Michael Shellenberger to Speak at 18th Annual POWER Conference on March 22

Jayson Lusk

Jayson Lusk

Stephanie Romañach

Krithi Karanth

Pedro Sanchez

Danielle Nierenberg

Andrew McAfee

Erik Brynjolfsson

Steven Pinker

Susanna Hecht

Luis Bettencourt

Robert Atkinson

Avoiding Backfires in Brazil

Full article is available here.
Read more responses here.

In her essay, The Future of Meat, Marian Swain helps shed some light on the complexities of global livestock production systems and draws attention to the need to update the way we think about and approach meat production around the world. She highlights several important issues throughout the article, but focuses on how intensification can impact cattle production systems. This is a critical point and one that deserves a bit more discussion.

Agricultural intensification, particularly with regards to cattle production in developing nations, is often assumed to have inherent land-sparing benefits, and other potentially positive social, economic, and environmental benefits. In many instances, investments in productivity gains can help deliver positive benefits, but these optimistic scenarios are not necessarily guaranteed. Policies and initiatives aimed at intensifying cattle production and improving productivity gains, by themselves, will not likely deliver maximum resource savings and optimal conservation outcomes. Let’s take a quick look at why these efforts may not be effective in isolation, and how we can advance solutions that will help overcome these challenges.

Cattle production systems are often characterized as either intensive or extensive, but in fact, these classifications just represent two extremes on a broad spectrum of practices. There is a tremendous degree of variability in how cattle are reared, so this spectrum of practices can look very different depending on the national or regional context.

Take Brazil for example. On average, Brazilian cattle production tends to be dominated by relatively extensive pasture-based systems, and there are many initiatives underway to increase productivity. For the most part, this is being done by improving pasture and herd management, using better grass mixtures that are easier for animals to digest and deliver greater nutritional content, fencing to create paddocks for rotational grazing, and better breeding techniques. This is what I would characterize as “moderate intensification”.

These practices clearly indicate a move towards the intensive end of the spectrum, but they are not a radical departure from the current system, as they still fundamentally rely on pasture grasses as the primary feed input (as opposed to grains or oilseeds).

The key point here is that we don’t necessarily need a rapid proliferation of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) across Brazil (and other developing countries) in order to achieve significant social, economic and environmental benefits. This is not to say that we should completely avoid all use of optimized feed in Brazil. In fact, many Brazilian cattle ranchers already rely on supplemental feed sources like soy and maize, during the dry season when grasses can be less viable. And as Marian Swain rightly points out, the integration of optimized feed during the final fattening phase of production, in combination with improvements to pasture quality, could help reduce greenhouse gas intensity and generate important win-win outcomes.

While there are certainly opportunities for win-wins, it’s important to recognize that land-use dynamics in Brazil are very complex, especially when considering agricultural production. The expansion of ranching and agriculture are, by far, the leading drivers of deforestation. And when emissions from deforestation are factored in, the emissions footprint from cattle ranching goes through the roof.  

There is evidence that the widespread adoption of moderate intensification practices, including the integration of supplemental feed, could help reduce deforestation and emissions from deforestation–the greatest environmental challenges currently facing the sector. Instead of expanding further into the forest frontier, cutting and burning additional areas to make way for more pasture, expansion could take place by increasing the stocking rate within existing ranches and restoring areas that have already been cleared but are currently degraded or otherwise underutilized.

But, these “land-sparing” benefits (i.e. avoided deforestation via productivity gains) resulting from improvements in pasture quality, herd management, and feedlot finishing, are not necessarily guaranteed, even if these practices are fully implemented. This is a critical point that is commonly overlooked. It is important to recognize that if these practices are not coupled with effective governance systems and viable market incentives, they can potentially lead to a suite of unintended and very undesirable outcomes.

These potential backfire scenarios, also referred to as “rebound effects”, actually result in increased resource consumption, rather than the desired conservation outcomes. There are many localized on-ranch examples of this, but rebound effects can also materialize at much larger scales and with much greater consequences, especially when they are intertwined with broader land-use dynamics. For example, a significant increase in feedlot finishing in Brazil would likely increase demand for soy and maize, the primary feed inputs in feedlot systems. The use of optimized feed could help bring cattle to slaughter weight faster, a positive outcome, but what if this additional demand for soy and maize increases pressure for more agricultural land and ends up contributing to higher rates of deforestation? In addition, productivity gains could increase ranchers’ profitability, another positive outcome, but what if those profits are re-invested into clearing more forest to further expand their operations? If these backfire scenarios played out on a large scale, they would have very serious implications–not only for Brazil, but for the entire planet.

So how do we ensure this doesn’t happen? In general, efforts aimed at advancing intensification and promoting productivity gains should be linked to effective governance mechanisms and market incentives to help mitigate (or eliminate) potential rebound effects.  As is being pursued in the case of Brazil, incentives to encourage moderate intensification practices should be linked with company commitments to source only deforestation-free commodities as well as government policies that foster deforestation-free production. This coupled approach will help maximize social, economic, and environmental outcomes, and also produce additional synergies and benefits that could extend well beyond the cattle sector.  

The Year of Great Transformations

The Year of Great Transformations

“If you haven't yet heard of the Breakthrough Institute, it is time you did.”  

So wrote agricultural expert Jayson Lusk earlier this month. This year was a landmark for Breakthrough. It was a year of great transformations and great achievement for Breakthrough. We extended our work into agriculture and energy’s role in human development. We expanded our staff to broaden our network and boost the impact of our research. We hosted our most successful Dialogue yet, welcoming an international audience of experts, journalists, activists, and philanthropists to our popular gathering in California. And we published original research that is helping to point the way to a practical vision of a healthy, prosperous, and secure future for everyone on the planet while leaving more room for nature.

18 months after releasing ‘An Ecomodernist Manifesto,’ and over a decade since ‘The Death of Environmentalism,’ Breakthrough boasts over 50 Senior Fellows, 70 Generation Fellows, dozens of reports and publications, and years of ongoing research, convening, and ideas in the works. Below you can read about our biggest accomplishments of the year.

 

Breakthrough’s Nuclear Cost Paper Most Downloaded of the Year at Energy Policy

In the last few years, Breakthrough’s staff have become leading experts on cost trends and economics of nuclear power. In April, the journal Energy Policy published “Historical construction costs of global nuclear power reactors” by Jessica Lovering, Ted Nordhaus, and Arthur Yip, which went on to become the journal’s most-downloaded article of 2016. This research generated the largest-ever dataset of nuclear power plant construction costs, analyzing countries where costs have increased like the United States and France and where costs have declined, as in South Korea. The paper was covered by Brad Plumer at Vox and Julian Spector at CityLab, among other outlets, and Lovering wrote about the paper’s central findings for Greentech Media.

 

Breakthrough Launches "The Future of Food" Series

In December, we kicked off what will become multiple years of research on food and agriculture. This began with a series of essays on the Future of Food. With the largest land footprint by far of any human endeavor, and particularly sensitive to technological change and innovation, farming plays an outsized role in achieving Breakthrough’s vision of a high-energy, low-footprint, economically prosperous and equitable future. Our first two essays focus on precision agriculture and meat production, and have garnered several responses from Harvard’s Calestous Juma, Cornell’s Mark Lynas, historian Maureen Ogle, and others.

 

Breakthrough Pushes Back Against Extremism on the Right and Left

After a year in which political polarization reached new highs, Breakthrough remains committed to depolarizing environmental conversations and forging broadly popular solutions. For us, this means creating space for pragmatic policies and pushing back on ideological extremism. In March, USA Today published Ted Nordhaus’ op-ed “Don’t Let the Planet Bern,” in which Nordhaus argued that Senator Bernie Sanders and the environmental Left have adopted a climate agenda so impractical it would actually increase emissions. And after the election of Donald Trump in November, Nordhaus published an essay that went viral, arguing forcefully for Breakthrough’s policy agenda while also cautioning that “no amount of clean energy or infrastructure is worth forfeiting what remains of our civic and democratic culture.”

 

The New York Times Features Breakthrough Climate Analysis

Breakthrough’s technology and innovation focused climate framework gains new adherents and recognition every year. In the wake of threats by the incoming administration to withdraw from the Paris Accord and scrap the Clean Power Plan, Breakthrough published a new analysis illustrating that technology and macroeconomics, as opposed to explicit climate policy, remain the main event when it comes to emissions and climate mitigation. Examining the US Clean Power Plan, the Paris Agreement, the Kyoto Protocol, California’s carbon cap, Germany’s climate goals, and the UK Climate Change Act, we found little signal that climate policies are driving significant emissions progress around the world. The analysis was featured by Eduardo Porter on the front page of the New York Times’ Business Section. As Porter wrote, “real progress on reducing carbon in the atmosphere has been driven so far by specific domestic energy, industrial and innovation policies.”

 

The Year Saving Existing Nuclear Came Into Fashion

In May, Breakthrough and Environmental Progress published “Low-Carbon Portfolio Standards: Raising the Bar for Clean Energy.” The report proposed a new policy to more effectively value low-carbon power, one that includes not just renewable energy but also nuclear power (new and existing), large hydroelectric (omitted in some states), and carbon capture and storage. The low-carbon portfolio standard (LCPS) offers an efficient and elegant pathway to save America’s threatened fleet of nuclear power plants. The policy was endorsed by Bloomberg and discussed at Greentech MediaMidwest Energy NewsMIT Technology ReviewElectricityPolicy.com, and elsewhere. Two states, New York and Illinois, scored major victories towards saving existing nuclear this year.
 

Energy for Human Development

This year, Breakthrough published a framework several years in the making on energy’s role in human and economic development. Energy abundance, not merely “energy access,” is the appropriate solution to energy poverty, we wrote. In August, Foreign Affairs published our essay on energy for human development, and we released our paper in November. Ted Nordhaus spoke on this research at Brookings and the Center for Global Development, and the paper was also covered at Reason and Greentech Media.

 

Great Transformations: Breakthrough’s Sixth Dialogue

In June, Breakthrough hosted our sixth annual Dialogue, themed “Great Transformations,” bringing together leading global scholars, journalists, activists, and philanthropists to discuss energy, technology, environment, and human development. This Dialogue was our best-received yet, featuring plenary sessions on global human and environmental progress, agricultural innovation, industrial development, and ecomodernism in action. We were also pleased to welcome leading thinkers from North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America to our increasingly international event. At the Dialogue, it was our honor to present our annual Paradigm Award to David MacKay, who sadly passed away earlier this spring, but whose life and accomplishments we continue to celebrate.

 

The Breakthrough Journal Issue 6

The sixth issue of Breakthrough Journal was published in June 2016. Essays included “Taking Modernization Seriously” by Mike Lind, which describes a Hamiltonian approach to economic growth and industrialization for poor countries in the 21st century. Theologian Sally Vance-Trembath also contributed a close reading of Pope Francis’ climate encyclical, arguing that Francis is dragging the Roman Catholic Church in a modernist direction. Other pieces included an important article on the coming population bust and its implications for the global environment by Paul Robbins, and a retrospective on Deep Ecology by Michael Zimmerman.

 

New Faces at Breakthrough

This year, Breakthrough welcomed our new development and events director Hafeezah Abdullah, operations manager Joanna Calabrese, staff writer Emma Brush, senior conservation analyst James McNamara, and energy analyst Michael Goff. James and Emma joined us from their positions as Breakthrough Generation Fellows, researching this summer alongside Diana Kool, George Livingston, and Mark Nelson. This year we also inaugurated our new Research Fellowship, partnering with Esteban Rossi, Sarah Stefanos, Tom Keen, and David Martin. We started the Research Fellowship so we could work with advanced academic researchers on ecomodern ideas, starting this year with human development in sub-Saharan Africa, anti-nuclear movements in emerging economies, conservation in Latin America, and food demand.

Less Than Meets the Eye?

While the recent election has many environmentalists worried that federal action on climate change has hit a dead end, others are finding silver linings in the actions of states and municipalities. Such is the case with this sharp report from Brookings, “Growth, carbon, and Trump: State progress and drift on economic growth and emissions ‘decoupling’” by Mark Muro and Devashree Saha.

Most states, the Brookings report finds, have decoupled emissions from economic growth. That's the good news. But to meet climate targets, that decoupling needs to be sustained, indeed accelerated, for many decades to come. And as we show below, the trends that have driven this emissions progress are not always the trends that lead to deep decarbonization.

Decomposing Decarb Trends

Muro and Saha’s analysis looks at economic growth and carbon reduction from 2000-2014 and identifies over 30 states that have experienced absolute decoupling (meaning their economies grew while carbon emissions shrank). However, the authors note that most states haven’t been reducing their carbon intensities fast enough to meet our national emissions reductions target. Figure 1 shows the average annual reduction in carbon intensity of the economy for every state and Washington, D.C. The yellow line is the rate that every state would need to meet for the United States to meet our carbon reduction targets.

But even this currently-out-of-reach target of 4.3% annual reductions might understate the challenge. It’s based on our Paris commitment to reduce our domestic emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. But the nominal, if not statutory, goal of international climate negotiations is for developed countries to reduce their emissions by 80% by 2050. If the United States were to meet that aggressive decarbonization goal, every state would need to reduce their carbon intensities by 6.1% every year through 2050, as indicated by the red line in Figure 1.

That’s tough. But it gets tougher.

The problem with measuring the pace of climate progress via carbon intensity of the economy is that it can conflate two different drivers of emissions: energy intensity of the economy (how much energy it takes to produce a dollar of GDP) and carbon intensity of energy (how much carbon dioxide is emitted for each unit of energy consumed).

As Figure 2 shows, when we look at these two drivers separately, the majority of reductions in the carbon intensity of the economy come from reductions in energy intensity (the average is about 65% of decarbonization comes from reduction in energy intensity), with a few notable exceptions. Most states did reduce the carbon intensity of their energy systems, which is good, but they mostly did this by switching from coal to gas in the power sector, as we’ve shown before in regional grid analysis.

We would need a detailed structural decomposition analysis to really tease apart the drivers of either carbon intensity or energy intensity. But it’s easy to see that most states aren’t doing enough to reduce the carbon intensity of their energy (for example: by building more low-carbon energy and closing down coal plants). The notable exceptions are Vermont (due to a 22% increase in nuclear and an equal decrease in natural gas), Iowa (due to massive wind build-out and slight decrease in coal), South Dakota (wind), and New Hampshire (coal-to-gas). Two states, Idaho and Arkansas, actually increased their carbon intensity of energy, due to declines in hydro and nuclear.

For an ambitious target for 2050, let’s assume that both drivers contribute evenly: half the reductions in carbon intensity of the economy come from reductions in energy intensity and half come from reductions in the carbon intensity of energy. In Figure 3 we can see how the states stack up against this target for carbon intensity--still a long way to go. Note that California, which has some of the most aggressive clean energy deployment targets, has one of the lowest rates of decarbonization. This is primarily because California had very little coal to start with, is already ~70% natural gas for the power sector, and closed half of its existing nuclear power in 2013. And, sadly, Vermont’s rapid decarbonization was actually due to a large increase in nuclear power from 2000-2013, but they have since closed their sole nuclear power plant and are expecting to replace it with natural gas, which will lead to re-carbonization.

Most of the decline in the carbon intensity of energy comes from the ongoing coal-to-gas shift mentioned above. Note that two states associated with large growth in renewable energy, California and Texas, are decarbonizing slower than average. Both states already had large shares of natural gas, 60% and 47% respectively, so they didn’t gain as much from coal-to-gas shift as many other states did. More importantly both states saw large decline in low-carbon energy: both Texas and California saw hydro decline by 5-6% annually over 2000-2014. California also saw a significant one-year drop in nuclear generation when the San Onofre plant shut down in 2012.

What About Energy Intensity?

Often people see declines in energy intensity and think “energy efficiency”, which is a part of it, but most of the decline actually comes from structural change in the economy, i.e. generating more GDP from sectors that use a lot less energy. Think about how much energy it takes to manufacture a car versus package a financial service. The Brookings’ report acknowledges this fact:        

Almost all of the states that experienced the largest shift toward services industries also registered large declines in their carbon emissions during 2000–2014. For example, as Maine’s service sector’s share of real GDP (in millions of chained 2009 dollars) expanded from 75 percent in 2000 to 83 percent in 2014, its carbon emissions declined by 25 percent. Similarly, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia all experienced some of the largest relative expansions of their service sectors among states and likewise achieved substantial carbon emissions declines of 20 percent, 17 percent, 15 percent, and 15 percent, respectively.

But a more important issue when looking at sub-national trends is how energy intensive industries shift within a country. California’s energy intensity may go down as they drill less oil, but they’re still consuming that oil, which now might be coming from North Dakota. The Energy Information Administration has a useful data set that gets at this issue, illustrated in Figure 4. To summarize, the 10 states with the lowest per capita emissions all tend to be net importers of electricity, while the 10 states with the highest per capita emissions tend to be net exporters of electricity. This means that there are some emissions laundering going on, where states look cleaner because their dirty power is actually generated out-of-state. Better accounting could help (this is also an issue for cross-country emissions comparisons), but it doesn’t change the imperative: we need to find cheaper ways to produce clean energy, otherwise we’re just moving our energy-intensive industries to states (or countries) with less concern for climate change and environmental pollution.

Less Than Meets the Eye?

While the recent election has many environmentalists worried that federal action on climate change has hit a dead end, others are finding silver linings in the actions of states and municipalities. Such is the case with this sharp report from Brookings, “Growth, carbon, and Trump: State progress and drift on economic growth and emissions ‘decoupling’” by Mark Muro and Devashree Saha.

Most states, the Brookings report finds, have decoupled emissions from economic growth. That's the good news. But to meet climate targets, that decoupling needs to be sustained, indeed accelerated, for many decades to come. And as we show below, the trends that have driven this emissions progress are not always the trends that lead to deep decarbonization.

Decomposing Decarb Trends

Muro and Saha’s analysis looks at economic growth and carbon reduction from 2000-2014 and identifies over 30 states that have experienced absolute decoupling (meaning their economies grew while carbon emissions shrank). However, the authors note that most states haven’t been reducing their carbon intensities fast enough to meet our national emissions reductions target. Figure 1 shows the average annual reduction in carbon intensity of the economy for every state and Washington, D.C. The yellow line is the rate that every state would need to meet for the United States to meet our carbon reduction targets.

But even this currently-out-of-reach target of 4.3% annual reductions might understate the challenge. It’s based on our Paris commitment to reduce our domestic emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030. But the nominal, if not statutory, goal of international climate negotiations is for developed countries to reduce their emissions by 80% by 2050. If the United States were to meet that aggressive decarbonization goal, every state would need to reduce their carbon intensities by 6.1% every year through 2050, as indicated by the red line in Figure 1.

That’s tough. But it gets tougher.

The problem with measuring the pace of climate progress via carbon intensity of the economy is that it can conflate two different drivers of emissions: energy intensity of the economy (how much energy it takes to produce a dollar of GDP) and carbon intensity of energy (how much carbon dioxide is emitted for each unit of energy consumed).

As Figure 2 shows, when we look at these two drivers separately, the majority of reductions in the carbon intensity of the economy come from reductions in energy intensity (the average is about 65% of decarbonization comes from reduction in energy intensity), with a few notable exceptions. Most states did reduce the carbon intensity of their energy systems, which is good, but they mostly did this by switching from coal to gas in the power sector, as we’ve shown before in regional grid analysis.

We would need a detailed structural decomposition analysis to really tease apart the drivers of either carbon intensity or energy intensity. But it’s easy to see that most states aren’t doing enough to reduce the carbon intensity of their energy (for example: by building more low-carbon energy and closing down coal plants). The notable exceptions are Vermont (due to a 22% increase in nuclear and an equal decrease in natural gas), Iowa (due to massive wind build-out and slight decrease in coal), South Dakota (wind), and New Hampshire (coal-to-gas). Two states, Idaho and Arkansas, actually increased their carbon intensity of energy, due to declines in hydro and nuclear.

For an ambitious target for 2050, let’s assume that both drivers contribute evenly: half the reductions in carbon intensity of the economy come from reductions in energy intensity and half come from reductions in the carbon intensity of energy. In Figure 3 we can see how the states stack up against this target for carbon intensity--still a long way to go. Note that California, which has some of the most aggressive clean energy deployment targets, has one of the lowest rates of decarbonization. This is primarily because California had very little coal to start with, is already ~70% natural gas for the power sector, and closed half of its existing nuclear power in 2013. And, sadly, Vermont’s rapid decarbonization was actually due to a large increase in nuclear power from 2000-2013, but they have since closed their sole nuclear power plant and are expecting to replace it with natural gas, which will lead to re-carbonization.

Most of the decline in the carbon intensity of energy comes from the ongoing coal-to-gas shift mentioned above. Note that two states associated with large growth in renewable energy, California and Texas, are decarbonizing slower than average. Both states already had large shares of natural gas, 60% and 47% respectively, so they didn’t gain as much from coal-to-gas shift as many other states did. More importantly both states saw large decline in low-carbon energy: both Texas and California saw hydro decline by 5-6% annually over 2000-2014. California also saw a significant one-year drop in nuclear generation when the San Onofre plant shut down in 2012.

What About Energy Intensity?

Often people see declines in energy intensity and think “energy efficiency”, which is a part of it, but most of the decline actually comes from structural change in the economy, i.e. generating more GDP from sectors that use a lot less energy. Think about how much energy it takes to manufacture a car versus package a financial service. The Brookings’ report acknowledges this fact:        

Almost all of the states that experienced the largest shift toward services industries also registered large declines in their carbon emissions during 2000–2014. For example, as Maine’s service sector’s share of real GDP (in millions of chained 2009 dollars) expanded from 75 percent in 2000 to 83 percent in 2014, its carbon emissions declined by 25 percent. Similarly, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia all experienced some of the largest relative expansions of their service sectors among states and likewise achieved substantial carbon emissions declines of 20 percent, 17 percent, 15 percent, and 15 percent, respectively.

But a more important issue when looking at sub-national trends is how energy intensive industries shift within a country. California’s energy intensity may go down as they drill less oil, but they’re still consuming that oil, which now might be coming from North Dakota. The Energy Information Administration has a useful data set that gets at this issue, illustrated in Figure 4. To summarize, the 10 states with the lowest per capita emissions all tend to be net importers of electricity, while the 10 states with the highest per capita emissions tend to be net exporters of electricity. This means that there are some emissions laundering going on, where states look cleaner because their dirty power is actually generated out-of-state. Better accounting could help (this is also an issue for cross-country emissions comparisons), but it doesn’t change the imperative: we need to find cheaper ways to produce clean energy, otherwise we’re just moving our energy-intensive industries to states (or countries) with less concern for climate change and environmental pollution.

Energy Innovation, Back in the Game

Like the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a private partnership created in tandem with the public-facing Mission Innovation, BEV will operate under the tried-and-true premise that public-private collaboration is key to both innovation and deployment. “As I’ve argued before, an investment in a true energy transformation requires governments, research institutions, businesses, and private investors to work together,” Gates wrote in his announcement of the venture. “And it’s hard to overstate how important this public commitment is.”

That’s music to our ears. Since before 2010, when we published Where Good Technologies Come From, Breakthrough has been a leading advocate of public investments in technological innovation.

BEV itself has certainly been tailored to meet the exacting needs of energy
innovation—big upfront investment to match big upfront costs, partnerships with public labs and resources for development and demonstration, a “patient” timeline for returns that are many years in the making, and strong technical management to assess technologies with the right kind of promise. But even with these strengths, serious public dollars remain indispensable. As we approach the uncertainties of a new administration, and a Department of Energy run by Rick Perry, there is definitely some cause for concern when it comes to the role Washington will play moving forward.

The old energy innovation gang, however, is back in form, and not likely to let the chance for reform and investment pass without a fight. Take Varun Sivaram, Teryn Norris, Colin McCormick, and David Hart of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who released a report last week outlining specific energy innovation priorities for DOE and the new administration. The report puts forth six “Technology Missions” for DOE to pursue, including nuclear, solar, energy storage, and carbon capture, and urges “significant new funding” in energy R&D to meet the commitments laid out last year by Mission Innovation.

There’s reason to hope that the new administration will be inclined to capitalize on at least some of this opportunity. “If the Trump administration is serious about improving U.S. competitiveness,” as Norris told Vox, “surely they won’t risk forfeiting these advanced energy industries and their multi-trillion dollar markets to China.” David Ferris of E&E News also reports that Trump’s transition team has demonstrated considerable interest in commercializing the work of the national labs. And both Perry and Rex Tillerson, Trump’s choice for Secretary of State, have voiced support for energy innovation, according to Sivaram—none of which is terribly surprising considering the bipartisan support that energy innovation traditionally attracts.

Nuclear innovation, in particular, may yet thrive under this administration. It’s also making a lot of headway already; as Third Way’s updated advanced nuclear map shows, more than 50 next-gen nuclear companies are drawing attention and investment across the United States. Of course, the development and deployment of these ventures will require billions in federal support in order to succeed, as current US Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz said to the group last week. An “aggressive innovation agenda” will be required of DOE and of the government at large, he believes, in conjunction with “strong industry and strong entrepreneurial engagement.”

Fortunately, these forces are already at work, in large part thanks to the energy innovation consensus set in motion by groups like ITIF, Third Way, Breakthrough, and the Brookings Institution—recently out with a new brief of its own, on decoupling and decarbonization at the state level. As Mark Muro and Devashree Saha emphasize in the report, energy transitions driven by innovation (i.e., coal to gas) deserve credit for much of the decarbonization we’ve seen so far. States that have increased their share of electricity generation from nuclear have also demonstrated significant progress.

As they are quick to point out, though, these victories are not nearly enough. Rather, we need from DOE increased investment in, and commitment to, clean energy RD&D if the Trump administration is at all interested in leading on energy innovation. As the ITIF report highlights, the U.S. currently lags behind 11 other countries in energy R&D spending as a percentage of GDP. Mission Innovation and the newly formed BEV are important steps forward in this regard, providing a “chance for American leadership,” as Gates told Trump last month.

The need for clean energy innovation and deployment has become increasingly clear. In the words of a recent New York Times editorial on Perry, the incoming administration can prove “doubters wrong by expanding investment in breakthrough energy technologies like advanced nuclear reactors, high-capacity batteries, and electrical grids that can better accommodate variable power suppliers. Doing so could bolster the economy, create good-paying jobs, and reduce the cost of energy”—the energy innovation consensus precisely.

Responses: The Future of Meat

Maureen Ogle

The Future’s Bright; The Future’s…Meaty?

Every food has an environmental impact, whether it’s cheeseburgers or tofu, coffee or corn.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise to any of us and, as a scientist, sustainability consultant and parent, I don’t have a problem with food production being one of the biggest contributors to global environmental impacts. Why? Because food production is one of the few industries that are absolutely essential for human life. However, it’s clear that we need to take steps to reduce environmental impacts from human activity, and as such, the livestock industry is often criticised for both resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

Although meat production is predicted to increase from now until at least 2050, it should be noted that the trends for improved productivity and efficiency within global livestock industries also reduce environmental impacts. As described in Marian Swain’s essay on meat production, the US beef industry cut resource use and greenhouse emissions considerably between 1977 and 2007. Meanwhile, the rise of modern feedlot-finishing systems cuts land use, water use, and emissions per unit of beef compared to grass-finished meat.

These findings may seem intuitively incorrect as we’re constantly exposed to marketing and media messages suggesting that only grass-fed meats are environmentally sustainable, and that intensive livestock systems are undesirable. The data speak for themselves however—the majority of extensive systems finish cattle at lighter weights (thus requiring more total animals to maintain beef supply), have lower growth rates (so cattle take longer to grow to their finish weight) and often have lower reproductive performance in female cattle.

All these factors combine to increase environmental impacts. But when I presented this data to a group of French Masters-level Livestock Engineering students earlier this month, they were (in their own words) shocked. Even among experts and students, there remains a great deal of misunderstandings when it comes to meat production.

Does this mean that every beef producer worldwide should embrace feedlot-finishing and reduce pasture use? Absolutely not. One of the major benefits of cattle compared to swine and poultry is that they digest and use human-inedible forages, such that dairy and grass-fed beef cattle actually produce more human-edible protein in the form of milk and meat than they consume; and feedlot-finished beef cattle have a ratio of human-edible feed intake to human-edible protein output similar to that of swine, despite their greater overall land use. In keeping with the themes discussed in the Swain’s essay, there is no magic bullet—it is essential to fit production systems to the cattle, climate, market, and culture within each region and to improve productivity within each and every system.

So rather than reducing animal protein consumption as we move towards 2050, we might ponder keeping total consumption relatively stable, with a more equitable distribution across the globe? This would allow for a decrease in over-consumption in high-income regions, while providing a greater quantity of milk, meat, and eggs to those who have dire need for adequate animal proteins to maintain health and to promote adequate child growth and development. While the environmental impact of beef production is a key concern, we also have to examine the role of livestock in economic and social sustainability.  For billions of small-scale farmers, cattle provide economic viability, improved nutrition, social status and a means to diversify agricultural production as well as tangible benefits in terms of fertilizer, hides and other by-products.

Should we insist that global beef production is abandoned in favour of increased legumes, nuts or lab-created proteins? No. We simply need to give producers worldwide the education, tools and technologies to make the best and most efficient use of their resources. Only then will we have a truly sustainable (environmentally responsible, economically viable and socially acceptable) global meat industry.

Meat Production, Responsibly

This response was originally published at Jayson Lusk’s blog and is cross-posted here with permission.

Marian Swain, after discussing some of the environmental challenges with meat production, is able to see through all the popular prognostications to get to the heart of the problem:

“conversations about mitigating this impact have focused on two strategies: convincing people to eat lower on the food chain and shifting meat production toward more extensive systems. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the former may not prove particularly practical, while the latter may not always bring about better environmental outcomes, particularly at global scales.”

Advocates of "convincing people to eat less meat" are right in one sense. Eating meat isn't necessary. Many people can live a perfectly healthy life without needing to eat meat. We also don't need to drive cars, use electric light bulbs, type on our laptops, or have children. But, we are immensely better off having these things in our lives. The trick is to consume the things we want while trying to be responsible about it. Swain, however, turns the table on perceptions of "responsible" by noting that intensive forms of production often come at a lower environmental cost than the extensive forms (e.g., free range, grass fed, etc.) so often favored by environmentalists.

Swain documents the trends in consumption of meat products in different parts of the world over time. When thinking about environmental outcomes, however, it is useful to focus on the number of animals rather than just the number of pounds or kilograms consumed. The reason is that environmental impacts are more correlated with numbers of animals than numbers of pounds, and when it comes to animal welfare, animal well-being is experienced one brain at a time.

As the graph below shows, we now have many fewer cows in the U.S. than we once did (for a broader discussion, see this article I wrote for the journal Animal Frontiers

The figure reports the ratio of the total beef production in a given year to the inventory of all cows and heifers (2 years old and older) for the same year. The change is dramatic. For each cow and heifer in the US, in 2012 an additional 217 lbs of beef was produced as compared with 1970 (a 50% increase). Meanwhile, the number of cows per capita has fallen by about 47%. Remarkably, 4.4 billion more pounds of beef were produced in 2012 than in 1970 despite the fact that there are now 9.5 million fewer cows and heifers. In a New York Times article, I pointed out that we would need 15.3 million more cows (not counting the additional heifers, stockers, and feedlot cattle) to produce the amount of beef Americans actually ate in 2015 if we were instead using 1950s technology. For dairy, we'd need another 30 million cows to produce the amount of dairy products we enjoyed in 2015 if we were instead getting only 1950s yields. The dramatic increase in productivity, brought about by changes in genetics, management, and other technologies, has given us more of want we want (meat and dairy) with fewer resource-using, methane emitting animals.

One of the concerns in all this is the impact on animal welfare. Yet, the tradeoffs are difficult. Beef cattle have higher land requirements, lower feed efficiency, and higher carbon-equivalent emissions than pork and poultry. Yet, a good case could be made that animal well-being is higher for beef cattle than for pork and poultry. (And no, it isn't the case that animal welfare is uniformly better or worse at small vs. large farms). A key challenge for the future is in identifying how to realize the gains in efficiency and reductions in resource use brought about by intensification without unduly sacrificing animal welfare or the price consumers pay for food. As I discussed in my latest book, Unnaturally Delicious, there are innovative housing systems and creative markets that are attempting achieve these compromises.

Swain mentions another solution: lab grown meat. As I discussed in Unnaturally Delicious, I'm a fan of this bovine-in-a-beaker approach. But it isn't a free lunch. Lab-grown cells have to eat something. And they produce waste. The high costs of producing lab grown meat suggests the process currently uses many more resources than old-fashioned animals, but advances in technology may one day reverse that equation. Whether people actually want to eat a lab grown burger is a different story and my surveys suggest the new burgers will face an uphill battle in terms of consumer acceptance. Time will tell.

Regardless of whether we get meat from a lab, from a cow, or from a chicken, it is important to recognize science and technology as a path to improve environmental outcomes and animal welfare. As I put in in a Wall Street Journal editorial on the subject:

“Let us also not gloss over what is beef’s most obvious benefit: Livestock take inedible grasses and untasty grains and convert them into a protein-packed food most humans love to eat. We may be able to reduce our impact on the environment by eating less meat, but we can also do the same by using science to make livestock more productive and environmentally friendly.”

More Than Meat

There is probably no request that makes me more anxious than to discuss the “Future of Meat.

Not because I am concerned or unfamiliar with the issues, but because I never know what the assumptions of the discussion are going to be. Are we going to discuss all meat including those derived from monogastric chickens and pigs that can’t digest cellulose, or is meat actually a misnomer for beef? And are we going to discuss all beef, or is beef a proxy for meat from beef cattle alone, ignoring the contribution of dairy cattle? Are we going to discuss the cow/calf sector, or the feedlot sector, or grass-finished beef? Are we going to talk about the United States alone, or the developing world, or the whole world? And are we basing the discussion on greenhouse gas emissions, or land/water or energy use; and on what basis—per animal, or per kg product, or per kg protein and/or micronutrient? All of these constraints lead to differing answers, and not understanding these nuances is a recipe for conflicting, confusing, and contradictory messages—and a flock of angry Twitter tweets!

I have spent an entire career trying to understand the intricacies of agricultural production systems, of animal reproduction cycles, of economic competitive advantage and markets, of trade and the meaning of “sustainability,” and…it’s complicated. Agriculture is intrinsically complex because of environmental factors that impact what you can grow and how you grow it and because food exists in a cultural setting. It is fine to eat horse in France, dog in Korea, chicken feet in China, and corn-fed beef in the United States. US levels of marbling in beef is a market turnoff in my native country of Australia. Travel disabuses you of these cultural food norms, and “food systems” dogma. Meanwhile, we all have to eat, and the food system is necessarily global, so international trade that navigates these distinctions is essential.

