Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Understanding the failure of imagination at Durban

Anyone interested in why the Germans lead the world in every meaningful Green category should read this absolutely brilliant essay by Christian Schwägerl in Monday's Spiegel Online about the lessons that could be learned from the fiasco that was Durban.  I encourage everyone to read the whole essay but for me, this is the money quote:

Climate Policy Delirium 
For the past 17 years, negotiations have led to little else than record CO2 emissions in 2010. Thousands of people are crammed together in rooms with deficient lighting and air. They are fed soggy sandwiches and subjected to sleep deprivation given the length of the marathon negotiations. In the end, decisions are made in what could be described as a kind of climate policy delirium. And those are only the obvious symptoms of an illness that resides deeper in the UN system. 
The entire UN negotiating process has two major flaws in its design. (1) It doesn't assess the real causes of CO2 emissions, and it presents the goal of CO2 reductions in an entirely negative light. Since the very beginning of the negotiations in Berlin in 1995, the phenomenon of climate change has been viewed through the prism of emissions that stream out of chimneys, exhaust pipes, smokestacks and forest fires. (2) The very language of the UN convention describes climate protection as a "burden" and international measures of CO2 reduction as "burden sharing". Both end-of-pipe and burden thinking have created the wrong environment at these summits. Little is spoken of positive goals, and there is virtually no discussion of the economic opportunities that emissions reductions present. The only countries considered to be winners in the negotiations are those that succeed in forcing the other nations to agree to greater emissions reductions rather than taking action themselves. It should be the other way around: The winners should be those nations that endeavor to adopt the most progressive policies. 
YESSSS!  I am reminded of the breakthrough that Toyota made in quality control when they decided that inspectors are almost irrelevant to the making of a high quality product.  What they realized was that while an inspector could find a production error, the real problems caused by making those errors were not solved.  And so they set out to create a whole new strategy that would eliminate the problems in the first place by designing processes that would make those errors impossible to make.  They called the process kaizen and it worked so well, that Toyota would come to dominate the automobile world simply on their reputation for build excellence.

In the world of controlling climate changing emissions, the only way to really address these problems is to design them out of the system—NOT try to control them once they had been produced (see #1 above).  On course, the Germans have been thinking along these lines since at least the 1980s when they began to implement a strategy called Design for Disassembly (DFD).  In the 1990s, I had a canned speech that explained the reasoning behind DFD and why it worked so well.
DFD is a subset of the emerging environmental redesign movement which assumes that:
a) humans cause pollution (apes and dolphins may be bright but they have never caused a toxic waste dump)
b) humans are conscious beings (for those who disagree and have examples—insert you own joke here)
c) pollution is caused by the conscious acts of these humans
d) the more difficult the act of humans, the more planning it takes
e) the truly difficult pollution problems are caused by acts of significant planning and design. 
Therefore: Pollution is a function of design! 
In the United States, the notion that design has anything to do with pollution is not immediately obvious. For Americans, design is associated with fancy stitching on blue jeans or overdone dwellings for the idle rich. Industrial design is thought of as the business of turning kitchen appliances into objects of yuppie admiration.

