In recent years, free-range and organic eggs have become increasingly popular among people who are eager to support more ethical farming methods. Now, Dutch stores are stocking a food produced with the environment, as well as animal welfare, in mind: carbon-neutral eggs, meaning that no emissions are associated with their production.
These ‘Kipster eggs’ are the product of a new farm that’s been established near the Dutch city of Venray. It diverges from the techniques commonly used to yield organic and free-range eggs, which see chickens fed with human-grade corn.
“It makes no sense for us to be competing with animals for food,” Ruud Zanders, the poultry farmer and university lecturer behind the project, told The Guardian. “And 70% of the carbon footprint in eggs is accounted for by the feed for the chickens.”
The farm collects waste items like broken biscuits and rice cakes from local bakeries, along with other edible items that are set to be thrown away, and turns it into feed for the chickens. This has a twofold effect; it prevents the “competition” between humans and animals for the same food sources that Zanders refers to, and has a positive effect on the farm’s carbon footprint.
However, its choice of chicken feed isn’t the only effort the operation is making to limit its carbon emissions. It has also installed some 1,078 solar panels that provide more than enough energy for the farm itself, with any overage being sold back to the grid.
Hatching the Future
Based on the effect of these solar panels and the way the chickens are fed, a study by the Wageningen University found that the farm’s eggs could be considered carbon-neutral eggs. Zanders has said that if this status changes in the future, he will install further solar panels elsewhere to reduce CO2 emissions even further.
It’s going to take a unilateral shift across various different industries to ensure that we can address carbon emissions. Kipster eggs can’t do it alone – but they could certainly contribute to a greater endeavor.
China is in the midst of an all-out blitz on polluters flouting emissions standards, closing tens of thousands of factories in a massive effort to address the nation’s catastrophic pollution problems.
Estimates of the crackdown suggest as much as 40 percent of China’s factories have been temporarily closed by safety inspectors, with officials from more than 80,000 factories charged with criminal offences for breaching emissions limits over the past year.
The months-long campaign coincides with China announcing this week at its Communist Party congress its plan to cut the concentration of hazardous fine particulate matter (called PM2.5) from 47 micrograms per cubic metre in 2016 to 35 micrograms by 2035.
“It will be very difficult to reach the goal, and we need to make greater efforts to achieve it,” environmental protection minister Li Ganjie said at an event on Monday.
China’s modern efforts to tackle domestic pollution date back to 2013, when the nation announced 10 measures to clean up the country’s air, including reducing emissions from heavily polluting industries by 30 percent by the end of 2017.
To help hit its targets, China has ramped up factory and power plant inspections in the past two years across several provinces, to make sure thousands of companies aren’t breaching emissions laws.
“[B]asically, you’re seeing these inspectors go into factories for surprise inspections,” supply chain consultant Gary Huang from 80/20 Sourcing told NPR.
“They’re instituting daily fines, and sometimes – in the real severe cases – criminal enforcement. People are getting put in jail.”
The moves – which could carry with them the risk of harming China’s strong economic growth, despite the government’s claims otherwise – won’t just result in bluer skies.
It’s hoped that by cracking down on polluters, China will also see cleaner water and enjoy a vast range of ecological benefits – plus of course, breathe easier.
“For those areas that have suffered ecological damage, their leaders and cadres will be held responsible for life,” said deputy director of the Communist Party’s Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs, Yang Weimin, told The New York Times.
“Our people will be able to see stars at night and hear birds chirp.”
In previous winters, city officials have been directed to enforce closures for only a few weeks at a time, but with 2017’s end-of-year targets just months away, China is shuttering polluters at a rate Li calls “unprecedented”.
“These special campaigns are not a one-off, instead it is an exploration of long-term mechanisms,” Li announced this week.
“They have proven effective so we will continue with these measures.”
What this means for the industrial sector in China moving forward beyond 2017 isn’t yet exactly clear.
