The Worst Waste

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2004
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Jim Lane

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 shelter.

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 legion’s way.

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 nuclear?

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 by markets.

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 saving them.

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 circumspection.”

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 disturbance.

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 article was originally published. Biofuels Digest is the most widely read  Biofuels daily read by 14,000+ organizations. Subscribe here.

1 COMMENT

  1. I never saw this interesting intellectual exercise. My reaction is of course mixed, fuels from the worst waste around is a simple explanation that came up during my work on biodiesel. In that market FFA (free Fatty Acids) are deal breakers because the tansesterification process does not operate in feedstock with more than 10 or even 15% FFAs. We found a gentleman in Brazil who had put together a large backyard Esterification system that converted all the feedstock to FFA and then transformed that into biodiesel. It is an elegant solution that opened a whole new world of feedstocks to the biodiesel production world. Had I been given the courtesy of a call we could have gone through that, by the way I spent five years in the nuclear field wrote my thesis on the rhetoric of Three Mile Island and am still a believer in nuclear solutions that follow the CANDU model.

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