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  1. I think looking up your local sustainable farm and buying from them might be a more direct way of turning money into topsoil.

    But you won’t get a free plastic disposable pen.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 29 May 2006 @ 11:56 AM

  2. I completely agree with David that carbon credits for renewable energy are a good idea, but the ‘plant a tree and feel good about flying’ idea (popular in the UK) is dodgy.

    The carbon sink ideas seems to have been introduced to allow nations to emit more CO2, and some of the schemes funded by the Clean Development Mechanism sound pretty bad (such as growing eucalyptus plantations on former rainforest land).

    However, I think that rainforest protection and the restoration of degraded ecosystems (eg the re-flooding of Borneo’s drained peat swamps, which could reduce massive CO2 emissions from carbon fires) should benefit from carbon credits. After all, rainforest destruction is a very large source of greenhouse gas emissions, and most rainforests are in developing countries which desperately need the funds to stop their destruction. I am thinking of proposals which the Coalition of Rainforest Nations putto the UN Conference in Montreal last year. If successful, this could even draw many developing nations into a binding agreement. Meantime, there are some very good projects and organisations already which individuals and companies could fund via carbon credits, since money is desperately needed now.

    Comment by Almuth Ernsting — 29 May 2006 @ 12:08 PM

  3. Are those the same people who think thety can compress the CO2 and sequester it forever at high pressure underground [until it leaks] and still gain energy by burning coal? They don’t have any plan to get energy that will work with the society and infrastructure we now have. Solar and wind energy are neither free nor 100% safe and they don’t happen when and where needed. The only realistic thing that can be done NOW is to convert all coal-fired powerplants to nuclear. That conversion hasn’t happened because most people are paranoid about all things nuclear. The reason is that most people, including Science graduates, have never heard of background radiation, and they don’t know that burning coal puts hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium into the air. I would attach the papers if this email device had an attacher. Look at these URLs to get part of what I would like to send:
    Note that it is not possible for a reactor which has 2% enriched uranium to explode like a bomb. A bomb requires at least 90+% enriched uranium or pure [99+%] plutonium. See the December 2005 issue of Scientific American for a reactor that consumes its own waste to generate additional power. Storage problem solved.

    [Response:It’s true that nuclear has seen a resurgence of interest for the reasons you mention. To be fair to the issue, I must point out that Chernobyl had the capacity to make a large swath of the Ukrainian breadbasket, and the city of Kiev, uninhabitale essentially forever, if the core meltdown had reached the water table. Reactors don’t explode like nuclear bombs, but breeder reactors make it a lot easier for people to make bombs. David]

    Comment by Edward Greisch — 29 May 2006 @ 12:18 PM

  4. Thought u guys might find this interesting. the world economic forum has a prediction market for severe weather this year. currently it’s predicting over 119 events this year.


    Comment by andrew jones — 29 May 2006 @ 12:35 PM

  5. There are huge deserts in almost every continent of the world where solar energy is abundant and can be stored. I don’t think we are making efficient use of them. sounds interesting.. Kind of like the least we could do.. I buy it.

    Comment by teacher ocean — 29 May 2006 @ 12:46 PM

  6. I agree that making a $99 contribution towards dealing with global warming, which is basically what this is, makes a certain amount of sense, but as the article points out only for a relatively small number of people. After all, someone has to switch to non carbon sources of energy. We can’t all continue to use fossil fuels to the degree we have been and pay someone else to do otherwise. Who are the others?

    With respect to comments 1 and 2, I think it is a big mistake to focus on one or two possible solutions. It seems clear we are going to have to do a lot of things, including some that may have some serious problems associated with them. With respect to nuclear power, I think those who tout it as “the solution” are fantasizing. The potential dangers and complexity of nuclear power mean that the amount of power we can expect from it is limited. Properly regulated nuclear power will be only be part of the solution, and it may be a relatively small part. On the other hand, those who think we can do it all with solar, wind, and other renewable sources are also dreaming. Like it or not, increased use of nuclear power and carbon sequestering, with their attendant poblems, are also going to be needed.

    Comment by Leonard Evens — 29 May 2006 @ 1:30 PM

  7. This is a timely post for me, since I taking a long-haul flight to a conference this summer, and was considering buying carbon offsets. I was initially rather skeptical about the concept myself, so it’s good to get an expert opinion. I trust climate scientists will also be sure to be “carbon neutral” when travelling to all of their conferences? ;-)

    [Response:There’s a lot of CO2 in beer, I don’t know where that comes from…. David]

    Perhaps in the near future scientific conferences will be conducted over the web anyway, thus removing such dilemmas…

    Comment by Brian Jackson — 29 May 2006 @ 1:30 PM

  8. For a very thorough overview of this issue and the current state of the market, I would counsel your readers to an excellend overview artticle at

    Definition Clarification

    Verification: the process of reviewing documents, contracts, materials to ensure that a provider has met its obligations to its customers. (CarbonFund does not have this)
    Certification adherence to a standard for retail carbon offsets (no such standard yet exists).

    As for your question about pricing — the reason arbitratge doesn’t happen between the markets is that Brussels uses CDM as an escape valve on a mainly allowance-based market. Credits retired by voluntary groups in the US have no hope of being included in that market.

    Finally, while carbon offsets represent an opportunity to discretely reduce your carbon impact, they also represent a great way to talk about climate change, your perspective and potential solutions.

    TerraPass does not include land-use changes in its portfolio and is independently verified program.

    Disclosure: I run TerraPass.

    Comment by Tom Arnold — 29 May 2006 @ 1:36 PM

  9. In response to comment 1, see:

    Nuclear energy can’t solve global warming
    Other remedies 7 times more beneficial


    Comment by Jim Torson — 29 May 2006 @ 1:54 PM

  10. There is another company, that does a similar job for years now. It’s , formerly known as Future Forests. Although I bought one or two trees from them, I opt for own investments by now. Even if you cannot invest enough money to buy your own renewable energy facility, you can buy shares or borrow money to a company, that invests in renewables. You even get money back, eventually.

    Comment by Christian Poecher — 29 May 2006 @ 2:13 PM

  11. A free book about nuclear power is available online here:

    Comment by Dan Hughes — 29 May 2006 @ 2:14 PM

  12. I think this is a great idea, it may not solve all the worlds problems but it is definitely a step in the right direction. What I don’t understand is why would they want to send everyone a pen? I can’t imagine the pen luring in indecisive donors, so it is just another piece of junk that piles up in ones home. One pen may not seem like anything much, but I think it encompasses our weakness which is driving us to doom; the affection for cool/cute objects we can hold and admire, however useless they may be.

    It makes me upset that as we are striving to reduce energy consumption, we are wasting it on manufacturing junk.

    [Response: Ah, but think of all the carbon sequestered in nonbiodegradable plastic pens in all the landfills around the world! Quite seriously, this does make me wonder a bit about the possibility of carbon sequestration through formation of nondegradable organic compounds like certain plastics. I wonder if that might be easier to do than artifically making limestone out of silicates. –raypierre]

    Comment by Tinna — 29 May 2006 @ 2:22 PM

  13. I think there is some confusion here because of ambiguous use of the term “carbon offset”. Just as a grocery store gives you the option of buying an organic avocado or a convention avocado, the so-called “carbon offsets” sold by effectively give you the choice of buying “organic” renewable energy or conventional fossil-fuel energy. You can exercise your purchasing power to increase the demand for renewable energy, but the conventional energy you would have otherwise purchased is not taken off the market â�� it is still available for sale (and may be marginally cheaper because of your decreased demand for conventional energy). By contrast, if you purchase emission credits in a cap-and-trade system, and retire those credits, then you have effectively reduced the cap, and total emissions should (in principle) be reduced by the amount of your credit irrespective of how expensive energy becomes.

    Of course, emission credits are not typically retired. They only have economic value because they give the purchaser the right to generate more emissions. Similarly, the Kyoto Protocol�s �carbon offsets� simply provide a mechanism for paying someone else to do your emission reduction for you. In this context emission trading and carbon offsets have nothing do to with reducing emissions � they merely function to reduce costs.

    The theory of cap-and-trade is that it doesn�t matter how you achieve emission reductions, as long as the total reduction is sufficient to achieve the environmental objective. But if GHG emissions are not actually capped at a sustainable level (which they never are), trading and offsets motivate industry to focus primarily on the quickest and cheapest emission reduction strategies (e.g., �plant trees�) and to indefinitely postpone long-term investment in more fundamental energy technologies that will be required to establish a sustainable global economy.

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 29 May 2006 @ 2:50 PM

  14. WIll you kindly supply a source for the, ‘ … about 24 tons of CO2 … ‘, and give the units. That is, is it about 24,000 kg or about 48,000 pounds. Thanks

    [Response:I think I saw that number on the site. You can good info from International Energy Outlook 2003. Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy. I got from there a number closer to 20 tonnes (metric) of CO2 per person. Note that carbon fluxes are often presented as gigatons of carbon, whereas here we’re talking tons of CO2. This is why chemists prefer moles to mass units. David]

    Comment by Dan Hughes — 29 May 2006 @ 3:15 PM

  15. The European carbon exchange can be found at

    The page gives access to Excel tabulations on price history of this commodity. The scheme was started only a year ago, and it appears that some improvement may be needed. Under the current system the prices are overly sensitive to quite independent short term variables like availability of hydropower, or power consumption changes due to temperature anomalies. A good example is the market crash at the end of April, when it became known that such random phenomena had produced some unexpected (but probably short-lived) declines in carbon dioxide emissions.

    Some power companies made handsome profits selling their emission allowances in time, which profits they dutifully distributed to their shareholders. A year with lesser rains and they must buy back the same, and obviously recover the extra production cost from their customers.

    Comment by Pekka Kostamo — 29 May 2006 @ 3:43 PM

  16. Was it Einstein who said we cannot solve a problem with the same level of thinking that caused it? Not to be too Luddite-ish, but all solutions based primarily on using technology and continuing economic growth – even if they save us temporarily – will cause greater disaster in the future. This applies to nuclear and carbon sequestration – they will simply create more, and more dangerous problems sooner or later…but certainly sooner than we expect. :-) (The idea of 6.5B+ people – and growing – even striving for the developed world’s lifestyle, never mind achieving it, surely is obviously unsustainable.)

    Ultimately, we must learn to find conservation and long-term thinking appealing, rather than irritating (and the population must decrease). Until that happens (or until climate change eliminates civilization and most of everything we know and love), I think carbon offsets are a great step in the right direction. Nothing wrong with grabbing the “low-hanging fruit.” I believe one can purchse tiny chunks of the rainforests through various organizations, which helps save the rainsforest, reduce carbon emissions, preserve indigenous lifestyles (and lives), saves habitat, etc., etc.

    That said, if I can buy an annual carbon offset today for $99, as more people sign up, will that price necessarily increase? It could also come down as the price of alternative technologies comes down.

    Comment by Brian Gordon — 29 May 2006 @ 4:03 PM

  17. The only solution is to reduce the energy consumption and to switch to renewable energy, like windpower. In Germany the renewable energies produce almost 11% of the electricity consumption. The gouvernment plans to produce about 30% in the year 2020. Thats the only way which is possible to go. Nuclear power is dangerous (Three Miles Island, Chernobyl) an Uranium will run out in 60 years.

    Comment by Martin — 29 May 2006 @ 5:01 PM

  18. This idea could, perhaps, be good if a relative few people buy the credits and retire them. It’s a wealth transfer to those companies that reduced emissions either because they invested in cleaner technologies – or because they shut down their manufacturing facilities and laid off workers. Some of these companies selling excess credits could just be poorly run companies that no longer have a market for their products. If a hypothetical billionaire or large NGO invests a huge amount of money in buying and retiring credits, though, that would be a disaster for those countries that have signed on to participate in carbon trading.

    Small changes in supply can have a large effect on price. [See, e.g. the electricity crisis in California, a la Gray Davis and Enron…] Marginally increased credit prices will, of course, greatly incentivize the application of more efficient technologies in industrial and other settings. At some point, however, there are no cost-effective solutions to increase efficiency – at least with contemporary technology. A sudden, unforeseen, retirement of too many credits is essentially equivalent to an oil embargo – with one critical exception – the government of the country affected can and will do something about it [If they want to stay in power…].

    If France, say, finds itself without enough credits to go around it will have two choices: allow ~10% or more of its businesses to shut down and move to countries outside Kyoto [Like China and India, as the President keeps reminding us.], or else withdraw from the system of Carbon Credit trading altogether. They’re not going to allow the French people to go without Food, Medical care, Clothing, etc. that their G-8 economy provides. We can’t suddenly ‘wish’ enough clean, efficient technology into existence to match artificially reduced Carbon caps. Business will invest in technology as their earnings allow and the observable trend in Carbon prices dictates. It is likely that any large effort to “Buy and Retire” would kill Kyoto.

    Comment by jim edwards — 29 May 2006 @ 5:55 PM

  19. The May 2006 issue of Wired Magazine had a “CO2 footprint” calculator with a sidebar on carbon offsets. According to them, one could feel good about paying $1 for every 256 lbs of CO2 emitted per year. Honestly, this strikes me as absurd. What is the half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere? Shouldn’t we amortize the cost of our present emissions over their lifetime? What would the cost really be if we took this approach?

    Just for the record, what are the best estimates of the half-life of the excess CO2 being added to the atmosphere from human sources?

    [Response:Long. I wrote a post about this question here. The money is not to pay for the damage from climate change, but to pay for a decrease in CO2 emissions to offset what you have just released. I thought the Wired calculations seemed optimistic too, but they topped out at $200 per year, not that different from David. ]

    Comment by Jamie Cate — 29 May 2006 @ 6:27 PM

  20. I would contrast the difficult and uncertain future of a tree seedling with the certain fate of jet fuel in an engine or a ton of coal on its way to a boiler. Therefore I think the emphasis must be on debits not credits. When every country has a properly managed cap-and-trade scheme it should make CO2 intensive goods cost relatively more. It should raise the ticket price of air travel more than rail for example and make windpower more competitive with coal fired electricity. This is a pure disincentive effect uncompromised by the prospect of a questionable offset. People should plant their own trees or conserve in other ways, not buy these credits.

    Comment by Johnno — 29 May 2006 @ 6:29 PM

  21. This source:

    gives in the table:

    Table H.1cco2 World Per Capita Carbon Dioxide Emissions from the Consumption and Flaring of Fossil Fuels, 1980-2003 (Metric Tons of Carbon Dioxide)
    Table Posted: July 11, 2005
    Next Update: June 2006

    the value of 19.95 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per capita for the United States for the year 2003. The value has hovered around 20 metric tonnes since about 1980. I would be surprised if it has gone up by 20 percent in 2 years.

    Does the value 24 tons, assuming that is 24 metric tonnes, include sources other than consumption and flaring of fossil fuels? Thanks

    [Response:20 is probably right. I thought I saw 24 someplace, but looking closer, I’m finding 20 also. Forgive me. David]

    Comment by Dan Hughes — 29 May 2006 @ 6:54 PM

  22. I find myself puzzled by the comments that we should exclude certain solutions because we can solve the climate change problems without them. I heard John Holdren say at the China US Climate Change Forum ( that temperatures have gone up 0.8 C, we are committed to 0.6 C more, we may reach 2 C by 2050 and 3 C or more by 2100. At 1.5 C, the polar bear and coral reefs are committed to extinction, at 2 C we may experience catastrophic sea level rise of 3 – 4 m/century, and at 2.5 C, agricultural productivity will decline pretty much everywhere on Earth.

    This will be webcast soon, hopefully this week.

    I hope that we try every solution. Even biofuels which are likely to have land use and water implications past a certain point.

    Comment by Karen Street — 29 May 2006 @ 7:12 PM

  23. Re David’s comment on 19. OK, now the idea of a “carbon offset” is more clear to me. And thanks for the link to CO2 half-lives. However, it is hard to imagine that the cost of carbon offsets would be less than the cost of the fossil fuels used as inputs to a typical American lifestyle. I would estimate that a more reasonable offset would cost in the thousands of dollars, not hundreds.

    Comment by Jamie Cate — 29 May 2006 @ 8:53 PM

  24. [Disclosure: I am the Executive Director of]

    Kudos to David Archer for focusing on the ease and affordability of carbon offsets. Too often the stories are about SUV guilt when the real story of carbon neutral living is empowerment. Without any government regulation or subsidies any individual or business can reduce their climate impact to zero. believes we can also change the world.

    In a country of 300 million people, imagine if just 2 million offset their carbon footprints with wind energy. They would facilitate so much wind power we believe the price of new wind would drop below that of new coal. This would change energy investment in the US and the world. Utilities would buy renewables for economic reasons and the person who never offset his carbon footprint would get more wind energy every day as the utility mix increased.

    Is this possible? Absolutely. Wind makes up just .5% of US electricity so any doubling or quadrupling has enormous price implications.

    Also, we are quite contrarian here but we don’t see the need for CO2 offset prices to increase. If efficiency were the only solution you’d eventually run out of low-cost efficiency reductions. But with renewable energy, as we increase supply price drops. We believe and hope $5.50 per ton ($4.30/ton to offset 23 tons) will be a highwater mark.

    Regarding reforestation, we understand some people have problems with each type of offset: wind vs. birds, efficiency vs. additionality, and trees live and then die. While a well-managed forest pumps more CO2 into the soil and sequesters it, our stance is to give people the choice (hey, it’s your carbon) of projects they wish to support: wind, efficiency or reforestation.

    Our apologies for the cheesy pen.

