Carbon dioxide to biochar

Problems with the video

The above video from Cheddar examines how scientists have developed a brilliant way to fight global warming in a community by using your air conditioner. Our homes contribute about 10% of our global warming emissions, which of course is a very serious problem and we have about 30 years to solve global warming. The video goes more in depth.

I had one issue with the video however, which is that it doesn’t go far enough. Capturing CO2 only to put it back in the atmosphere is counter productive. We are going to be spending precious resources on renewable energy to only put carbon dioxide back in the air. While this is carbon neutral, we need to do better.

First of all, I absolutely love the idea of using air conditioners to cool our houses and pull carbon dioxide from the air, but ultimately the numbers are very clear. We cannot use sequestration to remove all of the pollution we put into the atmosphere in even one year alone at a reasonable cost. It is akin to trying to fix an arm which has been chopped off with a band-aid, the solution does not match the problem. There is absolutely no alternative to focusing on policies which will significantly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit into the air year after year.

Source: Columbia University

So how do we fight global warming?

Transporation is the biggest source of emissions in the United States

In the United States, more CO2 emissions come from transportation than any other source. Coal has been dying for a decade, and its decline will continue. We need to hurry up the end of the era of coal, first because it devastates the climate, and secondly because it leaves behind serious health problems in the communities it operates in.

We cannot settle for simply continuing to pollute as much as we had. We will never have the technology at an affordable cost to take out more than we are putting in the atmosphere, and it is highly inefficient. Why should we spend money to make electricity from renewable energy when we do nothing to fight the penultimate problem ,which is that we are burning far too many fossil fuels, emitting greenhouse gases at a rate which far exceeds the ability for the Earth to successfully digest?

Biochar needs to be part of the solution to global warming. We need to accelerate the carbon cycle’s pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, and if we can grow food with it at the same time, revitalizing our soils and reducing the need for harmful pesticides which poison our water, than that is something we should absolutely do. We should pass policies which increase the amount of carbon sequestration and celebrate our victories. But we absolutely cannot let this be enough. We need to go for policies which reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit into the atmosphere, for the lowest cost both in terms of dollars spent and in terms of the opportunity cost. We need to be efficient about such methods, because the clock is ticking, and the urgency is increasing.

I believe that in order to do this right we have no choice but to implement carbon taxes as fast as possible, with as few exemptions as possible, to get to the rate which matches the destruction to our planet the burning of fossil fuels creates as quickly as we can. The minute someone looks at their checkbook and they see an electric car is less expensive than an internal combustion engine, and it provides the same benefits to them, a lot of people will choose the electric car over the internal combustion engine, which will change their calculations on which to buy and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being emitted into our atmosphere.

We cannot afford to simply pay an optional sin tax for our fossil fuel burning by paying to build a wind farm every time we fly. We simply do not have the financial ability to absorb the carbon dioxide we emit every year through carbon sequestration without some very serious trade offs.

We need a carbon tax which treats a tailpipe and a coal power stack the same per ton of carbon emitted. We need a carbon tax which increases every single year at a set rate to get to the point where the cost of burning a gallon of gasoline includes the entire social cost of burning that gasoline. To not do that creates moral hazard of the highest order, The externalities of fossil fuels are far greater than the benefits they provide to society. If we all had to pay full price at the pump, we would all change our behavior.

I feel like a broken record, but that is because nothing has fundamentally changed. I look around at options to fight global warming and we have honestly very few options.

  1. Reduce emissions
    1. Carbon Tax
    2. Cap and Trade
    3. Subsidies
  2. Take Greenhouse gases out of the air
    1. Biochar
    2. Technology
    3. Plant trees

There really are no other options that I can think of.

Each of our sequestration options have serious drawbacks. When it comes to taking greenhouse gases out of the air it is very simple, they are too expensive and we simply cannot pull out enough carbon to match the amount we emit.

So we are left with reducing emissions. Short of everyone reducing their quality of life (good luck on that) we are stuck with three options.

Cap and trade sounds like a great policy to fight global warming until you actually study it. The European Union has the world’s largest carbon trading market in the world. It has had significantly low prices for most of the previous decade. It still target=”_blank”reduced emissions, but for me it is impossible to not see the massive opportunity cost with the additional emissions which have occurred if the price had been higher. It makes it painfully clear how hard it is to make a cap and trade system which will not be self-defeating if it is not meticulously designed.

Subsidies to fight global warming are great, but they have a wide range of effectiveness in terms of how they are spent, which alternatives you fund, and how well you do it. If we end up reducing energy prices because of new electricity available on the grid, then the incentive for people to switch from existing fossil fuels will be reduced. The Carbon Tax Center makes the full explanation of how subsidies can be counter productive if not done precisely right.

Carbon taxes however do not come with any of the problems mentioned with the other proposed global warming solutions. They will not make it cheaper to pollute like a poorly designed subsidy, and if they are effective they will not drop like a poorly designed cap and trade system. You can absolutely use the money from a carbon tax to fund any programs you want, whether it is more renewable energy, reduce taxes on low income households, or fund a plan for low income households like the Earned Income Tax Credit. It is simply money and you can do whatever you want with it. Designing a carbon tax is also very simple. You just set the price, and every purchase of a fuel which will emit carbon dioxide is taxed at that rate for the amount of pollution that fuel will produce. It is the only policy on this list which does not seriously require a PhD in economics in order to be confident you have designed properly, and as we have seen with cap and trade and subsidy approaches in the past, carbon taxes fight global warming far more efficiently because they do not stop working if they are more effective than initially planned.

Conclusion

I did not plan on this post about global warming to be about carbon taxes, I was really intending to write about carbon sequestration, but it did not take much reading to make the sheer cost of the amount of sequestration which would be necessary to make a reasonable dent in global warming explicitly clear to me. I care about this issue, but I also care about education, health care, and many other important issues. That means that I consider myself progressive, and I also care deeply about efficiency. As an economist I understand the idea of opportunity cost, and I apply this to everything in my life. This is why my conclusion is very simple.

  1. We should absolutely do as much carbon sequestration as we can while balancing other important issues.
  2. We should not transform that back into fuels to emit back in the atmosphere. To do so is pointless.
  3. We need to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we emit as a species as fast and efficiently as possible.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the policy committee of Carbon Washington. All views in this article are the opinions of the author alone and should not be construed as an official policy position of any organization.

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