By Christopher Stowe
Lately there has been buzz surrounded several proposals dubbed “Green New Deals.” These tend to detail power grids relying on solar energy or cap and trade schemes whereby companies buy the right to pollute from developing countries. Most of these are aspirational at best, in many cases detailing programs that have nothing to do with preventing climate change. Solar and wind sources are wonderful for what they are, supplemental sources, but without more sophisticated storage, they are impractical. There may not be enough lithium on earth to meet the storage needs of a first world power grid, let alone a planet, using exclusively unreliable sources such as solar and wind. The fetishization of renewables is problematic and hinders more practical solutions.
Cap and trade sounds good at the outset, until one does the math. Bjorn Lomborg in his book “Cool It” states that plans like the Kyoto Protocol would have reduced global warming by less than a degree at a cost of $250 billion per year, not much of a deal by any stretch of the imagination.
This of course leaves the question what should we do about climate change. With some of the effects already causing huge problems in the form of more powerful storms, longer droughts, more wildfires, inaction is unconscionable. So how do we reduce our carbon footprint in a way palatable to the average citizen that doesn’t cost an astronomical amount of money? Fortunately, there are solutions that are both economically and environmentally viable, but, as with anything, it will require compromise, much of it from the most fervent climate warriors, but some on the right as well. There is, after all, no such thing as a free lunch.
In the US, transportation is the single largest source of greenhouse emissions, accounting for 29% of carbon emissions in the US. Nearly 60% of this is from “light duty” vehicles, or the conventional passenger vehicle. Nearly 100% of these are available as hybrid vehicles. Mandating light duty passenger vehicles contain hybrid technology could save as much as 1/3 of vehicle emissions, reducing the total US carbon footprint by 10%. Plug-in hybrids and fully electric vehicles could produce further savings particularly as coal power diminished. If the plug in hybrids became the norm, most people would not use the gasoline engine at all in the course of a normal commute, especially if charging stations were available at places of work. Eventually an all-electric fleet could be considered, although the amount of lithium available for exploitation may limit this in the long term, particularly for heavier commercial vehicles. A Tesla battery requires 65 KG of lithium. With 40-50 million tons of proved reserves, this would not be sufficient to replace the world’s 1.2 billion vehicles, although plug in hybrids and lighter electric cars, such as the Leaf use far less in their batteries.
While the trend lately has been away from rail toward trucking on interstates, freight trains are the most efficient way to move a ton of goods. Moving just 5% of the freight from trucks to trains could save 5 million tons of carbon emissions annually. Rail produces about 1/3 of the carbon emissions per ton-mile compared to trucking. High speed rail could replace air travel for certain trips and commuter rail could reduce commuter traffic still more. For trips between 90 and 600 miles, high speed rail is typically faster than flying, cutting the carbon emissions for each trip by half.
We should also advocate for employers to reduce the number of trips we need to take in the first place by creating incentives to allow more employees to work from home more often. This would save employers money on office space and save states in terms of road expansion and maintenance.
The second largest source of greenhouse emissions is the electrical grid, at 28%. The solution here is clear. Looking to two of the greenest countries in the world, France and Sweden, each with carbon emissions under 5 tons per capita (the US currently emits 16 tons per person), we must convert the majority of our grid to nuclear power. There is no other reliable technology ready for immediate deployment. Solar and wind power can certainly provide wonderful supplements. Sunny days tend to be hotter, so the solar cells will produce more power when air conditioning spikes demand, but for reliable, powerful energy, nothing comes close to nuclear. I propose over the next 20 years we quadruple the number of nuclear reactors in the grid. The US has many of the world’s finest scientists and engineers. We can design reactors that are safer and more efficient than ever. Right now each nuclear plant is essentially a custom build. Anything that is a unique design is more challenging and expensive, subject to unforeseen delays. We should standardize the design of this new generation of nuclear plants. Anyone in manufacturing knows well the first of any new product is the most expensive. The millionth is the cheapest. With a new design, we could export this technology and far from breaking the bank, we could profit by “going green.” With a nuclear grid, supplemented by renewables and natural gas, we could reduce our carbon footprint by 25% or more. In the interim, there is promising carbon capture technology that can be retrofitted on existing coal plants until we are in a position to shut them down.
There is worry about the risks with nuclear energy, and not without reason. It is important to keep in mind, that, although tremendously expensive, Fukushima did not result in any deaths, nor did 3 Mile Island. The only nuclear accident that resulted in loss of life was Chernobyl, famously, due to the utterly botched response by the government, as well as flawed design and inept technicians. In fact, solar power has killed twice as many people as nuclear accidents (falls during installation), giving nuclear the best safety record of any energy source in use today. Taking precautions from the lessons learned during these disasters, risks can be further reduced. In any event nothing compares to the hundreds of thousands killed in coal mines and the illnesses caused by the coal dust and pollution.
There is quite a bit of low hanging fruit in terms of reducing waste as well. Junk mail worldwide consumes 100 million trees and requires the energy equivalent of several coal plants to produce and deliver each year. All those resources to produce something no one wants anyway.
Certain other actions, such as reducing the amount of meat, especially beef that Americans consume would also reduce the impact of agriculture’s emissions, not to mention our waistlines and blood pressure. While I am not suggesting we attempt to micromanage individual dietary decisions, subsidies to the beef industry in the form of below market grazing fees on public land should stop. This land can be better utilized and beef is not doing us any favors in terms of environmental impact, health, or food security. It’s also a tremendous strain on water resources in the already drying American West.
The final proposal is one of the simplest. While it seems trite, planting trees is a powerful carbon offset with tremendous ancillary benefits. A single tree can sequester as much as 40 tons of co2 at the rate of roughly one ton per year. Trees are also calming, particularly in urban settings. They attract songbirds, providing food and habitat. Among all of the ideas and systemic changes floating around to address carbon capture, reduction, and offset, surely this one is the simplest and the only one we can deploy immediately.
While the reliance on nuclear energy does conflict with the goals of many of the champions of the Green New Deal, notably Ocasio-Cortez, the anti-nuclear rhetoric does not appear in the latest FAQ they have published, although it splits many of the most passionate advocates, hybrid technology and a nuclear grid present the most immediate opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint without sacrificing economic competitiveness or the comforts and lifestyle that mark the modern developed world. Stronger measures may well be required in the future, but these are the simplest and fastest steps available given present technology and infrastructure. These would also reduce our carbon footprint in the US, among the highest per capita of any country in the world, by over 50%, placing The United States close to a country like Germany or the United Kingdom in terms of individual environmental impact. We would still have a long way to go before reaching the level of a country like France or Sweden, but France has neither our agricultural sector nor our industrial base to contend with. Both are critical, not just to US interests, but to the global economy and food supply. These interests must be weighed when choosing which path to take in confronting this problem. Fetishizing renewables to the detriment of grid capacity or reliability will not solve this, nor will pie-in-the-sky delusions about the speed with which new technology can be developed deployed, such as grid-scale storage.
There are measures that sacrifice neither our lifestyle nor our economic growth and, in fact, can contribute to it. Reducing oil consumption will have the added benefit of making the US securely energy independent. The purchase of foreign oil from places like the Middle East and Russia is the largest transfer of wealth in human history, largely toward despots. If we can reduce this transfer of wealth, saving both the country and the consumer money, while reducing our carbon footprint by half, why would we not take that opportunity?