Growing Pains - Transitioning to a Sustainable Energy Economy

author: John B. Heywood, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Stephen Ansolabehere, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: April 19, 2013,   recorded: November 2006,   views: 2853

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Both small, private and large, public actions are essential if we’re to have any hope of addressing global warming and achieving a sustainable energy future.

John Heywood lays out three options for making some immediate inroads: conservation, which he says has somehow become a “bad word;” improving mainstream technology; and finding new ways to produce and use energy. First, the public must put aside delusions that new technologies “will save us.” Hydrogen fuel cells and plug-in hybrids “are not there in terms of practicality.” So, says Heywood, we “must get on the broader path that says the energy you and I use in the individual, small-scale sense must be far less per task.” Why heat a 2000- square-foot home when “the square footage I occupy is two?” wonders Heywood. Improve the fuel consumption of the current internal combustion engine, and press auto manufacturers for small cars that can get 200 miles per gallon. Run the numbers on your home’s energy costs, encourages Heywood, and tell your neighbors to switch off their lights.

We’re “humans with appetites,” and we need market-based incentives to change. We need help from regulatory and fiscal policies as well to shape up. “It’s me and you, what we do, what we buy, how we use it – all these things – that will start us down the path,” says Heywood.

One giant obstacle to our self-reform, says Stephen Ansolabehere, is the fact that “energy is abundant and cheap.” The U.S., like China and India, sits on a huge pile of coal that could very well power our lives for the next 300 to 3,000 years – if global warming doesn’t first destroy the world’s economies. We’ve been lulled into complacency, and so carbon emissions per person in the U.S. continue to rise, with China and India on the same trajectory.

Right now, the menu of alternative energy sources like solar panels and hybrid cars don’t appeal to Americans because they cost more than the usual fare. The key is to “make coal on the same scale of price with other technologies,” says Ansolabehere, “to make other technologies competitive.”

So, asks Ansolabehere, “How do we get the U.S. under control, and then engage China and India?” His simple answer: “Taxes change behavior.” Europe and Japan successfully demonstrate this approach. They acknowledge the costs coal imposes on society by taxing pollution, and have a much lower rate of emissions per capita than the U.S. One small, promising sign, he says, is that American consumers seem slightly more open to a carbon tax (a fee paid by companies, and then passed on to consumers) today than they were three years ago. The cap and trade system offers a gentler push on companies to lower carbon emissions, but citizens must forcefully lobby their political representatives to support this alternative. Without these larger efforts, it will be extremely difficult to reduce our collective carbon emissions as we cling to comfortable lifestyles.

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