Today’s guest is Armond Cohen, co-founder and Executive Director at Clean Air Task Force, an organization whose task is to reduce climate change by applying an overwhelming amount of force to some of the biggest levers to reduce carbon and other climate warming emissions. Armond has led CATF since its formation in 1996, and has a wealth of climate knowledge in terms of the problem, potential solutions, the technical, economic, and psychological barriers, and strong opinions on the right ways to try to get us out of this jam. Enjoy the show!
Today’s guest is Armond Cohen, co-founder and Executive Director at Clean Air Task Force, an organization whose task is to reduce climate change by applying an overwhelming amount of force to some of the biggest levers to reduce carbon and other climate warming emissions. Armond has led CATF since its formation in 1996.
In addition to leading CATF, Armond is directly involved in CATF research and advocacy on the topic of requirements to deeply decarbonize global energy systems. Prior to his work with CATF, Armond founded and led the Conservation Law Foundation’s Energy Project starting in 1983, focussing on energy efficiency, utility resource planning, and electric industry structure. Armond has published numerous articles on climate change, energy system transformation, and air pollution; he speaks and testifies frequently on these topics. He is a member of the Keystone Center Energy Board, co-Chair of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, and a member of the US Department of Energy Electricity Advisory Committee. Armond is an honors graduate of Harvard Law School and Brown University.
In today’s episode we discuss:
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You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at firstname.lastname@example.org, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change and try to figure out how people like you and I can help. Hi, everyone, Jason here. Today's guest is Armond Cohen, the executive director at Clean Air Task Force. Since the mid 90s Armond and his team have been focused on finding practical solutions to climate issues. Their goal is to explore any possible solution that offers promise, even if it's not in the environmental or philanthropic mainstream.
Jason Jacobs: I was excited to have Armond on because he's got such a wealth of institutional knowledge doing this for as long as he has. He's got strong opinions and he's not shy about those opinions either. We covered a number of things in this episode, including the founding story of Clean Air Task Force, how their work has evolved over time, including the work that they're doing today. We talked about some of the trade offs between technology and innovation and policy and regulation. We also talked about the importance of a portfolio approach versus putting all of your eggs in one basket. And lastly, we talked about some of the opportunities in terms of getting legislation done that stretches across both sides of the aisle.
Jason Jacobs: I found Armond to be thoughtful, extremely knowledgeable and we had a really interesting and engaging dialogue. I enjoyed this episode and I hope you do as well. Armond, welcome to the show.
Armond Cohen: Thank you very much for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Excited to have you. We met for coffee probably a month or two ago and I took away a few things. One thing I took away is that you've been doing this a long time.
Armond Cohen: Yeah, way too long.
Jason Jacobs: Another one is that you've got strong opinions so I almost with that we were doing this over beers so that I would get the unfiltered real story. But then the third is that you're working on some interesting areas and ones that are certainly on my mind and probably our listeners as well and therefore I thought for those reasons it would be real interesting to have you on the show.
Armond Cohen: Great. Well, happy to be here, Jason, and I would just say that take my somewhat conventionally observations with a grain of salt. I've been at this for 30 years. Really working on climate for about 25 of those years and it's a really difficult steep problem and I think maybe some of the things I'm going to say are going to sound a little bit new to some folks but where I'm coming from is that to appreciate the challenge of getting rid of all climate emissions from the energy system over the next 20 or 30 years is a pretty big task. And I think we're not approaching it radically enough so some of my statements will come across as a little bit radical compared to what you often hear.
Jason Jacobs: I think that whether I or listeners end up agreeing with that perspective or not, I think there's definitely value in hearing it and the goal of the podcast is not to convert people to any one world view or another, but it's to help educate people on the variety of world views that exist so that whatever world view people come to on their own they can do from a more informed position.
Armond Cohen: Great, perfect.
Jason Jacobs: Make sense?
Armond Cohen: All right. Let's dive in. Cool.
Jason Jacobs: What is Clean Air Task Force?
Armond Cohen: We're a non-profit environmental organization. It was created actually in the mid-90s about 20 odd years ago. We started with a very singular mission, which was educating the public in the United States about the climate and air pollution damage that coal plants were doing primarily and we were initially focused on getting the smog, and sug, and mercury and air toxics removed from those plants, forcing them to scrub. We figured that, that was important, number one, for public health, but number two, it was likely to cause some of those plants to retire, assuming we had reasonably cheap gas to replace them in the near term, which of course has happened. We've now ...
Jason Jacobs: Cause them to retire because it would be more expensive for them to pollute less?
Armond Cohen: Correct. The operating costs of adding the controls were such that the marginal economics would favor retirement and replacement with gas. Now, that was our thesis back in the mid-90s and that sounded great when we thought that it would be good enough to, let's say, retire half the US coal fleet. The problem is that they were largely replaced by gas or are largely being replaced by natural gas and if you're really serious about climate you really can't have any carbon emissions coming from the energy system. And natural gas is better, by some accounts, than coal. There are disputes about gas leakage maybe makes gas as bad or close to as bad as coal from the methane leakage from gas production but nonetheless at the time we thought, "Well, it's a pretty good deal to replace coal with gas."
Armond Cohen: That was the thinking of the mid-90s and we were largely successful in our efforts. But then we woke up around 2000 and the science was saying, "Whoa, we really have to get down to zero carbon emissions. 50% reduction, which is the coal gas trade off, it's not enough." Then you say, "What could really do zero carbon?" And we obviously have wind, we have solar, we have batteries, we have hydro, we have geothermal, we have a number of things on the renewable side of the equation and we started a journey to figure out will that be enough? Could that decarbonize the electric sector? And as we'll get to in a minute our answer is maybe but you might not want to count on it.
