I had a chance to interview Fred Krupp, president of Environmental Defense Fund and co-author with Miriam Horn of Earth: The Sequel (review here). EDF has a long and successful history of fighting to curb harmful pollutants. The new book looks at some of the emerging technologies that may make the whole idea of pollutants an outdated concept.
TerraPass: I wasn’t expecting a book about global warming to be such a fun read. Was it fun to write?
Fred Krupp: Yes, it was fun to write because we were discovering all these fun stories about interesting characters. But it was also fun because in the process of writing this book, both Miriam and I had our spirits lifted that there are an abundance of alternatives to solve this problem.
TP:It’s easy to flip between despair at how little progress we’ve made and excitement over the opportunities that lie ahead. What’s your outlook these days? Are we really up to this task?
FK:The reason that the despair to date has been warranted is that the economics are all wrong. The conventional market system has a big flaw in that no one is forced to pay the cost of polluting the atmosphere. And the reason hopefulness is warranted now is that all three presidential candidates have come out in favor of a cap on global warming pollution.
Within 24 months, I predict, we will have that cap, which will create a cascade of private investment into these new technologies, will create a government requirement that we take this pollution out of the air. And we will see the entrepreneurial energy that America’s always been famous for finally put to use to tackle global warming.
TP: Experts are hopeful that we’ll have a cap within the next two years. But there are a lot of details yet to be worked out. In your view, what are the absolutely essential elements of a good climate bill?
FK: We need a hard cap on global warming pollution, not one with loopholes and escape valves. We need a strong bill that will get at least 20% of global warming pollution reduced by 2020 and 80% by 2050. We need a system enacted that isn’t one that can be gamed by the lobbyists, who just put the fix in for their company and their technology, driving the cost up for all the rest of us.
We need a system that is performance-based, that creates a metric for how much people are going to reduce pollution. The technologies that will win are the ones that reduce pollution the most, not the ones that have hired the most clever lobbyist.
TP: The book is a broad survey of technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including some which have become controversial: clean coal, biofuels, etc. What would you say to critics who feel that some of these technologies are dead ends?
FK: The current generation of conventional biofuel made out of kernels of corn is problematic for a variety of reasons. It drives up the price of food, and its contribution to reducing global warming pollution is minimal at best. But in the book we write about a next generation of biofuels. Instead of conventional ethanol, we talk about cellulosic ethanol and the pioneers prospecting around the world for extremophiles that are able to digest fiber into sugar. We talk about companies like Amyris that have figured out ways to get yeast to turn sugar into, not ethanol, but into gasoline or even jet fuel.
The current conventional ethanol mandate was government’s attempt to pick a winner. The reason a performance-based cap-and-trade system is better is that instead of having government pick the wrong winners, we have government play the role of scorekeeper, measuring the amount of carbon that is reduced, which will drive the system to the next generation of biofuels.
TP: Your book covers a lot of cutting-edge, emerging technology. What did you learn that surprised you the most while doing your research?
FK: The spirit of some of these pioneers is incredible — guys like Bernie Karl who figured out how to make low-temperature geothermal work in the process of creating this ice hotel outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. He teamed up with United Technologies and ended up not only turning a profit by creating an attraction for tourists to flock to, but also enabled United Technologies to begin to sell these low-temperature geothermal units that generate electricity all around the world.
It was surprising how powerful American entrepreneurism can be when unleashed. And that’s what gives me so much hope that when government fires the starting pistol for the most important and greatest race of our time and indeed of any time — it’s really a race against time — it gives me hope that these [technologies] in the early stages [will bear fruit] once there’s this infusion of money, thanks to the incentive finally being aligned with carbon reductions. That should make us all very hopeful.