    [Response:Not at all. It was the only humor I was able to work into this post. That and the line about the tent, I guess. David]

    Comment by Eric Carlson — 29 May 2006 @ 9:19 PM

  25. I like the idea that individuals – even if governments won’t – could obtain carbon offset certificates by subscribing to fund’s whereby they can put money to their preference for offsetting carbon emmission, ie PURCHASE or OTHERWISE PROTECT IMPORTANT NATURAL CARBON SINKS (ie rainforests in the Amazon & Borneo) PLANTING TREES FOR RE-FORESTATION (doesn’t the latest research show that establishing trees actually emit more carbon than they lock up?) or RESEARCH/BUILD ALTERNATE ENERGY SYSTEMS (wind farms, solar energy technology, tidal power etc) or RESEARCH/DEVELOPMENT OF SAFER NUCLEAR OPTIONS.

    May I forcast that the contributions of millions of people all around the world joined together would make a VERY substantial difference to our otherwise poor prognosis for the future. However as the original posting pointed out…this new ‘industry’ would need to be strictly regulated & supervised to prevent scams. May I suggest that they all be authenticated and chartered by a world body of some sort, ie the UN.

    Comment by Janice Kent-Mackenzie — 29 May 2006 @ 9:35 PM

  26. Europe as an emissions allocation market, a fairly volatile one lately. In a future world of litigation, Europe, by reducing per capita emissions is in a much better positon to recover damages via trade taxes or seizure of property.

    In other words, say, the state of Florida sued China to recover damages due to global warming, then China’s response would be, “What has the USA done to curb emissions?” A perfect line of defense.

    Our ability to use the threat of litigation depends upon the accuracy of climate models, as well as the perceived value of a cooler planet. Hence, the CEI, “Co2 is life” campaign is an effort to persuade future jurors. CEI, however, is stuck in one sense, they already acknowedge that human’s are partly to blame, and they feel property damage litigation is the better approach to environmental problems in general.

    If a natural wildlife federation bought access rights to, say, arctic polar bears or arctic fisheries, then, because of polar amplification, this wildlife federation could find easier cause for a lawsuit. Polar amplification enhances the probability of a damage award, and once the first victory comes, each new victory can squeek out another piece of the general liability.

    A few victories and carbon markets will be active indeed.

    Comment by Matt — 29 May 2006 @ 10:51 PM

  27. I’m sorry I don’t remember the source, but I read a while back that Habitat for Humanity can now build what are called “near-zero-energy” homes–at least in the sunbelt. If they can do it, I would think that other home builders that have more than just volunteer labor could also do it. Luckily, there are some architectural firms that now design homes and small buildings toward that goal.

    I would like to suggest that probably the best way to reduce CO2 is to design systems that demand less energy to begin with. Conservation is more than just turning off light bulbs in uninhabited rooms. It’s a whole new way of thinking and designing.

    When a home or building is designed to minimize energy needed, it’s a lot more cost-effective to meet that demand with renewable energy. Maybe we should push for our local building codes to require super efficient designs and photovotaics on new homes built in the sunbelt? Windmills for those homes in tornado alley?

    As an added benefit, the less energy we need for new homes and buidings, the less demand there will be for nuclear power, so we may be able to shelve that debate for a long time.

    Comment by Vincent Belovich — 29 May 2006 @ 11:06 PM

  28. I didn’t read all the comments so I didn’t see if anyone mentioned.. but I know of at least one farmer here in New Zealand who got rid of most of his stock and now gets his livelihood from selling “blocks” of carbon offset from his farmland (which , from memory, is somewhere in the Marlborough Sounds area)…
    It certainly does seem like an airy fairy kinda way to make a buck but he’s doing it and doing better than when he had stock on his land by all accounts!

    Comment by Shine — 30 May 2006 @ 3:58 AM

  29. CO2 is merely one “externality” whose social cost is not built in to the price of goods and services : there are others. Some are dealt with by forbidding their use (cigarettes in public places or CFCs, for example, which are considered to have an infinitely high cost ) and others by limiting their presence in everyday articles ( limits on pollutants of all sorts to what are believed to be tolerable levels imposing some costs on producers).

    There is no suggestion to do the impossible and forbid the emission of CO2, but to impose a “carbon levy” to “cap and trade” and internationally to “cap and converge” to give developing countries similar rights to our own in the use of natural resources – those proposals which involve market based solutions seem a fair way of going about things. There has been a suggestion from Janet Kent-Mackenzie at post 25 that the U N might be used to police the market. Well, the UN doesn’t have a very good record in these sorts of things and it would take too long to put it right. An alternative proposal would be to use the existing WTO which has an experienced secretariat in dealing with international markets, and currently a good and intelligent bureaucrat running the show. If WTO resources are considered insufficient then there are plenty of people at the World Bank (currently in the throws of self-examination) or the IMF who might like to do an important job for humankind.

    My guess is that policing the CO2 market will be only the start of international action on a number of related issues like, pollutants in general, river system management and water resources and the exploitation and use of so-called strategic metals and minerals.

    Comment by Eachran — 30 May 2006 @ 4:36 AM

  30. As I see it, there are the following options for those of us who are concerned about climate change.

    1. Take personal action to reduce emissions, including energy conservation and possibly carbon offsets.

    2. Take political action, such as writing letters to politicians or becoming involved in a local climate project. This might include donating to an environmental group that will take political action for us.

    3. Raise other people’s awareness of the problem of climate change to try to reach that “critical mass”. This could also include donating to a group (not many that I can find) that produces information or commercials about climate change.

    Personally, we’ve taken steps towards efficiency and conservation in our own home, and written those nagging letters to our federal and provincial politicians. Those things are free, of course. But when it comes to shelling out money, I’m reluctant to – say – trade in our Ford Focus for a Toyota Prius, because of the huge cost involved. Considering the price difference between the two, a fraction of the money would do far more good being donated to a carbon offset fund or a worthy climate change group. (Not that I’m criticizing the Prius.)

    Wish I could find a worthy recipient for advertising dollars, since I think public awareness is the biggest hurdle.

    Carbon offsets seem like a cost-effective way to do something positive. Thanks for your great article.

    Comment by Catherine Jansen — 30 May 2006 @ 7:10 AM

  31. What an absolutely fascinating, rich, and necessary discussion. The caveats about verification, certification, effectiveness, and permanence of offsets mentioned in the comments give pause, but I salute the pioneers who are creating them as well as those who use them and critique them.

    I have long been a fan of efficiency and renewable energy sources, and as several commenters have pointed out, they are complimentary. The net-zero energy houses that Vincent mentioned in #27 are an excellent example, and I look forward to hearing the webcast of the China US Climate Change Forum from comment #22. Efficiency and renewable technologies are improving so quickly that when you see skeptics claim that they “can’t possibly” solve the problem, it’s hard to know exactly how out of date they are.

    Simple conservation also has a role. In fact, it is the truly painless option. No matter how effiicient your light bulb is, or what percentage of its power comes from wind, when you turn it off the money you save is like tax free income.

    William Nordhaus, the economist you cite, recommends a uniform carbon tax (UCT) as the best way to encourage all solutions, such as efficiency, renewables, and conservation.

    As for nuclear, Tim in # 9 (linking to the Hertsgaard article) shows that it’s much more expensive than efficiency and wind. Perhaps more important, it is the one energy source that requires huge government bureaucracy, regulation, and subsidies. Efficiency and renewables are much more consistent with freedom and individual rights and responsibilities.

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — 30 May 2006 @ 7:41 AM

  32. I thought RealClimate “doesn’t do policy” ;)
    These are the sort of discussions I was envisaging on “RealSolutions” as someone else termed the mythical website (not necessarily saying “we should do this” but “how well does this approach work?” and “what is the current state of this technology?” etc.

    Anyway, and more seriously, from #2:

    “but the ‘plant a tree and feel good about flying’ idea (popular in the UK) is dodgy”

    My understanding is that trees take some years to soak up the CO2 so you can only really off-set against future emmissions. The extra CO2 you’ve currently emmitted is still around (in terms of quantity not actual CO2, obviously) waiting to be absorbed over the years that that tree grows. And that’s ignoring the situation (as mentioned elsewhere above) that the trees may not last that lonng and may get burnt, etc. re-releasing the CO2.

    That’s not to say that planting trees shouldn’t be done. If they become a sink, then they could be an added bonus on top of not emmitting in the first place.

    Comment by Adam — 30 May 2006 @ 12:18 PM

  33. > 12 comment by Raypierre about nondegradable organic plastics as a sink:

    Nature is too clever for us there.

    One example, hearsay (no cite, not published) — when I was an undergrad, a friend was working in a faculty member’s lab where they were testing soils, hoping to select a microorganism capable of consuming DDT and producing nontoxic breakdown products. They eventually did find one — which they ended up destroying quite carefully. The one they’d selected for turned out to have a similar appetite for other common plastics including PVC (polyvinyl chloride, the common wire insulation used in our electrical distribution system, phone system, etc. — it degraded PVC into other toxics that were more mobile, not to mention the short circuits caused as the insulation broke down).

    Mother nature wants her toys back.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 30 May 2006 @ 12:51 PM

  34. I think Carbonfund’s so-called “carbon offsets” can be more accurately characterized as “charitable donations”. While such donations are laudable, charity and voluntary action are not going to achieve the reduction in GHG levels required for climate stabilization (e.g., 80% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050, as defined by Governor Schwarzenegger’s Climate Action initiative). There’s no evidence that Kyoto-type cap-and-trade systems can, either, unless environmental objectives take precedence over cost considerations and GHG emissions are actually capped at a sustainable level – which they never are. Climate sustainability might be attainable at acceptable cost, but trying to use cap and trade to implement a cost-constrained policy doesn’t work because you can’t predict in advance what minimum cap level will satisfy the cost constraint.

    Climate policy is fundamentally a constrained optimization problem. You can construct policy to minimize costs subject to a fixed emission constraint (if environmental goals take precedence over cost acceptability), or to minimize emissions subject to a fixed cost constraint (if cost control takes precedence – which it always does). Cap and trade represents an emissions-constrained policy, whereas emission taxes are cost-constrained; but there is also a more significant difference between emission caps and taxes: Cap and trade is typically constructed to be revenue-neutral within the regulated industry (i.e., emission allowances are freely distributed, for example, in proportion to energy output), whereas taxes are not. Consequently, tax-based initiatives in the U.S. are typically “dead on arrival”. However, the difference is not fundamental: Emission allowances can be auctioned (and the proceeds used as tax revenue). Conversely, emission tax revenue can be refunded (e.g., in proportion to energy output so that the tax/refund ratio is proportional to emission intensity). The Swedish acid rain program, for example, uses a refunded tax to regulate stationary-source NOx emissions. (Swedish power plants typically exhibit much better NOx emission performance than that of the U.S. and other countries.)

    I think scientists (climate scientists, in particular) could help bring a level of analytic discipline and intellectual acuity to the subject of climate policy that is currently lacking, and I would welcome more discussion of this topic on RealClimate. Here is one puzzle that RealClimate readers might ponder: Governor Schwarzenegger’s Climate Action Team recently issued a report asserting that “the Governor’s targets are achievable” and detailing specific strategies for achieving the targets ( Look through the report and see what evidence there is that the recommended strategies will achieve the 2050 target, which is the only target that is based on the climate science. (For what it’s worth, my own views are posted in the Climate Action Team’s public comments area.)

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 30 May 2006 @ 12:53 PM

  35. It does appear that nuclear power generation decreases CO2 emissions by about a third. You can clearly see this by comparing emissions from France to that from Germany and the UK. There is a short table at with a link back to a longer table at the UN Statistics division.

    Comment by Eli Rabett — 30 May 2006 @ 1:04 PM


    Industry plans for large new ethanol plants — fueled by burning coal, fueled the old dirty way.

    US Congress plans to remove the burden of clean air regulation from companies planning new ethanol production — so it can be made fast using cheapest and dirtiest fuel source.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 30 May 2006 @ 2:31 PM

  37. Re: Hank Roberts

    That’s a scary story!! I didn’t think things like that happened in real life :) But a very nice analogy to fiddling around with Earth’s climate. We don’t quite understand what we are dealing with when pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, and we should stop messing with a system we may not be able to control. To the skeptics: I don’t mean we should stop doing climate research or let nature take its course; I mean we should minimize emitting and find cleaner alternative enrgy resources. Fast. And actually do more research and understand the system better.

    Comment by teacher ocean — 30 May 2006 @ 2:55 PM

  38. David- Kudos for raising this intresting policy subject;-)

    From my perspective, it seems that carbon offsets are not quite accurately described here. The idea behind carbon offsets is both “cap and trade” but also a second approach based on the same logic behind the CDM of the Kyoto Protocol. As I understand them, carbon offsets do not reduce carbon emissions directly, but in principle, from what they would have been absent the offset investment.

    The idea behind the “cap and trade” logic — as described by — seems to be that where there exists a market for carbon, they will purchase (or otherwise earn) rights to emit, but not sell those rights, taking them off the market, and thus reducing supply of emissions rights, thereby in theory increasing the price (which in turn will reduce demand). Whether or not this actually has a discernible effect on real world emissions depends upon whether the buyer of carbon emissions rights can actual act as a “market mover.” If is the equivalent of Warren Buffet in the carbon market, then they may be onto something. On the other hand, if they are small relative to the market, they might be more like you and me joining together to take Google shares out of the market in hope of driving up the price. Whether or not such a strategy represents anything more than a well-intentioned idea, seems open to vaild debate.

    The second approach is focused on offsetting possible future emissions. For instance, to take a simple hypothetical example, carbon offset money might be used to built a wind power plant rather than a coal power plant, thereby “offsetting” the future emissions from the coal plant. This does not reduce actual emissions but reduces the possible increase in future emissions.

    My sense is that carbon offsets seem like a pretty indirect and inefficient way of achieving emissions reductions. After all, where carbon markets exists one could simply eliminate the middle man and buy emissions rights directly and paricipate in the market. I wonder how it is that the organizations you linked to can gain rights to carbon emissions at far less than the market price in actual markets. Something doesn;t add up. I suppose the idea is that if enough people participate then carbon markets will move financial markets, etc.

    The above is just speculation, I’d be interested to learn if there are any rigorous studies of the efficacy of carbon offsets as a policy instrument as compared with more direct means of reducing emissions.

    Comment by Roger Pielke, Jr. — 30 May 2006 @ 3:38 PM

  39. “Uranium will run out in 80 years”.

    Current reserves of U-235 may run out then. U-238 is 0.7% of natural uranium; the remaining U-238 can be used in breeder reactors, and that 80 years turns into 8000 years. And that’s the high-quality ores we know about. There’s more in seawater, and the U in the crust (accessible through mining, or in the long run through waiting for erosion and getting it from seawater) is enough for at least millions of years, possibly a billion.

    Comment by Damien — 30 May 2006 @ 3:43 PM

  40. Re #39
    … and then we would have a cheap, inexhaustible and essentially limitless supply of weapons-grade plutonium. Is that the “stairway to heaven” – or to hell?

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 30 May 2006 @ 4:18 PM

  41. Not necessarily that cheap. Current reactor design makes Pu-240 mixed in with the Pu-239, ruining it for weapons and even harder to separate than the uranium isotopes. Some advanced designs strive for a closed-cycle: uranium in, fission fragments out, no free plutonium. OTOH pebble beds might make Pu-239 easier to get, by encouraging constant recycling and potential extraction of low-240 Pu-239.

    *shrug* It’s a concern, but it hardly seems like a killer. Inspections continue to be a useful tool. And if there are tons of uranium out there, which there are, it won’t be that hard for a high-tech country to get U-235 if they want it. Or get thorium and make U-233 which should also be good for bombs.

    As far as existential risks go I’m more concerned about diseases, natural or man-made.

    Comment by Damien — 30 May 2006 @ 4:42 PM

  42. So with nature responsible for the vast majority of CO2 emmissions who is going to pay for that? I am willing to accept $1 instead of the $99 for those willing to cover the cost that Earth releases.

    Comment by John — 30 May 2006 @ 4:45 PM

  43. The whole point is that we evolved on an Earth which has balancing mechanisms to deal with the CO2 the Earth releases. Now we are messing around with the balance by releasing more CO2 in a much shorter time frame than the balances can handle.

    Comment by teacher ocean — 30 May 2006 @ 4:53 PM

  44. It is important to recognize several issues when talking greenhouse gas emissions offsets. First amongst them is “additionality.” An offset (i.e., emission reduction project) requires that you set a business as usual baseline of emissions and then estimate emission reductions relative to that baseline. These reductions are then considered additional. Setting that baseline is far from an objective process, however. Groups like Carbon Fund, TerraPass, AtmosClear, and many many others that sell offsets in the retail voluntary market use various formulas for determining additionality and then verifying the reductions achieved (other 3rd parties often do this verification such as Environmental Resources Trust).

    So, if you buy offsets from someone, a smart shopper needs to be very clear on what she is buying. They are not all created equal. (Although the people working in this area, are for the most part, sincere in their goals.)

    The concept of an offset assumes that the person selling the emission reduction would not have implemented the project anyway (because of regulation or other factors). So the voluntary emission offsets markets exists because we don’t have regulation (e.g., such as a cap and trade program). Once we do have such a program here in the United States, we will all be able to buy GHG allowances and have them retired just like under the SO2 trading program run by the U.S. EPA now. Voluntary efforts will not solve this problem. They will not even come close. So by all means, do your research, buy verified offsets of high quality and additionality, but don’t let it reduce by one bit your sense of obligation to press for collective action on the part of governments.

    PS: CO2 from beer is biogenic. It is produced by yeast feeding on sugars in the grain. It is not a net source of GHG emissions to the atmosphere.

