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John Byrne: Our Grandchildren’s Climate (summary)

From the April-May, 2011 issue of DelMarVa Peacework

(John Byrne, Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the U. of DE, gave a talk, “Our Grandchildren’s Climate,” on March 13, 2011 in Wilmington, DE as part of the Wilmington in Transition (WIT) Spring Series, “Four More Sundays for Wilmington.”  WIT is a project of Pacem in Terris.  This article is based on notes taken by Mary Starkweather-White at his lecture.)

Dr. John Byrne began by expressing his personal debt of gratitude to the peace movement.  He explained that during the Viet Nam War, when he and other young men who were 17, 18, and 19 were facing the draft and needed to make difficult decisions of conscience,  people like those at Pacem in Terris and the Society of Friends gave them advice on what to do.  Thanks to them he is still here.

He said that he wanted to tell us about the problem we are facing with the climate and give us his thoughts on how to solve it.  He believes that the bottom-up models, like the Transition Town movement, work well.  Because what we are doing now impacts the future of the planet, he gave his talk the title, “Our Grandchildren’s Climate.”

When we started burning fossil fuel as part of the Industrial Revolution, we began leaving our carbon footprint. The carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules that were emitted into the air at that time are still with us, because they can stay in the atmosphere for 50 – 200 years.  We still have some of the carbon footprint that was made by the first steel mills in Sheffield, England in the nineteen century.  The molecules we are currently putting into the atmosphere will last 100-200 years before washing out, so we have altered the chemistry of the atmosphere to be experienced for the next two centuries. There is nothing we can do to pull the CO2 molecules out of the atmosphere, so our carbon footprint today is forming our grandchildren’s climate. They are going to have a warmer world, but if we act in a concerted manner during the next 30 – 40 years, we have an opportunity to make the climate less risky for our grandchildren.

In depicting the kinds of risks we are taking, Byrne showed us a photo of the British Petroleum (BP) blowout preventer that did not prevent the cap on the well in the Gulf of Mexico from blowing off in April 2010. It took months of effort to cap it again. There are environmental and societal consequences from trying to get energy through that approach. Communities lost income and their way of life. We have to ask ourselves: why were we in 5,000 feet of water drilling a well even deeper to pull oil out of the sea? The reason is that this is the cheapest known source of oil in the continental U.S. that we can extract right now. This is the cheapest fossil fuel we may ever have, because we are dealing with a finite supply of oil.  Inevitably we are going to pay more for gasoline in the future and other extractions of harder to reach oil will be even riskier.  There are problems associated with increasing the amount of off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The cost of getting this decreasing resource is that we are always chasing the lowest cost options, yet the price keeps getting higher. If we don’t make any changes in our energy consumption, these risks and problems will get much worse.

Let’s look at the climate problems to get some sense of the risks. Our energy systems are responsible for 70-80% of the greenhouse emissions.  We need to reuse materials made from petroleum products. By the mid-21st century the coldest parts of the planet, the polar caps, will be warming the fastest.  Globally, there will be a 1.5 degrees C change in temperature. If we make the necessary changes, there will be a 1 degree C drop.  If we don’t make the necessary changes now, there will be no hope for our children by the end of the century. In a warmer world there will be more storms and more intense storms.  There will be more intense droughts, greater flooding and the climate will be more volatile. If we make changes, the Arctic will still get warmer, but there will be fewer problems than if we stay the course as usual.

We have to make decisions and leave the benefits of our decisions to our grandchildren. As a post-World War II society it is hard for us to invest in the future, especially a future that we will not live to see, where we ourselves will not partake and where we will not reap the benefits. Our social values do not enforce this kind of long-term, forward thinking and action.

We have to take into account the highly interactive character of our planet. We need to look at the water implications of our changing climate. If we look at water contaminants, 60% of the load of pollutants in fresh water is transported by storm events.  A warming world—with more storms—means greater pollution of our watersheds.  The more efficient energy we use, the more fresh water we will have. If we use fossil fuels we will be in a vicious cycle, because our  system is highly interactive. Unless we make changes across the board, we will not be able to solve the long-term problems.We must make changes across the board.

