Political Climate

Can the US afford to go green?

With the Dow still in the doldrums, what hope is there for a green revolution? The New York Times reported this week that shares in renewable energy companies have been plummeting, hit by the double whammy of a credit crunch and falling oil prices. As Bradford Plumer points out, it’s starting to look like the 1980s all over again, when falling energy prices shunted America’s fledgling renewable-energy companies firmly onto the back burner.

And inevitably, the economic downturn is also making it harder for politicians to push for emission cuts. Canada’s Liberal party just got trounced in the country’s general election, in large part because they were pushing for a carbon tax program; the relatively minor tax increase would have been offset by income tax reductions, and wouldn’t have affected the price of gasoline, but Liberals weren’t able to convince voters that they could reduce emissions without driving the economy into a ditch.

That doesn’t bode well for US efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions. Both presidential candidates say they’re determined to implement a cap-and-trade system; in practice, though, any such plan is likely to run into problems. The moment a formal plan is presented to Congress, conservatives will start crunching numbers and claiming that cutting emissions will lead to economic carnage. With the economy in the state it’s in, they’ll likely find a receptive audience.

The irony in all this is that going green could be the best way for America to dig her way out of her current mess. Look at California: according to a new study by researchers at Berkeley, the Golden State’s green-energy and efficiency initiatives have created some 1.5 million new jobs in the past three decades, and led to the elimination of less than 25,000 jobs in the conventional energy sector.

That’s had the knock-on effect of boosting the state’s payroll by at least $45 billion, the researchers estimate, and allowed consumers to spend more of their hard-earned cash in the service and retail sectors rather than on utility costs. On a national scale, that could be exactly the spark that’s needed to jolt America out of a recession. The real question is, can we afford not to go green?

Good oil, bad oil, snake oil

Last night, John McCain showed why he’s the wrong man to lead America. Forget the eye-rolling, the tongue juts and the slightly strained efforts to speak directly to Joe the Plumber: McCain’s big gaffe was his surreal attempt to describe a future in which America uses oil from Canada and the Gulf Coast, but not oil from the Middle East and Venezuela.

Asked to set a date by which he’d make America energy independent, McCain said instead that he’d aim - “within seven, eight, ten years, if we put our minds to it,” - to reduce America’s dependence on oil from places that don’t like us. “I think we can, for all intents and purposes, eliminate our dependence on Middle Eastern oil and Venezuelan oil,” he said. “Canadian oil is fine.”

That’s crazy on a number of levels. First up, oil is a fungible commodity that’s sold on a global market; a barrel is a barrel is a barrel, no matter where it’s produced. The interconnectedness of the marketplace means that there’s no practical way for America to wall herself off or to pick and choose the sources of her oil imports. (McCain, who last night declared himself a veteran free trader, really ought to understand this by now.)

What’s more, the nature of the oil business is such that even if America could gain enough oil from Canada and domestic sources to meet her needs - a mathematical impossibility - the cost of a barrel of oil would still be determined on the global marketplace.

That means that disruptions to the Venezuelan or Middle Eastern supply would drive up global prices, and consequently the price at the pump here in America, just as surely as if we were importing the oil directly. It also makes it impossible to starve our enemies of cash simply by refusing to buy their oil: the very act of consuming oil - even domestic or Canadian oil - ensures that our enemies will be able to sell their own supplies on the global market at the same price we’d have paid them directly.

There are only two possibilities here. Either McCain genuinely - but mistakenly - thinks that he can selectively reduce our dependence on oil from countries that aren’t our allies; or he knows full well he can’t deliver on his promises, but believes this kind of nonsense will play well with voters who don’t understand how energy markets work. Either McCain doesn’t get it, or he hopes we won’t get it; neither option inspires much confidence in his ability to run the country.

Time for a rainforest bailout?

Deforestation is a big deal: logging and land clearance are responsible for almost a fifth of global carbon emissions. It doesn’t matter how many hybrids we drive or how many solar panels we install on our roofs - if we can’t persuade developing nations to quit cutting down their trees, it’ll be all but impossible to halt global warming.

Fortunately, the Brits have come up with a solution; a new report by British government adviser Johan Eliasch sets out a roadmap for halving global deforestation emissions by 2020, and making the sector entirely carbon-neutral by 2030. The details are complex, but the gist is simple: wealthy countries should club together and start paying tropical nations to preserve their forests.

Eliasch reckons we can do that relatively easily by integrating rain-forests into the global carbon market, effectively allowing developing nations to sell credits in exchange for leaving their woodlands intact. By tapping into existing carbon-market financing, the report claims, it should be possible to slash deforestation rates by 75 percent by 2030 at a cost of between $17 billion and $33 billion a year. Tack on a few reforestation and restoration programs, and achieving total carbon neutrality should be a piece of cake.