Armond Cohen: Then, if you could decarbonize electricity you've got all of transportation, you've got all of industry and you've got all of building heat to worry about and heat and cooling so then the problem becomes even more complicated. The Clean Air Task Force was created initially just on a fairly simple premise was that if we shut down coal plants or clean them up we'll have a much better air quality and we'll have a better trajectory on climate. But it became more complicated than that the more we looked at it, which is what has driven us to expand our mission to include looking at a range of zero carbon energy sources. Now, today we're working on things like advanced geothermal energy, various kinds of nuclear fission infusion.
Armond Cohen: We're also doing a lot of work on carbon capture and storage, which is scrubbing carbon out of fossil fuels, gas. Gas and coal primarily, primarily gas probably in the future and seeing if we can create zero carbon fuels for transport and industry, specifically hydrogen and ammonia from gas bead stocks or from renewables and can we get nuclear power back on its feet as a viable low carbon energy source that's going to compete with fossil fuels? Just a roundabout way of answering your question, we started out as a campaign organization focused on coal but we quickly figured out that we need to get into the technology innovation game.
Jason Jacobs: And when you say working on, what is Clean Air Task Force's role in the process? What are you actually doing?
Armond Cohen: We do a mixture of things. The first thing we do is fairly deep research to look at these technology options. Let me back up and say, probably a third of what we do is still pushing on regulation of emissions from the energy sector so we have a big program pushing on regulation of NOx, SOx, mercury emissions and carbon dioxide emissions from gas, coal and oil. We also have a big program that we're involved in to crank down on leakage of methane from natural gas production in the United States, which is a big issue and which some argue leakage might be so large that it cancels out whatever benefit you have replacing coal with gas. Our role is, first of all, in the traditional environmental litigation and advocacy space we're constantly trying to crank down on the regulations that allow emissions from those sources.
Armond Cohen: And of course that's been very hard in the Trump years because a lot of the gain that we made under the Obama administration have now gotten rolled back by the Trump administration, so we're leading litigation right now to overturn the Trump rollbacks, if you can follow that. It's like he's rolling back, we're suing in court.
Jason Jacobs: And you're trained as an attorney, right?
Armond Cohen: My personal background is as a lawyer and we have four lawyers on staff who just do nothing but ... I shouldn't say do nothing but, but their full-time job is trying to prevent the Trump rollbacks. And we work with the big national organizations like Environmental Defense Fund and Natural Resources Defense Council and a variety of environmental groups suing to keep these regulations on track. That's part of what we do but I'd say probably the majority of what we do these days is research on some of these advanced technologies that could provide zero carbon energy. Not just to electricity but also to transport industry and buildings. And then we take that research and we say, "What could the federal government do or state governments do to move those technologies into the marketplace?"
Armond Cohen: We have a fairly large policy advocacy operation that's looking at, what are the right innovation policies that could bring those technologies forward? Just as we did for wind and solar over the last 20 or 30 years, where substantial amounts of investment from the federal government, a lot of market pull purchase from the state government like renewable portfolio standards brought wind and solar cost down, drove volumes up, learning up, cost down. We want to see that happen with carbon capture and storage. We'd like to see that happen with nuclear energy, too, which we think could be a very substantial addition to the toolkit of climate management.
Armond Cohen: And then there's zero carbon fuels like ammonia and hydrogen that could be produced by renewables or it could be produced by nuclear or it could be produced from natural gas, so we have a whole program focused on how to move those technologies into competitive range with fossil fuels. And then a final thing that we're working on right now is looking at how could the cement, steel, and petro-chemical industries change their fundamental processes as as to require less carbon or emitting less carbon. Part of that will involve carbon capture, scrubbing the carbon out of their processes, but also processes, for example, in cement that don't require the injection of carbon.
Armond Cohen: We do a number of things. I would say we're on the edge these days of what is called innovation policy, which is pretty much just how does the government incent and commercialize advanced technology.
Jason Jacobs: One of the challenges that I'm finding, and I'm about seven months into focusing on this as my full-time pursuit, and still all these words, CCS, direct air capture, biofuels, hydrogen, ammonia, fission, fusion, wind, solar, that's probably .01% of all the words, right, and you insiders, you throw these around and debate and one wants this and one wants that. But as an outsider looking in who just cares about climate change and wants the planet to be sustainable for humans and other life forms over the long haul it's very hard to sort through all this stuff and know which end is up.
Jason Jacobs: And you've got this one saying, "Oh, renewables," and that one's saying, "No renewables." And this one's saying, "Oh, nuclear." And it's like it's very hard to keep up but the outsiders, we're the ones that vote, we're the ones that pay taxes. We have some role to play or do we? I'll stop there.
Armond Cohen: No, I think it can be absolutely overwhelming and I've been at this for 30 years almost and I learn something new every day about a new technology. It is immensely complicated. That's one of the challenges, is that it's not a bumper sticker. And I think that a lot of people are looking for bumper sticker solutions, as you say, all nuke, no nukes, all renewables, no renewables, fossil fuels must be left in the ground, well, 85% of the energy in the world comes from fossil fuels. Are we going to deal with that overnight? Are we going to get rid of fossil fuels? I think that it is a very complex nuanced area and I think one of the problems we have, as with so many social issues in our world, is that the public discourse tends to be highly simplified. Our current President would be a perfect example of someone who turns complex problems into simple bromides.
