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Ex-Energy Secretary Says Fixing Climate Change Is Tough, There's No Vaccine


President-elect Biden plans to change U.S. climate policies - or rather pick up where they left off, resuming efforts disrupted under the Trump administration. Biden talks of the United States generating all its electricity by 2035 without emitting carbon into the atmosphere. He wants the whole economy to run on clean energy by 2050. If that can be done at all, it will demand changes in technology. So we called someone who knows the technology well.

Steven Chu is a recipient of a Nobel Prize in physics. He was also secretary of energy in President Obama's administration. And he says climate change makes the pandemic look simple.

STEVEN CHU: There will be no vaccine, magical shot for climate change. And it's going to have a more profound impact on the world at large, if you can imagine that, than what we're going through today.

INSKEEP: Steven Chu says markets are moving in favor of cleaner energy. President Trump's administration loosened fuel economy standards for cars and promoted coal. But the coal industry kept dying on its own, and car companies say they are ready to go back to stricter standards. Renewable energy, like wind and solar, is getting cheaper, while oil companies are contemplating a different future.

We've been interested by the news that some oil companies are forecasting peak demand - not that their production would peak, but that the demand for oil is plateauing or declining in the next few years.

CHU: Yes. I would say it's more plateauing. It will be a long plateau, which is not what they would have said 10 years ago. It's in part due to the fact that they are anticipating electric vehicles will become better and better. And they will. As they look towards their future, I think the more forward-leaning oil companies are saying, well, essentially, by 2070, 2075 - whatever - we need to be in a very different business. If you're going to actually use oil or natural gas, then the carbon can't be released into the atmosphere.

INSKEEP: In past business cycles, the market has sometimes worked against renewable energy. Oil prices go up. Wind and solar look more attractive by comparison. But then oil gets very cheap, as it absolutely has been during the pandemic, and oil becomes much more attractive. Is there any reason to think that cycle would be broken this time?

CHU: Yeah, the technology's getting better. I go back to something like electric vehicles, which for personal transportation, you can imagine - let's say a $20-, $25,000 car that has a 350-mile range, is four times less expensive to own and operate in terms of fuel and maintenance. And pretend you can charge 200 miles in five minutes, six minutes. It means the car battery's lasting longer than the human bladder, which is the key criteria.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) I hadn't thought about that. People are going to stop for that reason. OK, go on.

CHU: Yes. And so these type of batteries will be deployed. So it makes much more economical sense. People will gravitate it towards - naturally. That's why the oil companies are looking towards other uses for oil and natural gas, particularly chemicals and plastics. What they really love is if you could use that material to make construction materials that begin to displace cement or steel or at least supplement them and lower the carbon footprint of those things.

INSKEEP: Oh, because there's a big carbon footprint with those materials, those construction materials as well.

CHU: Oh, absolutely. Cement, for example, is responsible - just cement is responsible for about 8% of the entire world carbon emissions.

INSKEEP: So given the changes in technology and the changes in the marketplace, is the Biden administration, which has set these relatively ambitious climate goals for 2035 and 2050, are they pushing on an open door?

CHU: No, not really, because in the end, to get real acceptance, it's got to be better, cheaper. And there's an inertia. And so if you look at how you make these major shifts in infrastructure, these are half-a-century investments - the lifetime of a coal plant, the lifetime of a natural gas plant. The lifetime of an automobile is 15 to - going on 20 years. Now, you can retire things before their natural lifetime, but then there's a lot of resistance to do that.

INSKEEP: Ah, so the question for the government is, how do they give this a shove? How do they move things a little faster than they might naturally move on their own?

CHU: That's right. The real question is, what will help people make an electric vehicle choice? Well, the first thing would be the technology gets so good - instead of keeping your old car, you really want to have something that's just better. But, you know, how do you retire things before their natural lifetime is an issue. Now, you have to demonstrate that this change is going to be good for not only the health but the economy and everything else; it has to be cost effective, and by cost effective, it could incorporate the cost of human health. Hopefully, the American public will have no trouble trying to understand that when it comes to your own, your family, your children's health, it's worthwhile.

INSKEEP: One of the reasons I wanted to call you was that you were in the Obama administration when it was attempting to get climate legislation through Congress. And it didn't happen. There was tremendous political resistance. Do you think the political landscape may have changed in a way that will allow more serious investment in fighting climate change?

CHU: Yes. In fact, I would go further and say, I think some oil companies - you know, I'm on an advisory group to Royal Dutch Shell. And I truly believe that that company wants to see itself in a completely new business, that they cannot be a carbon company that emits carbon into the atmosphere. And so there's also a growing awareness of the public. Then companies themselves - and this is a problem - we have to be part of the solution, even if it means that we've - going to have to completely reinvent ourselves.

INSKEEP: Steven Chu, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

CHU: OK. My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He's a Nobel Prize winner, former secretary of energy and now at Stanford University.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE DEAD TEXAN'S "THE STRUGGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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