Saturday, June 20, 2015

Free Energy Ain't Free

All organized activity, notably including life and civilization, depends on thermodynamic free energy, sometimes known as negative entropy. Plants get it from the Sun, heterotrophs (like you, reader, and I) depend on the foods we eat, and civilizations, increasing depend on fuel, especially fossil fuel. The industrial revolution and the relative prosperity it brought were bought with fossil fuel and the free energy it supplied.

Of course we are finding out that that free energy did not come cheaply. The fossil fuels are a finite resource, and their use imposes costs on the planet. Coal is the most abundant such fuel and it's also the cheapest. King Coal made and ruled the industrial revolution but it also brought bitter consequences. The great London Smog of December 1952 killed 4,000-12,000 people and cows in their farm fields. It was a wake up moment for action against air pollution and cities in Europe and the Americas gradually cleaned up their acts.

Most of the environmental cost of coal is imposed on the local population, but not all of it. Coal is an abundant source of radioactivity and carbon dioxide, both of which spread globally, as does some of the particulate. Today's biggest consumer of coal and largest source of CO2 is China, the world's newest industrial superpower. China's city population has paid the price in death rates and pollution induce disease, but it has also benefited from a vastly increased per capita gross domestic product. China, though, has now become rich enough to take the pollution problem seriously and is actively pursuing measures to ameliorate it.

Many other countries have yet to reach that level or take those steps. Africa and the Indian Subcontinent need electricity, and coal is still the cheapest way to get it. Pollution in the Indian city of New Delhi (apparently twice as polluted as Beijing) got a lot of publicity when a returning New York Times columnist wrote of his son's struggles with asthma there. I have noted that India plans to continue and accelerate its use of coal, doubling production by 2020.

Some seem to think that any mention of pollution and global warming is a plot to keep India poor:

Rich capitalists in the West want Indians to go without electric power rather than cut back themselves on carbon dioxide emissions. They do not have the temerity to demand this of China. They mask all this as a pious concern about air pollution in India.

Whether or not that's the case, it's certainly true that the industrialized countries have done most of the pollution so far and continue to be big CO2 producers. From the same article:

The Western meat-lover's diet - diet alone - is 3.3 tons of CO2 per year. If he drives a car or flies to Europe for a vacation, he rapidly adds up. E.g., a round trip from New York to Paris, one that a Paul Krugman, for instance, might often take, adds another 0.93 tons. A chap driving 12,000 miles in a 2013 Ford Pickup adds 4.9 metric tons of C02 to the atmosphere.

China, India and the West all continue to make very half-hearted attempts to control CO2 emissions, though the West has made progress on particulates. We can be pretty sure though, that effective measures against CO2 production, like a global carbon tax, will meet fierce opposition from meat eaters, vacation goers, and developing economies alike.