Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What Does the U.S. Have to Do in Dealing with Climate Change?

BACCI-What-Does-the-US-Has-to-Do-in Dealing-with-Climate-Change-Cover-April-2008
April 1, 2008
The science is now clear. Climate change is happening and is a problem regarding any country. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.) over the next 100 years it is highly probable that global temperature will rise 2.5 Fahrenheit degrees to 10 Fahrenheit degrees. The Arctic area will be the part of the world that will suffer the greatest increase of temperature. And the rise in the temperature will be a trigger changing our already very sensible ecosystems with all the consequences that this change can mean for human mankind.
The earth’s temperature has always had variations (a good example of these variations are well exemplified by the changes in the Northern Hemisphere), but what has happened in the last fifty years cannot be considered as belonging to the natural shifts in the variance of the earth’s temperature. Global temperatures started to rise with the industrial revolution in the XIX century, but according to scientists this trend has accelerated in recent years. In fact, the warmest years since 1860 all had occurred between 1995 and 2005 (2005 is the second hottest year on records). In the first six months of 2006, the United States experienced the warmest period on record. And as the earth is warming in the same way the temperatures of the oceans have been rising for the past fifty years. The reason for this increase in the world temperature is linked to the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases related to human activities. Among them the most important are:
  • Burning of fossil fuels, mainly oil and coal
  • Deforestation
  • Agriculture
  • Industrial processes

In other words, if today we are experiencing climate change the culprits are man-made activities that alter the process through which naturally occurring greenhouse gases are able to trap the heat of the sun before the heat is released into the space. If we have too many emissions of greenhouse gases this means that too much heat is trapped causing Earth’s temperature to rise. Today's level of carbon dioxide is the highest since at least 400,000 years.
The United States has absolutely to improve its action in order to contrast climate change. The Bush administration has done little in tackling this phenomenon. What was a big gap with the Bush administration was the lack of a grandiose plan with reference to climate change. As an example it can be considered the fact that the United States has never ratified, under the Bush administration, the Kyoto Protocol, although America is a signatory party to the treaty. At the moment, there is a big difference between the European Union policies targeted at tackling global change and the American policies.  This new administration has made clear since the political debate before the presidential elections that tackling global change would be a primary target of the new government.
According to scientists, all over the world in order to avoid the worst-case scenarios with reference to global warming it will be necessary to obtain an 80 percent reduction in relation to the 1990 level of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. To get to this result the United States will have to work across all the sectors of the American economy. The key tool to respond to climate change is and will be primarily "technological innovation". Today there are already technologies that can permit to reduce the quantity of greenhouse emissions. Obviously, innovation requires substantial new investments in research and incentives for both producers and consumers. In addition, the challenge to tackle global warming has to be fought both at the state and federal level. In particular, it should be noted that in the partial absence of federal leadership in dealing with the problem of climate change, many American states and regions have already started to tackle the problem on their own. From the gravity of the problem it now emerges that the success of an action in dealing with climate change will depend on a wide portfolio of actions that have to be coordinated at the federal level.
In the United States most greenhouse emissions derive from two big categories:
  • Electricity and Buildings
  • Transportation

