Saturday, December 17, 2016

Reducing Carbon Emissions

Reducing emissions is really the only way to keep from further destabilizing the climate in which human civilization developed.
Current estimates are that we need to reduce CO2 emissions by 3 percent per year, starting now, in order to even have a chance of mitigating our current trajectory towards rapid warming.
This is no small task, but consider that even though the U.S. is no longer the top emitter of greenhouse gases, we are still the biggest emitter per capita. We therefore have a lot of room for improvement. All it really takes is the personal and political will to do so. All it takes is leadership, which is sorely lacking.
I know that I have been able to reduce my carbon footprint substantially by being more conservative about my energy use and adopting alternative energy for my own home. I have been able to do this without major impacts to my lifestyle.
I was one of the first in Westborough to put solar panels on my roof back in 2008. My electric bills are down by 70 percent. My system is twice as expensive as one you can buy now and today, you can break even after 6 or 7 years. If you cannot afford it yourself, you can lease a system and get your electric rate fixed for 20 years for little upfront cost. Note that electricity rates have doubled since 2000.
I still drive a car, but because of mandated improvements in fuel efficiency, my 2014 compact SUV gets 20 percent better mileage than my 2007 compact SUV (same make and model). Same was true when I replaced my oil burner, refrigerator, and everything else that uses power.
The cost of alternative energy is now competitive with fossil fuels in many cases. Wind energy from large scale turbines costs as little as 2.5 cents per kilowatt-hour. Solar panels are 75 cents per watt versus over $4 per watt in 2008.
You hear that shifting to green energy will cost jobs, but there are now more people working in the U.S. solar industry than in the coal industry and the former number is increasing, even as green energy subsidies are disappearing.
Technologies are coming on line to efficiently and economically store energy for use when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. For example, next year, the Tesla Powerwall will be available for installation in any home, which will store excess power from rooftop solar panels.
The trends are there. The question is, will it happen soon enough? The jury is still out on that one and frankly, I am not optimistic, because of the lack of political will.
The price of oil, gas, and coal does not reflect their true costs to us and the planet caused by their pollution, health effects and, as we now know, their impact on climate. If they did, we would be shifting to "green" energy very quickly.
The only way really to force the issue would be to heavily tax fossil fuels, which, of course, is a non-starter in this country. In Europe, where fuels are heavily taxed, it's no surprise to find that they use a lot less of it per capita.
We would also have to make heavy investments in mass transit and other public infrastructure. The mass transit system in this region is woefully underfunded and out of date. It is no faster to take the T into Boston than it is to drive the Pike.
It shouldn't be that way, but there seems to be no stomach for investing in these systems today. I have even heard people say that mass transit is "socialism," as if sitting stalled in traffic for hours on end is a wonderful expression of freedom.
Imagine the cost to Massachusetts when (not if, but when) sea level rises enough to flood downtown Boston on a regular basis, let alone other coastal communities. The money is going to come out of your pocket and mine.
The costs to deal with sea level rise alone will be mind-boggling. Although Hurricane Katrina was not the result of climate change per se, the $100 plus billion cost to rebuild and protect New Orleans after its flooding are instructive. Over $70 billion of that came from the federal government.
At some point, even the federal government will no longer be able to afford to be the insurer of last resort in areas prone to flooding (which, ironically, will include Washington, D.C., large portions of which are within 10 feet of sea level). Actually, it can't afford it now, in my opinion.
I have talked mostly about sea level rise, but we are seeing economic impacts due to drought, floods, and other extreme weather events, which are increasing in frequency and magnitude.
These extreme events include winter storms, which have are following the same trends since the 1950s because warmer air holds more moisture, even in winter. Yes, I am saying that you can blame our last horrible winter on global warming, as counter-intuitive as that sounds.
The coming winter is currently forecast to be just as much fun.
It comes down to pay it now or pay it later. Actually, it's pay it now AND pay it later.

Originally published in the Westborough News 09/20/2015.

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