Newsreal: We need a 1-2 punch

Fred Branfman interviews Mark Levine, a senior staff scientist and division director at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., and an international energy conservation consultant, about global warming.

Published October 24, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

president Clinton finally announced Wednesday that the U.S. will support reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010 at the historic negotiations in Kyoto in December. Major environmental organizations find this unacceptable, particularly since the U.S. made a voluntary commitment at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to reduce to 1990 levels by 2000. Environmentalists want real reductions by 2005, and support for goals like that of the European Union to reduce 15 percent below 1990 by 2010. The major auto, oil and coal companies, on the other hand, find this goal too ambitious.

But while the media attention is on the president and Kyoto, the real action on global warming is being driven by a little-known body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC), established 10 years ago and involving more than 2,000 international scientists. The Kyoto meeting is only occurring because IPCC scientists have reached a surprising consensus that global warming is a major potential problem. And the fine print of the Clinton proposal is largely derived from reports written by the IPCC.

One of the key IPCC scientists is Mark Levine, a senior staff scientist and division director at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., and an international energy conservation consultant who has advised the Chinese government on developing new building and appliance codes.

Salon talked with Levine about the emission reduction targets and what it will take to reach them.

Despite the consensus reached by the IPCC, there are still scientists and climatologists who disagree that there is such a thing as global warming. Recently, economist Thomas Gale Moore of the Hoover Institute wrote in the Wall Street Journal that a warmer climate is a good thing. How worried should we be?

We should be worried even though there is a lot we don't understand. If we wait until we're certain about what is going to happen, we could be in deep, deep trouble. But that makes it very difficult politically: How do you take action, in the face of uncertainty, about a problem whose most serious impact would be far in the future?

How far in the future?

In the short run, the average Californian might sense the impact of global warming if we find it's linked to phenomena like El Niqo. But much more significant and discernible impacts might be expected 25 to 75 years from now. It could affect available water, causing permanent droughts; produce severe or even devastating storms; destroy ecosystems, causing increased desertification; and so forth.

Critics of the IPCC say the main reason it is pushing global warming is to get government grants.

The critics would have a point if scientists behaved like lawyers, and were being paid for what they argued. But most scientists have more integrity than that. IPCC scientists aren't making money out of this; they often have to work on their own time on IPCC projects.

Including yourself?

I'm on a salary at LBL, but often do IPCC work for which there is no project funding.

The Senate recently passed the Byrd resolution saying we should not reduce greenhouse gas emissions unless other large nations like China and India do so. Is this a fair proposal?

It's ridiculous. We have been the big emitters, and we have the means and the technologies they do not have. If we want the rest of the world to do something, we have to go first. Give me a break.

Still, critics say, even if we do something, countries like China and India will go right on sending out emissions -- even increasing them.

China and India have to grow. The question is whether they will do so with energy efficiency. We can play a huge role in the energy decisions they make, by our example. If we can demonstrate better technology and make it available, they're going to use it.

How do we know that?

The Chinese have recognized the importance of improving energy efficiency since 1981, when Deng Xiao-peng decided the country would quadruple its gross domestic product in 20 years. His energy experts told him it would be impossible if energy grew as fast as GDP, or even nearly as fast. That's because energy production is very capital intensive, and rapid energy growth would deprive other essential social and economic investments of capital. So China decided to strive to cut energy growth to half that of GDP growth. The conventional wisdom was that such an equation is impossible, that energy has to grow faster than GDP. But the Chinese have achieved both goals.

There are big payoffs for working with, rather than pressuring, China. Our group, for example, has worked with one of China's largest refrigerator manufacturers to produce prototypes that would be 45 to 50 percent more energy-efficient than their current ones. We estimate that $100 million -- $50 million for education and training, $50 million for rebates to manufacturers -- would lead to widespread adoption of the new refrigerators and tremendous energy savings.

Who's giving them the money?

The Global Environmental Fund is financing the first $50 million, but no one has yet come up with the other half. Helping the Third World develop, adopt and implement appliance efficiency standards, and other similar measures, should be a major focus of American policy.

U.S. automakers have taken the lead in opposing action to avert
global warming. Are industrialists in other countries taking a similar

I was recently at a conference in Japan, and it was striking that
something like 30 separate industry associations were committed to reducing
emission and/or energy use to 1990 levels by 2010. The entire auto industry
in Japan is committed to reducing emissions.

