Human activity is altering the composition of the atmosphere in unprecedented ways. Fossil fuel combustion, which currently releases 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon annually, in combination with deforestation, has increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide 25% above pre-industrial levels. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap infrared radiation from the earth altering its thermal balance. While carbon dioxide is anticipated to contribute about one-half of human induced global warming, the world energy sector is responsible for an estimated 57% of future global warming when contributions from additional combustion related pollutants are included. In order to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide even at current elevated levels, computer models suggest the need to reduce emission rates by approximately 75%. Present patterns of energy use are also contributing to major air pollution problems. An analysis of policy options shows that a combination of vastly improved energy efficiency strategies and carbon free energy production technologies are essential to simultaneously slow the rate of global warming and improve air quality. This paper summarizes current knowledge of the greenhouse effect and its consequences, and examines how photovoltaic electricity can contribute to atmospheric stabilization goals. Some specific examples and strategies will be given that may accelerate the rate at which photovoltaic technologies can penetrate the market. Should these strategies succeed, it will have majot implications for materials science including increased attention to pollution problems associated with the manufacture of many promising photovoltaic technologies. © 1991.
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