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Updated 15 November 2004

Consequences Vol. 4, No. 1, 1998
 

 

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From A Carbon Economy To A Mixed Economy: A Global Opportunity

By Richard C. Rockwell

A curious feature of human economies is that they have always been based upon the same chemical element that is the foundation for life itself. Carbon is the common ingredient in the fuels we buy and burn, and also the fuel for photosynthesis and the raw material of which we are made.

Photosynthesis is critical for our lives and well-being, for despite all advances in modern technology, we still lean almost entirely upon that elemental process for both energy and food. Through photosynthesis, plants on land and in the oceans harness the power of sunlight to convert carbon dioxide, water, and minerals into organic (carbon) matter such as leaves and wood. In these materials, the captured energy is stored until they slowly decay or chance to burn.

The energy of carbon--most of it in coal and oil deposits from organisms that lived millions of years ago--is one of the major natural resources that we utilize today. Carbon powers factories, heats and lights homes and working places, and fuels transportation. It was carbon that made the Industrial Revolution possible, and it is the ever-increasing use of carbon fuels since that time that has so profoundly improved the quality of life for many of the Earth's peoples. But as is now well known, in pursuing these ends we have released enough carbon dioxide into the air to affect the course of climate, and potentially, the well-being of peoples and nations around the world, for centuries to come. And each day we add more.

This article is about the role of carbon in human life and actions that might reduce that role. It reviews how we came to be dependent upon stored carbon energy, including what happened in the transition from predominantly agricultural to more urban societies, as well as some of the environmental effects. Assuming that reducing our present carbon dependency is in the human interest, it presents a range of conceivable governmental policy options as well as actions that individuals and companies can take, quite on their own. Finally, it considers some of the complications involved in arriving at policies to deal with elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

Carbon-Based Life, Carbon-Based Economy

The three major kinds of life--producers, consumers, and decomposers--are all involved in the cycling of carbon through the Earth system, and each plays a different role.

Plants, the foundation of all life, are the primary producers. The organic compounds that they create through photosynthesis are consumed in a complex food chain, with humans (for now) at the top. Like many other animals, we consume either the plants themselves or the fats and proteins of food animals, which are produced from plants or animals that they themselves have eaten. A waste product of all these consumers is carbon dioxide.

Yeast and fungi and soil microbes are all examples of decomposers; their metabolism also releases carbon dioxide when they reduce complex organic molecules into simpler compounds.

The global carbon cycle relies heavily upon the work and interactions of these three kinds of life. This was as true in the days of the dinosaurs as it is today, for animals of all kinds have always exploited carbon energy.

The first steps

With the advent of humans the role of carbon in the global environment took a qualitatively different turn. Although their own impacts were immeasurably small, it was proto-humans of several million years ago who initiated the practice that has led, inexorably, to the difficult energy decisions that vex the leaders of the world today. When Neanderthals first learned how to control fire, they unlocked the stored energy of carbon in trees and thus began to tinker with the cycling of carbon through the Earth system.

Around the world, we have systematically cleared forests to make room for farms and pastures and settlements, and to utilize the wood that is cut for fuel and building material. The cutting and burning of forests worldwide is probably the most visible alteration that we have made to the face of the Earth. Rapid and nearly complete deforestation at the local level has followed human settlement on every continent that bears trees, since the time that humans adopted settled forms of agriculture.

The clearing and burning of forests is not peculiar to the modern age, or even to the millennium that is about to end: Plato noted that he could look out over hillsides that within living memory had borne forests but that now could barely sustain bees in their search for flowers. The island of Madeira, which means "wood," was densely covered by primeval forest when Henry the Navigator colonized it in the 15th century. Within a decade, massive fires had cleared the entire island for settlement and agriculture, producing soil that had been enriched by the ashes of trees. The European colonists of North America were amazed at the extent of the primeval forest, which stretched almost unbroken from the Atlantic to the Mississippi River. A squirrel, some said, could travel halfway across the continent without ever touching the ground. As one pioneer put it, the settlement of North America required a "war on the woods," and that war was fought and won in a remarkably short time.

Coal and oil

Carbon in a different form was in use as early as the 4th century B.C., when blacksmiths were already burning coal in their stalls. Today, our continued reliance on stores of naturally-sequestered carbon--largely, coal and oil and natural gas--adds billions of tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year, over and above that generated by decomposition, the respiration of animals, and other natural processes.