To urban people in the developed world, meat is an optional food choice. But animals in agricultural production systems are so much more than food. When I go shopping I can’t help but consider the animal behind the food product, and the other services provided by that animal in addition to meat, milk and eggs. In America that might be the fact the cow-calf operation grazes on dryland range that has no other human food use, and provides ecosystem services, a working landscape, and enhanced endangered species habitat that I value. In many developing nations, animal agriculture provides not only high-quality animal protein in the diets of the rural poor, but livestock also:

  • Contribute 40% of global value of agricultural output;
  • Support livelihoods and food security of almost 1 billion people;
  • Provide food and incomes and consume non-human edible food;
  • Contribute 15% of total food energy and 25% of dietary protein;
  • Provide essential micronutrients (e.g. iron, calcium) that are more readily available in meat, milk, and eggs that in plant-based foods;
  • Are a valuable asset, serving as a store of wealth, collateral for credit, and an essential safety net during times of crisis;
  • Are central to mixed farming systems; consume agricultural waste products, help control insects and weeds, produce manure for fertilizer and waste for cooking, and provide draft power for transport;
  • Provide employment, in some cases especially for women;
  • And have a cultural significance as the basis for religious ceremonies.

One of my favorite papers on this topic is by Tara Garnett who asserts “More people need to be fed better, with less environmental impact,” a sentiment with which most people would agree, and then asks “How might this be achieved?” The answer to that question depends upon where you are living, and your perception of what constitutes a problem and a solution. The concerns of those in the developed world with food abundance are dramatically different from the problems faced by farmers and inhabitants of the developing world.

As an agricultural scientist I cringe at simple “good:bad” pronouncements about agriculture; especially as it relates to the sustainability or environmental implications of production systems or food choices. Agriculture is complicated, and an extensive, grass-fed beef production system in New Zealand may be as “sustainable” and environmentally-responsible as an intensive beef cattle feedlot in Nebraska, and a single cow producing milk and beef on an acre of a Ugandan subsistence farmer. Ultimately it is important to understand that all production systems have their unique set of environmental and other constraints. And all are associated with tradeoffs (even the production of “meat” without livestock) and they need to be considered in the context of local environmental conditions and norms, and evaluated against the three pillars of sustainability: economic, environmental; and social.

One thing I know with certainty: the more you think you know about animal agriculture and the future of meat, the more you will realize you don’t know.

A Meatier Story

Marian Swain ends her survey of meat’s future with a common-sense observation: The “conventional narrative” of livestock production, she writes, “deserves an update,” one that acknowledges “the realities of demand, productivity, and environmental performance.” She’s right. The conventional story is too simplistic; it dodges, almost completely, the “realities” of meat-centric diets, especially here in the United States.

Stripped to its basics, the standard narrative goes something like this: In the wake of World War II, the search for corporate search for profits destroyed family farms and spawned a system of factory-like livestock production that was both inhumane and environmentally toxic.

Unfortunately, this story has led us astray. A more useful narrative is one anchored in a global perspective, history, and demography.

We can start by acknowledging, as Swain does, the linchpin of meat demand: Urban growth. For millennia, humanity has demonstrated its preference for the urban rather than the rural. For the comforts of centralized water and waste systems, reliable energy, jobs, ideas, opportunities, and, of course, other humans,  human beings show no signs of abandoning this urban trajectory. Every year, millions of human beings leave rural areas for cities. In China, transferring people from farm to city is an official government project.  

What’s this got to do with meat? By definition, urbanites don’t grow their own food (backyard chicken coops aside). Instead, they rely on farmers to produce foodstuffs. And historically, as urban populations rise, rural populations inevitably, inexorably decline, leaving fewer numbers of farmers to feed an urban majority.

The culture and economics of meat cannot be separated from this urban/rural conundrum. As Swain notes, urban growth has historically translated into rising incomes and increased demand for meats. It’s irrational to assume that humanity will abandon either cities or a meat-centric diet any time soon. A new narrative must acknowledge that reality.

But a new story line must also heed the specific role US livestock production plays in satisfying global urban demand. Here, too, history offers a guide.

For generations, American farmers have supplied meat for urban markets around the world. In the seventeenth century, for example, colonial farmers raised cattle and hogs for their own consumption; for residents of the few towns scattered along the Atlantic coast; and, most important, for the crowded cities of Europe and Britain. That’s still true today. The cattle feedlots, poultry farms, and hog confinement facilities that contemporary food activists love to hate are built in large part to feed someone other than an American.

Thus a narrative that addresses global economies, demography, and history offers a promising alternative to our conventional story of meat’s environmental impact. If we see human beings as the engine, rather than the victim, and if we admit that demand for meat isn’t going away, we might be more inclined to improve the system we have, rather than fixating on utopian alternatives.  

Consider, for example, manure emissions, the fancy term for the piles of manure that accumulate when livestock is raised on a large scale. That pesky problem emerged in the 1960s. That’s when US livestock producers, beset by (global) demand on one side, and (domestic) labor shortages on the other, embraced intensive, confinement-based livestock production. Livestock yields increased, but so did “manure emissions.” All manner of techno-fixes have been suggested ever since, including one mentioned by Swain: Anaerobic digestion. Indeed, that idea’s been in play for a half century. But as she notes, “the technology is not yet in widespread use.”

For that, I blame the conventional narrative. Its flabby simplicity has lured generations of consumer, environmental, and rural activists who’ve railed against “industrial” livestock production. They’re convinced that large-scale production is the problem, and “big food” the perpetrator. As a result, they’re blinded to the long view of the big picture. They don’t see that scale is a consequence, not a cause. As a result, their proposed solutions are nostalgic projects aimed at reviving an imagined small-scale “family” farming. When it comes to the problem of meat, it’s hard to imagine a more useless idea.

Imagine, instead, a perspective that calculates demand as a given, and large-scale livestock production as a necessity. Perhaps that would inspire critics to channel their energy into projects that transform problematic necessities into environmental benefits. Maybe someone would finally figure out how to use anaerobic digestion to tame manure emissions. 

As long as the conventional narrative shapes our politics (and our research dollars), meat’s environmental drawbacks will remain a plague on the land. It’s time for a new story, one rooted in the realities of human history and behavior. 

Responses: The Future of Meat

As part of Breakthrough's Future of Food series, we have invited experts on food, farming, livestock, and resource use to respond to and critique our research essays. We hope this will be the starting point for an inclusive, productive, and exciting new conversation about twenty-first century food systems. You can read the responses to our Future of Meat essay below.

 

A Meatier Story
Maureen Ogle Responds to Breakthrough’s Future of Meat

Outdated notions about our food system are hampering support for innovations that could improve the environmental performance of our livestock systems. If we admit that demand for meat isn’tgoing away, we might be more inclined to improve the system we have, rather than fixating on utopian alternatives.

 

More Than Meat
Alison Van Eenennaam Responds to Breakthrough’s Future of Meat

Agricultural scientists can’t offer easy answers to questions of environmental sustainability in livestock systems. Context matters: what region and animal are we considering, and what metrics do we care about? The more you learn about animal agriculture, the more you realize you don’t know.

 

Meat Production, Responsibly
Jayson Lusk Responds to Breakthrough’s Future of Meat

Whether we get meat from a lab, from a cow, or from a chicken, it is important to recognize science and technology as a path to improve environmental outcomes and animal welfare. There are always trade-offs in food production systems: even lab-grown meat requires resources to grow. And while beef may have the biggest environmental footprint, a case can be made that beef cattle have the highest animal well-being.

 

The Future’s Bright; The Future’s…Meaty?
Judith Capper Responds to Breakthrough’s Future of Meat

Food production may have a big environmental footprint, but this makes sense given that it is a necessity for human life. Meat production can and should improve its environmental performance, but given the role of livestock in global livelihoods, we shouldn’t rush to reject meat as an unsustainable food source.

 

Avoiding Backfires in Brazil
Simon Hall Responds to Breakthrough’s Future of Meat

Global demand for beef is exerting significant pressure on important ecosystems. The fate of these regions will likely depend on how we approach the transition towards more intensive production systems. Will we capitalize on opportunities for sustainable productivity gains or will we allow our efforts to be undermined by backfiring outcomes? 

Peak Farmland Is an Ecological Imperative

Along with rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reaching 'peak farmland' is probably the world's most important environmental objective. However, it is far less well-known, and is not advocated as a target to my knowledge by any major environmental organization. The reason for this is doubtless because most of the agricultural policies long advocated by the green movement would serve to take us further away from peak farmland rather than towards it.

It should be fairly obvious why peaking farmland expansion is important. Biodiversity loss ranks alongside climate change as an existential threat to the Earth's ecological systems, and conversion of land to agriculture and the resultant loss of habitat is in turn the greatest single threat to biodiversity. There is no prospect of sparing large areas of wilderness from the curse of the plough without halting the conversion of nature to human-oriented agriculture.

It's either peak farmland or zero rainforest: our choice.

And it is not just biodiversity on the line. When a team of scientists led by Johan Rockstrom in 2009 proposed a set of 'planetary boundaries' for avoiding damaging interference in the operations of the Earth system, they noted that majority of these proposed boundaries were significantly affected by farming: biodiversity, climate, nitrogen, water use, and so on. Making farming sustainable is therefore critical for planetary health in a wider sense than just climate or wildlife.

Unfortunately, ideology—most clearly in the religion of organic and the cult of the 'natural'—serves mainly to obscure what needs to be done to achieve peak farmland. Organic farming has some direct soil and ecological benefits, but these are far outweighed by the fact that yields are significantly lower than in conventional systems: more farmland must therefore be brought into cultivation to produce the same overall harvest of food. There is a robust scientific consensus about this finding, which is supported by numerous meta-reviews.

One recent innovation might have served to make organic agriculture viable—the harnessing of the power of biology, via crop genetics, as a disruptive technology to replace external inputs from agrochemicals. However, organic believers at an early stage decided that genetic engineering was an 'unnatural' technological innovation and therefore should be ruled out a priori. Ever since, various organic enthusiasts have tried to stop any cultivation of genetically modified crops elsewhere on the supposed basis that these crops might 'contaminate' their supposedly pure and natural (but lower-yielding) harvest.

Genetic engineering can be thought of as biological precision agriculture. A single DNA sequence can be added to the genome of a crop to confer resistance to insect pests or fungal infections. This means, all other things remaining equal, that the insecticides or fungicides that would otherwise have been sprayed to protect the crop are no longer necessary. Drought tolerance as a trait can reduce the need for irrigation, while nitrogen efficiency can reduce fertilizer inputs. It was an epochal mistake for the organic movement to reject this technology. In a rational world, GMOs and organic would have made perfect bedfellows. 

In a 2010 paper in the journal PNAS, Jennifer Burney and colleagues calculated the greenhouse gas savings achieved by modern farming by comparing emissions with a counterfactual low-yield scenario that held technology constant at 1961 levels. They concluded that "the net effect of higher yields has avoided emissions of up to 161 gigatons of carbon since 1961". This is an enormous saving, equivalent to a third of the entire stock of human carbon emissions put into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. And the land savings were equally stunning, equivalent to 1.7 billion hectares of cropland, an area twice the size of the contiguous United States.

Genetic modification in its 'GMO' sense has only contributed a small latter portion to this improving picture—most of the gains were achieved through the earlier Green Revolution and the steady yield additions achieved thereafter. The challenge now is to build on this to both shrink the yield gaps that still bedevil developing countries, keeping them trapped in rural poverty, and to make conventional farming more sustainable in terms of soil conservation, reducing inputs and direct emissions and so on.

This means dropping the romantic fantasies so beloved of urban foodies. Instead, in the words of Mark Watney in the movie The Martian, we need to "science the shit out of this".

 

Responses: Is Precision Agriculture the Way to Peak Cropland?

As part of Breakthrough's Future of Food series, we have invited experts on food, farming, livestock, and resource use to respond to and critique our research essays. We hope this will be the starting point for an inclusive, productive, and exciting new conversation about twenty-first century food systems. You can read the responses to Linus Blomqvist and David Douglas's essay on precision agriculture below.

 

Revolution in Africa: A Response to Breakthrough's Essay on Precision Agriculture
By Calestous Juma

African nations remain far behind other parts of the world when it comes to agricultural modernization, but progress is happening faster than many know. Precision agriculture and other forms of agricultural innovation will allow African countries to leapfrog the Green Revolution and create truly twenty-first century progress.

 

Peak Farmland Is an Ecological Imperative:
A Response to Breakthrough's Essay on Precision Agriculture

By Mark Lynas

“Peak farmland” is an environmental crisis on par with global climate change. Precision agriculture is one of many areas where science will enable humanity to grow more food on less land and protect animal populations and ecosystems from human harm.

 



 

Responses: Is Precision Agriculture the Way to Peak Cropland?

Calestous Juma

Revolution in Africa

Africa imports a staggering 83% of the food it consumes, though it holds nearly 50% of the land available worldwide. Amidst decades of crop yield increases in other parts of the world, sub-Saharan African agriculture stands out as less mechanized, low-yielding, and insecure.

Might the techniques and technologies that fed North America, Europe, and other regions in the latter twentieth century now feed Africa? “The Green Revolution has not yet reached every corner of the world,” write Linus Blomqvist and David Douglas in their new essay on precision agriculture. “Sub-Saharan Africa stands out as the region where farming has modernized the least.”

But it is precisely the approaches Blomqvist and Douglas advocate, among other innovations, that will allow Africa to largely leapfrog the Green Revolution. Its ambitions to feed itself will need to be shaped by a new paradigm that focuses on sustainable intensification led by precision farming.

A new study, Africa Agriculture Status Report 2016, by the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) shows significant growth in African agriculture over the last two decades. This growth occurred in tandem with overall improvements in Africa's economic performance. The economic growth in turn helped to reduce poverty.

According to the report, “GDP per capita increased in Africa from an annual average of US$987 in 1995-2003, to $1,154 in 2003-2008, and even higher to $1,289 on 2008-2014.” Such data, though still indicative, strengthen the case for investing in agriculture as a driver for economic development, as I argued in The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa

Two overarching actions explain the positive trends in African agriculture.

The first is sustained policy commitment at the level of heads of state. The key vehicle for this was the 2003 adoption of Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP) whose remit was expanded by the 2014 Malabo Declaration. The AGRA study shows that countries that implemented the CAADP principles also recorded higher agricultural productivity.

The second factor is that the policy commitments were accompanied by increased agricultural funding. According to the AGRA study, the “country average in Africa increased from US$128.55 million in 1995-2003 to $186.4 million 2003-2008, and to US$219.62 million in 2008-2014.”

Sustaining African agricultural transformation will require national policy approaches which emphasize the need to transition toward sustainable agriculture. More specifically, they will need to pursue strategies that allow for the integration of precision agriculture in existing farming methods. Such policies could focus on six key elements: biological diversity; ecology and emerging technologies; infrastructure; research and training; entrepreneurship and regional trade; and improved governance of agricultural innovation.

First, African food systems have been heavily influenced by the need to meet the calorific requirement of the people. Hunger, for example, is still largely measured by calorific intake. This focus has tended to emphasize cereal production and import at the expense of other food sources.

There is renewed emphasis on meeting the nutritional needs of the people. This could lead to renewed research on indigenous crops and breeds that have historically been neglected. The research using tools such as precision breeding or gene editing would also involve the conservation of agricultural biodiversity. Many African communities still use such local crops and animal breeds. Their participation in new research programs would be essential for their success.

Second, the history of global agriculture is dominated by examples of extensive ecological destruction. This was partly because of the limited number of technologies and farming methods in use. Africa has access to a much larger pool of technological know-how that can help to promote leapfrogging in sustainable agriculture. 

The range of new technologies that can support sustainable agriculture include satellites, drones, sensors and new gene editing techniques. Africa should aim to pursue sustainable intensification approaches that reduce agriculture’s ecological footprint. Such approaches will also make African agriculture more resilient to climate change and other ecological disruptions.

FieldLook South Sudan, for example, uses satellite images in Gezira irrigation scheme in Sudan “to provide information on crop growth, humidity, and nutrient needs of plants,” which is relayed to farmers using mobile phones.

In Nigeria drones are being used to map the potential for expanding rice cultivation. For example, in 2015 the UK-based GrowMoreX Consultancy Company carried out a survey of nearly 3,000 hectares of land suitable for irrigated rice production in New Bussa (Niger State), an area 700 km away from the capital Abuja. The area has “limited access to roads, electricity, clean water, and other amenities.”

The collective impact of agricultural innovation is likely to shift the distribution of winners and losers. The debate over transgenic crops is an example of such social responses to innovation. As I argue in Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, inclusive innovation strategies are needed to reduce the negative impacts of innovation. Special attention needs to focus on the role of women who account for the largest share of farm workers. 

Third, infrastructure investments (especially transportation, energy and irrigation) are essential for sustainable agriculture. The AGRA report acknowledges that a “10 percent decrease in rural transport costs can generate a 25 percent increase in the quantity of food traded.” Transport is only one aspect of infrastructure. Reliable energy, for example, is key for the creation and growth of agro-industries. 

Similarly, irrigation is essential for crop production. Only about 4% per of African agriculture is irrigated whereas the share is 45% in Asia and 18% for the world agriculture. Cost reductions in the production of solar photovoltaics are making it a viable option for irrigation in many parts of Africa. Uganda, for example, is positioning itself to be a regional leader in solar irrigation.

Infrastructure investments are also linked to building up engineering capabilities that can be deployed in the wider economy. Building such capabilities entails strengthening technical training in universities. Even more critical is forging close linkages between universities and agricultural communities. 

Fourth, investing in research and extension to support to farmers, especially women, is critical to sustainable agriculture. This raises the issue of Africa’s common separation between research (conducted mainly in national Institutes) and teaching (undertaken in universities). There is a need to reform the system of higher agricultural education to bring research, teaching, extension and commercialization under more integrated innovation universities.

Fifth, entrepreneurship and regional trade are vital to sustaining agriculture. The first element of this is to promote entrepreneurship along the full agricultural value chain. The second is to explore how agriculture could benefit from ongoing efforts to promote regional economic integration. 

The creation of the Tripartite Free Trade Area (TFTA) has created a market of over 300 million people in 26 countries valued at $1.5 trillion. Africa is negotiating a Continental Free Trade Area covering a billion people in 54 countries with a combined GDP of more than US$3.5 trillion.  Agriculture could be one of the earliest beneficiaries of this market. The market will not only cover produce but it will also provide opportunities for trade in agricultural machinery and the associated services. Technologies and services for precision agriculture will be part of this market.

Finally, high-level leaders need to upgrade their capacity to govern increasingly complex agricultural economies. It is not enough to make decisions by simply watching market prices. Modern agriculture involves decisions on rapidly-changing technologies, consumer preferences, and ecological factors. 

Countries around the world have responded to the need for up-to-date information by creating science and technology advice offices to complement the work of economic advisors. African presidents and prime ministers need to have similar knowledge support offices. Otherwise they risk making decisions that are not supported buy the best advice they can have. 

The AGRA report has confirmed shows that it has taken close to two decades to start seeing the results of the impact CAADP principles. This time frame is consistent with earlier efforts by countries such as Brazil, India and China. 

It shows that growing agriculture in particular and the economy in general requires long-term policy consistency and financing. It also involves viewing economies as integrates systems driven by interactions between different sectors. Future successes will depend largely on how effectively agricultural initiatives will be guided by sustainability principles in general, and precision agriculture in particular.

Food and farming

Food and Farming

Video: The Future of Meat

 

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The Future of Meat

Each year, humanity produces more than 310 million tonnes of meat.1 That entails raising and slaughtering billions of chickens, pigs, and cows and processing and distributing meat all over the world. The sheer volume of global livestock generates massive environmental impacts. Pasture land for cattle alone covers a quarter of the world’s land area,2 and the global livestock sector is responsible for about 14% of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.3

It’s fair to say that producing food leaves the largest environmental footprint of any human activity, and meat plays a leading role.4 By mid-century, meat production is projected to rise by 42% over 2014 levels, to 450 million tonnes.5 Despite growing awareness of the impacts of meat production, global trends toward increased consumption remain robust.

In recent years, conversations about mitigating this impact have focused on two strategies: convincing people to eat lower on the food chain and shifting meat production toward more extensive systems. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the former may not prove particularly practical, while the latter may not always bring about better environmental outcomes, particularly at global scales. This essay considers trends in meat consumption and production to assess what sorts systems might be best equipped to mitigate the environmental impacts of global meat production.


Pulling the Demand Lever

Since at least the publication of Frances Moore Lappé’s Diet for a Small Planet in 1971, drastically reducing meat consumption has provided a common, if not a popular, prescription for addressing the food system’s environmental impacts. It is undeniable that eliminating meat consumption would obviate the need for meat production, and a variety of scientific studies confirm that eliminating meat from diets would reduce environmental impacts. For example, one study finds that substituting a vegetarian diet for current omnivorous diets could reduce future food system GHG emissions by 55%.6

There is little evidence, however, that growing environmental or health consciousness has appreciably influenced rates of vegetarianism. In the United States, the rate of vegetarianism falls somewhere between 3 and 5% of the population,7 a rate much the same as that of two decades ago (the earliest available data).8 Rates of attrition among vegetarians appear to be high,9 and one study found that two-thirds of those who described themselves as vegetarian also reported eating meat in the last day.10

More promising, perhaps, is “flexitarianism,” or a diet of reduced meat consumption, which may prove a more achievable goal for most than strict vegetarianism. In a 2015 poll, 36% of Americans reported that they eat at least one vegetarian meal per week, reflecting efforts to moderate meat consumption.11 In part for this reason, meat consumption has plateaued in affluent regions like Europe and North America, albeit at relatively high, but below peak, levels (Figure 1).
 

Figure 1. Regional Meat Consumption (per capita), 1961-2011
 

Data source: FAOstat

The composition of meat consumption in the United States has also shifted from predominantly beef to predominantly chicken, a trend driven by lower cost and health concerns.12 In the United States, per capita beef consumption has fallen 40% since its peak in the 1970s, while poultry meat has emerged as the most popular type of meat by far.13 The shift from beef to chicken gives rise to substantial environmental benefits, as chicken provides a much more environmentally efficient source of protein than beef. Producing a pound of chicken requires less than a quarter of the land and produces less than a quarter of the emissions than that for a pound of beef.14

Thus, in affluent economies with relatively high levels of health and environmental concern, efforts to moderate the impacts of meat consumption through behavior change might be best focused on moderating, rather than eliminating, meat consumption and encouraging consumption of less resource-intensive meats such as chicken and pork.

The majority of global meat demand growth, however, is projected to occur in Asia, Latin America, and Africa15 where not only are populations growing, but average meat consumption is well below developed country levels and rising strongly (Figure 1). Indeed, historically, meat demand tends to increase as incomes rise, a pattern nutrition researchers call the “dietary transition.” When people’s incomes rise from very low levels, they begin to increase their overall calorie consumption. As incomes rise further, they substitute away from simple starches towards refined carbohydrates like wheat, and from plant-based protein like beans towards animal products.16 Rachel Laudan, a food historian, explains that for many around the world, “Meat eating is not just a matter of taste or the environment, it’s a foothold, it’s a stake in the rich, modern world. It’s a sign that they too can leave behind the hierarchical societies of the past and be full citizens and enjoy what we already enjoy in the United States.”17
 


A meat market in Kolkata, India.

Although the dietary transition is visible worldwide, food is also a cultural product, and societal norms do impact patterns of meat consumption. Mongolia, for example, has unusually high meat consumption rates for its income level due to its tradition of nomadic livestock rearing. India, by contrast, has very low meat consumption because of the cultural and religious tradition of vegetarianism there. However, while beef and pork consumption remain taboo for many Indians, poultry consumption in India has risen considerably in recent decades.18

Given how robust the dietary transition has proven globally, it is reasonable to assume that global meat production will continue to increase as incomes rise in developing countries. Changes in meat-eating behavior in affluent countries have been modest so far, and consumption levels there remain much higher than in emerging economies. As such, successful efforts to significantly mitigate the environmental impacts of meat consumption will likely need to focus on meat production.


An Evolution in Meat Production

Although beef has the largest environmental footprint of any form of meat production, it is not in fact the most popular type of meat. Pork dominates global meat production, followed by chicken, with beef in third place.19 Additionally, large-scale beef production tends to conjure images of feedlot systems for many of us in the United States, but again, these systems are responsible for a minority of production globally: feedlot systems dominate in North America, while the rest of global beef is produced in extensive grazing systems.20 For pork and poultry production, on the other hand, intensive systems do already predominate globally.21

The distinctions between “extensive” and “intensive” meat production are manifold, from how animals are bred and housed, to what they are fed, to how their waste is handled. Most beef today is raised in extensive systems, where cattle graze on pasture areas, eating grass and other forages. Cattle have historically been highly valued in many societies because of this trait: they produce high-quality animal protein by grazing on lands that may not be suitable for growing crops.22

Unlike cattle, pigs and chickens cannot survive on grass. In extensive farming systems they are mostly fed locally produced crop residues or swill, rather than specially grown feeds.23 In this way, extensive livestock function as an integrated part of a broader agricultural system, feeding on waste products from crop production and providing manure for fertilizer.24 This integration provides advantages for producers, since the livestock produce both fertilizer and animal protein while requiring relatively few external inputs.

It was the tectonic economic and demographic shifts of the twentieth century that initiated an intensification of meat production in the United States and other Western countries. Rising wealth increased demand for meat, and new technologies like refrigeration and cold supply chains enabled centralized production and distribution. Labor shortages in the post-war era helped drive intensification as well: confined, indoor housing of animals required fewer workers, reduced problems from weather exposure, and sped up animal growth.25 With cattle production, a scarcity of grazing lands in the American West also contributed to the increased use of feedlots, and feeding cattle grain resulted in faster growth and more fat-marbled meat.26 Today, intensively managed livestock systems dominate in the United States for all meat types, and for pork and poultry production intensive systems dominate globally.27
 

US cattle ranchers in the early 1920s

These intensive livestock systems are defined by their reliance on external feeds that are nutritionally optimized to promote growth. For cattle, this means fattening the animals on grain- and soy-based feeds in feedlots during the last few months before slaughter. It should be noted, however, that even feedlot-finished cattle spend the first part of their lives on pasture.28 With intensive pork and poultry production, the animals are exclusively fed purchased feeds.  Farmers also use selective breeding to optimize for size and rapid growth in intensive systems, and animals are kept in controlled, confined settings, often indoors.

While intensive systems are well-established in many wealthy countries, many emerging economies today are currently undergoing the process of intensification in response to burgeoning demand. For instance, China’s livestock sector, which already produces one-quarter of the world’s meat supply, has undergone rapid intensification in the past two decades to meet growing demand.29 The Chinese government has also incentivized consolidation among smallholder farmers, offering them subsidies to move their animals to “concentrated livestock raising areas” on the outskirts of town in order to facilitate better disease and environmental management.30

Many developing countries, however, are still in the early stages of the transition from traditional extensive livestock rearing. In the Horn of Africa, for instance, land fragmentation and urbanization have begun to put pressure on pastoral livestock systems. Pastoralists are responding by keeping their animals on smaller pasture areas and substituting away from cattle towards pigs, which require less land.31 This type of land pressure drove intensification in the United States in the early twentieth century, but without access to modern feeds and veterinary techniques, productivity remains very low in the Horn of Africa, with some plots hardly able to support livestock.32 The infrastructure and policy needed to enable successful intensification are not yet in place.
 


A cattle farmer in the Blue Nile Valley, Ethiopia (Tim E White / Alamy Stock Photo)

On the whole, extensive systems are being displaced by intensive ones throughout the world because intensive livestock systems offer higher productivity that can more easily meet demand from rapidly urbanizing, wealthier populations.33 Intensive livestock operations produce more meat, more quickly, and with fewer animals. Rather than requiring a nearby integrated farm environment, producers purchase commercial feeds and often house animals indoors. Specially formulated feeds promote faster growth,34 while the controlled environment reduces animal losses from disease and predation.35

This evolution of livestock production around the world “is shifting the balance of environmental problems caused by the sector,” explains the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its landmark report on the global livestock sector.36


Comparing Environmental Performance

At the global level, livestock’s environmental “hoofprint” is significant. Due to the high land demands and GHG emissions associated with beef production, beef is the main event as far as most environmental impacts associated with meat production are concerned. The vast majority of environmental impacts from beef production stem from extensive systems for the simple reason that the vast majority of beef is raised extensively.37 With pork and poultry production, on the other hand, intensive systems already predominate globally and are thus responsible for the majority of impacts.38

Broadly speaking, the higher productivity that characterizes intensive systems also often results in lower environmental impacts per pound of meat, especially when it comes to beef production. This positive relationship between productivity and environmental efficiencies points to the possibility of win-win outcomes for livestock intensification. Realizing that systems are likely to continue to intensify as meat demand rises in the coming decades, it will be important to understand these relationships and purposefully leverage them moving forward.
 

Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The difference in productivity between extensive and intensive production systems has major climate implications. Growing animals to slaughter weight faster can dramatically reduce emissions, most notably for beef. Fully two-thirds of all greenhouse emissions from global beef production consist of methane from enteric fermentation, a natural process that occurs during digestion.39 Cows belch out enteric methane emissions throughout their lifetime, so getting cows to slaughter weight faster also reduces the amount of time they are emitting methane. Intensive systems realize these environmental gains; in the United States, for example, grain-finished cattle take a fraction of the time to reach slaughter weight compared to grass-finished cattle.40 Feedlot-finished cattle are also usually larger than pastured cattle, which means each cow’s emissions are divided by a larger amount of meat.41

Producing feeds for intensive beef production also generates greenhouse emissions, but since animals only occupy feedlots for a short period, the added emissions from feed production are dwarfed by the savings from months of avoided enteric fermentation emissions.42 Feed emissions result from general agricultural practice (fertilizer production, machinery), but can also be attributed to land-use change if the feeds are sourced from a region undergoing deforestation for agricultural conversion.

When it comes to the question of emissions reductions, the role of carbon sequestration in cattle grazing has gained increased attention in recent years. Although well-managed pasturelands can help soils sequester carbon43 an equilibrium in soil carbon is reached fairly quickly,44 and the carbon benefits are not enough to offset the overall higher emissions in grazing-based ranching systems.45 Furthermore, the benefits of good pasture management can accrue to both grass-finished and feedlot cattle, since both spend time on pasture. Ultimately, due to the difference in productivity and thus in enteric fermentation emissions, feedlot-finished cattle generate fewer emissions per unit of meat than pastured cattle (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Emissions intensities of beef in the United States (emissions per unit of meat)
 

Data sources: Pelletier et al. 2010, Capper 2012

Pork and poultry production, on the other hand, complicate the emissions story. Since enteric fermentation does not occur in chickens and is very minimal in pigs, the majority of emissions associated with pork and poultry come from feed production and manure.46 (Only a relatively small portion of emissions originate in direct fossil fuel use, even in intensive systems—specifically, 17% of emissions for poultry and 12% for pork.47  As with beef, using dedicated feeds in intensive production systems generates emissions but also improves productivity: the specially formulated feeds result in larger animals and a quicker time to slaughter. In extensive systems, lower-quality feeds are more difficult for animals to convert to body weight, which results in more volatile solids and nitrogen in their manure.48  Manure emissions are thus lower per pound of meat in intensive systems that use nutritionally optimized feeds.49

With poultry, these productivity gains outweigh the added emissions from feed production, and intensive systems win out with regard to emissions intensities (Figure 3). Pigs, however, take longer and require more feed to mature. As such, the productivity improvements of intensive systems fail to fully compensate for the added emissions from feed production when it comes to pork (Figure 3). 
 

Figure 3. Global meat emissions intensities (emissions per unit of protein)
 

Data source: FAO GLEAM database

The relevance of the relationship between productivity and GHG emissions is best demonstrated with a regional example: the livestock sector in South Asia generates the same level of greenhouse emissions as North America, but produces only half the amount of protein.50 In extensive systems found in developing countries, animal mortality is generally higher, feeds are lower quality, and animals are slaughtered older and smaller, all of which increase emissions intensities.51 Many of the interventions producers would implement to improve their productivity would also result in decreased emissions intensities, demonstrating an important win-win characteristic of intensification.


Land Use

Land use for livestock production is dominated by pastureland for cattle grazing, which covers a quarter of the world’s ice-free land.52 Unlike cattle systems, which require grazing areas, intensive pork and poultry systems require virtually no land for the animals themselves; their land demand almost exclusively takes the form of cropland for feed production.53 Given the need for pasture and the fact that cows are less efficient feed converters, beef has a far higher overall land-use intensity than pork or chicken (Figure 4).
 

Figure 4. Land-use intensity of meat production
(bars represent range of results from a literature review by de Vries & de Boer, 2010)
 

Data source: de Vries & de Boer (2010)

In all intensive livestock operations, the need for external feed presents a demand for crops and land to grow them that must be weighed against food security and biodiversity considerations. Today, about one-third of global cropland is used to produce feed crops.54 Soybean production for livestock feed becomes especially relevant in this regard because of its concentration in areas like the Brazilian Amazon that have undergone major deforestation in the wake of agricultural expansion.55 The added impacts of land-use change in systems that source feeds from high-deforestation areas can certainly outweigh the gains from higher productivity—this impact in fact explains the higher overall emissions associated with intensive pork production at the global level as shown in Figure 3.56 Additionally, since markets for livestock feed are global, any increase in demand can result in continued pressure for land conversion in deforestation regions.57 For example, while sourcing feeds from the United States may not result in direct deforestation, the increase in overall demand that it generates can displace production to regions where agricultural conversion is driving deforestation. 

Nevertheless, there is some controversy over how much livestock should be held accountable for crop demand. With soybeans, for example, livestock are fed soybean meal, or the remains of soybeans after they are pressed for oil.58 Both soybean oil and meal are valuable commodities—they are considered co-products.59 Thus, livestock feed serves as a component of the demand for soybean meal, in combination with other food demand pressures. Demand for soy in virtually all cases cannot be attributed to livestock alone.

With beef production, land demand is primarily driven by the need for grazing area, even in intensive systems that also require cropland for feed production.60 In fact, feedlot-finished cattle require less overall land than grass-finished cattle, even when feed crop area is included (Figure 5). Providing cattle grain- and soy-based feeds during the last few months before slaughter accelerates the growth process and allows a given grazing area to support more cattle. Improving pasture quality with high-quality forages, fertilization, and irrigation can also increase productivity,61 which suggests that combining improved pasture and feedlot finishing could optimize land-use efficiency in beef systems.
 

Figure 5. Land requirements for grass-finished and feed-finished beef cattle

Data sources: Capper (2012), Kamali et al. (2016)

Water Use

Feed production is the driver of virtually all freshwater consumption in livestock systems; the amount animals drink and the water needed for on-farm tasks is negligible in comparison.62 In some cattle systems, irrigating pasture to promote grass and forage production also results in significant water consumption.63

At the global level, beef again stands as the most intensive resource user: beef requires more water per pound of meat produced than either pork or chicken.64 In terms of “blue water” use (water extracted from surface and groundwater), extensive and intensive production systems vary in efficiency. The United States uses less blue water to produce beef and pork in intensive systems than in extensive ones, but the opposite is true at the global level (Figure 6).
 