    [Response:In good beer, no doubt. I’ll bet we in the U.S. drink Frankenbeer with fossil CO2. David]

    Comment by Michael Gillenwater — 30 May 2006 @ 5:01 PM

  45. Dear teacher ocean,

    At just 2.5% of total CO2 release that humans are responsible for I find it hard that the Earth can’t cope with the increases. According to IPCC figures humans account for about 5.2GT (gigaton) of CO2 and nature accounts for about 210GT. If humans realsed double the amount of CO2 (to 10GT) this would only be an increase of 2.3%. An average volcano relases more then this during an eruption yet Earth can deal with that. Finally, absoprtion rates in the atmosphere reach saturation points and are logarithmic where additional CO2 releases account for less solar energy capture.

    [Response: This contains a number of misconceptions. The volcanis source is trivial compared to human emissions (as discussed and in even more detail ). The 2.5% number is just irrelevant – the actual number is 30% of CO2 – as discussed and finally, logarithmic effects of increasing CO2 are very well known and incorporated into all future projections. – gavin ]

    Comment by John — 30 May 2006 @ 5:03 PM

  46. I hope the climate scientists on board will answer you with more details, but it isn’t so much about amount, as it is about the rate of release. Oceans respond slowly to perturbations in atmospheric CO2 concentration. David Archer says about 10-25% of our CO2 emissions will remain in the atmosphere for 100s of thougsands of years in his first post to realclimate and in the other current thread called “Positive feedbacks from the carbon cycle.”

    So just 2.5% of release of CO2 in the atmosphere in how much time? A day, a week, a year? Volcanoes release a lot but humans release every day, all the time. So you need to look at the rate of release not just percents.

    Oceans regulate atmopheric CO2 by dissolving carbonates in deep sea sediments. That takes time. Oceans circulate slower than the atmosphere, that takes time. And another question is do the oceans have enough carbonate to compensate for the large quantities of CO2 we are releasing? If they run out of carbonate sediments, the oceans will begin to exhale CO2 as well.

    Comment by teacher ocean — 30 May 2006 @ 5:26 PM

  47. “At just 2.5% of total CO2 release that humans are responsible ”

    Cite, please.
    gives human output as 150x that of volcanoes.
    which for comparison also has our sulfur dioxide dwarfing that from volcanoes, despite our trying to cut back on sulfur emissions, while burning more and more fossil fuels.

    Comment by Damien — 30 May 2006 @ 5:44 PM

  48. At the level of dissolved CO2 where the oceans become acidic enough to dissolve carbonates, that will kill the marine organisms that make their shells out of calcium carbonate, and everything above them on the food chain.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 30 May 2006 @ 5:54 PM

  49. #44

    John, there is much you can learn from the many posts and comments on RealClimate. PLEASE, take the time to educate yourself a bit and come back when you have. That’s my 2 cents.

    Comment by John L. McCormick — 30 May 2006 @ 5:59 PM

  50. Oh, and I missed the obvious.

    #44, John, you say: “CO2 (to 10GT) this would only be an increase of 2.3%. An average volcano relases more then this during an eruption ”

    Whose word did you rely on, that led you to believe this? What’s the source of the information you believe about this?

    It’s important to track down what people believe are the true facts — where they came from, who originated the information.

    I found that statement only two places, with a quick search:

    Neither of them is a reliable source in my opinion. Your source may be reliable — who is it?

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 30 May 2006 @ 6:04 PM

  51. Pore waters in deep sea sediments dissolve foram shells all the time, as we speak. Do you mean dissolving ALL the carbonates?

    Comment by teacher ocean — 30 May 2006 @ 6:11 PM

  52. >I wonder how it is that the organizations you linked to can gain rights to carbon emissions at far less than the market price in actual markets. Something doesn;t add up. I suppose the idea is that if enough people participate then carbon markets will move financial markets, etc.

    Too many problems to go into. A random glimpse:

    A lot of “offsets” are produced by consultants. Example: You own a steel plant in a poor country that turns scrap metal into new steel. It is an old fashioned basic oxygen furnace (BOF), and it is finally completely worn out. A rebuild won’t do this time; it needs to be replaced. There is hydroelectric power in your area. You can save a lot of money by buying an Electric Arc Furnace (EAF), and using that for processing your scrap metal.

    But, you know, that EAF is a lot cleaner and greener than your old BOF. Isn’t there some way you can get paid for this? Why yes there is.

    Call in the local certified consultant from your local carbon market and pay him a nice fee. He will produce a study certifying that you could have gotten ten more years out of that old BOF, and that the only reason you are investing in a new EAF is carbon credits. Voila! The carbon market will examine the report, find it convincing, and a new annual producer of offsets is born – which a “Green” Rock Band can buy to justify burning petroleum in planes and buses.

    “Mommy, where do carbon offsets come from?”

    “Well you see honey when a polluter and a consultant love money very very much, they come together in a very special way to produce an extremely long piece of paper.”

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 30 May 2006 @ 6:58 PM

  53. Yes. It’s last year’s news.

    “… Orr and co-workers first calculated current carbonate ion content of the world’s oceans from data collected in two ocean surveys. They then used computer models to calculate how future CO2 emissions would change this carbonate concentration. The model predicted that colder waters in the Southern Ocean and the subarctic Pacific Ocean would be affected more seriously than tropical “waters. Worryingly, they found that quantities of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate made by coral to build reefs, would fall below a critical level in Southern Ocean surface waters in as little as 50 years. By 2100, this deficiency could extend throughout the entire Southern Ocean and into the subarctic Pacific Ocean. This finding was unexpected: scientists had previously believed that adequate levels of calcium carbonate ions would persist in surface waters for hundreds of years.

    “The team went further; they also studied the effect of this acidification on individual marine organisms, in particular, the pteropod Clio pyramidata. Pteropods, a type of zooplankton, are winged snails, measuring several millimeters across, that swim through surface waters. Like coral, this species secretes aragonite to make its shell. The researchers compared the shells of pteropods that had swum in today’s â��non-corrosiveâ�� seawater with pteropods forced to swim in â��corrosiveâ�� seawater with a composition similar to the one expected in 2100. In the corrosive water, the shells of live pteropods started dissolving within 48 hours. This is only one exampleâ��acidification would also undoubtedly affect coral reefs, particularly those in cold waters. The result would be a disaster for the marine ecosystem, as pteropods make up the basic food for organisms ranging from zooplankton to whales, and coral skeletons provide an essential habitat for fish, crabs and sea urchins. Obviously, commercially important species, including North Pacific salmon, mackerel, herring and cod, would be among those affected….”

    J. Orr et al., �Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms,� Nature. 437 (7059): 681-6. 2005.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 30 May 2006 @ 7:49 PM

  54. Yes, thank you. I had read that actually, very interesting. I was not sure I understood your previous post. :)

    Comment by teacher ocean — 30 May 2006 @ 7:56 PM

  55. My utility gets their energy from both coal and wind. For $5 per month per 200kw, you can “buy” wind energy from a wind farm which substitutes for the energy which would otherwise come from the local coal plant. The $5 is to pay for the differential in costs between the wind farm and the coal plant, although I suspect the local utility or the power authority may be making money off this deal since they have not reduced the marginal price over the last 5 years even though wind costs have come down.

    In any case, this seems like a situation where you are really making a current offset, not just reducing future emissions.

    My understanding is that Terrapass is just making projects possible by providing the margin of funds required to make the project, for example,wind, a go. That is totally different than what my local utility does, as you are truly paying for the wind related energy you use.

    Is carbon fund similar to Terrapass or my local utility. Although I bought a Terrapass for my Prius, I feel more comfortable with the approach my local utility uses. Terrapss is so cheap because they are just paying marginal costs. But then someone else needs to actually sign up and buy the energy from those projects to make them truly useful.

    One concern I have is that these offset programs will cause people to directly emit more carbon than they otherwise would. Gore says he’s carbon neutral despite the thousands of miles he travels by air because he participates in an offset program. I hope he’s right, but I still feel uncomfortable.

    In any event, voluntary offsets don’t cut it. Our voluntary efforts will contribute trivially to the problem. After all, worldwide, there are 850 coal plants in the works. Who will be offsetting all that carbon?

    Comment by t — 30 May 2006 @ 8:34 PM

  56. #38 states that there is no need for a market where one can buy something directly. I guess that is why we don’t have a stock market, or a bond market or a vegtable market. Come, that is a bit more than naive and so easily refuted that one wonders about the reason for making the statement. Markets exist where buyers need to find sellers or visa versa. Those who make the market take their percentage.

    Another point is that Berkshire is so large that Buffet does not trade much on the market anymore, but rather buys companies in toto (read his annual report if you are interested in his strategy The take home is that very large organizations that can purchase all the emission rights from a particular source may not need a carbon market, but smaller ones will.

    Comment by Eli Rabett — 30 May 2006 @ 9:26 PM

  57. There was an enormous amount of work done on this issue the first time around, in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. If we are serious about stabilizing carbon emissions in the US, and you look at what it costs to do that, the answer is in the $30/ton range. Carbon sequestration, the thing that coal boosters everywhere are promising to do later if we let them build the coal plants now, probably costs more. $30/ton easily buys down any cost difference between fossil fuels or nukes and, say, large-scale wind development.

    As it happens, the Euro carbon market was running at about $30/ton until recently when it was discovered that a surplus of carbon emission credits had been issued, diluting the market.

    Comment by converger — 30 May 2006 @ 11:41 PM

  58. Re #57:
    $30/ton? What’s the 1-sigma confidence on that? The IPCC TAR puts the cost in the range of $15 to $150/ton ( – p 25). As for benefits, the TAR simply states that “… quantitative estimates of the benefits of stabilization … of greenhouse gasses do not yet exist” (p 22). Not that anyone cares – GHG caps are always based on cost acceptability limits, never on environmental requirements. And the caps are more often than not premised on grossly over-inflated cost projections, so when the market finds out what the costs really are the carbon market collapses ( If you try tightening the caps, then a cold winter will come along, or there will be a disruption in natural gas supplies, and then carbon prices will hit the ceiling. You just can’t win. You can’t predict the future, and you can’t use cap and trade to control costs because cap and trade is fundamentally designed to control emissions – at any cost.

    The tradeoff to cost uncertainty and price instability is supposed to be that cap and trade guarantees “environmental certainty”, but it only does so in economists’ ivory-tower fantasy world. In the real world, most of the EU countries are set to miss their Kyoto commitments (, and as of 2005 Canada’s GHG emissions were already 32% above its Kyoto target – and rising ( So what is the point of cap and trade?

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 31 May 2006 @ 3:29 AM

  59. Interesting thread and thanks to all. It may be that we are going to be stuck with a very high international “carbon levy” and those nations that dont play ball get penalised with import duties by others who do play ball, from their (the offenders) exports. Now, this may not prevent the “outlaws” dumping as much carbon on the rest of us as they like from their home market but it is a start and does to some extent deal with the natural concern that voters have, that to impose costs on locally produced goods and services, which others dont bear, reduces competitiveness. It also does encourage compliance because for example China, if it didn’t comply, would have less favoured status as an exporter of goods than it does now. After all countries sign up to the WTO rules and do in the main accept international arbitration to fix non-negotiable issues.

    To avoid the impression, I may give, that China will avoid its humanitarian duties we should remind ourselves that some thousands of years ago China went through this process with over exploitation of natural resources and corrected itself (cant remember the reference) : so China has already been there and done that and there is no reason to believe that it wont be wholeheartedly behind saving the planet.

    The international and domestic machinery already exists to administer this route and I dont know why we dont do it.

    I think that one has to start with a best guess of how high the “carbon levy” must be to start to reduce emissions quickly and then to have some mechanism for refunding the levy to the levied without plunging us all into a long lasting economic depression which will surely bring in its wake civil disorder; and, to create markets in levy debits/credits locally or regionally to ensure the levies are used economically efficiently.

    I dont see why some of the levy could not be used to pay for international organisations like the UN, it would save Mr Ted Turner having to write billion dollar cheques for a start.

    Comment by Eachran — 31 May 2006 @ 7:13 AM

  60. Both the differential rate and total amount of carbon uptake by terrestrial primary production should be of interest here, I think.

    Primary production is sensitive to atmospheric CO2 concentration. By extension so must be the subsequent release by respiration and decay.

    The significant rise in atmospheric CO2, that has occurred would suggest a significant increase in primary production as a proportion of the pre industrial total and it would only have taken a small proportional increase (the total primary production rate being far greater than anthrogenic emissions) for it to have exerted a stabilising effect in the short term unless were it not for our preference for crops and pasture over trees.

    So perhaps, changes in land use have acted to much diminish this effect.

    I have no information on how primary production has changed for either areas with continuity of land use or for disturbed areas. Can anyone help me?

    It would seem that this is precisely the sort of information that C02 traders/offsetters should have available when they make their proposals.

    On the face of it, unless one can show that we can construct a world that is, in effect, by all mechanisms, creating future fossil fuels and carbonate containing rocks, and at a similar rate to which they are being reduced to CO2 and released into the atmosphere then it is not solving the problem.

    What is the most productive way of producing future fossil fuels? Is it the peat production of bogs? How much could such production amount to?

    Lastly, what is the most desirable (or perhaps utilitarian) level of atmospheric CO2? One way or another we are embarking on a knowing manipulation of climatic and primary production conditions. Different levels might have different winners and losers.

    Polite suggestions and pointers will be welcomed.

    Comment by Alexander Harvey — 31 May 2006 @ 7:41 AM

  61. 59 re China — I think you should try hard to find that reference. The people I know who’ve worked on food production improvement in China say it’s in horrible shape because of thousands of years of shortsighted overuse, with no scientists to figure out where they were going in time to change. Perhaps some emperor did something different, but it doesn’t seem to have stuck as a policy. I’d like to know your source’s sources.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 9:49 AM

  62. I used to offset my personal CO2 emissions – and was surprised and delighted by how cheap it was.

    Your comments suggest that there is a disconnect between how cheap is, and how expensive it is to reduce CO2 in the market. But that is not really inconsistent. CO2 is ~$25 per ton in the European market, because they are acting under a binding commitment and have to reduce a certain amount. In the Chicago Climate Exchange, CO2 is much cheaper, ~$3 per ton. That is because there is no binding commitment in the USA, and so only the very cheapest options are used.

    This is illustrated nicely in a paper by David Victor et al (Science, 2005, 309:1820).

    This also suggests that we should not expect to get our whole CO2 reduced at the price in the US market now. Prices will rise as we reduce more, but hopefully, seeing that the market is active will encourage companies to innovate more.

    You also questioned whether the reductions under are the same as under the Kyoto Protocol. I guess the key question is if they are verified to the same standard. Let’s ask carbonfund to comment on this!

    I think a lot of people should be encouraged to use People are now spending a lot of effort and money to find ways to reduce their personal CO2 emissions. makes it easy and cheap, letting our money be used to reduce more emissions.

    Comment by Jason West — 31 May 2006 @ 10:43 AM

  63. Same old thing here:

    Repeat, lather, rinse.

    Comment by Mark A. York — 31 May 2006 @ 10:54 AM

  64. FOr those that are trying to claim humans account for 30% of CO2 here is a link.

    The IPCC gives the figures for natural and human perturbation of global carbon cycle (the numbers are in Petagrams of carbon. 1 Pg = 1 Gigaton, denoted Gt. 1 Gt = 1 Pg = 109 metric ton). Human perturbation = ~5.2GtC emissions and the natural cycle roughly 210GtC emission. Humans collectively account for 5.2/210 or a shade short of 2.5% and not the 30% cited above.

    [Response: You are confusing two different things. One is the gross fluxes into and out of the atmosphere, and the second is the net flux into and out of the atmosphere. The terresstrial and oceanic fluxes are large, but also largely balanced (what goes in pretty much comes out). The extra fluxes we are putting in have accumulated in the system so that CO2 levels are 30% higher than previously. It’s like a big bathtub with a lot of water coming in, and a lot of water leaving down the drain. To a good approximation what was coming in before was matched to what was leaving and the level in the bath tub was steady. Now we are adding in more water and the amount going down the drain hasn’t increased to match – hence the level has risen about 30%. The ratio of our additions to the ‘natural’ fluxes is completely irrelevant. All that matters is how much the sink increases – and it hasn’t increased enough to soak up all the extra stuff we are putting in. – gavin]

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 11:18 AM

  65. Instead of arguing about computer models CO2 percentages and so forth I ask the following. Let’s say all the following are proven to be scientific fact.
    1) Man made warming is real
    2) All the disaster predictions are real
    3) If we give up fosil fuels we can stop it.
    Does ANYONE believe that people would give up driving, air conditioning, creature comforts, etc to do this? Its not going to happen.

    On the other side I ask the doomsaylers a question. For argument sake lets say the following is proven.
    1) Man is warming the planet
    2) This warming is offsetting a natural ice age.
    Are the folks here then willing to add more CO2? Or is the natural cycle more important?

    My point is that Teddy is against windfarms near his beach home. When he decides to suffer then maybe the rest of us will consider it.

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 12:01 PM

  66. I simply can not understand the $/ton prices for any of these schemes.

    If they can produce carbon at those sorts of costs then I want to buy it as it seems to be the cheapest fuel around.

    If someone can sell me sustainable carbon at $5.5/tonne or $30/tonne, I want to speak to them urgently.

    So that is not what is going on.

    So what is?


    I have had a look at some of the offerings and one that is not so vague as to be useless is the following.

    If you take alook at the “Trees for Life” offering and, at its basis, is the proposal:

    “… to plant the appropriate number of trees to absorb (over the lifetime of each tree} the CO2 produced …”.

    If the life time is 100 years (I could not find a figure on their website) and you buy the approprite amount of trees/per year to eventually (100 years) become carbon neutral then after:

    1 year you have but back 1% of usage so far
    2 years 1.5% of usage so far
    3 years 2%
    4 years 2.5%

    99 years 50%
    100 years 50.5%

    (at this point the trees are reaching maturity and you will simply be replacing the oldest trees)

    101 years 50.99%
    110 years 55%
    150 years 67%
    200 years 75.25%
    400 years 87.63%

    Basically you would never get there unless you’re cold, dead and sequestrated and the project has to continued without you.

