“We need a second Green Revolution”

Steven Chu is a Nobel prize-winning physicist and the US secretary of energy. Here, he tells Sam Geall about energy futures and priorities for policymakers.

Sam Geall, chinadialogue’s deputy editor, interviewed Steven Chu before his government appointment. They discussed China’s energy future and the responsibilities of policymakers faced with a warming world. Edited excerpts are published below.

Sam Geall: Can countries decouple energy use and emissions without exporting manufacturing?

Steven Chu: In the United States, we offshore some energy intensive industries – plastics, for example. Steel and concrete is slightly offshored, but not as much as you would think, because China is consuming most of its own steel and concrete. We have offshored to some extent, but not completely.

Commercial and residential buildings account for 40% of our energy. Transportation – trains, trucks, air, personal and all the others – is 28%; industry is the last. I believe we can drop down by a factor of four or five in buildings. China’s energy use is 65% buildings, so if they drop down by a similar factor and become really efficient, we can decouple.

There are some industries: steel, cement, aluminum that are very energy intensive. But already in the United States the cement industry has dropped down by about 30% in energy. It’s the same with the chemical industry, again about 25% to 30%. But can they make it all the way to zero? Absolutely not. 

SG: What should policymakers’ priorities be, when it comes to climate change?

SC: The Stern report says there’s a 50% chance that in this century we will go up by five degrees Celsius. The potential downsides of that – and the economic costs – are so enormous that it is prudent insurance to try not to go near it. Try to go one or two degrees Celsius: I think one degree is already written.

People don’t realise six degrees Celsius is the difference between today and the Ice Ages. During the Ice Ages, in what is now the United States, Ohio and Pennsylvania were covered in permanent ice all year round. This is a big change. So five degrees the other way is also a big change. 

Borders of countries that took thousands of years to develop – what do you do with these? Some places will be uninhabitable. There’s a big fear that the agriculture around the equator will collapse. Rich people will always survive, but there will be millions of poor people that could die. 

SG: An energy and climate-change crisis could also cause great conflict.

SC: Sea level goes up. If the northern tundra melts you get this great release of carbon. Greenland will melt, part of Antarctica will melt. In Bangladesh, with 140 million people, half of them could be permanently displaced. Where are they going to go? To India? What’s India going to do? The economic, social and political consequences are huge.

SG: What do we do about coal, which China and the United States are still dependent on? 

SC: We have got to figure out how to use coal in a clean way, which means we have got to figure out how to capture the carbon dioxide. The methods are too expensive. I think we can store it quite safely, but it has to be proven, because the public is going to be very wary. The public doesn’t like windmills, some people don’t like hydro-electric dams, and they certainly don’t like nuclear. The danger of carbon dioxide release, in my mind, is actually greater for life than nuclear. And you would need to have thousands of repositories. So unless you can really demonstrate that they are safe, there is going to be lawsuit after lawsuit and things would be stalled for years. You have got to do research and prove to the public that it is going to be safe. You have got to do research on how to capture it better.

I think investment in carbon sequestration is absolutely needed. I think high temperature metallurgy is needed for more efficient power plants. Right now the most efficient coal burning plants are 40% to 42% efficient. They can go over 50%. And the coal plant efficiency in China is about 30%, and in India it’s even less than 30%. So you can almost double it: that’s a lot.

SG: What would you tell China’s policymakers?

SC: The major issue in China is energy efficiency. They have reasonable mileage standards, but not as good as Europe. They are beginning to close down their very inefficient industries and coal plants. They are trying to do these things more aggressively, so that’s good news.

I think the United States can do the carbon sequestration research. A lot of the research is not intellectual property. It’s just a question of: “we now know how to do it, and they can do it too”. What happens geochemically is something we need to find out, but China can just read the journals. And then perhaps we can co-develop other technologies.

SG: What do you think about biofuels?

SC: Let me just say there’s 101 ways to do it wrong, and a couple of ways to do it right. I am certainly not in favour of foreign ethanol. You want to get off corn as quickly as possible. I’m not in favor of chopping down Indonesian rainforest to grow palm oil. That’s a bigger loser for the climate than leaving the rainforest there.

SG: You have said we need a second Green Revolution.

SC: I think there needs to be a second Green Revolution, because we are not doing agriculture in a sustainable way. We are over-fertilising. There’s a huge greenhouse-gas problem. There’s a water pollution problem. It’s time to have a really hard look at our agricultural practices.

SG: How do we achieve this?

SC: Partly education, partly incentives, partly regulation. A lot of over-fertilising, at least in the United States, comes from ignorance and pushy salesmen. “If this much fertiliser is good, then twice as much is better.” Well, it is better, but maybe only 10% better. And the farmer doesn’t pay for the water pollution problems, and the nitrate runoffs, and all the nitrous oxide that is being generated.

SG: What do you think is at stake at Copenhagen?

SC: The future of the world. Not to sound too melodramatic. I’m very much hoping the United States and the new administration will begin to play a leadership role. If the United States plays a leadership role, I think China and India will follow, because they will suffer more from climate change than we will – and they know that. But I agree that   they can’t do it unless the United States does it first. So if the United States takes a leadership role and is willing to develop and share technology, it would go a long way.

China already is very afraid. They’re beginning to see the consequences of climate change in their water supplies. In northern China, the Yellow River is beginning to run dry; the Tibetan plateau is melting very quickly. They have forest degradation as well. All over the world we’re beginning to see this. And once you lose your forest you lose your watershed area. Trees do something magical to the land, they help hold the water.

SG: What are the key issues that need to be a part of the decision at Copenhagen?

SC: The international price of carbon: we need a way of regulating it so that you make sure there’s a floor. You don’t want the price to crash. There must be ways of limiting it, just as in the US economy there’s a Federal Reserve board that tries to balance things by adjusting interest rates. You could adjust things through how many carbon credits you auction, or a minimum floor for the auction. It’s important for long-term investment. 

We need regulation where the price won’t do it. The price will never make a house with insulation more attractive. There should be inducements – carrot and stick. I think countries have the wisdom to put more research into energy. Denmark understands: they look at industries like their wind power industry and their enzyme industry [for biofuel production] and they are making lots of money. They see this as a business opportunity. 

SG: And a company may hit on something that’s truly transformative.

SC: Yes, and they are going to make a lot of money.

I really hope we can get photovoltaics to work better. There is nothing in the laws of physics that say they cannot be really cheap and 25% efficient. Because of that I think there is more technological headroom in photovoltaics. But it may not work for 10 or 20 years.

Building efficiency could be comparable. One problem is that the people who are supposed to be operating buildings don’t know how to.    I have seen this in my own   laboratory: it was a new building, the people didn’t know how to adjust the heating ventilation system and it would oscillate. It was fighting itself – too hot and too cold – and it went on for two months. Finally someone gave us control of it. They just didn’t know how to operate the building. So you have to make the buildings smart. That I think has a lot of potential. Is it transformative? The results might be.

Sam Geall is deputy editor of chinadialogue

Steven Chu is currently the 12th United States secretary of energy. Chu won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for his research in cooling and trapping of atoms with laser light.  

Homepage photo by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory