In This Issue
Summer Issue of The Bridge on Energy, the Environment, and Climate Change
July 3, 2015 Volume 45 Issue 2

Op-ed: Getting Off Fossil Fuels

Monday, July 6, 2015

Author: Michael W. Golay

Climate change is coming surely and swiftly. Studies by atmospheric scientists indicate that substantial global warming (>2°C) is likely within about 60 years if current economic and energy consumption trends persist.1 Without a transition to a low-carbon energy economy within that timeframe, greenhouse gas emissions will continue and contribute to even greater warming.

Emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere not only have immediate and long-term effects but also are almost irreversible. Their immediate effect is to warm the air and soil; further warming then occurs as heat is transferred from the atmosphere to the oceans and deeper into the soil, increasing glacial melting and seawater expansion and, on land, vegetative growth and organic material decay.

Now is the time to determine what to do about this problem—specifically, how to move the global energy economy off fossil fuels. Private markets alone cannot achieve the technological capabilities needed to prevent further warming, but they can be stimulated by the public sector in the most capable (and most energy-consuming) countries. What’s needed are a clear international vision of goals. This note offers such a vision.

The future energy economy is likely to rely on a mix of renewables, nuclear energy, and synthetic fuels that can be used as substitutes for current fossil fuels (perhaps using recycled carbon, or noncarbon fuels, such as those based on ammonia) to provide abundant heat and efficient use of input resources (e.g., fuels, land, water, and labor). Synthetic fuels may become a major means of energy storage, and technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration and geothermal energy may also be important.

Performance requirements will include the ability both to produce energy on a scale greater than that of current consumption (e.g., >10,000 GW) and to provide electricity and fossil fuel substitutes (or their constituents such as heat, water, and hydrogen).

Siting decisions for alternative sources of energy will depend on the particular strengths of a location (e.g., for renewable technologies, access to strong wind or abundant sunlight). The resulting nonuniform distribution of sites would require operational scheduling and transportation of their products; dispatchable operations would be favored where possible.

With nuclear technologies, requirements for both very high safety and control of the risks of nuclear weapon proliferation would likely limit their use to industrialized countries, which are generally capable of strong controls in both areas. Nuclear products, such as synthetic fuels, would be provided to other countries but power reactors would not. Economies of scale and assurance of control might favor international, perhaps continental, arrangements for both nuclear fuel and waste disposal. If these cannot be achieved nuclear power may be nonviable, despite the likely severe need.

A market that permits economic competition among technologies offers the best promise of good results (in part by excluding unacceptable ones). But in the current energy economy, fossil fuels are sure to win in the economic competition among energy sources because they are superior to the nonemitting alternatives in terms of cost and convenience. Strong, large-scale government involvement in market policies and technology development is therefore essential both to change the rules of markets and to support the rapid development of needed technologies, which cannot be attained quickly enough from the private sector alone.

Government leadership will include consensus for urgent action, international cooperation, and policies such as heavy carbon taxes. Also needed are near-term harmonization of renewable technologies in the global energy mix, the policies and technologies to sustain them over the long term, and government incentives and direct support of technological development. These measures will require an international effort in which the largest economies (China and the G-7 countries, especially the United States) will lead because they have the greatest resources.

Bearing in mind that future versions of both renewable and nuclear technologies may be substantially different from those either in use or being pursued, strategies are needed for government programs to (1) formulate market policies, (2) fund progress on difficult long-term technological problems that are not adequately addressed in the private sector, (3) stimulate private sector actors to improve the energy economy, and (4) focus on long-term technological development.

The challenges are urgent but remain largely unrecognized as near-term problems at high governmental decision-making levels. The measures outlined here offer steps toward mitigating the impacts of climate change by redirecting the current energy economy away from fossil fuels in favor of sustainable alternatives.

 

FOOTNOTES

Readers wishing to comment on this piece are invited to contact the author (golay@mit.edu) and/or Bridge editor in chief Ron Latanision (rlatanision@exponent.com).

1 Solomon S, Plattner G-K, Knutti R, Friedlingstein P. 2009. Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106:1704–1709.

 

About the Author:Michael W. Golay is a professor in the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology