SOMEWHERE OVER THE NORTHWEST – From 35,000 feet above Washington state – or, God forbid, the same altitude above the U.S. East Coast or Europe or India for that matter – it is obvious to the eye why it is so much easier to talk about doing something about climate change than actually doing something.
Looking down, there is no missing or denying the extent to which the internal combustion engine has shaped the world in which we live today.
Forget the carbon dioxide pouring from engines of the Delta Airlines jet on which I am flying. Airlines are at least a form of mass transit, one of the few to which Americans gravitate. And the real problem is not in the air, it is on the ground as it is most everywhere.
Forty years ago in Juneau, the late Bob DeArmond, Alaska’s state historian, observed that the “infernal engine,” as he called it, had changed everything in Alaska. Born in Sitka in 1911, DeArmond once traveled to Tacoma, Wash., by rowboat because that’s one of the ways people got around in those days.
DeArmond was born two years after Evinrude produced the first U.S. outboard. With only one and half horsepower, it was more novelty than useful machinery. It would take a while for the working outboard to be developed.
Commercial fishermen caught Bristol Bay salmon from sailboats until 1951. These days if you don’t have a 32-foot long gillnetter with a beam of 15-feet or so powered by a couple of 500 horsepower diesel engines, you’re really not competing.
This is the way of the Western world that most of the inhabitants of the developing world want to copy. And these comfortable, modern, Western lifestyles are directly tied to the consumption of huge volumes of energy to grow and ship our food, to heat our homes and power are cooking appliances, to quell our thirst for travel, and a whole lot more.
Better than us
To their credit, the Europeans have at least clung to their railroads. Railroads are among the most efficient means of transportation. The European Environmental Agency calculates they are more than three times more efficient than trucks in moving freight, more than three times more efficient than planes in moving passengers, and nearly twice as efficient as generally, small, fuel-efficient Euro cars in moving people.
Decades ago, America largely abandoned the railroads in favor of roads, and most of the country today – Alaska being an exception – is spiderwebbed with roads. They are the veins and arteries of American commerce, and if the government were to make a mess of how the economic blood of the nation flows through them, it could well kill the country.
Another Great Depression would certainly be good for battling climate change. When the Soviet Union collapsed, carbon dioxide emissions from the region now known as Russia fell by about 30 percent as heavy industry and agriculture faltered.
While depressions are probably good for the atmosphere in that they reduce human production of carbon dioxide, they are not good for people. As the Soviet Union was collapsing, life expectancy fell from a Soviet-era peak of 69.5 years in 1988 to a low of 64.5 years in 1994. The rate had not been that low in the country since the 1950s.
It’s nice for climate-change postergirl Greta Thunberg to believe her elders can and should do more to slow carbon dioxide emissions, but it’s not a simple thing to do without causing economic fallout. And as a resident of Scandinavia, she probably isn’t the one to be talking about how others should be doing better in reducing their environmental footprint.
A teenager from Cuba would be better. Cuba tops the “sustainable development index” that tracks how well countries do in living within the planetary means. “SDI measures the ecological efficiency of human development, recognizing that development must be achieved within planetary boundaries,” the authors of the index says.
Sweden scores great against its Scandinavian neighbors, but overall it is ranked 147 of 163 countries in terms of sustainability. Finland is 155; Norway is 157, Canada 158 and the U.S. 159. Sweden does score way lower than the U.S. on its per capita carbon emissions, but in terms of its “material footprint” per capita, it’s very close to the U.S., and its Scandanavian neighbors are worse than the U.S. in that category.
In other words, they are right up there among the cabal of rich nations sucking way more than their fair share of resources out of the planet. Anthropologist Jason Hickel at the University of London has calculated that “if everyone in the world consumed like Scandinavians, we would need nearly five Earths to sustain us.”
North Americans – in both their Canadian and U.S. forms – aren’t much better. Like much of the Western world, their economies are consumer-based. Their economies depend on selling people stuff and selling and selling.
If there is an Alaskan reading this who doesn’t own more fleece than she (or he) can wear, I’d be surprised. The only positive thing that can be said about our consumerism that we are getting better at recycling and reusing which does save energy.
If you go to the website of master marketer REI, and type “recycled” into the search bar, you will be lead to a couple hundred different products claimed to be wholly or partially made from recycled materials.
Environmentally minded REI is trying to have it both ways on the climate front. It wants you to keep on buying lots of stuff even if you don’t really need it, but it wants you to feel better about buying that stuff because it is made in a more environmentally friendly manner and because the company has stated its belief in doing something about climate change.
