Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Carbon Caps

Carbon caps are coming. The pressure for some form of regulation of greenhouse gases in America has reached a critical threshold. The question is no longer if we will have such regulation, but what form it will take.

To review the basic economics, carbon dioxide emissions can be thought of as an externality, or a cost to society that is not paid by the manufacturer or the consumer. There are several possible ways to address an externality, including taxing carbon dioxide production or placing absolute limits on emissions. The Kyoto Protocol has been the most widely promoted method, and the European Union has implemented legislation based on its model. A compelling article titled "The Carbon Calculus" in today's New York Times offers a good overview of the issues.

The federal government has done a remarkable job of sidestepping the carbon issue. However, this neglect is about to end. Simply put, there is too much pressure coming from too many angles to stonewall the issue for much longer. People are increasingly skeptical of attacks on the science of global warming and the Nobel Prize won by Al Gore and the IPCC has brought renewed attention to climate change. More importantly, energy companies themselves are joining the party. They recognize that some form of regulation is inevitable, and they would rather have the rules set so that they can adapt their long-term business plans accordingly versus operating in an uncertain world.

All of this is good news. However, we must stay vigilant and realize that all carbon capping bills are not created equal. Industry and their Republican allies have become very adept at controlling debates on political issues. My favorite example of this is the bill sponsored by the coal industry known as the “Clear Skies Initiative.” Under a seemingly environmental name, this proposal was designed to increase the pollution coal plants would be allowed to emit. Another example is when President Bush increased fuel mileage standards, but did so by such a small amount that the measure has had little discernable effect on oil consumption.

As citizens, we must watch the debate to ensure that the legislation that emerges from this process is not a paper tiger. It will not be easy. Billions of dollars are at stake for energy companies and they will spend correspondingly to protect their interests. However, we can improve our chances by asking the right questions, such as: how stringent are the regulations? Are the requirements informed by scientific consensus on climate change? Is support built in for the development of alternative energy technologies? Do the regulations let Big Coal and Big Oil off the hook through grandfathering clauses, subsidies, or exceptions? What are the enforcement mechanisms?

Carbon capping may be inevitable, but the form it will take is not. One battle has been won but a much larger war is about to begin.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Missing the Point

Georgia has just declared a state of emergency. The reason? Water, or more accurately, a lack thereof. The state’s governor, Sonny Perdue, issued the order this past Saturday and is hoping to receive federal help in alleviating the crisis.

Why is Perdue requesting government help? Because he is blaming the problem on federal bureaucracy. Back in the 1980s, the state reached an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Fish and Wildlife Service to release 5,000 feet of water per second from Lake Lanier (the main reservoir for Atlanta and north Georgia) to the Chattahoochee River. This extra water provides hydroelectricity for Florida power plants and for endangered river species including mussels and sturgeon. Perdue is blaming these bureaucratic requirements for North Georgia’s current predicament and wants to be freed from the regulations, labeling them as “silly rules.”

Perdue’s analysis is misleading and, as is common in politics, misses the fundamental point. Blaming bureaucracy is a convenient political strategy that identifies a scapegoat rather than addressing difficult underlying issues.

The big story here is the relationship between natural resources and regional growth. Water, as well illustrated by this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine article, is emerging as a great limiting factor across the United States and the rest of the world. Since 1980, the population of Atlanta’s metropolitan area has doubled, dramatically increasing the demand for water. At the same time, almost nothing has been done to expand the water supply. Unchecked urban development without a plan for sustainable water usage is what has turned the current drought into a state of emergency, not the water needs of a few fish and mussels.

This story is particularly important since it is not isolated to Georgia. Urban development has proceeded throughout the entire United States over the last half-century with relatively little consideration for sustainable development. This can be seen most clearly in the case of the southwest, where cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas import water from hundreds of miles away for golf courses and industrial enterprises. However, the current crisis in Georgia reveals that this is a much more widely spread phenomenon.

We cannot continue building unsustainable cities and expect to avoid resource crises. We must require new urban developments to be sustainable and create plans for retrofitting our existing infrastructure. Only then can we address the underlying issues.

However, a solution cannot emerge until we ask the right questions. Blaming Georgia’s water supply on federal bureaucracy is not only wrong, it prevents the type of dialogue that would be necessary for a solution. Sonny Perdue has missed the point. Let’s not make the same mistake.

