Reducing Greenhouse Gases and Promoting Sustainability in the Global Economy

I know it sounds audacious to learn how to manage these resources, but since we've already learned how to damage them on a global scale, we'd better learn how to manage them as quickly as possible.
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Power station with smoking chimneys in 70's retro look. Toned image with added grain.
Power station with smoking chimneys in 70's retro look. Toned image with added grain.

When the EPA finally begins to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, as promised by President Obama last week, one impact will be a reduction of coal consumption here in the United States. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean that we will mine less coal or burn less of it. Instead of mining coal and burning it locally, we will simply export the coal to China, Europe and India. According to Kris Mayer's excellent report in The Wall Street Journal:

"The administration's plan to reduce carbon emissions didn't surprise anyone in the coal industry. EPA rules to lower other pollutants have already led to the retirement of coal-fired power plants and lower coal demand, prompting greater focus on exports. Last year, U.S. utilities burned 825 million tons of coal, down from 1.045 billion tons in 2007. Meanwhile, coal companies exported 126 million tons last year, up from 59 million tons in 2007. At the same time, China's coal consumption soared to 4.33 billion tons last year, up from 2.97 billion tons in 2007. Global demand for coal is currently about eight billion tons a year. Officials in India, which uses coal to produce more than half its electricity, recently said they intend to boost coal imports to avoid power outages that have hit the country."

The demand for energy is global and growing rapidly. Some nations, such as China and India, are moving aggressively to catch up with the economies of more developed countries; and in order to do that, they need to bring on line massive amounts of energy facilities. They are grabbing for whatever energy source they can find, and for the most part they are relying on fossil fuel technologies. There is some nuclear power in the mix, but coal is cheaper to run and less expensive to build. No international treaty will stop increased use of fossil fuels, and only new technology will prevent it from damaging the planet.

For the existing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and those that will be emitted in the coming decades we need to develop and implement carbon capture and storage. My Columbia colleague Klaus Lackner, head of our Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy, has invented an "artificial tree" designed to capture carbon out of the air. That is one promising approach we should pursue. We should also develop other methods to capture carbon. To prevent further global warming, we are going to have to develop the technological, institutional and financial capacity to put the carbon genie back in the bottle.

That is, of course, not enough. We also need to develop a form of energy that is cheaper, more reliable and less dangerous than fossil fuels in order to drive those fuels out of the market place. The only answer to the climate problem that has any potential of actually working is to develop a source of renewable energy that outperforms and underprices fossil fuels. Simple to say, but difficult to do. Nevertheless, no single technological challenge is more important for the future of our civilization. Our political stability depends on economic development. Our economic development depends on low-cost, plentiful and reliable energy. Our planet's ecological health and sustainability requires renewable energy. Human well-being requires food, water and air that have not been poisoned by industrial pollution.

Climate change may be the most visible and best-researched global environmental challenge, but it is far from the only one. The web of ecosystem balance has been altered by human technology and population growth. The threats to our food supply, water and air are everywhere. The goal of a world in natural balance is long past practical and we are now in the era of sustainability management. We need to better understand these natural systems and learn to more carefully intervene in them to keep them from collapsing and to keep them productive.

This requires a massive investment in earth observation and the measurement of environmental conditions. We need to learn how to manage the planet; and as we say in management class: " You can't manage something if you can't measure it". Without measurement, you cannot tell if your management action is making the situation better or worse. Sustainability metrics must be further developed and must guide decision-making.

We also need to develop the organizational and institutional capacity to both understand the planet's conditions and to develop the technology needed to mitigate the damage we do to it. These measurement and research tasks are basic governmental functions that must be funded and directed by public policy. The private sector and universities will do much of this work as contractors and grantees; but the long-term perspective requires government funding and the connection to our long-term security and safety makes planetary science and basic research a governmental function. Keeping the public safe and secure is the quintessential governmental function. Damage to the environment needs to be seen as a life threatening risk to the security of our families and communities.

Once the basic knowledge of environmental conditions and sustainability technology is developed, it must be made easily available to the private sector for commercialization and widespread adoption. The obvious precedents are the technologies of personal computing and the Internet. Teams of university and U.S. government researchers invented both of these technologies for military purposes. Private entrepreneurs then turned these technologies into transformative commercial products.

Energy, food and water production all require massive research and development. We also need to better understand and learn to manage our oceans, ecosystems and atmosphere. I know it sounds audacious to learn how to manage these resources, but since we've already learned how to damage them on a global scale, we'd better learn how to manage them as quickly as possible.

The nostalgia and sentimentality of the environmental movement leads many to think that if we can just change our lifestyles, we can become "one with nature" and lead a life that is in harmony with the planet. While individual change is necessary for a sustainable planet, it is far from sufficient. As I often say, with over seven billion people in the world and over half of them in cities, it is far too late to "get back to the land." Sustainability is a planetary scale management problem that requires the development of scientific and organizational capacities that we do not yet possess. We need to quit messing around and get to work on developing those capacities.

Diplomats and politicos at cocktail parties have a role in promoting global sustainability, but the real work will be performed by scientists, engineers, managers and workers building the knowledge base and infrastructure of the sustainable economy. Here in the United States, the greatest obstacle to developing this new capacity is the anti-government ideology of the extreme right and the anti-management ideology of the extreme left. We are well past the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The ideologies of those revolutions are artifacts of the past. It is time to look forward and learn how to balance creativity, freedom, consumption and planetary well-being on an increasingly crowded and complicated planet. It is time to develop the practice and profession of sustainability management.

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