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Published on March 2nd, 2012 | by Zachary Shahan


Clean Energy Is Needed Now (Climate Scientists & Climate Economists Agree)

March 2nd, 2012 by  

Climate action is trillions of dollars cheaper than climate inaction.

Investing in a clean energy economy is not cheap. It is actually projected to cost trillions of dollars. However, sticking with a dirty energy economy will cost society much more, many trillions of dollars more.

For responses to other anti-cleantech myths, see: Anti-Cleantech Myths Debunked (Your #1 Resource).

I recently posted David Roberts’ piece on a new climate and energy study by former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold and climate scientist Ken Caldeira. I’ve run across more good quotes and a good graphic on the matter since then, and I just wrote about these over on Planetsave. Additionally, I wrote a related story over there on the difference in cost between taking strong climate action now versus continued climate inaction. Skipping most of what was already posted on here (see the link above for that), here’s a bit more on the Myhrvold–Caldeira study, “Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity,” followed by a repost on some climate-action–climate-inaction studies:

Which Technologies to Use (to Stop Considerable, Considerable Global Warming)

From Caldeira and Myhrvold:

Despite the lengthy time lags involved, delaying rollouts of low-carbon-emission energy technologies risks even greater environmental harm in the second half of this century and beyond. This underscores the urgency in developing realistic plans for the rapid deployment of the lowest-GHG-emission electricity generation technologies. Technologies that offer only modest reductions in emissions, such as natural gas and — if the highest estimates from the life-cycle analyses are correct — carbon capture and storage, cannot yield substantial temperature reductions this century. Achieving substantial reductions in temperatures relative to the coal-based system will take the better part of a century, and will depend on rapid and massive deployment of some mix of conservation, wind, solar, and nuclear, and possibly carbon capture and storage.

Reiterated by the Institute of Physics news release:

… technologies that offer only modest reductions in greenhouse gases, such as the use of natural gas and perhaps carbon capture and storage, cannot substantially reduce climate risk in the next 100 years.

Delaying the rollout of the technologies is not an option however; the risks of environmental harm will be much greater in the second half of the century and beyond if we continue to rely on coal-based technologies.


Dr Joe Romm of Climate Progress has more on the significance of this study (one of the most interesting things to note is who one of the authors is, and what his previous stance on the matter was):

These results are not entirely news to people who follow the recent climate and energy literature, which I’ve written about at length — see “NCAR Study: Switching From Coal to Gas Increases Warming for Decades, Has Minimal Benefit Even in 2100.” The fact that natural gas is a bridge fuel to nowhere was first shown by the International Energy Agency in its big June report on gas — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change.

But what’s new is the first peer-reviewed analysis that “has predicted the climate effects of energy system transitions” with “a quantitative model … that includes life-cycle emissions and the central physics of greenhouse warming.”

What’s also remarkable about this study is the lead author, Nathan Myhrvold. You may recall Myhrvold, the former CTO of Microsoft, from his anti-clean-energy and pro-geoengineering quotes in”Error-riddled book Superfreakonomics,” which I and many, many others debunked at length in 2009.

Myhrvold was quoted back then about the “carbon debt” of the clean energy build-out: “Eventually, we have a great carbon-free energy infrastructure but only after making emissions and global warming worse every year until we’re done building out the solar plants, which could take 30 to 50 years.”

Of course, not noted in all of this is energy efficiency and the economy’s role in the matter. The study assumes constantly rising energy demand. We’ll see about that. Also, we’d be wise to invest a LOT more money in energy efficiency — it’s also critical to a clean energy transition.

Costs of Climate Action vs Costs of Climate Inaction

The rest of this post is a repost of a great piece by Skeptical Science on this matter, which is partially a debunking of a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal that misrepresents a prominent Yale economist, William Nordhaus:

Yale’s William Nordhaus is one of the foremost experts on climate economics. His research has frequently been misrepresented by climate “skeptics” to argue that CO2 limits will harm the economy. For example, Christopher Monckton cited a climate economics review by Richard Tol (which in turn heavily cited work by Nordhaus) in claiming:

“…the overwhelming majority of economic studies on the subject (which are summarized in my paper) find the cost of climate action greatly exceeds the cost of inaction…”

As we demonstrated in our response, Monckton completely misrepresented the work of Tol (and Nordhaus, by extension), and thus his claim is 100% wrong. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of economic studies on climate find the cost of climate inaction greatly exceeds the cost of action (Figure 1). That’s why there is a consensus amongst economists with climate expertise that we should reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Figure 2).

