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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Robert Samuelson: Global Warming Has Gone Hollywood

I don't have time to say much about this, but here it is anyway:

Global Warming Has Gone Hollywood by Robert Samuelson, Washington Post: "[W]e need to solve the climate crisis. ... We have everything we need to get started, with the possible exception of the will to act. ...' -- Al Gore, accepting an Oscar for "An Inconvenient Truth''

Global warming has gone Hollywood, literally and figuratively. The script is plain. As Gore says, solutions are at hand. We can switch to renewable fuels and embrace energy-saving technologies, once the dark forces of doubt are defeated. It's smart and caring people against the stupid and selfish. Sooner or later, Americans will discover that this Hollywood version of global warming (largely mirrored in the media) is mostly make-believe.

Most of the many reports on global warming have a different plot. Despite variations, these studies reach similar conclusions. Regardless of how serious the threat, the available technologies promise at best a holding action against greenhouse gas emissions. Even massive gains in renewables (solar, wind, biomass) and more efficient vehicles and appliances would merely stabilize annual emissions near present levels by 2050. The reason: Economic growth, especially in poor countries, will sharply increase energy use and emissions.

The latest report came last week from 12 scientists, engineers and social scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Called "The Future of Coal,'' the report was mostly ignored by the media. The report makes some admittedly optimistic assumptions: "carbon capture and storage'' technologies prove commercially feasible; governments around the world adopt a sizable charge (aka, tax) on carbon fuel emissions. Still, annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 are roughly at today's levels. Without action, they'd be more than twice as high.

Coal, as the report notes, is essential. It provides about 40 percent of global electricity. It's cheap ... and abundant. It poses no security threats. Especially in poor countries, coal use is expanding dramatically. ... By 2030, coal use in poor countries is projected to double and would be about twice that of rich countries (mainly the United States, Europe and Japan). Unfortunately, coal also generates almost 40 percent of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), a prime greenhouse gas.

Unless we can replace coal or neutralize its CO2 emissions, curbing greenhouse gases is probably impossible. Substitution seems unlikely simply because coal use is so massive. ...

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a bright spot: catch the CO2 and put it underground. On this, the MIT study is mildly optimistic. The technologies exist, it says. ... But two problems loom: First, CCS adds to power costs; and second, its practicality remains suspect until it's demonstrated on a large scale.

No amount of political will can erase these problems. If we want poorer countries to adopt CCS, then the economics will have to be attractive. Right now, they're not. Capturing CO2 and transporting it to storage spaces uses energy and requires costlier plants. Based on present studies, ... the most attractive plants with CCS would produce almost 20 percent less electricity than conventional plants and could cost almost 40 percent more. Pay more, get less -- that's not a compelling argument. ...

[T]here are no instant solutions, and a political dilemma dogs most possibilities. What's most popular and acceptable (say, more solar) may be the least consequential in its effects; and what's most consequential in its effects (a hefty energy tax) may be the least popular and acceptable.

The actual politics of global warming defy Hollywood's stereotypes. It's not saints versus sinners. The lifestyles that produce greenhouse gases are deeply ingrained in modern economies and societies. Without major changes in technology, the consequences may be unalterable. Those who believe that addressing global warming is a moral imperative face an equivalent moral imperative to be candid about the costs, difficulties and uncertainties.

    Posted by on Wednesday, March 21, 2007 at 03:24 AM in Economics, Environment | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (25)

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