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In the last few weeks, U.S. presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, as well as former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and former U.S. vice-president Al Gore, have repeatedly invoked the spirit of John F. Kennedy, reminding Americans of one of their country's greatest achievements: the imprint of Neil Armstrong's moon boot on the Earth's dusty satellite.
But this evocation of the Apollo project, Kennedy's national effort to put a human on the moon, is not a call back to space, to another and greater race, perhaps for the stars, nor one to defeat a Cold War rival, but a race to replace what U.S. President George W. Bush has called "America's addiction": oil.
'We need an energy technology race. We need different countries … working on competing, different energy technologies.' —Chris Green
Both Obama, who pledged $150 billion over 10 years to develop clean energy alternatives, and McCain, who promised 45 new nuclear plants by 2030, speak boldly of weaning the U.S. off its troubling dependence on foreign oil suppliers, cleaning the air and reducing the carbon dioxide emissions that are contributing to a warming atmosphere.
Late to the party
But the politicians are johnny-come-latelies to this big-project approach. Scientists, economists and others who are convinced a warming planet is a global emergency have been proposing — and opposing — it for at least 10 years.
As emerging economies surge and CO2 emissions soar, that debate has grown more bitter. Often, the metaphor is not the 1969 moon walk but a grimmer scientific triumph: the Manhattan Project.
Between 1942 and 1945 in the darkest days of the Second World War, the U.S., Britain and Canada put their brains and resources together to produce the world's first atom bomb.
Walter Cicha, a chemist at the National Research Council Canada Institute for Scientific and Technical Information, says the Manhattan Project is a bad model since the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant many people died as a result. But the technological achievement was astounding and, conceptually, exactly what is needed, he says.
"In the history of mankind, no country has ever done that, what they did in three years," Cicha said. "They were behind it because they sensed [it] was a matter of life and death."
'Hot fusion? No. Cold fusion? As if. Space solar power? Come on...' —Joseph Romm
Similarly, Cicha and others believe preventing climate change is a matter of life and death.
To prevent what the United Nations calls "dangerous" climate change and find substitutes for depleting oil reserves, these experts agree the world needs a massive transition to carbon-neutral power - that is, power that does not produce CO2 emissions - by mid-century. But that is where agreement ends.
Existing vs. new technology
"There are no energy systems technologically ready at present" to produce carbon-neutral power, concluded the authors of a much-referenced letter to the journal Nature in 1998.
"Transformative technologies [are needed] with the urgency of the Manhattan Project or the Apollo space program," it said.
Another paper, published in 2002, said "radical restructuring of the global energy system could be the technology challenge of the century." And late last year, 37 prominent experts, including three Canadians, appealed to the U.S. Congress for an "Apollo or Manhattan" type investment of $30 billion a year in innovative, new energy technologies.
"Technology, technology, blah blah blah," is the response of climate policy analyst Joseph Romm of the Center for American Progress to such appeals.
"Somehow, the government is not just going to invent one TILT (terrific, imaginary, low-carbon technology) in the next few years; we are going to invent several TILTs," he writes. "Seriously. Hot fusion? No. Cold fusion? As if. Space solar power? Come on …"
A dangerous diversion?
For as adamant as big-project proponents are that off-the-shelf technology alone cannot produce the amount of carbon-neutral power required, opponents are equally adamant that it can — and that waiting for carbon-neutral pie-in-the-sky technologies just gives politicians an excuse to stall.
'You can construct the problem so that existing technology won't do it. But why would you do that?' —Danny Harvey
"The problem is this is going to divert attention from the nuts and bolts things we need to do," says geographer and energy policy expert Danny Harvey.
"You can construct the problem so that existing technology won't do it. But why would you do that?" asks the University of Toronto professor.
To tackle the problem with existing technology, he says, of course means massive deployment of wind turbines, concentrating solar power and hydro (but never nuclear, corn ethanol or carbon capture and storage, which Harvey calls "the three worst possible choices"). More importantly, Harvey says, it also means designing buildings so that they themselves become "collectors and transformers of solar energy" (forget all-glass condominiums). It means laying out cities so they are compact and connected by high-speed transit infrastructure. It means abandoning the use of the time it takes to accelerate from 0 mph to 60 mph as a measure of engineering achievement in personal vehicles.
And, he adds, it means restraining population and economic growth.
The knowledge on how to do all this already exists, says Harvey. "What doesn't exist is the skill level among the architect and design profession." So they, and the trades, need to be retrained.
Harvey was a lead author on a paper prepared for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which in 2007 concluded current technology and technology that is expected to be commercialized in the near future can stabilize climate.
"I just don't believe it," says McGill University economist Chris Green. "I don't buy it. We don't have the technology."
Or a dangerous assumption?
In a commentary for the journal Nature titled "Dangerous Assumptions," Green suggested the IPCC was "seriously underestimating the scale of the technological challenge" needed to stabilize greenhouse-gas concentrations.
Why is this "dangerous"? Because, says Green, the IPCC's assumption that we have the technology we need allows politicians to set targets, such as the recent G8 commitment to cut emissions by half by 2050, and think that's enough. "It's far enough off that these guys can promise just about anything, and who's going to remember? It's a charade," he says.
Like many who believe innovative technology will be essential, Green thinks the regulatory approach - targets and carbon trading and offsets - has led nowhere.
"We need an energy technology race. We need different countries … working on competing, different energy technologies," he says.
'We need to invent totally new energy systems that we haven't even thought of yet.' —Michael Shellenberger
And that requires staggering sums of money. Michael Shellenberger of the California-based Breakthrough Institute says the U.S. needs to invest $50 billion US a year until at least 2050; Canada, $5 billion.
"We need to invent totally new energy systems that we haven't even thought of yet," says Shellenberger, co-author of Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. Without investment, "emissions will not go down," he warns.
"These programs are extremely expensive," says Cicha, a consultant on fuel cells and other innovative clean-energy technologies. "These are basically the [equivalent of the] military budgets of the United States that are needed to keep these programs going. So they have to be, by definition, international efforts."
Show me the money
The International Energy Agency agrees with Chica about the high costs. In a presentation prepared for the G8 this June, it said "unprecedented co-operation across all major economies" would be needed to halve CO2 emissions from current levels by 2050.
Success will require an additional investment of $45 trillion US in both current and future technologies between 2010 and 2050, the agency said.
Which brings us to the real issue: what trillions? For that matter, what billions?
If the world were afloat on a happy sea of economic prosperity and goodwill, it might seem plausible for nations to put their best brains and resources together. We could scale up current knowledge and technologies, electrify the world's transportation systems, develop better batteries, explore nanotechnology, put solar energy power plants in space - do, in other words, whatever is deemed necessary. But the world is not prosperous or all that friendly. Even if trillions of dollars were spent, we might find there are, in fact, no new energy systems to spend them on.
"This is a tough slog," says McGill's Green, "and nobody can say whether we will succeed."
'If energy doubles in price one more time, I don't think we're going to be developing those technologies. And then the question one has to ask is, 'What are we going to do?' —Walter Cicha
All sides in this complex debate agree the need to begin the shift is urgent. Cicha goes further. He warns that unless we begin now, we might find we can't begin at all.
Technology requires materials: platinum for fuel cells; uranium for nuclear; silicon for solar; oil, gas or coal to power the manufacturing of new technologies. And prices of many materials have doubled, tripled, quadrupled or more in the last few years.
"If energy doubles in price one more time, I don't think we're going to be developing those technologies," says Cicha. "And then the question one has to ask is, 'What are we going to do?'"