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Published: 23:32, July 10, 2023 | Updated: 14:34, July 12, 2023
There's no simple solution to climate change
By Michael Edesess
Published:23:32, July 10, 2023 Updated:14:34, July 12, 2023 By Michael Edesess

The ominous threat of climate change has spawned much severe pessimism. But that pessimism has been tempered lately by optimism that the problem can be easily solved. This optimism has bred a kind of massive cheering section, which urges us to the task, using various memes such as “ESG”, “sustainability” and “net-zero”.

This cheering is helpful, even if the memes often evoke more passion than practicality. It is raising consciousness everywhere and causing corporations and entrepreneurs to turn to the task of what they can do to help solve the problem.

But both pessimism and optimism can be unhelpful if they go to extremes. The dismay too often gives way to hyper-pessimism in the form of organizations like Extinction Rebellion, which is founded on the mistaken notion that climate change will put an end to the human race and perhaps the entire biosphere.

But even hyper-optimism can be unhelpful if it fosters mistaken ideas about how easy it will be to solve the problem.

Let us take two examples.

It’s common for optimistic articles to say that the solution to climate change is available to us now and less costly than the climate-unfriendly path we are on. All we need is the political will to implement it.

For example, an oft-cited article in The New Yorker by climate activist Bill McKibben is headlined Renewable Energy Is Suddenly Startlingly Cheap: Now the Biggest Barrier to Change is the Will of Our Politicians to Take Serious Climate Action.

The problem is that the cost of renewable energy is often compared to that of other forms of energy, such as coal and nuclear, using the “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE). But this is an apples-to-oranges comparison.

As a way to illustrate why renewable energy is not necessarily as cheap as they say, let’s use an elementary example.

In short, we are not ready to solve the climate change problem by merely exerting political will, even backed by financing. Much technological development and scientific research will be needed over the coming years to make it happen

For this example, suppose you live in the US, and for some reason, you’ve been offered rooftop solar panels for your household completely free, including installation and maintenance. Happy to take up the offer, you disconnect from the carbon-emitting grid and accept, for free, more than enough solar panels to power all your household needs. Now your solar electricity is not just cheap — in the LCOE sense — but free.

However, it will not provide electricity when the sun is not shining — at night or during overcast days or hours. Therefore, to ensure that you can access electricity at the times to which you have become accustomed, you buy a battery to store the electricity. A battery storing 20 kilowatt-hours will stand you in good stead at least during a night followed by a cloudy day, though no more than that. This is far from the near-100 percent reliability of grid access, but you deem it the best cost-benefit tradeoff.

Such a battery may cost $20,000 to install and have a 10-year life. Spreading the cost over 10 years and ignoring the cost of money, and assuming your average use is one kilowatt-hour per hour (typical of a US resident), your cost is 22.8 US cents per kilowatt-hour.

If you live in 45 of the 50 states of the US, that is more than you are paying for your electricity now. And it won’t provide anywhere near the reliability you currently enjoy. To match the current reliability would require batteries costing five to 10 times as much.

Of course, this is a simplistic example. Households that buy solar panels and are still connected to the grid experience the same reliability that nonsolar users do because, in the US and Europe, the utility typically burns gas in power plants to provide electricity when the sun is not shining.

But this cannot be the case when the energy transition reaches net-zero carbon emissions because burning gas emits carbon dioxide. More complex systems and solutions will have to be implemented. But the costs of those complex solutions are still high, unlike what the hyper-optimists say. Much technological development will be necessary to reduce them. This will take time.

Another example of hyper-optimism is a result of the “net-zero” pledges made by many countries and corporations. It is generally conceded that because some industrial processes are exceedingly challenging to decarbonize (for example, the manufacture of solar panels itself requires high-temperature heat), to achieve net zero, it will be necessary to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The cost of doing this is currently very high, but it is not the only cost that is a problem. Technologies to extract carbon from the atmosphere are estimated to require at least 2,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per metric ton. That is approximately the same amount of energy a coal-fired power plant produces as it emits a ton of CO2. Hence, if coal were used to provide the energy for direct air capture (DAC), it would extract from the atmosphere the same amount of CO2 it emits. 

Of course, coal will not be used. But this illustrates how much additional energy must be generated to implement DAC. As if it were not enough to replace enormous quantities of carbon-emitting energy that is currently used, with zero-carbon electricity, much more will have to be generated to extract CO2 from the atmosphere. And that doesn’t even include the vastly increased electricity demand likely to materialize as emerging economies grow.

In short, we are not ready to solve the climate change problem by merely exerting political will, even backed by financing. Much technological development and scientific research will be needed over the coming years to make it happen. Mass financing will not materialize if the technologies are not ready. The path to full climate protection leads through science and technology, not just politics and finance.

The author is a mathematician and economist with expertise in the finance, energy and sustainable-development fields. He is an adjunct associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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