Imagining Global Climate Action: The Patchwork Project


Suppose there were an on-going project to limit further global warming to an additional three quarters of a degree.

What would it look like?

It might look like California’s climate action “project”, but even in California, any consequential climate related regulation is under relentless  fire from industries it inconveniences.  Even its supporters acknowledge it may need some fine tuning.  One obvious criticism is that California accounts for only one percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.  We can’t save the world.  Others say we need to pay our good fortune forward.

We might ask why there is no similar but appropriately broader based project already underway. 

Or is there?

We immediately notice, not one integrated project, but a lot, hundreds, thousands, of aspirational initiatives scattered about.  Generally, they aim to reduce “carbon footprints”.  For example, some California jurisdictions and agencies have goals to achieve some dimension of “carbon neutrality” by 2050, e.g. in the electricity sector.  Many local California jurisdictions have “climate action plans” targeting vehicle miles traveled and other transportation metrics.  In the buildings sector, California is working on “net zero” standards that would be applied to new residential buildings as soon as 2020. 

An active, on-going discussion of appropriate metrics is underway.  California even has legislation that, in an emissions allowance trading format, attempts to allocate financial resources by charging to pollute and then, perhaps, using the proceeds to fund projects that don’t pollute. 

From a distance it appears that similar initiatives are cropping up unevenly in some other parts of the US and in stable economies elsewhere around the globe.  In the aggregate they appear to be loosely related to the climate action commitments a large number of countries made in Paris.  There are also some country-level commitments, e.g. by India and China, to dramatic GHG emissions reductions but only after on-going dramatic carbon emissions increases are locked in.  

Of course, in countries and places afflicted by economic crises, wars and political upheaval, climate action initiatives lack many essential ingredients.  This hard-to-ignore reality, by itself, argues for urgency.  Slow climate action surely increases the potential for crises, wars, and upheaval.  One wonders at what point climate-derivative dysfunctions will overwhelm the possibility of sufficient and timely planet-level climate action.  Or are we already there?[1]

Project Design Considerations

  1. Technology advances are out-pacing energy infrastructure adaptation.  Carbon emission elimination steps need to plug in now rather than await action by the owners and operators of existing infrastructure assets. 
  2. Conventional economic wisdom in the energy sector, primarily the premise that project costs relate inversely to project scale, is being overturned as economies of equipment manufacturing scale begin to overwhelm any economies of over-all system scale.
  3. Transparent and publicly accountable local political institutions can agree on policies for climate action much more readily than their more centralized counter-parts.  Even in the US, where, arguably, our national government is transparent and accountable, an “all of the above” energy policy seems to be the best we can do.  In other words it basically means “more of the same”.  It allows for concessions that protect incumbent industries but at the expense of political agreement on long term direction. 

A “Patchwork” Project

What we can see now in hazy outline is a project that, if it is proceeding at all, is proceeding as a patchwork.  If climate action were a quilt, we might detect the tiniest of squares as the only ones  ready to be sewn in.  Tiny (on a global scale) squares like all-electric solar powered homes, the all-electric solar powered neighborhood, electric vehicles charged from on-site solar arrays, and the occasional solar powered micro-grid.  By themselves they seem insignificant, but in numbers that are realistically possible, and managed together with other decentralized resources, they are probably our best hope. 

Meanwhile, there is a growing movement for energy sector decentralization that manifests as localization of energy production enabled by local agencies and focused on local energy service.  Not surprisingly, this movement is more easily enabled by strong and unified central governments than weak, politically polarized governments.  California offers a hopeful and experience-based, but still fragile, example.  California’s community choice movement basically offers much faster local climate action at lower energy user costs than current, more centralized approaches. 

Suffice to say it would be best if all the patches were stitched together, but they don’t have to be.  For example, simple, rugged technology is available to create highlyreliable and cost effective micro-grids.  Their cost-effectiveness improves to the extent the operations and architecture of regional and local grids enable optimized internal and external integration.  And of course, it is in a state’s or nation’s interest to enable the latter, but it will not be an economic or reliability show-stopper if they choose not to.

Even larger squares in the finished patchwork will include the service territories of energy utilities that source their electricity from 100% renewable sources.  Also included will be dealerships of vehicle manufacturers who specialize in vehicles powered by electricity, plus the assets of natural gas utility companies that have successfully converted their infrastructure and sources to deliver renewably generated hydrogen rather than “natural” gas. 

A plausible vision?  Yes.  A traditional project?  No, but traditional projects are instructive. 

Successful traditional projects have a plan whose most basic ingredients include clear measures of success, valid assumptions, a budget, a schedule, a work plan, a client, and most importantly, a team whose members are accountable to one another.  Does the on-going patchwork project have these? 

Yes and no.  Mostly no.  But there is no reason it can’t.

