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Climate change: a people problem and a people solution

A man sleeping on a hammock, which is between two solar panelsWe are getting increasingly concerned over climate change, or so the most recent research suggests. Needless to say, we are aligning our personal convictions and civic action accordingly…right? Not necessarily. In recent elections across the world, significant numbers cast their vote on policies that downplay or outright ignore the need to address climate change. What is going on here?

The dangerously naïve view could be that we can always dial up the speed or strength of our response “if and when things get bad”. And maybe the stunning rise of cheap renewables feeds that false complacency: “well, if things get really bad we can just build more solar, so it’s all good.” With coal- and gas-fired electricity generation accounting for around 38% of global CO2 emissions, and with zero-emissions electricity generation proven to be technically solvable, maybe people can be somewhat forgiven for thinking we can easily merely extrapolate our success with renewable power generation into other emissions sources, somehow mopping up all the ‘other’ greenhouse gas emissions.

But then again, we aren’t exactly doing a good job of that so far, are we? If the arc of the universe is bending towards a low carbon future, it sure isn’t bending fast enough .

If we want to build a viable future, we have to contend with all the root causes of anthropogenic emissions – addressing climate change must be as much as about the human issue (the ‘anthropo-‘) as the emissions production (the ‘-genic’). Our technologies and methods alone are not the problem; we are the problem. To overcome this wicked problem, our solutions will have to rely on a dramatic reconfiguring of cultural, commercial, regulatory and economic relationships, in terms of energy in particular. And, looking at how past energy revolutions have become the springboards to successful human progress and prosperity, we know that we can do it.

However, to accomplish this feat will require a lot more than the ‘technical’, such as the solar panels and CO2 sinks that might first come to mind. It will include a multilayered transformation.

A cultural mandate

The idea of technology reconfiguring our physical and cultural worlds and causing us to rethink the impossible is nothing new. Even before the invention of the steam engine, society has been shape-shifting to the evolving contours of industrial change, and adapting its cultural convictions to absorb the new socio-economic norms our inventions have wrought. Whereas, prior to the 19th century, cities were laid out with the expectation that it would take multiple days to travel between them, rail suddenly brought cities close together. Cities were compressed and connected; markets opened up; opportunities flourished. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.

And yet, there was originally considerable resistance to the steam engine. It was new and foreign – a shift in mindset was required to leverage its extraordinary potential.

Today is no different. Indeed, the world faces challenges as never seen: global environmental degradation, species loss, global heating, increased weather volatility, the breakneck pace of disruption and change, massive interconnectedness and immediacy of global markets, cultural polarisation and tribalism, rising affluence with unprecedented appetites for scarce resources. But arguably our technologies and innovations are poised to buffer, even alleviate, some of these problems.

Perhaps the issue is not so much can we address climate change, as are we prepared to? Are we willing to own the problem to such a degree that our personal, cultural and societal actions make a positive difference in this critical hour?

The need for regulation riverbanks

What would climate change as addressed by culture look like? Does it mandate we trade our T-bone steaks for lower-footprint proteins and compost on our rooftops? Not necessarily – but it will certainly require a radical recalculation of the economic and regulatory systems that shape our patterns of consumption. Some form of carbon pricing – call it a carbon tax, carbon trading, zero-emissions certificates – is proving relatively successful in some countries as a targeted corrective to prohibit unsustainable economic activities in their entirety, without it being at the expense of other market distortions. In addition, the revenues from carbon initiatives can be pumped back into public wallets, used to increase green spending and stimulate the economy, compensate adversely affected industries and communities and/or be, addressing some of the political and behavioural barriers.

Carbon pricing alone is not sufficient, neither as a means to achieve our articulated Paris Agreement targets nor to shift public and political acceptability on the matter. As history has shown us, there are challenges aplenty for any nation considering this. For countries on the wrong side of the quinoa curtain, what energy technologies are available to underpin our sustainable development under cap-and-trade or carbon pricing regulations?

