April 30, 2009
Bound to Burn
Humanity will keep spewing carbon into the atmosphere, but good policy can help sink it back into the earth.
By Peter W. Huber
Like medieval priests, today's carbon brokers will sell you an indulgence that forgives your carbon sins. It will run you about $500 for 5 tons of forgiveness -- about how much the typical American needs every year. Or about $2,000 a year for a typical four-person household. Your broker will spend the money on such things as reducing methane emissions from hog farms in Brazil.
But if you really want to make a difference, you must send a check large enough to forgive the carbon emitted by four poor Brazilian households, too -- because they're not going to do it themselves. To cover all five households, then, send $4,000. And you probably forgot to send in a check last year, and you might forget again in the future, so you'd best make it an even $40,000, to take care of a decade right now. If you decline to write your own check while insisting that to save the world we must ditch the carbon, you are just burdening your already sooty soul with another ton of self-righteous hypocrisy. And you can't possibly afford what it will cost to forgive that.
If making carbon this personal seems rude, then think globally instead. During the presidential race, Barack Obama was heard to remark that he would bankrupt the coal industry. No one can doubt Washington's power to bankrupt almost anything -- in the United States. But China is adding 100 gigawatts of coal-fired electrical capacity a year. That's another whole United States' worth of coal consumption added every three years, with no stopping point in sight.
Much of the rest of the developing world is on a similar path.
Cut to the chase. We rich people can't stop the world's 5 billion poor people from burning the couple of trillion tons of cheap carbon that they have within easy reach. We can't even make any durable dent in global emissions -- because emissions from the developing world are growing too fast, because the other 80 percent of humanity desperately needs cheap energy, and because we and they are now part of the same global economy. What we can do, if we're foolish enough, is let carbon worries send our jobs and industries to their shores, making them grow even faster, and their carbon emissions faster still.
We don't control the global supply of carbon.
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