A 3-legged stool: The Climate Moonshot is A Healthy Climate by 2050


When President Kennedy declared in 1961 that we would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade–he actually said we’d send a man to the moon and bring him back safely. A powerful campaign requires a good outcome.

A successful climate campaign takes us to a healthy climate. Imagine a world with a healthy climate. A world with stable forests, stable farmland, stable temperatures and stable sea level. Technically and financially we could achieve a healthy climate in a few decades. The whole moon program was just eight years. A healthy climate clearly requires new thinking, lots of innovation, and lots of manufacturing. It could be accomplished in 35 years. We don’t have to wait for a miracle technology.

A healthy climate is a stool with three legs. The legs are: 1) Energy transition from fossil fuels; 2) Carbon dioxide removal, and 3) Cooling the planet. Many people hope that cooling theHealthyClimateStool planet is optional, but without it our extreme droughts, floods, fires, and climate refugees will only get worse.

What is new is this: All three legs are required for us to leave a healthy climate to our children. And we can do all three at a cost below what the world spends on fossil fuel now. No major new technology is required. A lot of testing, experimenting and development is required, but the technologies and financing is available. What’s needed is creativity and alignment.

You may be thinking that if it’s that simple, something must be missing. What is missing is people saying they want a healthy climate. Human creativity and cooperation can produce amazing results, but we need a compelling vision, just as the moon program started with “Send a man to the moon and bring him back safely by the end of the decade.”

You can see that a healthy climate is possible by asking what would it cost to fulfill each of the three legs using today’s technology. To replace fossil fuel energy crudely with today’s best-in-class wind, solar and storage would cost about $45 trillion, about 1% of global GDP or income over 35 years (UN). That’s a fraction of the 5% of GDP that we spend on fossil fuels now. We could shift our spending to do that and we probably will. Remember that technology always gets cheaper and more efficient, while fossil fuels continually get more expensive as the easy to reach stuff is used up.

The second leg, removing carbon dioxide over 50 years would probably take three times more, or 3% of GDP, and would require the amount of energy produced by solar panels covering an area equal to that used by coal mines now. Some say we would use safe nuclear power instead. We have technology for concentrating CO2, converting it to alcohol, and then converting that into anything, including plastics. Those plastics could be used for construction, or just buried back in the coal mines where most of the carbon started originally. What’s needed is a good economic model that motivates the innovation required to make it efficient.

The third leg, cooling the planet, can be done by a number of cloud modification techniques. One technique mimics how volcanoes cool the planet, but does it safely and slowly. These techniques need testing to demonstrate doing it safely, but the cost is estimated at a tiny fraction of 1% of GDP.

The first step to a healthy climate is to declare that we want it, knowing that we could have it.

Oil companies and historians say it will take at least 70 years just for the energy transition leg. But we have the money and the technology to make history and do it faster. When enough people say they want a healthy climate, then economists will figure out a way to put people to work delivering on it. Then millions of engineers, scientists, and entrepreneurs will work tirelessly to make it so.

The innovation all starts with wanting a healthy climate, and then committing to build all three legs of the stool. Without all three, it’s like sending a man to the moon. And leaving him there.

Don’t be Fossil Fooled – It’s Time to Say Goodbye


Peter Fiekowsky:

Paul puts it together beautifully, and comes to the same conclusion I have–fossil fuels are over within 15-30 years.

He says: Given climate policy action is also now accelerating, fossil fuels are double dead. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “So long and thanks for all the energy”.

Originally posted on Paul Gilding:

It’s time to make the call – fossil fuels are finished. The rest is detail.

The detail is interesting and important, as I expand on below. But unless we recognise the central proposition: that the fossil fuel age is coming to an end, and within 15 to 30 years – not 50 to 100 – we risk making serious and damaging mistakes in climate and economic policy, in investment strategy and in geopolitics and defence.

I’ve written previously about 2015 being the year the “Dam of Denial” breaks, referring to the end of denial that climate change requires urgent, transformational economic change. While related, this is different. It is now becoming clear we’ve reached a tipping point where fossil fuels will enter terminal decline, independently of climate policy action.

Given climate policy action is also now accelerating, fossil fuels are double dead. To paraphrase Douglas Adams, “So long and…

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Renewables cheaper than cell phones?

Oil companies: What is your plan in case renewables continue to grow like cell phones and dominate the energy market gradually over 20 years? Can you match Saudi Arabia’s plan?

Oil companies tell their valued investors that it will take about 70 years to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, locking in a disastrous 4 to 6 degrees of global warming. I’ve heard an earnest oil official say, in despair about the climate, “We need an energy system as cheap as cell phones”.

