Journal Article - Innovations

Energy for Change: Introduction to the Special Issue on Energy & Climate Change

| Fall 2009

Excerpt from "Energy for Change: Introduction to the Special Issue on Energy & Climate Change":

"Without energy, there is no economy. Without climate, there is no environment. Without economy and environment, there is no material well-being, no civil society, no personal or national security. The overriding problem associated with these realities, of course, is that the world has long been getting most of the energy its economies need from fossil fuels whose emissions are imperiling the climate that its environment needs.

Compounding that predicament are emissions from land-use change—above all, deforestation in the developing countries of the tropics. Like society’s choices about energy supply and use, this process has been driven by powerful economic and political forces insufficiently moderated by understanding or consideration of the environmental component of societal well-being.

This is no longer a hypothetical or distant issue. It is real and it is upon us. The climate is changing markedly nearly everywhere. The air and the oceans are warming, mountain glaciers are disappearing, permafrost is thawing, sea ice is shrinking, the great land ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are slipping, and sea level is rising. And the consequences for human well-being are already being felt: more heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires; tropical diseases reaching into the temperate zones; vast areas of forest being destroyed by pest outbreaks linked to warming; hurricanes and typhoons of greater power; and coastal property increasingly at risk from the surging seas.

All this is happening faster than was expected. Sea level is rising at twice the average rate for the 20th century. The volume of sea ice in the Arctic (its area times its average thickness), which reaches a seasonal minimum every September, appears to have been smaller in September 2008 than in any year of the last 30—the period in which we’ve been able to estimate this variable. In that same 30 years, the average area annually burned by wildfires in the western United States has quadrupled.

Nor is the primary cause of these changes any longer in serious doubt. The primary cause is the emission of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants from our factories, homes, offices, vehicles, and power plants, and from land clearing. We also know that failure to curb these emissions will bring far bigger impacts from global climate change than those experienced so far. Drastic changes in weather patterns, sharp drops in the productivity of farms and ocean fisheries, a dramatic acceleration of species extinctions, and inundation of low-lying areas by rising sea level are among the possible outcomes.

But we also know what we can and must do to avoid the worst of these possibilities. We must work together—East and West and North and South—to transform our technologies for supplying and using energy from polluting and wasteful to clean and efficient. We must create new incentives and agreements to accelerate this transformation, and to bring deforestation and other destructive land-use practices to a halt around the world. And we must invest in adaptation efforts to reduce our vulnerability to the degree of climate change that can no longer be avoided.

We can do this together. And when we do, we will benefit not only by avoiding the worst damage from climate change, but also by reducing our perilous overdependence on petroleum, alleviating the air pollution that afflicts our cities, preserving our forests as havens for biodiversity and sources of sustainable livelihoods, and unleashing a new wave of technological innovation—generating new businesses, new jobs, and new growth in the course of creating the clean and efficient energy systems of the future.

The key question we now need to heed about what the science of climate change is telling us is how much progress we need to make with these measures,and how quickly, to have a good chance of avoiding climate changes more extreme than our adaptation efforts will be able to manage. And the science is increasingly clear in pointing to the conclusion that it will be essential to hold the global average temperature increase to no more than two degrees Celsius if we are to keep climate change to a manageable level.

It is likewise clear that if we are to have a good chance of meeting this goal, global emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping pollutants must level off by about 2020 and decline thereafter to something like 50 percent of the current levels by 2050, with continuing declines after that. Allowing for the larger historical responsibility and much higher current per capita emissions of the industrialized countries and for the development trajectories and aspirations of the developing ones, the most likely way to achieve this goal would be for the industrialized world to level off its emissions by 2015 and reduce them thereafter to around 20 percent of current levels by 2050, with the developing countries following after a lag of about a decade, leveling off their emissions by about 2025 and reducing them after that.

These are targets that we can meet. As the content of this special issue of Innovations illustrates, the solutions to our climate challenge aren’t just "out there," they are right here—before your eyes, in your hands. Climate solutions are in California, which thirty years ago charted a course toward energy efficiency that other states are only now beginning to follow. They are in Brazil, which generates 50% of the fuel used in its cars from home-grown sugarcane. They are in New Hampshire, where a company started by a former nuclear engineer is working to develop the carbon capture and storage technologies that will be essential for a cleaner coal future. They are in Hawaii, where plug-in electric vehicles are quietly becoming a reality. And they are in Arkansas, where the world’s biggest company—Walmart—is establishing standards for energy use and carbon reductions that will apply not only to its global operations but to its entire supply chain.

These and the other innovations described in this special issue are not isolated anecdotes. Nor are they elements of any single grand plan. They are simply a few of the many pathways to progress created every day by citizens, by the businesses that serve them, and by the governments that represent them. Such pathways derive from another other type of energy vital to addressing our climate challenges: the creative energy of people who, through ingenuity, partnerships, and collaborations, are able to cut through complexity to arrive at practical solutions. We can ask for no better guides than they to lead us toward the prosperous and secure future to which we all aspire...."

This article was originally published by the quarterly journalInnovations.Read the entire issue here.

For more information on this publication: Please contact Science, Technology, and Public Policy
For Academic Citation: Holdren, John P.. Energy for Change: Introduction to the Special Issue on Energy & Climate Change.” Innovations, vol. 4. no. 4. (Fall 2009):