Recently I attended a commercial symposium on "green technologies" in California. There was enormous interest among the participants in this field, but I was dismayed frankly to realize that this interest is driven almost entirely by the view that this is a great new opportunity to make money. Nothing against making money, but the challenges of climate change are far more serious than that.
I am concerned that for all the enthusiasm about installing compact fluorescent lights and buying hybrid cars, we have not begun to come to terms with the magnitude of the changes that we face. There is an assumption here that if we all install compact fluorescent lamps and drive hybrid cars, then life can carry on pretty much as normal. I fear that this may not be true.
While it is good that the majority of the population not agrees we have a problem, we have yet to begin to debate the real magnitude of the problem and who will bear the costs of dealing with it. Essentially the world needs to choose - fairly quickly please - how much global warming we want to risk. Given the emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that we have already made, we face an unavoidable rise in average temperature of 1-2C even if we make substantial efforts. This will produce significant climate changes. Doing less to reduce GHG emissions will lead to larger rises in average temperature. These may be supportable - at some great cost to society - up to around 4C. Beyond this point the climate researchers warn of potentially disastrous changes.
So one target, already being studied in Europe, is to attempt to limit change to 2C. It appears possible that we could attain this by appropriate deployment of alternative energy sources, combined with substantial reductions in total energy consumption. Recall that we are doing this as major parts of the globe begin to achieve the levels of prosperity that the West has enjoyed for the last 50 years.
The good news is that we have the technology we need. The bad news is that we will need to make very large investments - measured in trillions of dollars - in order to get the technology deployed and to get it adopted for our major uses - heating and cooling buildings, transportation, and industrial processes. So government and business face a set of very large investments, that I do not believe can be driven purely by market forces, under conditions of substantial uncertainty. Uncertainty causes delay and time is not on our side here.
So I have developed a list of questions that require study - not just by climate researchers, but by engineers, economists, politicians, and business leaders if we are to set this process in motion. Essentially we would like to know what will happen over the coming 20-30 years and of course this is in knowable. But there are methods we can employ that will enable us to understand what are the most likely outcomes.
So here is my list of Big Questions:
- What is the optimum/equitable allocation of the spectrum of energy sources to various uses as price and availability evolve over the next 20-30 years?
- How is future price and availability influenced by investment decisions made over that period?
- What investments need to be made for each energy source to create the appropriate distribution infrastructure? Who makes these investments, at what ROI, and over what period?
- How fungible are various energy sources and how readily do energy users switch from one source to another source (secondary investment decisions)? How efficient are the commodity markets at allocating buyers to sellers?
- What opportunities exist for unexpected invention or discovery for each energy source or related inventions, e.g. energy storage, and what investments would be needed to develop these fully into products and what investments would be needed to create the appropriate distribution infrastructures?
- What will be government policies in the major energy producing and consuming nations around the world to incent or disincent the production and consumptions of various kinds of energy? How will these affect price and availability?
- What unexpected political, economic, and natural events could happen over the next 20-30 years that might change any of the above?
Since we cannot know these precisely, instead, over a large range of combinations of possible evolutions
- What are the most likely outcomes?
- How sensitive are these outcomes to decisions that we make today?
- How sensitive are these outcomes to when we begin to make major changes and investment?