The Energy-Climate Complex: Energy in Three Dimensions

Those who are waiting for a national cap-and-trade bill or a carbon tax will have to wait at least until we see the results of the 2012 election, and maybe longer. But significant progress is possible without these measures. The heavy lifting will have to be done by industry, and the key to industry success is to establish policies that specify what the nation wants to achieve, not how industry should do it.

Politically, it will be essential to support all proposals in as many dimensions as are appropriate. A further increase in the automobile mileage standard can be justified on economic and national security grounds as well as on environmental ones. The technology already exists with hybrids, diesels, and direct-injection gasoline engines.

Reject renewable portfolio standards, and opt instead for emission reduction standards. Because natural gas is cheaper and better than coal today, it should be encouraged. Government, and forgive me for saying so, environmentalists, are better off focusing on the goals, and not on how to reach them.

Tell the electric power industry to reduce emissions by some percentage by some date and then get out of the way. Competitive companies will determine what mix of efficiency management, natural gas, renewable sources, and other measures is quickest and cheapest. We will need solar and wind eventually, so they need some support, but not at the expense of limiting cost-effective action today.

Don’t be too clever by half, as the Brits say. One too-clever regulation is California’s low carbon fuel standard. It requires that one count all the carbon in a megajoule of each fuel, including the energy and emissions that go with making the fuel, and then reduce that amount by 10% by 2020. There are smart people who love this. It was adopted by California in April 2009, and more states are considering following California’s lead. The theory is that it forces emissions included in fuel production to be counted, so, for example, if one uses more oil from Canadian tar sands to make gasoline, the carbon score goes up. But emissions depend on both fuel and efficiency. Larger and less costly reductions in emissions can be made by focusing on the efficiency side: A diesel will reduce emissions by about 20% as compared to a gasoline engine; a hybrid will reduce it by 50%. So why waste effort and money on the fuel side? Once again, set the goals and get out of the way.

The fundamental question is, can environmental, scientific, business, and policy organizations put together a coherent message that brings in as many allies as possible, starts large-scale action with things that are scalable and affordable today, and encourages the innovation we will need for tomorrow?

It will not be easy, but it is the only way we will turn things around.


Burton Richter () is director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics.

Cite this Article

Richter, Burton. “The Energy-Climate Complex: Energy in Three Dimensions.” Issues in Science and Technology 27, no. 3 (Spring 2011).

Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Spring 2011