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.