Sunday, January 28, 2007

Thinking About Global Warming: Part I

Acting Locally to Affect the Environment… Locally

I am starting to think through some of the issues around global warming and carbon emissions, and one of the things that intrigues me is the amount of support received by initiatives to limit carbon emissions locally – in a state, or in a city for example. After all, we only have one world, and one atmosphere, and whether I am throwing carbon in it from an organic fruit farm in Napa Valley or a coal plant in Kazakhstan, it’s all ending up in the same place.

In the book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert describes the valiant efforts by the city and citizens of Burlington, Vermont to cut their carbon emissions. Then she goes on to say:
Most of the growth in energy usage in the next few decades is due to occur in places like China and India, where supplies of coal far exceed those of oil or natural gas… Over the next 15 years, the size of China's economy is expected to more than double. This projected growth, most of which will be fueled by coal, overwhelms not just all the conservation projects that are currently being undertaken in the United States, but also, any that could be reasonably imagined. ... If every single town and city in the United States were to match the efforts that Burlington has made, the aggregate savings would amount, very roughly to 1.3 billion tons of carbon over the next several decades. Meanwhile, the lifetime emissions just from the new coal plants China is expected to build would amount to some 25 billion tons of carbon. To put this somewhat differently, China's new plants would burn through all of Burlington's savings, past, present and future, in less than two and a half hours.
So much for the sacrifices endured by Burlingtonites to affect global warming.

But does it do any good to try to act locally to set stringent carbon emissions standards?

Of course. But in one way, given that we live in a world with quasi-free trade, one could even argue that enacting local carbon emissions caps could make us worse off. If the Burlingtons of the world restrict carbon emissions, large manufacturers have even less incentive to produce their goods there, and even more so to go to parts of the world that have cheap labor and cheap dirty(!) fuel! As we evolve into a service economy – which should be, by definition, less power intensive – we create the comforting illusion of reducing our own local emissions, while all we could be doing is just pushing manufacturing and power consumption to the parts of the world that have little or no emissions standards.. in effect causing more pollution for each dollar of manufacturing good produced.

To Be Continued…

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