Sunday, December 12, 2010

Might it work?

The Cancun agreement is done, and the reductions measures it contains are not enough to avoid a global AAT rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius.

My first reaction, however, was some rather mild, grown-up pleasure at there actually being an agreement at all, never mind one with binding and verified emissions reductions.

My second one was, well it may just work. The latest information from the science world is largely encouraging as to the magnitude of carbon sensitivity. The Lean and Rind Work from 2008 and 2009 gives us the basis of a decadal-scale tracking measurement system, from which we will be able to detect destabilizing feedbacks. Each year we fill in more and more of the remaining uncertainty.

That might be enough good news on the one hand. And on the other, in the word of energy economics, the news is bad for energy prices and the recovery, but good for the climate: OPEC is planning to keep production steady, not increase it. Oil prices will rise as a result because demand for liquid fuels is rising as China and India grow.

(Gas, diesel and heat fuel prices will begin to rise again in the next few weeks as the holiday driving and heating seasons bite, and the world adjusts to the OPEC decision.)

That oil price alone will spur a good deal of cost-analysis based innovation and early-adoption in the west, as we realize that $4/gallon gasoline is not such a great deal, compared to say, the EPA-rated 99 mpg of the Nissan Leaf. Which by itself will drive faster deployment and at-scale production of the new energy technologies.

And there are some great ideas out there with demonstrable ability to be produced at scale: Bloom Boxes, Hyperion reactors, Nanosolar panels, Chevy Volts, all these are reality now, in production, no longer just prototypes. They are just waiting to pry loose some of that capital savings that is sloshing around in the economy. The one-year business investment tax break will help a good deal with some of the early adoption and raise demand, although this demand will also soak up a good deal of existing production and maybe raise prices as a result.

The ability of thin film solar technology to produce large amounts of peak load power, provide easier grid area balancing, and reduce power line expansion costs is beginning to be recognized in grid manager's minds. And ARRA-funded home energy improvement schemes are beginning to provide services all around the northern tier states. US fossil energy consumption should continue to decline slowly and steadily even though the economy is now adding jobs again. Other nations are also on track, notably most European ones.

It's a messy, complicated system of interacting areas of change, hard to track, almost impossible for the lay person to understand completely, but it finally is starting to move in a good direction.

Virtuous circles are way better than vicious cycles.

Having been responsible for big, messy systems many times in my life, systems that had to be watched and monitored and managed constantly to keep them in the virtuous circle category and prevent vicious cycles beginning -- flight lines for RAF jets, lost person search management, running small businesses, analyzing energy systems, helping to run a college -- I don't mind this complexity very much.

Any professional mid-level manager in any serious walk of life in any western democracy deals with similar complexity.

Which gives me my lecture notes for summing up in Monday's Global Change class, and Tuesday's Environmental Sustainability classes, the last class meetings of the semester.

The mild pleasure I experienced upon realizing that there was to actually be a Cancun agreement was similar to the mild pleasure I experienced when, several years into a very complicated scheme of academic and management improvement, Unity College's incoming GPA, SATs, gender ratio and other indicators, such as more students in our more academically-inclined degree majors, all began to improve and kept improving, year on year now for several years.

This was an enormous amount of work and no small amount of pain and debate personally and collectively, and there were a lot of "two steps forward, three steps back" moments, but the big ship did begin to turn around. Several years later, we have a small environmental college with rising standards and a very high quality of outcomes in the form of excellent young graduates.

But that took a lot of work on the part of a lot of people.

It would help to get a few more people on board with these climate management goals, too. Nothing too radical. I'm not sure we need too many more radical activist types, not at this stage. What we need now are good engineer/economist/manager types who understand the science and can also deal with technology and complexity, identify virtuous pathways, get their organizations on those pathways, and keep them there.

Lots and lots of the kind of ordinary but talented middle class people who go daily to the ordinary kinds of middle class jobs, the ones that run society, and while they're there at work they think about reducing fossil energy use and emissions reduction, and they make some changes and get some things done.

That's how we're going to do this thing.

If we all do our jobs, Cancun just might be enough of a global agreement. In itself it doesn't contain the necessary emissions reduction measures. But Cancun plus rising oil prices provide what might just be enough of a spur to innovation and adoption to get this thing moving.

And who is going to want to use a dirty fuel like coal, or even oil, when there's a cheaper, cleaner system available?

So it might just be enough.

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