Of course, $33 billion a year isn’t pocket change, especially at a time when the global financial system is going down the spout. But it’s chicken-feed compared to the total economic cost of deforestation, which a recent study pegged at around $5 trillion a year. And protecting forests is vastly cheaper than most other means of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions; Eliasch estimates that a large-scale save-the-trees program would halve the total cost of bringing global emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels.

There are a few caveats, of course: like any major trading system, a forestry market will require careful calibration and regulation. We’ll need to ensure, too, that the market is seen as a supplement to existing emissions-reduction measures, rather than a replacement; corporate polluters shouldn’t be given a free pass to churn out smog at home simply because they’ve bought the deeds to a few acres of far-off rain-forest.

Still, there are plenty of good ideas in the Eliasch report. And if the US can take a cue from Gordon Brown when it comes to bailing out the banking system, shouldn’t we be willing to listen to his ideas on the environment, too?

* To read the Eliasch Review in full, click here (pdf).

Vegetable liberation

Does a tree have fundamental rights? Is it possible to affront the basic dignity of a carrot, or trample the moral entitlements of a mushroom? Swiss politicians have decided that we can’t allow these burning questions to continue to go unanswered; under rules established by a new constitutional amendment, Swiss plant researchers will from now on be obliged to demonstrate that their work does not “disturb the vital functions or lifestyle” of the flora in question.

In practice the new rules mean that, in Switzerland at least, plants will now have a fundamental moral right to exist and reproduce. The new rules are vague about exactly what that means, although they do say that scientists are no longer allowed to create sterile plants for research purposes or to pick wildflowers “without rational reason”.

More broadly, the rules require researchers hoping to study plant genetics to submit written applications to the government, and to justify their experiments to a university ethics board. “We couldn't start laughing and tell the government we're not going to do anything about it,” says Markus Schefer, who sits on the ethics panel at the University of Basel. “The constitution requires it.”

Switzerland isn’t the first country to assign constitutional rights to the vegetable kingdom; last month, Ecuadorians voted for a new constitution that gives the country’s air, forests and waterways “the right to exist, persist and … regenerate”.

Still, for the time being most greens are looking for more practical ways to persuade people to protect the planet. At the World Conservation Congress, currently underway in Barcelona, researchers and policy wonks have been chattering about a new study that pegs the annual cost of deforestation at between $2 trillion and $5 trillion, since chopping down trees means we have to pay more to provide people with clean air and water.

Study leader Pavan Sukhdev notes that the total cost of logging and land-clearance dwarfs the economic fallout from the current financial crisis. "It's not only greater but it's also continuous, it's been happening every year, year after year," he told the BBC. That’s the message that greens need to drive home. Never mind the dignity of plants: saving the planet is a pocketbook issue, and our leaders’ inaction is costing us big bucks.

No easy answer to nuclear waste

John McCain may live to regret scoffing at Barack Obama’s suggestion that we should make sure we can safely dispose of radioactive waste before we rush out and start building new nuclear power plants: this week, a series of new proposed rulings from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission underscored just how difficult - technologically and politically - the storage of nuclear waste can be.

The rulings focus on the proposed deadline for completing the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste depository. In 1984, the Department of Energy said it would build the nuclear storage site by 1998, followed by a second depository in 2004. When that proved impossible, the deadline was shifted to sometime between 2007 and 2009; then to 2010; then to a loose projection that the site would be up and running "sometime in the first quarter of the 21st century".

Now the NRC wants to scrap the 2025 deadline too, preferring instead sketch out a vague timeline for bringing the nuclear storage site online within 50 to 60 years of the point when America’s nuclear plants cease functioning. The commission says that’s reasonable because decommissioned nuclear plants could safely store radioactive waste on-site for "at least" 60 years; that may be the case, but it’s worth noting that until recently the NRC was using a 30-year estimate for safe on-site storage of nuclear materials.

The NRC says its revised timeline isn’t intended to indicate doubts about the feasibility of bringing the Yucca Mountain depository online in a timely manner. Still, the group’s hemming and hawing - which follows on the heels of a row over the radiation safety standards to applied at the site - is a reminder of the difficulties associated with creating a national nuclear dump less than 100 miles from Las Vegas.

That makes John McCain’s decision to laugh off the problem of nuclear-waste storage looks even stranger. His nuclear cheerleading at this week’s debate didn’t play well with undecided voters, at least according to CNN’s focus-group ticker; and his longstanding support for the Yucca Mountain storage facility isn’t doing him any favors in Nevada, where 58 percent of residents oppose the project.

Nuclear power may well have a part, and even a substantial part, to play in America’s energy portfolio as we wean ourselves from fossil fuels. But it’s essential that, as we move forward, we take the time to figure out how we’ll solve the specific problems an expanded nuclear industry would bring. As the NRC’s latest bout of foot-shuffling demonstrates, there are no easy answers when it comes to radioactive waste.

Previous Page
Next Page

Issue 25

Sign up for Plenty's Weekly Newsletter