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Environment Magazine September/October 2008

 

October 2007

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Editorial - Rethinking Energy Options to Address Climate Change

Hardly a day goes by without a new report, article, or broadcast on the importance of facing global climate change. As Diana Liverman points out in her review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Working Group I report, “this year marks some important shifts in our understanding of climate change and its impacts” in large part because of the report’s most emphatic conclusions, namely that “‘warming of the climate system is unequivocal’ and that much (50 percent) of this warming is very likely (more than 90 percent) due to increases in greenhouse gas concentrations associated with human activity.”

Other calls for change have come from less likely suspects than the IPCC: Australian Prime Minister John Howe, who notably did not ratify the Kyoto Protocol, recently chaired the 2007 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic (APEC) Leaders Meeting, which concluded with a statement of the group’s commitment to “the global objective of stabilising greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous human interference with the climate system.” In the statement, APEC leaders put forward an action agenda that includes such measures as energy efficiency, low emissions technology, and alternative and low carbon energy uses. President George W. Bush endorsed the statement and called for China and other developing nations to join the effort to reduce emissions, a message that echoed his comments at the June G8 Summit.

Gone are the days when people clamoring for awareness on the issue of global climate change feel like they are pushing water uphill. The issue has the world’s attention.
That’s the good news. The bad news is two-fold. First, everyone has a favorite idea to solve the problem. Panaceas that various policymakers around the world have latched onto include sowing the ocean with iron particles, relying on ethanol from corn to replace fossil fuels, and rapidly increasing hydropower in China. Second, and related to the first, very few people realize that solving the problem will require some rather important rethinking of ways in which we do business.

The article by Michael K. Heiman and Barry D. Solomon in this issue (“Fueling U.S. Transportation: The Hydrogen Economy and Its Alternatives”), a very careful analysis of the hydrogen economy, makes this point. The hydrogen economy has been touted by many, including President Bush, who called for it in his 2003 State of the Union speech as means to achieve energy security and, as a secondary benefit, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Not so fast, say Heiman and Solomon. Although hydrogen may have many attractive features, it is not an energy source itself but merely a carrier. That is, hydrogen must be produced from other sources, for example, from natural gas, water, petroleum, or biomass and coal. As a result, it is only as green as the source of the energy. The upshot, the authors note, is that it may be more effective to find alternative ways to use these energy sources (particularly some of the renewable options) directly than to take the extra step of using them to produce hydrogen to power our transportation needs.

Unfortunately, some of these alternatives have their own problems. Recently, ethanol produced from feed corn has become all the rage, particularly in the farm belt, which stands to gain a great deal from this production. But Heiman and Solomon raise serious questions as to whether there isn’t more, or at least as much, energy going into the production of ethanol from corn than one gets out of it.

What is needed now, and what this magazine has always stood for, is this kind of thoughtful approach to the various proposals that have been put forward. Energy and its relation to global climate change are extremely complex areas in which to work, and we have to be quite careful that our proposals help ameliorate the problem, not exacerbate it. Stay tuned to these pages; there is much more analysis to come, and much of it will be found here.
—Alan H. McGowan

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