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How the University of California is Playing a Unique Role in Global Race Against Warming

December 3, 2015
by Glen Martin

The Golden Bear has taken on a distinct greenish tinge this week. First there was the announcement at the United Nations Climate Change Conference outside Paris that the University of California is the sole university participant in Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a conglomerate of investors dedicated to developing low-carbon energy sources. UC will dedicate $1.25 billion to the venture over the next five years. “As a public research institution, we take the imperative to solve global climate change very seriously.”

Then there was the release, also at the conference, of Bending the Curve, a UC study that proposed 10 scalable solutions for “carbon neutrality and climate stability” in California, the nation and the world. The study offers a framework for how to achieve the conference’s prime goal: To keep the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius.

UC Berkeley energy professor Dan Kammen, who is attending the conference and led the team that produced Bending the Curve, alluded to a growing sense that the world is finally following the State of California’s lead in adopting strong environmental regulations, including those pertaining to climate change; the California Global Solutions Act of 2006, after all, now seems to presage most of the points in Paris.

Dan Kammen

“It really highlights the fact that there’s benefit to being the early adopter,” Kammen has said. “There’s risk, but there’s also benefit, and California has been reaping.”

Given student and faculty activism over climate change—UC Regents have rejected recent demands for university divestment from fossil fuels—there is a certain logic to grabbing the pole position in the climate challenge. And between the two initiatives announced in Paris, UC seems to be covering all the bases. Where the Breakthrough Energy Coalition emphasizes the development of new technologies, Bending the Curve focuses more on policies and behaviors: phasing out fossil-fuel energy systems with a mix of carbon-neutral production technology and carbon sequestration schemes, funding educational and communication programs on climate change, improving the global climate “collaborative culture,” and refining and applying both market-based and regulatory approaches.

That all sounds good, but it can be difficult for a layperson to tease out specifics from the announcement. Noah Deich, executive director of the Center for Carbon Removal (a subsidiary of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute), is blogging from the U.N. conference and provides some perspective on the atmosphere at the Paris talks:

“The rhetoric of the (assembled world leaders) has been remarkably powerful,” Deich wrote. “…In and around Paris there are numerous climate-related workshops, art displays, protests and other events hosted by businesses, universities and NGOs. I haven’t heard of a single event where the message was against climate action. Everyone assembled is united in the desire and urgency for a positive outcome for these talks…”

Noah Deich

On the other hand, he goes on to muse, “…What, exactly, success is supposed to look like is much harder for me to figure out. Many of the delegation officials and NGO observers that I’ve spoken to are well aware that there is a large ‘emissions gap’ from the actions we need to take to meet our stated 2C (let alone 1.5C) warming goal. They seem satisfied with this gap, so long as the negotiations produce a mechanism to ratchet up commitments over time…”

Jim Kirby, an associate research scientist at the Keasling Laboratory at Berkeley’s Joint BioEnergy Institute and the founder of the Green Stars Project (a ratings and information site for ethical consumerism), supports UC’s investment in the Breakthrough Energy Coalition—despite the likelihood that relatively few of the investment avenues may pay off.

“It’s risky, of course, but it’s only 1 percent of (UC’s) total investment funds and I’m totally comfortable with that risk,” Kirby says. “It was only about three months ago that UC announced that they would sell off their coal and oil-sands investments, so I think this divestment from the dirtiest forms of energy and investment in the BEC are moves in the right direction.”

As to how the funding for the coalition’s efforts will break down, Kirby says he anticipates a range of projects across all scales.

Projected change in annual mean surface air temperature from the late 20th century to the middle 21st century, based on a medium emissions scenario.

“For example, on a small scale, the use of fuels such as kerosene for cooking and lighting has a huge cost in terms of both climate change and human health,” he says.  “Solutions deployed at the individual level like the saltwater-powered light that was developed by Aisa Mijeno in the Philippines are at least as worthy as those involving the centralized generation of power or fuel.”

Kirby also notes that energy storage likely will prove a major area of investment for BEC partners, particularly for intermittent renewable sources such as solar and wind. “There will also be projects that mitigate damage caused by existing power sources, such as carbon capture from coal-fired power plants. On that front, FuelCell Energy in Connecticut is developing carbon-capture technology that looks promising.”

