Zetland Article English Translation (click here for original Danish article)
Meet the activist who has devised a plan for the 100% climate solution. Without any more fruitless UN summits
April 15, 2020
It first and foremost requires a lot of new equipment to fix the climate, says climate activist Solomon Goldstein-Rose in his new book. Collage: Mikkel Bøgild Jacobsen, Zetland
Thomas Hebsgaard writes about climate, energy and nature. He has a penchant for cross-border issues and stories that can shake up entrenched preconceptions through data and science.
Many call for swift action to curb the climate crisis, but few have a coherent idea of what needs to be accomplished. In his new book The 100% Solution, the US climate activist Solomon Goldstein-Rose presents a comprehensive plan that has been praised by, among others, star scientists James Hansen and Steven Pinker for actually solving the problem in time - even without all the countries of the world first coming to an agreement.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose says he has been a climate activist since he was 11 years old. At that time, the UN's annual climate summits had already taken place ten times. Every year, the summits cause thousands of climate activists to rally, demanding that the world's top politicians enter into agreements with each other to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But this is not where Solomon Goldstein-Rose has his focus.
In his new book, which is about how we solve the climate crisis, the 26-year-old climate activist mentions the UN's greatest success - the 2015 Paris climate agreement - only once. And it is in a parenthesis which states that no major country is on track to meet the goals of the agreement. In this way, the engineer-trained former state politician is a rather atypical climate activist: he simply does not believe that the UN process is the way forward if the climate crisis is to be resolved.
“I don't even want to say that I've lost faith in the process. I never believed in it to begin with,” he says. “It would be nice if the countries could make greater progress with these agreements. And the negotiations are good for inspiring countries to take on individual commitments. But right now, the entire negotiating framework is based on a mistaken idea that all countries are capable of making individual choices to become carbon neutral."
It is a well-thought-out young man who appears on the video link from across the Atlantic. He chooses his words carefully and obviously takes great pains to express himself in an accurate and nuanced way. He is wearing a white shirt, and on his bookcase is his new book with the front facing the camera. The 100% Solution, it states, with the subtitle A Plan for Solving Climate Change. It sounds ambitious, and so it is. The book has been briefly reviewed in both The New York Times and Nature, but had it not been for the coronavirus crisis, it would probably have received some more attention.
Read more about the book here.
As a mere 22-year-old, Solomon Goldstein-Rose was elected to the state legislature in the US east coast state of Massachusetts on an agenda that focused, among other things, on clean energy. In 2018, he decided to leave local politics to focus all his efforts on national and international climate activism, and the book stems from his attempt to understand where our greenhouse gas emissions come from and what to do to get rid of them. And that's not climate summits, but something else entirely, he thinks.
The starting point for Solomon Goldstein-Rose's analysis is the fact that around two-thirds of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions occur in developing countries, where investments in climate must compete with investments in basic improvements in people's living conditions.
“These countries cannot just decide to become climate neutral. They can't just make that choice and then accept the burden because most people in these countries are still pretty poor and only have access to energy because it is as cheap as it is. Right now, fossil fuels are lifting people out of poverty,” says Solomon Goldstein-Rose.
Therefore, he concludes, the first priority of any climate activist should not be to get all countries in the world to agree on ambitious climate goals. No, the first priority should be to push to make clean technology so cheap that it simply outperforms the dirty. Then the transition will take place entirely by itself in all countries, climate agreements or not. No one will burn coal to make electricity if you can get cheaper and equally stable electricity from wind, solar, or other sources. No one will buy a fossil fuel car if an electric car is cheaper. Most of the technologies are there, they simply have to be scaled up so that the price can come down. And the point is that that is something which a single large country (for example the US) or a group of rich countries (for example in Europe) could 'just' decide to do. Then the rest of the world will automatically switch to the cheaper, cleaner technologies. And that is what Solomon Goldstein-Rose’s plan is all about.
