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There’s no question that the current oil crunch is making it painful for most of us to visit the gas pump. But is there a silver lining in the clouds of this energy storm? Some experts think so.
Rising oil prices are creating an ideal economic climate for long-sought change. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, for example, Americans drove 1.4 billion fewer miles in April of 2008 than they did in the same month in 2007. Others estimate that in the first half of 2008, motorist miles fell by 30 billion compared to the same period in the prior year
With our cars staying in park, we’re also flocking to mass transit. The American Public Transportation Association says that commuters and others took some 10.3 billion trips on public transportation in 2007, the most in 50 years. Ridership grew 3.3% in the first quarter of 2008.
When we do decide to drive, we’re now picking different vehicles, and some long-standing trends are suddenly shifting into reverse. General Motors, home of the environmentally deplorable Hummer, reported that truck and SUV sales fell 27% in April. Ford, maker of the Explorer, reported a 36% drop in sales in the same category but a 44% increase in demand for its fuel-efficient Focus. Meanwhile at Toyota, car sales are up 12% thanks to the subcompact Yaris and efficient Prius.
That’s all great news for a world looking to quickly reduce its carbon footprint, and there are other promising developments as well.
The financial community is experiencing what the London Times recently called a burgeoning “gold rush” in alternative energy investment. According to the United Nations, funding for green technologies grew by 60% last year, and a record-setting $144 billion dollars will be invested in 2008. The U.N. believes the figure will grow to about $444 billion a year by 2012.
As vital funding begins to flow, all kinds of things are beginning to happen, some of which challenge the imagination. Lotus Engineering, for example, has created a process to manufacture clean-burning alcohol-based fuel from CO2 and created a car to go with it. The development suggests a coming day of ultimate carbon neutrality in which automotive pollution and atmospheric waste would be transformed into a valuable energy resource that both powers the world and halts climate change.
Elsewhere, Columbia University geophysics professor Klaus Lackner has proposed the use of carbon-eating “trees,” which would stand up to 1,000 feet tall and be laced with scaffolding containing sodium hydroxide, a chemical that can strip carbon dioxide out of the air. An area the size of a 20-inch television screen could remove the carbon produced by the average American and a single tree would remove the carbon created by 15,000 cars. Each tree would be paired with a windmill that would produce up to 3 megawatts of power and make the system self-sustaining.
Energy isn’t the only necessity the petroleum market is forcing in new and healthier directions. The chemical industry is also highly dependent on this diminishing raw material, and as prices rise, it is increasingly turning to renewable natural resources instead.
According to the Economist, chemurgy is making a comeback. A 1930s term for chemical processes that turn agricultural crops into useful materials, chemurgy was big business in the pre-oil era but fell by the wayside as petroleum became cheaper than products like soy, corn, and hemp. With petroleum prices beginning to strain profit margins, companies of all kinds are rediscovering the many advantages that plant-based chemistries offer. Indeed, the number of patents now being filed annually for biotechnology processes and products has passed the 20,000 per year mark, and McKinsey, an international consulting firm, believes that chemurgy will become a $100 billion industry within three years.
As the rising price of oil spurs these and other developments and makes alternative energy sources like wind and solar cost-competitive, we can look forward to a world that grows more sustainable every day. That may not take all the sting out of your next fill-up or fuel bill, but we can all take comfort in the fact that the high costs we’re facing today are certainly lowering the far greater environmental bills we’d otherwise have to pay tomorrow.