Figure 6. Blue water consumption per tonne of meat

Source: Mekonnen & Hoekstra (2012)

Regional differences in rainfall levels and irrigation practices drive these variations. In areas with high natural rainfall, less irrigation may be needed for crops or pasture, reducing blue water consumption.65 Irrigation is also expensive and requires technology that is not available to many farmers and ranchers in poor regions; in these settings, blue water consumption may be lower, but often so is productivity.66

There are also trade-offs between water use and other environmental impacts. For example, an irrigated pasture area can support more cattle because it increases forage production. In this way, increased water use can substitute for land. However, this trade-off may not pay off in arid regions where water is in high demand for food crop production; in those cases, larger unirrigated land areas may be preferable for cattle production.


Manure and Pollution

Animal manure is a final source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as water pollution, in livestock systems. In extensive systems, manure is recycled as fertilizer for crop production or, with cattle, left dispersed in grazing areas. In intensive production systems, on the other hand, manure presents a pollution problem because it accumulates in a centralized setting. Concentrated manure generates ammonia emissions, which contribute to local air pollution.67 When manure piles are left exposed to the elements, rainfall can cause runoff into waterways, where the excess nitrogen from the manure can lead to algae blooms and create “dead zones” in coastal areas.68

Livestock manure is often left exposed to the elements as a least-cost option, but it can also be stored in a way that safely contains it before being processed or distributed as fertilizer. Anaerobic digesters provide one such form of containment—one that not only reduces pollution risks but also generates energy in the form of biogas—but the technology is not yet in widespread use. A regional example provides a model to follow in this regard: Denmark, a major meat producer for the EU, used a combination of regulation, subsidies, and producer innovation to successfully reduce nitrogen leaching without sacrificing productivity.70  As a result of better manure management techniques, including the practice of containing manure and using it for biogas production, nitrogen leaching in Denmark fell 48% below 1979 levels.71


Opportunities and Trade-offs in Regional Context

Given the sheer scale of global livestock production, how we produce and consume meat in the future will have a significant impact on our environmental future. However, trends in global demand for meat cannot be disentangled from the production systems used to meet that demand. Extensive systems depend on locally available crop residues for feeds, or natural forage production in grazing areas, which limits their ability to scale up production. As the FAO explains, “Extensive systems are incapable of meeting the surging urban demand in many developing countries, not only in terms of volume but also in sanitary and other quality standards.”72

Intensive systems offer higher productivity and scalability, and as a result, rising demand for meat has historically been coupled with increasing intensification. Certainly, shifting from extensive to intensive livestock production introduces new challenges, and the pace and management of the intensification process will be critical to ensuring positive results for producers and the environment. But if well-managed, intensification in the livestock sector has the capacity to leverage productivity gains that also generate environmental savings, helping to boost protein output while minimizing impacts.

Intensification, however, is not automatic or inevitable. Governments can and do promote intensification to increase production as well as improve oversight and management of environmental impacts and health risks. China, for example, has been rapidly intensifying its livestock sector as the country’s population grows and incomes rise.73 The shift towards concentrated production has been actively encouraged by government subsidies, in part to better manage local environmental and health impacts. The experience of bird flu in China demonstrated the manageability of disease control in larger intensive operations, as the majority of bird flu cases occurred in extensive systems.74
 


During an avian flu investigation, China FETP residents collect samples in a poultry market in Guangdong, China (CDC Globall)

Producers running intensive livestock operations have shown remarkable ability to adopt new techniques to boost productivity and reap environmental savings in the process. In the United States, for one, innovations in veterinary science, animal nutrition, and genetics have allowed for major improvements in the environmental performance of modern intensive beef production. Between 1977 and 2007, the land needed for beef production decreased 33%, water use decreased 12%, and the carbon footprint fell 16%.75 These improvements largely resulted from the continued shift towards feedlot finishing as well as from productivity enhancements like selectively breeding for larger animals and using improved feed formulations.76 Farmers and scientists are still working on ways to reduce impacts in commercial livestock production—for example, by experimenting with feed additives to reduce methane emissions from cattle.77

Accelerating the transition from extensive to intensive production should be prioritized in some cases to address environmental concerns. In Brazil, for instance, an explicit policy of intensification for the beef sector could help relieve pressure on land conversion. Most beef production there remains extensive (grazing only), so finishing beef cattle in feedlots would reduce the overall land demand from the cattle sector. Even if the cattle were fed soy grown in Brazil, the overall land use would be smaller than pasture-only cattle rearing. Considering that demand for pasture land is a key driver of deforestation in the Amazon, this shift could have a dramatic impact.78


Zebu cattle in Brazil, at a recently logged ranch on the edge of the Amazon rainforest. (Frontpage / Shutterstock)

Trade-offs and environmental impacts will vary by region, so context-specific solutions will be necessary. While feedlot finishing may prove a good option for the United States and Brazil, an arid region like Australia may deem it environmentally preferable to continue with a grazing-based system. Increased intensification in pork and poultry production will increase demand for dedicated feed crops in turn, which will require land-use and agricultural planning to minimize pressure on land conversion and competition with food supply. Managing the concentrated local impacts from intensive systems, like water pollution, will require responsible producers and robust regulation.

Looking ahead to the coming decades, continued intensification is likely as developing countries respond to rising demand. Thus, efforts to accelerate the adoption of best practice techniques from intensive management systems will be crucial to boost protein output and leverage environmental savings. No-regrets interventions like optimized breeding, nutrition, and veterinary care can improve animal survival, shorten time to slaughter, and increase productivity, benefiting both producers and the environment. In industrialized countries, ongoing innovations are needed to continue raising the bar for environmental performance in modern intensive systems.


Animal Welfare and Livestock-Free Meat

Environmental impacts are, of course, not the only consideration; for many people, concerns over animal welfare outweigh concerns about emissions or productivity. Conditions like high stocking densities, confinement, and lack of outdoor access can restrict natural animal behaviors and are common in many intensive livestock systems. While trade-offs do exist between improving animal welfare, reducing environmental impacts, and increasing productivity, however, there are also some synergies. Because poor animal welfare can lead to the spread of disease and lower quality meat, for instance, producers share an interest in the wellbeing of their animals.79

Many of the practices that drive efficiency in intensive systems do not come at the expense of animal welfare or environmental impacts. Breeding for larger animals allows for more meat to be produced with fewer animals, which becomes starkly obvious when comparing the size of livestock in poor countries to those in modern livestock operations (although selective breeding can also be taken to an extreme when animals are rendered virtually handicapped).80 Nutritionally optimized feeds and regular veterinary care (including judicious use of antibiotics) boost productivity and ensure animal health. Many of the practices that draw objections from an animal welfare perspective, like unhealthy manure accumulation and extreme confinement, can be improved upon without major consequences for productivity,81 although they do usually come at some cost.82


A US Public Health Service veterinarian injects a cow with an anti-parasite vaccination in Nicaragua.

Researchers are also developing technological innovations to improve animal welfare; for example, a scientific innovation called in-ovo sexing may eliminate the need to kill male chicks in the egg industry84 and a gene-edited dairy cow has been bred without horns, which would normally be painfully removed.84 On the other hand, some interventions intended to improve animal welfare in large-scale operations have led to unintended consequences: commercial egg producers who have shifted to cage-free production have seen an increase in bird mortality, hazardous working conditions, and particulate emissions.85 This serves as a reminder that confinement in industrial systems originated partly from the motivation to protect animals from one another and from disease.86

Ultimately, animal health or poor treatment are both possible in extensive, industrial, and organic farms alike. As Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who works on animal welfare in the livestock industry, says, “People get into, ‘big is bad, small is good.’ It’s not that simple. The key is management. Whether you are big or small, you’ve got to have good management.”87 Even with good management, some may still see commercial livestock production as inhumane. Consumers, farmers, and societies will have to determine the right balance between animal welfare, cost, and environmental performance of livestock systems based on their own values, while also taking into account the growing demand for meat worldwide.

Thinking in the very long run, there is exciting research to support the prospect of producing meat without livestock. The idea behind “cultured meat” is to grow meat from animal muscle cells in culture, producing a genuine animal product without the animal.88 Although this technology currently exists only at the laboratory scale, many researchers and animal-rights activists have set their sights toward to scaling up to commercial production, the way we have with beer, cheese, and other beloved cultured products. Many startups are also working on commercializing milk, eggs, and ground beef made without animals. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute believes consumers will come around to the idea of cultured meat: “Right now people eat meat despite how it's produced, not because of how it's produced.” In the future, he says, it will be “absurd to use live animals to create meat.”89


Breakthrough tried the "Impossible Burger," the vegan burger that bleeds, in San Francisco last month.

Additionally, although plant-based meat alternatives have historically held a low market share compared to meat,90 new innovations have improved the texture, taste, and appearance of plant-based meat substitutes. The “Impossible Burger” developed by a Silicon Valley start-up “bleeds” like real beef and is now being launched at trendy restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.


The Future of Meat

In a world where billions of people want meat on their plates, the environmental impact of livestock is significant, and could grow as populations and incomes rise in the coming decades. It is tempting to obviate the need for a growing livestock sector by envisioning a more vegetarian future. Meat consumption in many wealthy countries has indeed plateaued or even fallen below its peak, and many consumers there engage in moderation of meat consumption for health or environmental reasons. These trends are encouraging, and indicate that meat demand need not rise indefinitely. However, meat consumption in many parts of Asia and Africa still sit well below levels in North America or Europe, and the robust historical trend of the dietary transition suggests that global meat demand is likely to continue to grow significantly before plateauing.

The extensive livestock systems that still predominate in many developing countries are not equipped to scale up production to meet rising demand from larger, more urban, and wealthier populations. As a result, livestock sectors in many developing countries are shifting toward the intensive systems that dominate in wealthy countries. Intensive systems offer high productivity, but also come with their own, often more concentrated, environmental impacts. Nevertheless, a comparison of impacts per unit of meat highlights that the productivity gains in intensive systems can and do often yield environmental savings. This positive relationship between productivity and environmental performance is a crucial insight, and subverts the common perception that more intensive production is necessarily worse for the planet.

All livestock systems come with trade-offs, and meat remains a resource-intensive (albeit popular) foodstuff around the world. As one of many modernization processes occurring in developing countries today, intensification of the livestock sector offers huge opportunities to boost protein availability while minimizing environmental harm. Best practices and innovations in animal science and management have the potential to further optimize these outcomes.

Ultimately, the conventional narrative around livestock production deserves an update, one that reflects the realities of demand, productivity, and environmental performance in modern livestock systems. If societies are to satisfy consumers’ demand for meat while minimizing the real-world environmental consequences of livestock production, they will undoubtedly need to acknowledge and leverage the efficiencies of intensive systems.        
 

The Future of Meat

Science Versus Politics

Science and politics, it turns out, are not cut so cleanly as we might have imagined, a development that has led to displeasure on both sides of the aisle. Increasingly, we hear not only that science has been muddied with politics, as John Tierney claims in City Journal, but also that science—and specifically “the sort of hubristic scientific thinking that got us into this Anthropocene era to begin with,” as Sullivan says—has crept into politics. “We don’t need rare innovations so much as old-fashioned political tools,” his Times piece concludes.

But science and politics alike come off worse for the wear from this treatment, as do, perhaps, nature and society. Neither may be isolated from the other, nor is it clear that we would want them to be. Science informs good policy, just as policy has the capacity to promote good science. Scientists, moreover, are also people with values and goals, and politics provides the realm in which we collectively debate those goals.

Rather than to pick one side or the other—science or politics—better conversations would be had by a starting recognition of the messiness and merits of both. With this kind of framing, we might then begin to assess the solutions at hand—the policies that will assist our science, as well as the scientific and technological innovation that will serve our shared future, and the nature with which we share it.

More on messiness, science and technology, and policy pragmatism below:

Cary Funk and Brian Kennedy discuss the findings of the Pew Research Center’s recent survey on contemporary American attitudes toward food, science, and health. The nexus between the three has occasioned new ideologies and divisions that do not neatly map onto political or other more traditional divides, they report. Instead, these affinities “tie to individual concerns and philosophies about the relationship between food and well-being”—various frames, in other words, that have been influenced by public attention to health in the media, and perhaps particularly by influential (if also dogmatic) voices like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. Dan Charles provides a helpful synthesis of the survey’s results—most interesting may be the finding that different food issues, such as attitudes toward organic food and GMOs, do not necessarily coincide. There’s a lot going on here, most of which is not easily teased out by simple appeals to scientific consensus.

Over 30 U.S. states have seen economic growth decoupled from carbon emissions since 2000, write Devashree Saha and Mark Muro, in a report released by the Brookings Institution last week. The fuel mix for electricity generation matters a whole lot in this regard, with natural gas and nuclear driving notable progress in the Northeast and South. (Renewables, on the other hand, have not yet shown to effect significant decarbonization, recalling a 2014 Breakthrough analysis that followed similar trends.) These findings offer important insights into the direction of decoupling and the work that remains—such as the need for new nuclear reactors, state-level regulatory support, and clean energy R&D. Above all, the report provides in empirical form a dose of both reality and hope: “That the main responsibility for this urgent project has fallen to America’s states and regions may seem discouraging,” they conclude, “but it is nothing new—and it does not rule out success.” Stephen Lacey and Ben Rosen also report.

Elizabeth Kolbert interviews John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor, for Yale e360. After years of holding “the possibly naïve view that giving people more information will help,” Holdren now says “we need to focus more on the solutions and their attractiveness irrespective of whether you are convinced that humans are altering the climate to our detriment.” With respect to energy, for instance, he promotes natural gas in the short term and “some combination of nuclear and renewables” in the longer term (along with, perhaps, some CCS); when it comes to policy, he believes it “can accelerate the good trends” already in play. Holdren appears to be exiting the White House as a Climate Pragmatist—who takes his place is anyone’s guess.

Writing for National Geographic, Michelle Nijhuis highlights the dawning understanding—quite a long time coming—that the static vision of nature once promoted by national parks no longer serves. Humans, for one, have long altered landscapes, and nature itself, “left to its own devices, does not tend toward a steady state—landscapes and ecosystems are always being changed by storms or droughts or fires or floods, or even by the interactions of living things,” as Nijhuis points out. The onset of climate change will force parks to grapple with this paradigm shift in real terms, to open themselves to new possibilities and adapt to new realities as they emerge.

Jonathan Tirone features molten salt reactors and other next-gen nuclear technologies with the capacity for broader appeal than traditional nuclear plants. Potentially safer, smaller, and more economical, these designs have attracted interest across the political spectrum and signal the emergence of “a new nuclear paradigm” at the intersection of climate concerns and energy security, Tirone suggests.

Rosie Mestel speaks with Dan Kahan in Nature, who discusses the problems of group affinity and cognitive bias. If you can get individuals to think past their cultural groups to consider practical paths as well as counter-arguments, he says, we just might be able to move beyond the biases and limitations that have led to the deep polarization we are seeing today.

…  

Roger Pielke, Jr. details his fall from grace at the hands of the “climate thought police.” In closing, he calls on academic and journalists alike to champion “viewpoint diversity instead of serving as the handmaidens of political expediency by trying to exclude voices or damage reputations and careers. If academics and the media won’t support open debate,” Pielke writes, “who will?”

food fun

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Is Precision Agriculture the Way to Peak Cropland?

As threats to wildlife and habitats go, the global expansion of farmland – including land used for crops and livestock – is unrivaled. Forests, grasslands, and wetlands representing more than two-fifths of the earth’s ice-free surface have given way to farming.1 Over the past half century alone, farmland has grown by more than 400 million hectares2 – an area nearly half the size of the United States. More than half of recent agricultural expansion in the tropics has come at the expense of old-growth forests.3 Conversion of natural habitats to farmland has been a leading cause of precipitous declines in terrestrial wildlife populations, which on average fell by more than half between 1970 and 2012.4

If farmland continues to grow over the next several decades, the consequences for habitats and wildlife would be dire. As such, slowing, halting, and eventually reversing the growth in agricultural area must be a top priority – perhaps the top priority – for global conservation.

“Peak farmland” itself does not guarantee an end to habitat loss, since other land uses, especially cities, are expanding.5 And since farming is shifting from temperate to tropical regions, deforestation in the latter could continue, even if farmland stopped expanding on a net global basis.3 Regardless, peak farmland would take a whole lot of pressure off forests and other natural habitats, and enable greater opportunities for conservation efforts like protected areas.

The challenge is daunting. By midcentury, the global population will be approaching ten billion,6 and demand for crops in 2050 could be twice as high as in 2005.7 Crop yields – the amount of crops harvested per unit of land – will have to rise by at least as much as crop demand to avoid further encroachment of cropland into natural habitats.

Dramatic increases in crop yields would not be unprecedented. In the twentieth century, a powerful package of technologies, including better seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation, and machinery, boosted yields by a factor of two or three, first in the United States and Europe, and later in much of the rest of the world, in what became known as the Green Revolution.8–11

But today, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, this crude but effective recipe has mostly run its course. Applying more fertilizers will increase pollution, not yields. Irrigation has only a modest potential to expand, as many rivers and aquifers are already tapped and subject to many competing demands.12 The groundbreaking new rice and wheat varieties that underpinned early yield gains in places like India and the Philippines were a one-off boost that cannot easily be repeated. Furthermore, several major crop-producing regions have seen yields stagnate in recent years,13 and “yield gaps” – the difference between current and potential yield at a given location – are getting smaller for many crops.14,15

This poses two questions: what sorts of innovations can drive yield improvements once the basic set of modern farming technologies have been adopted – that is, post-Green Revolution – and can these new methods drive rapid enough gains for the world to meet rising food demand without further growth in cropland?

Much of the debate on this issue has focused on biotech, and particularly genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But the emphasis on GMOs – and the heated debates it has given rise to – risks obscuring the bigger picture. In the past few decades, innovators, agronomists, and farmers have developed a powerful suite of technologies and practices under the banner of precision agriculture, which has played a large and underappreciated role in driving up yields and reducing pollution. Looking forward, precision agriculture presents some of the best opportunities to meeting growing global food demand while minimizing environmental impacts. As such, it needs to become a central component of the conversation about agricultural innovation and sustainability.
 

Precision Farming: The Unsung Hero of Agricultural Innovation

The Green Revolution averted a looming food security crisis and spared vast land areas from being converted to cropland, greatly attenuating the loss of wildlife and natural habitats.10,16,17 It also had manifold negative impacts, including pollution from nutrient overload and pesticides, freshwater depletion, and social disruption.10,18 Many of these negative impacts, however, have been mitigated over time, as production increases are stemming less from increasing inputs like water and fertilizers, and more from smarter farming decisions, including more efficient use of these inputs. By one estimate, chemical inputs, land, irrigation, and area expansion accounted for 93% of increased global agricultural production at the height of the Green Revolution in the 1970s, but only 27% in the 2000s. The rest – now representing about three-quarters of production growth – comes from what is called total factor productivity, or more simply, efficiency.19

After a period of blunt and wasteful applications of fertilizers, pesticides, water, and other inputs, agriculture, especially in developed countries, has been cleaning up its act. Farming in many parts of the world has entered an era of “sustainable intensification,” where production continues to increase but with less and less inputs and pollution for each ton of output. Perhaps because of the incremental nature of this shift, it has often escaped notice.

The share of fertilizers that is not taken up by crops and thus escapes into water and air has been declining for decades in developed countries.20–22 In the United States, pesticides have declined both in terms of the absolute amount used and in terms of toxicity.23 Soil erosion is on the decline in developed countries, as is the amount of water used per ton of crops in irrigated farming.20,24 And, by one estimate, global farming generates about 40% fewer greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production than it did 50 years ago.25

Alongside these improvements in input efficiency, yields have also continued to improve, as a result of ongoing seed improvements and what is known as precision agriculture: using the right inputs, in the right amounts, at the right time, for each field and crop.

A new wave of innovators and venture capitalists has brought precision farming to the forefront in the last few years. A long list of promising, if not widely adopted, advanced technologies ranging from satellite imagery to big data to drones is in various stages of development and deployment.26 But while these technologies grab headlines, a set of more prosaic technologies has made precision farming the unsung hero of agricultural advancement, yield gains, and lower environmental impacts for decades.

A big reason precision farming has raised yields in past decades is, perhaps, also the least sexy: plant density. With corn, for example, farmers have gone from 30,000 plants per hectare in the 1930’s to over 80,000 today.27 The implications for how much corn can be produced on a given piece of land are obvious. These gains have been driven by a range of technologies including GPS-driven tractors that can drive straight, tight rows, and planters that can put individual seeds at specified distances.26,28


A GPS-enabled tractor receives detailed location data from satellites to plough crop fields in perfectly straight lines. 

In addition to higher density, higher precision in the application of fertilizers, pesticides, and water helps ensure that fewer plants suffer deficiencies at any time, while also greatly reducing excess applications.14 No plant left behind, one might say. Today it is increasingly recognized that applying smaller amounts of fertilizer at multiple times over the growing season, rather than dumping all of it around the time of planting, can avoid both leaching of fertilizer into the water supplies and late-season nutrient scarcity that can hamper growth.29 New equipment can apply liquid fertilizer right at the base of the plant,30 such that each plant gets its fair share, and vary the application rates across the field in response to small-scale variations in soil conditions.31

Behind these improved machines are farmers equipped with improved data and decision support tools, which help to make better decisions throughout the growing season. Analytics help farmers decide what and when to plant, how densely to plant the seeds, and when water and fertilizer is needed. Increasingly these decisions are optimized for each field based on location, local weather, and soil type.32

While new tools and machinery are important to precision farming with increased yields and efficiencies, few of these practices would have been possible without concomitant developments in breeding and genetics, which are inseparable and co-evolving.27,33 Higher plant density, for instance, can only work with seeds that are bred to cope better in crowded conditions.27,34

Not every yield-boosting farming practice falls under the banner of precision agriculture. Earlier planting, which gives crops more time to grow before harvest, has made an important contribution to raising yields in many places, including the United States.33,35 Crop breeding that confers greater resistance to drought, pests, waterlogging, and cold also contributes to yield improvements.27
 

Is Peak Cropland in Sight?

With developing countries still squeezing the last drops out of the Green Revolution, and developed countries seeing gains from precision agriculture, global yields have, on average, increased steadily over the entire period from 1960 to today.36 But this does not necessarily mean that we are on track to meet future food demand without further expansion of cropland.

Forecasts for how much more crops the world will need in 2050 vary. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) projected an increase in crop demand by 56% between 2006 and 2050.37 Tim Searchinger and colleagues adjusted this forecast to account for revised population growth estimates and the need to ensure adequate nutrition in all world regions, arriving at 69% higher crop demand in 2050 compared to 2006.12 David Tilman and colleagues, using a different methodology, estimated that crop demand would grow by a daunting 100% between 2005 and 2050.7 These estimates do not assume significant growth in biofuels, perhaps the biggest wild card in the equation. They also, quite realistically, do not assume radical reductions in meat consumption or food waste.

While population forecasts and predicted dietary changes explain some of the discrepancies in the food demand scenarios, they cannot explain all of it. Different assumptions about beef production are another important factor. Cattle finished in feedlots are fed grains, in contrast to those raised entirely on pasture. The highest figure for future crop demand7 is based on the assumption that more livestock will be finished in feedlots, thus requiring more grains, whereas the lower two forecasts12,37 assume little change in the overall global proportions of pasture- and feedlot-finished cattle. However, increased use of feedlots reduces the area of pasture faster than it increases the area of cropland, leading to a net reduction in total farmland.38

If demand for crops grows faster than yields, the area required to meet that demand increases. To get a sense of whether we are on track towards peak farmland or not, we need to compare these two trajectories. To do so, the first thing to note is that yields, the amount of crops produced in each harvest, tend to grow linearly, not exponentially, which means that a roughly constant amount is added to the average harvest every year.13 For cereals, this has been a bit over 40 kg per hectare per year, but with increasing yields, the percentage change has dropped from about 3% per year in the early 1960s to about 1% today.12

Projecting historical yield trends for cereals gets us about 45% higher yields in 2050 compared to 2010.12 Deepak Ray and colleagues forecast yields to grow by 67% for corn, 42% for rice, 38% for wheat, and 55% for soybean between 2008 and 2050.39

Most of these forecasts have yields growing slower than projected demand up to 2050, implying that more land would need to be converted to cropland to meet demand. The upshot is that to avoid further expansion of cropland, yields would have to grow faster in the next few decades than they have in previous decades.

Without this acceleration, cropland may need to expand by hundreds of millions of hectares in order to meet demand, potentially exceeding the combined expansion of cropland and pasture between 1960 and 2010.40,41

In addition to increasing the amount of crops in each harvest, farmers can also, under certain circumstances, raise total production by doing more harvests per year. This has contributed to increased production over the past few decades, and could continue to do so in some places,42 although the potential for this is disputed.12

In sum, cropland expansion is not inevitable – but to avoid it, the world probably needs the optimistic scenarios for both crop demand and yields to come true.

A net expansion of cropland between now and 2050 would not necessarily imply that peak cropland is not in sight – only that it will occur at a level higher than today. As more and more people around the world reach the limit of how much food, especially meat, they want to consume, and as population growth continues to abate, global crop demand inevitably slows down. This might allow yield growth rates to overtake demand growth rates and thus start shrinking global cropland area. Peak cropland might be on the horizon – the question is just how much damage will have been done to natural habitats by the time it occurs.
 

Yields: How Much Higher Can They Go?

All of these projections of crop demand and yields are, of course, speculative. How much crops humanity will need by 2050 is sensitive to population growth rates, income growth, dietary preferences, and whether cattle are fed with forage or grains. Wildcards such as the possible diffusion of lab-grown meat are, understandably, totally missing.

Future yield gains are perhaps even more uncertain. There is no guarantee that crop yields will continue rising the way they have over the past half century, a period when the Green Revolution offered an unprecedented, largely one-off boost to yields through relatively simple means like irrigation and fertilizers.

One major challenge to rising global yields is that, in the next few decades, agriculture will have to increasingly grapple with the effects of climate change. While some of these effects, like higher CO2, can boost photosynthesis and yields, increases in droughts, floods, and extreme heat could have major negative impacts.43

But even in a stable climate, yields might not be able to go up forever. There are already worrying signs that yields in certain regions are growing more slowly than in the past, or not growing at all.13,44 In less developed regions, this can be explained by inadequate access to inputs, lack of education, poorly functioning markets, and the like.13,44 Here, yields could begin or resume their upward trajectory if these barriers were removed. More concerning, however, is the evidence that yields in highly productive parts of the world, where markets, technology and so on present less of an obstacle, are starting to stagnate.

Patricio Grassini and colleagues found that areas representing more than one-fifth of global rice, wheat, and corn production have reached what they call “upper yield plateaus” in the last one or two decades.13 This includes one-third of rice production, 27% of wheat production, and 5% of corn production. Upper yield plateaus are now present for rice in California, China, and Korea; wheat in India and northwest Europe; and corn in France and Italy.

While the cause of these trends is hard to establish definitively, we cannot rule out that it is due to crops in these places approaching their potential yields – the yields that could be achieved with the best cultivars and under optimal management, with adequate water and nutrients and without any stress from pests or diseases. These potential yields, which are typically assessed at local or regional levels, are in theory only limited by sunlight and temperature.45 (Under rainfed farming, temporary scarcities of water, which hamper plant growth, have to be taken into account in making a realistic estimate of potential yields across multiple years in any given place.)

With any given set of cultivars, the room for further growth through better agricultural practices is referred to as the “yield gap” – the difference between current and potential yield at a given location.

Potential yields are not fixed, and can be raised, most importantly by creating seeds that have greater photosynthetic capacity and that allocate more of their biomass to the part of the plant that is harvested for human consumption. Breeding that improves resistance to pests, droughts, cold, and other stressors are critical to raising yields on farms, but they don’t count towards potential yields in the strict sense, which assumes that such stressors are absent.45

There are many ways of estimating potential yields, each with its own limitations.45 Rigorous estimates are relatively few and far between, but those that do exist give us a decent picture of the prospects for further yield gains in the most important crops. One should not, however, assume that the potential yield will ever be realized in practice. Farmers do not optimize for yield, but for profit.45 The smaller the yield gap, the harder and more expensive it gets to raise yields, and, at some point, diminishing returns make it uneconomic to try to push yields any further.

For rice, there is little evidence of improvements in potential yields since the first semi-dwarf varieties were introduced several decades ago, and the yield gap appears to be closing in key rice-producing countries like China, Japan, Korea, and India.13,14,46,47 However, there are reasons to think that recent advances in breeding could lift the potential yields significantly. Hybrid rice cultivars can deliver a 15% boost compared to the more commonly used inbred varieties, and new cultivars like the Chinese “super rice” can go even higher.46–49 Meanwhile, large yield gaps persist in many parts of the world – Nigeria, for instance, could nearly triple its rice yields.50

Similarly, corn appears to have seen little if any improvements in potential yields in recent decades, although when resistance to stresses like plant crowding is taken into account, the yields that have been possible with the best practical management have indeed risen significantly.33,51,52 US corn yields, especially on irrigated land, might be approaching a ceiling, although in most regions, several more tons can probably be squeezed out of each hectare.45,53 Elsewhere in the world, corn yields could be dramatically increased. Places like Ethiopia, India, and Kenya are at less than 14% of their potential – allowing for yields to increase by a factor of four or five.50

Wheat stands out as a major cereal crop where significant and consistent progress on potential yields has taken place over the past few decades.46,47 Field experiments in the United Kingdom show that potential yields have actually grown faster than average farm yields, at least until the last decade.33 This would suggest the yield gap has been widening rather than shrinking, giving hope that yields could continue to rise for the foreseeable future. As with rice and corn, many parts of the developing world, such as India and Bangladesh, have yields at less than half their potential for irrigated wheat.50

The number we would all like to see is the global yield gap – how much more crops the world could produce on existing farmland, with existing technologies. Most attempts so far have measured yields within broad climate zones, and defined the yield gap as the difference between the average yields and those in the most productive part of the climate zone.54 A variety of such estimates have tended to cluster around 50%.55–57

Like predictions of future food demand, these estimates are fraught with uncertainty, and are probably not particularly reliable.54 On the one hand, they may not accurately take into account limits on key inputs such as water, both in the form of rain and irrigation potential. On the other hand, by defining potential yields as the highest yields in a region, they do not account for the fact that even those top achievers might be performing well below their potential, especially in places like Sub-Saharan Africa.

How do these factors add up? So far, it is impossible to tell, and we will probably have to wait for projects like the Global Yield Gap Atlas to give us more robust estimates at larger scales.54

Even though the size of the yield gaps, especially at the global level, are unclear, what seems almost certain is that potential yields are not growing at a rate consistent with meeting a 40-70% increase in food demand by 2050.33,46 This means that, even if average farm yields can keep pace with growing demand, the yield gap is likely to shrink, making incremental gains more and more difficult to achieve. This is not a time to sit back and expect peak cropland to spontaneously occur.
 

Agricultural Innovation In the Post-Green Revolution Era

The Green Revolution has not yet reached every corner of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa stands out as the region where farming has modernized the least. For lack of locally adapted seeds and inputs like fertilizers and irrigation – as well as poor infrastructure, markets, and institutions –yields in this region have grown only marginally.8,10,58 The Green Revolution recipe, crude but effective, could still work wonders for this region.59,60 But as more and more of the world has adopted the Green Revolution’s technologies and practices, and as yields gaps likely narrow, it is going to be increasingly difficult to squeeze more crops out of each hectare. This portends an increased role for innovation, as fine-tuning modern agricultural systems requires ever more advanced technology.

Debates around agricultural innovation today often center on the use of biotech and, in particular, GMOs. Widespread resistance to these technologies has been a real obstacle to progress, likely having slowed both innovation and adoption.61,62 If this resistance remains, there is a real risk that important and useful opportunities in crop breeding will be lost. This includes transgenics, where a gene is transferred from one organism to another to confer a particular trait, but also other emerging techniques like gene editing.

Yet despite its outsized attention, genetic engineering is only one of many components of agricultural innovation. First of all, not all biotech is about genetic modification per se. Marker-assisted selection and many other techniques are making a difference to crop breeding without much public opposition.46

Secondly, not all progress in crop germplasm is about biotech. The vast majority of genetic improvements to date have come from conventional breeding,46 where parent seeds are crossed and the best performing progeny are selected for further rounds – a practice that dates back many hundreds of years. Old-school empirical breeding is still the chief way to improve potential yields of crops, since the genetic basis for photosynthesis is far more complex than can be fixed by changing one or a handful of individual genes though genetic engineering.46

GMOs, or more specifically transgenics, have made a noticeable difference to yields of corn, soy, and cotton, by improving resistance to certain pests and enabling conservation tillage, which, in turn, allows for earlier planting and thus more time for the plants to grow.33,63–66

There is every reason to believe that genetic modification, through transgenics and other techniques like gene editing, can continue improving plants’ resistance to stresses like droughts, flooding, cold, and heat, thereby raising yields.67 Even here, though, traditional breeding has so far made faster progress than GM techniques in many cases.68,69 As such, traditional breeding will likely remain a mainstay of genetic improvement for the foreseeable future.46

Thirdly, and most importantly, far from all progress in yields and environmental sustainability is about genetics. Advances in agronomy have to date been at least as important in pushing up yields as has genetics, and there is good reason to think that this will remain the case.

The potential of precision technologies, in particular, is far from fully tapped. Most of today’s precision tools help create uniformity. Closer, straighter rows or single-seed planting are not about adjusting to small-scale variations across fields as much as being consistently accurate and precise over large areas. Tailoring the application of water, nutrients, and other inputs to very fine scales – down to the square meter or even individual plants – is increasingly possible, but its potential to boost yields is, at this point, less well established.14

Many of the tools already exist, including tractor implements that can vary the application of inputs across a field.70 Sensors are becoming better and cheaper, and will increasingly allow farmers to monitor a host of variables, including humidity, soil nutrient content, and even the amount of crops harvested at ever smaller spatial scales.70 Furthermore, per-plant management is already a regular practice in very high-value crops, such as wine grapes, with an expectation that these techniques can be adapted over time to crops with lower per-plant value.26

The weakest link in precision technology today is often the knowledge of how best to use it.14 Just because it is mechanically possible to put different amounts of fertilizer or water in each part of a field does not mean that we know the best amount to put there. Companies, from the biggest corporations to well-funded startups, are investing heavily in the data collection, analytics and decision-support systems that will allow farmers to optimally use precision capabilities.71,72 However, this new wave of agronomic decision support is in its very early stages, and its promise yet to be fulfilled.

