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An Optimistic Guide to America’s Clean-Energy Future

Ramez Naam and Vinod Khosla join to break down the progress we’re making toward a clean-energy economy and the tech that will help us get there

Large Scale Solar Power Unit Installed At Los Angeles Port Location Of Ocean Studies Company AltaSea Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

The world is engaged in a multitrillion-dollar project to decarbonize the economy to slow or reverse climate change. But what exactly does that mean? How optimistic should we be that we can pull this off? And what new technology do we need to build to make it happen? This is a mega-pod with two guests. Ramez Naam is a writer, speaker, and one of the best technologists I know at explaining the progress we’re making toward building a clean-energy economy. And Vinod Khosla is one of the most famous venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, the founder of Khosla Ventures, and an investor in several sci-fi-sounding companies, including one that is working on fusion technology—which might be one of the most exciting and important technologies we’ll ever build.

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In the following excerpt, Derek and Ramez Naam discuss the future of clean energy in America.

Derek Thompson: Before we dive into the nitty-gritty, I am interested in getting out of you something like a thesis statement about the direction of America’s clean energy transition. What makes you most optimistic about our opportunity to move to clean energy? And what makes you most pessimistic?

Ramez Naam: Derek, can I swear on this podcast?

Thompson: Absolutely.

Naam: I’ll say this. What makes me most optimistic is the exponential price decline of clean energy technologies. Every clean energy technology, whether it’s solar power, wind power, batteries, electric vehicles, hydrogen, is decades or a century ahead of where we thought they’d be on cost just 10, 12, 13 years ago. And for renewables, and for electric vehicles, they are now either cheaper than fossil alternatives, fossil power, fossil transport, or about to be. So that’s what makes me optimistic. What makes me pessimistic is the limited amount of time that we have. There is no bright line in climate change. There is no threshold at which everything ends, and the world is completely doomed.

Nevertheless, we talk about 2 degrees Celsius as an important threshold, 1.5 degrees Celsius as an important threshold. One-point-five has become more popular. We have missed 1.5 degrees Celsius. We have warmed, already, 1.3 degrees Celsius. We’re going to pass 1.5 degrees in the 2030s at some point. Aside from doing solo geoengineering, which I think we should be investing much more in, we’re not going to make that. But when I started in climate around 2010, we seriously thought we might be headed for 6 degrees Celsius of warming, 12 degrees Fahrenheit. That might not sound like a lot. That’s more than the difference between now and the last ice age. That was truly catastrophic, not human extinction level, but civilization-ending climate change. We have bent that curve.

Over the last 18, 24 months, there have been a raft of papers looking at new either country pledges or just pure economic analysis of current policies and economic trends in clean energy that say we’ve bent the curve from less than 3 degrees, maybe to 2.5 degrees, maybe to 2 and change, maybe to 1.9 degrees Celsius. So we have gone from a truly apocalyptic scenario, if we maintain momentum, to being one where things will get worse, with climate, before they get better. But we could have a world of 10 billion, 11 billion people, living first-world lives, with better human well-being than we have today, not without damage. And here comes the profanity. The way that my friend Jesse Jenkins, at Princeton, talks about this is that in climate change, we’re no longer totally fucked, but we’re not totally unfucked either. We’re in the messy middle. Every 10th of a degree Celsius that we can shift that future warming matters tremendously. And that’s what gets me up in the morning, is fighting to bring it down.

Thompson: I’ve said to others that I am a rate optimist and a level pessimist when it comes to climate change. That is the rate of progress—and we’re going to talk a lot more about rates—is really shocking in a wonderful way. But the level of carbon already in the biosphere cannot make anybody optimistic. It just plain sucks.

Naam: Yeah, it’s the level of carbon. It’s also the rate that we see as a first derivative of rate. Solar and wind are growing exponentially. So Vaclav Smil had some quote the other day. The guy I love to hate. He said, “All the work we’ve done in clean energy has made no difference whatsoever.” Well, that’s actually false, but, you know what, it hasn’t slowed down. It hasn’t reduced carbon emissions. It’s not just that the level is high, over 400 PPM now, but that carbon emissions are still at an all-time high, like the new amount we add every year, is at an all-time high. But what’s happened underneath that—those are trailing indicators. The temperature is a super trailing indicator. Amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is a little bit upstream of that, but still trailing.

Emissions is upstream of level, but trails deployment. Deployment is upstream of clean tech, and shutting down fossil is upstream of emissions. But what’s upstream of that is the exponential price plunge that makes clean energy disruptively cheap, makes it cheaper to build new renewables than keep operating coal and gas plants, makes it cheaper ... to switch to EVs than to keep driving their gas guzzlers, and the continued drumbeat and advancement of policy. So that’s how I see it, is that the leading indicators are really positive, but those might not even be first derivatives. Those might be second or third derivative changes that we see. And eventually, they have to get down to lowering the actual CO2 in the atmosphere.

This excerpt was edited for clarity. Listen to the rest of the episode here and follow the Plain English feed on Spotify.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guests: Ramez Naam and Vinod Khosla
Producer: Devon Manze

Subscribe: Spotify