Journal Article: Appetite for Destruction

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  1. admin Says:

    A blast from the Past: (Originally written in 2000, before China surpassed the US as the #1 energy consuming country on Earth.)
    Appetite for Destruction: Renewable energy sources can help America–and the rest of the world–reduce environmental impacts while improving quality of life.

    by Michael J. Mayhew
    The buildup of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, which has been increasing over the past 30 years, represents one of the more troubling human-caused impacts to the environment. The most worrisome effect of this buildup is climate change, marked by increasing global temperatures. Consider, for instance, that in the past decade, we registered the highest average global temperatures since reliable temperature recording.
    Based on existing evidence, we must assume that further increases in concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases will lead to further increases in global temperatures and cause destructive changes in weather patterns, trigger a rise in sea level, and damage ecosystems.
    The sources that contend that global warming is, in fact, occurring are varied, but many experts seem to have arrived at similar conclusions. In a recent report for the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, for instance, the authors maintain that
    technology has made it possible for human societies to produce $25 trillion of new goods and services annually. However, many advanced technologies utilize fossil fuels, which has led to the release of large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere. The scientific consensus is that these releases will cause the earth’s climate to change. (1)
    The most recent World Watch Institute report echoes that conclusion, pointing out that the Earth’s ice cover is melting at higher rates than at any time since record keeping began and that the 1990s was the warmest decade on record. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that a reduction of 60 to 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions is necessary to prevent this dangerous acceleration of global warming.
    Energy-hungry Nation
    The United States is the largest energy consumer on the planet and, according to federal reports, emits almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases. The Annual Energy Review 1997, a document produced by the U.S. Department of Energy, notes that, while overall energy use increased, renewable energy consumption actually declined by 3 percent between 1996 and 1997 and accounted for only 8 percent of total U.S. energy consumption. This trend is troubling. Indeed, a national policy that promotes technical innovation and a shift from heavy reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy is the key to moving the economy toward a healthier environment. Policies promoting an energy-efficiency revolution based on technologies that boost resource productivity are essential.
    In their 1991 book Healing the Planet, ecologists Paul and Anne Ehrlich point out that, in terms of energy consumption, an average American causes 140 times the impact on the environment of an average Bangladeshi. (2) When this per capita value was combined with the United States’ relatively large population, it resulted in an overall U.S. environmental impact–in terms of energy consumption–300 times that of Bangladesh. The authors conclude, therefore, that continuing population growth in rich nations poses the gravest threat to the world’s life-support systems. In addition, given the large populations of most developing countries, economic growth in these countries will lead to enormous future environmental impacts, if energy-use patterns don’t change. (3)
    In 1990, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide had risen about 25 percent higher than the historical average at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, so presently we are looking at carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that are more than 30 percent greater than levels prior to the Industrial Revolution.
    According to Robert Livernash and Eric Rodenburg of the World Resources Institute,
    Emissions from the United States and the rest of the industrialized world are responsible for the bulk of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today, but less-developed nations such as China and India, with rapidly expanding economies and populations, are expected to produce much of the growth in carbon dioxide emissions over the next several decades. The per capita emission of carbon dioxide in China was less than one-sixth that of the United States in 1992, but because its population is so large (more than 1 billion), China was the second largest source of carbon dioxide, just ahead of Russia. India (1992 population of nearly 900 million) ranked sixth in carbon dioxide emissions, after Russia, Japan, and Germany. (4)
    As the authors suggest, it is not only the number of people but also their lifestyles and social structures that determine the human relationship with the environment. Societies have always tolerated some level of environmental degradation if it increases human well-being. But have we exceeded that level? The answer is probably yes. Climate change affects agriculture, fisheries, forestry, water uses, and ocean levels and is particularly critical in hot and dry regions in the United States and around the world.
