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Cover Story

August 18, 2008
Volume 86, Number 33
pp. 42-46


Learning to live off the sun in real time

Rudy M. Baum

IN ALMOST ANY DISCUSSION of global climate change, one encounters the phrase "tipping point." Whether it is the global climate itself, or the carbon locked in the Arctic tundra's permafrost, or the extent of Arctic sea ice, a tipping point occurs when some parameter reaches a value where various feedback loops come into play and further change in the parameter becomes radically more rapid and/or permanent.

In the case of humanity's relationship to Earth, a tipping point appears to have occurred in 2006. In what seems to have been the blink of an eye, a shift in attitude occurred. On one side of the divide, people in general expressed concern, but not alarm, over the state of the environment. On the other side of the divide, past the tipping point, a consensus emerged that human actions were having a serious negative impact on the global environment. The consensus was embraced by scientists and nonscientists and, remarkably, by a large swath of corporate America.

Rudy Baum/C&EN
SOLAR POWER Sunrise over Reston Town Center, in Virginia.

To be sure, as is the case with any tipping point, change had been occurring for some time. James Hansen, now director of the National Aeronautics & Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center, first testified before Congress on global warming in June 1988. Other climate scientists including Stephen H. Schneider testified, wrote books, and held press conferences attempting to awaken the public to the challenges of global climate change. Al Gore's 1992 book "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit" addressed in broad terms humans' relationship to Earth. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was established in 1988 and issued its first report in 1990.

For years, however, through the 1990s and into the new century, Hansen, Schneider, and their allies were derided as alarmists. Gore was portrayed by his critics as slightly daffy, an effete tree-hugger who shouldn't be taken seriously. IPCC, well, it was a creation of the UN; enough said. Many citizens, it seems to me, simply shrugged. Who could tell which side was right?

Then the public attitude shifted, abruptly. BP became Beyond Petroleum and adopted a yellow and green logo that suggests the sun and plants. Worldwide reinsurers began factoring global warming into their calculations. People took notice. Reinsurers are not starry-eyed idealists; they care about the money.

In September 2006, ACS Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Madeleine Jacobs and I encountered Dow Chemical CEO Andrew N. Liveris at the Perkin Medal reception in Philadelphia. Liveris is a brilliant and tough-minded CEO who has guided Dow to its current status as the largest chemical company in the U.S. and the second largest chemical company in the world. For fully 15 minutes, Jacobs and I listened as Liveris passionately discussed energy policy, sustainability, the triple bottom line, and the need for chemical companies to find a way to assist development in Africa.

In October 2006, I attended a town hall meeting in Washington, D.C., sponsored by DuPont to trumpet the company's commitment to reducing its environmental footprint even further than it had in the previous decade. DuPont Chairman and CEO Charles O. Holliday Jr. told the audience, which included DuPont executives, customers of the chemical giant, and representatives from environmental groups and other nongovernmental organizations, that "DuPont's vision is to be the world's most dynamic science company, creating sustainable solutions essential to a better, safer, healthier life for people everywhere."

In the areas of environment, energy, and climate, Holliday said, DuPont committed itself to doubling its investment in R&D programs with quantifiable environmental benefits, increasing annual revenues by at least $2 billion from products that create energy efficiency and/or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and doubling revenues from nondepletable resources to at least $8 billion.

Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," debuted in November 2006, and the former vice president's "slide show" on global climate change became one of the most widely viewed documentaries of all time. In 2007, it won two Academy Awards, and Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with IPCC. For much of the public and for many in industry, the climate-change debate was over. The question was, where do we go from here?

SUSTAINABILITY. What is clear is that humans need to change their relationship to Earth. No resource is infinite. There are enough of us, more than 6 billion, and we are clever enough that our activities are impacting the global environment. How is it that we can ever have imagined otherwise? Just take one example, petroleum. Around the world, we pump upward of 87 million barrels of crude oil per day. That's more than 3.5 billion gal per day. And every drop is used, either for fuel or as feedstock for the petrochemical industry. The scale of this activity is almost incomprehensible.

This issue of C&EN is devoted to the idea of sustainability, both globally and, especially, with regard to the chemical enterprise. The three major essays that follow this one focus on the chemical industry, how the science of chemistry is contributing to sustainability, and governmental activities that encourage sustainable development.

The most commonly cited definition of "sustainability" comes from the UN's World Commission on Environment & Development (the Brundtland Commission), which was established in 1983 and published its report "Our Common Future" in 1987. "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs," according to the report.

That is as good a definition of sustainable development as one will find. However, as I've read and thought about sustainability for the past several months in preparation for this issue of C&EN, I've come up with a complementary definition: learning to live off the sun in real time. Although sustainability is not only about energy, it is, in fact, largely about energy.

For most of human existence, humans did live off the sun in real time. The primary energy sources humans harnessed were their own manual labor, the muscle of animals, flowing water, wind, and burning wood. That changed in the middle of the 19th century. A 2006 report of the National Research Council, "Sustainability in the Chemical Industry: Grand Challenges & Research Needs," states: "Since 1850, there has been an evolution of both energy resources as well as the source of feedstocks for the commodity chemical industry. In 1850, the predominant fuels were wood or other biomass depending upon location. During the time period, the chemical enterprise was relatively small.

