Taking Moonshots at a Low Carbon Future

Fighting climate change with today’s clean technology will not be easy. In the most recent edition of The Atlantic, Megan McArdle hits upon this in a feature compilation called, “The 14 Biggest Ideas of the Year”:

Unless we somehow stop burning fossil fuels, all the carbon currently under the Earth’s surface will end up in the atmosphere in the next few hundred years. And as the physicist Robert B. Laughlin recently pointed out in The American Scholar, from the Earth’s point of view, a few hundred years is less than the blink of an eye. Even if we burn fossil fuels at a slower pace, temperatures will still rise, the oceans will still acidify, human lives will be much altered.

Fortunately, there are now several studies and proposals that do aim to ‘somehow stop burning fossil fuels.' These scenarios may never see the light of day, but they help to start a conversation about using current technologies to reduce emissions. I'll briefly discuss a few plans, starting with Mr. Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore.

On July 17, 2008, Al Gore gave a speech challenging the United States “to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources.” Drawing on President Kennedy’s decade-long goal to put a man on the moon, Gore sought to use solar, wind, energy efficiency and electric cars to power the nation with carbon free energy in 10 years. To pay for the program, Gore would implement a carbon tax, while decreasing the income tax. Critics quickly noted that this program, inspired by the Apollo space program, would cost $300 billion a year as compared to the $150 billion total spent to reach the moon. Perhaps due to bad timing—Lehman Brothers collapsed two months later—Gore’s bold plan went nowhere.

However, a year after Gore’s proposal, Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi challenged themselves to figure out how to power the world with 100 percent of all energy coming from wind, water and solar resources by 2030 (interactive presentation here). Even with the world’s energy demand increasing over 30 percent by 2030, Jacobson and Delucchi calculated that they had about 40 times that amount in solar and wind potential. Regardless of resource availability, some hurdles remained. First, rare earth metals required for the production of solar panels and wind turbines are scarce and, second, the mix of technologies to ensure electricity reliability is tricky to balance, given that the current technology can only generate electricity in an intermittent nature.

Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan is ambitious, coming in at $100 trillion worldwide over 20 years. Getting the program off the ground will necessitate subsidies (for renewable technologies) and taxes (on fossil fuels), which will be tough to implement given the worldwide scale. They do note that the plan will make money on the energy investments by selling the electricity that they generate. Critics of the program are skeptical that an electric system that relies on intermittent resources will remain reliable and whether the cost projections are too low. The final price tag will remain unknown, but new solar technologies that provide power 24-7 could help the reliability factor. To be sure, with ambitious programs like this, there will be many uncertainties.

Other plans offer similar suggestions. The European Renewable Energy Council has a plan to get to 100 percent renewables by 2050. The report leans heavily on biofuels to reach their target for the European Union. More locally, the German Advisory Council on the Environment noted a few pathways to get to 100 percent renewables that could either produce all renewable generation in Germany or rely on some imports [pdf].

Many advocacy groups have put together proposals and in the United States, over half of the states have renewable portfolio standards that set specific targets and goals for renewables.

In order to grasp the magnitude of a worldwide conversion to clean tech, Saul Griffith explains what it would entail to get the worldwide carbon dioxide level to a comfortable level. He presents his plan in a video produced by the Long Now Foundation. He calculates that to meet a goal of no more than 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the world must quickly reduce fossil fuel use, halt deforestation and build 11 terawatts of emissions-free energy—all by 2033. As you can see in the video (an hour and a half, but well worth your time), it is indeed a daunting task.

Finally, emissions reduction could come from bottom up strategies adapted for local conditions, rather than a top-down approach. These tactics may be in a response to a coordinated carbon price—the most likely approach to climate change policy, short of technological breakthroughs or geoengineering.

As the diversity of renewable energy plans and goals can attest, different approaches can reduce carbon emissions and current technologies can play a big role. Unfortunately, if the goal is to stop the increase in atmospheric carbon concentration, the carbon has to stay in the ground and/or be removed from the atmosphere—and we will still need energy. Regardless of if or when the above strategies get adopted, clean technology will have to advance if there is any hope to ‘somehow stop burning fossil fuels' and getting to a zero carbon future.