A Carbon Conundrum

Climate and Controversy

Just about everyone knows that a global agreement on “greenhouse gas” (GHG) emissions reductions is to be finalized at a meeting in Paris next November. “Greenhouse gases”, principally carbon dioxide (CO2), are associated with Global Warming, hence Climate Change. In anticipation of the Paris meeting, President Obama has proposed that the U.S. reduce ‘greenhouse gas” emissions by 26% – 28% compared to 2005 levels by 2025. The President will likely be pressed to increase that proposal before or at the meeting in Paris.[1]

The Energy Information Administration, a unit of the U.S. Government, recently published the Annual Energy Outlook 2015 (AEO 2015), which compiles information pertaining to energy and projects that information into the future. AEO 2015’s projections are based on a “Reference Case”. The Reference Case essentially extrapolates present trends into the future. Future changes required by existing legislation are included. The possible effects of future legislation and technological innovations are not included.[2]

Miller’s Analysis

The problem is that AEO 2015’s forecast on greenhouse gas emissions does support the President’s proposal. John Miller, a consultant in the energy field, has compared the AEO 2015’s Reference Case projections with the President’s proposal in a post entitled Can Obama’s Proposal to Reduce GHG Total Emissions by 26% be Achieved? [3]

Miller’s straight-forward reading of the AEO 2015’s Reference Case projections is that GHG’s will reduce by about 8% in 2025, compared to 2005. When Miller adds in the not yet finalized EPA requirement that electric power generation reduce CO2 emissions by 30% in 2030 compared to 2005, the projected reduction increases from 8% to 13%. 13%, however, is still only half of the reduction the President has already proposed.

Miller’s conclusion to the question his title poses – can Obama’s proposal to reduce GHG total missions by 26% be achieved? — is “highly improbable”.

Then What?

 “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future” — Niels Bohr

Rational projections that indicate that you are short by half are certainly daunting. But daunting isn’t the same as impossible. And predictions aren’t always right.

As Miller points out, the obvious next question is “how to get to 26% reduction by 2025?” Here are some thoughts, some more daunting, some less so:

>> Electric power producers will likely close older coal fired power plants in response to the EPA mandate-in-process to reduce CO2 emissions by 30%. Closing those plants will certainly reduce emissions. However, it will also reduce power generation capacity. At least some of that generating capacity will need to be replaced. Any CO2 emissions from the replacements – substituting new natural gas fired capacity for old coal fired capacity, for example — will to need be netted against reductions.

>> When Technology Goes Viral,[4] a recent essay posted to this blog, discussed technologies that experience exponential growth. Exponential growth over a decade (say, 2015 – 2025) can make a huge difference. Consider cell phones, for example.

Distributed photovoltaic solar energy generation may well prove to be experiencing exponential growth. When technologies do go exponential, contingent technologies often are swept along. In the case of photovoltaic solar energy, the battery technology (capabilities and cost reductions) appear to be developing apace.

There are other technologies that may also emerge over the coming decade, advanced nuclear and next generation biofuels, for example. There is a lot of really interesting technology in development right now.

>> The Empires Strike Back, another recent essay, discusses resistance to innovations as they confront establish technologies, organizations and ideas.[5] For example, the City of Las Angeles has refused to purchase power from a new utility scale photovoltaic project in the Mojave Desert. Reason: environmentalists object because the migration route of a small herd of mountain sheep may be compromised. Right or wrong, urgent or not, resistance is to be expected – and difficult to overcome.

>> The public discussion on GHG emissions almost never includes decarbonization. Decarbonization refers to technologies that remove GHGs from the atmosphere and return it to the soil – trees, for example. Large scale photosynthesis of fuels and industrial feedstocks from atmospheric CO2 just might happen.

>> Smaller manufacturers should keep in mind that change means new opportunities. Watch for them.

Chuck, Joan and CatThoughtful comments and experience reports are always appreciated.

…  Chuck Harrington (Chuck@JeraSustainableDevelopment.com)

P.S: Contact me when your organization is serious about prospering in the globalized 21st century … CH

This blog and associated website (www.JeraSustainableDevelopment.com) are intended as a resource for smaller manufacturers in the pursuit of Sustainability. While editorial focus is on smaller manufacturers, all interested readers are welcome. New blog posts are published weekly.


[1] See Groping Toward Paris: http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/02/07/groping-toward-paris/

[2] The Annual Energy Outlook 2015 is available for download at www.eia.gov

[3] See John Miller’s essay at: http://theenergycollective.com/jemillerep/2232821/can-president-obama-s-proposal-reduce-total-us-ghg-emissions-26-2005-2025-be-achi

[4] See When Technology Goes Viral: http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/05/23/when-technology-goes-viral/

[5] See The Empires Strike Back: http://jerasustainabledevelopment.com/2015/06/06/the-empires-strike-back/