Ezra Silk’s take on the new 100% bill: pick up the pace!

Ezra Silk of The Climate Mobilization has taken an unpopular position on the April 17th draft of the 100% by 2050 bill, saying it is too incremental and insufficiently comprehensive.  Most of all it is not what we need to meet the challenge of this historic moment.  Let’s draft what we need, what youth are calling for!

#1: Let’s have a bill that will solve the climate crisis and make the transition we need in the next 10-15 years!

In a blog post for 350.org, Senator Jeff Merkley acknowledged as much: “This legislation isn’t designed to solve the crisis on its own, but to put forward a clear way to end the primary driver of global warming: our addiction to fossil fuels.”[2]  If the bill stands little chance of passage and is meant as a rallying cry for the climate movement, why not go big and try to actually solve the climate crisis?  Ezra argues for building a zero greenhouse gas emissions economy in ten years or less (Yes, we CAN do this, with some attention and effort!).  He adds that we should be tackling all sources of greenhouse gas emissions – including the food system and talking about how we can remove the carbon in the atmosphere that’s already too much, to get back to pre-industrial greenhouse gas concentrations, avoid melting Antarctic ice or Arctic permafrost or screwing up weather patterns.  Ending the even broader ecological crisis will require additional efforts, such as preserving half the Earth, combating overfishing to restore the oceans, slowing population growth, and phasing out planned obsolescence. Shifting to a renewable energy economy is an excellent first step — but will absolutely not save us from climate oblivion.

#2: There is no carbon budget left – the earth is already too hot.

For humanity to have a good chance of holding warming permanently below 1.5°C (which itself is far too high for safety), there is no carbon budget left to burn.[3] [4] [5] Last year, bloggers for 350.org acknowledged that there is no carbon budget left for staying below the 1.5°C target.[6]

This means we need to stop emitting greenhouse right now.

And according to climate scientist Michael Mann, even if we did that, the current carbon dioxide concentrations of approximately ~405 ppm are already high enough to produce a catastrophic 2°C of warming, which would devastate African farmers’ ability to grow food and would cause a large-scale release of greenhouse gases from thawing permafrost.[7]

Furthermore, the earth is already too hot for safety and morality. Late last December, parts of the Arctic were 30°F to 50°F warmer than average.[8]  To be honest, we really need to cool the Earth and restore a safe climate with 0°C warming above pre-industrial levels. Over 20 million people face starvation as an unprecedented four countries face famine at once, with CBS News identifying climate change as the culprit behind this assault on the world’s poorest people.[9] “We stand at a critical point in history,” says U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien. “Already at the beginning of the year, we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”[10]

We are out of time. This truth necessitates a halt to new greenhouse gas emissions, an emergency phase-out of existing emissions, and a massive greenhouse gas drawdown effort. And such a crash program means a mobilization on the scale of our effort in World War II, as Senator Sanders courageously pointed out in his televised Brooklyn debate with Secretary Clinton in April of 2016.

#3: We can’t wait 13 years to start regulating utilities and carmakers.  In fact, best estimates are we should/will entirely make this shift by 2030.

Starting in 2030, the “100 by ’50 Act” establishes cap-and-trade schemes incentivizing utilities and carmakers to slowly shift toward renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles to arrive at 100% by 2050. (Starting in 2030 is way too late, to the point of irrelevance!  As Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers recently reported: electric and self-driving cars will dominate roads by 2030, representing 95% of miles driven.  If we were/are serious, we’d say, we need to stop producing fossil fuel powered vehicles now, since we can and we have good alternatives.  There is going to be a glut of leftover gas guzzlers.  Manufacture parts for those who want them, forever, but we need to stop producing them en masse and prepare for the new economy!  India is trying to figure out how to be 100% EV by 2030 and Germany has estimated ).  Why set a target of 50% renewable electricity by 2030, when Al Gore told the world back in 2008 we could switch entirely to 100% renewable electricity in 10 years (and must now do it even faster)?[11]

#4: We can’t and don’t need to wait 33 years to end fossil fuels. 80% by 2030 should be our minimum.

