Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

How to tackle climate change (realistically)

I agree with Michael Shellenberger and Bjorn Lomborg that climate change is a problem, but the scale of this problem is not large enough to cause the Apocalypse. The chance that global warming in extent of a few degrees will lead to the end of the world has probability comparable to an asteroid hitting the Earth, or a super-volcano suddenly erupting and erasing half of the continents – none of these scenarios could theoretically be ruled out. Global warming is not going to stop the Gulfstream, and melt the ice caps of Greenland over a course of a month (it might still happen, but over a more realistic horizon of approximately… 700 years).

However, even if climate change is not likely to cause the end of the world, it’s still a big problem. Therefore we should address global warming by introducing smarter policies and investing in more progressive technologies: transition to cleaner energy, better waste management, optimizing urban mobility, etc. Below is the list of measures that in my opinion can effectively, and most importantly – realistically, help us to become more ecological in a short to medium-term.

1) Embrace nuclear energy

Myth: electric grid based on 100% renewables
Realistic solution: electric grid backed-up by nuclear power

One technology that clearly proved its efficiency in the past decades is the nuclear power. If we look at development of the humankind over past centuries, we see a gradual progression from less carbon-intensive to more carbon-intensive sources of energy: from wood to coal, then to oil and natural gas, and finally – to uranium. The nuclear power is 100% clean, it doesn’t produce carbon emissions, and requires a surprisingly little amount of natural resources (just to illustrate: the idea of recycling used uranium has never taken off, simply because there’re too many uranium deposits occurring naturally all over the planet).

What’s important is that nuclear is much more stable than renewables. Solar panels and wind turbines essentially depend on the presence of sunlight and wind in order to generate electricity (as we know, electricity is a non-storable commodity). An electric grid based entirely on renewables will be inherently unstable. For example, it could recently be observed in a few provinces in China experiencing a massive power shortage because of droughts and their large dependency on hydro-power. Therefore the grid has to be stabilized with more conventional energy sources: currently it’s oil and natural gas, as well as coal – fossil fuels that are far from being ecological. The nuclear power can easily solve both problems: it makes the grid clean and stable. See the case-study of France and its introduction of small reactors that can be turned on in less than 30 min, and are designed specifically for the purpose of backing-up the grid.

The nuclear power is safe (as long as the accidents are not handled by a totalitarian state!). Fossil fuels kill more than 8 million people per year, while nuclear power killed less than 100 in the past 50 years. Chernobyl was definitely a disaster. However, the worst nuclear accident in the history of the US – Three Mile Island breakdown that happened in 1979 in Pennsylvania, harmed virtually zero people and was efficiently liquidated – even despite the fact that liquidation measures started to be taken only 3 hours after the accident. The worst accident that ever happened in Japan – the Fukushima disaster of 2011 – killed one person and left 16 injured. If accidents at nuclear power plants are handled professionally, they rarely become lethal.

2) Accept carbon tax (and its consequences)

Myth: curbing carbon emissions by slowing down economic growth
Realistic solution: subsidizing cleaner energy though carbon emissions tax

Throughout centuries, and up until recent years, the emission of carbon dioxide cost us nothing. Carbon emissions constitute an economic externality: meaning that no one takes responsibility for it. In order to address carbon emissions produced by large industrial companies and power plants, the economists came up with a genius plan: introducing carbon tax through the emissions trading scheme (ETS). Now, the EU companies that emit carbon need to purchase a carbon allowance for each metric ton of it. The scheme was relatively slow to take off, but it recently improved in efficiency due to reduction in the number of carbon allowances distributed for free (the price of CO2 EUA went up almost three times since then). Similar program is planned to be introduced soon for the aviation emissions.

Another logical implication of the carbon tax is not so straightforward upon the first sight. Given that companies are going to incur additional production costs, a part of these costs will be naturally transferred to the final consumers: as a consequence, all products and services are essentially going to become more expensive. For instance, we have recently seen how the increase in cost of electricity generation (due to the natural gas shortage) was ultimately imposed on its end-users – in some locations, reaching up to more than 100%. Will people be willing to embrace an even further increase in prices driven by carbon tax? Well, there’s a big difference between what people support in theory, and what they’re willing to do in practice, especially when it starts to affect their own wallet. A recent study has shown that an average American deeply cares about the climate, and yet agrees to spend no more than $24 per year in order to address it. The scaling of carbon tax might therefore be faced with certain resistance.

Theoretically, an obvious solution would be to reduce individual consumption: if a new washing machine costs 50% more than a few years ago, you would rather invest money into repairing the old one. We have to be careful though in distinguishing which consumption is necessary, and which one is not. It’s not morally justifiable to deny citizens of developing nations the necessities of life outside of poverty. The shift in personal priorities comes naturally together with economic development. On the other hand, as someone living in a developed country, I’m personally willing to embrace the higher costs of living in a carbon-neutral world – it’s morally justified to subsidize the clean energy through reduction in personal spending. I tend to get attached to things more than to people, so overconsumption, obsession with brand new, and disgust for broken have always seemed ridiculous to me. I would appreciate if others treated things with more respect, as Japanese do it with their philosophy of Kintsugi.

3) Ditch the personal transport

Dream: 100% switch to electric vehicles
Realistic solution: shift from personal to public transportation

Hopefully, it’s obvious to everyone here that personal transport is the least efficient, and the most unecological way of terrestrial transportation. We should all embrace the public transit: trains, subway, trams and trolleybuses all run on electricity, transport more people per vehicle, and make cities more friendly to pedestrians. More than 40% of world’s carbon emissions are attributed to the transportation sector. Think of all the gasoline that drivers pointlessly burn for nothing while being stuck in traffic jams. Cars not only pollute the air, but also make the urban environments look ugly and hostile.

