Cold Cash, Cool Climate

I’m no entrepreneur, but I enjoyed reading energy scientist Jonathan Koomey’s book Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs. It’s comforting to be reminded that not everything in the mitigation of climate change depends on governments, that there is a lively creativity abroad in the entrepreneurial world which can take up the challenge without waiting on the interminable processes of governmental negotiation or the rigidities of big business.

Koomey makes much of this. He records that in his experience it is those who carry the entrepreneurial spirit who are most comfortable with rapid change and least tolerant of fossilised thinking.  “Their whole purpose in life is to intensify and encourage what the economist Joseph Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’, and they are famously scornful of the phrase ‘it can’t be done’.” 

Rapid change is certainly what is needed. The first information Koomey relays to his entrepreneurial readership is that climate change is a deeply serious matter. His explanation of the science is clear and thorough. Current trends if continued will end in disaster for the earth and humanity, and at the upper end of climate sensitivity would be catastrophic. There’s no fudging the issue on his part. And he has no patience with denial which he treats later in the book, recognising that entrepreneurs seeking investors may have to counter it and recommending the website Skeptical Science as a source of information.

“Working forward toward a goal” is Koomey’s preferred way for entrepreneurs to look at the task ahead in tackling climate change. If the goal is to keep global warming to no more than 2oC then a greenhouse gas budget is implied, which is the cumulative amount of gases we can emit while still staying within the budget, and if we’re not on track to meet the goal then we can change course to make it more likely we’ll stay under budget. He compares this with what he describes as conventional mitigation approaches which rely on lists of policies and technologies that would reduce emissions, ranked by their costs and effectiveness. He’s not dismissive of such approaches, but points out that the problem is that the lists of possible options are incomplete and imperfect, and lead to overestimates of the costs of action. It is also difficult to predict far in advance what is feasible and what isn’t. Moreover people often underestimate the rate and scope of change that can occur with determined effort. As I understand him he considers the “working toward a goal” pathway is more flexible and less inclined to rule out options on account of over-calculated costs.

Predicting the future of economic, social and technological systems is not possible with any accuracy. He evidences for example the belief thirty years ago that increase in economic prosperity would mean greater energy use. It was wrong. Forecasting models have their place, but we need to be open to unforeseeable pivotal events and ready to take advantage of them.

Rapid emissions reduction is likely to mean that some capital will be scrapped before the end of its useful life. Indeed Koomey sees it as one of the tasks of entrepreneurs to make existing capital stocks obsolete more quickly. “That means developing replacement products (and ways to retrofit existing buildings and equipment) that are so much better than current ways of delivering energy services that people are willing to scrap or repurpose that equipment to gain the advantages your product provides.” Not that entrepreneurial activity should be limited to energy and carbon intensity. He nominates other important areas such as the reduction of population growth and changing the nature of GDP growth.

In a key chapter of the book Koomey turns his attention to the actual opportunities that await the entrepreneurs. He provides no detailed lists of possible options, though he points to other sources for those, including, I was pleased to note, Al Gore’s impressive book Our Choice. He instead indicates wide fields where entrepreneurial endeavour could bring great benefit, such as energy efficiency and mass-produced renewable energy supply technologies in relatively small units of capacity. But he also urges care not to focus too early on feasibility and in the development of projects to engage in whole systems integrated design, illustrating the latter at some length. He counsels readers to envisage outcomes, such as, for example, those that would be made possible by a drastic fall in the cost of PV panels, and the necessary business developments that would open up.

He stresses the importance of information and communication technologies in aiding the work of the entrepreneur in many different and sometimes unexpected ways. There’s no room here to go further into the details of the chapter, but it’s clear that the successful entrepreneur is one who has done their homework carefully, who has not been too much intimidated by the difficulties and who tries to avoid institutional rigidities. Koomey considers that the constraints standing between us and vastly reduced greenhouse gas emissions are mostly self-imposed – they flow from cognitive limitations that make it difficult for us to imagine a future much different from our current path.

There’s so much already to hand in Koomey’s view. Vast emission reductions using current technologies can be obtained if we achieve cost reductions by employing them on a large scale. He’s for using as many as we can, finding quickly that some will fail, persevering with those that succeed. He characterises the climate problem as big, urgent, and misunderstood, all of which makes it fertile ground for new business ventures. Entrepreneurs can lead the way.

Not that there aren’t vital functions for government. Koomey focuses on three in particular. Internalising costs which some industries have externalised is one, which means putting a price on carbon. Redefining property rights to reflect environmental responsibilities is another. Enforcing contracts the third.

Can the kind of entrepreneurial activity Koomey hails and encourages fill the alarming gaps opening up between the emissions reduction needed and the reduction achieved? Can governments be persuaded to play their part and allow the necessary creative destruction to lead us to something more hopeful than lies ahead under present circumstances? Koomey remarks that defeatist pessimism is in the way and he for one refuses to let it get the better of him.

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29 thoughts on “Cold Cash, Cool Climate”

  1. Thanks Bryan – speaking of entrepreneurial initiatives, this one from Canada appealed to me. (My new desk at work is right under a solar tube – I like it!)

    And fans of this kind of news will find it regularly featured at (Watts’ mate) Sinclair’s ClimateCrocks and over at Joe Romm’s – as well as here, of course. 😉

    Redefining property rights to reflect environmental responsibilities is another.