There is an energy system as cheap as cell phones that could replace 80% of fossil fuel usage in 20 years. If that transition has even a 10% chance of happening, investors should demand to know how the oil companies are planning to maintain their shareholder value in that scenario.

That energy system is, of course, renewables. Wind and solar at utility scale now cost about $2 per watt to build, and costs are falling 10% per year. At today’s costs, replacing 80% of all fossil fuel usage with renewables will cost about $20 trillion dollars, including storage*.

If we spread that investment out over 20 years, it is $1 trillion per year, which is just 60% of annual global cell phone business revenue. That $1 trillion is also what oil companies invested in 2013 to develop roughly the same amount of new oil and gas energy capacity**.

Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said last fall: We’re at 1% wind and solar: How do we get from 1% to 80%? The answer, as the cell phone industry demonstrated 25 years ago, is by growing to 5% market penetration per year, and then continuing that pace for 20 years.

Wind and solar penetration now is the same as cell phone penetration was in 1990. Remember what your phone looked like in 1990? How about in 2000, when penetration was 30%? Solar growth rates now are about the same as cell phone growth was in that decade.

In 2015 wind and solar will have increased their market penetration by another 1%, and if we keep the doubling rate for just five more years, by 2021 they will be replacing 5% more of the fossil fuel market share every year. Maintaining that 5% rate for fifteen years gets us to 80% replacement of fossil fuels by 2035.

If you’re an oil executive, delivering on that transition  looks impossibly difficult when compared to the transition from coal to oil, or oil to natural gas. There are thousands of new technologies required now, compared to the earlier shifts from steam engines to internal combustion engines, and then to turbines, which each took 70 years to mature.

The world has 6 million engineers now and the internet. Yet it’s hard for someone with a career in a conservative command-and-control company to imagine that army of engineers and entrepreneurs working independently to deliver a meaningful result. Especially not a result like replacing in 20 years the result of 100 years of painstaking conventional energy development.

Does that sound like the 20 year cell phone revolution? Or the 20 year revolution in photography ending with Kodak declaring bankruptcy in 2012, thereby redefining the phrase a “Kodak moment”?

Is a transportation transition really possible? By 2020 battery electric cars will have 300 mile ranges and will cost less to buy, and far less to operate than conventional vehicles. Charging stations appearing everywhere already allow electric cars to cross the country. That transition may be inevitable. 

Jet fuel can be generated now from biowaste or sunlight, but that could take 15 years to scale up. It only contributes 2% of emissions, so it’s not critical to the rapid transition.

How about heating? Ground source electric heat pumps are already cost effective in much of the US, and costs are falling.

What about the grid–Who will pay to upgrade our grid? The utilities will. We grant utilities monopoly status to allow them to invest heavily in infrastructure, assured of getting a return on that investment. Utilities will upgrade their grids as they are obligated to. Some will raise prices, and some will lower prices. Which way prices go depends mainly on how aggressive their public utility commissions are.

This scenario isn’t guaranteed to happen. Wind and solar could stall and stop following the market penetration curve of cell phones, despite the similar costs, and global market conditions. Much of the world’s population which could not afford wired phones in 1990 did adopt cell phones (we’re up to 7.2 billion cell phones and 7.2 billion people now). Similarly, much of the population which cannot afford grid electricity is rapidly being powered with solar and wind microgrids at steadily decreasing costs.

Renewables provide lower cost energy in most parts of the world now, and are providing about 60% of new generating capacity globally. There is no distinct reason for their growth to stop.

Oil companies are betting the farm on their prediction that the transition to renewable energy will occur at the same pre-globalization pace as the transition to petroleum did 100 years ago.

What will our oil companies do if wind and solar continue their ten years of exponential growth for five more years, and then displace the incumbent fossil fuels, as cell phones did?

Call to action:

If you are an oil shareholder, demand an answer to the question: What is your plan in case renewables continue to grow like cell phones and dominate the energy market gradually over 20 years? The process of answering that question will wake up the oil companies, and they will wake up our policy makers***. 


* Note: This assumes 17 TW total global energy usage and replacing 80% of fossil fuel energy (80% of total energy) at $1.50 per watt, plus the equivalent of 2 billion Tesla battery units at $3500 each.

The capacity factor of 20% for solar, and 32% for wind is similar to the efficiency factor of electric vehicles compared to gas, and to the efficiency of heat pumps compared to combustion. To make calculations easy, we consider that they cancel out. If double the capacity is required, the transition will cost about the same as the cell phone transition and take two more years to achieve.