What makes the current situation so bad is that cars are excessively affordable. Every household can afford to have one or two, and in the US – even more. In order to address this, governments may turn to Norway for inspiration, and introduce higher taxes on all gasoline and diesel vehicles. According to this Reddit thread, the total amount of taxes imposed on a new car in Norway often constitutes the figure higher than the value of a vehicle itself. The carbon tax may reach up to 50% of the car value, while car registration tax – up to 70%, not counting taxes on nitrogen oxide, size of the engine, weight of the vehicle, VAT, etc. The resulting price often exceeds an average annual gross income of one household. As a result, 40% of cars currently sold in Norway are electric or hybrid – as these are exempt from high taxes. Great inspiration for the rest of Europe, and obviously for the US.

And speaking of the US, apart from reforms in the sphere of private vehicle taxation, nothing will be achieved without more investments going to the area of public transportation infrastructure: building of new tram and metro lines, extension of train tracks, etc. In order to see a country with a perfect transportation system, just visit Switzerland. You can easily reach any corner of the country by train, which eliminates any need for personal transport. It’s similarly efficient within the cities. Basel is so full of trams, that you sometimes need to leverage carefully in order not to get killed by one of them on the street.

4) Embrace plastic incineration

Myth: 100% recycling of plastic
Realistic solution: plastic incineration

Alright, this is going to be a rather detailed and a somewhat counterintuitive point, which won’t appeal to many readers upon the first sight. All of us have encountered photos and videos of plastic rubbish polluting the oceans: plastic packaging killing the marine wild life, or washed ashore and polluting island ecosystems. The first reaction is usually the following: this is something that should be easily fixed by plastic recycling. Alas, recycling is the very reason why so much plastic waste ends up in to oceans in the first place.

While being in Copenhagen, I watched a few documentaries that were part of this year’s Odense film festival program. One of them, a documentary titled ‘Recycling Myth’ and directed by Tom Costello and Benedict Wermter, presented a thorough investigation that uncovered the actual destiny of plastic waste that we put into recycling containers. According to the investigation outcome, a substantial part of plastic collected for recycling gets shipped to the third-world countries. In the best case, it gets recycled there. In the worst – a part of it gets dumped on the land, while another part gets lost somewhere in the ocean along the way, while being transported.

The dismal truth is that recycling is simply way too expensive for the purpose it aims to accomplish. According to this research paper, the cost associated with recycling one ton of plastic in 2015 reached EUR 670 in the Netherlands, and EUR 1,430 in Germany. Additionally, the paper shows that reduction in one ton of CO2 emissions achieved by recycling is extremely expensive (EUR 172 per ton) – especially compared to the current cost of CO2 allowances traded at ETS (you can buy the same thing much cheaper) – which makes recycling economically non-viable.

Essentially, such materials as plastics constitute a by-product of crude oil. It’s not reasonable to reuse low-grade by-products, as they don’t contain much chemical value. Even if we choose to reuse, it’s known that recycled plastic (resin) can only be reused once or twice, before it degrades: with each cycle the polymer chain in resin becomes shorter. Just think of the recycled paper used sometimes in the cheapest toilet paper production – this is not the material you want to recycle forever. What do we do with by-products that have almost no value? We burn them. So what should be embraced instead of recycling is plastics incineration. Modern waste incineration plants are more or less clean and efficient: when you install proper industrial filters, they capture almost all pollutants emitted with smoke in the air. Incineration is something that can be easily done in the short-run to prevent large-scale ocean pollution, until we invent better and cheaper technologies of recycling in the future (if possible).

Of course, incineration is painful to embrace. It implies that sorting recyclable waste is virtually pointless, when all waste can essentially go into the same bin. The idea is truly hurting for a person like me, who diligently sorted recyclable rubbish for many years. Apparently I’m not the only one – on the recent podcast episode with Michael Shellenberger, Jordan Peterson mentioned that a lot of his clinical patients complain about their obsession with sorting rubbish – which borders with a real obsessive-compulsive disorder. I can understand this psychological predisposition: sorting rubbish is a good way to organize life in a clean and neat way, and get an impression that the world is in order. Perhaps this is exactly the psychological need that corporations are trying to play on: by believing into efficiency of recycling, we feel better, thinking that the world is in order, and we contribute to maintaining this order. Unfortunately, a big part of this narrative is just a corporate greenwashing.

Here’s a good article about the history of American oil companies lobbying for putting ‘recycling triangle’ symbol on all plastic packaging, even the one that cannot be recycled in economically-viable way. Yes, when a plastic package has a triangle with a number 5 in it, what it actually means is that it’s possible to recycle this package in theory – with a high chance that no one will actually find any economic incentive to do it.

One possible solution that can make recycling plastics more economically viable in the long-run is a switch to standardized plastic packaging made exclusively out of polymers that are easy to recycle (such as PET – polyethylene terephthalate, or HDPE – high-density polyethylene), while rejecting more complex mixes (such as polystyrene, polypropylene, etc). Meaning: no fancy coffee cups, no pretty snack packages, just crude and simple packets and boxes. Can it be reconciled with multi-million corporate marketing strategies that rely heavily on attractiveness of product packaging? Who knows.

Anyway, these are just my proposals. Let’s be optimistic and not despair, especially for the causes where it’s unneeded. Always remember: there’re hundreds of more legitimate things in the world to get depressed by!

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