Opinion: Searching for Zero

May 24, 2021, 5:00 AM | Updated: 7:15 am
Greg Libecci, energy and resource manager for the Salt Lake City School District, stands with solar...
Greg Libecci, energy and resource manager for the Salt Lake City School District, stands with solar panels on the roof of Mountain View Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Steve Griffin, Deseret News

This is an editorial piece. An editorial, like a news article, is based on fact but also shares opinions. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and are not associated with our newsroom.

We’ve seen and heard so much lately about “net zero” – net zero emissions homes, net zero emissions office buildings, getting to zero by 2050 in order to prevent the planet’s temperature from rising. I wanted to know where Utah is when it comes to the important issue of reducing carbon emissions. The man to ask, I learned, is the energy advisor to Governor Spencer Cox – Thom Carter. 


“Here’s where we are,” Carter said. “We believe innovation is the key to success. Regulation and taxation have rarely solved any problems in America. So, what can we do to get the smartest people to put their mind and money and sweat behind making things better? When you set arbitrary goals based on arbitrary dates, you may be setting us up to fail instead of saying how can we find market solutions.”

Energy and power (which I now understand are not the same thing – “Energy is useless; it’s power that is valuable”) are complex, nuanced topics, but they are worthy of our effort. I’m aware as I write this that we live in a 280 character Twitter world where if the topic takes too long to explain, it feels like it’s not worth your while or it’s too easy to lose interest in, but some background understanding is essential here. 

“Right now the state of Utah is blessed with abundant power,” Carter sets the stage. “It’s affordable; it’s reliable; it’s diverse; it’s resilient; it’s durable. We have a renewable energy corridor in Beaver County because they have a geothermal base that is unique to that region. We have coal mines in Carbon and Emery Counties. . . We have an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy in this state because we have all energy.”

So with that understanding, how do we get to zero? “If we’re going to say we’re going to get to net zero by 2030 or 2050 or 2075, what you’re saying is if we can’t find solutions to affordability and durability, your prices are going to go up and your durability is going to go down.” So when we flip the switch, the light may not come on, and when it does it will be more expensive. We all want clean energy, but are we willing to put our money where our motives are?

This brings us back to who acts first – government or the market? “I think about how recycling has been successful in this country,” Carter illustrates. “It started in the schools in the ’80s where people in the schools were like can you help us get your parents to do this? It’s the same mindset we’ve had with water usage, with cigarettes, with seatbelts where people are like – when my kid asks me to do it, we do it. . . We have to make decisions for ourselves about what’s important to us, and then the market follows. Once we’ve made a decision, government follows. Government never leads, government follows.”

So if we want to get to zero, it’s up to us. We cannot wait for the government to initiate this effort. “One of the things that gets lost a lot is that people are looking for big wins, giant swaths of reduction, but we can win the battle through efficiencies,” Carter explains. “I’m no economist but I’m a storyteller. There’s an economics principle called the aggregation of marginal gains. It’s illustrated well by what happened with the British cycling team about a decade ago. They had never won a Tour de France. Never won a gold medal. They were a mess until they hired a new coach named Dave Brailsford. He said there are only certain things we can improve. There are small things we can do to gain a competitive advantage. They were kind of ridiculous. He said, ‘We spend a lot of nights in hotels. I can’t change the beds, but I can get us better pillows. The bikes are the bikes, but maybe I can get us better seats.’ He got warming oils for their legs. Within a year, they won a Tour de France. They won the Tour the next year and won the majority of gold medals in the Olympics, and he credits this principle of the aggregation of marginal gains. I have the same mindset with emissions reductions.”

I asked Thom Carter how he handles the people who flat out believe there is no issue with climate change. How does he deal with the strident voices in this area? “I’m a firm believer in finding the persuadable middle. In this issue, you have a group on one side that is ensconced and a group on the other side that is ensconced, and it’s passion on both sides to the point where anybody in the 50% in the middle who likes the idea of renewable energy but also likes the idea of affordable and durable energy – they get left behind. The passion that both sides come at turns everybody off. It’s hard to explain the nuance. . . We’re hopeful people will take the time to learn. What is religion and isn’t? Too much of the world has become religion instead of religion being religion.”


Other Reading:

USU space lab gets $5.7M to calibrate next-gen climate science tool

Volkswagen triples electric car sales ahead of climate rules

Biden names climate statesman John Kerry as climate envoy

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Opinion: Searching for Zero