Climate change today is often represented as a technological challenge. We discover every day about new businesses presenting climate-friendly technologies to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. It gives us a sense of calm knowing that major financial institutions promise to only invest in climate-friendly companies, to see the vast renewable energy projects in countries such as China, and to see the financial successes of entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk. These initiatives strive towards the critical target stated in the Paris Agreement of keeping the average global temperature increase below 2 degrees celsius. To achieve that we need to halve net emissions by 2050 and get to zero by 2070 at the very latest, if not much sooner. In addition, we need to reduce the concentrations of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. This long read will look at whether technologies indeed can help us meet that 2 degrees target and what it means if we do not.
Where do our emissions come from?
Let’s look at our emissions by sector from 2016 when we emitted around 50 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions, These emissions come from a broad range of technologies touching upon every part of our Urban-Industrialized economies. What is hidden in this graph is that half of the emissions assigned to industry come from electricity and heat produced by power plants. Similarly, most of the 17.5% of greenhouse gas emissions assigned to buildings also comes from power plants. In other words, if we are looking at what technologies are needed to reduce emissions, we need to see power plants as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, at 27%.
If we are serious about reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, charts such as these must form the basis of our strategy. We need to have a plan to cover decarbonising each and every significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, not just some. This is no easy task considering almost every technology behind Urban-Industrialized society causes greenhouse gas emissions; technologies for increased food and energy production and for construction and transportation all create greenhouse gas emissions. These are unintended byproducts, but byproducts all the same. Scientists tell us of disastrous consequences of breaching a 2-degree Celsius increase in average global temperatures, including mass extinctions, increased natural disasters destroying lives and property, crop failures, and mass migrations of people. If we understand the Great Transition to be inevitable and still wish to prevent climate catastrophe, we need to change the technologies behind almost every aspect of the Great Transition. The question is, can we?
Throughout the course, we have shown that it took the 1st Wave over 150 to 200 years to develop all the technologies for the Great Transition, which were then used by each subsequent Wave. Hopes for zeroing emissions are based on the belief “in a miracle”, that humanity will be able to make a series of technological revolutions in the next 30-40 years, developing new technologies and replace existing ones and do it on a global scale at a time of rapidly growing demand! Developing new technologies will take time. Moreover, while some technologies are available, it will take decades for those technologies to be mature enough to meet the huge growing demand in the 3rd and 4th Wave and replace existing infrastructure in the 1st and 2nd Waves. And for almost half of emission sources, we have no idea of how to replace them.
Why can we not replace the technologies?
For some of us, it may come as a surprise that we cannot simply switch to climate-friendly technologies. After all, as stated in the introduction of this long read, we keep hearing about our successes in developing new technologies and how cheap those technologies are becoming. Sadly the reality shows us it will take decades to make that transition.
Suppose we can look at the source of 26% of emissions, food production, deforestation, crop burning, and other forms of land-use change. Meat and dairy alone almost equal the emissions of all passenger cars. We can now see technologies emerge, such as petri-dish meat. And while these technologies may be exciting, they are truly early stage. Beef has scaled to meet an ever-increasing demand for safe, nourishing, affordable, and tasty protein. Even the most bullish pro-cultured meat analysts expect artificial meat to outsell real meat only in 2040. By then, as we showed in our food long read, meat consumption will have doubled, meaning that even this most positive projection of meat alternatives, emissions from cattle will remain stable and not decrease. We have to wait to see if these optimistic predictions come to fruition, and alternative meat can scale production to meet the growing demand for protein competitively. Nor do these meat alternatives do anything to solve nitrogen emissions from increased fertilizer use or deforestation to allow more space for crop cultivation. So again, we can expect agricultural emissions to increase.
