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Our generation’s moonshot: A clean-energy world by 2050

All of Earth would benefit from an Apollo program to combat climate change

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In a 1961 speech to Congress, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy challenges the nation to invent and build the technology needed to land a man on the moon within a decade.

In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy stirred America and the world with these words: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Just eight years later, NASA did just that — with astounding benefits for science, technology, and the world economy.

Now, a group of leading scientists, innovators, and economists has identified our era’s moonshot: to replace fossil fuels with clean-energy technologies within this generation.

Since a group of policy leaders from the United Kingdom initiated the Global Apollo Programme to Combat Climate Change earlier this year, I and many others have enthusiastically signed on. The program, named after the NASA moon mission, is built on the idea of “directed technological change.”

In other words, through a conscious effort, backed by public funds, we can steer the development of the advanced technologies needed to ensure humanity’s safety and wellbeing. At the top of the list is clean energy, which will enable us to head off the global warming caused by the combustion of massive amounts of coal, oil, and gas worldwide.

The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (DDPP) has demonstrated that a low-carbon future is within reach, with huge benefits at a very modest cost. In the United States, for example, cutting emissions by 80% by 2050 is not only feasible; it would require added outlays of only around 1% of gross domestic product per year. And the benefits — including a safer climate, smarter infrastructure, better vehicles, and cleaner air — would be massive.

Pathways to a low-carbon future focus on three main actions: improving energy efficiency, producing electricity from low-carbon energy sources (such as solar and wind energy), and switching from petroleum to low-carbon energy for powering vehicles (such as electric or fuel-cell vehicles) and heating buildings. These are clear and achievable goals, and the public sector should play a major role in advancing them.

Politicians need to end subsidies for coal, oil, and gas, and start taxing emissions from their use. Moreover, they must meet the need for new power lines to carry low-carbon solar, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric power from remote areas (and offshore platforms) to population centers.

But meeting these requirements presupposes advances in technologies that will enable low-carbon energy systems to compete with the alternatives. That is where the Apollo Programme comes in, with its bold goal of reducing the cost of renewable energy to below that of coal, oil, and gas.

Of course, renewable energy is sometimes already cheaper than fossil fuels — when the sun is shining bright or the wind is blowing strong and consistently. The main challenge with renewables is energy storage, in two senses.

First, we need to store renewable energy for use in vehicles in a low-cost and efficient way. While we already have high-quality electric vehicles, they require improvements in range and cost to be able to outcompete conventional vehicles. The highest technological priority is to develop batteries for transport that are cheaper, longer-lasting, faster-charging, and lighter.

Second, we need to store intermittent energy for times when the wind is not blowing, the sun is not shining, and rivers are not flowing strongly enough to turn hydroelectric turbines. Many energy-storage technologies are already in use or in development.

One example is pumped hydropower, in which excess wind and solar energy is used to pump water uphill into reservoirs that can later produce hydroelectric power. Another is the conversion of renewable energy into hydrogen (by splitting water molecules) or a synthetic liquid fuel made with carbon dioxide from the air. Others include compressed air and large-scale battery storage.

Low-carbon technologies can be improved markedly in many other areas as well. Power grids running on renewables need more sophisticated systems for balancing energy supply and demand. Improvements in carbon capture and storage technologies would enable some fossil fuels to be used safely. And nuclear-power-plant designs can be made safer with passive (automatic) safety systems and fuel cycles that leave behind less radioactive waste and fissile material that could be turned into weapons.