With oil at well over $80 a barrel and the bulk of the world’s petroleum reserves locked away in politically prickly places, reducing dependency on fossil fuel has never looked more appealing—and energy economics and national security aren’t the only reasons.
Even President George W. Bush, long skeptical about global warming, acknowledged in his 2007 State of the Union address the importance of curbing greenhouse gas emissions. In April, the Supreme Court chimed in. Ruling in a suit brought by Massachusetts over the regulation of car emissions, the court said that the EPA has the authority to regulate such climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases as carbon dioxide—something the agency had denied. Critics of the agency see the decision as a mandate.
In this new landscape, a spectrum of energy-saving, climate-sparing efforts is springing up. But one of the biggest—the push to produce fuels domestically from fermented corn or other plants—ran into some criticism this past year, as simpler approaches based on energy efficiency gained ground.
Between 2003 and 2007, corn-based ethanol production in the United States rose from 2 billion to 5 billion gallons. While ethanol currently makes up less than 4 percent of the motor fuel used nationally, the corn used in ethanol production constitutes 14 percent of the domestic crop. What that means for the economy and the environment is under debate. Two recent reports noted that corn-based ethanol production is upping food prices and consuming worrisome amounts of water.
In August, biofuels also took a hit from an entirely different direction. Atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute, who shared a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for research on the formation and decomposition of the ozone layer, argued that cultivating crops like corn and rapeseed for biofuels could be more damaging to the atmosphere than using gasoline derived from fossil fuels. In a paper released for discussion in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Crutzen calculated that 3 to 5 percent of the nitrogen in the fertilizers used to raise crops for biofuels could end up in the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a potent, long-lived greenhouse gas.
As the pros and cons of biofuels drag on, other remedies are taking shape. Corporations are beginning efficiency programs, clean technologies are snagging billions of venture capital dollars, and investment in sustainable products is on the rise. Plus, there is already a large consumer market for energy-saving items like hybrid cars and Energy Star appliances.
Even a simple flick of the switch could bring startling savings. According to the Alliance to Save Energy, new standards for efficient lighting could save 158 million tons of carbon emissions each year, the equivalent of the emissions from 80 coal-fired power plants. Compact fluorescent lightbulbs, for example, use 75 percent less energy than standard incandescents and last 10 times as long. If the bulbs were adopted worldwide, that single measure could meet 70 percent of the additional carbon reductions promised by industrialized nations in the Kyoto Protocol, according to Paul Waide, a senior policy analyst at the International Energy Agency. And consumers are taking note. As part of a campaign to push energy-efficient products, Wal-Mart pledged to sell 100 million compact fluorescent lightbulbs by the end of 2007; it met the goal three months sooner than expected.
Efficiency improvements alone could account for at least half the energy savings needed to keep 2050 carbon emissions at 2003 levels, according to the International Energy Agency. David Goldstein, energy program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, doubts there is a general trend toward greater energy efficiency, citing no drop in consumption. But Joel Makower of GreenBiz.com says, “The nature of the conversation certainly has changed over the last 12 to 15 months.”
See related Web-exclusive feature: 25 Surprising and Simple Tips for a Greener Life
Go to the next story: 7. Dark Matters