Do You Heart 'The Hartwell Paper'?

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

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On the eve of today's rollout of the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill (that was leaked yesterday) in the U.S. Senate, The Economist has delved into a potentially influential new paper on reforming the climate wars. Dubbed "The Hartwell Paper," the 12-person team of scientists and policy thinkers who wrote the report emphasize technological progress over fast deployment of off-the-shelf technology. And, most importantly, they advocate that the world ditches the comprehensive approach of national climate emissions targets laid out in the U.N. climate process.

The paper argues for tackling easy steps such as cutting black carbon or methane, and for disconnecting deforestation from carbon emissions cuts. The Economist gets to the heart of the matter:

Where the Hartwell paper becomes controversial is in its approach to decarbonisation. The authors argue that the large emerging economies are clearly fuelling themselves with renewables and nuclear as well as, rather than instead of, fossil fuels, for various reasons, and that this will not change soon. Nor, they imply, should it. They argue that there is something wrong with a world in which carbon-dioxide levels are kept to 450 parts per million (a trajectory widely deemed compatible with a 2 degree cap on warming) but at the same time more than a billion of the poorest people are left without electricity, as in one much discussed scenario from the International Energy Agency.

Setting up limits on carbon emissions and subsidizing alternative energy is the wrong approach, "The Hartwell Paper" argues.

Instead, its authors believe that developing technology is the way to go, funded by low carbon taxes whose revenues are to be used for clean-energy development.

Their oblique approach is to aim instead for a world with accessible, secure low cost energy for all. The hope, intuition or strategy at play here is that since fossil fuels cannot deliver such a world, its achievement will, in itself, bring about decarbonisation on a massive scale. Following a path stressing clean energy as a development issue provides a more pleasant journey to the same objective.

In this way, "The Hartwell Paper" takes sides in a previous fight in the climate policy wars: the struggle between the we-have-energy-solutions-on-the-shelf crowd (Stephen Pacala and Rob Socolow being being the protagonists) and the radical-and-revolutionary-technology-is-necessary-so-cap-and-trade-sytems-are-useless-maybe-harmful crowd (Martin Hoffert of New York University, Roger Pielke Jr., and the Breakthrough Institute). Obama's approach straddles that divide somewhat, calling for massive deployment efforts as well as more funding of basic energy science by a new agency, ARPA-E. But advocates of the latter approach would argue that linking cap and trade as a political stance to science can threaten or water down the required research effort.

The Economist's take on "The Hartwell Paper" is here.

Posted in Climate, Technology