In some ways, precision agriculture takes us back to the future. In some developing countries, very small farms tend to have marginally higher yields than somewhat larger farms.73 This can in part be explained by the relatively higher labor input on small farms, which can rely largely on unremunerated family labor.73 Under these circumstances, it is possible to check on every corner of the field on a daily basis, pull out weeds individually, and apply grains of fertilizer in little cups next to each plant – also known as microdosing.

The way that records in the US yield contests are achieved draw from the hands-on farming of the past and today’s practices in developing countries. One of the lessons of these records – as well as the very high yields in field experiments – is simply very intensive, fine-grained management in both space and time, which takes very small-scale variations into account and target management decisions at fine scales.74,75 This is done by farmers and agronomists visiting their plots more frequently, observing the plants and the soils, and fine-tuning their operational plan.74

For all but the poorest countries, these labor-intensive practices are often impractical and uneconomic. Families are smaller, food is cheap and more widely available, and labor is more valuable in other sectors of the economy. In modern, intensive farming, equipment may only go through the field a handful of times per year and the ratio of land to people is such that a very small fraction of the land is visited on foot in any given year.

But today, robots, drones, sensors, and AI software are beginning to make it possible to employ the sort of intensive, fine-grained management practiced by poor farmers and yield contest winners at scales that have been previously unimaginable.26 Soil properties that affect crop performance on the scale of weeks or even days may one day be measured or remotely sensed in ten-square-meter units as compared to every 10 or 100 hectares. Application of fertilizers may be adapted to each little corner of a field, as opposed to a uniform rate across an entire farm.

In short, global agriculture might follow the evolution of global manufacturing from hand crafting to mass production to mass customization, giving each plant the benefit of hand crafting, but with the efficiency of mass production.

The 30 odd years from now until 2050 is a long time in the fast-paced world of innovation. There is no reason to believe that our vision of 2050 agricultural practice will be any more accurate than a 1980’s corn farmer walking into a corn farming operation today. Our GPS-driven tractors, harvesters that create detailed yield maps, and seeds that resist common diseases and pests and can thrive at unheard-of plant densities would all seem other-worldly to a 1980s time traveler. And remember that our 1980s corn farmer had never heard of the Internet.

As a result, there is no reason to believe that we can even enumerate all of the technologies that will be making a difference in crop yield or demand in 2050. Maybe some important ideas will come out of indoor farming and be successfully adapted at mass scale. Maybe our increasing insight into the role of the microbiome in the health of all macro-organisms will yield a wonder, pro-biotic seed coating. Or maybe, like the Internet or GPS, an innovation will be so fantastic that, sitting here 30 years prior, we can’t even see it coming.

In the end, none of these technologies, evolutionary or revolutionary, will be adopted overnight, and their diffusion will depend not just on their cost but also on broader socioeconomic factors.76 Neither success nor failure is inevitable – a lot depends on the choices that are made today by farmers, corporations, nation-states, and international organizations. Progress in breeding and agronomy have been, and will likely continue to be, closely correlated with the resources invested in technological innovation through research in both the public and private sectors, and in agricultural extension to ensure rapid technology transfer.17,77–80

Much work remains to be done to reach peak farmland while minimizing agriculture’s harmful impacts on the environment. Yet the technologies and practices that are being developed and adopted today give us plenty of hope that this can ultimately be achieved.

Is Precision Agriculture the Way to Peak Cropland?

Video: Precision Agriculture

 

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The Future of Food

But there are other possible futures for global agriculture and the environment that are just beginning to come into view. Radical changes to food and farming systems over the last century have improved yields, made crops more resilient to weather and pests, and increasingly concentrated farming in the most productive regions and on the most productive lands. Already, in parts of the United States, Western Europe, China, and Brazil, high-productivity farming is beginning to return some land to nature. With continuing agricultural modernization and technological innovation, human societies might pass through a critical inflection point in this century, returning agricultural lands to nature in the global aggregate for the first time in ten millennia.

Achieving that future will require serious reconsideration of many of the ideas that sustainable food advocates have promoted in recent decades. Contemporary debates about the sustainability of food and agriculture have been dominated by romantic ideas about farming that are impractical at best and pernicious at worst. Despite the fact that nineteenth-century farming struggled to feed a global population of less than two billion, a global food movement centered in the wealthier precincts of the United States and Europe has in recent decades loudly championed a utopian version of that system as the key to feeding a twenty-first-century population that has already exceeded seven billion.

In reality, any significant return to low-intensity, small-scale, organic agriculture would bring with it environmental consequences the food movement has not seriously considered. Organic's dramatically reduced yields would threaten our ability to maintain food production, while the decreased efficiency would also require massively larger land areas for farming, increasing the existing pressure on forests and wildlife habitat.

And yet, the food movement has successfully captured the public imagination because it has offered a utopian vision of food and farming to an urban, upscale, and increasingly affluent population that is now several generations removed from life on the farm. What is at stake is not so much the possibility that global agriculture might begin to revert to low-intensity, lower-yielding farming. The kind of farming the food movement advocates simply can’t be implemented on any significant scale. Rather, what is lost in the bellicose debates about GMOs, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizer is a constructive conversation, much less any pragmatic vision, about what kind of food systems can practically bring the best outcomes for both people and the environment.

This month, Breakthrough will launch a six-part series on the future of food in hopes of empirically regrounding the conversation about food, agriculture, and sustainability. Reviewing the best science available, we’ll consider the consequences and trade-offs associated with different food systems and the possibilities that continuing social and technological innovation could open up for a food system that might sit more lightly on the land.

The first essay in that series, by Breakthrough Institute’s Director of Conservation Linus Blomqvist and Applied Invention’s David Douglas, considers the possibilities for precision agriculture. Much of the conversation around improving agricultural yields, they write, has focused too much on biotechnology, which is important but insufficient, and “Green Revolution”-style application of fertilizers and irrigation, which have largely run their course in the developed world.

Better seeds, fertilizer, and pest control will continue to be important to a more productive and sustainable food system in the decades to come. But the key to raising yields while limiting environmental impacts will be using those inputs with ever greater control and precision. Combinations of technologies that provide plants with fertilizer when they need it and not when they don’t, control pests while minimizing impacts on soil health and beneficial insects, and pack more plants onto every acre of land will be the key to allowing agricultural yields to keep up with growing food demand.

Precision agriculture includes practices and techniques that monitor plant needs and nutrition closely via next-generation tractors, sensors, and satellites, and apply water, fertilizer, and pest control in a hyper-precise manner. Implemented optimally, these techniques can improve yields, reduce inputs, and minimize pollution. Understood in this way, precision agriculture should take us beyond the arbitrary distinctions between organic and conventional agriculture and challenge us to both evaluate agricultural technologies practice by practice and technology by technology, and consider the trade-offs holistically.

In the coming weeks, we’ll also look at fertilizer, meat production, agriculture’s impact on wildlife, and other issues. We’ve tried to conduct a broad survey of the evidence and literatures associated with each of these topics, but we’ll also invite responses and perspectives from leading figures in the field. Feeding a world of nine billion people while minimizing impacts on wildlife, ecosystems, and the climate will require that we take a hard look at how food is really produced and what the trade-offs between land, productivity, inputs, and pollution really are. It will also require understanding agricultural systems in the broader context of human development and modernization.

Food production today would be unrecognizable to farmers from 1900, let alone early Holocene agriculturalists. So who knows what global agriculture will look like a hundred years from now. But while we can’t predict the future, we can identify the characteristics of a global food system that might be capable of meeting human needs while leaving more room for nature, and we can begin to prioritize food systems and agricultural technologies that take us in that direction. Doing so will require first that we get clear about what matters for people and what matters for the environment when it comes to food and agriculture. This series was created in hopes of helping to advance that conversation.

VIDEO: Precision Agriculture

The Clean Energy Train

The clean energy train comes to mind. Jessika Trancik, professor of energy studies at MIT, for instance, points to current clean energy commitments at the state, national, and international levels as evidence of locked-in climate progress. The Economist believes that renewable energy will continue to grow ever more attractive, especially to countries like China and India, as costs continue to decline. Bill Nye (the Science Guy) thinks clean energy provides an opportunity for “common ground” among Americans. And it definitely seems to; as Stephen Lacey reports, clean energy has shown to draw unprecedented bipartisan support. “Although many Americans believe their country has fundamentally changed after the election, the story on clean energy remains the same,” as Lacey says. “People of all political persuasions want more of it.”

Clean energy, then, provides a glimmer of climate hope—and arguably the most important one, when it comes to long-term emissions reductions. While bipartisan action is certainly on the table, this will also entail broadening coalitions within our own parties and championing solutions beyond narrowly defined renewable development. Viewing clean energy as a vehicle for not only consensus but also inclusion may help to unite us yet.

More in ecomodernist news:

David Biello and Andrew Revkin discuss the need for optimism in the Anthropocene, offering a bevy of insights surrounding energy, climate change, and humanity. For one: “Despair does not inspire action in the same way that a little bit of hope might,” as Biello says. “There’s always hope. It can always be a little bit better. Maybe you can’t stop climate change at one degree Celsius but maybe you can at two, maybe at three. Each of those is better than the alternative.”

Eduardo Porter details the findings of Breakthrough’s recent climate policy report, which suggests that explicit emissions targets and treaties have “little or no discernible impact upon emissions.” Domestic policies targeted at energy and innovation, rather, have driven real progress in emissions reductions, Porter reports.

Joshua Goldstein and Steven Pinker dish out a series of “inconvenient truths for the environmental movement”—namely, that fossil fuels and development have historically delivered prosperity; that nuclear power, “the world’s most abundant and scalable carbon-free energy source,” must be a central component to combating climate change; and that ideology remains a significant barrier to climate progress in the meantime. A pragmatic focus on investment in clean energy technologies, on the other hand, would better serve contemporary environmentalism, say Goldstein and Pinker.

Ronald Bailey covers Breakthrough’s Energy for Human Development report, homing in on its view on development in light of climate change. “They correctly point out that forcing poor people to forego economic development in order to prevent climate change is a ‘morally dubious proposition,’” Bailey writes. Especially useful in this context is the connection he draws between the report and a scenario within the IPCC’s Shared Socioeconomic Pathways framework in which emissions and temperatures rise in order to foster robust human and social development, and thus climate resilience. “Is that future a hell on earth?” Bailey asks. On the contrary; this agenda “results in the eradication of extreme poverty, greater gender equality, and universal access to education, safe drinking water, and modern energy before mid-century.”

Jeffrey Sachs calls for greater, and more targeted, public and private investment in innovation, including in fourth-generation nuclear and advanced agricultural technologies. Citing the Manhattan Project, the U.S. space enterprise, the Internet, and fracking, among a slew of other examples, Sachs maintains that “the track record of public-private-academic-philanthropic partnerships to advance science and technologies in critical areas is a key pillar of America’s prosperity and technological excellence.”

A recent “Food Matters” report, from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, discusses the emissions that stem from global agriculture and the possibilities that exist for mitigating them. “Practices that intensify production on existing pasture and croplands,” it finds, “have the highest potential because they avoid deforestation.” Opportunities for such “sustainable intensification” are significant, according to the report, but will need to be complemented by region-specific policies, planning efforts, and development strategies.

Jayson Lusk reviews the “animal choice” experiments and technologies that might enable us to consider the welfare of animals in agriculture from, believe it or not, the perspective of animals themselves.

Nuclear supporters, finally, celebrated a few key victories last week. Not only did Switzerland vote to reject a measure that would have shut down the country’s five plants by 2029—see Robert Walton, Rod Adams, and Lonnie Shekhtman for more—but Illinois state legislature also passed a bill to support its nuclear fleet through a zero emission credit program, as Peter Maloney reports.

The Role of Baseload Low-Carbon Electricity in Decarbonization

The full cost of deploying solar and wind generation capacity, however, is not fully captured by the cost of solar panels and turbines. Wind and solar are intermittent sources of power and bring significant further costs associated with their integration into electrical grids that must produce power on demand, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There is substantial debate as to how significant those costs are. Modeled estimates of the system costs of variable renewables are highly dependent upon a range of assumptions about the cost and availability of storage, the ability to manage electricity demand, the geographic scale of electrical grids, and the cost and availability of long-distance electrical transmission. Depending upon these assumptions, the cost of decarbonizing the power sector predominantly through variable sources of renewable energy can vary from relatively modest to prohibitive.

In this analysis, we take a simpler and more straightforward approach to this question, evaluating both the cost and carbon intensity of electrical grids in 18 of the world’s leading economies: Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Portugal, Spain, Slovakia, the United States, France, South Africa, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Australia, the Czech Republic, Canada, Finland, and Sweden. Of these, five countries, namely Canada, Sweden, France, Austria, and Slovakia, source more than 60% of their electricity from nuclear and hydro—both low-carbon baseload sources of power. Another four, namely Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Spain, get more than 20% from other renewable sources, including wind, solar, and biomass.



Analysis: Countries with more hydro and nuclear have cheaper electricity and lower carbon intensity than countries with heavy penetrations of intermittent renewables.

We find that the grids based on nuclear and hydro have both lower carbon intensity and cheaper electricity than the grids with high shares of non-hydro renewables. While high non-hydro renewable grids can have lower emissions than grids that rely heavily on fossil fuels, they tend to do so at significantly higher cost. By contrast, grids with very high penetrations of nuclear and hydro produce electricity at costs that are comparable with or lower than the cost of electricity from electrical grids that are still heavily dependent upon fossil energy.

This analysis requires several caveats. First, installed nuclear and hydro capacity tends to be of older vintage than installed wind and solar capacity. Capital costs associated with building nuclear and hydro capacity have been amortized through the finance of hard infrastructure with operational lifetimes of 60 to 80 years at a minimum. This is, however, a feature not a bug. Investments in these technologies assure many decades of low-carbon electricity at costs that, over the long term, have proven extremely competitive with fossil energy infrastructure.

Secondly, electrical grids with relatively high shares of wind and solar generation are still largely fossil-powered grids. Nations that source 20 to 30% of their electricity from wind, solar, and biomass get up to 60% of their electricity from fossil generation, as is the case in Germany. Higher renewable energy shares in these contexts would bring lower carbon intensity. But most analysis suggests that higher penetrations of variable renewable sources bring higher integration costs. Analyses differ as to how significant these costs will be, but virtually all agree that higher integration costs will accompany greater VRE penetration.

Third, not all costs associated with the deployment and operation of low-carbon generation technologies are reflected in electricity prices. Nuclear fleets in much of the world have been built and operated by state-owned or subsidized enterprises. Depending on the nation in question, there is some question as to whether the full costs of these fleets have been entirely passed on to end users. Similarly, virtually all wind and solar deployment globally has depended upon substantial and direct state subsidies of one sort or another. In many cases, these costs are not reflected at all in prices paid by end users.

Finally, current electricity costs do not reflect the future costs associated with electrical generation or the various ancillary technologies (e.g., storage and transmission) necessary to support the integration of VRE into modern electrical grids. Breakthroughs in the cost of wind and solar energy, energy storage, and transmission could significantly reduce the full system cost of electrical grids with high VRE shares. Similarly, new advanced nuclear technologies could significantly bring down the up-front costs associated with deployment of new nuclear energy capacity.

What this analysis does suggest is that given current technology and experience, nuclear and hydroelectric power remain the cheapest way to deeply decarbonize modern electrical grids. High up-front capital costs associated with those technologies, changing electricity markets, and negative public opinion, however, remain obstacles to their widespread deployment. Continuing innovation in both nuclear and variable renewable energy technologies remain critical in order to decarbonize electrical grids at rates consistent with achieving meaningful climate mitigation at costs that publics around the world are likely to tolerate.

The Future of Food

TEST FUN

Is Precision Agriculture the Way to Peak Cropland?

Linus Blomqvist and David Douglas

 

1.

As threats to wildlife and habitats go, the global expansion of farmland – including land used for crops and livestock – is unrivaled. Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other biomes representing more than one-third of the earth’s ice-free surface have given way to farming.1 Over the past half century alone, farmland has grown by more than 400 million hectares2 – an area nearly half the size of the United States, and more than half of recent agricultural expansion in the tropics has come at the expense of old-growth forests.3 Conversion of natural habitats to farmland has been a leading cause of precipitous declines in terrestrial wildlife populations, which on average fell by more than half between 1970 and 2012.4

 

If farmland continues to grow over the next several decades, the consequences for habitats and wildlife would be dire. As such, slowing, halting, and eventually reversing the growth in agricultural area must be a top priority – perhaps the top priority – for global conservation.

 

“Peak farmland” itself does not guarantee an end to habitat loss, since other land uses, especially cities, are expanding.5 And since farming is shifting from temperate to tropical regions, deforestation in the latter could continue, even if farmland stopped expanding on a net global basis.3 Regardless, peak farmland would take a whole lot of pressure off forests and other natural habitats, and enable greater opportunities for conservation efforts like protected areas.

 

The challenge is daunting. By midcentury, the global population will be approaching ten billion,6 and demand for crops is forecast to increase by up to 70%.7 Crop yields – the amount of crops harvested per unit of land – will have to rise by at least as much as crop demand to avoid further encroachment of cropland into natural habitats.

 

Dramatic increases in crop yields would not be unprecedented. In the twentieth century, a powerful package of technologies, including better seeds, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation, and machinery, boosted yields by a factor of two or three, first in the US and Europe, and later in much of the rest of the world in what became known as the Green Revolution.8–11

 

But today, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, this crude but effective recipe has increasingly run its course. Applying more fertilizers will increase pollution, not yields. Irrigation has only a modest potential to expand, as many rivers and aquifers are already tapped and subject to many competing demands.12 The groundbreaking new rice and wheat varieties that underpinned early yield gains in places like India and the Philippines were a one-off boost that cannot easily be repeated. Furthermore, several major crop-producing regions have seen yields stagnate in recent years,13 and “yield gaps” – the difference between current and potential yield at a given location – are getting smaller for many crops.14,15

 

This poses a question: what sorts of innovations can drive yield improvements once the basic set of modern farming technologies have been adopted – that is, post-Green Revolution – and can these new methods drive rapid enough gains for the world to meet rising food demand without further growth in cropland?

 

Much of the debate on this issue has focused on biotech, and particularly GMOs. But the focus on GMOs – and the heated debates it has given rise to – risks obscuring the bigger picture, where GMOs play only a small part in broader agricultural innovation. Despite recent advances in genetic engineering, conventional breeding is – and likely will remain for some time – the mainstay of seed improvements. More importantly still, a set of technologies under the banner of precision farming have played a large but underappreciated role in driving up yields and reducing pollution.

 

2.

The Green Revolution averted a looming food security crisis and spared vast land areas from being converted to cropland, greatly attenuating the loss of wildlife and natural habitats.16,17 It also had manifold negative impacts, including pollution from nutrient overload and pesticides, freshwater depletion, and social disruption.10,18 Many of these negative impacts, however, have been mitigated over time, as production increases are stemming less from increasing inputs like water and fertilizers, and more from smarter farming decisions, including more efficient use of these inputs. By one estimate, chemical inputs, land, irrigation, and area expansion accounted for 93% of increased global agricultural production at the height of the Green Revolution in the 1970s, but only 27% in the 2000s. The rest – now representing about three-quarters of production growth – comes from what is called total factor productivity, or more simply, efficiency.19

 

After a period of blunt and wasteful applications of fertilizers, pesticides, water, and other inputs, agriculture, especially in developed countries, has been cleaning up its act. Farming in many parts of the world has entered an era of “sustainable intensification,” where production continues to increase but with less and less inputs and pollution for each ton of output. Perhaps because of the incremental nature of this shift, it has often escaped notice.

 

The share of fertilizers that is not taken up by crops and thus escapes into water and air has been declining for decades in developed countries.20–22 In the US, pesticides have declined both in terms of the absolute amount used and in terms of toxicity.23 Soil erosion is on the decline in developed countries, as is the amount of water used per ton of crops in irrigated farming.20,24 And, by one estimate, global farming is producing about 40% less greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production than it did 50 years ago.25

 

Alongside these improvements in input efficiency, yields have also continued to improve, as a result of ongoing seed improvements and what is known as precision agriculture: using the right inputs, in the right amounts, at the right time, for each field and crop.

 

A new wave of innovators and venture capitalists have brought precision farming to the forefront in the last few years. A long list of promising, if not widely adopted, advanced technologies ranging from satellite imagery to big data to drones are in various stages of development and deployment.26 But while these technologies grab headlines, a set of more prosaic technologies have made precision farming the unsung hero of agricultural advancement, yield gains, and lower environmental impacts for decades.

 

A big reason precision farming has raised yields in past decades is, perhaps, also the least sexy: plant density. With corn, for example, farmers have gone from 30,000 plants per hectare in the 1930’s to over 80,000 today.27 The implications for how much corn can be produced on a given piece of land are obvious. These gains have been driven by a range of technologies including GPS-driven tractors that can drive straight, tight rows, and planters that can put individual seeds at specified distances.26,28

 

In addition to higher density, higher precision in the application of fertilizers, pesticides, and water helps ensure that fewer plants suffer deficiencies at any time, while also greatly reducing excess applications.14 No plant left behind, one might say. Today more farmers apply smaller amounts of fertilizer at multiple times over the growing season, rather than dumping all of it around the time of planting – avoiding both leaching of fertilizer into the water supplies and late-season nutrient scarcity that can hamper growth. New equipment can apply liquid fertilizer right at the base of the plant,29 such that each plant gets its fair share, and vary the application rates across the field in response to small-scale variations in soil conditions.30

 

Behind these improved machines are farmers equipped with improved data and decision support tools, helping to make better decisions throughout the growing season. Analytics help farmers decide what and when to plant, how densely to plant the seeds, and when water and fertilizer is needed. Increasingly these decisions are optimized for each field based on location, local weather, and soil type.

 

While new tools and machinery are important to precision farming with increased yields and efficiencies, few of these practices would have been possible without concomitant developments in breeding and genetics, which are inseparable and co-evolving.31 Higher plant density, for instance, can only work with seeds that are bred to cope better in crowded conditions.32

 

Not every yield-boosting farming practice falls under the banner of precision agriculture. Earlier planting, which gives crops more time to grow before harvest, has made an important contribution to raising yields in many places, including the US.31,33 Crop breeding that confers greater resistance to drought, pests, waterlogging, and cold also contributes to yield improvements.

 

3.

With developing countries still squeezing the last drops out of the Green Revolution, and developed countries seeing gains from precision agriculture, global yields have, on average, increased steadily over the entire period from 1960 to today.2 But this does not necessarily mean that we are on track to meet future food demand without further expansion of cropland.

 

For starters, yields have grown linearly, not exponentially, which means that a roughly constant amount is added to the average harvest every year.13 For cereals, this has been a bit over 40 kg per hectare per year, but with increasing yields, the percentage change has dropped from about 3% per year in the early 1960s to about 1% today.12

 

The consistent linear yield growth in the last 50 years allows us to do some back-of-the-envelope forecasts. Projecting historical yield trends to 2050 gets us at best 40% higher crop yields by 2050 compared to today, which is consistent with a study by Deepak Ray and his colleagues which forecasts corn yields to increase by 46%, rice yields by 25%, wheat yields by 24%, and soybean yields by 44% from today to 2050.34 Other forecasts have assumed compound growth rates with resulting growth of about 80% by 2050,35 but these are difficult to justify given the linear growth of the last 50 years.36

 

Maintaining linear yield gains will probably not be enough to avoid further expansion of croplands by 2050. As long as demand for crops grows faster than yields, the area required to meet that demand grows. Forecasts of how much crop demand will grow between now and 2050 range from about 40%37 to about 70%,7 including crops used to feed livestock. These estimates do not assume significant growth in biofuels – perhaps the biggest wild card in the equation. They also, quite realistically, do not assume radical reductions in meat consumption or food waste.

 

While population forecasts and predicted dietary changes explain some of the discrepancies in the food demand scenarios, they cannot explain all of it. Different assumptions about beef production are another important factor. Cattle finished in feedlots are fed grains, in contrast to those raised entirely on pasture. The higher figure for future crop demand (70% increase) is based on the assumption that more livestock will be finished in feedlots, thus requiring more grains, whereas the low figure (40%) assumes little change in the overall global proportions of pasture- and feedlot-finished cattle. However, increased use of feedlots reduces the area of pasture faster than it increases the area of cropland, leading to a net reduction in total farmland.38

 

If crop demand grows by more than roughly 40%, it implies that yields will have to grow faster in the next few decades than they have since 1960 in order to avoid further expansion of cropland. Without this acceleration, cropland may need to expand by hundreds of millions of hectares in order to meet demand, potentially exceeding the combined expansion of cropland and pasture between 1960 and 2010.39,40

 

Expansion is not inevitable – but to avoid it, the world needs the optimistic scenarios for both crop demand and yields to come true.

 

A net expansion of cropland between now and 2050 would not necessarily imply that peak cropland is not in sight – only that it will occur at a level higher than today. As more and more people around the world reach the limit of how much food, especially meat, they want to consume, and as population growth continues to abate, global crop demand inevitably slows down. FAO, for instance, foresees far lower growth in crop demand between 2030 and 2050 than in the preceding decades.37 Combining historical yield trends with FAO’s crop demand forecast suggests that the growth in cropland area would halt and reverse in the 2040s. Peak cropland might be on the horizon – the question is just how much damage will have been made to natural habitats by the time it occurs.

 

4.

All of these projections of crop demand and yields are, of course, speculative. How much crops humanity will need by 2050 is sensitive to population growth rates, income growth, dietary preferences, and whether cattle are fed with forage or grains. Wildcards such as the possible diffusion of lab-grown meat are, understandably, totally missing.

 

Future yield gains are perhaps even more uncertain. There is no guarantee that crop yields will continue rising the way they have over the past half century, a period when the Green Revolution offered an unprecedented, largely one-off boost to yields through relatively simple means like irrigation and fertilizers.

 

One major challenge to rising global yields is that, in the next few decades, agriculture will have to increasingly grapple with the effects of climate change. While some of these effects, like higher CO2 can boost photosynthesis and yields, increases in droughts, floods, and extreme heat could have major negative impacts.41

 

But even in a stable climate, yields might not be able to go up forever. There are already worrying signs that yields in certain regions are growing more slowly than in the past, or not growing at all.13,42 In less developed regions, this can be explained by inadequate access to inputs, lack of education, poorly functioning markets, and the like.13,42 Here, yields could begin or resume their upward trajectory if these barriers were removed. More concerning, however, is the evidence that yields in highly productive parts of the world, where markets, technology and so on present less of an obstacle, are starting to stagnate.

 

Patricio Grassini and colleagues found that areas representing more than one-fifth of global rice, wheat, and corn production have reached what they call “upper yield plateaus” in the last one or two decades.13 This includes one-third of rice production, 27% of wheat production, and 5% of corn production. Upper yield plateaus are now present for rice in California, China, and Korea; wheat in India and northwest Europe; and corn in France and Italy.

 

While the cause of these trends is hard to establish definitively, it cannot be ruled out that it is due to crops in these places approaching their potential yields – the yields that could be achieved with the best cultivars and under optimal management, with adequate water and nutrients and without any stress from pests or diseases. These potential yields, which are typically assessed at local or regional levels, are in theory only limited by sunlight and temperature.43 (Under rainfed farming, temporary scarcities of water, which hamper plant growth, have to be taken into account in making a realistic estimate of potential yields across multiple years in any given place.)

 

With any given set of cultivars, the room for further growth through better agricultural practices is referred to as the “yield gap” – the difference between current and potential yield at a given location.

 

Potential yields are not fixed, and can be raised, most importantly by creating seeds that have greater photosynthetic capacity and that allocate more of their biomass to the part of the plant that is harvested for human consumption. Breeding that improves resistance to pests, droughts, cold, and other stressors are critical to raising yields on farms, but they don’t count towards potential yields in the strict sense, which assumes that such stressors are absent.43

 

There are many ways of estimating potential yields, each with its own limitations.43 Rigorous estimates are relatively few and far between, but those that do exist give us a decent picture of the prospects for further yield gains in the most important crops. One should not, however, assume that the potential yield will ever be realized in practice. Farmers do not optimize for yield, but for profit.43 The smaller the yield gap, the harder and more expensive it gets to raise yields, and, at some point, diminishing returns make it uneconomic to try to push yields any further.

 

For rice, there is little evidence of improvements in potential yields since the first semi-dwarf varieties were introduced several decades ago, and the yield gap appears to be closing in key rice-producing countries like China, Japan, Korea, and India.13,14,36,44 However, there are reasons to think that recent advances in breeding could lift the potential yields significantly. Hybrid rice cultivars can deliver a 15% boost compared to the more commonly used inbred varieties, and new cultivars like the Chinese “super rice” can go even higher.36,44–46 Meanwhile, large yield gaps persist in many parts of the world – Nigeria, for instance, could nearly triple its rice yields.47

 

Similarly, corn appears to have seen little if any improvements in potential yields in recent decades, although when resistance to stresses like plant crowding are taken into account, the yields that have been possible with the best practical management have indeed risen significantly.31,48,49 US corn yields, especially on irrigated land, might be approaching a ceiling, although in most regions, several more tons can probably be squeezed out of each hectare.43,50 Elsewhere in the world, corn yields could be dramatically increased. Places like Ethiopia, India, and Kenya are at less than 14% of their potential – allowing for yields to increase by a factor of four or five.47

 

Wheat stands out as a major cereal crop where significant and consistent progress on potential yields has taken place over the past few decades.36,44 Field experiments in the UK show that potential yields have actually grown faster than average farm yields, at least until the last decade.31 This would suggest the yield gap has been widening rather than shrinking, giving hope that yields could continue to rise for the foreseeable future. As with rice and corn, many parts of the developing world, such as India and Bangladesh, have yields at less than half their potential for irrigated wheat.47

 

The number we would all like to see is the global yield gap – how much more crops the world could produce on existing farmland, with existing technologies. Most attempts so far have measured yields within broad climate zones, and defined the yield gap as the difference between the average yields and those in the most productive part of the climate zone.51 A variety of such estimates have tended to cluster around 50%, with some reaching up to 75%.52–54

 

Like predictions of future food demand, these estimates are fraught with uncertainty, and are probably not particularly reliable.51 On the one hand, they may not accurately take into account limits on key inputs such as water, both in the form of rain and irrigation potential. On the other hand, by defining potential yields as the highest yields in a region, they do not account for the fact that even those top achievers might be performing well below their potential, especially in places like Sub-Saharan Africa.

 

How do these factors add up? So far, it is impossible to tell, and we will probably have to wait for projects like the Global Yield Gap Atlas to give us more robust estimates at larger scales.51

 

Even though the size of the yield gaps, especially at the global level, are unclear, what seems almost certain is that potential yields are not growing at a rate consistent with meeting a 40-70% increase in food demand by 2050.31,36 This means that, even if average farm yields can keep pace with growing demand, the yield gap is likely to shrink, making incremental gains more and more difficult to achieve. This is not a time to sit back and expect peak cropland to spontaneously occur.

 

5.

The Green Revolution has not yet reached every corner of the world. Sub-Saharan Africa stands out as the region where farming has modernized the least. For lack of locally adapted seeds and inputs like fertilizers and irrigation – as well as poor infrastructure, markets, and institutions –yields in this region have grown only marginally.8,10,55 The Green Revolution recipe, crude but effective, could still work wonders for this region.56,57 But as more and more of the world has adopted the Green Revolution’s technologies and practices, and as yields gaps likely narrow, it is going to be increasingly difficult to squeeze more crops out of each hectare. This portends an increased role for innovation, as fine-tuning modern agricultural systems requires ever more advanced technology.

 

Debates around agricultural innovation today often center on the use of biotech and, in particular, GMOs. Widespread resistance to these technologies have been a real obstacle to progress, likely having slowed both innovation and adoption.58,59 If this resistance remains, there is a real risk that important and useful opportunities in crop breeding will be lost. This includes transgenics, where a gene is transferred from one organism to another to confer a particular trait, but also other emerging techniques like gene editing.

 

Yet despite its outsized attention, genetic engineering is only one of many components of agricultural innovation. First of all, not all biotech is about genetic modification per se. Marker-assisted selection and many other techniques are making a difference to crop breeding without much public opposition.36

 

Secondly, not all progress in crop germplasm is about biotech. The vast majority of genetic improvements to date have come from conventional breeding,36 where parent seeds are crossed and the best performing progeny are selected for further rounds – a practice that dates back many hundreds of years. Old-school empirical breeding is still the chief way to improve potential yields of crops, since the genetic basis for photosynthesis is far more complex than can be fixed by changing one or a handful of individual genes though genetic engineering.36

 

GMOs, or more specifically transgenics, have made a noticeable difference to yields of corn, soy, and cotton, by improving resistance to certain pests and enabling conservation tillage, which, in turn, allows for earlier planting and thus more time for the plants to grow.31,60–63

 

There is every reason to believe that genetic modification, through transgenics and other techniques like gene editing, can continue improving plants’ resistance to stresses like droughts, flooding, cold, and heat, thereby raising yields.64 Even here, though, traditional breeding has so far made faster progress than GM techniques in many cases.65,66 As such, traditional breeding will likely remain a mainstay of genetic improvement for the foreseeable future.36

 

Thirdly, and most importantly, far from all progress in yields and environmental sustainability is about genetics. Advances in agronomy have to date been at least as important in pushing up yields as has genetics, and there is good reason to think that this will remain the case.

 

The potential of precision technologies, in particular, is far from fully tapped. Most of today’s precision tools help create uniformity. Closer, straighter rows or single-seed planting are not about adjusting to small-scale variations across fields as much as being consistently accurate and precise over large areas. Tailoring the application of water, nutrients, and other inputs to very fine scales – down to the square meter or even individual plants – is increasingly possible, but its potential to boost yields is, at this point, less well established.14

 

Many of the tools already exist, including tractor implements that can vary the application of inputs across a field.67 Sensors are becoming better and cheaper, and will increasingly allow farmers to monitor a host of variables, including humidity, soil nutrient content, and even the amount of crops harvested at ever smaller spatial scales.67 Furthermore, per-plant management is already a regular practice in very high value crops, such as wine grapes,30 with an expectation that these techniques can be adapted over time to crops with lower per-plant value.26

 

The weakest link in precision technology today is often the knowledge of how best to use it.14 Just because it is mechanically possible to put different amounts of fertilizer or water in each part of field does not mean that we know the best amount to put there. Companies, from the biggest corporations to well-funded startups, are investing heavily in the data collection, analytics and decision-support systems that will allow farmers to optimally use precision capabilities. However, this new wave of agronomic decision support is in its very early stages, and its promise yet to be fulfilled.

