In Search of the Climate-Energy Solution Space

Kansas coal plantI ran across two interesting comments in the blogworld yesterday in response to the new McKinsey report on U.S. greenhouse emissions opportunities. The report lays out a lot of enticing cost-benefit analyses of various greenhouse gas emissions options throughout the U.S. economy.

The first came from Grist commenter Sean Casten:

I agree – great message, but it hugely understates the potential to increase generation efficiency. Maybe that’s just because they didn’t know to look for it, but I get nervous by any report sponsored by a bunch of utilities (National Grid and DTE were listed among their sponsors). But this is nitpicky – overall, great report.

The second came from veteran science journalist Charles Petit, on the Knight Science Journalism blog:

Better attention to efficiency and smart investment in renewables, etc., could trim up to 28 percent of the nation’s greenhouse emissions with little upfront cost and a fast, quickly profitable payback. This is not news to people at, say, such national labs as Oak Ridge, Berkeley, Livermore, etc. who have been cranking out fruitless and similar studies for years. Maybe these biz suits will give such findings more street cred.

I think Petit gets it precisely right and Casten gets it precisely wrong.

Different people with different interests, beliefs, values and viewpoints will have different views of the definition of the climate problem, the energy system, and the costs and benefits of various approaches to dealing with it. That’s one consequence of climate change being a wicked problem. What’s increasingly interesting to me is not what any one player views as “the correct” solution to the problem, but rather what is the solution space that can draw sufficient support from those with those different interests, beliefs, values and viewpoints to actually happen.

In that regard, Casten is wrong to be suspicious that energy companies were involved in the preparation of the McKinsey report. He should rather embrace it. It doesn’t mean he has to agree with the answers they came up with, but the fact that he seems to like the report despite their involvements means he ought to embrace their participation. Any solution space that doesn’t include those interests is likely doomed to failure.


  1. Looks like the solution space may need a little widening itself:

    “Widening of the tropical belt in a changing climate”

    Abstract: “Some of the earliest unequivocal signs of climate change have been the warming of the air and ocean, thawing of land and melting of ice in the Arctic. But recent studies are showing that the tropics are also changing. Several lines of evidence show that over the past few decades the tropical belt has expanded. This expansion has potentially important implications for subtropical societies and may lead to profound changes in the global climate system. Most importantly, poleward movement of large-scale atmospheric circulation systems, such as jet streams and storm tracks, could result in shifts in precipitation patterns affecting natural ecosystems, agriculture, and water resources. The implications of the expansion for stratospheric circulation and the distribution of ozone in the atmosphere are as yet poorly understood. The observed recent rate of expansion is greater than climate model projections of expansion over the twenty-first century, which suggests that there is still much to be learned about this aspect of global climate change.”

  2. If you read the CO2 emissions report we were talking about a week ago (and my last comment on it) you would have seen that a bit more than half the reduction came from better efficiency in electrical generation, partially driven by increased use of natural gas instead of coal. One of the roles that blogs should have is putting things together, e.g. providing a context

  3. Eli –

    I also found the shift from natural gas to coal interesting, which is why I pointed it out in the original blog post that lead to the comment thread to which you’re referring.

  4. I am working on generation efficiency as fast as I can go. We are currently designing and building prototypes. The technology appears to be solid.

    More later when it is press release time. 😉

    Thanks for the blog.

Comments are closed.