Steel and Cement
Or Suppose we can look attake steel and cement as examples of two core materials essential for urbanization. They together account for over 10% of our global emissions. Today there are no existing scalable means to decarbonize steel and cement. If we take steel, hopes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are pinned on shifting from coal to hydrogen, but industry experts estimate that the global steel sector can reach net-zero emissions only by 2070. But we need to increase steel capacity now. Over the last 20 years alone, steel production has more than doubled to just under 1.9 billion tonnes a year. Over the same time, we have seen the world’s urban population slightly less than double to just under 4.5 billion people. Yet, as we recall from our urbanisation long read, over the next 50 to 80 years, we will see 6 billion more urban dwellers, more than doubling today’s urban population and requiring new buildings and infrastructure. So we can easily expect steel production to double again to urbanise another 6 billion people. When we consider that every tonne of steel results in around 2 tonnes of Co2 emissions we can see that steel alone could be soon emitting as much as 16 billion tonnes of CO2 a year. That is almost half of total CO2 emissions last year and a third of CO2 equivalent emissions. Cement similarly today cannot be made without greenhouse gas emissions. If we used the same calculation for cement we would see today’s 4 billion tonnes of cement consumption double to 8 billion and its half-ton of CO2 emissions per 1 tonne of cement increase to 8 billion tonnes of C02 or the same as the entire CO2 emissions of the EU. Yet over the next 50 to 80 years, we will see 6 billion more urban dwellers, more than doubling today’s urban population and requiring new buildings and infrastructure. So in terms of steel and cement, it looks as if our emissions from these technologies will not decrease to zero but double.
Road transportation accounts for around 12% of emissions, specifically passenger cars 7% and trucks nearly 4%. Today, there are around 1.3 billion passenger cars in the world and most experts project that there will be 2.5 billion by 2040. We also understand the source of this growth. 2nd Wave countries still have far lower numbers of passenger cars per capita than in 1st Wave countries. While the 1st Wave country, the US, today counts over 800 cars per 1,000 population and the EU over 600 cars per 1,000, 2nd Wave countries such as China count closer to 200. But as it completes its Great Transition, China expects to see its number of passenger cars to increase from 250 million cars today to 500 million in 2050. Even then, China would still only have 360 cars per 1,000 population. 3rd Wave country, India, has closer to 40 cars per thousand people but expects to reach 382 cars per thousand people in 2050, in other words, over 600 million passenger cars. If we take the EU personnel vehicle penetration rate as the standard for an urban-industrialised society, then for a population of 10.8 billion in 2100 then we might expect over 6 billion cars - four times the number of cars today. Today, electric cars are a trendy topic in environmental discussions. Tesla, in particular, has captured the public’s imagination with its promise to transform the energy sector to become more renewable. But how quickly can it scale? Optimists expect electric vehicles to reach a third of sales only in 2030. In other words, as important as personnel transport may be to urban-industrialized living, we would have to dramatically increase production and decrease costs to meet the demand for 2 billion new passenger cars in the next 20 years and replace the existing billion as they reach the end of their lives. Not only that, but we need to transform the entire electricity sector. If all these electric cars are powered by coal power plants then emissions would actually rise. 3rd and 4th Waves already face rapidly growing electricity demand without increased demand from the transport sector. While electric vehicles may be part of a solution, they can at most play a 12% part, and in the next few decades, and more likely be a small fraction of that. This means transportation’s emissions too will rise not fall, and certainly not fall to zero in the coming decades.
Let’s turn our attention to renewable electricity production. We can see a great deal of discussion about solar electricity’s falling costs and significant investments in renewable electricity production. We need to remember two things from our energy long read, however. Firstly, no 1st Wave economy has a 100% renewable electricity system and all of them built their grids initially based on coal and then coal and gas. 1st Wave countries are facing challenges with the energy transition 2.0. Most estimate that the maximum role renewables can play is roughly 70% as otherwise there are severe risks of power cuts. In fact, countries such as the UK, with only 33% renewables already have faced power cuts due to the growing role of renewables. There are many solutions being developed, from battery technology to transcontinental grids which could take solar energy from Morocco to Germany. But these are not well-established solutions. And considering the challenges faced by the transition to renewables in 1st Wave countries, it is not surprising that studies show the 4th Wave, Sub-Saharan Africa’s, electricity capacity will not only double by 2030, increasing from about 244 gigawatts in 2019 to 472 gigawatts in 2030. However, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power will make up less than 10%. Meanwhile, 62% of the energy capacity will come from fossil fuels, including coal and natural gas, and another 17% from hydroelectric power. Other planned energy sources include biomass and geothermal technologies. The technology is not ready for the massive scale required. And secondly, even if it was, electricity makes up less than 20% of energy consumption.