Power plants and factories are still adjusting to the new, unflinching enforcement of the environmental regime, and while thousands of companies are experiencing hardship right now, many think the industry will adapt with better, smarter, and safer ways of doing business that ultimately don’t endanger Chinese air – or the planet as a whole.
“It’s a huge event. It’s a serious event. I think many of us here believe it will become the new normal,” exporter Michael Crotty from China-based MKT & Associates told NPR.
“The consumers of China don’t want red and blue rivers. They don’t want to see grey skies every day.”
Electric vehicles (EVs) are becoming cheaper and more efficient, and their benefit to the environment can’t be overstated. To speed up the adoption of these vehicles, several nations have announced plans to ban the sale of non-electric vehicles, effectively putting an end to the creation of new gas- and diesel-powered cars.
The Netherlands has a particularly ambitious timeline in place, with plans to sell only EVs from 2025 onward. This is part of a much broader commitment to developing the future of transportation.
Thanks to its longstanding efforts to incentivize electric vehicles, Norway has emerged as a leader in terms of public adoption. As such, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch for the country to achieve its goal of all new cars being zero- or low-emission by 2025.
In India, only electric and hybrid cars will be legally available for purchase after 2030. This optimistic deadline may prove challenging for the nation, given the relatively small number of charging stations that are currently in place compared to drivers on the road.
Germany plans to implement its total ban on internal combustion engines by 2030, as well. Given the significant amount of auto production based in the country, this legislation could positively impact the industry more broadly.
While all these plans are encouraging, the vast majority of countries have yet to commit to a transition away from traditional automobiles. Meanwhile, some, such as China, have confirmed their intentions to end the sale of fossil fuel-powered cars but haven’t yet set specific deadlines, meaning they could delay the ban for decades to come.
The overall impact of these bans could also be less than ideal given the size of the nations’ driving populations. Of those with official plans in place, only France and Norway make the list of top 20 countries in terms of vehicles per capita.
Also worth noting is the fact that these measures only ban the sale of non-electric vehicles. These nations aren’t banning the use of gas- or diesel-powered vehicles outright by the date specified — they simply plan to start phasing them out.
Still, any action that puts humanity on the path to a fossil fuel-free future is a step in the right direction, and hopefully, more nations will follow suit with their own pledges to ban the sale of non-electric vehicles.
China’s air pollution has been a problem for decades now, but with the issue now drawing significant attention worldwide, the Chinese government has stepped up efforts to address it, even going so far as to sacrifice business for the sake of cleaner skies.
According to a report by NPR, authorities from the Chinese environmental bureau have spent the past several months temporarily closing down factories’ access to electricity and gas in order to figure out which ones followed environmental laws and which ones didn’t.
“So, basically, you’re seeing these inspectors go into factories for surprise inspections,” Gary Huang, founder of a firm that serves as a middleman between the Chinese supply chain and foreign companies, told NPR. “They’re instituting daily fines, and sometimes — in the real severe cases — criminal enforcement. People are getting put in jail.”
In the past year, officials in more than 80,000 factories have been punished in some way by China’s Ministry of Environment for violating environmental laws.
China’s Air Pollution Woes
In a press conference on Monday, China’s Environmental Protection Minister Li Ganjie said that the government is serious about addressing China’s air pollution. Concretely, this means lowering the concentration of particulate matter called PM2.5 hovering over China to 35 micrograms by 2035.
So far, these efforts appear to be paying off. Average PM.25 levels were 2.3 percent lower during the first eight months of 2017 compared to 2016’s figures, and at present, PM.25 in Beijing is down to 60 micrograms from last year’s 70 micrograms.
Of course, the path hasn’t been entirely smooth, and Li said China still has a long way to go before the effects of these new policies and initiatives are felt by the nation’s citizens.
“We understand that current air quality fails to meet people’s expectations,” he told Reuters. “People should be patient about improvements in air quality improvement as it will take time to solve such a big problem.”
