Austin Gilbert: Investing in the Future

11027999_1032123260133540_35664002567062249_nFor the last three weeks, some fellow students and I have been biking across the state of Montana while studying energy production and climate change as part of the Cycle the Rockies course. As we move into the climate change section of the course, we’ve been reading “The Burning Question,” by Mike Berners-Lee and Duncan Clark. It addresses the daunting challenge of facing climate change, as well as what it might take to develop lasting, comprehensive solutions. Many options are explored while taking into account the potential downsides and feasibility of implementing them. One of these options, although it only addresses part of the greater problem of climate change, is a global carbon cap. According to Bill Mckibben, “167 countries responsible for 87% of the world’s carbon emissions” have agreed that efforts should be made to limit the average global temperature increase (since the late 1800s) to 2 degrees centigrade, as of 2012. We have already raised temperatures by almost one degree. In order to achieve this goal, emissions must be limited to 565 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide through 2050. So, logically, a cap on global carbon emissions should be set no higher than 565 gigatons. The challenge, then, is how to agree on and implement this global carbon cap.

While considering this option, the chief concern is how to allocate these 565 gigatons between each individual country. Wealthy and developed nations, such as the United States, refuse to commit to serious emissions reductions unless developing countries (China, Brazil, India, South Africa), who are collectively responsible for greater annual emissions than developed nations, are subject to the same rules and reductions. Meanwhile, developing nations are more dependent on the burning of fossil fuels to grow their economies. They argue that they shouldn’t have to reduce their emissions unless the developed world, which is almost entirely responsible for historical carbon emissions, proves that it is willing to make substantial reductions of its own.

A common approach to reduce carbon emissions is investment in clean, renewable energy sources. The problem with this in developed, and especially developing nations, is that it is more expensive (in the short-term) than continued reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. This stems from the fact that these countries have already paid for the infrastructure to burn coal – from mining to transportation to combustion. Resistance to renewables is often based on the up-front cost of installing the new technology. Even if it will be a cheaper option in the long run, existing infrastructure makes continued use of fossil fuels cheaper short-term.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic solution to eliminate the costs of transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy.  However, we may be able to reduce or even prevent new dependencies on fossil fuels by investing in further development of renewable technologies. The price of renewables is already dropping. As developed nations, we have the capacity to further develop technologies, such as solar panels, so that they become more efficient and more economical. This way, as undeveloped nations begin to grow demand for energy in the future, solar energy will become the standard – not fossil fuels. By skipping the fossil fuel step, these countries will also skip the massive initial investment required to use coal or hydroelectric power. Furthermore, solar can be initiated on a much smaller scale, then additional panels can be installed as demand increases.

Admittedly, this is only a small part of the bigger picture. It does little to reduce current carbon emissions even if it prevents new sources from producing additional emissions. But the way I see it, we need to do everything we can to tackle climate change – it doesn’t matter how big or small the steps are. And as the costs of renewables continue to fall, maybe even fossil fuel-dependent nations – like the United States – will finally decide to make a large-scale transition to clean energy sources.

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