Warming: It’s All About Energy
By Michael T. Klare
17 February, 2007
Foreign Policy In
Finally, after years of effort
by dedicated scientists and activists like Al Gore, the issue of global
warming has begun to receive the international attention it desperately
needs. The publication on February 2 of the most recent report by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), providing the most
persuasive evidence to date of human responsibility for rising world
temperatures, generated banner headlines around the world. But while
there is a growing consensus on humanity’s responsibility for
global warming, policymakers have yet to come to terms with its principal
cause: our unrelenting consumption of fossil fuels.
When talk of global warming
is introduced into the public discourse, as in Gore’s “An
Inconvenient Truth,” it is generally characterized as an environmental
problem, akin to water pollution, air pollution, pesticide abuse, and
so on. This implies that it can be addressed – like those other
problems – through a concerted effort to “clean up”
our resource-utilization behavior, by substituting “green”
products for ordinary ones, by restricting the release of toxic substances,
and so on.
But global warming is not
an “environmental” problem in the same sense as these others
– it is an energy problem, first and foremost. Almost 90% of the
world’s energy is supplied through the combustion of fossil fuels,
and every time we burn these fuels to make energy we release carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere; carbon dioxide, in turn, is the principal
component of the “greenhouse gases” (GHGs) that are responsible
for warming the planet. Energy use and climate change are two sides
of the same coin.
Fossil Fuel Dependency
Consider the situation in
the United States. According to the Department of Energy (DoE), carbon
dioxide emissions constitute 84% of this nation’s greenhouse gas
emissions. Of all U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, most – 98% –
are emitted as a result of the combustion of fossil fuels, which currently
provide approximately 86% of America’s total energy supply. This
means that energy use and carbon dioxide emissions are highly correlated:
the more energy we consume, the more CO2 we release into the atmosphere,
and the more we contribute to the buildup of GHGs.
Because Americans show no
inclination to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels – but
rather are using more and more of them all the time – one can
foresee no future reduction in U.S. emissions of GHGs. According to
the DoE, the United States is projected to consume 35% more oil, coal,
and gas combined in 2030 than in 2004; not surprisingly, the nation’s
emissions of carbon dioxide are expected to rise by approximately the
same percentage over this period. If these projections prove accurate,
total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions in 2030 will reach a staggering
8.1 billion metric tons, of which 42% will be generated through the
consumption of oil (most of it in automobiles, vans, trucks, and buses),
40% by the burning of coal (principally to produce electricity), and
the remainder by the combustion of natural gas (mainly for home heating
and electricity generation). No other activity in the United States
will come even close in terms of generating GHG emissions.
What is true of the United
States is also true of other industrialized and industrializing nations,
including China and India. Although a few may rely on nuclear power
or energy renewables to a greater extent than the United States, all
continue to consume fossil fuels and to emit large quantities of carbon
dioxide, and so all are contributing to the acceleration of global climate
change. According to the DoE, global emissions of carbon dioxide are
projected to increase by a frightening 75% between 2003 and 2030, from
25.0 to 43.7 billion metric tons. People may talk about slowing the
rate of climate change, but if these figures prove accurate, the climate
will be much hotter in coming decades and this will produce the most
damaging effects predicted by the IPCC.
What this tells us is that
the global warming problem cannot be separated from the energy problem.
If the human community continues to consume more fossil fuels to generate
more energy, it inevitably will increase the emission of carbon dioxide
and so hasten the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus
causing irreversible climate change. Whatever we do on the margins to
ameliorate this process – such as planting trees to absorb some
of the carbon emissions or slowing the rate of deforestation –
will have only negligible effect so long as the central problem of fossil-fuel
consumption is left unchecked.
State of Denial
Many political and business
leaders wish to deny this fundamental reality. They may claim to accept
the conclusions of the IPCC report. They will admit that vigorous action
is needed to stem the buildup of greenhouse gases. But they will nevertheless
seek to shield energy policy from fundamental change.
Typical of this approach
is a talk given by Rex W. Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon Mobil, at a conference
organized by Cambridge Energy Research Associates on February 13. As
head of the world’s largest publicly traded energy firm, Tillerson
receives special attention when he talks. That his predecessor Lee Raymond
often disparaged the science of global warming lent his comments particular
significance. Yes, Tillerson admitted, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels
were increasing, and this contributed to the planet’s gradual
warming. But then, in language characteristic of the industry, he added,
“The scale advantages of oil and natural gas across a broad array
applications provide economic value unmatched by any alternative.”
It would therefore be a terrible mistake, he added, to rush into the
development of energy alternatives when the consequences of global warming
are still not fully understood.
The logic of this mode of
thinking is inescapable. The continued production of fossil fuels to
sustain our existing economic system is too important to allow the health
of the planet to stand in its way. Buy into this mode of thought, and
you can say goodbye to any hope of slowing – let alone reversing
– the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
What to Do
If, however, we seek to protect
the climate while there is still time to do so, we must embrace a fundamental
transformation in our energy behavior: nothing else will make a significant
difference. In practice, this devolves into two fundamental postulates.
We must substantially reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, and we
must find ways to capture and bury the carbon by-products of the fossil
fuels we do consume.
Various strategies have been
proposed to achieve these objectives. Those that offer significant promise
should be utilized to the maximum extent possible. This is not the place
to evaluate these strategies in detail, except to make a few broad comments.
First, as noted, since 42%
of American carbon dioxide emissions (the largest share) are produced
through the combustion of petroleum, anything that reduces oil consumption
– higher fuel-efficiency standards for motor vehicles, bigger
incentives for hybrids, greater use of ethanol, improved public transportation,
car-pooling, and so – should be made a major priority.
Second, because the combustion
of coal in electrical power plants is our next biggest source of CO2,
improving the efficiency of these plants and filtering out the harmful
emissions has to be another top priority.
Finally, we should accelerate
research into promising new techniques for the capture and “sequestration”
of carbon during the combustion of fossil fuels in electricity generation.
Some of these plans call for burying excess carbon in hollowed-out coalmines
and oil wells – a very practical use for these abandoned relics,
but only if it can be demonstrated that none of the carbon will leak
back into the atmosphere, adding to the buildup of GHGs.
Global warming is an energy
problem, and we cannot have both an increase in conventional fossil
fuel use and a habitable planet. It’s one or the other. We must
devise a future energy path that will meet our basic (not profligate)
energy needs and also rescue the climate while there’s still time.
The technology to do so is potentially available to us, but only if
we make the decision to develop it swiftly and on a very large scale.
Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world-security
studies at Hampshire College, a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist, and
the author of Blood and Oil: The Dangers and Consequences of America's
Growing Dependence on Imported Petroleum (Metropolitan Books, 2004).
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