Select your localized edition:

Close ×

More Ways to Connect

Discover one of our 28 local entrepreneurial communities »

Be the first to know as we launch in new countries and markets around the globe.

Interested in bringing MIT Technology Review to your local market?

MIT Technology ReviewMIT Technology Review - logo

 

Unsupported browser: Your browser does not meet modern web standards. See how it scores »

{ action.text }

As people around the world celebrate Earth Day and call attention to the need to take care of natural resources, it’s not a bad time to note that the use of coal–one of the dirtiest fuels–is going up around the world in spite of the growth of renewable energy and in spite of efforts by environmentalists to decrease its use (see “The Enduring Technology of Coal” and Renewables Can’t Keep Up with the Growth in Coal Use Worldwide”). That’s because coal is a cheap and abundant source of power that’s been key to a surge in prosperity in the last few decades. 

Any efforts to curb the use of coal by increasing its price should take into account the effect that could have on bringing electricity to the poor. This calculation is particularly difficult because the impact of climate change on future generations is uncertain. Will the long-term damage from climate change overwhelm the short term benefits now? Who makes that decision? Who gets to tell the poor that they must put off getting electricity in the interest of future generations?

It’s tempting, especially for someone who writes about energy technology, to say the answer is to fund R&D and wait for technological developments. Breakthroughs, along with the accumulation of incremental advances, might make these difficult decisions easy. At some point, clean sources of energy might be so cheap that banning coal (or requiring the use of extreme technologies for capturing and securely storing all its pollutants) won’t hurt the poor.

But we don’t know that the innovations needed will ever happen, and even if they do, the fact is, they will take a long time to implement. They may reach the point of being able to substantially decrease coal consumption only after a lot of damage–some of which might not be repairable–has been done. Technological innovation won’t make the hard decisions go away (see “Climate Change: The Moral Choices”).

3 comments. Share your thoughts »

Tagged: Energy, climate change, pollution, renewable energy

Reprints and Permissions | Send feedback to the editor

From the Archives

Close

Introducing MIT Technology Review Insider.

Already a Magazine subscriber?

You're automatically an Insider. It's easy to activate or upgrade your account.

Activate Your Account

Become an Insider

It's the new way to subscribe. Get even more of the tech news, research, and discoveries you crave.

Sign Up

Learn More

Find out why MIT Technology Review Insider is for you and explore your options.

Show Me