In early February, the United States National Academy of Engineering released a report on “Grand Challenges for Engineering in the 21st Century.” The goal is to focus attention on the potential of technology to help the world address poverty and environmental threats. The list includes potential breakthroughs such as low-cost solar power, safe disposal of CO2 from power plants, nuclear fusion, new educational technologies, and the control of environmental side effects from nitrogen fertilizers. The report, like the Gates Foundation’s similar list of “Grand Challenges” in global health, highlights a new global priority: promoting advanced technologies for sustainable development.
We are used to thinking about global cooperation in fields such as monetary policy, disease control, or nuclear weapons proliferation. We are less accustomed to thinking of global cooperation to promote new technologies, such as clean energy, a malaria vaccine, or drought-resistant crops to help poor African farmers. By and large, we regard new technologies as something to be developed by businesses for the marketplace, not as opportunities for global problem solving.
Yet, given the enormous global pressures that we face, including vastly unequal incomes and massive environmental damage, we must find new technological solutions to our problems. There is no way, for example, to continue expanding the global use of energy safely unless we drastically alter how we produce electricity, power automobiles, and heat and cool our buildings. Current reliance on coal, natural gas, and petroleum, without regard for CO2 emissions, is now simply too dangerous, because it is leading to climate changes that will spread diseases, destroy crops, produce more droughts and floods, and perhaps dramatically raise sea levels, thereby inundating coastal regions.
The National Academy of Engineering identified some possible answers. We can harness safe nuclear energy, lower the cost of solar power, or capture and safely store the CO2 produced from burning fossil fuels. Yet the technologies are not yet ready, and we can’t simply wait for the market to deliver them, because they require complex changes in public policy to ensure that they are safe, reliable, and acceptable to the broad public. Moreover, there are no market incentives in place to induce private businesses to invest adequately in developing them.
Consider carbon capture and sequestration. The idea is that power plants and other large fossil fuel users should capture the CO2 and pump it into permanent underground storage sites, such as old oil fields. This will cost, say, $30 per ton of CO2 that is stored, so businesses will need an incentive to do it. Moreover, public policies will have to promote the testing and improvement of this technology, especially when used at a large scale.
New kinds of power plants will have to be built to make carbon capture economical, new pipelines will have to be built to transport the CO2 to storage sites, and new monitoring systems will have to be designed to control leaks. Likewise, new regulations will be needed to ensure compliance with safety procedures, and to assure public support. All of this will take time, costly investments, and lots of collaboration between scientists and engineers in universities, government laboratories, and private businesses.
Moreover, this kind of technology will be useful only if it is widely used, notably in China and India. This raises another challenge of technological innovation: we will need to support the transfer of proven technologies to poorer countries. If rich countries monopolize new technologies, the goal of worldwide use to solve worldwide problems will be defeated. Thus, technological developments should involve a collaborative international effort from the start.
All of this will require a new global approach to problem solving. We will need to embrace global goals and then establish scientific, engineering, and political processes to support their achievement. We will need to give new budgetary incentives to promote demonstration projects, and to support technology transfer. And we will have to engage major companies in a new way, giving them ample incentives and market rewards for success, without allowing them to hold a monopoly on successful technologies that should be widely adopted.
I believe that this new kind of global public-private partnership on technology development will be a major objective of international policy making in the coming years. Look for new global cooperative approaches to clean energy systems, medicines and vaccines, improved techniques for fish farming, drought-and-temperature resistant crop varieties, high-mileage automobiles, and low-cost irrigation techniques.
Rich countries should fund these efforts heavily, and they should be carried out in collaboration with poor countries and the private sector. Successful technological breakthroughs can provide stunning benefits for humanity. This will be an exciting time to be a scientist or engineer facing the challenges of sustainable development.