Focus: Energy Technology for Sustainable Development

April 25, 2005
John P. Holdren

The Harvard Crimson
Human well-being rests on a foundation of three pillars: economic conditions and processes (employment, income, wealth creation, trade…); sociopolitical conditions and processes (family, community, personal and national security, access to justice…); and environmental conditions and processes (air and water quality, nutrient cycles, climate…). Arguments about which pillar is “the most important” are misguided. All three pillars are indispensable.
A particularly pernicious misconception equates “development” with economic growth alone and imagines that sacrificing the condition of the environment to achieve such growth is a necessary even if regrettable cost of doing business. But economic gains won in this way mortgage our future well-being and that of our children and grandchildren. We need to think of “development” as meaning improvement of the human condition in all of its dimensions—environmental and sociopolitical as well as economic—and “sustainable development” as meaning that this is done by means and to end points that are consistent with maintaining the improvements indefinitely.
Energy is a two-edged sword in this connection. Affordable, reliable energy is essential for meeting basic human needs and for powering economic growth. But the energy technologies we use today are responsible for a large share of the biggest environmental threats to human well-being. Energy is responsible for most indoor and outdoor air pollution, most of the acidification of rainfall caused by human activities, most of the oil polluting the seas, most radioactive waste, and much of the environmental burden of toxic trace metals.
The most dangerous and intractable of all of the impacts of human activities on the environment is the disruption of the global climate by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, above all carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels. This is the most dangerous of environmental impacts because climate is the “envelope” within which all other environmental conditions and processes must operate. If the envelope is distorted too much, as we appear to be well on our way to doing, every part of the environment is at risk. And the disruption of climate by greenhouse gases is the most intractable of environmental issues because the fossil-fuel technologies responsible for most of the problem are currently contributing nearly 80 percent of civilization’s energy and cannot be quickly or cheaply modified to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide.
How, then, can we supply the energy needed to create economic prosperity where it does not yet exist, and to sustain prosperity where it does, without wrecking the climate? Continuing with energy “business as usual” will not do. A scenario in the middle of the range considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in terms of economic growth, energy-efficiency improvements, and reduction in fossil-fuel dependence during the 21st century ends up with nearly three times the pre-industrial atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration by 2100—a trajectory that seems likely to have intolerable impacts on global climate long before then. Can that be avoided without similarly intolerable impacts on the world’s aspirations for economic prosperity?
Yes, but only with a far larger investment in improving society’s energy technologies than we are making today. Providing the energy services to meet society’s needs in this century while averting unmanageable climatic change will only be possible with the help of large technological improvements in some combination of the following forms:
We must increase the efficiency with which raw energy is converted into the energy goods and services that people want (comfortable rooms, convenient transportation, competitive manufacturing capabilities…).
We must improve the performance and economics of renewable-energy technologies (those using sunlight, biomass, wind, and so on), in order to expand the share of energy needs that they can meet.
We must redouble efforts to improve nuclear-reactor protections against accidents and terrorism, to appropriately manage radioactive wastes, and to preclude misuse of civil nuclear energy for making nuclear weapons, in order to see whether a large expansion of this further carbon dioxide-free energy source can be made practical.
We must try to develop and deploy advanced fossil-fuel technologies that can capture carbon dioxide and sequester it away from the atmosphere at affordable cost, thus allowing continued large-scale use of fossil-fuels in a greenhouse-gas-constrained world.
Current efforts in energy-technology research, development, and demonstration (RD&D)—and in accelerated deployment of the best low- and no-carbon dioxide options that such RD&D produces—are woefully inadequate to the scale of the challenge. U.S. public and private spending on energy-technology RD&D totals only $5-6 billion per year, less than one percent of what we spend as a nation for electricity and fuels. The situation in other industrialized countries is no better, and in developing countries it is worse. Around the world, the energy sector’s ratio of RD&D investments to total revenues is far lower than for any other high-tech sector of the economy. These investments will need to be boosted at least two- to three-fold if we are to be able to meet the energy-climate challenge we face in the decades immediately ahead.
Our representatives in Congress protest that increases in federal investments in energy RD&D are not in the cards given current budget realities. But a doubling of those investments could be funded with an increase of two cents per gallon in the federal gasoline tax. As for the private sector’s investments in developing and deploying low- and no-carbon dioxide energy options, these will start to rise significantly only when there is a marketplace incentive for such action, either in the form of a carbon tax or its practical equivalent in the form of economy-wide emissions caps implemented through tradable permits. Until our government starts to spend more on advanced energy technologies and gives the private sector incentives to do the same, declarations that technology is going to solve the energy-climate challenge are just so much hot air.

John P. Holdren is the Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government.


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