Our reliance on carbon-rich fossil fuels began--like most other dependencies--in a small way: a primitive steam engine, fueled by coal from Welsh and English mines, was developed by Savery in 1698. More than six centuries earlier, William the Conqueror had failed to recognize the immense value of the coal that lay beneath the land in the islands that he had taken. In directing his ministers to survey English landowners and all their property, to gather information for the Domesday Book, he included standing timber but neglected coal, even though Romans had burned it in Britain before 400 A.D. Until steam engines came along, coal was simply not a very important resource.

About 150 years ago, the available carbon energy sources were further expanded to include petroleum products, when techniques were devised, in 1854, to distill fractional products from crude oil. Before that time, crude oil had been used primarily for lubrication, road building, and the caulking of ships. Without question, the availability of distilled petroleum fuels vastly accelerated the global-scale environmental changes that concern us today, although the burning of coal, alone, would probably have led us to the same eventual problem.

Environmental Impacts of a Carbon-Based Economy

The burning of timber, peat, and particularly coal, oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels has enormous impacts upon the environment. The effects appear in different forms at different scales, from the smoke of backyard charcoal grills, to smog in urban areas, to air pollution that crosses the boundaries of countries and continents, and ultimately, to the potential for climate change on a truly global scale. The last of these effects is quite different from the others, in that climate change takes far longer to develop, will last for decades to centuries, and is essentially irreversible within a human lifetime. Once released into the air, carbon dioxide and some of the other greenhouse gases can remain there from decades to a thousand years or more.

Soot and smog and toxic gases

Short-term air pollution--comprised of both invisible, noxious gases and minute but more apparent solid particles--is an almost unavoidable environmental consequence of a carbon economy. Carbon fuels differ greatly in what they release into the air, with natural gas ordinarily the least polluting. When petroleum products such as gasoline or diesel fuel or heating oil are burned, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon vapors (which lead to toxic ozone at ground level), solid particles of various sizes, and toxic carbon monoxide are all released into the air. This combination, when exposed to sunlight, is the classic recipe for photochemical smog, which can at times be deadly in some cities, particularly for residents with respiratory problems. Carbon fuels can also generate sulfurous smog when fossil fuels, especially coal, are burned. This different kind of smog, combined with other airborne particles, has produced high rates of lung disease in the cities of many developing nations.

With the stimulus of clean air and water laws, the developed world has reduced its emissions of pollutants such as sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide. In many cities of Europe and North America, the air is becoming cleaner, although perversely, the catalytic converters installed in motor vehicles to reduce urban air pollution have now been found to produce a greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

The most severe air pollution can now be found in large cities of the developing world, and particularly in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. If the developing countries follow the carbon path of the industrialized nations, economic growth will add far more pollution: the improvement of living standards in the developing world is already putting more cars and trucks on the roads, increasing the demand for electricity, and adding more factories. In most countries, every one of these improvements now relies on fossil fuels.

Other improvements in living standards compound the problem. People in developing countries are systematically changing their diet, to eat more of their meals at the richer end of the food chain. The cattle and sheep that provide meat are often raised on pastures that were cut or burned out of forests that once stored carbon. Economic development, if it follows the well-worn path of fossil fuel dependence, inevitably tips the natural balance between carbon storage and carbon emissions. Population growth, which adds new consumers, can only push it farther.

The most obvious environmental consequence of conventional economic growth in the developing world will likely be even dirtier and less healthy air in cities that are often already terribly polluted. Ironically, it may be this more readily-sensed form of air pollution that will help slow the global build-up of greenhouse gases. In the short-term interests of cleaner air, people in polluted cities and towns may come to resist the burning of coal and oil. Cleaner energy technologies lean less heavily on carbon or avoid it altogether, and reduce total carbon dioxide emissions.

Carbon Dioxide and the Greenhouse Effect

Federal clean air and water legislation did not include carbon dioxide as an air pollutant, for although a product of combustion, it poses no direct threat to human health. Indeed, with every breath we add some to the air, ourselves.

