30 March 2009

The Kyoto Protocol: Is America Undercutting Progress?

At the end of my last post, I mentioned the Kyoto Protocol and the recalcitrance of the United States to ratify this international agreement. Briefly described, it requires thirty-seven of the major industrialized nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by a particular amount before 2012 (this amount is country-specific), and those ratifying the treaty are bound to its terms. It may not be readily apparent, but U.S. refusal to participate in this regime has extremely significant ramifications for the field of alternative energy. A simple analysis of carbon dioxide release—one of the most important greenhouse gases regulated in the Protocol—reveals that the largest sources are coal (see below), oil, and gas power plants, as well as gasoline-burning automobiles. Thus, any U.S. involvement would produce huge changes for industries and possibly force more vigorous development of alternative energies. American refusal to ratify the treaty seems to continue, however: the New York Times recently reported that the Obama administration has invited leaders from the European Union and sixteen of the world’s major economies to Washington, D.C. for the purpose of discussing energy and climate issues. Written by Andrew Revkin, the article notes that the “Major Economies Meetings on Energy Security and Climate Change” are an extension of similar talks organized by the Bush administration and part of an American attempt to skirt Kyoto and develop its own solution.

This longstanding effort had sparked an argument over whether these kinds of meetings undermine United Nations-brokered treaties like the one under discussion. The Times explains that most of the criticism of summits akin to Obama's hails from developing countries, which believe that the U.S. and other industrialized states are simply attempting to circumvent true global agreement and shut out smaller governments. Other prominent environmentalists, however, believe that despite the fact that these meetings do not take place in a U.N. setting, they are nonetheless essential in that they help find “common ground among the world’s biggest emitters of heat-trapping gases.” As a scholar of international relations, I feel a responsibility to address this issue. Are talks of this nature helpful, or do they simply create an exclusive camp that argues in opposition to the developing community when it comes time to negotiate at the United Nations? It is my belief that, although exclusive in nature, the Major Economies Meetings on Energy Security and Climate Change will be important because they can bring the United States to the negotiating table on an issue that they have traditionally been very disinclined to discuss. It is this kind of meeting that may lead to some of the most needed developments in alternative energy and combat climate change.

The battle for environmental causes is not a new one. It was only in 1997, however, that the Kyoto Protocol was signed. Internationally renowned, the Protocol represents one of the first truly compulsory international covenants on greenhouse gases, but continued U.S. refusal to ratify it is an indicator that there are some critical flaws. Indeed, domestic support is still very weak because Kyoto does not place binding targets on some of the heaviest polluting developing countries. In order to understand why an alternative treaty is a necessity, we must flush out a few important conditions. First, I note that serious terms are imposed upon some industrialized countries while exempting many others such as Ch
ina—one of the world’s leading emitters—from mandatory standards. Second, it must be acknowledged that the United States has historically been among the top five highest polluters (see right). Lastly, recall that the U.S. government has repeatedly voiced its refusal to sign any environmental accord that exempts others, citing economic concerns. Specifically, the U.S. is concerned about its industries’ competitiveness when restricted by the Protocol when other international companies are not. Combined, these factors practically force the need for an additional agreement that brings in the United States. Indeed, as the BBC reported, U.S. non-participation would produce less than a 5% average reduction in world greenhouse gas emissions, thus rendering it ineffective. And, nearly four years after the treaty came into effect, it is obvious that the U.S. will not be changing its policy toward the pact in time to make any real difference (Kyoto’s terms end in 2012). Obama has already become known as a president that has reversed some of the previous administration’s decisions rather quickly. Unfortunately for Kyoto, Obama’s call for an independent meeting of leading economies is compelling evidence that he has no intentions of reversing the Bush administration's position in this matter.

I do not believe that the international community should reward what appears to be diplomatically immature behavior on the part of the United States, but I agree with National Wildlife Fund president Larry Schweiger in that policy makers should recognize the extreme consequences of not having this economic giant on board and consider any reasonable alternate efforts the U.S. makes to reduce its emissions. True enough, Obama’s meetings will shut out many developing countries. The Protocol does not currently obligate these states to make any reductions, however, the meetings will involve those that are subject to targets while also including some key governments that are not (China), making it not entirely private in nature. Additionally, this makeup is perhaps an appropriate one: without sounding too pretentious, it must be acknowledged that those invited include both the worst offenders and the biggest economies in the world. And if the hurdles rendering Kyoto ineffective are economic ones, then an independent meeting of countries party to these problems may be the only way to achieve any real progress. These kinds of agreements place necessary pressure on world governments, and by forcing reductions of harmful emissions they can encourage the growth of alternative energy. I contend that complaints about exclusivity, especially when voiced by a group that is not coerced into action, undercut the true spirit of environmental cooperation. Accentuating petty differences to stop any potential moves forward is deplorable, and as a generation that will greatly affect the environment's future, we have a responsibility take action.