"Here in the industrialized countries, we should not merely ‘do our part’ to make ourselves carbon neutral and hope that everyone else does their part too," he says. “We can solve the whole problem by scaling up these technologies, by making investments that will also be beneficial to ourselves because they will lower our energy costs and create new jobs and industries that can help revitalize the economy."
Even before the release of The 100% Solution, the book received warm recommendations from star researchers James Hansen and Steven Pinker, among many others. Pinker is, in addition to being a professor of cognitive psychology at Harvard University, one of the most influential intellectuals of the moment. James Hansen is, in climatic circles, known for being the first to seriously put climate change on the agenda in the United States with a famous testimony to Congress, in which he predicted in 1988 the rampant temperature rise we have since seen. On the Solomon Goldstein-Rose website on The 100% Solution, James Hansen is quoted as saying: “Finally - a global plan that actually adds up. Solomon knows what he is talking about.”
This little video from Yale University explains why James Hansen's testimony was something special.
Due to the coronavirus crisis, Solomon Goldstein-Rose now has to lead activism from the home office - and so he does, via video link.
And what is Solomon Goldstein-Rose talking about, then? The core of the book is his description of five 'pillars' on which he has concluded that a green transition should rest. The goal is to keep the temperature rise down to one and a half degrees, and this means that greenhouse gas emissions must go down to zero over the next three decades and then go into the negative, so that for a period of time we will actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
The first pillar is electricity generation. Today, just over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions occur at power plants that burn coal, gas, or oil to generate electricity. The fossil fuels need to be replaced by something else, and here Solomon Goldstein-Rose relies on a massive expansion of wind power, solar power, and nuclear power in particular.
His thoughts here are quite interesting because the debate about clean electricity often ends in a kind of trench warfare for and against nuclear power. In one trench, people refer to a number of examples of delayed and expensive nuclear projects and believe that nuclear power is too slow and expensive (and sometimes dangerous) to make sense as a climate solution. In the other trench, it is believed that nuclear power is almost the only possible solution, because nuclear power has the greatest development potential among emissions-free energy sources, and because nuclear power plants - unlike wind turbines and solar cells - also produce electricity at night and when there is no wind.
If you want to delve further into why nuclear power in many people's eyes is absolutely essential, read here.
Here, Solomon Goldstein-Rose approaches the debate with a slightly different argument than what is usually heard from any of the two trenches.
"When it comes to wind and solar, we have produced the same models over and over again, we have constantly improved the design, we have built millions of units and the price has dropped a lot," he says. Nuclear power, on the other hand, we have never tried to do on a large scale.
“Nuclear power has the potential to come down in price much further,” says Solomon Goldstein-Rose. "We have never tried to produce one particular design of nuclear power plant in more than maybe 30 copies."
The second pillar is electrification. That is, anything that can run on electricity should do so. Cars, trucks, ferries, tractors, mopeds, everything. Your home needs to be heated using electricity, bathing water needs to be heated by electricity, and so on. This is completely in line with what experts all over the world have long said, but that does not make the point less important.
The third pillar is synthesized fuels. After all, not everything can run on electricity. For example, decades from now, fuel will still be needed for aircraft that must fly long distances, because fuels can store the necessary energy in much less space and with much less weight than batteries can. A number of industrial processes also require very high temperatures, which can only be achieved by burning some sort of fuel.
In both cases, according to Solomon Goldstein-Rose, the solution is synthesized fuels, which in most cases are hydrogen-based. Today, most hydrogen is produced from natural gas, a process that emits CO2, but hydrogen can also be produced by electrolysis, using clean electricity to split water into oxygen and hydrogen. The problem is that the electrolysis is expensive. The equipment must go down in price if synthesized fuels are to compete with fossil fuels.
In a Danish context, this is particularly interesting, because there are a lot of Danish companies who want a Danish investment in precisely synthesized fuels based on hydrogen. The technology is also known as Power-to-X, and when the government's climate partners from business sectors delivered their input to the climate negotiations in parliament in March, Power-to-X was mentioned all over their reports.
