ASPEN – Shifting the United States to clean-burning renewable fuels has the potential to cut through a thicket of thorny social ills and solve long-standing problems across the entire spectrum of American life, from manufacturing to national security to clean water, the country's top environmental cop said on Wednesday.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson spoke before 150 scientists, lawyers, industry executives, activists and others gathered at this alpine town for a three-day conference on the country's energy future.
She said weaning the country from fossil fuels remains a top priority of the Obama administration because it offers such a broad suite of solutions across all aspects of American life: rewarding innovation, discouraging pollution, investing in jobs and encouraging energy independence.
"It's extraordinary to be at a time where one answer answers so many extraordinary big issues," she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Mozambique's environmental minister, Alcinda Antonio de Abreu. For most of her country's 20 million residents, she said, charcoal and wood remain the primary fuel. The south African country lacks power to irrigate fields, purify drinking water and light schools.
For Mozambique, Antonio de Abreu said, clean energy is far more than a way to stem climate change: It's a solution holding a promise of increased agriculture production, decreased dysentery and educated, empowered women.
"A better world is to have clean water and electricity," she said. "There's a big difference between how we're living today and change for the better."
But the problem is daunting: Energy demands are set to skyrocket in coming decades. Three billion more people will be born by 2050 and need some source of fuel. An additional three billion live today without adequate energy and will – like Mozambique – be clamoring for more power.
President Barack Obama hopes to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050 - widely considered an ambitious goal. Yet society could conserve every watt of energy in use today by then, and the world would still need twice the power it uses today, said Dan Nocera, a professor of energy and chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
To meet that demand, the world could cover every bit of land with fuel crops, build a new nuclear power plant every 1.5 days and stick windmills in every place with a breeze. Or, he said, we could turn every home into a personal power plant and gasoline station by using the sun to crack hydrogen and oxygen apart in water.
"It won't be the few owning the oil and giving it out as a drug," he said. "It'll be you, because it'll be the sun."
"We can't keep taking anymore."
That's the message the Obama administration and the EPA intend to make, Jackson said. "The way out of our challenges is through a clean energy transition. This is a time for big ideas."
She pointed, by way of example, to recent United Nations talks in Nigeria on mercury pollution, a byproduct of coal combustion, among others.
The global community, Jackson said, was hopeful the United States might "talk around the margins." Instead, she said, the team proposed mandatory worldwide reductions. The response was electric.
"They were willing to follow our lead, but they were not willing to act if we did not," she said. "That is the power of being the standard bearer."
Jackson said the best solution is to work with Congress on a comprehensive solution involving a cap-and-trade program. Above all, she added, the EPA hopes to avoid a "regulatory thicket" where government and businesses spend most of their energy quarrelling over rules.
"We're not looking to regulate every single Dunkin' Donuts, every single cow, or every single backyard barbecue."
But something must change, and businesses and others dependent on the oil and gas economy need to see the consequences of inaction, she said.
"If you think climate protection endangers economic growth, wait 'till you see what climate change does."
Douglas Fischer is editor of the Daily Climate. This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.