Cap-and-Trade Plans Will Require Draconian Lifestyle Restrictions

Published July 1, 2008

Imagine every American being given a plastic debit card entitling them to release carbon dioxide (CO2). Filling the gas tank would debit the card for the CO2 caused by the amount of gasoline purchased. Lamb chops would debit the card for the greenhouse gases caused by sheep. Buying an airplane ticket would debit the card for the CO2 released by the jet engines.

Is this a preposterous notion? Hardly. Something quite similar would be necessary to achieve the kinds of emission reductions proposed by Sens. Barak Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. The scheme was already seriously suggested in the United Kingdom, as The Daily Mail reported:

“One method could be personal carbon-allowances, where everyone is given a fixed amount of carbon to use each year. Each time they travel in a plane, buy petrol, go shopping or eat out would be recorded on a plastic card. The more frugal could sell spare carbon to those who want to indulge themselves. But if you were to run out of your carbon allowance, you could be barred from flying or driving.”

Rationing Gasoline

Gasoline accounts for 20 percent of all U.S. CO2 emissions. The simplest way to reduce CO2 emissions from gasoline is to restrict the use of gasoline. This could easily be accomplished through rationing.

Those who remember their high school history books will recall the A and B stickers displayed on car windshields during World War II. The A sticker entitled the driver to three or four gallons of gas per week. Three gallons per week could approximate an 80 percent cut in the gasoline usage of today’s U.S. citizens. How far can the average person drive each week on three gallons?

There are no other alternatives currently available that will result in an 80 percent (or even 50 percent) reduction in CO2 emissions from gasoline.

The most massive imaginable expansion of ethanol use would reduce gasoline consumption by, at most, 20 percent (and wouldn’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions much at all). Rapid expansion of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles would reduce emissions by no more than 18 percent by 2050.

Rationing Electricity

Americans take electricity for granted. Need light? Flick the switch. Want food to keep? Put it in a refrigerator run by electricity. Want air conditioning? Turn on the air conditioning unit run by electricity. Want heat? Turn on the furnace whose blower is run by electricity. Factories cannot operate without electricity. No electricity–no jobs.

Despite the obvious importance of electricity generation, some cities and states are trying to prohibit the construction of coal-fired power plants, and some are trying to close existing plants. Dr. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has called for closing coal-fired power plants.

Shutting down all coal-fired power plants in the United States, however, would cut total U.S. emissions by only about a third, while eliminating half of all electricity generated in the nation.

There are ways to generate electricity without using coal. But wind and other renewables could generate only a minuscule amount of additional electricity, and because they are intermittent sources of energy, they will never replace what are known as base-load power generators.

Building 400 new nuclear power plants would do the trick … but who believes that will happen by 2050?

Dire Scenario

If all coal-fired power plants are shut down, Americans will probably have to do all of the following:

  • Eliminate all street lighting, except for traffic signals.
  • Eliminate all outdoor electric signs such as for advertising.
  • Have stores cut most of their lighting to allow only enough light for safety. (No display lighting.)
  • Limit all stores and restaurants (grocery, department, cleaners, drug, etc.) to operating during daylight hours only.
  • Grocery stores could cut their refrigeration dramatically by carrying only one brand of ice cream and one brand of frozen dinners.
  • Shut down all escalators.
  • Meter homes to limit the amount of electricity they consume. This would include dramatic reductions in the use of electric dryers. (Clothes could be hung outdoors to dry, including during the winter and by residents of high-density apartment buildings and condominiums.)
  • Limit the use of residential air conditioning to when temperatures exceed 90º F.
  • Eliminate air conditioning in stores and movie theaters.
  • Establish rolling blackouts.
  • Limit the hours of operation for factories.
  • Limit the hours of operation for the Internet, as computers and the Internet consume large amounts of electricity.
  • Limit the hours of TV usage and prohibit energy-hogging plasma and LCD flat panel displays.

No Problems for Wealthy

Wealthy Americans can afford to install solar panels on their roofs, so they could to some extent avoid the prohibition on air conditioning and use of electricity in their homes. The middle-income and poor, and those who live in cities, would be out of luck.

Preposterous? Maybe so, but not if all coal-fired power plants are shut down and nuclear plants aren’t built to replace them.

These are the lifestyle changes that must occur with cap-and-trade regulations with the current state of technology. The changes won’t happen all at once, but they will evolve over a decade or so. At first utilities will buy CO2 credits, but the cost of credits will become exorbitant after several years, and utilities will opt to shut their coal-fired power plants.

Most areas of the country have excess generating capacity of around 8 to 10 percent. Utilities plan for this excess capacity to absorb sudden overloads that can occur on exceptionally hot or cold days. This excess capacity will be the first to disappear, and the public won’t notice it until a sudden overload occurs and the system shuts down, causing a blackout.

The economic outcome is likely to be draconian. No electricity–no jobs.

Unavoidable Consequences

As dramatic as these outcomes seem, they will be unavoidable if cap-and-trade regulations are enacted before we can develop technologies that allow for the continued generation of electricity and the continued use of cars and other necessities such as air conditioning and refrigeration.

Current proposed legislation merely assumes we already have technologies allowing us to reduce CO2 emissions by 50 percent. These technologies, however, currently exist only in theory.

For example, not a single power plant has been built that captures CO2. Yet all the proposed bills assume these technologies are already available.

Donn Dears ([email protected]) is president of TSAugust, a nonprofit think tank, and a retired General Electric Company executive with extensive experience in power generation, transmission, distribution, and related equipment. This essay is excerpted from his book Carbon Folly: CO2 Emission Sources and Options, available from Dears also operates the Web site.