Cutting Carbon Footprints on the Country Level

In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC published a report that called for a reduction in annual emissions from just under 50 billion tons of greenhouse gases today to 10 billion tons or less by 2050 to insure that the planet warms by no more than two degrees centigrade because even though there is uncertainty as to precisely how much damage is done by each ton of greenhouse gas that we generate, dramatic weather pattern changes in recent times have demonstrated that GHGs are damaging the planet, and that levels need to be reduced.

As noted in a recent McKinsey Quarterly article that addressed the issue of what countries can do about cutting carbon emissions, this report has spurred political leaders in some countries to action – with the European Union setting targets to reduce GHG emissions by 20 to 30% of the 1990 level by 2020 and some countries aiming to become carbon neutral by 2050.

But what will be required to reduce GHG emissions to that level? And which approaches will be most effective? In an effort to answer these questions, McKinsey has embarked on a multi-year research initiative and, to date, has taken a focused look at what can be done in Australia, Germany, the UK, and the US. To date, they have discovered that each country can reduce its emissions by at least 25% at little or no cost and without a significant change in the daily lifestyle of the populous. If this happened, it would be a great start when you consider that technology improves every year, and that focussed efforts will probably find another 25% in a few more years.

However, what really caught my eye in this article was their statement that many of the initial GHG reduction opportunities they identified are profitable. They noted that most of the reductions in this first 25% can be achieved through improved energy efficiency — better insulation, energy efficient appliances and machinery, and energy-efficient heating and cooling systems — which will also reduce energy requirements and, thus, energy bills. Furthermore, they also noted that there are also low-cost options to reduce GHG as well – coming in at less than $50 / ton. These options include improved fuel efficiency of vehicles (which should be possible, as we’ve all heard stories of non-hybrid and non-diesel test vehicles getting 50 mpg ratings, or twice what the average small sedan gets today), second generation biofuels (and not just energy inefficient corn-ethanol), better GHG emission management, wind power, solar power and, obviously, the planting of more forests. Considering that one hour of the sun’s rays contains more energy than the entire planet uses in a year – the construction of vast solar arrays in deserts could make quite a dent in our energy needs. And since it is the heat from the sun’s rays that causes the temperature differences between the land, water, and air needed to create wind, this energy is available even when the sun isn’t shining — and wind turbine farms can be used to capture even more of this energy. Considering the relatively high levels of carbon dioxide emissions per kilowatt hour in North America, solar and wind energy farms could make a substantial dent in GHG emissions – and pay for themselves over their lifetime (as sunlight and wind is free while the price of coal, oil, and natural gas is now increasing by the day, if not the hour).

Now, as pointed out by the McKinsey article, these cuts are not likely to be sufficient in the long run, but they are a great start and technology that is not ready today, or technology that is still too expensive for widespread adoption today, will improve, and come down in price, over time — and chances are that by the time countries have exhausted the initial low cost options available to them, better technologies enabling more drastic reductions will be available at similar, if not lesser, costs. And there are even more low-cost options than the article mentions. For example, consider new landfill reduction trash processing plants, like the ones being built by Global Renewables, where 75% of the garbage is recycled or processed into a form in which they can be re-used and a considerable portion of the remaining waste is used to power the plant. The ideas being developed today are endless, and statistics dictate that some will be relatively low cost and / or deliver quick payback – making them very low cost in the long run.