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Undersecretary of energy for science: Key to sustainability is an issue of imbalance

"Sustainability is really about understanding the imbalances and managing them," said Steven E. Koonin, undersecretary of energy for science in the U.S. Department of Energy, in a seminar on campus April 15. At the heart of the problem, he said, are the great disparities around the world in access to energy, the distribution of resources and how humans are disrupting the natural carbon cycle.

Koonin's April 14-15 visit to Cornell also included a discussion of Cornell's "green" activities at Cornell's new Combined Heat and Power Facility and a tour of the High Energy Density Plasma Research Center, which is funded by the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration. Koonin also gave a seminar for engineering students on energy research and visited the Department of Energy-sponsored Energy Frontier Research Center on Batteries and Fuel Cells.

In his public seminar, "Sustainability Solutions: Fixing the Unbalanced Agenda" in 255 Olin Hall, which was part of Cornell Sustainability Month, Koonin explained that population growth and global development are inevitable strains on the world's resources. Sustainability efforts, however, look at the big picture and such factors as the inverse relationship between gross domestic product and population and how many of the most populated countries are beginning to develop.

Koonin argued that the world has enough energy resources to meet current and future energy demands. How efficiently we use and how equally we distribute those resources, however, will determine whether we will be able to meet increased energy demands. If the United States wants to maintain its economic privilege in the world, he argued, we will have to accelerate the process of adopting more efficient energy sources.

Another problem facing the United States is the migration of manufacturing jobs overseas to countries that are just beginning to build, and are doing so with energy-efficient buildings and public transportation systems. The United States must work to regain favor as a manufacturing venue, Koonin said, especially since our aging infrastructure must eventually be replaced with newer buildings and roads.

Forming a consensus on how to address global sustainability is extremely difficult, he said. "There's no framework, no theory. Universities that have this kind of long-term view can nucleate the faculty together to try to understand these things and try to inform the public conversation."

Graduate student Kate Neafsey is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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