Mark Twain said, “It is easier to fool people than to convince them they have been fooled.”
Policy, politics and popular opinion sometimes have little relationship to scientific knowledge. Modern science has grown so sophisticated that it has become difficult for the public and apparently some government officials to understand. Without understanding, it should be no surprise that so many question scientific truth.
Some think science is trying to convince people they have been fooled about climate change. That is not the role of science. The best that science can do is present what is known and how that knowledge was achieved. People can choose to believe it or not; though history tends to indicate your money might be safer betting on science.
A significant minority adamantly do not believe the science or urgency of climate change. At present, U.S. policy is at odds with itself. The Executive and most of the Congress oppose what every scientific authority reports on the subject. What most of us can agree with is the foolhardiness in today’s global economy of throwing money away on antiquated technology.
Another valid argument for a sustainable future does not hinge on the science of global warming. A rational argument can also be made on the economics of transitioning alone.
I’ve been reporting on the best available knowledge on the cost vs. benefit of an economic transition to sustainable energy. The economic benefits are clear and well documented. If it also reduces carbon emissions, so much the better. That transition would also lead to a reduction in pollution and respiratory illnesses.
Let’s tie up a few loose ends estimating the cost-benefit analysis of transitioning to renewables. Solar and wind are presently the big utility-scale players in sustainable power generation; but, these power generating systems also offer options for both public and private applications.
These data cover a period from the present to 2050. They are taken from Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, edited by Paul Hawken.
This information represents neither the highest or lowest estimates from a wide range of authoritative sources, but come closest to a happy median.
- Reduced CO2 = 24.6 Gigatons
- Net Cost = $453.1 Billion
- Net Savings = $3.46 Trillion
Note: Rooftop is also a significant means of supplying power to rural populations in developing countries, where national infrastructure has not yet developed sufficiently.
Concentrated Solar (or “Solar Thermal”)
- Reduced CO2 = 10.9 Gigatons
- Net Cost = $1.32 Trillion
- Net Savings = $413.9 Billion
Note: While not the greatest bang for the buck, concentrated solar eliminates some of the problems of power storage. A vessel of liquid heated by focused solar energy can retain enough heat to turn a turbine for some time without sunlight.
- Reduced CO2 = 9.2 Gigatons
- Net Cost = $11.8 Billion
- Net Savings = $1.0 Trillion
Note: At present, this source is still in its infancy. There are economic pressures from fishing and shipping that have slowed sufficient R&D funding for this underutilized and dependable 24/7 source of power. It is likely that many of the roadblocks will be removed as technological advances are made.
- Reduced CO2 = 7.5 Gigatons
- Net Cost = $402.3 Billion
- Net Savings = $519.4 Billion
Power storage technology is just beginning to explore efficient solutions. Gas and hydropower continue to serve as backups in the transition to sustainable power.
Hydropower produces almost no CO2. It supplies between 60 percent and 70 percent of Canada’s power mix. China is rapidly expanding the enormous potential of Himalayan hydropower as it spends trillions to transition from fossil fuels. Smaller, developing nations downstream are largely excluded in the race to capture this energy source. This has led to increasing tensions yet to be fully resolved.
Another form of stored water can also serve as a reliable and scalable power storage system. One form is called Pumped Hydro. Solar and wind power provide electricity during the day. Surplus power is used to pump water to higher elevation where it’s stored. When needed, gravity drives the water through turbines to keep the lights on. The synergy between this old and new technology provides uniform power when the there isn’t sufficient sunlight or wind. Spain and China are already bringing this technology to a massive industrial scale.
There are hundreds of domestic scale storage solutions. These range from thermal sinks to the Tesla Powerwall batteries and fuel cells.
National Academies of Science around the world have identified the necessity for reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). All the developed nations on Earth (the U.S. excepted) have signed pledges to do all they can to reduce emissions and transition to sustainable energy.
Study after study by private and public research groups have shown that the transition to sustainable energy is not only taking place, but that economic growth and public prosperity is continuing in the process. In some cases, economic growth may even accelerate as R&D brings on new innovative solutions.
Most studies agree that a sustainable transition will also mean significantly more and higher paying jobs than remaining on a fossil fuel economy.
The world is making progress. For the past two years, the rate of the world’s carbon emissions has stayed the same. We must now begin the process of lowering emissions toward the eventual goal of reaching zero GHGs. To successfully achieve a prosperous, safe, just and sustainable future, the global economy must undergo what is called “Deep Decarbonization.” This means the elimination of carbon emissions from all sectors of the global economy. The intent to do this was unanimously pledged by virtually all of the world’s nations at the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris.
University professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and Director of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (UNSDSN), identified four pillars of economic global “Deep Decarbonization:”
- Energy efficiency.
- Zero emissions electricity.
- Replacing fossil fuels with clean electricity in transportation, building and industry.
- Ensuring that nature’s role as a large sink of carbon emissions is recognized (geochemical and biological).
Economic theory and policy often exclude the fourth pillar as an “externality,” yet it forms the resource foundation of human enterprise, health and prosperity. Human dominion in the Anthropocene demands that future economic policy must not make the mistake of excluding this “natural capital” ever again.
W. Douglas Smith is an environmental scientist, environmental diplomat, explorer, educator and a retired Senior Compliance Investigator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he worked for 36 years.