3E Intelligence

It does not happen often that I agree with the American Enterprise Institute but Steven Hayward’s analysis of the “real cost of tackling climate change” in the Wall Street Journal of 28 April is spot on: an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 will have dramatic implications for our way of life.

Hayward has at least the courage (which cannot be said for our politicians) to tell the public what this 80% cut will mean for citizens’ daily lives. In not one political document have I ever seen a serious impact assessment of the 80% target. The fear of being the bearer of bad news is one which characterises all policymakers (even the ones who know that the climate crisis will hit hard).

Here are a few extracts from Hayward’s article:

Begin with the current inventory of carbon dioxide emissions – CO2 being the principal greenhouse gas generated almost entirely by energy use. According to the Department of Energy’s most recent data on greenhouse gas emissions, in 2006 the U.S. emitted 5.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, or just under 20 tons per capita. An 80% reduction in these emissions from 1990 levels means that the U.S. cannot emit more than about one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2050.

Were man-made carbon dioxide emissions in this country ever that low? The answer is probably yes – from historical energy data it is possible to estimate that the U.S. last emitted one billion metric tons around 1910. But in 1910, the U.S. had 92 million people, and per capita income, in current dollars, was about $6,000.

By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects that our population will be around 420 million. This means per capita emissions will have to fall to about 2.5 tons in order to meet the goal of 80% reduction.

It is likely that U.S. per capita emissions were never that low – even back in colonial days when the only fuel we burned was wood. The only nations in the world today that emit at this low level are all poor developing nations, such as Belize, Mauritius, Jordan, Haiti and Somalia.”

Consider the residential sector. At the present time, American households emit 1.2 billion tons of CO2 – 20% higher than the entire nation’s emissions must be in 2050. If households are to emit no more than their present share of CO2, emissions will have to be reduced to 204 million tons by 2050. But in 2050, there will be another 40 million residential households in the U.S.

Today, the average residence in the U.S. uses about 10,500 kilowatt hours of electricity and emits 11.4 tons of CO2 per year (much more if you are Al Gore or John Edwards and live in a mansion). To stay within the magic number, average household emissions will have to fall to no more than 1.5 tons per year. In our current electricity infrastructure, this would mean using no more than about 2,500 KwH per year. This is not enough juice to run the average hot water heater.

You can forget refrigerators, microwaves, clothes dryers and flat screen TVs. Even a house tricked out with all the latest high-efficiency EnergyStar appliances and compact fluorescent lights won’t come close. The same daunting energy math applies to the industrial, commercial and transportation sectors as well. The clear implication is that we shall have to replace virtually the entire fossil fuel electricity infrastructure over the next four decades with CO2-free sources – a multitrillion dollar proposition, if it can be done at all.”


I fear these figures are hard but pretty much correct. I would like to see someone do the same maths for Europe based on our own CO2 targets for 2050. Who of the policymakers dares to do the exercise?

The point Hayward misses, of course, is that we really have NO CHOICE. Either we decide on a global scale (with which governance structures?) to bring our economic activities back to a sustainable scale or several calamities will force us back to live within the planet’s ecological limits. The costs of that last possibility are surely going to be immense (also in terms of human lives). The choice is still ours, but for how long?

Author :


  1. Two answers, Jörg:
    1) do you understand that all out best savings efforts will be blown away by the energy and material needs of the 3 billion people extra that this world will have to carry in the next decennia? And yes renewables is the answer but they should have been launched big time thirty years ago. We could have freed ourselves of our oil addiction by now.
    2) it is not a question of wanting it, it is a question of breaking vested interests and power.

Comments are closed.