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Please Steal Our Fossil Fuels

The main threat to a prosperous low-carbon future is the waste that low fossil-fuel prices encourage. If some extra-terrestrial thief stole two-thirds of the world’s oil, gas, and coal reserves, we could still enjoy the household appliances, information technology, heating, lighting, and mobility that define the modern world.

LONDON – With just days left to go, 2014 seems certain to be the warmest year on record, or at least the runner-up. International agreement on robust action to limit global warming remains inadequate: the just-completed Lima climate-change conference delivered some progress, but no major breakthrough. Away from the diplomatic circuit, however, technological advances make it certain that we can build low-carbon economies at minimal cost and great benefit to human welfare.

Solar energy reaching the earth’s surface provides 5,000 times humanity’s energy needs. The technology to capture it cost effectively and cleanly is available. Indeed, photovoltaic module prices have fallen 80% since 2008 and the best utility-scale solar projects can now produce electricity for less than $0.10 per kilowatt-hour. Optimists say that solar energy will become economical without subsidies later this decade, while pessimists put the break-even point in the 2020s. The question is when – not whether – this will occur.

Though progress on energy-storage technologies has been less dramatic, it has been sufficient to make green transport feasible. The price of lithium-ion battery packs has fallen from around $800 per kilowatt-hour in 2009 to $600 in 2014, and will likely be below $300 by 2020 and $150 by the late 2020s. Once the price is below $250, the total cost of owning and running an electric car will be less than for one with an internal combustion engine (assuming gasoline prices of $3.50 per US gallon).

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