There was quite a stir in media, climate, and environmentalist circles recently when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere as measured atop the mountain at Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii reached 400 parts per billion. It is the highest concentration of carbon dioxide measured at that location since measurements began back in 1958. The rising levels of carbon dioxide have caused quite a bit of consternation as you know because leading climate change theories project “dangerous” warming of the planet in decades to come. That is possible, however, people in the U.S. no longer need to shoulder most of the blame.
For years, perhaps decades, even as the air and water in the U.S. was cleaned up dramatically (since the 1960s and 1970s), the U.S. was constantly pilloried for wrecking the planet and destroying the environment. The U.S. was at one time the greatest source of some types of pollution in the world, including carbon dioxide emissions (to the extent it is “pollution” in modern AGW parlance). This is no longer the case. The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere might have reached 400 parts per billion, but it was not because of the United States. As I have highlighted recently, in contrast to almost every environmental and energy agency prediction, U.S carbon emissions have gone down DRAMATICALLY.
One of the major reasons for the huge drop in emissions is that we are using more natural gas (and I think this is a very good bridge fuel to the future), but the other reasons are more structural at a societal level. The U.S. and a few other places in the world are gradually divorcing the car (see here as well). It is no surprise to me that younger generations do not want to spend so much of their disposable income and time supporting an auto-based lifestyle. I try to save all the money I can by driving less. Maybe my constant blogging about the benefits (more health and wealth) of not driving cars is sinking in. Here are a couple of other data points that confirm this trend. Since 2006, miles driven in the U.S. have slowly declined. Gas consumption has also been going down in recent years. There are some people who argue that this is bad news because gas consumption has correlated quite well with economic activity in past decades. This is a valid point and probably constitutes part of the reason for the decline (poor economic conditions). However, people also vote with their wallet. They are buying more fuel efficient vehicles. Companies with fleets of vehicles are aggressively pursuing more efficient options – even with long haul trucks. Younger generations are smart enough to forgo cars altogether because they are such a hassle (higher taxes every year, maintenance costs, etc.). From an environmental perspective, it is an extremely positive trend. If this continues, which is quite likely in my view, the U.S. will continue to lead the world in reducing carbon emissions. Whether it was planned or not, the U.S. is leading, even without high carbon taxes or other international-based regulations.
So if younger generations are not driving as much (and they are not having as many kids – which is another great trend, from an environmental perspective), what are they doing? Spending more time on the Internet/phones. They stay connected in different ways. So that might lead one to conclude that carbon emissions are just being shifted from cars to servers. This is true to some extent, and communications are taking a larger piece of the energy pie, but it is much more efficient and less polluting than driving cars. Plus, networks are no where near as efficient as they could be. More waste heat could also be captured from large server centers. Major upgrades at companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon, are lowering the energy needed to run the world’s websites. Just like younger generations choosing to save money and time by not driving as much as their parents, it is absolutely in the best interest of tech/Internet companies to be more energy efficient.
Finally, there is another story that has been developing in the past few years that points to a more energy efficient future and that is LED lighting. One company I profiled about 5 years ago was trying to start the LED revolution. It didn’t work out. They could not produce a cost competitive product. Enter CREE into the picture. They are selling a new LED bulb that is much more cost competitive. You can find it, as I did, at the Home Depot. The 40 watt version is only $10. This is a bit more costly than compact fluorescent (CF) bulbs but they are rated to last more than 20 years (using them 3 hours a day). Prices will likely come down as volume expands in the future. They don’t have any of the toxic metals either. The color of light from the bulb that I purchased is very close to the traditional light that comes from incandescents. It is a nice soft yellow-ish light. These are likely the only bulbs I will be purchasing for replacements in the near future. Lighting is a significant percentage of our energy usage around the world. LED lighting will help to reduce that percentage. Another win for the environment.
Have a good Monday! Meteorologist Justin Loew
This post was written by jloew on June 10, 2013