Deich also emphasizes the importance of carbon sequestration—sometimes termed “native carbon emissions.”

“Given how long it is likely to take for them to develop, it is urgent that we get started on this topic now,” he writes. “And there is growing talk on negative emissions, though it is still very below-the-radar in the mainstream conversation. For example, (Dec. 1) was a big day for agricultural announcements related to carbon sequestration.  There are also a number of forestry projects with sequestration potential on display, including the Green Wall Project in Africa… Ottmar Edenhofer (a German economist specializing in climate change and energy policy) even called out negative emissions technologies as being a key R&D priority…”

Kirby contends one of the big goals is a carbon-neutral liquid fuel to replace petroleum. “That’s what we’re working on in the Keasling Lab. Cellulose is the most abundant renewable source of carbon on the planet, and our mission is to convert that cellulose from sources such as municipal green waste and corn stover (post-harvest stalks and cobs) into a renewable fuel.”

While developing new tech is challenging, changing government policies and consumer behavior—the implied goals of Bending the Curve—can be positively daunting. But the UC initiatives point to the possibility of substantive and positive change enforced through simple individual choice.

Jim Kirby

“You could argue that corporations are more powerful than governments these days,” Kirby says, “and yet, most of these corporations depend entirely on consumers for their revenue. So consumers really hold more power than we realize.”

Even with the most prosaic product—say a bag of potato chips—“you have a choice between a company that’s entirely run on green energy and makes every effort to reduce wastes, running their trucks on biodiesel made from used cooking oil, or a company that that makes very little effort on these fronts,” says Kirby.  “Or consider seaweed. When responsibly grown, it can capture carbon, help reverse ocean acidification and provide a nutritious food without the need for land, fertilizer or pesticides. The macrocosm of our dire planetary situation is a reflection of our individual mindsets. Technological solutions are needed, but they must be applied mindfully and sustainably. As far as the BEC goes, I think it fills a critical gap. There has been a drop-off in venture capital funding of clean energy technologies in recent years, so the BEC should provide an important bridge from a clean tech idea to its deployment in the real world.”

Of course, neither the Breakthrough Energy Coalition nor Bending the Curve addresses “Black Swan” market scenarios—such as the collapse in oil prices due to the development of advanced fracking technology, high production from the traditional petroleum exporting states, and relatively low demand from China. With the world awash in cheap fossil fuels, the impetus for developing carbon neutral biofuels has waned.

“It’s incredibly hard (for biofuels) to compete with cheap oil and natural gas, so the major biofuel companies have largely changed tack (from fuel production) to more valuable products such as (biomass-sourced) chemicals and plastics,” Kirby says. “It’s possible that this economic hiccup in biofuel development may have some benefits in the long-term, in that we’re learning to produce sustainable chemicals and plastics that come closer to carbon neutrality than their oil-derived counterparts.”

Kirby is heartened by UC’s climate initiatives, but his praise is measured. He is gratified that the university has divested from coal and oil sands, but notes that it is still involved with other fossil fuels.

“If you look at UC’s domestic and international equity index funds, which comprise a significant part of the university’s Pathway Funds for individual retirement accounts, you’ll see significant holdings in oil companies like Exxon Mobil,” he says. “So there is plenty of room for improvement on the investment side. I think the majority of employees and alumni would rather not be invested in Big Oil.”

As for Bending the Curve and specifically establishing carbon neutrality on college campuses, says Kirby, “I applaud it. This kind of commitment is overdue, and UC should be setting (the standard). To take a mundane example, about 40 percent of the energy on most UC campuses is consumed in laboratories. A huge energy savings can be made by closing chemical fume hood sashes when not in use. One fume hood can use as much energy per day as three to four homes, and we have hundreds of fume hoods at (UC Berkeley) alone. Harvard addressed this issue ten years ago with their ‘Shut the Sash’ campaigns, but UC campuses have been spotty (in enforcement). So again, it comes down to individual mindset.”

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