    What you really need is to buy 100 times your annual tree requirement up front to cover your ongoing emissions. As this would be rather a lot of cash then perhaps you could take out a 100 year lease on your total tree requirement and could leave the residue to your estate when you die, or more simply rent it for each year that you live and burn carbon.

    The figure suggested (in chart) for “Tree for Life” is $20/tonne offset.

    So you would need a mortgage on a total sum of 100*$20 = $2000/(tonne/year) of offsets which with a borrowing rate of 5% that would be an ongoing $100/(tonne/year) plus capital repayments.

    This is five times the headline figure of $20 and would be purely the result of interest rates being 5 times tree growth rates (1% per year assuming 100 years).

    Without capital repayments one would be renting which is actually more appropriate. The cost of renting is just the $100/(tonne/year) plus a profit for the owner in the real world.

    Using’s “Zero Carbon” rate of 24tons/year of offsets and neglecting the difference between tons and tonnes.

    Then a rental of $2,400 per year would be the cost to be actually carbon neutral with “Trees for Life”.

    Which is a lot.


    At the other end, where do they get land that you can rent for 100 years for $10/tree. Again based on 100 years this is 10c/tree-year. (The figure they give is UK£5/tree which is slightly less).

    Where can one find land at those sort of rates?

    Well in the case of “Tree for Life” it would appear to be from the UK Forestry Commission who own some/most/all of the land in question.

    I can not believe that “Trees for Life” are paying anything approaching a commercial rate for the land (perhaps nothing at all). Furthermore much of the work is carried out by volunteers and almost certainly would be carried out anyway as part of a Forestry Commission plan to return the forest to a more natural habitat.

    These are good people do great work but I can not see that it amounts to additional carbon reduction.

    If anyone knows better please tell.

    I can not calculate a figure for what it would cost to be carbon neutral but I would suggest that $200/tonne would be a lot closer the mark.

    Comment by Alexander Harvey — 31 May 2006 @ 12:10 PM

  67. Re: #65

    Premise #3 in your first argument is a false dichotomy. Dropping fossil fuels completely is not necessary, nor would it deny us the benefits of a high energy economy. There are many alternatives, including finding some efficient mechanism for rebinding the carbon in the atmosphere back into usable hydrocarbons, which if possible, would not even require much in the way of infrastructure changes.

    Premise #2 in your second argument simply false: we are in an interglacial period now.

    I agree that it is offensive that certain rich folks are unwilling to pay the costs of the society which they so disproportionately benefit from, but I believe that you are slandering the Senator from Massachusetts. While he may have other things to answer for, the controversy you refer to was on Cape Cod and Senator Kennedy lives on Martha’s Vineyard.

    Comment by Richard Wesley — 31 May 2006 @ 12:43 PM

  68. #62, thanks for the comments and support. Each verification model is slightly different, which is not to say better or worse. Kyoto applies to countries, while CCX applies to opt-in businesses. Both standards are rigorous. Green-e is slightly different than ERT. They all measure a metric ton of CO2 reductions.

    The price difference has more to do with the rigidity of the market. Kyoto is mandatory and applies to all emissions in about 60 countries. No one can opt out. CCX is voluntary, and one might expect it to initially attract net sellers, not buyers of CO2. Both are highly certified and their reductions real.

    Regarding long term prices of CO2 reductions, we disagree that they will go up. While efficiency gains will likely max-out, renewable energy, already less than $5.50 per metric ton of CO2, will only go down in price as supply continues to grow by 20-25% a year. Short term disruptions aside, long term increases in the cost of CO2 reductions via efficiency will compete with the dropping cost of CO2 reductions via renewables.

    Comment by Eric Carlson — 31 May 2006 @ 12:49 PM

  69. Hi folks. There are some people out there who have done a lot of work on this issue. Here are some links

    “Marketing and Making Carbon Dumps” (2005)

    “The Sky is not the Limit” (2003)

    “To Keep the Oil Flowing” (draft, 2005)

    “Low-Hanging Fruit Always Rots First”, in Trouble in the Air (2005)

    “The Carbon Shop: Planting New Problems” (1999)

    “The Carbon Bomb: Climate Change and the Fate of the Northern Boreal Forests”

    These are not of course dispassionate scientific analysis. But they are extremely careful work with a high ratio of analysis and facts to rhetoric. I highly recommend them. Many of the authors are economists; some are scientists. I would highly recommend inviting one of them to make a guest post on offsets, and on carbon trading in general – perhaps Jutta Kill.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 31 May 2006 @ 12:52 PM

  70. 67 > some efficient mechanism for rebinding the carbon in the
    > atmosphere back into usable hydrocarbons

    That would be a perpetual motion machine — to accomplish this as fast as the CO2 is being produced, which is the problem.

    That would require more energy than obtained by burning the fossil fuel, to reverse the combustion.

    If you allow geologic time to accomplish it, that doesn’t help with the immediate short term problem at all.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 1:04 PM

  71. Re: #65

    > Does ANYONE believe that people would give up driving, air conditioning, creature comforts, etc to do this? Its not going to happen.

    Does ANYONE believe that people would give up their comfort, their time, and their hard-earned money just to help victims of a hurricane a thousand miles away?

    Does ANYONE believe that protesters would risk beatings, arrest, incarceration, loss of liberty and perhaps even life, just to help people of another race achieve justice?

    Does ANYONE believe that a soldier would willingly jump on a grenade, to his own near-certain death, just to save others?

    Does ANYONE believe that a man would endure crucifixion just to show the world an example of the power of love?

    Comment by Grant — 31 May 2006 @ 1:22 PM

  72. Senator Kennedy’s opposition to the Cape Wind project has been widely reported. Google “Cape Wind” with Kennedy.

    Comment by Dan Hughes — 31 May 2006 @ 1:34 PM

  73. 65 — John, you’re asking the exact questions from the article linked in #63, are you using that author as your source for information

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 1:35 PM

  74. Re #67
    I asked for an existing proven technology. Not something that could be, might be, etc. Your solution does not exist today so my question is valid.

    As for Sen Kennedy he voted against it and there are numerous reports where his contributors that live there told him to vote no or they would donate elsewhere. Bottom line is he decided his personal gain was more important then the environment. So why can’t I?

    My second questionhad two criteria that we assumed for the questions sake to be true. Please either answer it trutfully or ignore the question.

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 1:55 PM

  75. Re #69
    There are always examples of INDIVIDUALS giving up their life to save others. We are not talking about a few people but ALL people. In order to make it work everyone must give up a substantial amount. This will not happen.

    As simple proof how many seniors were willing to give up a portion of their social security (tking away some or all SS money when income goes above $75,000). The answer was so little thatthe congress dropped it like a hot potatoe.

    If you or others WANT to pay the tax and voluntarily do so then more power to you. Just don’t force me to do it, and I’m sure a mojority of Americans would also say no to this type of wealth transfer and tax increase.

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 2:02 PM

  76. Here is another point why this tax and wealth transfer won’t work. Say a US corporation makes a certain widget. Now that corporation has to pay a CO2 tax. There are two choices.

    1) Raise the price of the widget and depending on price elasticity of the product people still buy it in the same quantity. This results in ZERO CO2 reductions and is ONLY a wealth transfer system.

    2) Manufacture the widget in India where the CO2 tax does not apply. This also results in ZERO CO2 reductions since the consuption and energy requirments are still the same. This is a different type of transfer system.

    Bottom line is that in neither case does it SOLVE the stated problem of CO2 reductions due to human activity.

    The only way to reduce demand of the widget is to reduce the population that wants the widget. [edited]

    [Response: The rhetoric level on this post is getting out of control. Repeating points made before, unconstructive strawmen and comments that generate more heat than light will be screened out. In response to your actual point, there is plenty of elasticity in carbon dioxide generation – BP is a good example, they reduced their company-wide emissions by 10% below 1990 levels at no net cost (in fact they saved money) by implementing an internal cap-and-trade system. -gavin]

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 2:08 PM

  77. Currently, the US transfers a very large amount of wealth from taxpayers to corporations, including farmers. (In the form of direct subsidies, tax breaks, R&D credits, “defense” spending, etc., etc.) This is a distortion of the market; combined with undue corporate influence on the political system, it means that a free market does not really exist in the US. Really, you have corporate welfarism, or something like it. [I’m Canadian, and ‘capitalism’ operates similarly here.]

    This means that you, via the US government, are subsidising much of the current fossil fuel use. It is not in your short-term interest, or the government’s, or the corporations’, or the market’s, to change this, because the system has been jiggered to ignore/punish/reward certain things. Our “leaders” will react to global warming only when people – you – insist upon it.

    So, should people be forced to conserve or use alternatives? I prefer no, but the longer we wait, the more likely we (globally, not just Americans) will be _forced_ to go to centrally planned economies. We will no longer be able to allow people to choose their lifestyles.

    All of which leads me to wonder if the US government would actually prefer this arrangement – what government does not covet more power? And what better way to acheive that than by inducing a permanent state of climate crisis? Mother Nature/God makes an even better enemy than humans.

    Comment by Brian Gordon — 31 May 2006 @ 2:33 PM

  78. re: 72

    You’ve skipped a possibility: the manufacturer figures out another way to make his product that involves less carbon based fuel.

    Comment by Jeffrey Davis — 31 May 2006 @ 2:42 PM

  79. 73 – Hank, no I’ve been asking this of people for a few years now.

    Response to #76.
    Gavin, The BP expample you cite was from my option #2. They did internal trading within various business units located in different countries. By finding countires that had high levels of CO2 in 1990 they could state they reduced CO2 but not actually reduce it. Russia joined Kyoto based on this type of scenario.

    This is just begging for an Enron type scheme. I set up a corporation in Inda/China/Russia that has high 1990 levles of CO2 allotment. I then move/sell my current levels to these shell companies and funnel the dollars back to the parnet corporation while claiming tax and other credits. I’ve worked in the financial industry and these type of derivitives are common. To actually trust a corporation when they claim they reduce CO2 without reducing actual energy consuption should raise red flags everywhere.

    [Response: Not so. As far as I can tell, BP reduced emissions overall – not just in selected countries. Some examples are given here: – Emissions reductions came form reductions of flaring, efficiency improvements and sequestration. Unless you have some evidence to the contrary my point stands. -gavin]

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 2:59 PM

  80. As I could have predicted Taranto rejected my comment in favor of three Gore-bashers.

    The following letter has been submitted via the OpinionJournal article response feature.
    Contents of response as follows:

    Name: Mark A. York
    City/State: Sunland, CA
    Date: Wed, May 31st, 2006

    Re: Warmed Over

    “Here’s a test. What if science showed conclusively that global warming is produced by natural forces, with all the same theorized ill effects for humanity, but that human action could forestall natural change? Or what if man-made warming were real, but offsetting the arrival of a natural ice age? Would Mr. Gore tell us meekly to submit to whatever nature metes out because it’s “natural”?”

    Well it may feel good to Mr. jenkins, but alas it is this statement that is fiction, not what Mr. Gore has portrayed. It shows the opposite. It’s not natural. The appeal to appropriate authority such as NASA trumps what an unpublished thinktank shill says. Yes Mr. Jenkins, the real world is tough and fake ideas get called what they earn. The warm world is already haunting us, yes even through blind eyes like those of this editorial board who keep repeating falsehoods in hope of obsfucating the Inconveinient Truth. Now do you get the title?


    Comment by Mark A. York — 31 May 2006 @ 3:15 PM

  81. Regarding #64 and Gavin’s response (and #46),

    The bathtub analogy is better because the higher the buildup of excess water in the tub, the faster the water is shot through the drain, thereby ameliorating the problem to some degree (right?), but the idea got me wondering about other small percentage changes that would have large cumulative effects. For example, what would be the difference if the Sun’s output increased by 2.5% over its current output. Or, what if the Earth was 2.5% closer or further from the Sun. The calculations probably aren’t that difficult to do, and I think they’d show that 2.5% is actually quite a big deal. I was thinking about using mortgages as an analog, but I confused myself so that’s probably not an effective vehicle for explaining the issue.

    Comment by Steve Latham — 31 May 2006 @ 3:26 PM

  82. Re: #75

    > There are always examples of INDIVIDUALS giving up their life to save others. We are not talking about a few people but ALL people. In order to make it work everyone must give up a substantial amount. This will not happen.

    It was INDIVIDUALS who made the decision to undertake sacrifice, in order to help victims of hurricane Katrina: Millions of INDIVIDUALS, not just in the U.S. but around the world. And their sacrifice made a difference; some would say that the efforts of those INDIVIDUALS were more effective than the efforts of the government’s FEMA.

    It was INDIVIDUALS who brought about a revolution in civil rights in the U.S. They were not just black INDIVIDUALS; there were white, brown, yellow, all races, whose INDIVIDUAL efforts made a HUGE difference. Not EVERYONE helped; many hindered. But in the end, the sacrifice of INDIVIDUALS changed the world.

    As for crucifixion, I was only thinking of one INDIVIDUAL. Do you think his sacrifice was in vain? Did he have no effect on the world?

    The efforts of INDIVIDUALS really can change the world. But don’t worry; we won’t expect you to make any sacrifices.

    Comment by Grant — 31 May 2006 @ 3:37 PM

  83. Gavin or other experts.

    In all sincerity I would really like to ask just one question. As you might have guessed I’m a skeptic but not from the global warming prespective. I’m skeptical about what if anything can really be done.

    CO2 increases are the ressult of energy consumption or the requirement for a higher standard of living (often going hand in hand). The world has been increasing its energy demand and will continue to do so. Conservation can only slow this increase (never decrease it) since the increase is due to more people and improving standards of living. Those who claim carbon neutral or a reduction in their carbon footprint are misleading since their energy consuption hasn’t been reduced, only redirected. If their energy has not been reduced then there is no real reduction in CO2 except for the minute amounts due to some minor switching to solar or something like that. Therefore, my question is simply this:

    What technology is avaiable today or alternative energy source is avaiable that will meet the current and future energy demands of the world (say for the next 25 years) while not costing substantially more then we pay today?

    I don’t know of any or know of a combination that exists today that will also reduce CO2 emmissions. The one possibility is nuclear power but even that isn’t a real solution given what is going on with Iran and the other issues surronding its usage.

    So can we provide the energy that is needed without heavy CO2 emissions? If this question can be answered truthfully without wealth transfers to other countries then I think most people would then back it. And isn’t this the real goal?

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 3:44 PM

  84. John, reread #53 please, and the full paper linked there.

    How can you possibly not take that seriously? It’s actual lab work, it’s simple enough to understand clearly, and it’s –barely — avoidable on a global scale with quick reduction in CO2.

    [rhetorical flourish excised]

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 3:57 PM

  85. Ref # 82
    Dear Grant, [edited – stick to the point]

    My point is that in the US this tax won’t fly till you get a substantial number of people who are willing to support it. And to do that you have to make a case for it and not just try scare tactics. People won’t buy it if its going to hurt unless there is proof that it is necessary. It comes down to a simple cost benefit anaylsis that each individual must make but can only happen if a substantial majority actually agrees with it. Due to the political setup a simple majority won’t work since a small number of politicians can block almost anything.

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 3:57 PM

  86. Gavin,

    This is a quote from the BP site you linked:

    “Greenhouse gas emissions from our operations in 2004 were equivalent to 81.7 million tonnes CO2. Since 2001 approximately half of our total underlying emissions growth (around 7 million tonnes) has been offset by sustainable efficiency projects.”

    By their own admission half of their INCREASE in CO2 was offset. But this still means that their TOTAL CO2 release still increased. This is the point I’m making. We are not REDUCING CO2 but only reducing the increase in CO2. While this is good it doesn’t solve the problem.

    [Response: Again, it’s just not so: shows that they acheived an absolute reduction of 10% below 1990 levels by 2001. However, while I do agree that this is not enough – claiming that no progress can be made is simply erroneous. – gavin

    Comment by John — 31 May 2006 @ 4:03 PM

  87. I’m not quite sure I get the idea of donating money to build wind-farms and solar panels, then retiring the credits you get. Aside from the verification advantage, why not just build them and not apply for the credits? Wouldn’t that have the same effect? If I understand this correctly, credits can be produced and are not taken from a fixed pool. Therefore, if you get credits (and trade them) for doing something other than decreasing emissions already being produced; you will increase supply of those credits, lowering their market value thereby making it cheaper for someone else to emit CO2 over their cap. That should have a net effect of increasing CO2 emissions rather than decreasing them. Wouldn’t it make more sense to buy somebody else’s emission credits and then retire them? That way, for every ton bought, somebody else won’t be able to buy the rights to emit that much. Also, by increasing demand (by adding to the pool of buyers) and decreasing supply (by taking them off the market), that will raise the price of emission credits making it that more expensive to buy the rights to exceed the cap while making it more profitable to reduce CO2 emissions from already existing sources.

    I get the feeling there is something I don’t quite understand about this. Maybe because I’m assuming that people who know far more about economics than I do came up with this plan. Could somebody explain what I’m missing? Don’t get me wrong, donating money to build carbon neutral sources of energy is a great thing, it’s just the emission credit thing I don’t get.

    Comment by Ken Goldstein — 31 May 2006 @ 4:17 PM

  88. Re #68:
    “Kyoto is mandatory … No one can opt out.” (??) Would you please climb down out of your ivory tower and explain how, in particular, Kyoto will enforce Canada’s commitment, when Canada’s emissions are already about 35% over its Kyoto target and the government has made it clear that it has no intention of complying with its Kyoto obligation?

