Interview with Paul Bunje, Exec. Director of the Center for Climate Change Solutions

Posted on 01. Nov, 2009 by in Clean Tech, Interviews


Paul Bunje is the Executive Director of the Center for Climate Change Solutions (CCCS) at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment

OG: So what are some of the projects you’re working on at the center? It’s a little hard to tell from your website.

Paul: We never have enough time to update the website, but you can find the most up-to-date information at UCLA’s Climate Change Portal, which is like one stop shop for all things going on in climate, energy, sustainability. It’s still in the beta phase, but it is live. We try to stay on the cutting edge of interdisciplinary studies, so this keeps UCLA people aware of what’s going  across campus, to better learn from each other, and prevent redundancies in research.

OG: Tell me about the sort of student opportunities you have for working with businesses.

Paul: There are several ways for students to engage with business, the first of which is our Leaders in Sustainability program, jointly run with Anderson and the CCCS- any graduate student on campus can be involved- they have a capstone project and work on small teams with a business on sustainability issues. Each team has a mix of students- an engineer, a geographer, a lawyer, and an MBA student, for example, all working together on a project.

For undergraduate students, we have teams of Environmental Studies majors who work with businesses or government agencies to do rigorous research on a specific issue the organization is facing.

OG: Being a Carolina Girl, I must ask- do you have a joint Masters in Environmental Management plus MBA, like UNC has with Duke?

Paul: We don’t yet have a Masters in Environmental Management like the Nicholas school at Duke, our environmental major is only four years old, but demand is growing rapidly. Net Impact is the largest student organization at UCLA. Anderson has some new faculty that work on corporate environmental performance. An increasing number of our students are demanding this, so UCLA is working hard to meet that need.

The CCCS is one of six research & outreach centers- most of the center’s focus is on facilitating and conducting new research around meeting the needs of government and business. We identify problems, and conduct research for specific solutions. Thus our research is directly applicable to real, current problems, thereby short-circuiting the traditional academic process. Some predict the growth of clean tech to outpace IT’s past growth. Senior managers need to be able to influence the direction of their firm, and be able to understand the complex scientific, political and business environments that influence clean tech.

In February we’re hosting our first executive education course, a two-day short course for senior executives who want to learn how to respond rapidly to this climate change opportunity. For example, cap and trade may kill some strategies, but also create new markets. Some markets are emerging rapidly as technology advances, and business leaders need to know how to work with this. Mary Nichols, the chair of California Air Resources Board (CARB), helped design this program. Information on that course will be available on the Climate Change Portal.

OG: Are you going to Copenhagen? What are your thoughts on the outcome? Do you think we’re likely to see a lot more consensus than with Kyoto?

Paul: I could more easily predict what the Dow will do tomorrow than what’s going to come out of Copenhagen! I won’t be there, but Carol Horowitz at the law school is sending a delegation of law students. Here at the CCCS we’re hosting a preview of Sizzle, an independent comedic film about global warming, on the first night of the negotiations.

Some people are hopeful, others are not. What seems clear is that the US is the lead diplomat, everyone’s wondering what the US will do. Unfortunately, we’re sending our delegates without Congressional action- even if it’s passed by Senate before COP15, it won’t be signed by Obama in time. Representative Waxman was keen on getting the ACES bill out early, because internationally, everyone knows that to get anything done, we need it be approved by Congress. Part of ACES includes border tariffs, so subsidies are a big part of this issue too. How do you get global emissions reduction if you’re essentially offshoring your CO2? We might need a better system, one that more effectively integrates WTO issues.

OG: So we know by now that the temperature is indeed rising, faster than previously predicted, and all we can do is try to prevent it rising too much, correct? So now for the burning question on everyone’s mind- Just how drastically do we need to change in order to prevent total collapse of life on Earth as we know it?

Paul: Well, the best estimates- to keep it below a 2.5 degree rise, we need to stabilize emissions by mid-century, approaching a stable concentration of CO2 at around 350ppm.

OG: Of course, like reminds us!

Paul: The current UN threshold is 450ppm, but according to new scientific research, we really need to be at 350ppm by mid-century. We’re at 389ppm right now! The first step is to stop emitting, then need to reduce emissions, then the planet needs time to absorb some CO2. Hopefully by 2100 we’ll be at 350ppm, which could be OK. The temperature difference between now and the last ice age is around 6 degrees. Even at a 2-3 degree increase, we will still experience sea levels rising, shifts in agricultural production, and major disease vectors, among other impacts.

If we keep with business as usual we‘re headed to 8-9 degrees by 2100. There’s too much inertia in the system, people aren’t changing quickly enough. Temperature change lags the emissions by decades, so the temperature increase we’re experiencing now is a result of our emissions decades ago. The last time GHG levels were as high as they are today was 15 million years ago. All this is depressing, but what’s great about Opportunity Green is that there are a lot of opportunities to do something different, especially around helping people up out of poverty and making money! There’s so much we can do!

OG: What are some of your favorite climate change solutions? Or are you allowed to pick favorites?

Paul: the great thing about solving climate change, is that it covers everything, there’s no silver bullet. In specific sectors, energy for example, we clearly need to get off fossil fuels. We’re marching toward an unprecedentedly diverse energy economy, which could integrate and be very robust. The rate at which new energy technology comes out of labs these days is mind boggling.

For example, UCLA researcher polymer chemist Yang Yang- two years ago he started trying to develop polymer based solar cells-  which are 1/80th the price of silica PV. He’s already got these up to 8 or 9% efficiency, which is more or less competitive with silica.  And this is happening all over the place- algae-based biofuels, etc. Even corn ethanol has a good side- it’s changing the infrastructure in the Midwest, to prepare for an alternative to fossil fuel.

OG: Well, what about the advancement I’m most hoping for- a battery that will enable my electric motorcycle to go really fast for a really long time?

Paul: Lots of people are working on energy storage, so there are many different ways to look at batteries. Batteries are only one type of energy storage solution that could work for a bike. Batteries discharge rapidly, and  even some of the technology we have on laptop batteries is much better than on electric bikes, the internal structure is better. Bruce Dunn works on 3-D batteries for the US Department of Defense. See, a D-cell battery, for example, is made of plates lined up, and the juice flows in one direction. With 3-D batteries, the flow can move in multiple directions, so 3-D batteries are a fraction of the size of 2-D batteries, even in Nickel Cadmium. Also, the US DOE is putting a lot of investment into battery manufacturers.

For example, there are other classes of energy storage- A supercapacitor is under development which stores energy for a long time and discharges extremely rapidly. It combines the best of a capacitor with the best of a battery. While little research has been done, but I bet that within five years you’ll see stuff like that. We simply haven’t invested enough in these types of solutions until this century. Storage is critical, because the more renewable energy we use, the more we need a way to store it. Like with wind- peak energy demand is in midday, but peak wind is in the morning. We need a way to store that energy.

A neat example is actually decades old. Castaic and Pyramid lakes act like a giant battery. The hydroelectric dam creates energy during the day, and at night when the baseload utilities are producing a surplus, they use the excess electricity from those plants to reverse the turbines and move the water back up to Pyramid Lake from Castaic Lake.

OG: Thanks so much for the enlightening insights, Paul! I’m looking forward to seeing you at the conference.

Photo Courtesy Esctaticist via Creative Commons License.

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