The misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, which was signed into law last month, is in fact mostly about climate change. In a bill with total funding of about $485 billion, approximately $369 billion is for measures to address global warming, with the lion’s share going to subsidies for wind turbines, solar panels, and electric vehicles.
Is this an effective use of the money? Will these measures actually produce the desired results? The En-ROADS climate model (Figure 1), which was created by and is maintained by Climate Interactive and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management provides answers.
En-ROADS is a highly complex, interactive model with a simple interface that allows users to explore and understand the effects of a wide variety of interventions that influence climate, including the use of coal, nuclear power, wind and solar energy, increasing the numbers of electric vehicles (EVs), the planting of trees, and so on.
En-ROADS examines the effects on temperature rise of global implementation of the various parameters out to the year 2100. It predicts that if nothing is done, the planet’s temperature is expected to increase about 3.6 degrees C. Maximal global use of wind turbines, solar panels and other renewables would decrease the Earth’s temperature by 0.2 degrees C by the year 2100. Maximal incentives for a transition to electric vehicles globally would yield a similar decline of 0.2 degrees C.
For shorter periods, such as 30 years from now, those reductions taken together would be less than 0.05 degrees C – that is, negligible. Is this worth a price tag of more than $1,000 for every man, woman, and child in the United States?
An important aspect of these predictions is that they are predicated on the entire world following our lead and implementing similar policies toward renewable energy and electric vehicles – a highly unlikely scenario.
The “big five” emitters of carbon dioxide (CO2) are China, the U.S., India, the European Union, and Russia. China’s CO2 output has been rising rapidly and is now twice as large as that of the U.S. (Figure 2). This is not going to change any time soon.
Similarly, India has a rapidly growing economy that it will not willingly sacrifice for a few tenths of a degree temperature reduction. The U.S. and the EU have already reduced their CO2 output substantially but nowhere near enough to compensate for the increases in China and India. And because Russia depends on the sale of fossil fuels and its colder regions are a net beneficiary of global warming, there is no way it will support renewables and electric vehicles.
In summary, the climate measures in the Inflation Reduction Act are expensive, will produce no meaningful temperature reduction even if implemented globally – and none at all if implemented mostly by the U.S., EU, and a few other industrialized countries.
What, then, can we do? Is there a way to prevent the progression to catastrophic warming?
There are two possibilities. The first is direct CO2 capture and removal from the atmosphere, which is sometimes referred to as sequestration. This is done by drawing in air through giant fans, chemically removing the CO2, and storing it underground. This is currently being done on a small scale at an operating plant in Iceland that removes 4,000 tons of CO2 per year. This demonstrates feasibility but would have to be vastly scaled up to make a dent in the 36 billion tons of CO2 emitted each year. It is one of the few ways of potentially reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Once more CO2 is removed than is generated, temperatures will begin to fall.
The second possibility is climate engineering. This would be a purposeful effort to mimic the effects of volcanoes. Large volcanic eruptions put millions of tons of ash and sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere which partially block sunlight from reaching the Earth and, thereby, produce an immediate cooling effect. The Mount Pinatubo eruption in 1991 resulted in a substantial cooling effect for the next couple of years (Figure 3). And the Tambora eruption in 1815 caused snow to fall in Virginia on July 4, 1816.
Both of these approaches will, however, require significant research and development. The cost of direct CO2 capture and sequestration must decline by well over 90% to be affordable, which is similar to the reduction in the cost of solar panels over the past 30 years.
Climate engineering requires even more study, both of how to do it effectively, and how to measure and minimize any adverse effects of releasing materials that could affect human health if not done judiciously.
Whatever risks there are must be weighed against the costs of doing nothing – or at least nothing effective. And it doesn’t have to be done all at once; the approach would be to try a modest intervention, measure the effects, and make whatever adjustments are needed.
Spending hundreds of billions of dollars on wind turbines, solar panels, and EVs will make no perceptible difference in global warming during our lifetimes. A far better investment would be an aggressive and highly focused research and development effort on direct CO2 capture and sequestration and on climate engineering, measures that do not require world-wide collaboration but could be effectively implemented by the U.S. and our allies acting alone.
We view these initiatives as analogous to World War II’s Manhattan Project to create atomic weapons and the Apollo Project two decades later, which was announced in 1961 and led only eight years later to men walking on the moon. Could similar undertakings produce global cooling in our lifetimes? Those of us who believe in science and technology and can do the math think it can.
Tom Hafer was trained as an electrical engineer and developed systems for neutralizing rockets and drones. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, was a research associate at the NIH and a consulting professor at Stanford University’s Institute for International Studies. They were undergraduates together at MIT.