 

What this all adds up to is the potential for more intense and fine-grained management, overcoming an important limitation on crop yields. In the world’s poorest countries, where labor is virtually free, it is possible to check on every corner of the field on a daily basis, pull out weeds individually, and apply grains of fertilizer in little cups next to each plant – also known as microdosing. This is probably part of the reason why, in some developing countries, very small farms have marginally higher yields than small farms.68

 

Compare this to farming in today’s developed economies where equipment may only go through the field a handful of times per year, and the ratio of land to people is such that a very small fraction of the land is visited on foot in any given year. In contrast, the way that records in the US yield contests are achieved draw from the hands-on farming of the past and today’s practices in developing countries. One of the lessons of these records – as well as the very high yields in field experiments – is simply very intensive, fine-grained management in both space and time, which takes very small-scale variations into account and target management decisions at fine scales. Where this is done, it is largely done manually, by farmers and agronomists visiting their plots more frequently, observing the plants and the soils, and fine-tuning their operations.

 

What we are starting to see today is, in a sense, the final step in the mechanization of agriculture, where one day we might see “farming without farmers.”26 Not only are tasks typically done manually being replaced by robots, drones, sensors and AI software, but technology enables these to be done at a scale beyond the limits of human capability.26 Soil properties that affect crop performance on the scale of weeks or even days may one day be measured or remotely sensed in ten square meter units as compared to every 10 or 100 hectares. Application of fertilizers may be adapted to each little corner of a field, as opposed to a uniform rate across an entire farm.

 

In short, global agriculture might follow the evolution of global manufacturing from hand crafting to mass production to mass customization, giving each plant the benefit of hand crafting, but with the efficiency of mass production.

 

The 30 odd years from now until 2050 is a long time in the fast-paced world of innovation. There is no reason to believe that our vision of 2050 agricultural practice will be any more accurate than a 1980’s corn farmer walking into a corn farming operation today. Our GPS-driven tractors, harvesters that create detailed yield maps, and seeds that resist common diseases and pests, and can thrive at unheard-of plant densities would all seem other-worldly to a 1980’s time traveler. And remember that our 1980’s corn farmer had never heard of the Internet.

 

As a result, there is no reason to believe that we can even enumerate all of the technologies that will be making a difference in crop yield or demand in 2050. Maybe some important ideas will come out of indoor farming and be successfully adapted at mass scale. Maybe our increasing insight into the role of the microbiome in the health of all macro-organisms will yield a wonder, pro-biotic seed coating. Or maybe, like the Internet or GPS, an innovation will be so fantastic that, sitting here 30 years prior, we can’t even see it coming.

 

In the end, none of these technologies, evolutionary or revolutionary, will be adopted overnight, and their diffusion will depend not just on their cost but also on broader socioeconomic factors.69 Neither success nor failure is inevitable – a lot of it depends on the choices that are made today by farmers, corporations, nation-states, and international organizations. Progress in breeding and agronomy have been, and will likely continue to be, closely correlated with the resources invested in technological innovation through research in both the public and private sectors, and in agricultural extension to ensure rapid technology transfer.17,70–74

 

Much work remains to be done to reach peak farmland while minimizing agriculture’s harmful impacts on the environment. Yet the technologies and practices that are being developed and adopted today give us plenty of hope that this can ultimately be achieved.

 

 

The Future of Food

After the Baby Bust

Does Climate Policy Matter?

Does Climate Policy Matter?

The election of Donald Trump has raised deep concern about the future of international efforts to address climate change. President-elect Trump has called climate change a hoax, and has vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, and end the so-called “War on Coal.” It is not yet clear, however, what impact these actions would have upon US or global emissions.

In this analysis, we examine what effect explicit climate policies—international commitments to reduce emissions, national emissions targets, and programs at the national and sub-national level to price or otherwise regulate carbon emissions—have had upon actual emissions. We use two metrics, the carbon intensity of energy and the low-carbon share of total primary energy, to evaluate the impact of climate policy before and after policies have been announced and/or come into effect.

The results as elaborated below have been decidedly mixed. For the most part, emissions signals from climate policies have consistently been overwhelmed by exogenous macro-economic and technological developments. The impact of climate policies has proven difficult to disentangle from other emissions drivers such as population growth, economic expansions and recessions, the collapse of the former Soviet Union, German reunification, the shale revolution in the United States and the shuttering of large nuclear fleets in Japan and Germany, to name just a few prominent factors and examples.

Under the best of circumstances, as in the United Kingdom, commitments have coincided with significant declines in the carbon intensity of the energy system and growth in the share of clean energy that appear to be policy-driven and exogenous to macro-economic dynamics. In this case, strong supporting policies including clean energy subsidies, performance standards, and deployment mandates have brought significant emissions reductions. But the UK case appears to be the exception. In most other cases, climate commitments and policies have had little or no discernible impact upon emissions.


Global Climate Commitments

The Kyoto Agreement was negotiated in 1997 and ultimately signed by 192 countries, including 40 advanced developed countries that made legally binding commitments to reduce emissions (referred to as Annex B countries). Every country achieved their emissions reduction commitments.  Most, however, did not do so due to actions taken in the aftermath of the agreement. European negotiators succeeded in pegging commitments to a 1990 baseline, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in aggregating EU emissions for purposes of Kyoto compliance. By 1997, when the agreement was signed, the European Union and major EU economies such as Germany were well below their mandated emissions targets. Strong economic growth through the late 1990s and early 2000s threatened to push emissions beyond the targets agreed to in 1997 by many Annex B countries, but the global financial crisis and the collapse of industrial production after 2008 assured that most nations would remain in compliance.

Overall, the carbon intensity of economies that were party to the Kyoto Accord fell more rapidly in the decade before the agreement was signed than in the decade after. In the 10 years before signing, the compound annual growth rate for carbon intensity was -0.7%. In the 10 years after signing it was only -0.2%. Similarly, the low-carbon share of energy was growing at an annual rate of 1.0% in the ten years prior to 1997, and only at a rate of 0.3% annually for the ten years after, meaning deployment of clean energy stalled or slowed in comparison to fossil fuels in these countries after they signed Kyoto.

Based upon the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted by over 190 countries at the most recent climate negotiations in Paris in December 2015, which outline unique decarbonization targets for each country based on domestic capabilities, that trend appears likely to continue. Recent MIT modeling projects global atmospheric concentrations of carbon in 2100 at 710 ppm assuming full implementation of INDCs, versus 750 ppm in the absence of them, which translates to a difference in temperature increase above pre-industrial levels of 3.7 versus 3.9 degrees Celsius.

What becomes clear in looking at climate policy as it has been implemented at the international level is that most countries have only been willing to commit to decarbonization targets that are consistent with expected business-as-usual trends, accounting for measures that they have intended to take in any event.


National and Regional Commitments

The record of emissions decline following the institution of climate policies at the national and regional level is also decidedly mixed. The rate of decarbonization among European economies that have been party to the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has been virtually unchanged during the ten years before and after the EU ETS capped emissions for the power and a number of other sectors of the EU economy.

The share of clean energy across the region has grown faster after the establishment of the ETS than before. But this has been driven by other policy measures. EU renewables mandates and heavy national subsidies for renewable energy in many EU economies provide much larger direct subsidies for renewable energy deployment than does the ETS.

A similar system, the proposed national emissions cap in the United States under the Waxman-Markey bill, failed to pass the US Congress in 2010. But the proposed cap would have been higher than actual emissions have proven to be to date. This is due primarily to three factors: the fall in economic output after the financial crisis, slower than anticipated economic growth during the following economic recovery, and the shift in the US power sector from coal to gas generation. By some accounts, moreover, emissions might have fallen more slowly had Waxman-Markey been enacted due to the over-allocation of free emissions credits and a number of other provisions that would have supported coal generation in the early years of the policy.

The Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) similarly appears to diverge little from the likely business-as-usual emissions trajectory that the US is already on, codifying the coal-to-gas transition in the power sector that has been underway for over a decade.

Other national and regional efforts have also seen, at best, mixed results. Germany has underperformed on its emissions reduction target for 2020, which was made law in 2007. Germany’s share of clean energy grew at 2% annually before 2007 and only 1% annually after 2007, and the carbon intensity declined at 0.5% annually before 2007 but has been almost flat since then.

Similarly, California appears to have seen little change in long-term decarbonization trends since the passage of the Global Warming Solutions Act, widely known as AB32, in 2006. Overall trends are difficult to estimate due to lack of data tracking economy-wide energy use in California. Reliable data, however, is available for California’s power sector. The decarbonization rate in the California power sector has fallen more slowly since the passage of AB32 than in the eight years prior to passage. California’s clean energy share has actually been falling for several decades, as deployment of wind and solar energy generation has failed to keep up with the state’s energy use, drought has constrained the state’s hydroelectric capacity, and half of the state’s nuclear generation has been prematurely closed. The state’s share of low-carbon energy in the power sector has fallen at a faster rate since the passage of AB32.

Perhaps the only clear success in any large economy or region to date has been in the United Kingdom. The UK economy has experienced substantially faster decarbonization and growth in the share of low-carbon energy after the passage of the Climate Change Act in 2008, which set a target of 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Enactment of the Climate Change Act coincided with the financial crisis, which may in part account for the higher rate of decarbonization. Clean energy share, however, also grew at a faster rate (8%) after enactment than before (-3%, actually declining), suggesting that Britain’s national climate commitments have been a driving factor in its decarbonization over the last decade. Of course, the UK has enacted a range of supporting policies alongside its emissions commitments, including aggressive targets and incentives for renewable energy deployment and targets to phase out coal and replace it with gas.

Lessons and Conclusions

For purposes of this analysis, we distinguish between policies that target economy-wide emissions outcomes—emissions targets or caps—from direct investments in specific low-carbon technologies that displace fossil energy. The former can and have been enacted without regard to the latter and vice versa. What has become clear over the last several decades is that it is the latter, not the former, that determines the long-term trajectory of emissions.

Even should the next administration withdraw from the Paris Agreement and abandon the Clean Power Plan, the United States might outperform the commitments that the Obama administration made in Paris if it keeps the nation’s nuclear fleet online, continues tax incentives for deployment of wind and solar energy, and stays out of the way of the shale revolution. By contrast, a Democratic administration indifferent to the fate of the nation’s existing nuclear fleet and hostile to shale gas production might ultimately slow US decarbonization trends.

That doesn’t mean that efforts to decarbonize national economies cannot be motivated by concern about climate change, as the UK case demonstrates. Nor does it mean that international climate commitments and national carbon targets and caps have had no impact at all. It is impossible to say what emissions would have been in the absence of such measures and clearly, a range of actions to shift to cleaner energy sources have been motivated at least in part by climate concern and cognizance that some national and international action to significantly constrain emissions may be forthcoming. But if results to date are any guide, real progress on decarbonization primarily depends upon specific domestic energy, industrial, and innovation policies, not emissions targets and timetables or international agreements intended to legally constrain national emissions. Moreover, the difficulty in discerning a signal from climate policy amidst so much macro-economic and technological noise suggests that policy to date has not much shifted global or national emissions from a business-as-usual trajectory, if it has at all.

Michael Adams

Energy For Human Development

For over two centuries, an abundance of dense, fossil energy combined with modern agriculture, cities, governance, innovation, and knowledge has fueled a virtuous cycle of socio-economic development, enabling people in many parts of the world to live longer, healthier, and more prosperous lives. The discovery and conversion of modern fuels arguably enabled sustained economic growth for the first time in human history. These energy sources–principally coal and oil along with natural gas, hydroelectric power, and nuclear energy–have enabled rising living standards since the onset of the Industrial Revolution.

Along with these material gains have come liberalizing social values, the ability to pursue more meaningful work, and environmental progress. Billions of people around the planet are increasingly free to choose their own destiny.

In this report, we consider the relationships between energy systems, economic growth, human development, environmental protection, and climate change.

Read the full report here.

Understanding these relationships represents among the most pressing social and environmental questions facing the world today, as roughly three billion people have yet to make the transition to modern fuels and energy systems. These populations remain trapped in what we call the wood economy.

Living in the wood economy means relying upon wood, dung, and other basic bioenergy for primary energy consumption. For people who live in the wood economy, life choices are extremely limited, labor is menial and backbreaking, and poverty is endemic. There is little ability to produce wealth beyond what is necessary to grow enough food to meet minimal nutritional needs. For women especially, the wood economy is oppressive. Educational opportunities are limited, off-farm employment is rare, and social mobility is non-existent.

While there is broad global agreement that everyone should have access to modern energy, there is no similar consensus about how best to achieve that outcome, how to mitigate climate change and other environmental impacts associated with energy development, or even what actually constitutes access.

There is, however, a rich history to draw from. Over the last two hundred years, nations around the world have made concerted efforts to bring electricity and modern fuels to most or all of their populations. While the context and details have varied, there are a number of consistent features that have characterized successful efforts. Nations that have achieved universal electrification and access to modern transportation and fuels have uniformly moved the vast majority of their populations off of the farm and out of the agricultural sector. There is no nation on earth with universal electricity access that remains primarily agrarian. To date, urbanization and industrialization have been preconditions for universal access to modern energy systems.

The relationship between rising incomes and rising energy consumption is bi-directional. Modern energy infrastructure enables large-scale economic enterprise that creates opportunities for off-farm employment, higher labor productivity, and rising incomes in the wage economy. Rising incomes allow people to afford modern fuels and electricity and the appliances that turn modern energy into useful energy services. Similarly, levels of energy consumed within households cannot be disentangled from energy consumed outside the household. Unless there is energy and infrastructure to support large-scale employment outside of the household and the subsistence agricultural sector, there is little income available to purchase energy or appliances for household use.

Micro-finance, micro-enterprise, and micro-energy are no substitute for industry, infrastructure, and grid electricity.

Historically, rising household energy consumption, especially electricity consumption, has come as a side benefit of industrialization, urbanization, and agricultural modernization. Rural electrification has been the last step toward achieving universal electrification, after rural regions have depopulated, population has shifted to urban and suburban areas where economies of scale and population density allow electrification to be achieved at lower cost, and rising societal wealth in the urban and industrial core allow extension of electrical grids to the periphery, usually with some form of state subsidy. Even in these contexts, rural electrification has only proved sustainable where it is targeted to raise agricultural and labor productivity, and hence produces incomes for rural populations consistent with rising consumption of energy.

Contemporary efforts to address energy poverty in developing nations that ignore this history are unlikely to succeed and will, at best, provide very limited development benefits. Programs that target household energy consumption without attending to broader economic factors are unlikely to significantly raise household energy consumption, even if they check the box marked “energy access,” and risk, instead, confusing charity with development.

Achieving modern levels of energy consumption for the three billion people who currently are locked out of the modern energy economy, consistent with achieving the human development goals with which energy consumption is highly correlated, can be achieved with more or less impact on the environment and the climate. But tradeoffs are inevitable and policies that condition development of energy infrastructure to a limited set of zero-carbon energy sources are unlikely to succeed at either their development or climate ambitions.

Decentralized renewable and off-grid energy technologies can play an important role in some contexts, where they are targeted to increase agricultural productivity or otherwise support productive economic enterprises capable of raising incomes, particularly when they are deployed in ways that augment expanding centralized grid electricity. They cannot, however, substitute for energy and other infrastructure necessary to support industrial-scale economic enterprise. Micro-finance, micro-enterprise, and micro-energy are no substitute for industry, infrastructure, and grid electricity.

Developing economies do still have choices, however, and some of those choices might result in significantly lower carbon trajectories. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is rich in both natural gas and undeveloped hydroelectric capacity, suggesting that African development might largely bypass coal. China and India, both with large populations without access to modern levels of energy consumption, have both made significant commitments to both conventional and advanced nuclear energy and to utility-scale wind and solar development.

The right mix of fossil and low-carbon energy technologies for any given economy will depend upon local resources, technological and institutional capabilities, geo-political considerations, and a range of other factors. Given current technological options, however, no practical path to universal access to modern levels of energy consumption is likely to be consistent with limiting global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to 450 parts per million (ppm).

While this reality brings with it unquantifiable risks of dangerous climate change, insisting – either implicitly or explicitly – that the poorest people on earth forego basic economic development in order to mitigate climate change would seem to be, at the very least, a morally dubious proposition, particularly given that energy development generally increases societal resilience to climatic extremes and natural disasters.

Moreover, even without eradicating energy poverty, most plausible projections of future emissions find stabilization at 450 ppm increasingly unlikely.

However, climate mitigation and a world beyond 450 ppm do not represent a zero-sum proposition. A world of 500 or 550 ppm is one less likely to experience catastrophic impacts than one that stabilizes at 700 ppm. More importantly, there are plausible decarbonization pathways that could bring significant climate mitigation benefits that are consistent with a world in which every person consumes energy at modern levels.

Whether 450 ppm or beyond, any practical path to deep global decarbonization will likely require low-carbon energy systems capable of supporting a global population with fully modern standards of living. Key priorities for achieving modern levels of energy consumption for the global population as quickly as possible include the following:

  1. Prioritize energy development for productive, large-scale economic enterprises. Economic opportunity at scales consistent with broad improvements to household incomes is not possible without significant growth in non-farm and non-household economic sectors.
  2. People to the power. There is no pathway to significantly higher levels of energy consumption without moving most people out of subsistence agrarian poverty and into higher productivity off-farm employment and livelihoods in the formal knowledge, service, and manufacturing economies.
  3. Energy and electricity are not the same. Efforts to address energy poverty must address needs for transportation fuels and infrastructure, and for fertilizer and mechanization of agriculture.
  4. Maximize bang for the buck. Given the enormous population still lacking access to basic energy services and consuming energy at extremely low levels, national and international investments in new energy infrastructure must prioritize bringing the most energy to the most people.
  5. Off-grid investments must be an on-ramp, not a cul-de-sac. Where off-grid technologies are the focus, they should be understood as transitional technologies to full grid access, not an alternative, and should be deployed in ways that hasten the arrival of grid electricity.
  6. Energy abundance is a public good. Successful efforts to end energy poverty have and will continue to succeed when they are not pursued piecemeal but through strategic government industrial and agricultural policy, strong institutions, public utilities, and regulated monopolies.

None of the above assures decarbonization at levels consistent with meaningfully mitigating climate change. Building a high-energy, low-carbon planet demands accelerating the transition out of energy poverty for the world’s poor while also making progress towards deep decarbonization by sometime later this century. These parallel social and environmental goals suggest several imperatives for policy and development:

  1. Focus on carbon intensity. The key to mitigating emissions to the greatest extent possible while addressing energy poverty will be to accelerate the long-term trend toward higher-density, more efficient, lower-carbon fuels and technologies. 

  2. Leapfrog dirty energy, not development. In some cases, energy development may “leapfrog” some high-carbon fuels and technologies, but key steps in the development process such as urbanization, industrialization, and agricultural modernization cannot be leapfrogged. 

  3. Innovate for a high-energy planet. Current-generation low-carbon technologies cannot meet growing global energy demand at the necessary scale. Innovation must take center stage if all the world’s inhabitants are to enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on a high-energy, low-carbon planet. 


What Is To Be Done?

What Is To Be Done?

But all of that at the moment seems largely beside the point.  The problem with all such speculation is that it normalizes the Trump Presidency at a moment when it is not at all clear that Trump and many of his supporters are fully committed to basic democratic norms.

These concerns are separate and distinct from the various policies that Trump has proposed.  Trump campaigned and won the election fair and square. He has every right to pursue his agenda and vision for the country. When and if it becomes clear that democratic norms will prevail in the new Administration, that Trump does not intend to prosecute his political opponents, squelch dissent, and harass the free press, I will happily praise the Administration when it takes actions that I believe to be consistent with health, prosperity, equity, and environmental protection, and criticize it when it does not.

But the signals have thus far been mixed and that presents complicated decisions for those of us in think tanks, advocacy organizations, and the media. Most of our professional incentives are to act as if some version of normal democratic discourse and policy-making will prevail. There is not much for us to do, at least in the normal way that advocates advocate and analysts analyze, in the event that those norms do not prevail. The risk for all of us is that in our haste to get back to normal politics and advocacy, we normalize a dangerous turn toward authoritarianism.

Already, the siren song of collaboration is strong. Trump could be good for nuclear energy. He plans to make big investments in infrastructure. He appears to be backpedalling on many of his most outrageous promises.

I can understand the appeal, especially for those of us who strongly believe that nuclear energy must be a core technology in any plausible path to climate mitigation, Democrats have been at best fickle allies and environmental groups have been committed opponents.

But I, for one, would counsel caution.

Back in 2004, when Michael Shellenberger and I wrote “The Death of Environmentalism,” we argued that environmentalism was failing because it had become a special interest. Environmentalists had constructed an interest called “the environment” and then advocated for it in the same way that the insurance industry or the auto industry or the labor movement advocated for its interests.

That insight is all the more important today. Trump may build better roads and airports and the trains, as the old saw goes, might run on time. He might even lead a nuclear renaissance. But no amount of clean energy or infrastructure is worth forfeiting what remains of our civic and democratic culture.

Further, it is difficult to imagine a democratic path toward an ecomodern future that does not successfully address the twin challenges of immigration and multiculturalism on the one hand and deindustrialization on the other. These challenges are bedeviling advanced developed economies all over the world and represent the underlying crisis of the post-industrial economy and polity.  Democracy, civil society, and the environment all demand that we not retreat back to our silos to advocate for the narrow technical, regulatory, and bureaucratic solutions in which we have become expert.

The Fire This Time

“The Death of Environmentalism,” was published just a few weeks before the reelection of George W. Bush and helped provoke a rare moment of introspection on the Left. It was read by some to be a call to create a broader coalition on the progressive Left of environmental, labor, and social justice groups to fight climate change and by others as a call to reframe the traditional environmental agenda as one that would create jobs and economic opportunity.  Actually, what we had in mind was a more fundamental reimagining of liberal and progressive politics for a post-industrial globalized economy in which both the scale and nature of ecological challenges would be fundamentally different.

In any event, the introspection didn’t last long. In 2006, Democrats swept away Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. In 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency, supported by a multicultural majority that appeared to have remade the American political landscape, one that included many of the working class white voters who eight years later would swing the presidency to Donald Trump. There was nothing wrong with American progressivism, it seemed to many, that an emerging democratic majority of Latinos, African-Americans, millennials, and college educated liberals couldn’t fix.

The triumphalism blotted out a much more basic reality. With the Great Recession gathering, Americans deeply disenchanted with the Bush administration and convinced that the country was headed in the wrong direction simply wanted change. Obama proved able in 2008 and 2012 to turn out a larger and more diverse electorate that tilted the national election toward Democrats. But the Obama effect wasn’t transferable to other Democrats or progressives and it didn’t change voters’ general disenchantment with government or the direction of the country.  Without him at the top of the ticket, Democrats suffered crippling losses in 2010, 2014, and 2016.

During those years, we at Breakthrough dabbled a bit in national security, economic policy, and a brief effort to rethink the social contract. But there wasn’t much appetite for it, at least coming from us. “What,” we were frequently asked, “does any of this have to do with the environment?” And so, over the years, we acceded to the same “policy literalism” that we had criticized in “Death of Environmentalism.” By the time “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” was published in 2015, social and economic progress were simply assumed. The focus, rather, was how to reconcile it with environmental protection.

But while it is all fine and well to remind people how much progress human societies have made in recent centuries, about three quarters of our countrymen are not feeling so good about it these days, at least judging by what they tell pollsters. Absolute poverty may be a thing of the past. But relative poverty, the gap between those at the bottom of the income distribution and the average American, and between the average American and those at the very top, is as large as it has ever been. With that have come new problems – obesity, drug addiction, depression, and declining economic and social mobility.

As we have transitioned from industrial to post-industrial economy, the middle class has shrunk. This is not because most of us have become poorer. From bottom to top, Americans are materially as rich as they’ve ever been. Goods and services that were once luxuries – air conditioning, high-definition television, mobile telephony – are now accessible to virtually all Americans. Food is so cheap that Americans struggle with obesity instead of hunger.

Rather global supply chains, rising productivity, and the information and communications technology revolution have brought stagnant wages along with the falling cost of goods. Meanwhile, the economy is increasingly bifurcated between those in the skilled knowledge economy and those in the unskilled service economy. Americans have been simultaneously falling out of the middle class and graduating from it economically.

For poorly educated workers, manufacturing once provided access to middle class incomes. Unskilled workers could find high productivity work in factories and with that high wages. But the old manufacturing economy is not coming back. America today actually manufactures more than it ever has. But long-term productivity improvements mean that America’s manufacturing sector employs many fewer workers than it once did.

The knowledge and service economy are different. Education, skilled labor, and social capital are rewarded and the income gap between those who are poorly educated and those who are well educated is magnified inter-generationally. The child of a PhD is enormously advantaged over the child of a high school dropout, even if they live in the same communities and attend the same schools and classes.

The progressive Left, from the Occupy movement onwards, has railed against the 1%. And while it is true that the very richest among us have reaped far more than anyone else in recent decades, the focus on the 1% allowed many liberal minded people to avoid less comfortable truths. The economic divide that has sundered America is not the one between the super rich and everyone else, but between the rising creative class of knowledge workers and those stuck in the low-wage service economy. That split is mirrored in the divide between red and blue, urban and rural, the so-called flyover states and America’s prosperous coastal enclaves.

Those with education, knowledge, skills, and cultural capital migrate to cities, to the coasts, to blue America. Those left behind seethe at their social and economic marginalization, their loss of status, and the sense that liberal, cosmopolitan America looks down on them, which it does. 

Standard liberal remedies, such as redistributing income and spending more on schools and social services, can reduce income disparities to some degree. And by some analyses, they already have. Once taxes and income transfers are accounted for, economic inequality has grown little in recent decades. But even if that is so, those measures can’t close the enormous gaps in social capital, social mobility, and  social status.

Perhaps a more robust social welfare state, not just income transfers, might result in more equitable social outcomes. But the welfare state is bedeviled by the challenges of maintaining social solidarity in an increasingly multi-ethnic society. The success of the social welfare state in Scandinavia and other parts of the developed world has been made possible in no small part by a relatively homogenous population. In the United States by contrast, the dream that working class white, Latino, and African-American voters might find common cause demanding a more generous social welfare state has foundered upon mistrust and inter-group competition for what are perceived to be limited public resources.

Those challenges, of course, go well beyond working class voters. Two decades of gridlock and broken promises have soured voters of all incomes on politics and government altogether. Racial resentments, a continual ratcheting up of extreme rhetoric from both sides of the political spectrum, identity politics and its twenty-first-century handmaiden, techno-narcissism, have further contributed to American politics, and perhaps democracy, coming apart.

Empty Promises

Back in 2002, I moderated the first focus groups that tested what would become the Apollo Alliance with white working class voters in Erie, Pennsylvania. The idea was that we might create a broad coalition among environmentalists, organized labor, and working class voters for action to address climate change and end our dependence on fossil fuels.  By investing in clean energy manufacturing, we hoped, we could create economic opportunity and jobs for communities left behind as America’s traditional manufacturing economy struggled and shift the political ground upon which climate policy was being debated.

The participants were, to say the least, enthusiastic about the prospect and during a break, I left the room to confer with my colleagues behind the one-way mirror. As we shared our excitement about how well the idea was being received, the participants on the other side of the mirror started speculating about whether we might represent a company that was planning to open a wind turbine factory in Erie. They were desperate and hopeful. We were gleeful.

A few months later, we hired a consultant to produce a fanciful study purporting to show that a $300 billion investment in clean energy would create 3 million new jobs. Armed with good polling and economic modeling that nobody in our left-of-center bubble seemed too interested in questioning, we set out to conquer the Democratic Party.

The Apollo concept proved wildly successful politically. It ultimately became Democratic orthodoxy. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama competed in the 2008 Democratic primaries over who had the best plan to create clean energy jobs. As President, Obama spent about $200 billion dollars in green stimulus and many billions more in continuing subsidies for renewable energy, electric cars, mass transit, and high-speed rail.

Fifteen years later, there are few clean energy manufacturing jobs in Erie. Long a stronghold for Democrats and organized labor, Erie County this year voted for a different kind of populist promising to bring back manufacturing jobs by tearing up trade deals, deporting immigrants, and ending the so-called “War on Coal.”

Sadly for Erie, Trump will be no more capable of bringing back high wage jobs for low-skilled and poorly educated voters than was Obama. The same demand for change and dissatisfaction with the economy and government that swept Trump into office may just as quickly sweep him out. But however things unfold, the rage, resentment, and economic disenfranchisement that made Trump’s ascension to the presidency possible are not going away. 

After Trump

A decade ago, I came to these challenges as a self-identified progressive. Today, I’m less comfortable with that identity, if only because progressives have demonstrated themselves every bit as capable of trading in arrogance, fantasy, and vitriol as conservatives. And I’ve come to know many conservatives whom I know to be every bit as committed to progress, equity, shared prosperity, and a beautiful world as I am.

Trumpism, in any event, is likely to redraw the fault lines of American politics in ways that are difficult to anticipate. And so for ecomodernists, and fellow travelers, this moment offers opportunity and peril. It is possible that the Trump Administration will end up looking like a souped-up version of the Bush administration with a more populist veneer and less appetite for nation-building.

Under these circumstances, there may be real possibilities to make headway on emissions. A Trump administration prepared to invest in advanced nuclear energy and next-generation solar panels and batteries, keep America’s existing nuclear fleet online, and support the ongoing transition from coal to gas - even as it withdraws from the Paris Accord, repeals the Clean Power Plan, and continues to deny climate science - could end up with more to show in terms of emissions reduction than a Democratic Administration committed to a green agenda that has failed to have much impact upon the trajectory of carbon emissions, in the United States or globally, for almost three decades.

But we should also keep in mind that there are far more problematic outcomes. Should the new administration take a hard turn toward authoritarianism, there will be important consequences for those who align themselves with or in opposition to it. Short of that, should Trump actually attempt to implement much of his agenda, he will engender enormous civil society opposition. The street protests in cities around the nation in recent days may provide just a taste of what is to come. With civil society, including the environmental movement, in the streets, a quick and politically convenient embrace of Trump initiatives that align with our technological preferences risks delegitimizing ecomodernism as a credible civil society voice.

In the end, each of us will need to make these assessments for ourselves. Are we taking pragmatic actions to encourage the best impulses of the new administration or are we legitimizing something much darker? The choice is not one that will be presented to us all at once or that we will make only once. Rather, we will be presented with it over and over again.

However we make those choices, it will be incumbent upon us all to do everything that we can to strengthen civil society, to fight for democratic norms and resist their erosion while simultaneously finding ways to turn down the rhetoric that has rendered so much of our civic life increasingly contentious and irreconcilable. We will also need to ask some hard questions of our own agendas and political commitments.

Here is hoping that we all make those choices well and that together, we can find new possibilities for social, economic, and environmental progress in this moment of fear and uncertainty.

 

Trump and the Environment: A Round-Up

But some intrepid analysts gave it their best shot anyway. The upshot is … mixed. Will Trump repeal the Clean Power Plan and withdraw from the Paris Agreement? Will he attempt to revitalize coal power in the United States? Will his international trade policies affect the import and deployment of solar, wind, battery, and other clean tech? Will his professed appeal for nuclear power have an impact on the existing fleet, and/or research into next-generation reactors?

We rounded up the hot takes below.

Worst-case scenario:

Elizabeth Kolbert outlines Trump’s campaign claims surrounding climate change (a “hoax”), the Paris climate treaty (“cancel”), the Clean Power Plan (repeal), and the E.P.A. (abolish) and gestures toward the ways in which his administration might actually accomplish each of these goals. The Paris accord may not have been that effective to begin with, she acknowledges, and the force of action may lie beyond treaties and regulations, but there is nevertheless “an awful lot of damage that a Trump Presidency can, and likely will, do.”

David Roberts finds little room for optimism when it comes to the 2-degree target of the Paris accord, coordinated action, or U.S. political leadership on climate. Progress at the state level and in the field of clean energy will continue, he says, but “speed is of the essence, and the best chance for speed is now gone.”

Nick Stockton fears for the Clean Power Plan, the international agreement to limit HFCs, and clean energy tax credits, not to mention U.S. leadership—and even participation—on the global stage.

Taking a cold, hard look:

Nathan Richardson reviews Trump’s likely impact on the Clean Power Plan, which could be discarded either through neglect or revision (although either would likely involve long legislative battles); the Clean Air Act, which will probably not undergo revisions, but certainly could; additional regulations, which are more likely to be weakly enforced rather than reversed; the Paris Agreement, with which the U.S. might simply refuse to comply; and the E.P.A., which might be hamstrung in a number of ways.

Paul Voosen evaluates Trump’s potential steps on climate action, observing that the administration might very well undermine the U.S. ratification of the Paris Agreement, E.P.A. regulations, and various federal agencies. States and cities may nevertheless continue to lead when it comes to clean energy and resilience, he says.

Chris Mooney delves into the details of Trump’s pledge to renege on the Paris accord, which would deliver a significant blow to the symbolic and actual impact of the historic agreement, he finds.

Gavin Bade looks to “what we know about the President-elect” in an effort to anticipate the future of the power sector under Trump. A swath of regulations, most notably the CPP, appear to be in danger; renewable energy subsidies are less so but remain uncertain; and fossil fuel production is likely to increase, whether through offshore drilling or the expansion of oil and gas pipelines. But most worrisome, says Bade, “is the paradigm shift that Trump’s election represents for the power sector”—the disruption of the decarbonization narrative that has held much sway among utilities until now.

Jesse Jenkins predicts that renewable technologies will continue to develop under Trump but will not be enough for deep decarbonization. “We need to be continually accelerating the pace of renewable energy development while expanding the portfolio of options we have,” he tells Bade, “and we’re probably not going to do that” now.

The less disastrous road ahead:

Andrew Revkin believes that we have less to fear than we think, in that broader energy transitions, rather than policy, largely determine our emissions reductions. He also points to “green glimmers amid the most polarizing sound bites of the Trump campaign” that might give us hope, including a need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and to invest in science, engineering, and healthcare. Environmentalists should hold Trump’s administration to those claims, Revkin says, while also rethinking a few priorities of their own.

Ben Schiller drives home the point that decarbonization has little to with policy and more to do with energy markets. “In general,” he says, “the clean energy revolution is sufficiently far along that even Trump may struggle to stop it.”

J. M. Korhonen thinks the election signals a need for a shift away from traditional environmentalism and its overly selective solutions. Instead, we need more flexible and resilient plans, he says, ones that not only account for the difficult political climate ahead but also embrace all-of-the-above approaches. “If we can reduce emissions even somewhat using solutions that right-wingers can accept,” he thinks, “we should do so.”

Jack Stilgoe and Roger Pielke, Jr. observe that spending on R&D and infrastructure could increase under Trump, and that scientists would do well to engage with his administration on pragmatic, constructive grounds.

Steven Lacey and the Energy Gang respond to questions culled from their listeners regarding the Paris Agreement, domestic regulations, future legislation, and state-led action. When it comes to clean energy, they agree, there is some room to maneuver with a Trump administration.

Brad Plumer, after reviewing the potentially disastrous implications of a Trump regime, provides a number of reasons for optimism: ambitious state action in California and New York, the advance of low-carbon technologies like small modular reactors, local activism, continued international progress in countries like China and India, and the (admittedly low) chance of an about-face on climate by the Republican Party.

