(A populist capitalist blog) 

Intuitively, many people feel that for the environment, simpler is better. And from there it is a relatively short leap to hold the industrialized west and its wealth virtually exclusively responsible for pollution and global warming.

Well, maybe it’s a bit more complex. Let us consider the Kuznets curve.

What, you ask, is the Kuznets curve? When countries begin to develop, industrialize, and grow wealthy, yes, they pollute more. But it turns out it is not a forever-rising line. After a while environmental impact trends down, levels off, and then even begins to drop. That is the Kuznets curve.

What has happened? As a nation prospers, it moves up Maslow’s hierarchy. Once survial is taken care of, the “finer” things in life such as clean air and clean water become more important. As they grow wealthier, nations consume more energy BUT they also move to cleaner, more efficient sources: “from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy.” (See New York Times article, “Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet,“ below.)

Turns out that soot, plain old soot, from open cooking fires in developing countries, is responsible for 18% of global warming. (See New York Times article, “Third-World Stove Soot Is Target in Climate Fight,” also below.)

None of this absolves any of us from doing our part to leave the air and water on this planet cleaner than we found it. But we’re reminded of the complexity of the challenge before us.

Closing thought: “Sometimes the quickest way out of a complex situation is the fastest way back in.” For example,

– Obvious answers often aren’t the correct ones

– Feel good actions and solutions are rarely effective

– Grabbing the first “solution” we see and throwing it into the breach may alleviate our need to take action, make us feel useful, and give us a (usually false) sense of control

None of these really help, and often hurt, if only by diverting needed resources and distracting attention from actual root causes.

—– Article —–

Use Energy, Get Rich and Save the Planet
The New York Times
April 20, 2009

When the first Earth Day took place in 1970, American environmentalists had good reason to feel guilty. The nation’s affluence and advanced technology seemed so obviously bad for the planet that they were featured in a famous equation developed by the ecologist Paul Ehrlich and the physicist John P. Holdren, who is now President Obama’s science adviser.

Their equation was I=PAT, which means that environmental impact is equal to population multiplied by affluence multiplied by technology. Protecting the planet seemed to require fewer people, less wealth and simpler technology — the same sort of social transformation and energy revolution that will be advocated at many Earth Day rallies on Wednesday.

But among researchers who analyze environmental data, a lot has changed since the 1970s. With the benefit of their hindsight and improved equations, I’ll make a couple of predictions:

1. There will be no green revolution in energy or anything else. No leader or law or treaty will radically change the energy sources for people and industries in the United States or other countries. No recession or depression will make a lasting change in consumers’ passions to use energy, make money and buy new technology — and that, believe it or not, is good news, because…

2. The richer everyone gets, the greener the planet will be in the long run.

I realize this second prediction seems hard to believe when you consider the carbon being dumped into the atmosphere today by Americans, and the projections for increasing emissions from India and China as they get richer.

Those projections make it easy to assume that affluence and technology inflict more harm on the environment. But while pollution can increase when a country starts industrializing, as people get wealthier they can afford cleaner water and air. They start using sources of energy that are less carbon-intensive — and not just because they’re worried about global warming. The process of “decarbonization” started long before Al Gore was born.

The old wealth-is-bad IPAT theory may have made intuitive sense, but it didn’t jibe with the data that has been analyzed since that first Earth Day. By the 1990s, researchers realized that graphs of environmental impact didn’t produce a simple upward-sloping line as countries got richer. The line more often rose, flattened out and then reversed so that it sloped downward, forming the shape of a dome or an inverted U — what’s called a Kuznets curve. (See for an example.)

In dozens of studies, researchers identified Kuznets curves for a variety of environmental problems. There are exceptions to the trend, especially in countries with inept governments and poor systems of property rights, but in general, richer is eventually greener. As incomes go up, people often focus first on cleaning up their drinking water, and then later on air pollutants like sulfur dioxide.

As their wealth grows, people consume more energy, but they move to more efficient and cleaner sources — from wood to coal and oil, and then to natural gas and nuclear power, progressively emitting less carbon per unit of energy. This global decarbonization trend has been proceeding at a remarkably steady rate since 1850, according to Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and Paul Waggoner of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

“Once you have lots of high-rises filled with computers operating all the time, the energy delivered has to be very clean and compact,” said Mr. Ausubel, the director of the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller. “The long-term trend is toward natural gas and nuclear power, or conceivably solar power. If the energy system is left to its own devices, most of the carbon will be out of it by 2060 or 2070.”