The “100 by ’50 Act” would not end America’s reliance on fossil fuels until 2050. Fortunately, recent research by Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Danish Center for Energy Technology, suggests that with progressive governments in place backed by powerful social movements, the transition off of fossil fuels could occur much more rapidly than previous energy transitions.[12]

Other authorities on rapid energy transitions suggest we can move much more quickly than the “100 by ’50 Act” attempts. In a 2009 study published in Scientific American, Professors Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi argued it was technically and economically feasible to transition the entire world to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, citing the conversion of the automobile industry during WWII as a model for such a shift.[13] Five years later, former Greenpeace International CEO Paul Gilding argued that the entire world could abolish fossil fuels “within a decade” once humanity shifts onto the equivalent of a war footing.[14] Ahead of the Paris climate conference in 2015, a substantial number of environmental leaders and experts called on the U.S. to adopt a zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 target.[15]

#5: This is not a true WWII-scale mobilization bill. We can move more quickly than this.  Tesla is already scaling more quickly than vehicle and aircraft assembly did in WWII.  It’s the government that has barely begun to move and is not giving good signals yet.

Although the bill would create a climate bonds program and establish a National Climate Change Council — a central planning-and-coordination agency reminiscent of the War Production Board of WWII — similarities with America’s home front mobilization of the ‘40s stop there.  For instance, in 1945, America devoted over 41% of the economy to defense spending. This bill would devote at most $150 billion — or just under 1% of the $18.5 trillion U.S. economy — to climate protection annually.  Climate change and the health and well-being of people is what our focus should be now, and it deserves our full effort.

We did get serious and devote our full effort in the 40s:  Following Pearl Harbor, the federal government moved immediately to transform the economy through emergency regulations and a gold rush of generous subsidies. All private automobile production was banned in a matter of weeks and American industry was converted extraordinarily rapidly into the “Arsenal of Democracy.” In 1941, under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, we moved within three years — within three years — to rebuild our economy to defeat Nazism and Japanese imperialism. That is exactly the kind of approach we need right now.   And we can do even better now, especially together.

** http://spectrum.ieee.org/cars-that-think/transportation/self-driving/rethinkx-selfdriving-electric-cars-will-dominate-roads-by-2030

Within 13 years self-driving cars will dominate the roads, representing some 95% of all car miles driven, according to a new study released this week. And while 40% of the cars in 2030 will still be of the old, internal combustion variety, they’ll represent just 5% of the consumer miles driven.

The report “Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030: The Disruption of Transportation and the Collapse of the Internal-Combustion Vehicle and Oil Industries,” released today by San Francisco think tank RethinkX departs from a number of forecasts in the past few years, including Moody’s and IHS Automotive, which expect the transition to self-driving cars instead to occupy multiple decades.  The rapid, Facebook-like or smartphone-like adoption curve, the report says, will be driven largely by market forces. Self-driving electric car share plans, in which consumers “subscribe” to a self-driving service much like they subscribe to a cellphone plan today, will be cheaper and more convenient for many people than owning a vehicle.

And as a result, the authors say, incumbent industries like oil, cars, insurance, and transportation will face a consumer mass migration away from their old-model products and services if they don’t start preparing for the disruption now.  Contrast these words of warning to Moody’s, for instance, whose March 2016 self-driving car study for the insurance industry assured its readers, “While self-driving cars will likely force auto insurers to rethink their business models, widespread adoption of this technology is decades away, allowing insurers plenty of time to adapt.”  James Arbib, who authored the RethinkX report with Tony Seba, says they reached their findings after “talking to a ton of people down the supply chain in all kinds of different businesses, in high-utilization EV businesses, bus companies, truck companies, car companies.” He adds, “We think when you change a business model from private ownership (of cars) to transport-as-a-service, you change a lot of other things as well.”