Blog Postscript (posted Thursday, October 25, 2007)

The differing perspectives on the drought have been replicated in various news forums. Compare the news coverage at, CBS News, and the New York Times. Only the third article presents a critical perspective on the issues.

This blog is cross-listed at Science Progress.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bio-fuels and Human Rights

Brazilian ethanol produced from sugar cane is one of the most promising stories in renewable energy technologies. For those committed to shifting away from fossil fuel dependence, the idea that we can grow an oil substitute is a very attractive idea. Moreover, Brazilian sugar cane ethanol is an established industry that offers a far better return on investment than American corn ethanol.

So, renewable energy advocates and environmentalists should support the rapid expansion of this industry, right?

Well, not exactly and certainly not unconditionally. The key thing to realize is that land is finite and there are competing demands for its use. In many cases, using land for energy means not using it for other human needs. Nowhere is this clearer than in the history of the Brazilian sugar cane industry.

Sugar has long served as an important cash crop for the Brazilian economy. In the 1960s and 1970s, many sugar cane plantations consolidated and expanded their operations—often using foreign capital—with the result that poor workers were pushed off lands they had used to supplement their food intake. As described in devastating detail by Nancy Scheper-Hughes and others, losing these small plots led to famine, poverty, sickness, and in many cases, death.[1]

This story is not particular to Brazil. Throughout the world, particularly in areas colonized by European powers, there has long been a tension between using land to grow food for locals versus using land to grow cash crops for foreigners. Sadly, cash crops have won this battle more often than the needs of locals. In many areas, this has created slow starvation, cyclical poverty, and environmental degradation.

We must not repeat this history. If Brazilian ethanol—or any other bio-fuel—is to be part of our energy solution, we must ensure that it does not come at the expense of the world’s rural poor. President Bush visited Brazil this past March to discuss an ethanol agreement with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Any trade agreement emerging from these discussions should require limits to the overall land use of the Brazilian ethanol industry, ensuring that sufficient land remains for the rest of Brazil’s population.

Solving global fossil fuel dependence is a tricky issue that will require some hard choices to be made. However, outsourcing these costs onto the world’s poor is not the answer. We should only support bio-fuels as part of the solution if human rights are protected.

[1] Nancy Scheper-Hughes, Death without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992).

Note: this blog was inspired by reading other posts at Science Progress and has been cross-listed at their web site.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Moral of the Moa

About 800 years ago, a group of traveling settlers came across an ideal new home. The group was the Maori, the place was New Zealand, and the reason it was such a lucky find was the presence of moa. Moa were large, flightless, and defenseless birds—up to 3.5 meters tall and 250 kilograms—that offered the Maori an abundance of tasty, nutrient-rich, and easy food.[1]

The Maori responded to their resource-rich world in a predictable manner. They began eating moa. Lots and lots of moa. Archeologists have found huge Maori camps with scores of ovens and the remains of tens of thousands of moa carcasses. It’s not hard to imagine why the Maori ate so many moa. It was simple—moa had almost no defenses, and we find no evidence that the Maori had hunting weapons more complex than spears and clubs. Many of the skeletal remains of moa show that their necks were wrung. Without much exaggeration, it seems one could walk up to a moa, club it, and drag it back to the campground.

The ease with which moa could be hunted led to incredibly inefficient use of the birds. The Maori preferred the meat from the haunches and often abandoned the rest. Moreover, archeologists have found unopened ovens with entire moa inside. With such a wide availability of moa, resource-conservation must have seemed a low priority.

The Maori had a good thing going on, and milked at as long as they could. After arriving in New Zealand, they essentially had a three or four hundred year moa barbeque. And then the moa began to run out. We don’t know how the Maori tried to respond to this decline—Did they limit hunting? Did they search for other types of food? Did they consider leaving New Zealand for a new land?—but we do know the results. They continued to eat moa until there were no more left.

Transitioning from a moa-rich environment to a moa-poor environment dramatically changed the culture of the Maori. Whereas the Maori came from the relatively peaceful Polynesian culture, by the time of the decline of the moa, the society took a decidedly militaristic turn. The Maori started to build large forts beginning in the 15th century, and by 1642, when the first European explorer arrived, cannibalism was a common practice. The Dutchman Abel Janzoon Tasman sent a boat of men to meet a canoe of Maori, and the Maori proceeded to slaughter the men in the boat. By the time Captain Cook arrived in 1768, he was greeted by Maori chanting: “Haere mai ki uta kia patua” or “Come ashore and be clubbed.” Violence between Maori groups was endemic—Cook noted that the first thing any group asked for in trade was help in destroying their neighbors.