What is the source of our problem?  Our climate can take 3.3 tons of carbon emissions per person per year and still be all right.  However, the U.S. is way over budget.  We release 19 tons per person per year in carbon emissions, so we are the problem.  The health of the planet depends upon the U.S. taking steps to curb its emissions.  Other nations are looking to us to set an example as a planetary good neighbor.  The UN treaty called the Kyoto Protocol which limits greenhouse gas emissions was signed in 1997 and came into force in 2005.  However, its first commitment period ends in 2012. Although it does not get anywhere close to what needs to be done, it is a start.  The US, after initially signing on, has withdrawn from the protocol. The Bush administration made the argument that we cannot subscribe to the Kyoto Protocol because the changes it calls for, are too costly for our economy.  It is hard to get cooperation in the world if we set a bad example. That is why Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) committee got the Nobel Peace Prize—because it is not good for future peace if the burden for the environment is only put on the poor countries.  Will the wealthy nations of the world use their wealth to buffer themselves from these problems at the expense of the poor countries?  The U.S. must act responsibly.  What can we do?  We must at least try to do what we can.

We have the ability to make three significant changes: 1) We must use a lot less energy than we use now.  2) Our relationship with the landscape needs to change. We need to not burden the land with asphalt, so that vegetation can store up carbon.  3) We need to use energy sources that do not rely on the burning of carbon.

Regarding using less energy, take the example of the Luxor Pyramid in Las Vegas, which casts a beam into the sky using enough energy to meet the needs of 28,000 households per year. Utilizing fossil fuels to create that light is impacting out grandchildren’s climate.  What if the casinos in Las Vegas turned off one in five light bulbs?  It would not close down the casinos; folks would still be able to gamble just as much as they do now.  A 20% reduction of the energy used to power U.S. electric lights would equal the energy used by all of sub-Saharan Africa. This is a sign of U.S. Energy Obesity.  In recent years we have increased our energy consumption per person by a factor of 4.  On average, citizens in the U.S. utilize 3,000 KWh (kilowatt hours) per capita per year. There are models for how we could do this differently.  In the same time period Californians increased their energy consumption 2.5 times which gave households a saving of $800 in electricity costs.  The rest of the U.S. uses 44% more electricity per person than Californians. The state of California did it, not by starving itself of energy, but by implementing a policy that required the utilities to do the arithmetic.  If it costs less to save energy than to use it, then the utilities invested in saving energy.  In California everyone who buys appliances, buys one that is energy- efficient.  California is our best U.S. performer, but it is still using more electricity per capita than people in the European Union.  The Europeans in the original countries of the European Union, not including the new Eastern European countries that have come in, use 1,750 KWh/per capita of electricity per year —and they enjoy a comfortable way of life. California has savings of $91 billion per year from energy efficiency measures. We are currently debating ways to save $60 billion in the U.S. budget.  We would be able to save that amount if we follow the Californian approach to energy efficiency.  If we follow the European approach, we would be able to save $120 billion.  Rather than try to save the money by cutting services to the community, why not save the money by investing in the community in ways that help the climate?   Once you put these energy savings in place, they continue saving year after year.

Other decisions as a society that will impact the future.  The building sector is responsible for 35% of our use of energy.  At this rate, by 2035 the energy required for our buildings will come to 75% of our energy use.  We can reduce the energy required or we can go on with business as usual.  In that same period of time, we will change 75% of our building stock.  The question is: what will be the principle behind how we change it?  This is very much a community-based decision and local communities will need citizen input about how to address it.  The cost in the U.S. of electricity in our buildings is 9-14 cents per kilowatt, depending on the region.  It costs less to save energy—2-4 cents per kilowatt.  The Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) did a study for DNREC that showed that there would be a 31% potential savings per household and a 20-25% rate of return if we used more renewable sources of energy.  In a really sour economy this is the way to go.

We need to look at our relationship to the car.  Every time you see a car, you need a street and every time we pave a street, we decrease the natural capacity of vegetation to deal with CO2. Paving the roads keeps vegetative matter from fixing carbon in the soil and in vegetative matter itself.  We have paved a lot of the U.S. for the car.  In Copenhagen there are bikes, subways, trains, buses that citizens use for their transportation needs.  When John Byrne and his delegation were there for ten days in December 2009 for the UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen, they were never in a car.  When they arrived at the Copenhagen Airport their bags were transferred to the train directly because the train station is right in the airport.  The speedy train that they took brought them out of the city to the stop closest to their hotel.  When they spotted a taxi stand, they stood there for about twenty minutes waiting for a cab and getting cold.  They called their hotel only to discover that it was located just one block from where they were standing. Our transit system does not drop you where you want to be.  In other parts of the world, public transportation is much more effective.  The bus can get you where you want to be and the rapid transit system gives priority to fast buses.

