State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

As a Leading Environmental Organization Closes, Its Leader is Upbeat

Lester Brown. Photo: KFEM
Lester Brown. Photo: KFEM

Lester Brown, the global environmental leader, turned 81 this year and on July 1, he will close The Earth Policy Institute, the environmental research organization he founded in 2001. (Brown’s organization is separate from Columbia University’s Earth Institute.)

The Washington Post has called Brown “one of the world’s most influential thinkers” and in 2011, Foreign Policy named him one of the year’s Top 100 Global Thinkers. He has written or co-authored 54 books, translated into 43 languages, that examine and explain global environmental issues and urge the world to chart an environmentally and economically sustainable path.

Great Transition_mech.indd

Just in time for Earth Day, Brown and his colleagues have released his newest book, The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy. It is one of the most exciting books he’s ever worked on, he said, because it shows how we can work our way out of the dangerous situation we’ve created as CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels warm the planet.

The Great Transition describes how the world is shifting away from the use of fossil fuels towards clean and sustainable renewable energy sources because of growing concerns about air pollution and climate change. The plummeting prices of renewable energy and steady technological advancements are driving the change, as well as growing social opposition to fossil fuels, and exhaustion of the most readily accessed fossil fuel resources.

Brown’s book explains the ongoing reduction in oil and coal use. The cost and logistical difficulties of oil exploration and development have increased, because the easily accessed reserves have been tapped out; today companies must use much more costly methods to drill for oil in places such as under the ocean or in shale rock.

Offshore oil drilling platform in the Baltic Sea
Offshore oil drilling platform in the Baltic Sea

In the United States, oil use is also falling because people are driving less and driving more fuel-efficient cars. Around the world, bike- and car-sharing programs are on the increase.

Fast-growing supplies of cheap natural gas resulting from the hydraulic fracking boom have helped reduce the U.S.’s dependence on coal. And there are more and stricter regulations on coal plants to lessen their toxic air polluting and CO2 emissions. Often, retrofitting old coal plants to comply with the regulations is more expensive than closing them and replacing them with wind or solar. In addition, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign to close coal plants has spurred the planned retirement of 180 coal-fired plants and helped prevent the construction of 183 others. While the U.S. and many other countries, including China (In 2014, coal consumption in China, which burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, dropped for the first time in decades.), are gradually moving away from coal, however, global coal use is unfortunately on the rise, especially in India.

The 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster has discouraged the expansion of nuclear energy in many countries. The risks to health and the environment posed by nuclear plants and their high construction costs have also contributed to the waning enthusiasm for nuclear energy. Even the fourth generation nuclear reactors under development, some of which are designed to use depleted uranium as fuel, will not be able to compete economically with solar and wind, said Brown. “Nuclear energy is just out of the running based on economics alone. And we don’t even know yet how much it costs to dismantle and dispose of a nuclear plant. It looks like the cost will be far greater than building a plant because what do you do with all that waste?”

Solar farm in Horstel, Germany
Solar farm in Horstel, Germany

In contrast to these energy sources, solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which cost over $74 per watt of electricity in 1972, now cost less than 70 cents a watt. Because of this rapid drop in price, the world’s PV installation went from 16,000 to 139,000 megawatts between 2008 and 2013. In the U.S., demand for solar power increased 30 percent in 2014, while the global use of solar cells is expanding by over 50 percent each year.

Global wind capacity has increased more than 20 percent yearly over the past decade, due to falling prices and supportive government policies. More and more countries are increasing the portion of energy they get from wind, with the U.S. and China leading the pack.

In January 2014, wind supplied 62% of Denmark's electricity. Photo: CGPGrey
In January 2014, wind supplied 62% of Denmark’s electricity. Photo: CGPGrey

A 2009 report found that globally, land-based wind farms could provide over five times the total amount of energy the world needs.

The Great Transition also describes the great potential of geothermal energy and the pros and environmental cons of hydropower, which accounts for 7 percent of the nation’s electricity and 51 percent of renewable energy resources.

Will this energy transition come quickly enough to avoid catastrophic climate change? Brown is actually more optimistic today than in past years. “I can be more upbeat now,” said Brown, “because we are starting to see how we can get out of a bad situation…the economics of energy have changed over the last few years. The calculations I would have done one or two years ago on climate change risks are not the same today, because now we can see how we can shift to renewables. It’s beginning to happen on a scale that has to be taken seriously.”

