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––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.