A Report With Slightly Encouraging Environmental Implications

By James Fallows

In the current issue, I have a brief story based on an interview with Steven Chu and Yi Cui, now both of Stanford, about advances in the seemingly boring but actually exciting world of battery technology, and why that is essential to lower-carbon, cleaner-fuel power systems. 

The discouraging signals in the race for less destructive paths toward growth keep piling up. For instance, the recent charts about air pollution in China*. Yet like every systemic problem human beings have created for themselves and then tried to correct, this is an all-out race, between destruction and creation. On the positive side, we have this brief new report from McKinsey, which is source of the chart at top. 

The report (by Sara Hastings-Simon, Dickon Pinner, and Martin Stuchtey) concerns the pace and feasibility of "cleantech" installations, and why they may be more feasible than they have seemed. The main problem with solar, wind, tidal, and other low-carbon energy sources has involved scale. Clean power sources have represented so tiny a share of the world's energy base, and coal's share has been so huge, that even as wind etc have expanded very fast in proportional terms, absolute demand for (and emissions from) coal keep going up fast. These scale realities are why, as I argued several years ago in an Atlantic cover story, developing cleaner coal is not a contradiction but a necessity. Charles Mann has a good new Wired story on the current complexion of the "cleaner coal" debate.

And now some more positive news from McKinsey, about a pending rapid increase in the feasibility of cleaner sources. The report begins:

The world is on the cusp of a resource revolution. As our colleagues Stefan Heck and Matt Rogers argue, advances in information technology, nanotechnology, materials science, and biology will radically increase the productivity of resources. The result will be a new industrial revolution that will enable strong economic growth, at a much lower environmental cost than in the past, thanks to the broad deployment of better, cleaner technologies and the development of more appropriate business models.

 Then it raises the obvious objection:

But how do we reconcile this bold and heartening prediction with recent challenges experienced by cleantech, the general term for products and processes that improve environmental performance in the construction, transport, energy, water, and waste industries? 

And goes on to suggest an answer. Worth checking out.


* Several people have written to ask about my assertion in the Chinese smog item: "No one now alive has experienced anything similar in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption." The main counter-example offered is the Great London Smog of 1952, which blanketed the city for four days and may have contributed to thousands of premature deaths.

I'm not aware of any way to compare pollution readings from that era and this; most estimates are that Chinese air pollution now prematurely kills many hundreds of thousands people each year; and in any case we are comparing a four-day emergency in one very large city with ongoing, years-long reality in many places in the world's most populous country. Similarly, the four-day-long Donora smog emergency of 1948 is thought to have killed 20 people in Pennsylvania, or less than the average premature deaths in China because of air pollution per hour.

Still, in the interests of precision I am happy to amend the original claim as follows:  "No one now alive has experienced anything similar in North America or Europe, except in the middle of a forest fire or a volcanic eruption, or in London over four days 62 years ago."  

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/04/a-report-with-slightly-encouraging-environmental-implications/360932/