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:
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.
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.
A carbon tax (price on carbon) is a “blunt instrument”. It bears no direct relationship to its intended purposes, with the exception of raising new federal tax revenue. If the tax rate is high enough to cause an immediate shift to non-carbon emitting technologies, it would be far too large, should those technologies ever benefit from economies of scale or price reductions resulting from technological advancement. However, once government became addicted to the new revenue, breaking the addiction would be very difficult.
A carbon tax is “justified” (rationalized?) on the basis that carbon is a “pollutant” whose emissions must be reduced to avoid CAGW. However, CAGW is a hypothesis based on the outputs of a variety of climate models which have demonstrated limited “skill” in hindcasting the instrumented past, or forecasting the future which has unfolded since their development. How much should we rely upon models that don’t.?
Carbon dioxide, the “evil” GHG of choice, is a globally well-mixed trace gas. Carbon dioxide emissions in the developed countries are relatively stable. However, those emissions are growing very rapidly in the developing countries, particularly in Asia. Reducing developed country carbon dioxide emissions has the potential only to render global annual emissions somewhat less than they might otherwise have been, though they would still be greater each year. The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would continue to increase, albeit at a slightly slower pace, ceteris paribus. Of course, if higher energy prices resulting from the carbon tax in the developed countries were to drive additional manufacturing to Asia, all bets are off.
There is no state, regional, national or multi-national “solution” to the “problem” of carbon-driven CAGW. There is a global “solution”, assuming that the “problem” is amenable to a “solution”, or there is no “solution”.
I have commented previously that the “solution” to CAGW is a “three-legged stool”. Recent events suggest that the stool actually has four legs.
Leg 1 – Zero global annual carbon emissions;
Leg 2 – Global veganism;
Leg 3 – Population control (~1 billion sustainable);
Leg 4 – Wealth redistribution; and,
Seat – Global governance.
I believe that the “stool” of CAGW would be one of the ugliest and most expensive pieces of “furniture” ever designed and constructed. (It would also be a “stool” which could not be picked up by its clean end.)
Yes, we should be techno-optomists, but also techno-realists.
No, we should not be concerned by the constraints of the “laws” discussed in the post, because they are merely observations of historical trends in situations in which the energy technology was useful, but not urgently needed. We need not use artificial pricing to drive uncompetitive technologies into the market in large volumes, since the only result would be the large scale deployment of uncompetitive equipment delivering high cost energy.
Yes, we should fund research to identify alternative energy technologies which have the potential to be competitive while offering other perceived benefits.
I chuckled at the reference above to a 2C temperature increase as an “ambition”. I usually refer to it as a wish. (“A goal without a plan is just a wish.”, Antoine de St. Exupery) A plan without a goal, on the other hand, is simple insanity. Some appear to prefer “roadmaps”, which can be very useful, if you know where you are and you know where you’re going. (“You’ve got to be careful, if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might end up someplace else.”, Yogi Berra)
I think that reduction in CO2 emissions any time soon is highly unlikely. Realists in the green movement know that. Also David appears to acknowledge that technology probably won’t be enough. The only possible way would be either global de-industrialization and/or reduction of human population.
Fortunately, CO2 has limited impact on climate and human society survived even more rapid changes in the environment with far less means. Also diversity in human society allows mankind to survive even if one part decides to choose self-destruction.
It is very unlikely that there can be some global rule to limit CO2 production. Yes, Europe can choose to demise the global scene but it won’t affect humanity in the long run.
I agree with your first point – it is hard to see any reductions being achieved any time soon.
You will not be surprised to read that I don’t agree with your second point re impact on the climate, but it looks increasingly like we have collectively opted for a situation where we will just wait to see what happens and think about what needs to be done then.
Thanks for the comment.
You are not quite right that people just wait and see doing nothing. EU actively pursues deindustrialization. There are green energy mandates which have no effect on CO2 but drive cost of energy up. There are ridiculously low limits on some effluents which have no effect on environment but limit production rates – like no flaring philosophy or produced water consent. There is a support for biodiesel and bioethanol which drive price of food up without any positive effect on environment. There is bashing of coal and nuclear with only effect of moving industry and technology abroad.
As you said – this have close to zero effect on CO2 but huge effect on economy.