The fourth pillar is amendments that can remove all emissions that do not originate from fossil fuel burning. And that actually applies to more than a third of the total. This category includes CO2 emissions from deforestation, methane emissions from livestock and rice fields, nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizers, CO2 emissions from chemical reactions in the steel and cement industries, and methane emissions from waste and wastewater. The category also includes some quite large emissions from the fossil energy industries, in which methane escapes from both coal and natural gas production.
As the long list here suggests, this part is quite complicated, and this is perhaps also where Solomon Goldstein-Rose comes off most youthfully optimistic. For example, he envisions a global outreach and education program for agriculture, which, with money from one or more rich governments, must inform all farmers around the world about the most climate-friendly cultivation methods. On the other hand, he is very sober - and by the way quite in line with the heavy industry in Denmark - when he recommends addressing emissions from cement plants with technology to capture and store CO2. Nor is he blind to the fact that more harsh methods may be necessary for countries that do not act by themselves. It could be something like a climate tariff on imported goods, or a requirement to curb deforestation included in trade agreements. The latter policy could, for example, apply to a country such as Brazil, which alone accounts for almost half of tropical deforestation, which makes up about ten percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
Brazil accounts for about 45 percent of all deforestation, Indonesia for about nine percent. See here.
"Brazil is unique in the sense that it is just about the only country that can destroy everything because of the Amazon rainforest, and that's where diplomatic pressure actually becomes really important," says Solomon Goldstein-Rose. “If the EU enters into trade agreements with Brazil, it can demand the preservation of all the forest that exists today. And you can do the same with Indonesia, which is the second most important country when it comes to deforestation.”
The fifth pillar is negative emissions. That is, technologies and measures that can remove CO2 from the atmosphere. From the beginning of the book, Solomon Goldstein-Rose states that the decisive factor for temperature rise on the planet is not our annual emissions, but the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And like many other experts and observers, he no longer believes that it is possible to limit the level to a point where the temperature rises only one and a half degrees, unless we also start removing CO2 from the atmosphere in a large way. This is partly because of the quantities we have already emitted, and partly because some emissions can be difficult to get rid of in time, since so much equipment in factories and in private homes has to be replaced.
We can, according to Solomon Goldstein-Rose, get off to a good start by planting trees, restoring wetlands and absorbing CO2 in farmland. But we also probably need some CO2-capturing machines, which are still quite expensive to operate. The machines can filter CO2 out of the air, after which the CO2 can be stored underground. According to Solomon Goldstein-Rose, one can imagine that one or a few countries will pay to make the machines cheap and put them to use, partly because the technology can also be used to make synthesized fuels. Then "hundreds of billions of dollars" a year must be spent on keeping the machines (and other CO2-absorbing initiatives) running.
And that is the 100 percent solution, as Solomon Goldstein-Rose envisions it. The entire book is characterized by an engineer-like, sober approach to the problem, which is liberatingly practical and void of ideological quarrels and technology scares of all kinds - and that helps make the book something special. Just like the discussion on climate and nuclear power, the discussion on climate and technology often ends in a form of trench warfare. Some think that we need to invent a lot of new technology to save ourselves, others that we already have all the technology we need. Solomon Goldstein-Rose offers an interesting way out of the locked-down positions.
Yes, he wants far more money to develop technologies that are still in their early stages. But at the same time, he calls for a focus on government grants, regulatory requirements and other incentives where they can help bring down the cost of necessary technologies. Much of the effort, he believes, should be put into what is called the 'valley of death' for new technologies. This is where new technologies run the risk of ending up when a researcher has demonstrated the principle in a laboratory, but no one has yet demonstrated that it can scale up to a level where private investors dare to buy into the idea. By fishing technologies out of the 'valley of death' and making them commercially viable, one can really make a difference, argues Solomon Goldstein-Rose.