    “Regarding long term prices of CO2 reductions, we disagree that they will go up.” Of course, you can always keep prices as low as you like by making the cap sufficiently high. But would you please look into your crystal ball and tell us how much it will cost, for example, for California to achieve Governor Schwarzenegger’s goal of 80% GHG reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 (which is what the climate scientists tell us is required)?

    Re #76:
    “Raise the price of the widget and depending on price elasticity of the product people still buy it in the same quantity.” There is an important point that your analysis is missing. The overall demand for widgets may be inelastic, but the cross-price elasticity between low-emission and high-emission widgets can nevertheless be very high. For example, suppose you apply a CO2 tax at the following level for “green” (low-emission) and “brown” (high-emission) widgets:
    green widget CO2 tax: $90
    brown widget CO2 tax: $110
    The tax has two effects: It tends to induce an overall consumption reduction by making all widgets more expensive, and it also motivates consumers to favor green widgets over brown widgets by increasing their price spread. The two effects can be disaggregated by separating the tax into two components: a straight consumption tax, and a refunded CO2 tax, which is the balance between the CO2 tax and the consumption tax. The consumption tax is
    green widget consumption tax: $100
    brown widget consumption tax: $100
    Assuming a 50% market split between green and brown widgets, the refunded CO2 tax is
    green widget refunded CO2 tax: -$10 (negative – a profit)
    brown widget refunded CO2 tax: +$10
    The consumption tax has little effect because demand is inelastic, so it can be dispensed with. The refund makes it politically feasible to raise the tax rate by an order of magnitude, e.g.
    green widget refunded CO2 tax: -$100 (negative – a profit)
    brown widget refunded CO2 tax: +$100
    So the refund basically makes the policy less consumption-restrictive but more technology-forcing. (An interesting real-world application of this policy approach is discussed in the following article: .)

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 31 May 2006 @ 4:31 PM

  89. Re 83: John –

    People like Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute ( ) have been pointing out ways to reduce energy use while simultaneously growing the economy since 1982 or so. Some commenters on this site, myself included, have lowered their own energy costs using RMI’s recommendations. RMI, which is free-market oriented, builds on its technical expertise to recommends ways for governments to incent all consumers to save. Ending subsidies for energy consumption would be a good start.

    Gavin has cited the BP example – – BP hit its own internal Kyoto-level targets well ahead of schedule at a negative cost (i.e.they made money). There are others.

    RMI’s latest book, “Winning the Oil Endgame” shows exactly how to do it in the transportation sector. It is available free online, so there is not much reason not to give it a look.

    (Though I’m clearly a big booster of RMI, I’m actually not affiliated with them! Just a fan for decades.)

    Comment by Mark Shapiro — 31 May 2006 @ 4:39 PM

  90. Re Comments #3, #11, #17, #31, #39, #40, #41

    In various ways, some of these comments about nuclear power illustrate the danger of simply accepting the conventional wisdom about topics outside your areas of expertise.

    David writes,”I must point out that Chernobyl had the capacity to make a large swath of the Ukrainian breadbasket, and the city of Kiev, uninhabitale essentially forever, if the core meltdown had reached the water table. Reactors don’t explode like nuclear bombs, but breeder reactors make it a lot easier for people to make bombs.”

    This is just silly and bespeaks ignorance of both the Chernobyl accident and hydrology. Chernobyl, close to a worst case accident in many respects, contaminated large areas — heavily near the reactor, less so further away, and with a patchiness due to changing wind patterns during the 10-day course of the accident. The only established safety and health consequences are the 35 or so plant employees and initial responders that died within a few weeks of radiation sickness and the hundreds of children in the Ukraine and Belarus who developed thyroid cancer, with 10 or so deaths. The Soviets did not keep good enough records of the several hundred thousand “liquidators” who cleaned up the site after the accident, so we’ll never know the impact of their lower exposures, although Jimmy Carter is anecdotal evidence that it is possible to live a full, healthy life after a minute or so in a high, radiation zone. A number of elderly have moved back into their homes in the exclusion zone, which has also become a de facto wildlife refuge, with the benefits to wildlife of few humans around clearly outweighing the costs of the radiation contamination. If contamination from the accident had reached groundwater, it would have flowed more or less directly to the nearby Pripyat River and into the reservoir just downstream, with most of the radionuclides becoming bound to soil and lake sediment (this is something we have a lot of experience with at the Hanford Site and elsewhere). There is literally zero probability that Kiev or a “large swath of the Ukrainian breadbasket would have become uninhabitable essentially forever” The Chernobyl accident was inadvertently an experimental test of the reality of the hypothetical China Syndrome, since much of the uranium, zirconium, and steel in the reactor core melted and flowed into the basement rooms and corridors of the reactor building where it solidified and remains to this day. None reached groundwater.

    Finally, David and Edward Greisch are wrong about low-enriched uranium-fueled reactors being unable to explode like a bomb, since Chernobyl did precisely that, although much less efficiently than devices engineered to be bombs. Nuclear reactors are easily controllable because a small fraction of the neutrons emitted in a fission event are not emitted immediately, but rather a few seconds or a few minutes later from fission products. This means that a reactor that is delayed-neutron-supercritical will double in power every minute or so. A reactor that becomes prompt-neutron-supercritical, as Chernobyl did, will double in power every thousanth of a second. Chernobyl suffered two prompt supercritical spikes, one that took the reactor to roughly 530 times normal full power in a second and back down to a few times normal power in the next second and another spike to about 300 times normal power. Those spikes blew the core apart and started the graphite fire that burned for 10 days or so.

    Re Martin’s comment that nuclear power is dangerous: So is every other source of energy humans use. Every careful study of the full life cycle impact of energy sources on public health, safety, and the environment shows nuclear power to have less impact than others (both renewable and non-renewable) and significantly less impact than coal and oil.

    The downloadable book by Max Carbon that Dan Hughes recommends (Comment 11) looks like a good elaboration of some of the assertions in this comment.

    Contrary to Mark Shapiro’s comment, nuclear power is currently less expensive than wind and less subsidized than wind, biomass ethanol and biodiesel, and solar power. Like Mark, I think increased efficiency is worth doing.

    Damien’s Comment 41 is mostly on the mark, but reactor-grade plutonium (with Pu-240 concentrations above 6%) can be used to make nuclear bombs. They will be less efficient and more likely to “fizzle” than weapons made with weapons-grade plutonium, but “fizzle” is a relative term here — you wouldn’t want to be within a mile or two of one when it exploded. A lot of interesting information about several technical issues related to nuclear proliferation can be found in a white paper at

    Jim Dukelow

    Comment by Jim Dukelow — 31 May 2006 @ 4:58 PM

  91. If there’s one lesson I take from all this, it’s that I should plant more trees. Diamond (in Collapse,) is very good on this point, particularly with respect to Japan. I shall set aside chunks of my small farm, plant native trees, and watch the bush regenerate. And I’ll try and make my planting equate to my CO2 outputs. We can then adopt a lower energy profile as the opportunities arise (solar, wind, LED lighting, electric or hybrid vehicles) and as capital becomes available. City dwellers can do some of the above, and buy tree planting somewhere else.

    So here’s a question: a major global reforestation project would be a relatively easy political “sell”. Trees are “good” irrespective of political views. How big would such a project have to be to have a measurable impact on atmospheric CO2?

    Comment by Gareth — 31 May 2006 @ 5:07 PM

  92. Re: #70.

    Of course energy input is required. All I described was a large scale biodiesel variant, and the energy from that can come from the sun (insolation provides several orders of magnitude above our current energy usage). Sorry if that was not clear.

    Re: #74.

    The example I gave was hypothetical, but there are plenty of well-known reasonable alternatives that are available right now. Nuclear, biodiesel, solar, wind, geothermal, ocean thermocline, solar-thermal, hydrolectric and so forth are all pretty well proven and can scale where most appropriate. They can all be used to generate liquid fuels (e.g. methanol) for use in much of the existing infrastructure and incidentally sequestering carbon. And if they are not quite ready, why not work on making them so proactively instead of waiting for some sort of disaster to spur development?

    I appear to be mistaken about Senator Kennedy. I admit I don’t follow the gossip columns much ;-) Still, I wouldn’t model my public morals on him if I were you. Not that anyone has suggested that you should…

    As I now understand your second argument, the question appears to be “Should we interfere with ‘natural’ cycles for our own benefit/preservation?” I would answer that it depends if the cure is worse than the disease. In starker terms: how many would die for each policy option? Still, the question as phrased again sets up a false dichotomy: Do nothing (and freeze) or keep going as usual (and probably overshoot)? Other options might include finding some sort of optimum between these extremes to maximise survival of the greatest number.

    Comment by Richard Wesley — 31 May 2006 @ 6:24 PM

  93. 70, 92

    “Solar insolation provides ….”

    No, in fact that’s a misunderstanding — where did you read it?

    Sunlight doesn’t provide energy to people greater than fossil fuel use per year.

    You are thinking of the total measured insolation in watts per square meter, I imagine?

    Nature has no means for collecting that amount of useful energy from sunshine whether for plankton or biodiesel.

    Key words are ‘overshoot’ and ‘primary productivity’ — there are no biological systems capable of turning the CO2 produced in one year of human use into a comparable amount of say biodiesel. Nowhere near.

    These references may help:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 7:12 PM

  94. Quick self-correction:
    The first link I posted just above takes you to the primary article but has quite a few hits below that aren’t relevant; the “cited by” link in the first hit takes you to these references that refer back to the primary article on primary productivity and overshoot.

    There are many other references — solar energy simply can’t undo burning of fossil fuels at the rate per year we’re doing it, not even close.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 7:15 PM

  95. Good graphics here:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 7:27 PM

  96. Update and Excel data file here:

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 31 May 2006 @ 7:47 PM

  97. Re 96:

    With a fivefold efficiency improvement compared to the U.S. (which is much less than fivefold compared to the EU or Japan) we could easily supply the world with a combination of wind, high temp solar thermal for electricity, low temp solar thermal for space and water heating, small amounts of geothermal and hydroelectricity to lower costs, and small sustainable amounts of biomass – mostly from urban waste and from waste straw and stover from growing grain. (Waste straw is sustainable because you can’t add it all to the soil anyway if you do conservation tillage – it robs nitrogen and causes compaction.)

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 31 May 2006 @ 8:28 PM

  98. This must be the day for it:

    It’s au natural man. The new wingnut defense.

    Comment by Mark A. York — 31 May 2006 @ 10:54 PM

  99. Gavin,
    I have no insight into the BP situation, but my natural distrust of oil company executives (even those who are peers) combined with my recollection of the state of oil demand at the end of 2001 (wasn’t there some sort of recession that hit right at that time?) makes me suspicious about the real reasons for the 10 percent emissions reduction. I don’t question the theoretical possibilities, just this particular example. We all know how to fabricate a trend by careful selection of the beginning and end dates.

    Comment by S Molnar — 31 May 2006 @ 11:02 PM

  100. One thing I haven’t been able to find is the feasibility of industrial extraction and fixation of CO2. What could we do now, and what are the limits on what we can do? Why are plants so apparently poor at it — is it hard for them to extract CO2 at 300 ppm levels, and is that a hard limit or one we could beat with access to different temperatures?

    Hank: the message I get from your energybulletin link is that we’re burning 6e12 kg of carbon, and net primary productivity is 6e13 kg, of which we’re using 3e12 kg (a lot lower than I expected). As the author says, it’s not obvious some of the NPP couldn’t be diverted into sequestration.

    My technophile side would note we have large sun-drenched deserts in the world, crying out for mass irrigation by nuclear-powered (or solar-powered) desalination plants, assuming industrial direct extraction isn’t worthwhile.

    Comment by Damien — 1 Jun 2006 @ 3:03 AM

  101. Re: 91

    Although it’s OK for some people (i.e. those with farms and no pressing economic need to make the entire farm productive) to reduce Co2 emissions in this way, once you start trying to do it on a scale that would actually make an impact, you very quickly run out of land for reforestation or food. Especially as – and this should always be in mind – something like 3 billion people in asia are currently trying to get our lifestyle, and the emissions from that are swamping anything from small scale conservation efforts in the west.

    Re: 92

    I would take issue with any assertion that Biodiesel, Wind, solar, geothermal and hydroelectric can scale in a proven way – wind and solar have serious intermittancy issues; geothermal is only really useful in a few locations (and is not strictly speaking renewable) and pretty much all the best hydroelectric sites are gone. The destruction of waterway ecosystems by dams of any size has to be mentioned as well.

    Biodiesel is so far away from being green that it beggars belief. Cutting down the remaining tropical forests to grow small amounts of liquid fuels is NOT environmentally friendly. And this is assuming that energy returns are substantial.

    Nuclear can scale and run over a decent time scale – the use of a closed breeder fuel cycle would remove the long term waste issues. And is it concievable that the off peak electricity from an all nuclear grid would provide the energy required for (as an example) the transformation of carbon based waste into methanol to make a carbon neutral liquid fuel. Which would give an energy system with CO2 emissions less than 5% of current. The problem being that setting up such a system would run into problems with both anti-nuclear ideolouges and pro-market ideologues.

    Re: 97.

    Ger, I live (in the UK) in a modern semi with excellent insulation and an on-demand hot water system (no tank). All electric bulbs are CF, all appliances as highly eco-rated as possible, and I’ve even invested in switched multi-plugs so I don’t leave things on standby. My car (Pug 406 HDi) does around 50 miles to the gallon. And no, I’m not making this up – all of the above is done mainly to save cash.

    The question is, then, how on earth am I meant to reduce my energy consumption to 40% of current (1/2.5) levels, as you would require, without really quite major financial and/or lifestyle sacrifices?

    Comment by Andrew Dodds — 1 Jun 2006 @ 4:18 AM

  102. Hank Roberts, I have searched in vain for the reference but it was a UK woman China historian writing about China centuries and centuries ago. I think you should put it in the geo-myth department even though the use of the word “myth” is wrong. It was essentially about the overuse of resources – in this case hunting shooting and fishing – which you rightly say goes on today (not just for hunting) but not only by the Chinese. I was only trying to be fair.

    More to the point, two references on the New Zealand experience are quite interesting : the country intended to introduce a carbon tax and then scrapped the idea because it was too costly, by which I understand that they hadnt a snowball’s chance in hell of meeting their carbon targets under Kyoto and they were suffering the UK experience of CO2 rising rather than falling and in NZ’s case by between 30 and 40%. The latest news is that the country is being urged to try again.

    The original NZ Gov proposal was also revealing because they thought that the cost of the tax to the final consumer would be trivial : I wonder who did their calculations? Can be found by googling “carbon tax”. carbon-tax-too-costly-says-nz/2005/12/29/1135732693442.html

    I cant help feeling (not a scientific term I know) as do some of the above posters, that the costs are considerably higher than thought and our leaders are terrified of the consequences of doing something/anything.

    Tax, cap and trade are the only really fair and efficient mechanisms for addressing the problem apart from individual action. But if we continue to do nothing……?

    Comment by Eachran — 1 Jun 2006 @ 6:00 AM

  103. Re 101:
    You ask how you could reduce your energy consumption to 40% of current level. You might want to have a read of Mayer Hillman’s book ‘How we can save the planet”. It helps you to calculate your own carbon emissions and gives details of how they can be reduced.

    60% reductions are needed on average – if your own ‘carbon footprint’ happens to be well below average then you are in a better starting position.

    Comment by Almuth Ernsting — 1 Jun 2006 @ 6:22 AM

  104. Re. 91: “How big would such a project have to be to have a measurable impact on atmospheric CO2?”

    Rough, back of the envelope calculations:

    It probably depends on the species of tree you select, but if you take an (arguable) estimate of 10Kg Carbon/tree/year, then a plantation of 2,000 trees would reduce the impact of an American family of four by about 25%.
    How many trees you can plant per acre also depends on species, but as an example for long lived poplar trees a spacing of 12 feet will give you about 300 trees per acre (see, so our typical American family would need a forest of 6 or 7 acres, sequestering around 3 tonnes/acre/year.

    Globally, a 25% reduction would need something like 100 to 200 billion trees (about half a billion acres, or around three to four times the size of Texas).

    That’s assuming it’s prime land capable of sustaining a forest (making Texas a bad example).

    Other estimes vary. TreeTec Corp ( claim they can sequester 10 tonnes/acre/year using fast growing Sagitta trees in a seven year cycle (about treble my figure).

    At the other end of the spectrum:

    To reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 7%, as stipulated in the Kyoto Protocol, would require the planting of “an area the size of Texas every 30 years”, according to William H. Schlesinger, dean of the Nicholas School of the environment and earth sciences at Duke University, in Durham, N.C.


    (this works out at rather less than one tonne/acre/year).

    Comment by Stewart Argo — 1 Jun 2006 @ 7:02 AM

  105. I highly recommend the following articles from The Christian Science Monitor (you need to pay, or go to a library). Ukraine is often mentioned, but Belarus is often ignored.

    from the Apr 26, 2006 edition
    Still under Chernobyl’s shadow
    By Fred Weir SVETILOVICHI, BELARUS When the Chernobyl nuclear reactor exploded 20 years ago, pouring radiation equivalent to more than 100 Hiroshima bombs into the air, the people of this small agricultural village a few miles downwind didn’t flee. “No one warned us about the danger. We were left in the dark,” says Alexander Malinovsky, a boy at the time. No effort was ever made to evacuate people from Svetilovichi, says Mr. Malinovsky, who still farms his father’s small plot here, deep… (1348 words)

    from the Apr 26, 2006 edition
    Reporters on the Job
    * Bring Your Own Food: Foreign journalists aren’t typically granted permission to visit the “exclusion zone” in Belarus, downwind from the Chernobyl disaster. It’s a politically sensitive area. “We were smuggled into the zone by local environmentalists. But as we were leaving, we were stopped at a police checkpoint,” says correspondent Fred Weir. Their guide was pulled out of the car and taken to the guard post. Fifteen minutes later he was released. “I think that our presence may hav… (301 words)

    Comment by jhm — 1 Jun 2006 @ 7:23 AM

  106. Re: 103

    I am aware that there are things I could do – I could install solar panels on the roof, I could turn the thermostat WAY down, I could cycle to work, etc.. but these sort of things are either very expensive or personally very inconvienient. And that is the political problem faced here – asking people to make sacrifices that seem personally worse than the consequences that those people will face from most AGW scenarios just isn’t going to work.