"However, as the industrial revolution gained momentum, the need for new chemicals and new materials to meet the growing demands of industry and consumers increased. At the turn of the twentieth century, carbon-based chemical feedstocks were already primarily derived from coal. Over the course of the twentieth century, global political and economic forces initiated significant change. During that time, the United States, and subsequently the global chemical enterprise, moved farther away from renewable sources of carbon-based feedstock and became heavily dependent on fossil fuels—crude oil and natural gas—both as a feedstock for commodity chemicals and as a primary energy source."

FOSSILIZED SUNSHINE. What is true of the chemical industry is true of all of society. The extraordinary productivity of the past 150 years has largely been fueled by fossilized sunshine. That has to change for two primary reasons. One is that fossil fuels are, by definition, finite resources. One can argue whether we have already reached "peak oil"???the point at which half of all the oil that ever will be discovered has been discovered and supply, while far from exhausted, will inevitably begin to decline???or whether we will reach it in 10, 20, or 30 years. The point is, we will reach peak oil. (Certainly, the current remarkable run-up in crude oil prices is consistent with what will occur when peak oil is reached.) Yes, there are vast reserves of petroleum locked in oil shale and tar sands, and yes, there's enough coal out there to power society for 200 years, but extracting these resources will take a terrible toll on the landscape of Earth. At what point are we going to say, enough?


The other reason, of course, is climate change. The gigatons of carbon dioxide humans are pumping into the atmosphere as if it were a giant sewer are causing the climate to change. That's no longer in dispute. Until 1850, humans' impacts on the environment were local. Now that we have based our technological society on burning fossilized sunshine, the impacts are global. Hence, the focus on sustainability. Transforming our vast and complex technological civilization won't be easy and will not occur smoothly. It will occur in stages and involve technologies that some people don't like at all. Energy efficiency and conservation will play important roles, but so will vastly expanded use of nuclear energy, including breeder reactors to enormously expand the supply of nuclear fuel. Research geared to dealing with the inevitable complexities of an economy based heavily on nuclear energy—building safe breeder reactors, secure handling of plutonium, responsible disposal of the remaining waste—should have been a high priority for the past 50 years.

The chemical enterprise's relationship to sustainability is complex and unique. The chemical industry itself must become sustainable. According to "Sustainability in the Chemical Industry," "the chemical process industry (CPI) consumes about 7.7 percent of all the energy (fossil fuels, electricity, etc.) resources used in the United States. Of this, about 50 percent of the energy resources are used as chemical feedstocks rather than consumed as energy." In his essay "Converging Pathways" (see page 47), Assistant Managing Editor Michael McCoy discusses the significant steps already being taken by the chemical industry to transform its practices to make them sustainable.

As McCoy makes clear, part of the impetus to change chemical industry practices toward sustainability has come from within the industry itself, but part has also come from environmental groups that have become willing to partner with the industry and also from the industry's customers. Companies such as DuPont, Dow Chemical, Rohm and Haas, and BASF have come to see sustainability as a business opportunity and are capitalizing on it.

Beyond the chemical industry, chemistry, the science, will be a major driver of sustainability. As Senior Editor Stephen Ritter observes in his essay, "Calling All Chemists" (see page 59), "Humanity's collective fate will ultimately come down to our ability to shift the way we produce and consume energy and fuels and the way we design, develop, produce, and use chemicals and chemical products. The multiple technological pathways that will be needed will have to come from improving the efficiencies of current technologies, creating myriad new parallel technologies to choose from, and recycling like never before." Ritter examines in detail green chemistry and green chemical engineering and looks at progress in research on batteries, biofuels, and solar cells.

We possess the knowledge to exist on Earth in a sustainable way. Vastly more sunshine falls on the planet each day than we currently or even conceivably could consume. That's the good news. The bad news? Fossil fuels have made us lazy. What we have lacked is the collective will to implement sustainable technology, primarily because it is, inevitably, more expensive than our current practices. This is where government enters the picture. People, industries, and society itself must be given incentives to change their behavior and patterns of consumption. Some of the most successful incentives are and will be economic. Others will have to take the form of regulations.

One of the core principles of these incentives must be that all of the costs of producing, consuming, and disposing of a good must be internalized in the cost of the good to the consumer. There is no free lunch. In her essay, "Sticks and Carrots" (see page 70), Senior Editor Cheryl Hogue examines the role governments are playing in promoting sustainability from the level of the individual consumer to the world as a whole.

If, as Ritter points out, sustainability is a journey, not a destination in itself, I believe the destination is a new economic ethos, one that emphasizes sufficiency over consumption, stability over growth, human potential over human greed—an ethos that harnesses human creativity and energy to preserve the commons rather than to endlessly exploit and despoil it.

There is nothing magical about all of this. Until we came along, every species in the history of Earth existed and evolved within the context of its environment as an external reality. Its environment was a given, not a variable under its control. With the arrival of technological Homo sapiens, that has changed. The environment is a variable under our control, and we now have to acknowledge that in our plans for the future as we learn to live off the sun in real time.

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