Al Gore’s speech yesterday was noteworthy. America, he said, faces three big problems – the economy, national security and climate change – all three of them have the same solution – replace fossil fuels. He said that the US must set a 10 year target of producing 100% of its electricity requirements from renewable and carbon-free sources.
What a refreshing change from the G8 summit where world leaders bickered about a goal of a 50% reduction in green house gases by 2050. Even for this modest (and I would say meaningless) goal they couldn’t agree on the benchmark year.
The problems I have with the G8 goal, if you can call it that are as follows:
50% is too modest. The goals aren’t fair – they don’t share the pain fairly. The goals aren’t clear – 50% of what? Can you even reliably measure CO2 emissions of a country? But most of all 2050 is just too far off. All the politicians who are bickering about the goals will be dead by then.
Al Gore’s challenge takes away all these problems. It creates a sense of urgency and a mission. And the man in the street can understand it. The message is clear – replace the use of oil/gas/coal in producing electricity with solar/wind/nuclear/… within 10 years.
It’s just like another goal, clearly stated and clearly understood, that galvanized this nation in the past – putting a man on the moon.
The difference between the G8 approach and the Gore approach also succinctly brings out the too-wide-consensus trap of goal setting. The G8 chaps – and I’m no fan of their leg-dragging, procrastinating style of work – had to work to create a common goal for all the member nations. Each time the span of influence for a goal increases, the goal statement becomes less purposeful and more ambivalent. This is as true for a union of nations as is for an union of divisions in a corporation.
While it is clear that the commitments towards CO2 emission reductions are simply empty promises, meeting 100% of electricity requirements from renewable and carbon-free sources by 2018 is just wishful thinking. Even if it is achieved, world will not be free of oil-dependencies. Automobiles will still need them – until a modern day James Watt or Nicolaus Otto comes up something which can compete with the internal combustion engine in terms of cost, performance and convenience. And then we need oil for polymers.
The recovering politician, environmental activist, and Nobel laureate now also wears another tag – of a venture capitalist – a hands-on partner at KPCB, Silicon Valley’s preeminent venture firm where he has a colleague in illustrious John Doerr who focuses on clean tech investments. In that context, his short term aspirations are well aligned because that is precisely the duration when VCs will want to exit. It is the time the economy likely will take to get back in shape from the depths of liquidity crisis. It might as well sync with the maturity milestones of the firms’ clean tech investments being made now, ready for exit in a rejuvenated IPO market. Till then Gore can work his old boys network in Washington to extend the tax credits to his portfolio companies to boost future earnings. You can’t obviously get smarter than that 🙂
Al Gore’s goal might be clearly stated but it is not clearly understood. It is akin to saying “put 10000 men on the moon”. I understand what it means but question is: Why? How? If 50% was too modest, 2018 is too aggressive bordering absurdity. The most ambitious solar plant under construction today will produce less than one third of a typical coal or nuclear plant. Even if all of the forecast growth occurs, solar energy will represent only about 3 to 6 percent of installed electricity generation capacity in 2020. Obviously, without fossil fuel, the rising demand can be truly met only thru nuclear option. That would need hundreds (even thousands) of nuclear plants requiring an investment of tens of trillions of dollars to replace all fossil electric generation as well as natural gas heating needs. Even if money is made available, one would need a magic wand to build these plants in 10 years. The need of the hour is to have a sensible policy that sets reasonably aggressive target to gradually move away from fossil fuels without hurting consumers. In short to medium term, that would mean maintaining the diverse fuel mix while investing in technology to reduce GHG emissions. Al Gore’s target look achievable by throttling the economy. That is, reduce the electricity demand by curbing economic growth or asking major changes in the consumer lifestyles. In Al Gore’s mind, that is probably a justifiable price to pay and I am not arguing that. Fact is, for good or for bad, that will not work in USA. And there is no need for that either. We just need to look at Germany.