    Re: 105

    Citing what are basically anecdotes is not a useful way of deciding between enerrgy options. How many people are killed per kWh produced by various energy sources? That is ultimately what defines safety.

    Comment by Andrew Dodds — 1 Jun 2006 @ 9:30 AM

  107. Re: 104
    No idea if this has been discussed before, but how good an option is the approach taken by Planktos Inc. (

    Comment by Moondog — 1 Jun 2006 @ 10:01 AM

  108. It is interesting to see the renewable energy debate of the late seventies (when climate change wasn’t on many people’s event horizon, but ‘energy independence’ was) repeated almost verbatim some 25 years later. The same issues are still present.

    1) Conversion of biological materials to liquid fuels – essentially, this means taking photosynthetically fixed carbon, subjecting it to various regimes (microbial digestion of sugars to ethanol, for example), and using it as a fuel. The whole process is very analagous to oil formation over millions of years, in which marine organisms were subjected to a heat/pressure regime that produced crude oil or natural gas (depending on conditions). In the US you have corn, which is broken down into animal feed (the protein fraction) and ethanol (the sugar fraction); in Brazil you have sugar cane processes which are very carbon/energy efficient, unlike many US coal-fired ethanol plants. The ‘cutting edge technology’ is the conversion of cellulose to sugars to ethanol; for example Iogen Inc. in Canada has a proprietary process for wheat straw to ethanol conversion using fungal enzymes to break down the straw to sugars. You can also brew a little beer on the side, if so interested. As far as a personal step to take, buy a flexible fuel vehicle or a hybrid that can run on E85 (85% ethanol, 15% fossil hydrocarbons). Biodiesel is made from fossil-sourced methanol and vegetable oil, so it’s similar to E85 – but for diesel engines. Thus, you could also buy one of those efficient European small diesels.

    2) Wind farms – if you are a Midwestern farmer or have similar acreage, this is a good way to go, though if you live in a wealthy community you’ll have to deal with neighbors complaining about the ‘eyesore’. At the least, if you have a windy corridor you can encourage your local gov’t and utilities to build turbines there. This technology is well-developed – turbines have been around for a long time, and they have some massive new designs. There is a problem here though – intermittent energy generation needs to be stored (same goes for big solar projects) for later use – how about large water/hydrogen-oxygen electrolyzer/fuel cells in grid connected power plants for load balancing?

    3) Solar panels – a good investment for the homeowner. About as expensive as a new car, but unfortunately car loans are far more common then solar installation loan programs. Current commercial conversion efficiencies are ~10%, higher for the space satellites, but the new theoretical limit is approaching 50% – look up ‘third generation photovoltaics’. More research/development/production is needed – but where? US universities tend not to have renewable energy programs, and the federal funding is ridiculously low, and the necessary megabillions of investment… Look to Germany, Japan and Australia, I suppose. Or you could take a look at Stanford Universities “Global Climate and Energy Project” – funded by ExxonMobil to the tune of $100 million, with all patents exclusively licensed to – yup, ExxonMobil. I imagine they’ll be developing that technology asap – yes, I’m being sarcastic. On a more positive note, the original Bell Lab silicon PV cells are still generating power today – nice lifetime for silicon PV!

    4) Energy efficiency is a key ingredient of all the above strategies. For the individual, just knowing how much energy you are using is a problem. I hear the new hybrids are always calculating your current miles per gallon (kilos per liter?). Here is an idea (for free): A little readout on the wall of your kitchen that is constantly calculating your monthly energy bill and your current energy usage. I can’t think of anything that would be as effective for the average American to increase energy conservation then that kind of constant reminder of the upcoming bill. This unit would be cheap and easy to build, as well – just a simple AC clamp meter with a little programmable digital calculator attached.

    Buying carbon credits? This is illustraive of the gap between economic and physical notions of reality. Shouldn’t all economists be required to study basic thermodynamics, conservation of energy, etc? I personally have a very hard time relating the cash in my pocket to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, unless I need to burn it to keep warm.

    As far as nuclear vs. coal, consider the difference in effect between a fire and explosion in a coal plant vs. a nuclear plant. Also do a life-cycle cost analysis for a nuclear plant, from construction to dealing with the blazing hot ‘spent fuel’ to the final disposal of the radioactive reactor core. Then you have the military / terrorism implications to top it off. This argument doesn’t need to be revisited.

    Comment by Ike Solem — 1 Jun 2006 @ 10:47 AM

  109. George Akerlof, Nobel Prize winner in economics) spoke at the China US Climate Change Forum. He believes that it is a mistake to emphasize too much the costs and benefits of reducing our GHG emissions when we are emitting more than our share. He likens it to walking into someone else’s house and eating their dinner. We can talk about our costs and our benefits, but it’s their dinner (share of the world’s GHG emissions).

    If we’re over 0.3 – 0.4 tonnes Ceq or so, we’re eating more than our share, I qualify.

    Someone asked about the California plan. The current analysis indicates California can cut GHG emissions significantly without net cost, in part because California entrepeneurs will make so much money. Even if you believe this is too sanguine, no one thinks that the cost to California from climate change this century will be cheaper than doing nothing.

    John Holdren estimates that by delaying until 2051 or 2052 economic goals we had hoped to achieve in 2050, we can keep temperature increase below 2 C. The “hope to be in 2050” value doesn’t count the costs of climate change.

    It’s not our dinner. Failing to act will cost more.

    Comment by Karen Street — 1 Jun 2006 @ 11:30 AM

  110. I did some seaching last night on the BP claim of reducing their emmissions by 10% below 1990 levels. I found these facts:
    1) In 2002 they had around 80 million tonnes of CO2 which they said was 10% below 1990 levels. Therefore, in 1990 it must have been ~89 million tonnes.
    2) Their high point from 1990 till 2002 was 94 million tonnes reached in 1998.
    3) During this period BP sold two coal fired plants and replaced them with natural gas. They said this resulted in annual savings of about 2 million tonnes (per plant or total was not clear).
    4) They project that by 2050 BP will be producing 150 million tonnes of CO2 per year and need to find new ways to reduce this.

    My conclusions are that while BP seems to have reached below their 1990 levels this was done by some slight of hand. Selling coal plants does not reduce the global CO2 levels. It just moved it to another company. Their starting point included older technology so they were able to take advantage of one time offsets. And finally, BP admits that their expansion plans will force their CO2 levels to go back above the 1990 goal. In fact in 2004 their level of CO2 was back to around 88 million tonnes which was just a hair below 1990 levels. BP has not released any CO2 data for 2005 that I can find.

    Once again this points to acouple of flaws. A certain company or country might claim a reduction in CO2. But this reduction will either be temporary, or the result of shifting the CO2 to another company or country. The real point is that CO2 levels still increased and are continuning to do so. Even this site says this.

    As for my post #83 it seems no one has been able to answer the question or to offer a real solution. All the wind, sun, hydro, bio, etc. just doesn’t cut it. None of those or even a combination will not replace the 12 terrawatts of electricy needed by the world. And this is just electrical power.

    [Response: Fair enough. Possibly the headline figure was a little misleading – though, if anything this points to a problem with any kind of voluntary scheme – poeple not in it just offset the ‘cuts’ made elsewhere. But efficiency improvements and flaring reductions are definite decreases in emissions. To say that efficiency can’t do anything further is a false conclusion though. Example, China has a very low standard of energy efficiency (per capita emissions/per unit GDP roughly 5 times smaller than Europe, 2 times smaller than the US), mainly because of a huge amount of local energy production (small furnaces, dung burning, residential oil/coal generators – also big pollution sources). In the unlikely event of bringing China up to even US levels of efficiency, their economy could double (and air quality improve) while still maintaining their current emissions. No-one (I think) is claiming that in and of itself can bring about the ~70% reductions required for stabilisation, but read the Pacala and Socolow paper for how it can be part of the mix. -gavin]

    Comment by John — 1 Jun 2006 @ 12:50 PM

  111. Re #102
    Eachran – Regarding your statement that “Tax, cap and trade are the only really fair and efficient mechanisms …”, can you be a little more imaginative? (See #34 and #88.)

    Re #109
    “The current analysis indicates California can cut GHG emissions significantly without net cost …”. How much reduction are they talking about, and how much reduction do the climate scientists say California needs to achieve?

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 1 Jun 2006 @ 12:56 PM

  112. I just heard a rehash of the plan for dealing with AGW by putting particles in the upper atmosphere that will absorb or reflect solar uv waves and subsequently reduce warming. The person who gave the lecture is a respected physicist. Plan doesn’t impact carbon concentration, but that’s considered ok because c02 will help agriculture. He claimed NAS provided evidence that this would be beneficial in resolving climate change and render GHG levels irrelevant. I have a feeling that we’ll be hearing more from people pushing such a plan, and that it will probably be backed by fossil fuel folks. Was wondering if anyone has info on this plan and its impacts.

    Comment by mb — 1 Jun 2006 @ 1:45 PM

  113. Gavin, this Post has run out of rope, in my opinion. It has drawn some wild conversation and not much constructive input. Perhaps I am guilty here, too.

    Comment by John McCormick — 1 Jun 2006 @ 2:02 PM

  114. Perhaps inviting someone from among the scientists (and economists!) who contributed to the work in
    might be informative here?

    And after all, auditing (done right) has a place in the future we’re facing, it shouldn’t be left to the skeptics.
    These authors seem to be seriously attempting to work toward being able to do it right. Note E.O. Wilson participated.

    From the beginning of that article, for those who didn’t read it:

    “The human economy depends on the planet’s natural capital, which provides all ecological services and natural resources. Drawing on natural capital beyond its regenerative capacity results in depletion of the capital stock. Through comprehensive resource accounting that compares human demand to the biological capacity of the globe, it should be possible to detect this depletion to help prepare a path toward sustainability.

    “The purpose of this study is to develop such an accounting framework, and to measure the extent of humanity’s current demand on the planet’s bioproductive capacity. We build on many earlier attempts to create comprehensive measures of human impact on the biosphere. ”

    They must be looking at the same measures and proxies the climate scientists use, they’re trying to understand the same thing.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 1 Jun 2006 @ 3:24 PM

  115. In my mind, there is little question that carbon offsets are a lazy and hypocritical way of easing your conscience. What it means is that all YOU need to do to ‘save the world’ is buy your way out and not make any personal sacrifice, except a minor financial one. Tony Blair is a classic example. Publicly, he is ‘passionate’ about tackling climate change. For the UK, this means committing us to Kyoto. But to achieve this (in the short term and Blair’s political lifespan) is to move from coal to natural gas – a trend that was already underway for economic reasons when the commitment was made, but one that conveniently allows the UK to register a reduction in CO2 emissions. From his personal point of view – while it is accepted that he must travel around the world in his job as Prime Minister – he could, if he were serious about tackling climate change, choose to spend his holidays in the UK. But he does not. He still flies off to the Carribean and Egypt, suggesting the rich should continue to do as they want. This may sound like a snide criticism, but it is not. Those who are genuninely committed to tackling climate change must set an example by making some personal sacrifice (especially high profile politicians). Blair fails to do this. On another point – for myself as a committed environmentalist who happens to be a ‘global warming’ skpetic, my concern is that climate offsets will not serve to reduce pollution and energy wastage. I am a strong supporter of public transport, and for the use of our feet and bicycles in favour of cars – where possible (and especially against urban SUVs!). It is important to REDUCE energy usage, and to reduce polluting emiisions, rather than just ‘offset’ CO2 emissions. Buying your way out is too simple an option.

    Comment by PHEaston — 1 Jun 2006 @ 3:27 PM

  116. Re #111

    I suspect that costs will not turn out to be as rosy as imagined, and remember, part of the reason there is little net cost is because California entrepeneurs will be making money. Also, technology improvements will be mandated for fuel economy gains, meaning that our crowded highways will not be filled with even more powerful cars. But imagine the costs in an even more crowded California with 90% loss of snowpack.

    This is the proposal:

    By 2010, Reduce Emissions to 2000 Levels*
    By 2020, Reduce Emissions to 1990 Levels**
    By 2050, Reduce Emissions to 80% Below 1990 Levels
    * 59 Million Tons Reduction, 11% below Business as Usual
    ** 145 Million Tons Reduction, 25% Below Business as Usual

    We emit about as much as the typical American, but 40% of emissions are from transportation. The electricity people like to say that it’s because of major improvements instituted in how we sell electricity, encourage efficiency, but part of the reason is that so many Americans moved to air conditioning country.

    Emissions targets:

    By 2010, Reduce Emissions to 2000 Levels*
    By 2020, Reduce Emissions to 1990 Levels**
    By 2050, Reduce Emissions to 80% Below 1990 Levels
    * 59 Million Tons Reduction, 11% below Business as Usual
    ** 145 Million Tons Reduction, 25% Below Business as Usual

    Comment by Karen Street — 1 Jun 2006 @ 3:28 PM

  117. Another good piece on the sceptics.

    Comment by Mark A. York — 1 Jun 2006 @ 3:42 PM

  118. Re #112
    Tim Flannery’s book, The Weather Makers, says (end of Chap 31) “Thankfully, jet contrails contribute to global dimming, so it may be just as well that the jets keep flying …”. I would be interested in climatologists’ take on this idea – Use jets for climate stabilization. Should carbon credits be given for air travel? :)
    (Next topic …)

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 1 Jun 2006 @ 3:43 PM

  119. RE: #110 Search on the Cal Tech site for a video lecture presentation by Dr. Nathan Lewis called something like “How will be Power the World?” — it’s superb, and I don’t use that term lightly.

    No, wait, here are the links to TWO great presentations from Cal Tech that should be of great interest to visitors here at RealClimate.

    David Goodstein: Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil, 10/13/2004
    58 minutes:

    Nathan Lewis: Powering the Planet: Where in the World Will Our Energy Come From? 5/25/2005 67 minutes:

    Comment by JMG — 1 Jun 2006 @ 4:09 PM

  120. The claimed rates for mineral sequestration and other such measures are $60-100 a ton. Thats what I use as a ceiling for cost. So $100/ton times ~25 billion tons CO2 is $2.5 trillion per year or about 5% of annual world GDP.

    Comment by Jonathan — 1 Jun 2006 @ 4:14 PM

  121. Re #86 Gavin:
    “Again, it’s just not so: shows that they acheived an absolute reduction of 10% below 1990 levels by 2001.”

    I am not sure what you are arguing with John about this for. BP may have met their 2010 goal in 2001, but the tidbit John found in your other link suggests they subsequently increased emissions significantly through 2004. This can be verified on BP’s website at , which shows BP’s GHG emissions rising in 2002 and 2003 then dropping in 2004 while still remaining above 2001 levels. So they may have met their 2010 goal in 2001, but they could not maintain this in 2002-2004. FWIW, the website also ackowledges a decrease in efficiency in 2004 from 2002 and 2003 in terms of emissions per unit of production.

    While the BP CEO may have been truthful, I am one who finds it interesting that big oil CEO’s are suddenly taken at their word on this site without a little digging.

    Comment by Michael Jankowski — 1 Jun 2006 @ 4:44 PM

  122. 103
    >Gar, I live (in the UK) in a modern semi with excellent insulation and an on-demand hot water system (no tank). All electric bulbs are CF, all appliances as highly eco-rated as possible, and I’ve even invested in switched multi-plugs so I don’t leave things on standby. My car (Pug 406 HDi) does around 50 miles to the gallon. And no, I’m not making this up – all of the above is done mainly to save cash.

    >The question is, then, how on earth am I meant to reduce my energy consumption to 40% of current (1/2.5) levels, as you would require, without really quite major financial and/or lifestyle sacrifices?

    OK – well to start with it sounds like you are well below the U.K. average which is in turn well below the U.S. average; so you don’t have nearly as far to go. But framing it as what you as an individual can do is misleading. Efficiency increases have to be done as a society. OK one example: Back in 1997 the Selectria sunrise demonstrated an electric car with a 210 mile practical range. If the electricity came from coal that particular car would have driven at the equivalent of a 90 mpg car; if from wind or solar or nuclear more like 200 mpg (because of the lack of thermal combustion conversion losses). The car would sold for around 25,000 dollars (around 12,500 pounds isn’t that?) and the batteries would have still provide a 105 mile range after 100,000 miles. Tell me that if that car had been on the market you would not have considered that instead of your 50 mpg car? Why wasn’t it on the market? Well to offer it at that price Selectria would have had to sell 40,000 units per year. They did not think the market was there. But that kind of chicken egg problem is something governments can solve. They could have offered a subsidy to Selectria, a tax on the competition, a purchasing program for the government fleet, a number of alternatives. Similarly there are super-efficient refrigeratos on the market today – the SunFrost for example. The problem is that demand is so low that they have to be hand built, not mass-produced, which keeps the price high, which keeps demand low, which keeps them from being mass produced, which …

    Well, you see the point. There are solutions. But the unassisted free market won’t deliver them. Maybe there is a thing or two you’ve overlooked, but I’m betting you have found all or most of what it would pay you as individual to do on the demand reduction side. But there are other things that it would pay society to subsidize. And the cost those subsidies would add to your tax bill would be paid for by energy saving – whereas buying those same savings as an individual would not pay for you. The difference is moving stuff from prototypes and hand building to mass production. “Never pay retail”.