09 March 2009

Green Government: The Administration's Role in Cultivating a Greener America

In a previous post, I discussed the benefits afforded to the green energy industry by the recently passed stimulus package, noting that the effort to save these companies will be long-term despite the excellent boost provided in the legislation. This week, however, I thought it necessary to delve deeper into the government's role in the transition of America's economy to a greener one, using two posts that I discovered through the BBC and the New York Times. The first post, coincidentally written by the previously cited Kate Galbraith, details a meeting of the "Middle Class Task Force," whose members include the Vice President and some of his advisors. Galbraith notes some of the highlights of this Philadelphia meeting, placing particular reverence on the statements of Van Jones, the founder of the non-governmental organization Green For All, who stated that green jobs should be used to clean up the ghettos first. The second post I will address is part of Justin Rowlatt's "Ethical Man" blog (see left), a series in which Rowlatt chronicles his trip across America examining solutions to global warming. A congenial and pleasant writer, Rowlatt recently wrote about the importance of America's contribution to the climate change campaign, calling its involvement a true "game changer," and admitting that his trip has begun to raise his hopes for a global agreement on climate change in general. Though these posts are relatively broad in scope, I felt it important to spend some time addressing the part the United States government will play in reference to alternative energy and even the effort to stem climate change in general. My responses to these posts display my sentiments that the current administration is pushing in the right direction, filling some important shoes in the international fight against global warming. I have, as previously done, linked to my comments at their original sites, but also pasted them here to avoid any access-related problems.

"Biden, Luminaries Promote Green Jobs"

Kate, thank you so much for taking some time to focus on the efforts of our current administration. I feel that we have reached a turning point in the fight against climate change, and as a proponent of alternative energy I am so encouraged by the meeting you have discussed in this post.

I would like to ask you about a particular part of your post. In your description of the Middle Class Task Force's meeting, you state that "it was Van Jones, a green-jobs activist and one of the panelists, who brought down the house," noting that his suggestion that we use green jobs to encourage the decline of violence in ghettos. Do you feel that this is an achievable objective? During my research on alternative energy, I have often read and even posted about the green sector's potential to create enough jobs to pull the American economy out of the gutter, but I have never read about its ability to reduce violence in ghettos. Clearly, though, Van Jones has immense faith in the green industry's ability to lift people out of poverty, and I think this is an admirable and unique approach to take on the subject. Indeed, Green for All's website states that the creation of "green-collar" jobs will pair "two crucial concerns about survival - the environment and making a living." The transition to a green economy will undoubtedly produce many opportunities and Jones's Green for All movement is an example of the diverse groups that believe in this fact. Personally, I feel that full dedication to the green movement is the only way that we can see a change both in the American economy and in global emissions, and such changes have the ability to bring out a complete restructuring of these realms, including the creation of several new financial sectors, like those seen in Silicon Valley or even downtown areas in general. I am proud to have voted for an administration that has formed a Middle Class Task Force, and its conversation about the opportunities of green-collar jobs enhances my faith in the abilities of the transition we are experiencing.

"Why America is the game-changer on climate"

Justin, first allow me to voice my excitement and say that I greatly enjoy your blog. What a great way to experience the emerging green industries and explore America's efforts on climate change! That being said, I would like to address some of the facets of your post about America's role in the fight against global warming.

I am glad you have pointed out that, while there are economic risks involved with becoming the first "low carbon economy," Obama is not willing to stand by and watch American industries and consumers continue to degrade the environment. The cap-and-trade idea has been controversial to say the least, but it is wrong for us to expect a perfect solution. Some environmentalists argue that this is one way that economically productive polluters stay entrenched in their position: by pointing out only the flaws in potential solutions and arguing that we must wait for comprehensive tactic that will show immediate results without causing any collateral damage. To counter this argument and risk sounding colloquial, you have to crack some eggs if you want to make an omelet: while I do not believe that America will be economically crippled by a leading position on climate change, we must accept that some changes will be made. The result, however, is something Dr. Hansen, cited in your post, said: we will avoid "catastrophic climate change." I do, however, wonder about your position on the issue. Do you believe the economic hurdles are too great to conquer this issue? Do you believe that the alternative energy cause will die before it is truly developed?

Secondly, I would like to commend Hillary Clinton (see right), who has been putting climate change at the heart of her foreign policy trips. This is important, for as you said, any plan to stop climate change (such as the cap-and-trade system) "will need to try to ensure that no country seeks to profit from the rest of the world's attempt to tackle global warming by operating as a kind of off-store high-carbon industrial centre." Thus, implementing these concerns in foreign policy is imperative, especially if America wishes to construct its own alternative to the Kyoto Protocol. To conclude and to respond to your question, America will definitely be the game-changer on climate. It is extremely influential, and the inclusion of climate change in foreign policy will allow it to push this movement forward.

