Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Reducing Carbon Emissions

A few people have asked me what I think about the Obama/EPA plan to reduce power-plant carbon emissions.

I believe it is essential that society transform to low carbon energy production and it is clear that we have dithered away much time over the past two decades arguing about whether or not climate change is real and caused by humans. However, my training is in the atmospheric sciences, so ultimately my views on the Obama/EPA plan are based on my more shallow understanding (if one exists) of politics, economics, and energy.

The plan seeks to reduce power plant emissions by 30% by 2030, but this is relative to 2005 emissions.  This basically gives everyone a head start since carbon emissions in the United States peaked in the mid 2000s.

Source: http://www.c2es.org/facts-figures/us-emissions/co2, original source EIA (2012).
The graph above is for all sectors, whereas as I understand it, the Obama/EPA plan addresses only power plant emissions.  Since 2005, power plant carbon emissions are down about 13%.  That decline represents a shift from coal to natural gas for energy production (natural gas is more efficient and produces more power per unit of carbon) and a sluggish economy.  Getting the additional 17% will probably involve some increase in renewable energy production and a shift to natural gas.  Of course, that assumes the plan survives political challenges in the coming years.

Ultimately, however, addressing climate change requires not only modest reductions in carbon emissions but technological breakthroughs needed to make fossil fuels obsolete (as soon as possible).  The former represents the low-hanging fruit, whereas the latter is a much more difficult challenge, as discussed in this editorial by Steven Cohen, executive director of the Columbia University Earth Institute.  The US could play a leadership role in this area, and it would facilitate a shift to non-carbon energy sources worldwide.  My concern is that modest reductions through cap-and-trade will not spur the innovation needed to produce the stampede to non-carbon energy sources needed to put the brakes on global warming.  

No comments:

Post a Comment