Breakthrough Dialogue 2014: High-Energy Planet
June 22 – 24, 2014
For the last 40 years, rising energy production and consumption have been widely viewed as inherently destructive of nature. A steady stream of government, United Nations, and environmental proposals have identified lowered energy consumption as the highest goal of climate and environmental policy. But during that same period, global per capita energy consumption has risen by 30 percent. And over the next century, global energy consumption is anticipated to double, triple, or more. The reality of our high-energy planet demands that we rethink environmental protection. The question for Breakthrough Dialogue 2014 is, “How might a high-energy planet save nature?”
There are precedents. Cheap modern energy has allowed societies to spare their forests, restore depleted soils, and return marginal agricultural lands to nature. It has allowed for urbanization, which has shrunk and continues to shrink the footprint of human settlement. Today's more than 3.5 billion urban dwellers live on less than three percent of the Earth’s surface. The intensification of agriculture has allowed for food production to rise dramatically with only a small increase in agricultural land area. Natural gas and nuclear have both spared land, water, and air pollution from coal mining and burning. Higher levels of energy consumption are correlated with higher rates of urbanization, more intensive food production, and more efficient uses of resources.
A world with cheaper and cleaner energy could be a world where humans tread more lightly, leaving more space for other species while reducing pollution. Cheap, clean energy could power advanced water treatment plants that remove phosphorous from livestock effluents, returning clean water to rivers and recycling phosphorous as a fertilizer. Desalination could spare aquifers, rivers, and lakes, while rehabilitating freshwater ecosystems. Materials recycling and incineration could make landfills a thing of the past. And vertical agriculture could spare more land for non-humans.
There is no guarantee that a high-energy planet will be a better place for nature. While land used for agriculture has grown only modestly, frontier agriculture continues to devastate old growth rainforests in Indonesia and Brazil. Coal continues to be the fastest growing fuel, and the carbon intensity of the global economy has in recent years been increasing. And while consumption of some key resource inputs such as wood and non-agricultural water appear to have peaked, demand for others is still growing rapidly.
Ultimately, what will determine whether our high-energy planet is better or worse for nature will be the ways in which our technologies, our economies, our values, and our politics evolve. What are the ways that we might shape the trajectory of the current transition and what are the ways that we won’t? What does an ecomodernist politics look like that is simultaneously realistic and aspirational about the future of the planet?
Breakthrough Paradigm Award
We are proud to announce that the Breakthrough Paradigm Award 2014 will go to Jesse Ausubel, a visionary ecomodernist scholar and author of seminal works about how humans save nature, including “The Liberation of the Environment” and “Renewable and Nuclear Heresies.” Jesse is Director of the Program for the Human Environment at The Rockefeller University, and since the 1970s has worked on issues relating to climate change, energy transitions, and land use. In 2013, Jesse published a paper on “Peak Land” declaring that the amount of the biosphere dedicated to agriculture has peaked and will decline. Over the years, as the ranks of ecomodernists has grown, Jesse’s work has reached a wider audience seeking to understand how to “decouple” economic growth from environmental destruction.
- Jesse will accept his award and be interviewed on stage by Emma Marris, author of Rambunctious Garden and recipient of the 2013 Breakthrough Paradigm Award.
2014 Breakthrough Dialogue Panels
The Inevitability and Implications of a High-Energy Planet
While the United Nations and President Barack Obama have recently called for modestly higher levels of energy consumption by the world’s poorest people, for the most part the West has imagined that total global energy consumption could be reduced to deal with climate change. But Nigeria and Pakistan are no more likely to ask the West’s permission to burn fossil fuels than did China and India. And for the whole world to live at the living standards of Germany — a country with half the per capita energy consumption of the United States — global energy consumption will need to triple and more likely quadruple by 2100. It is clearer than ever that we are not running out of fossil fuels, with centuries of coal, oil, and gas reserves remaining available for future use. How then will environmental concerns generally, and climate concerns in particular, be addressed going forward? What moral, political, and techno-economic framework should guide ecomodernists?