    When environmental degradation threatens food and fuel in developing countries, it is classified as environmental endangerment. Environmental endangerment poses risks in the near term–meaning the current and next generation–to the continuation of current human-use systems and human well-being. (5)
    A sizable percentage of the population in developing countries is undernourished. These people have inadequate access to food, in part at least because agricultural production depends on weather patterns. “Rainfall is distributed very unevenly over the Earth’s surface, and the problem is especially acute in arid regions of Africa, the Middle East and East Asia,” according to Umberto Columbo, former chairman of the Italian National Agency for Nuclear and Alternative Energy Sources. “The inhabitants of these poor countries have formed fragile environments based on a delicate balance of soil structure and fertility.” (6)
    Consumption Binge
    The United States is presently the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, in absolute volume and on a per capita basis. The immediate effects of climate change likely will produce only a marginal effect on the majority of Americans. The argument goes that the exponential population growth of developing countries will result in inevitable increases in greenhouse gases. This has allowed U.S. policymakers to avoid setting aggressive emissions-reduction mandates. By promoting environmentally friendly technological progress, however, we can achieve significant economic and environmental gains both domestically and globally. The key is doing more with less and fueling the global economy with renewable and low-impact energy resources.
    Unfortunately, the United States seems to have been on an energy-consumption binge in recent years. Petroleum consumption is up, largely because of a national trend toward single-occupant, large vehicles. Coal lobbyists from the Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, who seem intent on contributing to the problem, promote a national energy policy that “must take advantage of all domestic energy resources–including electricity from coal–if America is to meet the increased demands for energy and keep the prices low.” Following the U.S. lead, “China’s annual consumption of coal, which accounts for 76 percent of the country’s total energy resources for commercial use, is expected to triple by 2020, along with a rapid increase in the use of petroleum products.” (7) This business-as-usual mentality hasn’t worked in the past, and it won’t work now. We must shape a new energy paradigm if we hope to gain control of climate change.
    According to a joint U.S. Department of Energy and U. S. Environmental Protection Agency report printed in July 2000, the United States was the world’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels in 1998. That year, we consumed about 25 percent of the world total of fossil fuels and accounted for nearly 25 percent of the carbon dioxide produced. Vehicles alone are consuming over 50 percent of the nation’s petroleum.
    DOE estimates that about 40 percent of the nation’s anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in 1998–the latest year for which all data are available–was attributed to the combustion of fossil fuels for the generation of electricity. The 1999 projected emissions of carbon dioxide in the United States resulting from the generation of electric power was 2,245 million metric tons, an increase of 1.4 percent from the 2,215 million metric tons emitted in 1998. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired electric plants represent nearly 80 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions released in the production of electricity in the United States. In 1999, the share of electricity generated from coal was 51 percent. (8)
    The government report concludes:
    The options to limit the emission of [CO.sub.2] from electricity generation are to encourage reduction of the overall consumption of electricity through energy efficiency and conservation initiatives, to improve combustion efficiency at existing plants or install new units that employ more efficient technologies, and to replace fossil-fueled generation with nonfossil-fueled alternatives, such as nuclear, hydroelectric, and other renewable energy sources. (9)
    Carbon dioxide is produced in much greater volume than other gases and is therefore believed to be the most significant greenhouse gas. Other gases, like methane and chlorofluorocarbons, however, are much more harmful. We need national policies that regulate all electric power plant emissions. Such policies would motivate the industry to employ only the most-efficient technologies.
    Renewable Sources
    In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N. Environment Programme to assess the available scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information in the field of climate change. A recent IPCC report concludes:
    Our ability to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors…. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.” (10)
    This persuasive evidence has prompted the IPCC to target a reduction of 60 to 80 percent in greenhouse gas emissions as necessary to prevent a dangerous acceleration of global warming. (11)
    In December 1997, more than 160 nations met in Kyoto, Japan, to negotiate binding limitations on greenhouse gases for the developed nations, as a follow-up to the Framework Convention on Climate Change of 1992. The outcome of the meeting was the Kyoto Protocol, in which the developed nations agreed to limit their greenhouse gas emissions, relative to the levels emitted in 1990. The United States agreed to reduce emissions from 1990 levels by 7 percent during the period 2008 to 2012. (12) Earlier this year, however, President Bush unfortunately repudiated the Kyoto Protocol.
    One way that goal could have been achieved would have been for the United States to become more reliant on renewable energy sources. Conventional hydroelectric power, geothermal energy, biomass, solar energy, and wind energy make up the typical mix of sustainable energy products. Sustainable energy consumption produces significantly fewer carbon dioxide emissions than do fossil fuels. These energy sources do not significantly contribute to global climate change. Though biomass–plant materials and animal waste–contributes to greenhouse gases when burned, it is a sustainable source of energy. Indeed, the plants are energized by the sun and consume carbon dioxide as they grow.
