Nature and the gods of technology have blessed us with the means to avoid the worst consequences of climate warming. Now there is good climate news for a change. What we must do is put less carbon into the sky and start taking the carbon we have already put in out of the sky.
Putting less carbon up there: There are two parts to this – use much less coal and oil to fuel our comfort and transportation, and switch to generating all our energy from non-carbon fuels, namely solar, wind and nuclear. Both these steps reduce the CO2 sent into the atmosphere as we use less energy and eliminate fossil fuel-based electricity. The first step requires us to turn down our thermostats, produce more goods with less energy and drive hybrid and electric cars using green electricity.
Here the news is very good. Automobile manufacturers are moving swiftly to hybrid and electric cars. Battery technology is improving rapidly. So if we also switch to green energy we have accomplished at one stroke both of the steps mentioned above – using less of the bad fuels and putting less carbon in the sky.
However, this second required step of switching totally to green fuels is not so easy since it means wiping out the entire coal and petroleum industries. Nevertheless, without elimination of fossil fuels all bets are off. To switch the whole world from the poison fuel to the healthy fuel requires that the cost of the good stuff goes down enough to price the old fossil fuels out of the market. Remarkably, this is just what is happening and at a rapid pace. The cost of producing both solar and wind-based fuel has fallen more than 80 percent over the last decade and is still falling. This has already produced a low enough price to make green energy cheaper than fossil fuels in some places.
To force a fast transition, which is vital, the government should place a refundable tax on carbon fuels as proposed by the climate scientist James Hansen. This would have a good chance of eliminating fossil fuels by the critical date 2050. Imagine what this means. Because of the technological breakthroughs in our ability to generate electricity from sun, wind and nuclear, we can switch our energy use from fossil fuels to sustainable, nonpolluting energy and do so at a lower, not higher, energy price. And this gives us the opportunity to limit the perils of climate change through the free market without the heavy hand of government controls and tax increases. This should make us all smile: dampen climate change, get cheaper energy and keep government out of it.
Pull carbon out of the sky. The news on the second requirement is nearly as good. The carbon cycle is a rheostat for our planet operating largely on the thickness of the CO2 blanket in the sky. Over millennia nature has put in and pulled out carbon from the sky. Volcanoes blasted carbon into the sky and mountains have absorbed millions of tons of carbon and flushed it into the seas through erosion. Oceans, trees and soil have absorbed prodigious quantities of carbon also. So it is natural to ask: How can man speed up nature’s process of removing excess carbon upstairs?
Soil management: Soils can contain much greater carbon if erosion and annual tilling are stopped. Better land management could pull out as much as 100,000 tons per year.
Increasing forest cover: Today the destruction of forests in order to plant soybeans and palm tree plantations is releasing megatons of carbon into the sky. Deforestation goes exactly in the wrong direction, placing carbon from burns and decay upstairs in great gobs. The right direction is to stop deforestation and plant trees around the world.
Would all these steps be draconian? Yes. But consider what really is draconian when it comes to saving our earth and preventing unimaginable suffering? I am reminded of FDR’s meeting with the U.S. car manufacturers after Pearl Harbor. They knew they must build tanks and planes, but they asked how many cars they could produce each year. FDR’s answer: None. That was draconian for a good cause.
An amazing windfall of technology has been given to the world, a boon that could probably let us escape mind-boggling devastation and chaos. It would take a global carbon effort to put less in and take more out. But thanks to the gods of technology there is a way forward.
Roy Wehrle of Springfield is a professor emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield.