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Rocks Storing GHG? Questioning Our Focus on Technology

| Wednesday April 8th, 2009 | 0 Comments

I am worried that our reliance on finding large scale technological solutions can potentially stunt the growth of sustainable development. To me, Sustainable Development is the result of integrating Sustainability in our lives, while Sustainability is a set of actions which ensure that living and non-living systems can thrive in perpetuity.
Taking this article as an example, “Rocks Found That Could Store Greenhouse Gas“, the numbers are so abstract and large that they were mostly irrelevant. For example, the potential of rocks sequestering carbon equal to 500 years of US GHG emissions has no practical meaning. Even if the sequestration amounted to 1% of 1% of those 500 years of emissions, it is still less than the amount of annual reductions needed to get to 2050 goal.

In terms of C02, suppose we can sequester 1% annually using this method. This would have two effects: 1) Close to 80 million carbon credits (1 MTCO2e each) would hit the market. 2) We would still have 99% of CO2 releasing in to the atmosphere. So the carbon market goes in to disarray whereas the emissions reductions efforts don’t make much of a dent.
I am befuddled that we seem to have convinced ourselves that in order to solve Global GHG emissions problem, all we need to do is get a price signal for carbon and then let market forces take over. The untold piece in the Carbon Market story is that price of carbon will rise only as far as our political and social willpower allows it to go.
If I am running a company that can reduce GHG emissions at a cheaper rate than the competitors (everyone in a carbon market), why shouldn’t I wait to reduce my emissions until the price of carbon goes high enough? This strategy allows me to maximize my revenue from GHG emissions reductions. Why earn $2.00 for every MtCO2e by selling on Chicago Climate Exchange? (case in point: Trading volume at CCX on March 9th was zero).
Instead of doing that, I am going to wait until a Cap & Trade system is in place, I get a below-market allotment, and then I would go for the low hanging fruit. Hence, my decisions would not be based on a desire to solve problems; they would be based on a desire to make money.
Carbon Markets will continue to be plagued by this because the price of carbon is likely to be higher in the future than at any point in the present. This dynamic is in a completely reverse order because from an ecological standpoint the value of reducing carbon is higher now than it will be in the future. But, we don’t have a discount rate for pricing carbon!
The point I don’t understand is our societal reliance on technological fixes. If one considers all of the elements of the I=PAT equation, it makes no sense to ignore Population and Affluence/economic activity while expecting Technology to mitigate our Impact on the environment. (Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World – 2009 report makes this point in chapter 1).
Although it is counter-intuitive, the reality is that some new technological measures (including efficiency) can accelerate climate change if the money saved from those measures is not spent on environmentally restorative activities. This positive feedback effect would continue until we have reached a tipping point where a dollar spent anywhere within an economy has a smaller ecological impact than the impact of the dollar saved by that given technology. As long as we live in a surplus economy, where economic growth is largely measured by & equated with material growth, a dollar saved on energy efficiency is nothing more than a dollar earned for the next purchase.
I suppose my question is if Climate Change is the right crisis for integrating sustainability? It is clear that climate change is the most urgent problem we face, and it has to be an important step in our overall global sustainability efforts. But, I don’t know if we should focus all our efforts to solve climate change through technological innovation while ignoring and undermining the solutions to the larger systemic problems that cause the friction between the human and natural worlds.
Compare the money and attention climate change related programs received from the Stimulus Bill as opposed to other social & environmental sustainability efforts. And this is the just the beginning: As Van Jones remarked to us a week ago, there is still an Energy Bill, and a new Federal Budget and a Climate Bill right around the corner.
As a sustainability thinker, I want to make an impact that brings long lasting change. But as a sustainability practitioner, my work is almost always about momentary, here & now issues. I know that our challenge is to eliminate the either/or question by creating whole systems solutions. But the constraints of the ‘business world” (i.e. market forces) are usually an impediment to achieving that objective.
Shripal Shah will graduate in May, 2009 with a MBA degree in Sustainable Management. Shripal’s areas of inquiry include the creation of systemic solutions that can rapidly enhance global sustainability efforts.


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