But think about it for a minute! Nuclear power and the resulting waste problems were brought to us by the creative genius of scientists, inventors, and design engineers. Global warming is the product of planning by geologists, mining engineers, shippers, civil engineers, automotive designers, and the clever folks who solved the problems of mass production. The ozone hole is courtesy of organic chemists who were merely trying to give the world a safe way to preserve food and medical products with refrigeration. In fact, virtually every thing that can be considered pollution is the product of intense planning and design—down to the last bubble-pack and plastic milk carton clogging our waste dumps. Remember, EVERYTHING that is called 'disposable' was DESIGNED from day one to be garbage—as its PRIMARY and overriding design consideration. more
I also used this thinking to discuss the various strategies for increasing energy efficiency.
Ultimately, energy efficiency is a function of DESIGN 
Design is often confused with decoration because the word is often misused in just that way. This is also the word engineers who in are the business of specifying a heating system for new building must use to describe what they do. 
In between the decorators and the engineers are the industrial designers who argue that while good design is aesthetically pleasing, it must incorporate a deep human understanding to increase functionality. The focus on design when the question is energy efficiency has one overwhelmingly important reason--it is almost impossible to change the energy efficiency of anything that requires energy to operate ONCE IT HAS BEEN BUILT. 
Think about a television set. It requires x watts to run and probably a few watts when shut off. The ONLY way lower energy consumption is to watch it less and unplug it when shut off--you cannot change how many watts it requires when running. Since energy efficiency is a measure of how many watts it takes to operate, you cannot, by definition, change the energy efficiency of a television once it has been manufactured. Unfortunately, this principle also applies to bigger consumers of energy as well. 
That big ugly SUV your neighbor bought when gasoline was 99 cents a gallon will continue to get 8 miles per gallon until it is ground up for scrap. 
Houses can be retrofitted for better energy consumption but such a project is very expensive, requiring costly parts like triple-glazed windows and fussy, labor-intensive efforts like re-insulation. Because such projects are so expensive, they almost never pay for themselves in energy cost savings. And so they don’t get done very often and those who would do this sort of work, never get the chance to improve their skills. 
Probably the most significant contributor to increased energy consumption in USA over the past 50 years is urban sprawl. This is a problem that no drive to increase energy-efficiency is likely to solve because the only way to increase the energy efficiency of a city once it has been built would be to move buildings around. 
In fact, about the only category that can change its once manufactured energy efficiency are light fixtures--and then only some of them. This special case is made possible because the part that actually consumes the energy--the bulb itself--is a part that is designed for routine replacement. However, even here, MANY fixtures will only accept a bulb identical to the one originally installed.
Energy efficiency talking points

1) The bigger the energy user, the more important the need for social constraints. It is more important to regulate the energy consumption of cars than of TV sets, houses than cars, or cityscapes than houses. Good city planning is by far the most important element of any drive for higher energy efficiency.
2) There are no magic bullets. Increased energy efficiency will result from thousands of little changes--NOT from some grand idea.
3) Energy efficiency is determined by the laws of nature. Anyone who claims efficiency improvements that cannot be explained using basic physics should be ignored like any other charlatan.
4) Since the laws of nature cannot be altered through human legislation, the social desire for greater energy efficiency can only be assisted through legislation that provides for design and research funding, mandates minimum standards based on what is physically possible, or addresses social issues like land use planning.
5) Design and planning is extremely important. Just remember, once something has been built, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to change the amount of energy it consumes. For example, while it may be possible to mitigate the some of the consequences of sprawling a city over precious surrounding farmland such as with telecommuting, it would be MUCH wiser to avoid such disastrous decisions in the first place.  more
But back to Christian Schwägerl's essay.  He makes the point that unless we tackle climate change as a opportunity rather than a burden, no one will get very excited about the resulting "solutions" that are little more than a suggestion that we put a cork in the world's tailpipes.  Obviously deeper thinking is needed.
That makes it all the more crucial that the UN move to fundamentally alter the way its conferences are structured in the future. The most important thing is that the gatherings also delve into the deeper causes of CO2 emissions. This includes taking a critical look at:
  • The energy-hungry American Way of Life that is becoming ever more popular despite the environmental problems it creates and the fact that it is pushing back more environmentally friendly ways of living.
  • The fact that the "Green Economy" hasn't worked so far because environmental services have no economic value and because, globally, subsidies paid out for oil, coal and natural gas are more than six times higher than for renewable energy.
  • The fact that the International Energy Agency reports that around €90 billion per year in research investment is lacking that is needed to develop new and environmentally friendly energy technologies.
  • The fact many of the world's 2.5 billion people who are under 20 years of age aren't sufficiently educated about environmental issues.
  • How too little attention is being paid to the fact that, in addition to the environment, climate change also represents a threat to material wealth and peace in many regions of the world.
Perhaps the most interesting thing that happened in Durban was the emergence of China as the possible new "good guy" in these matters.  The Germans are excited because it means the Chinese are beginning to see environmental problems as they do.
The Geopolitics of Climate Change
Will China Become the Green Superpower?

At the UN climate summit in Durban, China has signalled for the first time that it could sign up to a binding global agreement on CO2 emissions. Indeed, fighting climate change will be impossible without the future superpower on board. Taking a green approach to economic development could bring China massive benefits -- if Beijing decides to go down that road.