As the young writer and climate activist puts it, it seems almost simple to solve the climate crisis - and that is probably the greatest strength of Solomon Goldstein-Rose’s book. But it is also a key point for him that too few politicians and activists have made clear how much mobilization is actually needed. It is of no use to plead for small steps in the right direction, he states in the book's introduction. Massive action is needed.
The best analogy for what is required, he writes, is the efforts of World War II. Then, in just four years, the United States went from building around 12,000 warplanes a year to building more than 100,000. This speaks to both the scale needed and the idea that it is possible.
"If we could make those hundreds of thousands of aircraft in five years," writes Solomon Goldstein-Rose, "we can certainly also transform the world's energy system in 30 if we innovate and scale up technology to a truly large extent."
Solomon Goldstein-Rose estimates that "a few hundred billion dollars a year" will be needed for research and development, which can bring all the necessary technologies down in price and scale. It's a lot of money, but the amount should be seen in the context that the United States' Congress just spent $2 trillion to mitigate the economic consequences of another escalating crisis, namely the coronavirus crisis.
In Denmark, we have decided that our small nation must be carbon neutral by 2050. But even though we are rich, we do not have the same sort of economic ability to move the entire world technologically forward as for example the United States does. So how should we think about our own climate action in relation to the plan proposed by Solomon Goldstein-Rose? I ask him that on the slightly crackling video connection.
“There is a big overlap between saying that you want to be carbon neutral, and to say that you want to scale up these technologies. The steps you would take are often the same,” he replies. "But I think the strategic thinking here is: What can we do that will make a difference outside our own country?"
For example, a small country, Solomon Goldstein-Rose believes, can focus on developing and deploying certain necessary technologies very quickly. Even if you do not have an economy of a size that allows you to scale up to a price drop, you can demonstrate the technology so that others can scale it up when they see it working. The important thing is that something happens over the next five to 15 years. “Then you have the next 20 years to get the rest of the world to start using the technologies as well. We need countries that can scale up the things we need quickly so they can come down in price quickly enough - because it will take a few decades to roll them out, even when they have become cheaper,” says Solomon Goldstein Rose.
"Denmark has shown great leadership in wind power, so it could be an area to focus on," he says. For example, Denmark, Solomon Goldstein-Rose believes, could think about how we could help make offshore wind significantly cheaper than technology is now on track for - and perhaps combine it with the production of carbon neutral hydrogen.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose's book was published on March 31, just as the coronavirus crisis hit the United States with full force. And although, as mentioned, the book has been briefly reviewed in The New York Times and Nature, it has in no way received the mention that one might otherwise have expected. Instead of traveling around the country in an attempt to bring together the United States ' Climate Change activists on its message, Solomon Goldstein-Rose has to settle for video conferencing. And the crisis mood that had been pervasive around climate change has now been replaced by a much more acute coronavirus crisis mood.
However, Solomon Goldstein-Rose is among those who hope that the world's politicians will seize the opportunity to invest in climate and green jobs when the economy still needs help to get back on a normal footing on the other side of the acute health crisis. This, he believes, will also be the best way to get out of the economic downturn.
"I think the things that we should do to solve the climate crisis anyway have become much more necessary and obvious to governments now, but the question is how boldly they are willing to act," he says.
While Solomon Goldstein-Rose, like everyone else, is waiting to see what politicians will do on the other side of the coronavirus crisis's most acute phase, he concentrates on continuing where his book stops: namely, where the conversation begins to be about how you create a positive narrative about the whole transition so that the discussion is not about sacrifice and renunciation, but about opportunities and economic progress. This is very much what he is currently doing with webinars with other US climate activists.
"If we can communicate effectively, it can make the political side of the solution dramatically easier," says Solomon Goldstein-Rose.
The key message, he believes, should be that it will actually be an economic benefit for a country to invest in the technologies we need to fix the climate because it can provide growth, jobs and new export opportunities.
"There is no sacrifice necessary, no 'let's do our part and take on a burden.' If steps we take can't help lower the price of the clean systems we need, they can't be scaled up to the whole world anyway - and then they won't be of any help.”
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