12/20/2011 - 16:41

Climate change in 2050: Where's the beef?

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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"What will a day in the life of a Californian be like in 40 years? If the state cuts greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 -- a target mandated by a state executive order -- a person could wake up in a net-zero energy home, commute to work in a battery-powered car, work in an office with smart windows and solar panels, then return home and plug in her car to a carbon-free grid."

That's the opening paragraph to a news release from the US Energy Department's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Welcome to the future, as envisioned by a study published last month in the journal Science by experts from the Berkeley Lab, the San Francisco-based energy consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics, the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Apparently the most forward-looking scenario that these scientists could come up with is one in which a "FutureCalGal" gets an office with windows (smart windows!) and commutes to work alone in her car (battery-powered!). Never mind all those hours she'll be stuck in traffic, what with California's population expected to grow by 46 percent between now and then. FutureCalGal wouldn't dream of telecommuting, living within walking distance of her office, riding a bicycle to work, or taking public transportation. And really, who could expect her to make that kind of sacrifice?

Forget Los Angeles, FutureCalGal -- along with the experts who invented her, virtually every American politician, and even many environmentalists -- lives in a true La La Land. That's the place where earnest citizens are busy erecting photovoltaic panels to run their big-screen TVs, insulating their McMansions, opting for the hybrid crew cab, and changing their light bulbs from incandescents to compact fluorescents. What they aren't changing -- or even talking about changing -- are their lifestyles. But the unthinkable might be the only thing that can save our planet from the uninhabitable.

I hate to pick on the good people of Berkeley Lab. At least they are putting serious thought into how to transform our energy infrastructure, which is more than I can say about any of our presidential candidates. And these scientists are realistic about how much energy can be generated by so-called renewable energy: that is, a maximum of 74 percent "despite California's high renewable resource endowment, even assuming perfect renewable generation forecasting, breakthroughs in storage technology, replacement of steam generation with fast-response gas generation, and a major shift in load curves by smart charging of vehicles." Where I fault the Berkeley scientists -- and almost every other wonk studying climate change -- is that they "did not assume explicit lifestyle changes (e.g., vegetarianism, bicycle transportation) which could have a significant effect on mitigation requirements and costs."

Why are so many experts convinced that most Americans will never ride a bike to work or eat less meat? Do people really find those changes more distasteful than having their drinking water contaminated by fracking fluids or watching their kids suffer from asthma?

It's time to stop merely grasping at technology straws. Yes, the United States needs to keep working on everything from smart grids to carbon sequestration, and to invest more in research, but that should not prevent Americans from being encouraged to act on the simpler and much less expensive solutions that are in plain sight -- many of which could provide immediate and enormous reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Here are a few of the sacred cows (literally and figuratively) that could make a real difference:

Food. I'm not a vegetarian, and I don't expect everyone to become one. But eating less meat and dairy products would be healthier for Americans and for our planet. Michael Pollan said it best: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." More recently, in the October 2011 issue of Scientific American, Jonathan Foley provided a five-step plan for doubling global food production by 2050 while reducing environmental damage; it calls for reduced per-capita meat consumption. And a report released last month by the World Preservation Foundation claimed that steep reductions in livestock production could keep global average temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius -- enough to avoid the most severe impacts of climate change -- and that this approach could reduce mitigation costs by up to 80 percent by 2050.

Shelter. A California couple vying for the title of "world's greenest home" lives in a 5,600-square-foot house with five bedrooms and five electric-car charging stations. The fact that these people, and the reporters fawning over their house, do not see the ridiculousness of this claim is alarming. I'm not suggesting we take up residence in huts and caves (although that would be pretty darn green), but would it really be so unreasonable to outlaw houses bigger than, say, 2,000 square feet? I can already hear some of you complaining: "A big family needs more room than that!" I'll get to you in a minute.

Transportation. People who are enamored with wind turbines point to Denmark, the world's leader in wind power, as a shining model for our energy future. We could take a better hint from all those Danes riding around on bicycles: In Denmark, the average person cycles some 600 miles per year. And if you think we can't get Americans out of their cars and onto their bikes almost overnight, I have two words for you: gas tax. Just to be sure, better make it four words: big honkin' gas tax.

Population. This is the biggie, the mother lode of affordable obtainium. But mention population, and people freak out at the thought of a repressive one-child policy (although not at the thought of how much carbon dioxide China would be emitting without that policy). It's the third rail of climate politics, which scientists and policy makers dare not touch lest they be labeled "anti-birthers."

For their 2050 baseline energy consumption scenario, the Berkeley Lab study assumed a California population of 56.6 million people. For their mitigation scenario, they assumed a population of -- 56.6 million people. The scientists couldn't imagine Californians making any effort whatsoever to reduce population growth. I guess they'll all be too busy brewing cellulosic ethanol and algal biodiesel.

Two years ago, a pair of scientists at Oregon State University calculated that each baby born in the United States adds about 9,441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female -- almost six times her own lifetime emissions. The climate impacts of having one less child dwarf anything else an individual can do to reduce his or her carbon footprint. And, you won't need that 5,000-square-foot house.

I'm not suggesting a one-child mandate -- just some compelling financial incentives, family-planning services, and a public education campaign that would encourage people to think carefully about whether they really need that third, fourth, or fifth child. Instead of cash-for-clunkers, it would be far more effective to give cash-for-condoms (or carbon credits, if you prefer). Even in the United States, almost half of all pregnancies are unintended, and yet Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius recently decided to prevent women under 17 from obtaining Plan B -- a morning-after birth-control pill deemed safe by the Food and Drug Administration -- without a prescription.

It's clear that people can and do modify their behaviors, even their reproductive urges, in response to economic incentives, peer pressure, and other factors. During tough economic times, for example, the birth rate tends to drop across all age groups. If only the same were true for tough environmental times.

Although they prescribed electrification as the path to deep emissions reductions, the California scientists noted, "[T]he potential for lifestyle change deserves further study." Perhaps their next analysis can re-envision FutureCalGal as a woman who cares enough about her fellow human beings to ride a bike, have a small family, live in a modest-sized dwelling, and only eat meat twice a week. And the best part? She doesn't have to wait until 2050 to start making some changes in her life.