Although carbon dioxide makes up less than 0.04 percent of all the air around us, this minute and invisible fraction is a critical ingredient for sustaining the surface temperature, and hence the climate of the Earth. With the help of a handful of other greenhouse gases, it holds the heat of sunlight in, serving as a kind of blanket or natural thermostat to keep the temperature of the Earth in a habitable range. The most prevalent of these radiatively-active gases is water vapor, but the most important, in terms of both sensitivity and the impacts of our own activities, is carbon dioxide.

Effects of higher surface temperatures: the meaning of a few degrees

More than twenty years of ever-better models of the effects of increased CO2 leave little doubt that the surface of the Earth will as a result warm, significantly. But the amount and timing of the temperature increase differs from model to model, depending on the assumptions and simplifications that they employ.

The most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, endorsed by hundreds of the most respected atmospheric scientists in the world, projects an increase of from 2 to 5°C (about 4 to 10° F) over the next 100 years.

An increase of a few degrees on any thermometric scale seems small and inconsequential, and far too small to justify mandated changes in the economies and way of life of both developed and developing countries. Indeed, a change of a few degrees is not much more than the difference in the average temperatures of Miami and Key West, and both are doing fine, thank you. What is more--as opponents of controls on fossil fuel emissions are quick to point out--warmer is better in some ways: what we should fear, they say, is not hotter temperatures, but colder ones.

In fact, a change in either direction of but one degree C in the mean temperature of the whole planet is a lot, and as much as modern man has ever seen. Far more is involved than slightly warmer days or nights. Most scientists agree that the most important of the climatic changes that will accompany the global warming of an enhanced greenhouse effect will be alterations in the timing and distribution of precipitation. Computer models demonstrate that such changes are a direct outcome of altering the balance of heat energy between the tropics and temperate zones.

Changes in precipitation

Much of the world's agriculture depends not only on how much rain or snow falls but also upon when it comes, and in what doses. Changes in the timing of precipitation have more serious effects on some crops than do changes in the total amount.

Some areas of the world barely sustain agriculture under today's precipitation patterns. While some of these marginal areas might receive more rain with global warming, a larger number may become ill-suited for even subsistence agriculture. Sadly, and as a result of who lives where today, almost all such areas are found in the poorer countries of the developing world. Countries that experience cyclical droughts, such as India or southern Africa, are likely to experience more sustained and perhaps more frequent dry periods.

Other effects

Growing seasons will also change in many latitudes. Associated changes in precipitation will mean that agricultural zones for some crops will shift to higher latitudes, with more of Canada and Siberia likely to become suitable--where soils allow--for cereal grains. Animals and many plants will also need to migrate. For many animals and some plants, migration will be made more difficult by the way we have altered and fragmented the land--and for some species the shift will be more dangerous because of new predators for which they are unprepared. Some of the organisms migrating into newly warmer, wetter, or drier territories could be bacteria, fungi, viruses, and other disease organisms new to the area.

With climatic change, the agricultural productivity of some nations could rise, and others fall. The agricultural sectors that will be hardest hit are now thought to be those in developing countries in tropical latitudes, and these are already disadvantaged. The economic development of these nations could be seriously curtailed were climatic change to compromise their ability to feed themselves. Adaptation to altered climate regimes is possible in agriculture as in other economic sectors, but most of the changes that are called for carry either an economic or cultural price: intensive irrigation may be too expensive for many small farmers, for example.

People are also affected by temperatures and precipitation. Extreme weather events, such as strings of very hot days, could cause deaths in both the developed and developing countries. Whether storms, including violent events such as tornadoes and hurricanes, would increase in a warmed world is not yet fully known.

It is likely that coastal regions, which are the most intensively used of all land, will face changes due to rising sea levels. The sea has been rising throughout this century, due to thermal expansion of the oceans and some melting of ice. Forested wetlands at low elevations are believed especially vulnerable to sea level rise, and coastal salt and freshwater marshes (such as are found on the coast of Florida) may be converted to open water. Groundwater in coastal zones may become saline, as is already happening on some Pacific islands.

There is also reason to speculate that this rise in sea level will exacerbate the damage caused by severe storms. Even if the ocean rises but a few centimeters, storm surges will be somewhat more destructive and will travel further inland. Low-lying islands, including much of insular Asia and Oceania, as well as low-lying continental areas, such as Bangladesh, could be at serious risk in this eventuality. Indonesia--now the world's fourth most populous country--is comprised of more than 4,000 islands, and the people that live on them cannot all cluster on the rocky sides of mountains when heavy storms occur. Nor can they continue to grow rice on lowland soil that has been made saline by the infiltration of sea water into aquifers.