    If the United States increased its share of sustainable energy in the national energy mix, while implementing advanced technologies to reduce overall energy consumption, the potential amount of associated environmental degradation could be greatly reduced. By increasing the demand for sustainable technologies, the incremental or marginal cost of the associated technology should drop in price and become more affordable in the global marketplace.
    At present, hydropower, representing 55 percent of the U.S. renewable energy market, and biomass, representing 38 percent, continue to dominate. Wind and solar energy together make a small–1.5 percent–but steady contribution to the U.S. renewable energy market.
    Profitable Solutions
    Globally, development of sustainable technologies has progressed in spite of limited encouragement and investment from U.S. firms. The Royal Dutch/Shell Group and British Petroleum are traditional energy companies that have started to prepare for the future by investing in the development of renewable resources. They believe their success as energy companies will depend on selling the sorts of fuels that society demands. The Royal Dutch/Shell Group has modeled a scenario that has natural gas and renewable resources meeting almost 50 percent of fuel requirements for power generation in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries by 2020. Shell International Renewables has invested $300 million in renewable resources. Shell has also invested in forestry (biomass), photovoltaic panels, and wind energy. British Petroleum is one of the world’s largest producers of solar photovoltaic panels and is actively marketing its product worldwide.
    Siemens Solar Industries is the market leader in solar technologies and has shipped over 150 million watts of solar panels. The company has captured 20 percent of the world solar market share. Its leaders believe solar power represents a promising market, and they project annual growth rates of 15 percent through 2010.
    Siemens and Shell, which have 10 years of experience working together on joint ventures in Asia, recently agreed to cooperate on solar energy technology. Their goals are to nudge the marketplace toward greater reliance on renewables by increasing energy efficiency and reducing technology costs while boosting profitability.
    Efficiency Revolution
    Despite the troubling trends in global climate change, there is hope. Organizations like the Rocky Mountain Institute–where Amory Lovins serves as research director–and the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany, believe that the answer lies in an efficiency revolution in energy production and resource use. These organizations and others like them believe the United States can achieve a 300- to 1,000-percent improvement in efficiency, if a strong strategic national energy policy were promoted and implemented. A 300-percent improvement would result in the production of four times as much wealth, or well-being, from one unit of energy. For example, we saw technical breakthroughs and market transformations last century with lighting systems. Flourescent fixtures replaced incandescent sources, utilizing only 20 percent of the energy that the Edison lamp needed, creating a 500-percent efficiency improvement. There is still a lot of room for efficiency improvement; flourescent lighting technology is still less than 30 percent efficient at converting and utilizing energy. To achieve these environmentally friendly goals, we must shape new policies and invest more heavily in research and development.
    The United Stares can reduce the energy intensity of the gross national product; we have done it before. Between 1973 and 1986, the United States cut the energy intensity of the economy by a fourth, its oil and gas intensity by a third, and OPEC’S market share by half. Oil imports fell from a 1977 consumption rate of 46 percent to 28 percent five years later. By 1985, Persian oil imports were only a 10th of their 1979 peak. By 1986, U.S. energy savings, chiefly in oil and gas, had become a national energy source two-fifths larger than the entire domestic oil industry. The quality of air and water in most U.S. cities is better now than it was 20 years ago because of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. And we can continue this trend toward improvement by closing the existing loopholes that address emissions from electricity generation.
    Energy companies like Seimans, Shell, and British Petroleum are attempting to develop renewable sources of energy to replace fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They are finding that doing so is good business. Wind energy is the fastest growing of all energy sources, presently growing at 25 percent a year. Shell is attempting to develop offshore wind farms. Two 2-megawatt offshore turbines, the largest in the world, began generating in Blyth, Northumberland, in the United Kingdom in December 2000.
    Shell believes that the cost of producing photovoltaic panels could drop 6 to 8 percent per year over the next 20 years. If this proves to be true, the cost of solar energy in 10 years could be a third of what it is today. According to Seimens, the 1998 worldwide production of solar photovoltaic cells and modules was about 120 megawatts, up from only 40 megawatts in 1990. Worldwide sales have been increasing at an average rate of about 15 percent a year during the last decade, even without a major demand from the United States. Siemens believes the market can realistically continue to grow at the 15-percent rate into the next decade. At that rate, the world production capacity would be 1,000 megawatts by 2010, and photovoltaics could be a $5-billion industry.