Renewables – fusion by another name

On the ‘long now‘ timescale of thousands of years, we could potentially build a Dyson Sphere for an abundant energy supply, though we will need many more Musks, Bezoses, Tsiolkovskys and Gateses, to engineer sun-scale structures.

But in our own lifetimes, we have an opportunity in developing countries to leapfrog ‘traditional’ models of energy infrastructures to build low cost, cleaner energy options from the ground up that could help lift billions out of poverty. In sub-Saharan Africa, where population growth is expected to outstrip electrification efforts, renewable energy is expected to account for about two-thirds of capacity additions and for about three-quarters of the population gaining access to either grid or decentralised electricity.

Tomorrow’s technologies take a different approach to achieving long-term sustainability. Nuclear fusion for power generation is estimated to be fewer than 20 years away, and as the wry joke goes, it has been that way for the last six decades. Fusion does away with most of the health, safety and geopolitical challenges of today’s widely-used fission reactors, but still requires significant advances in materials before being able to continuously produce more energy than it consumes.

And even without building our own fusion reactor or building that Dyson Sphere around the sun, is the middle ground to make better use of the sun’s own fusion reactor here on earth, by short-circuiting earth’s pesky rotation and weather systems that interrupt wind and solar power? Space-based solar power (SBSP) takes a number of forms, but typically combines satellite-based solar PV collection system with a narrow microwave beam down to a receiver on earth, with one concept coming from China described as having a scale of 2000 GW, equivalent to a couple of thousand large fossil fuel power stations. Considering the sun’s 10 billion-year shelf life, it’s safe to say this energy source won’t run dry any time soon, or at least we will run out of microwave popcorn well before it goes dark.

The 21st century is steeped in remarkable complexity and challenge, but also in opportunity and even optimism. ‘Climate change’ is an anagram for ‘megatechnical’, and yes, our technology can be a massive enabler, building on the solutions already within reach. However, the most effective and disruptive of technologies, the strictest of regulations, and the most efficient of markets will not suffice in and of themselves. We need to rouse ourselves from indifference, steer private and public investment, make choices, and take actions that bend the arc of the universe more sharply towards low-carbon energy, food production, transportation and industry. Voting not to change, or abstaining altogether, will inevitably lead us to catastrophic change.

At the heart of addressing the challenge is a cultural shift, and a commitment among all of us to own the problem and leverage our best selves for the best possible future.

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3 replies »

  1. Well written Ben – always inspiring to find reference to Dyson Spheres to solve the worlds energy problems and weave that into an interesting discussion on a popular topic. Is the Chinese 2000 GW, SBSP commercially feasible in the next couple of decades? Regards John.

    • Thanks John, good question, and the ‘commercially feasible’ question is always so much harder than the ‘technically feasible’ question! Over the next decade, the intent is to bed down and prove the wireless power transmission concept, as well as prove solar generation in the stratosphere. The timeframe for a ‘commercial scale’ orbiting project is 2050 (https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/15/china-plans-a-solar-power-play-in-space-that-nasa-abandoned-long-ago.html) but that doesn’t speak to the economics. Effectively, this technology would compete cost-wise against firmed earth-based generation, and with firming costs continuing to drop (batteries, pumped hydro), it eill be interesting to see if the economics stack up by the time orbiting generation is technically feasible at scale.

  2. Great article Ben. For me, one of the leading cultural challenges is that everyone talks about a low carbon future being a high cost future, and we have to choose between the economy and saving the planet (no economy if we don’t have an inhabitable planet!), which I believe is one of the main drivers of countries holding back and not wanting to diminish their competitive position in the global market. We have seen from wind and solar power how quickly renewable energy has become cheaper than fossil fuel generation and I think we will find that clean options are potentially cheaper in other sectors too. I’d therefore love to see more of an abundance mindset when we think about reducing emissions. In the energy sector, the goal should be to make clean energy so cheap and abundant that people can do whatever they want with it and actually have more growth opportunities than at present.

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