Cooling the globe without a silver bullet



Appalachian State University economist John Whitehead scribbles on the back of the envelope at Environmental Economics:

"According to the Energy Information Administration, the U.S. generates almost 6,000 million metric tons of carbon emissions each year. At four dollars per metric ton, the cost of reducing carbon emissions by 70 percent, about what scientists say needs to be cut to avoid climate change problems, is $16.8 billion, about 0.14 percent of annual GDP. Not too costly with the help of market forces, right? My guess is that this is a case of low hanging fruit and the marginal cost is increasing."

Note #1:  $16.8 billion is very roughly one-twentieth of what has been spent so far on the Iraq war.

Note #2:  where did Whitehead come up with the four-dollars-per-metric-ton figure?  Well, from the Chicago Climate Exchange, where 175 participants (corporations and governments) pay real money for the "right" to emit defined amounts of greenhouse gases.

The New York Times profiled Chicago Climate Exchange founder Richard Sandor July 30 (in an article not available for free online).  The exchange describes itself as "North America’s only, and the world’s first, greenhouse gas (GHG) emission registry, reduction and trading system for all six greenhouse gases (GHGs). . . . Members make a voluntary but legally binding commitment to reduce GHG emissions. By the end of Phase I (December, 2006) all Members will have reduced direct emissions four percent below a baseline period of 1998-2001."

So how do you actually make the reductions so as to have something to trade on the exchange? Writing in National Journal, Margaret Kriz lays out the means we have at hand. According to the best expert opinion, these are all we've to to work with to avoid disastrous climate change, and none of them is a silver bullet.  They are:


  • Energy Efficiency: could handle "15 percent, possibly more, of your overall [electric] generation load," according to an industry researcher.  (Most of the solutions now being pushed by the Chicago-based Environmental Law & Policy Center fall into this category.)

  • Nuclear Power: expensive, and there's nowhere to put the waste. (Questions raised elsewhere: is there enough uranium or cooling water?)

  • "Clean" Coal: it's about time for a new generation of power plants, and the question is, will they use new technology?

  • Hybrid Vehicles: Plug-ins would save more.  (So would more politicians like Jimmy Carter, the kind who can set a good example.)

  • Wind Power: benefits from a federal production tax credit, but needs high-power transmission lines to get the electricity from the Great Plains (where the wind is) to where the people are.

  • Biofuels: ethanol from corn is the biggie, but it cuts CO2 emissions by only about 10 percent, "once you factor in the petroleum used in the farm equipment and the fertilizer used to grow and harvest the corn." Duh.

  • Sequestration: capture the carbon dioxide and stuff it underground or under the ocean. Feasible but not cheap.

Unfortunately, picking the right combination of technologies is harder with the Cheney administration bollixing things up. Here's David Talbot introducing a special issue of Technology Review:

"Cleaner technology--in which carbon dioxide could be captured and sequestered--is ready to go into new coal plants now (see 'The Dirty Secret,' by David Talbot). Similarly, improved versions of today's nuclear power plants await construction (see 'The Best Nuclear Option,' by Matthew L. Wald). Unfortunately, implementation of cleaner technologies has been thwarted by federal aimlessness. The Energy Department keeps changing its nuclear-research strategy, and a 'FutureGen' zero-emission coal demonstration project announced three and a half years ago by President Bush hasn't yet picked a site."

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