Friday, February 22, 2008

Can a Country be Entirely Carbon Neutral?

I heard an interesting talk on National Public Radio in their climate connections section. Costa Rica wants to be carbon neutral in the next decade or so. The country is already known for its pro environment stance having put stringent measures to protect its rain forests. Now it wants to go a step further and make further emission reductions to an extent that it has almost no net emissions. This is going to be quite a challenge. Costa Rican rain forests absorb about 2.5 million tons of CO2 per year, and Costa Rica emits from various activities about 12 million tons of CO2 per year. One way the report said that Costa Rica will decrease this gap is to pay landowners to plant more trees, funded largely by an increase on gasoline taxes. But experts think that the gap is too large and transportation emissions are increasing too rapidly for these schemes to work. According to the report Norway and New Zealand have similar plans.

Oddly the report missed out mentioning Iceland, which I feel has the best chance of coming close to carbon neutrality in the next couple of decades or so. Iceland is a small, culturally homogeneous country used to taking policy decisions by consensus building and referendums. This makes it easier for politicians to set long term goals. For example Iceland is the only country where the entire population has volunteered to put individual genetic information in the public domain for medical research. In this spirit Iceland has declared that it plans to make the transition to a hydrogen economy by 2030-2040. In terms of natural resources, they might just make it. Geologically Iceland is a mid oceanic ridge, one of the few places on earth where this ridge rises above sea level. Because of this, the entire country is underlain by a vast hydrothermal system, driven by magmatic heat. Iceland derives most of its electricity from this geothermal energy with a little contribution from hydro power, making power generation essentially greenhouse gases emission free. The trick now is to reduce emissions from transportation and here Iceland is aiming to run its entire transportation network, from public transport to its fishing fleets to personal vehicles on hydrogen fuel cells. Hydrogen cells are not something unique to Iceland but the manufacture of hydrogen mostly from electrolysis of water consumes a lot of electricity and if this is derived, as it mostly is in other countries from burning coal, then you are simply pushing your emissions to the power plant. Since power generation in Iceland is mostly from clean energy, the entire cycle of fuel production for transport promises to be clean.

All this remains a pipe dream for most other countries. Power generation for example in China and India is mostly coal driven and this situation is unlikely to change in the near to medium future of about 20-30 years, the critical time bracket in which most climate change experts says we must reduce emissions to avoid "irreversible changes" to the climate. Methods of sequestering CO2 by pumping it in underground storage are available but are only locally employable due to geological constraints and are very expensive. Other forms of alternative technologies like wind and solar suffer from a combination of local and temporally sporadic availability and high costs compared to fossil fuels. Nuclear energy seems to be constrained by costs and public suspicions on its safety. Transportation fares no better. The much inflated balloon of biofuels was punctured some time back by research which indicated that again in the short to medium term increasing demand for biofuels will adversely impact land use patterns causing deforestation and destruction of wetlands. The gains in emission reductions at the wheel will be more than offset by the increased emissions during the production of biofuels.

Where does all this leave us? Research budgets for alternative energy seem to be falling and there is no indication that countries like China and India are moving towards cleaner energy, both having plans for massive increases in coal fired power plants. The recent mad rush to claim sovereignty over portions of the Arctic sea-bed for future oil prospects indicates that no developed country is in a position to wean its economies from fossil fuels for some time. The transition from fossil fuels to cleaner renewable energy is likely to be a very gradual process. In the meantime I think it will be time well spent if we shift some of our focus from preventing global warming to adapting to it.


  1. Thomas Friedman thinks that green technology will be the solution to problem of global warming, and it will be good for capitalism to boot. Do you agree? I write about this at You can vote in my poll on this, as well.

  2. thanks for the link to your site. interesting blog. i think there is a big gap in green technology being potentially a solution for global warming and it being implemented on a scale needed to prevent increasing buildup of greenhouse gases. I am not so sure this scale will be met in the next 2-3 decades.