US should aim for 80% by 2020

By Bryan Walker 22/09/2009

Renowned American environmentalist Lester Brown offers measured optimism in an article published in the Washington Post on Sunday. He claims a surprisingly dramatic 9 percent drop in US carbon emissions over the past two years and the promise of further huge reductions.  Part of this decline, he acknowledges, was caused by the recession and higher petrol prices but part of it came from gains in energy efficiency and shifts to carbon-free sources of energy, including record amounts of new wind-generating capacity. He looks ahead to the prospect of further reductions.  

Efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and cut carbon emissions are under way at every level of government — national, state and city — and in corporations, utilities and universities. Beyond this, millions of climate-conscious Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to achieve the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country’s 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed.

On the supply side he points to the utilities beginning to turn their backs on coal. One hundred proposed coal-fired power plants have been cancelled since 2001. About 22 coal-fired power plants in 12 states are being replaced by wood-fired power, wind farms or natural gas plants.  

While some U.S. coal plants are closing, wind farms are multiplying. Last year, 102 wind farms came online, providing 8,400 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity, the equivalent of eight coal-fired power plants. Forty-nine wind farms were completed in the first half of this year, and 57 more are under construction. More important, 300,000 megawatts of wind projects (think 300 coal plants) await access to the grid so that construction can begin.

U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year and with new government incentives, this rapid growth should continue. Solar thermal power plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate electricity are going up fast in California, Arizona and Nevada. The availability of a molten-salt heat-storage technology that enables the plants to continue generating power up to six hours past sundown is spurring investor interest.

Oil use is going down and purchase of vehicles with better mileage ratios is increasing.  The shift to plug-in hybrids and electric cars will come faster than most policy-makers anticipate, as it becomes apparent that their fuelling cost from wind-generated electricity is low.

I don’t know whether Brown’s optimism is well founded.  I do know that he is always realistic when describing the environmental threats confronting the world, not only in climate change but also in water shortages, food shortages, population pressure, soil degradation and the like. The first part of his Plan B books is always extremely sobering as he details the challenges.  But the pessimistic tone of what he writes there is always matched by the vigour with which he advocates the Plan B solutions later in the books.  It appears from the Washington Post article that he considers that the US is at last on the solutions path in relation to carbon emissions. 

Indeed he draws some striking conclusions.

’Although Congress is considering legislation that would cut emissions only 15 or 20 percent by 2020, it’s clear to me that with just a little effort, the United States could far surpass this. Given the potentially catastrophic climate change the world is facing, we should push in Copenhagen for an 80 percent reduction by 2020.’

This is the amount he thinks we need to cut to have a decent shot at saving the larger ice masses. It would halt the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, now 387 parts per million , at 400 ppm in 2020. Reductions could then begin to the 350 ppm that the James Hansen says is necessary to stem global warming’s most egregious effects.

If the United States were to push for an 80 percent cut, will the rest of the world follow? In particular will China and India cooperate?  He points out that the two countries are among those whose food security is most affected by global warming, and the world does not hold food supplies adequate to supply their giant populations by imports. This he implies is a spur to change from the fossil-fuel pathway. He points to the extraordinary growth in wind energy in China and the advance of solar cell technology, and notes that the pace of building coal-fired power stations seems to be slowing, with many of the older, dirtier coal plants being closed down.  For India, the answer lies not only in wind energy but in the Great Indian Desert. The harnessable solar energy there could power the entire Indian economy. The new solar thermal power plants, which can generate electricity several hours after sundown, could wean India from its coal addiction.

’Stabilizing the earth’s climate is a complex undertaking and fraught with risk. If the United States leads — and does so boldly —  I believe the world will follow.’

’Follow’ — that’s our cue isn’t it? 

Is Brown just singing to keep his courage up?  Or is he really discerning a shift, the early stages perhaps of a wave that will confound our pessimism?  He is always worth attention, and I was certainly happy enough while reading him to at least hope he might be right.