UC Santa Cruz professor Tim Duane outlines pathways to a clean-energy economy
By Aric Sleeper
From scrubbing the White House website of climate change references to signing an executive order that places President Obama’s Clean Power Plan on the chopping block, our current administration is dismantling the path toward a clean energy economy piece by hard-fought piece.
Meanwhile, champions of clean energy like UC Santa Cruz professor of environmental studies Tim Duane are fighting to show the private sector that investing in renewable energy isn’t just better for the environment, but also for a business’ bottom line and the world economy as a whole. Duane was the lead author of “From Risk to Return: Investing in a Clean Energy Economy,” a report by the Risky Business Project, a non-partisan research imitative founded by Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson, and Thomas Steyer. Waves checked in with Duane to learn more about the business argument behind environmental responsibility.
Tell us about the Risky Business Project.
The initial report by the Risky Business Project emphasized that to not recognize the climate issue is a serious risk for businesses—that’s why they call it Risky Business. That report in 2014 highlighted rising sea levels, temperature increases, and how those factors affect agriculture and a variety of other businesses. And I think the science is well settled on the risks associated with climate change, but the political discourse was suggesting that we needed to have a clearer understanding of the economic cost of not dealing with climate. I wasn’t involved in that initial report but I was very appreciative of the effort, because when environmental regulators and groups start raising these concerns they’re criticized because it’s perceived that they have a vested interest in the outcome. Business leaders don’t have a vested interest in having themselves more regulated.
The recent report focuses on reducing greenhouse gases 80 percent by 2050. How did you arrive at that figure?
It’s an estimate that a number of other studies have identified as the level of emissions reduction we would need to achieve in most of the industrialized world—Europe, Japan, the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—in order to keep us within the atmospheric carbon budget to stabilize a total temperature increase by two degrees centigrade or less. We took that number as a starting point, and simply asked the question: How could we achieve an 80 percent reduction? What would that require?
What are the four pathways for achieving this outlined in the report?
We didn’t want to offer a single solution, so we explored the ramifications of a variety of approaches. Some say we just need to capture carbon and sequester it. Others say nuclear power is the answer, and others say renewables are the answer. Those are the three main pathways people have proposed to reduce our carbon emissions and they served as the foundation of our analysis. The fourth, mixed pathway recognizes that a balanced portfolio is more likely to reduce costs and achieve outcomes.
What are the challenges that come with each of the options?
The high renewables pathway requires significant increases in building renewables and that has challenges like having enough transmission to move the power to the places where there’s demand, or it’s the possible environmental impacts. The high nuclear pathway requires a dramatic increase in nuclear power production comparable to what China has done in a fast time. There’s siting issues, safety issues, and economic issues with nuclear. Westinghouse, the biggest nuclear producer in the U.S., just filed for bankruptcy, which raises questions if it is economically feasible. Carbon capture sequestration also has a lot of economic feasibility issues. In contrast, with renewables, costs are coming down much more rapidly than we anticipated. People may point to the technical challenges, but the economics of renewables are getting better and better all the time.
How do these pathways affect job creation?
Our analysts found that the mixed scenario would actually generate slightly more jobs by 2050 than business as usual. For example, if you’re importing oil on the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada into the U.S. and then you’re burning that oil at your local power plant—that actually generates fewer jobs in the U.S. than if you instead start assembling solar collectors and put guys on rooftops installing them. I can certainly say we wouldn’t lose jobs. But if we don’t focus on creating and assembling renewable technology in this country, those sorts of jobs will be elsewhere in the world, and we will be importing that technology.
What are your hopes and concerns in regard to achieving this 80 percent reduction?
I am very optimistic about the incredible rate of technological innovation and decline in the cost of renewable technologies. It has far exceeded what we predicted five years ago and certainly exceeded my expectations when I started in this field in 1979. At the same time, I’m deeply concerned that the current administration is taking steps backward that will slow us down during a critical period. In the long-term, I believe it’s not a question of if, but when we make this transition. Society clearly needs to and this report lays out the path.