(37) Climate Science

Energy efficiency -- The World in 2030


Mitigation and Adaptation

Climatologists and other scientist’s warmth at significant reductions in green house gas emissions must begin now if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.

The Union of Concerned Scientists Website states, “With aggressive emission reductions as well as flexibility in adapting to those changes we cannot avoid, we have a small window in which to avoid truly dangerous warming and provide future generations with a sustainable world. This will require immediate and sustained action to reduce our heat-­trapping emissions through increased energy efficiency, expanding our use of renewable energy, and slowing deforestation (among other solutions).”

These papers looks at improving energy efficiency, researching and developing different energy technologies, and advancing some technologically unconventional ideas to change the warming trajectory the Earth is now on.

Step One: Improve Energy Efficiency

The easiest and quickest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to radically improve energy efficiency. Encouraging conservation, supporting the use of more energy-efficient technologies, and developing better technologies are some of the ways to reduce emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

Encouraging Energy Efficiency

Money is often an effective motivator, and economists agree that a good way to encourage energy conservation is with taxes. A carbon tax is a surcharge that is placed on the use of energy sources that release CO2 into the atmosphere. This tax can, for example, be added to the pump price of gasoline or onto the electrical bill for households and businesses that rely on coal-fired power plants. The more energy consumers use, the more tax they pay. The less energy they use, the less their tax bill. The tax gives people an economic incentive to be more energy efficient by driving less, purchasing fuel-efficient vehicles, buying energy-efficient appliances, and keeping the heat turned down.

The money collected can be used for research on alternative fuels and to develop mass transit systems, among other things. Because a carbon tax gives people and companies a financial incentive to conserve energy, industry has an incentive to produce more energy-­efficient vehicles and appliances.

Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands all collect carbon taxes. Sweden, for example, requires a user-paid surcharge of $150 per ton of carbon released. Some climate scientists are calling for the establishment of a carbon tax in the United States, and the discussion of a carbon tax has begun in political circles. Opponents say that energy taxes are regressive because they force poor people to pay a larger percentage of their income in tax. But the tax could be made revenue-neutral, meaning that it could be used to offset other taxes paid by the public. For example, a fuel tax that replaced some percentage of income taxes would put a surcharge on people’s behavior instead of on their hard work. People might be given credits if they live far from where they work. The tax could be increased slowly over time, rewarding those consumers who make lasting changes in their lifestyle by, for example, purchasing energy-efficient vehicles and appliances.

Reducing fossil fuel use has the added benefit of reducing the pollution and the environmental degradation that comes from mining coal and pumping and transporting oil. A reduction in oil consumption would also have important economic and political implications, leading to the reduction of both the trade deficit and the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

In June 2007, the United States Senate approved legislation that requires a 10 mpg (4.25 km/l) increase in the average fuel economy of all vehicles produced over the next ten years. The United States government could go a step further by more rapidly increasing fuel economy standards for its enormous vehicle fleet and requiring increased energy efficiency in government buildings. Requiring better fuel efficiency in such a large market would provide enormous incentive for vehicle manufacturers and many other industries to develop more energy-efficient products. The mass production of more fuel-­efficient products would result in improvements in technology and would make the products available at competitive prices for individual consumers.

Developing Strategies and Technologies That Are Here or Within Reach

Energy cannot be created: It merely changes form. Gasoline, for example, is ancient solar energy that was stored in plants. Transforming energy from one form to another is extremely inefficient. A car burning gasoline, for example, gets only about 20% of the energy contained in the gas the rest is lost as waste heat. Air conditioning systems running on electricity are no better. With this much inefficiency, one fairly easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is to improve technologies to increase energy efficiency.

Transportation is the largest user of energy in the United States. Fuel efficiency is related largely to a vehicle’s weight: The heavier the vehicle, the more energy is needed to propel it, and the more energy gets wasted. Encouraging people to drive smaller, lighter cars can help. Research is going into constructing vehicles of the light weight carbon composite used in race cars that could operate with a smaller, lighter engine and a lighter drive train and assembly. Estimates are that a car built of these materials could weigh 65% less than a modern passenger car, which would greatly improve fuel efficiency.

Hybrid vehicles are already available and are increasing in popularity. Hybrids run the energy lost during braking through an electric motor and into a rechargeable battery. Energy from the battery then boosts the car during acceleration and uphill travel. Because of the additional energy source, hybrids have smaller engines and so are lighter than conventional cars. Some hybrid cars get nearly 50 mpg (21 km per liter). In the near future, hybrid cars will have large batteries that can be plugged into an electrical outlet overnight to increase the charge available for the next day’s driving.

Reducing energy consumption also reduces emissions of some non-CO2 greenhouse gases, and most can be reduced in other ways as well. Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have already been phased out in developed nations and are being phased out in developing countries because of the damage they do to the stratospheric ozone layer: Their contribution to global warming will be negligible by about 2050.

Some known agricultural practices can reduce methane (CH4) emissions. Rice farmers can use certain plant strains, fertilizers, and only intermittent irrigation. Better feed can reduce CH4 emissions from cows, goats, and sheep. Techniques to keep methane from escaping landfills, coal and oil mines, and waste management lagoons are being developed. Because methane is an energy source, CH4 can be captured from landfills or animal wastes and converted to electricity.

This technology was pioneered in the United States more than 20 years ago and is now widely used in Europe and elsewhere. Improving energy efficiency is an important part of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. During the energy crises of the 1970s, when fuel from the Middle East was restricted for political reasons, automakers nearly doubled the average efficiency of automobiles, and global growth of CO2 fell from 4% per year to between 1% and 2%. Because Europe emits half as much CO2 per unit of GNP as the United States, a large improvement in energy efficiency should be easily attainable. Developing countries such as China and India produce much more CO2 per unit of GNP than the developed countries; but with technological assistance, they could easily lower their CO2 emissions per unit of GNP.

Still, according to the report Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, improvements in energy efficiency cannot make up for increases in energy use in the developing nations due to their burgeoning populations and economic growth. In the long run, even greater reductions in emissions will be needed to control greenhouse warming. The next step, then, must be a shift from away from a carbon-based economy.


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