By Dave Elliott
“There is no habitat that benefits from coal pollution”, says David Roberts, commenting on an article in New Yorker last year by Jonathan Franzen, who was worried that, in the rush to deal with climate change by using renewables, local impacts on birds would get ignored, given the argument that global climate change due to fossil fuel use would hurt them much more than wind farms or whatever: http://grist.org/living/jonathan-franzen-is-confused-about-climate-change-but-then-lots-of-people-are/
In its recent report on geo-engineering, the Royal Society argues that “air capture” carbon dioxide absorption techniques are probably the best geo-engineering option in that we should “address the root cause of climate change by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere”. Solar heat reflector techniques were seen as generally less attractive. It may well be
true that carbon dioxide absorption is the best type of geo-engineering option,but surely, geo-engineering of whatever type in no way deals at source with the “root cause” of climate change – which is
the production of carbon dioxide in power stations, gas boilers and
The Royal Society report, like the parallel report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, does stress that “No geo-engineering method can provide an easy or readilyacceptable alternative solution to the problem of climate change” and that mitigation and adaptation programmes are vital. However, there is the risk that “technical fix” geo-engineering approaches may be seized on as an alternative to dealing with the problem at source, since they could seem to offer ways to allow continued use of fossil fuels. That’s not to say there is no role for geo-engineering, but we need a hierarchy of options.
Mitigation via renewables would come top of my list, along with improved energy efficiency. Adaptation will inevitably have to occur – given the emissions that we have already produced, whatever we do about mitigation, or for that matter geo-engineering, we are going to
be faced with some climate change. Geo-engineering, as a pretty inelegant “end of pipe”, trying to clean up “after the event” approach, might be seen as an ancillary option, rather than as a last line of defence, or as “Plan B”.
Tim Fox, who led the IMechE study, commented sensibly that “We’re not proposing that geo-engineering should be a substitute for mitigation [but] should be implemented alongside mitigation and adaptation. We are urging government not to regard geo-engineering as a plan B but as a fully integrated part of efforts against climate change.”
Even so, there are major uncertainties over costs, reliability and eco-impacts, as both reports recognised. Both proposed a £10 m pa UK research programme, which seems not unreasonable, to try to identify the best options and the risks more clearly. But let’s not get too deflected from what ought to be the primary aim of avoiding carbon dioxide release in the first place.
Prof. John Shepherd, from Southampton University, who chaired the Royal Society’s study, said: “It is an unpalatable truth that unless we can succeed in greatly reducing CO2 emissions, we are headed for a very uncomfortable and challenging climate future. Geo-engineering and its consequences are the price we may have to pay for failure to act on climate change.”
Fair enough. But, if we
really are worried about climate change, it would be better if we got seriously
stuck into mitigation, and didn’t have to add to our problems by launching potentially
risky large-scale geo-engineering programmes.
Of course not all will be
risky – though they still may not be wise. It was good to see re-afforestation
mentioned by the Royal Society as an option, even if it could only
realistically absorb a smallish proportion of our ever-increasing
emissions. However, while
the IMechE backed the idea of painting roof tops white to reflect solar heat
and reduce global or least local heating, the Royal Society said: “The overall cost of a ‘white roof
method’ covering an area of 1% of the land surface would be about $300
billion/yr, making this one of the least effective and most expensive
methods.” Putting solar collectors on roof-tops might be a better
idea! I’m not so sure about
chemical air capture though. Both reports back the “Artificial Tree” idea for
carbon dioxide absorption.
Submarines, and, famously, Apollo spacecraft, used sodium, hydroxide to do
this. If we are thinking along the
same lines now for the whole planet, we must be getting desperate. Biochar
might be a better option – but not if on a very large scale, surely?
Geo-engineering may have a
role, and these reports are useful, but there are still a lot of unknowns –
after all its basically about tinkering further with the climate and linked ecosystems,
albeit consciously rather than accidentally. Quite apart from the cost, there
is the risk that, if we adopt large-scale programmes like seeding the oceans
with nutrients to increase CO2 uptake, or pumping aerosols into the atmosphere
to reflect sunlight, we could create major new unexpected eco problems.
For more discussion of
renewable energy options and policies, visit Renew.
Obama has promised to put climate change front and center in Washington politics. As one of the first direct measures, Obama has directed the EPA to reconsider permitting California to impose tougher fuel standards. What does this measure mean for fighting climate change?
