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Peter Brown of FFA Fuels, promotes his company these days with
the pithy slogan, “Fuels from the Worst Waste Around.”
Which of course raises the legitimate question, what is the worst
waste, and can we find a use for it?
Discussions of worst waste will usually focus on the obvious —
say, landfill — or the odious — say, medical or nuclear waste.
Toxicity and longevity are typical concerns, and that’s one of the
reasons why nuclear energy remains controversial to this day.
No Waste in Nature
As LanzaTech’s Jennifer Holmgren observed in a recent article by
Peter Forbes in Aeon:
“Carbon is precious. This means
we must learn to recycle it. If you can extend its life by
reusing it in a fuel, you will keep that equivalent amount of
fossil fuel in the ground. There should be no waste. There is no
waste in nature.’
Which introduces a new idea into the discussion of waste.
By wasting carbon as skyfill, says Holmgren — blasting it into
the atmosphere after one use, instead of seeking to recycle — we
condemn ourselves to extracting fresh supplies of carbon from
their subterranean repositories.
It’s a one-and-done approach to carbon that has poured hundreds
of millions of tons of CO2 into our atmosphere, and according to a
scientific plurality, triggered a greenhouse climate effect that
threatens our way of life.
One and done
Let’s apply the one-and-done habit to something different, but
equally pervasive: housing. We all need energy and we all need
One and done housing, absurd? Not entirely. Roman troops used to
build a wooden fort after every day of marching on the imperial
frontiers, and abandon their lodgings in the morning as they set
off for their next day’s destination. One and done, that was the
Today, if we threw away a house after every use, we’d run out of
building materials in practically no time at all, landfills would
be overflowing with waste, and the economy would be wrecked trying
to handle all the new construction.
Yet, that’s our energy system, in a nutshell, aside from the
small amount of production coming from renewables. We extract
carbon from the ground, combust it, and release carbon into the
atmosphere as skyfill. One and done.
Because it’s invisible — and, more importantly, because it’s up
there instead of all around us — we tolerate skyfill. “For
they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” as the
prophet Hosea observed almost 3,000 years ago.
In almost no other major aspect of our lives do we tolerate
one-and-done — we wash the clothes and dishes, lock and insure the
house, clean the carpet and floors, polish the shoes, mulch the
lawn clippings, serve leftovers, maintain the car, and have second
dates and even move on to marriages with the objects of our
desire. It is our nature to conserve resources.
But with plastics, and fuels, we have become invading Roman
soldiers, one and done. Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.
Cheaper at the pump
We are told that the reason that this economic system endures, of
energy use and carbon spewing, is that it is the most economic of
all. That is to say, one-and-done, carbon-extraction,
petroleum-based fuels are cheaper at the pump than alternatives.
To the extent that it is always more economically efficient to
withdraw money from the bank than to earn a living and add value
within the economy, that’s true.
So, why not simply squander the resources of a nation in an orgy
of ATM withdrawals? Why not just live on our national savings, in
all things and not just energy, until the savings run out? Is it
not more economically efficient, is it not cheaper to do so, until
the resource runs out and there’s hell to pay?
Sure it is.
But what’s the point of building a civilization on sand, even if
it is valuable tar sand?
Resources that are not replenished will fall away eventually, and
societies that have lost the habit of sustainable production will
fall away even quicker than the resources beneath their feet. The
orgy of life on the credit card is a fictitious life with a
ruinous end — even if what is being spent on the credit card is
carbon and not money. The money in the bank must eventually be
replenished, or not used.
In Christian theology, of course, we’re spending not our own
resources but the Almighty’s, as God pointed out via Leviticus 25:
“the land is mine, for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.”
So, the worst waste?
Is the worst waste actually the most toxic and odious waste, like
Or, rather, the one that tempts us to base our civilization on an
energy version of a Ponzi scheme?
So, what’s the remedy to wanton waste and skyfill? Technologies
that pick up waste carbon — preferably at the point of emission,
before the carbon is dissipated into the atmosphere and ruinously
expensive to recover. Waste carbon-gulping technologies from the
likes of LanzaTech, Liquid Light, and algae project developers
such as Sapphire Energy, Cellana and Heliae.
