Climate change is the kind of Big Problem for which we usually envision Big Solutions. Big solar or wind farms. Big smart energy grids. Those may be part of the solution, but they will be a small part.

The biggest part must be Small Solutions … totaling just two percent. (More)

Governing Science, Part III – The Two Percent Solution

This week Morning Feature has considered Richard Muller’s Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines, a primer on the science underlying political issues. Thursday we looked at terrorism and safety. Yesterday we considered what we know, and what we don’t, about global climate change. Today we conclude with climate and energy solutions based in physics rather than fear or fantasy.

Disclaimer: I am not a physicist. Dr. Muller is a professor of physics at Berkeley, and teaches a course on this topic. This is a shorter version of his textbook, written for a general audience. Even so, there is far more material than I can cover in three essays, and any errors are my own.

Thursday we discussed Vice President Cheney’s One Percent Doctrine: if there was even a 1% chance of a terrorist threat, the Bush administration would respond as if the threat were certain. It was terrible science and disastrous policy.

Yet Dr. Muller argues a number almost as small must be the biggest part of the solution to climate change. It is the Two Percent Solution: how much energy we must conserve each year, relative to the year before. If Americans and Western Europeans use just 2% less energy each year than the year before, Big Solutions like solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources can make a difference. But if we don’t conserve that 2% per year, our world may get very ugly indeed.

Population growth and development.

The phrase “Population Bomb” has been widely used since Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book by that title. Based on ideas originally proposed by Thomas Malthus, Ehrlich predicted mass starvation would devastate the world by the mid-70s, a prediction he has been updating ever since. But population growth curves are flattening and Dr. Muller cites a 2001 Nature article that concludes earth’s human population will likely stabilize in this century at between 9 and 10 billion.

Call that less-than-half-good news. It’s good that population will peak, but that’s still about 2 billion more people than are alive today and most of the growth is in countries where life is very harsh. At today’s rates of energy usage, for 10 billion people to have a European standard of living – nutrition, education, health care, and retirement – would require over five times more energy than humans use today.

Alternative energy realities.

Coal is the dirtiest energy source, but it’s also the cheapest and most plentiful. The world may have reached peak oil, but we have not reached peak coal. There is enough coal in the ground to last us for centuries … and to protect our planet we should leave it in the ground. But developing nations need energy to lift their people out of starvation, disease, and misery.

Worse, sustainable sources are far more expensive than coal, making it even harder for developing nations to afford the energy their people need. Sustainable energy costs may be lowered with better research and development, but Dr. Muller sees no near-term technological breakthroughs that would make sustainable energy sources cost-competitive with coal. That cost differential is the primary incentive for carbon cap-and-trade proposals. They encourage wealthier nations to use more expensive but cleaner energy sources and reduce our own carbon emissions, so poorer nations can develop with cheap but dirty coal until they can afford sustainable energy sources. Cap-and-trade is, in effect, a transfer of wealth. Dr. Muller believes, and I agree, that we have a moral duty to do that. Much of our development has been underwritten by their misery, and cap-and-trade could partially repay that debt.

But even cap-and-trade is not enough. The sad fact is that no foreseeable combination of sustainable energy sources – solar, wind, water, geothermal, and biofuels – can produce five times more energy than humans use today. Nuclear power may offer a short term bridge, and it’s safer than coal. But uranium is not a renewable resource, a plutonium economy opens doors we ought to leave closed, and fusion reactors are still only speculative. Dr. Muller’s analysis is not based on the political clout of the energy industries, but on the physics of each energy source. We must develop and improve sustainable sources, but we cannot hope for technological breakthroughs – some Big Solution – to resolve our energy-cum-climate problem.

Small Solutions: 2% is tiny … and huge.

The biggest part of resolving our energy and climate problems will be lots of Small Solutions that add up to 2% energy conservation each year. To put that in perspective, after the oil shocks of the mid-70s Americans averaged 4% annual conservation, by buying more fuel-efficient cars, more energy-efficient appliances, etc. Conserving 2% per year is possible, and it’s a Small Solution that by the end of the century would provide a European standard of living for every human being on earth – 10 billion people with good nutrition, education, health care, and retirement – using only half the energy we consume today. That’s important enough to bold-italic … because we could generate that from sustainable sources.

The most effective way to sequester carbon is to leave the coal and other fossil fuels in the ground, and conservation is the best way to get there. It’s also the cheapest way. Dr. Muller quotes a climate scientist as saying, “Conservation is not just a free lunch; it’s a lunch that pays you to eat it!”

The Two Percent Solution is not only the best and the cheapest way, it’s the only way. Cut that in half – only 1% energy conservation per year – and by the end of the century we would still need 40% more energy than we consume today, and that would require coal. The many Small Solutions of 2% annual conservation are that critical.

Dr. Muller proposes many familiar conservation solutions: switching to compact fluorescent bulbs, more efficient appliances, more efficient and available mass transit, and the like. He also proposes stricter CAFE standards than are now being considered. Cars that get 80-100 miles per gallon – for gasoline or that energy equivalent for other fuels – are possible with today’s technology, and he says Congress should set that target for the year 2030.

The Two Percent Solution would save us money, leave carbon buried in the ground, and enable every human being on earth to enjoy a European standard of living. While it won’t take existing carbon out of our atmosphere, it will make a profound difference in the world our grandchildren’s children inhabit.

We can do it, with today’s technology. And we must, for tomorrow’s hope.

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Happy Saturday!