The worldwide economic slowdown is having an unexpected positive impact in the fight against global warming: Emissions of carbon dioxide are falling, records collected by governments show.
From the United States to Europe to China, the global economic crisis has forced offices to close and factories to cut back. That means less use of fossil fuels such as coal to make energy. Fossil-fuel burning, which creates carbon dioxide, is the primary human contributor to global warming.
A recession-driven drop in emissions "is good for the environment," says Emilie Mazzacurati of Point Carbon, an energy research company. "In the long term, that's not how we want to reduce emissions."
Yeah, probably not. I'm not even sure how we'd manage to keep things this bad. There's a lot of economic thought on how to get an economy out of a recession, but not a lot about how to maintain one -- although, the Republican party seems breaking new ground in that research. Give them another shot at an alternative budget and I'm pretty confident they'll come up with a way to keep us permanently screwed. They've got a real talent for that kind of work. Too much talent, actually. They'd probably find a way to keep us in the poorhouse while increasing carbon emissions.
As it is, the reduction hasn't been nearly enough. According to the report, "Carbon dioxide from US power plants fell roughly 3% from 2007 to 2008, according to preliminary data from the Environmental Protection Agency analyzed by the Environmental Integrity Project. That's the biggest drop since 1995-1996, the first two consecutive years for which data are publicly available." Continuing along these lines would mean a decrease in atmospheric CO2 of 11.5 ppm (parts per million) from the current 385, bringing us down to 373.5 ppm. We need to get to the neighborhood of 350 ppm. If we were going to use the economy to bring down carbon emissions, this economic disaster wouldn't be disastrous enough.
So I think we can all agree that a permanent recession is a pretty lousy solution. That's not to say it's the only drastic approach.
Tinkering with Earth's climate to chill runaway global warming -- a radical idea once dismissed out of hand -- is being discussed by the White House as a potential emergency option, the president's new science adviser said Wednesday.
That's because global warming is happening so rapidly, John Holdren told The Associated Press in his first interview since being confirmed last month.
The concept of using technology to purposely cool the climate is called geoengineering. One option raised by Holdren and proposed by a Nobel Prize-winning scientist includes shooting pollution particles into the upper atmosphere to reflect the sun's rays.
The idea is to pepper the atmosphere with sulfur, "basically mimicking the effect of volcanoes in screening out the incoming sunlight," says Holdren.
"But he said there could be grave side effects. Studies suggest that might include eating away a large chunk of the ozone layer above the poles and causing the Mediterranean and the Mideast to be much drier," AP tells us.
Those are just the consequences we expect -- it's a lead pipe cinch that there would be unforeseen consequences. It doesn't seem that there's any way to reverse this if it turns out to be a real bad idea.
A second idea is to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by literally sucking it out and sequestering it ourselves. This seems to be less risky, since we know exactly what an atmosphere with CO2 at 350 ppm would look like. The biggest risk here is a failure of our sequestration system, releasing a huge amount of greenhouse gases all at once.
"It would be preferable by far," Holdren says, "to solve this problem by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases."
True enough, but we may be reaching a "tipping point," where warming becomes a process that can't be stopped. As global ice melts, it releases greenhouse gases trapped within it. This increases the problem, which melts more ice, which increases the problem, etc. Further aggravating the problem, plants and trees die and decay, releasing their sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Once this process begins, it becomes irreversible. Eventually, we all die.
Given that, pulling carbon out of the atmosphere doesn't seem like such a bad idea. The problem is that there's no money in it and it wouldn't be cheap. Last year, Klaus Lackner, a physicist at Columbia University, told the LA Times that it would cost trillions of dollars a year. Of course, that doesn't mean it would always cost that much. And it also doesn't mean that it couldn't eventually pay for itself as an industry. With cap and trade, private carbon mitigation companies could sell carbon credits to polluters. And progress is being made in using CO2 as a resource in making plastics -- sequestration companies could sell the carbon they filter out. Also, as carbon emissions decrease, the need for mitigation decreases as well, bringing the total cost down annually.
But let's call all of this -- mimicking volcanoes and carbon filters -- "Plan B." And let's call permanently screwing up the economy "not a plan." The wisest thing -- not to mention the easiest and most common sense thing -- would be to just knock it off. Cut back on carbon emissions. Given the alternatives, this really is a solution so simple that it's the no-brainer.
I'd really rather do that than let the Republicans figure out how to permanently screw up the economy.
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