The Year of Our High-Energy Planet

Top Breakthroughs of 2014

If 2013 was the year of hope and change, 2014 will be remembered as the year of the high-energy planet. The “small is beautiful” ethos crumbled as global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever in recent years, despite the financial crisis, a global recession, and fears of “secular stagnation in the West.

Against Malthusian predictions of peak oil and ecological collapse, the global economy continues to expand rapidly, as billions of people begin to taste the fruits of modern life. With that will come a more dramatic expansion of global energy demand, carbon emissions, and biodiversity loss unless we are able to produce energy in ways that are cleaner, cheaper, and don’t require us to turn all of nature into a vast sacrifice zone for energy production. Wrapping one's head around this challenge may lead some to despair. But getting clear about these challenges also opens up new opportunities and pathways to an ecologically vibrant planet on which all of us might live prosperous and rewarding lives. With this in mind, here are the top breakthroughs of 2014.

Our high-energy planet: a new chapter

The growing disconnect between rising demand for energy in poor countries and climate policies focused on significant reductions in energy consumption has become ever-more untenable in 2014. More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development pointed out that his refrigerator uses nine times as much energy as consumed by the average Ethiopian.

The political momentum to address energy poverty gained speed this year, through initiatives like President Obama’s Power Africa and the House passage of the Electrify Africa Act. At the same time, as the report Our High-Energy Planet illustrated, far too many global aid and finance institutions were advocating energy access programs that would do little to end energy poverty. World leaders, from sub-Saharan Africa to China, made clear that greater access to cheap energy – whether clean or dirty – is a top priority. Low-power and expensive renewables like solar may only serve to perpetuate energy poverty, wrote Fred Pearce in New Scientist. "If some people have taken a position where we say no coal, no nuclear, no hydro, then we're really not serious," said World Bank President Jim Kim. Developing countries won’t agree to grow less than their OECD counterparts, wrote Eduardo Porter of the New York Times, describing the situation across Latin America, the host of this year’s UN climate talks.

Rebound matters most in energy-hungry nations

Just a few years ago, the primacy of energy efficiency as the key to global climate mitigation went nearly unquestioned. Radical energy efficiency improvements would do most of the heavy lifting to achieve ambitious emissions reduction targets, allowing for present-day low-carbon energy generation technologies to plausibly bridge the rest of the gap. In 2014, however, the limits of energy efficiency efforts were broadly acknowledged. For the first time in its 25-year history, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote that the rebound effect, wherein efficiency improvements reduce the effective cost of energy, allowing for greater consumption, “cannot be ignored,” particularly in developing countries where demand for energy is growing rapidly. A report from the International Energy Agency, which heretofore had estimated rebound effects globally at a paltry 9 percent, acknowledged that rebound effects could be as high as 60 percent.

A Breakthrough Institute report Lighting, Electricity, Steel documented strong historical evidence that in many contexts rebound effects not only erode the energy savings associated with more efficient lighting, electricity, and steel production, but can result in significantly higher absolute consumption of energy. As emerging economies all over the world begin to build the infrastructure of modern societies, these energy-intensive sectors of the global economy are likely to see dramatic increases in energy consumption even as they use energy more efficiently.

For the five billion people who haven’t achieved modern living standards, rebound effects are salutary. They reduce the cost of energy, allowing people to consume more of it, and better their lives and economic circumstances in the process. But we should not confuse those benefits with climate mitigation. Writing in the New York Times, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus praised the Nobel Prize-winning scientists who invented LEDs that are sure to be broadly adopted in developing and industrializing countries. “But LED and other ultraefficient lighting technologies are unlikely to reduce global energy consumption or reduce carbon emissions,” they concluded. “If we are to make a serious dent in carbon emissions, there is no escaping the need to shift to cleaner sources of energy.”

The developing context of energy innovation

Where is energy innovation likely to happen fastest? Look to the places that are building energy infrastructure the fastest. Rapidly industrializing countries like China, India, and Brazil are making massive investments in new energy technologies and leveraging international deals to make energy clean, cheap, and reliable. In contrast to developed nations, where energy systems are locked-in and demand for energy is saturated, industrializing countries are collaborating internationally to deploy lower-carbon energy systems.

In High-Energy Innovation, an international group of authors document multilateral innovation across four key low-carbon technologies: shale gas, nuclear, carbon capture and storage, and solar. Today China is building US-, Russian-, and French-designed nuclear power plants while demonstrating next-generation salt- and gas-cooled designs in collaboration with US partners. South Africa just signed a cooperation accord with China with the goal of procuring more nuclear power plants, while the United Arab Emirates has contracted with South Korean companies to build its nuclear plants. Meanwhile a Chinese company, Sinopec, has purchased US-based Devin Energy to accelerate its development of its domestic shale gas reserves.

While efforts to establish legally binding emissions limits through an international treaty have faltered, global energy innovation efforts continue to move forward. Borne out of more immediate concerns such as air pollution, energy security, and development needs, international energy innovation is the “main event” and offers our best hope of averting serious global warming.

The consistent need for climate pragmatism

The People’s Climate March this past September attracted legions of people to the streets of New York to demand action to address climate change. But as Michael Levi and many others noted, anti-fracking and antinuclear signs significantly outnumbered global warming signs. Yet shifting from coal to gas and building nuclear power plants has done more to reduce global carbon emissions than anything the environmental movement proposes.

