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1. Ethical Criteria for the Selection of Climate Mitigation Policy and Technologies

Introduction: The Tool of Rule-Based Ethics

When faced with the unknown or disorder, people often search for patterns and rules to guide them through the chaos.  After Copenhagen, there is an intensified need to discover rules that will guide future policy proposals, negotiations, and meetings.  These may be new rules or the rediscovery of versions of older rules.

While ethical standards lie at the heart of what many of us consider our moral or ethical selves, there has been a move away, in academic and political discourse, from secular, post-Enlightenment rule-based ethics for a variety of reasons too diverse to go into here.  The embrace of rule-based ethics still lives on in religious culture and in the religion-inspired political sphere, fundamentalist segments of which have in the last half-century generally defined themselves in opposition to scientific and Enlightenment-based value systems.  It is unusual to talk about rule-based ethics as a “tool” because among other associations with the word, the most famous and influential rule-based ethicist of the last three centuries, Immanuel Kant, warned against treating other people as merely tools for our own ends.  However, looking at human beings anthropologically, rule-based ethics are all around us and we use them as a means to make decisions all the time often in the face of uncertainty (e.g. “do unto others, as you would have done unto you”, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much”, etc.).

Adherence to a rule-based ethics of some kind, encoded in laws or informal rules, is integral to maintaining social groups and commerce by restraining our less benign and destructive impulses.  A public exploration of rule-based ethics has critical relevance specifically to climate policy as, beyond our need for a general morality, without ethical tools we will be unable to restrain ourselves or others from despoiling the planet through fossil fuel use.  An ethics based completely on convenience, contingency and post-hoc assessments of net happiness/pain avoidance (consequentialism) will eventually lose sight of the interests of other people whom we do not know, but whose choices increasingly affect us as our choices affect them.

The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word for habit or custom.  While the new challenges of climate change require some new habits and customs, determining what those customs will be involves reference to what we already know about the world and about human beings.  Totally abandoning existing rules when confronted with new situations is a formula for getting permanently lost.

Also there are formidable economic, political, and technological complexities involved in climate and energy policy which can easily become over-complicated and obscure what is actually going on.  The policy tools themselves can create a veil around themselves (a criticism I have made of cap and trade) forming a cult of insiders who risk alienating and disenfranchising the larger population from climate policy as well as losing sight of the purpose of what they are doing or of better alternatives.  If there are some rules that will simplify or at least guide policy through its own complexity, that might very well be a “good thing” in itself.  Ideally such rules will open actors within policy and technology choice to the fullness and complexity of the data while keeping the bigger picture in focus.

Donald Brown and the Climate Ethics Center have done great work in keeping our focus on the ethical dimension of climate policy.  Too often, the results of conventional economic analyses or conventional environmental economics are used as the final decision making criteria for choices which have vast and far-reaching consequences for all humanity.  Meanwhile the economic models upon which those decisions are based are focused mainly on present and very near future concerns. A rule- and duty-based ethics may play an important role in shining a light through or re-structuring the murk of narrowly-focused economic analyses, arcane bureaucratic, technical, and deal-making verbiage.

4th Set of Criteria:  Applying Ethical Rules to the Selection of Means to Mitigate GHGs

Applying Ethical Standards to Technology and Policy Choice

In Prof. Brown’s analysis of COP15 in Copenhagen, I feel that aspects of the ethics of climate change that concern me and, it seems, many others are not included in this particular analysis.  I would like to propose three additional sets of criteria to help guide climate policy discussions and actions going forward.  In this piece, Brown has focused on three sets of criteria that should be used to judge the Copenhagen and climate policy in general:

1) Environmental Sufficiency Criteria – Are emissions reductions targets sufficient to have the desired effect on reducing harm from GHG emissions?

2) Equity Criteria – Are benefits and costs equitably distributed throughout the world?

3)      Just Adaptation Criteria – Are the effected parties from emissions past, present and future being offered sufficient means to adapt to new circumstances and/or compensation for damages?

