Monday, December 3, 2007

Climate, Emissions, Approaches, Costs--and Hawai'i

A crucial national report released this month suggests the nation can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions without severe disruption of the economy—if it takes effective steps early.

The report is “Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much At What Cost?” It was prepared with the help of a combination of environmental organizations and energy companies by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. (see details and a link for the report below)

For Hawai'i, with the threats of rising sea levels, changing rainfall patterns, increasing hurricane potential, and myriad economic disruptions from a range of warming impacts—including threats to our primary economic engine, tourism—the issue is real and the problems imminent.

The state has an opportunity, as the Legislature is about to launch its next session, to address the issue as several other states already have. Many states have been far more aggressive in this area than Hawai'i.

Seven states and a couple of Canadian provinces have joined the Western Climate Initiative in a commitment to control regional greenhouse gas emissions. California is at war with the federal government over its insistence on increasing energy efficiency of its motor vehicle fleet. Ten states joined a consortium of European and Pacific nations and provinces in forming the International Carbon Action Partnership. The governor of Alaska just appointed a sub-cabinet on climate change, to consolidate climate change information for the state and to recommend policies to help the state deal with them.


Rising greenhouse gases are causing planet-wide climate alterations, and are acidifying the oceans.

The McKinsey report says industry leaders are increasingly recognizing it's a problem. The report cites a recent survey by The Business Council, that found that 40 percent of chief executive officers said environmental and warming issues are very important, some saying they are “the most important policy challenge facing the nation.” That number has doubled in a year and a half.

Greenhouse gas emissions can be measured by using a standard measure called carbon-dioxide equivalents, or CO2e. We are currently producing (effective 2005) 7.2 gigatons* of CO2e, and without action to curtail use, will be producing 9.7 tons of CO2e by 2030, the report says, basing its estimate on a “composite of official U.S. government agency projections.”

The report looked into 250 ways to abate our production of greenhouse gases, many of which could be accomplished at very low cost. Others, of course, are associated with higher costs.

The cheapest approach could reduce emissions by 1.3 gigatons by 2030. The mid-range would reduce them by 3 gigatons, to slightly below current production, which current legislative proposals say are still too high. The high range of a 4.5-gigaton cut is possible and would reduce production significantly, but would require “an extraordinary high level of national commitment.”

A point of the report is that the situation isn't hopeless. Reductions, and dramatic ones, are possible given current technology or the technology that's very close to ready. And while some technologies are costly, the costs can be cut by strategic reductions in use.

A key conclusion: “The United States could reduce greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 by 3.0 to 4.5 gigatons of CO2e using tested approaches and high-potential emerging technologies. These reductions would involve pursuing a wide array of abatement options available at marginal costs less than $50 per ton, with the average net cost to the economy being far lower if the nation can capture sizable gains from energy efficiency. Achieving these reductions at the lowest cost to the economy, however, will require strong, coordinated, economy-wide action that begins in the near future.”


No single fix will solve the nation's greenhouse gas production problem, the report says. It says a broad-based approach is needed, bringing down greenhouse gas emissions in a many areas at once.

“Abatement possibilities are highly fragmented and widely spread across the economy,” it says.

But as much as 40 percent of the cuts could actually save money, generating positive financial returns. And the report says those savings could be used to help pay for some of the more expensive technologies.

Buildings and appliances: As many as 870 megatons* of reduction is possible with improved lighting, heating and cooling, building controls, high-performance consumer electronics and appliances. It would be the least costly, but “persistent barriers to market efficiency will need to be overcome.”

Transportation: Increased fuel efficiency could cut production by up to 290 megatons, with additional savings coming from switching to diesel for light-duty vehicles, lower-carbon fuels, plug-in hybrids and other technologies.

Industrial: Upgrading equipment, efficiency of motors, changing industrial processes and other technologies could cut production here by up to 770 megatons.

Carbon sinks: Up to 590 megatons could be addressed through increasing forestation and improved soil management practices, at comparatively low cost. There might need to be carbon offset systems to help provided the money for these efforts.

Electric power: More wind and solar, additional nuclear, more efficiency in current plants, and the development of carbon capture and storage for coal-fired plants. These might be the most costly, but could reduce production by 1.57 gigatons.


If the United States is serious about the problem, it could make a big impact immediately with very little cost simply by grabbing the easy and cheap solutions first. These include increased energy efficiency and applying those emissions-reduction technologies that actually save money.

Among other things, the report calls for immediate commitment of more research money for promising technologies like solar photovoltaics, cellulosic biofuels and superior efficiency vehicles like plug-in hybrids.

It also calls for simplified and speeded permitting for more-efficient and low-emissions power production facilities, to get them into operation sooner.

Why should the U.S. take the hit for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Because we're one whopping big producer. Our production leads the world, just ahead of China's. But of course, China has four times the U.S. population. On a per capita basis they're producing it at about a quarter our rate.

The top five per capita producers of greenhouse gas are Australia, Canada, the U.S., Netherlands and Saudi Arabia. The next five are Russia, Indonesia, Brazil, Germany and South Korea.

© 2007 Jan W. TenBruggencate

See the report:

The collaborators on “Reducing U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much At What Cost?” are DTE Energy, Environmental Defense, Honeywell, National Grid, Natural Resources Defense Council, PG&E and Shell. It was prepared for The Conference Board, the century-old business and research organization that produces the Consumer Confidence Index and the Leading Economic Indicators. The report's authors are Jon Creyts, Anton Derkach, Scott Nyquist, Ken Ostrowski and Jack Stephenson.

*megatons, gigatons: A mega is a million, a one followed by six zeroes; a giga is a billion, or a thousand million, or a one with nine zeroes after it.

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