Wanted: Carbon Productivity Revolution

by Richard T. Stuebi

The think-tank arm of the management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., the McKinsey
Global Institute (MGI), has been releasing some pretty darn interesting analyses to frame the overall energy and environmental situation the world faces.

The breakthrough was MGI’s February 2007 work to develop a “cost-curve” for GHG reductions, showing the quantities and relative costs associated with various emission reduction technologies and approaches that could be pursued. Since its release, the cost curve framework has been an incredibly valuable and widely-used analytic and communication tool for policy-makers worldwide, and it has been used to good effect by MGI’s researchers.

In February of this year, MGI issued a report on energy productivity, which showed the compelling financial returns offered to society by massive investments in energy efficiency. This summer, MGI issued a subsequent report on carbon productivity, which presents a simple but stunning challenge to the human race:

Over the next 40 years, we need a new industrial revolution equivalent in magnitude to the 120-year Industrial Revolution, to enable a ten-fold increase in economic output per unit of carbon emissions. If such a “carbon productivity revolution” is not achieved, we will not be able to get the planet onto a climate stabilization path, or the world’s population will face significant global economic declines, or both.

Think about the changes wrought upon society between 1850 and 1970: railroads, steel, oil, telegraph, telephones, automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, computers, Internet. Now, think about changes of comparable magnitude, occurring from today’s technological and infrastructure base, occuring during the next 40 years.

Do you think the human race can do it? According to McKinsey, we had better do it, or else.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

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