The Canadian political scene has been riven and toxified by Ottawa’s plans to impose a tax on greenhouse gas emissions on all provinces lacking such a levy.
The ostensible goal is to reduce the use of fossil fuels, and thus emit less carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4, the main component of natural gas and decaying organic matter).
The proponents of the theory of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming assert that rising greenhouse gas emissions will cause global temperatures to rise to untenable levels later this century. They urge governments and politicians to control, centrally regulate and tax emissions to save the world from a climate cataclysm.
Yet, even if you subscribe to the global warming theory, this punitive impost may be unnecessary. Technology and the inherent amorphous genius of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” may already be at work, reducing emissions without even directly intending to.
A recent CBS 60 Minutes program informed viewers of a new technology that revolutionizes energy production, and much more. Xyleco, an American firm with an illustrious roster of directors, including two Nobel Prize winners, has developed a multi-patented process that converts cellulose (the material that composes all plant life) into sugars, plastic feedstock and, perhaps most importantly, fuel for motor vehicles, ships and aircraft.
Why this is important is that biomass is the waste of forestry, construction and demolition, paper and wood use, harvesting on farms, gardening and landscaping, household garbage, and grocery, restaurant and food processing.
As very little is recycled into usable materials or energy, the CH4 and CO2 from the decay of the material goes into the atmosphere. Millions of tonnes of this mostly refuse – construction and demolition wood or plant based excepted – is turned into the stuff that the global warming activists are so indignant and angry about.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, CH4 and CO2 from these sources represent roughly 27 per cent of total GGE emissions.
If Xyleco’s technology, or other similar or complementary ones, start to make inroads in the world’s economy, conceivably most of the targeted waste would be converted to other materials or fuel, and be diverted from directly increasing the dreaded emissions.
The fuel produced could displace a substantial proportion of oil and natural gas now used around the world. At very least, it could supply a large amount of the fuel needed to deal with the expected growth in demand in under-developed areas.
Simultaneously, prodigious quantities of natural gas are being discovered and commercialized by enterprising firms via fracking. This is happening in North America, and increasingly in China, South America and elsewhere. That will give the world ever-cheaper clean gas for many years to come. Gas abundance could stop the construction of hundreds of coal-fired power generating plants in China, India and Africa; gas will fire them instead, with far fewer emissions.
New developments in batteries, while some way off, could make non-grid solar and wind power authentically viable for many businesses, institutions and residential complexes.
Also, new wood building materials and techniques appear to be much more efficient and less costly than concrete and steel construction, giving good value for money for many office, retail and even residential high-rises. Such buildings have the added advantage of using renewable energy that is less emissions-intensive. The materials also absorb carbon dioxide by their nature.
None of these developments are because government edict forced them. The free-market system, human ingenuity and investors and entrepreneurs seeking profits brought them forth.
So taxing carbon dioxide is proving unnecessary. Emissions will be an insignificant issue without draconian intervention. For those caught up in the angst over global warming, the scare is misplaced and could end more easily than it started.
Progress often occurs in erratic and unexpected disruptions. While we should never be complacent, we should look forward to new developments that can quickly change lives and make futures cleaner, safer and better.
Ian Madsen is a senior policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.