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Carbon “deficit” spending



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Legislators understand deficit spending. At least they should.

“Deficit” is the amount of change in the debt. That is sometimes obscured–the nation’s “deficit spending” has been reduced. That is only a reduction in the rate at which the national debt is rising.

Carbon dioxide emissions are like a debt to the stored fossil repository that exists within the earth. We extract coal, natural gas, oil, and we “spend” them on producing energy for the things we enjoy. But as they are burned they produce carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas which is causing global climate change that will eventually be very damaging to our lifestyles.

Just as a rising debt will eventually be very damaging, even though it may not be harmful in the short term, our rising carbon debt will cause dramatically harmful changes in climate.

Now what about the “deficit” part? The problem is that when we “spend” the carbon resources we extract from the earth, the carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades, and has effects for hundreds of years. Yes, there are some processes that remove CO2, such as increasing plant growth (just like repaying part of a debt while incurring even more new debt). But the largest of these, large forests, are being cut down by humans–so their effect is being reversed and the carbon from these is being released into the atmosphere. Another “sink” that absorbs CO2 is the oceans. But the oceans become more acidic (just like a bottle of pop–if you were an aquatic lifeform you might not want to live in that kind of environment.) There is a limit to how much CO2 can be absorbed by the oceans, and we are already seeing the loss of coral reefs an other lifeforms that depend upon them.

Each year we “spend” the carbon capital, and we increase the debt to the earth by placing that carbon into the atmosphere as CO2. All the discussions about reducing emissions are not about reducing the debt, they are about reducing the deficit. They are about reducing the rate at which we add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and increase our carbon debt.

Think about the problem of a coal-fired power plant. Suppose in 2050 we magically and suddenly come up with a solution to reduce our emissions, but previously kept to constant or rising levels of emissions. But then we have some 40 years of deficit carbon spending. The total buildup will be the sum of what we put in, less some small amounts of CO2 ”repaid” by various processes as mentioned above. Much like deficit spending, some small portion of the debt is repaid each year, but the debt keeps growing from the much greater new debt.

However suppose each year we reduce our carbon deficit spending so that by 2050 we are down to 20% of present CO2 emission levels. (This is the target that scientists tell us we should make to help avoid many negative consequences.) Each year we reduce carbon deficit spending, we reduce the total carbon debt and the amount by which our climate grows dangerously worse (as compared to no mitigation). It’s not quite like compound interest, but we have considerably reduced the debt each year. By 2050 we will have reduced our total carbon debt to something like 50 or 60% of what it would be if we kept to present or increasing levels of carbon deficit spending.

A carbon “debt” of 50% lower may not seem that significant (even after reducing carbon deficit spending to 1/5 of present levels.) But that may well be the difference between warming that has some positive and some negative effects, as opposed to much more negative effects. (We must prepare for some negative effects even if we were to stop all fossil fuel use today.)

Now there are new concepts about how to reduce emissions of CO2, such as “carbon sequestration.” We need to understand these in terms of the carbon deficit. If 50% of a power plant’s emissions were captured, then the carbon deficit spending would only be half as much from that plant. But we have not reduced the carbon debt, only the rate at which it grows!

If we add new power plants in Kansas, and only add tremendously expensive carbon capture technologies to those plants, then we have not reduced our emissions at all, rather we have only reduced the amount by which our carbon deficit spending has increased. Let me repeat that–we have a reduction in the amount by which our deficit carbon spending has increased, not a reduction in the deficit and most certainly not a reduction in the “carbon debt.”

To reduce our carbon deficit spending, we have to do one of two things:

  1. Reduce the generation of carbon dioxide by reducing the rate of burning of fossil fuels.
  2. Capture the generated carbon dioxide.

There really are not any other possibilities. Recapturing the generated carbon dioxide is like repaying part of the carbon debt. Unless we capture more than we make, we are only reducing the carbon deficit spending, not the carbon debt.

The author of this web site believes that Legislators in Kansas must not understand this basic and fundamental concept, or they would be making different proposals that actually reduce the carbon deficit spending rather than only somewhat limit the growth of the carbon deficit.

Kansas Warming
http://www.kansaswarming.org/archives/17

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