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Is the planet doomed or is there a glimmer of hope?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  07/25/12 @ 10:00am  |  Posted in Climate

How do we make sense of the wildly disparate news-solving climate change is way harder that we thought! We have new hope coming from the building industry!-laid on us this week?

First, Bill McKibben writing for Rolling Stone summed up the carbon end game using three numbers. It's the best explanation we've seen about the political difficulty of reducing carbon emissions.

In short, he says that there are three numbers to think about. We need to keep the global temperature rise below 2 degrees C (although we're learning that the current rise of 0.8 degrees C is already too much). To prevent the 2 degree rise, we can only emit 565 gigatons of additional CO2 by 2050. That's our carbon budget. However, the fossil-fuel companies and oil-producing countries have more than 2,795 gigatons of carbon in their proven reserves-or five times our budget.

Those 2,795 gigatons are worth about $27 trillion dollars. To have any hope of stabilizing the climate, therefore, $20 trillion has to remain in the ground. The fossil-fuel industry has to be forced to write off most of its assets.

We can throw up our hands in despair now. As McKibben suggests, we need Hollywood to ride in with a silver bullet solution. Maybe it's only a Pollyanna who would suggest our curbing energy during the Recession can turn on a new enthusiasm for living green. But, look at the building industry, once considered the worst offender in energy. In 20 years, it established a new normal in its relationship to fossil fuel burning. Is that just pretty talk? The friends of despair (and old dirty power plants) might say so, but evidence suggests it is possible to cut our demand for energy by creating a market for green industry practice:

Because also this week, Architecture 2030-an outlandish challenge to make the building industry carbon neutral by 2030- and U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) compared energy use in buildings from 2005 to 2012 and found three numbers of their own. Yes, recessionary spending has cut down on new buildings-but an uptick in energy efficiency and renewable energy use in buildings has played a significant role in dropping energy use in buildings during the past 8 years (click on the image right and see the right-most bar).

If this trend continues, the Architecture 2030 initiative (which has a group working to sign downtown Cleveland buildings onto an energy reduction strategy) predicts an impressive 23% decrease in energy use in buildings in America by 2030.

· David Roberts writing for Grist sees hope in natural gas' rise. It's now on par with coal for supplying American power. Despite the environmental consequences of fracking (and the higher intensity of its CO2), it burns cleaner-no smog and mercury-than coal, Roberts notes.

The article includes a pair of maps charting the growth of renewables in each state. It's a very embarrassing moment for Ohio. Ohio, Kentucky, Arizona and Alaska are the ONLY states in the nation with no improvement in "Non hydroelectric renewable share of total net generation" from 2001 to 2011. Even West Virginia has moved from less than 1% to the 1-4% of total category. What's going on? When will Ohio wake up to the fact that we have tremendous natural and renewable resources to exploit for economic gain right here at our fingertips?

· Roberts' article is titled, "U.S. leads the world in cutting CO2 emissions - so why aren't we talking about it?"

The Recession, fracking, green building are leading the downward curve in supply and demand for energy. But Roberts may have missed this Washington Post article, "Very few countries have cut their carbon emissions without cheating." – yep, the U.S. is in the 'cheating' category for carbon reductions. To wit:

Roughly speaking, there are three ways a country can curtail its global warming emissions and still grow. It can use cleaner forms of energy. It can use less energy to make the things it wants to make. Or it can outsource its dirtiest sectors - like manufacturing - abroad, to countries like China.

In the past three decades, most of the world's wealthiest countries appear to have relied heavily on that last route. At least, that's one way to read an interesting new analysis from the Breakthrough Institute, which looks at how developed nations have "decarbonized" between 1971 and 2006.

A handful of countries, including Sweden, France and Belgium, have managed to become more carbon-efficient largely by using cleaner forms of power. The rest, however, seem to have largely decarbonized through the process of transforming into service economies and shifting their industrial and agricultural needs abroad.

· The Breakthrough Institute argues in "There's Still Hope for the Planet" that fracking has lowered America's emissions by 7 percent and that European cap-and-trade has "showed no evidence" of lowering emissions across the pond. Their point in rejecting calls for carbon pricing versus technological solutions is to say investing long term in new technology is a better role for government.

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