If I could make a general characterization of the focus of these three criteria, I would say that they are focused on just and adequate goals for policy but not on the means to achieving those goals.  My focus over the past few years has been focusing on HOW we can achieve adequate goals and I believe ethics is a vital tool in choosing these means.  Furthermore, applying rule-based ethics to issues of total financial cost will also add clarity to discussions of the amount of investment in these means.  Finally, I belief re-stating what are ethically justified rules for communication and representation of fact and intention is important in establishing a framework for future negotiations and analyses of the effectiveness of present and future efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

If we apply ethical principles only to the goals of climate policy, there is the danger that all climate ethics will be treated as a “non-realistic” contribution to the combined discourse on climate policy and climate action.  It is fairly easy to hold other people, especially leaders with a lot of responsibility, to high standards and not provide them with means to achieve those goals, or at least a methodology for discovering those means.  Thus the “voice” of climate ethics will be strengthened if we discover what it has to say about the methods of achieving the laudable goals that most people would agree are right and just; differences of opinion tend to emerge when people assess whether these goals are considered realizable or not and if so by what means.  Easy virtue is, after all, easy.

Feedback of the Means upon the Ends

There are also dangers in focusing on means alone, which can lead then to trimming short-term and intermediate targets to fit the means available.  The means, if present and at hand, are “here and now” and the (ultimate) goals are distant and difficult to visualize.   The saying “when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail” expresses some of the difficulty associated with settling on a tool with little regard for ultimate purposes of using it.

One of the downfalls of the current process nationally in the US and internationally may be that the choice of means has been dictating near and middle term goals.  Cap and trade seems to offer a seductive way by which one can have a “one-stop” shop where means and ends are neatly wrapped together.  As it turns out, as I have written elsewhere, the linkage between target setting and real economic mechanisms for cutting emissions in cap and trade is so loose and easily corrupted that it undermines the effectiveness of the policy.  Also, targets with any ambition would only be met by means that are not the central “selling point” of cap and trade, particularly arbitrary and economically-damaging administrative measures.

While the inadequate goal-setting in Copenhagen cannot be entirely blamed on the Kyoto process or the assumption that cap and trade would be the instrument that emerges post-Kyoto, the structure of cap and trade which pretends to be a comprehensive means-ends solution to climate has created a process where assumptions are made that means and ends will come packaged together.  Furthermore cap and trade, as has now been documented in so many instances, uses easily corruptible assumptions about how markets will produce optimal outcomes.

Unbundling Means and Ends

As the seemingly neat bundle of means and ends within cap and trade doesn’t really work, this opens us up to a climate policy with a structure where multiple means may be applied to achieve the necessary goals and these means will need to be calibrated to achieve those goals.  This requires more thought and attention paid by policymakers and politicians. The assessment of means will need to take place within which criteria are used to evaluate those tools.  Furthermore, calibrating means (tools) to achieve ends will involve a consciously iterative process by which methods are assessed, applied and their outcomes are measured, starting with the most likely and powerful tools. This entails a different mental discipline than that associated with devoting oneself to one “portmanteau” tool.

Therefore, if the means (tools) discussion is not foreclosed, formulating ethical rules that can guide that discussion will be of help in selecting tools that can get us closer to distant goals and help achieve near term goals.

4) Deployment of Appropriate, Material and Effective Means Criteria

a. Policy Tools

b. Technology and Physical Processes

One of the most puzzling aspects of climate policy and action to date is the degree to which proposals do not rest on a detailed and more or less scientific understanding of the best technological, process management tools, and social science tools available to achieve emissions reduction goals.  There has been a confusion or at least a blurring between what is virtual, abstract and speculative and what is concrete, available, and virtually certain to cut emissions.  Often conclusions are drawn based on or “triangulated with” what are assumed to be the opinions of peers or of powerful interest groups.   If these opinions do not have a substantive basis, then the selected tools are near worthless.

This blurring between high-probability and low-probability solutions with regard to actual policy effectiveness has a substantial political dimension which we can now ill afford.  There are many political actors who are only too happy with business as usual, so we arrive at a damaged, half-way understanding of the process of actually achieving climate goals.  By accepting at the outset 15 years ago third-best solutions to the climate crisis, there is little wonder that we arrive at unsatisfactory outcomes like that at Copenhagen.