Figure 1:  Approximate costs of climate action (green) and inaction (red) in 2100 and 2200. Sources: German Institute for Economic Research and Watkiss et al. 2005

Figure 2: New York University survey results of economists with climate expertise when asked under what circumstances the USA should reduce its emissions

Similarly, a recent letter published by the Wall Street Journalsigned by 16 climate “skeptics” (few of which have any climate or economics expertise, and many of which have received fossil fuel funding) misrepresented Nordhaus’ research as supporting climate inaction from an economic standpoint. When Nordhaus objected to this misrepresentation of his work, Patrick Michaels doubled-down on the misrepresentation, claiming Nordhaus didn’t understand his own research.

However, as discussed by Alex C on Skeptical Science, the “skeptics” had indeed misrepresented Nordhaus’ work. They focused on the cost-to-benefit ratio of various climate mitigation options, whereas it is the difference (benefit minus cost, as opposed to benefit divided by cost) which tells us how much money is saved, and thus is the most important factor in determining which option is most economically beneficial.

In a recent article, Nordhaus sought to set the record straight that the climate economics literature clearly indicates that CO2 limits will save money. Nordhaus confirmed that the SkS approach is the correct one:

“The authors cite the “benefit-to-cost ratio” to support their argument. Elementary cost-benefit and business economics teach that this is an incorrect criterion for selecting investments or policies. The appropriate criterion for decisions in this context is net benefits (that is, the difference between, and not the ratio of, benefits and costs).

This point can be seen in a simple example, which would apply in the case of investments to slow climate change. Suppose we were thinking about two policies. Policy A has a small investment in abatement of CO2 emissions. It costs relatively little (say $1 billion) but has substantial benefits (say $10 billion), for a net benefit of $9 billion. Now compare this with a very effective and larger investment, Policy B. This second investment costs more (say $10 billion) but has substantial benefits (say $50 billion), for a net benefit of $40 billion. B is preferable because it has higher net benefits ($40 billion for B as compared with $9 for A), but A has a higher benefit-cost ratio (a ratio of 10 for A as compared with 5 for B). This example shows why we should, in designing the most effective policies, look at benefits minus costs, not benefits divided by costs.”

Nordhaus went on to further dispel the myth that CO2 limits will hurt the economy.  In fact, the opposite is true:

“My research shows that there are indeed substantial net benefits from acting now rather than waiting fifty years. A look at Table 5-1 in my study A Question of Balance (2008) shows that the cost of waiting fifty years to begin reducingCO2 emissions is $2.3 trillion in 2005 prices. If we bring that number to today’s economy and prices, the loss from waiting is $4.1 trillion. Wars have been started over smaller sums.

My study is just one of many economic studies showing that economic efficiency would point to the need to reduce CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions right now, and not to wait for a half-century. Waiting is not only economically costly, but will also make the transition much more costly when it eventually takes place. Current economic studies also suggest that the most efficient policy is to raise the cost of CO2 emissions substantially, either through cap-and-trade or carbon taxes, to provide appropriate incentives for businesses and households to move to low-carbon activities.”


“The claim that cap-and-trade legislation or carbon taxes would be ruinous or disastrous to our societies does not stand up to serious economic analysis. We need to approach the issues with a cool head and a warm heart. And with respect for sound logic and good science.”

Despite the economic reality that CO2 limits will save money, the myth that they will harm the economy is a pervasive one. However, this myth is based on nothing more than a misunderstanding of climate science and economics, and misrepresentation of the climate science and economics body of research.

Note: this information has been incorporated into the rebuttal to the myth “CO2 limits will harm the economy”

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About the Author

Zach is tryin' to help society help itself (and other species) with the power of the word. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director and chief editor, but he's also the president of Important Media and the director/founder of EV Obsession and Solar Love. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, and Canada. Zach has long-term investments in TSLA, FSLR, SPWR, SEDG, & ABB — after years of covering solar and EVs, he simply has a lot of faith in these particular companies and feels like they are good cleantech companies to invest in. But he offers no professional investment advice and would rather not be responsible for you losing money, so don't jump to conclusions.

  • Evan Pallesen

    Only problem is, the whole thing is a political fabrication. Technically and scientifically (as in basic physics) there is no such thing as a greenhouse gas. It’s all about a stupid mistake by Arhenius which had been called out and dismissed by serious physicists by 1908!

  • Jovet

    What a bunch of excrement. Give me a break.

  • Rogier F. van Vlissingen

    The biggest detraction from more clean energy is the popular delusion of prioritizing energy efficiency over renewable energy, combined with bad economic analysis, and financial planning. Every property owner should do a 30-year capital budget for energy, instead of focusing on tinkering in the margin with energy savings, and saving themselves poor. http://www.vliscony.com/2013/10/13/new-york-green-bank/

    • Bob_Wallace

      ” popular delusion of prioritizing energy efficiency over renewable energy”
      A delusion?