Armond Cohen: That's not very helpful. But you're asking a great question which is how does the public make any sense out to this? And I don't have an easy answer for you. I'd say that the first reality is that the public usually doesn't get involved in the detailed nits and nats of policy making so there are experts who are going to debate this and when it comes time to deal with this problem seriously, which we haven't gotten to yet, the expert community will kick in. Here's what I would say, Jason. That the most important thing that someone who is interested in this topic and wants to see progress on climate change is to vote for politicians and support approaches and campaigns that are technology agnostic.
Armond Cohen: That is, I think, the most important point to take away, and we can go into this in more detail, is none of these energy solutions are by themselves likely to do the whole job. The sensible thing to do, just like if you were managing your own investment portfolio, is to embrace politicians and embrace environmental organizations and embrace campaigns and causes that say, "The current problem is very, very big and we don't have all the answers today so we need to experiment, we need to commercialize dozens of technologies and we'll see how it works out in the marketplace." That's a high level point that I think most educated people can grasp.
Armond Cohen: You wouldn't put all of your stock in your 401k into IBM or Twitter or whatever, you'd spread it around. You want some risk. You want some diversification and really the same principle applies to climate. That's the high level principle that we're trying to get that point across is, we're not probably-nuclear, we're not anti-nuclear, we're not pro-carbon capture, we're not anti-carbon capture, we're not pro-renewables or anti-renewables. We're pro-solving the climate problem and I think our view is we've got to basically put all these things on the table, see how far we can push them to move forward and some of them will be dead ends, undoubtedly. That's the history of technology development.
Armond Cohen: There are more corpses on the side of the road than there are live people at the end of the march, right, and that's capitalism and that's fine. But I don't think, Jason, that you have to spend hours and hours researching hydrogen fuel cells or understanding the economics of advanced nuclear versus current nuclear. What you can take away from the literature, I think, pretty safely is that there is no system that is as large as our global energy system, which is a seven or eight trillion dollar a year enterprise, that's going to be solved or decarbonized by one single technology or even two or three. It's probably going to take a while bunch.
Armond Cohen: And electricity is the easiest part and that's really hard. And when we talk about transportation, electrification is really great if you have a zero carbon grid but there's a lot of issues with that and it's not likely. It could occur that all light duty vehicles, all autos are electrified in 20 or 30 years but maybe not and maybe we need a drop in fuel that can pretty much operate an existing combustion engine. It could be that we can use renewables to generate enough hydrogen at reasonable cost to displace all fossil fuels in the industry. But then again, maybe not. I think the principle is a certain amount of skepticism, agnosticism, and again, this is not an issue that is going to be a street issue, right.
Armond Cohen: People want to do something about climate, that's great. I think the danger is people say, "I want to do something about climate and I think there's only one answer and it's solar energy." You hear that out there. That's where I was 30 years ago when I started looking at this issue before I started my own investigation. But I think the appropriate place for the public is to dig as deep as you can but also keep an open mind and apply some common sense which is there are not many problems in life or in society that have a single bullet solution and I think this is certainly one of those.
Jason Jacobs: A few different ways I'd love to just pressure test that if you will. One is, okay, I get multiple shots and going, we don't know what's going to work and not work, but Armond, there technologies out there that are already proven. If we just deploy what we've got we can get at least 80% of the way there. What we desperately need to do is focus and stop taking all of these different shots because they're just noise.
Armond Cohen: I think there's some wisdom in that point. And I would say I think it's a both and. Look, the United States, for example, right now we've got about 8% of our total electricity is coming from wind and solar. That's great. We can probably increase that by a factor of five without any issue about running up against limits. That's a 20 or a 25 year enterprise just there going at our current pace or even increasing our current pace it's going to take us that amount of time to get up to say a 40 or 50% wind and solar system. I think the point I would make is that beyond getting to about a half somewhat and maybe in the Southwest United States, 60%, beyond that it gets pretty hairy. I think you can deploy what you've got now, no regrets likely.
Armond Cohen: As I said somewhere around that modeling would suggest somewhere around that 50% break point, you can manage the variability of wind and solar but beyond that you need to start thinking about something that actually turns on and off when you need it. And this is a techy point but I'm going to make it because it's really, really important for understanding this. I think people have this idea that the problem with wind and solar, particularly with solar, is that it's obviously at night we don't have solar energy, so that's the problem. O sometimes the wind doesn't blow, that's the problem. But pretty much every day it blows and so with a little bit of battery storage we can smooth out those variation.
Armond Cohen: The problem is that in the northern hemisphere the times of very low wind and sun tend to be weeks or months, not days. If you had a daily problem you were just managing a daily variability problem, you could manage this problem with batteries, which could hold a four or eight hour charge. To build a batter infrastructure, a storage infrastructure that would store months worth of, or certainly multi-weeks worth of wind or solar energy and then release it when you don't have any is ... The modeling, I'll show you this, is just astronomically expensive and it's prohibitive. As long as your system has about half, again this is a broad generalization from the modeling that's been done around the world, but as long as your system has about half firm or dispatchable energy and about half variable you can manage your way to a zero carbon system at reasonable cost.
Armond Cohen: But if you get much above that you're dealing with massive multi-week, multi-month surpluses and deficits which become extremely expensive to manage with storage technologies that we know about today. Now, maybe in the future someone will come up with a near zero cost energy storage technology. And essentially that's what you need just to give you a round number. Right now, grid scale energy storage for batteries is somewhere in the range of $400 a kilowatt hour. You need to drop that by a factor of 20 or more to get to anything that looks like it's reasonable in terms of managing monthly or weekly surpluses. We might get there but no one's really posited a technology that's going to be $10 a kilowatt hour right now.
