Friday, July 04, 2014

401.88 ppm

Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are now firmly above 400 ppm as measured by the Hawaii-based Mauna Loa Observatory. Earlier this morning, I finished proofreading my first student thesis on geoengineering. Working with my student in Korea has renewed my deep concerns for the future, in particular how feel-good environmentalists will fail to avert a climate catastrophe by insisting on the deployment of non-scalable sources of renewable energy (such as energy forestry or wind power) until a point when geoengineering will become inevitable. Similarly, while improved energy efficiency may be a great idea in affluent countries where demand is already saturated, similar measures are probably counterproductive in developing countries due to so called rebound effects as these countries have a huge unmet demand for energy and large reserves of unextracted fossil fuels.

Yet beyond scalability concerns and the risk of rebound, the main issue is one of energy access. In almost all climate models the poor essentially stay poor throughout the 21st century, otherwise there is absolutely no chance that renewable energy technologies will be capable of stabilizing the global climate. From an ethical point of view, such a future of chronic poverty is of course entirely unacceptable. It is not about giving the poor a wind turbine here or a 20W solar panel there, it is about building a world of universal affluence in which people everywhere have access to modern medicine, global mobility and freedom from want. Keeping that focus in mind, the key responsibility for the rich countries is to develop clean energy technologies that work with – rather than against – the market and which people everywhere will quickly adopt, not out of altruism or coercion, but out of simple economic self-interest. Everything else is a dangerous distraction.

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