As the world becomes increasing aware of how human activity contributes to global warming, more countries are putting forth efforts to end harmful practices, such as reliance on fossil fuels. While such actions are certainly useful, a new study published in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences suggests that proactively regreening the planet could be just as impactful.
According to the international team of scientists behind the study, natural climate solutions such as protecting peatlands that store carbon and improving how we manage soils and grasslands could be enough to meet 37 percent of the action needed by 2030 as mandated by the 2015 Paris agreement.
In fact, they say regreening the planet through such efforts would have the same effect on atmospheric carbon levels as if the entire world stopped burning oil.
It Ain’t Easy Being Green
The amount that forests offset our carbon emissions is often underestimated. In the U.S. alone, researchers estimate that trees remove an amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere that’s equal to between 11 and 13 percent of fossil fuel emissions. Yet, in the past 25 years alone, we’ve destroyed 10 percent of the planet’s wilderness. Obviously, continued deforestation will affect the amount of carbon removed from the atmosphere by trees.
Fortunately, various efforts to end this kind of activity, protect our plant life, and promote the growth of new forests are in the works. Governments are imposing strict rules to prevent deforestation, and new technology is being used to foster reforestation efforts – one such project uses drones to plant trees at a rate of 100,000 per day, far beyond what could be accomplished by hand.
Some nations are thinking outside the box and building vertical forests, covering skyscrapers with carbon-absorbing greenery. China has begun construction on an entire “forest city” that is expected to absorb nearly 10,000 tons of CO2 and 57 tons of pollutants every year while producing 900 tons of oxygen.
However, this might all be too little, too late. Recent research has shown that extreme weather events like El Niño can have a dramatic impact on the planet’s capacity to reduce levels of carbon dioxide, and climate change is increasing the number of such natural events. Additionally, illegal logging is chipping away at the Amazon rainforest at a faster rate year-on-year, and experts maintain that our current conservation programs won’t do enough to save these environments.
The writing is on the wall – if the Earth is going to continue to be an appropriate habitat for human life, addressing the emissions we release into the atmosphere won’t be enough. We need to make a concerted effort at regreening the planet so it can soak up more carbon dioxide, too.
Much of today’s efforts to cool the planet involves limiting human-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But what if there’s another option that’s equally viable? This is what researchers from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) had in mind in a new study examining the mechanism that would allow for turning CO2 into a valuable source — either as a feedstock for creating other fuels or some other chemical that would be equally beneficial for the environment and the economy.
In their study, published in the journal Nature Communications, the PNNL researchers led by Janos Szanyi figured out a way to make sure that converting CO2 would only produce the desired chemical, which would either be methane or carbon monoxide. The key is an often overlooked ion called formate (HCOO-), which works as a critical intermediate in the CO2 conversion reaction.
“This study gives us crucial information to use an easily available raw material, CO2, and turn it into something useful—a chemical intermediate, carbon monoxide, or an energy carrier, methane. This intermediate can be used for the production of higher hydrocarbons, or fuels,” Szanyi said in a statement, according to Phys.org.
In their experiments, the PNNL team figured out the factors controlling what products result from CO2 hydrogenation. Once these key factors were determined, the team designed three catalysts with varying levels of palladium distribution, another element they realized was crucial in selecting the products in CO2 conversion. Lower palladium levels in the catalyst produced both carbon monoxide and methane, while higher concentrations of this metal resulted in 80 percent selectivity towards methane.
This is another example of an alternative energy source. Aside from renewables like solar and wind, perhaps the most popular among these is hydrogen fuel. Recent research, however, have shown potential other sources that seemed highly unlikely at first. For example, two studies sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy are looking at the possibility of using seaweed to fuel cars. In any case, these alternative energy sources are very much welcome to contribute in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions and dependence on fossil fuel-based sources of energy.
