In their letters in the April 2023 issue of Physics Today (page 11), Mike Tamor and Arthur Williams raise valid points about the difficulties of meeting the energy needs of a future world trying to wean itself off carbon-based fuels. As good physicists do, they see a problem and soberly evaluate potential solutions.
But figuring out how to meet energy needs in a future carbon-free economy is not the same as solving a classic physics problem. In classic physics problems, we accept that we cannot do anything about the laws of nature; we can at best try to understand those laws and benefit from that knowledge. When it comes to meeting the energy needs of a future and hopefully better world, we aren’t dealing only with the laws of nature—we are also dealing with human behavior.
We physicists should not only concern ourselves with finding ways to satisfy the difficult-to-meet needs of a future economy on the basis of current trends of human-population growth and energy consumption. We should also advocate for different ways of living that require far less resource consumption and promote greater equity between the richest and poorest nations.
Julia Steinberger is a trained physicist and currently an ecological economist whose outlook on such matters is one that the physics community should consider when discussing the transition to a carbon-free economy. She has argued that countries that have decent living standards can and should greatly reduce their consumption of energy. She and her colleagues have shown that the countries using the highest amounts of energy can accomplish such reductions while still meeting the needs of citizens.1
Wealthy countries should create space for developing nations to grow their economies while ensuring that the global economy operates within parameters that are consistent with ecological sustainability.