Some Math Is Required

Commenting on the EPA’s plan to curtail the use of coal for power generation, Robert Samuelson immediately goes to the numbers:

Let’s do the math. In 2005, power plants produced 2,402 million metric tons of CO2. A 30 percent reduction is 721 million metric tons. This is the target. But by 2012, CO2 emissions had already dropped to 2,023 million metric tons, a decline of 379 million metric tons. That’s 53 percent of the 2030 target. All of this has occurred without federal regulation of greenhouse gases.

The average coal-fired plant is 43 years old, says the Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for utilities. Many older plants have been retired, it says, for reasons “including plant age, fuel prices (i.e., low natural gas prices), decreased demand, and the projected cost of complying with pending EPA [non-greenhouse gas] regulations.” By the institute’s count, utilities have announced the closure of coal units equal to 20 percent of the coal total. Some have already shut; others will shut between now and 2022.

Obama would continue these trends. Coal’s share of electricity generated (including from nuclear and hydro power and renewables) has dropped from 50 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2013; in the same period, natural gas’s share rose from 19 percent to 27 percent. By 2030, the Environmental Protection Agency projects coal will fall to 31 percent and natural gas will increase to 32 percent. Renewables’ share, led by wind and solar, goes from 5 percent to 9 percent.

That’s something but the reality is that it’s not much. It’s not enough to have much environmental impact, to have a disastrous effect on the economy, or to impel China, for example, to follow suit.

The reality which I think those concerned about climate change should accept is that nothing effective will be politically acceptable. We should devote more energies to amelioration rather than avoidance.

7 comments… add one

  • Jimbino

    In the future, we can easily cut down the use of energy, of water and the production of greenhouse gases per capita by reducing the capita. That would also lower our property taxes and reduce the use of our grocery-store aisles as playgrounds.

    The Pope wouldn’t like it, which is another argument in its favor.

  • Zachriel

    Dave Schuler: We should devote more energies to amelioration rather than avoidance.

    People need to do both. Some global warming is inevitable, so efforts at amelioration are essential. But it makes no sense to allow the problem to be worse than it needs to be. Other countries will eventually follow suit as the problem becomes more and more unavoidable. As you point out, some solutions are actually quite easy.

  • michael reynolds

    What Zach said. It doesn’t have to be either/or. There’ll be a long, long period of development and testing before anyone even thinks about hoisting climate-altering satellites into orbit or building massive mirror arrays. In the meantime: when in hole, stop digging.

  • Guarneri

    Please look at global emissions graph in the first link, and the pie charts, and then convince yourself that anything we do within the realm of possibility will put the genie back in the bottle. Recall that the emission levels decades ago – the, ahem, “scientists” – tell us started the temperature problem ball rolling. Look at them now and tell me how you are going to get there.

    http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/global.html

    Now look at this one. Look at the inflection point in emissions and economic activity in the US and then tell me how we are going to do this without absolutely destroying our economy?

    http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/co2.html

    I know we have some here who are “bad at math.” That’s fine. But anyone with an IQ north of a monkey can see visually the enormity of the problem. You can forget about it. Its called a “route,” although China would love to see us try economic suicide.

    Anyone who buys the notion that the momentum of this ginormous freighter is being turned around in the next 100 years, especially unilaterally, is a candidate for the Susan Rice / Baghdad Bob school of public relations. Start collecting those old mirrors and super glue to construct your shield if you like, but not for 100 years. A cure for baldness will come first.

  • michael reynolds

    Guarneri:

    You aren’t actually saying that graph number two shows cause and effect in the sense of lowering emissions causing lower economic activity, are you? You do know it’s the other way around, right?

  • steve

    “I know we have some here who are “bad at math.” That’s fine. But anyone with an IQ north of a monkey can see visually the enormity of the problem. You can forget about it. ”

    It’s a problem. I can’t figure out what to do about it. We should all give up. Yup, that about sums up the American Way, or at least what we can expect from “business” types.

    Steve

  • Zachriel

    Guarneri: Anyone who buys the notion that the momentum of this ginormous freighter is being turned around in the next 100 years

    The current infrastructure was built in less than a century, and most of it gets replaced every few decades. In addition, there’s a big different between 3°C warming and 5°C warming. Any mitigation of the warming trend would make adaptation much easier. And the economic and environmental costs are less the sooner action is taken.

    The U.S. cannot do it alone, but it can lead.

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