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EPA Suits As Important as They Seem?

A commentary piece in the science journal Nature calls into question the feasibility of reducing carbon emissions. The authors argue that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is way too optimistic about the potential for current technology to fight climate change.

This in mind, perhaps the recent action pressuring the EPA to ratchet up regulations could be less important than we might have thought.

Eighteen states sued the EPA Wednesday for not regulating greenhouse emissions from new automobiles. The lawsuit comes a year after the Supreme Court ruled that EPA had the power to do so. But, as NYTimes’ John Tierny and Andrew Revkin both point out, the Nature assessment shows that cutting back on car emissions in rich countries may not make a huge impact on global warming.

Tierny’s post today includes comments from one of the Nature authors, political scientist Roger Pielke. Pielke says:

It becomes a bit more clear that we may have set ourselves down the wrong path when we framed the challenge of mitigating greenhouse gases in terms of “reducing emissions”. Characterizing the policy challenge in this way leads people in rich countries to focus on things like changing light bulbs and driving less thirsty cars – all good things, to be sure – but which can hardly make a dent in the overall challenge of stabilizing atmospheric concentrations. And it leads people in developing countries shaking their head – how can they “reduce emissions” when they hardly have any to begin with?

We must acknowledge up front that the world needs more energy – vast amounts more. The International Energy Agency projects that global energy demand will increase by 60% by 2030 and recent trends in China and elsewhere suggest that this may even be an underestimate. Consider also that published estimates suggest that 2 billion people or more currently lack access to electricity. Their energy needs have only one direction to go.

If the world needs more energy, and this fact seems inescapable, then the first question to ask is not “how do we reduce emissions?” but instead, “In a world that needs vast amounts of more energy, how can we provide that energy in ways that do not lead to the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere?”

There can be only two answers to this question. One is to develop new technologies of energy supply that are carbon neutral or, to take carbon dioxide out of the air in some manner. Both types of actions require significant technological innovation. It is hard to square the I.P.C.C.’s conclusion that we have all the technology that we need with the results presented in our Nature paper.

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