**Annual new oil and gas capacity consists of replacement of the 5% annual decrease in production of existing conventional wells, plus 1% increase in total consumption. Over 20 years the path could look like this, assuming current technology and growth patterns:Converting US to wind and solar by 2035 graph

Replacing US fossil fuel usage with renewables: Data here. The global transition could have a similar pace: With some regions faster and some slower.

***The natural policy for a rapid transition is the steadily increasing price on carbon that oil companies generally promote.

Despite that, oil companies still promote a 70 year transition and the corresponding 4-6 degree warming. That grim future evokes desperate calls for coercive cap and trade policies that oil and other companies dread. Caps are disliked because they leave future prices uncertain, which makes wise investing difficult and thereby slows progress.

The future is unknown. It depends on our collective actions. Oil company planners understandably call a rapid transition to renewables “highly unlikely”.

Oil companies almost unanimously call for a meaningful, rising price on carbon, yet they don’t present such a scenario. It could look like the transition above, providing huge opportunities for well capitalized energy companies.

Consider a fast-transition scenario to be an insurance policy. When you buy insurance, you don’t list every reason that you might need or not need insurance. You look at the recent past, think of a handful of scenarios, and assess the probability of something happening. If the probability is more than 1 in 1000, you usually buy the insurance.

Oil company planners may think there is only a 1% chance that renewable energy could continue to grow on the cell phone curve, thereby avoiding catastrophic climate change. Like any other catastrophic insurance policy, a plan for even an “unlikely” rapid transition would be wise for them, critical for their shareholders, and incredibly valuable for humanity.

The stories we tell about possible futures profoundly affects the actions we take. Discussing and illustrating a possible happy-ending rapid transition option could lead to sensible market-friendly policy and better planning by all.

This story arguably can only be usefully told by oil companies. Neither President Obama nor Angela Merkel would be listened to, neither would the present author. Even  the Saudi Oil minister, when he discusses this scenario is ignored. So this essay is an acknowledgment of the authority that our oil companies have accumulated.

Oil companies should discuss a rapid transition option. By encouraging a steadily increasing carbon tax that is investment-friendly, they will leverage their financial power into future profits. 

Let my people go–Gain freedom from fossil fuel


Are we enslaved to fossil fuels? If so, how would we know, and how do we free ourselves from that taskmaster?

Passover is a celebration of freedom, and at the Passover Seder (traditional meal), we tell the story about the Israelites exit from enslavement by the Egyptian Pharaoh 5000 years ago. In the liberal Jewish tradition, we look each year for current day enslavements for us to break free from. In my youth it was Jews being persecuted in the Soviet Union, and more recently issues of sexual enslavement get mention.

Preparing for leading our seder last night, I proposed that the underlying theme be freedom from fossil fuels. It sounded awkward and everyone I asked said it sounded like a bad idea. We did it anyway. It turned into an interesting conversation.

We might suspect that we’re enslaved when the fossil fuel industry tells us that we can’t survive without them. People engaged in the renewables industry know that wind and solar are doubling their new capacity every two years. Now that renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels in much of the world, that growth will continue, if not accelerate, leaving us free of our fossil fuel owner in 15-25 years.

Why don’t people discuss that future? Perhaps because we are slaves to the fossil fuel industry. When Exxon and Shell tell us that it will take us 70 years to free ourselves, we believe them. Investors, policymakers, and news reporters assume that is the true future. But why are we believing them? Shouldn’t we listen to the renewables industry, the industry that is actually taking action?

In the renewables industry, there is currently a strong focus on storage. This is an important milestone because storage is only needed when wind and solar exceed 60%-80% of total electrical generation. The rush to invest there tells us that the renewable industry is expecting renewable electrical generation to reach those levels in the next ten years.

Free yourself from the fossil fuel taskmaster. Let go of oil company stories that we can’t live without them, and that we must keep subsidizing them, and even add new subsidies for the CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) that they hope will keep us in their hands for another 10-20 years.

Climate engineering is bad. Until you need to restore a healthy climate.


What is the difference between “Ending anthropogenic global warming”, and “Restoring a healthy climate”? The difference is restoring a healthy climate. Climate engineering is how that is done, unless you have a thousand years to wait for nature to take her course.

Climate engineering, also called geoengineering, is how we created global warming by increasing the CO2 levels 40%. It’s going to be how we get out of global warming if we do. Climate engineering includes planting, or cutting down trees, pulling CO2 out of the air, and doing things to reflect a bit more sunlight before it warms the ground and ocean.

