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Takeaways from the UN Climate Conference

Blog Post | Energy & Environment

Takeaways from the UN Climate Conference

The summit revealed a growing realization that market-based solutions to climate change need to have a seat at the table.

I attended the United Nations’ COP28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates last week to represent market-based climate solutions. While I heard plenty of unrealistic solutions to the climate challenge we face, I returned to the United States optimistic about the future.

As a climate advocate who believes in market competition, I can tell you that exporting US innovation, instead of succumbing to pushes for massive wealth transfers, is how we catalyze economic prosperity while reducing worldwide emissions. Many of the solutions at COP28, to be sure, focused on having the United States and other developed nations subsidize the world’s energy consumption or prematurely divest from fossil fuels. There was even a panel on “responsible yachting,” which is especially out-of-touch.

Yet, there was also a silver lining that we haven’t seen at previous COPs. This was the first summit at which nuclear energy truly played a central role. In Dubai, 22 countries, totaling more than 50 percent of global gross domestic product, pledged to triple their nuclear power production by 2050. In a similar vein, the nuclear industry had a much larger seat at the table than usual.

Though the usual climate activists criticized the industry having a larger seat, the fact that they were there shows a growing realization that tackling climate change is impossible without energy industry players at the table. Although several of my fellow conference attendees wanted to permanently excommunicate the energy industry from the conversation, the industry, fortunately, had a prominent voice at COP28.

We must realize that blindly throwing money at climate change, banning things, and picking winning and losing technologies will deliver the worst outcomes at the highest cost. Market forces are much better than central planning for lowering emissions—without destroying the economy—in developing countries that are the fastest-growing sources of emissions. Further innovation in the nuclear field, for instance, to drive down costs and increase efficiency would be a climate game-changer on the world stage.

Encouraging innovation is the best path toward rapidly and affordably cutting emissions, and the United States has been paving the way. It was encouraging, despite the conference’s flaws, to see this on display at COP28. I was able to watch sessions on the importance of carbon capture technology and private sector leadership—areas we don’t always hear about in the mainstream climate discourse.

The United States has led the world in reducing emissions because of innovation, specifically fracking and horizontal drilling that created a glut of cheap natural gas. Switching from coal to natural gas cuts carbon emissions. Building nuclear plants produces abundant clean electricity. The United States has led before, and we can do so again.

That’s why calls to stunt US economic growth by paying ever-greater sums to foreign countries are wrong. The answer is helping US innovators develop and deploy the cheapest and cleanest energy technologies so that they can be exported around the world. We shouldn’t predetermine what those technologies are. To reduce emissions, we’ll need carbon capture and storage, hydrogen, next-generation nuclear and geothermal energy, and possibly even technologies that haven’t been invented yet.

The way we facilitate this innovation isn’t by distorting the market with subsidies, regulations, or mandates. The way we facilitate this innovation is by getting the government out of its own way. That means permitting reform to make it easier to build energy projects, transmission reform to get more clean energy on the grid, and reform of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission so that the United States can take nuclear energy leadership back from autocracies like China and Russia.

Ultimately, we need an approach that lets the market pick the cheapest and cleanest alternatives that the United States can export around the world. That’s a win for our economy and the environment. It’s also the only serious approach to tackling the emissions problem.

CBS News | Energy & Natural Resources

New Helium Discovery May Be Biggest Ever in North America

“Scientists and researchers are celebrating what they call a ‘dream’ discovery after an exploratory drill confirmed a high concentration of helium buried deep in Minnesota’s Iron Range.

Thomas Abraham-James, CEO of Pulsar Helium, said the confirmed presence of helium could be one of the most significant such finds in the world.”

From CBS News.

Natural Hazards | Natural Disasters

Floods Have Become Less Deadly: An Analysis of Flood Fatalities

“Floods are the most frequent natural disasters up to 1000 fatalities, and flash floods lead to the highest mortality fractions per event, i.e. the number of deaths in an event relative to the exposed population. Despite population growth and increasing flood hazards, the average number of fatalities per event has declined over time.”

From Natural Hazards.

Blog Post | Adoption of Technology

Bitcoin Brought Electricity to Countries in the Global South

It won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa.

Energy is life. For the world and its inhabitants to live better lives—freer, richer, safer, nicer, and more comfortable lives—the world needs more energy, not less. There are no rich, low-energy countries and no poor, high-energy countries.

“Energy is the only universal currency; it is necessary for getting anything done,” in Canadian-Czech energy theorist Vaclav Smil’s iconic words.

In an October 2023 report for the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship on how to bring electricity to the world’s poorest 800 million people, Robert Bryce, author of A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations, sums it as follows:

Electricity matters because it is the ultimate poverty killer. No matter where you look, as electricity use has increased, so has economic growth. Having electricity does not guarantee wealth. But its absence almost always means poverty. Indeed, electricity and economic growth go hand in hand.

To supply electricity on demand to many of those people, especially in the Global South, grids need to be built in the first place and then have enough extra capacity to ramp up production when needed. That requires overbuilding, which is expensive and wasteful, and the many consumers of the Global South are poor.

