Painting the Town White: Technology and Greenhouse Gas Emissions


“Paint the world white to fight global warming” was the astonishing headline from The Times of London. The paper was referring to a presentation made by United States Secretary of Energy, Dr. Stephen Chu at the St. James Palace Nobel Laureate Symposium last week. Chu was reported as saying that that this approach could have a vast impact. By lightening paved surfaces and roofs to the color of cement, it would be possible to cut carbon emissions by as much as taking all the world’s cars off the roads for 11 years. That would be no small accomplishment.

Chu makes considerable sense and his underlying approach is wise: emphasizing inexpensive, simple and unobtrusive ways to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This is at the same time that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has suggested “coercing” people out of cars and a bill by Senators Jay Rockefeller and Frank Lautenberg would require annual reductions in per capita driving. Strategies such as these are not inexpensive, they are not simple and they are not unobtrusive. Indeed, given the close association between personal mobility, employment and economic growth, such policies could have serious negative effects.

The biggest problem with coercive strategies is that they are simply unnecessary. As Secretary Chu has indicated, huge reductions can be achieved in GHG emissions, without interfering in people’s lives or threatening the economy. There’s more to this story than paint.

The Cascade of Technology

There is a virtual cascade of technological advances that have been spurred by the widely accepted public policy imperative to reduce GHG emissions. Here are just a few.

Vehicle Technology

Some of the most impressive advances are in vehicle technology. GHG emissions from cars are directly related to fuel consumption. Thus, as cars require less fuel, GHG emissions go down at the same rate.

By now, everyone is aware that the Administration has advanced the 2020 vehicle fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards to 2016, matching the California requirements. These requirements apply to the overall fleet, both cars and light trucks (which are predominantly sport-utility vehicles). Recently published research by Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution finds that per capita automobile use had fallen off even before gasoline prices exploded, so it seems reasonable to suggest that future vehicle travel will rise at approximately the population growth rate, rather than the robust growth rates previously forecast. At the new 35.5 miles per gallon, the nation could be on a course to reduce GHG emissions from cars and light trucks by more than 20 percent by 2030, despite the increase in driving as population increases.

This is just the beginning. There are advances well beyond the 35.5 mile per gallon standard. The most efficient hybrid cars now achieve 50 miles per gallon. The European parliament has adopted a nearly 70 mile per gallon standard for 2020. The President has often spoke of his commitment for the nation to develop 150 mile per gallon cars, while Volkswagen has already developed a 235 mile per gallon car.

A French company plans to market a car powered by compressed air at city traffic speeds, producing almost no GHG emissions, while at higher speeds it uses gasoline to get more than 100 miles per gallon.

Fuel Technology

Progress is also being made on alternative fuels and on making present fuels cleaner.

Technologies are being developed to produce gasoline from carbon dioxide.

There are even substantial advances in air travel emissions. Air New Zealand has announced tests that show the feasibility of using biofuels based upon the jatropha plant. The airline reports that, gallon for gallon, the biofuel reduced GHG emissions 60 to 65 percent relative to jet fuel. Jatropha is a non-food crop, and therefore its use would have little or no impact on food prices.

Carbon Neutral Housing

We have previously reported on the development of a carbon neutral, single story 2,150 square foot suburban house in Japan. The resulting 100 percent reduction in GHG emissions means that there is no reason that such housing cannot continue to be available to those who prefer it.

Electricity Generation

One of the most intractable challenges will be producing sufficient supplies of electricity while considerably reducing GHG emissions. Obviously, one approach with great potential is nuclear power, which the environmentally conscious French have successfully used to produce approximately three-quarters of their demand.

Further, substantial advances are coming in solar power. For example a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team has developed a solar concentrator system that increases power production “by a factor of 40.” The process is now under commercial development.

Even Buck Rogers seems to be getting into the game. California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Company is partnering with a startup firm to produce solar energy in space and to beam it to earth by microwaves. This process could produce as much as 10 times the energy as ground based solar connectors.

Further, international efforts continue toward developing nuclear fusion power generation. This non-polluting technology, still largely theoretical, could revolutionize power production in decades to come.

The Color of Paint

Some of the technological advances above may not in fact make a substantial contribution to reducing GHG emissions in the longer run. However, these developments and others likely to come underscore the fact that technology, that is human ingenuity, can materially reduce GHG emissions, while permitting people and the economy to go about their business. Serious attempts to force behavior modification backwards to the past seem likely to fail.

So, there is no reason to retreat to an idealized yesterday to meet the thinly disguised social engineering goals of the few while leaving the many worse off. Secretary Chu has caught the spirit of the right approach. We should be painting the town white with innovation and should reject the coercion that has been embraced by those who naively (or perhaps even purposefully) would paint the future a more somber color. As in the past, human ingenuity appears up to the challenge, if we give it the chance.

Wendell Cox is a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris. He was born in Los Angeles and was appointed to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission by Mayor Tom Bradley. He is the author of “War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life.