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The Path to Decarbonization

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJanuary 22, 2010 10:40 PM


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Looks like there's an important new voice in the climate change debate. As Roger Pielke Jr. notes, Bill Gates recently offered some refreshing thoughts on climate policy, starting with this:

Conservation and behavior change alone will not get us to the dramatically lower levels of Co2 emissions needed to make a real difference. We need to focus on developing innovative technologies that produce energy without generating any CO2 emissions at all.

To this end, Gates charts a new path for climate advocates who can't get traction with doomsday scenarios and who now watch helplessly as chances for an international climate treaty grow dimmer by the day. Let's stop focusing on halfway measures, Gates argues, and just cut to the chase:

If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters "“ getting to zero. With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed. However all the talk about renewable portfolios, efficiency, and cap and trade tends to obscure the specific things that need to be done. To achieve the kinds of innovations that will be required I think a distributed system of R&D with economic rewards for innovators and strong government encouragement is the key. There just isn't enough work going on today to get us to where we need to go.

Some climate advocates are likely to counter that Gates presents a false dichotomy - innovation or effeciency

. But Yael Borofsky over at the Breakthrough Institute blog has a convincing rejoinder:

They are ignoring the "energy crossroads" the United States is facing. As it becomes increasingly clear that cap and trade is not the policy to help us meet our climate change mitigation goals or our energy needs, Gates is not pushing for an either/or decision, he's pushing for an honest prioritization.

Gates will have to keep pushing if he becomes seriously engaged in this debate, because energy innovation is not at the tip of the political or policy spear. In fact, there's so much political and institutional investment in cap and trade at this point that I think one of two things has to happen before innovation becomes an "honest prioritization": 1) There has to be fundamental mindset change in the influentials, such as Thomas Friedman and Paul Krugman. The horse they back is Joe Romm. So far, Romm's approach (cap and trade, political horsetrading) has won over both Friedman and Krugman. (It's the so-called "climate realist" approach.) But if the two influential columnists start to believe that Romm is leading them down a dead end, then maybe they rethink their positions and start listening more to Gates. 2) Peak oil happens soon, as in within a few years. If oil prices spike and Americans are again paying over 4 bucks a gallon for a gallon of gas, then political conditions might be right for an "honest prioritization" in energy policy.

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