Should we be techno-optimists?

One of the blogs I read from time to time is that of Paul Gilding, an independent writer on sustainability and former head of Greenpeace International. He spoke at TED last week with a talk called “The Earth is Full”. His blog post this week references the talk and argues why we shouldn’t rely on the “techno-optimist” point of view that all will be okay on the night.

 Driven by their optimism bias, people use the clearly huge opportunity of technology to reassure themselves we won’t face a crisis. They believe any serious limits in the system will be avoided because technology will intervene and we’ll adapt.

I discussed this a while back in an earlier post. Two colleagues in the Shell Scenario team published an article in Nature that showed clear historic trends for the deployment of new energy technologies.


 They derived two “laws” from this work, which are:

 Law 1

When technologies are new, they go through a few decades of exponential growth, which in the twentieth century was characterized by scale-up at a rate of one order of magnitude a decade (corresponding to 26% annual growth). Exponential growth proceeds until the energy source becomes ‘material’ — typically around 1% of world energy.

Law 2

After ‘materiality’, growth changes to linear as the technology settles at a market share. These deployment curves are remarkably similar across different technologies.

The “laws” show that it can take up to a generation (i.e. 25-30 years) for an energy technology to become material. Gilding also makes the point that we shouldn’t necessarily draw lessons from the spectacular deployment of technologies such as mobile phones and then assume that the energy industry can do likewise.

But can’t technology drive rapid change? Everyone at TED holds up their smart phones as a wonderful example of such fast, transformational change. This is a good and correct example, but it needs to be put in perspective. This is what I call a “toy technology” – something that makes our lives more convenient and more fun. These technologies are adding real value to our lives and driving change, but they are not transforming the foundations of our current economy.

Unfortunately the deployment of “toy technology” also follows the “laws”, although the time scales are shortened somewhat. Although the first hand-held mobile phone call was made around 1975 and Finland had a 20,000 person subscriber trial up and running by 1980 (i.e. first adopter), it wasn’t until 1995 that the technology became “material”, reaching 1-2% of the global population. Today the global market is approaching saturation (6 billion subscriptions) although now the transition from mobile phone to mobile smart device is underway. So even in the world of fast paced technological change, materiality still takes 15 or so years and full scale deployment another 15-20 years.

So should we be techno-optimists?

For the reasons I argued in my November post, “Can global emissions really be reduced”, it will only be a major technology shift that sees emissions fall dramatically. Ideally this should be introduced through a carbon price because that will pull it into the energy economy faster than would otherwise be the case. Carbon pricing was a principal feature of the Shell Blueprints scenario, which saw electric mobility, solar, wind and CCS all playing major roles in the period to 2050. Emissions do fall in that scenario and the level of CO2 in the atmosphere reaches a plateau, albeit above 450 ppm. 

We need to be optimistic about the role of technology, but also realistic about just how fast the transition can take place. Blueprints exceeded the “laws” in some instances yet still didn’t fully deliver on a 2°C ambition. However, natural gas was not as prevalent in that scenario as it now appears to be which should be a positive development, but on the other hand the Blueprints transition to a global carbon market was already well underway.