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Peter Schwartz on Climate Change
Jon Lebkowsky, 19 Nov 03

Peter Schwartz spoke at the National Renewable Energy Laboratories' Industry Growth Forum last night in Austin, extending thinking from his book Inevitable Surprises: Thinking Ahead in a Time of Turbulence. He was telling an audience of clean energy entrepreneurs and potential investors that a move to a "hydrogen economy" is critical, and he outlined scenarios for the future that included the one he feels is most likely: sudden, catastrophic global climate change within a few years, where the relatively slow warming trend we've seen recently proves to be a precursor to a dramatic cooling, a new "ice age." Our best chance to mitigate the problem is to stop hydrocarbon emissions now, as quickly as possible, by developing alternative fuel sources, the quickest substitute for oil being hydrogen, as in fuel cells.

I told Schwartz afterward that he was sounding like a true Viridian.

In dinner conversation preceding Schwartz' talk, an oil and gas investor at the table, who said he'd come to the conference to keep tabs on the alternative developments, had been saying that it would be a long time (5 years? ten years? 50 years?) before clean energy alternatives are viable. One of Schwarz' scenarios - "markets rule", a Bush administration/oil industry status quo - echoed just those words. The other scenarios were "pale green" (soft environmentalism, inadequate sense of urgency) and "god is green" (a puritanical, anticapitalist anarcho marxist view). These three scenarios all had disastrous results if proved wrong... but if we respect the climate change scenario and it's proved wrong, there's not much of a down side: we just have a faster transition to clean energy and cleaner air.

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andrew zolli of zpulsepartners had a great post on the hydrogen economy and "the decarbonization macro-trend" :D

with charts!

Posted by: smerkin on 19 Nov 03

Does anyone know if the technical homework has actually been done on the "hydrogen economy?" Hydrogen is an attractive fuel at the final step of conversion to motion or electricity. But production demands very concentrated energy — hard to produce from solar sources — and it is difficult to transport and store.

It seems to me important to look carefully at the engineering decisions here — deploying a national system is terribly costly and it's important to do it in a way that will allow for us to respond to changing technology. Every step in an energy system — transformation, transport, use — has both energy costs and potential environmental costs. The only way to know if a particular fuel is a good choice is to look at the overall costs — no matter how efficient one particular step is, if the overall system is either expensive or polluting it is nothing we want to be deploying.

Does anyone know if the numbers have been run on this?

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on 19 Nov 03

it looks like liquefied natural gas (LNG) makes a good interim transition fuel before we get to teh hydrogen economy :D

see the charts above!

Posted by: smerkin on 20 Nov 03

Keep in mind that methane can be produced biologically and can be used directly in fuel cells (or is that methanol?)--that doesn't make a greenhouse gas problem, since the carbon was already in the biosphere. That might be a better solution than hydrogen. I don't know--I wish there was some solid research on this.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz on 21 Nov 03

"These three scenarios all had disastrous results if proved wrong... but if we respect the climate change scenario and it's proved wrong, there's not much of a down side: we just have a faster transition to clean energy and cleaner air."

This is not true. The most efficient way to get to a 'clean energy' economy would be to raise the price of 'dirty' fuel (via taxes) until clean alternatives became cost effective. Given the current level of development of clean alternatives, the tax on energy would have to be very substantial - it was estimated that the Kyoto treaty, which was merely a tiny first step on the road to ending the use of 'dirty' fuels, would have reduced US GDP growth by over 1% per year. This could be as much as a third less growth, depending on how quickly the economy grows in the future.

A decline in US GDP growth is a very abstract concept that may be difficult to conceptualize. Nonetheless, this would be a *huge* negative that would affect every aspect of our lives. For one thing, global GDP growth over the past century, driven by US economic growth, has brought millions, if not hundreds of millions, out of poverty. Slowing this growth is therefore condemning a good number of the world's poor, who would otherwise have the opportunity of a better life, to continued poverty.

This is not to say that the tradeoff isn't worth it if the risk of a global climate catastrophe is really that significant. But let's go into this with our eyes open - everything has a cost, and the cost of this policy would be very high.

Posted by: Stephen Bronstein on 22 Nov 03



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