This isn’t, of course, nearly as environmentally friendly as your passing on a purchase because your old fleece is in perfectly good shape, or taking a needle-and-thread to fix the hole in the fleece that isn’t fine and wearing it for another year or five
The good news is that the most recent research shows that recycling plastic is far more energy-efficient than manufacturing new plastic, and that serves to reduce carbon emissions by millions of tons.
The bad news is that REI is a business built on selling ever more stuff. Thus while selling some products that help cut down on carbon emissions, it is selling evermore products that help drive up carbon emissions.
All of which sort of defines the problem.
Consider for a minute Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, a company built on speeding up an old and efficient system of home delivery to make it one of the more energy inefficient systems for delivering goods ever devised by man.
When the milkman delivered milk every morning, as when the postman delivers the mail, goods are consolidated and far less energy is used in moving them from point A to point B. But when the system shifts to you-call, we-deliver, energy efficiency plummets.
Researchers in New Jersey found Amazon-style home-delivery clogged up roads and increased greenhouse gas emissions even before the unintended consequences came into play.
“This shopping method seems to decrease shopping trips, yet more delivery trucks are required to be on the roads,” they wrote. “In addition, even more personal trips may occur because saving time on shopping might allow more time for alternate activities.”
For instance, a brick-and-mortar shopper might decide to go shopping and then out for dinner in much the same area thus using one driving trip for two activities, while the home shopper gets their merchandise delivered but still drives to an eating place thus resulting in two trips.
Under fire from environmental activists within his company, Bezos has made a bold pledge to fix this problem and make Amazon carbon neutral by 2040. Talk is easy, and there is little doubt Bezos could drive a reduction in Amazon-related emissions by increasing the number of in-town deliveries made using electric vehicles.
That doesn’t, however, cut down on the increasing use of problematic jet aircraft to get your stuff to you soonest, and then there’s the question of the source for the electric power.
Wind has issues. Hydro has bigger issues. Nuclear has nuclear issues.
What does that leave? Solar?
It has great potential. It is growing. The U.S. Department of Energy calculates seven states in the Southwest have the “technical potential and land area to site concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP) farms enough to supply more than four times the current U.S. annual electricity demand.”
The only issues are cost, distribution, power storage and, of course, the neighbors.
“Solar farms are touted by industry advocates as being good for a state’s economy because they provide a clean source of renewable energy that attracts business and provides employment opportunities in rural areas where the solar plants are typically located. This is a contention that should not be readily accepted,” claims the Essex County (Virginia) Conservation Alliance.
“Advocates who support a solar farm proposal typically argue that because solar energy draws its power from the sun, it is friendly to the environment. They usually contrast solar power farms with traditional power stations that burn fossil fuels, which pose greater harm to the environment by creating greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (CO2), and impact both air and water quality. The comparative harm to the environment caused by a solar power farm versus a carbon fueled power station is not the issue. The relevant environmental question that needs to be addressed when a solar farm is proposed concerns the impact on the local environment if land is converted from its existing farm or forestry use to a solar power generation station.
“The Ivanpah solar plant is one of three California CSP plants that were investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Office of Law Enforcement in 2013 for large numbers of bird deaths. Many of the birds had been fatally singed, while others died when they collided with the ground or structures at the sites. Investigators concluded that the lake effect of the reflective solar panels causes birds, bats and their insect prey to confuse the solar facility for a lake or pond. If they descend too fast, they crash and die. USFWS performed a mortality analysis covering the first two years of the Ivanpah plant’s operation. The number of birds killed in the solar station’s first full year of operation was 5128, and in the second year it was 5181. Of the birds whose deaths could be attributed to a definitive cause, 46 percent died of ‘singeing’ and 54 percent to ‘collisions.'”
The reality is that there is no environmentally perfect way to produce large amounts of electricity although nuclear fusion, the pollution-free cousin of nuclear fission, is showing more and more potential, and there is hope of a someday breakthrough.
But that’s the future. In the here and now what could Americans do?
Well, they could drive less. According to the Federal Highway Administration, we’re averaging 13,476 miles per year. Europeans drive about half as much, but then they have pretty efficient train systems.
U.S. driving mileage has gone pretty steadily up since the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, but it notes that “the long rise in the number of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has seen three periods of flattened growth or decline, triggered by the oil price spikes of 1974, 1979, and 2008. The VMT flattening that started in 2008 continued long after oil prices recovered, largely because of an economic recession.”
