Most scientists tell us that the solutions to the part of climate change that is a result of the greenhouse gases we are producing through our prodigious use of energy are going to be in wedges. That is, no single thing is going to land a killer blow and give the world the clean energy that would replace carbon-rich fossil fuels. We’ve got to use a handful of strategies.
So what are the wedges?
Conservation and recycling are wedges ordinary folk can do something about everyday. In my view, the evidence is that people are amazingly innovative, and would figure out thousands of little and big ways to save energy without reducing the quality of our lives. We just have to be convinced it’s important. There are ideas out there politicians and even scientists haven’t dreamed of yet.
Alternative energies tap into sources that don’t pollute – technologies like windmills, solar panels, wave technology, geo-thermal heat sources, and bio-fuels. Marvellous and clever as each of these alternatives sound, they aren’t the whole solution. The wind doesn’t always blow, and not every location is near the waves of the sea. Everybody gets the sun, but solar panels aren’t yet efficient enough to make them a universal alternative to oil and gas.
Biofuels like ethanol and other fuels made from plants have a much bigger downside than one might think at first. Growing plants for biofuels competes with growing food. The more we switch to biofuels, the more expensive our food is going to get. Unless biologists and botanists can figure out how to genetically modify plants so that they produce an edible fruit as well as a stem and leaf that would produce high-quality fuel. There are scientists working on it.
And then there is nuclear energy. It’s carbon-free and doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, but there are three big worries. The first is the devastating pollution it produces if the nuclear reactor breaks down, like the one at Chernobyl. The second is whether we can safely dispose of the nuclear waste for the tens of thousands of years it takes to degrade into something that wouldn’t destroy us and the very structure of life as we know it. And the third is the danger than terrorists and states themselves will use the products of nuclear technology to wage war.
The final wedge is to find cleaner ways of using carbon-based fuels like gas and coal. Companies already are using “scrubbers” that keep greenhouse gases from escaping into the atmosphere, and pump it back into the ground to fill up the space where the coal was extracted.
No wedge is the best. We need them all. But working with them is the only choice we have.