by: Michael Hoexter
In my last post on “picking winners”, the role of political and economic leaders and experts in helping shape the future low or post-carbon society started to become clear. We will not be able to rely solely on the impersonal forces of a market or market-based regulatory regime like carbon pricing and trading to build clean energy infrastructure rapidly. Even in our current economy, infrastructure always bears the brush-strokes of large-scale government programs or the work of the largest corporate entities and their founders.
The decisions and tastes of Robert Moses influence the way of life of metropolitan New Yorkers to this day. Convinced of the primacy of the automobile even in highly dense central New York, Moses built bridges and parkways in lieu of improved mass transit, accelerating flight from the center city. While most planners now look critically upon Moses’s legacy, his decisions were based in part on widely held views of what was "the good life" in early to mid-20th Century America.
The framework of the US economy of the last century bears the marks of people such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert Moses and Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Analogously, in the world of computer code, early sometimes arbitrary decisions by coders are still felt decades later as they become part of the legacy of various pieces of still-useful software.) Infrastructure and even the finer grain of economic life is not only attributable to impersonal forces but shaped as well by individual or group decision making.
While the results of earlier decisions may function as monuments to these individuals, we also live with both the negative and positive consequences of these partly personally motivated decisions. The Interstate Highway System bears the mark of Eisenhower’s own experience in attempting to traverse the nation in 1919, encountering the deficits in the existing highway system. It also bears the marks of economic forces at work around Eisenhower, including the shared belief that individual and family auto-mobility fueled by petroleum was and would continue to become the dominant means by which Americans moved about and structured their built environment. Yet, within that framework of assumptions, which have attracted increasing numbers of critics, the Interstate system is a triumph of social and economic planning.
Planning the Framework for the Post-Carbon Economy
The three of the most prominent leaders of the climate protection movement, Al Gore, James Hansen and Bill McKibben are now in agreement upon the desirable target carbon dioxide concentration of 350 ppm in the atmosphere, a net subtraction of amounts of the gas from the current accelerating levels. This target demands that builders of the post-carbon infrastructure start where possible at a zero or negative-carbon rather than a reduced-carbon technology choice, such as natural gas.
Planning the infrastructure for a post-carbon world will have, in some senses, more exacting requirements placed on it than previous great pulses of public works construction. Applied to the work will be the metric of carbon emissions invested in the construction itself against the potential for carbon emissions reduced by that infrastructure over its lifetime. Furthermore if we accept the target of 350 ppm carbon dioxide within a decade or two, a net reduction from the current 382 ppm with an accelerating rate of carbon emissions and a half-life of hundreds of years for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there are very high demands for rapidity in the building of an infrastructure that would support this level of decline in emissions. Furthermore, as we have become unused to massive infrastructure projects over the last few decades, we will have to become reaccustomed to the expense and practical impact of these projects. Finally, we now live in a uniquely information-loaded society with a 24 hour news-cycle, where there is expectation for a high level of transparency in most public proceedings and the capacity for even greater levels of transparency. While our very sophisticated information systems may be helpful in some regards they also can place every decision under a microscope.
Making the right choices in building this new infrastructure will rely heavily on rigorous scientific and engineering analysis but in addition will employ some guesswork as projections will need to be made for usage patterns and energy demand in 10, 20 and 30 years in the future. The assumptions that are employed will be key but should always be based as much as possible on either known quantities or reliable scientific theories. The cultural trend in the US of the last three decades has been a progressive questioning of the values of science and technology, yet, despite the anti-science vogue now it seems ending with the Obama administration, we have good reason to believe that we still have the know-how to design and break ground on these projects.
Key Post-Carbon Technology Choices in the Energy Domain
At a recent meeting convened by the climatologist Jim Hansen, the central focus was on providing a menu of choices for policymakers and industry executives on ways to reduce substantially or eliminate GHG emissions. For that meeting I formulated the notion of a decision space to allow for a standardized yet rigorous model for deciding between or weighing apples and oranges. More later on decision spaces.
I would describe the fundamental post-carbon decision making domains as follows, some of which were discussed at the Nov. 3rd meeting, though have been the subject of many discussions online and in the real world for a number of years now:
- Electricity (including Electrochemical Batteries and Capacitors)
- Non-biosource synfuel