Jonathan Koomey’s new book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs, offers a concise, compelling analysis of why innovative entrepreneurial approaches are needed in order to limit global climate change, and to improve the quality of life while doing so.  Koomey’s analysis has more integrity than those who promote energy alternatives while evading the daunting constraints that follow from climate science, and opens into a creative and integrative way of thinking about paths forward.  Highly recommended.

Jonathan Koomey, Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs (Burlingame, CA: Analytics Press, 2012)

See Koomey’s blog for a forthcoming series of posts on key ideas from the book.

Cold Cash, Cool Climate is intended primarily for entrepreneurial innovators looking for opportunities to start companies, not primarily for the science community, policy advocates, and policymakers.  Its scope and intended audience is a bit different from our usual beat at Climate Science Watch.  But I see in this book much that is on target in terms of our concern for connecting climate research with policymaking, advocacy, and action.

Chapter 1 lays out the basic argument and approach of the book.  “Why focus on entrepreneurs?” Koomey asks.  Government bureaucracies, big business, and academia are institutionally conservative.  But “if we are to stabilize the earth’s climate, it is rapid change that we need, and not just rapid technological change. We also need people and institutions to alter their behavior, and to do so in short order.” The people most comfortable with this are “those who carry the entrepreneurial spirit.”

Koomey provides a strong, science-based rationale for the need for rapid change to limit global climatic disruption. The power elite in Washington is failing to act with anything like the needed sense of urgency.  Throughout, Koomey ties the needed changes, including a fundamental transformation of the energy system, to the problem of climate change – the science of climate change, the reality of climate change, the implications of climate change. The need to reduce carbon emissions, to limit atmospheric concentrations, to limit global warming, is the fundamental driver of the need for rapid technological, institutional, and behavioral change.  I’m happy to see an analysis with this framing that does not cop out by trying to disconnect the push for clean energy from an explicit focus on climate disruption as a driver.  And, as Koomey shows, the findings of climate science do much to frame and constrain the problem of developing solutions to limit climatic disruption.

Koomey argues that there is not going to be – and that we should not be aiming in the direction of – some single technological fix, e.g., a big new clean energy technology or geoengineering solution.  Koomey says we should be seeking, not another Manhattan Project type of solution, but rather a “broad social mobilization,” moving on many fronts, from science and engineering education, R&D of many kinds of potential advances, immediate steps to make innovative changes using existing technologies and available practices, and policy reforms to support innovation and drive reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases.

Koomey argues that, using existing technologies, we should take immediate actions that enable learning quickly what works and what doesn’t.  Breakthrough technologies that have not been developed yet will be needed in a few decades, but they won’t make a significant contribution for a long time. In the meantime, what we learn from a serious consideration of climate science is that we can’t delay starting on an immediate course of dramatic emissions reductions.

We need near-term reductions – both because climate science informs us that reductions are urgent, and because experimentation will tell us which paths are likely to be the most promising. In other words, Koomey argues, the needed solutions are path-dependent. They are iterative; we learn and innovate as we go along.

Koomey argues that, if we can create an experimental, problem-solving policy and societal context, opportunities for business ventures will abound.  Not just large-scale, big energy corporation solutions,, but also many smaller ventures, with many successes – no one of which ‘solves’ the problem.  This path may also have many failures, but no one of these will imperil the whole enterprise, because each endeavor is of modest size. This approach is appropriate for an evolutionary society seeking path-dependent solutions.  The choices we make now affect the options we will have later.  The paths we choose create opportunities that probably could not have been foreseen.

These choices are not only technological; really, they are about something more fundamental than energy technology per se.  They are not only about business profit and loss.  Rather, they require visioning, imagining, questioning: “How do we want our lives to be?” and “What kind of world do we want?”  There’s a normative framework for the paths we choose.  There are many options for whether and how we deal proactively with global climatic disruption.  Which choices we make will reflect, and reveal, our core values as a society.

In a concise, lucid, nontechnical primer on the core findings of the science of the physical climate system, Koomey identifies the scope and depth of the problem we face and thereby lays a predicate for his subsequent “what is to be done” discussion.  His chapter, “Where We’re Headed,” covers the ground from greenhouse gases and radiative forcing, to historical global emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels and changes in land use, CO2 concentrations over the last 400,000 years, global temperatures over the last 1,500 years from paleoclimate proxy reconstructions, declining sea ice extent, rising sea level, increasing area subject to precipitation extremes, sensitivity of the climate to changes in GHG concentrations, drivers of emissions, historical and projected carbon emissions, projected emissions relative to the estimated fossil fuel resource base, projected increases in atmospheric concentrations, the long persistence of GHGs in the atmosphere, current trends implying at least two doublings of GHG concentration above the preindustrial level by the end of the 21st century with no end in sight, projections of dramatic temperature increases globally, potentially enhanced by even greater forcing from various feedbacks in the Earth system, and how ‘loading the dice’ makes extreme temperatures more likely and the extremes more extreme.

In short:  “The current trajectory for greenhouse gas emissions would increase substantially the risk of dangerous, irreversible, and, probably catastrophic changes in the global life support systems on which we all depend.”

“So What Do We Do Now?” he asks.

Rejecting various conventional ways to think about the future, Koomey argues that the best alternative is to “set a long-term goal and estimate what it would take to get there,” without undermining innovative thinking by being “obsessed with what is possible politically or practically” in the current context.  “Working toward our goals allows us to create the future,” and there are many ways to do so.  (He gives as one example the steadily expanding estimates of how much variable power supply, e.g., wind and solar PV, can be effectively integrated into the grid.)

