02.15.08

We need a breakthrough

Posted in Energy, Society at 13:05 by RjZ

Yesterday’s post was supposed to be about the changes in budget travel, but it was really about what happens when the developing world develops. The simple fact is that it’s usually great for individuals to have more cars and cellphones and food and fashion choices, but we’ve got to face that it’s not necessarily so great for trees and bunnies and the earth. As we humans take up more and more space, use more and more resources, and consume more and more energy, we’ll surely race towards a point where our status quo of cars and coal-plants will take too great a toll.

It doesn’t seem too far-fetch to suggest that we’re seeing the results today. And so, we sit in our comfortable homes wondering how the Chinese are going to fix the pollution in Beijing before the Olympics start. In this article a diplomat laments that as a Chinese he is being asked to give up what Europeans and U.S. Americans were never asked to give up. He’s asked to somehow develop his economy without coal and oil. How can we reasonably expect him to make do with a quarter of the CO2 output that we enjoy but still have enough power to produce the wealth and comfort we enjoy?

In Chennai, India, I saw window mounted air-conditioners blocking the view of nearly every apartment dweller, and who can blame them…it’s hot there! But those a/c units also consume plenty of electricity, supplied in Chennai, the same way we get it in the U.S., by burning things in power plants and producing CO2. A/C units are a bit like cars; how low their price can go is limited by the chunks of metal it takes to make them, not simply by the market’s ability to afford them. Despite the high cost, they’re popular in Chennai because the standard of living has increased so much in the past decade.

The correlation is obvious: high standard of living means high levels of energy consumption and since we don’t have many ways to produce large amounts of energy that don’t also make abundant amounts of CO2, expect the problem to get worse before it get’s better. Note: before everyone starts commenting about solar and wind, I said ‘large amounts of energy.’ Also note: comment anyway!

There may be a way out though, although probably no one knows what it is yet. If we’re lucky, along with all the new cars and cellphones that the better standard of living is bringing India, China and the developing world, people will have greater access to communication, information and education. All it takes is one really smart person to come up with the technological break-through that’s escaped us so far. It’s likely that such genius is one in a billion, but very soon, perhaps we’ll have a billion people working on it.

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