To start off, I have to say, I love the AAAS conference. There are so many interesting panels, that each hour I have to choose between at least two really intriguing topics. Today, my decision was the toughest yet. Between Facing the Uncertain Future of International Science Journalism and Societal Strategies for Addressing the Climate and Energy Challenge, I went with energy, all the while worried about the cool stuff I was missing in the science journalism symposium. But I don’t regret it, because it is hard to imagine learning more in three hours than I did today at the energy and climate symposium. (However, with the knowledge I gained in the energy/climate change symposium came a more than healthy dose of sobering realism about the magnitude of the problem and the weaknesses of the current solutions. Oi. But just because the problem seems insurmountable doesn’t give anyone the right to quit trying.)
Edwin Rubin of Carnegie Mellon gave us the skinny on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). The reasons he gave for investing in CCS were three-fold: 1) achieving climate change mitigation goals will require very large reductions; 2) coal and natural gas powerplants provide 40% of CO2 and 70% of US energy and CCS is the only way to reduce the carbon emissions of these energy sources that we so heavily rely upon: 3) mitigation strategies that do not include CCS are too expensive. (On a side note, most of the CO2 captured from power plants these days is sold and used to carbonate soda!) Among other things the hurdles of CCS were addressed briefly including the costs of CCS (which Rubin describes as more expensive, but also more efficient than other options), the lack of a regulatory framework, legal uncertainties (including subsurface property rights), public opinion, risks and liability after a site is closed. To address some of these issues, Obama assigned a CCS Interagency Task Force. Rubin finished by saying that CCS will not be employed or developed without market and policy incentives to drive it. Next, Richard Sears of MIT and formerly of Shell spoke about the role of natural gas as a stepping stone solution. Bottom line, there’s plenty of natural gas to go around. The issue is not running out of natural gas, but the consequences of releasing CO2 by burning it. Although natural gas is less carbon intensive than coal it is still a carbon based energy source, which brings me to the next speaker, Nathan Lewis of Cal Tech. Our global target must be to get to zero emissions. Lewis says that considering the consequences, this is the only serious goal we can set, everything else is not even close to sufficient. I hate to reduce his talk to a few sentences, because there was a lot there, but his main points were that every renewable energy source we currently have is not sufficient or efficient enough to get the job done. (You can google his website at Cal Tech to get the details.) He said that nuclear fission, crystalline Si solar panels, and solar thermal technologies were good stepping stones to a zero emission world, but could not take us all the way (mostly due to the inability to scale up). Lewis’ hopes for the future lie in more direct use of the energy of the sun, a goal of his own research, but he admits that the technology is not even close to development. Once, again, I say oi. Depressing. Margaret Taylor of UC Berkeley used past examples of cap and trade systems (either for regional CO2, or other pollutants like SO2) to test the feasibility of a larger-scale cap and trade program in the US. She asked if the programs were successful, and if they fueled innovation in technologies (measured by patent numbers) to reduce CO2 emissions. It turns out that both of these issues are very tightly influenced by the price of the “allowances” set by the market and by the ability to “bank” one’s allowances to be used in the future. It seems like cap and trade is stuck between a rock and a hard place—it’s not politically feasible to create a cap and trade program if it costs too much for emitters, but if it costs too little, there’s not enough pressure or incentive to not emit. Allowance prices need to be flexible over the life of the cap and trade program to be effective. Despite these challenges, Taylor describes cap and trade as politically feasible and (I think) she thinks it has a place as part of the solution if it is implemented properly. I don’t have the mental energy to describe the next two talks, but one was about fusion energy, the other about geoengineering. It’s too late to properly open those cans of worms…
I hope to write about the other symposium I attended today called Learning Science In Informal Environments another day.
Andy and I also attended the plenary lecture by Eric Lander, accomplished geneticist and Co-Chair of PCAST (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology) who spoke about Science and Technology in the First Year of the New Administration. He spoke of Obama’s activities to support science in the past year and “restore science to its rightful place.”