China's rise to superpower status seems unstoppable. But what course will it take over the coming decades? Let's take a look at two very different scenarios for the China of 2025:

Under the first scenario, China has become the largest economy in the world, due to a close trans-Pacific alliance with the US. The People's Republic mainly generates its wealth by providing its American neighbor in the Far East with cheap money and cheap consumer goods. But the toll for this strategy is high: Chinese CO2 emissions are now higher than the emissions of all other nations combined. Per capita emissions have soared even above the levels of the United States. As droughts, floods and food shortages increasingly ravage the planet, billions of people perceive Beijing as the main culprit behind climate change. More than 100 nations, including the EU, have formed an official alliance against "Chimerica," as the two superpowers threaten to destroy the biosphere. There are warnings of an impending "climate war." 
Under the second scenario, China has become the largest economy in the world, due to a close Eurasian partnership with the EU and India. The People's Republic mainly generates its wealth by developing and exporting green technologies. In collaboration with the EU, Beijing has put in place rules against excessive indebtedness, which apply both to financial and "ecological" debts. The cost to the environment is now integrated into how Eurasian nations calculate their gross domestic product. CO2 emissions are beginning to decline around the world, except in the United States. The former superpower is culturally incapable of modernizing itself ecologically and is losing its power due to its addiction to cheap oil. Eurasia has become the new superpower, with China as the dominant force.

These two scenarios are at the core of the United Nations Climate Summit in Durban. Will the world climate of the future be heated by Chimerica or cooled by Eurasia? In a way, the talks in South Africa are all about whether China will choose the first or second option. At first glance, the climate negotiations may appear to be gatherings of technocrats who are supposed to deal with the consequences of the pollution caused by our prosperous industrial society. But that is only true at first glance. In reality, the summits are about a much larger question: the role China will play as the new superpower in the coming years and decades. more
Even the Brits are coming around (a little.)  This from The Guardian where they cheer the possibility that a mega-project may just help the world's population douse some of those carbon-fueled fires.
Could the desert sun power the world?
Green electricity generated by Sahara solar panels is being hailed as a solution to the climate change crisis
Leo Hickman, Sunday 11 December 2011

During the summer of 1913, in a field just south of Cairo on the eastern bank of the Nile, an American engineer called Frank Shuman stood before a gathering of Egypt's colonial elite, including the British consul-general Lord Kitchener, and switched on his new invention. Gallons of water soon spilled from a pump, saturating the soil by his feet. Behind him stood row upon row of curved mirrors held aloft on metal cradles, each directed towards the fierce sun overhead. As the sun's rays hit the mirrors, they were reflected towards a thin glass pipe containing water. The now super-heated water turned to steam, resulting in enough pressure to drive the pumps used to irrigate the surrounding fields where Egypt's lucrative cotton crop was grown. It was an invention, claimed Shuman, which could help Egypt become far less reliant on the coal being imported at great expense from Britain's mines. 
"The human race must finally utilise direct sun power or revert to barbarism," wrote Shuman in a letter to Scientific American magazine the following year. But the outbreak of the first world war just a few months later abruptly ended his dream and his solar troughs were soon broken up for scrap, with the metal being used for the war effort. Barbarism, it seemed, had prevailed. more 


  1. Thanks Jonathan, as usual, a well written and documented posting. My answer 6+ years ago to the climate-denier GOP followers was 'you so-called party of business (I usually, but not always added 'idiots' here) are passing up the greatest business opportunity of my lifetime by poo-pooing any green energy movements.'

    And sadly, these dolts still are, even while the Walton family and Buffet and even T Boone have been buying into green energy, these suckling pigs are still lagging behind repeating denier stuff from years ago like it was the gospel of our Lord.

  2. Thanks for the compliment. This post was a lot of work so I am happy you noticed.

    One of these days, I hope to write a good post on just how much pure joy would follow if we embarked on a major coordinated strategy of green energy substitution.

    I was reminded of why this is important yesterday. My S.O. had spent the day in interviews—her company is actually hiring ONE tech writer / web developer. She claimed that some of the applicants were so anxious to land a job they were actually shaking with fear. Considering how much necessary work needs doing, scenes like she saw yesterday are unnecessary and downright cruel.