Armond Cohen: Technology could solve this problem but maybe not. What I would say to the folks who just say, "Deploy, deploy, deploy, forget the research," is that's a pretty big bet. It's not a bet that I'm necessarily willing to recommend.
Jason Jacobs: Okay. Let me try another one. You're telling me that as an end consumer I don't need to care about the technology and I just want more shots ongoing and someone that believes in the existential thought of climate change and wants to help. But if you take a technology like nuclear, I hear about these accidents, I hear about the safety, I hear about the risk of proliferation, I hear about the waste, I hear about the huge cost overruns. I hear about all these different things that make me want it not in my backyard and so I have to care.
Armond Cohen: Well, nuclear is a distinctly controversial energy source. I would argue that if you look at the siting battles going on right now around the country on wind and solar you're also seeing very substantial, not in my backyard activity around large solar arrays. You're seeing wind farms getting fought off all over the United States and all over Europe from people who don't want anything near them. Energy infrastructure is not popular. People do not want stuff that's industrial looking anywhere near them. People say, "Well, ghee, solar panels on a roof that's warm and cuddly," but that's substantially more expensive by a factor of four or five than utility scale solar farms which is what probably you're going to need to do if you want to get in this game.
Armond Cohen: Jason, what I would say is that you have to look at each of these technologies. And yes, if you are a member of the public you do have to probably dig into this a little bit and say, "The popular view of nuclear is that it's too expensive, it's unsafe and it produces too much waste and it can create weapons of mass destruction." When you really look at the facts, you look at the track record of the industry, and maybe today is not the day to go into it, but you don't need to dig very far to see that each of those points are really not based in fact, at least compared to other risks that we face. And I can go into that if you want.
Jason Jacobs: I don't know if we have time to go into all of it but one great leave behind would be, for the people out there that don't like nuclear because of all the things that they've heard and for people like you are saying, "But, if you actually dug into it what you would find is ..." And then it would debunk, one, by one, by one. Can we point them somewhere that they can go? And I'll put me on that list. I'll say we. Where can we go to get up to speed on that.
Armond Cohen: Well, I'll link you to a few general articles that address that. There are several books out there that address this issue, the titles of which are not right at the top of my head. I do think that we need to do a better job of articulating the issues and there are several sources and books on this topic. It's not a quick read. None of these are quick reads. You have to understand what these exposure levels are and do they matte and do they not and all of that. But I can get back to you on that. Maybe we can put some links on the [crosstalk 00:22:31].
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. I'll follow up in the show notes because I think that's an important point because there's a lot of people out there that it's like they watch Chernobyl and they're like, "No. There's no way. This can't happen." It's like, "But look at the math. It needs to happen." It's like, "But I just saw this thing and it's horrible." But if you dig in what you'll find it's like, "Okay, fine. I'll do the work. Where should I dig in?" Taking that as a leave behind.
Armond Cohen: There's an excellent article in USA Today that came out about a week ago, which we can link your viewers to and your listeners to, which actually takes on the Chernobyl HBO Series specifically and says, "Yeah, this was really horrible and a terrible accident, and here's why it doesn't matter to the future of [crosstalk 00:23:10] power."
Jason Jacobs: Did Michael Shellenberger write that?
Armond Cohen: No, it was actually written by Ray Rothrock and a gentleman from Third Way. There are good sources on this. With nuclear I think there's a long complicated history with this that ties, in public mind, nuclear energy is very closely associated with nuclear weapons and that's where the anti-nuclear movement came out of, out of the anti-weapons movement and so those things have been very closely interlinked even though those two technologies really have nothing to do with each other. Unraveling that is not going to be an easy task. I would just say the high level point to take away is that there is a risk of accidents with nuclear power plants just like there's a risk of accidents with any industrial activity that involves chemicals or any toxic material and we live with those and it's all a question of risk.
Armond Cohen: If people understood the risks associated, even with the worst nuclear accidents, they would understand that the fatality and disease related impacts are in the same range of other kinds of industrial accidents that we tolerate on a regular basis but nuclear is seen as bomb. And that's the fundamental issue. It's very hard to get through until you actually look at the science.
Jason Jacobs: Let me try another one, if I may. Brett from Titans of Nuclear came on our last episode and one of the points that he made was that if you look at just the total amount of carbon that's in the air and then you look at new emissions that there's a big focus on emissions reduction but that even if we get to zero new emissions because of the carbon that's already in the air, global warming, it's going to continue to get hotter. His point was that essentially focusing on emissions reduction is a fool's errand and we need to be focusing on carbon removal at massive scale and nuclear is the only thing that can support that at the scale we need.
Armond Cohen: Well, I agree with the first proposition, that we need to be focused on carbon removal. We're already at 410 parts per million, or something in that range, 425, I think.
Jason Jacobs: 415, yeah.
Armond Cohen: 415, which is out of the range of human experience and human civilization for sure so we don't know where we're going exactly. We just know that things are out of kilter. Yes, I agree with the first proposition, we need to be focusing on carbon dioxide removal. I don't agree with the second proposition which is that nuclear is the only option for large scale carbon removal. I think that's as categorical as saying that renewables are the only answer for large scale carbon removal. The point being you need a lot of energy to suck carbon out of the atmosphere one way or the other. And again, I just come back to the portfolio idea which is that we don't know what's going to be cheapest or most cost managed.
Armond Cohen: I'd like nuclear available. I'd like zero carbon gas available. I'd like renewables at scale available. I'd like advanced geothermal ... I'd like all of those things available to feed into the grid to power the direct air capture. I don't buy the argument that, again, this strikes me as extreme thinking, that there's only one zero carbon production source that's going to solve the problem. Again, that goes against common sense and certainly against any kind of portfolio theory.
