Monday, April 20, 2009

The Economics of Capping Carbon

The Economics of Capping Carbon

A great article ny Peter Huber about the actual economics of carbon dioxide emissions. He writes:
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 $40 trillion. If $40 trillion worth of gold were located where most of the oil is, one could only scoff at any suggestion that we might somehow persuade the nasty people to leave the wealth buried. They can lift most of their oil at a cost well under $10 a barrel. They will drill. They will pump. And they will 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 carbon reservoir—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 the demand for carbon, either. The 5 billion poor—the other 80 percent—are already the main problem, not us. Collectively, they emit 20 percent more greenhouse gas than we 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 these countries have all made it clear that they aren’t interested in spending what money they have on low-carb diets. It is idle to argue, as some have done, that global warming can be solved—decades hence—at a cost of 1 to 2 percent of the global economy. Eighty percent of the global population hasn’t signed on to pay more than 0 percent.

Accepting this last, self-evident fact, the Kyoto Protocol divides the world into two groups. The roughly 1.2 billion citizens of industrialized countries are expected to reduce their emissions. The other 5 billion—including both China and India, each of which is about as populous as the entire Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—aren’t. These numbers alone guarantee 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, and the long-term trend is clear. Their populations and per-capita emissions are rising far faster than ours could fall under any remotely plausible carbon-reduction scheme.
Read the whole thing. The article goes on, filling in the details, the costs and the alternatives. It's a priceless resource into the subject matter. The last bit tells the story:
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 currently pump 15 to 20 times as much carbon out of the atmosphere as humanity releases into it—that’s the pump that put all that 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 twenty-first 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 action, they can cost the earth and accelerate its ruin at the same time.
This article avoids stating the obvious - but argumentative - fact that the Greens do not favor carbon remediation schemes precisely because their aim is not to reduce carbon, but rather to diminish the wealth held by the developed world - it is an anti-huiman movement after all. Instead Huber gives us chapter and verse, dollars and cents, to explain why wind and solar can't do enough, and nuclear can't do it fast enough, to satisfy the Green demands. It does show, however, how the Greens killed nuclear as a viable option, and shows a rational way forward. So the next time a fool like New York City's Mayor Bloomberg suggests constructing windmills in Manhattan, you will know exactly how foolish a statement that is, and why.