02 March 2009

Smart Grids: An Important First Step

In recent posts, I have spent time discussing some alternatives to traditional sources of electricity, and weighed the costs and benefits of a few of those currently under development. As these entries pointed out, advances in this field are becoming more and more possible due to the benevolent political environment ushered in by Barack Obama's inauguration and evidenced by the stimulus package's provisions for a new, greener energy sector. I have no doubts that Obama's policies will push these technologies forward. However, I do believe that this transition will be a long and difficult one and that America must do whatever it can to continue in this direction at every moment. It is for this reason that a General Electric commercial (see left) advertising "smart grids" caught my eye in the past week. Further research led me to a CNN article that gave me a better understanding of what smart grids can do: increase America's energy efficiency, thereby reducing both its impact on the environment as well as its dependence on foreign oil. The argument is simple and to the point. Smart grids lower the amount of electricity wasted, significantly cutting down on the total amount that America uses. But how useful will these grids be, and will they really affect or greatly change America's energy industry? Additionally, what effects will they have on alternative energy sources? By discussing the CNN article and this new technology in general, I will show that each of these questions yields a positive answer. Smart grid governance will restructure individual Americans' experiences, lowering cost and increasing public participation in the industry, all the while making it easier for alternative energy to gain a bigger edge in the market.

Let us tackle these questions one at a time, beginning with the question of utility. The CNN article states that smart grids use digital methods to distribute electricity more efficiently. The benefits of such a change are immense: "According to research sponsored by the U.S. Government, improving the efficiency of the national electricity grid by 5 per cent would be the equivalent of eliminating the fuel use and carbon emissions of 53 million cars." This is a staggering statistic, especially when we combine it with GE's data that utilization of the technology in question by only 50% of American homes would result in a CO2 reduction of over 18 million tons-an amount that some countries could not even imagine emitting, let alone cutting. If we define these efforts as important, which we must, then smart grids are extremely useful. Second, full implementation of these grids will greatly alter the way Americans interact with their energy companies. In addition to inherently lower costs, consumers that produce electricity on their own, such as those with solar panels on their roof (see right) or even a coal furnace in their home, will be able to sell any power they produce in home back to the grid. This surely changes the nature of consumption, but the technology goes even further. Homeowners will have the ability to monitor their energy usage and determine what amount each appliance or object in their home is utilizing by checking their smart meters, allowing for more cost-efficient lifestyles. At a fundamental level, too, smart grids will also require massive restructuring of the existing grid system, needing nation-wide changes and participation to be truly effective; it is not as impressive on a micro-scale. Lastly, and in view of this blog’s main topic, we must consider what smart grids can do for alternative energy. The CNN article explains that one of the major contributions is the decentralization of the industry, making each source of power, regardless of type or size, regionally important. Indeed, CNN writes, “your future home would be as likely to be powered by electricity from a neighbor's roof-top solar panel, or a biomass generator on the edge of town, as from a traditional power plant 50 or 100 miles away.” As others have written, the smart grid’s storage capabilities also dispel concerns about alternative energy’s reliability, a problem I have previously discussed, by essentially saving up what is not used.

It is at this point that I wish to bring other dimensions to the discussion. In particular, combining this strategy with other alternative energy projects will make for a comprehensively effective way to combat global warming and reduce America’s carbon emissions. A recent article shows how individual electric cars may some day influence the amount of power surging through a grid, making them one of the potential sources to power a microwave or refrigerator at home. Indeed, industry experts and businesspeople in Michigan found the relationship between electric cars and smart grid technology so compelling that they held a forum guided by an exploration of this connection and the effect it will have on Michigan’s future. Others still are investigating how to directly associate wind power’s input with electric cars’ strain on grids, using smart grid technology to enhance efficiency and better manage fluctuations in production and consumption. There are undoubtedly additional direct connections under research, and a consideration of the relationship at a basic level-electric grid, electric vehicle-reveals a strong case for continuing such research. Indeed, breaking America’s foreign oil dependency may not only prove environmentally helpful, but it is possible that it will actually enhance its security as well, as Thomas L. Friedman argues in the April 15, 2007 issue of New York Times Magazine. After detailing numerous reasons why smart grids are useful and how they will change the face of the energy industry while enhancing the prospects for alternative energy, however, I wish to close by returning to recurring theme in previous posts: continuing development in this sector will provide more jobs for a struggling American economy. The CNN article also supports this argument, specifically stating that “every $1 billion in government spending would lead to approximately 30,000 jobs per year.” Unfortunately, a theory that has been offered in the past to explain why alternative energy has not caught on is one that I subscribe to: people do not understand new technologies and do not want to support them because of it. This, too, is a concern detailed in the article, but it is my hope that smart grid technology will catch on as it is fundamentally an improvement of existing infrastructure. With so many concrete benefits, it would be foolish not to support these measures.
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