Electricity and Buildings — In the United States, 38 percent of carbon dioxide emissions are produced by the electricity sector. Electricity is used in houses, offices and industrial structures for heating and cooling systems, lights, computers and other utilizations. Given these numbers, it is mandatory to work on the production of electricity and in the improvement of buildings.
With reference to electricity, greenhouse gases come primarily from power plants burning coal or oil. The main options to improve the quality of electricity are:
  • Improved Efficiency — Today’s technologies already well permit to generate electric power and heat in an efficient way. New generations of power plants still using fossil fuels allow a more efficient generation of energy. Power plants that use the I.G.C.C. (Integrated Gasification and Combined Cycle) process produce energy while having important reductions in air pollution by converting coal into a cleaner-burning gas.
  • Renewable Energy — The United States has to improve its use of renewable energy sources. Wind, sun, water, tides and biomass are all available in America in light of the different geographical conditions of the country. Renewable sources have the potentiality of not releasing greenhouse gases (or if they produce greenhouse gases the amount is very low in comparison to traditional energy sources). It should be noted that larger-scale renewable energy can really be cost-competitive with conventional ways of generating electricity. Currently, the United States uses renewable energy sources for a small amount of its energy necessities. Options in order to expand renewable energy can come from the mechanism of renewable portfolio standards, which obliges all the energy producers to generate a certain amount of their produced energy through renewable sources, consumer rebates and government incentives.
  • Carbon Capture and Sequestration — The above-mentioned I.G.C.C. mechanism permits to capture carbon and to store it on a long-term basis in geological deposits located underground. The United States is able to use this new technology, but at the moment the majority of the coal-burning power plants are conventional plants. The new administration should absolutely try to create incentives to build cleaner-burning power plants and implement the new technology in the conventional coal power plants.
  • Nuclear Power — Currently the United States gets 20 percent of its energy requirements from nuclear energy, which has no greenhouse emissions (more than 70 percent of the American non-carbon-generated electricity). It is difficult to fight global change without expanding the American nuclear civil sector. After more than twenty-five years — in 1979 there was the accident at Three Mile Island — it is time to reinvest again in nuclear energy. In order to do that, it will be of paramount importance two things: first, explain to the American citizens that today’s nuclear power plants can be a part of the solution to global warming and that the new nuclear power plants are really safe;  secondly, it is necessary to find a solution to the problem of nuclear waste disposal. Too much has been said about Yucca Mountain, but for the moment no clear step has been decided.  

With reference to buildings, the high consumption is linked to lights, appliances and cooling and heating systems. Cost-effective technologies for reducing emissions are already available, but are not competitive on the market. In fact, for example in the United States at the moment there are an information gap for the consumer, who does not know to have some alternatives to the classic sources of energy, and some market barriers. A good example of market barrier is the high fee for back-up power that the electric companies charge on consumers using their own sources of energy.
The main options to reduce energy consumption for buildings are:
  • Efficiency — Efficiency can be obtained in many ways: an improved insulation, energy-efficient bulbs (it has been 125 years that Americans have been using the same bulbs), instantaneous hot heaters. Many of these possibilities are really easy to be implemented by consumers, but at the moment the United States is not proposing appropriate information campaigns related to energy efficiency. The administration has absolutely to improve the efficiency of the American buildings and, in particular, attention should be given to buildings belonging to the public administration. Moreover, policymakers should create building codes, building standards, specific certifications that prove that buildings are energy efficient, appliance standards and energy labeling.
  • On-site Power Generation — Consumers can generate their own energy through renewable sources. The main examples are solar panels (like in California and Nevada), solar water heating and small-scale wind generation. The costs for these on-site power-generation tools are falling, although some of these technologies are still expensive for the average American citizen. It could be wise to create new incentives like consumer rebates and tax credits. Also with reference to on-site power generation there are too many regulatory barriers, which should be lifted up if this market has to be developed completely.

Transportation — This is the second largest source of greenhouse emissions in America — primarily cars and trucks. This administration has three areas in which to work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions linked to transportation:
  • Deciding to adopt technologies capable of consistently reducing the emissions of cars and trucks
  • Using fuels with less carbon
  • Developing additional mass transportation systems

In addition to these three areas, the new administration has to push for short-term and long-term solutions to the transportation problem.
Short-Term Solutions — The following points one and two are “off-the-shelf” technologies, while point three requires new diesels and/or new engines.
  • Energy Efficiency — First of all, in the United States, the average fuel economy of the American cars and trucks is at the same level as it was at the beginning of the 1980s. This is probably the reason for which Japanese cars (the Toyota miracle) are selling so much worldwide while the American automotive industry is in crisis. The new government has absolutely to adopt stringent policies to reduce tailpipe greenhouse gas emissions and/or increase fuel autonomy. In other words, the American automotive industry has to improve and modernize its — at the moment — very inefficient products.
  • Fuel Blending — Blending ethanol and other biologically derived fuels with normal gasoline reduce the greenhouse emissions. The most important biofuel in American is today ethanol. It should be understood that the yield of ethanol is very different depending on the quality of its production and processing. A high quality corn-based ethanol may have a 30 percent greenhouse emissions reduction for every gallon of conventional gasoline. (See below in long-term solutions point "A) New Biofuels" the problem that corn-based ethanol productions may create for food agriculture).
  • Advanced Diesels and Hybrids — Both offer consistent reductions in the released emissions because they use less gas on a per-mile basis. Less fuel means obviously less greenhouse emissions. If both technologies are implemented — in other words if it is used a diesel hybrid vehicle — it is possible to get a 65 percent per mile reduction of the greenhouse emissions compared to an equivalent American conventional vehicle.   