This fall, Breakthrough analyzed regional power sector data and demonstrated conclusively that the switch from coal to gas, along with falling demand in the wake of the financial crisis, is responsible for the vast majority of emissions reduction in the US power sector. Our glut of cheap gas is what has made the EPA’s Clean Power Plan politically and economically viable. While some argue that the growth of natural gas has come at the expense of lower carbon alternatives, namely renewables and nuclear, Breakthrough’s analysis of regional power generation data finds little evidence to date for this effect.

Analyzing China’s recent climate commitments, Breakthrough’s Arthur Yip showed that new nuclear power plants will account for significantly more zero-carbon electricity than wind and solar energy combined. Even so, China expects to add more new fossil energy generation between now and 2030 than nuclear or wind and solar generation combined. Energy transitions are slow, Ted Nordhaus reminded us in his speech at the Utah Energy Summit, which is why accelerating the rate at which all of our low-carbon technologies improve will be the key to cost-effective climate mitigation.

We must avoid turning into “carbon monomaniacs”

Carbon emissions are the typical metric by which the "greenness" of energy sources are measured, but renewables like wind, solar, and especially biomass require much more land area to produce the same amount of energy that fossil fuel or nuclear sources do. Important work this year demonstrated why we cannot ignore the land implications of our energy choices. Ben Heard showed that the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generation Stations requires 92 times the acreage of a twin pack of small modular reactors while encroaching on the habitat of desert tortoises and other endangered species. Will Boisvert wrote of the environmental destructiveness of biomass, which clears huge swaths of forests often for very meager energy returns.

Breakthrough looked at several popular, renewables-only energy scenarios and found dramatic land use requirements, not to mention new transmissions networks needed to meet current demand. In December, Barry Brook coauthored an academic article in Conservation Biology, which analyzed the energy options with the least impact on biodiversity and found that nuclear power is among the best options to minimize pollution, habitat fragmentation, and land and water use. The world will no doubt need to move to low- to zero-carbon energy sources to avert the worst effects of climate change, but in doing so, these scholars and analysts remind us that all of our energy choices have benefits and trade-offs, and land use shouldn’t be forgotten.

Decoupling for conservation

The idea that economic growth requires exponential growth in human impacts on the environment has long been a staple of global sustainability discussions. But recent research suggests that this may not in fact be the case. Jon Fisher of The Nature Conservancy found that, thanks to more-intensive agriculture practices, we’ve been able to increase global food supply and decrease the amount of land we use for food. A Dutch research team illustrated how, over the past 100 years, Europe has regained its forests thanks to the introduction of better farming and energy technologies. Even palm oil plantations, often the poster child for deforestation, turn out to be significantly less land-intensive than most of the alternatives for vegetable oil production. The key will be to intensify that production even further rather than further expansion.

At this year’s Breakthrough Dialogue, Breakthrough’s Linus Blomqvist took that argument a step further, arguing that, contra the long-standing view of energy in sustainability circles, higher energy use might be the key to saving nature. Higher energy inputs allow us to grow more food on less land, desalinate seawater rather than relying upon fresh water from rivers and aquifers, and farm our fish rather than depleting wild fisheries. While decoupling is in no way guaranteed or inevitable, a better understanding of how decoupling works and what it could mean for our high-energy planet will be essential going forward.

Ecomodernists’ vision of the Anthropocene

The rise of ecomodernism, which challenges conventional environmental views of development, modernization, and technology, has sparked a debate about the very nature of the Anthropocene, the so-called “age of man.” Environmental ethicist Clive Hamilton attacked ecomodernists in the pages of Scientific American and the New York Times Dot Earth blog for being “unscientific,” and living in “a fantasy world of their own construction.” The Anthropocene, in Hamilton’s view, offers humanity only a Hobson’s choice. “Thing are bad, and if we carry on as we are things will be very bad.”

But the split between ecomodernists and environmentalists is not so much about environmental science as it is about energy science and economics. The catastrophist rhetoric of climate activists like Hamilton belies the completely implausible solutions they advocate. Ending capitalism and economic growth while running the world on costly, small-scale, decentralized, and intermittent renewable energy technologies offers no plausible path to a stable climate, much less a just or equitable world.

In his epic review of Naomi Klein’s latest book This Changes Everything, journalist Will Boisvert calls upon progressives to reject the reactionary apocalyptic Romanticism of activists like Klein and Hamilton. “As obnoxious as capitalism can be, scapegoating it won’t spare us the hard thinking and hard trade-offs that a sustainable future requires,” he writes. “Having declared climate change an “existential crisis for the human species,” Boisvert writes of Klein, “she rules out some of the most effective means of dealing with it.”

In the end, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger wrote in the New York Times this past April, the kind of scare tactics that Hamilton, Klein, and others trade in are more likely to increase public skepticism about climate change than to motivate us to make the kind of far-reaching changes to our energy systems that will be necessary to mitigate climate change. Martin Lewis, an early ecomodernist, wrote in his memoir of his journey from environmentalist to ecomodernism, “Radical environmental visions represent a cultural attitude more than a serious political or economic agenda.”

A world in which we successfully deal with climate change and other environmental challenges will be a more prosperous world, a world of dense megacities, low-carbon energy, and a variety of other technologies capable of decoupling human well being from ecological impacts. To be an ecomodernist is to understand these challenges as “planetary opportunities,” (to borrow a phrase from Ruth DeFries) opportunities, in other words, to create a world that is vastly better than our Holocene ancestors might dared to have imagined.