In a recent article published on Issues on Science and Technology, David Ropeik , instructor in the Environmental Management Program of the Harvard Extension School, claims that the world needs clean energy. Clean, as in doesn’t emit greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide, that can drive climate change. And we need plenty of it within the next couple of decades, nearly 50% more energy by 2040 than is currently produced, as billions of people rise out of poverty and expect the same resources the developed world already enjoys.
The great hope for a quick and sweeping transition to renewable energy is wishful thinking.
According to the researcher, it is encouraging that governments around the world are adopting policies that encourage clean energy production and large corporations are converting to low-carbon-emission energy supplies. But these steps, although meaningful, are not nearly enough, because government policies overwhelmingly favor some clean energy sources—renewables such as solar, wind, hydro, and biofuels—over other clean energy sources, particular nuclear power. Yet most energy experts agree that renewables can’t supply as much power as we need, as quickly as we need it. It’s therefore worth trying to understand why government policies favor some forms of low-carbon energy over others, because the battle over what sort of clean energy counts as clean leaves us fighting climate change with one hand tied behind our back.
The world needs clean energy
In the United States, 29 states have adopted renewable portfolio standards requiring that a percentage of the electricity a utility sells must come from wind, solar, hydro, and in some cases biofuels, all of which need economic support from government policy because they can’t compete against cheaper fossil fuels, especially natural gas. But whereas renewables receive significant direct economic support, nuclear energy receives far less. Only two states—New York and Illinois—provide financial assistance that helps nuclear compete economically, and in both cases the support was adopted less as a clean air measure and more to preserve high-paying jobs that would be lost if nuclear plants in those states closed. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Ohio are also considering economic support for nuclear, but the overall picture remains clear. State government subsidies for clean energy overwhelmingly favor renewables. Demand for energy is rising rapidly. The International Energy Agency estimates that the world will need a staggering 78,000 terawatt-hours more power in 20 years, three times the amount consumed in the United States in a year. Global greenhouse gas emissions are rising, too. The impact that humans are having on the climate system increases daily, and the radiative forcing effects of emissions released today will persist for hundreds of years. We need massive amounts of clean energy, and we need it soon. Delay causes real harm.