Two Solutions That Cut Down on Fossil Fuels

The headline in the New York Times reads "Lebanon's Garbage Crisis Underscores Government's Disarray." It seems that the Lebanese government is unable to collect and dispose of the garbage in Beirut and the waste is piling up across the city.

Garbage smells bad, and in the heat of summer, with wafts of rotting meat and vegetables blowing across the city, it is hardly surprising that the citizens of Beirut are getting very frustrated at the lack of leadership.

The government of Lebanon is dysfunctional but the resulting and increasingly strident "You Stink" protests have, thus far, had little effect. Obviously this can't continue for much longer before a serious health problem emerges and compounds the pain.

To me, the situation in Lebanon is analogous to the global political dysfunction that prevents serious solutions to climate change. Some time in the not too distant future, the NYT will plausibly carry a headline to the effect, "Global Greenhouse Gas Crisis Underscores Governments' Disarray" (only, I hope it will be pithier).

In preparing a short "TED talk" type lecture for the upcoming Positive Economy conference in France, I gathered some slides from the recent National Academy of Science report on geoengineering climate. I sat on the panel that issued the two reports. There were two because there are two "solutions" for continued, unabated burning of fossil fuels. And if you really need to know -- we aren't running out of fossil fuels anytime soon -- at least not for a century.

The first solution is to take the carbon dioxide out of the stack gases of (mostly) coal-fired power plants, or if not there, then directly from the air. Both solutions are expensive and would add a cost to the price of electricity -- but both are, from a technological perspective, doable.

But wait, if you don't like that we can make the sky reflect more sunshine back to space. This solution, sometimes called euphemistically "solar radiation management," is like putting perfume on a garbage pile. It doesn't reduce carbon dioxide, it just will cool the planet while we continue to burn fossil fuels. The problem with changing the reflection of the sky is that once we start, we can't stop. Imagine we go on burning fossil fuels and mask the effect by adding aerosols to the sky and then stop adding the aerosols. The resulting change in climate would be immediate, dramatic and almost certainly catastrophic.

There is a third solution which is rapidly, dramatically and deliberately reducing carbon emissions by altering how we, globally, generate energy for developed, developing and emerging countries. Since 2010 more than 1600 coal-fired power plants have come on line and more than 1900 are in the queue for construction -- 48 percent of these will be in China.

It turns out that when it comes to energy, humans are huge waste generators without a competing recycling process. We don't take out our garbage, we simply dump it in the atmosphere -- for free.

I have been watching the discussion on climate change for four decades. The U.S. Department of Energy began studying the effects of increased carbon dioxide emissions in the early 1980's. In 1988, the United Nations established an international program to assess whether human emissions of carbon dioxide influence climate and how the influence will impact global society and Earth's ecosystems. Last year we received the fifth, consensus report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with a dry, but data rich "summary for policy makers."

How many candidates for President have spent a minute reading the report? ut, I digress.

So the upshot: Five reports issued by the UN, billions of dollars spent by the U.S. and other nations to study climate and we still can't manage to change our energy system or take out the garbage. In fact, since 1988, carbon dioxide emissions have increased -- because of the increased burning of fossil fuels -- which have actually become cheaper because of increased investment by industry to develop technology to extract fossil fuels more efficiently.

That is perverse.

Carbon dioxide is an invisible odorless gas. In the United States, every man, woman and child emits on average 110 pounds of this gas per day! That's a whole lot of waste. To take it out of the atmosphere we would need to process 50,000 cubic meters of air per day for every single person -- that is a huge challenge. And then there is the problem of where to dispose the waste.

Clearly this can't go on.

But changing energy systems need intervention and governments seem to be unable to come together to solve the problem.

My talk at the Positive Economy conference will end with a "modest proposal." While Jonathan Swift was writing a serious satire about selling Irish babies from poor families for food to the wealthy to reduce starvation and stimulate the economy, my proposal is a bit less imaginative but more pragmatic. I will end the discussion by proposing an International Panel of Energy Solutions.

We should "eat" the conventional coal-fired power plants and replace them with plants that do not emit carbon dioxide. If coal is still going to be used, the carbon dioxide should be captured in the stack gases and stored safely where it can't get into the atmosphere for centuries.

My proposal should stimulate a global discussion of how to implement the most carbon-free technologies presently available for electricity and transportation and to work collectively to develop more efficient technologies in the future.

Most probably, my will fall on sympathetic but ineffectual ears. Regardless, I will put it out there.

We simply cannot allow the world to continue to operate like a global version of Lebanon's dysfunctional government.

Obviously we can't continue to do nothing or a global "health" problem, the dimensions of which we can hardly conceive, will almost surely ensue.

Or can we?