Have a look at what happened around the world this past month. Australia’s heat wave filled headlines when temperatures reaching 45oC disrupted the Australian Open tennis tournament. California’s extreme drought forced the governor to declare a state of emergency. Major floods in Indonesia killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands. Beijing’s coal-induced smog forced people to stay in their homes, closed highways and diverted flights.
Such events are daily warnings to the world: Wake up before it is too late.
The world has entered the age of sustainable development. Either people make peace with the planet or destroy the world’s hard-won prosperity.
The choice seems obvious, but actions speak louder than words. Humanity continues on a path of ruin, driven by short-term greed and ignorance.
Much — though not all — of the global environmental crisis stems from the world’s fossil-fuel-based energy system.
More than 80 percent of all primary energy in the world comes from coal, oil and gas. When these fossil fuels are burned, they emit carbon dioxide, which in turn changes the Earth’s climate. The basic physics has been known for more than a century.
Unfortunately, a few oil companies — ExxonMobil and Koch Industries are the most notorious — have devoted enormous resources to sowing confusion even where there is clear scientific consensus.
However, in order to save the planet and to preserve the world’s food supply and the well-being of future generations, people know there is no alternative to shifting to a new, low-carbon energy system.
There are three parts to this transition: The first is improved energy efficiency, meaning that people should use much less energy to achieve the same level of well-being. For example, people can design buildings to use sunlight and natural-air circulation so that they require far less commercial energy for heating, cooling, and ventilation.
Second, people need to shift to solar, wind, hydro, nuclear, geothermal and other forms of energy that are not based on fossil fuels.
The technology exists to use these alternatives safely, affordably and on a scale large enough to replace almost all of the coal and much of the oil, that the world uses. Only natural gas — the cleanest-burning fossil fuel — would remain a significant source of energy by mid-century.
Finally, to the extent that people continue to rely on fossil fuels, they must capture the resulting carbon dioxide emissions at power plants before they escape into the atmosphere. The captured carbon dioxide would then be injected underground or under the ocean floor for safe long-term storage. Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is already being used successfully on a very small scale — mainly to enhance oil recovery in depleted wells. Only if it proves successful for large-scale use, coal-dependent countries like China, India and the US could continue to use the reserves.
US politicians have proved to be incapable of designing policies to shift the US to low-carbon energy use. Such policies would include a rising tax on carbon dioxide emissions, large-scale research and development efforts in low-carbon technologies, a shift to electric vehicles and regulations to phase out all coal-fired power plants except those that install CCS.
Yet politicians are pursuing none of these policies adequately.