Climate scientist James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, however, believes that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 6 percent yearly to avoid climate disaster and that this cannot be done without nuclear energy, which is touted to be carbon-free and currently provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute, concurs. “On a global scale, it’s hard to see how we could conceivably accomplish this without nuclear,” said Sachs.

As a way to deal with the daunting economics of large nuclear plants, the U.S. Department of Energy is investing in the commercialization and deployment of small modular reactors, which are less costly to construct and offer flexibility in siting. These reactors, which are not new, are about one-third the size of a traditional nuclear reactor, and have been used in the past to power submarines and aircraft carriers.

And while renewable energy is on the rise, it has a way to go. Today, only 4.5 percent of U.S. electricity is supplied by wind power; and last year, utility scale solar power provided a mere .46 percent of total U.S. electricity. Moreover, because they are intermittent energy sources, renewables still create challenges for the grid because we don’t yet have adequate storage technology to capture energy when available for later use. The grid itself also needs to be upgraded to better integrate renewable energy.

Tehachapi wind farm in California. Photo: StanShebs
Tehachapi wind farm in California. Photo: StanShebs

Despite these issues, however, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and cleantechnica data found that 90 percent of new electricity generation in the U.S. in January of this year came from solar and wind. And recent reports about investment in renewable energy are optimistic.

A report on financing the future of energy by the University of Cambridge was surprised to find that “renewable energy technologies are far further advanced than many may believe: solar photovoltaic (PV) and on-shore wind have a track record of successful deployment, and costs have fallen dramatically in the past few years. In many parts of the world, indeed, they are now competitive with hydrocarbon energy sources. Already, more than half of the investment in new electricity generation worldwide is in renewables…”

A 2015 UNEP report on renewable energy investment found that “Wind, solar, biomass and waste-to-power, geothermal, small hydro and marine power contributed an estimated 9.1 percent of world electricity generation in 2014, compared to 8.5 percent in 2013… As in previous years, the market in 2014 was dominated by record investments in solar and wind, which accounted for 92 percent of overall investment in renewable power and fuels.”

“What we’re seeing now,” said Brown, “is a response to the threat of climate change driven not by environmental groups, but by the market and advances in technology. As the social momentum continues to gain as well, economics will eventually overcome all the political roadblocks.”

Because of the CO2 we have already generated however, we are already experiencing and will continue to experience some of the effects of climate change. “But if we can hold the line at 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere and move fast, we can alter the trajectory of CO2 growth,” said Brown. “The advancements in technology will continue to come, and they will create a world that is so different from today’s.”

Brown started out as a tomato farmer in New Jersey, then went on to earn a degree in agricultural science from Rutgers University and masters degrees from the University of Maryland in agricultural economics and Harvard in public administration. While living in rural India in 1955, Brown came to understand the critical connections between population, land and water. He later worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, becoming head of its International Agricultural Development Service.

In 1974, he founded the Worldwatch Institute, which published annual reports analyzing environmental issues, and in 2001, he established the Earth Policy Institute. His many books connect the dots between climate change, water, deforestation, food and overpopulation. Though the pictures he paints can be depressing, Brown always provides hope by offering examples of innovative progress and strategies that can help the world become more sustainable.

“We are most worried about climate and water, but the effects of shrinking water supplies are much more imminent than the effects of climate change,” said Brown. He is very troubled by the over-pumping of groundwater (mostly for agriculture) in the American west, in China and in India, and the devegetation (due to grazing cattle and sheep), which is creating new dust bowls in Western China, the Sahel and parts of the U.S.

Sheep grazing in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Colegota
Sheep grazing in Xinjiang, China. Photo: Colegota

However, there are solutions. Countries that face water shortages will need to recognize that some crops are more water efficient than others and change their agricultural strategies. “The world will face a forced restructuring of its diet,” said Brown, “which means moving down the food chain. In the U.S., the amount of grain we consume (through eating grain-fed livestock) is four times that of India, which is linked to the amount of water that goes into growing the grain. We need to think about putting together population and water policies that mesh.”

While the Earth Policy Institute is closing its doors due to a board decision, Brown will continue to do research and write books, maintaining his habit of working seven days a week. He’s already planning his next book about the looming crises of water and dust bowls.

A Lester Brown reading room is being established at Rutgers University, to house a collection of all 600 language editions of his books, his honorary degrees and his awards. Rutgers will also take over the website of the Earth Policy Institute, maintaining it as an archive.

“I have been heading an environmental research institute for 40 years and I have thoroughly enjoyed it,” said Brown. “I’ve been doing what I really want to do…now I’ll just do it from home.”


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