A low- or zero-carbon world without nuclear power: is it possible? Perhaps the most qualified person to address this issue is Arjun Makhijani of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research in Takoma Park, Maryland. He (together with Alan Lichtenberg) conducted one of the first bottom-up studies comparing energy use between countries; he has gone on to study the difficult problems of renewables and nuclear energy in the U.S. and in developing countries. Because so many believe our choice must be either carbon or nuclear, Makhijani’s effort is particularly welcome now.
In his book Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy (IEER Press and RDR Books, 2007), Makhijani does a creditable job of showing how renewables can solve some of the problems of carbon and nuclear, and wisely includes high-efficiency natural gas and coal-fired electric generation, as well as storage options. Recognizing that the key to a low-carbon future is on the demand side, he refers to numerous technical fixes to appliances, buildings, manufacturing or other industries, and vehicles. He appreciates the fact that the problems are not simply those of technology. For example, he notes that ridership is a key variable in comparing the energy use per passenger mile of driving and bus-riding. While the energy intensity of U.S. driving fell some 25 percent from the early 1970s to 2004, that of transit buses actually rose as the number of people riding buses declined by nearly a third.
Makhijani also does a good job of projecting the future demand for energy services, including commercial and housing floor space, seat-miles of air travel, and car use. He notes the importance of structural changes—for instance, changes in the ratio of steel production or car travel to GDP—which he and Lichtenberg identified as one reason why energy use in a prospering economy need not grow in step with GDP.
As for policies, he proposes them all: caps on CO2, various trading schemes, efficiency standards, higher taxes on fuels and CO2, and strong standards forcing utilities away from coal. He claims—wrongly, I believe—that fuel taxes on transport could not be high enough to encourage vehicle efficiency and discourage car use. But because U.S. fuel taxes provide less than 50 percent of the costs of the ground transport system, these taxes must rise, even before taxes on CO2 and oil security are considered. There are wider proposals for reforming transport policy, reducing transport externalities, and fixing transport funding that themselves might cut the overall carbon footprint of the sector by as much as 25 percent by 2050, compared to a “transport as usual” world. These changes would have a much greater effect than lower-emission vehicles would.
One can quibble with any of Dr. Makhijani’s numbers or assertions, but that’s not the issue. The issue is why U.S. voters, Congress, many presidents, and, above all, pundits and lobbyists have rejected low-energy, low-carbon alternatives for almost four decades. Before Makhijani’s book, or others like it, will be taken seriously, we must ask, “What is behind our energy conservatism?”
Is it the oil lobby and its conservative friends in Congress, who ask for tax breaks while they oppose fuel economy standards and energy taxes? Is it the liberals, who don’t oppose standards but do oppose higher fuel prices (as demonstrated by Hillary Clinton’s advocacy of a gasoline tax holiday during the 2008 presidential campaign), and who are so busy hiding the price on carbon that results from cap and trade? Is it the climate-change deniers, who, even in the late 1980s—and especially at the Rio Environmental Summit in 1992—were sounding a Tea Party-like drone against climate action? Is it the basic American dreamer, who cannot believe in limits on emissions, like CO2, or internalize risks like nuclear power, offshore drilling, and mountaintop removal coal mining through taxes and other policy instruments?
Whatever the causes of U.S. inaction, Makhijani’s book is useful for two reasons. First, it provides an updated road map of how to get out of the carbon and nuclear squeeze: it solves the problem in theory. We need road maps like this as strategic help. Second, the author identifies some of the barriers to changing our energy ways and offers policy solutions. But he doesn’t tell us what we really have to know: how to get the politicians and the public to swallow the medicine they need.