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Robert Bryce: After Copenhagen,
it’s still about physics, math, and money


Now that big climate confab in Copenhagen is ending, it’s time to refocus our attention on the issues that matter most when it comes to energy and carbon dioxide: physics, math, and money.

Those three subjects have always been the most important when it comes to discussions about global energy consumption. But they continue to be obscured by the incessant yammering about climate forcings, albedo, stolen emails, and the optimum level of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Indeed, the meeting at Copenhagen was remarkable more for its circus-like air than its attention to the physical and mathematical problems of achieving major reductions in carbon emissions. And yet, for the last two weeks, the world’s major media outlets have been transfixed by an event that, from the start, was destined to amount to nothing. As Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus noted earlier this week, the meeting at Copenhagen “represents the first truly postmodern global event in human history.” They said that the leaders meeting in Copenhagen have “no power to do anything….But the United Nations, multinational green groups, and sympathetic reporters have succeeded in creating the impression of action where there is, in fact, none at all.”

How big was the circus? Well, to begin with, the organizers of the event gave credentials to 45,000 people even though the venue could only hold 15,000. Thus, many of the world’s most strident promoters of climate alarmism were forced to stand outside of the event for hours at a time. On Wednesday, the long queue of people waiting to get in the event were dusted with a brief snow shower, an event that left one blogger fuming and demanding a “huge apology” from the UN. (No reports yet on exactly when that apology will be delivered.)

The queue itself symbolized the pointlessness of the entire event. Tens of thousands of people flew to Copenhagen from all over the world only to find themselves unable to participate. But that didn’t stop the acts. There were reportedly lots of clowns and more than a handful of people who dressed up as polar bears, an outfit that was apparently designed to encourage action toward optimum levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. What’s the optimum level? Many activists – as well as Rajendra Pachauri, who chairs the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- believe it is exactly 350 parts per million. The fact that current levels are now about 387 ppm, and that those concentrations are rising, does not seem to matter much.

The meeting in Copenhagen gave Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez a forum for his usual silliness. Chávez regaled the attendees with a 45-minute speech (40 minutes over his allotted five minutes) during which he declared that there was a “ghost running through the streets of Copenhagen…a terrible ghost. Capitalism is that ghost.” Meanwhile, President Barack Obama addressed the attendees this morning, and exhorted them to reach an agreement by saying that “climate change poses a grave and growing danger to our people.”

To be sure, the rhetoric was plentiful. But all the rhetoric in the galaxy cannot overcome the pesky problem of physics. Renewable energy sources are touted as a key solution to our energy needs, but wind power and solar problem are incurably intermittent and that intermittency means that they cannot replace meaningful amounts of hydrocarbons, which now provide about 88% of total global energy needs.

There are two other physics-related problems with renewables: power density and energy density. We demand energy sources that produce lots of power (which is measured in horsepower or watts) from small amounts of real estate. And that’s the key problem with wind, solar, and biofuels: they require huge amounts of land to generate meaningful amounts of power. And although the farm lobby loves biofuels like corn ethanol, that fuel fails on both power density and energy density. Corn ethanol production requires vast swaths of land and the fuel that it produces is inferior to gasoline: it is corrosive, hydrophilic, and contains just two-thirds of the heat content of gasoline. If an energy source has low power density and/or energy density, it usually has higher costs, and those higher costs make it difficult, if not impossible, for that source to scale up to a level where it can displace lots of hydrocarbons.

Now to the other problem that’s being ignored at Copenhagen: math. The latest data from the International Energy Agency shows that some 1.5 billion people, about 22% of the world’s population still do not have access to electricity. And of that number, nearly 600 million live in Africa. The IEA recently declared that “electricity is, in practice, indispensable for certain basic activities, such as lighting, refrigeration and the running of household appliances, and cannot easily be replaced by other forms of energy. Individuals’ access to electricity is one of the most clear and un-distorted indication of a country’s energy poverty status.”

Nor is the problem of energy poverty restricted to lack of electricity. About one-third of the world’s population still relies on solid fuels, such as straw, wood, dung, or coal to cook their meals. And that reliance on low-quality fuels contributes to illness and disease. The world’s poorest people are not longing for wind turbines and solar panels. (Although is some places those technologies would certainly be appropriate.) What they really need are more common fuels like gasoline, propane, and kerosene.

The final problem at Copenhagen: money. The global energy business dwarfs every other sector. It is a $5-trillion-per-year business, of which at least $4.4 trillion is derived directly from coal, oil, and natural gas. No matter how much the US and the rest of the world may desire a move away from those energy sources, the transition to renewable sources – and to no-carbon sources like nuclear power – will take most of the 21st century and require trillions of dollars in new investment.

And yet, the draft agreements in Copenhagen, and Obama himself have declared that the US, and other developed countries, will cut their carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. But how will that cut be achieved? Despite all the hype about renewables, there are still no viable alternatives to hydrocarbons that can meet the cost and scale requirements needed to replace coal, oil, and natural gas. Al Gore and other promoters say we will rely on technologies that have yet to be invented. Maybe that’s true. But even a new energy technology emerges -- say, a big breakthrough in energy storage – it will still take decades, and tens of billions of dollars of investment, for that technology to disseminate throughout the world economy.

The other money problem, of course, concerns the expectation among the developing countries that the US and other rich nations will give them billions of dollars so that they can invest in energy technologies and adaptation measures. As the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page put it on Wednesday, the meeting in Copenhagen was supposed to be “the moment when the world came together to save us from an excess of carbon dioxide. Like all such confabs, it's coming down instead to cold, hard cash. On Monday, the so-called G-77—in effect, the Third World—walked out of the talks for several hours in protest of the unwillingness, as they saw it, of rich countries to foot the bill for averting or mitigating climate catastrophe in the developing world.”

Over the past few days, the US and other developed countries have tentatively agreed to help fund a $100 billion-per-year pool of money that will help poor countries adapt to climate change. But how can the US or any other country be sure that those billions won’t be wasted through fraud and abuse? As we reported here last week, the Chinese government has been gaming the Clean Development Mechanism, the international carbon-trading system, to help fund wind projects in China.

African politicians have been strident in their demands for money from the developed countries. But given the endemic corruption in Africa, there’s a strong likelihood that some, or even, most, of the money aimed at climate change mitigation will instead be pilfered by that region’s leaders. And some non-governmental organizations are saying that $100 billion won’t be enough. Robert Bailey, a spokesman for the aid group Oxfam International said today that $200 billion per year is the minimum amount needed. And Bailey recognizes the potential for abuse of that money. “"There is not a clear commitment that this money is going to be public money that is going to predictable money that is paid from one government into a fund that can then be dispersed in an equitable and balanced way."

The bottom line is that the climate summit in Copenhagen is just the latest in a growing string of high-profile meetings about carbon dioxide that over-promise and under-deliver. Politicians and pundits are already talking about the UN-sponsored climate meeting that will held a year from now in Mexico City. Presumably, when world leaders get to Mexico, they will get serious about solving the problems of physics, math, and money. But don’t count on it.



Robert Bryce is managing editor of Energy Tribune. He is the author of Cronies: Oil, the Bushes, and the Rise of Texas, America's Superstate. His his third book, Petroleum Soldiers, will be published this fall. He can be reached at: Petroleumworld does not necessarily share these views.

Editor's Note: This commentary was originally published by Energy Tribune, Nov 18, 2007.
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