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Dallas Morning News


Capturing Carbon is Our Only Option

May 08, 2009

By Peter W. Huber

Like medieval priests, today's carbon brokers will sell you an indulgence that forgives your carbon sins. It will run you about $500 for 5 tons of forgiveness � about how much the typical American needs every year. Or about $2,000 a year for a typical four-person household.

Your broker will spend the money on such things as reducing methane emissions from hog farms in Brazil. But if you really want to make a difference, you must send a check large enough to forgive the carbon emitted by four poor Brazilian households, too � because they're not going to do it themselves. To cover all five households, send $4,000. If you decline to write your own check while insisting that to save the world we must ditch the carbon, you are just burdening your already sooty soul with another ton of self-righteous hypocrisy. And you can't possibly afford what it will cost to forgive that.

Washington can't save the planet without your help. During the campaign, Barack Obama was heard to remark that he would bankrupt the coal industry. No one can doubt Washington's power to bankrupt almost anything � in the United States. But China is adding 100 gigawatts of coal-fired electrical capacity a year. That's another whole United States' worth of coal consumption added every three years, with no stopping point in sight. Much of the rest of the developing world is on a similar path.

Cut to the chase. We rich people can't stop the world's 5 billion poor people from burning the couple of trillion tons of cheap carbon that they have within easy reach. We can't even make any durable dent in global emissions � because emissions from the developing world are growing too fast, because the other 80 percent of humanity desperately needs cheap energy, and because we and they are now part of the same global economy. What we can do, if we're foolish enough, is let carbon worries send our jobs and industries to their shores, making them grow even faster and their carbon emissions faster still.

We don't control the global supply of carbon. Ten countries ruled by nasty people control 80 percent of the planet's oil reserves � about 1 trillion barrels, currently worth about $50 trillion. These countries will drill, pump and find buyers � oil is all they've got. Poor countries all around the planet are sitting on a second, even bigger source of carbon � almost a trillion tons of cheap, easily accessible coal. They also control most of the planet's third great reservoir of accessible carbon � the rain forests and soil. They will keep squeezing the carbon out of cheap coal, and cheap forest and cheap soil, because that's all they've got. Unless they can find something even cheaper. But they won't � not any time in the foreseeable future.

We no longer control global demand for carbon, either. Collectively, the 5 billion poor � the other 80 percent � emit 20 percent more greenhouse gas than the wealthy do. We burn a lot more carbon individually, but they have a lot more children. Their fecundity has eclipsed our gluttony, and the gap is now widening fast. China, not the United States, is now the planet's largest emitter. Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa and others are in hot pursuit. And all these countries have made it clear that they aren't interested in spending what money they have on low-carb diets. Their populations and total emissions are rising far faster than ours could fall under any remotely plausible carbon-reduction scheme. This alone guarantees that humanity isn't going to reduce global emissions at any point in the foreseeable future � unless it does it the old-fashioned way, by getting poorer. But the current recession won't last forever.

Might we simply buy their cooperation? Various plans have circulated for having the rich pay the poor to stop burning their forests and other cheap, carbon-rich sources of energy. But taking control of what belongs to someone else ultimately means buying it. Over the long term, we would in effect have to buy up a large fraction of all the world's forests, soil, coal and oil � and then post guards to make sure that poor people didn't sneak in and grab the carbon anyway. Buying off people just doesn't fly when they outnumber you four to one.

Might we instead manage to give the world something cheaper than carbon? The moon-shot law of economics says yes, of course we can. If we just put our minds to it, it will happen. Atom bomb, moon landing, ultracheap energy � all it takes is a triumph of political will.

Really? For the very poorest, this would mean beating the price of the free rain forest that they burn down to clear land to plant a subsistence crop. For the slightly less poor, it would mean beating the price of coal used to generate electricity at under 3 cents per kilowatt-hour. Fossil fuels are extremely cheap because geological forces happen to have created large deposits of these dense forms of energy in accessible places. Find a mountain of coal, and you can just shovel gargantuan amounts of energy into the boxcars.

Shoveling energy out of wind and sun is much, much harder. Engineers have pursued the necessary technologies for decades, and while costs of some components have fallen, there is no serious prospect of costs plummeting and performance soaring as they have in our laptops and cellphones. When you replace conventional with renewable energy, everything gets bigger, not smaller � and bigger costs more, not less. Windmills are now 50-story skyscrapers. Yet one windmill generates a piddling 2 to 3 megawatts, when the wind is blowing hard. A single jumbo jet needs 100 megawatts to get off the ground; Google is building 100-megawatt server farms. Even if solar cells themselves were free, solar power would remain very expensive because of the huge structures and support systems required to extract large amounts of electricity from a source so weak that it takes hours to deliver a tan.

This is why the (few) greens ready to accept engineering and economic reality have suddenly emerged as avid proponents of nuclear power. In the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident � which didn't harm anyone, and wouldn't have damaged the reactor core if the operators had let the automatic safety systems do their job � anti-nuclear activists unwittingly boosted U.S. coal consumption by about 400 million tons per year. The United States would be in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol today if we could simply undo their handiwork and conjure back into existence the nuclear plants that were in the pipeline in nuclear power's heyday. As America's nuclear navy, several commercial U.S. operators, France, Japan and a handful of other countries have convincingly established, nuclear is both safe and cheap wherever engineers are allowed to get on with it. But no one will pour a couple of billion dollars into a new plant where regulatory quagmires make it impossible to predict when (or even if) the investment will be allowed to start making money. And it's difficult to share the technology with countries where you never know who will be in charge next year, or what he might decide to do with his nuclear toys.

