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Breaking the Fossil Fuel Habit//

The promise, and the challenge, of shifting to alternative energy

Think of it as a worldwide addiction. At least 80 percent of the energy people use to drive, heat their homes, and power their gadgets comes from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, and the consumption of all of the above contributes to global warming.

Kicking that addiction will be hard. Cutler Cleveland, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment and director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Studies, says the transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives like wind, solar, and nuclear power will require speedy technological advancement, huge capital investments, and the political—and personal—will of ordinary people. Cleveland, who has written or edited six books on ecological economics and energy transitions and is the founding editor in chief of the online reference source Encyclopedia of Earth, is convinced that to “avert the more dire scenarios, there needs to be radical surgery now.”

Cleveland’s convictions come not only from his own research, but also from a series of eight seminars that brought environmental experts from universities in the United States and Europe to BU during the 2010–2011 academic year. The John E. Sawyer Seminars on Energy and Society were sponsored by the University’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. “We will have to engineer the transition,” he says. “And we’ve never really done that in the history of humanity.”

Still, he sees encouraging growth in some sectors. Government subsidies and technological improvements in the manufacture of turbines have lowered the cost of wind energy, so that it now competes with energy produced by natural gas and coal. But solar, which has also benefited from subsidies and technological advancements, and wind account for only a couple of percentage points of total power generation in the world.

Nuclear power, another low-carbon energy source, currently provides 3 percent of the world’s energy, Cleveland says, but its hazardous waste disposal and safety risks make it less desirable than wind and solar.

And biomass—such as switchgrass, corn, or sugarcane converted to biofuel—is another alternative source of energy, but Cleveland is discouraged by the carbon exchange of the biomass process.

“When you compare the energy in the ethanol and all the energy it took” to plant, cultivate, transport, and process it, “it’s only a very modest win,” he says. “It’s certainly way less than the energy gain you get from just producing oil directly from crude.”

What does his research tell him about the best way to break the fossil fuel habit? The first step should be using fossil fuels to build a sustainable energy infrastructure. “You need to shift away from coal and oil to natural gas in the short run, and probably leave a lot of coal in the Earth’s crust,” he says. “And you need to use fossil fuel to radically ramp up renewables and/or nuclear.”

That means “sticks and carrots, a lot of them,” he says. “If you want the transition to happen faster than it otherwise would, you’re going to have to alter incentives. And you’re going to have to change the price of carbon.”

Gas tax hikes, like the one Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed, or divestment from fossil fuels are moves in the right direction. Cleveland thinks federal legislation taxing carbon or an international cap-and-trade system would put a bigger dent in emissions.

Finally, he says, politicians have to address the “third rail of US energy policy”—demand. People need to know that their choices can have a negative impact on the environment. “Working 30 miles from home and driving a Hummer to work alone in the morning is probably one of the most absurd, extravagant behaviors,” he says. “We’ll look back and say, ‘Oh my God!’ The excesses of the Romans will look like Romper Room.”

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Measuring Boston’s Metabolism

Researchers track the city’s carbon digestion

Imagine looking at Boston as a living, breathing organism. The city consumes energy in the form of resources and services, processes them into gross domestic product, and produces waste. Some of that waste, the carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks, vehicle exhaust systems, buildings, and even people, contributes to global warming.

Now imagine tracing that carbon. That’s what Lucy Hutyra, Nathan Phillips, and a team of researchers plan to do, in an effort to… Continue reading