05/10/2010 05:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Five Percent ... just Five Percent per Year

Our combined energy and climate challenges and opportunities are incredibly complex and interrelated issues.

Throw in other resource challenges, economic challenges, and a myriad of other factors and, well, the complexity can overwhelm any and all.

Clarity of targets matter.

Ever more experts are endorsing the call to create a path to return the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations to 350 parts per million or less.

350: the most important number in the world

Three numbers to encapsulate so many things about the need to reduce emissions, determine paths to (naturally) sequester carbon, and...

One of the problems of the Waxman-Markey ACES and other climate bills, the incredibly complexity of their structures and uncertain relationships between the bill's "targets" and scientific understanding of our problems.

In the face of Deepwater Horizon, the political obstacles to climate legislation, and otherwise, perhaps it is time to look for a straightforward statement as to how we should move forward to address our energy and climate challenges while improving our economic and security systems Perhaps it is time to turn to

The Five Percent Solution

... a path toward energy security, economic prosperity, and climate change mitigation.

Very simply, The Five Percent Solution calls on the United States to embrace quite achievable and straightforward objectives for each and every year ...:
  • Cut oil use five percent.
  • Cut coal-fired electricity by five percent of 2010 levels.
To be clear, these seemingly radical targets are clearly achievable and would boost the economy. (For outlines / discussions of these, see: How America Can Break Its Coal Addiction (Or: no, coal isn't necessary) and, re oil, see some ideas in Shaving away at our fossil foolish addictions ... some thoughts and here.)

There are many additional "five percents" potentially worth including to add to or enable achieving these targets. Increasing America's urban farms by 5% per year (Victory Gardens in the fight to triumph over Peak Oil and 'defeat' Climate Change?). Energy Audits and efficiency retrofits for at least five percent of America's homes and buildings. Increase CAFE standards five percent per year. Etc ...

Targets with meaning are achievable ...

To the extent that Congress is discussing (battling) over carbon emissions reductions, the numbers being discussed are in the range of 15-20% reductions ... from 2005 levels. These sound so significant ... even as they fall far short of the (outdated and likely not strong enough) scientifically-based target of 25-40% below 1990 levels.

Yet ... those targets perhaps aren't quite so aggressive. As the US Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) just reported, US carbon emissions fell by some 7 percent in 2009. While some (roughly a third) of that fall was due to economic problems, other factors were the primary driver for reducing emission ... factors including improving efficiency of energy use and increasing renewable energy production. In fact, the 'non' economic drivers of reduced CO2 emissions are in the range of five percent.

When looking to the commonly discussed use of 2005 as the target year, 2009 is already over 10 percent below 2005 levels (down to 5405 million metric tons carbon dioxide from 5973 mmt.) and more than half-the-way to below 1990 levels (5020 million metric tons).

Hmmm ... for some reason, targeting 10, 15, or 20 percent below 2005 levels doesn't seem like such a stretch goal.

Shaving five percent per year from Co2 emissions levels, assuming that 2010 matches 2009, would drive emissions from 5405 mmt in 2010 to just over 3000 mmt (or over 40% below 1990 levels) by 2020 and to just over 1800 mmt in 2030 ...

Very simply

Via the 5% solution, by 2030 the United States will:

  • End, 100%, oil imports.
  • End, 100%, the burning of coal for electricity
  • Reduce climate emissions by 60+ percent from 1990 levels
  • Improve the US trade balance by five percent of gross domestic product (due to eliminating oil imports)
  • Cut health care impacts from fossil fuel use by 50%
  • Improve productivity, per decade, by at least 5% above 'business as usual'
  • Cut unemployment below 5% by 2015 and maintain unemployment levels below 5% through 2030.
And ... well ... additional benefits.

Five Percent Per Year ... achievable, beneficial, necessary ... let's get to it ...

Update: for an excellent, parrallel, overlapping discussion, see Sara Robinson's typically brilliant and passionate America"s Carbon Addiction: this is an Intervention. Sara derives much from the Apollo experience and concludes her post as follows:

Stepping up to that the five percent solution in a positive and inspiring way will have some immediate practical and political benefits, too. For one thing, it will put a fast end to the pseudo-populist whining from the right, embarrass resistant corporatists into getting on board, and rally the country around a truly positive and inclusive vision of its own future. For another, it would put progressives, once and for all, on the moral offensive as the guardians of the true American vision.

What -- are you against American greatness? Are you not willing to sacrifice for a stronger, more secure, more independent, more resilient nation? Are you one of those small-minded, stingy whiners who don't believe in your country, and aren't willing to invest in great things?

If so: shame on you. Also: please shut up.

This kind of turnaround is well within the reach of any truly visionary leader. President Obama could do it tomorrow -- and would, if he was willing to live up to even half his promise. It would, absolutely, be his defining JFK moment -- the moment that we foreswore our addictions, reclaimed our national soul, seized this day and our entire future, and put ourselves back on the path to greatness.

We should want the second line in those 3010 history books to read: "Forty years later, the Americans were the foresighted visionaries who led the world off carbon-based fuels and put a stop to global warming, thus saving civilization." Today could easily be the first day of the rest of that marvelous history. But that will only happen if get our heads out of the barrel, reclaim our greatness, and become the country we once were -- and still have it within us to be again.