Tyler Cowen also offers up the vague possibility that Trump’s mercurial disposition might lead him to “flip” on climate change “in search of a legacy.”

Eric Holthaus holds out for renewable energy as a “source of bipartisan compromise and an immediate path forward for climate action,” and urges hope and continued action above all.

James Conca thinks renewables and nuclear will both sit pretty under Trump, who claims to prioritize energy independence. Coal, on the under hand, should be very difficult to resurrect, as Robert Stavins also emphasizes.

Peter Maloney, in contact with a “Trump insider,” affirms that renewable energy development will continue under a Trump administration. In addition, “Trump likes nuclear power, and he may push the zero emission attributes of nuclear plants,” Maloney reports, although it is less likely that he will subsidize them.

How to Think About Our Environmental Future

How to Think About Our Environmental Future

Where will the world be two, three, or four decades from now? Will carbon emissions have gone down to safe levels? Will the area of farmland have peaked and declined? Will the global population have reached 9, or 10, or 11 billion?

The future is unknowable, but that hasn’t stopped scholars from trying to answer these questions. Nor should it. Forecasting trends in resource use, population growth, and environmental impacts can help anticipate risks and opportunities, as well as assess the consequences of choices made today.

But the way forecasts are usually done today make them less illuminating than they might appear. In a paper published recently in Basic and Applied Ecology, Barry Brook and I review the state of the art in forecasting, identifying some benefits and strengths in different forecasting methods, as well as many pitfalls.

One reason forecasts fail to shed light on important questions is – to state the obvious – that most of them will inevitably turn out to be far off the mark. For example, a look at what people twenty or thirty years ago were predicting that today’s energy consumption would be doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. There are many reasons why predictions go wrong. Trends that once looked steady might be disrupted by unexpected events. Tiny differences in expected rates of change make a huge difference when compounded over decades.

But focusing only on the numerical predictions or scenario outputs themselves in some ways misses the point. What can be far more illuminating is to look at the process – the “how” and “why” the environmental future will unfold – rather than the prediction – where we expect to be in 20, 50, or 80 years. Constructing forecasts forces us to understand the patterns and mechanisms unfolding today that will shape trends in the future.
 
This is where many of the forecasting methods fall short. Take the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s scenarios, for example. These aren’t predictions per se, but they could serve the same purpose of giving insight into the processes and decisions that shape the future of the environment. Each scenario is based on a “storyline,” which is essentially a bundle of assumptions about the future state of the global population, the economy, technology, and so on. These assumptions are fed into Integrated Assessment Models that turn these inputs into outputs like the extent of future land-use change.
 
One problem with such scenarios is that assumptions about different factors often offset one another. In the same scenario, we might see crop yields go up and biofuels being widely adopted, or we might see organic farming expanding and meat consumption going down. Higher crop yields would shrink the area of cropland whereas expanding biofuels would have the opposite effect. When all of these are bundled together, more or less arbitrarily, it’s all but impossible to know the effect of each one. This can be exacerbated by the opaque nature of Integrated Assessment Models, whose inner workings are understood, at best, only by their creators.

When different factors offset each other, we are led to believe that the range of possible outcomes is quite narrow, when in fact other combinations of the same factors could generate far more divergent outcomes. Thus, while storyline scenarios can be illustrative and easy to communicate, they can also mask important dynamics at play within the model, and show only a narrow window of possible futures.

Another method consists in extrapolating trends from observed relationships between socio-economic and environmental variables. This can be useful in drawing attention to key drivers of environmental change, but the method also has its weaknesses. The seemingly contradictory conclusions of two studies looking at the relationship between deforestation and urbanization can illustrate this. One of these studies, by Joseph Wright and Helene Muller-Landau, found rural population density to be strongly associated with deforestation. For that reason, they predicted that urbanization would reduce pressures on tropical forests this century.

The other study, led by Ruth DeFries, saw a strong positive connection between urbanization and forest loss at the country level, thus reaching the opposite conclusion. Both are right in their own way, but neither really illuminates how urbanization affects deforestation, making it that much harder to make robust forecasts. As a result, it’s hard to know whether policies to encourage urbanization – all else equal – will lead to more or less deforestation in any given setting.

A third set of methods decomposes large-scale trends into a handful of drivers based on the IPAT identity, where environmental impacts are a product of population, consumption, and technology. This method has the advantage of being transparent and easily understood. For example, Jesse Ausubel, Iddo Wernick, and Paul Waggoner break down changes in cropland area into five factors: population, per-capita income, food consumption, the ratio of crop production to the total supply of calories consumed by people, and crop yields. Each of these change by some percentage per year, with the result, in this case, that global cropland area is forecast to decline from now on.

But this model too has its shortcomings. The future rates of change in each variable has to be assumed, often just loosely based on past trends. And all the rates of change are, by the nature of the model, exponential, when in fact some real-world trends are linear. Crop yields, for instance, very reliably grow in linear fashion, which means that the percentage increase in a given year declines over time. Assuming exponential rates will therefore overestimate future yield growth, often by a wide margin.

All forecasts are subject to a difficult tradeoff. On the one hand, including many variables and building sophisticated models makes forecasts more representative of how the world works, in all its complexity. Yet by bundling lots of assumptions and variables together, these models often end up as black boxes, where the impacts of any given policy are hidden or inscrutable. Simpler models can be more transparent and accessible, but might not be very accurate at characterizing trends in, for example, environmental impacts. And looking at correlations doesn’t necessarily shed much light on how and why things are changing in one direction or another.

This offers some lessons both for producers and consumers of forecasts. Instead of just searching for clear pictures of the future, we should start paying more attention to the mechanics and processes that will build that future.

What are the technologies most ready to replace fossil fuels and mitigate carbon emissions? What are the practices that most efficiently and sustainably improve agricultural yields? What types of policies have been shown to quicken or slow urbanization historically? These questions, and many others, can’t yield simple and eye-catching numbers. But they can focus priorities and offer actionable policy lessons.

Same Issues, Different Stories

Same Issues, Different Stories

A 2015 Breakthrough Generation fellow, Suzanne Waldman is currently completing her doctoral degree in Communication Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she researches risk perception of nuclear power and nuclear waste. As we well know, questions surrounding both issues tend to dredge up a range of responses, from the technocratic to the anti-nuclear, that Waldman says correspond with different cultural “frames,” or worldviews. Drawing on research by Dan Kahan and others, she emphasizes that “we’re all in different tribes when we think about risk” and that these tribes each tell a particular kind of story. When it comes to the weighty question of disposing of our nuclear waste, she has set out to find, is it possible to engage these contradictory stories into some larger narrative, one that brings us closer to policy solutions?

According to Waldman, these bigger stories do exist, and they are stories with contingency and flexibility built in. With regard to nuclear waste disposal, she identifies a strong example in the perspective of the “Responsible Geologist,” a narrative that is neither “cornucopian” nor “catastrophic” but rather urges both caution and confidence in the scientific process. In this way, it accommodates the fears and values of multiple tribes without rigidly reinforcing them. And while this “third narrative” does not necessarily solve our problems in itself, Waldman says, it does offer an important frame from which to approach the policies and procedures surrounding nuclear waste management.

We recently discussed these topics over the phone, in addition to Waldman’s work for the Canadian government, the concept of resilience, and the “Pandora’s box” of social media. The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity. To continue the conversation, follow her on Twitter @SuzanneWaldman.

What can nuclear waste management tell us about risk perception?

There are two major ways people think about nuclear waste. One, which is the technocratic approach, says it’s manageable—it’s an engineering problem but not an overwhelming one, and we have developed techniques to handle the volatility of nuclear waste to keep people and ecosystems safe from it. Then there’s the anti-nuclear approach, which says that nuclear waste is uniquely toxic, it’s toxic for a distinctly long time, and any engineering approach that’s developed to manage nuclear waste over the timeframes that it remains dangerous is hubris.

There’s not a lot of middle ground or dialogue between those two extremes. So I started thinking more about risk, and how people think about risk, and I went through all the different risk perception theories. The way most people divide up risk perception is that experts and lay citizens see risk differently. Experts see it in an analytical way that involves numbers and measurements and standards, and people see it in a more human way, and in a more community-based way, and they understand that humans are fallible. They’ve maybe even experienced the fallibility of engineering—they’ve seen things go wrong—and they bring that awareness. They also might be frightened because of things they’ve read or seen, maybe even in an exaggerated way because a lot of media attention has been drawn to it.

There are different theories that come from different fields about who’s more right. The psychologists usually think that the experts are more right—they’re more accurate in how they think about risk and how they compare risk. The sociologists generally think that the people are more right, that they’re more tuned in to human reality and what communities need. So the psychologists’ solution is that citizens need more information about risk that’s better communicated. The sociologists say citizens need more input into decisions about risk. But neither risk communication nor this expansion of public dialogue has really resolved or dissolved these huge oppositions about nuclear waste.

I then turned to the works of Dan Kahan. He implies that we have to get out of this experts-versus-citizens division—he finds that all quite destructive. Instead, he turns to the cultural theories of risk developed by anthropologists like Mary Douglas, who noted that it’s like we’re all in different tribes when we think about risk. And really “experts” and “citizens” don’t describe the opposition. Because different experts are in different tribes, and different citizens are in different tribes, and certain citizens prefer different experts, and vice versa. So it’s almost better to think about it in a tribal way.

This theory goes together with some other theories that are pretty respected in thinking about policy—such as policy frame theory, which says that people look at things through different frames. Which leads to questions: How do you possibly coordinate the difference of frames that people bring to a subject like nuclear waste? I would say that is a harder question, and I decided to take a stab at it.

What is unique about nuclear waste when it comes to this issue of different frames?

One approach that has come out of the Cultural Cognition Project is that you have to make people turn to their practical reasoning. You have to get people to leave behind their tribes and the tribalism and groupthink that guides their thinking whenever you start talking about abstract questions, and instead get them to talk about their practical skills. You ask communities, “The water is rising: What should we do about it? How do we already know how to solve these problems?” Then you actually get people working together. So that’s one positive approach. Dan Kahan calls it “untangling” thought from identity.

But I don’t know how you do that with nuclear waste. Because nuclear waste is integrally connected to nuclear power. And any solution that people come up with for nuclear waste is always oriented to some degree toward having either more or less nuclear power. Building a nuclear waste solution that’s final and puts it out of sight in a way that’s endowed with a sense of security, like a deep geological repository, is a good starting point if you want to generate more nuclear power. Whereas if you want to reduce nuclear power, having nuclear waste in surface storage where it’s in people’s faces, and where limits to capacity might arise, is a recipe for stopping nuclear power production.

So I found this book called Narrative Policy Analysis about what you do when people have different stories. What the book says is that you need to try to find a bigger story that holds the different stories together. Ideologies tend to reproduce very rigid stories about every topic, so somebody with a very environmentalist worldview is going to come at every toxic substance and apply similar solutions to it. “Okay, we have to stop producing it, or we have to take it out of circulation completely, because it’s artificial, it’s damaging, nature’s better.” Whereas a technocrat is always going to come at a waste problem with a different story, which is, “Okay, it’s a little scary, but we can manage it—we just have to set up the right systems.” You can see that opposition playing out very clearly around nuclear waste.

But I looked further, and I actually found a third story about nuclear waste, which has a little more conditionality in it, which says, “Storing nuclear waste is indeed a hard problem and a sensitive problem, but we can probably set up systems to do it, given enough time, and understanding, and experimentation.” That happened to be the story that has been told about nuclear waste by geologists for thirty years.

That was the conclusion of my thesis, and also the jumping-off point I end with. Can we find more of these “third” stories—stories that are more flexible, stories that include different sets of possibilities within them? Then we can at least focus our conversation in the narrower space in that third story where there’s some uncertainty, rather than in the vast space between the first two stories.

I feel like everybody’s trying to solve this problem right now—the problem of tribalism seems to have knocked us on the head lately, as people have been dividing up into more rigid groups about virtually everything and clinging to the simple solutions that are provided by their cultural leaders, which really inhibit discovering the more complex and flexible solutions and policies that are needed.

Would you tell me more about the specific case of the Ontario Power Generation’s Deep Geologic Repository that you studied, and the controversy surrounding it?

This case is kind of a funny one. The idea, as I understand it, was that the request for a deep geological repository was generated by the municipality, where there are some nuclear reactors that have been there for a long time and an above-ground nuclear waste storage facility, and where the people are all very used to nuclear substances—indeed, the mayor at the time of the request was a nuclear engineer. So it was a very unusual community that approached the corporation, Ontario Power Generation, and essentially asked for the project, which is an unusual circumstance. But it gave the process an illusion of wider community acceptance than maybe it should have. So they didn’t do an elaborate multi-site siting process, and people further afield from the proposed facility, but adjacent to the lake, revolted against the idea.

Again, it comes down to worldviews. When you look at the site on the map, which is how the activists always present it, you think, “Oh, that’s kind of near the lake.” But when you look at a geological section, which is how the company always presents it, you see all the layers of rock over it that have been there for a million years. The proximity to the lake isn’t really necessarily even pertinent from the geological point of view.

And that’s where your narrative analysis comes into play, right? About what kind of stories and images motivate people?

Well, that’s where the internet comes in. Because of the way worldviews work, and because of the way social media works, it’s possible to create a huge uproar by describing your community’s situations in a way that pushes people’s worldview buttons and gets their ideological stories going. And you can arouse a lot of outrage on an international level. And more specific questions about the project itself, such as “could it leak,” “what would happen if it leaked,” “what are the actual hazards and risks”—there’s not any attention given to those. Also, certain kinds of math that is relevant doesn’t get done. Could we manage without producing any more nuclear waste in southern Ontario and not produce a lot more greenhouse gases? There is a story that’s told—“we can have ‘cleaner’ kinds of energies”—but that story is pretty under-evidenced right now. But when you belong to a worldview, you probably don’t probe the limits of your story very hard.

What drew you to issues surrounding nuclear power and nuclear waste in the first place?

I started off thinking about oil pipelines—that was the first energy-related communication project that came my way—but then I started to learn about different sources of energy, because I had naturally also started thinking about climate change, which goes together with oil. I talked to people in favor of renewable energy, and I talked to people in favor of nuclear power, and I felt that the nuclear power people’s numbers made better sense to me—their logic made better sense to me. And when I started to look at the the risks of nuclear power, the numbers didn’t seem very frightening, whereas the risks of climate change were starting to look pretty darn frightening. And I continue to find that people who are willing to take nuclear power seriously and who are working on nuclear power have a lot of integrity.

How does this all tie in with your governmental work?

I work in this really weird, quirky center that’s part of the Canadian government, which almost nobody’s ever heard of. We actually have a little division in our centre that deals with community resilience, so I get to work on projects about helping communities assess local risks and helping them build resilience. It’s an important risk topic, but  more relaxing than nuclear waste because who can argue with resilience? It’s not very controversial.

Would resilience possibly provide one of these larger narratives that bring people together?

Yes, maybe. I’m reading this book right now called Resilience, the premise of which is that resilience thinking and resilience governance come out of an understanding of the world as complex, and an understanding of social order and ecosystem order as complex, and not very able to be controlled. So yeah, it might be a totally new meta-narrative. Because it’s not very technocratic. But it’s not very environmentalist either—well, the community-thinking, the localism of environmentalism is in keeping with resilience, but the tendency that environmentalism has to think that certain solutions are good and certain solutions are bad is not resilience-based thinking. Resilience-based thinking involves trying a lot of things, letting different communities try different things without a lot of judgement, and then being very attentive to what works and doesn’t work, and changing course when it doesn’t. It’s about trying not to be rigid.

Climate Pragmatism in Rwanda

Climate Pragmatism in Rwanda

That so many countries are agreeing to phase out HFCs is good news. Brad Plumer at Vox was on the money when he called it “one of the single biggest steps ever to tackle climate change.”

It’s also another sign that the pragmatic, post-Kyoto approach to climate action is working.

In 2011, Breakthrough and our allies released a report titled “Climate Pragmatism.” The tagline read “The Hartwell Analysis in an American Context,” an ode to the previous year’s “Hartwell Paper,” which laid out a new paradigm for international climate policy.

The premise of climate pragmatism was straightforward: innovation, resilience, and no regrets. Innovation, because the climate problem needed to be re-defined as a largely technological challenge. Resilience, because it’s clear that even rapid emissions reductions would not make cities, farms, and other infrastructure completely safe from natural disasters, climate-related and otherwise. And no regrets, because while there are stubborn tradeoffs between providing cheap energy and mitigating carbon emissions, there are all sorts of pollution-reduction opportunities with much more attractive cost-benefit outcomes: black carbon, methane, and, yes, HFCs.

As the coauthors wrote in “Climate Pragmatism,”

Finally, a set of powerful climate forcings could be readily tackled by extending the Montreal Protocol, which worked to protect the stratospheric ozone layer. Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and perfluorocarbons (PFCs) are very strong greenhouse gases. Pound for pound, they cause hundreds or even thousands of times more warming than carbon dioxide in both the short and long terms (although the atmosphere contains much smaller quantities of these gases than CO2). Pragmatically extending effective pollution reduction regimes to tackle these potent warming agents could yield significant, low-cost climate benefits.

The deal in Rwanda does exactly that.

Since at least the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations in 2009, if not since long before, it has been obvious that the global, top-down, targets-and-timetables approach to climate policy developed in the 1990s would fail. It did. Fortunately, by around this time last year, it became clear that an alternative had officially taken root. That alternative emphasized harmonizing the bottom-up capabilities of many countries and treated climate change as a challenge of technological innovation. I wrote about this pretty massive shift last December. Ted Nordhaus summed up the shift nicely:

For over a decade, we along with a pretty small number of other folks have been saying that progress on international climate mitigation efforts would require a shift from a top down approach focused on legally binding emissions targets and timetables to a bottom up bilateral and multilateral approach focused on real commitments to put clean energy infrastructure in the ground. Don't tell me what your emissions are going to be in 2050, tell me how much clean energy infrastructure you are actually prepared to build today. That shift was ratified in Paris and does in fact mark a historic departure from the framework convention established in 1992 and ratified in the Kyoto Accords in 1997.

Emblematic of the new climate pragmatism on display by the international community, the HFCs deal does not “solve” climate change in one global agreement. Neither did the Paris Agreement last winter and neither will anything else. But both Rwanda and Paris are encouraging steps forward, bending the emissions curve downward by taking targeted action against many different threats. Call it lots of shots on goal, call it one step at a time, call it whatever you want--this is what pragmatic climate progress looks like.

 

Main image via Tinou Bao from San Francisco, USA - https://www.flickr.com/photos/tinou/453530668/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35298524

Complicating the Narrative

Roberts hedges his bets on the question of whether a public erroneously confident in wind and solar is positive or not. Yes, we need to retain a sense of urgency, he says, but we also need momentum. Momentum for renewables these days, though, tends to position itself against some of those other things we also need momentum for—like nuclear. That kind of momentum can turn into something more like obstruction, as Roberts recognizes when he acknowledges that “an overly triumphalist narrative obscures the difficulty and sheer quantity of decarbonization work ahead.”

David Hart calls this triumphalist narrative a brand of “magical thinking.” “Easy answers alleviate stress, avert change, and attract followers,” he says. “Yet wishing that something is so does not make it so.” What we really need is more nuance in our discussions, and the ability to entertain a range of possibilities that might even conflict with one another. It is extremely unlikely that one energy technology will rule the day, as Ted Nordhaus points out in a recent article for Foreign Affairs. Instead, we should open ourselves “to a range of possible technological futures.”

What other frameworks, policies, and discussions will better serve the complexity and uncertainty of our present moment? That is a question up for debate.

The Complexities of Climate Change

In response to the Kigali agreement, the University of Chicago’s Michael Greenstone points out the paradox of air-conditioning, both a contributor and an essential adaptation to climate change, that complicates policy in countries like India … Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash at the University of Washington respond to the causal connections drawn between climate change, natural disasters, and conflict; scapegoating climate change, they say, obscures accountability and effective policy-making, “a move that would be catastrophic” … In a similar vein, Michelle Nijhuis features biologist John Woinarski’s work, which underscores the many factors beyond climate change, including lack of human intervention, that have led to three recent extinctions in Australia … Brad Plumer reviews the many “stutter steps” the world is taking to mitigate climate change, which we’ll need to embrace in the absence of disruptive technological innovation …

Attitudinal Adjustments

Ted Nordhaus uses the faulty history of energy forecasts to highlight our present need: “not better analysis or models but a better public spirit”—one that embraces all zero-carbon solutions … Andrew Revkin reflects on the emergence of the Anthropocene concept in the inaugural edition of Conservation Magazine’s new iteration; “what matters most,” he says, “is not resolving some common meaning so much as engaging in deeply felt discussion, fresh lines of inquiry, and new proposals for sustaining the human journey” … Yvette d’Entremont unpacks a host of myths that often accompany environmentalism, from the supposed superiority of organic produce to anti-nuclear prejudice … Zhai Yun Tan delivers good news for big-city dwellers: a new Gallup poll shows that individuals living in big cities tend to be happier and healthier, due to more extensive infrastructure sponsoring active lifestyles …

Where’s the Beef?

Our own Marian Swain reviews the “Impossible Burger,” the hyped-up plant-based burger that “bleeds”; similar innovations, she concludes, could offer ripe opportunity for decoupling food consumption from environmental impact … Jonathan Kauffman also spotlights the Impossible Burger and its “beefy verisimilitude” … Eliza Barclay tackles other questions of meat consumption—which is on the rise in the U.S. once again—mulling over factors like price, food culture, vegetarianism, and production upgrades … Luke Groskin and Alison Van Eenennaam introduce us to two hornless bulls, an example of “precision breeding” that cuts cost and enhances animal welfare … Michael Battaglia discusses the finding that the use of a certain type of seaweed as feed for cattle could decrease methane emissions and drive up efficiency … Sean Illing and Bruce Friedrich of The Good Food Institute chew over the future of lab meat …

Conservation Conversations

Peter Kareiva and Michelle Marvier identify the shortcomings of biodiversity as a conservation metric; “conservation needs to attend to a richer set of values than simply the count of species in a particular area,” they argue … Emily Anthes also probes the concept of biodiversity, mulling over the “nuanced picture of the ways in which humans shape life on this planet” and the conceptual—and actual—challenges this complexity poses for conservation … Will Jones describes the necessity of mixed land-use strategies when it comes to elephant conservation—an approach that will lead “to a much brighter future: lost wildernesses reclaimed with the wild African elephant flourishing” … George Monbiot pushes for rewilding “the wet desert” of the British countryside “to allow nature to come back, to allow people to have much richer places to explore” …

Going Nuclear

Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz urges Congress and industry to operate with greater urgency when it comes to nuclear, calling for relicensing, interim storage of spent fuel, and greater support for climate goals, writes Jack FitzpatrickDevin Henry reports on the Tennessee Valley Authority’s new reactor, the first to come online in the U.S. in 20 years … Lenka Kollar describes her journey to become “a nuke” … Debbie Carlson highlights small nuclear reactors, which may prove to deliver the zero-carbon power of nuclear in cheaper, safer, more flexible fashion … Robert Walton and Meg Murphy delve into the history and recent breakthrough of an MIT fusion reactor … Dan Yurman outlines the Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent report on consent-based siting for nuclear waste, which advances an inclusive, transparent, and flexible approach … Heather Smith talks with Berkeley’s Rachel Slaybaugh, a nuclear engineer who discusses the frontier of nuclear, and the mislaid fears that have held it back …

Not So Nuclear

Leslie Hook and Ed Crooks review the Diablo Canyon debate for Financial Times, observing that California’s “nuclear-free vision may be one that that other states and countries”—not to mention California itself—“find hard to follow” … Rachel Morison correlates an increase in electricity prices and fossil fuel use in France with a drop in nuclear generation … Mark Chediak worries over the potential closure of four nuclear plants in 2017, which would eliminate “enough capacity to provide carbon-free electricity to power more than 4 million homes” … Naureen Malik and Jonathan Crawford cover the Carlyle Group’s claim that the future of nuclear in the U.S. depends on subsidies and other governmental support; without these reactors, the group’s leader says, “emissions reductions will be eviscerated and volatility of prices will increase” …

Final Words on Farming

Joseph Byrum highlights the technological innovation that has benefited both farmers and grocery shoppers—techniques that are making our food “tastier, healthier, and safer than ever—at a bargain price” … Franco Vaccarino points to precision agriculture and the need “to farm smarter” in the 21st century … A new study on small-scale farmers in Indonesia, conducted at Lund University in Sweden, contradicts “the traditional view that small-scale agriculture is environmentally friendly.”

Breakthrough Does the Impossible

As a forward-looking, pro-technology think tank, Breakthrough is interested in ways that technology can decouple economic goods from environmental impacts. A lot of people (including many of the Breakthrough team) love eating meat, but also recognize that producing meat—especially beef—creates a large environmental footprint in terms of land and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, and local pollution. Can we harness cutting-edge food technologies to create such a close facsimile to a burger that true meat lovers can’t tell the difference?

That’s the mission Impossible Foods set itself with this burger, and we went to see for ourselves.

The Preparation

Cockscomb restaurant in San Francisco is one of two Bay Area restaurants now offering the Impossible Burger. They serve it on their lunch menu topped with Gruyere cheese, pickles, caramelized onions, and Dijon mustard and accompanied by a small green salad. It costs $19.  

The Eaters

Breakthrough staff members range from meat-lovers to vegetarians.

The Verdict


Marian Swain, Senior Analyst at Breakthrough tries her first bite of the Impossible Burger 

There was a range of opinion in our group, but the consensus seems to be “best veggie burger I’ve ever had, but not the same as a meat burger.”

The outward appearance of the Impossible Burger is remarkably close to a meat burger. It is pink in the middle and browned on the edges. The mouthfeel and texture are quite close to a meat burger, and it is surprisingly greasy and juicy. However, the patty is softer than a meat burger and falls apart pretty easily (it slides out of the sides of the bun as you bite down).

I thought the flavor of the burger itself was definitely blander than meat. With a burger, the meat is the main event, so a lackluster patty is not ideal. I think in a different preparation, like chili or tacos, I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference nearly as much, since the meat would be more heavily seasoned and not the main ingredient. I see a lot of potential for using the Impossible Burger meat in those types of preparations.

I felt quite satisfied and full after eating it, and not slightly ill the way I often feel after devouring an entire pub-style burger. I would be happy to eat an Impossible Burger again, although I can’t say I’d always choose it over the real meat version if given the choice. I would love to try tacos or a bolognese sauce made with the Impossible Burger meat—I think I would enjoy those even more and miss real meat even less. One other melioristic option could be a burger that is half beef for flavor, half Impossible Burger meat for footprint.

Innovations like the Impossible Burger could help move fake meat from the lonely end of the freezer aisle into the mainstream. Cost is still a barrier to this transition (a $19 burger is definitely a splurge). But if fake meat or cultured meat can become as tasty and cheap as the real thing, it could have a huge effect on the global environment. Technological substitutes are an important way that humans spare nature, as outlined in the Breakthrough report Nature Unbound.   

 

Read more reactions to the Impossible Burger from the rest of the Breakthrough team (I asked them to rate it 1-5, where 5 is the best):

Ted Nordaus, Executive Director: A very good veggie burger. A mediocre hamburger. The meat-like fibers were more like very long cooked shredded beef than hamburger. Had a really good fat/grease feel, like a burger but the patty fell apart as you ate it and it didn’t have that beef tallow aroma that a good burger has. A promising effort. It still needs work. But already better than the actual burger at the Daniel Patterson/Roy Choi LocoL healthy fast food chain. Rating: 5 for a veggie burger, 2 for a hamburger.

Emma Brush, Staff Writer: The Impossible Burger experience gets a 4 from me. Much anticipation, much digestion, and some decent “meat” in the middle. As with most burgers, the first bite was gloriously greasy and flavorful, and I would now enjoy nothing more than a nap.

Alex Trembath, Communications Director: What surprised me is that the texture and mouthfeel felt closest to an actual beef burger, while the taste and the aroma were more distinct. Cockscomb’s Impossible Burger would benefit from a crisp tomato slice, a sharper cheese, and a nice sauce. But if I encountered this Impossible beef in a bolognese sauce or a taco, I don’t think I would notice it’s not real meat. Rating: 3.5.

Michael Goff, Energy Analyst: The texture was good, taste was OK, aroma was off-putting, and appearance was in the uncanny valley. Rating: 3.

Joanna Calabrese, Office Manager: Prepare to be tricked by the texture into the true belief that this is actually beef.  Miraculously juicy, savory, and mildly flavored, the "meat" itself stands alone as a noteworthy feat, but Cockscomb's take on it was less than so. The full burger package was largely mushy in texture and could use a more creative condiments combination than the classic melted cheese and grilled onions. Rating: 3.

James McNamara, Conservation Analyst: I was impressed with the rich, savoury flavour. The colour and texture were similar to ground beef, although the burger itself crumbled more easily than a beef burger normally would. My one criticism would actually be that it was almost too greasy, which all things considered is a pretty impressive feat for a plant-based burger! I’d give it a 3.5 overall, but on the scale of a veggie burger, I'd give it 5.

Hafeezah Abdullah, Events and Development Manager: Hands down the best veggie burger I've ever had. Would have been even better if it came with french fries and chipotle mayo. Totally would eat it again. Rating: 3.5 overall, but 5 for a veggie burger.   

Grace Emery, Production Manager: I’d give the burger 2.5, but I think the patty could have potential for a 3 or 3.5 with the right adjustments. It could use some more spices to “beef” up the mild mushroomy flavor. It had the same texture and color as a rare, melt-in-your-mouth beef patty but the taste didn’t match up. Paired with a toasted brioche bun (soft enough not to smash the delicate patty, but toasted so it stands up to the juiciness), some fresh onion or lettuce for a crunch, and an aioli, this burger would have been more convincing and enjoyable to eat. I’m looking forward to the "Impossidog" (impossible hot dog) next.

Whitney Caruso, Director, Third Plateau: While the burger was intriguing at first, talk of the rubbery texture, pungent smell, and grease began to take over my senses. After a few bites of crumbling rubbery grease, I put it down and went for my salad instead. Rating: 1.5.

Mike Berkowitz, Principal, Third Plateau: The Impossible Burger didn't quite do the impossible. The best part about the burger is the way in which it really, truly looks and acts like ground beef. But that's about where the comparison ends. What I most missed in this experience was something that smelled like a hamburger and that had the depth of flavor that a burger does. The Impossible Burger had no discernible smell and its flavor was a bit dulled - though it certainly approximates the flavor of beef better than any veggie burger I've ever had. It was fun to try though, and I can always say that I ate modern technology. Rating: 2.5.

 

Many thanks to Cockscomb restaurant for hosting our group to try the Impossible Burger. Cockscomb restaurant and Impossible Foods did not contribute financially to this taste test or read this article before it was published.

Breakthrough Does the Impossible

Fellows

Senior Fellows

Breakthrough Senior Fellows collaborate with and advise Breakthrough Institute research staff in the areas of energy, conservation, innovation, and other fields essential to advancing the ecomodernist project. Leading thinkers, writers, and scholars in the study of society and the environment, senior fellows serve as indispensable partners and champions of Breakthrough’s work and research.

Senior fellows are invited to join Breakthrough’s network each year. Their contributions take the form of peer-reviewed research, long-form essays, journal articles, and workshops. More broadly, senior fellows expand and diversify Breakthrough’s research agenda, performing the long-term work of building and broadcasting ecomodern ideas in the world.

Apply

Applications for the Breakthrough Research Fellowship 2017 are now open. Applications are due at 11:59pm PST on Wednesday, February 15, 2017.

Each summer, Breakthrough seeks a small number of outstanding researchers and writers for the Breakthrough Research Fellowship. Fellows will submit a research proposal aligned with Breakthrough's interest areas, and work on their project remotely or at the Breakthrough office for two months. See below for more information on how to apply.

The Research Fellowship runs for 8 weeks between June and August and pays in installments, totaling $5,000 over the course of the Fellowship.

Who can apply?

Applicants interested in the Research Fellowship should possess a Master's degree at minimum and have a well-scoped research proposal. Excellent proposals will define goals, methods, and align with Breakthrough’s interest areas and our mission statement (see details below). If you think your research can contribute to or deepen an ecomodern understanding of society and the environment, then this is an opportunity for you.

How do I apply?

Apply using our online application form found here or at the bottom of this page. You will need to submit a CV/resume, a research proposal, and 1-3 three writing samples. See details below. All uploaded documents must be in PDF format. Incomplete applications will not be considered.

When is the application deadline?

Applications for the Breakthrough Research Fellowship 2017 are due at 11:59pm PST on Wednesday, February 15, 2017.

When will I hear back?

Applications are reviewed and interviews conducted over 3-4 weeks after the application deadline. Decisions will be announced within this period.

What is the duration and timing of the program?

Research Fellowships will be completed remotely and are designed to last 2 months. Research Fellows are also invited to attend the Breakthrough Dialogue, which will take place June 21 through June 23, 2017. If you have a scheduling conflict with these dates, please do not be discouraged from applying.

Contact Breakthrough staff with any questions and concerns: fellowships [at] thebreakthrough.org

How are Breakthrough Research Fellows compensated?

The Breakthrough Research Fellowship offers a $5,000 stipend to be delivered in installments upon demonstrated progress.

 

Requirements for Research Fellowship Application

CV/Resume

Please limit your resume or CV to two pages maximum.

Research Proposal

Research proposals will make up the core of the Research Fellowship application. Research proposals should include:

  • A brief summary and literature review of the topic at hand;

  • The goals of the project (what unanswered questions are you addressing?);

  • Type of analysis and methods;

  • Expected results;

  • Indication of your own experience with the subject matter and/or methods;

  • Intended product (peer-reviewed paper or white paper).

Research proposals can be up to 1500 words.

Writing Samples (1-3)

At least one and no more than three writing samples are required for the application. Excellent writing samples will demonstrate familiarity with the subject matter and methods of the research being proposed.

Letters of Recommendation

At least one letter of recommendation is required, preferably from a supervisor who has worked with you on similar or related research in the past. Recommendations will only be accepted if the author of the letter, not the applicant, sends the letter directly to Breakthrough. Letters should be be sent to fellowships [at] thebreakthrough [dot] org.

 

Breakthrough Institute is an equal opportunity employer.

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Research Fellowship

Breakthrough Research Fellowships are awarded to non-resident research collaborators with the Breakthrough Institute’s research program. Launched in 2016, the program offers opportunities to the brightest and most talented thinkers to address unanswered questions related to energy, conservation, agriculture, growth, and innovation, and to change the way society approaches major environmental and development challenges.

Scholars with experience ranging from a Master’s degree to a postdoctoral appointment to a senior professorship may apply. These paid fellowships, completed in collaboration with research staff, advance Breakthrough’s research and reach, fostering partnerships with experts around the world at the cutting-edge of scholarship in these spaces.