The next third of the greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation.  We need to burden less of the landscape with roads.  The electrification of cars still requires coal which is the most carbon intensive of the fossil fuels.  Elsewhere in the world the bus system actually works and everyone uses it—not just the poorest folks.  People also walk or use bicycles.  Americans are used to a car-based culture, so in weaning ourselves away from this, we will need to be multi-modal. Many Americans have three cars and spend money on upkeep, lubrication and insurance. If we got rid of one of those cars and used other methods of transportation for some of our trips, we could save $5,000 each per year or $500 billion as a society.  We lose $100 billion per year because we won’t go to energy efficient appliances and $500 billion per year because we won’t go to public transportation.  If we made these changes, our planet would be better off, so we need to rethink new construction and changing the landscape through transportation.

The third thing we need to do is to change over to renewable energy sources. Even though it is currently more expensive that nonrenewable energy, we can make the transition.  It will cost us money, but we can use savings from the two earlier mentioned spheres to pay for it.  Currently, 34 states require a percentage of new electricity introduced into their jurisdictions to be from renewable sources.  Delaware has a commitment to generating 25% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. The bulk of our economy and society is under a commitment to live with renewable energy.  The conversion of sunlight to electricity is under way.  In Delaware we have a commitment to generating 25% of our energy from renewable sources by 2025.  We have a Renewable Energy Portfolio and the proposals for three revisions have all passed.  The University of Delaware is considered a Center of Excellence for its use of solar energy. Researchers at the university have gotten really good at developing solar technology during the past 30 years.  U.D. has built a solar system on three roofs of major buildings and it cost them less to do it than they were paying the City of Newark for power.  Delaware Technical and Community College will do 2-1/2 times as much as U.D. and their use of solar power will cost them less than they are currently paying for energy.  Dover, a town of 28,000, will soon have the largest solar energy installation on the East Coast.  They are building it on a brown field that they could not get industry to use, so now they are using it for solar power. The Dover solar plant will produce 5 times the amount of energy of Del Tech and 11 times the amount of U.D.  Longwood Gardens has 1 million visitors a year and it will have a 1.5 megawatt ground mount solar energy installation.  Its horticulturists are now looking into what sorts of plants will grow well near and under solar panels.  Requiring solar energy as a condition of the sale of electricity into a jurisdiction and spreading the cost over all the users makes solar power very affordable.

How significant is the change in Delaware?  Delaware currently ranks 8th in the U.S. per capita in solar energy.  By the end of the spring after the completion of the afore-mentioned projects, it will rank 3rd.  We cannot afford to wait for the federal government to act.  We are taking actions to make changes at the community level.  The Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) did a study for Newark, DE of roof top real estate. They discovered that by using unshaded, properly oriented rooftops (never cutting down any trees for solar panels), there would  be sufficient rooftop real estate to provide 75% of the daytime energy needs of Newark with the existing solar technology, let alone the next generation of solar technology that is currently being worked on at U.D.  If the city were to purchase the roof top real estate and put up the solar panels, it could pay for them without putting down upfront money. Independent financial analyses of this economic model have found it finance able.

Austin, Texas, the greenest city in the US, gives us another model. By 2012, 100% of its city facilities will be powered by renewable energy sources (including wind and solar .  Austin requires that all new single-family homes built in the city  by 2015 must be zero energy capable, meaning that they can provide for all of their energy needs on the premises.  Ten feet below the ground is a uniform temperature of 55 degrees F.  Heat can be brought up.  Austin requires all new construction to be 75% more efficient.  The entire city transit fleet must be energy efficient.  They have built the case for this and they now have the community on board supporting these efforts.

If you change the utilities model, you can save energy.  Washington DC, Philadelphia and Delaware all operate on a sustainable energy utility (SEU) model.  Asia is also working on such a model.  It requires using capital not to extend the existing model but to use renewable energy.  In Delaware the Sustainable Energy Utility is a non-profit, non-governmental, organization that has access to tax-exempt bonds.  It will float a $50 million bond in May to clean up the public buildings of state agencies.  It is backed by guaranteed energy savings to the company by a contract and an insurance policy.  It is borrowing against future energy savings that will back the bond.  The state will get $50 million more in revenue and the energy savings will further reduce the cost of government.  Efficient Vermont and Oregon Energy Trust are two models of sustainable energy utilities. These utilities are investing in efficiency and making money based on future savings on energy costs.  Why do this in a terrible economy?  Because the new technology creates more jobs than the existing energy segment does. For instance, for every 4 jobs that coal fired electric plants create, Investment in Energy Efficiency produces 12 – 15 jobs; Renewable Energy creates 10 – 19 jobs, and Information and Communication technology produces 10 – 19 jobs.

