Between the science-denying trolls who say climate change is a hoax and the we’re-all-doomed Cassandras who picture the last human remnant escaping to Mars, there is an exciting frontier. It’s populated by people too busy making progress to indulge in political shouting matches.
Likely for the first time in history, a human society (ours!) has broken the linkage between sustained economic growth and greater consumption of energy. An iron law, burn more to make more, has been erased. In its place, the United States — by far the world’s leading energy consumer — has chalked up a near-record nine consecutive years of economic growth while keeping its total consumption of energy flat.
Or take a longer view: In 1990, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the equivalent of more than 9,000 BTUs of energy was consumed for each real dollar of growth in the U.S. economy. Last year, a real dollar of growth consumed fewer than 6,000 BTUs. The agency projects consumption will fall to about 3,000 BTUs per buck of growth by 2050. Carbon dioxide emissions (the most abundant of the greenhouse gases) per dollar of growth have been falling since 2008.
What does this tell us? That change is not just possible — it’s real. Your Energy Star appliances, LED lightbulbs, aluminum vehicles and weatherstripping are not merely symbolic efforts. They are part of an efficiency revolution at home, at work and on the road.
We’re also seeing significant shifts in the sources of our energy. Coal consumption is sharply down; cleaner natural gas is surging. But the steepest angle of growth is in the renewable energy sectors. Solar power is trending briskly upward as panels improve and prices drop.
But while the arrows are pointed in the right direction for energy consumption and energy mix, we’re still destined to emit many billions of tons of carbon dioxide over the coming decades if not generations. The essential challenge on the other side of the equation is to find ways to capture and safely store those gases. Here, too, the news is promising.
Perhaps, like me, you did notice a scientific breakthrough announced in 2015 and patented the following year. At Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, a team led by the esteemed inventor Jeff Brinker came up with a highly efficient, durable and low-cost technology for scrubbing carbon dioxide from power plant emissions. Congress can goose this progress by creating a revenue-neutral tax on carbon dioxide emissions. But don’t hold your breath. It will be enough for now if the government simply sticks with policies already in place. Because clearly, they’re working.
— David Von Drehle is a columnist for The Washington Post.