09/22/2013 06:27 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2013

Where Are We Going to Get New Energy?

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be releasing the world's foremost climate report on September 30. The report is bound to spark fierce, polarizing, and annoying debate over the effects our energy economy is having on the planet's climate. Leaked copies of the report have already led to pieces that IPCC atmospheric scientists are calling "distorted".

But whatever your opinion on the science of anthropogenic climate change, my advice is to wait and read the report for yourself when it is released. If you are not a climate scientist, check your beliefs at the door and just read the data as objectively as possible.

For me, I don't want this report to cloud a fact everyone needs to accept: we need a new energy economy.

Our current system ultimately derives its energy from fossils fuels (e.g., coal, oil, natural gas). This is a major problem for three reasons:

  1. Too much energy flows through our system at the expense of the total energy available for the biosphere
  2. Basing a global energy economy on a finite resource is unsustainable (obviously)
  3. If we did burn all of the fossil fuels available on our planet, Earth would start to look a lot like its sister-planet

As a result, the human system's energy consumption cannot be predominantly based on fossil fuels in the year 2100. Either our system will be based on a different form of energy, or our system will begin to collapse into something less organized (i.e., not a globally connected system with billions of individuals).

So what are we to do?

First, let's try and contextualize the problem. The human system is best understood when situated within a dynamic ecological approach that analyzes our "socioeconomic metabolism." Ecologist Helmut Haberl described this as a "physical input-output system drawing material and energy from its environment, maintaining internal physical processes and dissipating wastes, emissions and low-quality energy to the environment."

By analyzing our socioeconomic metabolism we can calculate how much energy our system consumes as a percentage of the global terrestrial net primary productivity (NPP) (i.e., the energy input to the biosphere). In short, how much energy do humans consume at the expense of all other systems?

Over evolutionary time there have been three main human socioeconomic modes of organization:

  • Hunter-gatherer
  • Agricultural
  • Industrial

A hunter-gatherer human system derives energy solely from biomass. Within this system our energy consumption is similar to those of other large, carnivorous mammals.

In contrast, agricultural systems transform ecosystems into "agro-ecosystems", which results in more energy for the human system and less energy for the surrounding biosphere. However, even the largest of agricultural systems in history only consumed 5 percent of the available NPP, which is not enough to cause major ecological disruption.

This all changed with the development of industry and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Within our current industrial system 30 percent of NPP energy input is utilized by the human system. The extra energy has allowed more humans than ever to exist as non-food specialists, which has directly led to an unprecedentedly high collective standard of living. Both good things.

But if we continue intensifying our fossil fuel consumption, our systems socioeconomic metabolism may reach 50 percent of NPP by 2050. Such a system would be massively unstable because of the three reasons mentioned above.

So what do we do? In my mind there are three options:

  1. We could say that the human system is a cancer and that the Earth is "better off" without our expensive presence.
  2. We could give up on creating a world of abundance, forever remaining content to exist in a world where many humans do not have their basic needs met.
  3. We could identify the problem and solve it.

I think the third option sounds the best. Since the problem is clear, it's the solution that we need to come up with. What energy source could give us limitless energy without any of the ecologically disruptive by-products of burning fossil fuels?

Well over 99 percent of the biosphere is powered directly or indirectly by the Sun. For all of human history our energy was derived indirectly (e.g., biomass, fossil fuels) from the Sun. The logical (and intelligent) decision would be to go directly to the source. We could convert a tiny fraction of the photons that fall on our planet in abundance into useable electricity that is intelligently re-distributed throughout our system.

This is the vision of Elon Musk and a number of other brilliant energy pioneers. In my opinion, this is the vision we should all be committed to. If I have one message, it is that this vision should not be forgotten when a politically-charged and polarized media storm erupts over the IPCC report next week.

Whatever your opinion on climate change, we still need a new energy economy.