I am proposing to name the ethical criteria for carbon policy and technology “criteria for deployment of appropriate, material and effective means”.  The word “appropriate” has its usual meaning of “fitting” or “apt”.  It does not necessarily mean “appropriate” in the sense used by the “appropriate technology” movement, which tends to mean “small” and “local”.  I am using the unusual word “material” to mean “real, integral and not speculative or arbitrary” and available for deployment within a 5 year timeframe.  It is meant to have both the connotation of “concrete” and also, from the legal system and accounting, the connotation of “integral” and “necessary”.   Other wordings are possible; my intention is to exclude from consideration at this time those policy and technology proposals that are based on low likelihoods of achieving the goals of climate policy, where “low likelihood” is an approximate 50% probability or less.  I am applying the word “effective” as well though with some trepidation as it is overused; I would have preferred to use “efficacious” or “effectual” but they sound too fancy.

(Provisional) Statement of Ethical Rules Regarding Means:

  1. “Appropriate” –  A technology or policy is appropriate if it addresses the domain of action in which it is supposed to have an effect.
    1. The negative “not appropriate” – a technology or policy is not appropriate if it addresses domains other than the one or more in which it was supposed to have an effect.
  2. “Material” – A technology or policy is material if it is integral to the reduction of emissions, exists as of the present moment or can be brought with 100% certainty into existence within a 5 year period.
    1. The negative – “not material” – A technology or policy that is not yet in existence in implementation, in prototype or as an example to be studied OR is not integral to the emissions reductions process OR introduces superfluous elements into the emissions reduction process.  Predictions that a technology or policy will emerge in 10 or 20 years time make it “not material”.
    2. Modifier “Critical” – A technology for which there is no substitute or none of equivalent quality is “critical” for emissions reductions.
  3. “Effective” emissions cuts can be defined as those cuts that serve the criteria class #1 “Environmental Sufficiency”.  In specific contexts, arguments over what “effective” is will be important in choosing between a zero-emissions technology framework or a “low” emissions technology framework.
    1. The negative – “not effective” – A technology or policy that leads to reductions that are not environmentally sufficient.
  4. “Deployment” – It is an ethical imperative to seek out and deploy at this point in time with 90% of allotted resources tools that are material and effective.
    1. The negative – “not deployed” or “not in deployment” or “not in consideration for deployment” – the failure to consider, to fully evaluate, and to deploy appropriate, material and effective means to achieve environmentally sufficient and just ends.

A. Examples – Policy Tools

Example 1: Deployment of Appropriate, Material and Effective Means Criteria – Permit Markets for Carbon Price Setting

In a recent piece, I used the word “unserious” to describe the cap and trade instrument because it contained within it too much in the way of scientific (and in most iterations, financial) speculation regarding how one could encourage low- and zero-carbon investment.  Another way to describe its unseriousness is by reference to probabilities and the insertion of unnecessary random elements into policy: the policy leaves to setting of the carbon price, the motive force for investment in lower carbon solutions, to chance.  The carbon market as proposed in most carbon trading schemes is not directly “material” to investment decision making:  the carbon price level is a byproduct of another process (trading and market demand for permits) that is not germane to the process of lowering atmospheric concentrations of GHGs.  The outcomes then are dips (or peaks) in the carbon price such as that now experienced in the EU-ETS, which discourage investment at a time where it is needed.

Conclusion: The deployment of a market mechanism via permit trading for the setting of a carbon price is not an appropriate, material and effective use of a market mechanism.

Example 2:  Deployment of Appropriate, Material and Effective Means Criteria – Infrastructure Planning Mechanisms

Not only can one apply these ethical criteria to errors of commission but also errors of omission.  If leaders or thought leaders can be reasonably assumed to know about tools that can help cut emissions but pass them over or do not seriously evaluate them, this can be just as grievous a mistake as botching a policy that has already been chosen.

