Between the science-denying trolls who say climate change is a hoax and the we’re-all-doomed Cassandras who picture the last human remnant escaping to Mars, there is an exciting frontier. It’s populated by people too busy making progress to indulge in political shouting matches.
Likely for the first time in history, a human society (ours!) has broken the linkage between sustained economic growth and greater consumption of energy. An iron law, burn more to make more, has been erased. In its place, the United States — by far the world’s leading energy consumer — has chalked up a near-record nine consecutive years of economic growth while keeping its total consumption of energy flat.
Or take a longer view: In 1990, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the equivalent of more than 9,000 BTUs of energy was consumed for each real dollar of growth in the U.S. economy. Last year, a real dollar of growth consumed fewer than 6,000 BTUs. The agency projects consumption will fall to about 3,000 BTUs per buck of growth by 2050. Carbon dioxide emissions (the most abundant of the greenhouse gases) per dollar of growth have been falling since 2008.
What does this tell us? That change is not just possible, it’s real. Your Energy Star appliances, LED lightbulbs, aluminum vehicles and weatherstripping are not merely symbolic efforts. They are part of an efficiency revolution at home, at work and on the road that’s producing meaningful results without disrupting our way of life.
We’re also seeing significant shifts in the sources of our energy. Coal consumption is sharply down; cleaner natural gas is surging. But the steepest angle of growth is in the renewable energy sectors (though they admittedly started at a much smaller base). Wind is projected to exceed water in electricity generation within the next year.
Imagine that. In the 20th century, water power, source of about 7.5 percent of U.S. electricity, modernized the Tennessee Valley, turned darkness to dawn in the Pacific Northwest and gave the Nevada desert its garish neon Vegas glow. Now, in the space of a single generation, windmills will overtake dams.
Solar power is also trending briskly upward as panels improve and prices drop. The next billion people to escape poverty around the world may be powered up the economic ladder by solar cells rather than oil or coal. If progress continues in battery storage technology, as it surely will, solar energy will play a larger role in juicing the world’s homes and industry — as it already does in heavily subsidized China.
But while the arrows are pointed in the right direction for energy consumption and energy mix, we’re still destined to emit many billions of tons of carbon dioxide over the coming decades, if not generations. The essential challenge on the other side of the equation is to find ways to capture and safely store those gases.
Here, too, the news is promising.
Perhaps, like me, you were too distracted by a tempestuous presidential campaign to notice a scientific breakthrough announced in 2015 and patented the following year. At Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, a team led by the esteemed inventor Jeff Brinker came up with a highly efficient, durable and low-cost technology for scrubbing carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. A thin membrane (the inventors call it a “memzyme” in honor of the microscopic enzymes engineered on its surface) isolates carbon dioxide molecules and rapidly sucks them from the surrounding plume. This reusuable, non-toxic technology easily outperforms government goals for carbon scrubbers, and does so at a fraction of the cost of previous devices, according to Brinker and his colleagues.
Even better, scientists in Norway may have found a good way to store the captured carbon. At a conference in Vienna last summer, a team from the University of Bergen unveiled a promising advance in high-pressure oil and gas extraction. Rather than “fracking” underground rock formations to free trapped fuels, the scientists successfully injected carbon dioxide into core samples to force out trapped oil, leaving the carbon dioxide locked in its place. The new process “increased recoverable oil by an order of magnitude compared with fracking, and at the same time reduced the carbon footprint by associated CO2 storage,” the team summed up.
Fracking has been a game-changer for the U.S. economy, offering cheaper, cleaner fuel and the prospect of energy independence. But this process could be even better, if the Norwegian experiment can be proved in field tests. No more chemically contaminated water, no more fractured rocks and related earthquakes. Furthermore, by creating a lucrative market for large supplies of carbon dioxide, the new technology could drive rapid commercialization of “memzyme” scrubbers.
Congress can goose this progress by creating a revenue-neutral tax on carbon dioxide emissions and steering the proceeds into further research and incentives for investment. But don’t hold your breath. It will be enough for now if the government simply sticks with policies already in place. Because clearly, they’re working.
David von Drehle is a columnist for the Washington Post.