In an upcoming episode of ABC’s Catalyst, Australian environmentalist and global warming activist Tim Flannery will talk about an unusual idea brewing to fight climate change: seaweed. Featuring Adam Bumpus from the University of Melbourne and colleagues, the episode raises the possibility that these ubiquitous marine plants can help in reducing climate warming gasses.
While the technology to use seaweed to reduce greenhouse gasses remains largely unproven, its potential to do so has already been recognized. For starters, seaweed grows at about 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants. This means that its ability to absorb carbon dioxide is greater than other plants and makes it ideal for large-scale production.
One possible use is in feeding seaweed or algae to cattle and sheep to reduce their methane emissions. Another involves cultivating giant kelp farms that could make the oceans less acidic, a problem that is growing as the ocean sponges up excess carbon dioxide. Seaweed could even potentially help reduce the huge problem of plastic pollution in the ocean, Bumpus suggests in an article for The Conversation. It could also be potentially easier to maintain than other large-scale plans to combat climate change.
Of course, for the global goal of reducing greenhouse gases and carbon emissions to match the numbers set by the Paris Climate Agreement, a single effort isn’t enough. In particular, developing nations like India could potentially add even more carbon emissions, as they bring new power sources online to keep up with booming populations.
Currently, nations all over the world are relying primarily on developing more renewable energy sources: reduced or zero-emissions technologies such as wind power and electric cars, and even building carbon-capture and storage facilities. But this will likely not be enough, as Bumpus writes: “we need an array of solutions, with complementary waves of technology handling different problems.”
Adding seaweed into the mix, one study shows, could contribute significantly. For example, using nine percent of the world’s oceans to farm seaweed on the surface could remove about 53 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere every year. Since seaweed is also sturdy, it can store that CO2 in the long term.
Fully harnessing seaweed’s potential would take time and effort, however, just as renewables have before becoming a more popular solution. “With further research, development, and commercialization, the possibilities offered by seaweed […] are potentially game-changing,” Bumpus wrote. “We must support the scientists and entrepreneurs exploring zero-carbon innovations – and see if seaweed really can save the world.”
The largest states in the nation have formed the United States Climate Alliance, taking charge of climate change leadership for the U.S. The announcement comes on the heels of President Donald Trump’s Thursday announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change, which caused waves of protest both in the U.S. and abroad, as well as statements of renewed commitment from India, China, and other countries around the world. Now, Americans are working to circumvent the fallout from Trump’s announcement and ensure that the U.S. continues to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet the Paris goals regardless of federal action (or inaction).
Governors Andrew Cuomo of New York, Jerry Brown of California, and Jay Inslee of Washington have announced the formation of United States Climate Alliance, a partnership between states committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and upholding the Paris Agreement.
“The White House’s reckless decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement has devastating repercussions not only for the United States, but for our planet. This administration is abdicating its leadership and taking a backseat to other countries in the global fight against climate change,” Cuomo told Business Insider. “New York State is committed to meeting the standards set forth in the Paris Accord regardless of Washington’s irresponsible actions. We will not ignore the science and reality of climate change which is why I am also signing an Executive Order confirming New York’s leadership role in protecting our citizens, our environment, and our planet.”
According to the World Resources Institute, if the three U.S. states that comprise the United States Climate Alliance and support the Paris Agreement were a single country, their economy would be the fifth-largest in the world. They’d also be the sixth-largest producer of carbon emissions in the world. That being said, they have ample reason to participate in the accord, and their actions in support of it would undeniably have a significant impact.
Keeping The Pressure On
Meanwhile, mayors of more than 85 American cities signed a letter the same day President Trump made his announcement, confirming the commitment of their cities to promoting clean energy and reducing emissions. According to Business Insider‘s Dana Varinsky, “In the US, cities and surrounding areas are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, since they have the largest populations, heaviest industry and highest volume of cars. Because of that, they are in a position to make a big impact.”