      On what planet does it make more sense to install more solar panels to power an incandescent light bulb rather than switch to a CFL for less than a dollar?

      • Rogier F. van Vlissingen

        It all depends on the property, but as long as people let their decisions be guided by the short term marginal economics of energy savings, they’ll be buying screwy light bulbs till the cows come home and fritter away the capital to go solar. In actual fact, you do both, it’s just that prioritizing energy savings over renewable energy generation produces the wrong economic and financial decisions. Penny wise and pounds foolish.

        • Bob_Wallace

          You are making global statements which do not hold.

          • Rogier F. van Vlissingen

            On the contrary, this is project finance 101. Every case is different but you have to do the analysis. The Energy Efficiency craze benefits energy companies, and manufacturers of screwy lightbulbs, if it promotes justifying equipment based on marginal energy savings, which goes at the expense of potential property appreciation from renewable energy projects. If property owners took the trouble to do a 30 year capital budget for energy infrastructure in their properties, VASTLY MORE renewable energy projects would be built. This would quickly make a dent in two very real problems: greater reductions of green house gas emissions, and boosting property appreciation, by moving energy from liabilities to assets. Mere energy savings does no such thing.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I’m off the grid. I’ve been off the grid for over 20 years. I can do and have done the math.

            It is cheaper to avoid demand than to create supply.

            With efficiency we lower demand which makes it easier to reduce fossil fuel use. The renewable capacity we add goes straight to replacing fossil fuel generation rather than servicing new demand.

          • Rogier F. van Vlissingen

            hats off to you for being off the grid! “Cheaper” is contextual. If you own the property, the only way to answer that question is to do a 30 year CAPM model of your energy infrastructure, and the answers will then depend on what’s possible from an engineering/architectural, and permitting persperctive. They way the utility industry (and the government) teaches us do “do the math” services only the utility industry and NOT property owners.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Being off the grid makes no sense except in unusual circumstances.

            Setting up ones own utility company makes no sense unless one lives in a place where electricity is inordinately expensive.

          • Kent^Clive

            Yes if you are off the grid I agree, But if you are on the grid then that would be a lie, because grid tied solar still add to fossil fuel been used. Capacity of on grid system solar has not reduced loading of the grid demand. It is only those that live off the grid can benefit climate change levels and those that continue to say that on grid solar is saving the planet is truly wrong.

  • T Graves
  • Nathan

    Renewable power sources solar PV and biomass are both more CO2-intense than nuclear.

    • Bob_Wallace

      The data I’ve seen on lifetime carbon footprint puts wind lowest, then nuclear, then PV solar. But all three are so low that picking one over the others based on carbon footprint doesn’t make sense. They are all so much lower than coal/natural gas/petroleum that the difference between them is irrelevant.

      The important variables we should use in our choices for fossil fuel replacement are cost, safety and time to bring on line.

      The carbon released by biomass/gas shouldn’t be counted against it. This is carbon that was already in the system. (Some oil is used in transport.) Fossil fuel use involves bringing carbon out of sequestration.

  • jfreed27

    A carbon tax has upsides for the American citizen and, sadly, only downsides for Dirty Energy with their smaller market share. Boo hoo. That’s life in the free market, fellah!

    The fees collected- all would be refunded back to the citizen as a check or reduction in payroll taxes, or reduced deficit. (Daryl Issa could watch IRS like a hawk, which is fine). So, if you still want to buy dirty energy, you can with the rebate. But, you may choose not too, with its higher price.

    Finally, dirty energy would pay a bit for its own pollution, and the citizen could choose relatively less expensive green energy, efficiency, etc. Companies – more of them- might “go solar” instead of buying the more expensive coal energy.

    Also, US industries would be protected by a tariff on imports with a high carbon footprint.

  • Brian H

    Completely bogus. Hangs on fantastical presumptions and assumptions all over the place, beginning with the CO2 → warming one (which has been decisively falsified by Nature over the last decade or two) and especially the nonsensical “costs” attributed to it. Like the “climate refugees”, whose flows turned out to be negative, reversed.

    Adaptation is about 50X cheaper than mitigation, even using the egregiously exaggerated IPCC assumptions.

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  • Talk2rickconrad

       The evidence I would like to see is the total lifecycle, Cradle to Grave, carbon impact for the manufacture, transportation, erection, operation and decommissioning of an industrial wind.  

    • Bob_Wallace
    • in addition to Bob’s link, that was clearly part of the study above (how else would they be comparing these various energy sources). you can dig into that if you really would like to learn more.

    • jfreed27

      And also for nuclear..

