Greenhouse Gas Reduction Is No Simple Task

It was last December in Kyoto, Japan, that the Clinton administration agreed to major reductions in U. S. emissions of "greenhouse gases." Now, almost six months later, you’d think that administration officials would have told the American people what this requires and asked them for the support necessary to achieve the objectives. But that hasn’t happened yet.

All that has been indicated so far is that improvements in technology, not sacrifices or lifestyle changes, will be needed. President Clinton has said that, "if we do it right, protecting the climate will yield not cost, but profits; not burdens, but benefits; not sacrifices, but a higher standard of living."

The burning of fossil fuels—primarily coal, oil, and natural gas—converts the carbon and hydrogen in the fuel to carbon dioxide (CO2) and water. These products of combustion can not be removed from the exhaust by simple emission control techniques such as catalytic convertors or scrubbers. Partly as a result of increased burning of fuels, nature’s processes for converting CO2 back into oxygen have not been able to keep up and increases in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air have occurred over the past 150 years. It is important to note, though, that CO2 concentration is small relative to the oxygen, nitrogen, and water in the air and these increases are not directly harmful to life.

However, some scientists believe that the CO2 increases enhance the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere and they theorize that this will cause warming of the earth. The intent of the Kyoto agreement is to slow down the buildup. The U. S. commitment is to reduce emission of greenhouse gases to levels seven percent below those of 1990 by the year 2012.

The U. S. Department of Energy estimates that by 2012, absent special action, American CO2 emissions will reach 1,800 million metric tons per year of carbon. This is 550 million metric tons, or 44 percent, above the amount committed to in Kyoto.

The difficulties in achieving the reduction are exemplified in "Global Warming Wake Up Call," an article in the December 22, 1997 issue of Newsweek. It highlights six areas that the Department of Energy believes will lead to big savings. These range from new technology for better gas mileage for cars and trucks, more efficient buildings and appliances, increases in wind power, and reduction in coal use for power generation. Unfortunately, the sum of the savings from these six areas shows a reduction of 129-195 million metric tons per year, far short of the required 550.

Plentiful, low cost energy is the driver of the American economy. It feeds the complex automated machinery and high-tech work aids that make Americans the most productive workers in the world. This high productivity is the basis for American economic success and the generator of the great wealth that leads to longer, healthier lives.

Although large per capita consumers of energy, Americans have made steady progress at energy efficiency improvement. Automobiles are 50 percent more efficient than 25 years ago; homes and buildings are better insulated; and more efficient furnaces, hot water heaters, and refrigerators have been developed. Industrial processes have become more energy efficient and electric power production, the biggest emitter of CO2, has improved. Energy use as a percentage of GDP has significantly decreased and per capita consumption is a little below the levels of the mid-1970’s.

Whether global warming is a crisis remains open to debate, but high efficiency use of energy resources is a worthy goal and deserves our attention. The proposed reduction is a massive stretch and will never be achieved in 14 years by technology and industrial improvements alone. If the administration believes in the goal of Kyoto, it needs to be more candid about how we get there. Then, and only then, can Americans render a sound judgment on the question of whether the payoff is worth the pain.