Revolutionary Engines

How Cars Saved the Urban Environment

In 1898, delegates from across the globe gathered in New York City for the world’s first international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse manure.

The horse was no newcomer on the urban scene. But by the late 1800s, the problem of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. The growth in the horse population was outstripping even the rapid rise in the number of human city dwellers. American cities were drowning in horse manure as well as other unpleasant byproducts of the era’s predominant mode of transportation: urine, flies, congestion, carcasses, and traffic accidents. Widespread cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.

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High-Energy Africa

Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa

Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.

Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels. 

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There’s No Way Around the Need for Innovation

How Jonathan Chait Misunderstands the “Technology-First” Approach

Usually the best response to the name-calling that so often passes for public discourse over climate policy is to ignore it, but Jonathan Chait’s June 17 piece in New York Magazine deserves discussion because it unintentionally illustrates the most underappreciated source of climate gridlock today: the partisan groupthink that often prevents liberals from engaging in any kind of conversation about creative ways to finesse the barriers to progress.

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The Need for Speed

Four Basic Instincts Have Determined Human Mobility

The following essay was first delivered as the William & Myrtle Harris Distinguished Lectureship in Science and Civilization at the California Institute of Technology on April 30, 2014, and was revised on May 18, 2014.

Thanks to the Harris Family and the Cal Tech community, especially Jed Buchwald and Diana Kormos Buchwald, for the honor to speak with you about cars and civilization. The first speaker, my long-time research partner Nebojsa Nakicenovic, concluded his remarks with the transition from sail to rail about 1830. My title page shows both a horse-drawn coach, the Brewster Park Drag, custom made in 1892 for the Vanderbilt family, who made their fortune in shipping and railroads, and the 1964 Chevrolet research vehicle CERV II with a top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph), and the power of 500 horses. In November 2013 Sotheby’s auctioned the horse-drawn coach for $253,000 and the Chevy for $1,100,000. 

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Prepare for High Energy Growth, Climate Experts Warn

International Energy Agency Faulted for Unrealistic Projections

World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.

“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”

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Patent-Free Innovation

Why Tesla Giving Up Its Intellectual Property Is the Model for Clean Tech

Late last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced he would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who uses the patents for Tesla’s technologies. In effect, Tesla’s competitors can now freely take advantage of the company’s designs for sunroofs, vehicle parts, and batteries.

Given Musk’s celebrity status as an inventor, it is no surprise that most of the press has devoted its coverage to analyzing his rationale. On the face of it, letting others openly copy the technologies and ideas you have painstakingly developed doesn’t seem like a sensible business plan. In the long-term, however, Musk’s decision shows how greater knowledge sharing and looser patent regulations could accelerate innovation in the clean tech industry.

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2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive

Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research

An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.

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Economic Growth and Innovation

Economists have long recognized innovation's central importance to economic growth, but have still not come to terms with the reality that general purpose technologies like electricity, microchips, and the Internet often emerge, not from market competition, but from long-term government investments. Breakthrough Institute's Economic Growth and Innovation program seeks to understand how economic growth and innovation happen in the real world and to consider the implications for policy makers.

For more about the program, click here.