But what about all the carbon dioxide being spewed out today by Americans commuting to McMansions? Well, it’s true that American suburbanites do emit more greenhouse gases than most other people in the world (although New Yorkers aren’t much different from other affluent urbanites).

But the United States and other Western countries seem to be near the top of a Kuznets curve for carbon emissions and ready to start the happy downward slope. The amount of carbon emitted by the average American has remained fairly flat for the past couple of decades, and per capita carbon emissions have started declining in some countries, like France. Some researchers estimate that the turning point might come when a country’s per capita income reaches $30,000, but it can vary widely, depending on what fuels are available. Meanwhile, more carbon is being taken out of the atmosphere by the expanding forests in America and other affluent countries. Deforestation follows a Kuznets curve, too. In poor countries, forests are cleared to provide fuel and farmland, but as people gain wealth and better agricultural technology, the farm fields start reverting to forestland.

Of course, even if rich countries’ greenhouse impact declines, there will still be an increase in carbon emissions from China, India and other countries ascending the Kuznets curve. While that prospect has environmentalists lobbying for global restrictions on greenhouse gases, some economists fear that a global treaty could ultimately hurt the atmosphere by slowing economic growth, thereby lengthening the time it takes for poor countries to reach the turning point on the curve.

But then, is there much reason to think that countries at different stages of the Kuznets curve could even agree to enforce tough restrictions? The Kyoto treaty didn’t transform Europe’s industries or consumers. While some American environmentalists hope that the combination of the economic crisis and a new president can start an era of energy austerity and green power, Mr. Ausubel says they’re hoping against history.

Over the past century, he says, nothing has drastically altered the long-term trends in the way Americans produce or use energy — not the Great Depression, not the world wars, not the energy crisis of the 1970s or the grand programs to produce alternative energy.

“Energy systems evolve with a particular logic, gradually, and they don’t suddenly morph into something different,” Mr. Ausubel says. That doesn’t make for a rousing speech on Earth Day. But in the long run, a Kuznets curve is more reliable than a revolution.

—– Article —–

Third-World Stove Soot Is Target in Climate Fight

Adam Ferguson for The New York Times
Cooking in Kohlua, India. Soot from tens of thousands of villages in developing countries is responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, studies say.

The New York Times
April 15, 2009

KOHLUA, India — “It’s hard to believe that this is what’s melting the glaciers,” said Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, as he weaved through a warren of mud brick huts, each containing a mud cookstove pouring soot into the atmosphere.

As women in ragged saris of a thousand hues bake bread and stew lentils in the early evening over fires fueled by twigs and dung, children cough from the dense smoke that fills their homes. Black grime coats the undersides of thatched roofs. At dawn, a brown cloud stretches over the landscape like a diaphanous dirty blanket.

In Kohlua, in central India, with no cars and little electricity, emissions of carbon dioxide, the main heat-trapping gas linked to global warming, are near zero. But soot — also known as black carbon — from tens of thousands of villages like this one in developing countries is emerging as a major and previously unappreciated source of global climate change.

While carbon dioxide may be the No. 1 contributor to rising global temperatures, scientists say, black carbon has emerged as an important No. 2, with recent studies estimating that it is responsible for 18 percent of the planet’s warming, compared with 40 percent for carbon dioxide. Decreasing black carbon emissions would be a relatively cheap way to significantly rein in global warming — especially in the short term, climate experts say. Replacing primitive cooking stoves with modern versions that emit far less soot could provide a much-needed stopgap, while nations struggle with the more difficult task of enacting programs and developing technologies to curb carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.

In fact, reducing black carbon is one of a number of relatively quick and simple climate fixes using existing technologies — often called “low hanging fruit” — that scientists say should be plucked immediately to avert the worst projected consequences of global warming. “It is clear to any person who cares about climate change that this will have a huge impact on the global environment,” said Dr. Ramanathan, a professor of climate science at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, who is working with the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi on a project to help poor families acquire new stoves.

“In terms of climate change we’re driving fast toward a cliff, and this could buy us time,” said Dr. Ramanathan, who left India 40 years ago but returned to his native land for the project.

Better still, decreasing soot could have a rapid effect. Unlike carbon dioxide, which lingers in the atmosphere for years, soot stays there for a few weeks. Converting to low-soot cookstoves would remove the warming effects of black carbon quickly, while shutting a coal plant takes years to substantially reduce global CO2 concentrations.