      • Bob_Wallace

        From the notes I’ve kept…

        “Nuclear energy is not low carbon

        The industry claims that nuclear energy is “carbon free” because while a nuclear plant operates, it does not directly burn hydrocarbons.

        However, from a life-cycle analysis, nuclear energy is a carbon hog. Plant construction – cement, steel, and complex electronics – is carbon intensive. The nuclear fuel cycle – mining, milling, enriching, fabrication, transport, and processing nuclear waste – is carbon intensive.

        Halogenated compounds used in uranium refining have a greater impact on global heating than carbon dioxide.

        Finally, when a nuclear plant’s 40-to-60 year life is over, decommissioning adds more carbon costs and leaves a radioactive, lifeless blotch on the landscape. Many studies confirm that nuclear electricity is not low-carbon; here are three:

        A study of carbon and nuclear power by the Australian government and Sydney University, found that nuclear plants emit about 60 grams of carbon-dioxide equivalent per Kilowatt-hour of electricity 3-times the comparable emissions from wind turbines.

        The International Energy Agency’s 2006 World Energy Outlook, a pro-nuclear report, found that among the alternatives – wind, solar, hydro – nuclear power yielded the lowest emission reductions.

        At Stanford University, Dr. Mark Jacobson compared the lifetime CO2 emissions of energy sources, “Review of Global Warming Solutions,” and found nuclear electricity to be the highest non-hydrocarbon option, emitting between six and 60-times more carbon than wind and concentrated solar.”


      • Bob_Wallace

        And here –

        “A systematic review and harmonization of life cycle assessment (LCA) literature of nuclear electricity generation technologies was performed to determine causes of and, where possible, reduce variability in estimates of life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to clarify the state of knowledge and inform decision making. LCA literature indicates that life cycle GHG emissions from nuclear power are a fraction of traditional fossil sources, but the conditions and assumptions under which nuclear power are deployed can have a significant impact on the magnitude of life cycle GHG emissions relative to renewable technologies.

        Screening 274 references yielded 27 that reported 99 independent estimates of life cycle GHG emissions from light water reactors (LWRs). The published median, interquartile range (IQR), and range for the pool of LWR life cycle GHG emission estimates were 13, 23, and 220 grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour (g CO2-eq/kWh), respectively. After harmonizing methods to use consistent gross system boundaries and values for several important system parameters, the same statistics were 12, 17, and 110 g CO2-eq/kWh, respectively. Harmonization (especially of performance characteristics) clarifies the estimation of central tendency and variability.

        To explain the remaining variability, several additional, highly influential consequential factors were examined using other methods. These factors included the primary source energy mix, uranium ore grade, and the selected LCA method. For example, a scenario analysis of future global nuclear development examined the effects of a decreasing global uranium market-average ore grade on life cycle GHG emissions. Depending on conditions, median life cycle GHG emissions could be 9 to 110 g CO2-eq/kWh by 2050.”


        • jfreed27

          Thanks. I calculated that (based on 34 kwh/gallon of gas), burning gas produces about 270 g. CO2/kwh. Let’s take a midpoint of 60g CO2/kwh for nuclear.

          So, nuclear is far from clean.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Nuclear is “cleanish”.

            If we didn’t have better (cheaper, safer, faster to install) options then nuclear would be the best way to get us off fossil fuels.

            We could live with melt-downs, radiation illness/deaths and modest areas of uninhabitable land much easier than extreme climate change which would kill billions and make most of the land largely uninhabitable.

            But we’ve got much better options than nuclear. We’re lucky.

          • jmdesp

            That’s an old comment, but still it’s important that you didn’t *at all* understand the words above. They say that the median value of CO2 emission of nuclear is 12 CO2-eq/kWh, and that there’s one crazy value a bit above 110 that makes the value of the difference between the lowest value and the highest one to be 110. Your **midpoint** has no meaning.
            And this crazy study is well known, this is the Storm & Smith study, which is full of errors, like using the assumption that enrichment is made coal fueled gaseous diffusion enrichment. There’s today not a single gaseous diffusion enrichment plant used in the world, all have been replaced by centrifuge which are many times more efficient, and laser enrichment is coming, which will allow in future to use low concentration ores without rising the CO2 emissions.

            Also, even using 60g CO2/kw, this still less than the LCA of solar panels in China.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Here’s the latest out of the NREL. As we can see the difference in LCA for wind, solar and nuclear is too small to be of importance when the task ahead is eliminating fossil fuel use.


            The metric which is driving decisions is cost.

    • jfreed27

      There is a thorough study of wind LCA at


      The upshot is that a wind turbine produces more that 20,000 times the energy used in its life cycle.

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