Only technology can enable sustainability of both environment and economy

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The new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rulings released last week that are aimed to reduce CO2 emissions to the atmosphere 30 percent by 2030 will surely create another round of one-sided arguments put forth by the ever-louder lunatic fringe on both sides of the discussion. It's about time both sides who argue only their perspective (economy or environment) recognize that to ensure the well-being of our world's population today and for the future, one must be honest and embrace that both are essential and not mutually exclusive. To choose one or the other simply provides an easy way for ideology to replace the challenge of real leadership and sustainability.

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Those who argue only the economy speak of jobs in industries and impacts to the coal, oil and gas segments. They argue that the U.S. economic competitiveness will be damaged in relative terms to the rest of the world. And they deny that our climate is changing and say it is simply coincidental that since the Industrial Revolution, there has been more man-made CO2 put into the atmosphere than all cumulative time since the dawn of man. Jobs and economics pale in comparison to a climate in which we cannot exist. There can be no social right to operate that does not recognize that the industrial impacts on our water, air and land must not damage the lives and well-being of our people. We need industrial-strength transformative science, technology and most importantly — solutions!

There are also those who argue only the environment and yet seem unwilling to grasp that the discussion is not just about the U.S.A. Global impacts are far-reaching with fuel choices for energy, and U.S.-based naivety or arrogance about how the rest of the world will follow us or be morally judged by us will not govern the discussion. In my previous column, I referred to the International Energy Agency's (IEA) projection of the world's demand for energy doubling over the next 40 years — and that 90 percent of that growth will occur in developing economies — and that the world's supply of energy in 2050 will remain 85 percent fossil-fueled! It is not a "fossil view of the world"; it is the IEA based in Paris looking at the real world. People will choose the energy supply that is available, abundant and most affordable first. Food, clothing and shelter.

Now how about them apples? Makes both sides of the lunatic fringe appear stuck in rhetoric and the untenable position of being right — and yet being wrong.

But don't despair; there are solutions. They are technology and leadership, and leadership and technology. Imagination, innovation and the courage to be right about the whole and not the parts. People don't choose fuels or energy supplies because they "like" coal or oil or gas — or for that matter, wind or solar or battery cars. We have had windmills since the 1700s, electric cars for more than 100 years and we have learned many lessons about the need to abate pollution from our industrial-fueled Industrial Revolution. I grew up near Pittsburgh in the 1960s and could not see across the river — and yet today there is no more beautiful city. I traveled to China earlier this year — and we know what challenges there are and what lay ahead, not for just CO2 but the entire spectrum of environmental pollutants.

A New York Times columnist recently was quoted stating that "everything we know suggests we can achieve large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at little cost to the economy." Really? Everything we know? Europe has led the way over the past 10 years in requiring and subsidizing greater and greater renewables percentages in their fuel mix and establishing the carbon trading market that was designed to "fix" CO2 emissions. How’s that been going? Europe's growth in coal-produced power has grown over 20 percent in the past two years and the price of power has increased over 50 percent in some regions. They acted only on their ideology and now governments are restarting old coal plants to lower costs as well as to restore reliability to the supply grids that have been negatively impacted by the increased renewables requirements. They made policy without transformative, clean fossil-fuel technology, bet exclusively on renewables and are now paying a huge societal price.

The New York Times columnist goes on to say that there are reasons "the cost of climate protection (by eliminating fossil fuels) is remarkably small." The cost is only $50 billion per year for 15 years. The average U.S. household earns $70,000 per year and "we" can afford it. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce projects that the U.S. economy will grow by 2.5 percent and that's really “overstated” as we are likely to be stagnant. How's that for a budget denying, U.S.-centric, optimistic view of reality? While we continue to obsess on the U.S.A.-view of the world, consider that:

    1. Average wages globally are but a fraction of U.S. average wages — and by the way, most U.S. households make far less than the average. That's how we get averages!
    2. The rest of the world is growing in some regions by 10 percent per year, and this growth will come with or without U.S. technology leadership. We must choose to be in — and not out — of the game by investing in clean fossil technologies.
    3. The continued use of fossil fuels without transformative clean technology insertion will place our world and future in peril.

It's complicated and yet it is simple. We need leadership from U.S. politicians, industries, universities and citizens to have an honest view and approach to our future. Don't trap yourself with the rhetoric of "there is no such thing as clean technology with fossil fuels." There has been tremendous progress made and there is unrealized potential for even more impactful and relevant technologies for our future and I hope to discuss a number of them in future columns. It must be an honest approach, globally essential and courageous to aspire to real solutions and not an ideological escape — for either side of the discussion. Business as usual is not an option.

I welcome input from both sides of the discussion. We all have opinions that will frame the ultimate solution. I will argue that both sides have an obligation to listen — be truly informed on the science and issues — and provide thoughtful leadership and not simply a loud voice. There is a great quote that says "if you have not changed your mind on at least one thing in the past year, then you are either not listening or you have stopped learning."

McConnell is executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University and a former assistant secretary of energy at the Department of Energy from 2011 to 2013.