A major concern of global warming revolves around carbon emissions.
The IPCC has predicted major problems if we reach a "two times carbon
world," that is, 550 parts per million of carbon dioxide, twice the level
of pre-industrial times. We are presently at around 360. How much time do
we have?

Jae Edmonds of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
concludes that
it will be virtually impossible to limit carbon emissions to less than 450
parts per million, but that 550 parts per million might get agreement. He
argues that tighter restrictions would require convincing evidence of the
problem's seriousness earlier than we are likely to get it. The most
important thing we have to do now, he argues, is to develop technologies to
get us off fossil fuels, and he calculates we have 25 years to do it.

Are you saying a "two times carbon world" is acceptable?

Probably -- if we reach that 550 parts per million gradually over
the next 75 years, while beginning now to achieve flat energy growth and
later shifting to a hydrogen-based economy. But if we get there sooner and
we're still relying on carbon-based fuels, it would be a big problem.

The environmental community is worried that President Clinton may
agree to support reducing carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, rather
than by 2005. How do you feel about this?

If their purpose is to put maximum pressure on Clinton to stop him
from caving, that's a reasonable posture. If you ask me as someone who's
knowledgeable about what can be achieved, I think they're off the mark. We
need to focus on preventing a rise in energy use, by capturing energy
savings out of what exists. This is what we saw from 1973 to 1986, due to a
combination of rising prices, energy efficiency policies and R&D programs
creating new technologies. Since then, energy use has been going up
steadily. What we need is flat energy growth. And we need to move energy
supply from high- to low-carbon fuels, e.g., from coal to natural gas and, over
time, to renewables.

So President Clinton's position of reducing to 1990 levels by
2010 is

I would be nervous about setting goals that have no flexibility.
Let's say the target was set at 1990 levels in 2010, as an example. In my
view, this is a tight target, and very risky if it is implemented with no
flexibility. Flexibility could be achieved by permitting international
trading in carbon emissions and/or through a penalty for emissions
above the target.

And we should put the proceeds from such penalties into helping
countries implement the kind of energy conservation programs we have in this
country: rebates for energy-efficient products, government programs to
develop appliance efficiency standards, programs for schools and hospitals,
state efficiency standards for buildings and so on.

I personally would also give serious consideration to creating a
system for autos. Let's say the average fuel economy for cars on American
roads is 32 miles per gallon in a given year; a car that gets more
miles per gallon gets a rebate collected from cars getting less than 32 mpg.

We need a one-two punch. The first to stabilize energy growth. But the
real key is to start the R&D to go beyond carbon fuels. Right now we are in
a carbon economy, in which 80 percent of our electricity comes from
carbon-based fuels. We need to substantially reduce that proportion in
the next 25 to 75 years and come to rely on low-carbon fuels.

How do we cause that shift?

You have to invest in a lot of new things and see what works. My
favorite is biomass. Right now, 25 percent of the world's energy comes from
dead branches, corn husks, plants, anything you can burn -- but it's at very
low efficiency. Imagine if you had a technique that could convert that
energy at 40 percent efficiency, for example, gassify it and put it through
a combustion turbine.

You can't do that now, but you might be able to in 10 or 20 years.
You also need to try wind power and, over the longer term, photovoltaic
cells that produce energy from the sun. Also fuel cells using natural gas
and hydrogen fuels. I would also support R&D in nuclear energy, particularly
to see if we can solve the problem of nuclear waste disposal. On the demand
side, hydrogen or electric vehicles are an interesting option.

How much money are we talking about here?

Right now the federal government puts $2 billion a year into
energy technology research, of which perhaps only $1 billion is related to
developing non-carbon based energy sources. The President's Council on
Sustainable Development has recommended another $1 billion. But you don't
want to add it all in now, because much of it would be wasted. It's best to
increase the budget by 10 to 20 percent a year. The key is to do the R&D
steadily over a long period. Most of the commercialization costs will then
be borne by industry, over the next 25 years.

Back to big-spending government?

You need some government action. If someone thinks the private
sector is going to solve a public problem far in the future, they're smoking
something. The private sector will pay attention to the next quarter's

There are some encouraging signs from the private sector, like the
Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PGNV).

The reason that the auto industry is working on PGNV is they don't
want CAFE (fuel efficiency) standards imposed by the government. So a deal
was cut. But if government doesn't continue to push, environmental problems
are not going to be solved. Companies don't do it on their own volition.

By Fred Branfman

Fred Branfman can be reached at His Web site is

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