technology could have dramatic impacts on future deployment options. There is little doubt that beyond the next few decades, new technologies—which employ, for example, advanced materials and innovative chemical processes not yet in view—could play transformative roles. Along these same lines, better understanding of how geoengineering15 or the ecology of microbial systems affects climate could yield new insights on managing greenhouse gas emissions from energy production and use. In fact, unexpected breakthroughs might even enable fusion technology to contribute to the U.S. energy supply before 2050. Given the contingent nature of technology development, there will always be uncertainties in future technology pathways.

While the development and widespread deployment of both evolutionary and new technologies will play a central role in transforming the energy system, so too will new public policies and international collective actions that are equitable, efficient, and effective. Such collaborations will be needed not only because of the inherently global nature of the challenges but also because of the differing priorities and capacities of other countries. Market forces alone will not be sufficient to effect this transformation, as market externalities—including social costs not reflected in prices, regulatory constraints, the lack of information for knowledgeable market decision making, and other significant uncertainties—are likely to prevent energy markets from generating fully adequate price signals. Access to and competition for capital will be pertinent as well. And conflicts could arise when individual nations seek their own economic, political, or other national benefits—not necessarily consistent with shared international interests—in addressing issues such as global warming.

Because the energy system is so large, complex, and fully integrated into all aspects of American life, its successful transformation will take the full ingenuity and commitment of the public and private sectors. Moreover, the transformation must engage the routine attention of the public itself. In this sense, the present energy challenge is fundamentally different from historical efforts such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project, which focused on specific technical objectives rather than on a very large and complex societal infrastructure. Those


Geoengineering involves the use of technology to change the environment of Earth. For example, the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from human activity is now judged with very high confidence by climate scientists to cause global warming. Some scientists have proposed geoengineering as a way to reduce global warming—such as by changing the amount of sunlight that reaches the planet’s lower atmosphere and surface or by removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement