At Wednesday’s meeting for ExxonMobil shareholders in Dallas, CEO Rex Tillerson told those assembled that an economy that runs on oil is here to stay, and cutting carbon emissions would do no good.
He asked, “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?”
One good would be that humanity has a habitable place to live. And in acting to stop the increasingly dangerous effects of climate change, we could avoid a great deal of suffering. Tillerson missed the billions of dollars in damages, thousands of lives lost, millions displaced, and rampant ecological destruction due to the carbon emissions that cause climate change.
Think mobile devices are low-power? A study by the Center for Energy-Efficient Telecommunications—a joint effort between AT&T’s Bell Labs and the University of Melbourne in Australia—finds that wireless networking infrastructure worldwide accounts for 10 times more power consumption than data centers worldwide. In total, it is responsible for 90 percent of the power usage by cloud infrastructure. And that consumption is growing fast.
The study was in part a rebuttal to a Greenpeace report that focused on the power consumption of data centers. “The energy consumption of wireless access dominates data center consumption by a signiﬁcant margin,” the authors of the CEET study wrote. One of the findings of the CEET researchers was that wired networks and data-center based applications could actually reduce overall computing energy consumption by allowing for less powerful client devices.
According to the CEET study, by 2015, wireless “cloud” infrastructure will consume as much as 43 terawatt-hours of electricity worldwide while generating 30 megatons of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of 4.9 million automobiles worth of carbon emissions. This projected power consumption is a 460 percent increase from the 9.2 TWh consumed by wireless infrastructure in 2012.
More than 1,000 coal-fired power plants are being planned worldwide, new research has revealed.
The huge planned expansion comes despite warnings from politicians, scientists, and campaigners that the planet’s fast-rising carbon emissions must peak within a few years if runaway climate change is to be avoided and that fossil fuel assets risk becoming worthless if international action on global warming moves forward.
Coal plants are the most polluting of all power stations and the World Resources Institute (WRI) identified 1,200 coal plants in planning across 59 countries, with about three-quarters in China and India. The capacity of the new plants add up to 1,400GW to global greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of adding another China — the world’s biggest emitter. India is planning 455 new plants compared to 363 in China, which is seeing a slowdown in its coal investments after a vast building program in the past decade.
“This is definitely not in line with a safe climate scenario — it would put us on a really dangerous trajectory,” said the WRI’s Ailun Yang, who compiled the report, considered to be the most comprehensive in the public domain. But she said new emissions limits proposed in the U.S. and a voluntary cap on coal use in China could begin to turn the tide. “These policies would give really strong signals about the risks to the future financial performance of coal of climate policies.”
And in the “regardless of what happens in the Middle East, humanity is screwed” department…
A report by the UN says global attempts to curb emissions of CO2 are falling well short of what is needed to stem dangerous climate change.
The UN’s Environment Programme says greenhouse gases are 14% above where they need to be in 2020 for temperature rises this century to remain below 2C.
The authors say this target is still technically achievable.
But the opportunity is likely to be lost without swift action by governments, they argue.
The UNEP report follows on from a new analysis by the World Meteorological Organisation that says the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere reached a record high in 2011. It suggests that CO2 has now reached concentrations of 390.9 parts per million, or 140% of the pre-industrial levels of 280ppm.
The impact of these gases has been significant, says the WMO, causing a 30% increase of the warming effect on the climate between 1990 and 2011.
How serious is the threat of global warming? One way to figure out is to take your cues from some leading climate scientists: They have moved on. That doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned the issue, but they are looking beyond what all agree is the most obvious solution — decreasing the amount of carbon we spew into the atmosphere in the first place.
These scientists are beginning to look for a Plan B. There are two distinct approaches under consideration — sucking carbon out of the atmosphere, or creating an artificial sun shield for the planet. The former, which involves reversing some of the very processes that are leading to the climate problem, is expensive. The latter just sounds scary. David Keith, a leading thinker on geoengineering, calls it “chemotherapy” for the planet. “You are repulsed?” he says. “Good. No one should like it. It’s a terrible option.”