But the awareness of black carbon’s role in climate change has come so recently that it was not even mentioned as a warming agent in the 2007 summary report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that pronounced the evidence for global warming to be “unequivocal.” Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of environmental engineering at Stanford, said that the fact that black carbon was not included in international climate efforts was “bizarre,” but “partly reflects how new the idea is.” The United Nations is trying to figure out how to include black carbon in climate change programs, as is the federal government.

In Asia and Africa, cookstoves produce the bulk of black carbon, although it also emanates from diesel engines and coal plants there. In the United States and Europe, black carbon emissions have already been reduced significantly by filters and scrubbers.

Like tiny heat-absorbing black sweaters, soot particles warm the air and melt the ice by absorbing the sun’s heat when they settle on glaciers. One recent study estimated that black carbon might account for as much as half of Arctic warming. While the particles tend to settle over time and do not have the global reach of greenhouse gases, they do travel, scientists now realize. Soot from India has been found in the Maldive Islands and on the Tibetan Plateau; from the United States, it travels to the Arctic. The environmental and geopolitical implications of soot emissions are enormous. Himalayan glaciers are expected to lose 75 percent of their ice by 2020, according to Prof. Syed Iqbal Hasnain, a glacier specialist from the Indian state of Sikkim.

These glaciers are the source of most of the major rivers in Asia. The short-term result of glacial melt is severe flooding in mountain communities. The number of floods from glacial lakes is already rising sharply, Professor Hasnain said. Once the glaciers shrink, Asia’s big rivers will run low or dry for part of the year, and desperate battles over water are certain to ensue in a region already rife with conflict.

Doctors have long railed against black carbon for its devastating health effects in poor countries. The combination of health and environmental benefits means that reducing soot provides a “very big bang for your buck,” said Erika Rosenthal, a senior lawyer at Earth Justice, a Washington organization. “Now it’s in everybody’s self-interest to deal with things like cookstoves — not just because hundreds of thousands of women and children far away are dying prematurely.”

In the United States, black carbon emissions are indirectly monitored and minimized through federal and state programs that limit small particulate emissions, a category of particles damaging to human health that includes black carbon. But in March, a bill was introduced in Congress that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to specifically regulate black carbon and direct aid to black carbon reduction projects abroad, including introducing cookstoves in 20 million homes. The new stoves cost about $20 and use solar power or are more efficient. Soot is reduced by more than 90 percent. The solar stoves do not use wood or dung. Other new stoves simply burn fuel more cleanly, generally by pulverizing the fuel first and adding a small fan that improves combustion.

That remote rural villages like Kohlua could play an integral role in tackling the warming crisis is hard to imagine. There are no cars — the village chief’s ancient white Jeep sits highly polished but unused in front of his house, a museum piece. There is no running water and only intermittent electricity, which powers a few light bulbs.

The 1,500 residents here grow wheat, mustard and potatoes and work as day laborers in Agra, home of the Taj Majal, about two hours away by bus.

They earn about $2 a day and, for the most part, have not heard about climate change. But they have noticed frequent droughts in recent years that scientists say may be linked to global warming. Crops ripen earlier and rot more frequently than they did 10 years ago. The villagers are aware, too, that black carbon can corrode. In Agra, cookstoves and diesel engines are forbidden in the area around the Taj Majal, because soot damages the precious facade.

Still, replacing hundreds of millions of cookstoves — the source of heat, food and sterile water — is not a simple matter. “I’m sure they’d look nice, but I’d have to see them, to try them,” said Chetram Jatrav, as she squatted by her cookstove making tea and a flatbread called roti. Her three children were coughing.

She would like a stove that “made less smoke and used less fuel” but cannot afford one, she said, pushing a dung cake bought for one rupee into the fire. She had just bought her first rolling pin so her flatbread could come out “nice and round,” as her children had seen in elementary school. Equally important, the open fires of cookstoves give some of the traditional foods their taste. Urging these villagers to make roti in a solar cooker meets the same mix of rational and irrational resistance as telling an Italian that risotto tastes just fine if cooked in the microwave.

In March, the cookstove project, called Surya, began “market testing” six alternative cookers in villages, in part to quantify their benefits. Already, the researchers fret that the new stoves look like scientific instruments and are fragile; one broke when a villager pushed twigs in too hard.

But if black carbon is ever to be addressed on a large scale, acceptance of the new stoves is crucial. “I’m not going to go to the villagers and say CO2 is rising, and in 50 years you might have floods,” said Dr. Ibrahim Rehman, Dr. Ramanathan’s collaborator at the Energy and Resources Institute. “I’ll tell her about the lungs and her kids and I know it will help with climate change as well.”