It is truly appalling to think that we have all the technological tools available to us to create a truly modern energy ecosystem and avert massive ecological disaster looming from climate change, and the only thing lacking is political will. Not only that, but we can achieve this without destroying the economic engines of the industrial world (a common complaint from right-wing conservatives when the subject of climate change is broached). To accomplish this we would need to move away from fossil fuels entirely (something that should be possible within a 20 year time frame by my estimation), which would have the added benefit of removing much of the financial base of fundamentalist Islamist terror groups such as ISIS. So what do we need to do?
The most obvious part of the solution is to continue to invest in renewable energy, primarily in the form of wind and solar. This is the part that is actually well on track, with huge investments being made world wide (and particularly in Europe, with Germany spearheading the charge). Wind and solar are already very competitive in price (see Apple’s recent announcement to invest big in solar energy for their buildings, bringing not only good PR but actually an estimated savings over using grid electricity).
However, they are no silver bullet to the energy problem. Both wind and solar suffer from reliability problems and have a certain amount of geographic dependency (solar works great near the equator but is nigh useless near the poles). Large scale energy storage is as yet an unsolved problem. Eventually we will have a world-wide smart grid with a huge superconducting backbone, possibly with space-based solar and/or fusion power covering the base load. Right now this is sci-fi and not reality, so what should we be doing with what we have available? In parallel with continued investment in renewables we should be overhauling the electric grid to handle much larger loads from electric vehicles (more on that later) and build a fully smart grid. With a smart grid the utility company is able to turn on and off devices such as fridges and air conditioning as needed to balance the power distribution, improving efficiency and, crucially, able to compensate for some of the reliability problems of wind and solar.
With all of this there is still going to be a need for base load power generation, and for this we should be investing heavily in nuclear fission to cover the last bit, while working to shut down all fossil fuel based power plants, starting with the abomination that is coal. Instead, we are seeing the opposite trend right now, with supposedly environmentally conscious Germany moving to tear down their existing nuclear infrastructure and building new coal plants to replace them. Similarly, France and Japan have both announced a reduction in reliance on nuclear power. Once again, the inevitable result will be increased fossil fuel consumption to fill the holes in electricity generation. This would almost be comical if it didn’t put our entire planet at risk by raising the continued CO2 pollution of some of the world’s biggest industrial powers.
At this point a large number of you will complain that nuclear is the worst possible option, and let’s not sugar coat it: there are real dangers associated with nuclear and there is no such thing as a 100% safe nuclear plant no matter what some proponents like to say. However, the dangers are also well understood and nuclear fission is not some uncontrollable magic, it is science. It is already safer than burning coal (and releases far less radioactivity into the environment). When you take into account the danger that climate change poses to our civilization the equation just comes out even better. The waste can be stored or reprocessed (note that the radioactive material used is mined from the earth in the first place and not magically created in the reactor). There is also enough fuel available to drive our civilization for centuries to come, especially if you add Thorium to the equation (a massively abundant radioactive material that can be used in advanced reactor technology), and it only needs to tide us over until fusion and/or space-based solar become a viable option.
The final piece of the energy puzzle is the move to all-electric transportation. To this end governments around the world should be investing heavily in creating cheap electric vehicles (working with established auto makers), slowly rising petrol taxes and building recharging infrastructure. This also requires us to upgrade electric grids and install more generating capacity to handle the influx of demand (which should also drop electricity prices, driving economic growth and making electric vehicles an even more attractive prospect). We should be working to phase out the internal combustion engine within the next 20 years (which will also reduce air and noise pollution in our cities as an added benefit).
Overall, this rather simple plan, if enacted by all major industrial powers, would be a massive boon to society. We eliminate the sword of Damocles that is global warming, drive economic growth, reduce pollution and clip the wings of the pathological fundamentalist Islamist movements in the Middle-East. It is win-win-win situation, all that is needed is the political will to pull it off, and an end to the irrational fear of nuclear fission that much of the public have (thank you media, for playing up the comparatively minor damage caused by the Fukushima meltdown, while almost ignoring the massive loss of life and destruction of infrastructure caused by the earthquake/tsunami combo all across Japan). Until next time, remember that science is the engine that drives prosperity.