We know, for instance, that carbon mitigation over the long haul involves either, in the developed world, reconfiguring existing infrastructure or in the developing world, planning for new infrastructure that has a zero-carbon emissions potential.  In the history of the building of infrastructure (and Adam Smith is with us on this) government planning and management plays a key role in providing these public goods.  To rely on market mechanisms and price signals alone is a form of political “malpractice”, despite the importance of getting those policy mechanisms right (see above).

The avoidance of discussions of planning on national scales as well as on a global scale is one element that has had an unfortunate political dimension which inhibits rational approaches to the climate problem.  After the collapse of Soviet Communism with its centrally planned economy, it has been assumed that the “best” economic system is a minimally regulated capitalist market economy that eschews planning (in development economics sometimes called “the Washington Consensus”).  Planning and markets have been cast as being antithetical to each other.  However the mitigation of carbon emissions and adaptation to climate change each involve or imply massive infrastructure change, much of which is impossible without the involvement of government as at least as a planning instance if not the primary funder of these public goods.

The involvement of planning as an aid to carbon mitigation is obvious when we look at events in China over the past few years.  While China has by no means the greenest economy, it is safe to say that the rate of change in orientation of that society towards enabling future emissions reductions has been staggeringly quick in the last few years.  The building of electric rail, renewable energy facilities and manufacturing capacity all point to the role of the Chinese government in helping plan and invest in infrastructure that pushes China towards lower carbon intensivity in the future.  At the same time, unfortunately, China is also pushing ahead with new coal fired power plants which are testament to the energy hunger of the Chinese economy.

I am not holding up China as necessarily an exemplar of climate virtue, only that the greener portions of China’s economic development have been planned.  China’s readiness to use planning in combination with a market economy contrasts sharply with at least the current American economic ideal of a government that does very little planning in apparent deference to a market that was supposed to obviate the need for planning.

Conclusion: The deployment of government planning to realize mandates to cut emissions is an appropriate, material and effective means to enable the reduction of carbon emissions, especially in the area of public goods and infrastructure.  These means should become the focus of international cooperation where appropriate.  Overlooking or downplaying the importance of planning as a central part of climate policy is a profound ethical lapse for leaders at this time in history, despite facing a political consensus that devalues planning.

B. Technology and Physical Processes

“Appropriate, material and effective” applied to technology or physical processes in the context of climate policy means that:

i)   the technology (or process) is available now or will be available within the space of 2 to 3 years.  The more distant the availability of the technology, the LESS valuable that technology would be along this dimension.

ii)  the technology replaces an emitting or an inefficient energy-using technology or enables the use of such technologies as a direct effect of its deployment.

The point is that all relevant presently available technologies and solutions with substantial effects should be known to policymakers and be at the forefront of their considerations for policy.  Some of this has to do with time constraints:  we don’t have much time to speculate on “maybe” technologies.  Another part of this has to do with creating an atmosphere of seriousness:  allowing advocates for what might be in the future to claim that their technologies or proposals are about to be realized clouds public discourse about technologies that are now available, though perhaps less glamorous or thrilling in their aspect.

Example 3:  Deployment of Appropriate, Material and Effective Means — Concentrating Solar Thermal Power with Thermal Energy Storage in North America

[Full disclosure:  I have provided paid consulting services to a company that develops this technology.]

Concentrating Solar Thermal Power with Thermal Energy Storage (CSP/CSTEP w TES) is a technology with an almost 100 year history of stops and starts in its development, due largely to competition with fossil fuels throughout the 20th Century.  CSTEP uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat a fluid which eventually is used to generate steam that turns a conventional steam turbine-generator.  Currently there are 5 CSP power plant clusters in operation and one of these clusters (3 power plants) has 7.5 hours of thermal storage; depending on design CSTEP power plants range in size from 5 MW to 250 MW, which in the higher end rivals the size of fossil fuel power plants.  In CSTEP power plants designed with a TES system, heat can be stored in a medium like molten salt, rock or concrete to time the generation of electricity according to demand with heat losses of 1% per day and roundtrip losses in efficiency of 10% for stored heat, relative to direct generation from directly captured solar heat.