    On the domestic front, Allegheny Energy Solutions last year added Siemens’ solar energy kits to its portfolio of distributed generation options. These systems will be marketed nationally by Allegheny to industrial, commercial, and residential customers. Another traditional energy company, Chevron, has recently purchased Pacific Gas and Electric’s energy-services unit to deliver energy efficiency and custom cost-reducing energy solutions to commercial, institutional, and industrial customers.
    Although the Bush administration’s national energy policy has rejected the Kyoto Protocol, voluntary programs are nonetheless reducing domestic emissions of green-house gases in a number of sectors across the economy through a range of partnerships and outreach efforts. The Energy Star Program, for example, run by EPA in partnership with DOE, reduces energy consumption in homes and office buildings across the nation. The program has shown that, on average, buildings across the country can improve efficiency by 30 percent through a variety of improvements. In 1999, energy consumption was reduced by about 28 billion kilowatt-hours as a result of the program, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
    Through EPA’s Energy Star Buildings and Green Lights Partnership, more than 15 percent of the square footage in U.S. buildings has undergone efficiency upgrades resulting in electricity savings in excess of 2l billion kilowatt-hours and emissions reductions of more than 16 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.
    On a more local level, the University of Maine’s Industrial Assessment Center–one of 30 university centers across the country sponsored by DOE’S Office of Industrial Technology–has recommended energy efficiency steps that could save manufacturers in the state an average $297,000 per facility per year. The energy reduction and onsite generation recommendations, if implemented, could reduce the 25 companies’ energy operating costs by 31 percent. The total savings of $6 million per year in energy efficiency, productivity improvements, and waste reduction recommendations for these facilities, on average, had a 1.4-year payback period on the cost of implementation. This research was all done through a $155,000-per-year DOE grant that covered the operating expenses and involved engineering staff and students spending only a single day onsite investigating inefficiencies at the manufacturing facilities. With increased time, effort, and capital invested to improve manufacturing efficiency, it would be logical to an ticipate increased savings, efficiencies, and reduced environmental degradation.
    Shining Examples
    According to economist Rudolf Rechsteiner, countries with higher energy prices are economically better off than those with low energy prices. One of the more powerful instruments for correcting deviant, or low valued, energy pricing incentives is an ecological tax–or green taxation–reform like those that Scandinavian countries have implemented. Great Britain has also introduced a fuel tax “escalator,” adding 5-percent price increases every year. Economists Charles Ballard and Steven Medema believe that “the total possible gain from shifting to environmental charges could easily be $0.45 to $0.80 per dollar of tax shifted from ‘goods’ to ‘bads’–with no loss of revenues.” (13)
    Though China will focus on the development of electric power based on coal, it will also make efforts to develop oil, natural gas, nuclear energy, and other new and renewable energy sources in this century. China’s General Administration of Customs reports it is taking measures to promote energy conservation technologies to meet the nation’s tremendous demand for energy. Recognizing the progress that China has made in controlling its population growth, we can expect similar results from its national energy-efficiency initiative.
    In November 2000, the UN Conference on Climate Change met in the Hague to seek agreement on programs to cut emissions of greenhouse gases over the next 12 years as agreed to in Kyoto. At the conference, the U.S. representatives faced extreme scrutiny by representatives from the European Community, as well as from other less vocal members. French President Jacques Chirac began the conference’s second and final week by implying that the United States was trying to get out of its promised reductions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. He called on the United States to “cast aside its doubts and hesitations” and adopt measures to cur emissions. “It is in the Americans, in the first place, that we place our hopes of effectively limiting greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale,” he said. (14)
    Needless to say, with the proposed policies of the Bush administration, meeting the goals of the Kyoto Protocol is not on its agenda. There seems to be a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, though; the Democratic Committee’s pro-efficiency, pro-environment energy plan is gaining momentum, as the Bush plan has slowed to a stall. The public outrage over the prospect of drilling for oil off the Gulf Coast and in national treasures seems to have created an enviromental backlash that might end up as good public policy.
