The Low Carbon Future Can't Come Soon Enough

The United States is about to enter a bold new energy era, ending a century of rising carbon emissions.  We are on the cusp, writes Lester Brown in today's Washington Post.  The brilliant Brown, a self-described doom and gloomer, offers up a glowing analysis of the positive trends for U.S. energy use.

He notes that global warming pollution from burning fossil fuels -- oil, coal and natural gas -- has dropped 9 percent since 2007.  Certainly, last year's high gas prices and the economic downturn have driven down energy use.  On the positive side, more dramatic cuts in carbon emissions are promised by higher automobile fuel-economy standards, appliance efficiency standards, and the push to power our homes and buildings with renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

Oil consumption has dropped precipitously and gasoline use will decline further due to new federal requirements for more fuel efficient cars and trucks.  The "cash for clunkers" program proves that consumers very much want to own vehicles that go farther on a gallon of gas.  As Brown notes, the really big gains in fuel efficiency will come with the shift to plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars.  He also points out how government agencies, corporations, utilities and universities are seeking to reduce fossil fuel use and beyond that, "millions of climate-conscious, cost-cutting Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use and carbon emissions."  Since 2001, 100 proposed coal-fired power plants have been cancelled around the country, dozens more of these polluting dinosaurs are being shut down, and energy efficiency gains will make many new power plants moot.

While coal plants are on the ropes, wind farms are on the rise.  According to Brown, 102 wind farms came online last year -- providing enough electricity as 8 coal-fired power plants.  Another 49 wind farms were completed in the first half of this year, 57 more are under construction, and lots more are in store.  As for solar power, it's growing at 40 percent a year.  Thanks to new government incentives, Brown says we should expect the installation of solar panels on more and more homes, shopping malls and factories.  Already, solar thermal power plants are going up fast in places like California, Arizona and Nevada.

All of these efforts to cut carbon pollution can't come soon enough -- for as Brown puts it:  "The science is scary."  He briefly outlines the scary implications of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, water shortages, and constrained global food production.  (This is the Lester Brown I'm use to reading!)  Of course, his dire concerns are dead-on and only add to the urgency of ambitious policy action to begin to ward off the worst of what the climate crisis will bring.  But Brown also offers up another common-sense reason to make the switch to cleaner energy technology:

"Underlying the carbon-cutting question are: Where will the new energy industries be located? Who will be building the wind turbines, solar panels and highly efficient light emitting diodes? The countries that cut carbon emissions fastest will have a competitive advantage."

So, the good news is we've finally begun to realize the benefits of relying less on polluting power from fossil fuels and more on clean energy alternatives that promise a healthier planet, as well as an economic boon to the nations that lead the way.  But the climate crisis we face requires a much more rapid switch in the way we generate electricity, one that begins with passage of clean energy legislation.