The surest bet on the future of energy is the need for low-carbon energy supplies. About 80 percent of the world’s primary energy today is carbon based: coal, oil, and gas. We will need to shift to no-or-low carbon energy by mid-century. The big questions are how and when?
Low-carbon primary energy means three options: renewable energy, including wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and biomass; nuclear energy; and carbon capture and sequestration, which means using fossil fuels to create energy, but trapping the carbon dioxide emissions that result and storing the carbon safely underground.
There are three compelling reasons for the world to shift to low-carbon energy. First, higher levels of carbon dioxide are making the world’s oceans acidic. If we continue with business as usual, we will end up destroying a vast amount of marine life, severely damaging the food chains on which we rely.
Second, carbon dioxide is dangerously changing the world’s climate, even if many big oil interests would have us believe otherwise. (So, too, did the tobacco companies spend vast sums on political lobbying and bogus science to deny the links between smoking and lung cancer.)
Third, we face steeply rising prices for fossil fuels as developing countries’ growth drives up demand and conventional supplies of coal, oil and gas are depleted. Sure, more fossil fuels can be found, but at a much higher cost and at a much greater environmental risk from industrial spills, waste products, leaks and other damage.
Even the heralded shale-gas revolution is a lot of hype — similar to the gold rushes and stock bubbles of the past. Shale-gas wells deplete far more rapidly than conventional fields and they are environmentally dirty to boot.
The US has developed many new low-carbon energy technologies, but other countries are currently far more intent, far-sighted and decisive than the US to put these technologies to large-scale use. Politically, the US is still the land of big oil. Americans are bombarded by industry-funded media downplaying climate change, while countries that are much poorer in fossil fuels are already making the transition to a low-carbon future.
Germany and France are showing the way forward to a low-carbon future. They are going about it in ways that reflect their different resource endowments, industrial histories and political pressures.
Germany is undertaking the “Energiewende,” or transition to sustainable energy — a remarkable effort (indeed, unprecedented for a large advanced economy) to meet the country’s entire energy demand with renewable energy, especially solar and wind power.
Meanwhile, France relies heavily on low-carbon nuclear power and is switching rapidly to electric vehicles, such as the pioneering Renault-Nissan Leaf.
Of the two approaches, Germany’s is the more unusual bet. After Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant disaster, Germany decided to shut down its entire nuclear power industry and shift to a strategy based on greater energy efficiency (lower energy input per unit of national income) and renewable energy. There is no clear roadmap for such a huge energy transformation and Germany will almost surely need to rely on a European-wide electricity grid to share clean energy, and eventually on imported solar power from North Africa and the Middle East.