The Weekly Carboholic

Posted on March 12, 2008

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The March 10 issue of BusinessWeek has a set of charts that discuss a McKinsey & Company report that discusses how best to approach reducing carbon emissions. Essentially, the approach is to start with the actions that save more money than they cost and provide the most carbon reductions for the money – things like improving the efficiency of commercial and residential electronics, changing over all lighting to high-efficiency bulbs, and improving vehicle fuel economy. Then we go and start building more nuclear plants, engaging in reforestation projects, and other high cost/negative economic return activities. The image below is one of the charts from that issue – click on it for a larger, more readable version.

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Source: BusinessWeek.com, 3-10-2008 magazine issue

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China has received a great deal of criticism for its “one child” policy, and much of that criticism has been well earned. The policy has led to an overabundance of male children (which are generally valued higher in Chinese culture than female children), female infanticide and gender-based abortions in contravention of Chinese law, and forced sterilization. However, an article from Terra Daily reports that the one-child policy also has effectively kept China from emitting 1.3 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year. The reason is that the 300 million Chinese who haven’t been born under the one-child policy would have otherwise emitted a LOT of CO2.

One of the inconvenient facts about carbon emissions, and a great many environmental problems in general, is that human population growth will need to be slowed and stabilized in order to guarantee that carbon emissions will also stabilize. According to the U.N., human population is expected to roughly stabilize at about 8-10 billion people (depending on exactly how far out into the future you look), with most of the growth coming before 2050. The population of the Earth is already high enough that some scientists have concerns about the Earth’s “carrying capacity” with regard to both humans and higher predators (of which humanity is the highest). The U.N. also expects the greatest population increases in developing nations, most of which are in regions of the world that are rich in natural resources, conflict-prone, subject to authoritarian government, and also most likely to face dramatic problems as a result of global heating.

It’s yet to be seen if we humans have, in fact, exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth, and if we have, whether we’ll be able to increase the planet’s carrying capacity with technology as has happened in the past. It may ultimately turn out that we need to all get over our phobias of genetically-modified organisms, nanotechnology, breeder reactors, etc. because without every trick we know – and a lot we haven’t discovered yet – we’re already doomed to a Malthusian nightmare. And that’s without taking into account keeping the rest of the biosphere populated with lions, tigers, and bears, and their requisite prey. We could already be heading for a future like that envisioned in works of fiction like Silent Running, Soylent Green, or Ender’s Game (minus the formics/buggers, anyway).

Ultimately, though, the larger the Earth’s population, the more people who will need energy for their economic growth and an improved standard of living. Thankfully, though, higher standards of living correspond directly to lower fertility rates, and ultimately lower peak populations. The trick is figuring out how to raise the economic well-being of the rest of developing nations without bankrupting developed nations and without throwing the Earth’s climate totally out of whack. Some population controls would be a great start. Anyone available to convince the Pope that it’s a good idea?

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A new study reported in the Washington Post says that humanity will need to cut its carbon emissions to 0 tons by 2050 in order to avoid increasing the Earth’s average temperature by 4 degrees Celsius. This is double the IPCC estimate, and it’s based on new computer models that include the effects of deep-sea warming, something that was not included in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.

The most interesting aspect of the study by Carnegie Institution senior scientist Ken Caldeira and Concordia University professor H. Damon Matthews is what the new models show – because of deep-ocean heating, our dumping CO2 into the air today will continue to affect the Earth’s climate for literally thousands of years. Which means we’ll have to stop using fossil fuels entirely by 2050 or risk an increase in global temperature that will pretty much make the world unrecognizable by 2100.

However, as the Washington Post article points out, there are a lot of unknowns about the sensitivities of the climate, and especially the deep ocean, to carbon dioxide concentrations and atmospheric temperature. As such, the models will need to be vetted as other scientists are certain to do, errors removed, assumptions examined, and everything else that the scientific method exists to check. This single study, alarming as it is, is not the final word. However, it must serve as yet another cautionary note on the likely seriousness of global heating.

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One of the problems with global heating, population growth, and occasionally misguided development attempts is desertification, or the gradual expansion of the world’s deserts. In the process, once-fertile crop and range land is converted over to desert, making it all but unusable. This has happened in Inner Mongolia, and as a result, the Chinese government has forcibly relocated Mongolian nomads into villages. In the process, the mongols are being forced to entirely change their lifestyle, with only limited success. Unfortunately, as global heating continues to modify the global climate, forcible relocations like this will become both more common and global in scope.

Here in the U.S., there are a number of states susceptible to sea level rise, especially along the Gulf Coast and the South Atlantic seaboard. What will happen when the U.S. federal government forces the entire population of Miami (elevation: 6 feet. Population: about 5.5 million) to abandon their homes and move to higher ground? There are tens of millions of people living in the desert southwest (including southern California) – will you happily pay higher taxes so that the federal government can build enough desalination plants for Los Angeles and San Diego when the Colorado River runs dry before it reaches the Colorado River Aqueduct? What happens to the entire population of Bangledesh, a densely populated country that is barely above sea level?

Global heating will force massive migrations of people from coastlines and arid regions to wetter, higher ones. And governments are going to be forced to move people against their will, probably destroying traditional cultures like the Mongolian nomads mentioned above in the process.

Thanks to Dr. Denny for the BusinessWeek charts

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