The United States transformed itself into an industrialized nation through the use of cheap, convenient fossil fuels. Now nations like Brazil, China, and India are pulling their countries out of poverty and becoming industrialized in much the same way. Access to cheap energy is generally a good thing: it affords innovation in labor and development, clean water, warm homes, and stable infrastructure.
Furthermore, millions of people living in poverty rely on dangerous solid fuel alternatives when they do not have access to fossil fuels. One third of the global population burns wood, crop waste, and dung to meet their basic human needs. According to the World Health Organization, the use of solid fuel causes 1.6 million excess deaths each year, and is the fourth largest risk for death in developing countries after malnutrition, waterborne diseases, and unsafe sex. It is unconscionable that people have to resort to solid fuel to survive. Although fossil fuel has become the cheapest alternative, we know that unless, as a global community, we reduce our fossil fuel emissions the result will be catastrophic.
In the next forty years, the demand for energy will double as developing countries continue to build industrialized societies, but at the same time we must significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Richard Smalley, the 2005 Nobel Prize-winning physicist, called this the Terawatt Challenge: “Increasing global energy production from roughly 15 terawatts in 2005 to 60 terawatts annually by 2100 in a way that simultaneously confronts the challenges of global warming, poverty alleviation, and resource depletion.” (One terawatt is equal to one billion kilowatts).
Ending global poverty is a moral imperative. But how do we tell our global neighbors that we want them to pull their citizens out of poverty without the use of fossil fuels? Particularly when we used fossil fuels to develop, and we continue to struggle to wean ourselves from them today. So what is the solution? The fastest way to solve this problem is to close the price gap between clean and dirty energy. Developing and deploying cheap clean energy has the potential to alleviate global poverty on a massive scale, while stabilizing the world’s climate. The real issue is how to catalyze this shift.
The United States House passed landmark climate change legislation last year that uses a cap and trade model for reducing carbon emissions. The theory behind cap and trade is that as carbon becomes more expensive, certain industries will look for more cost effective alternatives. Thus, clean energy alternatives will naturally emerge as the price of carbon goes up.
Others argue that in addition to a cap and trade system, the federal government must actively invest money in research and development of clean energy alternatives. Some climate change experts argue that the revenue from selling carbon permits should be used to invest in clean energy alternatives, while others argue that those revenues should be used to subsidize energy bills for low-income citizens. Ultimately, for climate change legislation to turn the tide on climate change, in a fair way, it must do all three: reduce carbon emissions, encourage the development of new energy technology, and protect low-income families.
This post was coauthored by Carrie Gilbert.