Adding to the trouble are the abysmal formal institutions of property rights and rule of law in many African countries, and the layout of the land becomes familiar: corruption and fickle property rights make foreign, long-term investments basically impossible; poor populations mean that local purchasing power is low and usually not worth the investment risk.

What’s left are slow-moving charity and bureaucratic government development aid, both of which suffer from terrible incentives, lack of ownership, and running into their own sort of self-serving corruption.

In “Stranded,” a long-read for Bitcoin Magazine, Human Rights Foundation’s Alex Gladstein accounted for his journey into the mushrooming electricity grids of sub-Saharan Africa: “Africa remains largely unable to harness these natural resources for its economic growth. A river might run through it, but human development in the region has been painfully reliant on charity or expensive foreign borrowing.”

Stable supply of electricity requires overbuilding; overbuilding requires stable property rights and rich enough consumers over which to spread out the costs and financially recoup the investment over time. Such conditions are rare. Thus, the electricity-generating capacity won’t be built in the first place, and most of Africa becomes dark when the sun sets.

Gladstein reports that a small hydro plant in the foothills of Mount Mulanje in Malawi, even though it was built and financed by the Scottish government, still supplies exorbitantly expensive electricity—around 90 cents per kilowatt hour—with most of its electricity-generating capacity going to waste.

What if there were an electricity user, a consumer-of-last-resort, that could scoop up any excess electricity and disengage at a moment’s notice if the population needed that power for lights and heating and cooking? A consumer that could co-locate with the power plants and thus avoid having to build out miles of transmission lines.

With that kind of support consumer—guaranteeing revenue by swallowing any excess generation, even before any local homes have been connected—the financial viability of the power plants could make the construction actually happen. It pays for itself right off the bat, regardless of transmissions or the disposable income of nearby consumers.

If so, we could bootstrap an electricity grid in the poorest areas of the world where neither capitalism nor central planning, neither charity worker nor industrialist, has managed to go. That consumer of last resort could accelerate electrification of the world’s poorest and monetize their energy resilience. That’s what Gladstein went to Africa to investigate the bourgeoning industry of bitcoin miners electrifying the continent.

Bitcoin Saves the World: Energy-Poverty Edition

Africa is used to large enterprises digging for minerals. The bitcoin miners springing forth all over the continent are different. They don’t need to move massive amounts of land and soil and don’t pollute nearby rivers. They operate by running machines that guess large numbers, which is the cryptographic method that secures bitcoin and confirms its transaction blocks. All they need to operate is electricity and an internet connection.

By co-locating and building with electricity generation, bitcoin miners remove some major obstacles to bringing power to the world’s poorest billion. In the rural area of Malawi that Gladstein visited, there was nowhere to offload the expensive hydro power and no financing to connect more households or build transmission lines to faraway urban areas: “The excess electricity couldn’t be sold, so the power stations built machines that existed solely to suck up the unused power.”

Bitcoin miners are in a globally competitive race to unlock patches of unused energy everywhere, so in came Gridless, an off-grid bitcoin miner with facilities in Kenya and Malawi. Any excess power generation in these regions is now comfortably eaten up by the company’s onsite mining machines—the utility company receiving its profit share straight in a bitcoin wallet of its own control, no banks or governments blocking or delaying international payments, and no surprise government currency devaluations undercutting its purchasing power.

No aid, no government, no charity; just profit-seeking bitcoiners trying to soak up underused energy. Gladstein observes:

One night during my visit to Bondo, Carl asked me to pause as the sunset was fading, to look at the hills around us: the lights were all turning on, all across the foothills of Mt. Mulanje. It was a powerful sight to see, and staggering to think that Bitcoin is helping to make it happen as it converts wasted energy into human progress. . . .

Bitcoin is often framed by critics as a waste of energy. But in Bondo, like in so many other places around the world, it becomes blazingly clear that if you aren’t mining Bitcoin, you are wasting energy. What was once a pitfall is now an opportunity.

For decades, our central-planning mindset had us “help” the Global South by directing resources there—building things we thought Africans needed, sending money to (mostly) corrupt leaders in the hopes that schools be built or economic growth be kick-started. We squandered billions in goodhearted nongovernmental organization projects.

Even for an astute and serious energy commentator as Bryce, not once in his 40-page report on how to electrify the Global South did it occur to him that bitcoin miners—the very people who are turning the lights on for the poorest in the world—could play a crucial role in achieving that.

It’s so counterintuitive and yet, once you see it, so obvious. In the end, says Gladstein, it won’t be the United Nations or rich philanthropists that electrifies Africa “but an open-source software network, with no known inventor, and controlled by no company or government.”

Phys.org | Conservation & Biodiversity

From Edge of Extinction to Australia’s Croc “Paradise”

“In the 1970s, an estimated 98 percent of the wild saltwater crocodile population had disappeared in the Northern Territory, driven by leather demand and culling.

Now, according to government figures, over 100,000 ‘salties,’ which can grow over six meters long and weigh more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds), hunt along the coasts, rivers and wetlands of the continent’s far north.”

From Phys.org.