The Most Influential Energy And Climate Studies Of 2012

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Ideas matter. Or at least Council on Foreign Relations fellows like to believe that: otherwise, we’d be wasting a lot of our time.With that in mind, I canvassed some of the smartest observers of the energy and climate worlds – scholars, advocates, journalists, businesspeople, and policymakers – for their picks for the most influential studies, reports, in-depth articles, or books of the year in the field.

Then I threw my own judgement into the mix.

Without further ado, here are my picks for the five most influential energy or climate publications of 2012.

This isn’t a list of “the best” analyses of the year – it’s a collection of those that have had the most impact.

Read them if you haven’t yet. You’re already feeling their consequences in any case.

  1. Ed Morse et al., “Energy 2020: North America, the New Middle East?”. There’s little doubt in my mind that this study, released by Citigroup in March, was the most influential item published on energy or climate this year. Sure, there had been diffuse buzz about “energy independence” earlier, but this report was the first to put hard numbers to the discussion, not just for oil production, but for macroeconomic consequences too, helping vault the discussion onto a new plane. It should go without saying that changes on the ground are the fundamental root of renewed enthusiasm for U.S. oil production. But whether you’re thrilled or appalled by all the energy independence talk, give this paper a lot of credit for bringing it to the fore.
  2. Energy Information Administration (EIA), “The Availability and Price of Petroleum and Petroleum Products Produced in Countries Other Than Iran”. Part of me wanted to list this dry report as the most influential energy publication of the year. When Congress passed a tough set of new Iran sanctions in late 2011, it gave the president a way out: the EIA was to issue a report on the price and availability of oil from outside Iran; the president could then decide that the oil market was too tight for sanctions to go ahead. The EIA report, published in late February, could have teed up such a judgment, but instead helped pave the way for Iran sanctions to go ahead. Those sanctions have had more bite than many initially expected. Yes, the report primarily described existing market conditions, but it had considerable leeway in interpreting them. Its real-world impact may have been large.
  3. Bill McKibben, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New maths”. How often does an article about climate change get 121,000 likes on Facebook and merit 13,600 tweets? Those are the stats that this Rolling Stone piece, published in July, has racked up. The article, which juxtaposed numbers for fossil fuel reserves (large) with estimates of how much carbon can safely be released into the atmosphere (smaller), has spawned a speaking tour that reportedly has drawn as many as two thousand people to individual events, and a fossil fuel divestment movement on college campuses across the nation that is attracting considerable attention. It has also helped crystallize thinking in some important quarters that U.S. oil and gas gains are incompatible with climate safety. This one is a lot like “Energy 2020” in one important way: love or hate its analysis, it’s getting a lot of traction, in this case particularly among students who will become political leaders some day.
  4. This one is a toss up between “Effect of Increased Natural Gas Exports on Domestic Energy Markets” (EIA) and “Macroeconomic Impacts of LNG Exports from the United States” (NERA Economic Consulting for DOE). The first, published in January, forecasted large potential price spikes if natural gas exports went ahead; the second, published this month, concluded that price impacts would be limited and that macroeconomic gains would be had. These are basically the two poles in the ongoing debate over whether to allow liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports. They currently rate a tie. The Obama administration will probably announce its LNG export policy early next year. Then we’ll know which study was really the most influential.
  5. Alvarez, Pacala, Winebrake, Chameides, and Hamburg, “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Bob Howarth and two of his colleagues threw much of the climate world into intense confusion when they published a paper in early 2011 claiming that natural gas was worse for climate change than coal. The February 2012 paper from Alvarez et al., which looked at how the impact of a shift from coal to gas would affect temperatures over time, seems to have helped people put methane in perspective, and has moved the debate onto considerably firmer ground. There’s still much to contest in the PNAS paper – and much more data to be collected – but it appears to have shifted policy-related discussion from “is gas worse than coal?” to “how do we make gas better for the climate?” That’s a change that can have big real-world consequences.

Honorable mentions include Richard Muller’s “BEST” study that confirmed global warming trends, which made a big splash but seems to have since faded; the IHS study that estimated a gain of 600,000 jobs from shale gas (technically ineligible because it was published in December 2011) – its estimates made it into the president’s State of the Union address this year, and seem to have influenced White House thinking on natural gas more broadly; the Breakthrough Institute’s work establishing the federal government’s historical role in promoting shale gas technology, which also made it into the State of the Union, and has helped remind many that federal support remains vital to energy innovation; and the “Darkest Before Dawn” study from three McKinsey consultants that projected widespread grid-parity for solar power within five years, influencing opinion among an important segment of people who think about where clean energy is heading.

And finally an invitation to chime in in the comments section: What did this list miss?