Energy and the environment


Energy is our main constraint: with adequate sources of energy we are capable of achieving practically whatever we want, not least the protection of the environment. The water supply as well as the production and recycling of metals can always be secured by employing sufficient energy. The same holds for pollution control and even for food production. A universal tax on the release of carbon dioxide is the obvious, market-oriented solution to the greenhouse problem.

A formidable challenge

New sources of energy have always been the key to a better life. Beasts of burden replaced slaves and were in due course superseded by machines driven by wind or water power, and lately mainly by fossil fuels. With access to sufficient energy resources we are in the long term capable of achieving practically whatever we want; only technical prowess and capital are required to turn the trick. A shortage of energy correspondingly curtails our freedom of action.

Ecological calamities have become a real threat, especially in the backward regions of our planet. The grim outlook is not a consequence of techno-economical limitations. We can, for instance, only blame ourselves for favouring outdated energy sources and their attendant pollutants. Obnoxious oxides of nitrogen or sulphur can be removed from the smokestacks but the blanket of carbon dioxide will continue to enhance the greenhouse effect which constitutes the most formidable long-term threat to our environment. Disaster could, all of a sudden, strike the Northern hemisphere if the sensitive system of ocean currents would reverse, shutting off the Gulf-stream as has happened in the past.

New and better simulation models for climate change are emerging all the time. The only way to test them is by historic comparisons. The climate fluctuations during the last 800,000 years have been mapped out in considerable detail, thanks to the information available from ice core samples obtained by drilling in the Arctic and the Antarctic. Indirect research methods give an approximate picture of climate variation which goes back 650 million years. Certain qualitative relationships have been verified but by and large the models have not been capable of predicting the past. The problem is the vast range of variables and above all their non-linear interactions which lead to chaotically unpredictable outcomes.

The common if not consensual view is that the sun answers for only a minor portion of the recent increase in global temperature. The latest IPCC report of 2007 presents the exceedingly wide range 1.1–6.4 degrees Celsius as a forecast for the global warming up to 2100, but the high value is based on unrealistic assumptions for the future release of carbon dioxide. If we take the climate change seriously, the main point is the necessity for action, irrespective of the causal connections. Overall, there is a strong case for curbing the release of greenhouse gases. Here, if ever, the application of the precautionary principle is justified. It is much better to be too early than too late. The risk of setting off a tipping point of run-away climate change may not be that big. But if it happens it could cause irreversible havoc and turn into a worldwide disaster. Thus the control of the global climate is one of our key challenges.

On the other hand, a new ice age may be just around the corner. Then a dependable heating system would be welcome. William Ruddiman maintains in Plows, Plagues and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate that slash-and-burn agriculture, rice cultivation and husbandry began to influence the climate thousands of years ago by the release of carbon dioxide and methane. He asserts that the next glaciation has already been postponed by human intervention. James Lovelock takes the contrary position in The Revenge of Gaia (2006). He foresees disastrous desertification and mass migration, and sees nuclear power as the only short term solution to the climate problem.

The proper response

Alternative energy sources are still all the rage in the media even if they will have little impact on the release of carbon dioxide in the foreseeable future. Nuclear power has been subject to a shameless smear campaign and political horse-trading based on misinformed voter opinion. All means have been permissible to mislead and to frighten the common man about nuclear perils which are blown out of all proportion. The reactor trouble in Three Mile Island in 1979 did not hurt anyone and the radioactive emission was insignificant, but the jitters were all the worse. At the close of extensive investigations only one strong argument against nuclear power remained on the table – people were afraid of it. After the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the rabid opponents could gloat over a notable increase in mortality in the United States during the following months. If the correlation is at all relevant, the blame can squarely be put on the media uproar – physical causation is out of the question. But the root cause was probably a prolonged heat-wave.

The only halfway admissible argument against nuclear power reads as follows. A virtually unlimited source of energy would increase our capability to damage the environment and ourselves to a disquieting degree. Better then to place a taboo on nuclear power and thus reduce the scope for our blundering. This attitude is patronizing as well as undemocratic. Moreover, the putative logic is derailed by the fact that we are already saddled with the destructive scenario. We are bound to live with the risk of nuclear warfare or at least nuclear terrorism. The genie cannot be squeezed back into the bottle anymore and we should just as well put it to work. Fission-based nuclear power is today and tomorrow the only technically and commercially proven, virtually pollution-free energy source with sufficient expansion potential. Encouragingly, attitudes are now shifting and nuclear power is becoming acceptable once again.

