Why I Still Have Hope

It’s very, very easy to be depressed into despair about the state of the world, and global warming in particular. Based on this report there is a very real possibility that we’ve already screwed the planet to the point where there is no coming back – even if we start taking radical action now the release of methane from arctic hydrates, as a result of the warming we’ve already put into the system, will swamp anything we do.

However, the point here is that, while this may be the case, we really don’t know. This could be anything from a false alarm, through a substantial but not insulable problem, to the complete end of the line. We don’t know, and probably won’t know for a while, although it’s good to see some knowledgable scientists suggesting the headlines are over the top.

If the problem is at the middle or lower end of the scale it’s only a temporary let-out. Sooner or later something is going to trigger a run-away disaster if we don’t change our course. It could be permafrost, or the drying out of the Amazon, or changes to ocean currents or something we haven’t thought of. However, it is almost certain that somewhere in the global climatic system is a tripwire we can’t afford to cross. What we don’t know is how close we are to that tripwire.

Given the difficulties we are experiencing in lowering carbon emissions it might be argued that this doesn’t matter a lot. Even if we have a couple of decades to turn things around, we won’t. It’s easy to think like that when you’re listening to the US Republicans or Australian Coalition.

Add in the fact that carbon emissions have been growing near the top of the scenarios considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and it all seems hopeless.

It may be that I simply read too many high fantasy novels as a child, where the fate of this or some other world seemed irretrievably doomed before a combination of luck, wisdom and determination saved the day but I think we still have a reasonable chance of getting out of this. The full explanation would take a post many times this length, and I’ll probably do some filling in later, but here is the summation of my case:

  • The world is warming primarily because the developed world is producing most of it’s energy from fossil fuels.
  • Things have been getting worse recently mostly because China has been industrialising so fast, again mostly powered by fossil fuel.
  • Projections generally assume that the rest of the developing world will start to use far more energy, and will similarly rely on coal, oil and natural gas.
  • There is a very substantial chance that the last assumption is wrong, and that the first two points can also be turned around.

Perhaps the key point is this. The developed world and China have largely used fossil fuels because they were cheaper than the alternatives. However, this is increasingly not the case, particularly for the countries in which most future development will take place.

Even five years ago, solar power was quite uncompetitive for large scale electricity production. The West used it to a small extent because it was wealthy enough to be able to afford such indulgences. China initially diversified by using wind, not sun. However, given there was demand for panels in the west the Chinese were happy to set up a large industry manufacturing and exporting panels. Partly as a result, and partly for other reasons, prices have plunged. Solar panels now cost about half what they did four years ago, and will continue to get cheaper. The cost of an entire solar system has fallen more slowly, but it is still way, way down.

Consequently, China is now planning to install 15GW of solar power in the next four years . They may not meet this goal, and even if they do they’ll still be adding a lot more coal and natural gas-fired powerplants. Nevertheless, solar is now clearly a viable alternative, one whose costs are not much higher than fossil fuels, and with the right assumptions and locations one that may even be cheaper.

Now lets look at the countries that are next in line. One thing almost all of them have in common is that they have more sunlight than China. India, for example, gets almost double the average insolation of the more populated parts of China. Most of Africa gets more again. So the cost of solar power in these countries will be substantially cheaper than in China, let alone Europe.

On the other hand, China sits atop some of the world’s largest coal reserves. Some of the other nations that are getting to the serious energy consumption stage of industrialization stage also have plenty of coal (most notably India and South Africa). Most however do not. As coal is seriously expensive to ship around the world, this tilts the cost equation even further in solar’s favour. Some will choose natural gas instead, but in most cases this will be even more expensive, except as a way of managing peaks in demand.

Of course solar still has the problem of intermittency: what does one do at night or on cloudy days? Even this is less of a problem for the soon-to-be developed parts of the world. They’ll need to find a way to store electricity through the night, but they don’t have winters to worry about where the nights are long and the days often too short to recharge the batteries. If the cost of producing electricity from the sun is enough lower than from coal that’s a problem they’ll be willing to address.

Of course electricity is not the whole problem. There’s carbon emissions from transport, agriculture and deforestation. Hopefully I’ll get to these another time, but in short I think some are at least as likely to be solved as standing energy emissions, while others are quite a lot smaller, while still substantial problems.

Ok, you might argue, it’s great that the developing world may not end up producing nearly as much greenhouse gas as we expected, but does that matter? Aren’t China and the West producing enough to fry the planet on their own?

Well yes. But that doesn’t mean this will continue indefinitely. It’s going to be harder to shut down existing power stations than it will be to stop new ones opening, but in much of the world the trend is already in the right direction. Europe and America are using less fossil fuels than they were six or seven years ago, and the trend started before the recession. Virtually no new coal-fired power stations have been started in the developed world for 6-7 years. In the European Union the production of coal has fallen 15% in the last seven years.

There’s another factor here as well. The US, and quite a lot of the rest of the developed world is in deep recession, and this is largely a result of lack of demand. Since 2008 Americans have been saving around a trillion dollars a year because households are scared and desperately want to put away money against disasters such as losing a job. Meanwhile businesses are not investing because they don’t see opportunities, all of which leads to unemployment. What is needed is for people to find something they can invest in which costs money now but will clearly save them money in the long run. Something like solar panels for example. I haven’t confirmed it, but I was told by someone who should know that 40% of American electricians are currently out of work. If enough people, or companies, choose to stick solar panels on their roofs there will suddenly be a whole lot more people with jobs, all of whom will want to spend a goodly chunk of the money they earn, which in turn will employ a bunch more people.

In a different world this issue would be solved through the government investing in infrastructure, but all the right wing parties, and many of the left, in the developed world are determined to not let that happen. However, with it now making straightforward economic sense for millions of Americans in sunnier climates (or where their state has a generous feed-in tariff) there has to be a chance that people will start catching on, and solving the problem for themselves. Once those panels are installed, they’ll be producing power for free, and coal and gas stations, which always have to cover the cost of fuel, won’t be able to compete and will start shutting down.

Clearly we still have huge problems. Not only could the tripwires be quite close, but the use of enormously emission intensive fuels like those from the Canadian tar sands could blow us out of the water. There’s also the danger that developing world governments will decide that overnight storage of electricity is just too tricky to think about and opt for existing options instead. All of this means it is absolutely essential to get renewable energy into the field as fast as possible. I’m in the process of holding a series of fundraisers to buy solar panels for Africa and East Timor as my small contribution to addressing this.

That’s just one example of the things we can and should be doing, but won’t if we give up on hope.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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4 Responses to Why I Still Have Hope

  1. the biggest cause on global warming is fossil fuel. In future we must have alternative of it to reduces dangers of warming

  2. Thank you Stephen. Optimism is getting harder and harder to maintain so I really appreciate this! I subscribe to Paul Gilding’s view that humans are slow, but not stupid – we will take a long time to get our act together (too long to avoid some major pain), but when we do, the change will be dramatic.
    I’d be interested in details on your fundraisers, if they aren’t all over and done with?

  3. Hi Carolyn,
    Thanks for the appreciation.
    At least two fundraisers still to come, but I’m not going to advertise them this widely. I’ll try to contact you, but the email you’ve lodged doesn’t look right, so if you don’t get it there check your facebook (looks like you don’t use it that often).

    Stephen

  4. Pingback: A Different Sort of Hope | Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats

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