Environment: As the World Turns, It Gets Warmer

Environment: As the World Turns, It Gets Warmer

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The latest report on global carbon emissions from the International Energy Agency is generating a lot of heat. Emissions from fossil fuels rose 3.2 percent in 2011 to 31.6 gigatons, the highest level on record.

If you’re a global warming skeptic, you needn’t read any further. But if you believe in the precautionary principle, then you might be upset with the report’s warning that the world has moved within 1 gigaton of the level that climatologists say will increase average global temperatures by 2 degrees centigrade by the end of the century.

What might that mean? The Economist Magazine weighed in this week with a cover story on “The vanishing north: What the melting of the Arctic means for trade, energy and the environment.” There are a lot of economic opportunities in opening up the sea lanes across the North Pole, they said. There are more chances to find more fossil fuels and new fishing grounds to exploit.

But the perils are greater. “Around 125,000 years ago (a blink of the eye in geologic time) – when the International Panel on Climate Change thinks the Arctic was last much warmer than today – polar meltwater raised the sea level by 4-6 meters,” the magazine noted. “If that happened again it would displace a billion people and inundate most of the world’s biggest cities, including New York, London and Mumbai.”

There was some good news in the IEA report, at least as far as the U.S. and Europe are concerned. All of the increase came from developing countries like China and India, while advanced industrial countries actually decreased their carbon emissions by 0.6 percent last year. As the developing world catches up economically, those countries, too, should be able to cap their total emissions while still preserving economic growth.

How did the advanced industrial world do it? In the U.S., it was a combination of factors. Automobiles continue to become more fuel efficient and the economy is less energy intensive than it used to be. Even though the economy grew slowly last year, it took less energy than in previous years to get that level of growth.

But there was a much more important reason for the substantial decline in carbon emissions in the U.S.: the trend toward substituting natural gas for coal in electricity generation. When it comes to carbon emissions, natural gas is a far more efficient fuel than either coal or oil for every unit of energy it  generates. Natural gas substitution was largely responsible for U.S. carbon emissions falling 1.7 percent last year and over 7 percent since 2006.

Both political parties in the U.S. have embraced the natural gas revolution now underway. Responsible elements of both parties have also said that the most controversial method for extracting newly-discovered deposits of gas – hydraulic fracturing or fracking – needs to be carefully regulated to ensure it doesn’t poison groundwater or the environment in the areas where it is most plentiful, which includes large swaths of the heavily populated eastern seaboard.

A smart energy policy would aim at doing everything possible to substitute gas for both coal and oil wherever possible and developing the technology to ensure that it is safe. But that isn’t the legislation that will be approved in the House later this week.

H.R. 4480, sponsored by Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., would open up most of both coasts to off-shore oil and gas drilling (there are very few productive off-shore gas deposits). It is the election-year embodiment of the former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s chant during the 208 election: “Drill, baby, drill.”

President Obama, after a one-year moratorium in the wake of BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, offered up targeted areas for more drilling. But apparently that isn’t enough. So the House is offering up another symbolic vote on a bill that will go nowhere in the Senate.

Meanwhile, a politically paralyzed Washington refuses to entertain the idea of converting more of America’s automobile, bus and truck fleet to home-grown natural gas or the electricity that comes from natural gas. Right now, that is the surest short-run path to achieving both energy independence – the ostensible goal of “drill, baby, drill” – and limiting carbon emissions.

spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent, economics writer and investigative business reporter for the Chicago Tribune and other publications. He is the author of the 2004 book, The $800 Million Pill: The Truth Behind the Cost of New Drugs.