Many U.S. corporations from companies like Apple, Exxon-Mobil, Microsoft, Google, Tesla, and Morgan Stanley have also openly urged the President to support the accord and indicated that they will continue to support its goals. Billionaire Michael Bloomberg has pledged $15 million to help make up the U.S.’s previously promised share under the agreement. At this point, only time will tell how hard states, municipalities, and private companies will work to achieve the Paris goals, and how much pushback they will get from the administration if they do.
If Bloomberg’s position is any indication of how American businesses will approach the situation, we will likely keep seeing notable commitments across the board:
“Americans are not walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement,” Bloomberg said in a press release. “Just the opposite – we are forging ahead. Mayors, governors, and business leaders from both political parties are signing onto a statement of support that we will submit to the UN – and together, we will reach the emission reduction goals the U.S. made in Paris in 2015. Americans will honor and fulfill the Paris Agreement by leading from the bottom up – and there isn’t anything Washington can do to stop us.”
Fossil fuel plants, particularly coal-fired and natural gas plants, still make up a majority of the world’s energy sources. As such, they remain the largest contributor of climate-warming greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the most notable of these being carbon dioxide.
Efforts to cut down or eliminate these emissions altogether while still burning fossil fuels — so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS) systems — have been around for a while now, but they haven’t really taken, mainly because they are largely inefficient and expensive. A relatively new startup wants to change that.
NET Power was created by an unlikely trio — a lawyer, a chemist, and a chemical engineer — and its goal is to help rid the world of fossil fuel-caused carbon emissions. Instead of following the footsteps of existing CCS systems, however, NET Power built one from the ground up. “The only way you could proceed was to develop a totally new power system,” Rodney Allam, the chemical engineer in the trio, told Science.
The prototype plant they developed utilizes a new thermodynamic cycle — dubbed the Allam cycle — that eliminates the need for smokestacks altogether. “[T]he Allam Cycle uses a high-pressure, highly recuperative, oxyfuel, supercritical CO2 cycle that makes carbon capture part of the core power generation process, rather than an afterthought,” according to the startup’s website.
Essentially, CO2 replaces the steam used to drive turbines in traditional plants, keeping it working in the plant instead of releasing it out into the air, while also eliminating the need to expend energy to create steam.
The system also meets the challenge of being financially competitive, with the company’s founders estimating their plant could match the per kilowatt-hour cost of a state-of-the-art natural gas-fired plant. To work with coal, however, the coal would first need to be converted into synthetic gas, and in those instances, the environmental damage caused by coal extraction would still be a factor.
While the world transitions toward cheaper renewable energy sources, efforts like NET Power’s, which limit carbon emissions from fossil fuel plants, will certainly be helpful. “This is the biggest thing in carbon capture,” MIT chemical engineer and carbon capture expert Howard Herzog told Science. “It’s very sound on paper.”
We should know soon if the system lives us to its promise as NET Power’s 25-megawatt demonstration plant in Houston will become operational later this year. If the prototype power plant works as hoped, the next step would be to open a $300 million full-scale 300-megawatt plant by 2021. According to John Thompson, a carbon capture expert from nonprofit Clean Air Task Force, “This is a game-changer if they achieve 100 percent of their goals.”
A study by the Environmental Health Analytics, LLC has revealed that diesel exhaust gasses can be linked to 38,000 early deaths worldwide. If action isn’t taken, this figure will climbing as high as an annual death rate of 183,600 in 23 years. A key problem in both measuring and regulating exhaust is the abuse of the testing system by manufacturers such as Volkswagen.
Researcher Daven Henze from the University of Colorado, said in an interview for a press release “It shows that in addition to tightening emissions standards, we need to be attaining the standards that already exist in real-world driving conditions.”
The new research is the latest in a long series of damning studies that have highlighted the problem of greenhouse gas emissions. Earlier this year the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that a quarter of the deaths of children under the age of five are attributable to pollution — that’s 1.7 million deaths a year. The WHO also found in 2014 that seven million deaths a year were caused by outdoor air pollution.
