Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Big Picture Is Half Full

While Googling on "climate change" I ran across this column in a UK magazine. It highlights growing concerns about the consequences of climate change and frames a number of big, energy-and-environment issues as potentially conflicting with, or distracting attention from efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although there's no shortage of important issues in front of policy makers these days, I think it's unnecessarily pessimistic to view energy security, "peak oil", and clean coal technology as somehow interfering with action on climate change.

Consider energy security. As I've argued repeatedly in this blog, greenhouse gas emissions provide an entirely complementary and efficient pathway for addressing energy security. Rigorous analysis of emissions entails a thorough examination of all the energy flows in the system. This approach also allows us to differentiate between marginally-useful and expensive energy solutions such as corn ethanol and distinctly positive ones, such as cellulosic ethanol. It also gives us the means of objectively comparing the net benefits of the plug-in hybrids I discussed in Tuesday's posting with alternatives such as more efficient internal combustion engines, or fuel cells running on hydrogen produced from fossil fuels.

As to peak oil, to the degree this is an imminent threat--and here I remain a skeptic--it is hard to imagine any serious effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that would not automatically defer and moderate the impact of a global peak in oil production, as a direct consequence of reducing the growth in petroleum consumption.

Likewise for clean coal, even without sequestering the CO2 emissions from coal-fired power plants, implementing technology such as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions per kW-hour of electricity, while providing necessary baseload power to complement the small but growing contribution of intermittent solar and wind power.

So, without detracting from or minimizing the healthy debate surrounding each of these issues, it's false to see them as unrelated or in competition with one another. Managing climate change is going to take a lot more than a push for renewable energy--the author's implied hobby horse--just as addressing energy security must include more than reducing our oil imports. Far from competing, I think all these issues fit together in a large, complex pattern of interconnected energy and environmental concerns.

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