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), the most significant cyclical weather phenomenon of the present era, could be geographically more widespread in a warmed world, and it could be somewhat more intense as well. The severity of the 1997-1998 El Niño, which brought some of the warmest months in more than 100 years of record, may or may not be ascribed to this century's warming trend. But its diverse impacts give examples of what can be expected in a world made warmer by CO2. For example, the fires that began burning out of control in Indonesia in the autumn of 1997 and that made much of Malaysia and Thailand difficult places to live and breathe were almost certainly associated with the delayed onset of a rainy season. During the previous El Niño, fires burned throughout the western Pacific, including some that licked at the edges of cities in Australia. In the dry late spring of 1998, fires burning in Mexico caused air pollution in the southeastern U.S. and Texas, and similar conditions in the summer brought fire storms in Florida that raged for weeks.

The Context of a Response

The global warming that is now expected will follow on the heels of two dramatic changes in the history of the Earth: the enormous growth of the human population and the similarly enormous expansion in the economic productivity of much of the world. In about 170 years, from 1820 to 1992, the number of people on the planet increased five-fold, from about 1.1 billion to nearly 6 billion. In the same span of time, the economic productivity, per person, grew by about a factor of eight. The product of these two large rates of growth was a truly awesome increase in the global economy of about a factor of forty.

In the industrialized nations the principal driver of economic growth in this century has been rising productivity, while in the developing countries it is the increasing number of people. About 90 percent of the population growth of the next twenty-five years will occur in the developing world, with all but about 10 percent of it in urban areas. The result will be a world divided into developed nations of nearly stable populations and developing nations with growing populations, with enormous per capita differences in production and consumption of goods and services. Each person in the industrialized countries produces and consumes about fourteen times as much as do those in the poorest of the developing countries.

It was carbon that made the economic growth of the industrialized countries possible, for fossil fuels provided about 75 percent of all the energy that they used. That energy was expended on transportation, heat and power for industrial production, and on mechanization, fertilization, and irrigation in agriculture, with each investment increasing the productivity of the average worker. Their evolution from countries that were primarily rural and agricultural in 1820 to predominantly urban nations today, sustained by a relatively tiny but extremely productive agricultural labor force, was the result of agricultural investments in energy.

The more than 120 developing countries of the world are now making similar investments of energy and human capital, reaching for economic security, if not yet for prosperity. If they should all achieve the economic level of industrialized nations of today, their combined economy would be about five times larger than that of the entire globe today. And if those economies rested on the burning of carbon fuels, the result would be massive increases in CO2 emissions.

The responsibility for transforming economies from those based on carbon to more diverse, or "mixed" economies, falls first on the developed nations. It is they who have contributed by far the greatest share of carbon to the atmosphere--and they will continue to do so, on a per capita basis, for many years to come. But responsibility also falls upon the countries of the developing world.

This article maintains that the path of these nations to a mixed energy economy does not lead through the technologies that are now predominant in the industrialized nations, but rather through dramatic improvements in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, which work in their best interests. These improvements are becoming available for both the developed and the developing countries, and some of them are ready to be deployed, today.

Cures for the Carbon Dependent and Co-Dependent

Today, with so much else perturbing the global environment, it may seem strange that political attention and debate is focused so intently on but one element of one problem: the reduction of a portion of those emissions of carbon dioxide that stem from human actions. But few if any major problems can be tackled all at once. Moreover, long-standing addictions, particularly, are probably best addressed in small steps, one day at a time.

Costs and benefits of quitting

When faced with the need to find replacements, carbon--for many applications--can be a hard act to follow. Fossil fuels are a proven and relatively cheap source of energy, and for developing countries, one which can be quickly and easily employed to reach their economic goals. Many nations have readily-available reserves of carbon energy, including the vast coal reserves in China and abundant wood in tropical forests. Some other energy technologies--such as nuclear power--as yet still require higher levels of investment and greater levels of skill to maintain them. Moreover, developing nations rightfully note that every one of the developed nations became that way, in part at least, by burning carbon fuels.

