Energy: Perspectives, Problems, and Prospects

Energy: Perspectives, Problems, and Prospects

Energy: Perspectives, Problems, and Prospects

Energy: Perspectives, Problems, and Prospects

Synopsis

The book offers a comprehensive account of how the world evolved to its present state in which humans now exercise a powerful, in many cases dominant, influence for global environmental change. It outlines the history that led to this position of dominance, in particular the role played by our increasing reliance on fossil sources of energy, on coal, oil and natural gas, and the problems that we are now forced to confront as a result of this history. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is greater now than at any time over at least the past 650,000 years with prospects to increase over the next few decades to levels not seen since dinosaurs roamed the Earth 65 million years ago. Comparable changes for evident also for methane and nitrous oxide and for a variety of other constituents of the atmosphere including species such as the ozone depleting chlorofluorocarbons for which there are no natural analogues. Increases in the concentrations of so-called greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are responsible for important changes in global and regional climate with consequences for the future of global society which, though difficult to predict in detail, are potentially catastrophic for a world poorly equipped to cope. Changes of climate in the past were repetitively responsible for the demise of important civilizations. These changes, however, were generally natural in origin in contrast to the changes now underway for which humans are directly responsible. The challenge is to transition to a new energy economy in which fossil fuels will play a much smaller role. We need as a matter of urgency to cut back on emissions of climate altering gases such as carbon dioxide while at the same time reducing our dependence on unreliable, potentially disruptive, though currently indispensable, sources of energy such as oil, the lifeblood of the global transportation system. The book concludes with a discussion of options for a more sustainable energy future, highlighting the potential for contributions from wind, sun, biomass, geothermal and nuclear, supplanting currently unsustainable reliance on coal, oil and natural gas.

Excerpt

I began the project that led to this book with a question: is the time in which we live now unique in the history of our planet? Global population has risen to an unprecedented level of 6.4 billion and is projected to climb to close to 9 billion over the next 40 years. I was conscious of the good news: that an increasing fraction of the world population is enjoying a measure of unprecedented economic success, fruits of technological developments that ensued over the past several centuries. According to some estimates, three hundred million people have been lifted from extreme poverty in China since 1990 with an additional two hundred million in India, a monumental achievement by any development measure. Globally, people are living longer. Rates of infant mortality are on the decline. More people have access to adequate facilities for health care and education. And, in many parts of the world, but surely not all, women are assuming their rightful role as coequal partners in society. The bad news is that progress is confined to less than half of the world’s population.

More than a billion of our fellow citizens are trapped today in unspeakable poverty, forced to survive on less than a dollar a day (Sachs, 2005). In parts of the modern world, notably in sub-Saharan Africa, deadly diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, cholera, and malaria are on the rise. The quality of physical environments is in many instances on a path to ruin reflecting unsustainable demands on soils, waters, and the biota imposed by peoples driven to survive in the present without the luxury of planning for the future. It is a sad fact that aspirations for poverty alleviation and environmental protection are often antithetical. Added to this, the toll from disasters, natural and man-made, is in many cases catastrophic and the situation is getting worse rather than better.

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