Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Symbol of the Impossible

By David G. Young

Washington DC, June 30, 2009 --  

America's proposed carbon limits are but a symbolic gesture toward an unachievable goal.

The passage of America's first carbon dioxide pollution limits in the House of Representatives marks a major victory for symbol over substance in the American environmental movement. If the plan becomes law, it will mandate cutting America's 2005 emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and 83 percent by 2050 through a system of tradable caps on output.1 Sounds good. Too bad it won't do anything to save the planet.

The main flaw in the House plan is that America isn't projected to be the main source of new carbon dioxide emissions in the next few decades -- China and India are. And given the impoverished conditions of most residents of these giant countries, their low energy use, and resulting low per-person emissions, there is little chance of stopping their 2.5 billion residents from burning everything in their path along the road to prosperity.

Let's say a miracle happens, and China, India and all the other countries in the world somehow manage to limit their carbon dioxide emissions to the same per-capita levels planned for the United States in 2050. Because of population growth and rising living standards (and energy use) in poor countries from currently low levels, the world would still emit about one percent more carbon dioxide in 2050 than it does today.2

Yet even this gloomy best-case scenario won't come to pass because China and India have made no such commitments to reduce their carbon emissions and show no signs of ever doing so.

Activists who acknowledge this reality say that America must take action anyway to set an example for developing countries. But once an act becomes about setting an example, rather than about practical results, then it is only symbolism that remains.

And symbolism is precisely what today's popular expressions of environmentalism are all about. Consider the Toyota Prius, the allegedly green hybrid that is ubiquitous on the posh streets of trendy and well-healed urban neighborhoods.

Because the Prius has only tiny electric batteries, all its power must come from the exact same carbon-spewing fossil fuels that power every other car in the world. The hybrid design does allow the typical driver to put about 30 percent less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (and save about the same percentage of fuel) compared with the most efficient conventional subcompacts.3 Not bad, but this savings comes at a high price.

The Prius sells for $22,000, which is nearly 50 percent more than the conventional Totota Yaris.4,5 The typical driver won't come close to making up the $7,600 cost difference in fuel savings over a 10 year period.6

More importantly, this $7,600 price premium is far from the best way to reduce carbon emissions. The typical cost to reduce a ton of carbon dioxide through offset programs is less than $20.7 A Prius will emit 17 tons less carbon dioxide over a 10 year period when compared with a Yaris8, at a net cost of $447 per ton9. This is about 20 times the cost of a typical carbon offset. Not a good deal.

If an environmentally conscious consumer really cares about the environment more than showing off a green status symbol, he could just buy a Yaris, and spend the $7,600 savings on carbon credits. End result: 20 times less pollution. The fact that the Yaris is rare among environmentalists and the Prius is ubiquitous proves that symbols trump substance in the environmental movement.

Those who defend such symbolic acts claim that only by inspiring others to take action that we can hope to make a difference as a society. Perhaps. But given the demographics of the world, it is only the Chinese and the Indians who we need to inspire when it comes to limiting future carbon dioxide emissions. And it is pretty hard to imagine how Americans, with their rich and cushy lives, are going to convince struggling Chinese and Indian workers not to seek out the same comfortable yet energy intensive lifestyles that Americans enjoy.

The reality is that it is impossible to limit carbon dioxide emissions enough to make a meaningful difference, because it requires fighting against human nature. People in the world have been striving to improve their lives for millions of years, and burning more and more stuff in the process. Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are simply unstoppable for the foreseeable future.

To the extent that this poses a risk to warming the planet, a more productive solution may be to try to counteract warming through other means. Scientists have proposed various means of cooling the earth including painting rooftops white on a massive scale10 and spraying aerosols high into the atmosphere.11

A less risky alternative may be simply focus our resources on limiting the human impact of any warming that does occur -- by relocating low-lying coastal settlements that might be flooded and relocating agricultural areas to more suitable climatic regions.

The sooner environmentalists give up the lost cause of fighting carbon dioxide emissions, the sooner we can focus on workable solutions to our environmental problems. A focus on substance, not symbols, would be welcome change.

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1. Washington Post, In close vote, House Passes Climate Bill, June 27, 2009

2. European Commission JRC Joint Research Centre, Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research, May 25, 2009

The above database is the source for the 2005 world and US carbon emissions in the calculations that follow. America's per-capita carbon output in 2050 under the House plan would be:
(2005 US Carbon Emissions) x (1- 83 percent) / (300 million people) =
(5970 million metric tons per year) x (0.17) / (300 million people) = 3.4 metric tons per person per year
If everybody in the world were to achieve this level, then the total carbon emissions in 2050 would be:
(2050 per capita emissions) x (2050 world population) =
(3.4 metric tons per person per year) x (6.7 billion people) = 31500 million metric tons
Given that 2005 world carbon emissions were 31100 million metric tons, the relative emissions in 2050 under this scenario would be: 31500/31100 x 100 = 101.3 percent, or just over a 1 percent increase from 2005 levels.

3., 2009 Vehicles by Toyota, June 2009

4. Automobile Magazine, 2009 Toyota Prius Prices, June 2009

5. Ibid, 2009 Tyota Yaris Prices, June 2009

6., Ibid.

7. Carbon Catalog, Carbon Offset Providers, June 2009

8., Ibid. ((5.7 tons / year -- 4 tons / year) x 10 years) = 17 tons

9. $7600 / 17 tons = $447 per ton

10. Washington Post, White Rooftops May Help Slow Warming, June 14, 2009

11. National Public Radio, Scientists Debate Shading Earth As Climate Fix, June 16, 2009