It might thus seem that a shift to non-carbon energy sources would impose a much greater burden on developing countries than on richer ones. That perception--coupled with the tacit acknowledgment that the highly disproportionate per capita consumption of fossil fuels in richer nations is the root cause of today's carbon problem--was no doubt behind the initial stance taken by most of the developed nations at the 1997 Kyoto conference on climate change: namely, that the less developed countries could and should be exempted, altogether, from carbon controls.

In fact, if the more efficient and cleaner alternative technologies become available at a low enough price, it may prove far easier for developing nations to switch quickly to other fuels.

The Energy Foundation is a San Francisco-based, grant-making organization funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trust, and the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation to aid in the transition to a sustainable energy future. It has pointed out that less developed nations have much less invested in carbon dependency, and can start now with the more advanced energy infrastructure, and "leapfrog" today's industrialized countries into a new age of more efficient and cleaner energy. In meeting global standards for reduced carbon emissions, they will avoid many of the costs of long-term environmental degradation and clean-up that are associated with fossil fuels, and reduce the pollution that now plagues many cities in the developing world. The choice before the developing countries is between mimicking the resource-intensive development path taken by today's industrialized nations or taking the higher road of modern, more efficient technologies.

The hurdle that looms so high for developed nations is the enormous cost of replacing most of their existing energy infrastructure and associated technologies, in a span of time that is far shorter than prudent investment would normally dictate. The ordinary life span of a coal-fired power plant is at least fifty years. If it is replaced earlier, only a portion of its economic value will have been realized. That calculation will undoubtedly affect and may retard developed nations in taking the steps that are needed to reduce their emissions. But the calculation just stated was not complete: we should also include the costs to health and the environment of not replacing dirty technologies that are heavy emitters of CO2.

What the other sources of energy are

The range of possible alternate energy sources is large: hydrogen (as in fuel cells), solar, geothermal, tidal, hydropower, wind, renewable biomass, and nuclear options are all available and should all be explored. One oil company has predicted a near future in which one-half to two-thirds of the energy now derived from fossil fuels comes instead from renewable energy sources. Economies with mixed energy dependencies will eventually replace carbon economies through the use of such alternative fuels, most of which are becoming better and cheaper each year.

We need to look anew, as objectively as we can, at the nuclear option, for times have changed. The strong public reaction to first, the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, and then the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, has had the effect of eliminating from consideration one of the several available energy options that contributes almost no carbon dioxide. To be sure, with fission reactors of the type now employed, there is a serious problem of nuclear waste disposal. But the threat of catastrophic failure, as at Chernobyl, no longer need apply, because fission reactors can now be designed to be inherently safe. Still, despite the apparent environmental advantages of a new generation of nuclear technology, it will take political courage for this option to be seriously explored, even within the developed world.

Nuclear power should also be considered by at least some developing countries. It is obviously in the world's interest that all countries which take the nuclear path have the capacity to operate reactors safely, and commit, somehow, to use their nuclear capability only for peaceful ends. This means more than having qualified technicians and allowing regular inspections by United Nations teams. It may well imply that nuclear reactors should primarily be restricted to countries with stable and democratically-elected governments.

Meeting the carbon dioxide challenge could also open tremendous business opportunities for industries of the developed world, both within and outside their borders. In spite of the recent downturn in parts of Asia, the economies of some developing nations are among the fastest-growing in the world. New energy technology--or products related to it--that can be purchased and maintained at a reasonable price is likely to appeal throughout the world to both governments and industries. This would seem particularly the case for technologies that could offer greater efficiency and less pollution at about the same cost as those built around carbon.

The "Clean Development Mechanism" of the Kyoto Protocol provides a structure in which incentives for such development could exist. However, technology transfer continues to be politically controversial. Stringent governmental controls on the export of sophisticated computers to manage windmill farms, for example, could block the needed transfer of technology.

A Wide Range of Policy Responses and Actions

Two policies that have been considered to facilitate a switch from carbon fuels include (i) a global carbon tax and (ii) regulatory changes designed to reduce emissions through improved energy efficiency. The tax on how much carbon a fuel contains would induce industries and consumers to consider technologies that are more energy efficient or to switch fuels. The regulatory changes would be designed to ensure that those technologies are available. As a package, these policies might be extremely effective in reducing emissions.

