WHAT is the zero - carbon energy economy?

A net-zero carbon economy is an economy powered by non carbon-based fuels. The two key sources of non-carbon energy are renewable energies, primarily solar, wind and biomass energy, and nuclear energy. The transformation from a carbon-based fossil fuel economy to a non-carbon economy will be one of the biggest and most important challenges we face if we are to address the huge negative impact our species is having on the planet’s climate as a result of the huge quantities of green house gases we now are pouring into the atmosphere. But it is possible. We have both the technology and the tools to implement that technology.

WHY?

Climate Change is the single greatest threat now facing humanity and our planet's ecosystems. Despite a scientific consensus, and various governments' stated commitments to take action, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise around the world. Moreover, as both the world's population increases by an estimated 2 billion people over the next twenty five years, and rapidly developing countries like China and India increase their per capita emissions of greenhouse gases as they successfully strive to have lifestyles like the developed countries, climate change will accelerate. Therefore, developing and deploying fossil-fuel-free and carbon-neutral energy sources that will allow us to meet and exceed the greenhouse gas reduction targets called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change will be absolutely essential to pulling back from looming catastrophic ecosystem disruptions and collapses. However, our longer-term goal as a species should not be to just reduce our green house gas emissions, but completely eliminate them by shifting from a fossil fuel based economy to zero-carbon fuel based economy. 

Indeed, shifting to a regenerative symbiotic city paradigm will require us to not simply reduce our carbon emissions, but to virtually eliminate them. This is a radical but critically necessary prerequisite if we are to transform our environmentally destructive current fossil-fuel based energy economy into an economy that is environmentally sustainable and potentially beneficial to natural ecosystems. We think that to accomplish this, we will need to deploy not only well known renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar power, but we will also need to begin perfecting and developing environmentally safe nuclear technology such as thorium nuclear power generation. The very good news is the science and technologies to do this all exist now: Renewable energy is now approaching net parity (i.e.. at the equivalent cost of producing electrical energy by burning coal), and thorium nuclear energy is being developed in both India and China, based on the earlier work done in the United States in the 1950's. We therefore think that the combination of falling prices of renewable energies, the emergence of cost effective energy storage capacity, and the potential for the use of thorium nuclear pave the way to abundant cost effective supplies of zero-carbon energy in the near future.

The biggest question we now face is not the potential availability of zero-carbon energy, but rather, how to shift from an economically and politically entrenched fossil-fuel economy to a renewable-fuels and and clean-nuclear energy based economy. Fossil fuels now underpin and drive all economies around the world, and therefore shifting to a non-carbon fuel based economy will be one of our greatest and most difficult challenges.

HOW?

Until the majority of people around the world understand and believe that climate change is not only happening, but accelerating, and that, in order to pull back from climate-change-induced environmental disaster, we must undertake a wholesale shift from fossil fuels to zero-carbon fuels, transformation will not be possible. However, given the mounting number of climate related shocks and stresses that cities and countries around the world are experiencing (such as the recent historic flooding of Europe, Super-Storm Sandy, and the extensive flooding of Calgary’s downtown) it does not seem unreasonable to expect exponentially growing awareness of the impact of climate change (see more about this at the NASA website at http://climate.nasa.gov/effects).

If consensus can indeed be developed, then we think that there are a number of viable policy strategies that could drive a transformational shift from a fossil fuel to a zero-carbon fuel economy. These include:

  • Internalize the true cost of fossil fuels: Internalizing the true cost of fossil fuels through a revenue-neutral carbon tax, along with an accompanying feed-in tariff for renewable and nuclear energy  - as has been very successfully done in Germany to incent the development of wind and solar power;
  • Development of Smart-grids: coordinating the re-development of aging electrical power infrastructures in North America with the development of smart-grids to effectively distribute zero-carbon energy;
  • Partner with the fossil-fuel stakeholders: Most controversially, involving the fossil fuel companies (that stand to loose the most in this transformation) as partners in the development of viable alternative zero-carbon fuels and their distribution.  

 


Resources:

  1. The Combined Power Plant in Germany is a network of renewable energy sources which provide a base energy load equivalent to a conventional coal power plant.
  2. BedZED is the UK's largest mixed-use, carbon neutral development. 
  3. The Post Carbon Insitute.
  4. Richard Martin's new book Super Fuel, on Thorium Energy.
  5. The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media.
  6. The Princeton Carbon Project - Practical Approaches to Managing Carbon Emissions