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September 08, 2007

The incremental scam

(Posted by John.)

Architecture 2030 has a new ad (PDF) out in the New Yorker (via Gristmill) that nicely illustrates how difficult it will be to halt carbon emissions with voluntary, incremental steps.  Some of the points:

  • "If every household in the US  changed a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent ...   The CO2 emissions from just two medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year  would negate this entire effort."
  • " Wal-Mart is investing a half billion dollars to reduce the energy consumption  and CO2 emissions of their existing buildings by 20% over the next seven years. If every Wal-Mart Supercenter  met this target ... The CO2 emissions from only one medium-sized  coal-fired power plant, in just one month of operation each year, would negate this entire effort."

So not only are individual efforts not going to be enough, but not even something as massive as Wal-Mart will be able to make subtantial progress if we don't make the obvious choice:  stop building coals plants, and start shutting down the ones we have.  In Canada, we've got a similar issue of it being politically impossible to consider shutting down the tar sands industry, even though tar sands oil emits way more CO2 than regular oil.

September 8, 2007 | Permalink


In the long run individual efforts might well be enough - and ultimately the only solution.

Isn't energy consumption on individual level connected to energy production on a collective level? Isn't production and consumption like communicating vessels?
Consuming less energy will eventually lead to the need to produce less energy - e.g. by coal-fired plants.

All the best,

Posted by: Jeroen | Sep 8, 2007 12:23:33 PM

> "If every household in the US changed a 60-watt
> incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent ...
> The CO2 emissions from just two medium-sized
> coal-fired power plants each year would negate this
> entire effort."

I guess I am missing something here: if every US household reduced its energy consumption [1] by a certain percent, fewer coal-fired power plants would be needed - not more.


[1] First, taking into account Mark Kleiman's observation that in heating climates one must take into account the loss of heat generation from incandescent bulbs during the winter. And second keeping in mind that as oil and gas go away our energy consumption will shift its form to electricity - but that electricity doesn't have to be coal generated.

Posted by: Cranky Observer | Sep 8, 2007 1:01:07 PM

What Cranky said - as usual.

Architecture 2030 has good information that they're couching in bad rhetoric. If there was technology to completely replace all coal-fired power plants and people were just stubbornly refusing to adopt it, then they'd have a good point.

Incrementalism while it's necessary, and transformation when it's possible. That's the strategy we need.

Posted by: Stephen | Sep 8, 2007 1:06:59 PM

We need a revolution. A full political social economic revolution, worldwide. Now.

What we got left of the Hansen decade? 6 years? And I think Hansen was too optimistic.

You are all really just playing lifeboat, condemning the poor and underdeveloped, to keep your comforts of peace and stability.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Sep 8, 2007 3:27:01 PM

Coal provides 50% of the power generation in the United States. It is also the single most polluting form of power generation still in use in the First World.

The only way to replace that much generational capacity is nuclear power. If you're not serious about nuclear power, you're not serious about curbing CO2 emissions. Other sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric can contribute (rooftop solar power in particular could be useful to reduce demand on the grid for air conditioning during hot days) but nuclear is the only thing that is scalable enough to make up that big of a gap in capacity.

Posted by: Josh G. | Sep 8, 2007 4:05:55 PM

Josh, your defacto statements lead me to wonder as to your credentials in this.

I am not quite agnostic on this. I think nuclear energy is something to consider, but if the industry is run in the same way it was before, with no transparency and accidents covered up, than that is not the road we should go down.

I think individual efficiencies will have a major impact -- I think Amory and Hunter Lovins and the RMI have shown that quite well.

I would like to think the way to go is a combination of clean, safe, centralized electrical production AND clean, safe, decentralized electrical production.

A quick botec I once did as /. shows that even at current efficiencies, and ignoring costs, solar cells laid out in the median and 100' buffer strips of our top five interstate highways (I-10, I-5, I-40, ...) in the west supplies enough energy to replace a significant amount of power production. (That was just a calculation of surface area and solar cell wattages per square inch.)

I encourage research not just in safer nuclear technologies, but in how to make the industry as a whole safer and much less incentivised to take short-cuts and hide accidents and safety problems.

In the meantime, I think solar, wind, and micro-production is the way to go.

My credentials? None. Basically just a layman.

Posted by: jerry | Sep 8, 2007 4:21:55 PM

Josh G: I suspect people who say things like "if you're not serious about nuclear power," etc., are really just trying to tweak environmentalists, but given that I believe in some modest expansion in nuclear power I can give you that. Two links you might want to look at, though.

First, this one, which John linked to almost a year ago, offers a greatly-reduced carbon-emissions future based on charcoal energy generation.

