Energy’s Future Is Both Cleaner and Dirtier

The green energy revolution is making greater progress than expected. Solar and wind power have seen exponential cost declines, and electric vehicles seem to be a market winner.

That’s all good news, but improving green energy is not the same as addressing climate change. There is good chance that even optimistic projections for green energy will come true — and carbon emissions will continue to increase.

That’s in part because of innovation not only in green energy but also in the fossil-fuel industry. The fracking revolution in the U.S. has been a positive development, if only because gas is usually cleaner than coal. Nonetheless burning gas (and the fracking process itself) creates environmental problems, including carbon emissions. It is easy to imagine the U.S. fracking revolution spreading to more countries, thereby boosting the use of natural gas. In the short run gas will substitute for the much dirtier coal, but over the longer term fracking is competing with greener forms of energy production.

The bottom line: If you are bullish on green innovation, perhaps you should be bullish on innovation in fossil fuels as well.

One notable feature of energy is that it is easy to use more of it. If energy were truly cheap, people would take more plane trips, build more robots, desalinate more water and terraform more of the earth’s surface. These are wonderful ambitions, but they might lead the world to use both more green energy and more carbon-intensive energy.