COP 21 is done, time to punt climate activists for sake of the climate

Going forward, emphasis must be on policymakers, engineers, investors, managers, entrepreneurs, technicians – not activists

COP 21 is over and climate activists around the world are basking in the glow of a glorious victory. Which is why now is exactly the right time to punt them to the curb of climate change debate.

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President Obama at the COP 21 conference.

The agreement itself is short on specifics, but $100 billion per year to developing countries has been bandied about as “compensation” for industrialized nations clogging up the atmosphere with CO2 and to help them adapt to climate change.

Let’s assume, for sake of argument, that eventually there will be a big pot of money available. How should it be distributed to best effect? Who will make those decisions?

The answer to the latter question is, not eco-activists. Why?

I draw your attention to a Nov. 8 piece by Vox energy and climate writer David Roberts in which he mused about the role of activists”

Maybe it isn’t the role of activists to imagine and bring about a new world. Maybe that’s for policymakers, designers, engineers, artists, and entrepreneurs. Maybe the highest and best use of activism is just to make things uncomfortable, and more expensive, for the bad actors benefiting from the unsustainable status quo.

I buy Roberts’ argument. And the logical inference is that after COP 21 we no longer need activists.

cop 21Their work is done. Climate change is on the international agenda. Leaders are taking action. Energy companies have acknowledged the need to reduce or eliminate emissions and efforts are underway to make that happen.

Going forward, the emphasis must be on policymakers, engineers, investors, managers, entrepreneurs, technicians – in short, the people who actually make stuff and then make that stuff work in the real world.

The danger of continuing to listen to activists? That we get decarbonization horribly wrong, that it turns into a boondoggle that burns up billions and trillions of wealth with little to show.

Let me illustrate with one example.

Activists are now calling for “100% renewables” to replace coal.

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Photo; CPS Energy.

What a mind bogglingly irresponsible thing to do. I’ve interviewed policymakers and utility executives and no one thinks we can replace fossil fuels with highly intermittent wind and solar, neither of which are “dispatchable” – that is, you can call on them when you need them.

Alberta, still getting 55 per cent of of its power from coal, recently announced it will switch to natural gas combined cycle plants by 2030 and wind (little or no solar) will comprise about 30 per cent of provincial power generation.

The Clean Power Plan, whose final rule was announced in August, envisions a similar scenario (click here and here) for the United States. When I interviewed Rudy Garza from CPS Energy, the City of San Antonio-owned utility, he said they would expand gas generation, add more wind, with a just a bit of solar capacity, though he expected solar to grow over time as cost curves continue to rapidly decline.

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Daniel Cohan, Rice University.

Prof. Daniel Cohan, a Rice University climate scientist, has coined the term “speckled energy” to describe this process. Natural gas provides stability and low cost to the grid – very good things to have when new technologies like solar are being adopted. If solar continues to drop in price and eventually generates power for a cent or two per kwh, as boosters envision, then power grids can scale back natural gas generation and incorporate more renewables. But the gas is always there to balance the grid and ensure it has more than enough capacity to meet consumers’ demands.

Innovation is wonderful, but don’t discount reliability when it comes to power systems.

The problem with starry-eyed activists is they oversell the potential of innovation and discount costs and problems.

If COP 21 is to have a lasting and positive effect, the very first step should be to stop listening to activists and pay attention to the hard-headed realists tasked with implementing solutions.

Failure to do so is a recipe for climate disaster and financial ruin.

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