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”).
How AI is reinventing what computers are
Three key ways artificial intelligence is changing what it means to compute.
These weird virtual creatures evolve their bodies to solve problems
They show how intelligence and body plans are closely linked—and could unlock AI for robots.
A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click
Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.
Surgeons have successfully tested a pig’s kidney in a human patient
The test, in a brain-dead patient, was very short but represents a milestone in the long quest to use animal organs in human transplants.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.