Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Be More Like France

Ed Glaeser says (via The Economist):

[I]f China’s per capita carbon dioxide emissions increase by 14.4 tons and reach United States levels, then world carbon dioxide emissions will increase by about 19 billion tons or 67 percent.

If per capita carbon emissions in both China and India rise to United States per capita levels, then global carbon emissions will rise 138 percent. If the emissions of these rising superpowers stop at French, rather than American, levels, global emissions will only increase by about 28 percent.

This suggests the biggest contribution that the United States can make to reducing world carbon emissions is to persuade the Indians and Chinese to use energy like Frenchmen rather than Americans.

This is true. However, it's important to know why France has lower emissions. It's not because they obsess more about the green content of their packaging or worry more about leaving the lights on as they leave the room, or because the French are more moral or better people. In huge part, it's because the French went all-nuclear after the '70s Energy Crisis, while the US enacted an array of environmental-pushed regulatory barriers on nuclear after Three Mile Incident. As a result, the US uses lots of carbon-intensive coal to generate power.

India and China also have huge coal stores, but they've been more farsighted about taking a look at nuclear power. China has plans to generate about 250 GW of energy (about five times the total output of Britain) by 2030. The India-US nuclear deal has paved the way for the Indian nuclear program; with potential output of 470 GW by 2050. Obviously, both of these are optimistic projections; but certainly energy of this magnitude is going to come online either from coal or nuclear, and a share of nuclear this large is the only way to ensure that China and India approach France-like levels of carbon emissions rather than US-levels. Incidentally, by signing this bill, Bush possibly did more for reducing global carbon emissions than Obama (though he voted for the bill) ever will.

The US could get down to French levels as well. For various reasons, the feel-good technologies like wind and solar will probably not get us there--they're too expensive, too intermittent, and not scalable enough to replace coal as a source of base energy--nor will green jobs materialize. Yet nuclear power, especially linked with battery cars, can cut US emissions drastically with no increase in costs. Switching over to electricity instead of gas would also end persistent trade imbalances which have been implicated in the financial collapse, and eliminate oil shocks as a source of economic problems.

Fortunately, Carlos Ghosn is hard at work on electric cars (though Chevy has backed away, despite this being the rationale for their bailout); the Energy Secretary is pro-nuclear; and there are encouraging signs that the bipartisan deal being brokered over Cap and Trade will feature a heavy nuclear component as well.

The takeaway here, as usual, is that the environmental movement is its own worst enemy. Their emotional and fear-based attacks against all things nuclear have jeopardized the only clean, cheap, and scalable source of combating global warming.

They've chosen to highlight global warming on grounds of personal morality; spreading "awareness" and emphasising how we all need to inconvenience ourselves in ways that address our guilt in destroying the world, but which ultimately are not effective. If they got together and emphasized rational, cost-effective policies like nuclear power, geoengineering, or carbon taxes; we would make much more progress, both here and other countries.

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