We're told that getting over carbon in the United States is worth our money regardless, because it will get us over oil, too � and that will impoverish our enemies and save us a bundle at the Pentagon. But uranium aside, the most economical substitute for oil is electricity generated with coal. When oil prices spiked in the early 1980s, U.S. utilities quickly switched to other fuels, with coal leading the pack. The coal-fired plants now being built in developing countries are displacing diesel generators. Coal can also displace gas in electric power plants, and cheap electricity can displace both gas and oil in many residential, commercial and industrial applications. The gas freed up this way can then displace still more oil when it's used to power heavy trucks, delivery vehicles, buses and even cars. And coal-fired electricity will eventually begin displacing gasoline directly, when plug-in hybrid cars start recharging their batteries directly from the grid.

Ironically, using electricity to power our passenger cars would lower carbon emissions even in Indiana, which generates 75 percent of its electricity with coal, because big power plants burn their fuel so much more efficiently than car engines burn gasoline. But carbon zealots see coal-fired electricity as the dragon to slay first. Huge, stationary sources can't run or hide, and the cost of doing without them doesn't get rung up in plain view at the gas pump. California, Pennsylvania and other greener-than-thou states have made flat-lining electricity consumption the linchpin of their war on carbon. That is the one certain way to halt the displacement of foreign oil by cheap, domestic electricity. The oil nasties will celebrate the green war on carbon as enthusiastically as the coal industry celebrated the green war on uranium 30 years ago.

The other 5 billion are too poor to deny these economic realities. And if we embrace economically frivolous alternatives on our own, and pour money into expensive, anything-but-carbon fuels, we will end up doing far more harm than good.

We will, to begin with, lower demand for carbon, making it even cheaper for the rest of the world to burn. The rest will use the even cheaper, carbon-rich energy to accelerate their own economic growth. Jobs will go where energy is cheap, just as they go where labor is cheap. Manufacturing and heavy industry require a great deal of energy, and in a global economy, no competitor can survive while paying substantially more for an essential input. The carbon police acknowledge the problem and talk vaguely of using tariffs and such to address it. But carbon is far too deeply embedded in the global economy, and materials, goods and services move and intermingle far too freely, for the customs agents to track.

The suggestion that we can lift ourselves out of the economic doldrums by spending lavishly on exceptionally expensive new sources of energy is absurd. "Green jobs" means Americans paying other Americans to chase carbon while the rest of the world builds new power plants that run on cheap fuel and factories that use it. And the environmental consequences of outsourcing jobs, industries and carbon to developing countries are beyond dispute. They use energy far less efficiently than we do, and they remain almost completely oblivious to environmental impacts, just as we were in our own first century of industrialization. A massive transfer of carbon, industry and jobs from us to them will raise carbon emissions, not lower them.

If we're truly worried about carbon, we must instead approach it as if the emissions originated in an annual eruption of Mount Krakatoa. Don't try to persuade the volcano to sign a treaty promising to stop. Focus instead on what might be done to protect and promote the planet's carbon sinks � the systems that suck carbon back out of the air and bury it. Green plants and the oceans currently pump about 15 times as much carbon out of the atmosphere as humanity releases into it � that's the pump that put all that fossil-fuel carbon underground in the first place, millions of years ago. At present, almost all of that plant-captured carbon is released back into the atmosphere within a year or so by animal consumers. North America, however, is currently sinking almost two-thirds of its carbon emissions back into prairies and forests that were originally leveled in the 1800s but are now recovering. For the next 50 years or so, we should focus on promoting better land use and reforestation worldwide. Beyond that, weather and the oceans naturally sink about one-fifth of total fossil-fuel emissions. We should also investigate large-scale options for accelerating the process of ocean sequestration.

Carbon zealots despise carbon-sinking schemes because, they insist, nobody can be sure that the sunk carbon will stay sunk. Yet everything they propose hinges on the assumption that carbon already sunk by nature in what are now hugely valuable deposits of oil and coal can be kept sunk by treaty and imaginary cheaper-than-carbon alternatives. This, yet again, gets things backward. We certainly know how to improve agriculture to protect soil, and how to grow new trees, and how to maintain existing forests, and we can almost certainly learn how to mummify carbon and bury it back in the earth or the depths of the oceans, in ways that neither man nor nature will disturb. It's keeping nature's black gold sequestered from humanity that's impossible.

If we do need to do something serious about carbon, the sequestration of carbon after it's burned is the one approach that accepts the growth of carbon emissions as an inescapable fact of the 21st century. And it's the one approach that the rest of the world can embrace, too, here and now, because it begins with improving land use, which can lead directly and quickly to greater prosperity. If, on the other hand, we persist in building green bridges to nowhere, we will make things worse, not better. Good intentions aren't enough. Turned into ineffectual and wasteful action, they can cost the earth and accelerate its ruin at the same time.

Original Source:



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