Quick Reduction of Greenhouse Gas Emissions is Possible, and Urgent


Reducing our emissions of greenhouse-inducing gases is both more feasible and more urgent than is portrayed either in the mildly positive discussion by Dr. Martin Callinan (NM 20) or in the extremely negative, not to say extremist, account of economist Paul Fritjers (NM 21).

The quickest, most cost-effective and most widely overlooked option is to pursue energy efficiency. This strategy is not only sensible in its own right, it would also advance the viability of renewable energy technologies by substantially reducing the amount of energy they need to deliver.

Renewable energy options by themselves would struggle to deliver the energy required to maintain our present wasteful habits. Nuclear energy is dangerous and expensive. The big end of town is suddenly pushing geosequestration (burying) of carbon, but this is an undeveloped, unproven, complex and undoubtedly expensive option whose chief appeal is to those who hope for business as usual, as well as to mega-engineering companies anticipating big contracts at the expense of taxpayers and consumers.

On the other hand we know, right now, how to build houses that use perhaps 25 per cent of the energy used by your average modern tract house. If good designs are used from the beginning, the extra cost is marginal, and quickly offset by saved energy costs. Good design involves sensible siting and orientation, careful use of glass, shade and insulation, careful attention to airflows, use of efficient appliances, and so on. Extra costs of some of these items are offset by reduced costs for space heating and cooling plant.

If only new houses were built sensibly, within a couple of decades they would contribute a significant reduction in greenhouse emissions. Retrofitting is a viable option for many existing buildings, or would be if market distortions were removed, and this would speed up the adjustment.

There are two other big advantages to this approach. One is to make our buildings more autonomous and less dependent on increasingly complex and fragile energy distribution systems.

The second advantage is that being less dependent on centralized distribution also makes us less vulnerable to terrorists – what are they going to do, threaten to tear out everyone’s ceiling insulation?

Another huge opportunity for energy savings is in urban layout. For about a century, Australians and North Americans have been indulging in what James Kunstler calls in his The Geography of Nowhere, urban build-out. This is a self-defeating race to leapfrog everyone else into an idyllic semi-rural estate. (The race was aggravated in the US by market manipulation from big auto, oil and tyre companies to eliminate many public transport systems.) One result is commutes of several hours a day, stress and neglected families.

Another result of urban build-out, combined with current fashions in private transportation, is the American urban freeway, which has to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Perhaps 30-40 per cent of vehicles are huge, monstrously wasteful SUVs designed for rugged terrain. Traffic proceeds either at ineffeciently low speeds during congestion or at inefficiently high speeds (commonly 130 kph) at low traffic densities.

Because large US cities have become so dispersed, travel times for commonplace activities may be thirty minutes one-way. In an accelerating feedback, retailing is concentrating in huge, widely-spaced malls of big-box stores. Since the invasion of Iraq is partly about maintaining US oil supplies, then Iraqis are dying to preserve this so-called American way of life. So is the Earth.

Dotted here and there are islands of sanity, places that someone has planned (shudder) to make urban living pleasant, convenient and efficient, rather than something to be escaped. Some demonstrated advantages of such places include convenient local shopping, some local employment, reduced and carefully sequestered traffic, kidsafe spaces, neighbourliness, green spaces, vege patches, plenty of shade and consequent reduced energy consumption. Once established, such neighbourhoods tend to have low turnover and to be in high demand.

There are many other demonstrated opportunities for greatly improving our energy efficiency. They range from doubling or tripling vehicle fuel efficiency with hybrid and hydrogen technologies, through more efficient industrial process and factory layouts, to more efficient and stable polycultural agriculture. The key is usually clever design rather than cost.

Solar energy, amazingly, is still often perceived as exotic and expensive. Yet passive solar building design and solar water heaters harness solar energy directly and cheaply. Photovoltaics (direct conversion of sunlight to electricity) are no longer exotic and expensive, and would have significant market penetration right now if open and hidden subsidies of fossil fuels were eliminated. Solar-derived wind power is growing rapidly. As photovoltaics become cheaper so will liquid-hydrogen fuel. Bio-fuels like ethanol are already more feasible, but they would make heavier demands on already-pressed agricultural lands.

The mainstream spectrum of opinion on the cost of reducing greenhouse emissions seems to run from ‘very expensive’ through ‘horrendously expensive’ to ‘prohibitively expensive’. So the mainstream debate usually overlooks the main opportunity, concentrates on discrediting climate forecasters and never thinks to question the forecasts of economists, all the while acting as if global ecological collapse and actual or threatened flooding of most major cities (just for example) would not be rather expensive.

