MatthewDahlhausen comments on New research on effective climate charities - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: MatthewDahlhausen 14 July 2018 05:19:20AM 3 points [-]

1 "Concerns about your gains from preventing deforestation being reversed should be accounted for in your marginal cost-effectiveness estimate." Well yes, if we account for the fact that current best marginal emissions reductions at present might fail in later years into our marginal cost-effectiveness estimate then we can still use the marginal cost-effectiveness estimate. If I did that, it would show rainforest work having mediocre cost-effectiveness because emissions reductions aren't robust. So we reach different conclusions on best interventions, despite claiming to adhere to the same principle. I agree with the position "we should act on the best marginal effectiveness". It's just that rainforest work is not independent of other interventions. Its cost-effectiveness is co-dependent on the cost-effectiveness of other interventions - needing to hit sub 3C century end warming. So my cost-effectiveness estimate cares more about the 80th percentile on the cost abatement curve from future projects, while a simpler analysis may just focus on the cheapest marginal abatement cost intervention at present yearly emissions.

This is heavily related to the concept of lock-in (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0100-6). Even though some interventions may be more expensive than others, they may represent a substantial enough amount of emissions and lock-in threat that on a longer time horizon they become the best marginal cost-effective interventions at present.

Once we've accounted for lock-in, largest emissions interventions, robustness, etc., THEN we can start moving down our new inclusive-forecast-century-weighted abatement curve of best interventions. I just think this will look different from McKinsey's abatement curve and yield different interventions than the ones you've selected in the report.

2 I agree the aim is to decarbonize, not get as much renewables growth as possible. My statement wasn't cheerleading renewables, it was making the observation that in actual grid capacity purchases and planning at present - the current market - renewables are more bullish than they appear in the reports you reference. IEA World Energy Outlook has abysmal prediction accuracy on renewable install rates (https://www.vox.com/2015/10/12/9510879/iea-underestimate-renewables), and the integrated assessment models in AR5 are similarly conservative in their estimates.
This is good news given the amount of emissions that come from the power and buildings sectors.

I'm confused by your comment "Also, this is only electricity not all energy, so other stuff like CCS and nuclear will be necessary to get us all the way to decarbonise" Where does nuclear contribute besides the power sector? Your "emissions averted by different energy technologies" has nuclear's impact only from displacing coal and gas electric power.

4 Yeah, I wish Drawdown was more explicit in their calculations. I found an error in their documentation on plant diets, but couldn't track down if that was just in the documentation on the calculation too. I only reference drawdown because it gives explicit GtCO2e estimates. For instance, it's nuclear estimate is 16 GtCo2e https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/electricity-generation/nuclear, while yours is 136 GtCO2e. It's wind and solar estimate in total is 171 GtCO2e, while yours is 135 GtCO2e. Not enough to change things on a log scale. Obviously, you have to look elsewhere for philanthropic neglectedness calculations.

On points 3 & 5 - Recent bids for renewables with storage are cost competitive with gas, and cheaper than nuclear, even at the $60/MWh quoted in the report.

The intermittent and non-intermittent power source debate is about a decade old, and doesn't reflect the reality that additional intermittent contributions to the grid have made the grid more reliable, not less, at least in the United States. Energy markets are structured to provide a reliable electric grid - they price capacity and when electricity can be produced - and nuclear isn't competing in this environment. Recently in the U.S. the nuclear lobby has hitched itself to the coal lobby to argue for emergency interference in energy markets by the government to require subsidizing large plants, precisely because they could not compete in the hourly capacity market.

Your comment about Germany doesn't seem applicable; renewables reduced emissions compared to the proper counterfactual where they hadn't been installed AND the nuclear plants were taken offline.

Again, this isn't me cheerleading renewables at the expense of nuclear. It's an observation of the current energy market that no one is even thinking about starting a new nuclear plant build because of how outrageously expensive they are compared to other options. There are 2 reactors under construction in the U.S. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vogtle_Electric_Generating_Plant#Planning_phase, 2 recently abandoned https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virgil_C._Summer_Nuclear_Generating_Station, with the primary contractor filing for bankruptcy last year. All vastly overbudget.

