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It’s Time for Environmentalists and the Energy Industry to Work Together

6 minute read
Stasch is President of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Crane is President and Chief Executive Officer of Exelon Corporation, the largest operator of nuclear power plants in the United States.

The United Nations just gave the world a major wake-up call in the form of a report finding that business as usual will push us over the edge of climate change crisis in less than two decades. Given this stark warning, it is past time for the business community, our government and fellow citizens to stop arguing over whether we have a problem and to move forward with a pragmatic dialogue to solve it.

For years, environmentalists and the energy industry have argued over the best way to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Environmentalists have long favored renewable energy and energy efficiency, plus strict limits on carbon emissions. Meanwhile, the energy industry’s solutions tend to focus on ways to reduce emissions from traditional fossil-fuel power.

But the fact is, the climate challenge is so large that we need to consider all energy options that accelerate our transition towards a low-carbon economy. That’s why we — one of the nation’s largest climate-solutions and nuclear risk-reduction grantmakers and one of the country’s biggest energy firms — both support four essential actions the world must take together: a limit on carbon emissions, the rapid deployment of renewables, the exploration of carbon-capture solutions, and the use of safe and secure nuclear power that does not increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Even though our institutions differ on purpose and priorities, we can both agree that time is running out to return to a safe and stable global climate. The world’s top scientists give us a vanishingly short period of time to right the ship before climate change pushes Earth past its ecological tipping point. While the debate drags on in Washington, D.C., make no mistake: our planet has already measurably warmed. The overwhelming scientific evidence says this warming is caused by the relatively recent explosion of carbon-dioxide emissions, mainly from coal, oil and gas burned in power plants, factories and cars and trucks. These emissions trap the sun’s heat like a blanket. Since the early 1950s, carbon dioxide has been rising to levels higher than seen in several hundred thousand years, and it is rising 100 times faster than ever recorded in Earth’s history.

The result is that we are beginning to irreversibly alter our atmosphere and climate. The early consequences are already coming into view: more extreme heat waves, increasingly violent storms, melting of Arctic ice, coastal flooding, loss of agricultural productivity and the spread of heat-related diseases. Left unchecked, global warming will wreak havoc on our economy, health and national security.

To avoid our worst fate, we must quickly reduce the amount of carbon dioxide accumulating from the burning of fossil fuels. Here is how we do that: reducing energy demand, using low carbon energy sources, scrubbing the carbon out of fossil fuels and extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The world’s scientific bodies suggest we must employ all these approaches at large scale over the next few decades to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.

We believe it is time for all parties — especially the energy industry and environmental advocates — to come together around these sobering facts and act accordingly. The energy industry needs to acknowledge that we must accelerate the transition to a low-carbon energy system and start planning its investments, in addition to employing its political clout, to move us in that direction. And environmental advocates need to acknowledge that the climate challenge is so steep and urgent that we will need to be prepared to deploy all available tools to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, not just renewable energy.

What does that mean in practice? For the electric utility industry, which accounts for one quarter of the world’s energy-based carbon emissions, it means supporting binding carbon-emission limits that require zero emissions by the middle of this century and aligning capital investments to achieve that goal. For philanthropy, it means not ruling out any technologies that can help achieve this goal — from carbon capture to renewables and energy efficiency.

Wind and solar energy have made great strides in improving their efficiency and reliability, while substantially cutting costs. Costs for large batteries that can store this energy when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining are declining rapidly, and increasingly efficient appliances and buildings mean more energy is being conserved.

Yet much more progress must be made to rid the grid of carbon as quickly as possible. At Exelon, we’ve invested heavily in low carbon sources of energy, so this would be beneficial to our many customers and shareholders. It means maintaining our existing sources of carbon-free power, including America’s nuclear fleet, which provides about 60% of the emissions-free electricity serving customers today. It also means retrofitting the most essential fossil-fuel plants with carbon-capture technology, even as we phase out fossil fuels, to ensure that the grid is as fossil-free as possible. In addition to powering our homes, servers and factories, low-carbon electricity is needed to displace the high carbon fuels that power our transportation systems.

Climate advocates must support reasonable policies, like those adopted in Illinois, New York and New Jersey, that allow for the continued operation of the nation’s nuclear plants and increased deployment of new zero-carbon technology. Similarly, power company executives must be more vocal in communicating the urgency of the climate crisis and devote real political capital to enact policies and investments to speed the deployment of the full suite of low-carbon technologies.

Facing these hard truths and their consequences will require many players to rethink long-held positions. We have faced objections from our own stakeholders and peers for doing so. But any fair reading of science, engineering and economics demands that we urgently pursue all forms of low-carbon power with an aggressive combination of technology innovation and market-driven incentives. While this commitment requires a willingness on all sides to move beyond our comfort zones, permanently damaging our atmosphere and climate is simply not a morally responsible option.

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