Still, there are difficulties with both proposals. Were the carbon tax a heavy one, it could depress economic performance enough to limit the ability of an economy to switch to more efficient technologies. In any event, the carbon tax is probably politically impossible to enact in this country at this time. Similarly, the intended benefits of regulations could be accompanied by perverse effects, particularly if they dictated the use of specified technologies. This has often been the case when government-dictated policies act against the forces of the prevailing market.

Another policy, favored by the present U.S. Administration, would make it internationally legitimate for industries in certain countries to trade the right to emit greenhouse gases. This proposal blends regulation with market forces, in creating a legal right to trade a product--CO2 emissions--that has no intrinsic value. The value of the trade resides, of course, in the avoidance or mitigation of climate change.

Some other options

Both before and after the Kyoto conference, the public focus regarding CO2 emissions was on policies and regulations. That is because Kyoto was an intergovernmental event, and governments think in terms of taxes, emissions trading rights, and energy regulations. Meanwhile, others were acting: automobile companies were developing fuel cells and better batteries, engineers were improving solar panels and electric motors, and architects were designing more compact cities. In fact, there is a wide range of options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and only some of them can be directly controlled by the government.

The possibilities for emissions reductions include the alternative energy sources cited above but are not limited to them. Energy conservation in all forms--including better insulation or more efficient electric motors--merits renewed attention. Much was achieved in the U.S. to conserve energy during the oil crises of the 1970s, but far more could be done today. Improved energy efficiencies, in the home, the personal automobile, the office building, and the factory, are all attainable and within the reach of each citizen and each company.

Greater attention to conventional and unconventional methods for sequestering excess carbon is also merited, even though these methods are likely to buy us no more than a limited period of grace, since the carbon stored in biomass, for example, eventually returns to the atmosphere as CO2. A conventional example that relies on the natural storage of carbon through photosynthesis is reforestation, which is prominent in both the Kyoto Protocol and the Clinton Administration's plans for meeting its Kyoto obligations. Another is the more effective use of biomass as an energy source, with its continuous cycling of carbon between plants and the atmosphere. It has also been suggested that purposive alterations to the earth system, such as altering parts of the oceans to make them more acidic, could augment carbon storage unconventionally, although the ecological consequences of deliberately perturbing so vast a natural system remain to be explored.

Homes and working places could be more closely clustered to minimize commuting and to reduce pressures on natural ecosystems. In fact, America's "urban sprawl" is both a significant contributor to its level of CO2 emissions and a noticeable force in reducing the amount of carbon that is sequestered in trees. Telecommuting might eventually reduce energy use, but at least initially it seems to lead to more, rather than less, travel.

The hidden costs of what we do

While we have control over the use of the fuels that we purchase ourselves, we are limited in what we can do, as individuals, to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide that each of us indirectly contributes to the atmosphere. Most of the carbon dioxide for which humans are responsible is emitted by activities that are at least one step removed from the consumer's direct control. Personal transportation, sometimes thought to be the predominant source of emissions, accounts for roughly 20 percent of all the CO2 that we add to the air, but not for the majority. Industrial steam power, motors, and appliances account for about the same percentage of emissions. In general, about 1/3 of the added CO2 comes from all forms of transportation, 1/3 from industrial uses, and 1/3 from building uses such as space heating.

Recognizing that consumers do not have direct control over the emissions from some of the activities from which they benefit, the Detroit Edison Power Company has offered to sell electricity that was produced with cleaner energy technologies, at a higher price per kilowatt hour. This gives customers an opportunity that is not otherwise available to determine their own contributions to CO2 emissions. The pricing, however, is obviously perverse, since the immediate economic incentive for the buyer is to take the cheaper option, even though in releasing more carbon to the air, it imposes a greater cost on society. The case illustrates a general problem: the ultimate costs of much of what we buy or use are not included in the price that we are charged, be it the generation of electricity, the burning of gasoline, or the destruction of a rain forest.

In this country, for example, each time any of us buys a ton of Portland cement (for example, to add a sidewalk or pave a driveway), we have indirectly introduced about a ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, since that much was emitted in producing what we purchased. We are also responsible, though one more step removed, when we support, through taxes, a highway improvement, or when we rent or purchase an apartment or home, since the same ton-for-ton ratio applies to the cement used in constructing each of these. And although its label says nothing about carbon dioxide, a garment purchased in a Fifth Avenue shop, for example, may have been produced in a factory that derived its power from the burning of soft coal.

