Year after year, we are treated to a message of environmental doom and gloom and admonitions on Earth Day. On the back of this sentiment in wealthy countries, governments have invested billions of dollars in inefficient, feel-good policies – such as subsidizing solar panels and electric cars. But really, there are far better ways to improve environmental prospects for humanity and our planet. This Earth Day, we need more fracking, more wealth, smarter investments, and fewer inefficient subsidies.
German taxpayers have poured $130-billion into subsidizing solar panels, but ultimately by the end of the century, this will postpone global warming by a trivial 37 hours. The electric car is even less efficient: its production consumes a vast amount of fossil fuels, and mostly it utilizes fossil fuel electricity to be recharged. Even if the US did reach the lofty goal of one million electric cars on the road by 2015 (costing taxpayers more than $7.5 billion), global warming would be postponed by a miniscule 30 minutes.
These beguiling policies cost a fortune but make little difference to the environment, because the technologies are still not ready. That’s why we need to invest much more in long-term research and development for green innovation. This would be much cheaper than current environmental policies and would end up doing much more good. If we could make solar panels 2.0 or 3.0 cheaper than fossil fuels through innovation, we could get everyone, including the Chinese and the Indians, onboard for a greener future.
Moreover, our focus on inefficient technologies diverts us from the world’s most deadly environmental problems.
In wealthy countries, most environmental indicators are getting better – we have cleaner air, cleaner water, and suffer fewer environmental risks. But in poor countries, air and water pollution kill six million people each year, and harm billions.
We do know how to solve those problems. Wealthy countries largely solved these problems through the process of economic development. Poor countries should have the same opportunity to develop and grow wealthy – so they too can have clean drinking water and switch to cleaner energy sources, instead of using dung and twigs for fuel. We can also directly intervene, and many charitable organizations are involved in solving these non-glamorous problems, by improving access to clean water and sanitation. By addressing these genuine environmental challenges, we do far more good for our planet, and its residents.
Earth Day also presents an opportunity to recognize a surprising, recent environmental achievement. In spite of decades of political wrangling, which failed to produce a meaningful global climate policy, it was ironically the U.S. with the shale gas revolution that has cut the most emissions globally. Fracking in the US has caused a dramatic transition to natural gas, a fuel which emits 45 per cent less carbon per energy unit. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Agency showed that in 2012, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions declined by more than 700 Mt (million tons) – 12 per cent lower than their peak in 2007. The shift from coal to natural gas is alone responsible for a reduction of between 400 and 500Mt. In fact, it amounts to twice the reduction that the rest of the world has achieved, even under the Kyoto Protocol.
Fracking is not the “ultimate” energy breakthrough – because natural gas is still a fossil fuel. But it is the best green option of this decade. And if fracking happens across the world, emissions would likely decline substantially by 2020. Over the coming decades we need to drive down the cost of green energy through sustained and smart investments in green innovation.
This Earth Day, we need a dose of realism about real environmental challenges – like the air and water pollution which make life so miserable for billions – and the real opportunities that exist for environmental innovation, to make our planet a better place.