For all the progress afforded to humanity by modernization and growth, there remain many unanswered questions. The Breakthrough Institute exists in part to answer these questions, and to change the way society approaches major environmental and development challenges. In service of this mission, we seek to work with the brightest and most talented thinkers on issues related to energy, conservation, agriculture, growth, and innovation. The Research Fellowship allows us to partner with experts all over the world doing cutting-edge scholarship in these spaces.

Research fellows are also invited to join us for our annual Breakthrough Dialogue, an opportunity to interact with the leading thinkers, writers, and scholars in the study of society and environment, as well as attend talks, debates, and working groups within Breakthrough’s different research interests.

Research

Breakthrough Research fellowships are awarded to non-resident research collaborators with the Breakthrough Institute’s research program. Launched in 2016, the program offers opportunities to the brightest and most talented thinkers to address unanswered questions around energy, conservation, agriculture, growth, and innovation, and to change the way society approaches major environmental and development challenges.

Scholars with experience ranging from a Master’s degree to a postdoctoral appointment to a senior professorship may apply. These paid fellowships, completed in collaboration with research staff, advance Breakthrough’s research and reach, fostering partnerships with experts around the world at the cutting-edge of scholarship in these spaces.

Generation Fellowship


Breakthrough Fellows have produced research and reports covered in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Time magazine. Above, Breakthrough Fellows past and present at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue.

 

Program Overview

Breakthrough Generation is an initiative in the Breakthrough Institute’s research program, founded in 2008 to foster the development of a new generation of thinkers and writers capable of finding pragmatic new solutions to today’s greatest challenges in the areas of energy, economy, and environment.

Every summer from June to August, Generation offers a small number of paid, highly competitive, ten-week fellowships to recent college graduates and postgraduates from around the world.

The first two weeks of the summer are dedicated to Breakthrough Bootcamp, an intellectual crash course involving intensive reading, writing, and an expert lecture series designed to provide a grounding in the broad-spectrum thinking that informs Breakthrough's policy agenda. Topics covered include modernization theory, social psychology, aspirational politics and philosophy, economics and innovation policy, and technology policy.

For more advanced and independent research, see Breakthrough's new Research Fellowship.

Breakthrough Fellows were invited to tour the Advanced Light Source (ALS) research facility at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories in August 2014.

For the remainder of the fellowship, fellows work in small teams divided between four program areas: EnergyConservationEnergy for Development, or Food & Farming. Supervised by policy staff, fellows produce policy white papers, reports, and memos. Previous projects (for a full list, click here) have been featured in the New York Times, Newsweek, Time Magazine, the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Law and Policy Journal, among others, as well as in Congressional testimony.

In addition to research and analysis, fellows attend the Breakthrough Dialogue -an opportunity to interact with the leading thinkers, writers, and scholars in the study of society and the environment, as well as attend talks, debates, and working groups within Breakthrough’s different program areas.

2015 Fellows in Yosemite on the Breakthrough Generation camping trip.

Over 75 young experts and analysts have completed Breakthrough Generation since its inception in 2008 and moved on to important positions in government, academia, and the nonprofit sector. Together with career support from the Breakthrough staff and the wider network of Senior Fellows and associates, Breakthrough Generation makes for many avenues to continue an exciting career.

Generation Bootcamp

The first two weeks of the Breakthrough Generation Fellowship consist of an intensive intellectual crash course called Breakthrough Bootcamp. Over the course of Bootcamp, fellows acquire a strong foundation in the theoretical and philosophical underpinnings of Breakthrough's outlook and work, plus the skills required to successfully undertake an independent research project. Bootcamp not only involves lengthy readings and vigorous discussions, but also guest lectures from Senior Fellows and other experts, field trips to cutting-edge institutions, and ample socializing and networking opportunities with other young public policy professionals.

Readings and Discussions

Every day of Bootcamp, fellows have a set of readings covering themes such as pragmatism, risk and the precautionary principle, modernization and development, energy systems and transitions, conservation in the Anthropocene, natural resources, and futurism. Highlights from the syllabus include excerpts from Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen, "The Entrepreneurial State," by Mariana Mazzucato, and Rambunctious Garden by Emma Marris. These readings form the basis for a variety of group discussions, presentations, and workshops designed to facilitate learning and hone participants' skills in analysis, presentation, and debating.

Guest Speakers

Bootcamp features a set of regular presentations and Q&As with people from Breakthrough's network of Senior Fellows and associated experts. Examples from the past include:

Picture of Roger Pielke Jr.

Roger Pielke, Jr., Breakthrough Senior Fellow, gave a presentation on the role of science in politics and policy.

Sarah Evanega, PhD, Director of the Cornell Alliance for Science spoke to the 2016 Generation Fellows on Genetically Modified Organisms and agricultural resiliancy in the developing world.

Bill Bonvillian, Director of MIT's Washington Office and Professor at Georgetown University, presented a history of the federal government's involvement in technological innovation.

Joyashree Roy, Professor of Economics at Jadavpur University, Kolkata in India, spoke to 2015 fellows about development and energy in India. 

Rasmus Karlsson, Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in South Korea, answered questions about his work on futurism, space colonization, and technological solutions to climate change.

Fred Block, Research Professor at UC Davis, presented on the historical role of government investment in energy technology innovation and the outsized influence of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

Fieldtrips and Socials

Bootcamp offers unique opportunities to visit local Bay Area think tanks, research labs, and companies. Some of the popular sites visited in past summers include:

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Breakthrough’s 2013 Fellows were invited to Lawrence Livermore National Lab in Livermore, CA to visit the National Ignition Facility, the world’s foremost research facility for nuclear fusion. Fellows met with the lab’s staff to discuss the potential of nuclear fusion energy.

Lawrence Berkeley National Lab Fellows learned about different research projects developing clean energy technologies and briefed the Lab Director on their summer research projects. We also visited the Advance Light Source to see how new materials are designed and tested.

Greenstart is a cleantech start-up incubator. Fellows learned about the process of launching a cleantech start-up.

Advanced Energy Economy is a clean energy industry association. Fellows of Breakthrough Generation and AEE briefed each other on their respective projects and shared other experiences from the sector.

Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant Breakthrough Generation 2014 fellows visited the California nuclear power station.

The Energy Institute at UC Berkeley is a multi-disciplinary research group focusing on energy economics. We met with the director, affiliated professors, and graduate students at EI and shared the projects we were working on and heard about their current research.

Brightsource Fellows visited Brightsource's US headquarters to learn about their Ivanpah solar project, the largest concentrated solar power project in the world. We also discussed their experience as a recipient of the DOE's loan guarantees.

Young Professionals in Energy We went to several happy hours and panel discussions with the San Francisco chapter of Young Professionals in Energy. Fellows got to meet their peers working for public utilities, renewable energy developers, and other clean tech entrepeneurs.

Generation

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Britain’s Civilian Nuclear Program Is Not a Stealth Military Program

Britain’s Civilian Nuclear Program Is Not a Stealth Military Program

While the study offers up self-described circumstantial evidence for links between British civilian and military nuclear suppliers, their main argument is that there can be no other explanation for the United Kingdom’s support for nuclear power.

This seems, frankly, a little thin. Both Kirby’s Op-Ed and the SPRU paper ignore the complex energy and environmental challenges facing the United Kingdom that could warrant a renewed interest in domestic nuclear power: energy security, carbon emissions, reducing electricity and gas imports, domestic industrial jobs.

While many UK nuclear vendors are involved both in military and civilian projects, the government chose a reactor designed by German and French companies rather than investing in developing their own design with domestic suppliers. While the New York Times Op-Ed assumes the military-civilian cover-up is a fact, the actual SPRU report says this in the middle of its 95 pages:

The overall picture is a complete absence of any acknowledgement of formative links between commitments to military nuclear submarine capabilities and attachments to civil nuclear power.

The SPRU working paper makes several claims that the United Kingdom plans “unparallel” support for nuclear power and remains “internationally distinct” for its nuclear policies, and notes an “unprecedented turnaround” in policy from 2003 to 2006. But there’s more than one good reason for why the United Kingdom might have picked up interest in nuclear power at this time. The United States passed the Energy Act of 2005, which provided significant financial support for new nuclear builds and advanced nuclear R&D. Both France and Finland finalized plans for their own new EPR builds, which began construction in 2005 and 2007. Over this time period, global construction starts of nuclear power began to grow, with dozens of new builds in China and South Korea. The United Kingdom may have simply been trying to maintain relevance in a fast-paced global nuclear power industry that was leaving them behind.

Not to mention, in 2005, the Kyoto Protocol entered into force and the EU emissions trading scheme began. In 2003, nuclear made up 83% of the United Kingdom’s low-carbon electricity, and the average age of a reactor was 19 years, perhaps causing concern for how they would meet reductions in carbon emissions.

Maybe, just maybe, those caused a shift in UK energy policies. It’s at least worth looking into; however, the SPRU paper doesn’t investigate any alternative explanations.

Yet there is a stark dichotomy in how the New York Times Op-Ed was received by various audiences, highlighting whom this report was directed towards. People who work in the civilian nuclear industry laughed, noting that this conspiracy theory runs counter to conventional wisdom: often governments hide funding for civilian programs in military spending, whose budget is rarely questioned. On the other side, the buzz on Twitter ignored the circumstantial aspect of the SPRU working paper (which they mostly likely did not read) and accepted Wynn’s hypothesis as fact: the United Kingdom used the Hinkley EPR project to hide funding for Trident submarines. Many noted the irony of the United Kingdom accepting investment from Chinese firms to build the French EPR, as the new submarines will be defending UK sovereignty. And of course this is in stark contrast to the conclusions in the SPRU report, which concluded a soft connection at best:

Of course, this holds no necessary implications for any definite links (let alone directions) of causality. It is possible, for instance, that the extraordinary expense of both civil and military nuclear capabilities simply makes a reflection of national economic capacities.

The alternative explanation may seem unthinkable to anti-nuclear pundits, but requires a lesser leap of imagination: that the British government has a genuine concern for reducing carbon emissions, stabilizing electricity prices, and reducing gas imports. More importantly, the United Kingdom may see a benefit in maintaining leadership in civilian nuclear power, because there is a global nuclear renaissance, and they don’t want to be left behind.

Calestous Juma Announced as 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award Recipient

Calestous Juma Receives 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award

The Breakthrough Institute has named Calestous Juma the recipient of the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. Professor Juma will accept the prize on stage at the Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California, next June.

The Paradigm Award recognizes accomplishment and leadership in the effort to make the future secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling for all the world’s inhabitants on an ecologically vibrant planet. Past recipients of the award include Mark Lynas, Emma Marris, Jesse Ausubel, Ruth DeFries, and David MacKay.

Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at the Harvard Kennedy School and Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Professor Juma was chosen in recognition of his scholarship and thought leadership in biotechnology and innovation. Of all global impacts on the environment, none has a bigger footprint than food and agriculture, and few scholars are better prepared to discuss and advise our agricultural future. With his acclaimed 2011 book, The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, Juma offered an essential and refreshing look at agriculture in emerging economies. Technology, entrepreneurship, and emerging regional markets, he wrote, would combine to create an economic, social, and environmental revolution in sub-Saharan Africa.

This year, Oxford University Press published Professor Juma’s new book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, which chronicles 600 years of case studies on emerging technologies and the social resistance they ignite. Those familiar with modern discussions around nuclear power, transgenic crops, vaccines, and other controversial technologies have likely experienced frustration with what can seem at times to be regressive opposition to new technologies. But what is fascinating about Juma’s new book is the respect, curiosity, and skill with which he diagnoses these social tensions. In our bitterly divided debates about new technologies, his emergence as a voice of reason, wisdom, and civility is most welcome. Adam Thierer of George Mason University called Innovation and Its Enemies “the best book on technology policy of the past decade." "It takes one of the leading lights on innovation—Calestous Juma—to truly understand the forces that oppose it,” said the Scripps Research Institute’s Eric Topol.

Professor Juma’s ground-breaking research on science and technology has been recognized by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Royal Academy of Engineering. He has been elected to several scientific academies including the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, and the African Academy of Sciences.  He is a former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the founder of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi.

So it is only fitting that Professor Juma will join us for next summer’s Breakthrough Dialogue, the theme of which is “Democracy in the Anthropocene.” In this seventh iteration of the Dialogue, we will confront the question of achieving progress and innovation at a time when many voices are questioning both the benefits of new technologies and the efficacy of the institutions that have historically driven human progress. For ecomodernists, the question becomes not only whether we can overcome these democratic hurdles to progress, but what will be necessary for democratic institutions and civil society to embrace the ongoing processes of modernization and technological change that will be necessary to accelerate the transition to an equitable, modern, low-impact future. (You can read more about our vision for next year’s Dialogue here.)

 

For media inquiries, please contact Alex Trembath, Communications Director at the Breakthrough Institute: alex@thebreakthrough.org.

 

Can Industrial Food Be Part of the Food Movement?

Can Industrial Food Be Part of the Food Movement?

Lusk is an expert on food and agricultural policy and his op-ed presents research directly related to the environmental impacts of farming. The food system he describes produces the vast majority of food, measured in both calories and dollars, to Americans and export markets.

Yet his Times piece reads a bit man-bites-dog. We’re not geared to think of industrial farming in a positive light.

More familiar is Michael Pollan’s latest essay in the New York Times Magazine. Pollan divides America into “Little Food” and “Big Food,” contrasting the “food movement” against “processed,” “packaged,” and “industrial” food. It’s a divide we’ve read about for at least two decades now, since the advent of slow food and the skyrocketing public interest in nutrition, cuisine, and farming.

But thinking about it, it’s unclear why industrial agriculture would be excluded from the food movement. Again, why couldn’t majority of the food eaten in America be part of the “food movement?”

After all, questions of resource use and environmental impact don’t fall neatly into Pollan’s binaries. Organic and conventional agriculture both use pesticides, so which ones do we need to be concerned about? Large farms may use more fossil fuels at the aggregate level, but they also produce more food, so what systems are actually the most efficient on a per-unit basis? Scale has become falsely conflated with impacts.

Commercial farmers who use technology and best practice to grow large amounts of food while minimizing environmental impacts deserve as much (or perhaps more) praise as small-scale farmers producing only for local customers. Unfortunately, we’ve come to see “Big Food’s” impacts as categorically worse precisely because they are, by definition, bigger than the absolute impacts of smaller-scale farming.

UC Berkeley’s David Zilberman put it well last week:

There is a place for both industrial and naturalized agricultural systems. The naturalization paradigm is leading to the emergence of higher-end restaurants and fresh food supply linking the farmer to the consumer, each of which have limited reach but are important source of income and innovation in agriculture. At the same time, the majority of people will be dependent on industrialized agriculture. The two can coexist and coevolve.

As long as we have billions of mouths to feed around the world, we’re going to need lots of land and resources to produce their food. Agricultural systems will necessarily always have environmental impacts. If the “food movement” is about making agriculture as safe and environmentally friendly as possible, Big Food should be able to march alongside Little Food.

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“We Are All Lukewarmists”

So where does that leave us? With an adjusted stance toward future projections and present decarbonizing technologies—the whole suite of them—for one. Some humility is involved in this; both social and technological barriers stand in the way of a zero-carbon future. But there is also room for optimism, says Nordhaus: “A prosperous and equitable world, a low-carbon future, and a manageable and accountable energy system are all possible.” To get there, we’ll need better technologies and fewer feuds—“less heat and more light in our energy and climate politics.”

Many others, from policy pundits to ag wonks to “climate-conscious conservatives,” are warming to new realities and new technologies. We’ve highlighted some of these thinkers and practitioners below, many of whom come bearing ecomodern-ish news.

The Elephant in the Room

James Pethokoukis takes on the “dystopian picture” painted by the Republican presidential candidate and provides an optimistic, and conservative, counterview … Eric Holthaus features the rise of “eco-conservatives”—groups such as RepublicEn and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions—that are attempting to “change the narrative from one of a dire emergency to an opportunity for solving a challenge” … Greg Ip of The Wall Street Journal reviews Washington state’s proposed revenue-neutral carbon tax, which “stands the best chance of appealing to people across the political spectrum” (if only the left would get on board) … William Ruckelshaus and William Reilly, former administrators of the EPA under Republican presidents, defend the Clean Power Plan as an example of “American exceptionalism” …

What’s Nuclear

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s nuclear waste report describes the ongoing federal and regional efforts to resolve “the nuclear waste problem,” concluding that “a new path forward is needed” with consent-based siting … Matt Wald lists developments in Washington and New York, and even the tumultuous presidential campaign, as evidence for nuclear’s bipartisan appeal … According to Michael Scott, the growth of nuclear power in China is well outpacing that of the rest of the world … MZConsulting weighs in on Europe’s future in nuclear, pointing to France, Finland, and the UK as positive examples of new nuclear development …

Fortunately, Unfortunately

Oliver Milman reports for The Guardian on new research indicating that the U.S. will fail to meet its emissions goals with the policies currently in place—which “doesn’t mean we are doomed,” says the study’s lead author Jeffery Greenblatt, but should simply serve further policy action and innovation; New York City, for one, which faces increasing pressure from sea level rise, has laid out its own proposal for mitigation and adaptation … Mike Orcutt highlights the finding that transportation emissions have overtaken those of the electricity sector, largely as a result of the shift in the U.S. from coal to gas … With regard to the transportation sector, fortunately, the Rocky Mountain Institute predicts that electric, shared, and autonomous vehicles are poised to fully disrupt the status quo, writes Chris Mooney; unfortunately, whether or not “peak car” and a cleaner, cheaper future will come to pass depends on a number of factors, including public perception and regulation …

The Machine in the Garden

Jayson Lusk points our attention to some of “the most progressive, technologically savvy growers on the planet”—namely, conventional farmers, whose farms produce the vast amount of food sold in the U.S. on decreasing amounts of land, and whose “technology has helped make them far gentler on the environment than at any time in history” … Andrew Porterfield delves into some of the many questions that currently surround food production, including the notion of “sustainable intensification,” the role of technological innovation and knowledge transfer, and the advantages of conventional farming … Tamar Haspel lays out “eight gloriously wonky ways to improve ag policy” in the wake of complex issues and reductive public perception … Brad Plumer reviews the innovations intended to reduce and capture the methane emissions that stem from from meat production, and specifically from enteric fermentation (i.e., cow belches) … Richard Forman and Jianguo Wu provide a potential complement to the land-sparing approach of Breakthrough’s Nature Unbound, advocating for global and regional urban planning to “maximally sustain farmland and nature” …

Rice and CRISPR Treats

Aneela Mirchandani provides a thorough historical overview of “golden rice” in an effort to address specific misconceptions about the genetically modified product … Sharon Begley and David Dittman cover Monsanto’s licensing of CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technology, which will not be subject to the regulations transgenics face … Pediatrician Emiliano Tatar emphasizes that “after almost 30 years of widespread use (such as corn and soybeans), GM foods have never, even once, been linked to disease or any harm in humans” …

Positively Trending

Nicholas Kristof steps back from the negative narratives to review the remarkable decline in global poverty, illiteracy, and inequality in recent years—a little-discussed trend, he says, that, once recognized, might be accelerated … Tyler Cowen brings social progress and technological advances to bear on present political turmoil … Cassie Werber and Jason Karaian report on the global decoupling of carbon emissions from economic growth, a development most pronounced in the world’s wealthiest countries and “a hopeful sign for the planet—up to a point” …

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Postscript: Prospective Perspectives

Jenny Seifert, self-described “futurist" and science writer for the the Water Sustainability and Climate Project at UW-Madison, discusses the importance of long-term thinking, planning, and storytelling when it comes to climate change and water challenges; “to build a good Anthropocene,” she concludes, “we need just our imagination” … Jeffrey Sachs lays out his own proposal for long-term thinking and planning of decarbonized infrastructure, a challenge that “combines the technological complexity of the moon shot and the organizational complexity of building the Interstate Highway System” … “Dream of Mars, by all means,” The Economist admonishes Elon Musk, on his plan to colonize the planet in the face of Earthly apocalypse, “but do so in a spirit of hope for new life, not fear of death.”

Modern Pope

The Pope and Climate Change

Last year, with Mark Lynas and Michael Shellenberger, I criticized Laudato Si for its apparent rejection of modernity, its skepticism toward technology, and its simplistic posture towards markets. "Laudato Si is very relevant to the emerging ecomodernist movement,” we wrote, "because it makes explicit the asceticism, romanticism and reactionary paternalism inherent in many aspects of traditional environmentalist thinking."

Not so fast, says Dr. Sally Vance-Trembath, a theologian at Santa Clara University. In a new essay for the Breakthrough Journal, Vance-Trembath argues that Francis’s climate encyclical “can only be understood in the context of his broader effort to drag the Church, once and for all, out of its feudal traditions, authoritarian hierarchy, and hostility toward the modern world and into dialogue with the broader human community."

An expert in the papacy and the centuries-long evolution of the Church, Vance-Trembath explains the backdrop behind Francis’s long, complex, sometimes contradictory text. She contrasts Francis to his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II, whom she writes, were committed to an old-world regal, feudal, and paternalistic Church. Fortunately, she observes, Francis follows much more closely the footsteps of John XXIII and Paul VI, who led the 1960s Second Vatican Council to make the Church more egalitarian and progressive.

Vance-Trembath places Laudato Si in the context of this evolution, with all its fits and starts. Above all else, she writes, the text is inductive—an explicit gesture towards a flexible framework and open dialogue over how to solve environmental problems in a practical, human world. 

Flexible as it is, though, Laudato Si certainly has its flaws. “Catholic teaching texts are very often internally inconsistent,” writes Vance-Trembath. As a result, she finds her own faults with the encyclical, particularly Francis’s tendency to unhelpfully diagnose the societal problem of climate change as a personal “moral choice.”

Vance-Trembath is right to celebrate Francis’s rejection of the reactionary papacies of John Paul and Benedict. If the Catholic Church is going continue as a major social force, it must reconcile itself with a modernizing world, a process that Francis has renewed. But if the Church is going to constructively contribute to solving environmental problems, Francis will also have to reconcile the Church’s evolving views about the environment with the scale and complexity of modern social, economic, and technological arrangements. A modernizing church will need to embrace ecological modernization if it is to have much useful to say about our common home.

Democracy in the Anthropocene

Much in recent news corresponds with the questions the Dialogue seeks to confront. What happens, Breakthrough asks, when modernization results in inequity? Or when urbanization, which generally enables socioeconomic advancement, fails to provide opportunity? On the other hand, when the tools of ecological modernization are exactly what we need, both for the environment and for human development—nuclear plants that supply clean, abundant power, for instance, and agricultural advancement that provides crucial increases in yields—how can we engage with various stakeholders in a civic-minded way?

Finally, as these technologies come to the fore of policy discussion, can we ensure that they are applied in a just and democratic manner? How should we assess and implement those advanced technologies that will disrupt our modes of living and understanding?

We look forward to grappling with these questions next June, with our interlocutors, fellow pragmatists, and futurists in attendance. In the meantime, here’s what we’ve been reading to prepare for the conversations to come:

Climate Policy ...

Nate Johnson and Heather Smith discuss the likelihood of California meeting the goals of its “triple-dog-dare legislation” recently passed into law, which will require the state to reduce its emissions to sub-1990 levels by 2030; despite “California’s tradition of feeling smug about how green it is compared to other states,” they write, many, many changes will need to come to pass in order for the state to break from its current trajectory—one that has been derailed, notably, by its rebuff of nuclear … Varun Sivaram of the Council on Foreign Relations cites the failures of Germany’s Energiewende, California’s cap-and-trade system, and global lock-in of clean-energy technologies in outlining the three pitfalls that hamstring “well-intentioned climate policy” … Chris Mooney reviews a report released by the International Energy Agency, which highlights the need for greater investment in nuclear and CCS technologies … David Roberts interviews Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who highlights Mission Innovation and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition on the topic of “cleantech 2.0” …

… and the Political Climate

Amanda Hoover reports on a new poll conducted by the University of Chicago’s Center for Public Affairs Research, which reveals surprising consensus among Americans that the country should play a leadership role on climate change, courting “progress even if other countries do not,” according to center director Trevor Tompson … Carl Cannon discusses the politicization of conservation and energy, directing blame toward not only Republicans and Democrats but also the Sierra Club, all of which seem intent, he says, on coloring the discussion of energy and the environment as a zero-sum game …

Around the World in Eighty Seconds

Fracking, says Bjørn Lomborg in The Telegraph, holds the potential for key emissions reductions in Britain, a conclusion drawn from the U.S.’s coal-to-gas transition … Mayumi Negishi relates the woes of Japan’s renewables sector and quotes Nobuo Tanaka on the importance of revamping the country’s nuclear industry … unfortunately, as Nancy Slater-Thompson reports, nuclear restoration faces arduous regulatory and political obstacles in the wake of Fukushima … Carbon Brief’s new interactive map and timeline place Germany a long way from its emissions reduction goals, due to the nation’s persistent reliance on coal … Tom Morton, meanwhile, writes on “Germany’s dirty little coal secret” … China’s recent release of a plan to double its current nuclear fleet brings to the fore the relative slog of the regulatory process in the U.S., according to Andrew Follett and ClearPath’s Jay Faison … and Stuart Smyth tracks the environmental costs of Australia’s ban on GM canola …

Much Ado About Genetic Engineering

Speaking of, Tyler Cowen asks everyone to simmer down over the proposed Bayer-Monsanto merger, which “is a classic example of how vociferous public debate can disguise or even reverse the true issues at stake”—namely, antitrust law on the one hand and anti-GMO sentiment on the other … less politely, Kavin Senapathy excoriates Vandana Shiva and other anti-GMO parties for their resistance to the efforts of #Nobels4GMOs led by Sir Richard Roberts … Kevin Folta faults the New York State PTA for its misinformed take on genetically engineered food products … on a happier note, Peter Singer’s most recent book contains an essay entitled “A Clear Case for Golden Rice”—a reversal of his former stance on GM crops, according to The Economist’s review … Sarah Zhang takes up the thread on CRISPR food, “an entirely new category of GMOs” without, perhaps, the stigma … Elizabeth Pennisi also features cutting-edge, gene-cutting technologies in a piece in Science on plant engineering pioneer Dan Folta …

Finally, Nuclear!

“Finally—finally!—a leading Democrat has acknowledged that we need nuclear energy,” celebrates Robert Bryce in the National Review, on Hillary Clinton’s recent endorsement of nuclear; our own Jessica Lovering attributes this development to the changing narrative on nuclear since COP21 … National Geographic spotlights Leslie Dewan of Transatomic Power (a company developing an advanced molten salt reactor) in a feature of individuals who “possess the courage and conviction to take on major challenges to improve lives” … James Taylor of the Spark of Freedom Foundation contributes to Forbes on the bipartisan potential for nuclear power (although the singer-songwriter has yet to comment on such “common-ground climate policy”) …

Postscript: Storing nuclear waste, posthaste

This week’s second-to-last word goes to Ernest Moniz, who would like to see the private sector take on nuclear waste storage in order to expedite the interim process prior to geologic disposal, as well as to advance new nuclear projects … Indeed, according to the University of Tennessee’s Stephen Skutnik, the “future of nuclear energy depends on if it’s viewed as trash or a treasure.”

Breakthrough Dialogue 2017 Announced

Breakthrough Dialogue 2016

Breakthrough Dialogue 2016: Great Transformations took place on June 22 – 24, 2016

Inspired by the profound challenges and opportunities afforded by modernization, the theme of Breakthrough Dialogue 2016 is “Great Transformations.” Over the course of the dialogue, we will consider the complex processes of urbanization, agricultural modernization, and industrialization and ask tough questions: Are cities really green?  Can industrial agriculture save nature?  Can countries modernize without manufacturing?  Can we end poverty and unleash more abundant nature in this century?

2016 marks the sixth year in which the Dialogue has offered scholars, journalists, philanthropists, policymakers, and friends the opportunity to come together to engage with the Breakthrough Institute in conversation about the world’s most wicked problems.

The Dialogue is presented in service of Breakthrough’s mission to transition to a future where all the world’s inhabitants can lead prosperous lives on an ecologically vibrant planet. It has become a hub for the  burgeoning ecomodernist movement, offering a positive vision that includes thriving cities, more space for wild nature, and a future in which everyone in what is now the developing world can choose to live a modern life.

The Dialogue program will consist of four panels on the main stage and three sets of concurrent sessions that allow for more focused discussions.  There will be  opportunities to interact in all the sessions as well as time for individual and small group conversations as we share meals and free time in the beautiful setting at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, California.

Breakthrough Paradigm Award 2015: David MacKay

Economist editor Oliver Morton honors David MacKay.

Plenary Sessions

Progress Problems

Humans have made extraordinary progress over the last several centuries. Increasing numbers of people, in both absolute and percentage terms, live longer and have reliable access to basic needs like food, primary education, and health care. In wealthy countries, people are able to focus on higher-level needs, like what to do, who to be, and who to love. Simultaneously, there are billions of people in poorer countries still striving to live the sorts of modern lives we enjoy. So why are so many of the richest and most privileged people on earth, despite reaping such extraordinary benefits,  convinced that progress is a mirage and modernity must inevitably end badly? What does modernization actually mean today for poor families as they leave subsistence agrarian livelihoods and move to cities? And what are the consequences for them of declining faith in progress in the rich world?

  • Max Roser, data-visualization historian and economist
  • Lydia Powell, head, Centre for Resources Management, Observer Research Foundation
  • Dan Kahan, professor of law and professor of psychology, Yale University
  • Moderator: Ted Nordhaus, director of research and cofounder, Breakthrough Institute

 

Is Industrialization Still Possible in the 21st Century?

We know that traditional modernization “worked” for the rich countries of the world: incomes are much higher, infrastructure is much more reliable, and social indicators like public health, education, and well-being show the undeniable benefits of modernity. But are the processes that drove modernization in the past -- urbanization, agricultural intensification, and industrialization -- available to developing countries today? Prominent scholars have argued that the blue-collar manufacturing jobs that powered 19th and 20th century industrialization will not materialize for the world’s poor today, thanks to globalization and automation. There is also disagreement over the role of governance and industrial policy. Can emerging economies follow the rich world’s path, and if not, is there some other road to modernity?

  • Michael Lind, cofounder and cofellow at the New America Foundation
  • Samir Saran, vice president of the Observer Research Foundation
  • Vijaya Ramachandran, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development
  • Moderator: Eduardo Porter, journalist, the New York Times

 

Is Peak Farmland in Sight?

Improved yields in agriculture have spared tens of millions of hectares of natural habitat from conversion to farmland over the last 50 years, and the expansion of farmland has slowed down in the last two decades. Do we have the technological capacity to reach peak farmland in the next few decades? Even if we do, will the peaking of global farmland be accompanied by a shift of agricultural production to the tropics, with potentially devastating consequences for tropical forests, which harbor a huge proportion of global biodiversity? What will it take to intensify agricultural production globally while ensuring that we protect critical tropical habitat? 

  • Kenneth Cassman, professor of agronomy and horticulture, University of Nebraska
  • Nathalie Walker, senior manager of the tropical forest & agriculture project, National Wildlife Federation
  • David Douglas, partner at Applied Invention
  • Moderator: Linus Blomqvist, director of conservation, Breakthrough Institute

 

Ecomodernism In Action

In some ways, just a year removed from the release of ‘An Ecomodernist Manifesto,' the work of ecomodernism has just begun. But efforts to uplift humanity and use technology to spare nature have been around for generations. For the final plenary session of this Dialogue, Breakthrough cofounder and president of Environmental Progress Michael Shellenberger will interview several inspiring experts and activists working to improve their communities through ecomodernist approaches and technologies. Panelists include a professor who has studied how liquid petroleum gas (LPG) helped save the forests in Indonesia, an expert in Indian development and modernization, a physicist building a bridge between nuclear innovation in the United States and China, and two “mothers for nuclear power” marching to save Diablo Canyon and other threatened nuclear plants in the United States.

  • Heather Matteson, Procedure Writer, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant, Mothers for Nuclear
  • Kristin Zaitz, Senior Consulting Engineer, Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plan, Mothers for Nuclear
  • Sunil Nautiyal, Professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change
  • Ning Li, Dean and Professor, Xiamen University
  • Sunjoy Joshi, Director, Observer Research Foundation
  • Moderator: Michael Shellenberger, senior fellow, Breakthrough Institute

 

Concurrent Session Topics:

Thursday Morning

Ecomodernism and the Left

Much of the substance of ecomodernism rejects sacrosanct convictions held by the modern Left: ecomodernism’s preference for more energy, not less; an appreciation of progress, accomplished not by corrupt crony capitalists but through public-private partnerships; and an enthusiasm for symbolic liberal bugaboos like nuclear power and GMOs. These distinctions being the case, what does ecomodernism share with the Left? Is ecomodernism something entirely new — an “up-winger” movement as opposed to a left-winger one, for instance — or do the political and intellectual traditions of the left still matter for ecomodernism? 

  • Rasmus Karlsson, associate professor, Political Science Department, Umeå University
  • Leigh Phillips, science writer, Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, University of Victoria
  • Amy Levy, activist, An Ecomodernist Mom
  • Moderator: Alex Trembath, communications director, Breakthrough Institute

The Future of Meat

Livestock are responsible for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions and take up a quarter of the world’s land area. Meanwhile, meat consumption is on the rise in developing countries as people grow wealthier. What agricultural practices and new technologies can help reduce the environmental impacts of meat production? Are cultured meats or genetically-engineered animals part of the solution?

How to Make Nuclear Innovative


While the first GenIII+ nuclear reactors in the world come online this year in China, most energy experts agree that innovation isn’t happening fast enough in nuclear power. The old state-led, top-down nuclear innovation model may still be relevant in some places, such as China and Russia, but is unlikely to represent a plausible route forward in the United States given the present political, economic, and institutional climate. The alternative is to move toward a more distributed, networked, and bottom-up innovation model in the nuclear sector. This panel will discuss what’s required to get us there: a range of new policies and institutional changes beyond the initial, and very important, measures we are currently advocating.

  • Todd Allen, senior visiting fellow, Third Way
  • Caroline Cochran, cofounder and COO, Oklo, Inc.
  • Joe Lassiter, senior fellow, Harvard Business School
  • Sam Brinton, senior policy analyst, Bipartisan Policy Center
  • Jessica Lovering, energy director, Breakthrough Institute

Geoengineering the Planet

Geoengineering sits uncomfortably within ecomodernism. On the one hand, it offers a (at least partial) technological solution to an environmental problem. On the other hand, it inserts humanity deeply and perhaps irrevocably into natural systems. How should ecomodernism consider geoengineering? And most concretely, is geoengineering best thought of as an emergency “last-ditch” response to global climate change, or as a more regular and less severe tool to be deployed along with mitigation and adaptation?

