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IEET > Security > Eco-gov > Fellows > Mike Treder

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Will $45 trillion save us?

Mike Treder
By Mike Treder
Responsible Nanotechnology

Posted: Jun 20, 2008

Investing one percent of the world’s wealth in carbon-neutral energy over the coming decades could avert disaster.

Here's what some say we need to do:

A report by the Paris-based International Energy Agency envisions an "energy revolution" that would greatly reduce the world's dependence on fossil fuels while maintaining steady economic growth.

"Meeting this target of 50 percent cut in emissions represents a formidable challenge, and we would require immediate policy action and technological transition on an unprecedented scale," IEA Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka said.

Here's how much it will cost:

The world needs to invest $45 trillion in energy in coming decades, build some 1,400 nuclear power plants and vastly expand wind power in order to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, according to an energy study released Friday.

And here's why they say it's necessary:

A U.N.-network of scientists concluded last year that emissions have to be cut by at least half by 2050 to avoid an increase in world temperatures of between 3.6 and 4.2 degrees above pre-18th century levels.

Scientists say temperature increases beyond that could trigger devastating effects, such as widespread loss of species, famines and droughts, and swamping of heavily populated coastal areas by rising oceans.

$45 trillion sounds like a lot, doesn't it? Obviously, it is a lot of money, but when put in perspective, it seems a bit less daunting. Here's climate expert Joseph Romm:

Yes, $45 trillion sounds like an unimaginably large amount of money — but spread over more than four decades and compared to the world’s total wealth during that time, it is literally a drop in the bucket — 1.1% or one part in 90 of the world’s total wealth.

When put that way, it seems like a no-brainer. If avoiding all of the disaster scenarios we keep hearing about will cost only about a penny from every dollar, then let's go for it!

Unfortunately, it may not be that simple. It's quite possible that this is a problem we can't solve just by throwing money at it—not even a whole lot of money.

Our industrial and commercial activities of the last 200 years may already have set in motion enormous, complex, micro/macro shifts in the global ecosystem:
  • We are presently in the midst of the greatest extinction event since the end of the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. 
  • Slow melting of the Greenland ice sheet probably began sometime in the last century and a rapid increase, apparently now underway, may be impossible to stop.
  • Arctic permafrost, frozen for the last 100,000 years, may thaw over the next several decades and release billions of tons of methane—a potent greenhouse gas—locked into the soil for millennia. 
  • Cold water upwelling on a 50-year cycle will accelerate ocean acidification and contribute to massive losses of phytoplankton and coral reefs. 
  • Natural fisheries that we've been depleting for decades could trigger cascading declines in biodiversity. 
And that's just a scant few indicators of how deep and how broad our real problems may be. 

Of course, this exercise in facing tough reality should not discourage us from doing everything we can to reduce the output of carbon emissions, pursue renewable energy sources, encourage conservation and recycling, etc.—we have to start now to do all these things

But we also must be careful not to assume that enough money, or even enough new technology, will allow us to avert the major changes that global warming is bringing to our biosphere and to our lives.

Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.
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Man is a dumb animal when slow disasters hit. Oil depletion and the following destruction of agriculture will return global population to some 2 billion or less. Let us hope the smarter ones remain. I am not so sure, thou ...

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