We've heard the arguments. The developing world must burn coal because of the bottom line. Clean energy costs are prohibitive for developing nations. Coal is cheap. Coal is easy.
That is, it's cheap and easy if you're not paying attention.
Development requires a lot of energy, and countries like China and India fight hard to oppose economy-wide caps on their emissions, because they don't want to slow their modernization. They say they'll cap their emissions later, when they've fully industrialized, and after a period of similar action from all developed nations, including the US. And what about oil? It's become an entrenched component in modern, industrial economics. Commerce depends on it. Shipping depends on it. Transportation, heating, and a host of materials depend on it.
Fossil fuels are currently responsible for about 86% of the world's energy production. Coal accounts for 40%, oil 39%, and natural gas 21%.1
The graph to the left is from a paper by S.J. Davis et al.2 who conclude that the fossil fuel infrastructure posing the main climate threat has not yet been built. The figure shows the (high, middle, low) estimated commitment to future emissions by if we continue to rely primarily on fossil fuels against the projected emissions from existing carbon-emitting infrastructure. Pre-industrial levels are subtracted out.
We still have a choice.
Even with today's technology, aggressive green energy policy and renewables implementation can solve the climate crisis. That is, if we roll up our sleeves and act now. The main climate threat comes from maintaining the status quo and moving forward primarily on non-renewable energy. The IPCC reports that we could meet 77% of the world's projected energy needs with renewables by 2050.
While Exxon-Mobil's figures do not account for grid infrastructure and providing energy backup/storage, they offer a convincing argument that an energy plan based primarily on wind is really the cheapest. See Exxon-Mobil says wind is the cheapest form of electricity generation, by Jerome a Paris.
There are accounting problems:
People are often terrified of the health impacts of nuclear energy, but somehow, they overlook fossil fuels. The negative health impacts from the fossil fuel industry are staggering. Petrochemicals cause cancer, pulmonary disease, birth defects -- every bit as ugly as the diseases feared from nuclear accidents. (.pdf) The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1.5 million people die annually from air pollution alone. Somehow, fossil fuels get a pass.
The truth is, we fail to see a direct link between fossil fuels and disease like we do for radiation and disease. But we've known for decades that oil and chemical plants are associated with increased cancer death rates. Today, we need to look no further than our refineries, like in Port Arthur, Texas, a town that boasts a markedly increased incidence of cancer and debilitating pulmonary diseases, such as asthma. The petrochemical industry doesn't pay for those health expenses, though. Those costs are passed on to the people who suffer.
If the fossil fuel industry was forced to pay for its damages, the financial analysis would be different. Fossil fuels are not cheap. Their bottom line simply doesn't reflect all of the costs.
Internationally, the accounting is harder.
How do we quantify the damage suffered in a developing nation at the hands of a fossil fuel emissions from the developed world? How do create energy technology that doesn't prohibit development and doesn't default to the already established fossil fuels? How do we even keep track?
A 2010 study scientists at Carnegie Institution for Science shows that over one third of the world's carbon emissions associated with goods and services are outsourced. Their defacto emissions are created outside their borders.
Some countries, such as Switzerland, “outsource” over half of their carbon dioxide emissions, primarily to developing countries. The study finds that, per person, about 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide are consumed in the U.S. but produced somewhere else. For Europeans, the figure can exceed four tons per person. Most of these emissions are outsourced to developing countries, especially China.
So, who is affecting what emissions, and where? An immediate solution to this confusion could include consumption-based accounting of carbon emissions. (.pdf) While entirely consumption-based accounting has the potential (as production-based) for "leakage", sharing responsibility for emissions between producers and consumers could provide a viable path to global climate policy. That policy is currently hampered by the genuine lack of economic parity between modernized countries that burned fossil fuels without bound and developing countries that are being forced to cap their emissions.
What is clear is that we need international agreement that really caps emissions. Soon. For this, we must build an international coalition of policy makers, scientists, economists, sustainable business experts, and lots of generally clever folks. We also need to create political will. That's why international climate movements are vitally necessary today. They are the root.
We can solve the climate crisis. It isn't too late. Yet.
References without direct links:
1) Schmidt and Wolfe, Climate Change: Picturing the Science. p. 216
2) Davis, Caldeira, and Matthews, Science 10 September 2010: Vol. 329 no. 5997 pp. 1330-1333
|MovingPlanet@Kos is a collaborative action with the Moving Planet team, the Global Campaign for Climate Action, WiserEarth, tcktcktck, the Sierra Club, DeSmogBlog, EcoCity Builders, and Transition US. Together, we are launching a 'package' of educational and inspirational writing and art, rattling the twitterverse in a cooperative social media campaign, and sharing some of the most innovative and extraordinary 9/24 events.
Visit the Moving Planet Earthship for updates and links to news and postings as well as all Coverage@Kos.
9 am -11 Enviro Writer
11-1: Jill Richardson
1-3 Kelly Rigg, Global Campaign for Climate Action
3-5 Roger Fox
5-7 Richard Register, Ecocity Builders
7-11 Franke James, Environmental Artist
Saturday, September 24 ALL TIMES EST
9-11 Bill McKibben, 350.org
11-1 Nichole Ghio, Sierra Club
1-3 ulookarmless: Movement in Poetry
3-5 Peggy Duvette, WiserEarth
7-9 Post Carbon Institute
9-12 citizen: Climate Heros: (Liveblog for report ins)
Sunday, September 25. ALL TIMES EST
Wrap ups and Report ins