That I feel the need to explain this technology to a general audience is in part a tribute to the degree to which political leaders and the climate policy community overlook it even in North America where it could most easily serve power markets starting in the US Southwest.  On federal and state levels in the US, renewable technologies with better political connections (solar photovoltaic and wind energy), nuclear power, and efforts to capture the emissions of coal power plants and store them underground have distracted from a technology that will cut emissions more quickly and surely than any other technology. Furthermore, we see among proposals generated for environmental uses of California’s desert an initiative by US Senator Dianne Feinstein that places this vital solution at a much lower priority than recreation and land preservation. While several CSP projects may get one-time support from the economic stimulus bill of 2009 and there is a commitment to study areas for solar development, the connection between climate policy and solar development, and therefore long-term sustainable development of the latter is not yet on the agenda.

The policy community then seems not to be addressing or fully accounting for the following advantages of CSP with storage.

  1. CSP/CSTEP with storage can produce power upon demand (a key advantage in supplying electricity which must be delivered instantaneously upon demand; most renewables must produce “on supply” of the primary energy.)
  2. Produces power that is 99% carbon emission free (current designs require natural gas auxiliary turbine warm up)
  3. Can replace fossil fueled power plant output on a one-for-one basis (most other renewables with the exception of geothermal and hydroelectric with reservoir require combination with other resources to replace fossil power plant output).
  4. Theoretically, CSTEP with TES could within a period of a decade through very rapid build-out reduce total US greenhouse gas emissions as much as 25-30% by reducing carbon emissions from the electric grid by 80%.
  5. Can be scaled to meet power demand within limits of what is appropriate for desert conservation. The technology’s components are not dependent upon rare materials or highly complex production processes.
  6. In a multi-factor analysis of environmental impacts and risks including land use, water use, toxics, net emissions per unit energy, local pollution, Jacobson (2009) found that CSTEP has the second highest environmental benefit to cost ratio of any proposed energy source, only exceeded in Jacobson’s framework by wind power.  Jacobson’s study focused on generation plus end-use replacements for oil-fueled transport. If we excluded the balancing effects of networked storage from battery electric vehicles assumed in Jacobson’s framework, CSTEP with TES would look still more favorable as a generation technology.
  7. With adequate transmission and land use planning plants can be permitted and built within 3 years as compared to nuclear plants that require as many as 20 years, while coal with CCS presents unknown complications.
  8. Renewable supergrid proposals that integrate Midwestern and offshore wind resources and Southwestern solar resources overlap and expand the community of interest in large scale renewable energy development to most of the United States.

The barriers to implementation of CSTEP with TES are not insignificant but pale in comparison to the threat of continued use of fossil power plants.  Each of these difficulties is surmountable via deployment of ancillary existing technologies, policy and persuasion rather than through wishful waiting and gambles on technical innovation that may not occur in a timely manner.

  1. Some of the areas with the most intense sunshine are located in habitats for endangered species.  Some tradeoffs will be required between uncompromising desert preservation and utilization of areas of the Southwestern states appropriate for power production (if all energy were produced via CSP…an unlikely outcome.).  There is no “perfect” solution that will satisfy all parties.
  2. CSP requires water for either cooling or with dry cooling, for washing mirrors.  CSP uses much less water per acre than irrigated agriculture.  If combating global warming is a priority, more of the fresh water resources of the Southwestern states would need to be devoted to power production and away from uses such as agriculture though still a fraction of available resources.
  3. The cost of CSP with storage is in the current generation around $.20/kWh which is just under twice the current price for a new combined cycle natural gas power but emits almost no carbon and has almost total price stability.  In subsequent generations this price will come down.  Current American power plant economics does not allow for the positive externalities of CSP with storage to be paid for except through feed in tariffs or other price premiums which contradict the mandate for the cheapest possible power.  Ratepayers and to some degree taxpayers as well do not make the connection between their payments for power and its positive externalities.
  4. Both privately held and publicly owned utilities in the United States are highly risk-averse and seek to squeeze value from current assets rather than embark on massive retooling programs that would provoke controversy with shareholders and public utilities commissions.  The interest of the population as a whole in a stable climate is not yet connected with the type of power for which these utilities contract.
  5. Current regulations seek to maximize the amount of renewable energy produced up to a quota (the RPS) without regard for the ability of that power to replace fossil fuels and reduce emissions.
  6. A multi-use regional planning process with CSP with storage and other renewable energy development in mind has yet to be entered into by all relevant parties.

