There's a rumble on between Bill Gates and climate expert Joe Romm. At last week's TED talks, Gates came out with a new mission for his impressive philanthropic work: To reduce human carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Without addressing climate change, he pointed out, his Foundation's larger goals of addressing global poverty and inequality are more or less meaningless.
Those are big words from a big force in the world's business and development community. As Alex Steffen points out over at World Changing, just the words “zero carbon by 2050” coming out of Gates' mouth should help mainstream what is really our only sensible target.
Gates called for investment in ambitious and innovative companies to spark a burst of creativity and develop new “energy miracles:” new technologies that have the ability to dramatically change the way we produce and use energy. That sparked a fiery reply from Joe Romm, über-blogger and former member of the Clinton administration's Energy team. “Energy Miracles” are, in Joe's words “bat guano.”
His argument is that "we don’t need energy miracles, we need to address market and regulatory barriers," barriers that are blocking the large scale use of existing technologies.
Our priority should be bringing existing technologies to market as soon as possible, not waiting until we've invented a silver-bullet energy solution. Romm makes a very convincing argument, and has great examples of why regulations not new technology are where we need to be focusing our attention.
But What About Us?
I'm as sympathetic to Gates' goal as I am to Romm's vision of how we get there: Zero is the target, rapidly rolling out existing technologies is (part of) the way. But with all this focus on technology, we are leaving something out: us – the people who are using all this energy to begin with.
Since 1980, average U.S. household energy use per capita has gone up by just over 40%. In another context, you might link that to lifting people out of poverty. In North America, it's linked to ludicrously large houses and our addiction to energy hungry appliances.
Neither “energy miracles” nor existing technologies can make those things more efficient. They are inherently unsustainable. As much as we focus on technology, we need to take a hard look at the creature comforts and luxuries that we have recently come to think of as necessities. If the time I spent in Africa taught me anything, it was that the way that we define successful living here in the North becomes a model around the world.
When it comes to innovation, what counts as “the good life” is in need of as much attention as technology or regulations.
[image modified from Gates' presentation slides, photo: Nancy Duarte ]