Jason Jacobs: And in terms of carbon removal, I guess, where are we in that trajectory, where do we need to get to and will we ever be able to tackle things like land use or cost in a way that makes it practical for carbon removal to work at the scale that we need?
Armond Cohen: I wouldn't say I'm an expert on carbon removal by a long shot but you probably should interview Noah Deich at [crosstalk 00:26:38].
Jason Jacobs: We did.
Armond Cohen: Okay. You already did.
Jason Jacobs: We already did.
Armond Cohen: All right. There you go. Noah will have a much better answer than I will, a much more informed answer.
Jason Jacobs: It's not published yet but we did interview Noah last week in San Francisco.
Armond Cohen: Okay. I would say that where we are on carbon removal depends on the technology you're talking about. Direct air capture, people really dispute whether that's ever going to be anywhere near anything that anyone could afford. We have claims that direct air capture can be demonstrated fairly straight forwardly toward the hundred dollar a ton range, which is ... Could imagine something like that happening to 10 times that amount which probably won't happen. I just have to consider myself, I think we're agnostic. We're in very early days on that. The one thing that I would question is this notion that we're going to harvest vast amounts of biomass and then burn it with carbon removal as part of the process and that that's going to produce net zero carbon energy.
Armond Cohen: The main reason I have skepticism about this technology, which is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage or BECCS, is that the more we look at the amount of cropping area that would have to be dedicated on the planet to that process, the more skeptical we become that that's ever going to scale. I would say, with regard to that particular technology, it's worth exploring, it's worth doing the numbers, it's worth pushing the technology. I would have much more confidence that you have a scalable solution through mechanical carbon removal. It's early days. We're really where we were probably on nuclear energy in the 30s or 40s. We're very much at the experimental stage on these technologies.
Armond Cohen: Or where we were with wind and solar in the early 70s. I'd say that's about where we are. I think it's a fool's errand at this point to try and call which one will prevail or whether any of them will prevail. I do think the basic point though is that there is a certain amount of warming that's baked in. Even if you do extract carbon from the atmosphere the system probably has a lot of inertia into it so we need to prepare for adapting to a world that's probably a couple degrees warmer than we're used to on average which means we're going to have much more extremes. The 21st century is going to be a climate anomalous century for human beings one way or the other and folks aren't really thinking enough about the adaptation part of this.
Armond Cohen: Although places like the city of Boston are beginning to already think about that in terms of building requirements for anything that's near the water and so forth. As far as carbon removal, absolutely yes. Is there a single bullet for that? I think that's a foolish position to take.
Jason Jacobs: A couple more of these and then we can probably switch gears but this is fun. One of them is, so you're telling me that if elected officials care about climate change that's enough but there's some very different approaches from the solutions standpoint. There's the pure market based approaches and then there's the ones where policies, or mandates, or taxes or things like that play a bigger role. How do you think about that and how should we think about that as the general public?
Armond Cohen: There are some optimists who say that this problem will solve itself because zero carbon technology ... By the way, in this whole discussion we've left out the quarter of the issues that's agriculture and land use that has really not directly to do with energy. 75% of the climate problem is energy related, coal, oil and gas. The other quarter is essentially agriculture and land use. And that's everything from livestock to destruction of rainforests and soil cultivation and so forth. Let's talk about the 75% though for a second. There are some who say, "Well, you know, at the turn of the century everyone thought that New York City was going to be toast because there was so much horse manure in the street that the city was unlivable."
Armond Cohen: Well, cars got invented, right, and someone could argue whether that was a good trade off or a bad trade off but it certainly eliminated the manure problem. There's some who say, "Technology will provide. No need for intervention." That would be nice and maybe, but again, do you want to bet the planet on that? I think that some form of market nudge or intervention is going to be needed and there's a whole spectrum of options there. There's the folks who just want to put a price on carbon and say the market will pull all the technologies we need in once we value or disvalue carbon, however you want to put it, entrepreneurs will step up and come up with stuff that is low carbon because there's profit to be made.
Armond Cohen: There's a lot to be said for that position. You can also accomplish the same thing essentially by putting some sort of cap on carbon emissions or an emissions performance requirement on any kind of energy system. You could say, "No power plant can be built that emits more than a trivial number of grams per kilowatt hour." That's one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is we need a fully planned energy economy in which the government decides exactly what gets built and there's no market whatsoever. We're going to just start tearing down all the existing fossil fuel infrastructure and building renewables, nuclear, carbon capture in its place and there's no more role for the market.
Armond Cohen: Those are two obvious cartoons. The way I've set this up it's pretty obvious where I'm going, which is that both approaches, both the government led approach, in terms of technology nudges and pricing structure will work best together. If you have market pull that values carbon you'll get more private sector activity but also if you have the government pushing and making it possible for some of these advanced technologies to come down in price. I keep coming back to the wind and solar example. Wind and solar didn't become cheap simply because a bunch of really smart guys and gals figured out how to make a better wind turban or solar cell. They got cheap because of massive amounts of demand created by government through renewable portfolio standards, through feeding tariffs in Europe, through subsidies.
Armond Cohen: We just got massive production scale. China really helped in terms of cranking up its industrial machine. You can imagine the similar set of policies that would address technologies, other than wind and solar, and on that basis, if you think about it, it's really two ends working against the middle. It's the market based solutions and the carbon cap concepts that create effective value or a price on carbon combined with the technology forward approach and innovation approach. And historically both have been effective. If you look at the history of, why don't we have as much acid rain as we used to? Well, because there was a regulation put in place that's now been ratcheted even further.