    What form should those subsidies take? A lot of people think a carbon tax is a good idea; other favor feebates. I tend to favor regulation and public works for various reasons. But there are good arguments to be made around all of these policy alternatives. The one alternative that won’t work is leaving it to just what individuals can do, and not making public policy interventions.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 1 Jun 2006 @ 5:50 PM

  123. Re #116, #34

    The Climate Action Team report states the following: “The 2010 and 2020 targets are based on an ambitious estimate of how much the state can reduce emissions with strong top-down leadership and a coordinated effort amongst various state agencies. … The 2050 target is based on emission reductions the science indicates will be necessary from all developed nations to ensure protection of the planet in the 100-year time frame.”

    Regarding the report’s assertion that “The Governorâ��s Targets Are Achievable”, I submitted a Public Records Act request to the California Environmental Protection Agency in April for “any available data, analysis, and information relating to the feasibility, costs, or prospects of achieving the Governor’s 2050 target (80% reduction from 1990 levels)”, and received the following response: “We have searched our records and have found no documents pertaining to your request.”

    (The 2050 target has been characterized as a “stretch goal” – apparently meaning it is only regarded as a â��politicalâ�� goal, which is not taken seriously and is basically ignored.)

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 1 Jun 2006 @ 9:32 PM

  124. I came across an article today published in United Press International regarding extracting energy from the tides. (see:

    My understanding of a renewable resource is one in which its extraction has no impact on the supply. For example, the supply of solar energy in independent of whether we use it or not.

    Tidal energy however, is energy that is ultimately extracted from the rotational energy of the earth. Whether or not that energy loss is significantly more than the normal loss I will leave up to someone else to find out. However, I think it should be found out.

    Comment by Lawrence McLean — 1 Jun 2006 @ 11:59 PM

  125. Ken Johnson, I am not sure I can be more imaginative but try the following.

    The object of the exercise is to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to a ‘level’ : we are not quite sure which ‘level’ but a pre-industrial level has a nice feel to it before the climate scientists can tell us in 50 years time (if we are all here) how to tinker with our natural air conditioning to avoid glacials and inter-glacials.

    There are two approaches : individual or group. How large and effective the groups are will depend on the how well the groups cohere and what they cohere with (you need to speak to social scientists for more information on this but some groups do cohere better than others and seem to have more success in achieving their objectives – perhaps it is a question of size of group and binding ingredients but the answer to the question is very important if we are going to survive). Some groups are as large as China with 1,3 billion people. Some groups are the size of Sweden which seems to do relatively well on its approach to emmissions. Some groups are like Lynn who seems to be doing all the right things and good luck to her.

    Individual effort is always worthwhile for an individual because, for example, I would never want to die without having lived my life the way I have expressed it to others. I do not consume, I make do and mend, and I am very happy with my life – I would say I lead a millionaire’s life without being a millionaire. Incidentally and with reference to Mr Gore, he should include as lifestyle changes : talking to the neighbours (or moving house), learning to cook and cooking for them.

    But individual action is very limited given the timeframe we are all working under.

    Small group action is also very limited. In this respect I was interested to read Mr Monbiot in The Guardian (a UK daily journal) stating (no doubt truthfully) that if only the UK could have strengthened and policed better the implementation of the UK’s building regulations on conservation of energy then we would not be in the mess we are. All I can say is ‘quite so’, but, we are not dealing with the past and whilst policing better the building regulations will undoubtedly help in the future it takes too long to bring about the changes needed today….like now?

    I would like to know how many nations covering what percentage of the population of the planet have managed to reduce emmissions? I shall do the normal google searches if no-one responds. But I think you will find that most nations are “stuffed” (as we might say in UK english).

    So what to do and how to do it?

    The market is not, as a number think, a capitalist invention to steal from the poor and give to the rich : it is a mechanism for individuals to express themselves with their ideas with a view to improving their lot and also others. Yes it involves money, but that is the medium and it is not the message. For markets to function individuals need the freedom (relatively) to win and lose – and there is no disgrace in losing. In this respect the New Zealand attempt to introduce a carbon tax was doomed because the Government of NZ had set a price which the market could not understand, some sort of vague Kyoto related price, and had already decided what to do with the proceeds when in fact they should have left that decision to the market.

    We are going to go round in circles if we do not stick to something very simple : carbon tax and cap and trade are two sides of the same coin – in the former the Government guesses at a levy which reduces through the imposition of an extra cost the production of CO2 up to an acceptable level whilst in the latter the Government guesses which industries are best able to be penalised for producing CO2 up to a set level. For me it is obvious what to do : set a tax, monitor its effects and then regulate it until you achieve the level of CO2 you think you need. Let the market work around the problems of scarcity and abundance.

    To be effective you need large groups like the US, Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific to be on board. I wouldnt worry too much about China and India because with a well constructed import levy reflecting the social costs of their production you could eventually encourage them to join and enlarge the group if they are not founding members. After all they dont want to die any more than we do.

    With the taxes and levies one naturally reduces other taxes like income tax. Perhaps we are on the way to the economist’s dream : an expenditure tax.

    Sorry I cant be more imaginative.

    Comment by Eachran — 2 Jun 2006 @ 9:38 AM

  126. Eachran – Why is it that taxes, even with their advantage of cost control and no price volatility, cannot get past square one politically, while cap and trade has become the mainstay of US and global climate policy? (There are actually four policy options you could consider: In addition to conventional taxes and cap and trade, consider refunded taxes or cap and trade with auctioned allowances – see #34 and #88.)

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 2 Jun 2006 @ 12:30 PM

  127. Compliance with Kyoto, a mere 5% reduction in carbon emissions, was forecast by Nordhaus [2001] to cost a few percent of GDP globally.

    The Nordhaus article is at

    Since that’s a ~5% reduction from a fixed point, it begins to be a large reduction from business-as-usual as growth continues in the future, hence the significant costs. When reductions are initially low, carbon prices are low too (see 2005 in Nordhaus’ Fig. 1 & Fig. 2) and presumably GDP is hardly affected.

    It’s worth noting that this high cost is partly a reflection of inefficiency of the Kyoto mechanism, not the inherent cost of emissions reductions. By contrast, the abatement cost function in Nordhaus’ original DICE model permits a totally carbon-free economy overnight for less than 7% of GDP (with some future amplification of the effect due to diminished investment and growth). More modest reductions along his optimal trajectory (emissions 10-15% below business-as-usual) have very low carbon tax equivalents ($5-20/ton).

    The low-hanging fruit in most models can be harvested for ~0 $/tonC, as that in most areas until recently has been the market price of carbon, so low prices need not be a sign of trouble for carbonfund et al.

    It certainly is prudent to question the reality and effectiveness of such offsets though. In spite of the certification process, there are many ways leakage could occur. Preserving one patch of forest may simply shift loggers to the next (until scarcity begins to drive up the price); it’s likely that some projects (e.g. PV systems) funded would have taken place anyway by other means, and thus should not be fully credited. On the other hand, carbonfund et al. are only claiming credit for carbon emissions reductions. They are likely providing other benefits – preserving habitat, reducing non-CO2 emissions, moving renewable technologies down learning curves, etc. – that offset the leakage effect.

    Comment by Tom Fiddaman — 2 Jun 2006 @ 12:52 PM

  128. It may not matter — for us — that CO2 causes global warming.

    Warming is slow, compared to the rate CO2 makes the ocean acidic.

    The American Meteorological Society is warning about this. Can the climatologists make this an issue of mutual concern?

    Visualize an ocean populated mostly by jellyfish — inedible jellyfish.

    Ocean acidification (ocean chemistry change) is a highly predictable consequence of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations. Surface ocean chemistry changes resulting from changes in atmospheric composition can be predicted with a high degree of confidence.

    Ocean acidification means that there would be concern over carbon dioxide emissions independently and apart from any possible effects of carbon dioxide on the climate system. Ocean acidification and climate change are both effects of CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, but they are completely different; ocean acidification depends on the chemistry of carbon dioxide whereas climate change depends on the physics of carbon dioxide.

    If current trends in carbon dioxide emissions continue, the ocean will acidify to an extent and at rates that have not occurred for tens of millions of years…. we are producing highly unusual chemical conditions in the world’s oceans. Right now, ocean chemistry is changing at least 100 times more rapidly than it has changed in the 100,000 years preceding our industrial era.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 2 Jun 2006 @ 2:11 PM

  129. >Eachran – Why is it that taxes, even with their advantage of cost control and no price volatility, cannot get past square one politically, while cap and trade has become the mainstay of US and global climate policy? (There are actually four policy options you could consider: In addition to conventional taxes and cap and trade, consider refunded taxes or cap and trade with auctioned allowances – see #34 and #88.)

    Very simple: Cap and trade without auctioned allowances is the only way to grandfather in existing polluters. In other words if you want to make sure the actual industries putting out the carbon pay as little as possible of the transition to a carbon free future, grandfathered cap and trade emissions is the way to do it.

    125) The objection to markets is not in this case that they are unfair but they are ineffective. Markets are not the only way for groups of people to effectively express their interests. And for collective goods, such as carbon reductions, markets are NOT the most effective way to express those desires. Offsets and cap and trade run into special problems, but even good old ordinary green taxes run into price inelasticity problems. Every economist who pays serious attention to energy demand soon notes the long term price response inelasticity. That inelasticity is no 100%; there is some response, but for various reasons it is high -most people now think about 60%. Note that is specifically efficiency and conservation. Supply substituiton is reasonably close to zero. The problem is that to get where we want we have to make pretty extensive use of efficiency improvements. All alternative sources, nuclear and renewable are expensive. You can all substitute them for fossil fuels and provide a reasonable economy if you use each expensive unit of renewable or nuclear energy more efficiently thanwe currently use fossil fuels.

    Does that make green taxes useless? Of course not. But if you want those green taxes not to be three times what would be required if elasticity was different, you need to supplement them with some combinations of regulation and public works.

    An example from my home state: Washington State. Regulations here require insulation of about R35. DOE says optimum insulation here is R50 – 4 year payback. Guess what insulation most new homes have – yup R35. A great many existing underinsulated homes have recently started insulating their attics. Guess what to? R35. One reason is that local contractors know they will be bidding jobs against other contractors who bid R35.

    So put on your green taxes. But add some efficiency regulations and some public works spending if you want them to be effective.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 2 Jun 2006 @ 6:31 PM

  130. Re #129
    Gar – Your comment about cap-and-trade grandfathering is “right on the money”. Grandfathering makes cap and trade politically viable – even with its disadvantages of cost uncertainty and price volatility – because it reduces costs to the regulated industry. The tax analogue of grandfathering is tax refunding, which similarly reduces industry costs but does not reduce the tax-induced competitive advantage of low emission technologies. For a given tax rate, the cost differential between high- and low-emission products is not affected by the refund. But refunding can make it politically feasible to increase the tax rate by an order of magnitude (no exaggeration), increasing the economic competitiveness of low-emission technologies by an order of magnitude.

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 2 Jun 2006 @ 8:27 PM

  131. Re 130:
    >Grandfathering makes cap and trade politically viable – even with its disadvantages of cost uncertainty and price volatility – because it reduces costs to the regulated industry.

    But the cost in this case is that the volatility can reduce the incentive to innovate. You have all this low-hanging fruit and then all this paper fruit that is not real and people put investment there instead of innovating to produce actual emissions reduction. In spite of certain problems with carbon taxes, they are much harder to game than cap and trade – because you know before fuel goes into the pipeline about how much carbon you have. Thus a carbon tax is easy to calculate so much for a ton of coal, so much for a barrel of oil, so much per thousand therms of natural gas. Even the harder to calculate ones are at least harder to game; so much per tree cut down, so much for non-conservation tillage and so on. Even if you get the wrong price on these, you can make sure that at least that too-low price is paid.

    Also politically cap-and-trade is not really easier in the long run. It is not just an unfortunate coincidence that excessive numbers of permits were issued; industry lobbied over the numbers, and would not have accepted a lower one. The whole point of cap and trade (if the object is to lower emissions) is that the cap keeps getting tighter. But industry is going to fight every reduction in cap size – especially reductions to correct errors, but even the ones planned from the beginning.

    You could have achieved almost the same effect by starting with an extremely low carbon tax that eventually escalated. Same political fight.

    Ultimately to reduce emisisons you aer going to have to do stuff industry hates and will fight you on.

    I have mentioned economic reasons for incorporating regulation and public works – to overcome strong (though not 100%) demand inelasticty in response to price increases. Here is political one: in the end the major carbon producing and carbon using industries will fight anything that is actually effective against global warming. They may, like BP, talk a good game as long as costs to them are low, but once we start seriously reducing emissions – in a way they can’t simply buy their way out of with cheap offsets they will fight. But a regulatory, and especially a public work aspects can at least be made popular with the public. “We are raising the price of heat, but we will provide you with free insulation and a solar heaters so that your overall bill is the same”. That gives you the consumers getting the goodies as allies, and the people providing them as well. It is basic politics. You never get everyone on board; there are seldom pure win-win situations in real life. Put as many of the costs as possible on the people who will fight you anyway, and use the fact that you are doing so to win allies elsewhere.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 3 Jun 2006 @ 2:31 AM

  132. Re #65 and “Does ANYONE believe that people would give up driving, air conditioning, creature comforts, etc to do this? Its not going to happen.

    It doesn’t have to happen. We can run cars off ethanol with no net addition to atmospheric CO2. Brazil does so already. The choice between fossil fuels + comfort and no fossil fuels + barbarism is a false dilemna, the fallacy of the unnecessary either/or choice.

    Comment by Barton Paul Levenson — 3 Jun 2006 @ 5:33 AM

  133. Thanks Ken Johnson, Tom Fiddaman and Gar Lipow.

    Being a practical person, and after my last post, I decided to see what was available on the net for latest emissions. After looking at a few research places and being disappointed I decided to do what I always do and go to the original source : in this case the UN

    I also spent a number of hours reading and reflecting on the Kyoto stuff and the admin required to achieve results and I thought : this isnt going to work or if it does it will be far too late. I wouldnt wish having to read the website on my worst enemy.

    Then I looked at the country reports : if it carries on like this then there is no hope for any country meeting its target which in any event is set too low.

    I agree with Gar Lipow, I think it was, who said that the politics between cap and trade and taxes eventually lead you to the same trade-offs and he is correct. My concern is with immediate action and the only way to do that and to make some impact on the problem of emissions is to tax now. You can warn people in advance that it will be graduated over a period of 4 years or whatever but the point is that it has to bite in today’s not tomorrow’s mentality and force people to change their business plans and their behaviour. I dont much care whether the state or private individuals research alternative energy sources but they should be given the chance to compete against too cheap oil and coal.

    Going back to “cohesion”, the glue that binds the world is money – but in this case it is the message rather than the medium. You cannot exhort, threaten, bully, persuade, plead or whatever : what you have to do is hit people in their pockets. It really is as simple as that.

    I am not sure about elasticities : are these short or long run and if short how short.

    Comment by Eachran — 3 Jun 2006 @ 5:35 AM

  134. Re #133
    Eachran – Regarding your comment that “… the politics between cap and trade and taxes lead you to the same trade-offs …”, there are two fundamental differences: (1) Taxes provide cost certainty and immunity from price volaitility; cap and trade does not. (2) Cap and trade is typically revenue-neutral within the regulated industry; taxes generally are not. Tax refunding eliminates the second difference, so there is no need to trade-off cost certainty for low regulatory costs.

    Comment by Ken Johnson — 3 Jun 2006 @ 12:52 PM

  135. >am not sure about elasticities : are these short or long run and if short how short.

    Long term. Short term is even worse.

    Dermot Gately and Hillard G. Huntington
    RR#: 2001-01:The Asymmetric Effects of Changes in Price and Income on Energy and Oil Demand
    Economic Research Reports; January 2001 p23. Tables 6 & 7.

    This study (unlike many on the subject) distinguishes between fuel substitution response to price increases, and efficiency improvements in response to those same improvements. People tend to look for new sources before they look for ways to reduce demand. That again is why price signals alone won’t do it.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 3 Jun 2006 @ 6:13 PM

  136. The solar input is 165,000 terawatts, compared to the 14 terawatts used by global society – that’s about 1/10,000 of the solar input. The notion that solar ‘won’t cut it’ (re#110) is simply not the case. The whole issue revolves around access to the technology, and production of the technology. Take California for example, where new construction electric demand is on the order of 500 megawatts/year – a crash program could be devised to meet that need, but there are economic barriers. At $1/Watt, that’s $500 million – but considering that about $8 billion went to Enron-style trading schemes during the ‘energy crisis’, it seems that solar is very doable. (By the way, that $8 billion could have built 80 solar panel production facilities at $100 million apiece). Honda just built an $90 million plant with an annual output of about 27 MW of solar panels – enough for ~8,000 homes. By this measure, a $10 billion investment would produce enough solar power for close to a million homes (a $10,000 system for each house)- and that’s about the amount of money this country spends every month in Iraq. How many homes are there in the US? Let’s guess 100 million homes – or about $1 trillion to install solar power. The estimated bill for the Iraq war is comparable to this amount. So – how does solar ‘not cut it’? Of course, biofuels and wind power would also have to be included to round out the energy picture.