Repugnant or not, with the globe failing to develop other ways to halt climate change, geoengineering is increasingly becoming an option. The science and engineering are relentlessly marching on: Most research so far has focused on computer modeling, but some has started to move beyond — trying to test, for example, how to deliver particles into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. This summer, an entrepreneur conducted a rogue experiment, dumping 100 tons of iron into the Pacific in an attempt to “seed” the ocean and spur the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This episode represents a particularly apt example of science — in this case, self-experimentation — speeding far ahead of public opinion and oversight.
The high costs of doing nothing
If the world can’t get its act together to limit carbon emissions, geoengineering may be the only option we have. Distill the climate problem down to the essentials, and it becomes obvious that global warming is fundamentally a market failure: All seven billion of us human beings are “free riders” on a planet that is heating up. We put billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and largely aren’t required to pay for the privilege. There’s too little incentive to stop polluting.
Emitting CO2 into the atmosphere is dirt cheap in Europe these days. At just 8 euros per ton, the low price is undermining the European Union’s effort to establish an effective cap and trade system. Implementing necessary fixes to the system, however, won’t be easy in the face of industry opposition.
Europe’s carbon market is in deep trouble and it’s not just environmentalists sounding the alarm. Back in April, the CEO of Shell said that the European Union’s system for trading allowances for the emission of greenhouse gases was “in danger.” But that’s about as direct as anyone will get in this world of bureaucratese. Most simply talk of “price weakness” (meaning that emission credits are absurdly cheap), a desire for “long-term policy certainty” (the system needs a fix!), and the need to “restore confidence” (and the fix has to come fast!).
The simple fact is that the most important tool in Europe’s fight against climate change needs a major fix. When it was introduced in 2005, the idea was to make pollution expensive. And in the summer of 2008, the price for emitting a ton of carbon peaked at a price of around €30. But the global financial crisis and ensuing economic downturn in Europe have taken their toll. Prices are currently hovering around €8 euros per ton of carbon emissions, hardly the disincentive policy makers had hoped for.
“The emissions trading system is not very credible,” said Jo Leinen, a Social Democratic member of European Parliament from Germany, in a recent phone interview. “It doesn’t look like it has credibility in the near future. So we need to give it back its real function to be an incentive for low carbon investment and low carbon technology.”
The regime, known as the Emissions Trading System (ETS), is now entering a third phase intended to begin the process of reducing the number of credits available, thus forcing prices up and pollution down. It will also dramatically increase the number of credits that are auctioned off rather than handed out. But its problems this year are more obvious than ever. Far too many carbon credits were given out in the beginning of the program and companies produced less in the downturn, resulting in a huge surplus of credits. Current prices for emissions certificates hardly act as a disincentive to continue emitting CO2.
Looking at Fixes for the ETS
One of the biggest problems with climate change is that, at least in the short term, it’s largely invisible. Unlike many other environmental calamities—say, oil spills or forest fires—we simply can’t see the carbon dioxide that we emit when we drive a car or turn on an air conditioner.
Scientists can quantify the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted by a country, city or power plant, but it’s cognitively difficult to take that number and picture the actual impact of our actions on the long-term health of the climate. This factor, perhaps more than any other, has prevented significant action on climate change.
Now, software has been designed to make greenhouse gas emissions something we can actually see. In the Hestia Project, presented in a paper published yesterday in Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from Arizona State University created a technology that maps emissions at the street and neighborhood level, painting a rich picture of a city’s greenhouse gas metabolism. With their maps and videos—currently available for the city of Indianapolis—you can look at specific airports, roads and buildings and see how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases each entity emits.
In the 3-D image above, each piece of land in Indianapolis is coded with a color according to the density of its carbon emissions, ranging from green (the lowest amount) to dark red (the highest). Additionally, the height of each bar represents the total amount of emissions for that building or road. As a consequence, most residential areas are green, while the highways and main roads that traverse the city are yellow or orange, while the industrial center, power plants and airports are a deep red.
Australia’s enormous coal deposits long seemed like an unmitigated gift in an expansive land of sweltering summers. On the planet’s driest inhabited continent, fossil fuel delivered cheap, reliable electricity through both extreme heat and torrential storms.
