possible to prevent cumulative emissions exceeding the trillion tonne benchmark, which scientists hope would stop man-made warming exceeding two degrees Celsius. He should read my book.

Meanwhile, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) on 6 October agreed to develop by 2016 a "a global market-based mechanism" for dealing with greenhouse emissions, and to "reject all regional schemes". The Montreal Gazette reports that the final text says ICAO is, "committed to carbon-neutral growth by 2020." There's only one way to do that in a scientifically defensible way, and that is to put a cumulative limit on the aviation industry's fossil carbon dioxide emissions. The aviation industry uses almost all of the world's kerosene. Many airlines are already using kerosene made from renewable crude oil. This ICAO agreement should boost progress toward a fully renewable global supply of liquid fuels, including petrol and diesel. China, India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and some other countries apparently disagree with deciding on a global mechanism by 2016, so real progress may be some way off yet. At least they are going in the right direction. Regional schemes such as the European Union's emissions trading scheme are pointless.

The big question in my mind, now, is whether greenies side with China and Brazil on climate change. If they do that, the "green" brand could be in big trouble.

 

Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Parametric Modelling Consultant who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your requirements: hello {a} kevincudby.com

 
 
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