Global warming, Mark Twain might say, is like the weather: Everybody talks about it but nobody ever does anything about it.
About a dozen states and several hundred cities in the United States have pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to follow the example of Europe and Japan. Many Americans in opinion polls say they are worried about a climate catastrophe, and Congress under Democratic control is vowing for the first time in years to do something to prevent it.
But taking the drastic actions required to cut emissions to levels that many scientists say would be benign for the environment is another thing entirely.
California, for example, recently enacted a law requiring dramatic cuts in greenhouse gases — principally carbon dioxide from cars and power plants — but it does not require serious action for 15 years. Energy analysts there say most people are carrying on with business as usual with little thought of changing their driving or other energy-consuming habits.
A recent study by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an environmental and community activist group, found that “green” cities are making little headway toward meeting their pledges to cut emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels as targeted by the Kyoto global warming treaty, with most instead reporting their emissions have increased between 7 percent and 27 percent.
“It will be a major challenge” to achieve those goals, said John Bailey, author of the report.
Though the Kyoto targets would not cut emissions as drastically as many scientists believe is necessary to prevent global warming, just complying with the treaty would require more than a one-third cut in energy use and emissions by Americans, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
To avoid global warming, scientists and environmentalists say emissions must be cut by as much as 90 percent below 1990 levels. The biggest reductions in use of oil, coal and other fossil fuels would be required in the United States because the nation is by far the world’s biggest energy consumer and producer of carbon emissions — consuming one-fourth of the world’s energy though it has only one-20th of the world’s population.
Though the spirit may be willing, the flesh is weak. The institute’s report found that few of the “green” cities have significantly increased spending on more efficient buildings or transportation systems despite their commitment to the Kyoto goals, and the ones that have made progress have done so because they rely on emissions-free hydroelectric power plants that have been in place for decades or were aided by state and federal fuel-efficiency mandates.
Surveys show that while Americans may vote for politicians who say they are concerned about the environment and patronize businesses that they believe are environmentally friendly, they do little to curb their own carbon emissions from driving and power use.
A survey by Deloitte & Touche in the summer found virtually no change in consumer energy use and driving habits despite grumbling about skyrocketing heating and electric bills and gasoline prices that twice reached more than $3 a gallon since 2005.
Americans also have been slow to spend more to buy more fuel-efficient cars and appliances and make their homes more energy efficient. Interest in buying more fuel-efficient cars typically ticks up when gas prices spike, but it subsides just as quickly when prices decline, with consumers quickly resuming their love affair with gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles, according to Cars.com, an Internet car-buying service.
Energy fuels lifestyle
Why are Americans so poor at saving energy despite good intentions? One reason is that the heavy use of energy has made life easier for most Americans and is ingrained in the American lifestyle — from turning on the air conditioner as soon as the temperature hits 80 degrees to using the elevator instead of the stairs and driving cars to work instead of walking or using mass transit.
Americans and businesses frequently have to use their cars and trucks for day-to-day necessities and cannot easily find substitutes for transportation, according to an analysis by the Energy Research Foundation Inc.
The dependence that consumers and the broader economy have on cars means it would take a 30 percent increase in gas prices to achieve a 5 percent savings in fuel, it said.
“Oil is tough to cut back on,” said analyst Ron Gold with the research group, noting that Americans have built their houses, offices and lifestyles around roads and cars, resulting in sprawling, decentralized cities where few alternative transportation forms are available.
A report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates found that Americans’ love affair with cars and sport utility vehicles has cooled only modestly — mostly in response to record high gas prices — and progress in conserving fuel has been incremental.
Americans continue to drive 40 percent more than they did 25 years ago and use bigger and more powerful cars, Cambridge found. High gasoline prices caused the rate of growth in fuel demand to slow by about half in 2005 and 2006 from the 1.6 percent average rate of growth between 1990 and 2004. But the United States still uses 20 million barrels of oil a day — about a quarter of what the world produces.
In a ray of hope, the group found that for the first time since 1990 sales of SUVs declined last year, and for the first time in a quarter-century motorists’ average mileage decreased. But, as a measure of how addicted to driving Americans are, the report found the United States is the only country to have accumulated more registered cars than licensed drivers. In contrast, Britain has seven vehicles for every 10 drivers, and China has nine cars for every thousand drivers.
Rather than drive less or turn down the thermostat, surveys show that Americans want Congress to curb energy demand by requiring businesses to cut emissions and automakers to make more fuel-efficient cars. Yet most consumers are not buying efficient cars and other available products. Sales of hybrid gas-electric cars are growing rapidly, for example, but constitute 1.4 percent of U.S. vehicle sales.
Small, high-mileage vehicles that are big sellers in Europe and Japan find few takers here. Evidently, Americans are hoping that revolutions in low-carbon fuels will enable them to keep driving big cars. But cars that operate on clean fuels such as hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol or solar energy are in the experimental phase and would require technological breakthroughs to be available to the mass market — something energy analysts say could take years to decades.
Technologies that would enable the United States to stop producing half its electricity by burning coal — the heaviest source of carbon emissions — also have been elusive. Nuclear power is emissions-free, but has not been in favor for three decades.
Nuclear power is enjoying a modest revival under the Bush administration — partly because of its potential to cut carbon emissions — but any wholesale switch to nuclear would take decades to carry out. Wind power, solar power and other renewable alternatives tend to be too small scale to fulfill America’s growing appetite for power to run TVs, cell phones, microwaves, computers and the myriad appliances and conveniences that have become part of everyday life.
Duke Energy Corp., a major U.S. power generator that advocates curbs on greenhouse emissions, epitomizes the dilemma. It is planning to build new nuclear power plants to meet burgeoning demand for power in the Southeast, but its plants — among the first to be built in the United States in 30 years — are a decade away from coming online.
Duke also is investing in experimental plants that convert coal into clean-burning gas to cut back on carbon emissions, but that technology is not economically viable without government subsidies. In the meantime, it is stepping up the use of conventional coal-fired plants to meet demand — much to the chagrin of environmentalists.
“There is no way we can supply the electricity that keeps our lifestyle going in the United States with alternative energy sources right now,” said CreditSights analyst Dot Matthews, one of many analysts who say technologies are not mature enough to cut carbon emissions without lifestyle changes.
Given the poor record of voluntary energy savings by American consumers, environmentalists are calling for legislation that would force savings by limiting carbon emissions from power plants, cars and industries.
They dismiss warnings that draconian curbs would damage the economy and cost U.S. jobs. However, Americans would end up paying higher electricity costs to reduce emissions from power plants under environmental legislation under consideration in Congress.
A study this month by Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists estimated that adding technology they recommend at coal-fired power plants to capture carbon dioxide emissions and inject them into the ground would increase electricity prices by 20 percent to 25 percent.
The Electric Power Research Institute last month said substantially reducing U.S. power emissions as advocated by environmentalists would require a concerted effort of energy conservation by consumers, large-scale switching to nuclear, solar and other clean, renewable generating plants, and costly carbon-capture technology at most existing coal plants.
“The challenges to actually achieving these reductions are daunting in their scope and complexity,” said institute President Steve Specker. “They will require a decade or more of very aggressive development, demonstration and deployment of a broad portfolio of technologies.”
Myron Ebell, director of energy policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that for a society that was built on cheap and easily available energy, the costs will be high. He compared the advocates of global warming legislation to used car salesmen.
“They get you to buy because the first month’s payment is only $49. But the next month you notice that all the other payments are $499.”