The Low Carbon Reality

Groucho Marx was not known as a shrewd political analyst but the pursuit of a low carbon economy, reminds me of his definition of politics.  “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere,diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.

Since the arrival of the global warming hobgoblin, politicians have been promoting policies to achieve a low carbon economy.  President Obama in pursuing that goal has confirmed Marx’s definition.

The Obama Administration and many in Congress have been promoting subsidies and other gimmicks to spur investment in wind, solar, and anything that is not fossil as a way to travel the road to a low carbon economy.  If any of the current Not Fossil Club members had looked at the facts about energy, they would have discovered that we have been on the low carbon road for some time.

Jesse Ausubel, a senior program director at Rockefeller University, documents that the carbon intensity of the global economy has been declining since the time of Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln without an explicit policy to pursue that objective.  Information and data on his website–phe.rockefeller.edu/AustinDecarbonization–contain a figure plotting decarbonization or the changing carbon intensity of primary energy for the world. Carbon intensity is calculated as the ratio of the sum of the carbon content of all fuels to the sum of the energy content of all primary energy sources.

Although the figure plots global carbon intensity, the Energy Information Administration data for the US shows the same decline.  In 1980, US carbon emissions per $1000 of GDP were .93 units.  In 2006, the last year for which data are available for, emissions were .52, a reduction of 44%.  This progress is the result of technology, innovation, and economics.

How did this decarbonization come about and what suggests that it will continue?  As Ausubel points out, society has moved from burning wood and hay, to coal, to oil and gas with gas now growing in importance.  Wood is mostly carbon, gas mostly hydrogen.  As the demand for electricity continues to grow to support an expanding  information economy, that demand will increasingly be met by greater natural gas use and nuclear.

Advances in  technology will bring about further increases in energy efficiency, reductions in power plant emissions, as well as reductions in line losses.  Improvements in automotive technology will have the same effect on carbon emissions.

While no one can be certain what new energy systems and sources will evolve over the next 50 years, history tells us that the future will make greater use of hydrogen and less use of carbon.

Instead of subsidizing specific forms of energy which has proven to be wrong headed since the failed Synthetic Fuels Corporation, the Administration and Congress would better serve our long term energy and environmental interests by encouraging research and technology development.

1 Comment

  1. HaHA

    O’KEEFE?!
    More Like “O’DEAR”… he is at it again.
    I am going to start commenting on every single thing you write if I can find the time and energy.

    Aside from the first and last paragraph, and the stuff that you didn’t include in the middle, this is actually interesting (and slanted/incomplete, as usual). Your point about declining emissions per energy unit burned is accurate, but your commentary surrounding that fact is not.

    You should pick up a copy of “Inventing Pollution”. I’m not going to read it to you, but it discusses the evolution of fuel use that you describe and related evolution of understanding and policy that lead to fuel switching, from wood to coal.

    Funny thing: Policy in addition to economics actually did help drive the evolution you describe. Somehow, you’ve just come to a different conclusion by ignoring all of the times where policy has produced positive results.

    Policy is encouraging more gas exploration and use in the electricity sector now, as I type. By tightening controls on coal and making it more costly to run old coal plants and to mine, combined with shale gas (with development directly related to tax payer subsidized research; see previous posts on your other simple articles for documentation), we are seeing a switch to cleaner, more efficient gas. Similar thing happened from wood to coal in England.

    http://johnhanger.blogspot.com/2011/10/energy-tax-breaks-fuel-renewables-nukes.html

    Maybe you should just sit in your car with a plastic bag over the tailpipe and the windows rolled up to see how that “harmless” CO2 treats you.

    The fact that you refer to climate change as global warming says enough about your knowledge of the facts. The way I see it, you don’t have to even believe in anthropogenic-assisted climate change to recognize the fact that pollution, is by definition, wasted product of one sort or another. I’m not on the anthropogenic climate change wagon yet, but that doesn’t mean I’m not concerned with the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere (a proven fact). Waste not want not. If we actually accounted for the externalities of coal, oil, and gas, environmentally, geopolitically, and otherwise, you would see that alternative energy would be a lot more cost effective. Unfortunately, policy has been paid for and crafted in many cases by major corporations to allow them to continue to escape accountability and to skirt the laws the protect human health.

    I’m not a tree hugger, and I don’t live in a fairy world (I realize the world economy is built on the back of fossil fuels), but to pretend that policy had no role in encouraging the evolution of fuel use in the past while pointing the finger at tree huggers and Obama as some root cause of this nations woes is fallacy. I don’t believe his policies are the best, but I also don’t believe he is getting much real assistance from the other side of the aisle either.

    “Instead of subsidizing specific forms of energy which has proven to be wrong headed since the failed Synthetic Fuels Corporation, the Administration and Congress would better serve our long term energy and environmental interests by encouraging research and technology development.” By encouraging research and technology development? That’s exactly what DOE does! with tax payer money. with industry cooperation. Successfully, in many cases.

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too, O’Keefe. Quit tossing out right wing talking points with a selected fact or two and try writing a real column… or getting a new job.

    “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere,diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies.”… Wow, that definition fits you perfectly. Leave the real thinking up to those of us who are capable, please.

    Point Proved…
    “The coal industry is fighting fierce rear-guard battles to prevent the move to gas. But a variety of federal antipollution rules taking effect in coming years will provide an additional reason to consider gas. Power companies in 15 states, including California, Florida, and Pennsylvania, have recently announced expanded use of natural gas, often at the expense of coal, according to America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a trade group.”

    Yeah, policy has nothing to do with current and past fuel switching…
    http://fuelfix.com/blog/2011/11/04/could-shale-gas-reserves-reignite-u-s-economy/

    http://johnhanger.blogspot.com/2011/11/oil-carbon-emissions-declining-14-in.html
    http://johnhanger.blogspot.com/2011/11/coal-carbon-emissions-declining-11-in.html

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