Second, an explanation of nuclear's practical limitations. Basically, it takes so much energy to mine uranium, build the reactor, and look after the waste that there is a limited amount of ore in the world rich enough for the cycle to offer a net positive.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Sep 8, 2007 7:04:55 PM

Certainly, any option that shows promise of reducing emissions should be looked into.

I just don't see how we are going to replace anything close to 50 percent of U.S. generating capacity without a serious committment to nuclear power. And I find the 1970s Caldicott/Nader/Fonda case against nuclear to be wholle unconvincing. It was scientifically illiterate to begin with, and the fact is that France, Canada, and Japan have all run extensive nuclear power programs without serious incident.

As to the uranium ore limitations alluded to by Antid Oto, this is really an argument in favor of breeder reactors. Reprocessing also means that there is less nuclear waste to place into long-term storage. (Most of the "waste" that is planned to be shipped to Yucca Mountain actually consists primarily of fissionable materials that can be reprocessed and reused.)

No, I do not have any scientific credentials in this field. But I have noticed that a substantial portion of the people writing in favor of nuclear power tend to be scientists and engineers, while the majority of those writing against it tend to be political activists, many of whom have fundamental misconceptions about how nuclear power works and what potential dangers do and do not exist.

Certainly, solar power and other alternative energy sources should be used whenever possible. I'd like to see government subsidies for rooftop-mounted solar panels, especially in the Sunbelt. This could take a massive load off of the electrical grid in the summertime. But, given the extent to which we currently depend on coal-fired plants, nuclear power is the only thing that is going to take up most of this slack in the foreseeable future.

The fact is that Americans are not willing to give up a First World lifestyle in order to stop global warming. (If you doubt this, try proposing a $1/gallon tax on gasoline, and see how far you get.) You have to be politically realistic here, unless you just want the satisfaction of saying "I told you so" when Bangladesh drowns.

Posted by: Josh G. | Sep 8, 2007 7:42:39 PM

Josh G: The second article I linked to goes into the practical limitations of breeder reactors at some length as well.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Sep 9, 2007 12:55:37 AM

Are any of you guys currently utilizing all solar and wind, or working toward running your homes that way? It's expensive to do, right now, given that the technology is there but still relatively new. Still, that's what we're doing with the house we're building: making it as strong and energy-efficient as possible, with the infrastructure to run it off-grid, using solar and wind energy for power, and cachement (sp?) systems for water (these will, we believe, permit us to live for two weeks without county water, should that ever be necessary). If everyone were to look in front of him and make whatever changes he possibly could instead of just talking about it, I believe the cost of going green would drop, and the availability of the technology would improve (hooray for those market forces, maybe?) What's more, there would be a significant shift toward energy independence, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, and a change--for the better--of America's global image; we'd be associated with positive, environmentally concerned leadership (as opposed to being thought of as a bloated, wastrel nation of consumption-mad hypocrites).

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 9, 2007 12:20:38 PM

I'm using 100% wind energy for all my electricity. It's only modestly more expensive.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Sep 9, 2007 2:39:14 PM

The new turbines are really beautiful, too, like metal sculpture. I'll try to find the link to a pic of the ones at a new BMW headquarters.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 9, 2007 3:15:12 PM

I use 100% nuclear for all of my electricity! It's only a lot more expensive when lifetime costs and risks are factored in.

I am "lucky" in that one way that my costs are more expensive, it that I use the country's largest nuclear power plant and one of it's more unsafe.

What's the "coolest" is that this is in a region that could probably rely on solar and thermal and RMI energy efficiency technologies like 380 days a year.

(Don't ask me why I live where I do, it wasn't my idea.)

Posted by: jerry | Sep 9, 2007 3:18:30 PM

Surely Americans can get down to Japanese or European levels of emissions per head. That will make a noticeable dent in the worldwide emissions.

Posted by: bob h | Sep 9, 2007 6:45:25 PM

"If every household in the US changed a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to a compact fluorescent ... The CO2 emissions from just two medium-sized coal-fired power plants each year would negate this entire effort."

See, I read this a little differently. To me, it says "For every lightbulb that American households replace en masse, we can get rid of two coal-fired power stations." Given the number of lightbulbs in the average home, that sounds pretty good to me. It's not going to save the world, but it's a good start.

Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Sep 10, 2007 5:11:04 AM

One sure way to tell that strident nonsense is to follow: The phrase, "In Canada, we ... "

Posted by: Guh? | Sep 10, 2007 10:02:20 AM

One sure way to tell that environmentalist-bashing, liberal-bashing, or feminist-bashing is to follow: Invocation of the adjective strident.

Posted by: litbrit | Sep 10, 2007 10:42:57 AM

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