Federal requirements for ever more fuel-efficient cars have only helped increase the miles Americans drives. The flattened periods of growth and the declines showed that the one thing that does make people drive less is costly fuel. As fuel prices go up, as they have in Europe, U.S. drivers respond, but nobody seems to want to increase fuel prices.
When Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, proposed that idea in 2003, it ran into opposition from all over. Even the Sierra Club – which one would have thought might embrace the idea in order to increase fuel prices to decrease driving and push down carbon dioxide emissions – opposed the tax, arguing Young wanted to use the money for repairs to the national road system and for an oft-criticized bridge from Ketchikan across Tongass Narrows to the city’s airport on Gravina Island.
“The conservative Heritage Foundation objected to the diversion of funds from superhighways to social byways….The nature-loving Sierra Club protested that four out of five SAFETEA dollars would go to roads, many of them running right through nature.
“States with a lot of nature and hence a lot of driving took issue with SAFETEA’s distribution of federal-fuel-tax proceeds. Texas would get back less than it paid in taxes; Connecticut would get back more. The states have an idea: Give each state slightly more than the others.
“Congress is mad because SAFETEA is too small. Don Young originally wanted a $375 billion bill. And President Bush is mad because SAFETEA is too big. He says he’ll refuse to sign anything over $256 billion, which is still $32 billion more than the fuel tax is expected to provide to the supposedly self-financing Highway Trust Fund. (The President is suddenly worried about deficits.)”
Even harder today?
And all of this was before the country went wildly partisan. Now we’ve got Democrat Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders calling for a $16.3 trillion Green New Deal which is about as popular with Republicans as abortion.
Should Sanders win the election, his plan would be certain to stir more pitched political warfare in the nation’s capital which tends to lead toward gridlock not progress. The country is already deeply – some say dangerously – in debt, and Republicans have charged his Green New Deal would cost $93 trillion – more than five times what Sander’s claims.
But it isn’t all doom and gloom.U.S. greenhouse gas emission peaked mid-century, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are down 13 percent from 2005. That’s still 1.5 percent above 1990, but the graph of emissions over time is basically a flat line.
Meanwhile, rapidly improving wind turbine technology has made wind power an economically viable form of power generation in many parts of the country. It now produces almost as much electricity as hydro, and almost four times as much as solar.
Still, all renewables combined account for only about 20 percent of electricity; about the same as nuclear, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. And electric generation is just behind transportation in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
Together those two categories account for about 60 percent of emissions. As the transportation sector electrifies, it is unclear how much renewables can be counted on to keep up with the demand from the electric sector.
And just how much the transportation sector can electrify is yet to be seen. There are as yet no electric semi-trucks on the road although Tesla is promising “limited production” of such vehicles next year.
Development of electric farm machinery is further along, but as Future Farming reported in October, “electric motors are not new (on the farm), but they have yet to make inroads when it comes to heavy-duty farm work.”
Battery run times are a problem, but Fendt, a German company, claims its e100 Vario can run up to five hours on a charge, and with a supercharging option, “the battery can be recharged up to 80 percent in just 40 minutes.”
Technology, which allowed humans to pull crude oil from deep below the surface of the earth and make life better for a long time, might now be able to help wean humans from that same resource threatening future problems.
If, of course, the world is united in the desire to avoid those problems.
Elisabeth Braw, who directs the Modern Deterrence program at the Royal United Services Institute in London and is an adjunct fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, has suggested the Chinese and Russians might favor global chaos.
“China, Russia, and other hostile states can use climate change as a new tool in blended aggression (often called hybrid warfare) against the West,” she has written. “The Horn of Africa offers a taste of things to come. Chinese development projects there are already displacing rural populations, and displacement leads to food insecurity – which is, of course, worsened by climate change.
“How will the Western community respond to large new migration flows? The 2015 refugee crisis opened rifts within the European Union that have not gone away – on the contrary. The EU still hasn’t managed to establish a quota system for asylum seekers because some Central and Eastern European countries refuse to participate. The European Commission’s new Commissioner position with responsibility for “protecting our European way of life”, meanwhile, has been labeled xenophobic by some EU parliamentarians. Regardless of who is right or wrong in the debate, large migration flow will further deepen the discord.”
And if the Russians and Chinese can strengthen their economies on cheaper fossil fuels while the U.S. spends trillions of dollars battling climate change?
Maybe they’ve studied how the U.S. won the Cold War that shattered the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).