Carbon price and climate change cost
But here’s the problem. Skyfill is priced at ruinously low levels
Skyfill is dangerous to our economy and way of life, yet rescuers
of industrial gases are expected to acquire unprocessed gas at
costs between zero and $30 per ton. I have seen many thrillers but
I have never seen the rescued parties charge for the privilege of
The Brookings Institute last year estimated that global GDP would
be reduced by as much as 20 percent using business-as-usual
approaches to carbon. That’s $15 trillion per year in today’s
dollars. It’s worth trillions to prevent that. Yet, markets are
aghast at the prospect of pitiful carbon prices.
Let’s think differently
We might start here: the duty to take reasonable care. That was
something I learned as a young law student, sent to study up on
negligence and the case of Donoghue v Stevenson.
In that decision, Lord Atkin wrote:
“You must take reasonable care to
avoid acts or omissions which you can reasonably foresee would
be likely to injure your neighbour. Who, then, in law, is my
neighbour? The answer seems to be – persons who are so closely
and directly affected by my act that I ought reasonably to have
them in contemplation as being so affected when I am directing
my mind to the acts or omissions which are called in question.”
The reasonable person thus makes an appearance.
He is distinct from the “average man” or “the man in the street”
and distinct, then, from the market itself. In the realm of
negligence, we are bound by the duty to take care, even though in
the realm of markets that is not always the case.
The power to ruin
In a market, I might trade you shares of a stock I think is
overpriced, regardless of the ruin it might bring to you. So long
as I do not have access to inside information, it means nothing to
markets that you are exposed to loss. I have no market duty to
take reasonable care to protect you from economic harm when I
unload my shares to you.
In a market, an organization might take on a risky investment
because it understands that it is “too big to fail” and that gains
will be privatized but losses socialized, through bail-outs.
That’s moral hazard.
Moral hazard — what’s that again?
It’s been defined as “a situation in which one party gets
involved in a risky event knowing that it is protected against the
risk and the other party will incur the cost.”
Is that not a perfectly good way to look at the carbon debacle —
as a case in moral hazard? Since most of us, the average of us,
know that excessive use of carbon is a risky event that other
parties (for example, fish, or future generations) and not us,
will pay the price for.
So, we are using the concept of markets to govern behaviors that
might better be governed by the concept of the duty of care, and
the higher standard expected of the reasonable person. The
‘average man’ of the markets might risk moral hazard, but the
reasonable person cannot.
Of the reasonable person, Percy Henry Winfield wrote:
“He will not anticipate folly in
all its forms but he never puts out of consideration the
teachings of experience and so will guard against negligence of
others when experience shows such negligence to be common. He is
a reasonable man but not a perfect citizen, nor a “paragon of
We have wasted the concept of the reasonable person, and the duty
to take care — when it comes to the hazards posed by carbon. We
have left carbon to the market, when we have taken so many things
outside of the market that you could hardly write them all down.
We have made public drunkenness an offense despite the fair
market transaction that took place between the buyer and seller of
the alcohol that produced the condition. It is wrong to impose
drunkenness or loutish behavior on society, despite the fact that
the transaction that produced the condition was legal and took
place at an agreed market price. The publican gets money, the
customer gets a beverage, but society gets an intolerable
The worst waste, then — perhaps we might well discover it to be a
“great and ready remedy for a great societal ill, that we have
refused to use”.
Why? A misplaced faith in the power of markets.
Markets are filled with items for sale that shouldn’t be. Sex,
drugs, slaves, laundered currency, odious weapons, and stolen
goods — to name a few. But they are black markets, because they
are banned trades. Not because markets do not function but because
they fail to afford the reasonable protection to society that the
reasonable person has a duty to provide. Black markets fill our
sewers with their unintended consequences and their moral hazard.
There’s no need to ban the trade in carbon, any more than banning
the trade in alcohol. But unreasonable use, that is something to
look at which markets never will.
Carbon use ought to be measured according to the standard of the
reasonable person, rather than the person of the market whose only
defense of the sale is that there was a buyer at the price.
We might find that the reasonable person takes better account of
the problem of skyfill and sees a duty to take care by reducing
carbon spewing through re-use. We might also find that pricing
energy only because of the work that it does is like tolerating
the drunken man howling at the top of his lungs in the middle of
the night, on the theory that he should be freely allowed to enjoy
his legally-bought goods in his own way.
His right to a good time, after paying a market price, is not the
only priority for a society made up of reasonable people who would
like to get some sleep.
Jim Lane is editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest where this
was originally published.
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