    Intriguing, but a bit enigmatic. How would this differ from Government’s role number one; bringing about the re-internalising of those corporate externalities whose costs are currently borne by the community? Does it give the community greater recourse to legal action; i.e. sure, you’re entitled to the profit from your process / asset, but expect to be equally inexorably liable for any pain it causes? How about future harms?

    PS – one of the other notable beliefs from 30-40 years ago is that with future technological innovation we’d all be working less! Bonk…

  2. Neat invention Bill! It resonates with this low tech one that is lightening up the lives of the least fortunate in the slums of the world: an empty plastic bottle and some low tech good old ingenuity transforms slum dwelling with solar lighting:

    1. Amusingly I thought they already had a compact-fluoro bulb in the house early on in the piece – then I realised that was the bottle!

      The 55 watt (equivalent) rating is interesting. At least you know it’s daylight balanced!

      (You’ve really got to wonder at the mentality of the 17 people who have taken the trouble to dislike that video.)

      1. It was looking promising until this bit

        recognising that entrepreneurs seeking investors may have to counter it and recommending the website Skeptical Science as a source of information.

          1. That’s not the point. If you are trying to promote energy efficiency and smart energy solutions, these can stand on their own merits.

            You don’t bring the language of climate activism into the picture.

            1. How about transport efficiency…
              Over there in the “heartlands” they are having a small problem with transporting goods on the once mighty Mississippi river, creating cost increases to a plethora of products which no longer can be floated on barges…
              I am sure it doesn’t need “climate activism” to realize the many consequences of a warming planet for the economy.

          2. And this is how andy and his ilk will deal with even the Capitalists they see as facilitating real, despised change.

            Just as we’ve already seen the deployment of the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy with regard to Muller – he can never have been a Denier, because no true Denier could ever be convinced by the evidence – apostate capitalist entrepreneurship will simply be labelled as an active part of the Social!st menace, or its dupe.

  3. One thing is becoming apparent. The new climate uncertainty undermines initiatives that attempt to keep the current economy running at roughly its current level of energy use. They can turn out to be a big diversion of resources and time.

    Case in point, the UN, among others, is now asking for the US Department of Agriculture to suspend its mandate for biofuel production due to the current extreme drought:

    The focus of new initiatives has to be on simpler rather than more complex technologies, and energy saving should be a very big part of the mix. That seems like a basic policy direction that any government should mandate. An ‘all of the above’ approach, on the basis that anything that moves in the direction of renewables is good and adds to a new greener GDP could be a costly misstep. Just more wrecking of the planet under another name.

    1. The air engine technology is interesting at the expansion end of the business – in the car – but it gets inefficient I think in the energy storage end – the compressor. Compressing a gas is a thermodynamic process whereby the action of compressing (this is what you want) is necessarily correlated with heating of the gas requiring cooling (which is energy lost to the environment). The overall cycle efficiency of this is likely no better than about 50% even with some energy recovery from the environment during the expansion cycle in the car.
      Electric cars can achieve about 90% energy storage efficiency.
      If rolled out as a large scale national personal transport initiative I would therefore think that electric vehicle energy storage will beat air vehicle storage efficiency hands down.

  4. Speaking of bad news, Andy, you will have personally experienced a manifestation of anthropogenic global warming last night, in the unusually heavy rains arising from increased water vapour in the warmer air.

    How was that for you?

            1. So it says on the internet that I live in Christchurch.
              It must be true then, Rob

              [That’s enough, thanks, Rob & Andy. Back on topic please.]

  5. Gareth, the topic is Andy’s credibility, which he has just trashed again.

    More broadly, are there any “honest deniers” left, or are they all Moncktonian fabulists and serial prevaricators like this guy?

    1. I have often pondered a post on what I’ve called “credible scepticism” – just what it’s possible to be sceptical about, and remain credible (where credible means accepting facts, not living in an alternative reality, etc).

      I think it’s still just about credible to think that warming might be a bit less than IPCC mainstream, but the evidence is stacking up on the other side of that position. Having said that, a credible risk assessment, even if you are a “lukewarmer”, would justify taking urgent action to reduce emissions.

  6. The appearance of the vehicle is irrelevant. In this case the MDI vehicle was designed for a specific purpose and by the way is crash tested and licensed in numerous European countries for inner city and airport transport.
    The MDI motor technology that is 68% efficient in turning stored energy into motive power is what has attracted the attention of Sir Ratan Naval Tata, KBE. The compressed air motor unit developed by Guy and Cyril Negre has been successfully installed in four Tata vehicles as part of a joint venture overseen directly by Ratan Tata.
    Tata Motors by the way apart from being a relatively small part of the Tata Corporation are one of the largest manufactures of commercial vehicles on the planet and owners of Jaguar, Land Rover and Daiwu.
    Tata intend to install the compressed air motor in a number of their stable of vehicles for supply to the Indian market.
    I have no doubt that many who contribute here will scoff and deride the efforts of entrepreneurs like Ratan Tata and Guy Negre but scoff if you will when fossil fuel is $5/ltr and the Indian and European communities air being transported by compressed air technology at $1.50/100km.
    (Not to mention point of use power generation capabilities).
    I had thought mistakenly that this thread was about the entrepreneurial abilities of individuals like the above to develop renewable (climate change mitigating) technologies.
    Instead it appears to be about how many times AndyS can contribute nothing, divert attention from the thread of Koomeys book or miss the point entirely of any
    other contribution. I apologize on behalf of the Indian and European communities for this intrusion into AndyS blog.

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