Wednesday, June 4, 2014

US CO2 Emission Reductions: A Good Start, but Much More is Needed Globally

As I've mentioned in a previous post, global emissions of CO2 are a major problem because the people who will be harmed the most of the higher temperatures and lower ocean pH are not those who are emitting the most CO2.
Before getting onto the main points of this post, I'm going to summarize the main points from that previous post (i.e. why CO2 emissions are a problem.) The reason I'm summarizing this is that I still have many family members who get their news from Fox News, and hence think that CO2 emissions is a good thing.    ;-{

(1) There is a clear link between CO2 levels in the atmosphere and fossil fuel combustion (due to the decrease in oxygen at the same time that CO2 is increasing and the change in the isotope ratios of carbon 13 to carbon 12 in the atmosphere.)
(2) There is a clear link between CO2 levels in the atmosphere and lower pH levels in the ocean (more CO2 means more acidic oceans, which in turn can lead to coral bleaching.)
(3) There is a clear link between CO2 levels in the atmosphere and less IR radiation leaving the atmosphere at the IR frequencies at which CO2 absorbs.)
(4) Since there is a partial overlap between the absorption frequencies for CO2 and H2O, the addition of CO2 into the atmosphere will have a greater effect on temperature in those locations where there is less water vapor.  (i.e. CO2 is fairly well mixed in the atmosphere, but water vapor concentration is highly dependent on local temperatures and relative humidity.)
(5) Predictions of models match well with experimental data. (meaning that temperatures are increasing the most in those locations where there wasn't much water vapor to start...i.e. the poles, deserts, and most other places in winter at night.)
Climate Model and Temperature Change
(6) All other possible causes of global warming have been debunked. (i.e. it's not the sun, it's not volcanoes, and it's not natural fluctuations...i.e. Milankovitch cycles.)

If you want a more depth summary of the case for why we need to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, please read the following articles from the website Skeptical Science. (which if you're not familiar, is a website devoted to debunking Climate Skeptics.)

Global CO2 emissions will likely be a hot topic for thousands of years in the future. Why?
Because now that we know that we can affect the temperature of the globe, we will be constantly fighting over what is the optimal temperature. There will always be some people living close to the poles who will likely want higher average temperatures (i.e. to increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere), and there will always be people living near sea level who will want lower average temperatures (i.e. to decrease CO2 levels in the atmosphere.)

I don't see this issue ever going away, so we need to figure out globally acceptable solutions to the problem. This problem is not like the problem of acid rain (which is fairly local and an all-around bad thing.) This problem is not like many other environmental problems because of (a) its scope and (b) its indirect and uncertain harm (i.e. its hard to determine what damage from a storm or flood was "natural" and what was "human-caused", and its hard to place blame on any one person or company.)
Answering the question "what is the optimal amount of CO2 in the atmosphere" is more like answering the question "what is the optimal amount of government?"
There is no correct answer, and we will continue to debate these questions for the rest of history.

Still, with that having been said, I'm cautiously optimistic about the EPA's  recently proposed regulations on CO2. I'm cautiously optimistic about both recently proposed law on existing power plants and the formerly proposed laws on new power plants. The proposed law that would regulate new power plants is would require new power plants to emit less than a certain amount of carbon dioxide per MWh of electricity generated, averaged over the lifetime of the plant. This is an important law, and I hope that it is enacted. But I was worried (until the law for existing power plants was proposed) that CO2 emissions in the US could still go up with time there was no overall cap in CO2 emissions. This new laws actually requires a cut in overall emissions, but I think that the proposed laws for existing power plants do not go far enough. They only require a 30% reduction in power plant emissions in the US (which is only ~38% of US total emissions of CO2.) The regulations don't cover cars. They don't cover steel, limestone, gasoline, or aluminum production. They don't cover methane leaks in oil&gas wells. They don't cover all of the other small sources of greenhouse gases. And most importantly, they don't cover GHG emissions in other major emitting countries, such as China, India, and Russia. My hope is that the Obama Administration can use the enacting of the EPA proposed laws to help build a global policy that caps CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to less than ~600 ppm. At this point in time, the higher the CO2 concentrations, the higher the damage due to summer heat waves and flooding. Note: I'm not trying to argue that there aren't some positive benefits from high CO2 concentrations. I'm just arguing that it's unfair that we can emit CO2 into the atmosphere while there are people in living in low lying areas (such as New Orleans, Miami, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, and Vietnam) that are paying the price of our collective emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. It also doesn't seem wise to me for us to be messing around with the Earth's climate.

I think that we can create a sustainable society while keeping CO2 levels in the atmosphere in the range of 400-600 ppm through the combination of the following:
(1) More solar PV on homes   (starting at first in locations like California, and then places with less solar energy density once solar PV prices drop due to mass production.)
(2) More combined cycle power plants (running on natural gas in the short run and hydrogen in the long run)
(3) Coal gasification to generate compressed hydrogen (for fuel cell cars and for combined cycle power plants) and compressed CO2 for storage underground.
(4) Municipal solid waste gasification to generate compressed hydrogen (for fuel cell cars and for combined cycle power plants) and compressed CO2 for storage underground.
(5) Vehicles that operate on electricity and/or hydrogen.
(6) A limited number of nuclear power plants in those places where water is available for cooling the condenser of the Rankine cycle of the power plant.
(7) Steel, lime and aluminum production with CO2 capture and sequestration.
(8) Wind turbines in certain locations where there is (a) lots of wind, (b) high demand of electricity, and (c) lots of energy storage capacity...such as Washington State or Scandinavia.

The transition to a low CO2 emitting society needs to happen globally and needs to happen quickly. And hopefully we can do this in a way that gives individuals and companies the power to chose how best to reduce their CO2 emissions. We absolutely need to reduce CO2 emissions, but I hope that this doesn't lead to move government involvement in the economy. I'm fine with governments across the globe getting together to set enforceable goals for CO2 reductions; however, it would be a shame if governments became more than just regulators (like what we've seen where politicians give money to their favorite renewable energy companies.) We need the government to create and to enforce laws that limit the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, but we don't need governments increasing our taxes and distributing those taxes to their favorite renewable energy companies.
While I'm not a fan of the Obama administration in general (because of the auto bail-outs, Cash-for-clunkers, renewable energy hand-outs to favored companies, and general growth in the size of government), I'm excited by two things that the administration has done over the last ~6 yrs: (a) repeal don't ask don't tell, and (b) proposed 2 different regulations on CO2 emissions that didn't grow the non-regulatory size of government.
We need to significantly reduce global CO2 emissions. This week, the US took a step in the right direction, but it was only a small step. The reaching the goal of keeping CO2 concentrations below 600 ppm will require many, many more steps in this direction.

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