One reason you don’t hear the opportunities for energy efficiency being advocated by mainstream economists is apparently that they are generally very ignorant of such practicalities (as well as of human nature, biology and a few other such details). Another reason is that mainstream economics is pseudo-science. Its central theory bears no resemblance whatsoever to the behaviour of real economies, and so predictions based on it are useless.

In particular, the theory predicts that the economy is close to what is called the general equilibrium, in which all supplies and demands are in balance (whereas real modern economies are full of raging instabilities). This is a major reason why economists promote the myth that reducing greenhouse emissions will be extremely expensive – in their fantasy world of optimal efficiency, if you do anything different it will cost more, possibly a lot more. Of course many economists make quite a good living telling present vested interests what they want to hear.

Energy efficiency could advance more rapidly if we undertook some structural reforms of our economic system. There are many perverse incentives that are either poorly designed or designed to benefit special interests at the expense of the rest of us. Norman Myers estimates these amount to $2 trillion per year globally. A few pertinent examples are direct subsidies of fossil fuels, taxpayer funding of roads preferentially over other transport, and wars to maintain access to oil sources.

Globalised free-for-all financial markets favour fickle investors, and these force managers to favour short-term exploitation over long-term innovation and wealth-creation. Clever and far-reaching reform would be to require companies to provide services rather than to sell products (e.g., convenient transportation rather than cars, hot showers and cold beer rather than electricity). Then the incentive would shift from favouring excessive consumption to favouring efficiency.

These and other reforms could harness the power of markets to generate the innovations that could rapidly improve energy efficiency. In other words, rather than it being profitable to exploit people and trash the Earth, we could shift the incentives so it’s profitable to support people and nurture the Earth. We’re wealthy, and we claim to be smart, so why don’t we take this on as a challenge?

The Earth is our life-support system, and we threaten it in many ways, not just through global warming. We divert about half of all land plant photosynthesis to human uses. We use well over half of accessible fresh water. Soils are degrading or eroding worldwide. Many habitats are greatly reduced and still being rapidly shrunk, degraded or fragmented. Our poisons pollute from pole to pole, they are disrupting many organisms, and we release hundreds of new chemicals every year. Genetic engineers are ignorantly meddling with ancient and fundamental biological processes.

Uncontrolled exponential growth in the organic world, of which we are inextricably a part, is called either a plague or a cancer. It is abundantly clear that the exponential growth of our industrial era and our pathological ‘growth’ economies must be tamed and stopped. We have the means, if we are wise enough to use them. We could live well on the Earth, all nine billion of us, but not in the profligate way some of us now live.

There is indeed uncertainty in estimates of how much greenhouse warming there will be, though climate models are paragons of relevance and precision compared with economic models. Uncertainty cuts both ways. In one recent climate model, the Amazon basin dried out, it gave up a lot of its carbon to the atmosphere and there was a runaway global warming. To highlight the uncertainties and then to choose the highly optimistic prospects of ‘only’ two meters of sea-level rise combined with a regional increase in Australian rainfall, as Paul Fritjers did, is merely to advertise bias.

Scientists are increasingly concerned with the prospect of sudden climate shifts, within only a decade or so. We are learning they have happened before. Such sudden shifts can play havoc with biological diversity, because species and habitat can’t possibly migrate at that rate, especially as much natural habitat is now highly fragmented by human activities.

Even without further climate change or habitat destruction, about half of Earth’s species may be doomed already. Some rather simple patterns have recently been found to underlie the hitherto bewildering details of species distributions among various patches and regions of habitat. Using these rules, the distinguished British ecologist John Lawton has estimated that because about 90 per cent of all wild habitat has been destroyed, about half of all species will eventually die out.

The risk is not just of the loss of some furry creatures and pretty butterflies. Like the ocean-climate system, complex ecologies can undergo relatively sudden shifts if one or a few key species are lost. Jared Diamond, in his new book Collapse, documents many such ecological collapses due in part to human interference. A regional or global collapse to a simpler, more impoverished assemblage of species could take decades in its main phase, and it would reverberate for centuries and millenia. Is that what we wish on our descendants?

Diamond notes that many former societies were at the height of their power and accomplishments shortly before they collapsed. This is a feature of systems reaching the limits of exponential growth phases. The rulers, preoccupied with competing for power and prestige, apparently were oblivious to the imminent peril, and continued or increased the very practices that were undermining them. We are right on track.

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