Sunday, April 06, 2008

Carbon cap vs. new technology

Finally, somebody is starting to say something semi-sensible on the whole Global Warming and Climate Change front, namely that simply putting a carbon cap and emissions trading market in place is not sufficient to do the trick, but what is really needed is a "major overhaul of energy technology." An article in the New York Times by Andrew Revkin entitled "A Shift in the Debate Over Global Warming" tells us:

... with recent data showing an unexpected rise in global emissions and a decline in energy efficiency, a growing chorus of economists, scientists and students of energy policy are saying that whatever benefits the cap approach yields, it will be too little and come too late.

The economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, stated the case bluntly in a recent article in Scientific American: "Even with a cutback in wasteful energy spending, our current technologies cannot support both a decline in carbon dioxide emissions and an expanding global economy. If we try to restrain emissions without a fundamentally new set of technologies, we will end up stifling economic growth, including the development prospects for billions of people."

What is needed, Mr. Sachs and others say, is the development of radically advanced low-carbon technologies, which they say will only come about with greatly increased spending by determined governments on what has so far been an anemic commitment to research and development. A Manhattan-like Project, so to speak.

The article goes on to tell us:

But Professor Pielke and his co-authors say that a recent rise in emissions -- particularly in fast-growing emerging powers -- points to the need for government to push aggressively for technological advances instead of waiting for the market to force reductions in emissions.

Mr. Sachs pointed to several promising technologies -- capturing and burying carbon dioxide, plug-in hybrid cars and solar-thermal electric plants. "Each will require a combination of factors to succeed: more applied scientific research, important regulatory changes, appropriate infrastructure, public acceptance and early high-cost investments," he said. "A failure on one or more of these points could kill the technologies."

In short, what is needed, he said, is a "major overhaul of energy technology" financed by "large-scale public funding of research, development and demonstration projects."

Although I think there is significant merit to this alternative approach, I do not necessarily agree with it in all aspects. I believe that we should put investment incentives in place, but otherwise governments should sit back and let the private sector do the innovation. Governments can fund academic research efforts and demonstration projects and its own use of energy technologies, but the full-scale implementation should be left to the private sector.

I am also opposed to technical "fixes" such as extracting carbon dioxide from the air and burying it, dumping iron in the ocean to grow algae to remove carbon dioxide, and creating large aerosol clouds in the atmosphere to deter warming. It is much better to "fix" our technology problems than to monkey around with complex atmospheric processes that we still do not completely understand.

-- Jack Krupansky


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