Reclaiming our Fate, 2016
Its fine to cry doom about the climate, but what are we actually doing about it? I mentioned that it is the greatest task of my generation to put the brakes on our paradigm of runaway greenhouse gas pollution. But the how of it is worth looking at in more detail. At the moment global temperatures have already risen by about 1° in the past 100 years. The establishment is planning and hoping that we can limit the change to 1.5° or 2°, and I have said that I am not very optimistic in that regard. However, I agree that we are going to need to have it peak somewhere, since Venus used to have a livable atmosphere. So how are we going to achieve that?
For a start, as a movement we have given up the fight to convert the unbelievers. For decades we wasted our time countering the oil industry’s misinformation, with very marginal results. While it is commendable to try to convince your uncle who watches FOX about the problem, we have decided there are more important things we should be doing with our time. If we can’t deal with the problem despite 50% of the population disbelieving in some countries, we are not going to be able to do it. The idea is that climate change itself will convince them in time. All the effort we poured into fighting the oil industry on their turf in the nineties and aughts is effort that should have been used planning and implementing the solution to the problem.
So, we need to stop pumping carbon and methane into the atmosphere. There are a bunch of areas of carbon and methane pollution, but two are the most significant: energy and transport. Together they comprise the majority, but not the entirety, of our carbon footprint. Our cars and our power plants.
For transport, we are trying to get the cars off of oil, and to a lesser extent get the people out of their cars. People are to some degree getting out of their cars on their own. In the nineties a generation long trend of people driving more in the US began to shift, and now every year there are less and less miles driven per capita. So in terms of discouraging driving, it is really a case of encouraging people to do what they were planning to do anyway, and our strategies are not very innovative. Build bike lanes, build bus lanes, generally invest in alternative transportation, and young people will make use of it. Just encourage the trend among first world millennials to not get cars or drivers licenses as the rite of passage it used to be.
In the U.S., car rides are still a ridiculously large percentage of trips however, and the decline is small enough that it is not really making a dent in that, so in practice we need to get the oil out of the cars. Owning a car is still a sign that you’ve made it across the global south, and that doesn’t seem set to change. 5–6 years ago we weren’t sure what the alternative was going to be, but a consensus has built up around electric cars. Hydrogen powered cars are still another option, and there have been some innovations lately that mean they are not entirely out of the running quite yet, but there is room for both, and for now the economics points to batteries instead of gas tanks and motors instead of engines.
So pushing an electrification of our car fleet is a huge vector in combating climate change at the moment. We need better batteries and faster battery charging from the scientists, better charging infrastructure from the financial types and city planners, and better options for electric cars at a decent price point from our automobile industry. For all us social scientists we need to be ready to make sure the Tesla model 3 is pretty much the coolest thing to drive when it comes out. Elan Musk is doing yeoman’s work popularizing electric cars, but he can’t singlehandedly electrify the global fleet. We need mid-tier options with a decent battery range, and we need an infrastructure for recharging that is as strong as the petrol refueling network we have today. That is something of a tall order.
The problem with electrifying cars, is that electric cars are still only as green as the electrons fueling them. So the other side of the equation is to put an end to fossil fuel based electricity. Luckily in this regard we have made great progress in the past decade. While the rest of us were sitting around out of work during the recession, China and Germany between them sorted out our alternative energy problem. 10 years ago solar and wind power were too expensive to be a practical alternative energy source, but that has changed. Basically Germany heavily subsidized a push for solar power in their country, producing a crop of photo-voltaics across the cloudy plains of central Europe. These panels leave something to be desired as a source of power, because of the German climate, but by doing this they allowed china to produce enough PVs that they could start achieving economies of scale, and the price per kilowatt/hour associated with solar power has plummeted as a result. Solar is of the verge of overtaking fossil fuels on its price point alone. So if you want to strike it rich in the environmental industry right now, start selling solar panels.
The problem is that there are some future hurdles on the horizon for the industry. As solar gobbles up market share it is set to lose one of its greatest advantages. Solar electricity is only produced during daylight, and peaks in the mid-afternoon. In the age of air conditioning and electric heating (which has also made great strides lately), this is actually the time of day when electricity is most in demand. But as solar power starts to approach 5–7% of all electricity produced, a glut of power in the mid-afternoon will become significant, and solar will go from producing our most valuable electricity to our least valuable. Solving this problem will be the domain once again of our scientists. We can either solve it by continuing to slash the price of solar, through qualifiable technological improvement, or simplify the transfer of power across the day by way of batteries. Battery technology is ridiculously important at the moment. The good news is that we still have at least half a decade when the efficiency of solar power leads to windfall, fossil fuels levels of profitability, and so we should be able to have the money to invest in the technology we need to take solar all the way. The bad news is that for the past couple years, solar profits have been going to investor dividends, and not to R&D reinvestment. So if you are planning to make your fortune in the solar gold rush, remember to send some money back to the researchers who have the power to keep to boom going to 50 or 70% of our power generation.
Aside from solar, the other options of non-polluting electricity are chugging along. Hydroelectric and geothermal hit market saturation years ago, so there is nothing much we can do there. Wind is sitting where solar was before the boom, so if solar dies out we still have another trick up our sleeve. Nuclear is not very popular these days, but does not pollute carbon, and is still very much on the table in the long term. And we are finally pursuing some of the more innovative forms of nuclear that we should have been looking at in the 50s. Finally, we are coming up with new options, such as tidal, that could strengthen our hand in the event that solar doesn’t get the technical innovation it needs. But as of 2016, it’s all about the photo-voltaics.
So in terms of the practicalities of decarbonization, there is great cause for optimism at the moment. As long as the winds of change keep blowing strong, we should begin to see some improvements. Energy related CO2 production flat-lined between 2014–2015 for the first time since the industrial revolution, despite continued increasing energy usage. So things are looking excellent. We might not extinct ourselves. I haven’t gotten into a few of the smaller contributors like industry and farming however, and this is all contingent on nothing going horribly wrong vis-à-vis our elected officials. So we shall see.