Over the past several years, I’ve been making the case that we have to eliminate global carbon emissions. To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need new zero-carbon ways to generate electricity, grow food, make things, move around, and keep warm and cool.
But knowing what we need to accomplish is very different from knowing how to do it—or even whether we can.
Do we have everything we need to deliver enough affordable electricity for the world, or do we need more innovation? What about things like clean fuels, steel, and cement—are they viable options yet? In short, which clean sources are effective enough and cheap enough now, and which ones aren’t yet?
Understanding the answers to these questions will help us make sure we’re putting our best minds and resources on the toughest problems in climate and energy. In my view it boils down to one issue: What is the difference in cost between a product that involves emitting carbon and an alternative that doesn’t? This difference in cost is what I call the Green Premium, and understanding it is key to making progress on climate change. (It is also a central idea in my book about climate change, which will come out in February.)
Here’s an example of a Green Premium: The average retail price for a gallon of jet fuel in the United States over the past few years has been around $2.22, while advanced biofuels for jets cost around $5.35 per gallon. The Green Premium is the difference between the two, which is $3.13, or an increase of more than 140 percent.
Since airlines would not be willing to pay more than twice as much to fuel their planes—and many customers would balk at the resulting increase in air fares—the Green Premium on biofuels suggests that we need to find ways to either make them cheaper or make jet fuel more expensive. Or a combination of the two.