Climate change: Must conditions deteriorate before they improve?

September 18, 2013

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Energy transitions on a global scale usually take generations to implement. In the 19th century, the world was powered by the sun and wood. In the 20th century, coal had replaced wood. By 1930, coal was supplying 90 percent of the world’s primary energy, with an increasing amount of oil being consumed.

Today, the global economy is based on fossil fuels from coal, oil and natural gas. Along with our overwhelming dependence on fossil fuels is increased recognition in the scientific community of the extensive damage to human health and the planet that result from high levels of consumption.

Thus far, efforts to cut carbon emissions have been met with little success. Given existing economic conditions, high unemployment, costly wars and the polarized political situation in the United States, efforts to reduce carbon emissions have had little success.

In one sense, the lack of success is expected and is likely to persist. In his book, Climate Change Policy Failure, Howard Latin likened the situation to a boxing match between the fossil fuel industry and the renewable energy industry. Given the disparities in wealth and political power, the renewable energy industry has taken on an immense challenge.

Latin goes beyond these challenges to explain that existing actions to curb greenhouse gas are misdirected and waste time, money and human effort in pushing policies that do little to reduce the threat of climate change.

The basic flaw is that existing efforts have been aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions instead of being directed at reducing the increase in cumulative atmospheric GHG emissions. While the world might celebrate a global agreement to cut GHG emissions by 10 percent in 2014, it fails to take into account that emissions being added that year to an already overloaded atmosphere are still 90 percent of each previous year’s. We are simply adding emissions at a rate beyond the ability of the planet to absorb them.

A further complication is that emission reductions are never expected to be implemented the next year. They are set for more distant timelines, such as 2025 or 2050. Agreements calling for changes in the future ignore the reality that GHG emissions remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years.

The focus on reducing carbon emissions creates a basic conflict with the desire of developing nations for economic growth to provide jobs and incomes to raise their standards of living.

The adoption of weak emission reduction strategies is seen as harmful in that they divert funding, regulatory resources and public attention away from more effective strategies.

For Latin, a far more effective strategy would be to focus our efforts on adopting technologies that are free of greenhouse gases and contribute to economic and social development without degrading the climate.

Latin acknowledges that he is without comprehensive political solutions. Other solutions are essential to solving the problems. His intent in writing the book was to explain where conventional emission reduction strategies fail and why the focus should be on GHG-free replacement technologies. Such a focus would assist developing nations in securing economic development without further degrading the climate.

Latin calls attention to important considerations. However, the basic question remains unanswered: Must conditions deteriorate before they improve?

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail sonia@essex1.com.

From the Sept. 18-24, 2013, issue

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