We have much to learn from the Maori and their relationship to resources. If we substitute fossil fuels for moa and present-day Americans for 17th century Maori, some disturbing parallels arise. Americans have feasted on fossil fuels for nearly two centuries, transforming coal, oil, and natural gas into heat, light, better food through fertilizer, extended life spans, and dramatic improvements in overall quality of life. We have also used the over-abundance of fossil fuels very inefficiently. Just like the early Maori, we have had a great run thanks to a resource-rich world.

Unfortunately, our world will not remain fossil-fuel rich forever (whether this is a matter of decades or centuries is up for debate, but the ultimate depletion of fossil fuels is inevitable if current patterns continue). Here the lessons of the Maori grow darker. They suggest two important questions. First, can we make social changes that preserve a valuable but dwindling natural resource? Second, will we have the grace to enter a resource-poor environment without resorting to factionalism, violence, and cannibalism?

For the Maori, the answer to these questions was a resounding no. A quick look at our fossil fuel consumption practices indicates that we are not doing much better in the twenty-first century. Those of us interested in our planet and society would be wise to learn more about the fate of the moa and how we can make different choices for the future.

[1] The evidence for this piece comes from the excellent book by Tim Flannery on the historical relationships between Australasian peoples and their environment: Tim F. Flannery, The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and People, (New York: Grove Press, 1994).

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The False Idol of Energy Independence

U.S. energy independence is a false god upon whose altar many of our energy experts worship. We should reject this approach because it does not tackle the most pressing energy problems, is not a sustainable solution, and will not generate long-term security for the United States.

Energy independence advocates recommend that the United States pursue policies that seek to eliminate the importation of energy. In most cases, the focus is on oil imports from the Middle East and Venezuela. As a policy, this has obvious appeal. Both conservatives and liberals can agree that sending billions of dollars to nations that threaten the United States, repress human rights, squash democracy, and treat women as second-class citizens is a bad idea. Moreover, as the cost of the Iraq War in dollars, loss of international prestige, and human lives has demonstrated, dependence on foreign oil can be disastrous.

From this perspective, energy independence seems like an obvious answer. Unfortunately, the picture is not so rosy.

First, energy independence fails to address climate change, which is the most pressing energy problem our world faces today. From the perspective of our ecosystem, the problem is that there is too much fossil fuel energy left, not too little. If we continue to burn fossil fuels at current rates—and we have enough left to do so for many decades—then the resulting greenhouse gases will substantially alter the climate of the planet. In all likelihood, this will increase sea levels, make drought conditions more common, and threaten the food supply chain. Millions of lives will be lost due to famines and epidemics caused by climate change. Any proposal that focuses on energy independence to the exclusion of climate change is comparable to putting a band-aid on a broken bone.

Second, energy independence proposals generally favor the expansion of U.S. energy production (pumping more oil, mining more coal, raising more corn). However, these proposals ignore a significant way of reducing energy imports—conservation. We need to dramatically increase the attention given to reducing energy consumption and improving efficiencies in existing processes.

Third, it is not clear that energy independence actually increases national security. If the United States pursues a “we’ve got ours” attitude and forsakes the rest of the world, it will only enhance global inequalities. These inequalities will become a direct threat to national security by creating billions of disenfranchised people with little to lose. The terrorist acts of September 11th reveal to us the dangers these conditions can create. America can only become safe by reaching out and working with the rest of the world, not in opposition to it.

How should we proceed? Instead of focusing solely on energy independence, U.S. energy policy should be globally oriented. It should recognize climate change as a pressing problem and should emphasize reductions in energy consumption, rather than developing new sites of production. Only then will we be worshipping in a temple that has the potential of delivering us to the promised land.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Prices Others Pay - April 24, 2007

The widespread use of fossil fuel energy has transformed the world, with mixed results. However, it is essential to realize how one-sided both the benefits and the costs of world energy use have been. In broad strokes, those in the industrialized West have gained much, while those in developing nations have borne most of the burdens.

