Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Path to 350 ppm CO2

Scientists who have changed the atmospheric carbon dioxide level target from stabilizing CO2 at a level of 450 parts per million to a much lower level of 350 ppm have been tinkering around with the problem of how to accomplish this much more ambitious goal. One of these scientists is Pushker Kharecha from NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies. Dr. Kharecha told BBC News that his group’s research showed that the only possible way was to promptly enact a moratorium on new coal use that does not capture CO2 and to phase out existing coal emissions by 2030. Also, he noted that reforestation and better agricultural practices could remove some CO2 from the atmosphere which would help. Dr. Kharecha also stressed the importance of energy efficiency and conservation in the short term as longer-term efforts are taken to provide alternative energy sources to fossil fuels.

Right now the world seems to be going in the direct opposite direction. Rather than a moratorium on coal plants that do not capture C02 the plans are in the works in a number of countries for hundreds of more typical coal plants. China itself is building one or two new plants each week. The promise of capturing and storing CO2 emissions from coal, which has been dubbed “clean coal” by the coal industry, so far has remained no more than a promise and seems likely never to be fulfilled.

The gap between what it will take to lower the CO2 level to a climate-stabilizing 350 ppm from the ice-melting present level of about 386 ppm and the reality on the ground appears unbridgeable. All the momentum is toward ever upward CO2 levels. Since the United States is responsible for more of the CO2 up there than any other country it seems logical that we should take the first step, that is, declare a moratorium on new coal plants that can’t capture CO2 emissions. Time to leave square one.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Al Gore Supports 350 ppm Target for CO2 Levels

Addressing delegates yesterday in Poznan, Poland at a UN meeting on climate change, Al Gore told them that the present target of stabilizing atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide at 450 part per million (PPM) should be abandoned for a new target of 350 ppm. Present levels are about 386 ppm. Since many experts believe that even achieving the 450 target is beyond feasibility, achieving the 350 target might be thought of as just wishful thinking. However, if we don’t get back to 350 ice in the polar regions could just keep melting and melting with catastrophic consequences. According to The Independent, Gore said that to combat climate change the world needs to focus more on global warming and less on celebrities, naming three in particular, O.J. Simpson, Paris Hilton, and the late Anna Nicole Smith. That’s going to be difficult. Clearly advertisers are willing to pony up a lot more money to back shows featurings non-news about the three celebs Gore mentioned and many others than gloom and doom real news about global warming. It appears that the free press is a two-edged sword. You get to find out what governments are really up to, at least sometimes, but you also get endless drivel. It would seem that the climate change crisis is unfolding too slowly to have much chance of driving Brittany Spears out of the news. The Dr. J. TV ad for Dr. Pepper says that “slower is better.” Well maybe for sipping soft drinks, but not for getting the media to pay attention to serious problems. Based on where the world focuses its attention we will be lucky to hold the line at 600 ppm. And maybe even that is a stretch.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Environmentalists versus Environmentalists over Carbon Trading

Carbon cap and trade as a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has wide support ranging from many beltway politicians to the large mainstream environmental organizations, but a coalition of environmental groups called Rising Tide North America doesn’t buy this strategy, at least the carbon trading part. To bring attention to their viewpoint they invaded the Washington, DC offices of Environmental Defense (formerly the Environmental Defense Fund) to protest Environmental Defense’s support for carbon trading. The Boston Globe’s Green Blog reports that the protest included holding signs saying “carbon trading is an environmental offense,” and “keep the cap, ditch the trade.”

One of the protesters, Rachel Smolker, whose father was a founding member of the Environmental Defense Fund, has issued a statement which is posted on the Global Justice Ecology Project website. Her statement includes the following sentiments about carbon trading:

“We cannot pretend that handing out permits to pollute and then trading them around like baseball cards is even remotely related to seriously reducing emissions. It is a great get-rich-quick scheme for the brokers, marketers and financiers who enjoy playing games with my childrens, future, and it is a huge gift to the polluting criminals."

Smolker also blasted carbon offsets, another controversial strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Offsetting emissions is a similar deceit, nothing but another fine arrangement of smoke and mirrors that allow some people to "feel good" while continuing to carry on business as usual. They provide a convenient way to sidestep and avoid real and necessary change. It is, without question, a lovely idea to provide funding to really good "quality" projects that hold promise of reducing emissions, but there are more straightforward ways to get there that do not require unfounded and unreliable measures of carbon flow, additionality, verifiability or permanence, and do not confuse fossil and biological carbon. We clearly need to halt, not offset emissions, even where it is a hard thing, a very hard thing to do.”

Whether carbon trading as well as carbon offsets will be effective in reducing greenhouse gas emissions or are simply some sort of ploy as Smolker contends or just poor ideas remains to be seen. Both mechanisms are now being used in the Kyoto Protocol and the results so far do not seem encouraging. But there does not seem to be any clear strategy for “Confronting the Root Causes of Climate Change” as Rising Tide North America puts in their logo. A broad consensus on what to do seems always beyond reach.