Given the state of affairs with nuclear, CATF's large share of funding towards nuclear seems like pissing money away, especially since the government already funds this heavily through the DOE for reasons other than emissions reductions and competitive energy. I think the argument for CATF has the best donation target relies on their CCS work solely.

We can have different perspectives on this, and I share a different outlook, so I propose a bet: If a nuclear plant is built in the US: 1) at least 150 MW in size, 2) in the next 10 years, 3) with construction started 2019 or later, 4) and sells its power in a competitive bid process for an electric grid, I will pay you $100. If not, you pay me $100.

Also - can you respond or publish on why you didn't include an analysis of the other charities in the report that you include but do not recommend? Why were they rejected?

Comment author: Halstead 14 July 2018 10:00:36AM *  2 points [-]
  1. I would need to look in more detail at the predictions about savannisation of the Amazon - I know Amazon dieback is extremely controversial in the literature, with some people dismissing the possibility. From memory, the last IPCC report leaned towards it not being a major risk. It's normal to arrive at different estimates of marginal cost-effectiveness if we disagree about some relevant facts. I thought initially you were chiefly questioning the principle, not the relevant facts.

  2. Nuclear can be used in the future to produce industrial heat or to produce synthetic fuels. The model I use is an admittedly crude attempt to get the right ballpark of what nuclear can do, but I believe are accurate enough, for the reasons given.

I don't agree that the intermittent/non-intermittent debate is in some way out of date. The debate I am talking about is about what a least cost fully decarbonised energy system would look like, and I am claiming it will not have >>50% renewables. Considering the recent Clack-Jacobsen farrago, this debate is definitely not out of date. As I see it, I'm defending the mainstream view, as accepted by many pro-renewables people like Clack and Sivaram.

Adding renewables on to the grid at the moment poses less of an intermittency challenges because they are not supplying (say) 30% of electricity. AFAIK, the storage capacity to get them to do this doesn't exist/would be incredibly expensive.

I explicitly frame CATF's nuclear innovation work as a 'high risk high reward' bet on them getting it to reduced cost, and I go into some depth showing why I think they probably (>50% probability) won't succeed. So, I don't think we're disagreeing. Even a relatively small chance of getting nuclear to around the current price of gas in numerous different countries would be a huge win. CATF seems uniquely well-placed to have an effect on this front.

I should note that rising costs are not a feature of all nuclear projects. China, Korea and the UEA all build cheap nuclear power plants. It's not going well at the moment in Europe and the US. Hence, why it is worth exploring ways to reduce cost.

I do like a bet, but I don't think this one would get at our disagreement, which seems to be about the role of renewables in future least cost electricity systems. CATF's nuclear innovation project, if it succeeds, will only have an effect by the mid-2020s at the earliest. I agree with you that overbudget nuclear projects are likely within the next few years. The point is that nuclear will have to have a major role in future decarbonised electricity systems.

Other charities - the reason at the time was excessive length, though as I have mentioned, in retrospect, more detail would have been better.

In brief: CfRN is better than project-based deforestation charities for the reasons outlined. It is also much better placed to have influence on REDD negotiations than other advocates like EDF because it actually has a seat at the table in UN negotiations. This is likely to be true in the future and definitely was true in the past, according to sources I have reason to believe would be neutral.

CATF has many more major policy successes than Third Way or Energy for Humanity, even though I like both orgs. CATF conceived of the only major succesful CCS advocacy project to date. Given that CCS is so high priority on the ITN analysis, this alone is almost decisive. EDF Europe does good work but a lot of their successful campaigns were conceived and led by CATF, and they are large and well funded, so CATF looks a better bet on the counterfactual impact front. They also don't do much work on the priority areas I identified. Bellona are one of the few groups advocating for CCS in Europe, but they appear to be struggling to make serious progress, unlike CATF. Sources also informed me that CATF gets more done in China than any other group. Sandbag have a good approach, but I marked out climate in Europe as lower priority, and they haven't had any major success on CCS and their track record cannot compete with CATF. I'm very sceptical of the confrontational approach taken by Shellenberger and Environmental Progress, and I'm not sure they should get as much credit as they claim for their policy successes.