The Time to Act on Carbon Emissions is NOW

By David L. Brown

The evidence has been growing, and is now nearly unassailable, that carbon emissions are causing global warming, and that the resulting climate change could create problems of epic proportions. As only one example, the once-frozen Arctic is warming rapidly as the carbon build-up in our atmosphere continues to climb. Thawing ice will eventually disappear, allowing the Arctic Ocean to absorb many times more Solar insolation. Already the warmer Polar region is causing tundra to thaw, releasing long-sequestered methane into the atmosphere. Methane (CH4), like carbon dioxide (CO2), is a greenhouse gas (GHG), and a potent one — more than 20 times more powerful than CO2.

According to a study of methane being released in warming Siberian lakes published in the journal Nature and reported yesterday on (read it here),

…the researchers estimate that more than 4 million tons of methane is being released into the atmosphere each year — between 10 and 63 percent higher than previous estimates. The study [was] led by Katey Walter at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks…

“The effects can be huge,” Walter told the Associated Press. “It’s coming out a lot, and there’s a lot more to come out.”

Other studies have calculated that about 500 billion tons of carbon is locked up in Siberia’s permafrost and that up to 90 percent of it could be released if the region continues to warm as expected.

And warm it will, because the more methane is released to join CO2 and other GHGs in the atmosphere, the more the planet will grow warmer and the more methane will be released in a self-driven feedback cycle. This new effect joins human burning of fossil fuels, growing incidence of forest and prairie fires, the destruction of rain forests, and the growing threat of damage to ocean life that are adding to the global warming trend. Some scientists even warn that should the oceans become warmer, hydride clathrates sequestered in the bottom of the sea could melt, releasing even more GHG and possibly causing a runaway warming event that could threaten the very existence of life itself.

Clearly, the global warming being caused by human burning of fossil fuels is a major reason for the Arctic thawing that is adding to the problem. For decades there have been warning signs that we should move away from carbon-emitting energy models that have created this problem and are adding to it with each passing day. What can we do to avert the looming disaster?

In the current issue of Science magazine (read it here; subscription required), Reuel Shinnar and Francesco Citro of the Clean Fuels Institute, City College of New York, take a look at the possibilities. In their Policy Forum article, entitled “A Road Map to U.S. Decarbonization,” they examine what could be done using today’s technologies to reduce America’s carbon emissions. The authors examine six alternative energy sources that are presently proven: 1) Concentrated solar thermal energy with storage; 2) Nuclear energy; 3) Geothermal and hydroelectric plants; 4) Wind; 5) Solar cells; and 6) Biomass. They note that all of these methods are cost-effective with petroleum costing $70/barrel, which is about the current price.

They conclude that with an investment of $170 to $200 billion per year over 30 to 50 years, the United States could reduce its use of carbon-emitting fossil fuels by 70 percent. They point out that a carbon tax of $45 to $50 per ton of CO2 “would pay for the whole investment and provide incentives for implementing renewable technologies.”

We applaud this analysis for casting light on the scale of the challenge and providing a framework for change. An investment in our future of a mere $200 billion per year, or about one-half the present base budget of the Dept. of Defense, is certainly not too large a cost for our country to bear. If oil prices remain high (we suspect they not only will, but could very likely continue to climb in coming years) industry and consumers alike will certainly begin to voluntarily move to alternative energy sources if they are less expensive.

However, I am concerned by the time frame suggested by the article. In my opinion, 30 to 50 years is entirely too long in view of unfolding environmental events, because CO2 is already rising at an increasing rate that will soon carry the atmospheric load into the danger zone. Release of methane, continuing loss of rain forests, and other factors are carrying our planet toward a climate disaster at an ever-increasing rate. Meanwhile, the economic reality of declining fossil fuel resources is staring us in the face. In my opinion, if anything effective is to be done, it must be done on a shorter time scale, and possibly a much shorter one.

