Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 9. Cutting Carbon Emissions in Half: Cutting Carbon Emissions

The accelerating rise in the earth's temperature calls for simultaneously raising efficiency and shifting to renewables in order to cut carbon emissions in half, recognizing that the initial large gains are likely to come in efficiency improvements. An important government measure is to mandate efficiency standards for household appliances, automobiles, and the construction of new buildings—taking advantage of recent technological advances.

Moving away from auto-centered urban transport to a system that would prominently feature public transport in a bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly environment would cut fuel use in cities. It would also reduce air pollution and increase the opportunities for exercisesomething much needed in a world where 3 million people die each year from urban air pollution and where half or more of the adults in exercise-deprived, affluent societies are overweight.49

At the corporate level, firms are now looking at the expense of traffic congestion when deciding where to locate offices and plants. Similarly, young people deciding where to settle down are looking for communities that have bicycle-friendly transportation systems with jogging and hiking trails.

In looking at new energy sources, wind seems certain to be the centerpiece in the new energy economy for the reasons outlined earlier. Its wide distribution offers an alternative to the current heavy global dependence on one region for oil. The wind energy industry has now evolved to the point where it has the requisite technological capacity to expand wind electric generation dramatically over the next decade, making it the world's leading electricity source.

In considering this prospect, it is instructive to look at the recent adoption of other popular new technologies, such as cellular phones. In 1990, there were 11 million cell phones in use in the world, compared with 519 million fixed-line phones. Just six years laterin 1996—sales of cell phones reached 53 million, eclipsing the sales of 51 million fixed-line phones. Within another six years—by 2002—the cell phones in use had reached 1.2 billion, outnumbering the 1.1 billion fixed-line phones. In 12 years cell phones went from being a novelty to dominating the market.50

Although the capital requirements for cell phones are small compared with those for electrical generating capacity, their sales growth nonetheless illustrates how market forces can drive the adoption of an appealing new technology. The cell phone market grew by 50 percent a year during the 1990s; wind power has been growing at 31 percent a year since 1995.51

If we decided for climate stabilization reasons that we wanted to double wind electric generation each year, it would not be long before wind would be the dominant source of electricity. The United States, for example, now has nearly 5,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. Doubling that each year would take it to 640,000 megawatts in seven years, making it the leading source of electricity. Again, this is not beyond the capacity of the industry. In 2001, the strongest year to date in the United States, wind electric-generating capacity grew by 67 percent. The total investment to reach this level of generation, using the rule of thumb of $1 million per megawatt (which is now on the high side), would be $640 billion over a seven-year span, or roughly $90 billion a year. For perspective, Americans currently spend $190 billion each year on gasoline.52

There are many policy instruments for accelerating the shift from a carbon- to a hydrogen-based energy economy, including the shift of subsidies from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and geothermal energy sources. Some of these subsidies might also be used for investments in efficiency. For example, each car with a gasoline/battery hybrid engine purchased in the United States currently is eligible for a federal tax deduction of up to $2,000. This helps to make these cars more competitive price-wise, since they are still being manufactured on a relatively small scale. Thus far, the only companies that are marketing hybrid cars are Toyota and Honda, both Japanese. U.S. automakers are scrambling to get on the bandwagon so as not to miss out on this fast-growing market.53

While subsidies are being shifted from fossil fuels to renewables and the hydrogen economy infrastructure, it would make eminent sense to reduce income taxes and raise those on climate-disrupting energy sources at the same time. This tax shifting, already under way in several countries in Europe, helps consumers of energyboth individuals and corporations—to understand the full costs of burning fossil fuels. (See also Chapter 11.)

Although shifting subsidies and taxes are at the heart of the energy transformation that is needed, other policy tools can either increase efficiency or accelerate the shift to renewables and the hydrogen-based economy. These include formal as well as informal procurement policies. National and local governments, corporations, universities, and individual homeowners can buy green power. In the United States, even if green power is not offered locally, there is a national Green Power Partnership electricity market operated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that enables anyone to buy green power. As more users sign up, the incentive to produce green power at premium rates increases.54

The Earth Policy Institute, for example, purchased Green Tags for new wind-generated electricity from wind farms in Washington and Oregon. This electricity will not be delivered to our office in Washington, D.C., but that is not necessary, since each Green Tag matches a seller and a buyer, all cleared through EPA's national computer databank. For every buyer there must be a seller. Green power marketing makes it easy for anyone to contribute to the energy transformation. Some churches are now buying green power, for example, and urging their members to do the same.55

One approach adopted by several countries and by 36 states in the United States is known as two-way or net metering. Whenever consumer-owned solar cells or wind turbines produce more electricity than is needed, a two-way electric meter enables individual homeowners to sell electricity back to the utility. Net metering has the added advantage of putting back into the system clean energy produced from the sun, which can displace electricity generated from more traditional sources. It also promotes energy efficiency, as users are in effect paid for electricity that they generate but do not use.56

As wind electric generation expands, the first step would be to back out coal-fired power plants, either closing them or using them as a backup for wind. Coal-fired plants are the most climate-disruptive energy source simply because coal is almost pure carbon. Coal burning is also the principal source of the mercury deposits that contaminate freshwater lakes and streams. The prevalence of mercury-contaminated fish has led 44 state governments in the United States to issue warnings to consumers to limit or avoid eating fish because of the effect of mercury on the central nervous system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning in 2001 indicating that an estimated 375,000 babies born each year in the United States are at risk of impaired mental development and learning disabilities because of exposure to mercury.57

While it is fashionable for some industries and industry groups to complain that reducing carbon emissions, even by the very modest 5 percent required by the Kyoto Protocol, would be costly and a burden on the economy, the reality is that reducing carbon emissions is one of the most profitable investments that many companies can make. Study after study has concluded that it is possible to reduce carbon emissions while making money in the process.

The experience of individual companies confirms this. Dupont, one of the world's largest chemical manufacturers, has already cut its greenhouse gas emissions from their 1990 level by 65 percent. In an annual report, CEO Chad Holliday, Jr., proudly reports savings of $1.5 billion in energy efficiency gains from 1990 to 2002.58


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