Elon Musk has quickly become a global celebrity on the level of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, as is evidenced by his increasing presence at world events and the number of people seeking his perspective on how to fix extremely complex global challenges. Yesterday, he spoke to a French University during the COP21 talks on climate change. His message, across all topics, can be summarized in once sentence:
“We need global governments to apply global revenue-neutral carbon taxes to level the playing field, which will allow sustainable energy to win.”
This message was reiterated over and over throughout the talk and no matter what angle the questions came in on, it was clear that he believes the problem is being overly complicated and spun in directions that simply do not add value. He started by talking through the carbon cycle and why that is the critical change that humans have brought to the planet. In a natural carbon cycle, plants grow, temporarily sequestering carbon, then as they die and decompose, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere, effectively creating a closed loop of carbon recycling on the surface of the planet with no net increase in the atmosphere.
Humans kicked that up a level when we started tapping into oil under the surface of the earth, which contains massive quantities of carbon from ages long past (dino juice!), and as we burn the products of that oil, we reintroduce that carbon into the atmosphere, resulting in a (very large) net positive increase in carbon in the atmosphere.
In and of itself, this is not an issue. However, carbon in its many gaseous, post-combustion forms acts as a “greenhouse gas,” effectively trapping heat that would have normally radiated out from our planet into space. Being that it’s approaching wintertime in the northern hemisphere, a nice atmospheric blanket might sound nice right about now, but on the planetary scale, that is resulting in the gradual warming of our world.
The most direct impacts of this are on the ice caps near the poles of the planet, which are gradually melting, resulting in drastic increases in ocean levels across the globe. With 44% of the population living in coastal areas, this will have a massive impact on ½ of humans as ocean levels rise to forecasted levels. The (inconvenient) truth of this matter is that we really don’t know how good or bad it will be, but suffice it to say that none of the models look pretty.
That’s basically the message in a nutshell — we need to act now to reduce human-caused production of carbon from below the surface into our atmosphere. There’s a whole separate component of the equation when we look at how oceans absorb CO2 and convert it to carbonic acid, which is also the opposite of awesome.
This message put a new spin on biofuels for me. I had previously been largely of the mindset that biofuels are still humans burning things that put carbon into the atmosphere, but when we think back to where the message started, with the carbon cycle, biofuels start making more sense. Biofuels take surface carbon and convert it to some form of fuel that we can burn and generate electricity from, and as such, they are just following the natural surface carbon loop. This does not equate to biofuels being the perfect fuel… but, they are MUCH different in terms of carbon into the atmosphere when compared to fossil fuels.
So, why a carbon tax? Carbon taxes aim to apply the cost of the carbon that was put into the atmosphere… to the product that was produced. So, if the energy you used today was produced by burning natural gas, which put 3.2lbs of CO2 into the atmosphere, you should pay for that CO2 and the impact it has on the planet. Applying equitably priced carbon taxes will act as a forcing function to encourage the use of sustainable energy, which by definition has an unlimited supply (at least for the next billion years).