Embracing Our High-Energy Planet

More Energy, Not Less, the Key to Cutting Emissions

"The long story of human progress is one of continually rising energy consumption," says the Breakthrough Institute's Alex Trembath.

In order to continue the path of human progress, and indeed to extend it to all of the world's inhabitants over the next century, Trembath argues that we need a "high-energy planet."

This idea flies in the face of the conventional environmental movement. Our profligate energy use is our biggest problem, the story goes. So in order to avoid doomsday scenarios, we need to cut back. We all need to live simpler and smaller lives.

Trembath's perspective, on the other hand, is tied to the mission of the Breakthrough Institute, which is to "accelerate the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet."

So let's raise an obvious objection. We're a very high-energy planet already. Don't we need to cut energy production and consumption, not increase it?

In a talk at The Nantucket Project, a festival of ideas on Nantucket, MA, Trembath points out that ours is "an energy unequal planet." We have a population of 7 billion going on 10 billion. In order for all of the Earth's inhabitants to enjoy the kind of energy security and prosperity that is enjoyed in countries like Germany, Trembath says we need to triple the amount of energy consumption that we have today.

But what will the cost of that be to the environment?

Trembath argues, counter intuitively, that more energy, not less energy, is the key to lowering our carbon emissions. That means that as we transition to greener energy sources (which haven't arrived yet), we need to be pragmatic and embrace a wider portfolio of energy options, from nuclear to natural gas to "clean coal."

This "pragmatic" approach has actually already played out to great success, Trembath argues, if we look at how the energy transition is going so far in the United States. Just compare what has happened here to Germany.

The conventional environmental approach has been taken in Germany. That involves shutting down nuclear power plants and transitioning to renewable energy sources. However, the consequence is that coal production – the worst of the electricity fossil fuels, in Trembath's opinion – has increased, along with carbon emissions and electricity prices.

In contrast, the shale gas revolution in the United States has made the country's energy both cleaner and cheaper. Without enacting a carbon tax, the U.S. has nonetheless driven its carbon emissions down more than any other country in the world in the last few years.

In summary, Trembath says it isn't feasible to think that the potential tripling or even quadrupling of energy demand in the coming years can be met with renewable energy sources. So what is the best way to handle this transition? We need to be pragmatic, he says.

This article was originally published by Big Think, a website devoted to big ideas.