How to Really Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Mon 11 March 2013

My friend Fred recently got me thinking about environmental stewardship programs. Like Fred, I’m skeptical of a lot of consumer-targeting “be green” campaigns. As with hotels’ pleas to wash your towels less frequently, they are often corporate profit-boosting measures in altruistic clothing. No one ever offered me a room rate discount for using my towels a bit longer.

More generally, the “ride your bicycle” and “buy cloth shopping bags” crusades that dominate public consciousness are optimizing in the wrong places. In 2009, 16 ships burning essentially tar released as much atmospheric sulfur (the stuff that causes acid rain) as all the cars in the world.

As another example, about a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions are from electricity generation—26% in 2004. The U.S. is still 42% reliant on coal, the dirtiest fuel in common use. Coal releases over twice as much carbon dioxide as the next dirtiest fuel per kWH generated, natural gas. So, what we should be doing is running full-speed toward safe, clean nuclear. Even old generation-II reactors are 62 times less carbon-intense than coal. Modern generation-III reactors may be even lower. The entire transportation sector—including commercial interests driving big, dirty trucks—emits only 13% of greenhouse gases, and fixing that requires energy storage technology we don’t have, along with the coordination of millions of individuals and companies to purchase new equipment. This is not where to optimize.

While carting around reusable shopping bags and driving electric cars makes us feel good, it’s an awfully inefficient way to attack the problem. If you want to conserve the environment, write to your legislators instead. Campaign for cleaner shipping fuel standards. And welcome safe, modern nuclear plants into your back yard.