Sustainable Energy

It’s Not Too Late

Our planet faces a grave threat from global warming and climate change, which are caused largely by emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases generated by human activity. Yet readily available energy technologies could be put in use today to forestall their worst effects. In this issue of Technology Review, we examine some of these technologies and argue that they require not further refinement but a considered, long-term strategy for their deployment.

Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide – the most common greenhouse gas – have shot up 32 percent in the last 150 years. Geological evidence and climate science suggest that we are approaching a tipping point beyond which sea levels will rise catastrophically. Nevertheless, immediate steps to sharply reduce emissions could still prevent the worst consequences of global warming, according to famed NASA climatologist Jim Hansen (see The Messenger,” by Mark Bowen). In the meantime, however, humankind is increasing, not decreasing, consumption of fossil fuels – and even getting cleverer about extracting them (see The Oil Frontier,” by Bryant Urstadt). For the foreseeable future, we will continue to burn fossil fuels: they now provide 80 percent of the world’s energy, and global energy demand will at least double by 2050. “Controlling carbon dioxide while also doubling energy use is a rather remarkable challenge to contemplate,” mused Ernest J. Moniz, an MIT physicist and former undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, earlier this year as he discussed an MIT research and education initiative aimed at confronting the energy crisis.

In meeting this remarkable challenge, we must, in particular, address the problem of coal. It is among the largest sources of carbon dioxide and, regrettably, is also the cheapest and most abundant fossil fuel. But cleaner technology – in which carbon dioxide could be captured and sequestered – is ready to go into new coal plants now (see The Dirty Secret,” by David Talbot). Similarly, improved versions of today’s nuclear power plants await construction (see The Best Nuclear Option,” by Matthew L. Wald). Unfortunately, implementation of cleaner technologies has been thwarted by federal aimlessness. The Energy Department keeps changing its nuclear-research strategy, and a “FutureGen” zero-emission coal demonstration project announced three and a half years ago by President Bush hasn’t yet picked a site.

This story is part of our July/August 2006 Issue
See the rest of the issue
Subscribe

At least one alternative energy technology is also coming into its own. Ethanol production from biomass is already a booming business in Brazil (see Brazil’s Bounty,” by Stephan Herrera); with help from bioengineered organisms, it could soon be efficient enough to compete directly with traditional energy sources (see Redesigning Life to Make Ethanol,” by Jamie Shreeve).

Multimedia

There is no escaping the reality that in the end, we will need an energy economy based on solar, wind, and other renewables (see It’s Not Too Early,” by Marty Hoffert). We’d like to have an all-renewable energy portfolio today. But we cannot wait any longer for new technologies, as Joseph Romm, an Energy Department renewable-energy official during President Clinton’s administration, made clear at a conference in April. “The point is,” he said, “whatever technology we’ve got now – that’s what we are stuck with to avoid catastrophic warming.”

Tech Obsessive?
Become an Insider to get the story behind the story — and before anyone else.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.