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Home » How to Harness Abundant, Clean Energy for 10 Billion People: Julio Friedmann (Transcript)

How to Harness Abundant, Clean Energy for 10 Billion People: Julio Friedmann (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of physicist Julio Friedmann’s talk titled “How to Harness Abundant, Clean Energy for 10 Billion People” at TED 2023 conference.

Listen to the audio version here:


The Most Common Question

The question I am most commonly asked about climate change is, “Should I be optimistic or pessimistic?” I thought about this question a lot. My career has been at the intersection of climate science, technology, policy and industry, mostly working for you, at one point working for a US president and now as Chief Scientist and Chief Carbon Wrangler at Carbon Direct. At that intersection, I think about that question in terms of energy flows and carbon abatement options.

So I ponder a variant of that question, “How much energy should 10 billion people use?” I was first prompted to think about this question by the late, great Richard Smalley. Nanotechnologist, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, co-discovered buckyballs. Total mensch.

Richard Smalley’s Talk

He gave an important and influential talk almost exactly 20 years ago, in which he laid out the top ten challenges to humanity: energy, water, food, poverty, the environment, health. And then he said something kind of obvious. All of these are energy challenges.

Water is the most straightforward. Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered with water. It’s too salty to drink or use. The primary cost of desalination is energy.

Food. I like food. Eighty percent of the food consumed around the world moves through modern agriculture. That means synthetic fertilizers, combines that harvest, refrigeration, shipping — they’re all energy.

Climate. That’s my day job. How do we go from 54 billion tons of greenhouse gases every year to less than zero very quickly? And so on.

The Need for Abundant Clean Energy

Abundant clean energy can make progress against this whole list. So Richard estimated what he thought it would take for 10 billion humans to live more or less like the United States. And his answer was: 60 terawatts. Keep that number in your mind: 60. For reference, today the world uses about 26 terawatts of energy. About eight terawatts of that are electricity.

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