But drought, rampant wildfire in the outback, and the degradation of the treasured Great Barrier Reef have forever altered how Australia views its energy endowment. Facing a future as one of the places on Earth most vulnerable to climate change, and one of the nations with the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions, Australia has taken steps to change its fate. (See interactive: “Four Ways to Look at Global Carbon Footprints”)
This week the government issued its first ever carbon emissions permits, a milestone in implementation of a new climate and energy law that is expected to give Australia the world’s most comprehensive carbon cap-and-trade system by 2015. (Related: “IEA Outlook: Time Running Out on Climate Change”)
Climate activists have hailed the law as a hopeful sign that even one of the world’s most carbon-intensive economies can commit to a different future. But the work is only beginning. In just one indication of the long road ahead, an International Energy Agency fuel economy report last week ranked Australia’s new car fleet as worst among the world’s major economies in carbon emissions per kilometer. Emblematic of Australia’s failure to invest in energy efficiency, it has no binding automobile fuel economy standards. (Related Pictures: “A Rare Look Inside Carmakers’ Drive for 55 MPG”) Historically, only the United States has surpassed Australia in its appetite for powerful engines. And this year, as U.S. drivers have begun flocking to smaller, more efficient cars, Australia has seen an SUV boom. SUVs made up 28 percent of Australia’s new vehicle sales in August, compared to just below 25 percent a year earlier.
Joshua Meltzer, a former Australian diplomat who now is a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute, says his country, much like the United States and Canada, must now grapple with the economy it has built since the Industrial Revolution around its huge fossil fuel deposits. “You have greater urban sprawl, cheaper fuel, greater use of cars, less use of public transportation, larger houses,” than in Europe or Japan, Meltzer said. “At the end of the day,” he added, achieving ambitious emission targets “is going to involve some very significant changes in how people live their lives.”
After months of delay, the Obama administration is about to unveil the first federal standards to explicitly limit greenhouse-gas emissions from new electric power plants — one of the chief sources of carbon dioxide emissions linked to climate change.
According to people briefed by the Environmental Protection Agency, all existing plants — including the 300 or so coal-fired power plants that now release the highest level of these emissions and yet-to-be-built plants that have already received E.P.A. permits — will be grandfathered in at current levels, meaning they are exempt from the new proposed rule.
Under the new rule, expected to be announced this week, new power plants will have to emit no more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of energy produced. That standard permits the level of emissions achieved by natural gas-fired plants of the type generally built in the last few years, but would be too strict for almost all coal-fired power plants if they were not exempted. A new natural gas plant produces a little less than 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour of electricity generated. A coal plant produces about 1,800 pounds.
A senior White House official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to disclose details ahead of the announcement said, “This standard provides a clear and certain path forward for industry and the important domestic energy sources they rely on, including natural gas, as well as clean coal technologies that lower carbon emissions. These sources will continue to be a part of our energy future, and what we have proposed is in line with the steps industry is already taking.”
The White House official explained that the goal of the rule is to hasten the introduction of carbon controls on new coal-fired power plants, while not causing immediate economic harm from the shutdown of existing plants. The rule is certain to face stiff challenges in Congress and the courts.
Washington insiders, environmentalists and state regulators who have followed the course of the Obama administration’s stutter-step approach to greenhouse gas regulations were both pleased that a rule was about to be proposed and disappointed by its apparent lack of teeth regarding existing polluters.
Ian Bowles, the former secretary of energy and environmental affairs in Massachusetts, had a mixed reaction to the news of the rule.
“I’m glad to see President Obama moving forward in the face of critics who seem to have forgotten that the Supreme Court has ruled E.P.A. must regulate greenhouse gas emissions,” he said, but added, “I’m a bit surprised existing power plants are left harmless, but the reality is cheap natural gas is doing more to curtail coal use than any regulation would have in the near term.”
Some, like Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said that the regulation gave new impetus to the shift to natural gas as the electric power industry’s fuel of choice. Coal plants are facing other new environmental mandates that could make them even less competitive economically, he said.
“The impact in the next decade is expected to be relatively minor,” he said.
The coal industry, whose conservative Congressional allies have painted the E.P.A. as an overzealous regulator holding back the economy, was unhappy with the news of the proposal. They have repeatedly criticized the idea of setting limits by regulation when Congress refused to set similar limits by legislation.