The Bumpy Road to Reduced Carbon Emissions

A dozen years ago, the debate over controlling emissions of greenhouse gases was just beginning. Several European countries were calling for either a freeze or a 20 percent cut in emissions by the developed world by 2000. In the United States, Congress asked its now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to evaluate the potential for reductions in this country. Its report, which we helped develop, outlined both the technologies and the mix of regulatory and market-based federal policies that would be necessary to significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions over the next few decades.

Today, even as global temperatures continue to increase, the debate at the federal level over greenhouse gases still goes on. This lag is perhaps not surprising, given that major pieces of environmental legislation have almost always required at least a decade to enact. However, much has changed in other areas. Scientific understanding of climate change has improved markedly, policy has advanced at the state level and internationally, and the portfolio of climate-friendly energy technologies that will be needed to maintain modern society has expanded. Unfortunately, one crucial aspect of public policy–federal spending on energy technology R&D–is actually worse off than it was during the early years of the debate.

Given the depth of cuts necessary, a wide variety of energy technology changes will likely be required. Yet the federal government has not acted accordingly.

In 1990, the scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which had been synthesizing and interpreting the issue for policymakers worldwide, concluded: “The observed increase [in temperatures] could be largely due to natural variability; alternatively this variability and other man-made factors could have offset a still larger man-made greenhouse warming.” By the panel’s third assessment, in 2001, the conclusion read: “There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.” Scientists are now able to compare global temperature records during the past 1,000 years with much-improved model-based projections for the next 100 years. What emerges from such comparisons is that observed temperature changes due to human activities to date may be a pale shadow of what the future holds.

As the science progressed, so too did international negotiations. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change called for “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” About 190 nations signed, including the United States. Five years later, the Kyoto Protocol established quantitative emission limits for the developed world, for the period from 2008 to 2012. This agreement will not go into effect until countries representing 55 percent of the developed world’s carbon dioxide emissions ratify it; as of March 2003, the total was 44 percent.

Although President Bill Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, the United States has not yet ratified it. Neither the Bush administration nor Congress supports its approach of setting targets only for the industrialized world. The U.S. emissions target–7 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, about halfway between what our earlier OTA report presented as moderate and tough scenarios–has also been deemed too expensive to achieve.

Alternatively, President Bush has proposed a much more modest goal outside of the treaty framework: a reduction in “emissions intensity” of the U.S. economy (that is, a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per dollar of gross domestic product). This goal still allows total emissions to grow. In 1991, U.S. carbon emissions totaled 1.3 billion tons per year. Today, emissions are about 1.5 billion tons per year. And even if the voluntary goal is achieved, emissions will continue to rise to a projected 1.8 billion tons in a decade, at likely rates of economic growth.

Dissatisfied with this pace, many states have proceeded by themselves. Sixteen states have enacted “renewable portfolio standards,” or goals that require their utilities to provide a specified percentage of electricity from carbon-free renewable energy. This ranges from a few percent in several states to as much as 20 percent in California and 30 percent in Maine. California also has adopted requirements to lower carbon dioxide emissions from highway vehicles beginning with the 2009 model year.

In addition, many companies are undertaking reductions on their own, even without state and federal requirements. More than 220 companies have notified the Department of Energy that they are undertaking projects to lower emissions of greenhouse gases. Some companies, such as Dupont, Alcoa, BP, and Shell, have pledged emission reductions far greater than the Kyoto goal.

Although modest, some progress in slowing emissions has also been made at the federal level. The Energy Policy Act of 1992 included several significant provisions, including 13 new energy-efficiency standards for appliances and electric motors and financial incentives for utilities to generate electricity using renewable energy. Energy legislation continues to be heatedly debated in Congress. But without price signals and multiple reinforcing policies, significant emissions reductions will be unlikely.

Mixed technological results

If atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are to be stabilized at even two or three times preindustrial levels, growth in world energy emissions must be drastically curtailed. U.S. emissions must eventually drop well below the level of even the OTA-proposed tough scenario. At issue is only how quickly emissions must drop, not that tomorrow’s energy technology must be far lower-emitting than today’s. For energy technology to meet the challenge, aggressive research must be under way now. The story here is mixed.

On the positive side, several technologies that were barely on the horizon a decade ago appear very promising today. For example, one technology under development hopes to produce both electricity and hydrogen from coal. Carbon dioxide will be captured before it is released to the atmosphere and be injected into deep aquifers, the ocean, or oil wells. The success of this “carbon sequestration” may make it possible to continue to use the planet’s huge reserves of coal. Hydrogen offers promise as a future fuel, if it is produced without emissions of greenhouse gases. A major research initiative of the Bush administration is focusing on development of fuel cells to use hydrogen as the energy source for automobiles and buildings.

The rapidly advancing field of genomics offers promise to more efficiently use a variety of plants and microbes to produce hydrogen or such carbon-neutral fuels as ethanol, which can substitute for gasoline. Genomics may also help devise better ways to store carbon in agricultural soils, improving both the health and productivity of this vital resource.

But it remains apparent that no single technology will be the silver bullet for carbon emissions. Given the depth of cuts necessary, a wide variety of energy technology changes will likely be required. Yet the federal government has not acted accordingly.

In the early 1990s, R&D on energy technologies totaled about $2.1 billion per year, down from a peak of more than $6 billion per year after the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. By 1997, funding had dropped to about $1.3 billion. (All figures are in 1997 dollars.) In that year, a report by the President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended almost doubling funding to about $2.4 billion per year by 2003, principally in the areas of renewable energy and efficiency.

Federal spending for energy research has indeed increased since 1997, and there have been modest increases in renewables and efficiency. But total funding has yet to return to 1990 levels. Expenditures on energy R&D, both public and private, are less than 0.5 percent of the cost of the nation’s energy bill. For comparison, R&D investment equal to about 3.5 percent of sales is the norm for other U.S. industries. Surely the escalating threats of climate change and energy insecurity justify a correspondingly serious, immediate, and sustained investment.

There is an old adage: “If you do not change direction, you will end up where you are headed.” A wealth of data now shows that humanity is rapidly moving the planet’s temperature far outside of the range of the past millennium. No one should want the next generation to inherit that world.

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Cite this Article

Friedman, Robert M., and Rosina M. Bierbaum. “The Bumpy Road to Reduced Carbon Emissions.” Issues in Science and Technology 19, no. 4 (Summer 2003).

Vol. XIX, No. 4, Summer 2003