- Roger Pielke, Jr., Professor, Environmental Studies, University of Colorado, Boulder
- Jesse Ausubel, Director, Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University
- Joyashree Roy, Professor of Economics, Jadavpur University, India
- Moderator: David Keith, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics; Professor of Public Policy, Harvard University
Energy Transitions, Past and Future
Past energy transitions may offer important lessons about future ones. While the scarcity of incumbent fuels plays a role in the pace of diffusion of new technologies, it is most often the emergence of new end-use “energy services” (eg, new forms of transportation, lighting, power, heating/cooling) that drive energy transitions. New technologies emerge in niche markets, often in industries and among the elite, and gradually come down in price, allowing them to broadly diffuse into economies. For over three centuries, societies have moved from more carbon-intensive to less carbon-intensive fuels, and from fuels with lower energy densities to higher energy densities (eg, wood to coal to natural gas). Global per capita energy consumption has steadily risen. Given this history, is it realistic to expect societies to reverse this 300 year-long history and start using less energy, with more of it from energy-diffuse fuels (eg, solar and wind)? Is it more realistic to expect a turn to energy-dense nuclear when its costs have been rising rather than falling over time? What new end-use technologies might drive the next energy transition?
- Roger Fouquet, Principal Research Fellow, Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics
- Arnulf Grubler, Professor in the Field of Energy and Technology, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Yale University
- Moderator: Oliver Morton, Briefings Editor, The Economist
Wood to Fossil — and the Implications for Global Warming
Helping poor nations that rely on wood and dung for fuel raises the uncomfortable reality that they will need to massively increase their consumption of fossil fuels. For 40 years, leading Western environmental organizations have opposed energy development projects in poor nations, arguing that solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal are better investments for Western governments than coal and natural gas power plants. But now a growing number of development experts and advocates are saying that global warming should not be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people, while Africans point to huge reserves of oil and gas that have until today been disproportionately developed for export, not domestic consumption. Do renewables like solar and wind represent a plausible path to development for the poor? Is it right for the West, which developed thanks to coal, oil, and gas, to tell Nigerians and Pakistanis that they should not have fossil energy? Can concerns about energy access and global warming be reconciled?
- John Asafu-Adjaye, Associate Professor, School of Economics, The University of Queensland
- Kate Hoshour, Senior Research Fellow, International Accountability Project (invited)
- Moderator: Fred Pearce, Journalist, The Ecologist Magazine
Can More Energy Save Nature?
Rising energy consumption has long been synonymous with the destruction of nature, but can greater energy consumption also save it? Coal allowed societies to spare their forests, restore depleted soils, and return marginal agricultural lands to nature. Now, in some countries, natural gas is replacing coal. Cheap energy allowed for urbanization, which has shrunk and continues to shrink the footprint of human settlement. In the future, energy-intensive desalination could spare aquifers, rivers, and lakes, while rehabilitating freshwater ecosystems. Energy-intensive materials recycling and incineration could make landfills a thing of the past. And energy-intensive vertical farming could spare more land for non-humans. Or is this rosy ecomodernist vision a mere fantasy? Will unlocking cheap energy in fact result in accelerated nature destruction in the tropics, precisely those places where biodiversity is greatest? Will greater access to cheap energy result not in urban density but rather greater suburban sprawl?
How might societies get organized at an ideological, institutional, and technological level to achieve a high-energy planet that improves rather than degrades environmental quality?
- Linus Blomqvist, Director, Conservation and Development Program, Breakthrough Institute
- Paul Ekins, Professor of Energy and Environment Policy, University College London
- Kieran Suckling, Executive Director, Center for Biodiversity
- Brad Plumer, Reporter
Ecomodernism and the West
The sixties-era ideology that equates saving nature with small-is-beautiful has come under challenge in recent years by poor and developing nations, as well as by ecomodernists in the West. Saving the climate and meeting human needs will require large power plants not small ones, they say. Saving wilderness will require intensified agriculture and urbanization, not small organic farms and continued subsistence farming. But if modernization and energy development is a relatively easy sell in Nigeria, can such a politics have purchase in the West? While poor people might march in South Africa for coal-fired electricity, will rich people ever march in the streets for nuclear? Where the Left rejects big energy and agriculture, the Right rejects the developmental state. Can a politics that embraces modernization and the developmental state have popular resonance in wealthy post-scarcity societies? Or should ecomodernists seek instead to help policy makers directly and not worry about the public?
- Dan Kahan, Professor of Law, Yale University
- Mark Sagoff, Professor of Philosophy, George Mason University
- Amy Harmon, Reporter, New York Times
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