A recent 60 second podcast from Scientific American (Will Economic Health Align With Environmental Health?: Scientific American Podcast) reports that the 2009 economic downturn apparently resulted in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Still 2009 emissions were second only to 2008 as the highest ever.
Based on energy consumption statistics from various nations, scientists estimate that global CO2 emissions dropped by 1.3 percent in 2009. But that still made them the second highest ever—just behind 2008.
The biggest drops were recorded in Japan, the UK and Russia while China, India and South Korea continued to emit more than ever before.
The good news is emissions are back on track this year to increase by more than 3 percent worldwide—a sure indication of economic recovery. And the amount of CO2 emitted for every unit of economic activity is no longer shrinking as fast as it once was, thanks to a new boom in dirty coal.
The podcast raises the question of whether it is possible to have a strong economy without damaging the environment and conversely whether environmental protection comes at the expense of the economy.
In reality that is the challenge of sustainability. How do companies, nations and consumers have sustainable practices and remain economically sound. These are the earliest days of the sustainability movement and it is likely that the technologies to really answer this don’t exist yet. It is not unlike the emergence of our current system of distributing electricity. The first electrical distribution systems in the US were based on direct current (DC).
Each voltage level of DC power must be distributed across dedicated power lines. So a modern home would need to bring in separate power lines for 100v -110v uses like lighting, television, etc and separate lines for higher voltage requirements like refrigerators, electric clothes dryers and stoves, etc. There is also a loss of voltage with distance therefore with DC it is necessary for the power generation point to be close to the power consumption point. AC power though distributed at a single voltage can be converted to other voltages through the use of transformers. Transformers can both increase and decrease voltage making it possible to correct for voltage loss due to transmission distance and to provide multiple voltage levels at the point of consumption through a single connection to the power grid.
After proving in 1896 AC could power industry in the Buffalo area using power generated by Niagara Falls alternating current (AC) power distribution became standard. Enough DC power had been installed in the early days of power transmission that despite AC being a superior technology for long distance electricity transmission there were DC distribution systems in portions of major cities, including New York and Boston well into the 20th century. As well a number of industrial and commercial installation existed that still relied on DC power.
Imagine how different our world would be if the AC versus DC battle had played out differently. It is unlikely that the limitation poised by alternate energy sources today will remain in place over time. To really start to tackle the imbalance between the economy and the environment we will need to focus our efforts on developing practical alternate energy sources, that don’t result in increased environmental harm.