How to Design a Patchwork Climate Action Project: 

  1. The measure of success and unstated assumption driving the current climate action project is that the pieces will all fit together if the architecture of our national and regional energy grids changes according to various foreseeable contingencies, e.g. heavier reliance on renewable sources, better real time and automated control of power flows (especially close to the point of energy use), and better integration of on-site supply with on-site use.  A lot of detailed thinking is going into this, mostly sponsored by the US Department of Energy.  The implementation team, aka “stakeholders”, were originally thought to be companies and institutions rather than people and their communities.  Some re-thinking is in order.  
  2. This basic assumption seems to be changing at the margins, and in a direction consistent with a “patchwork” vision.  It’s no surprise that the change manifests in DOE’s SunShot Initiative - solar energy has long been the best solution to grid limitations.  Thought is now being given to how the Initiative can engage with and support local communities - a welcome but heavy lift for a Federal agency which struggles to engage successfully with comparably sized entities, i.e. states and global industries. 
  3. In a more traditional project, there would be a budget for the patches as well as for the fabric.  Clearly, money is being spent on both, but sources are diverse and independent.  So, every patch and every thread of the connecting fabric will need to make sense independent of one another, both initially and when everything is eventually stitched together.  This could slow things down, and/or require smarter and more integrative planning, especially at the patch level.
  4. In a more traditional project, the schedule would recognize the various tasks and their interdependencies.  (You can’t start task X until you’ve completed task Y, and so forth).  It feels like a good thing that our national laboratories are being funded to think about the fabric to which the patches attach.  But there is no discernable traditional schedule for this work.
  5. Regarding a work plan, we seem to be in familiar territory, at least in California.  Our work plan prior to our 2002 electricity crisis relied on private sector “stakeholders” to resist the temptation to exploit their new-found market power.  They didn’t.  One obvious lesson is not to concentrate so much market power in too few organizations and “stakeholders”.  We still do.  We don’t yet have a political work plan that responds to fundamental technology and cost shifts that favor decentralization.     
  6. Fundamentally, the project client is, or needs to be, us.  All of us.  Can’t be anyone else, because we are actually already paying for the work and will be using the product. 
  7. We are also the project team.  Corporate and elected “decision-makers” place limitations on what we are able to do but also could work along-side us.  Some are starting to.  Holding more of them accountable to do so is part of our team’s work.
  8. Accountability varies.  It mostly resides locally, especially in our fractious and compartmentalized Federal political system.  If accountability resided elsewhere, the folks whose national, state and corporate policy decisions resulted in the climate emergency we face would have some explaining to do. 

But they were only following orders.  CEOs were accountable to shareholders who measured their performance according to fluctuations in stock price.  National and state elected officials saw themselves as accountable to a shrinking minority who funded their electoral campaigns. 

Meanwhile, local elected officials had no simple and prudent way of steering the local energy ship.    

Until now. 

Pivotal role of city government

Clean, carbon-free local energy is now, quite dramatically and unannounced, cost competitive with imported energy. 

City officials can negotiate (in their constituents’ long term economic interest) terms of development agreements that penalize lack of initiative and/or attention to a development’s carbon footprint.  Frankly, the current game is rigged in favor of no energy investment at all, sticking unsuspecting building buyers with a big hidden energy mortgage in addition to the property mortgage.

City officials actually have the authority to determine who is chartered to provide energy services in their community.  They’ve had little reason to actually exercise this authority in the past.  They now have real choices with very different local carbon footprint implications and should now be expected to weigh them carefully. 

Many are doing just that, but many also lack confidence, insight and community support.  Likewise, many city governments currently lack any in house energy management capacity, capacity necessary at a minimum to map out the way forward that best fits the city’s energy profile and demographics.

Essential role of community members and local businesses

Concerned citizens can lend needed confidence, insight and support by getting involved.  We can lend expertise and help city public officials come up to speed regarding energy trends and opportunities.  Many of us are busy with patchwork projects and making patchwork project investments by reducing our own carbon footprints and learning how to manage our energy use responsibility.  We can be generous sharing experience and expertise in support of the institutions that appear to be walking the talk with us.  If they appear to be slow-walking the talk, we can offer a friendly reminder that to be late is to be irrelevant.   

Local elected officials approve plans and oversee their implementation.  From here on let’s specifically advocate for each city and jurisdiction to do a good job on local climate action and adaptation planning.  And let’s intervene if there is an obvious failure put plans into effect, let alone keep them up to date.  Political points are scored by approving plans.  It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone that points can be taken away by voters if plans are not actually implemented.

For those of us who have bandwidth and background, let’s not pin our hopes on what others could do if they weren’t preoccupied with extracting a livelihood from the institutions of our day.  Let’s find time every day to be the change we wish to see in the world, patching and stitching as if there really were a climate emergency. 

Because there is.

-- Gerry Braun

Integrated Resources Network

[1] We may be.  Syria’s civil war, whatever its complex political trajectory, appears to have been precipitated primarily by climate impacts.  See Multiply the disruption flowing from the situation in Syria by orders of magnitude and you may have an idea of the world we have been creating for our children and grandchildren.