Cutting carbon doesn’t have to be hard

Generally, I try to keep this blog focused on information policy, but I can’t help myself. I’ve had climate on the brain thanks to Copenhagen, but the confluence of news items that crossed my desk today is striking.

Much of the American media coverage of climate change is of the political back-and-forth about the costs of addressing climate change. It goes something like this: “Democrats today called for action to stop global warming, but Republicans said we can’t afford the cost to the economy. In other news, [insert celebrity sex scandal] …” There’s rarely a discussion of what those costs might actually be, just an intimation that they must be high.

Certainly there are costs (although there are also benefits — and there are staggering costs to inaction, too). But the three items I spotted this morning highlight the argument that much can be done, today, with existing technology, at relatively little cost and with relatively impact on the much-ballyhooed “American lifestyle”:

  1. A mocking piece in today’s Guardian pokes fun at U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s fascination with old-hat technologies. Those of us who’ve seen Secretary Chu’s efficiency roadshow before, though, know that he’s not excited because he thinks these technologies are new and cutting-edge — he’s excited because they’re old, easy and cheap. The Guardian column only reinforces Chu’s point: in Europe, these approaches to energy efficiency are passé. So we don’t have to wait for cutting-edge, expensive, untested strategies to cut greenhouse gas emissions: even an advanced economy like the U.S. can make a big dent just by adopting some of the many cost-effective, tried-and-true tools already at our disposal.
  2. ScienceInsider points to a new National Research Council report that estimates just how much could be saved. According to the report, adoption of existing or imminent technologies could reduce U.S. energy use by one-fifth in ten years. In other words: despite population and economic growth, energy use could decrease (in absolute terms) rather than increase, simply by adopting technologies that already exist or are expected to enter commercial availability in the next ten years.

    Just to spell it out, there’s a lot of economic good news in that scenario. Despite upfront costs, consumers save money on long-term energy costs. Meanwhile, a lot of people make a lot of money: namely, the manufacturers of those devices and their supply chains, through to the retailers who sell them and the contractors who install them. Basically, it’s good for everybody except energy companies — which brings me to the final item…

  3. Avaaz and Oil Change launched petitions to end the U.S.’s staggering $10 billion annual taxpayer subsidies to fossil fuel companies. (There seems to be some debate about the exact number, but at any rate, it’s huge.) Why we should subsidize these companies at all is difficult to fathom. If we simply eliminated the subsidies, fossil fuels would be less competitive. If we re-directed the funding to clean energy or efficiency, the gains would be even greater.

I doubt that these simple fixes alone would get us to 350. But it’s clear that there is much low-hanging fruit, perilously ripe for the picking — a fact all too often missing from the narrative around climate change.

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