Humans are not the only ones paying a price for pollution. It was shown recently that climate change caused by car emissions disturbs the seasonal clock of nine species of North American song birds.
Turning the Tide
Recently, though, breakthroughs have been made in environmentally friendly technology. Elon Musk has encouraged a crusade against carbon emissions by stating at the World Energy Innovation Forum in 2016 that “We need a revolt against the fossil fuel industry.” He has reinforced his convictions by ramping up production for solar panels and new Tesla models.
China, being one of the world’s biggest industrial nations, is also one of the planet’s biggest contributors to global warming.
The country’s coal consumption is a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, which get trapped in our atmosphere. To date, the country releases twice the CO2 emissions as the US. But it’s something that the Chinese government is working hard to change.
In recent years, the country has made significant strides towards implementing and enforcing nationwide proposals and policies towards minimizing their carbon emissions. For instance, in keeping with the Paris Agreement, China introduced a cap on coal use in the country; they also demonstrated how serious they are about their anti-coal stance by cancelling 104 new coal plants and shifting focus towards renewable energy sources, such as hydro, wind, and solar.
As a result, the country was able to reduce its coal consumption for the third year in a row and establish itself as a global leader in the battle against climate change.
Based on initial data released by China’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), the country’s coal consumption declined by 4.7 percent last year. The share of coal in China’s total energy mix sits at 62 percent, with solar capacity growing 81.6 percent and wind power growing 13.2 percent since 2015.
China Tackles Climate Change
Back in 2014, China reported that it managed to bring down coal use by 1.28 percent—while it may not seem like a significant number, it’s notable because this was first time coal use dropped in China in this century.
Since then, a trend that saw a steady decline of coal use and CO2 emissions was maintained by China, which they hope to continue well into the coming years.
Their efforts to address the effects of climate change on our environment has “completely revolutionized the prospects for bringing global emissions and bringing climate change under control,” says senior coal campaigner for Greenpeace Lauri Myllyvirta.
According to Myllyvirta, the steady fall of global emissions in recent years can largely be credited to the efforts made by China and the US, who are the world’s leading producers of carbon emission.
In addition, energy demand is no longer tied to China’s economic activity. Combined with the country’s efforts to diversify their power sources and support for renewable energy installations, the country is truly making a mark in the fight against climate change.
Scientists don’t have to predict when human pollution and catastrophic climate changes will start killing humans—it already has. Even more alarming is that it’s killing children. According to the World Health Organization, a quarter of all global deaths of children below five years old are caused by polluted environments.
“A polluted environment is a deadly one — particularly for young children. Their developing organs and immune systems, and smaller bodies and airways, make them especially vulnerable to dirty air and water,” said WHO director-general Margaret Chan in a statement.
Going further into detail in the Inheriting a Sustainable World: Atlas on Children’s Health and the Environment report, WHO’s staggering statistics illustrate how much a rapidly deteriorating environment impacts children’s lives:
570,000 children die from respiratory infections like pneumonia, which can be caused by indoor and outdoor pollution, as well as second-hand smoke.
361,000 kids die because of diarrhea, typically caused by unsafe drinking water, unsanitary environments, and lack of hygiene.
270,000 children die in their first month because of conditions that could have been prevented if they were given access to clean water and protected them from air pollution.
200,000 deaths caused by malaria could have been prevented if clean water was available to reduce breeding sites of mosquitoes.
200,000 children lose their life because of environmental injuries such as poisoning, falls, and drowning.
The WHO also notes the importance of properly managing emerging environmental hazards like electronic and electrical waste. Without proper recycling, this can lead to children being exposed to dangerous toxins known to harm intellectual development and cause attention deficits, as well as more serious conditions like lung disease and cancer. Constant exposure to chemicals like fluoride and lead — which can be found in water, paint, pesticides, and even our food — can affect a child’s brain development and cause a slew of health problems.
