How much could we fight global warming by sequestering all the carbon dioxide emitted during the climate speechifying this week at the United Nations?
Not much. Anyway, talk is cheap. Other events that could be far more significant for climate change took place this past week in other venues.
To begin, let's motor over to Detroit. The United Auto Workers and General Motors came to terms on a groundbreaking agreement to shift GM's enormous retiree health care liability off its books and onto a "voluntary employee benefit association," or VEBA. Look for other domestic automakers to work out the same deal with the union.
If VEBAs succeed in lancing the health costs boil, that will create the breathing space the Big Three need to retool themselves. Job number one is getting rid of an outdated business model that depends on sales of fuel-gulping vehicles to generate cash. If Detroit can position itself to compete well in the market for advanced, gotta-have vehicles that go much farther on a gallon of high-priced gas -- or avoid gasoline use entirely -- then a major step will have been taken to shrinking the transportation component of greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, skip down to Bay City, Texas. NRG Energy submitted a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to build two nukes totaling 2,700 megawatts in power generating capacity. It's the first license request to come over NRC's transom in 29 years. Nearly 30 more such applications are expected during the next year or so.
Nuclear is not a panacea that will make all our climate problems go away, but neither is it sensible to rule new nukes off the table. The scale of greenhouse gas emissions cuts that must be made over the next 50 years is so enormous that none of the arrows in our energy quiver should be tossed out just yet.
High costs, waste disposal, and proliferation worries could deflate the incipient nuclear renaissance. And, with decommissioning of many older plants on the horizon, nuclear developers will have to run hard just to maintain existing nuclear capacity, let alone replace coal plants and displace their carbon dioxide emissions.
To replace retired nukes and to supply one of seven "wedges" needed to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, 21 plants, at 1,000 megawatts each, would have to be built worldwide each year for the next 50 years. The current pace of construction is not even close.
Still, cheap and dirty coal remains the default choice for power plant developers. No one knows whether large-scale carbon sequestration is feasible. For every nuke that manages to get off the drawing board, think of one coal plant avoided.
Finally, slip over to Bentonville, Arkansas, world headquarters of Wal-Mart. In partnership with the Carbon Disclosure Project, the retailing behemoth announced a pilot project to measure energy consumption in its supply chain and figure out ways of squeezing out energy waste.
When market forces -- in this case, Wal-Mart's influence over suppliers -- drive companies to sniff systematically for energy efficiency opportunities, the potential for real and lasting greenhouse gas emissions reduction is large. Much larger than all the exhortations heard at the U.N. this week.
The key will be adopting smart policies that will give those market forces a hard push. That conversation, however, has barely begun.
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