  • Oliver Morton, author, The Planet Remade and special briefings editor, The Economist
  • Jane Long, senior fellow, Breakthrough Institute
  • Moderator: Brad Plumer, senior editor, Vox

Thursday Afternoon

Energy sprawl: can we have low-footprint decarbonization?

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are low-carbon, but they require more land area than fossil fuels. Scaling these sources up to the level needed for serious decarbonization could have major land-use consequences. What trade-offs are we willing to accept between conservation and clean energy? How can we encourage policy-makers to prioritize low-footprint technologies?

  • Rebecca Hernandez, assistant professor of land, air and water resources, University of California, Davis
  • Robert Bryce, senior fellow, Manhattan Institute
  • Janine Blaeloch, founder and director, Western Lands Project
  • Steve Brick, senior fellow, Clean Air Task Force
  • Moderator: Marian Swain, conservation analyst, Breakthrough Institute

Can Conservatives Get Back in the Environmental Game?

Conservatives and liberals compete over the best education agenda — why don’t they compete over the best environmental one? As the movement of reform conservatives builds up steam, some of the country’s leading conservative thinkers will discuss what conservatives should be for — not just against — when it comes to protecting the environment and saving nature.

  • Steve Hayward, professor of public policy, Pepperdine University
  • Reihan Salam, executive editor, National Review
  • Julie Kelly, food policy writer
  • Jeremy Carl, Research Fellow, Hoover Institute, Stanford University

Ecomodern Education

What does it mean to say that ecomodernist thought should be a part of modern American environmental education? This session will serve as a shared space to brainstorm a new open-minded pedagogical framework. How is ecomodernism situated amongst other contemporary approaches in environmental thought, and how may its points of convergence and divergence be most fruitfully explored in educational settings, given that these contemporary approaches have not yet gained a solid foothold in U.S. environmental education?  What products and processes of engagement will be most effective at leveraging ecomodernism into an open-minded and productive environmental education framework, and what tools and materials do academics need the most?

  • Jenn Bernstein, PhD candidate at Hawaii Pacific University, lecturer at UC Santa Barbara
  • Jim Proctor, professor of environmental studies, Lewis and Clark College
  • Eric Kennedy, PhD candidate at CSPO, Arizona State University

Wilderness in the Anthropocene

Wilderness has long been a cornerstone of American conservation ethics. But in recent years, this ideal has been put into question by the concept of the Anthropocene – a world where no ecosystem escapes human influence. Can “wild" be divorced from “pristine,” and thus still be relevant at a time when baselines are elusive and many ecosystems are novel? Should conservationists always intervene to save endangered populations and species, or should some ecosystems be left entirely to their own devices? If interventions are made, can these places still be considered wild? And does a focus on remote, wild places detract from nature closer to the cities where most people live?

Friday morning

The New Countryside: Evolving Livelihoods and Landscapes in Latin America

We all know that cities are dynamic and fast growing. But rural areas and livelihoods, particularly in developing countries, are rapidly evolving too – with big and often unexpected consequences for both human development and conservation. This “agrarian transition,” whereby livelihoods are becoming de-linked from farming and the land, is far from a linear process. Migration between rural areas and cities goes both ways; people who remain in the countryside often rely largely on non-farm employment; and remittances from abroad create new livelihood opportunities. In the process, forests are regrowing on abandoned farmland in many regions, while intensive agriculture to feed growing cities is expanding elsewhere. What do these new dynamics mean for conservation and for poverty alleviation? Hear leading scholars discuss how the agrarian transition is playing out in Latin America, and how societies can deal with the new perils and opportunities it presents.

  • Ricardo Grau, professor, Universidad Nacional de Tucumán
  • David Lansing, associate professor of geography, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
  • Susanna Hecht, geographer and professor of urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles
  • Moderator: Linus Blomqvist, director of conservation, Breakthrough Institute

Normalizing Nuclear Risk

Accidents are inevitable — and perhaps so are nuclear meltdowns. The worst effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima were all psychological. Instead of doing “shelter in place,” nuclear radiation panic in Japan resulted in an unnecessarily large evacuation that resulted in injury and death. People around Chernobyl suffered from depression and related problems including alcoholism. What can be done so humans can have a more accurate view of radiation and meltdown risk? What preparations must be made today to prepare for future accidents including in foreign nations?

  • Dan Kahan, professor of law and professor of psychology, Yale University
  • Dr. Gerry Thomas, professor of molecular pathology, Imperial College London
  • Woody Epstein, research associate, Garrick Institute for the Risk Sciences, UCLA Engineering
  • Moderator: Jessica Lovering, director of energy, Breakthrough Insitute

Amazing Grace: Ecomodernism and Religion   

A number of prominent thinkers have observed that environmentalism is the religion of western secular elites; in the striking imageryof French Philosopher Pascal Bruckner, environmentalism places the Earth on the cross, dying for humanity's sins. Pope Francis'2015 Encyclical, Laudato Si', absorbs and reflects some of this thinking, focusing not just on modernity's threat to the planet, but also to the global poor. In this session, scholars from different faith traditions will be in dialogue about ecomodernism's radically divergent proposition, that modernity and technological innovation can actually be good for people and nature.  What does religion have to say about ecomodernism, and how might ecomodernism inform faith?

  • Sally Vance Trembath, professor of theology, Santa Clara University
  • Sam Brinton, senior policy analyst, Bipartisan Policy Center
  • Iddo Wernick, Research Associate, Program for Human Environment

Breakthrough Dialogue 2017 Announced: Democracy in the Anthropocene

Breakthrough Institute is excited to announce that the 2017 Breakthrough Dialogue will take place Wednesday, June 21, through Friday, June 23, at Cavallo Point in Sausalito, California. Breakthrough Dialogue is the research organization’s signature annual event, where its international network of Senior Fellows, Generation Fellows, scholars, policy makers, and allies gather to build an optimistic and pragmatic vision of the future. The theme of this year’s event is “Democracy in the Anthropocene.”

Democracy in the Anthropocene

In a world in which humans have become the dominant ecological force on the planet, good outcomes for people and the environment increasingly depend upon the decisions we collectively make. How we grow food, produce energy, utilize natural resources, and organize human settlements and economic enterprises will largely determine what kind of planet we leave to future generations. Depending upon those many decisions, the future earth could be hotter or cooler; host more or less biodiversity; be more or less urbanized, connected, and cosmopolitan; and be characterized by vast tracts of wild lands, where human influences are limited, or virtually none at all.

If the promise of the Anthropocene is, to paraphrase Stewart Brand’s famous coinage, that “we are as gods,” and might get good at it, the risk is that we are not very good at it and might be getting worse. A “Good Anthropocene” will require foresight, planning, and well-managed institutions. But what happens when the planners and institutions lose their social license? When utopian civil society ideals conflict with practical measures needed to assure better outcomes for people and the environment? When the large-scale and long-term social and economic transformations associated with ecological modernization fail to accommodate the losers in those processes in a just and equitable manner?

If the enormous global ecological challenges that human societies face today profoundly challenge small-is-beautiful, soft energy, and romantic agrarian environmentalism, the checkered history of top-down technocratic modernization challenges its ecomodern alternative. It is easy enough to advocate that everybody live in cities, much harder to achieve that transition in fair and non-coercive fashion. Nuclear energy has mostly been successfully deployed by state fiat. It is less clear that it can succeed in a world that has increasingly liberalized economically and decentralized politically. Global conservation efforts have become expert at mapping biodiversity hotspots but still struggle to reconcile global conservation objectives with local priorities, diverse stakeholders, and development imperatives in poor economies. Rich-world prejudices about food and agricultural systems, meanwhile, frequently undermine agricultural modernization in the poor world.

Where contemporary environmentalism was borne of civil society reaction to the unintended consequences of industrialization and modernity, the great environmental accomplishments of modernity—the Green Revolution, the development and deployment of a global nuclear energy fleet, the rewilding and reforestation of vast areas thanks to energy transitions, and rising agricultural productivity—proceeded either out of view or over the objections of civil society environmental discourse. Today, the Green Revolution, nuclear energy, and the transition from biomass to fossil energy are broadly viewed as ecological disasters in many quarters, despite their not insignificant environmental benefits.

This year at the Breakthrough Dialogue, we tackle those questions head-on. Attitudes towards urbanization, nuclear energy, GMOs, and agricultural modernization are beginning to shift, as the magnitude of change needed to reconcile ecological concerns with global development imperatives has begun to come fully into view. Can a Good Anthropocene be achieved in bottom-up, decentralized fashion? Can there be a robust and vocal civil society constituency for ecomodernization? What should we do when not everyone wants to be modern, and what is to be done when political identities and ideological commitments trump facts on the ground? If it turns out, in short, that we’re not very good at being gods, is it possible to get better at it? 

Science and Politics

Ecomodernism is, of course, built on a similar premise — that a wise embrace of technology is essential for social and environmental progress.

With this orientation in mind, here’s what we’ve been reading these past few weeks:

Hello, Anthropocene

David Biello, the science curator for TED, explores the implications of the Anthropocene, noting that its christening reminds us that we “can choose to do better” … Alexa Erickson and Shreya Dasgupta highlight the recent finding, by a research group led by the Wildlife Conservation Society, that environmental impact has decoupled from economic growth … Johan Norberg reminds us of the progress the world continues to undergo — that “as we become richer, we have become cleaner and greener” … Brad Plumer interviews John Fleck on his new book Water Is for Fighting Over, which emphasizes adaptation in the face of scarcity, and optimism over fearmongering …

Wilderness and Wildlife

Lorraine Boissoneault, writing for The Atlantic, discusses new research on the surprising level of species diversity found at high elevations, and what such a finding might mean for the scientific “puzzle of biodiversity” and related conservation efforts … Chelsea Harvey of The Washington Post, Christina Beck of The Christian Science Monitor, and Brad Plumer of Vox each discuss a new study indicating that 10 percent of global wilderness has been lost since the early 1990s; Plumer, for one, points to substitution and land-sparing as detailed in Breakthrough’s “Nature Unbound” for potential solutions … John Vidal underscores the failures of protected areas, which are “not working for people or for wildlife,” displacing indigenous groups and missing conservation targets …

Agro-Talk

Cornell professors David Just and Harry Kaiser outline the environmental and societal benefits offered by GMOs, and warn that opposition to GM foods will hinder essential agricultural research and development … Miriam Horn draws from her recent book Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland to illuminate the many benefits of industrial farming and precision agriculture, pointing out that “high-yield farms, like cities, concentrate” human impact … Pallava Bagla reports for Science on the slow advance of India’s first potential transgenic food crop, GM mustard, which has passed the environment ministry’s initial safety review … Julian Adams, professor of biology at the University of Michigan, tells CNBC that such GM crops will serve to combat both hunger and global warming … Jon Cohen describes a potential first: a meal featuring a CRISPR-modified plant … Will Chu, of Food Navigator, covers the research behind the greater salt tolerance, and thus higher yields, of genetically engineered barley …

Nuclear Discussions

Writing for The Guardian, Debbie Carlson relates the conversations surrounding nuclear’s zero-emission capacity and New York’s new subsidy program, while Fiona Harvey quotes economist Jeffrey Sachs on the need for nuclear … Lauri Virkkunen speaks to the successes of the “Nordic way with nuclear,” including those of reliable operation and waste management, and concludes that “pragmatism is the key” … Stephen Tindale and Suzanna Hinson respond to a recent study correlating pro-nuclear tendencies with emissions reduction failures in the EU; the study’s authors, they find, gloss over essential differences among countries and conflate the promotion of renewables with emissions reductions … Stephen Castle reports for the New York Times on Britain’s Hinkley Point nuclear power plant, which has received governmental go-ahead … Nuclear Energy Institute releases a piece centered on the benefits of nuclear, and particularly advanced nuclear … Reuters reports on a recent nuclear development deal between South Korea and Kenya, which hopes to ramp up to 4,000 megawatts of nuclear power by 2033 … Arthur Motta of Penn State argues for a U.S. energy policy that would credit nuclear plants for the clean, reliable, and stable power they provide …

Postscript: Post-Truth Politics?

The Economist poses the problem of “post-truth politics” and gestures toward the democratic institutions designed to protect against it … James Fallows reviews Mark Thompson’s recent book on rhetoric and politics, an adequate contribution, he finds, to “the continuing debates about ‘bias’ and ‘objectivity,’ the separation of the public into distinct fact universes,” and “the imperiled concept of ‘truth’” … The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore outlines the historical decline of political debate … A statement signed by 177 European civil society organizations and led by the WWF articulates the need for “genuine, democratic and inclusive dialogue on the future of Europe” … Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson of the Harvard Kennedy School propose that the next U.S. presidential administration employ a council of historians, uniquely equipped to handle questions such as “perhaps the biggest one of all: Is the U.S. in decline?” … and Roger Pielke, Jr. counters, observing the need for integrated political decision-making but discounting the efficacy of “philosopher kings and queens.”

A Desert Stand-Off

When it comes to energy and the environment, there is no free lunch. All energy technologies have environmental impacts. Having an honest conversation about the trade-offs associated with the state’s renewable energy commitments and its nuclear energy moratorium will be necessary if we hope to meet the state’s climate commitments while minimizing associated impacts on the natural environment.

This week, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the final approval of the plan. Suffice it to say, the Secretary’s announcement will not assuage the tension between two environmental interests that have found themselves increasingly at odds in the Golden State: clean energy development and land conservation.

The DRECP represents a grudging compromise between the two camps. Nearly 11 million acres of public land are covered by the plan, about 400,000 acres of which are set aside for potential renewable energy development.

California prides itself as a leader in tackling climate change, with a target of 50% renewable energy by 2030, up from 30% today. But the question of where those renewable energy projects will go has brought developers into conflict with conservationists. Renewable energy development in the Mojave has already disturbed important habitat for endangered species like the desert tortoise, and conservationists object to the idea of industrializing natural landscapes with infrastructure projects.

Neither conservationists nor energy developers seem totally content with the finalized plan, but the wind and solar industries are expressing more indignance. They condemned the plan in a press release on Wednesday, arguing that much of the land is not suitable for energy development and that the limitations could “hamstring” the state’s ability to meet its climate goals. A statement from Nancy Rader, executive director of the California Wind Energy Association, summarized the problem succinctly: “No one is saying that utility-scale renewable energy should go everywhere, but done responsibly and with safeguards, it does have to go somewhere if we are to meet state, national, and global carbon-reduction goals.”

As Ted and I argued in the Chronicle last year, overhauling an electricity system is not a small project, and even with widespread public support for renewable energy, it is clear that new land use demands are creating uncomfortable trade-offs. Land-neutral options like rooftop solar offer a way around this conflict, as does siting projects on previously developed and degraded land. But there are technical and economic limits to both of these, which is why industry associations are pushing for utility-scale projects in high-resource areas in the desert. We also pointed out that California is only making its job harder by shutting down its last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, which provides 22% of the state’s zero-carbon electricity.

Two of Breakthrough’s core goals are sparing more land for nature and decarbonizing the energy sector. Although the DRECP is an attempt at compromise, it also reveals the limits of the conservation-decarbonization tradeoff. After all, California has already come up against conservation obstacles to its renewable energy goals with only a handful of large solar plants. Contrast that with one proposed plan to build thousands of solar farms in California’s deserts, which would require more than double the amount of land set aside in the DRECP.  

Our ongoing research is focused on how to reconcile decarbonization and land use - stay tuned for a forthcoming paper on this subject.

Twenty-First Century Nuclear Innovation

Twenty-First Century Nuclear Innovation

Until very recently, there wasn’t agreement on the end goal for tackling climate change. Different camps have used different yardsticks for measuring: renewable growth, emission caps, temperature limits, you name it … But these frameworks haven’t been robust enough to bring everyone together and move a solution forward.

And just within the past six months, after decades of negotiation and deliberation, we know what the framework must be. It must be deep decarbonization. It’s technology agnostic. And the timing is urgent.

As a venture capitalist I’m always looking for challenges that are ripe for technology-driven disruption. Climate change—as much as it’s a scientific and political challenge—is also a technology and business challenge. It is a particular business challenge because most people think it will cost us money. In fact, decarbonizing does not cost more money, if you look at the problem correctly.

You all are going to play a big role in solving climate change. And in fact, even reverse it in due course. This situation presents an enormous opportunity for all of us to work together and deploy real solutions to save the world.

Roadmap of Today’s Talk

I am going to talk about three things today:

(1) Climate change and the challenge posed by the imminent retirement of the existing U.S. nuclear fleet. There is an urgent need for clean energy solutions.  

(2) I’m going to talk about my lessons as a venture capitalist. How applying Silicon Valley methods to nuclear innovation is a new way forward. NASA faced a similar inflection point when the government turned to the private sector for smart, fast, cost-effective innovation. And it succeeded. A unique private/public partnership was formed and the private space industry was born.

(3) I’m going to talk about the innovation that is taking place right now. The need for leadership in supporting the new way forward. For nuclear to play a role in this climate crisis, as a country we must do all we can to support the budding new nuclear industry.  

Climate Change

It’s clear that we need MAJOR advances in every form of clean energy technology RIGHT NOW, to meet our climate commitments here in the U.S. and globally. Deep decarbonization is the watchword. It requires an “all of the above” mobilization.

Time is now our enemy in addressing climate change. Most of the experts and their models suggest that unless we truly make progress in the next 10 to 15 years, we will be unable to keep our multinational agreed goal of limiting Earth heating to two degrees Celsius.

And in light of climate change concerns, you all know that we’re at risk of losing nearly half of our nuclear fleet in the next 20 years.  

Just recently we lost Fort Calhoun and now Diablo Canyon, making a total of 8 plants in recent times—approximately 10 gigawatts of carbon-free electricity leaving the U.S. grid.

This is a HUGE loss of the U.S. carbon-free electricity production—we’re talking upwards of 30 percent of the total U.S. carbon-free electricity production going offline!

Not losing more nuclear plants is essential to avoid backsliding on our climate commitments right out of the gate.

Therefore, we must be pushing for new, advanced reactors with competitive economics, so we and the world have options ready to go to replace these plants when the current fleet does eventually retire, and to fill global market needs for electricity with U.S. technologies. This is a perfect economic opportunity for the United States, with a huge humanitarian impact of bringing 2 billion people out of energy poverty, and stopping climate change in its tracks.

This cannot be done in a vacuum. No one company, one country, one industry can pull this off. It will take a partnership of the federal government and the private sector to do this. We need new creative strategies for how federal programs interact and support the budding private nuclear sector in meeting climate goals.

I believe this can be achieved with nuclear innovation and venture capital.

But before I explain how we can do this, let me provide some background on my experience as a venture capitalist and how I apply a lifetime of venture wisdom to new nuclear innovation.  

I am a venture capitalist, before that a start-up entrepreneur, and before that a nuclear engineer.  I have invested in over 70 startup companies over the last 28 years, all at their earliest stages, often just an idea.

I know it’s rather bold, but I claim that the three greatest American inventions in the latter half of the 20th century are:

The startup ecosystem and company.

Professional venture capital.

And nuclear power. Well, I suppose the transistor is probably the greatest invention, but it doesn’t work without electricity!

Sometime I pinch myself when I see this pattern but I believe that all three of these enormous inventions have come together, and are ready to attack climate change.

Why do I say this?

I have witnessed and assisted ambitious, dedicated entrepreneurs make things happen on time scales that are short, with dollars that are few—and yet have an enormous impact that touch each of our lives. This is very exciting. These entrepreneurs were backed by venture capital. Venture capitalists are people who believe in change and are willing to risk all their money to enable great things to come to market.

I have personally participated and observed whole industries created, and others completely transformed, with venture-capital-backed companies.

As to climate change, nuclear power is simply the fastest path to large-scale, zero-carbon production of power for everyone. I say this not to exclude solar, wind, and other zero-carbon sources, but in terms of scale and impact—nuclear can’t be beat.

I cannot think of a more powerful solution to stop climate change in its tracks than these three capabilities combining forces.

Want proof? Results do matter, so let me give you a few stats.

Venture Capital Results

If you were to sum up all the revenue from all the venture-backed companies in the last 60 years, you’d find that their output represents 20 percent of the U.S. GDP, or $3.4 trillion.

You know these companies. They are Uber, Hewlett Packard, Apple, Intel, Cisco, Starbucks, Federal Express, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Facebook, Genentech, Amgen, Genetics Institute, and many, many, many more. The whole biotech industry was created by venture-capital-backed entrepreneurs.

Further, these same companies account for 11 percent of all the non-government jobs in the United States. 11 percent is about 12 million jobs.

While these statistics are incredibly impressive, the one statistic that really impresses people is that all of these results happened with an investment of 0.5 percent of all the private capital available in the United States—ONE HALF OF ONE PERCENT. That’s a sliver of the capital available in our economy.

These results are a true testament to the commitment of the innovator and the power of innovation in the American economy. It was true sixty years ago, and it’s true today.

The Silicon Valley Innovation Model

The Silicon Valley was born just after World War II. The idea of combining innovation with funding to develop new capabilities such as microwaves, semiconductors, and ultimately microcomputers was well on its way in the 1950s in Northern California, and Boston, too. In 1948, Shockley and others perfected the transistor at Bell Labs. In 1956, Shockley moved back to Palo Alto to take care of his ailing mother and opened Shockley Labs in Mountain View. Soon thereafter, the semiconductor industry was born with Fairchild in 1957 and Intel in 1969. This put the silicon in the Santa Clara Valley. In the 1970s came personal computing with Apple in 1977 and many, many others. It wasn’t until 1982 when National Geographic coined the term, Silicon Valley. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over the decades the Silicon Valley has perfected the innovation cycle of entrepreneurs and venture capital. It’s a complex system of people, innovation, education, inspiration, and forgiveness. However, today, THE VALLEY runs on two simple yet very powerful principles.

These are:

(1) Many shots on goal. And …

(2) Fast, fast, fast.

Let me explain.

“Many shots on goal” is a term borrowed from hockey’s Wayne Gretzky. The thought is: if you don’t shoot, you don’t score.

Therefore, the more you shoot, the more you increase your chances of scoring.

Makes perfect sense. Right?

In the Valley, every idea, good or bad, is copied 20 times over and sometimes in the matter of a year or so.

Twenty copies of the same idea is a lot of shots on goal and a lot of competition emerges.

This is actually a very healthy thing. It allows THE MARKET to see choices and make decisions about what matters.

Also, with 20 companies working on the same problem at the same time, you get a lot of competitive juices flowing, lots of unanticipated sharing, and lots of innovation. Facebook wasn’t the first social media company. Intel wasn’t the first semiconductor company. And Apple wasn’t the first personal computer company. They just happened to build it best on the shoulders of others, and the market liked it.

The second principle of moving fast cannot be understated.

In a market where ideas are copied quickly, the best competitive advantage is speed. Invention and patents are important in rich technical markets, but not all.

And being first means you have to learn fast and innovate even more quickly.

Since everyone knows this in Silicon Valley, it is completely normal to be asked to work long hours, work smartly, and to borrow ideas from each other, thereby reducing the number of mistakes.

It’s about solving very hard problems, as fast as possible, with as little resources as necessary and as little of time as practical.

This is today’s Silicon Valley. Honed over decades, hailed as a great economic engine, and where new things happen every day. But not everything.

With my venture experience in hand, and the rise of climate change as a global issue, I and others decided to begin a campaign to change how we do nuclear in the United States. Our beginning was making the documentary Pandora’s Promise in 2012. A movie—who’s seen it? Thank you. About 2 million people have seen it so far.

Then what? It became very clear to us all that the broader nuclear energy community—led by industry and supported by the federal government—needs to change. It needs to do what the Silicon Valley has done so well.

First, it needed to start taking many shots on goal.

For 38 years since Three Mile Island, not many new reactors have been designed or even tested. The reactors that were built were very much standard and incremental to the existing fleet. And as such, they became more and more expensive over time, not cheaper. In the world of nuclear power, over decades the innovation cycle morphed to one of government top-down decision-making and no real risk-taking. Top-down decision-making is not an innovative system. And today’s reactor plants are just too expensive. Too expensive.

But folks, the landscape is shifting and this shift is being led by entrepreneurs—entrepreneurs who are passionate about solving the climate-change problem with nuclear energy. Tapping this passion is our country’s opportunity.

People say change is hard. In my world change is opportunity. And right now it’s staring new nuclear right in the face. But we need public support that allows innovators to capitalize on that opportunity. Currently, I don’t believe we have that support needed for complete success, but it is improving. More can and must be done. Oddly, and fortunately, we have been here before in other industries.

Other federal agencies and programs have evolved to capitalize on opportunities presented by changing conditions—and they’ve done this by enabling private sector innovators to blossom.

The NASA Example

NASA faced a similar situation in the early 2000s.

The space shuttles that moved people and cargo to the International Space Station were set to retire in 2011.

Not to mention—the shuttle program was more expensive than NASA thought, the shuttles were flying less than they’d planned, and there were two BIG accidents resulting in death of people—Challenger and Columbia. Sound familiar?

So they were in a similar position on a lot of levels. Actually, given the stellar safety record of the U.S. nuclear industry, NASA’s position was a lot more difficult.

Then, in 2004, the White House announced a major paradigm shift in NASA’s mission.

President Bush basically said to NASA and to industry, we need you to support the development of a vibrant commercial space flight sector—and we’ll work with you to build it from the ground up.

To stimulate early interest, NASA funded many projects at relatively low amounts of capital. This sent a very clear message to the private sector where NASA thought to invest its time in innovation, and frankly what was possible. As a result, a fledgling private space industry was born. NASA was suddenly enabling many shots on goal.

As the companies demonstrated success—as defined by clear technology readiness levels and additional funding—the private capital market began to sort out the winners by providing more private capital to its chosen ones.

The government’s role shifted from one of top-down technology design and selection, to that of a customer. NASA began letting contracts to these innovative companies, thereby also participating in market selection of the best solutions. NASA was moving decisively … and FAST.

In parallel to this staged funding, NASA laid the groundwork for a modernized regulatory system—including a certification program, engineering standards, testing, and analyses for these companies’ products.

By enabling the private sector, NASA leveraged its limited resources but considerable experience, revitalized its programs and got the spaceships it needed—and in doing so it created a thriving world-class private space industry.  

Ten years down the road, NASA has succeeded. America has succeeded. Again.

So, now it is possible to design, build, and launch a reusable spacecraft in four years—and actually deliver cargo to the ISS—all from the ground up—IN SEVEN YEARS. While most people know Boeing and SpaceX, few know that today at the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, there are over 25 companies backed by over $3 billion private dollars working on space flight including space tourism.

New Nuclear Day Is Here

I’d argue the new nuclear industry is further along than NASA was when it began its transition. But we have to push hard and work fast.

In 2014 our little group started talking to the White House, the DOE, senators, congressmen, and the NRC. Any good argument needs evidence. So we set out to discover who was doing nuclear. I was personally invested in two, and knew of a few more. But just how many were there? We discovered that in North America, there are over 50 organizations working on new nuclear—this data was amazingly compelling. And folks, these companies are already backed by nearly $1.6 billion in private capital!

The DOE was so skeptical with this claim that in early 2015 they asked me to assemble some of the funders, many of them billionaires, to come to Washington to talk about this. After I stopped laughing, I suggested a conference call. And in March 2015, we had six billionaires and venture capitalists talking to the head of DOE-NE about why they are doing what they are doing. That call changed everything.

Disruption and Innovation: Recommendations

So HOW do we achieve the same type of paradigm shift NASA’s been able to make? I think we need four things to happen. First, leadership from the very top. Second, private-public partnerships with the incredible DOE national labs. Third, a modernized and more flexible regulatory regime. And fourth, a staged funding mechanism at the federal level that can help drive these technologies forward.

Leadership

It will take change at the top levels of the administration—and it’s got to be done in a way that is embraced all the way down to each of the facilities and every person working on nuclear energy on a daily basis.

And this starts by making nuclear energy a national priority to meet our climate and energy needs—and explicitly setting the goal for deployment and commercialization of advanced reactors.

The beginning of the new NASA program was marked with a speech by then president George W. Bush, where he addressed the nation on the importance of space research.

When the president stands up and says, look, we’re doing this—that puts force and urgency on the agenda within the agencies and with the public.

We asked the White House to make a speech … But no speech resulted. But we got an unequivocal support at COP 21 with strong U.S. presence and leadership.

That said, the most recent DOE draft vision and strategy report for nuclear energy is actually a fantastic document—it is the best one I’ve read in a long time.

It sets a goal of licensing two non-Light Water Reactors by 2030.

This is the right idea, but let me be clear: It must be and it can be done even faster if we are to have any chance against climate change—and a clear White House endorsement sure would help light that fire.

The math suggests that we’re going to need to be already deploying a range of clean technologies including new nuclear technologies starting in 2030 if we want to stay on target to meet our climate goals by 2050.

That means our first deployments have to come earlier—we’re talking 2025, fully commercialized and ready to go. Bold goals indeed that need to be expressed.

China is planning to deploy advanced reactors in 2018, so clearly this is less of a technology barrier than just a decision to do it.

The NASA experience shows THAT THIS IS POSSIBLE—but getting there will require a new level of leadership and commitment from the next administration.

Private-Public Partnerships with the National Labs

We need to start structuring our federal R&D programs so that they are goal-oriented—aimed at commercializing technologies. For the labs, this means opening their doors, figuring out what the private innovators need, and helping them get it.

The DOE has the best labs in the world. Historically and largely today, the labs set their research agendas and get their funding. If that aligns with industry needs, great. If not, oh well. Don’t get me wrong—research is essential. But it needs more focus.

What I’m advocating for is the opposite—a bottom-up approach where labs listen to industry first, and then the two groups coordinate and plan how lab resources can most effectively meet innovation industry needs. An aligned partnership driven by entrepreneurs. I’m not suggesting we stop our science research, but surely opening the labs and their vast talent for the private sector to engage will change the game for the United States.

Regular assessment of private sector needs should take place to identify common areas where a solution will benefit multiple companies or applications, and to be fair, this is already starting to happen—the GAIN folks are doing workshops that are very much in this vein. I applaud GAIN. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

So we’re on the right track—but really need the DOE to adopt this as an operating principle, not just a one-off. I’m very hopeful.

Modernizing the regulatory framework

Additionally, and as you are all well too aware, nuclear developers need a well-defined, affordable, and predictable licensing process. By law, the NRC is the agency to provide this.

The NRC is often hailed as the gold standard for regulation of nuclear power in the world. Producing an incredible safety record is definitely worth bragging about. But remember, gold is heavy, expensive, and very difficult to move. We need to rethink how we do this and move the gold with leverage while still keeping the GOLD.

There are some pretty logical ways to make NRC more efficient and responsive to innovation—WITHOUT compromising safety.

The Clean Air Task Force and Nuclear Innovation Alliance have made a comprehensive set of recommendations to develop a staged licensing process and presented these to the NRC and key members of Congress who have oversight. The game is afoot. Now we need funding.

This goal of the new framework is to provide developers with clear, early feedback on a predictable schedule—something that will make it easier to attract and maintain private investment throughout their company life.  

By the way, the United States has done this before. Both the FDA and the FAA have regulatory processes that work very well in protecting the public and ensuring safety while providing the enormous benefits of pharmaceuticals and flight, respectively. This all with predictable, understandable, milestone-based regulatory processes that investors and entrepreneurs understand.

The NRC must respond to this challenge. Chairman Burns is responding, but Congress is the ultimate leverage with the NRC—Congress controls spending.

We have seen positive indications with bipartisan bills supporting modernization passed out of Congressional committees, and we anticipate these will be passed into law early in the next Congress, or even perhaps this fall, according to my latest sources. Your congressman Bill Flores supports these bills.  

The next Congress and administration need to take up these recommendations on January 21 to ensure that we continue to make progress.

Again, however, the question remains—can the NRC and Congress move fast enough and make sufficient change to make a difference in time?

That in part will be up to all of us. It is our government, after all.

Secure Funding and Staged Advancement and Financing Structure

DOE must have a well-defined process for advancing technologies through the innovation process. The steps and rules need to be clear as day for all involved. This, again, can be based on the successful NASA model.

Start by supporting all of the advanced nuclear companies, and continue to support those who reach key milestones until you have products on the market.

Under GAIN, the DOE just let $82 million to a wide variety of startup nuclear companies to assist them in their work.

New leadership at DOE is leaning forward and making this happen—people like Secretary Moniz and John Kotek at DOE-NE and Mark Peters at INL, to name only a few, are really helping to move this forward. Again, thank you, Mr. Secretary, for pushing this agenda and putting our money to work.

New Ways Forward—Underway!

The future of the human race is at stake here. America is again poised to lead.

We need to move rapidly to deploy zero CO2 emission sources for electricity in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. And the energy poverty of 2 billion people is simply unacceptable.

Big, audacious technological innovation can happen in a short time. It’s not easy but it can happen.

America has proven an ability to do amazing things when she has to. We have to.

Three years ago, when a group of us producers of Pandora’s Promise met at my home in Portola Valley to discuss what’s possible, no one thought we’d be able to change our government like we have.

In our quest, when we discovered these 50 ambitious nuclear startups backed by private capital in our country alone, we knew that there was a way forward. The entrepreneurs were ahead of all of us—they always are. Our job was to loop in the U.S. government with all its might and capability.

Since that time, we’ve moved from new nuclear being an unheard-of industry of one-off companies working in isolation, to the DOE rolling out a vision for this burgeoning sector and the NRC soliciting new licensing ideas. Further, Congress, both the Democrats and Republicans, got it, and got it fast passing legislation. This is a non-partisan issue, folks.

The promise of economically viable, new nuclear technologies is breathing new life into the nuclear sector as a whole, and has helped draw attention to the vital importance of nuclear (existing and new) in the fight against climate change.

Who could have imagined all this change just a few years ago? Believe me, not my wife and most of my friends!

This is an idea whose time is now. New nuclear is creating momentum and opportunity for everyone. It’s up to all of us to keep this momentum moving forward—to make sure the next administration and Congress understand the urgency and promise of nuclear innovation.

So, in closing I believe … no, I know, that with American entrepreneurship, venture capital, a new DOE partnership with the private sector, and a modern regulatory regime, we can make this happen. We have to make this happen. It’s our only planet. And it’s your planet.

We have a special opportunity to develop, scale, and deploy new nuclear technology needed to decarbonize our electricity generation and fight climate change. This opportunity has a shelf life. Time is running out.

There is a lot everyone in this room can do to advocate for more effective policies, to communicate the importance of nuclear innovation as a climate solution, and to represent this industry proudly.  

My advice for you here at Texas A&M: Finish your degree. Get your graduate degree. Use the power of social networking to connect with your friends and colleagues of similar goals and ambitions. There is a fantastic future ahead for all of you.

For more information, Third Way—a think tank I advise and have supported in this effort—has set up a webpage providing some resources of how everyone can get more involved. But there are many resources out there.

Or you can email me or call me. I’m happy to provide you an assignment.

Good luck. And gig ‘em, Aggies.

21st-Century Nuclear Innovation