Muller on Climate: It’s All About China

Forget California, says the outspoken Berkeley physicist. It’s what China does that matters

American Association of Physics Teachers

Richard Muller

Despite some well-publicized recent conversions on climate matters, Richard Muller’s reputation as a climate skeptic is well earned. In two books, one published and one forthcoming, the UC Berkeley physicist offers counsel on physics and Energy for Future Presidents.

One thing Muller is highly skeptical of is California’s legislated climate strategy, a perspective that he laid out for me in a recent interview at his home in the Berkeley Hils. What matters, he says, is what China does. And little else:

CM: The point here is, and you’ve written about this, is that California can’t save the world in terms of cutting emissions, that no matter what we do, what matters is what China’s doing.

RM: Certainly, California is far too small a part of the global warming problem that anything we do here cannot really help. Even setting an example is something that, I think, is not something we are going to do. But if we can develop an industry that lowers the price of solar cells that lowers the price of wind, that makes nuclear safe, if we can do those things, then that could have a real impact on the future.

According to most projections China will be producing most of the carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases that will cause global warming. People don’t like to say that because they say that the Chinese have a right to produce as much pollution per person as the U.S. has already [China has surpassed the U.S. in total emissions but not emissions per capita]. Unfortunately, global warming’s not caused by pollution per person, it’s caused by total pollution and China, by the end of this year, will be emitting twice the greenhouse gases of the United States. It’s growing very rapidly.

CM: You’ve calculated, I guess, that even if the entire U.S. reduced all of its greenhouse gas emissions to zero tomorrow, that China would erase that gain in five years?

“What the U.S. does is becoming irrelevant, except to the extent that what we do can be followed by China.”

RM: In four and a half years. What that means is that what the U.S. does is becoming irrelevant, except to the extent that what we do can be followed by China. Expensive approaches, expensive solar cells, expensive electric automobile deals, will have no effect unless China can afford that approach. So it’s really important that what we do be cheap green, not just green.

CM: And one of the points you’ve made about this is that while hydraulic fracturing of underground rock to release oil and gas remains controversial in this country, it could be a huge benefit in China.

RM: As I look towards solutions to global warming I conclude it has to be in China. And when I look at what China can afford to do, I conclude it has to be cheap, even profitable. There’s only one solution that has the order of magnitude of chance of working, and that is to get China to switch from its coal — it’s building one new gigawatt of coal every week. It’s been doing this now for six years — to have them switch to natural gas. And the only way they can do that is if they adopt our method of fracking. This is a conflict because so many people oppose fracking because of its local pollution. But I regard solving that pollution as far, far easier than coming up with inexpensive electric cars, inexpensive solar cells. We need to switch China from coal to natural gas.

CM: How practical is that, do you think, given the course that they’re on?

RM: I believe it’s very practical and easy and straightforward. They’re going to switch anyway. What we need to do is to expedite it and speed it up. We can do this by sharing our knowledge with them. It doesn’t cost money, it’s an education. We should have Chinese engineers come over here and study our methods so they can switch to natural gas as rapidly as possible. That’s far bigger than anything else that anybody else has suggested.

You can see a longer version of my interview with Richard Muller on KQED’s This Week in Northern California.

  • http://twitter.com/GabrielRoybal Gabriel Roybal

    what proof do we have that they are going to change?

  • Mark

    I’m a bit puzzled by Dr. Muller’s comment that solving pollution from fracking is “…far, far easier than coming up
    with…inexpensive solar cells. Thanks largely to Chinese manufacturers (and their government’s subsidies), the price of solar panels are at 80 to 85 cents per watt. According to Reuters, in 2011 prices for solar panels declined by 50%, and that decline has decreased another 10% so far this year. The Chinese seem to be doing fine making solar inexpensive.

    That said, natural gas plants will surely be much, much cleaner than coal plants. But since the problems with fracking have not yet been solved (or even yet fully identified) it’s premature to say that they will be easier (or cheaper) to resolve than other technological solutions.

    • Richard Muller

      The 85¢ per watt in solar is, by convention, 85¢ per “peak watt.”  That is the cost of installation to deliver a watt of power when the sun is out and is directly overhead.  Past experience in China indicates that the “capacity factor” — the actual delivered average power, is 1/8 of this.  (This is all described in my upcoming book, “Energy for Future Presidents”, which was briefly shown on the program.)  That means that the effective cost for an average watt is 8 x 85¢ = $6.80 per average watt.  The cost of solar PV continues to decrease, particularly in China where maintenance costs are lower (due to lower salaries), so I am optimistic about the future of Chinese PV.  But it is still too expensive, even in China, to replace coal in large amounts.

  • Joseph Seymour

    Sounds like a plan, blame China for trying to develop and let the US off the hook for 100 years of industry.

  • Anonymous

    Even aside from the local environmental damage done by fracking, relying on natural gas does not get us out of the conundrum posed by any carbon-based fossil-fuel solution: continued production of CO2. As you have noted above, the warming due to the greenhouse effect depends not on the emissions rate, but on the cumulative CO2 in the atmosphere.

    So pushing China only to switch to natural gas is like living off a 10%-rate credit card instead of a 20%-rate card: It postpones the collapse to an extent, but doesn’t really solve the problem. In the not-so-long term, we need to get off carbon-based fossil fuels.