Pragmatism With Regard to Climate Change and Energy

The OECD’s release of its report, OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050, late last week has the potential to reignite the discussion of the role of fossil fuels in our energy mix and climate change; I hope that is the case.  This blog, when it has addressed energy issues, has maintained a pragmatic view toward our energy supply.  I know that pragmatism is eschewed by many today, but pragmatism leads many of us to accept that the development of fossil fuels is essential to our economic prosperity.  It also leads many of us to accept that growth in the use of fossil fuels like oil and gas will continue for many years and to support increased investment in energy-related R&D.  That pragmatism is why this blog has argued for the exploitation of shale beds for natural gas while supporting more R&D associated with renewable energy sources like solar or algae.

Although the full report will be released in March 2012, the OECD has already presented its key findings.  I believe that a knee-jerk dismissal of this report would be a real error.  Pragmatism about the role of fossil fuels and the potential role of renewables in our energy mix should lead us to embrace science, including climate science.  But science will not give us definitive answers.  The preliminary report, while containing policy implications about which there should be reasonable debate, states its conclusions in probabilistic terms that are associated with a sound scientific model.

Without more ambitious policies, the Baseline projects that atmospheric concentration of GHG (greenhouse gases) would reach almost 685 parts per million (ppm) CO2-equivalents by 2050. This is well over the concentration level of 450 ppm required to have at least a 50% chance of stabilising the climate at 2 degrees (2°C) global average temperature increase . . .

Our reaction to this 50% probability should be one that is pragmatic, neither leading us to adopt policy measures that stagnate economic recovery and growth nor ignore what some have labeled as the catastrophic potential of human-induced climate change from our use of fossil fuels.

The work that is being done in materials science has, as this blog has observed before, significant potential for our energy future.  While I have primarily focused in the blog on R&D associated with solar energy, there is much work that is being done on increasing our capacity to capture and sequester carbon that is released from the burning of fossil fuels.  This work in materials science contrasts starkly with the more widespread discussion of geologic sequestration of CO2.  For example, one article published this past year in Applied Energy examined the fabrication and characterization of superhydrophobic polypropylene hollow fiber membranes.  The science reported in this article addresses the potential for making modifications in a membrane for use in CO2 absorption.

Like related materials research, this work offers optimism about our potential capacity to mitigate atmospheric carbon release while continuing to use fossil fuels.  The OECD report is good news, especially if it leads us to pragmatic action like that associated with the increased recovery and use of cleaner natural gas, the investigation of means to mitigate the release of carbon with fossil fuel use or the development of renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

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