Can Technology Solve the Climate Crisis?

Posted on Friday, February 13th, 2009 at 3:46 pm by dpacheco

The following is an excerpt from Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide by Peter Barnes. It has been adapted for the Web.

What about technology?

Our technologies got us into this mess, so it’s natural to wonder if technology can get us out.

The answer is that technology is part of the solution, but not the whole solution, and not what will drive the solution. Rather, better technologies will emerge when the market and government flaws are fixed.

The other truth is, we can’t count on a magic technofix to rescue us from climate change. Most of the technologies we need to meet our climate goals are already known. The challenge is bringing them to scale. That scaling up can be speeded by public policies, and as that’s done, the prices of these technologies will come down.

Here are some other things to understand about technologies.

Fossil fuels are unique

There’s no other source of energy that’s as concentrated and convenient as fossil fuels. This means we can’t simply replace fossil fuels with something else. We also have to use less energy, and use it smarter.

Solar, wind, and tidal power

Solar, wind, and tidal power—like the power of falling water—are free gifts of nature. We’ve made great strides in harnessing them efficiently. Their chief problem is that they’re intermittent and spread out. To take maximum advantage of them, we need a smart electric grid that can move these kinds of power from where they’re harvested to where electricity is needed.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen isn’t a source of energy—it takes energy to make it. (It has to be extracted from water or fossil fuels.) Its value is that, once made, it can be stored, transported, and used without emitting greenhouse gases.

Hydrogen’s usefulness as a climate solution depends on how it’s made. If it’s extracted from water using solar, wind, or tidal power, it will be a boon. If we have to burn carbon to get hydrogen, it won’t help much at all.

Nuclear energy

Scientists once thought nuclear power would be “too cheap to meter.” It didn’t turn out that way. Nowadays, nuclear power is hugely expensive and exists only because of subsidies.

Nuclear energy has another big problem: safety. It’s not just that a plant can get out of control (as at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl). It’s also that the wastes from nuclear plants are radioactive—and stay that way for thousands of years. On top of that, the same materials that fuel nuclear power plants can be used for bombs. A world with thousands of nuclear power plants would be a dangerous world indeed.

Biofuels

Biofuels are liquid fuels made from plants—ethanol (grain alcohol) and bio-diesel (made from vegetable oil) are best known. They require energy and chemicals to produce, and they emit carbon when burned (though less carbon than fossil fuels). In theory, biofuels can be made from non-edible plants grown on land not suitable for food production, and such new forms of farming should be promoted. But if demand for biofuels rises, it will be hard to stop food farmers from diverting land, water, and other resources to biofuels. That will drive up food prices and raise the question of whether we would we rather drive or eat.

Geo-engineering

Some clever people want to scatter iron filings on the oceans to stimulate growth of phytoplankton. In theory, these oceanic plants would absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The trouble is, they’d also disrupt marine ecosystems, with unforeseeable consequences.

Other tinkerers would fill the sky with reflective particles that, in theory, would reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth. This too carries great risks.

The problem with all geo-engineering schemes is that they could take us from the frying pan into the fire. When internal combustion engines were invented, no one imagined they’d disrupt the climate. Similarly, when coolants like Freon were introduced, no one suspected they’d dissolve the Earth’s ozone shield. The truth is, we know so little about the Earth’s systems that we could easily trigger another disaster by pursuing these strategies on a large scale.

We can do it

There’s no doubt that, once Americans make up our minds, we can rise to almost any challenge. During World Wars I and II, we drafted men, sent women into factories, raised taxes, and rationed commodities such as oil and food. In both cases, we not only won the wars but gave our economy huge boosts.

Solving the climate crisis won’t require the same degree of mobilization as the two World Wars did, but it will require a new, economy-wide system for limiting our use of the atmosphere, and new priorities for public investment.

Fortunately, if designed right, these climate solutions can be good for our economy. They can spur investment, create jobs, and lift millions out of poverty.

The challenge is to make the necessary fixes and keep them in place for 40 years.

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