Two Apollo programs

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

It is often said that we need an “Apollo program” to develop new renewable energy technologies. I don’t agree, for reasons that I’ll outline below. We do need an Apollo program, though—in fact we need two—but not for that purpose. (For those under the age of 60, the Apollo Program resulted from John F. Kennedy’s call to “land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth.” The program succeeded because of a massive marshaling of research, resources, and political focus.)

We don’t need a crash program to develop new renewable energy technologies because we already have technologies that are perfectly good, especially wind and solar. These have the potential to produce vastly more energy than we’ll ever need, and their cost has dropped precipitously, to the point that they are now competitive with fossil fuels in many markets. The cost of solar, for example, has fallen by 80% since 2009. The other reason we don’t need this kind of Apollo program is that it is probably too late for any yet-to-be-developed technology to save us from the worst consequences of climate change. For a new technology to be conceived, financed, researched, tested, commercialized and deployed at scale, would take probably 50 years or more. If we are going to prevent unacceptable levels of climate change, we’ll need to be largely done with shifting from fossil fuels to renewables before then. So any new technologies will most likely comprise the second generation of renewables. Those are important, too, but don’t need to be developed on an emergency basis.

hillsidesolarThe Apollo program we do need for renewable energy is to massively deploy the technologies we already have. This is especially true in the developing world, where energy needs will grow much faster than elsewhere due to rapid increases in both population and per capita income. It’s essential that these needs be met using renewable technologies rather than fossil fuels. This needs to start immediately, too, because once fossil-fuel infrastructure is built there’s a strong tendency to want to use it until it wears out (a phenomenon known as “infrastructure lock-in”). It’s also important to focus exclusively on technologies that are truly low-carbon. Many forms of bioenergy, for example, are not much better than fossil fuels in terms of life-cycle carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. That’s not good enough to fix climate change, which is why WHRC has recently been vocal in opposing policies that would promote these non-solutions.

The second Apollo program we need is one to remove massive amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere. This is needed because it’s too late to control climate change solely by reducing future emissions of greenhouse gases—there’s too much CO2 in the atmosphere already for that to be sufficient. Our work (which has been corroborated elsewhere) shows that climate-smart land management could potentially remove very substantial quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere by the time-honored process of photosynthesis. This potential is heartening, but the challenges are immense and the CO2-removal problem needs new ideas (in both policy and science), as well as more resources focused on implementation. We are excited to be applying our own research and tools to break down these barriers and bring this concept to implementation, along with partners like The Nature Conservancy and the World Bank.

So there’s a lot to do, and huge consequences if we fail, but I am proud that WHRC is addressing some of the most important challenges we face today. We can’t do this, of course, without the continued support of our many friends. Thanks as always for your help.