The path to deep decarbonization

 By RP Siegel

Are we humans capable of transforming our economy to a point where we emit no more carbon than natural sinks, such as forests and oceans, can absorb? Much attention has been directed at this question of the “net zero” economy that scientists say we need to achieve. But our use of the kinds of energy that emit greenhouse gases are deeply embedded in the fabric of our society…

Change of this magnitude has many barriers and while the technological challenges and responses get most of the attention, they are not always the biggest obstacles. Social, political and economic concerns can limit the choices that are realistically available.

A broad look

The Deep Decarbonization Institute at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) was created to address these issues in a multi-disciplinary manner. Headed by David G. Victor of the School of Public Policy and George S. Tynan of the Jacobs School of Engineering, the Institute has a total of 26 faculty participants, in disciplines including Political Science, Economics, Chemistry, Biology, as well the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, which is renowned for Earth and Climate science.
The group has hosted research seminars, on a number of cutting edge topics ranging from electrochemical energy storage, fusion energy, algae-based biofuels, smart grid, regional emissions measurement, and energy and poverty.

What is deep decarbonization?

To be clear, the term decarbonization, when used here, refers to the process of removing carbon dioxide, both from our planet’s atmosphere and as a byproduct of our economy. Most efforts to achieve this fall into two categories: reducing emissions, and removing carbon from the air through either natural or synthetic processes, sometimes called carbon sequestration.
The institute seems to have no qualms about asking hard questions, challenging orthodoxy or suggesting that rushing towards what seems to be the easiest answer, may not be the wisest choice. For instance, can we be sure that electrification is the best overall path to decarbonization? That option is rapidly becoming accepted as inevitable, but some at the Deep Decarbonization Institute are not necessarily convinced that’s the best approach.

The UC San Diego Deep Decarbonization Initiative

“Real world constraints”

Eniday spoke with David Victor, Co-director, Laboratory on International Law and Regulation, who said, “I think it’s the contribution of a field called Political Economy, which looks at how economic interests in the economy organize themselves politically to try and advance their interests. That, in my view the most important part of what we’re doing. Because, you can imagine a lot of ways to decarbonize an economy and there is a lot of research that imagines various ways. But the question is, how do you do that when there are real world constraints, not just with cost, but with political feasibility as well? So, what we’re doing is developing methods for systematically studying political feasibility, and then embedding that into the engineering and technical models. That gives us a set of insights about how quickly the system can change and whether or not some technologies might be available to scale.”
Victor, who was one of the authors of the UN IPCC Report in 2014, has been quick to point out that options ranging from biofuels, to nuclear power, to natural gas and even coal with carbon capture and storage (CCS) should not be taken off the table until all aspects of each approach have been carefully considered from every possible angle.

Pushing Back on a Tech-centric View

Victor comes across as a voice of caution. To him, it’s imperative to point out to the would-be climate rescuers, that they have not been given a blank canvas upon which to paint their solutions — rather, a nearly completed one, filled with people and cities and economies that all have certain realities and expectations, and will not be so easily moved in whatever direction the solvers would have them go, or at least not without the occasional strong push in the form of policy.
Both Victor and Tynan weighed in as co-authors, along with Christopher Clack, in a paper critical of a widely circulated paper by Mark Z. Jacobson of Stanford, which claimed that the US could switch to an 100 percent renewable economy by 2050 while “while growing the number of jobs and stabilizing energy prices.”
When the Jacobson paper first came out, it widely hailed for its optimistic view of the path forward for renewables. The dispute, undoubtedly due to the prestige of the scientists on both sides, made news in a Washington Post story, which quoted Victor as saying, “Our analysis suggests … that none of that work holds up. I can totally understand that emotions are high, but we have a duty as scientists to call the facts as we see them.”

The optimists vs. the realists

The two papers are too complex to try and summarize here, but as a first approximation, one could say that Jacobson made lots of assumptions regarding the ability of society to accept and absorb as yet unproven technologies (such as hydrogen powered aircraft) at a rate that Victor’s experience with societal constraints suggests are unrealistic. Their refutation bluntly states “adequate support for the validity of these assumptions is lacking.”
At the end of the day, it looks like the classic battle between the optimists, and the realists. Engineers tend to be optimists because they’ve seen how many problems their toolkit has solved, unintended consequences notwithstanding. Still, the continued spectacular growth of renewables has surprised just about everyone.

Overlooked options?

Victor told Eniday, “For example, the engineering community would put forth a solution that would focus on the best performing technologies, whereas our approach would focus on what is the real potential for those best-performing technologies [to be implemented]. A great example right now is carbon capture and storage (CCS) for controlling emissions. I’m a huge fan of it, but politically it’s been very hard to organize these projects. So, what we’re doing is trying to introduce some sobriety about the rate at which CCS can be introduced and how you would design the policy instruments needed to promote CCS so that they are more robust.”
When asked to elaborate, he said, that there was a lot of interest in bio-energy CCS or BECCS which has been said to produce negative emissions to meet aggressive goals. “In an economy that makes shallow reductions in emissions, gas is really important because gas is cleaner than coal. In an economy that makes deep reductions in emissions, the role of gas is an open question. If gas isn’t combined with CCS, then you get stuck with those emissions, and you need to move beyond gas completely. But if you could decarbonize the gas, then the role of gas is pretty robust. That’s really one of the pivotal questions right now is how to think about the future of gas. That’s where we hope to make some of our central contributions to the policy debate. In either case, something needs to be done about fugitive methane emissions.”

SEE MORE: The carbon climate solution by Michelle Leslie

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.