Arbib says the report’s dramatic conclusions hinge on a singular assumption: Fully autonomous (also called Level 5 or “wheel optional”) driving, of the kind Elon Musk famously claims will soon be available in Tesla cars, will be coming online in the early 2020s.  “This scenario in the report is based on full autonomy,” says Arbib. “Without full autonomy, the bet’s off. If it is 2030, and we certainly don’t believe that, this scenario is delayed.”

The authors’ forecast of full autonomy within years and not decades is based in part on the rapid growth of data from partially self-driving cars rolling out today. The deep learning AI systems in Waymo’s, Baidu’s, NuTonomy’s, Tesla’s, GM’s and others’ fleets get better as more data becomes available. Seba and Arbib think these cars’ self-driving capabilities will be getting markedly better as the exponentially-growing sensor, mapping and driving data comes in.

“These companies are investing billions of dollars in making this happen,” Seba says. “All you need is one operating system to work, and then you have Level 5 autonomy. And the U.S.-centered view — if it doesn’t happen here, it doesn’t happen anywhere — is a little misguided. A lot of these technologies are global. The Chinese are working on self-driving, and Europe is working on self-driving. And the first one to get it is going to be the Android or iOS of Level 5 autonomy.”

Seba adds that whenever the threshold of Level 5 autonomy is crossed, market forces they outline in the report will take over and start disrupting various sectors of the economy within a decade. On the upside, they forecast the so-called “transportation as a service” (TaaS) industry of self-driving car subscription plan providers will entail broad consumer savings compared to car ownership. The savings represent some $5600 per consumer per year or $1 trillion in additional disposable income in the U.S. alone by 2030. And productivity gains in recouping that time otherwise occupied today in driving represents another $1 trillion per year, Seba and Arbib say.

On the downside, auto dealers, car repair shops, taxicabs, buses, car insurance, filling stations, not to mention oil companies and car makers, will all be hit by a shockwave as the rapid adoption of self-driving electric vehicles drains these present-day industries of income. Which, Seba and Arbib say, could mean widespread job loss — if companies and governments today do not anticipate the deluge and begin retraining their workers for jobs of the 2020s and ‘30s.

The report’s dramatic conclusions further depend on other intermediate figures, like their assertion that compared to the internal-combustion standard, self-driving EVs will represent, “a 90% decrease in finance costs, an 80% decrease in maintenance costs, a 90% decrease in insurance costs and a 70% decrease in fuel costs.”

Those cost savings, Arbib says, come from the interviews they conducted with industry leaders and technical reports they consulted.

The financing price drop, for instance, comes from taking car ownership out of the mix. Car subscription services will increase utilization of a vehicle from 16,000-32,000 kilometers per year to 160,000 kilometers or more. And that reduces the number of years the car is in service (and thus interest paid on any financing plan) as well as increases the amount of use wrung out of it per year.

Seba says internal combustion cars have some 2000 moving parts, whereas EVs have something closer to 20. So the wear and tear and depreciation of an EV is similarly lower. And there of course won’t be fully autonomous vehicles broadly adopted till their safety record at least matches that of human drivers. But Seba and Arbib say they think autonomous safety will be significantly better than the 38,000 road deaths per year (U.S.) presently. Which would mean great news for the epidemic of car accidents today, although perhaps less-than-rosy news for the car insurance business model.

The full force of the changes self-driving, electric cars will bring, Seba and Arbib say, is only being dimly appreciated today. Their prognostications carry an echo of recent Cassandras like Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Kai-Fu Lee of Sinovation Ventures in China, who warn of AI and automation inciting “social conflicts over the next 30 years [that] will hugely impact every industry,” in Ma’s words.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, Seba and Arbib say. “We see it in parts of the world right now — there is real resistance to this process,” Arbib says. “People want to reach back to some kind of past security, and stop the process. But that’s economically illiterate. What we need to do is retrain and mitigate and provide the social support networks, and we need to at least have a conversation about how we deal with this. And we don’t feel that’s being done on the basis meaningful data that can really show across the economy how this might do.”