Wealthy business leaders such as Bill Gates are investing billions into new technologies through initiatives such as Breakthrough Energy and yes, new technologies are appearing. But it is not enough to simply trust in the exponential nature of developments in technology. For these and similar technologies to bring our emissions to zero requires nothing short of rapidly rebuilding the entire infrastructure of 1st and 2nd Wave countries and finding an alternative way for 3rd and 4th Wave countries to develop an even larger infrastructure, when the existing blueprint took almost 200 years to develop. Realistically scaling this technology will take decades, and we have only 30-40 years to achieve this unprecedented transformation. We may see China announce 1 TW of renewable electricity capacity, but they already have 1.7 TW of mainly coal-based electricity capacity to meet their need for 3.3 TW in 2050, i.e. coal will form 40% of their 2050 energy mix. Even the optimistic among us must understand the scale of the challenge if we are to achieve such optimistic goals.
Moreover, there are so many sources of greenhouse gas emissions that need our attention that the media, investors, and public simply cannot keep them all in mind. We may hear about artificial meat and electric cars, but do we hear about businesses fighting fugitive emissions? Just in case, fugitive emissions are those emissions caused by leaks or wasted fossils fuels in the exploration and transportation of oil and gas. They account for 5.8%. Another 7.8% of emissions come from so-called “unallocated fuel combustion”, more than all passenger cars. These hard to combat emissions do not get the same attention as passenger cars, but are just as serious.
Further risks less discussed
An even more troubling concern of the author of this course is that our focus on technologies blinds us to the real issues at hand. Implementations of the Kyoto Protocol focused more on building emissions trading markets and lost sight of the key goal, which was decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, focusing on the technologies and business opportunities in the consumer goods sector may result only in a great electric car market but no closer to fixing the climate.
If that was not all challenging enough, we should also consider that we are not certain about how humanity is damaging the climate. As discussed in the previous long read, another entirely scientific explanation is that the destruction of natural forests and their biotic regulation capacity is to blame. In other words, to be confident of success, we would not only need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions rapidly to zero. We would also need to ensure that no more natural forests are destroyed, while simultaneously setting aside vast areas of land for the decades-long process of natural afforestation. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in the position that we have achieved a near-impossible goal and not prevented climate disaster.
For these reasons, suggestions that humanity should use geo-engineering to regulate the climate sound so concerning. Some who recognize that our economies cannot be decarbonized have called for technologies to cool the planet directly, including limiting sunlight. One idea gaining momentum involves pulling tens of billions of tonnes of carbon every year out of the atmosphere and storing it underground. Yet the idea that we should interfere more not less in our climate, a climate we poorly understand and have already broken, sounds to many others as if we would simply be creating new and worse problems. We do not know what would happen if we suddenly start extracting billions of tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere. Moreover, there is the long-term risk that the underground storage would leak and lead to trillions of tonnes of carbon released rapidly into the atmosphere. These types of debates are likely to become ever more frequent.
What this means for the future
It is certainly not just the author of this course who doubts that we can meet the 2 degrees target. Reports from organisations such as the United Nations Environmental Programme clearly state that the world is on course for more than 3-degree spike in December 2020, even if climate commitments are met, worse if they are not. Scientists and around the world have been calling on policymakers to engage with the risk of disruption and even the collapse of societies. Some armed services have begun planning for extreme environmental conditions triggering society’s collapse. Some leaders resist such apparent doomsday messaging as they believe it may have negative repercussions on our mental health, our economies, and so on. But only by discussing this threat of societal collapse can we begin to reduce its likelihood, speed, and severity.
At current rates, we will have exceeded our carbon budget to go below 2 degrees within the next 2o-30years. So if technology cannot save us, can we force everyone globally to throw away the keys to all our cars, turn off our power stations, and eat poorer diets? If not, we need to accept that 2-degrees is inevitable. 4 to 6 degrees Celcius looks more likely. What does this mean?
It means that in the 21st century and most likely in the 22nd century, we will be living through a period of ever-greater climate instability. Our societies and economies will be increasingly impacted. This and other pressures from the Great Transition may indeed bring us to civilizational collapse, perhaps not in our lifetimes, but certainly in the lives of our children. So humanity will undoubtedly need to become more resilient. Decarbonization is by no means a pointless exercise, far from it. Achieving a 3 or 4-degree increase rather than a 6-degree increase may be the difference between human civilization’s survival or demise. We don’t know that, but we can hope.
For those who understand the full scale of the challenge and are not wildly optimistic about our chances of preventing climate catastrophe, the question remains, what should be our goal? Understanding that the next few decades will see ever more visible and damaging climate change does not mean we should not do anything at all. It simply means we should be informed, not naive, activists. The next long read will provide some thoughts on what can be done.