A positive climate change scenario

President Barack Obama announced his Clean Power Plan on Monday, after Hillary Clinton came out with her climate change policy pitch.

BruceWe speak with Bruce Edward Tonn, professor at the department for political science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The expert in energy and environmental policy and future studies presents a fossil fuel free scenario of what our future could look like if we were to successfully fight climate change.

ResearchGate: In your paper you describe what the U.S. would be like in 2050 if everyone lived sustainably. What would that look like?

Bruce Edward Tonn: This paper started with a question: is a fossil fuel free world imaginable and plausible. The answer is yes.

Our scenario has a mix of energy sources, including solar, wind, nuclear, biomass, geothermal, and biomass and includes a pathway for how these energy sources can replace fossil fuels over time. The scenario also includes substantial assumptions about the improvement of energy efficiency and major changes in land use and transportation. Gone would be the typical American suburb, replaced by sustainable low density developments and high density urban cores. The scenario envisions that meeting future energy needs demands these kinds of changes in addition to the changes in energy sources.

Life would be quite different for many Americans. The suburban lifestyle of living in single family homes with manicured (and unproductive) lawns, driving to work, to school, to everywhere would be gone. For these individuals, their world would become much more self-sufficient and sustainable (and place demands upon their time and habits) if they continued to live in their transformed subdivisions, or they would need to adapt to an urban lifestyle. Those already living in major cities would find life easier, quieter, less polluted, and healthier.

The portfolio of energy sources is slowly moving in the direction described in the scenario. Increasing urbanization, even in the U.S., is also moving in the direction described in the scenario. Big data is also making in-roads into cities, helping them become more efficient. No meaningful changes are happening in the suburbs to become more self-sufficient as yet.

RG: On a scale from one to ten, how realistic do you think your scenario is?

Tonn: I am not under the illusion that the world depicted in the paper is THE future that will come to pass, so to answer your question the number would be a one or less than that. At this point in time, the likelihood of the scenario is not as important to me as contributing ideas that could seed even better ideas that others will most certainly develop over time.

RG: In your scenario you rely heavily on nuclear energy, but don’t seem to envision a solution how to deal with the waste. Do you think nuclear is still the solution, and if so, why?

Tonn: Nuclear is not the solution but part of a portfolio of energy sources for the future. New nuclear technologies are safer and produce less waste. I am cognizant of the waste issue. Dealing with the waste issue is a cost to pay to gain substantial benefits from mitigating climate change. That cost will extend for a very long time, I understand. However, in a paper I published some time ago, I proposed that Stewardship Institution, a long-lived institution to manage nuclear waste.

RG: Regarding the U.S in 2016, what impact do you think it would have on our future if an administration that doesn’t understand the urgency of climate change were to take office for the next four, or eight, years?

Tonn: The impacts of a new administration not understanding the urgency of climate change could be enormous. Global climate change cannot be fully mitigated without U.S. action. U.S standing in the international community will be diminished, which could compromise U.S. leadership on other important international issues. Also, without U.S. action and by ignoring climate change, such an administration then also places at risk communities across the entire country to the ravages of climate change, such as extreme weather events, flooding, droughts, fires, etc. If there are no plans to adapt to climate change, our communities and our economy cannot be resilient.

Feature image courtesy of Nuon