Armond Cohen: In 1990 we passed the Clean Air Act of 1990, which required a steady decrease in the sulfur emissions from the coal fired power plants and guess what? Emissions fell, forest, and lakes and streams in the Northeast are much healthier than they were 15 years ago. And now that 50% cut has turned into a 90% cut. That brought into the market, at the time people said, "Oh, that's way too expensive. That will double the cost of electricity." Well, guess what happened? As soon as you created a market for scrubbers the industry got busy and produced scrubbers that were trivial in terms of their ultimate cost on the price of electricity. Instead of a 50% or 100% increase on the cost of electricity we had small single digit percentage increases in electricity costs.
Armond Cohen: That's a regulatory taxing approach. But on the other hand governments investments over, I'll say a 15 year period before that, primarily in Europe, actually got those technologies to the point where the technology was well understood and was commercially ready to be deployed and technologically ready to be deployed. I'd say it's both and.
Jason Jacobs: A lot of this stuff is both and, and I think that's a challenge because we have precious resources and finite time and at some point we need to make choices. If we said both and for everything then I worry that we're going to do a little bit of everything but get nothing done.
Armond Cohen: You can certainly say that. I would say this, that the kinds of dollars that we're talking about for technology development are not the kind of dollars that get you into a zero sum game. Let's take the example of nuclear, what would it cost to ... Wildest dreams, if we had a very advanced nuclear energy demonstration program to come up with plants that were less expensive, had less waste problems and that sort of thing. In terms of the US context, let's say in our wildest imagination, the fastest you could go, that might a one hundred billion dollar program over 10 years. Let's say that's 10 billion dollars a year. The entire electricity sector is about a 350 billion dollar a year business and that's just electricity. If you look at that in terms of GDP it's just a very small percentage.
Armond Cohen: Right now we're spending about three to four billion dollars a year on subsidizing wind and solar. It's not something that you would say rises to the level. I'm not saying that 10 billion dollars a year is not real money but in the context of the size of the problem we're talking about and the estimates of global warming damage tend to be in the range of the hundreds of trillions, not the hundreds of billions. I don't really buy the argument that we can't do everything. In some logical sense you can't do everything. There's not an unlimited amount of money, but the kinds of money we're talking about for the R&D and demonstration and deployment and the early first of kind and endth of a kind deployments are in the noise level of the overall energy system.
Armond Cohen: That's where I think we're at with a lot of these technologies, just as wind and solar again you could say, "Well, we're spending three billion dollars a year on deploying wind and solar subsidies." Yeah, but that's, again, in the context of a 350 billion dollar annual electric system, so is that really unaffordable. I think most people would say, "That was a pretty good bet because what we got, we drove cost down and now we're climbing in terms of our solar and wind shares." Yeah. I get the argument but I don't think really the numbers pencil out to suggest your ... We're not anywhere near the point of trade offs right now.
Jason Jacobs: You have the political landscape. It's pretty polarized. And you have a lot of people talking about climate now or certainly a lot more than maybe three years ago or five years ago. But within that you have the Green New Deal people that are talking about, "We need a new deal for our mobilization and just transition, and the social issues, and jobs, and technology isn't everything. It's bundled together and you can't decouple it," right. And then you've got the more incrementalist that says, "Well, it's just going to be technology and it's incremental and it requires bipartisan support and so we're going to put one foot in front of the other and play nicey nice in the middle and try to work across the aisle."
Jason Jacobs: Those are very different but they're both talking about climate is important, so I guess where do you come out on that and what advice do you have for me or to listeners?
Armond Cohen: Look, I'm no political prognosticator. What I would say is this, it's hard enough to solve the climate problem and there are going to be ancillary benefits in doing that for jobs and all kinds of things. I would say that I'm kind of in both camps in this sense. I do think that solving the climate problem is a major investment in infrastructure program. I don't think this is, as I said earlier, I'm not on the side that just says, "A little bit of carbon pricing will do the trick." I think there's a much stronger role for government in this, though not an overweening Soviet style, top down role for government. What I would say, Jason, is that the issue here is really can we find common ground in a polarized political climate over the proposition that climate is something to be addressed?
Armond Cohen: And from the right wing that might be, "Well, we don't necessarily believe all the numbers we read but there's some risk here. And our constituencies are saying they do have some concern. And the polling will play this out." Even, I think a slight majority of republicans actually now believe climates a thing and it's an issue. That tends to go up and down a little bit but we're not in a situation where only 10% of republicans think that climate is an issue. The intensity level of republican concern about climate is different than on the democratic or in the independent sector.
Armond Cohen: But I do think that there is a potential middle ground here that crosses political lines and I think it's around technology. I think the harder part will be to put in place carbon caps, and carbon taxes, that tends to raise more ideological issues around the role of government and anti-taxation and the anti-regulatory sentiment from the right end of the political spectrum. I do think there's a lot of space to work right now and interestingly the Green New Deal people have raised this. If you're really talking about direct investment in advanced technology and the Green New Deal said, "You know, we're not closing off any technologies." At least parts of the Green New Deal are saying that.
Jason Jacobs: Well, at one point, they said ... I don't know if it still says renewables instead of zero carbon energy, right.
Armond Cohen: Well, that was said on day one and then I believe the leaders backed off and said, "Well, we're open to everything. You can go through the political record." I think they've taken an appropriately agnostic approach so I think that, that has been a very helpful focus on technology and infrastructure. Now, interestingly, what we've seen in the last year, or a little bit more than that, is we've seen republicans coming over in congress to support bills that have had low carbon technology as their object. The two obvious examples are two bills have passed with bipartisan support from, I would say, the climate hawks on the democratic side and the budget hawks and climate quote, unquote deniers on the republican side around advanced nuclear energy.
