I left San Diego this morning, after two days at Fortune Brainstorm E, feeling oddly both more optimistic and more pessimistic about the world’s energy and environmental challenges. The conversations here are difficult to summarize in three hundred words, but investor Jeremy Grantham captured the spirit when he said environmentalists “all underestimate, either by a little or a lot, how fast technology is moving” to solve key energy issues, while the tech crowd “underestimates the speed at which weather, population, climate are moving against us.”
First, four reasons to feel good about where we are headed:
- Renewable energy – particularly wind and solar – continue to grow at remarkable rates. PG & E CEO Anthony Earley said he expects California to easily meet its goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030.
- The world is on the road to weaning itself off the internal combustion engine, says Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford. Its fate will become clear in the next decade.
- Many big companies – like Walmart, Ikea, and Coca Cola – have put sustainability at the core of their business strategies.
- A bevy of brilliant entrepreneurs are busily at work on creative solutions to remaining energy problems, ranging from energy storage to removing carbon from the atmosphere.
But three reasons for pessimism:
- Emerging markets, including India and Africa, will continue to need ever more fossil fuel – and in particular dirty coal – to meet the demands of rapidly growing populations.
- Nuclear power, the one fully-scalable source of zero-carbon energy, is on the decline, with many existing plants likely to be taken off line in coming years.
- Government policies in the U.S. and around the world remain haphazard and incomplete, creating conflicting incentives for the private sector.
The bottom line: humanity is in, as Grantham put it, “the race of our lives.” Let’s hope we win.