The world’s climate is endangered by a surplus of carbon being belched into the skies by the burning of fossil fuels, but Graciela Chichilnisky, Ph.D., said there is a profitable way to stop it.
Chichilnisky, the UNESCO Professor of Mathematics and Economics at Columbia University and the founding director of Global Thermostat, delivered the keynote address at the second annual Climate Change Economics and Energy Finance Symposium, held at the Lincoln Center campus on March 1.
The daylong conference brought together experts from academia, industry, government and the financial sector. Panel discussions addressed issues related to climate change economics and scientific evidence, renewable energy, clean technology and alternative energy sources.
Chichilnisky noted that the existential threat to humans posed by rising global temperatures is real, but that a solution will only come when a there is a fundamental shift in values. She termed it an “Oscar Wilde” moment—so named for Wilde’s quip that economists “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Western economics’ emphasis on competitive markets, optimal growth theory and cost benefit analyses actually disconnect the present from the future and people from resources, she said.
“Suppose that we destroy all the trees in the United States tomorrow morning and we make toilet paper? What happens to the economy?” she said. “Employment goes up, the G.D.P. goes up, everything is better. Why? Because toilet paper has a market value [while]trees do not.
“That’s exactly what Oscar Wilde was trying to say,” she said.
The carbon market—a.k.a. emissions trading—is already underway in the State of California, which has installed the nation’s first compulsory carbon market where businesses are being taxed based on their emissions.
“California is a very influential state. They are not doing this for fun. They’re doing it because they think they’re going to make money, and they’re going to make money the way the Chinese are making money,” she said.
Chichilnisky wrote the regulations for the carbon market that were included in the Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted by 160 nations in 1997 and ratified by all but the U.S. in 2005. That carbon market is currently trading $200 billion a year and has reduced 30% of European Union emissions and has transferred $50 billion of clean energy projects to poorer nations to support private clean energy projects.
It has a net zero cost to the economy because, at the end of the day, some people pay, and some people receive money, she said.
On Thursday, she signed copies of Saving Kyoto (New Holland Publishers, 2009), which describes the effort more in depth.
Global Thermostat, Chichilnisky said, hopes to take advantage of the changing dynamics of energy consumption that will ideally reward those who are cleaner over those who are dirty.
Using equipment currently being tested at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., GT captures carbon from the air using a chemical process. One of the byproducts of the process is CO2, which can be used for everything from cement production and petroleum extraction, to biofuels. Mixed with hydrogen, it can even be used to create synthetic fuels, she said.
“A carbon negative solution means that the more energy you produce, the more carbon you reduce. Sounds impossible? Yes, it sounds impossible, but it isn’t,” she said.
“You can use it with solar plants, which don’t emit any CO2, or nuclear plants, because the CO2 comes from the air, and you will never run out of CO2, because we are injecting 30 gigatons a year.”
Chichilnisky acknowledged there are real challenges ahead, particularly since there are powerful interests backing fossil fuels. But she expressed hope that owners of coal and oil-fired power plants will see how profitable it can be to take carbon from the air and return it back to the ground.
In 2009, she authored a proposal to the U.S. Department of State for the funding of a $100 billion grant for a Green Climate Fund that would cover the cost of converting power plants around the world over the next 15 to 20 years; it was accepted in a modified form.
“Now we have to link it to a source of funding from the carbon market,” she said.
That likely won’t happen, she said, until there are proven technologies to make money while building carbon negative power plants.