Per Capita Davis: The end of the year as we know it

By From page A7 | December 19, 2013

Paraphrasing R.E.M.’s 1987 song, and poking a bit of fun at my own proclivity toward doomsday scenarios, “it’s the end of the year as we know it (and I feel fine).”

Each year, dating back to 2007, my last column of the calendar year has been an opportunity to reflect back and to peer forward, and this one will be no different.

First, the most important number: the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The following is the exact same text from a column a year ago, but with the numbers updated.

The Scripps Institute, keeper of records back to 1958 (see www.co2now.org), reports both on average annual levels of CO2 in the atmosphere as well as comparing months and weeks on a current-year-to-previous-years basis. As you can imagine (it being only Dec. 17 as I write this), the annual average level for 2013 is not yet available. There is, however, data comparing November 2013 (395.10 parts per million) to past Novembers: 2012 (392.92 ppm), 2011 (390.31) and 2010 (388.62 ppm).

We barreled (as in oil/fossil fuel) through 350 ppm, the level many scientists consider the maximum to avoid dramatic adverse effects of climate heating, back in the late 1980s. And, on May 11 of this year, CO2 in the atmosphere was over 400 ppm (atmospheric levels of CO2 vary according to the season).

Most (90-plus percent) of greenhouse gas emissions continue to come from burning coal, oil and natural gas, with China and India leading the way. Which brings up several questions I’ll be asking myself in the coming year:

* One, I’m still struggling with the nuclear issue: Should we be building nuclear power plants for electricity? On the one hand, this could be a carbon-free source of electricity. On the other hand, its safety record, the inability to figure out how to dispose of its waste, and the fact that this fuel is connected to the proliferation of nuclear bombs make this a dangerous option.

But, and this is my question — and I suppose I’ll get hammered for it by some for even asking — what about large-scale hydroelectric? Electricity from dams is not currently included in the definition of “renewable” energy, mostly because a policy decision has been made to not encourage building dams. It’s a conundrum similar to the nuclear issue: Is it worth sacrificing rivers and habitat in order to avoid global warming?

* Two, this leads right into another sacred cow, and another chance for me to absorb hammer blows. Current policy is basically that land suitable for agriculture should be used to grow food, not to produce electricity. This is another tough one for me. I deeply respect farmers and farms, but the No. 1 cause of loss of productive farmland is building houses.

Somehow, building homes on ag land is, if not OK, at least more OK than erecting photovoltaic arrays to provide electricity to those houses. It really shouldn’t be an either/or question: There are thousands of parking lots and rooftops where solar could produce electricity without infringing on agricultural properties, but to do so requires changing lots of laws and regulations that thus far have been very resistant to change.

So, how serious is our problem with greenhouse gas emissions? Is it serious enough that we need to at least look at marginal lands, or lands used to “grow” methane-belching cattle, or the food to feed these greenhouse gas emitters?

* Three, I was at a meeting the other day where several jurisdictions identified one of the major barriers to their efforts to install photovoltaic systems on government buildings as the objections of the neighbors. People don’t want to look at solar panels. This is bizarre to me. We have antennas and air-conditioners and other stuff all over our rooftops, but solar panels in the school parking lot across the street are an eyesore.

Even though we have all these parking lots and rooftops as potential sites for solar systems, there are a sizable number of vocal people who consider the equipment that produces electricity for their homes and businesses to be unsightly. I could include a rant about how many jurisdictions prohibit clotheslines on the same basis, but I’m running out of room in this column.

Fourth, if we don’t fully commit to rooftop solar, and any land that can grow food is off limits, then should we consider remote sites, say, way out in the desert where the sun shines all the time and no one has to look at the power plants? This seems to make sense, and could be done with environmental sensitivity, but how does the electricity get from the desert to Davis? It has thus far proved to be a difficult task to identify areas through which transmission lines could be constructed without generating public opposition.

So, the question I’m posing to myself for the next year is, ”Given the urgency of our greenhouse gas problem, the continuing increase in CO2 levels in the atmosphere despite actions taken to date, how serious are we, and what types of otherwise disagreeable alternatives am I willing to accept to deal with this problem in a significant manner?”

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; this column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments to [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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