Long-Term Solutions — These kinds of solutions push for the abandonment of petroleum-based fuels.
  • New Biofuels — These new biofuels are different from the ones mentioned above with reference to fuel blending. Here we are talking of the technology to produce biofuels through cellulosic sources. What is interesting is the fact that cellulosic biofuels could in the future enable a reduction of up to 100 percent of the emissions per gallon. These biofuels could offset 10 percent to 24 percent of all the current U.S. greenhouse emissions. This big difference in the percentage is linked to the fossil fuel that is replaced and the way with which the agricultural product is converted into the new biofuels.  Another option is biodiesel (this should replace conventional diesel), which can be generated through many different oilseed crops like soybeans, palm and cotton seeds. The E.P.A. before massively starting the conversion of many agricultural areas from food products to plants good for the new biofuels suggests that the administration require new studies about the price distortion on the food market that could derive from such a conversion. In other words, we could find a solution to a problem, but we could generate a bigger one.
  • Electric Cars — The problem with electric cars has always been linked the scarce capacity of the batteries and this is still today the most problematic issue. The other option is the “plug-in” hybrid. This is a gas-hybrid vehicle that could be charged overnight. The administration should push for additional studies to develop these types of cars that have relevant reductions of emissions.
  • Hydrogen — Hydrogen fuel cells were studied initially for the space program. They produce power adding together oxygen and hydrogen to create water. This is probably the future with reference to transportation in the next decades. At the moment, there are still some problems to be solved, of which the most important is finding a solution in order to produce hydrogen without having excessive emissions. Also for hydrogen, the E.P.A. suggests that there is the necessity of additional funds for research.

According to the analysis of the scientific community, the E.P.A. pushes for an overall reduction by 2050 of 80 percent of American greenhouse emissions in 1990. To get this result it is important to develop a sort of mandatory framework capable of assuring that the result will be achieved. This framework could be a cap-and-trade program similar to the at-the-moment world’s most advanced greenhouse gases reduction policy, which is the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme (E.T.S.). The E.T.S. limits the emissions for 12,000 facilities all across Europe. The new American administration should develop something similar to this mechanism. The E.P.A. suggests that a cap-and-trade program could be the best tool for such a purpose. Under the provisions of this program the administration has to establish an overall cap on allowed carbon emissions. American companies will be given emission permits and will be requested to own an equivalent number of allowances (also called credits). These allowances permit to the companies to emit greenhouse gases for the amount covered by the allowances. If a company needs to release an additional amount of greenhouse emissions, it is obliged to buy credits from the companies capable of polluting less. This buying activity is the trade. It is a sort of stick-and-carrot mechanism. If you pollute more you have to pay more, if you pollute less you can be rewarded for your environmental skills. Obviously, every year the number of available credits will diminish in order to match the annual reduction targets. This mechanism is probably the best mechanism to oblige the big polluters to start modernizing their activities. This process in the short term may be expensive, but in the long run it will have positive results for the involved companies.

The E.P.A. seriously suggests that the new administration act as soon as possible because of the seriousness of the global warming problem. We must act now! Every additional delay will involve high additional costs in the future. Many American observers are scared about the fact that starting to tackle global warming — if it is done only by the United States and the European Union — will constitute a menace for the American and European industrial competitiveness, but this is probably a fake problem. In fact, the development of innovative technologies will surely have a positive impact on the lives of the American population, so that more than a menace tackling global warming could be a starting point in order to rejuvenate and reinforce once more time the American leadership in the scientific and technological sectors.