Early in his call this week for the nation to halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, President Bush made clear how little leadership he intends to provide, even if it were now possible for him to do so in his administration's waning months. "We believe we need to protect our environment," he said. "We believe we need to strengthen our energy security. We believe we need to grow our economy. And we believe the only way to achieve these goals is through continued advances in technology."
I'd like to introduce the president to the McKinsey greenhouse gas abatement curve found here, a graph that nearly six months after its release is well known in the energy world.
It's wonky but easy to summarize. The McKinsey researchers found at least 40 ways of protecting the climate while growing the economy, and nearly half involve no advances in technology at all. Everything on the left side of the chart saves money. And most are things we already know how to do, if we only had the will to make them part of a national effort to change. Most of the items on the right are those "continued advances in technology" the president talks about. All of them will reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but at a net cost to the economy, in the McKinsey researchers' estimation.
No one doubts that advances are important. But look at just one example from the chart's left side: Most homeowners buy inefficient water heaters. That's what plumbers have handy when they come to replace the broken-down unit spewing water in the basement. That's what builders always put in if you don't know to ask for a better one, because they're trying to minimize their cost at the expense of the operating cost that you—the homeowner—will face over time as you waste energy to heat your water.
McKinsey estimates we could save 50 million tons of carbon just by using the more efficient water heaters on the market today—with no technology advances. The net savings (more expensive equipment but less energy cost) would be $400 million a year.
A mandate for more efficient water heaters would be a little 4 percent chunk of current residential carbon emissions of 1.2 billion tons annually. But that just underscores the leadership opportunity that the Bush administration has squandered these seven years as our climate and energy problems have worsened. The many things we could be doing now—before those technology advances come to fruition—are spread out throughout the economy. They are out there, grazing lazily in the field. They need to be corralled. But the horse has no rider. It'll take a new cowboy (or cowgirl), soon, one hopes, after Bush returns to his own ranch.