Last weekend at the CCL regional conference in Oakland we heard from high level climate experts telling us about the predictable (to them inevitable) future. With the CO2 geoengineering we’ve done already (mainly fossil fuel usage), we’ve raised CO2 levels. The last time CO2 levels were this high, sea level stabilized 60 feet above current levels.

The most optimistic CO2 removal plans I’ve heard require several hundred years to remove the excess CO2. Of course CO2 levels are still increasing, so 60 feet is the best that could be hoped for, assuming we stop fossil fuel consumption this year.  The extreme drought in California (worst in several thousand years when comparing tree ring data) is expected to be the new norm, and the winter weather on the east coast is clearly becoming the new norm. Florida will be an historical artifact in the not-too-distant future.

You probably already knew all that. We’re all working to eliminate the destructive geoengineering we’re doing now–to eliminate the anthropogenic causes. Why do scientists think that mega-droughts and flooding are inevitable (and I don’t)? Let the NRC tell you.

The National Research Council (NRC) came out with a paper on geoengineering last week acknowledging that climate engineering could restore the ice caps in just a few years. That would stop sea level rise and restore normal weather patterns, and has no currently-known significant side effects, even with the full-scale test performed by Mount Pinatubo in 1991.

That said, they conclude: Given a choice between geoengineering or anything else, we should pursue anything else. And that’s what most people still say. That’s why scientists say the dismal future is inevitable.

But no one is proposing a one-or-other choice. It’s a false choice. It’s the “fallacy of the excluded middle” (look it up). Everyone, even the oil companies are saying, “put a meaningful price on carbon” in any case, whether or not we go on to use climate engineering to restore the ice caps and a healthy climate.

Why would the NRC conclude that? Maybe because they’re working towards the possibility of ending anthropogenic global warming. To accomplish that there’s no need for climate engineering, no reason to spend effort and possible embarrassment on it as we figure out how to do it well.

NRC does recommend putting together an organization to manage it, and that is the next step towards “Restoring a healthy climate”. Excluding the verbiage about the false choices they present, I agree 100% with their report. If I were on the committee, given the current context (ending global warming), I would have written the same thing.

The question is: In addition to slowing the damage we’re causing, are we interested, and willing, to restore a healthy climate?  Are we willing to be at-cause in the world we give our children, and restore it; or do we really prefer to tell them, “We stopped burning it, and then left nature to restore what’s left at a geological pace. Sorry about that.”

Inside the possibility of restoring a healthy climate, there are unlimited opportunities for action. And given the technology we have, and that which our children will develop, there is no reason to expect we wouldn’t achieve it, just as we went to the moon, developing all the technology in 8 short years.

I’ve researched in detail all the relevant technologies, and we could restore a healthy climate by 2040 (at a leisurely pace) or by 2030 (if we get excited by the prospect) with existing technology, and at a net benefit to the economy. Of course we’ll develop new and better technologies along the way.

Just like we would not have gone to the moon without declaring the goal, we won’t restore a healthy climate without declaring that goal. Accomplishing it is not impossibly difficult. It just requires a vision—a future which calls people into action.

Let’s restore a healthy climate. We can, therefore we must. Please share this widely if you want the scientists to know you want a healthy climate.

Taking action on the climate


I regularly find myself being yelled at by academics for promoting a climate roadmap leading to where we want to end up.

Academics and I often have different action paradigms, theories of action. I find that most professors I speak with have gotten upset to some degree when I discuss where we want to go with regards to the climate, and how we could do that. This includes many of the most senior IPCC scientists. I have huge respect for them, and don’t mind that they blow a fuse when confronted with the disparity of what they are predicting against what could happen which we want to happen.

The academic / scientific paradigm, which is clearly a correct one, is to predict the future and tell others about it.

My brain-science paradigm is to focus brains’ attentions on where we WANT to go, where we could get to if we perform well, and keep the focus there.

When I learned to drive in snow in Boston, the first thing they told me was, “When you get into a skid, DON’T look at the tree you want to avoid, or you’ll hit it. DO look down the road to where you want to go. “ It’s brain science: The unconscious part of the brain, which controls actions, takes us where we’re looking, no matter what commentary the conscious part of the brain is having about what we’re looking at / thinking about.

Have you seen those pictures of a car wrapped around a tree where the tree is the only tree in 1000 feet? Those pictures made sense to me after that snow-driving lesson. The driver was looking at the tree he was trying to avoid. Maybe his spouse was yelling, “DON’T YOU SEE THAT TREE??? DON’T HIT IT!”.  And his spouse was correct in saying that, and saying it passionately.

Being correct has its costs sometimes. Our academic gloom sayers are similarly correct in talking about an unlivable world, and saying it passionately.