Obviously, measures in the transportation sector are very relevant to avoid potentially catastrophic climate change. In the US, transportation, and specifically motor vehicle use, is the largest and fastest growing source of GHG emissions among all energy sectors. Transportation alone accounts for one-third of all US emissions .
Current federal fuel standards (CAFE) are around 25 mpg. The Californian standards would require a fleet-wide average standard of around 35 mpg by 2016. An increase of 40% in this short time sounds quite ambitious. So is it even feasible? A look across the Atlantic is useful: by 2002, Europe already had an average consumption of 37 mpg. Just comparing these numbers, it is obvious that no technological barrier hinders California from reaching its goal. But where does this difference come from? Popular wisdom suggests that the Big Three–GM, Ford and Chrysler–were unable to develop advanced technologies. But this is not really the heart of the issue. In fact, the Detroit manufacturers contributed significant technological advancements over the last 20 years. What then is going on here?
It helps to understand what exactly “fuel efficiency” means. It turns out that fuel efficiency in the US, measured in miles per gallon, did not improve in the last two decades. Yet in that same period, manufacturers pushed heavier, more powerful cars onto the market. In fact, the consumption of gasoline per vehicle weight improved dramatically. In terms of consumption per vehicle weight, the US fleet is as good as any other region in the world . Instead, the bad overall mileage is related to the high number of heavy tank-like vehicles on the streets. By 2008, more than half of all vehicle purchased in the US were SUVs or light trucks (the trend is currently changing though). So in effect, additional weight consumed all the technological improvement.
That makes one curious about why car purchases went up for heavier cars. SUVs became more popular worldwide, but especially so in the US. Is it simply that Americans like big cars more than the rest of the planet? It is probably true that gas-guzzlers are chosen as status symbols. But the story is richer. Many car owners, in fact, cite safety concerns: they can’t ride a small car when others are riding big cars. It is an arms race. Where did it find its origin?
Let us go back to the fuel standards. As a leader, the US introduced fuel standards in the 1970s as a reaction to the oil crisis. The Big Three feared the incoming Japanese competition, which produced much more fuel-efficient and smaller cars. Doing what they do best, the Big Three lobbied Congress for loopholes for light trucks, exempting them from stringent regulation and taxes. At the same time, a 25% tax on imported pickup trucks was put into place. That didn’t seem like a big deal then as those big cars made up a small market share. However, the Detroit manufacturers invested heavily in this loophole rather creating a new market for big and, due to their size, fuel-inefficient vehicles, than competing with the Japanese.  Detroit manufacturers chose an intermediate successful but ultimately dead-end strategy.
From this perspective, it looks much more like supply first created the demand for big vehicles. Dysfunctional fuel standards are partially to blame, allowing for different categories.
Comparison of fuel economy standards .
What lessons can the Obama administration learn from this when re-regulating fuel efficiency?
The Californian standard is promising but still adheres to the current double standard: a lower standard for SUVs and light trucks and a higher one for everybody else.. The updated federal CAFE standards from 2007 are also a step in the right direction, especially when the changes in the standards are front-loaded, i.e. the highest steps in fuel efficiency requirements must be taken first. The new CAFE standards are differentiated in size, i.e. larger cars have lower fuel efficiency requirements. This means that there is an incentive to reduce the vehicle weight for any given car size. However there is no incentives to reduce weight by going to smaller cars and promote them.
The Obama administration has indicated it wants to implement progressive but harmonized standards. (Harmonization makes sense, as it helps car manufacturers without harming greenhouse gas emissions). The harmonized standards could set weight independent standards. Another option is to supplement CAFE standards with market-based incentives for consumers to buy the overall more fuel-efficient cars, e.g. by a fee-bate scheme, where buyers of fuel-efficient cars get a rebate whereas buyers of fuel-inefficient cars pay a fee. This is a revenue neutral scheme.
There is much promise in fuel-efficiency standards. If Obama follows the proposed California regulation or a similar approach and implement them on federal level, overall US GHG emissions will be around 5-6% lower by 2016, assuming all else being constant. That is very successful achievement for a single measure!
 Energy Information Administration (EIA), Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2004, Washington DC, 2005
 Lee Schipper, Automobile Fuel, Economy and CO2 Emissions in Industrialized Countries: Troubling Trends through 2005/6, EMBARQ, the World Resources Institute Center for Sustainable Transport, 2007
 Daniel Sperling, 2 billion cars, 2009.
 Feng An and Amanda Sauer, Comparison of Passenger Vehicle Fuel Economy and Greenhouse Gas Emission Standards around the World, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, 2004