The qualitative difference between the US and German carbon reductions
The US is now being heralded for its sudden ability to lower carbon emissions, while Europe is criticized for the ineffectiveness of its emissions trading and a focus on renewables. But what the US is doing will only make the climate worse.
In a few weeks, the world of climate protectionists will once again get together, this time in Doha, Qatar. We not only need to reduce our carbon emissions but, as a growing number of scientists point out, actively remove carbon from the atmosphere. The current concentration of CO2 is around 390 ppm and rising. The focus has been on stopping this increase when it reaches 450 ppm up to now, but actually there is widespread agreement that anything above 350 ppm will still lead to dramatic climate change.
The solution is as obvious as it is unrealistic: contract and converge. If the world has a determinable limit for carbon emissions, that volume can be divided by the number of people on the planet to produce a level of admissible per-capita emissions. Draw a line from a country's per capita emissions today down to that level in, say, 2050, and you have a roadmap. Unfortunately, this equitable proposal is far more ambitious than the watered-down compromises that are already hard to reach today.
Increasingly, the US is being praised for its sudden exemplary performance in lowering carbon emissions, and the European (and particularly German) focus on renewables continues to be considered ineffective, especially by economists. But in fact, what the US is doing will only increase carbon emissions overall, whereas a switch to renewables has the unique potential to reduce emissions by providing a real option to fossil fuel.
Consider this – the ocean floor is littered with methane crystals which, if harvested, would provide a tremendous source of energy. Doing so would, however, release this methane into the atmosphere. At the moment, it is at least stably trapped on the seafloor, though it may increasingly become unstable if the climate changes. If this methane escapes into the atmosphere because of climate change, the event will be a major case of “positive feedback” – where the current climate change trend accelerates itself.
Fracking as currently practiced by the US will have a similar effect on the planet. Texans can remember the days when you could stick a straw in the ground, and oil would come out. Recently, we have been looking for the last drops, but now we are able to extract large numbers of droplets.
The planet cannot handle this extra source of carbon in the atmosphere; like methane crystals, shale oil and gas needs to be left where it is if we are to reduce carbon emissions and eventually remove carbon from the atmosphere.
The US is now effectively increasing the amount of oil and gas available for the global market. As the US gradually disappears as a major importer of oil and gas, current oil and gas supplies will hardly be left in the ground; they will instead become less expensive. And less expensive fossil fuel means that investments in efficiency will not pay for themselves as quickly. In combination with lower fuel prices, the focus in the US on greater fuel economy in cars and trucks is likely to increase fuel consumption rather than decrease it; people will be able to afford more driving. And prices for gas are likely to decrease or at least remain stable in the rest of the world, so don't be surprised if global fossil fuel consumption does not decrease worldwide.
What we need is not a way to get more carbon out of the ground, but to leave more in, and the only way to do so is to provide an alternative – something that has a competitive cost and is equally reliable. Here, we see why the German and European focus on renewables makes more sense. If engineers succeed not only in squeezing the last droplets out of a continent but also in providing less expensive renewable power than can come from coal, nuclear, and natural gas, we will finally have an incentive to leave carbon in the ground.
Renewables can easily provide all of our electricity and all of our heat, though we still may need some fossil fuel for transport (aviation comes to mind). Europe is therefore on the right path, though we are not there yet. But when we get there, people will willingly forgo the environmental pollution from fracking and the risks stemming from nuclear power. This is the goal we should work on, not extracting more and more trapped carbon.
So when the president Obama's delegates say aloha in Doha in two weeks, don't let them sell themselves as emission reducers. Let’s make it clear to them that they are on the wrong path. (Craig Morris)