Clean energy innovation needs to be accelerated and the suite of potential breakthrough technologies expanded to slow the pace of global warming, said Joseph Hezir during a presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Hezir, managing director of the Energy Futures Initiative, a non-profit energy think tank dedicated to climate change solutions, said fulfilling the Paris Agreement on climate requires “increased ambitions” across the innovation spectrum and meeting mid-century benchmarks.
The Paris Agreement seeks to limit global temperature rise this century “well below 2 degrees Celsius” (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. Already, the global mean temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over the 20th century.
Such energy innovation will be costly and require revamped business models, significant federal, state and local funding and equitable public policies – the latter a point Jacqueline Patterson, senior director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, sounded in her presentation.
“We will innovate. There will be breakthroughs. There will be some disruptive changes. We don’t know what they will be,” Hezir said. “We should pursue all of these things, not cut off any avenues right now, and whatever strategies we have on the policy side they need to be sufficiently flexible so that they can adapt as we get new knowledge.”
The “Beyond Electricity – Climate Change and the 75% problem” symposium was held June 28 at AAAS’ Washington, D.C. headquarters by the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowship’s Energy and Climate Affinity Group, with contributions from AgriNuts, Biofuels, and Water Affinity Groups.
AAAS’ 20 Science & Technology Policy Affinity Groups are made up of current and alumni AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows selected annually to share their scientific perspective and gain hands-on experience shaping policy during year-long placements in congressional offices and federal agencies. The fellows establish the groups and frame them around specific scientific disciplines and host single- and multi-day symposia as well as informal scientific and social gatherings.
The one-day meeting featured breakout sessions on U.S. economic sectors responsible for 75% of greenhouse gas emissions and identified potential responses to lower emissions from the target sectors of agriculture; natural resources like logging, mining and water management; transportation; buildings; and industrial production like steel and cement.
Keeping greenhouse gas emissions in check and reducing energy consumption levels will require “tailored solutions that account for the unique challenges and opportunities in each subsector,” said Hezir. In the transportation sector alone, the U.S. vehicle fleet will need to speed up its move away from carbon dioxide-producing emission systems and accelerate “the move to emissions-free transportation, including widespread deployment of electric vehicles that are 100% battery-electric or hydrogen-fueled cell vehicles,” he added.
Clean energy innovations already are creating energy-sector newcomers, including ventures focused on applications for buildings, energy sources, data analytics, global drones, grids for smart cities and cyber-security. The new entrants emerge as the traditional energy industry itself is hampered, Hezir noted, by “considerable inertia, risk aversion, extensive regulation, and complex politics.”
Energy innovation also is largely concentrated along the nation’s two coasts leaving the middle part of the country without sufficient innovation capacity, speakers noted, a recognition that will demand solutions that can spark regional innovation.
The road forward calls for extensive investment in federal research and development funding and policy prescriptions responsive to regional differences that feature a range of varying energy sources like natural gas, wind, coal, solar, nuclear and hydropower generation systems.
Innovation efforts will need to concentrate on those with the greatest potential to curb the elevated emission rates coming from the industrial, transportation and buildings sectors’ and press forward zero-carbon energy generation and large-scale carbon management technologies, Hezir added. Innovation in these areas can decentralize U.S. manufacturing hubs and increase regional economic development. Artificial intelligence, blockchain and genomic science synthetic biology technologies also invite breakthroughs.
In considering how such changes may exacerbate social inequality, Patterson noted that energy production has historically negatively impacted vulnerable communities. Energy transformation will need to incorporate policies that avoid the creation of food deserts, unhealthy housing stocks and localized water and air pollution, she said.
The coal industry has taken the lives of 76,000 miners due to black lung disease since 1968, Patterson cited as an example, quoting the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. A found that nearly 70% of African Americans live within 30-miles of coal fired power plants that emit not just sulfur dioxide, but other harmful pollutants that “pose negative health effects that shorten or compromise life.”
Patterson said adoption of a “living economy” is needed to curb social inequities. Such a system relies on local-based energy sources that provide local employment and food production. It works to end the placement of landfills near poor neighborhoods, exposing vulnerable communities to contaminated soil and air quality and elevated levels of truck traffic.
“The Earth will survive. It’s just a matter of whether we will be on it,” Patterson said. “The Earth is going to view us as some virus or bacteria that it needs to expel, or we are really going to start to recognize the power of the Earth and be in harmony with it.”
[Associated image: Kat Song/AAAS]