Halstead: An Objective View of Global Warming

Halstead ico

Yesterday I attended a briefing at UW on ‘COP-21’, the recent Paris meeting concerned with UN-sponsored international agreements to limit climate change.  ‘COP’ unhelpfully stands for ‘Conference of Parties’. The local speakers included Dr. David Greenmiller, [by Skype from DC], Prof. David Battisti [UW], and a white haired gentleman whose name I missed, representing Unitarian Universalist Churches in the Pacific NW. Greenmiller was a US State-Department representative to the Paris meeting.  He reported ~18,000 participants from 43 countries, ~100 ‘experts’, most of the latter economists and statesmen, and ~800 ‘credentialed observers’.  He emphasized commitments from individual states to limit greenhouse emissions, the effectiveness of ‘political pressure’, and announced a UN program for periodically continued meetings in the COP process, every five years. Battisti spoke of general optimism in Paris [before the recent terror events], where .. unlike the US .. the conservative party supports limiting climate change.  The big issue there is immigration. The ‘White Haired Gentlemen’ .. one of those 800 credentialed observers .. spoke of NorthWest efforts to limit climate change, with emphasis on upcoming initiatives for a carbon tax.

My impressions:

The announcement of 5-year periodic UN-sponsored political meetings on  climate change [in the spirit of the similar IPCC scientific process]  may be the principal beneficial outcome of the COP process.

Oddly, too much time was spent on limiting the global temperature rise
to 1.5 degC.  This ‘limit’ has already been passed.  In my judgment
limiting to 2.0 degC is possible, but unlikely.

Further in my judgment, the principal barriers to limiting climate change are no longer ‘science and technology’, but ‘politics and economics’.  The COP process may usefully contribute to the political
will.  It is my judgment, however, that both wind and solar power are
presently cheaper than coal, if ..

a.  all subsidies were removed, both to coal and wind/solar,
b.  wind and solar were appropriately surcharged for  intermittence, and
c.  coal were fairly charged for externalized costs to health and the environment.

The last is the killer.  Presently externalized costs from coal are enormous: globally, over a million premature deaths per year [about  200,000 in the US], plus greenhouse emissions [the whole point of COP21], plus environmental degradation from shaved mountain tops and polluted rivers, smog, scenic views, and extinct species.

The present ‘fair retail’ [without subsidy] prices for wind and solar electricity are about ~$0.50 /kwh [*1].  In the US, the average retail  electric power costs are ~$0.15 /kwh, with considerable regional variation.

Coal accounts for about half the electric power production in the US. Consider replacing this by solar-wind, at $0.50 /kwh.  The average retail price for electric power would then rise to ~ $0.32 /kwh, with the increased costs [~ $0.16 /kwh] no longer hiding those hidden, indirect costs of premature deaths and environmental degradation.

A bargain. 

Further good news: the US ‘wastes’ ~40% of its electric power [fly over any large US city at 2 am!]; technology presently exists to conserve the remaining price difference, ~$0.17 [+/- a few cents]  /kwh. [*1,*2] Something like that last number is the soon-to-be
present ‘fair-retail’ cost of electricity in the US.  Note that Germany is now paying ~$0.50 /kwh, while competing successfully on the world market.

Technological improvements take off from there.  “Let one-thousand blossoms for the truth contend.”  [Mao]


[*1] The cross-over price of conservation is defined by that cost
where additional conservation is more pricey than the current
market price.  Amory Lovins has written much about ‘Nega-Watts’
from conservation.

[*2] Here and after ‘fair-retail’ prices refer to prices at constant
service, obtained from increased efficiency .. LEDs for example.

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