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To see how realistic this is, I propose an experiment. Determine what level of yearly emissions you think are appropriate, figure out where we are now and what percentage we need to cut to get there. Then cut your own emissions by that percentage.

This probably isn't the direction you want this thread to go, but I think it is important to stay cognizant of the real issues.

There are more than one way to cut emissions. Individually, we can choose to drive a different kind of automobile, cut down on the number of miles driven, or decide not to drive at all. We can individually put energy saving light bulbs in our homes, or do any of a dozen other things that might make some people feel good, pretending they are making a difference. But realistically, those things aren't going to change the amount of CO2 in the air to any significant degree.

Another way to cut emissions is for our electricity to be generated by means other than the usual fossil fuels. But we as individuals usually don't have much power to decide where our electricity comes from. The people who run the electric utility in the city or state we live in usually make those choices based on economics and what fuels are readily available at the lowest cost.

Even worse, the most important sources of CO2, now and in the future, come from places we as Americans have no control over. Those places are China and India.

China surpassed the United States in total CO2 emissions in 2007, and since then has widened the gap. India currently emits only a fraction of what the US does, but India's rate of economic growth means they will probably soon catch the US as well.

To put it simplistically, it all comes down to coal. Coal emits more CO2 per unit energy than any other fuel, and the use of the black stuff is increasing by leaps and bounds.


In 2006, India consumed less than half as much coal as the US. In 2011, it was 70% as much. China has been burning more coal than the US since the 1980s, and currently burns about 4 times as much as the US. Almost half of all coal mined is burned in China.

These are the real issues, and if this CO2 thing is really something to be worried about, those are the areas that need to be addressed. But how does the rest of the world tell China and India they can't improve their economies?

Things like the following might eventually result in some change.

Last Saturday an air pollution monitor atop the U.S. Embassy in Beijing rated the pollution index at a shocking 755--on a scale of 0 to 500. (The EPA categorizes pollution levels over 300 as "hazardous.") A Time reporter wrote that the view from her 16th floor Beijing apartment was "akin to a sandstorm in Afghanistan." Even China's official People's Daily ran a front-page story on the appalling haze, calling it a "suffocating siege." My Beijing colleague Jingjing Qian said that mai, or smog, once a rarely-used word in Chinese, has been the talk of the town.

But cleaning up coal power doesn't necessarily mean lower CO2 emissions. It just means less pollution.

- Pete
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