HKUST 25th Anniversary

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Pollution may take centuries to reverse, warns Nobel winner

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 2015, 9:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 November, 2015, 10:39am

Best known for being US Secretary of Energy between 2009-2013, professor Steven Chu was only the second American-Chinese – and the first scientist – to become a cabinet secretary in the US. His responsibilities included being tasked by president Obama to assist BP in managing the Deepwater Horizon oil leak.

Awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in physics alongside Claude Cohen-Tannoudji and William Phillips for laser cooling and atom trapping, Chu holds 26 honorary degrees, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, among other accolades.

In celebration of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s 25th anniversary, Chu was invited as a guest speaker to discuss climate change and the future of energy. “I view my work as a service to the world, not just the US,” he says. Interviewing Chu, it’s clear that for him energy is truly a global issue. The students know that, too ­– Hong Kong and international students spill onto the stairs of the auditorium, awaiting the distinguished scientist.

Chu is approachable and candid, even when discussing climate change. Between 2006-2010, Argo floats took world ocean temperatures and two satellites measured mass changes, proving that glaciers in Greenland are declining at an accelerated mass. Findings in Antarctica are similar. Water levels, such as those in California's aquifers, are also decreasing. In fact, 2014 was the warmest year on record, and 14 of the 15 warmest years recorded have all occurred in this short century.

Chu moves swiftly on to the correlation between cigarette consumption and lung cancer – the onset of which, typically, comes about 25 years after the smoking habit starts. “It’s the highest preventable killer,” he warns. Based on the maths, he hypothesises that the air quality in Beijing is tantamount to smoking one pack of cigarettes a day – although, due to the time it takes for lung cancer to develop, it will take about another 10 years for us to see how accurate he is.

What he’s getting at is that these developments over decades will take far longer to reverse – if indeed they can be reversed at all. “Ocean acidity has increased by about 30 per cent since the industrial revolution, but to get it back down could take hundreds of years,” Chu says.

And how long will it take the air to rebalance if we manage to cut down our C02 emissions – or better, start recycling and capturing carbon? Global warming makes that estimation more difficult. “It could be a millennia,” Chu states. “Strictly speaking, the earth is actually in a cold period; it has at times been six to eight degrees warmer. We don’t know if we can make it cooler again.”

However, he believes that clean and renewable energy is the future and has faith in the major world economies’ commitment to it. “It's not diplomacy; this is the international community coming together and recognising that co-operation is key – we are on the same planet. We need to share technology and best practices; we need to be sustainable because water, energy and food access are becoming merged into one [issue],” he declares.

By its nature, the regulation and access needed in power transmission makes it political. It’s an industry whose infrastructure has a long-lead turnover – a power plant might be replaced every 50 years; a mobile phone, every two years. And incumbent industries will resist change, just as horse traders lobbied against automobiles in the late 1800s.

And although Chu says he has to have the attitude of one who cares, he says that on a micro level, individuals are less reactive. “People don't want to sacrifice their luxuries. They will spend a small fraction of money on life or health insurance, but imagine they could spend 1 per cent of their income on investing in the future of energy? They won’t.” Yet he states that an investment of 1 per cent of GDP by each country is all that it would take to push us toward a clean energy planet – faster.

The catch is, if you have a good source of gas or oil already, why push for change? The increase in US oil production sits at about 4.5 million barrels per day, thanks to technology. “You can keep taking more if you keep making technological developments, because it’s so easy,” Chu warns.

Luckily, technology is making clean energy cheaper and the learning curve is very fast. While subsidies have helped wind and solar energy development, Chu believes that soon, developed countries won’t need them. The cost of renewable energy in the US is plunging, with long-term wind contracts offering energy at US$0.03 per kilowatt-hour (kwh) while gas is US$0.05 – and they have land like the Midwest to leverage. “Solar is also developing well ahead of schedule,” he says, with contracts in the Southwest comparable to gas prices. In fact, during his time as Secretary for Energy the government loaned providers US$10 billion at 1.5 per cent interest – they saw a better profit during the 2008 period than Wall Street.

Further investment in these sources is needed if they are to proliferate. “Those sources providing 10, 20 or 50 per cent of overall energy consumption takes hard planning,” Chu says. Issues include efficient storage and flexible transmission and distribution. But increased production means that costs continue to plunge.

Offshore wind turbines are increasing in size but currently, such energy is 2.5 times the price of land wind energy – there are still issues to solve in this area but it’s one genuine option for places like Hong Kong that lack land mass. And it’s likely that we will still have to rely on China as our main source of energy.

“Installing these renewable energy plants is one thing, but you still have to replace the older things like coal,” Chu says, before confirming that China’s commitment to cleaner energy is genuine, in his opinion. They have already planned a 2,000-km 800kV DC cable that loses only 7 per cent of energy in conversion and transmission, so perhaps Hong Kong’s future can be clean in terms of energy, even if it won’t be in terms of our waste management.