Because of climate change, we can expect temperatures and carbon dioxide levels to continue rising, which supports pollen growth. Add that to air pollution and secondhand tobacco smoke, and it could raise the incidence of asthma in children. An increased risk of diarrhea and pneumonia is also expected in communities that are dependent on coal or other unclean fossil fuels for cooking and heat. These cases can prove to be fatal, and could also increase a child’s lifelong risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
The report outlines the real cost of a polluted environment—the lives 1.7 million children. Clearly, a concerted effort to ensure that they are protected from these environmental hazards is needed. Global initiatives for improving water quality and moving us away from fossil fuels will not only protect our environment, it will also save children’s lives.
The article itself is something of an encomium for the president’s energy policy during the last eight years, but it succinctly argues a point that has already made headlines: namely, his belief that global technological advances and market forces—to say nothing of cultural and social shifts—have imparted an irreversible momentum to the trend toward clean energy.
“[T]he mounting economic and scientific evidence,” President Obama writes, “leave me confident that trends toward a clean-energy economy that have emerged during my presidency will continue and that the economic opportunity for our country to harness that trend will only grow.”
It’s an important argument, with far-reaching implications for the future, and it bears a closer examination.
A New Energy Economy
The president contends that CO2 and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the energy sector have finally been “decoupled” from economic growth; in other words, that societies are no longer faced with the insupportable dilemma of having to accept economic decline and lower standards of living in order to reduce emissions. This economic reality has formed the greatest barrier to the self-imposition of limits on carbon emissions.
The use of fossil fuels has always been predicated on their cheapness and widespread availability—a low-cost means of fueling economic growth. But it seems now that emissions can remain flat while the global economy continues to grow, a historic turning-point in the economics of renewable energy. Fossil fuels will remain a cheap source of energy for a while yet; but they’re not inexhaustible, and access to them is vulnerable to the fickle winds of geopolitics, which makes them highly unattractive as a future energy source.
All of this serves to underscore the president’s point: ineluctable market forces are dictating the future energy economy, largely because technology is rewriting the terms of the equation.
Consider this: in the 20th Century, access to cheap fossil fuels was crucial to keep the wheels of industry spinning, to inject lifeblood into burgeoning economies, to power vehicle traffic and logistics, and to supply power to huge cities and rural communities alike. Now, it’s possible for a home to be almost entirely separate from the grid, powered by solar panels, and yet still have access to all the amenities associated with 21st Century living. So the trend has been from energy centralization to decentralization—a future without a vulnerable power grid, and without energy companies monopolizing access to power.
The attraction here is irresistible, and we can only expect further improvements and innovations as consumer demand for energy independence increases; falling prices for solar, battery, and electric car technology will also accelerate the evolution away from fossil fuels. At first, the new technologies—whether solar, wind, hydroelectric or tidal—will complement conventional sources of energy; but as investment increases and costs decrease, they will slowly supplant carbon-based energies and (hopefully) pave the way for a new energy economy of mixed renewable and fusion power by midcentury.
An International Effort
“It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends,” President Obama writes in his article.
And the man’s got a point. It’s likely that energy—how to acquire it, produce it, manufacture it and do so as cheaply as possible—is going to be a major issue in the coming century; perhaps it will even be the defining issue. “[C]ountries and their businesses are moving forward,” the president observes, “seeking to reap benefits for their countries by being at the front of the clean-energy race.”
Nations like Germany and Costa Rica have already proven that it’s possible to run entirely on renewable energy, and we can expect more of the same in the coming decades.
So it makes sense for our country to lead in the 21st Century’s “Scramble for Energy.” With all its intellectual and financial capital, together with the sizable technological lead it already possesses, the United States is poised to become the Saudi Arabia of the new energy economy.
The president concludes his analysis on a hopeful note: “Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.”
And it seems that, between current market forces and technological advances, this will largely be the case for the foreseeable future—irrespective of administrative policy in this or any other country.