The carbon cutting game
So, I decided to play a little game: Let's pretend that America has just ratified a treaty that obligates us to cut our CO2 emissions by, say, 50%. How do we do it?
First, let's see how our emissions break down by economic sector :
Since about 1978, emissions from the industrial sector have been fairly flat. Meanwhile, transportation has been exploding, and overtook industrial emissions right around the end of the Clinton administration. Commercial and residential emissions have been growing at a steady clip, with residential emissions leading the way.
First, let's look at the biggest, fastest growing culprit, the transport sector.
No surprises here. Petroleum, mostly gasoline, makes up the overwhelming majority of emissions, with natural gas just barely registering. The single most effective measure we can take to cut emissions, then, is to cut petroleum consumption in the transportation sector.
This is going to be difficult. The trend has been an inexorable rise for more than half a century, and probably longer. Even the oil shocks of the 1970s don't look very impressive on the 50-year scale. In fact, in the decade prior to the shocks, there was a rise in the rate of emissions (and thus consumption), and the shock resulted in a regression to the previous trend. So, we're going to need more than just improved fuel economy. We're going to need new technology. Most importantly, we're going to have to get people to stop driving so much.
This is a tall order; if we want people to drive less, we need to uproot the automobile fetish that our country has developed. This will require a big mobilization of cultural assets. Right now, people will sacrifice a great deal of money, time, space, convenience and health to own a car. This preference has to be reversed. Culturally, we need to find a way to make car divestiture a desirable achievement. It has to be cool not to have a car. Here is an area where entertainment can play a positive role. For three generations, it's been the opposite, with movies and television fetishizing car culture from the very beginning.
We need movies and TV shows that exploit the coolness of riding the train, or walking to work, or riding a bicycle. This shouldn't be difficult. Good entertainment is all about human interaction, but the automobile is the most isolating mode of transportation possible. If you want to write about people, then trains, buses and bicycles are fertile venues, while cars are not. If we've got TV shows that revolve around crimelab investigations and people with magic and superpoweres, why not a TV show about bus drivers? There are a hundred angles you could take on that idea; it could be a noir drama, or it could have a supernatural element, or it could be a crime show. You could set it during the Montgomery Bus Boycott and make it a historical drama. You could set it during and after 1929, and make it a period piece.
Here are three policy initiatives that could get things moving in the right direction. First, all cities with public transportation have registered trademarks for their systems. The federal government could create a fund that would pay for product placement of these public transport "brands" in movies and TV. The more positive the circumstances of the placement, the larger the bonus.
Second, attack consumption directly. Raise fleetwide fuel economy standards. Raise taxes on gasoline and diesel. Go after really conspicuous consumption with direct measures; refuse to certify new Hummers, Ferraris, and Vipers as road-worthy. Give people tickets for driving aggressively.
Third, fix Amtrak. Create an endowment to support its operation and expansion so that it won't be at the whim of Congressional funding. Fund the endowment with fuel taxes, tolls on interstate freeways, and fines levied on the airlines for violating the Passenger Bill of Rights. The Atlantic and Pacific coastal cities should have rail service like France's TGV -- 200 mile per hour express trains with reasonably priced coach tickets.
Next, let's have a look at the industrial sector.
The clearest trends are volatile but stagnant conditions in petroleum and natural gas emissions while coal emissions crash and electrical emissions soar. Looking at the beautifully anticorrelated trends in coal and electricity emissions, I suspect something fishy is going on here. Let's have a look at electricity generation.
Ah ha! The industrial sector is outsourcing its coal burning to the electricity generators, who are burning coal like there's no tomorrow, if you'll pardon the gallows humor. Emissions from electricity generation are actually somewhat higher than for transportation, though they are on the same order. However, the trend in emissions from coal is actually significantly steeper than for petroleum use in the transport sector.
The coal explosion in the electricity generating sector is responsible for the rise in emissions in other sectors as well. For example, the commercial sector :
The emissions due to electricity in the commercial sector notch almost perfectly into the trend for emissions from coal. The residential sector doesn't notch in quite as clearly, but the trend holds.
It's the same trend across all non-transport sectors. We see the stagnation of petroleum and natural gas emissions while coal vanishes and emissions due to electricity explode, following the trend of coal in the electricity sector.
This makes it very clear. The absolute emissions and the growth of emissions in all non-transport sectors of the economy are due to burning coal for electricity. You'd expect coal to make up most of our electric generating capacity, wouldn't you?
Nope. Coal is responsible for most of the emissions from electricity generation, but only about a third of the electricity. We get about twice as much electricity from natural gas, but it's responsible for a relatively small fraction of our emissions.
Of course, this should be fairly obvious from the chemistry of coal and methane: Coal is more than 90% unsaturated carbon, consisting of long chains of double and triple bonded carbon atoms and aromatic cyclic structures, mixed with amorphous graphite and some volatile hydrocarbons, while disassociated methane is four-fifths hydrogen by volume. Coal is mostly carbon, and natural gas is mostly hydrogen.
The upshot is this; if we can wring about 30% worth of efficiency improvements from the non-transport sectors of the economy, we can do away with our coal plants altogether. This will cut the emissions of the industrial sector by about 40%, and 65% and 75% for the residential and commercial sectors, respectively.
Alternatively, we could aim for about a 15% efficiency savings, and double our nuclear capacity, or increase our renewable capacity by about fivefold. Whatever policy is chosen, it is abundantly clear that it must result in the eradication of coal from our electric generating portfolio. Even petroleum and natural gas are better.
Our prospects in the non-transport sectors are actually pretty good compared to the transport sector. We have a mix of different technologies, none of which make up a plurality of our portfolio, and most of the emissions can be attributed to the second-largest minority component. We have 1,493 coal plants which have an aggregate capacity of 335 gigawatts. That is an equivalent capacity to about 55,833 wind turbines. That many turbines would cost about $446 billion to procure and install. For comparison, the direct cost of the Iraq war has been about $478 billion, as of today.
Technically speaking, a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions is not far-fetched. It's well within our ability to build and to finance. A 20% reduction could probably happen without any noticeable drag on our economy whatsoever -- we just need to provide good incentives for saving electricity, and preferentially shut down coal plants.
Don't be afraid of mandatory carbon caps, even aggressive ones. If we can blow half a trillion dollars on a pointless war that gains us no advantage whatsoever, we can afford to fix our emissions problem. Maybe not both at the same time, but we'll be leaving Iraq soon anyway.