Two world-historical events show this pattern clearly, one from the nineteenth century and one that is about to happen: industrialization and climate change. Beginning in the eighteenth century in Britain and extending in the nineteenth century to parts of Western Europe and America, industrialization transformed fossil fuel energy into new manufacturing processes, new products, and a new economic order. Industrialization brought many benefits to these nations including longer life spans, economic growth, an abundance of material goods, less physically demanding labor, and more leisure time. There have certainly been some costs associated with industrialization—uneven distributions of the wealth, great poverty existing next to great wealth, sickness due to pollution—but on the whole, the benefits in these nations have outweighed the costs. If you doubt this, ask yourself whether you would really expect to have a better quality of life in England in 1750 than in America today.

However, outside of Europe and America, industrialization has had a much more ambiguous record. The nineteenth century saw a great advance in European colonization of Africa and parts of Asia. While germs were always important to these forays, the industrial technologies of the nineteenth century—steamboats, machine guns, telegraph wires—were essential to maintaining colonial holdings. For much of the world, the direct result of industrialization was subjection to colonial rulers, which led to the extraction of wealth from the countries, repressive government regimes, and slavery. The period of decolonization has been little better, as the withdrawal of colonial governments left decimated infrastructure, weak economies, and power voids that have often been filled by military dictatorships.

In the 21st century, the negative effects of climate change will also be disproportionately felt by developing nations. While climate change is not likely to bring major benefits to anyone—the possible exceptions being northern lands such as Canada and Siberia that might expand agricultural output—the worst will be experienced in poor, low-lying countries. The United States, the biggest contributor to global warming, will get off relatively easily. Even though parts of Florida and the Gulf Coast will likely be covered in water, this loss will be minimal compared to the devastation experienced in other parts of the world.

Many of the nations of the developing world will pay the costs of global warming in human lives. For low-lying countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, much of the land will be lost to sea. By losing farmland, malnutrition will be exacerbated. Standing water also provides ideal grounds for the spread of diseases like cholera and malaria. Even in inland countries, the effects will be significant. Over a billion people depend on the water from the Himalayas. As the glaciers begin melting, this may leave millions without essential fresh water. In mainland Africa, more variable weather conditions will disrupt agricultural patterns and may lead to famine conditions. Famine, malnutrition, and disease are all preventable occurrences, but history shows us that as a global society we have lacked the will and commitment to address these issues. There is little reason to think that it is about to change.

The message is clear: those who have received the benefits of industrialization must stop ignoring the costs of our actions just because they are easily transferred to the rest of the world. Climate change must be addressed, and those countries that have benefited the most must lead the charge. If $100 billion can be dedicated towards rebuilding New Orleans, surely similar resources can be directed towards alleviating the known sufferings—and possible deaths—of millions that will be displaced from their homes and livelihoods by our fossil fuel dependence.

The Corn Confusion - April 7, 2007

Corn ethanol is not the answer to the critical energy challenges facing the world today. Current efforts to develop corn ethanol risk devoting scarce resources towards an energy approach that offers marginal returns. Instead of pandering to interest politics and focusing on energy independence to the exclusion of climate change issues, we need to devote our energy investments towards more promising options.

Corn ethanol suffers from at least three critical shortcomings. The first is that it offers a limited, at best, return on energy investment due to the costs of growing, transporting, and processing corn. Whether ethanol offers any return at all is a current topic of debate. Recent review articles in Science and Environmental Science and Technology find that on the whole, most research reveals that ethanol contains a slight return on investment—a range of 1.29 to 1.64 is cited by the latter article.[1] The one researcher consistently reporting negative values is David Pimentel, who argues the energy return of ethanol is 0.84.[2] The variety of numbers reflects the authors’ varied assumptions. Pimentel includes more energy inputs in his equation, such as energy used by workers to travel and in the manufacture of capital equipment. His critics, however, contend that he uses old data that over-inflates certain energy costs and that he does not include the energy-value of the by-products of ethanol production.[3] Regardless of the exact value, the important point to keep in mind is that the energy return is at best mediocre. Corn ethanol requires too many fossil fuel inputs to be the basis of a renewable energy system.

Second, ethanol does not address the issue of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is arguably the greatest energy challenge we are facing at present. While fossil fuels are depleting, the more immediate energy problem the world faces is climate change, which has the potential to seriously disrupt ecosystems and devastate poor, low-lying countries. Estimates of the GHG emissions associated with the production of corn ethanol vary depending on how it is produced and used, but the authors of the Science article find a range varying from a 32% decrease to a 20% increase in GHGs, with an average saving of around 13%.[4] Just like the modest returns of energy from ethanol, its benefits for alleviating the perils of global warming are mediocre as well.

