Saturday, September 22, 2007

Doing something for the sake of doing something

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is jumping on the global warming bandwagon, with a round table and accompanying editorial in this Sunday's edition.

The title of the editorial is "A threat so severe that waiting is not an option." Based off the round table, it proposed a variety of changes, including energy efficiency, conservation, and new technology, to reach, as one round table participant said, "a return to 1990 emission standards by 2020. That will require a 25% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That's of the order of what is needed."

Only problem is, it won't work. The changes suggested won't get there. It isn't even close--and that's been known worldwide for over a year. As Robert Samuelson noted last July:

From 2003 to 2050, world population is projected to grow from 6.4 billion people to 9.1 billion, a 42 percent increase. If energy use per person and technology remain the same, total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions (mainly, carbon dioxide) will be 42 percent higher in 2050. But that's too low, because societies that grow richer use more energy. Unless we condemn the world's poor to their present poverty -- and freeze everyone else's living standards -- we need economic growth. With modest growth, energy use and greenhouse emissions more than double by 2050.

Just keeping annual greenhouse gas emissions constant means that the world must somehow offset these huge increases. There are two ways: improve energy efficiency; or shift to energy sources with lower (or no) greenhouse emissions. Intuitively, you sense this is tough. China, for example, builds about one coal-fired power plant a week. Now, a new report from the International Energy Agency in Paris shows all the difficulties (the population, economic growth and energy projections cited above come from the report).

The IEA report assumes that existing technologies are rapidly improved and deployed. Vehicle fuel efficiency increases by 40 percent. In electricity generation, the share for coal (the fuel with the most greenhouse gases) shrinks from about 40 percent to about 25 percent -- and much carbon dioxide is captured before going into the atmosphere. Little is captured today. Nuclear energy increases. So do "renewables'' (wind, solar, biomass, geothermal); their share of global electricity output rises from 2 percent now to about 15 percent.

Some of these changes seem heroic. They would require tough government regulation, continued technological gains and public acceptance of higher fuel prices. Never mind. Having postulated a crash energy diet, the IEA simulates five scenarios with differing rates of technological change. In each, greenhouse emissions in 2050 are higher than today. The increases vary from 6 percent to 27 percent.

25% reduction. Riiiiiiight.

Improved efficiency and reduced energy usage, on their own merits, are unquestionably good ideas--but don't imagine that they will do much, if anything, to reduce the threat or impact of global warming, if it is as bad as Al Gore et al claim.

If global warming is truly such a great threat, then there are only two ways to seriously combat it: radically new technology or the abrupt, total, and permanent immolation of the global economy.

Even then, neither of those is a sure thing. New technology is a crapshoot--there's no guarantee that it will emerge in time (or at all, for that matter)--and the global economy may have already done too much damage to the planet for its removal to make a difference now.

But if you're taking global warming seriously, then it isn't something you can nickel-and-dime to death. The point where those kinds of changes might have made a difference was a decade or two ago--just a few years after we emerged from the last global cooling scare.

"Waiting is not an option"? Perhaps. But if waiting isn't an option, then neither is doing something merely for the sake of doing something.


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