Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Missing Out in Reducing the Carbon Footprint: Human Reason Lapsing on Opportunities

Wind farms and solar panels—these alternatives to coal and natural gas could play a larger role in reducing the human impact on climate change were it not for missed opportunities. That any would be passed by when the species itself may hang in the balance points to a certain recklessness in the reasoning process akin to ill-afforded complacency.

In 2012, 13 gigawatts worth of wind-powered electricity generation capacity was installed in the United States, enough to meet the needs of roughly three million homes. This represents 40 percent of all the capacity added to the nation's power grid that year. Seven gigawatts had been added in 2011, and a bit more than five in 2010. In 2013, with Congress allowing the federal tax credit to lapse, only one gigawatt of wind power capacity was installed. Bioenergy, geothermal, and offshore wind were lagging too. Worldwide, investment in renewable energy sources was slowing as well, down to $211 billion in 2013, 22 percent less than the amount in 2011.[1]  Meanwhile, carbon emissions were at a record level globally in 2013 and the world’s oceans were already easing back in the additional amount of carbon that they could absorb. It would seem that the homo sapiens species has a self-destructive bent hard-wired in the brain.

At the very least, we are walking past opportunities as we head toward a global climate possibly outside of the realm of human habitation. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2014, the levelized cost of onshore wind energy for plants going into operation in 2019 could be as little as $71 per megawatt-hour (in 2012 dollars) without subsidies. Similarly, projections for the levelized cost of photovoltaic solar-cell energy were down 40 percent.[2]  Adding solar and wind plants to gas-powered generators and utilizing advanced load-management technologies could leverage the cost-savings, as the cost projections of energy from coal and natural gas were not showing similar drops.

Looking further out on the horizon, technology could perhaps be developed that would extract carbon from the oceans and the atmosphere. This unknown could end up making much of the difference in whether humanity keeps the global temperature increase within the 2C degree limit for sustainability.

In conclusion, the test may be whether we as a species use reason to resist the ever-present urge of instant-gratification. We know that a tax credit can be efficacious, and we see the cost projections coming down, yet on the other hand we find it hard to resist the convenience of driving more as gas prices drop, and we drive right by opportunities to reduce our collective imprint on the climate while we still can. It is as if we were a very overweight person at an unlimited buffet. In spite of having a goal of losing weight, we just can’t help ourselves while we are at the buffet because the food is there and we figure we can always eat less tomorrow. At the buffet, we figure in a warped sort of way that as long as we are there, it won’t be all that much worse if we go back for another dessert. It is just this sort of flawed reasoning that I suspect lies behind the arrows going in the wrong way in our handling of the climate crisis.

[1] Eduardo Porter, “A Carbon Tax Could Bolster Green Energy,” The New York Times, November 19, 2014.
[2] Ibid.