A third consideration is the land needed to grow corn. There are natural limits to the extent we can expand corn production in order to increase ethanol output based on land availability. It is not clear that it will be possible to dramatically increase the total supply of ethanol given competing demands on agricultural land. In addition, there are serious questions about whether this is good idea. It may create environmental impacts on the land that is brought under cultivation. The best land is already under cultivation, so the additional fields planted will likely yield an even lower return on energy investment. More seriously, it brings into question whether land that could be growing food to feed people around the world would be devoted to ethanol instead.

The news is not completely bleak for ethanol, however, if we look past corn. The most intriguing possibilities in the ethanol world come from cellulosic ethanol. Whereas corn ethanol produces fuel only from the kernels of corn, cellulosic ethanol transforms entire plants, including leaves, stems, and stalks into fuel. The main benefit of this approach is that the lignin within plant cell walls includes energy that can be used to break down the plant materials and generate ethanol. This energy savings has resulted in studies promising an energy return of 4.40 to 6.61, while some suggest values over 10 might be achieved.[5] However, such technology is at the early stages of development and cellulosic ethanol cannot be manufactured in significant quantities. Supporting this technology would be a much wiser policy than feeding more pork to Midwestern corn farmers.

Given all the problems with corn ethanol and the limited upside, why does it continue to garner such attention? The first reason is that people are not accustomed to viewing energy cycles holistically and asking questions about the energy required in the production of ethanol. The second reason is that energy independence is often discussed separately from climate change and sustainability. Corn ethanol can help us reduce imports of oil, which is certainly a desirable goal. However, energy independence that does not address the issue of climate change is not a wise policy, as it leads us out of the frying pan and into the fire. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, corn ethanol is being driven by Midwestern politicians who see it as an opportunity to bring money and industries to their states. While politicians have always sought to serve their constituents by attracting funding to their regions, we cannot allow such approaches to determine energy policy. Instead, we need to identify energy solutions that are sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and economically promising instead of pandering to interest politics.

So what should the future of ethanol be? Well, to quote a familiar phrase, it depends. If the government is truly committed to pursuing solutions to the pressing problems of energy, then ethanol should continue to receive some support. It can help us achieve a bit of energy independence and support Midwestern agriculturalists. However, in the current political environment where there are limited funds available for the development of new technologies, scarce resources should be shifted away from ethanol and towards technologies that offer greater promise, such as wind and solar power. By drawing money and attention away from more promising approaches, ethanol might actually make our energy problems worse.

[1] A value of 1 implies that there is no energy gain or loss in the production of ethanol. A value above 1 indicates a net positive gain and a value below 1 indicates a net energy loss. Alexander E. Farrell et al., "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals," Science 311, no. 5760 (2006), Roel Hammerschlag, "Ethanol's Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present," Environmental Science and Technology 40 (2006).
[2] David Pimentel and Tad Patzek, "Ethanol Producting Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower," Natural Resources Research 14, no. 1 (2005).
[3] Farrell et al., "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals.", Roel Hammerschlag, "Ethanol: Energy Well Spent," (National Resources Defense Council, 2006).
[4] Farrell et al., "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals," 506.
[5] Hammerschlag, "Ethanol's Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present."

Crude Thinking - May 5, 2007

Oil dominates the headlines. Of all the energy sources we use in our world, oil is the most visible. It has been clearly linked to geopolitical struggles, questions over its continuing supply, and global warming. These are real problems and they deserve our attention.

However, focusing on oil to the exclusion of other energy sources is crude thinking. It blinds us to the full range of issues we must address as a society. Oil represents only about 40% of total world-wide energy use, meaning that to have a comprehensive view we must account for the other 60%.

Where does this other 60% come from? A mix of coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and a few renewable sources. Each of these energy sources comes with its own set of political, environmental, and social consequences. For example, coal has the highest carbon dioxide emissions of any fossil fuel, the use of natural gas has helped lower emissions but its supplies are dwindling, and hydroelectric dams disrupt ecological habitats.

Yes, oil is important. But it is not so important that we should blind ourselves to the pressing issues associated with other energy sources.