By Bruce M. Everett
At a recent Harwich meeting, state Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, praised the proposed “Green New Deal” to move the U.S. to 100 percent zero-emission energy within 10 years. (Ignore for now the other Green New Deal proposals for guaranteed jobs, free health care and college, the elimination of poverty, etc.) Ms. Peake cites the energy experience of Denmark, claiming, “If the Danes can do it, we can do it.” But what exactly is “it”?
According to the Energy Information Administration, 72 percent of Massachusetts energy consumption comes from fossil fuels. In Denmark, the comparable number is 65 percent – not much different. Denmark has built lots of wind turbines, but about 20 percent of its electricity still comes from coal, most of it imported. Fossil fuel plants are necessary to stabilize electrical grids, which cannot operate reliably on intermittent wind and solar. Denmark burns about as much coal today as it did at the time of the first “energy crisis” in 1973-74. About 95 percent of Denmark’s transportation needs are met by petroleum. Furthermore, Denmark is a significant producer of oil and natural gas from the North Sea.
Denmark is not the carbon-free paradise Ms. Peake seems to think it is.
Denmark’s modest achievements are based not on technical wizardry or political savvy, but on punishingly high consumer energy prices. According to the most recent U.S. government data, Massachusetts households paid $2.45 a gallon for gasoline, 21 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity and $13.40 per 1,000 cubic feet for natural gas. Our electricity and natural gas prices are already well above the U.S. averages of 13 cents per kilowatt-hour and $9.45 per 1,000 cubic feet. Danish consumers, however, pay $6.50 a gallon for gasoline, 34 cents per kilowatt-hour for electricity and $30.35 per 1,000 cubic feet for natural gas. Paying Danish energy prices would add $6,000 per year to the energy bills of an average Massachusetts household, plus the additional cost of the energy embedded in the things we buy.
Assuming Cape residents could tolerate such a massive hit to their incomes, what would they get in return? According to Ms. Peake, the Green New Deal would “halt the progress of man-made climate change.” Our climate changes constantly because of variations in the Earth’s orbit, solar activity, ocean currents, volcanism and other factors, none of which is well understood. For reasons that will puzzle future historians, some people have concluded that tiny increases in carbon dioxide overwhelm these powerful forces and are driving the climate toward catastrophe.
CO2 is a benign gas, necessary for life on Earth. In pre-industrial times, CO2 comprised 0.03 percent of our atmosphere. Today, after decades of burning fossil fuels, the atmospheric concentration is 0.04 percent. NASA studies document that the “fertilization effect” of the additional CO2 has increased crop yield in places like Africa, where food is desperately needed for a growing population. There is no scientific evidence that CO2 will cause catastrophic warming or that this life-giving gas causes storms, droughts, wildfires and other naturally occurring events.
If, however, Ms. Peake is intent on reducing atmospheric CO2, she needs to accept some harsh realities. The atmosphere is a global phenomenon, not a local one. Worldwide CO2 emissions today are about 35,000 million metric tons per year. The U.S. accounts for 5,000 million metric tons, or only about 15 percent of the total. Massachusetts emits 65 million metric tons or about 0.2 percent of the world total. China and India, with 2.8 billion people between them, rely heavily on high-carbon coal, which accounts for 55 percent of energy use in India and 60 percent in China. Together, these two countries emit about 11,700 million metric tons of CO2 per year, or one-third of the world’s total. Both countries are focused on poverty reduction, and neither shows any intention of slowing the growth in coal use in the foreseeable future. According to the most recent Energy Information Administration forecast, global CO2 emissions would be above today’s level in 2050 even if the U.S. were at zero emissions.
If Ms. Peake wants to plead her case for CO2 reductions, she needs to visit Beijing and New Delhi, not Harwich.
The Green New Deal is an expensive exercise in virtue signaling, and the experience of Denmark, home of Hans Christian Andersen, offers no support. Fairy tales are for children. From our elected leaders, we need thoughtful analysis and understanding.
Bruce M. Everett of North Chatham is a retired ExxonMobil executive who now teaches international business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
This article appeared on the Cape Cod Times website at https://www.capecodtimes.com/opinion/20190318/sarah-peake-and-danish-green-fairy-tale