Global warming and the Jevons Paradox

I am very pessimistic about global warming. Here’s why.

Pretty much every activity increases the level of CO2 on the planet. Of course, we know about those evil SUV drivers. But so do Prius drivers. So do public transportation riders. So do bicycle riders (How does their food get planted, harvested and transported to their table?).

But yes, some people use less energy than others, having switched to a “lower carbon footprint.” Countries like Britain have switched to natural gas from coal, emitting less CO2 per unit energy. What effect does this have?

If conservation efforts or technologies aimed at reducing energy usage continue, total energy usage will climb.

This is due to the Jevons Paradox, which is simply the law of supply and demand applied to energy. William Jevons discovered this to work when the coal-fired steam engine, which made coal use far more efficient, resulted in coal usage going up.

Why? Conservation reduces the demand for energy. That results in a lower per unit cost for energy. Energy is now more attractive to use, and more people will use it.

co2emiworld.jpgOr, projected onto the world of geopolitics, if the developed world reduces its use of fossil fuels (or, cheats like the UK has done, and simply switches to a less carbon-intensive fuel), that makes fossil fuels more accessible to the developing world. The developing world’s usage of fossil fuels goes up. This is not a conscious decision. It simply follows the laws of supply and demand. And countries that are using more fossil fuels are outpacing those that are using less.

So conservation efforts and political agreements that don’t include absolutely everyone will not work…that is, if your goal is to actually reduce CO2 output. The cynic in me truly believes that Kyoto was an attempt by the rich world to absolve itself of blame when global warming starts causing serious problems and the recriminations begin.

The EU can throw up its hands and say, “We did what we could, and you apparently agreed that was good enough by signing the Kyoto Accord in 1997!” (Notice I didn’t include Canada, New Zealand or other rich signatories, who have increased their CO2 levels above 1990 levels even more than the US has. And the biggest reducers are the former Communist countries that “enjoyed” rapid deindustrialization following the collapse of the Soviet empire)

And it’s not just a matter of getting “baddies” that everyone likes to bitch about, the US and China, to reduce their levels. There are approximately another 100 countries under people’s collective radar that are not obligated to do anything under Kyoto, that will continue to create more and more CO2 as their economies grow. And the more CO2 that’s reduced in the rich world by conservation, the more CO2 that will be created in the developing world as prices for fossil fuels are lowered.

So what is the solution, then? In my mind, there are only three:

  1. Create and propagate clean technologies that are actually cheaper to use, on a per unit basis, than fossil fuels.
  2. Somehow sequester the CO2 in the atmosphere.
  3. Find other ways to cool the planet, including raising the albedo of the planet, reducing jet condensation trails (contrails), etc.

#1 will take many decades to achieve. And keep in mind that the more clean technologies attempt to take away market share from fossil fuels, the lower the price of fossil fuels will drop…leading to more fossil fuel usage. So unit energy costs of renewable energy is a moving target unless you can agree at an international level (i.e. in EVERY country) to subsidize alternative energy and/or tax fossil fuels.

#2 seems attractive if it can be done so economically. I know there are attempts to seed the ocean with minerals (principally iron) that will cause a bloom of (CO2-absorbing) phytoplankton that will drop to the ocean floor and effectively sequester CO2 for thousands of years.

#3 is worth investigating, as well. If there are ways to reflect light/heat from the planet that would offset the rise in heating created by higher CO2 levels, there might be promise.

I’m not suggesting we don’t encourage conservation, or invest in alternative energy today. Both have benefits that go far beyond CO2 reduction. Conservation improves economic efficiency (which is probably why China is enforcing a high mpg standard, which Al Gore mentions in Inconvenient Truth) and there are other pollutants, like sulfur and nitrogen oxides, ozone and particulates that we would probably want to reduce in the air.

But until people (and that includes self-righteous activists like Laurie David) grapple with the reality that adherence to Kyoto does almost nothing to counter global warming, nothing will really improve on the global warming front.