    Comment by Ike Solem — 3 Jun 2006 @ 9:14 PM

  137. Earth intercepts 1.6e17 (I thought 1.8e17) watts, yes, but not all of that is easily usable. Half bounces off the atmosphere, 1/3 of the surface is land, good conversion efficiency is about 33%, so terrestrial solar power could provide about 1e16 watts of electricty. A stable population of 10 billion people (1e10) at US power levels of 10 kilowatts per person (1e4) (total energy, not just electricity, I think) would use 1e14 watts — more than today, but we would like to see the world fully develop, yes? Buffering solar variability (night, winter, clouds) and conversion to liquid fuels would I’d guess impose another 1/3 factor. So, covering 3% of the land. Not bad! Of course use of solar heating, or putting panels on already-used surfaces such as roofs or even streets could reduce energy or land needs — which might be needed if we can’t quite reach that 33% in practice (72 W/square meter)

    Comment by Damien — 4 Jun 2006 @ 1:10 AM

  138. Where can you buy a 33% efficient solar panel? Which company and product?

    What is your reference — tell us where you got your information?

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 4 Jun 2006 @ 11:40 AM

  139. Solar panels aren’t the only way of using sunlight; solar thermal works as well. 30% prototype panels exist, but you can double or triple my land numbers for more currently available 15% or 10% panels.
    gives some of the absorption/reflection numbers, and also gives (with reference) 50 W/m2 for a high end of North American power at 15% efficiency, annual night and day average.
    give US energy use at about 10 kW/capita.

    Comment by Damien — 4 Jun 2006 @ 2:37 PM

  140. One of the more informative sites on solar photovoltaics is the University of New South Wales School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering; they’ve produced up to 25% efficient cells using various strategies. The 33% is a theoretical limit generated from calculations based on the band gap of silicon. The notion that the theoretical limit can be increased to ~50% is based on using solar spectrum ‘up and down’ conversion – essentially using fluorescent materials that absorb parts of the solar spectrum and re-emit energy into the silicon absorption spectrum. The UNSW site has a lot of info on this.

    If you buy commercial multicrystalline silicon cells you are getting around 12% efficient cells, unless you buy the expensive ones built for satellite applications, which are 20%+ efficient. If you buy cheap amorphous silicon materials you are getting around 6% efficiency.

    To bring this back to the topic more, it’s good to have an estimate of the energy payback time for a solar system. Depending on your system, this is about 1-5 years, and the lifetime of the solar system is 30+ years. If you want references on how this is calculated, see Energy payback from photovoltaics systems Here is a brief quote from that article:

    “An average U.S. household uses 830 kilowatt-hours of electricity per month. On average, producing 1000 kWh of electricity with solar power reduces emissions by nearly 8 pounds of sulfur dioxide, 5 pounds of nitrogen oxides, and more than 1,400 pounds of carbon dioxide. During its projected 28 years of clean energy production, a rooftop system with 2-year payback and meeting half of a householdâ��s electricity use would avoid conventional electrical plant emissions of more than half a ton of sulfur dioxide, one-third a ton of nitrogen oxides, and 100 tons of carbon dioxide.”

    So, to relate this to the ‘cap and trade’ scenario – does a homeowner who purchases a solar system also receive 100 tons of ‘carbon emissions credits’ which then can be sold to the highest bidder? Somehow I don’t think that’s the deal here – but maybe it should be?

    Comment by Ike Solem — 4 Jun 2006 @ 2:39 PM

  141. I thought that constructing the cells and solar installations itself consumed significant fossil fuel (from mining, transportation etc.) so like any other energy facility they start ‘below zero’ on net cost and carbon dioxide is one of those costs, albeit not yet internalized.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 4 Jun 2006 @ 4:18 PM

  142. Re#141

    Well, yes – any activity consumes energy – but how long does it take to recoup that energy? 1-5 years appears to be the value. There isn’t any hard number; this is a path-dependent issue, not a state-dependent issue (to use thermodynamic concepts) – there is no ‘hard number’ for say, ethanol production efficiency. Imagine you put a barrel of ethanol on a plane, fly it around the world, then burn it – well, then you have to include the energy cost of flying the plane around the globe. If you look at the above link on energy payback time and the references contained within, you’ll be able to work through the details. This is why the work of David Pimental on ethanol production being a ‘net energy loser’ is suspect – lack of analysis of the various different pathways to ethanol production.

    Comment by Ike Solem — 4 Jun 2006 @ 7:23 PM

  143. Thanks Ken Johnson and Gar Lipow : I shall read the article tomorrow in detail but my first thought was that it is 2001 and times have changed as to people’s perception of the problem. Anyway more later if I think I have anything to add.

    Thanks to Ike Solem: isnt the issue here that if the individual consumer were given a simple choice comparing solar with social cost priced fossil fuel then the choice would be easier to make. I was thinking of slapping a tax of 30USD a barrel for starters and then increasing it each year by 10USD and the same for coal equivalent until we achieved a response.

    In any event if any of you are following current emissions then we are in deep trouble if we continue to emit as we are for any length of time.

    Comment by Eachran — 4 Jun 2006 @ 7:25 PM

  144. Demamd inelasticity is not simply a matter of percenption. It really is a bunch of classic market failures added together. Split incentives out the wazoo. For example look at all the ways we have split incentives in the U.S. on insulation:

    1) If you rent – spit incentive between yourself and your landlord. The operating benefits of insulation go to your while live there – none when you are gone. The landlord gets the capital gain of added value in her property but no operating benefits. Can she recover this in rent? Maybe, maybe not. The market sets rents – and the benefits of insulation may be overwhelmend by “noise” of other things such as location and accomodtions.

    2) If you are an owner occupier, the builder wanted to build the place as inexpensively as possible. Put in insulation aftewords?OK but as a homeowner your access to capital is limited. Putting it into insulation even if it is a good investment may limit momey when you need it for an emergency. (For those outside the U.S. – we pay a huge percent of our own healthcare. If you don’t have good health insurance (which is expensive) and money saved for co-payments (Health insurance does not cover everything) you can be in deep finanical trouble if you get sick. Most personal bankruptcies in the U.S. are related to health care – and many of those are people who had health insurance.)

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 5 Jun 2006 @ 12:21 AM

  145. Photovoltaic cells are not the only way to get electricity from sunlight. There are the concentrated Solar powered technologies. One such system that I am aware of is based on a parabolic mirror focusing the sunlight onto a Stirling Engine. The overall energy efficiency achieved (including downtime) is around 18%. See:

    Comment by Lawrence McLean — 5 Jun 2006 @ 8:34 AM

  146. Re 145: Here is an operating commericial example:

    The key here though is a mix. Wind generators (which done properly rest very lightly on the land can probably provide about 20% more of most continental grids. Low temperature solar energy (which with evacuated tube collectors can be done anyhwhere) can provide between a quarter and a third of energy demand. (Climate control, domestic water heating, refrigeration). Lighting tubes, skylights and properly place windows can also let sunlight replace a significant portion of daytime electric lighting. Sustainable biomass can provide significant amounts of liquid and gaseous fuel. (This is another area we have to careful. There are lots of unsustainable ways to do biomass. Existing hydroelectricity and new geothermal combined can probably provide about 5% of a reasonable world demand. The point of all these is that that leaves 15 terawatts perhaps less to be provided by solar electricity even given a 22 terawatt demand. Photovolatics on land already concreted over by humans – rooftoops, highway walls, roads if neccesary could probably provide much of that 15 terawatts. So land use over and above what we already occupy would really be tiny for solar electricity.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 5 Jun 2006 @ 2:28 PM

  147. The Energy Journal has a new special issue on:
    Endogenous Technical Change and the Economics of Atmospheric Stabilization

    Looks like a pathbreaking issue to me.
    The entire issue is available free, on-line at:

    Innovation Modelling Comparison Project
    by Kai Lessmann

    The Innovation Modelling Comparison Project (IMCP) arose out of recognition that the temporal, geographic and interdisciplinary scales of the climate change problem demand a more sophisticated kind of economics, and a more structured and collegiate international approach to analysis, than hitherto developed. It aims to �open the black box� of endogenous innovation to scrutiny by comparing the results from different applied modeling approaches and then understanding the reasons for differences. The project marks an early systematic attempt to assess and compare the progress made through different modeling approaches, and to offer some first insights into what this may mean for the strategic economics of tackling the biggest long-term challenge in the energy sector, namely the goal of transforming energy systems in ways that could stabilize the atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

    The IMCP was founded by John Schellnhuber and Michael Grubb, scientific design and coordination was done by Ottmar Edenhofer and Kai Lessmann at PIK. The primary output of this project is the forthcoming Energy Journal special issue �Endogenous Technical Change and the Economics of Atmospheric Stabilization�, edited by Ottmar Edenhofer (PIK), Carlo Carraro (FEEM), Jonathan Kohler and Michael Grubb. The issue, and individual papers are available for download below. The project is funded by DEFRA, BMU, UN Foundation, BP and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research .

    Endogenous Technical Change and the Economics of Atmospheric Stabilization
    A Special Issue of the Energy Journal

    Technological Change for Atmospheric Stabilization: Introductory Overview to the Innovation Modeling Comparison Project
    Michael Grubb, Carlo Carraro and John Schellnhuber

    The Transition to Endogenous Technical Change in Climate-Economy Models: A Technical Overview to the Innovation Modeling Comparison Project
    Jonathan Köhler, Michael Grubb, David Popp and Ottmar Edenhofer

    Induced Technological Change: Exploring its Implications for the Economics of Atmospheric Stabilization: Synthesis Report from the Innovation Modeling Comparison Project
    Ottmar Edenhofer, Kai Lessmann, Claudia Kemfert, Michael Grubb and Jonathan Köhler

    Induced Technological Change in a Limited Foresight Optimization Model
    Fredrik Hedenus, Christian Azar and Kristian Lindgren

    Importance of Technological Change and Spillovers in Long-Term Climate Policy
    Shilpa Rao, Ilkka Keppo and Keywan Riahi

    Analysis of Technological Portfolios for CO2 Stabilizations and Effects of Technological Changes
    Fuminori Sano, Keigo Akimoto, Takashi Homma and Toshimasa Tomoda

    Comparison of Climate Policies in the ENTICE-BR Model
    David Popp

    Assessment of CO2 Reductions and Economic Impacts Considering Energy-Saving Investments
    Toshihiko Masui, Tatsuya Hanaoka, Saeko Hikita, and Mikiko Kainuma

    The Dynamics of Carbon and Energy Intensity in a Model of Endogenous Technical Change
    Valentina Bosetti, Carlo Carraro and Marzio Galeotti

    Mitigation Strategies and Costs of Climate Protection: The Effects of ETC in the Hybrid Model MIND
    Ottmar Edenhofer, Kai Lessmann and Nico Bauer

    ITC in a Global Growth-Climate Model with CCS, The Value of Induced Technical Change for Climate Stabilization
    Reyer Gerlagh

    Decarbonizing the Global Economy with Induced Technological Change: Scenarios to 2100 using E3MG
    Terry Barker, Haoran Pan, Jonathan Köhler, Rachel Warren and Sarah Winne

    Endogenous Structural Change and Climate Targets Modeling experiments with IMACLIM-R
    Renaud Crassous, Jean-Charles Hourcade, Olivier Sassi

    Comment by John Davidson — 5 Jun 2006 @ 3:40 PM

  148. A bunch of questions, hoping the representatives of some of these organizations are reading and able to comment in this thread.

    Here’s why I ask: I started in 1975 with 10 acres of hundred year old temperate rain forest, nothing special at the time. Now it has the biggest trees in that county, according to an experienced forester (who was surprised to see them, he thought there were none left). Everyone else cut theirs.

    Yes, I knew about warming in 1975. I picked the 400′ contour, well above sea level after the ice melted, quite intentionally at the time. Thought I might retir there. Thought I might live forever, too. Ah, youth.

    I don’t think trees per se are the main storage opportunity for carbon, I think we should be focusing on topsoil and woody duff layers. The piece I’ve been leaving alone is now standing a foot or two above the typical property from which the trees were all cut in the past 30 years — all the thick old soil also went away thereafter.

    I’m now working on a 40 acre parcel that had a foot of topsoil (per a Forest Service hydrologist) a century ago — before it was logged, burned, grazed by sheep in the late 1800s, abandoned, eroded, regrew naturally, logged and burned again in the 1940s and burned again in the 1980s.

    Now it has about 2/3 of an inch and I’m trying to turn that around so it adds instead of goes to gravel — as many areas of that mountain did. Everyone needs a hobby, this is mine now.

    You can tell how much topsoil there used to be by looking at rocks — lichen takes a century to reach full size. Measure down from the lowest full size patches of lichen to the soil (in this case often gravel) level. That’s how much was lost in a century. Your lichen may vary, of course.

    Is there a (pardon the hot button word) auditing procedure for these “pay for your carbon” sites? If so, I want to know how much I’ve currently banked.

    Here’s why — I and many other people I know are getting older, and own such little patches of wildland. None of the big conservation organizations want to protect little parcels — the kind kids can walk to and mess around in without destroying, like pre-machine-culture humans did growing up. Keep the bulldozers and chainsaws out, let the kids whack at things but not with serious hand tools, and nature keeps on being nature. And educates the kids.

    Maybe these “carbon bank” operations would be interested in acquiring title to or easements on small parcels of wildland.

    My current alternative is to find churches interested in longtime hermitage sites for their retirees who could also do ecological monitoring over the years.

    There aren’t many good options. There’s a hell of a lot of little parcels of still fairly wild land — with an amazing variety of wildlife and no doubt much we don’t yet know about — scattered around even fairly built up areas. I”m in touch with others facing the same question — who’ll care for this when I can’t?
    For the carbon bankers, leaving it alone is key to that. Maybe they’ll help?

    (“A man’s wealth is measured by what he can afford to leave alone.” — Thoreau)

    Anyone pursuing this? And how do the ‘carbon bank’ operations audit and calculate what they’re saving? And how do they tie up property so it doesn’t get a lot of credit then get taken by someone who’ll cut and scrape it?

    I need to make better plans before I get old and forget what I’m doing here.

    Comment by Hank Roberts — 6 Jun 2006 @ 3:28 PM

  149. 148 – Hank: yes more carbon is stored in the soil than in the tree. The trouble is as it gets hotter that carbon is sometimes randomly released; worse we don’t know the exact circumstances. Bottom line: preserving trees is a great thing; but we don’t know exactly how great. We can’t get a reasonably secure estimate of how much preserved forest like your sequestors. We do know it is a whole lot better than letting it be clear cut. The only fund I know offhand how to contact it terrapass – But as far as I know , they only do clean energy and efficiency not offsets. Presumably someone else will help you.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 7 Jun 2006 @ 2:55 AM

  150. Oh – I forgot the most important thing. The U.S. not having ratified the Kyoto treaty will really limit your choice of “carbon banks”. Bear in mind that any offset you provide will be used as an excuse for pollution elsewhere.

    Re 147 – for those of us interested in the economics, thanks. It is interesting stuff that also shows how much needs to be done.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 7 Jun 2006 @ 4:15 AM

  151. It is said that the generals are always ready to fight the last war. One has to wonder whether they ever have a feeling, as they review plans to purchase more weapons of the kind they have been using, that they have been this way before. This non specialist “feels” that it does not make any sense at all to think that the monetary and competitive expression of current commercial society has the remotest possibility if dealing usefully with global warming. I wonder is this is what the great scientist was pondering when he made his remark about the fallacy of dealing with any large problem within the operations that produced it. If emissions :”trading” is all that the powers that be can come up with, then the fact is they have set their faces against coming to any understanding at all of the problem. It is not a good sign

    Comment by garhane — 7 Jun 2006 @ 5:08 PM

  152. An Inconvenient Truth has just announced that it will buy carbon credits in order to become The First Carbon-neutral Documentary

    Comment by mankoff — 8 Jun 2006 @ 12:43 PM

  153. 152: Oy.

    Comment by Gar Lipow — 8 Jun 2006 @ 9:01 PM

  154. FWIW, scathing article about BP and Shell, in response to previous statements about BP.,,1796036,00.html

    Comment by Michael Jankowski — 13 Jun 2006 @ 2:11 PM

  155. Surprising to me, there was minimal discussion on biofuels at this important
    meeting last evening in St. Paul, MN on global warming, My summary follows.

    Summary of pubic meeting at Hamline University in St. Paul, June 21, 2006

    Looking for Leadership – A Global Warming Colloquium

    In his 10 minute presentation last evening St. Paul MN Mayor Chris
    Coleman told the audience of a couple hundred about a statement which
    he remembered from years ago that was made to elected officials: “You
    have a duty to know more because you were elected to represent us.”

    Others on the panel of speakers included: polar explorer and educator Mr.
    Will Steger, Xcel Energy CEO and President of Xcel Cynthia Lesher,
    Fresh Energy Science Policy Director J Drake Hamilton.

    Coleman said he signed the Mayor’s Global Climate Change Agreement in
    Feb. 2006.

    Steger talked about his efforts in using the Internet for public
    education about global warming for K-12 students.

    Lesher said Xcel Energy believes that global warming is clearly
    taking place and that Xcel has been a leader on conservation efforts in the
    power industry by offering incentives and rebates to consumers who
    conserve energy.

    Hamilton spoke out on the importance of not building new coal plants
    unless the technology to produce power with zero CO2 emissions

    The non-profit “Fresh Energy” group, which used to be called ME3, has
    a new website address:

    Comment by pat neuman — 22 Jun 2006 @ 9:58 AM

  156. Resveratrol…

    Judge Posner has once again utilized economics as a crutch for stating the obvious, giving his presentation the illusion of scientific rigor by plugging in numbers and then reducing all the considerations one takes into account in engaging in a prevent…

    Trackback by Resveratrol — 8 Jun 2008 @ 10:14 AM

  157. Fokus…

    God I hope FORD does the right thing here. I love my ’02 Mustang GT but I have begun to realize I have to get better fuel mileage and to do that it seems I have to get a lighter car. For me this will be in about 2 years as I have to pay of the F250 fi…

    Trackback by Fokus — 18 Sep 2008 @ 8:11 PM

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