What governments can do

The fact that the problem is so often beyond the reach of the individual is one of the reasons why governments must be involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Through force of habit, they will most likely try to act through either fiscal or regulatory means.

Around the world, however, there have been all too many examples of the limitations of either of these blunt tools when used to force intended social or economic goals. In situations as complex and personal and fundamental as the production and use of energy, they could prove particularly inappropriate. In addition, many governments are relatively weak, and lack the policy instruments that are available to more affluent and industrialized nations.

What governments can do best is to facilitate innovation. In some cases, all that is needed is to remove archaic regulations and subsidies. If building codes would permit, Portland cement can be replaced with stronger and better construction adhesives and cements that are associated with far lower carbon emissions. Governments can also provide leadership that encourages business and industry to make the changes in the design of engines, or plants, or jobs, that only they can make. They can fund technological research to develop alternative energy sources and ways to reduce energy consumption or, perhaps better, provide tax credits to industry for undertaking these needed steps. Perhaps most importantly, governments are the principal sponsors of the research that clarifies the ways in which humans are significantly affecting the global environment, and in specifying possible ways to cope with these perturbations.

Some Thoughts About Pitfalls and Opportunities

We have much to learn, as governments, companies, and individuals make decisions about policies and programs to reduce and control CO2 emissions. It may help to keep in mind some of the pitfalls and difficulties that have come to light in the past when science and policy intersect. A few of these are given below.

  • Dialogues are more efficient and productive than monologues: governments should speak with, not to, industry. And the developed world should speak with, not to, the developing countries.

  • The essential openness of science regarding margins of error or remaining uncertainties in any finding can weaken what it has to say. It is also all too easily exploited by any who have reason to filibuster or delay.

  • The often called for "balanced viewpoint," to be of any worth, need recognize which and what fraction of the more knowledgeable hold divergent views. It is not hard to round up lone dissent on almost any question in science, if one wants to find it. But these voices from the fringes of opinion need to be weighed in the same balance by which responsible consensus is defined.

  • The fact that something is "only a theory" does not in itself argue against its validity. Many if not most responsible health or environmental warnings, from contaminated food to floods and tornadoes and global greenhouse warming, call for prudent action well before every conceivable doubt has been removed, which often comes only with the threat itself.

  • Concepts that are central to the formulation of policy, as is the concept of "sustainable development" in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, must be defined very carefully and explicitly, to avoid almost certain confusion and conflict.

  • The actors in changes as far reaching as the global transformation of a carbon economy into a mixed economy will not only be governments. They will also be supra-national, intergovernmental, and non-governmental organizations, and multinational corporations. These organizations and companies may ultimately play more important roles in reducing emissions than national governments.

  • As new measurements and findings come to light, what we know about climate change and global greenhouse warming is improved and refined, in ways that can impact adaptation and mitigation strategies. Policies that address these issues obviously need to be framed in the light of the best and most recent knowledge. For example, a recent finding that a forest in Manitoba was a net source of CO2 in the years when the spring season arrived earlier, raises questions as to whether some of the forests identified in the Kyoto Protocol as sinks for excess carbon might only add more CO2.

  • Technology is also changing rapidly, and regulations that specify the use of particular technologies may soon prove ineffective or obsolescent. It is far more effective to specify goals, and allow industry to find the optimum ways of obtaining them.

  • Limited steps, such as those that are mandated in the Kyoto Protocol, are seen by some environmentalists as too small to be of use, but they are often more achievable than more sudden, sweeping changes. We will probably have to settle for a basket of small steps, none of which is itself a cure, rather than seek a single, perfect policy.

  • Some of the steps that will help in small ways to decrease CO2 emissions will bring added and immediate environmental benefits. One of these is the more efficient burning of coal, for it will also reduce air pollution and consequently, lung disease. Steps of this nature should be taken as soon as they are recognized to be feasible.

  • Large steps, such as reducing the rate of population growth in countries where it is still high, cannot be ignored just because they are difficult and will take many years to achieve.