In the context of climate change, Koomey says working toward a goal calls for setting a global warming target, say 2o Celsius.  2o C is the highest the global temperature has been during the past 2 million years.  We could argue for a lower goal, Koomey says, but there is no strong argument for setting a higher temperature goal, if it can be avoided.

Warming will be a function of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and other GHGs, which in turn will be a function of cumulative emissions. This implies the need to establish a cumulative greenhouse gas budget, and to get global emissions on a trajectory to stay within this budget over the long run.  Koomey lays out an analysis that concludes that we have already overshot the allowable concentration of 444 ppm CO2-equivalent (all GHGs expresssed in terms of CO2 radiative forcing). The CO2-equivalent concentration as of 2010 was about 471 ppm.  Thus, to meet a goal of keeping global warming under 2o C, we must get the atmospheric concentration down from where it is now – notwithstanding that our current trajectory has the concentration on a steadily upward course.  We can start down the right path by rapidly reducing black carbon and the shorter-lived gases, even if CO2 reductions take longer to kick in.

To have a two-thirds chance of staying under the 2-degree warming limit we’d need to reduce cumulative carbon emissions about 7% per year (compounded) during the next 30 years – starting at a lower rate of reduction and ramping up over time. And with every year of delay, with every year on the world’s current trajectory, the goal becomes ever more difficult to reach.

Now that is a tall order indeed.

“But the science is very clear and the logic of emissions budgets is inexorable. … Our GHG budget is almost overspent. If the climate sensitivity is really 3 Celsius degrees (as multiple lines of evidence strongly indicate), we will need to start aggressive emissions reductions immediately if we want a strong chance of limiting warming to 2 Celsius degrees, focusing on both the short-lived GHGs like methane, black carbon, and tropospheric ozone as well as the longer-lived ones like CO2 and N2O.

This is an essential insight that follows from Koomey’s analysis of climate change and drives his diagnosis of “what do we do now”:

“Delaying emissions reductions makes our situation worse, not better, because we lock in carbon-intensive capital stocks and use up the budget.  [The carbon] “budget strongly constrains what is possible, and once you acknowledge that the climate system depends on cumulative emissions, the argument for delaying action simply collapses. … [T]he International Energy Agency stated clearly in 2009 that each year of delay adds another $500B to the cost of achieving climate stabilization.  Delay is simply foolish and irresponsible, and those arguing for it should be ashamed of their faulty logic.

“If energy technologies improved as fast as computer technologies there might be an argument for waiting in some cases, but they don’t. … That’s why those who minimize the need for immediate action in preference for research and development (R&D) on new breakthrough technologies are making a grave error in logic.” We have a responsibility to take immediate action, and “there are huge opportunities for emissions reductions using technologies now ‘on the shelf’.  Cost reductions in new technologies generally result from learning effects that occur during deployment, not because of R&D breakthroughs, and these can drastically reduce the estimated costs of reducing emissions.”

In order to reach the 2-degree warming goal and remain within the cumulative carbon emissions budget, we need a “rapid phaseout of fossil fuels (as well as other sources of GHGs).”  So rapid that “we can’t even burn the currently existing stock of proved fossil fuel reserves. … We’ll need to keep a significant fraction of our proved reserves from being burned, or we’ll need to figure out a way to sequester their carbon in a safe way…”

Koomey includes insightful discussions of several topics, including“Why We Can’t Accurately Forecast the Future,” “The Scope of the Problem,” and “Talking to Skeptics.”  And I would call your attention especially to his longest chapter, “Looking for Opportunities.”

“Looking for Opportunities” contains a rich discussion, aimed at entrepreneurial innovators, that combines the analysis of working toward a warming-limit goal with the concept of whole systems integrated design. Where to look for emission reductions.  The use of information and communication technology to improve business practices. The use of scenario analysis.  Issues that surround the scale-up of renewable energy technologies.  Thinking beyond conventional modes about how to make something happen.  Whole systems integrated design, an approach championed by Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute, as a key to game-changing innovation.  “Focusing on the tasks we want to accomplish and associating those tasks with flows of energy, emissions, and costs.”  And onward from there.  This is a discussion, central to Koomey’s analysis and worldview, that I can hardly begin to do justice to here.

“Each entrepreneur’s process for finding an evaluating opportunities is a personal one,” Koomey concludes,  “but creative applications of working forward toward a goal, whole systems integrated design, and creative use of information and communication technology can lead to a radical transformation of how we accomplish tasks while emitting vastly less pollution and saving money at the same time.”

Our reading of the book leaves us with a number of questions for the author, and we look forward to some follow-up discussion.

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About the Author

Jonathan Koomey, Ph.D., understands the climate issue as only an entrepreneurial scientist can. He’s been part of the climate debate for more than two decades, as a scientist at one of the nation’s foremost research labs, as a Consulting Professor at Stanford University, and as a visiting professor at Stanford University (2004-5 and 2008), Yale University (2009), and most recently at the University of California at Berkeley (2011). He is the author or coauthor of more than 150 articles and reports, as well as nine books, including the first comprehensive analysis of the implications of a 2-degree warming limit in 1989 (twenty years before the G8 nations accepted this normative target). He has been a technical advisor to half a dozen startup companies, and was a judge and advisor for the 2005 California Clean Tech Open.