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Climate Change is a Waste Management Problem

BY KLAUS S. LACKNERCHRISTOPHE JOSPE

Reframing our understanding of carbon dioxide emissions can help clear the path for practical approaches to reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

Reframing our understanding of carbon dioxide emissions can help clear the path for practical approaches to reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

The physical problem underlying climate change is very simple: dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases into the air raises their concentrations in the atmosphere and causes gradual warming. In the several decades since climate change has been an important international political issue, the necessary solution to this simple problem has been viewed as equally simple: the world must radically reduce its emissions of carbon-carrying gases.

Here we explore a different perspective, and a different type of solution. Carbon dioxide is a waste product; dumping it into the open air is a form of littering. Dumping can be avoided or cleaned up with technological fixes to our current infrastructure. These fixes do not require drastic reductions in energy use, changes in lifestyle, or transformations in energy technologies. Keeping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is a waste management problem. The rapid mixing of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere simplifies this waste management problem compared with others, such as sewage or municipal garbage, where local buildup of waste is deleterious and therefore requires the disposal of the specific waste material as it is generated. By contrast, carbon dioxide does not create local damage, and it does not matter where carbon dioxide molecules are removed from the atmosphere as long as the amount removed equals the amount added.

Waste management was introduced for other effluents because uncontrolled dumping caused serious and irreparable harm. For example, the introduction of sewer systems in European cities in the nineteenth century was driven by the recognition that cholera and typhoid were caused by water contamination. Introducing sewer systems had to overcome arguments that they were too expensive and that the causal relationship between waste and disease was not fully understood. As cause and effect became clear, sewer systems were built.

Nobody can buy a house today without a sanctioned method for sewage handling, and household garbage must be properly disposed of. Residents typically pay a fee to their local government to cover the costs of sewage removal and treatment. In many locations, private companies collect household garbage. Their successful business models rely on the fact that simply dumping garbage on the street is societally unacceptable, recognized as deleterious to health and well-being, and therefore illegal.

Even when the consequences of ignoring waste streams are not as drastic as with sewage, a majority of people may still agree on the societal value of cleaning up. For example, in modern societies, littering along highways is unacceptable. The consensus is visible in the fines established for littering.

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