Armond Cohen: We saw a similar coalition around carbon capture and storage. Now, again, you've spanned everything from Sheldon Whitehouse, who's probably the leading climate spokesperson in the senate.
Jason Jacobs: I want him on as a guest.
Armond Cohen: You should. And on the other side, Jim Inhofe and Barrasso from Wyoming who are fossil fuel kings.
Jason Jacobs: I should get them on, too.
Armond Cohen: Right. Yeah, you should, see what they say. Now, what they'll say in public is, "We don't believe in climate as a really huge thing," but we do know that there's a risk that fossil fuels will be obsolete unless we figure out how to use them without ... It's almost like a second order evaluation that, unless we figure out how to use fossil without carbon, fossil fuels are going to be history. You have people coming together on different motivations. Interestingly, the pro-renewables caucus is increasingly bipartisan. Why? Well, you've got states like Iowa, where Senator Grassley sits, that have massive wind resource. And he's thinking, "Well, maybe this isn't such a bad thing. Why not?"
Armond Cohen: Texas has the largest wind infrastructure capacity in the country. Not a notably blue state. When you start talking about technology as opposed to taxes and regulation the politics get scrambled a little bit and left and right aren't so easy to distinguish. There's all kinds of reasons why both parts of the political spectrum would want to focus on a technology led solution. Do I think that's sufficient? No. I think ultimately to get rid of the existing fossil fuel infrastructure and replace it with something cleaner, you're going to need something that drives out the existing technology.
Armond Cohen: Although if we get really lucky and nuclear and renewables really can do everything cheaper than gas, and I understand the argument that solar wind can do that in some places right now, we'll get into that question but if you do get to the point where really everything clean is cheaper than everything dirty, then we're back to New York City and its manure problem where the problem solves itself because you get a new technology. I realize that analogy is a little bit problematic since cars created another environmental problem but they did make the city at least more livable than it was.
Armond Cohen: I think, Jason, the bottom line is that the politics are getting scrambled, they're wide open, it's very dynamic. The demographic change in the United States is affecting this. What we're seeing in the polling is that younger republicans are much more concerned about climate than older republicans. And there's an old saying in politics that progress follows the hearse and there may be some wisdom to that. That is as the older generation dies off and you get a more open-minded, open-thinking ... We've seen this on a number of social issues, right, like gay marriage and so forth. That is a demographic trend that can be observed. You see republicans begin to get a bit nervous about being characterized as a climate denier.
Jason Jacobs: Well, given that last monologue one question that immediately comes to mind, especially since you've been at this a while, is what do you think of the term environmentalist?
Armond Cohen: I don't think it's a bad term. I think that ... That's going to require a long answer. There's nothing wrong with the term itself. The connotations I think it has acquired over the years is an environmentalist is someone who has absolutely no concern for the economy or for people's well-being. All you care about is birds and trees and the air quality and so forth. I'm not going to deny that I'm an environmentalist in the sense that I spend my professional days working on these issues. But I think the notion or perhaps the negative connotation that an environmentalist is someone who basically doesn't care about human welfare beyond a clean environment and favors nature over people.
Armond Cohen: And some people have gone as far to say that the environmental movement is an anti-human movement because it doesn't care about bringing people out of poverty. There's certainly a wing of the environmental movement that you could characterize as being anti-growth to an extreme but that's not all environmentalists or most environmentalists. I will proudly wear the badge with a caveat, which is I'm an environmentalist who is both pragmatic and realizes that the part of the world, the 90% of the world that isn't living at North American living standards or European living standards is going to come up or should come up close to European living standards. That's going to require a lot more energy.
Armond Cohen: I don't think that assuming that we're going to solve our environmental problems through denying people access to modern life is an appropriate stance. I'll just leave it at that and say that I'm an environmentalist with a caveat.
Jason Jacobs: To press on that for a minute when I think of environmentalist I also think of anti-technology, anti-genetically modified food, for example, or some things that actually, if you look with a pragmatist view, you could argue we're going to need to help us out of this existential threat to the viability of life on this planet. In some ways I've heard people say that environmentalists are actually holding us back from solving the carbon problem in some ways.
Armond Cohen: There's certainly that critique but I don't think it's fair to say that all environmentalists hold that view, whether it's GMO's or on energy forms. In the energy climate space in particular I spend a lot of my time talking to colleagues and sharing analysis that we've done. I would say that maybe five or six years ago you might have found if you pulled the average environmental staffer in a US environmental NGO, you would find them saying, "Well, yeah, I'm pretty much convinced we can do 100% renewables. Wind, solar and battery should do it and we're done, and therefore I'm going to oppose anything else."
Armond Cohen: I think that view has shifted substantially. Maybe not all publicly but you have more groups that are beginning to understand the depth of the problem and beginning to take a more nuance position of the technological solution pathways. I think that's progress and environmentalism just like conservatism isn't one thing. There are many shades of green and I think that that's a healthy thing. I welcome being challenged from people on the left and the right, so to speak, if that term even applies here. And I think the critiques are good. Unlimited growth is maybe not so wise either.
Armond Cohen: The debate seems to be settling down to a more pragmatic program and I find that it's increasingly ... Perhaps the very urgency of the climate problem is driving people to the point of saying, "We really don't have a lot time to mess around with arguing about this or that technology. We're pretty much going to have to do it all or at least try it all. And some will fail and some will succeed." Last year after a plateauing of global carbon emissions the world jiggered up a percent or two in terms of annual rate. This ain't slowing down, so I think when you're faced with those kinds of numbers and those kinds of curves your ability to be extremely picky and selective about your solution set, I think, becomes less and less tenable. I think these points of difference are narrowing as the urgency becomes more obvious.
