Environmental Law 101: Winston Churchill and Forrest Gump Contribute to the Climate Change Debate

Regardless of what one thinks about climate change/warming, the impacts of air pollution itself are staggering.  The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that 7 million people died in 2012 from air pollution with 40% of those being in China.  That’s a huge problem and it is the result of inadequate environmental control of particulates as well as other air pollutants in many parts of the world.

As China has industrialized, it became the top generator of CO₂.  Several years ago, it had no fewer than 25 coal fired energy generator plants under construction and was completing a new coal-fired plant every ten days (New Republic, November 2014); China produces 75% – 80% of its energy from coal (Scientific American, November 2014; The Economist, December 6, 2014).  Therefore, because China is so much a part of the problem (the United States is the second largest generator of CO₂), there can be so solution to the CO₂ issue unless China is part of the solution.  This assumes, of course, that one believes that increases in temperature can be significantly mitigated by significant decreases in CO₂ emissions–as most scientists believe is the case, but as most politicians argue is not the case.  Regardless, China recently said that it would cap its increase in CO₂ emissions, and will increase its share of energy that doesn’t come from fossil fuels to 20%, by 2030.  In turn, the United States pledged to reduce GHG emissions 26% – 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.  The 28 nation-members of the European Union have pledged to cut GHG emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030.  Mexico has recently announced its goal to produce one-third of its energy from “clean” sources by 2024; and to cap its CO₂ emissions by 2020.  Until the reductions kick in, assuming that they do, overall emissions will continue to increase; but, as they say in the finance industry, “the trend is your friend.”  You can’t reduce before you stop increasing.

Changing the way that nations generate their energy is like turning a super tanker around—it happens slowly and incrementally.  Forrest Gump once famously said (more or less):  “Stuff happen.”  The trend toward renewable energy is ongoing, but one of the obvious substitutes for fossil-fired energy is nuclear power.  To say the least, there have been setbacks on that front; and no nuclear plant has been constructed in the United States in decades.  Japan experienced the Fukushima disaster; Russia the Chernobyl disaster.  Nuclear plants can relate to the development of nuclear weapons—note the concern about Iran.  Germany has made a political decision to wean itself off of nuclear power, but the preferred substitute fuel may be natural gas and that comes from Russia.  These are all tough questions.  China has started to deal with its CO₂ issue by adding hydroelectric power to its grid—namely the Three Gorges Dam (which had environmental and social impacts of its own) which helped China add more non-fossil fuel generating capacity than fossil-fired fuel capacity in 2013.  Three Gorges added 22 gigawatts of power and China intends to add an additional 1000 gigawatts of power from low-carbon emitting sources by 2030 (Scientific American, November 2014).  And, in addition, China has no fewer than two dozen nuclear power plants under construction and wants to triple its nuclear capacity by 2020 (The Economist, December 6, 2014).  All this reminds me of the old saw:  “Be careful what you wish for.”

It is also interesting to see what the private sector is doing in response to the climate change debate.  Many are moving to reduce their “carbon footprints” and to increase the use of renewable power.  Others, in the oil industry itself (e.g., ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell) and in the utility industry (e.g., American Electric Power, one of the largest and most coal-reliant utilities in the United States), have begun to put an internal price on carbon associated with proposed new projects as well as on existing facilities (referred to as “carbon pricing”)  based on a belief that “it’s only a matter of time before governments around the world impose a price on carbon emissions” (“If it is Good Enough for Big Oil . . .”, Bloomberg Businessweek, November 17 – 23, 2014).  The purpose is to estimate the future cost that might be placed on carbon in a particular market in order to judge the future profitability of projects.  It is easy to overlook the fact that “cap and trade” was successfully used to reduce acid rain decades ago, but to do so in a way that reduced costs to those who were sources of sulfur dioxide (SO₂) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) by allowing them to purchase and retire sources of those contaminants as part of their compliance plan.  That term has a bad political connotation today with respect to the global warming issue, but industry is familiar with the approach and is anticipating, over the next generation, the use of a similar approach to CO₂ emissions.

Will any of this help?  I don’t know.  I don’t know if we can or can’t influence the accelerating warming trend by reducing or eliminating CO₂ emissions; but, when dealing with environmental issues over the last 45 years, I have learned that there is almost never a black/white situation—i.e., even though impacts cannot be eliminated, there is always the ability to mitigate.  We cleaned up our rivers when they were not fishable or swimmable; and we cleaned up the air when it wasn’t breathable.  We responded to the threat to the ozone layer and to the threat of acid rain.  The alternative option of dealing with global warming is adaptation.  But, as explained in a prior post, taking no action is not cost free—it only defers incurring costs to the future (to those grandchildren that we worry about) when they can be expected to far exceed the costs of mitigation today.  The simple reality is, however, that you can’t cure a problem if you deny that it exists.  Winston Churchill once said:  “The world is moving on and moving so fast that few have time to ask whither.” Although I can’t predict the future, Sir Winston, once again, did–just as he did almost a century ago.  The reality also is that if China is not in the game, nothing significant can be done; but China won’t be in the game unless the United States is and that will require Congress engaging which, realistically, most likely won’t happen for a generation.  World leaders are about to meet in Lima, Peru to discuss a future new agreement on climate change.  Regardless of the outcome, one suspects that we will get more heat than light out of Washington, DC for the foreseeable future.





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