October 16, 2009

Weekly News Roundup: Tradeoffs

An interesting theme emerged in natural security news this week: tradeoffs. As any economist will tell you, you can’t have it all. Tradeoffs are inevitable. Energy is no different, and measures taken to reduce dependency on one energy source may increase dependency on another, or may end up exacerbating the consequences of climate change.

This week, The New York Times featured a story about Pennsylvania residents' attempts to use scrubbing chemicals in their local coal power plant to reduce air pollution. The plan worked fine until  residents noticed that the chemicals were producing wastewater that was summarily dumped into the Monongahela River, a source of drinking water. Scientific American featured a story on China's massive Yangtze River damming projects, which provide clean hydroelectric energy to nearby areas. But these dams also have side effects: they ruin unique fish stocks and force more vegetation to submerge, which produces methane, a greenhouse gas. The final tradeoff story is about Tanzania, which halted investment in biofuels because these fuels create more demand for food and drive prices upward. To a developing country dealing with a shortage of food for its population, this tradeoff proved unacceptable.

These tradeoffs can be instructive. Nations and institutions need to be mindful that they are making the best possible investments, ideally investments that supply them with needed energy while not increasing greenhouse gas contributions. For example, the U.S. Navy is experimenting with biofuels that are not food-based—including a fuel for jets made from algae. This is not to say that nobody will identify problems in the future with some of the experiments the Navy is trying now (many of which were highlighted at this week's Naval Energy Forum). But the Navy's plan to debut a green carrier strike group does show that it is thinking about energy and climate change simultaneously. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, clearly aware that his investments come with tradeoffs, also made clear in his remarks this Wednesday that the Navy will be working to verify that the Navy’s energy investments are meeting certain standards. When it comes to powering vehicles and installations, there will always be tradeoffs, but my hope is that the Navy can lead the United States in finding which tradeoffs are acceptable, and thereby setting an example for other institutions to follow.