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Sustainability guides 'Soap Box' energy panel

Automotive, building industries should take the lead

The first of three MIT Museum "Soap Box" events devoted to energy covered the gamut from climate change to the urgent need for policies limiting greenhouse gas emissions.

Ernest J. Moniz, Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics, co-director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment and director of the new MIT Energy Initiative, and Kerry Emanuel, professor of meteorology, spoke about "The Challenge: Meeting Global Energy Demands Sustainably."

Soap Box at the MIT Museum is a series of salon-style conversations with scientists and engineers, a public forum for debate about ideas and issues in science and technology. Wednesday's event was webcast live through the museum web site.

Emanuel gave an overview of three major factors that drive the debate on energy--supply, security and the impact of energy consumption on the environment.

Emanuel said that while he himself was skeptical 15-20 years ago about global warming, the scientific community now has clear-cut data: The temperature is rising, possibly as much as 2 to 5 degrees overall, depending on clouds, which reflect, absorb and redirect sunlight.

"What keeps some of us awake at night is surprises--the low-probability, high-impact events we don't know enough about to rule out," he said. One of these would be that if all of Greenland's ice melted, it would raise sea level seven meters, obliterating low-lying land areas such as parts of New York and Florida.

Emanuel's own specialty--hurricanes--have been a surprise. "We thought we would see a modest increase (in severity), but they have shown a much greater sensitivity to climate than we thought," he said.

Moniz pointed out that globally, 85 percent of energy use is fossil fuel-derived. "If we keep going on this track, we will pass this doubling indicator (models that predict the effects of double the amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide) in around 50 years, and infrastructure turns over in 50 years. We have to start now to change."

"We must be much more efficient in our use of energy--we do expect a 1 to 1.5 percent increase in efficiency every year, but we have to find another 30-40 percent reduction in energy use to make our goal." He pointed to the automotive industry and the building industry as two key places to reduce energy use. In buildings, in particular, "a lot of it isn't high-tech, which makes it a crime that we're not doing it," Moniz said.

Moniz predicted that "a portfolio of options" including nuclear power, solar, wind and biofuels will work together to meet energy needs and play off each technology's advantages and drawbacks and respond to evolving market conditions and constraints.
"The idea that we will get out of this box without policy simply won't work because there is a clock that's ticking--we are shifting from an overdependence on a natural resources base for energy to a technological requirement, and you know technology is our strength."

The audience divided up into two groups to brainstorm questions and comments for the speakers. Questions included: Where does Al Gore have it wrong (in his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth")? Whatever happened to the predicted ice age? What work is being done to make nuclear energy safer?

Emanuel said that Gore's error was associating the gradual increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over millennia with global warming--only recent carbon emissions tied to the Industrial Revolution have affected the Earth's climate.

As far as another ice age goes, Emanuel said, "If we weren't messing with the climate ourselves, in 10,000 or 30,000 years from now we would go to another ice age."

Moniz said that a lot of work is being done to improve nuclear power but that the disposal of radioactive waste will be a limiting factor in broadening the use of nuclear energy.

"There must be policy put in place that attaches a price to greenhouse gas emissions," Moniz said, and the "policy response must be global. It's very complicated, taking into account different countries' capacity to respond, and I'm not sure we are up to it. It will be a slow process, but we can't afford to have it take 50 years--more like five years."

Does the government have the responsibility to educate the general public about the need to conserve energy? Possibly, but Emanuel said he prefers to educate people through forums such as Soap Box, where he can reach a wide range of people. After all, public education on seatbelts and smoking had an effect--why not energy?

The Soap Box energy series is cosponsored by the Energy Research Council and the MIT Technology and Culture Forum.

The special energy series continues Oct. 25 with "The Role of New Technologies in a Sustainable Energy Economy," and Nov. 1 with "Growing Pains: Transitioning to a Sustainable Energy Economy."

See for more information.

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