A critical topic for us, our children, their children and so forth for generations.
US carbon emissions in the energy sector have dropped since 2007 and will remain under the 2007 peak for the next few decades if projections on natural gas hold and exports fail to materialize. Historically cheap natural gas, enabled by hydro fracture drilling technology has granted a temporary reprieve through the economic destruction of the US coal generation industry.
|Declining power generation from coal, January 2007 to January 2012 (EIA)|
Unfortunately, this won't solve our most serious threat. It won't even touch it. Non-OECD carbon emissions have doubled since 2005 and global emissions have gone up 50% in the same decade! Global emissions are set to rise another 40 to 50% by 2025 while OECD emissions remain essentially flat since 2007 (the US among them).
If we can't drastically bend down the curve in the developing world, it's game over. They're now producing twice the carbon of the developed world and there's nothing suggesting that their explosion in emissions will retrench. The real question is how to get the developing world's house in order.
Meanwhile, 'Mericans scrabble with each other about how to go to lower numbers domestically, but the globe's pants are being pulled down in the developing world. The only solution is to quickly get serious, put our own house in order and launch a climate change "Marshall Plan." We have to go all in against coal. Otherwise it's the future until the climate is truly toast. But what does that mean?
Renewables? Yes! Nuclear? Yes and lots of it! Natural gas? Yes! But to execute a Marshall Plan we need to disconnect the advantage of cheap coal in the developing world. In the first instance that means carbon tariffs on trade (perhaps the most important mechanism of all since we're the dumping ground of cheap products based on coal electricity). It also means getting our natural gas glut into the international market to get the price of electricity up high enough to convert the infrastructure.
Hopefully President Obama's big push on new LNG terminals will move forward quickly because of the Ukraine geopolitics. Monied interests, fat and lazy sucking down cheap US natural gas, and a few odd confused environmentalists lacking a global perspective, have battled the Administration all the way. We need low carbon technology. All of it at massive scale right away.
Jon Phillips, PhD, is a Senior Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria, and is the Director of the Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Washington. The opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the IAEA or PNNL.