May I get more arrogant for a moment?

CCL isn’t just getting a carbon tax through Congress, we’re also working with great respect, and huge effectiveness, to have the Paris climate summit be an agreement for a steadily increasing price on carbon. Although it was barely reported, there was almost total agreement out of Lima for that outcome. We didn’t confront, didn’t scare, just presented a pathway. And the experts all agreed that’s the path they want. www.pathwaytoparis.org .

The important thing that a steadily increasing carbon price accomplishes is that investors’ attention then gets focused 20 years down the road where they can see clearly that there’s no future investing in fossil fuel infrastructure, and that profits will be in renewable energy. And by starting at a low level, investors aren’t scared beyond clear thinking in the short term. No other policy does that.

So I honor the academics’ fears, and I suggest you honor them too. That said, as a human with a human brain, if you want effective action, then keep your attention on the point in the road where you want to end up. And learn to be at peace with your spouse yelling at you to pay attention to the tree.

How can wind and solar fulfill 80 percent of total energy in 25 years?


A common response to the climate roadmap by experts is “It’s just not possible.”

Their objections are general, not quantitative, so here is a physics 101 style explanation. That means that we take the simplest possible solution, and then add complications one by one.

  1. To replace FF we need to replace its energy with (clean energy + efficiency). We’ll add efficiency improvements later (when that costs less than new clean energy, of course). To start the analysis we’ll set efficiency to “unchanged”.
  2. Clean energy consists of a combination of wind, solar, nuclear, CCS, biofuels, and numerous others that are only locally interesting. As physics-101 students, well pick one, do the analysis, and later optimize with the panoply. We pick solar as a starting case because we can extrapolate its growth curves, doubling every 2 years for 10 years. Society appears to accept solar, and the costs are going in the right direction (down). Later in the exercise we’ll optimize–replace solar with others when and where they cost less than solar.
  3. Solar probably won’t make it in Alaska. In other words, almost anything else will be cheaper than solar in Alaska, maybe  they’ll use wind and biomass.
  4. Split the problem into two phases: 0-50% solar and 50-80% solar. After the 80% stage, in 25 years, we can assume that abundant new solutions are developed, and new problems as well. If tech innovation totally fails us, then solar stays at 80% and we use CCS, nuclear, wind, and biomass for the last 20%.
  5. 0-50% phase (15 years): Carbon fee goes from $0 to $1.30/gallon of gas.
    1. Very little storage needed. Off-grid locations will place a high value on storage, so the technology gets a running start. Compressed air (isothermal, 95% efficiency using foam or spray) storage is looking very strong in 2014. If storage technology totally fails, we can use NG peaker plants for the 3% of the year needed until they’re not needed–with little impact on total emissions.
    2. Cost: competitive with NG in much of the world. Low crude prices now will probably raise NG prices in the US because of reduced fracking.
    3. Area: In the US, the area required to replace all FF, if no wind or biofuel is added, is the same as we now use to grow corn for ethanol (40 million acres).
    4. Transportation: US mileage standards are doubling by 2025; it’s easy to imagine 25% BEVs, 30% hybrid vehicles, and electrification of 30% of trains in 15 years. The current grid of charging stations across the country spreads to most gas station locations. Airlines would be at 15% carbon-neutral jet fuel (bio or solar-manufactured).
    5. Heating: in 15 years it’s easy to imagine 30% of heating systems being converted to heat pumps, most with ground source.
  6. 50%-80% phase (10 years): Carbon fee goes from $1.30 to $2.20/gallon of gas.
    1. Storage capacity is gradually expanded from hours to days by expanding storage tanks and building more excess capacity.
    2. Cost: expected to reach pennies per watt
    3. Transportation: with charging and H2 stations common, increasingly heavy equipment becomes either electrical, H2, or methane-from-H2; By the end of 25 years, 80% of jet fuel is carbon neutral
    4. Heating: all new heating systems are heat pumps, most with ground source.
  7. Add wind energy where it is lower cost than solar: storage requirements decrease in most locations
    1. Wind generation costs decrease more slowly than solar, so the benefit of wind increases with distance from the equator because solar output decreases and variability increases as the sun goes lower.
  8. Add nuclear in countries with strong governments and lots of cash
    1. Modular nuclear reactors could become common by 2030, allowing easier replacement of the last 20% of FF
  9. Add efficiency improvements wherever they cost less than the lowest cost clean energy source.

We end up with an incremental solution which costs much less than we are spending on fossil fuels now, and which saves 13,000 lives per year in the US alone due to reduced pollution.