Some people say that to avoid the threat of catastrophic harm to human welfare posed by global warming, we must radically change our behavior — cease flying, use bicycles and give up red meat. Others believe that new technologies can deliver carbon-free growth.
So, who is right: Climate advocate Greta Thunberg, who is in favor of the former course, or Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates, who just wrote a book advocating the latter?
Techno-optimism looks justified in the long run.
As two new reports from the Energy Transitions Commission describe, zero-carbon electricity and hydrogen, which today account for only 20 percent of energy use, could account for 75 percent by the middle of this century, and clean energy will be cheaper by then than dirty energy is today.
Solar electricity already costs less than coal power; battery costs have collapsed and will keep falling. The cost of producing hydrogen from electrolysis will in the next 10 years plummet, too.
A massive increase in global electricity production will be required — from 27,000 terawatt-hours (TWh) today to about 100,000TWh by 2050.
Total battery capacity will soar, and huge investments will be needed in expanded transmission and distribution networks.
However, there are abundant natural resources available to support this “green” electrification.
Each day, the sun provides 8,000 times as much energy as the entire human population needs for a high standard of living. Even if all of the 100,000TWh of electricity came from solar resources (and none from wind), we would only have to cover about 1 percent of the world’s land area with solar panels.
Nor is there any ultimate shortage of the key minerals required.Two billion electric vehicles each with a 60 kilowatt-hour battery would require a stock of 15 million tons of pure lithium, which, once in place, could be endlessly recycled.
Today’s known lithium resources are 80 million tons. Supplies of nickel, copper and manganese are also plentiful, and concerns about cobalt supplies have unleashed technological progress that makes possible zero-cobalt batteries.
In everything connected with converting photons into electrons and electrons into what physicists call “work” (driving engines) or into heat (or cold), there are no long-run planetary boundaries to human living standards.
By 2060, we will be able to enjoy guilt-free flying, guilt-free heating and cooling, and guilt-free economic growth.
However, for two reasons, we still face potential disaster, with a dwindling chance of limiting global warming to the “well below 2oC” promised by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
First, we have left it desperately late to act.
If rich countries had in 1990 committed to achieve zero-carbon economies by 2030, we would already be approaching that goal, and global warming would be decelerating.
However, we did not, and from where we are now, we should ideally cut carbon emissions by 50 percent in the next 10 years.
Achieving a cut on that scale is much more difficult than getting to zero emissions by the middle of the century. Even if all new vehicles sold in 2030 were electric, most vehicles on the road would still have internal combustion engines spewing greenhouse gases from their exhaust pipes.
Additionally, even if all growth in electricity supply comes from zero-carbon sources, closing existing coal plants in India and China will take time.
The second threat lies in our food and land-use systems.
The challenge is not how much energy we consume in food form, but how inefficient we are in producing it. If all of the world’s 9 billion people in 2050 had an adequate intake of 2,200 calories per day, that would require 7,400TWh of energy, or only about 6 percent of likely non-food energy use.
However, while we can use clean electricity to meet most of what we require for heating, cooling, industry and transport, we cannot substitute electrons for the carbohydrates and proteins in the food we eat.
Instead, we derive food from photosynthesis of plants, which is far less efficient than converting photons into electrons in a solar panel.
Research by the World Resources Institute showed that even fast-growing sugarcane on highly fertile tropical land converts only 0.5 percent of solar radiation into usable food energy.
By contrast, a field of solar panels can achieve 15 percent efficiency, increasing over time with technological advance. Also, when we use a cow’s stomach to convert plant protein into meat, we lose more than 90 percent of the stored energy.
As a result, food and fiber production is by far the main driver of tropical deforestation. Along with methane emissions from farm animals and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizer, deforestation accounts for 20 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions and threatens to create feedback loops that accelerate global warming.
In the long run, new technologies will probably solve this problem, too.
Synthetic meats produced using precision biology require 10 to 25 times less land than animal-based production, and if synthetic techniques become more efficient while cows do not, they will eventually be lower cost.
By the middle of the century, Gates might be proved right and Thunberg too pessimistic even in relation to food and land use.
All production ultimately depends on knowledge and energy, and there is no limit to human knowledge and no relevant limit to the energy the sun gives us for free.
However, while rapid technological progress is our best long-term hope for mitigating climate change, Thunberg is partly right today.
Living standards in rich countries threaten catastrophic climate change and local environmental destruction, so responsible consumer choice matters as well.
We should fly less, get on our bikes and eat less red meat. Additionally, we must ensure as rapidly as possible the massive flows of finance — from governments, companies and individuals — needed to halt deforestation before it is too late.
Adair Turner, chair of the Energy Transitions Commission, was chair of the UK Financial Services Authority from 2008 to 2012.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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