The Future of Electricity
Hot ideas on climate change
Managing greenhouse gas emissions will require a lot of innovative solutions—here are three you’ll be hearing more about in the coming years
In today’s world, concern about changing levels of carbon dioxide that might be warming our planet’s atmosphere is not just for a few scientists to talk about. Ideas from individual citizens are a vital part of the policy process that will determine what kind of new laws will go into effect.
Laws already govern aspects of greenhouse gas emissions in Europe. New laws about these gases will go into effect in Canada next year. In the United States, energy and climate change rank high on the priority list in Congress and the White House.
But what to do, when to do it, and how to do it will require a lot of good ideas and dedicated work from many people.
This month’s column highlights three novel ideas people have come up with to respond to concerns about global climate change.
Figuring out how to measure greenhouse gases is a first step.
The Climate Registry, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is a voluntary program launched in May.
The Climate Registry is not a federal program; it’s a consortium of interested groups, mostly individual states and some Native American tribes, who want to pool their expertise, then share ideas and information among themselves.
The Climate Registry establishes methods to track, verify, and report in agreed-upon standard format just which man-made greenhouse gases are going into the earth’s atmosphere and in what quantities.
That’s not easy.
In the 21st century, the 6.6 billion humans who live and work on this planet use so much energy for so many different activities it’s easier to think about all that energy by putting it into groups. In America, the biggest chunk of energy use is to generate electricity. The next biggest sector for energy use is transportation, followed by industry. Residential and commercial energy use is the smallest portion.
It’s easy to see that there are many potential sources of greenhouse gases in America; throughout the rest of the world the percentages vary according to the natural resources, population, and industrial development in that region.
It’s vital to understand that gases don’t stay in one place—what goes into the atmosphere on one continent can drift along to another region of the world with ease, and get mixed up with what’s already there.
Carbon dioxide is one of the gases to be measured by The Climate Registry; typically, other gases are also converted into carbon equivalents to simplify this innovative accounting process.
Building on lessons learned by the California Climate Action Registry, a slightly older organization, this new, larger national group’s membership is already spread across 31 states. (Kentucky is not yet a member, nor are neighboring West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, or Indiana).
The idea of The Climate Registry is to provide accurate statistics of what is happening now as a reference point. Then in the future as technology changes, it will be possible to compare levels of greenhouse gases accurately across different time periods in many different places. The Registry will be collecting data through this year, and plans to begin making the information available next year.
Barry Caldwell, senior vice president of Government Affairs and Corporate Communications at Waste Management, based in Houston, says, “We see a critical need for a consistent greenhouse gas reporting platform that will bring greater continuity to our company-wide efforts to inventory and reduce emissions.”
Setting a price
While The Climate Registry hopes to begin establishing its scientific database in January 2008, world financial markets have already begun to put a dollar value on items related to climate change.
Known collectively as “carbon trading,” various financial techniques and incentives seek to influence how quickly people around the world solve various global climate change issues.
As some countries and localities adopt laws about what kinds and quantities of emissions industries are allowed, some industries and individuals will be able to make improvements faster than others. Technology might offer a simple fix to one problem, but another might require much more time, effort, and investment.
In the new world of carbon trading, an entity with so many “good” carbon units that it exceeds the standards in its local area could sell the overage to another entity that’s still trying to meet the standards of its own locality.
It works on a simple principle: reduce carbon emissions as quickly as you can, then buy time for further improvements (and avoid penalties from local governing bodies) by purchasing someone else’s extras. It’s easier to understand if you think of it in terms of borrowing or renting someone’s technological success, but without actually having the equipment or means to use it at your location. In other words, it’s a transaction that occurs on paper, but represents a real effort.
The most widespread practice to date goes by the name “cap and trade.” When your business or activity meets the local cap for a particular greenhouse gas, you can trade your extra success to someone else—for a fee!
Buyers and sellers in this new commodities market can make their transactions though the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX), which began handling trades in December 2003. The Chicago Climate Exchange is the world’s first and North America’s only voluntary, legally binding rules-based greenhouse gas emission reduction and trading system. A single trading unit is called a carbon financial instrument (CFI) contract; one CFI contract equals 100 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) or its equivalent.
About 200 companies (ranging from auto manufacturers, chemical giant DuPont, computer manufacturers such as IBM, and a few investor-owned utilities) already actively buy and sell rights to emit greenhouse gases through the Chicago Climate Exchange.
Cleaning up with trees
Another idea in this new world of carbon trading involves a relatively low-tech solution.
Since trees and other plants already absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their living tissues, why not use them in a creative way to help manage carbon byproducts?
Scientists call this approach carbon sequestration, storing it in such a way that it removes, and actually uses, some of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Kentucky landowners with forests are in a ready-made situation to earn money by taking advantage of their trees’ natural abilities to absorb and sequester carbon dioxide.
Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED), headquartered in Berea, and Forestry Program Manager Dr. David Jackson presented an innovative plan during a daylong sustainable forestry practices workshop in June that attracted 25 curious landowners.
Under this plan, a forest owner agrees to maintain his or her forest in a sustainable way (cutting some mature trees for their timber and planting new trees are permitted) over a period of years. A specialist in forest appraisal makes measurements of the volume of timber in each section of forest at the beginning of the agreement, then this number is converted to a carbon baseline. Other experts calculate how much carbon dioxide can be sequestered in the forest—and that’s a sellable item on the Chicago Climate Exchange.
Known as a “carbon offset credit,” the market value of an acre of forest depends on many factors; this summer’s prices have been in the range of $4 to $5 per acre per year.
During the first two days of enrollment after the workshop, three landowners with a total of 2,800 acres applied to enroll with others signing up each week; MACED is already getting inquiries from other areas of the state.
The first checks for Kentucky forest owners enrolled in the program could arrive as early as January 2008. Measurements of the forest’s volume will then be made annually, with the potential for another check each year for as long as the forest owner stays in the program.
Maxson says, “MACED is looking for ways to create wealth-building opportunities in Appalachian Kentucky that protect the environment and work for local people. We see our role as bringing tools like carbon credit trading to the region. The world is changing, and we have to figure out how to make sure Kentucky is not left behind.”
GREENHOUSE GAS IDEAS ON THE INTERNET
Find more on the carbon management ideas in this column at the following Web sites:
• The Climate Registry
• Chicago Climate Exchange
• Mountain Association for Community Economic Development
Next month: Tracking carbon footprints