by Kenneth Martens Friesen
Our world is like a lakebed being filled with excess carbon dioxide. At first the lake filled very slowly, but as we industrialized it filled more quickly. Between England, Germany, and the United States the lake became one-quarter full by 1950. Since then the lake has again doubled in depth, much of it a result of the United States, but more recently from new countries like China and India. Within a few decades, our world will be drowning in one trillion tons of excess carbon dioxide.
The book, Energy, Economics, and Ethics: The Promise and Peril of a Global Energy Transition, is the story of how we got into this situation and what we can do to overcome it. Energy transitions do not happen quickly. England, Germany, and the United States led the transition to a fossil-fuel based economy in the 1800s and 1900s. It took decades to convert our transportation and industry from a largely bio-mass energy system (feeding animals that did our work and carried us places) to one based on coal, oil, and natural gas. It could also take decades to transition to a carbon-free world.
But it is possible. Through a combination of good economics and good ethics it can be done. The good economics happen when we naturally decide to buy things that save us money. Government incentives help push us much more quickly on that path. Choosing to have solar panels is much easier when rebates and incentives make electricity from solar panels cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels. People buy electric vehicles when they are cheaper to own and operate than gas-powered vehicles. We are at that tipping point and governments in rich and middle-income countries need to be at the forefront of incentivizing people to rapidly convert to fossil-fuel free transport and home energy systems.
What if we can’t make the transition quickly enough? Is it possible to suck carbon out of the air or ‘tint’ the skies to reflect the sun’s rays and cool the earth? These are very unproven technology and relying on them is like a hail-Mary pass with the time about to expire: you simply don’t want to rely on such an uncertain future. We are therefore left with our ethics. In these days it is time to ‘do the right thing,’ even if it means some sacrifice for the present generation, future generations, born and unborn, are depending on us.