an interview with James S. Cannon
James S. Cannon.
ames S. Cannon is an internationally recognized researcher specializnig in energy development, environmental protection, and related public policy issues. He was President of Energy Futures, Inc., which he founded in 1979, until his retirement in 2019. Energy Futures published the quarterly international journal The Clean Fuels and Electric Vehicles Report and the bimonthly newsletter
Hybrid Vehicles. I was privileged to work as his copy editor from the mid-1990s until he retired, and we caught up recently on climate change, alternative vehicles, and whether we can do anything about the self-created predicament in which we humans find ourselves.
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After four years of stalling (or going backward) on addressing climate change, do you think the US has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement too late to stop a catastrophic temperature rise? Was the Paris Agreement ever going to mitigate climate change enough to avoid these kinds of temperature rises?
Unfortunately, it is already too late to stop catastrophic temperature rises, and the Paris Agreement is inadequate to address climate change anyway. Steadily rising temperatures are already causing an increased number and intensity of catastrophic hurricanes, wildfires, and extreme heat waves, causing hundreds of billions of dollars annually in damage and thousands of deaths. Coastal flooding of cities around the world is all but certain without horrifically expensive new protective barriers. Avoiding these and other severe climate change impacts may have been possible in the days of the early global climate conferences—Rio in 1992 and Kyoto in 1997—when there was at least hope, but those hopes are long gone.
We've seen hybrid vehicles becoming more common, and there are many announcements of EVs that are to come out in the next few years (e.g., GM claiming to have all sorts of electric vehicles available by 2023 or 2025). Do you think the automobile industry should be doing more (and if so, in what way)? Has battery technology finally reached the point where EVs are practical (in terms of charging times and well-to-wheels costs, and places to recharge)? What problems remain?
I worked on transportation air pollution issues, including climate change, from the publication of my first book on the topic "The Drive for Clean Air" in 1989 to my recent retirement. Nowhere are the obstacles to replacing fossil fuels, the chief source of climate changing gases, with carbon neutral energy forms more formidable than in transportation. Despite decades of efforts, carbon neutral fuels still power only a few percent of the motor vehicles on U.S. roadways. Fossil oil still reigns supreme.
Advanced propulsion and battery storage technologies have improved to the point that high performing motor vehicles incorporating them are now fully commercial. There are a few problems remaining, including slightly higher costs, limited driving range for electric vehicles, and the lack of refueling or recharging infrastructure. The bigger problems are convincing automakers to manufacture carbon neutral vehicles now and the public to purchase them.
Are fuel cell vehicles or other "advanced" technologies still in the running? Are there other potential competitors that might supplant EVs?
Yes fuel cell vehicles are still in the running, with three models from major automakers on the market. Battery EVs are clearly dominating this phase of commercialization, however. Events are clearly defining some losers—methanol, MTBE, and propane vehicles for example—but most truly advanced technologies are still in the running. Liquid renewable jet fuel will clearly replace conventional jet fuel in aircraft. Gaseous renewable natural gas will have a long future in buses, refuse trucks, marine vessels, and select other heavy vehicle markets.
What do you think are the most effective ways we can mitigate climate change (technology-based or not)?
Replacing fossil fuel use with nonfossil energy resources, including wind and solar among others, is the only hope to avoid climate change. Any technologies for energy production and use that do not include fossil fuels are part of the answer. Technologies that seek to lessen the carbon emissions from fossil fuel burning are simply "band-aids" that divert money better spent deploying nonfossil energy resources. Nontechnology options will also be critical. These include population control, forest preservation, and lifestyle adjustments, such as favoring non-meat diets.
Related to the above question ... Do you see any technologies on the horizon that will help mitigate climate change before we reach a tipping point?
Make no mistake, "life as we know it" is over. Like the Titanic, we have already hit the iceberg and life as we know it is going down. This does not mean everyone is going to die. Many survived the Titanic's sinking on lifeboats and in rescue ships. Surviving climate catastrophes as we reduce fossil carbon emissions as quickly as possible is the current challenge. Recapturing a sustainable society through the transition to a carbon neutral economy is close behind.
What about technologies that either suck CO2 out of the air (or ocean) or reflect sunlight, or other such tech that aims to solve the problem without any action to reduce emissions in the first place? Are these going to be practical? Or do we run the danger of setting off chain reactions in complex systems that we are unprepared for?
It's not nice to mess with Mother Nature! How many more times do we have to suffer the consequences before we learn this lesson?
Some authors (e.g., Bjorn Lomborg) say that the economic costs of mitigating climate change are too great and will hurt the poor, and that we should aim for a combination of some mitigation, some future tech, and some human adaptation to the inevitable human warming of the Earth. What do you think? Are the costs of mitigation too great?
Most corporations and many people believe that it simply costs too much to save the human race. Consider the alternative!
Do you see some hope on the horizon in that younger people (e.g., Greta Thunberg) are becoming more vocal, more political, and more insistent that climate change be addressed? What do you think would be most effective for them to do?
The craziness surrounding the cost arguments in the last question clearly show that the patterns of the fossil fuel era are an addiction. The benefits of rampant fossil fuel use peaked decades ago, but we cling to them nevertheless, to our own peril. Young people today are the only hope, if for no other reason than they are less addicted to past patterns and more willing to change.
We know a lot of places that don't work—governments, corporations, churches. Individual responsibility is still viable, however. We have converted our home to a carbon negative energy unit through investments in solar collectors and an EV, plus energy efficiency and organic gardening and landscaping, plus buying and selling carbon credits to balance the carbon "books." Anyone can try to do this and everyone ought to at least give it a try.
In addition to the
Clean Fuels Report and
Hybrid Vehicles, James Cannon has written or edited several studies on climate change and alternative transportation technologies, including
Reducing Climate Change Impacts in the Transportation Sector and
Harnessing Hydrogen: The Key to Sustainable Transportation. Mr. Cannon's research into alternative transportation fuels took him to over 20 countries on 5 continents. He holds an AB degree in chemistry from Princeton University and an MS degree in biochemistry from the University of Pennsylvania.