June 16, 2008

The Virginia Climate Change Commission and the Mirage of Low Hanging Fruit

Filed under: Climate Politics

The Virginia Commission on Climate Change has been tasked by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine with coming up with Climate Action Plan to reduce Virginia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by the year 2025. As it turns out, this will prove much tougher than it first seems.

In order to comply with the Governor’s request, the Commission first had to figure out at what level they expected the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to otherwise be (in absence of the actions of the Commission) in the year 2025.

Like most such efforts, they assumed what they called a “business-as-usual” scenario, which was based largely upon a determination of recent trends in population, economy, energy demand, etc. and their relationship to greenhouse gas emissions and then the Commission extended these trends and relations into the future. Through this procedure they arrived at an estimate for Virginia’s 2025 greenhouse gas emissions and then took 30% of that value as the reduction goal for its Climate Action Plan.

The Commission then set about seeking potential ways to meet this goal through conservation, energy efficiency improvements, encouragement of renewable energies, etc. Oftentimes the discussion turned to identifying the “low hanging fruit” that was available to achieve the agreed upon goal—that is finding the easiest and most straightforward way of attempting to reduce emissions.

However, as recent Commentary in Nature magazine by Roger Pielke Jr. et al. (and a lengthy follow-up discussion on Pielke’s Prometheus blog) points out, there is a major fallacy in the “low hanging fruit” approach —that is, the “low hanging fruit” is already spoken for and thus unavailable for the Commission (note: Pielke refers to our concept of the mirage of the low hanging fruit as the assumption of “spontaneous decarbonization”).

Here is why.

The business-as-usual scenario does not equate to a status-quo scenario. Business-as-usual is an active, innovative approach that continually searches for, and finds, ways to improve the efficiency of energy use in all aspects of our society. This is clear from the statistics.

Virginia’s gross state product has been growing over the last 10 years at an average rate of about 3.5%/year (year 2000 constant dollars). Virginia’s energy usage as well as its carbon dioxide emissions, on the other hand, have only grown at an average rate of slightly more than 2%/year. Thus, the state’s energy intensity (energy usage divided by the gross state product) and its emissions intensity (total carbon dioxide emissions divided by the gross state product) have been declining on their own (i.e., without the Commission’s suggestions). Well, “on their own” isn’t quite fair—Virginians have found ways to produce more per unit energy usage year-over-year through innovation and hard work. This is business-as-usual.

For business-as-usual to continue, as is the assumption in the 2025 projections made by the Virginia Climate Change Commission (Ballou, 2008), it is implicit that we continue the ongoing trends of finding ways of reducing our energy intensity and emissions intensity. The result of this business-as-usual scenario is a reduction of greenhouse gases by the year 2025 from where they would be under the status-quo scenario (one in which our energy and emissions intensity stays fixed at current values) of about 25%. The effort required to just to meet the 25% business-as-usual reduction, in and of itself, will be a major one.

What all of this means, is that the Commission cannot suggest things that would otherwise occur in their absence—for as we have seen, these things are implicit in the business-as-usual extrapolations (even if we don’t know what they are yet). Thus, the Commission cannot recommend actions that are somewhat obvious (i.e. the low hanging fruit) and that are ongoing or will occur on their own in response to higher fuel costs, introduction of new technologies, price saving measures, etc. Such actions include a constant push towards improving manufacturing efficiencies, the trend towards cars with higher gas mileage, the gradual switchover to compact florescent light bulbs, and any other initiatives that are already on the books or would otherwise be thought up to increase conservation, expand renewable energy sources, improve efficiency etc. These actions are out of bounds for the Commission because they (both on-going and those yet to be imagined) are required to successfully continue with business-as-usual. Again, business-as-usual implies innovation, changes to behavior in response to market conditions, adoption of new technologies, etc.

So the Commission’s task is much harder than it really seems. It is not simply to find ways of reducing emissions by 30% by 2025, instead, it is to find additional ways to reduce the emissions by 30% given that without any help from the Commission, the assumption is that we will find ways on our own to reduce emissions by 25% by then. The Commission’s suggestions must be over and above the things that we will already do (most of which we haven’t thought of yet).

So while the “low hanging fruit” is currently tempting the Commission, in reality, the plans are already assumed to be in place to pick that fruit at sometime in the future—thus the Commission cannot “double” pick it. In other words, the easiest aspects of improving energy efficiency (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) as we go into the future will occur by actions independent of the Commission as our trend towards increased efficiency (or decreased energy intensity) demands them—a trend which is assumed (whether the Commission realizes it or not) to continue into the future. So the “low hanging fruit” is already spoken for.

The clearest way to understanding the task that lays ahead, would be for the “status quo” baseline to be plainly laid out—that is, based on today’s technologies, energy mix, and patterns of behavior, forecast the energy demands (and thus greenhouse gas emissions) that are anticipated based upon population and economic expectations for the year 2025. That “frozen technologies” baseline would then serve as a starting point for future actions, including a business-as-usual-approach, and in addition to that, the Commission’s task to go 30% over and above business-as-usual. All of the steps to achieve these two emission restrictions goals need to be described. In this way, all of the low hanging fruit will be properly accounted for, and there will be no risk of double picking it—that is, the Commission can’t claim an action as its own, if that very same action is assigned to achieving business-as-usual.

This is a far more analytically sound approach than simply assuming that the observed trend towards increasing energy intensity will continue unabatedly on is own, allowing the Commission to add to its basket of fruit anything that it can easily reach.

Only by taking this approach, and fully understanding what business-as-usual implies, will the Commission realize the true immensity of the task which it faces.


Ballou, T.R, 2008. Update of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goal. Presentation at the Third Commission on Climate Change meeting, April 22, 2008 (http://www.deq.virginia.gov/export/sites/default/info/documents/climate.April.Ballou.GHG.Goal.Update.pdf)

Pielke Jr., R.A., Wigley, T.M.L., and C. Green. Dangerous Assumptions. Nature, 452, 531-532 (available at http://sciencepolicy.colorado.edu/admin/publication_files/resource-2593-2008.08.pdf).

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