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October 9, 2015

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Our era’s moonshot: deep decarbonization

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy stirred America and the world with these words: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Just eight years later, NASA did just that — with astounding benefits for science, technology, and the world economy. Now, a group of leading scientists, innovators, and economists has identified our era’s moonshot: to replace fossil fuels with clean-energy technologies within this generation.

Since a group of policy leaders from the United Kingdom initiated the Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change earlier this year, I and many others have enthusiastically signed on. The program, named after the NASA moon mission, is built on the idea of “directed technological change.” In other words, through a conscious effort, backed by public funds, we can steer the development of the advanced technologies needed to ensure humanity’s safety and wellbeing. At the top of the list is clean energy, which will enable us to head off the global warming caused by the combustion of massive amounts of coal, oil, and gas worldwide.

The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) has demonstrated that a low-carbon future is within reach, with huge benefits at a very modest cost. In the United States, for example, cutting emissions by 80 percent by 2050 is not only feasible; it would require added outlays of only around 1 percent of GDP per year. And the benefits — including a safer climate, smarter infrastructure, better vehicles, and cleaner air — would be massive.

Pathways to a low-carbon future focus on three main actions: improving energy efficiency, producing electricity from low-carbon energy sources (such as solar and wind energy), and switching from petroleum to low-carbon energy for powering vehicles (such as electric or fuel-cell vehicles) and heating buildings. These are clear and achievable goals, and the public sector should play a major role in advancing them.

The main challenge with renewables is energy storage, in two senses. First, we need to store renewable energy for use in vehicles in a low-cost and efficient way. Second, we need to store intermittent energy for times when the wind is not blowing, the sun is not shining, and rivers are not flowing strongly enough to turn hydroelectric turbines.

Low-carbon technologies can be improved markedly in many other areas as well. Power grids running on renewables need more sophisticated systems for balancing energy supply and demand. Improvements in carbon capture and storage technologies would enable some fossil fuels to be used safely. And nuclear power plant designs can be made safer with passive (automatic) safety systems and fuel cycles that leave behind less radioactive waste and fissile material that could be turned into weapons.

Given the trillions of dollars of potential losses from human-induced climate change, and the trillions of dollars invested annually in global energy systems, the world’s governments would be wise to invest tens of billions of dollars each year in the research and development needed to achieve a low-carbon energy future.

As JFK showed, great progress begins with a great goal, one that is bold yet feasible. The goal today, backed by the Apollo Programme, is deep decarbonization.

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, Shanghai Daily condensed the article.


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