The authors mention that peak oil production is likely to be reached “within 20 years, followed by natural gas and coal.” That is extremely optimistic for petroleum. According to many experts, the oil peak is likely to come much sooner and we may already be teetering on the top of the production curve drawn several decades ago by H. King Hubbert. Hubbert, an oil geologist, made predictions about the world’s oil production that have proven extremely accurate, and according to Hubbert’s famous curve we presently face the definite near-term possibility of declining oil production, and possibly even a precipitous drop as Herculean efforts to maintain production finally run their course and demand inexorably catches up with supply. World demand for oil is climbing and will drive prices ever higher as long as national economies can continue to grow and oil can continue to be pumped — but the question is: For how long?

Should we actually be at or near the oil peak, we will not have the comfort of being able to take 30 to 50 years to adjust our energy economy to more sustainable models, and could in fact be forced to choose between seeing our economy slide into a bottomless depression or make an all-out national effort to rapidly embrace new models.

Unfortunately, to date our government and old-model industries have shown little resolve to take the steps that are needed. It can be hoped that those attitudes will change soon. In addition to the carbon tax suggested by the Science authors (and which we heartily support), here are a few other steps that could be taken now:

• Enact higher CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standards on a sliding scale to encourage automobile companies to build and sell more efficient cars. Our American car makers have ducked the bullet on CAFE standards by building more light trucks and SUVs which are exempt from the standards applied to passenger cars. This is a national disgrace and should be reversed as quickly as possible. Our auto companies should be turning out fuel-efficient alternative vehicles instead of Hummers and giant pickup trucks that are usually seen driving around with empty beds. (I recently amused myself during a rush hour commute by counting the number of pickups which were actually carrying any loads, and it was about 10 percent of the total.)

• Create tax credits, deductions, and/or grants to encourage development of sustainable energy sources, and to reward and encourage companies who make improvements in this area. A carbon tax would punish companies who make wasteful use of fossil fuels, but we also need incentives for those who would do otherwise.

• Enact similar incentives for individuals to encourage the use of energy efficient alternatives, including purchase of more efficient home appliances, lighting, and heating and cooling systems, and better insulation, as well as such energy-saving improvements as solar water heaters. The replacement of energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs with far more efficient compact flourescent (CF) bulbs should be supported by the government through a grant program to assure that every house in America uses less electricity. It is estimated that if only one old-style light bulb in each U.S. house were to be replaced by a CF bulb, it would save as much energy as used by one million cars. Think if ALL the wasteful bulbs, invented over a century ago, could be replaced. With a serious commitment to subsidization, this could be achieved fairly quickly.

• Provide funding to help aid construction of needed infrastructure to make the switch to new energy sources practical. That could include the important upgrades needed in our electricity grid to eliminate waste and distribute energy from new sources that cannot be easily sourced near the sites where it will be used (i.e., transmitting solar-based electricity produced in the less heavily populated Southwest or wind-based power from the High Plains to the populated Northeast).

• Mandate a return to construction of nuclear power plants — for which we now have the technology for safer and more efficient designs than in the past — and put renewal of our nuclear power capacity on a fast-track. In the past, it took as much as 18 or 20 years to plan and build a nuclear plant, and by cutting through the red tape that time frame could be dramatically reduced. We need more nuclear power, and we need it sooner than in 2025 and beyond.

• Provide federal funding to companies willing to switch to producing energy-friendly products. For example, the major automobile companies have unused production capacity, including entire factories that are idle. With incentives, these under-utilized assembly lines could be converted to produce wind generators, solar equipment, and other products to help reduce carbon emissions. That would not only help the transition to sustainable, carbon-friendly energy production, but would also create jobs and stimulate local economies. This is an example of how a commitment to “decarbonizing” our nation could actually create new opportunities for companies and workers alike.

These are just a few ideas that could help put the conversion of our carbon-based economy on the road to a better model quickly. There are many more things that could be done now. We know there is a problem, and every indication is that things are going to get worse faster than we have previously thought. The alternative to failing to take quick action could be a worldwide depression, and a planet sailing toward runaway warming that could spell the end of our civilization. The time to act is NOW.

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