Roadmap for a Secure, Low-Carbon Energy Economy

Are the goals of energy security and climatic stability fundamentally at odds? Or can we in the U.S. forge ahead toward a preferred future in which we address both these threats?

These are valid questions. While we must be wary of “false choices,” there are real tensions here. Thankfully, a new analysis from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the World Resources Institute (WRI) takes a sober and informed look at this issue, and offers what the authors call a “roadmap” to a better world (I was happy to serve as a reviewer for the project, although NRDC would not necessarily endorse all of its contents).

This new report, which is available here, examines the colossal challenges ahead, and then proposes a three-step program for breaking free:

  1. Establish a vision for the future
  2. Put the energy system on the right path by “resetting it”
  3. Manage the transition

A PowerPoint presentation on the CSIS site is the quickest way to dive a little deeper into each of these steps.

I want to highlight two items in the report in this blog post, which are relevant to our advocacy here at NRDC. First, there’s this paragraph on page 13:

  • High-carbon unconventional forms of energy are not viable replacements. The Western Hemisphere, for instance, is rich in unconventional fuels such as oil sands, oil shale, and extra-heavy oil deposits, as well as coal, which can be used to make liquid fuels. From an energy security point of view, the presence of these unconventional reserves adds some comfort for the U.S. But these supplies will be costly to develop, and present sizeable environmental challenges, including significantly higher carbon dioxide emissions relative to conventional fossil fuels.

Potential energy substitutes present a choice for us. What are the tradeoffs? The current high-carbon drift of the transportation fuel industry puts us on the wrong path, trading away far too much. There’s an urgent need for a policy framework guiding it onto a higher road, the resetting of the system referred to by the authors.

The authors also recognize an opportunity to build that framework by reforming transportation policy, which is refreshing and unusual for a report on energy and climate. They connect the dots in this recommendation (the format includes a first step for each recommendation):

  • Recommendation: Invest in infrastructure and technology necessary to transform the transportation system while promoting denser, more transit-friendly land use patterns.
  • First step: Ensure 2009 federal transportation bill adopts performance targets and post-project evaluation measures to assess the impacts of transportation system projects on energy security and climate change.

Achieving both energy security and climate stability is a monumental, generational challenge. We must not shirk it, and given the scale we must take advantage of every policy lever available, from the stimulus bill, to energy bills, to the climate bill, and the transportation bill. Aligning federal policies in this way will put us on a safer, cleaner path.

Thank you to CSIS and WRI for proposing a roadmap for getting us there.