Global Warming: Brighter Days Ahead BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM M.D.
Global Warming: Brighter Days Ahead
BY JEFFREY OPPENHEIM, M.D.
Listening to the news you might think that the United States is not only responsible for global warming, but is dodging its responsibility to address this problem. Every hot spell, cold spell, flood, drought, or severe storm seems to be accompanied by stories of global warming and presumptions that America is not only the culprit, but the obstacle to a solution. There are some who actually argue that the rise of terrorist groups, such as ISIS, is the result of global warming. But, as Oscar Wilde observed in The Importance of Being Earnest, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
Most scientists believe that climate change is the result of increases in CO2 and other greenhouse gases caused by human activity. And many news articles imply or assert that the blame for this problem rests on American shoulders. In reality, the U.S. is leading the world in cutting emissions and is no longer the biggest polluter. Contrary to popular belief, the problem may be correcting itself, and the solution will likely arise from economic self-interest rather than governmental restrictions.
Until 10 years ago, the United States had been the biggest contributor to global CO2 emissions, but that role was eclipsed by the Chinese. Currently, China’s production of greenhouse gases is roughly twice the volume of America’s production. And while aggregate third world greenhouse gas emissions have grown, American production of such gases is shrinking.
Contrary to common belief, CO2 emissions in America peaked several years ago and are actually dropping. Total U.S. CO2 emissions in 2015 were 12% below the 2005 levels and the total emissions in 2016 were probably no worse than 2015 (which had fallen by 145 million tons from the year prior). Thus, the U.S. not only leads the world in reducing CO2 emissions but helping to halt the expansion of global greenhouse gas emissions. And, brighter days may lay ahead.
Although it is difficult to make precise predictions about future emissions, there are good reasons to think that CO2 emissions in the United States will fall in the future. Even the Department of Energy’s predictions going out 15 years don’t anticipate significant U.S. increases in either CO2 or other greenhouse gases from domestic sources.
Even globally there is some reason for optimism. Although global CO2 emissions continue to rise, the rate of increase has been slowing for several years. The year to year increases from 2013-2015 were 505, 224 and 36 million tons, consecutively. This deceleration in growth may herald a worldwide real decline in the near future.
CO2 emissions are closely tied to the use of coal. China consumes half the coal in the world, but its demand has fallen in the last 2 years. The U.S. had long been the biggest consumer of coal, but dramatic declines in demand now put the U.S. in third place, behind China and India. Future reductions in coal consumption should herald significant reductions in emissions.
Future reductions in CO2 emissions could be predicated from a number of factors, including the state of the economy, availability of alternative sources, and governmental restrictions. But the best predictor would likely be based on the actual cost of production. That is, when it’s cheaper to produce energy from renewable non-emission producing sources then the production of greenhouse gases will decline. That day may have arrived.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts that solar energy may be cheaper than coal by 2025. Prices for solar electricity have dropped 62% in the last 7 years and the International Renewable Energy Agency expects a further drop of 43-65% for solar costs by 2025. When solar is cheaper than coal we would expect that new electric grid sources will be built mostly for solar production. And that is exactly what is happening.
In 2016, for the first time, utility-scale solar electric power became the most dominant new fuel source in the United States. More than 9 gigawatts of AC capacity were added to the grid last year. The cost and feasibility of alternative energy sources are no longer in question. In Germany, which is not known for its sun, renewable sources provide 78% of the country’s needs, and half of that power comes from solar electricity.
The use of natural gas, rather than coal, is also a significant factor in helping to curb emissions. Natural gas produces 50-60% less CO2 than coal. Drops in the U.S. demand for coal have been partially offset by an increase in the use of natural gas. A further shift to the use of natural gas will further reduce emissions if it offsets further coal consumption.
Twenty six percent of our CO2 emissions come from transportation. But this number is likely to decline as electric cars become more prevalent. In 2016 electric car sales were much higher than the year prior. As new models come on the market this growth is expected to increase further. While most of the electricity used by those cars is still produced by non-renewable sources, growth in the solar and renewable grid sources will further reduce transportation emissions.
America has lots of climate deniers: those who either don’t believe that climate change is happening or question whether it is due to human activity. Among these people are those who oppose participation in international efforts, such as the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement. For example, Donald Trump has raised objections to the Paris Agreement. However, such critiques should not be a cause for alarm because these agreements are largely ineffective.
For example, the Paris Agreement is a non-binding, non-specific non-obligatory agreement. It is a paper tiger. Countries are not told how much they need to reduce their emissions and there is no means by which to hold them accountable. Similarly, the Kyoto Protocol was worthless because it exempted 80% of the world from compliance, including China and India, the worst emitters. These impotent international agreements may rival some of the most worthless documents the U.S. has signed (e.g the Kellogg-Briand Pact, the 1919 Pact of Paris, etc.).
CO2 emissions are a legitimate cause for concern. While we may not know the precise consequences of long term global emissions, there is every reason to be concerned that irreversible damage to the environment could have global consequences. However, presumptions that the United States bears the blame, or that the problem won’t get better without masochistic economic measures are not factual.
In reality, the biggest problem polluter is China, not the United States. India, and much of the undeveloped world, accounts for the majority of new growth in emissions. For example, while 2015 saw reductions in CO2 emissions from the U.S., Russia and China, India’s emissions increased by 112 million tons. Efforts to curb CO2 emissions need to be focused everywhere, but guilt and blame should not be disproportionately placed on the United States, where real improvements have been, and are being made. America is setting the right example and there is good reason for optimism that this problem will be corrected without coercive measures.
-Jeffrey Oppenheim is a neurosurgeon and the former mayor of Montebello, New York