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TR: Let’s talk about policy, then. The prospects for a strong climate bill in the U.S. Congress now look dim. So do the chances for any binding international treaty. But almost everyone agrees that there needs to be a price on carbon or a tax.

BG: No, that’s not right. It’s ideal to have a carbon tax, not just a price on carbon, which is this fuzzy word that includes cap-and-trade. You’re using the tax to create a mode shift to a different form of energy generation. And then you just take all the carbon-emitting plants, you look at their lifetime, and you say on a certain date this one has to be shut down and when a new one is put in place, it has to be low-CO2-emitting.

That’s a regulatory approach, and it’s very clear. Innovators are designing things for the power-plant buyers 10 years from now, who are looking at the regulatory and tax environment for the next 40 years. If you said to a utility company executive, which is more likely to stay in place: a cap-and-trade thing, whose price will vary all over the map, that will have some international things that will be shown to be a waste of money? Or a tax and a regulatory framework for plant replacement over the next 50 years? We should have a carbon tax. What we owe the developing world is this: we’re willing to pay high prices for energy plants above coal and drive prices down the curve so by the time they need to buy them, they don’t have to pay the high price.

TR: That sounds politically unlikely.

BG: Which is more likely: a carbon tax with all sorts of markets and options and uncertainties about prices, and traders in the middle, and confusion about who initially gets the most advantage? Or a regulatory thing and a 2 percent tax to fund the R&D so that utilities know they can buy a plant that’s emitting hardly any CO2? Raising energy prices by 2 percent and sending it to R&D activities seems easier in a weak economy than raising them 20 percent. Now, 0 percent is the easiest option of them all, but unfortunately, that doesn’t get us the solution to this problem.

TR: You’re saying that meeting our energy needs will be both highly complicated and fraught with unknown problems.

BG: It is disappointing that some people have painted this problem as easy to solve. It’s not easy, and it’s bad for society if we think it is, because then funding for R&D doesn’t happen.

TR: You’ve talked about the need for “energy miracles.” But we’ve been waiting for such breakthroughs for decades. TerraPower is a traveling-wave reactor, a design that dates back to the 1950s.

BG: Well, no, we haven’t been working on those things. The nuclear industry was effectively shut down in the late ’70s. And so evolutionary improvements on those so-called Gen 3 designs really didn’t happen, and more radical things didn’t happen.

But let me get back to the main thrust of your question. The CO2 problem is simple. Any amount you emit causes warming, because there’s about a 20 percent fraction that stays for over 10,000 years. So the problem is to get essentially to zero CO2 emissions. And that’s a very hard problem, because you have sources like agriculture, rice, cows, and small sources out with the poorest people. So you better get the big sources: you better get rich-world transportation, rich-world electricity, and so on to get anywhere near your goal. If X or Y or Z gets you a 20 percent reduction in CO2, then you’ve just got the planet, what, another three years? Congratulations! I mean, is that what we have in mind: to delay Armageddon for three years? Is that really it?

The U.S. uses, per person, over twice as much energy as most other rich countries. And so it’s easy to say we should cut energy use through better buildings and higher MPG and all sorts of things. But even in the most optimistic case, if the U.S. is cutting its energy intensity by a factor of two, to get to European or Japanese levels, the amount of increased energy needed by poor people during that time frame will mean that there’s never going to be a year where the world uses less energy. The only hope is less CO2 per unit of energy. And no: there is no existing technology that at anywhere near economic levels gives us electricity with zero CO2.

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Credit: Brad Swonetz/Redux

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