Peter Huber: Low-Confidence in Low-Carbon

by Richard T. Stuebi

A few weeks ago, I wrote here that it is often a good thing to read and reflect upon intelligently-crafted opinions that differ from those you hold.

A good example is offered by the essay “Bound to Burn” by Peter Huber, a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute. In this thought-provoking piece, Huber makes the following interesting statements about the challenges to be faced in moving to a lower-carbon economy:

· “We rich people can’t stop the world’s 5 billion poor people from burning the couple of trillion tons of cheap carbon that they have within easy reach….We don’t control the global supply of carbon.”

· “We no longer control the demand for carbon, either. The 5 billion poor – the other 80 percent – are already the main problem, no us. Collectively, they emit 20 percent more greenhouse gas than we do. We burn a lot more carbon individually, but they have a lot more children. Their fecundity has eclipsed our gluttony, and the gap is now widening fast.”

· “Might we instead manage to give the world something cheaper than carbon?….For the very poorest, this would mean beating the price of the free rain forest that they burn down to clear land to plant a subsistence crop. For the slightly less poor, it would mean beating the price of coal used to generate electricity at under 3 cents per kilowatt-hour.”

· “Fossil fuels are extremely cheap because geological forces happen to have created large deposits of these dense forms of energy in accessible places. Find a mountain of coal, and you can just shovel gargantuan amounts of energy into the boxcars. Shoveling wind and sun is much, much harder.”

· “Another argument commonly advanced is that getting over carbon will, nevertheless, be comparatively cheap, because it will get us over oil, too….But uranium aside, the most economical substitute for oil is, in fact, electricity generated with coal….By sharply boosting the cost of coal electricity, the war on carbon will make us more dependent on oil, not less.”

· “By pouring money into anything-but-carbon fuels, we will lower demand for carbon, making it even cheaper for the rest of the world to buy and burn. The rest will use cheaper energy to accelerate their own economic growth. Jobs will go where energy is cheap, just as they go where labor is cheap.”

· “If we’re truly worried about carbon, we must instead approach it as if the emissions originated in an annual eruption of Mount Krakatoa. Don’t try to persuade the volcano to sign a treaty promising to stop. Focus instead on what might be done to protect and promote the planet’s carbon sinks.”

· “Carbon zealots despise carbon-sinking schemes because, they insist, nobody can be sure that the sunk carbon will stay sunk. Yet everything they propose hinges on the assumption that carbon already sunk by nature in what are now hugely valuable deposits of oil and coal can be kept sunk by treaty and imaginary cheaper-than-carbon alternatives.”

By no means is Huber’s writing perfect: the essay is too long by half, runs a too-circuitous path with considerable redundancies, and doesn’t lead to a very satisfying or forceful conclusion.

Along the way, some of Huber’s snide asides are too pessimistic. As an example, he claims “there is no serious prospect of costs plummeting and performance soaring” for solar and wind energy, but there is ample evidence (and lots of activity funded by prominent venture capitalists) to dispute this assertion.

And, Huber’s clearly got some facts wrong. For instance, he talks of $500/ton carbon offsets and 15 cent/kwh wind energy. If you believe these far-too-high numbers, no wonder you reach conclusions that aren’t very favorable to low-carbon energy sources.

Huber has been wrong before. About ten years ago, he and Mark Mills launched the Digital Power Report, which was touting the emergence of advanced technologies in distributed generation and energy storage to revolutionize electricity supply. Although quite compelling and seemingly well-supported, the perspectives they put forth in their periodical were at best far premature – and less charitably, inaccurate or incorrect. After a run of a few years, Huber and Mills wound down the Digital Power Report, presumably because the world wasn’t turning out the way they were predicting.

But, I still think this latest work by Huber is a worthy contribution to the discussion. Most notably, Huber’s concluding call for much more focus on carbon sinks as a no-regrets approach is hard to dispute.

Huber is no dummy. Many of the points he makes along the way are logically sound, and ought to be factored into any strategy for moving towards a lower-carbon economy. As unpleasant as some of the concerns raised by Huber may be, they are nevertheless important to hear to develop a more compelling story that overcomes the objections to thereby mobilize more real movement (rather than just talk) towards a low-carbon world.

Richard T. Stuebi is the Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc. Later in 2009, he will also become Managing Director of Early Stage Partners.