  • Wasteful manufacturing processes cause environmental damage and ultimately cost the manufacturer money, if only in environmental clean-up. Reducing waste, as through programs that are intended to reduce the industrial consumption of resources, could significantly reduce emissions of all sorts.

  • Long-term planning horizons--reaching well beyond next year's budget or the next election--must somehow be made more realizable. Lessons may be learned from the planning of the New York City water system, with its roots in the 19th century, and that city's water-tunnel building program, still underway, that will not be completed until well into the 21st. In an uninterrupted effort for the public good, the vision and the efforts to accomplish it have been kept alive and handed on from generation to generation of city planners.

  • Needed environmental policies, such as those to reduce CO2 emissions, can be made more realizable if we put the correct price--including the ultimate costs to society--on what we consume. Pricing can be a powerful lever for effecting social change, for the choices that we make each day are influenced very strongly by the costs that are involved. Yet in a year when much of the world's attention was fixed on carbon dioxide emissions, in the U.S. a gallon of gasoline was priced less than a gallon of spring water.

  • The world's cultures seem to be evolving away from a focus on economic security toward one on non-material "goods"--such as the quality and protection of the environment--although indeed more slowly in the developing world. Democracy, unlike authoritarian societies, offers a way to express these values at the ballot box.

A Personal Conclusion

Hundreds of years from now, long after we have moved on from a carbon economy to one mixed with other energy sources, scientists and citizens may look back in wonderment upon the time when people and nations finally accepted the serious nature of the enhanced greenhouse effect, and took the first hesitant steps to mitigate or adapt to its impacts.

From that distance, and with the wisdom of hindsight, they will surely find much for which to blame us. They cannot fault us for the CO2 that was added to the air before the likely effect was known, just as we do not blame our great-grandparents for taking the energy path that made us one of the world's richest societies. Nor can they fault us for not knowing everything, and they may indeed reflect, as did Tennyson long before, that "science moves but slowly, slowly; creeping on from point to point."

But they will charge us, surely, with a fundamental failing: the long time it took science to make itself heard, and the ensuing decades of delay in acting on a solid theory that was supported by mounting empirical evidence. They will mostly wonder how we could not see that adding more and more greenhouse gases could only warm the Earth. And they will question why we did not move faster to employ technologies that were more energy-efficient, and alternative fuels that were cleaner, once we knew that they were available.

Reviewed by Inez Fung and Thomas Malone

Dr. Inez Fung is the Goldman Professor of the Physical Sciences at the University of California in Berkeley, where she directs a new multidisciplinary Center for the Atmospheric Sciences. Her research interests include carbon-climate interactions, and Earth System modeling.

Dr. Thomas F. Malone, who serves on the CONSEQUENCES Scientific Editorial Board, is Chief Scientist of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, with headquarters in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. He was a former chairman of the Board on Atmospheric Sciences and Climate of the National Research Council, and the former Foreign Secretary of the U. S. National Academy of Sciences.

References for Further Reading

Climate Change: Three Policy Perspectives. A report of the Congressional Research Service, Washington, D. C., 1998.

The Earth as Transformed by Human Action: Global and Regional Changes in the Biosphere over the Past 300 Years. Edited by B. L. Turner II, et. al., Cambridge University Press with Clark University. Cambridge, UK; New York, 1990.

Environmental Protection Agency web site on global warming.

"The Kyoto Negotiations on Climate Change: A Science Perspective", by Bert Bolin. Science, vol 279, pp 330-331, 1998.

Our Changing Planet. A Report by the Subcommittee on Global Change Research, Committee on Environment and Natural Resources of the U.S. National Science and Technology Council. Washington, D. C., 1995-1999.

The Regional Impacts of Climate Change: an Assessment of Vulnerability. Edited by Robert T. Watson, Marufu C. Zinyowera, and Richard H. Moss. Published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by Cambridge University Press. Cambridge, UK; New York, 1998

"A road map for U.S. carbon reductions", by Joseph Romm, Mark Levine, Marilyn Brown, and Eric Petersen. Science, vol 279, pp 669-670, 1998.

"Turning up the heat. " Consumer Reports. September, 1996.

Union of Concerned Scientists web site on global warming.

"Unlocking the climate puzzle," by Curt Suplee. National Geographic Magazine, vol 193, no. 5, pp 38-71, May, 1998.


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