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Experts Urge Policy-Makers, Industry to Develop New Energy Sources, Technology
Richard Harris, Lori Ryerkerk and John Holdren
At a unique panel discussion bringing together an oil and science policy expert, AAAS Board Chair John Holdren and ExxonMobil executive Lori Ryerkerk broadly urged policy makers and industry to increase research into breakthrough technologies to meet the global demand for affordable and reliable energy while reducing environmental impacts.
Though they came from vastly different perspectives, the speakers agreed that there must be significant investment into new energy-supply technologies and improved energy efficiency in transport, buildings, and industry in order for countries to meet their growing needs for energy services while limiting the impact of energy use on the environment.
John Holdren, director of the Woods Hole Research Center and Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, said that the biggest energy challenge facing society is not a shortage of energy, but rather how to use the traditional fuels like oil and coal in environmentally tolerable ways and how to develop and deploy cleaner energy technologies that are also affordable.
"The world is not running out of energy, as there are tremendous resources remaining of fossil fuels, uranium, and renewable energy in a wide variety of forms," said Holdren. "But, we are running out of cheap, easy, and accessible conventional oil and gas... and running out of the capacity of the environment to absorb energy's impacts without unacceptable consequences."
Holdren said that world leaders and industry must immediately begin to explore new, cleaner energy sources because "the world is running out of time to lessen the impacts of climate change."
"The energy system has a tremendous amount of inertia in it," Holdren said. "If you want a different energy system by 2050... you'd better start to change it now because the turnover time of energy facilities is typically 30 to 50 years."
Lori Ryerkerk, manager of government relations at ExxonMobil Corp., agreed that governments and industry must work diligently to meet the energy needs the world's growing population. The challenge, she said, is to design an energy management system that "allows the developing world to enjoy the lifestyle that we enjoy while still managing the climate challenge."
In order to do this, we must use all forms of energy including nuclear, biofuels, renewable, and fossil fuels, Ryerkerk said.
"It would be irresponsible to say we will quit using fossil fuels," she said, adding that she believes the world will still be 80% dependant on fossil fuels in 2030. "We simply have not identified another source to deliver energy to the world with a rising population and energy demand."
The panel discussion at AAAS headquarters was sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy; Georgetown University's Program on Science in the Public Interest; and the Smithsonian Institution's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The event, the second in a four-part "Science and Society: Grand Challenges" series, was moderated by Richard Harris, a science reporter for National Public Radio and a former AAAS Mass Media Fellow.
"The international debate has moved from the causes of climate change to examining solutions to address it," said Joanne Carney, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Congress "It is very important that the policy-makers, scientists and the public engage in open discussions about our emerging energy demands."
Holdren said that three challenges stand out in connection with meeting the world's energy needs over the next century.
First, he said, we must figure out how to meet the energy needs of the world's 2 billion poorest people, who today rely mainly on traditional energy sources fuelwood, charcoal, crop waste, and dung used in inefficient and highly polluting ways. Holdren said the resulting health impacts on the poor themselves are immense.
Second, Holdren said we must figure out how to meet the rising demand for personal transportation, while at the same time minimizing urban air pollution and the economic and foreign policy vulnerabilities associated with heavy oil dependence.
Finally, he said, we must figure out how to provide the reliable and affordable energy needed to create and sustain prosperity everywhere, without wrecking the climate with carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.
"The world is still over 80% dependent on fossil fuels," Holdren said. "With current technology, all of the carbon dioxide from burning these fuels is released straight into the atmosphere, and it is now transforming the climate of the Earth in ways that we are not going to like."
Beyond using other energy sources, Ryerkerk said that companies can look to technology for new ways to burn fossil fuels more efficiency.
She highlighted several technologies including clean coal that has been chemically washed of minerals and impurities and treated with steam to capture sulfur dioxide, Homogeneous Charge Compression Ignition (HCCI) engines that mix fuel and air leading to cleaner combustion and lower emissions, and carbon sequestration technologies that capture carbon emissions.
Holdren said that because the use of fossil fuels will continue for decades, carbon capture and sequestration, an expensive process that traps carbon and puts it underground, is something "we are going to have to do" in order to avoid intolerable disruption of climate.
"We are going to have to outfit most of the coal burning power plants with coal capturing sequestration technologies or we'll be cooked," Holdren said.
In addition to carbon sequestration, Holdren said that there is a lot of "low-hanging fruit" for reducing carbon dioxide emissions easier, less expensive approaches, particularly improving the energy-use manufacturing facilities, vehicles, and buildings and the equipment they contain.
"In the end we are going to have to do both," Holdren said. "We are going to have to grab the low-hanging fruit of those energy-efficiency options... and we are going to reach higher to do the costlier carbon capture and sequestration, as well."
Both speakers agreed that efforts to reduce the use of fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency in cars and houses, and promote research in new technologies are likely to raise the price of energy for the consumer. But as long as policy-makers and industry can show how the programs are creating cleaner, more efficient energy sources, consumers will be likely to support the initiatives, the speakers said.
"The number of people deeply worried about climate change and willing to pay more as long as they are convinced that the money will go to improving our energy options... is extremely high," said Holdren. "The public is ready for this."
When asked if implementing expensive carbon-capturing devices conflicts with a company's obligation to provide profits for stockholders, Ryerkerk said that a well-run business strives to be the most competitive in any environment.
"Our obligation to our stockholders is to ensure that we are the most competitive oil company out there," said Ryerkerk. "If there are carbon taxes or something spread across the economy, it is our challenge to do that more efficiency and better than anyone else."
Ryerkerk added that energy companies often have to develop products with different standards to meet the variety of national and international standards for energy. This raise the price of production, she said, adding that it also raise the price for the consumer.
When creating international policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Ryerkerk urged industrialized and developing nations to share the obligation to reduce global fossil fuel emissions. She added that by 2020, the developing nations will double the industrialized nations in the amount of fossil fuel emitted a year.
"To say that there will be no participation from the developing world is unworkable," said Ryerkerk. "Just to go after the already developed nations will never get you to the solution that you need."
Holden said that industrialized nations have a moral responsibility (as well as high economic and technological capacity) to lead the way in emissions control, adding that the "industrialized nations have contributed cumulatively about three-quarters of the problem up until now."
"It is perfectly logical for the developing nations to expect the industrialized nations to go first," said Holdren. But, he added, the developing countries would need to be brought into the framework rather quickly to "bend the world trajectory of carbon dioxide emissions down."
Both speakers agreed that to encourage both economic growth and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, policy makers, industry, and the public need to embrace a variety of initiatives, not a single miracle solution.
"You can't do it all with windmills or [fuel efficient] cars," said Holdren. "Don't look for a panacea look for a portfolio."
27 December 2007