The shifting climate change debate

by Robbin Johnson
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The climate change debate has shifted ground in some interesting ways since we last visited that subject in this space over two years ago. The continuing slow recovery from the great recession has kept policy initiatives in the United States subdued. Rapid energy demand growth in China and India has left them still reluctant to curb fossil-fuel use. Erratic weather patterns are taken as casual evidence to some, and causal evidence to others, of renewed urgency to do something. Yet, neither the Copenhagen nor the Durban discussions produced any substantive agreements.

In place of grand schemes for capping fossil-fuel emissions or for trading emission rights has emerged a more modest but potentially more productive approach that might be characterized as a “no regrets” strategy. Included within such a strategy would be steps that would make sense in their own right but that have the ancillary benefit of contributing to slowing the human contribution to global warming.

No regrets approaches

Among the most obvious no regrets approaches is improving energy efficiency. A good example in the United States is the renewed emphasis on improving mileage performance of new cars and trucks. Congress passed new “corporate average fuel economy” (CAFE) standards that will raise mileage requirements for cars and light trucks by nearly one-third by 2016.

Car manufacturers are reconfiguring their fleets, taking weight out of vehicles, improving engine efficiency and more explicitly advertising their mileage performance — all in anticipation of the new CAFE standards but also in recognition of a shift in consumer attitudes. One consequence of these steps is that U.S. gasoline usage appears to have peaked in 2007 and is unlikely to reach that level again. This, in turn, means lower carbon emissions from the transport sector of the economy.

Manufacturers and service industries also are addressing energy efficiency. Cogeneration of power and heat may reduce energy use by half. Simple steps like replacing copper wires with integrated circuits in power adapters has, according to The Economist of Dec. 5, 2009, “meant a drop in global power consumption worth around $2 billion a year — saving 13 million tonnes of CO2 annually worldwide, the equivalent of closing down eight coal-fired power stations.”

Agriculture is doing its part. Anerobic digesters can convert methane-emitting manure into power and emission reductions. Pelletizing urea used in rice paddies has cut nitrous oxide emissions in half. Research undertaken to increase agricultural yields also produces a large climate-change dividend: a Stanford University study put the emission reductions from that research at roughly one-fourth, even though the climate-change benefit was merely incidental to the primary purpose of feeding more people better, at lower cost.

Changes in fossil-fuel energy sector

One of the most dramatic changes has occurred in the fossil-fuel energy sector itself. New drilling and recovery techniques have created an abundance of homegrown natural gas supplies. While wind and solar power have helped reduce coal use in electricity generation, the lion’s share of the work has been done by natural gas. Coal’s share of U.S. electricity generation has fallen to 45% in 2010 from 52% in 2000, while natural gas’ share rose to 24% from 16%. Some predict that coal’s share will fall to as low as 20% by 2030, largely replaced by natural gas. The climate dividend in all of this is that coal has a carbon to hydrogen ratio of 2 to 1 while natural gas’ ratio is 1 to 4. This means that natural gas produces energy with much lower carbon emissions than coal.

The interesting aspect of placing more emphasis on a no regrets approach to climate change is that there is ample room for developing countries to participate without sacrificing their aspirations for economic growth. One of the major culprits in global warming is black soot, the small particles emitted by burning wood, manure and dirty diesel. These black soot particles have been identified recently as a primary culprit in the melting of the Arctic and Himalayan glaciers, the latter of which is vital to the water flow in rivers of South Asia.

The interesting thing about black soot is that it persists in the atmosphere for only a few weeks, compared to decades or centuries for carbon. Its emissions and its climate-change effects, therefore, may be moderated almost simultaneously. Principal sources of black soot in the developing world are cook stoves, which contribute to as many as two million deaths per year from lung damage, and older diesel generators. Replacing these stoves and generators with cleaner burning versions would cost little, would save millions of lives from conventional pollution and would add to rather than detract from development efforts.

What may be emerging is a middle path for dealing with the risks of climate change. This path lays between the “do nothing” approach of business as usual and the “drop everything else” approach of emissions capping treaties that are proving difficult to negotiate. It is a path of “no regrets” that is built on taking conscious steps that reduce climate-change risks incidental to their more direct economic benefits of greater efficiency, a cleaner environment and a more healthy populace.

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