Jason Jacobs: Does that include geo-engineering?
Armond Cohen: I think there's an increased openness to that discussion as well. I think we're still in early stages. Even on that point, there is an ideological position that says we don't mess with the climate system whatsoever on any basis and that is just absolutely forbidden. I will say that there are two versions of that position and one of which is more, I guess, fact based than the other. The fact based version is, "We don't understand the climate system well enough to intervene in a matter that wouldn't create worse problems." And that's a technical modeling or if you want to say more of a question of fact or knowledge. There's another position which it says, just on a philosophical basis, "We've messed up the environment enough and further interventions are just morally unjustified."
Armond Cohen: I think the problem with that position is that like it or not we've already messed up the system pretty much. There's a huge human footprint on the existing climate system, so you really can't take the position not to intervene on a pure basis. Stewart Brand has a couple of quotes on this. More recently he said, "We are as God, we might as well get good at it." And I think by that he meant that fundamentally our footprint on the global natural system is so large that we are effectively in control of the planet's very chemistry and biological systems, so we really can't take the position that non-intervention is a position unless you just want to wipe out all human beings on the planet.
Armond Cohen: It's a very tough question for people to deal with. Do we know enough to intervene? My own view is that we have a lot of work to do on mitigation and we should be experimenting with small scale interventions to see if they have unintended consequences or not. The problem that is pointed out ... And this may be an unsolvable problem, is that we really won't know the impact of a full scale geo-engineering program until we do it because local limited experiments won't give us that kind of information feedback. I understand that point, too. The other argument is ultimately that if things get bad enough countries will start to do this, so we might as well figure out how to govern the research and create the infrastructure to manage this process.
Armond Cohen: Very, very tough issue. Much tougher than mitigation through alternative energy I would say. Something to watch. Not something that we particularly work on.
Jason Jacobs: At some point I'm going to have David Keith come on the show to talk about it. Getting close to wrapping up but one question I've been asking every guest is if you had a hundred billion dollars and you could put it towards anything to maximize its impact on decarbonization, where would you put it, how would you allocate it?
Armond Cohen: I would say I'd put a portion of it into advocacy. That's going to sound self-interested but there are a number of organizations that are trying to move the ball on this issue towards a more technology based approach. I think a small amount of money invested in shaping the global policies in that direction would be very, very healthy. But the bulk of the money I would really put into research development and demonstration of, I would say, three general families of technology, maybe four. One would be advanced renewables and by that I mean things like deep hot rock geothermal, which has enormous potential but really has not been explored. I would do something on advanced nuclear fusion and fission.
Armond Cohen: I would try and push the envelope there, would really speed up the carbon capture and storage using fossil fuels. And then finally I would really focus on low cost hydrogen production. I think those four things, if they could pan out, would probably give us traction on about 90% of the energy problem. If those things could be brought into cost competitive range with gas fired power plants, let's say, or gas, or coal being put into industrial boilers. If we could produce energy at something like with in spitting distance of fossil, unscrubbed fossil fuel cost, the ball would start rolling downhill instead of uphill.
Armond Cohen: Those would be my four picks and then a little bit on the advocacy to move that because those things won't move on their own.
Jason Jacobs: Last question, a good chunk of our listeners, not all, but a good chunk of them are people like me. They're people maybe a little further along in their careers who are concerned about the planet but not really mobilized yet and increasingly at odds because the problem is weighing on them more and more but they don't really understand the issue, or how to help or where to start. For those people, specifically, what advice do you have for them?
Armond Cohen: Educate yourself as much as you can on the issues. Try and read widely. Look for organizations, and I certainly see ATF isn't the only one but look at organizations that are trying to analyze the problem at scale and push on solutions, finding leverage points. You can't, I think as an activist or as a consumer, your role is limited. I think looking at your own consumption patterns certainly makes sense but as I always say to people who are philanthropists or people who are wealthy or maybe not so wealthy and they ask me what I can do and should I drive less and should I fly less and should I recycle and should I not eat meat? I say absolutely, those are things to look at but fundamentally this equation's going to be driven by growth in the developing world.
Armond Cohen: And it's basically what happens in Indonesia, and Nigeria, Ghana and Latin America that's going to matter. Europe and the US are something like 40% of total global energy consumption. We're probably going to be at around 30% in 15 or 20 years. The technology ... And you can't assume that Ghanians or Indonesians want to live in poverty for the rest of their lives. I'd say look for people who are focusing on systemic solutions and I think some of those are going to be technological in nature, as we've discussed. It's complicated and it's not very sexy. It's nice to say, "I've got a solar panel on my roof," but is that really going to change the trajectory? At a very small scale it is.
Armond Cohen: I'd say think about it, read, think about systemic solutions, support the organizations and the politicians and the companies, if you want to make direct investments, look for investments in companies that really are looking at technologies that can scale and bend the curve. Again, I'm not going to say that you shouldn't invest in small scale solutions and there are places where those are entirely appropriate but if you really want to make a big dent in a big problem, you got to look for the leverage points. As an investor, as someone who's a philanthropist, or as a voter, I think you have to ask yourself, "Where are the real leverage points for system change?" And then put your money and your time into those.
Jason Jacobs: Great. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show, Armond. You've been a great guest.
Armond Cohen: All right. Thank you, Jason. Appreciate it.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone. Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co. Note that is .co, not .com. Someday we'll get the .com but right now, .co. You can also find me on Twitter at @jjacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. And before I let you go if you enjoyed the show please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.