Each of these hurdles to large-scale CSP with storage development are surmountable with sufficient effort; to do so requires a sophisticated understanding of the technology, the human, the economic, and the environmental issues.

While the United States is starting to develop a reputation in the world as a country with a seized-up political process, the particular type of logjam with regard to acting on climate solutions effects not only the US population but people throughout the world.  The failure to realize the carbon mitigation potential of the desert solar resource through CSTEP with TES development is an example of an ethical error of omission in overlooking the potential of this resource.

“Critical” sub-criterion

The label “appropriate, material and effective policies and technologies” implies that there may be a choice of a number of technologies or policies to achieve the same ends.  Adding a “critical” sub-criterion to “material” implies that there is no other choice to achieve emissions reductions goals or other choices add unnecessary risk to the achievement of those ends.  As there is perhaps one other technology that is rapidly deployable and has a low environmental impact yet serves power demand with less certainty than CSTEP with TES (a wind supergrid), CSTEP with TES should earn the additional attribute “critical”.  Building a wind supergrid might also earn the “critical” attribute if a prototype for it existed.

Conclusion: CSTEP with TES is for electric power generation in North America an appropriate, material and effective means to cut carbon emissions.  Furthermore given that there are within the next decade no foreseeable substitutes with similar certainty, rapid buildout of CSTEP with TES is a critical US national and global priority.

Example 4:  Deployment of Appropriate, Material and Effective Means – Passive House Technology in Heating- and Cooling-Dominant Climate Zones

Another technology that has developed a following but is underutilized is the passive building technology formalized by Wolfgang Feist of the University of Darmstadt and now installed in over 15,000 buildings throughout Europe.  Using superinsulation, passive heating and cooling and mechanical ventilation with an energy or heat recovery ventilator, these houses can either eliminate or reduce by 85% the space conditioning energy needs of buildings with smaller internal spaces.  Most new multi-unit dwellings could easily achieve the passive house standard with an estimated 10% increase in building cost.  Renovation of existing multi-family housing can achieve a passive house level of performance at a 25% overcost compared to a conventional renovation project.  The resulting building would after paying back the emissions associated with the renovation (a one to 3 year period) radically reduce overall emissions.

While achieving the passive house certification may be impractical for certain buildings or climate zones, the application of the technology is a progressive improvement in building envelope, building ventilation and, with pre-fabrication, construction methods that improves building energy performance markedly under most conditions.  By both increasing the tightness and insulation of buildings and simultaneously increasing the fresh-air flow through those buildings with minimal energy losses, passive house technology as a retrofit in most cases and in many new building projects, will enable reductions in energy use and emissions.

Current national standards for building, at least in North America, do not have the rigorous, technology-based standard which is the passive house standard.

Conclusion: Passive house technologies are appropriate, material and effective means to cut emissions in climates with existing high per square meter/foot energy use for heating and/or cooling.

Discussion: Applying Rule-Based Ethical Standards to Policy and Technological Means

My effort here is to show that a relatively simple set of rules can guide discussions and action in the area of policy and technology choice.  While I arrived at three abstract descriptors for good or better means to just and adequate ends, these descriptors are not necessarily the end-point for developing an easily applied set of rules to determine where to direct energies and attention.

If the use of these rules proves clarifying, I would hope policymakers, policy advisors, technology specialists, participants in the climate community and mitigation projects would take up these ideas and refine them, and optimally contribute their perspectives and efforts to the worldwide discussion on rule-based ethics as related to climate.

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