    Reversing Climate Change
    The United States is responsible for about a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet and should therefore step up to the plate and make its best effort to meet the emissions reductions it agreed to in the Kyoto Protocol. Meeting these emissions reductions is a key step toward controlling climate change, which affects agriculture, fisheries, forestry, and water supply. Because there is only one planet Earth, shared by both the wealthy and the poor populations, it is in the best interest of the United States to ensure that technology transfer and environmental education are proliferated to all nations. The best place to start is in our own backyard. The impacts of human activity on the environment often have long latency periods, and business as usual is leading us deeper into trouble.
    The solution to most of our national energy and environmental problems requires educating energy consumers to maximize efficiency and productivity–by minimizing energy intensity–while shifting to a greener energy mix. This will include promoting energy-efficient automobiles that produce fewer and cleaner emissions and consume less fuel. Better yet are advanced-technology electric vehicles powered by solar photovoltaic panels. Paraphrasing Amory Lovins, environmental problems due to energy use increase business costs and are unnecessary. Meeting and surpassing the Kyoto Protocol targets will save fuel costs and should make our industries more efficient and competitive in the global marketplace. The largest hurdle that the United States faces in creating an adequate societal response to global warming is perceiving that we contribute the largest share to the problem and that shaping and advancing the solution is just good business.
    Michael J. Mayhew is the president of Heliotropic Technologies, an energy consulting and energy product development and marketing company with headquarters in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.
    (1.) Jae Edmonds, Joseph M. Roop, and Michael J. Scott. Technology and the Economics of Climate Change Policy (Washington, DC: Battelle Press, 2000).
    (2.) Two hundred eighty gigajoules of energy used annually versus 2 gigajoules. Paul Ehrlich and Anne H. Ehrlich, Healing the Planet (New York, NY: Addison-Wesley, 1991).
    (3.) Ernst Ulrich von Weizacker, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, Factor Four Target for Sustainable Development (Snowmass, CO: Rocky Mountain Institute, 1995).
    (4.) Robert Livernash and Eric Rodenburg, “Population Change, Resources, and the Environment,” Population Bulletin 53(1) (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, March 1998).
    (5.) Roger Kasperson et al., “Critical Environmental Regions: Concepts, Distinctions, and Issues” in Regions at Risk: Comparisons of Threatened Environments, Jeanne X. Kasperson, Roger E. Kasperson, and B. L. Turner II, eds. (New York, NY; Tokyo, JPN; and Paris, FRA: United Nations University Press, 1995).
    (6.) Umberto Columbo, Population Problems, Summary Report of Study Week, 22nd conference of the Canadian Association for the Club of Rome (Ottowa, Onatario, CAN, 1996).
    (7.) Sources: State Bureau of Coal Industry, National Bureau of Statistics, China National Power Engineering Corporation, China National Coal Import and Export Corporation, and the General Administration of Customs.
    (8.) U.S. Department of Energy and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Generation of Electric Power in the United States (Washington, DC: DOE, July 2000) .
    (9.) Ibid.
    (10.) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 1995: The Science of Climate Change (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
    (11.) Ernst Ulrich von Weizacker, “Sustainable Technological Progress,” presentation to the Oslo Roundtable Conference on Sustainable Production and Consumption, February 6-10, 1994, in Oslo, Norway.
    (12.) Impacts of the Kyoto Protocol on U.S. Energy Markets and Economic Activity, SR/OIAF/98-03 (Washington, DC: DOE, 1998) .
    (13.) Charles L. Ballard and Steven G. Medema, The Marginal Efficiency Effects of Taxes and Subsidies in the Presence of Externalities: A Computational General Equilibrium Approach (East Lansing, MI: Dept. of Economics, Michigan State University, 1992).
    (14.) Jacques Chirac, speech at the 6th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Climate Change, November 20, 2000.

    Publication Information: Article Title: Appetite for Destruction: Renewable Energy Sources Can Help America-And the Rest of the World-Reduce Environmental Impacts While Improving Quality of Life. Contributors: Michael J. Mayhew – author. Journal Title: Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy. Volume: 16. Issue: 3. Publication Year: 2001. Page Number: 62+. COPYRIGHT 2001 University of Tennessee, EERC; COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

  2. Michael Says:

    I wrote that article 10 years ago, but it’s still the same, and I do believe that we’re on the verge of distruction, if we don’t take it seriously. This last decade was warmer than the decade before, which was the one that I was writing about then, which up to that point in time had been the warmest decade on record. We can change the world, so lets get going!