Our country is not set up well to make these energy changes, because our current system does not focus on the right problems.  We have to fundamentally change our relationships to the planet, to energy consumption, and energy generation. At present, we invest little in renewable energy creation. We are trying to bury carbon instead of changing our relationship to the landscape.  If we simply wanted to store carbon, it would take a national park the size of the whole Northwest U.S.  Carbon capture and storage will not work and cannot be our silver bullet. Nuclear power cannot solve our problems.  France, which gets 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, still has far too high a rate of carbon emissions.

In China they are very involved in the production of solar cells and wind turbines.  For example the city of Shenzhen which started as a haven for dirty industries has now grown into a city of over 12.5 million people and has become the largest center for solar and wind technology.  China has also taken over the leadership of technology in high-speed rails.  However, on the other side, China is investing in mining coal in sub-Saharan Africa, destabilizing the region.  They are trying to go in both directions at once.

The U.S. has to make a commitment to a low carbon future.  Otherwise, we will not be able to compete.  For example, high speed rail goes 180 – 200 miles per hour.  The AMTRAK Acela is not high speed because it only goes 100 miles per hour.  The U.S. was on the verge of paying for the first high-speed rail in Florida to go from Tampa to Orlando, but the governor would not accept the federal dollars and vetoed the project.  The most competitive bidder for the project was a Chinese company.  We have to change our attitudes and practices if we are going to create the low carbon future needed to ameliorate our grandchildren’s climate.

Questions & Answers

1.  Rather than tearing down old warehouses, shouldn’t cities start using abandoned buildings with flat roofs for solar energy installations?

YES, absolutely.  We should make a priority of using existing abandoned flat roofed buildings for solar panels and rehab the buildings for housing for the homeless and/or affordable housing.  There are lots of flat roofs in Wilmington, utilities should be able to get loans based on future energy savings.  The Center for Energy and the Environmental Policy has not yet done a roof real estate study of Wilmington.  They do these studies by looking at aerial photos.  The city of Wilmington could create a virtual solar power station.  The Riverfront Development Corporation has built lots of structures with flat roofs that could host solar panels.

2.  Would it be a good idea for home owners in a small area, for example an eight block section of a neighborhood in Wilmington, to install solar panels on their roofs as a pilot project?

YES, pilot projects are very crucial.  It would be wonderful to have a small neighborhood do such a project as a model for others.

3.  How much energy do the solar panels on the U.D. Field House supply?

Although they look very impressive, unfortunately, they currently do not supply enough energy to cover the lighting and cooling needs of the building.  They could if the field house started using energy-efficient lighting.  Right now, it has bad performing lighting which consumes a lot of energy, plus the bulbs generate so much heat that it is necessary to keep the air-conditioning on all the time in the building.

4.  How do we get the public on board?

It is a lot of work, but do not despair, and here is why.  After George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol, 34 states set targets for renewable energy.  Our current political system does not handle these problems well, but lots of citizens and young people embracing renewable energy and reducing their carbon footprints. We need to talk with one another about these issues in all of our social, religious, political, neighborhood groups, etc. all the time. The stakes are too high. We need to make this information available to our children.  They are counting on us to do our part.

Dr. John Byrne is the Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) and Distinguished Professor of Energy and Climate Policy at the University of Delaware. He has been a contributing author to Working Group III of the United Nations-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1992 and is a laureate of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (an award shared by all IPCC members). He is co-founder and co-executive director of the Joint Institute for a Sustainable Energy and Environmental Future, an innovative research organization headquartered in South Korea. He co-chairs the Sustainable Energy Utility (SEU) Oversight Board, created by the Delaware General Assembly. He has published 17 books and over 150 research articles.  To find out more about Dr. Byrne and his work, visit
[The editor expresses her deep gratitude to Mary Starkweather-White whose excellent notes comprise this article.]