The limited supply of fissile uranium 235 is not a serious problem. The common isotope uranium 238 comprises 99.7 % of the mined ore, and can be converted to nuclear fuel in breeder reactors, when and if this becomes profitable. Thorium can also be used as a fuel in such advanced reactors. Fission power can keep us afloat for centuries if fusion power or solar cells prove impractical.

Conventional nuclear power is not problem-free. The disposal of nuclear waste evokes strong emotions even if satisfactory technical solutions are on the table. Neither is the link to nuclear weaponry desirable. Nuclear power plants can be a disguise for secret weapon projects, currently an urgent issue in North Korea and Iran. Fusion power would, however, be the ideal technology for large-scale energy production. There is neither a waste problem nor any link to nuclear weapons. Best of all, the fuel is water or more precisely the deuterium isotope of hydrogen, a practically inexhaustible energy source. Without doubt, fusion power is the energy of the future – if it pans out.

We are at the end of a short period of cheap energy based on a half-baked technology. It is high time to change our ways and put our hard-won scientific insights to good use. Virtually limitless energy sources are within reach and awaiting exploitation. The price may be rising and thus call for economy but the supply of energy will not interfere with our long-term ambitions.

In power generation, change ensues at a snail’s pace. Due to the slow rate of capital turnover (about 40 years), swift moves would lead to a massive destruction of capital. My vision for the energy supply of the world up to 2100 is as follows. Electricity production is dominated by huge fusion power plants. They are complemented by a multiplicity of smaller units, which utilize solar radiation, directly or indirectly. In the population centers, the district heating and cooling facilities are coupled to electricity generation. Cars are mainly driven by electric batteries and/or capacitors. Liquid or gaseous fuels are based on biomass and cheap surplus electricity; efficient fuel cells take care of pollution-free combustion. Global taxation of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) keeps the old-fashioned use of fossil fuels within desirable bounds, as long as need be.

A political conundrum

The European Union has the laudable ambition to establish global leadership in environmental care, and the Kyoto agreement is seen as a symbol for responsible action. This is a wrong departure as will be seen, at the very latest, when the developing countries ought to be part of the process. Taxation is the superior method when an indispensable but polluting activity must be regulated. It is the height of folly not to apply it to fossil fuels.

The Kyoto agreement is better than nothing but it is for this very reason an obstacle to a sensible international settlement. Carbon dioxide trading introduces a market element in the regime. Even so, the regulations are arbitrary; they distort competition and are heavily politicized. Every time when a change should be imposed – say stricter norms introduced or developing countries brought into the fold – a new hullabaloo breaks out when countries and industries fight for their interests with all the means available.

A switch from the cap-and-trade ideology of the Kyoto agreement to a clearly superior carbon-tax regime is difficult. In game-theoretic terms, the key actors are stuck in a Nash equilibrium which is far from optimal. But the optimum is hard to reach because unilateral step-by-step moves are unrewarding. The great majority of players must make a joint decision to achieve a change which benefits everybody. It does not help that taxation is a loaded word which implies an additional burden. It is easily forgotten that the customer (or the taxpayer) is always the final paymaster. Revenues from a carbon tax would enable the reduction of, say, other indirect taxes. If carbon dioxide allowances are auctioned off in a consistent manner, a carbon tax will be applied in a roundabout way, but it would apply only to power generation and heavy industry. At best, the system will be clumsy and very hard to put on a global footing.

The climate hazard has become the great battle field in the international debate while other environmental problems have got less publicity. Deforestation in the tropics threatens the ecological balance and water supply. The biodiversity is diminishing and many animals and plants are close to extinction. Logging in conjunction with industrial projects is often presented as the main malefactor, but in reality the slash-and-burn cultivation is the biggest villain.

Poverty and population pressure are the root causes of the problems. The solution is thus an improvement in living standards coupled to a reduction of fertility – easier said than done. In many areas, the involvement of the local population in tourism-related business has produced good results. The inhabitants have become responsible owners of their natural resources.

The list of environmental problems could easily be prolonged but the worries are generally local or regional. In most cases we are faced with the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which can be resolved by establishing responsible ownership for the vulnerable resources. International coordination is called for only when we are confronted with global challenges like atmospheric emissions or deep-sea fishing. In general we should accept that the utilization of natural resources, the environment included, has to be taxed and/or priced by a market. The taxation of carbon dioxide emissions is a case in point; the World Trade Organization (WTO) could be the right body to impose and supervise the tax regime. Only through adequate market processes can scarce resources be allocated in a sensible way.