Although futurists aren’t supposed to make predictions, the notion that our energy system is switching much more quickly than expected from fossil fuels to renewables, and that solar energy will be at the front of that change, suddenly doesn’t seem so controversial. Of course, the speed of the change still matters, certainly in terms of global warming outcomes.
And yet until recently the notion that solar energy would be the leading energy source was a possible future that was, broadly, regarded as impossible.
The International Energy Agency didn’t think that solar power would ever be affordable at any great scale, and didn’t include it in its projections. In 2013, George Monbiot wrote that “solar power is unlikely to make a large contribution to electricity supply in the UK.” Goodall himself admits that he didn’t think it had much to offer until very recently.
Or, as Bloomberg put it:
The best minds in energy keep underestimating what solar and wind can do. Since 2000, the International Energy Agency has raised its long-term solar forecast 14 times and its wind forecast five times.
So what’s happened? The answer, in headline form, is in the chart at the top of this post.
A few years ago I wrote a set of scenarios – with Joe Ballantyne and Andy Sumner – on the prospects for the world economy to the early 2020s. In one of the scenarios we saw the “West” regenerate itself by a combination of public investment and by bringing home its high value manufacturing. After I’d drafted this post, David Cameron popped up at Davos to promote the idea of “re-shoring”, even if he seems less keen on the notion of public investment. And according to a recent report in The Conversation by some Birmingham University researchers, there are signs that re-shoring is starting to happen, that British businesses are bringing it back home.
I don’t often use this blog to summarise single articles, but a recent New Scientist has an article in it which is in urgent need of summary (the full article is behind the NS paywall).
The piece, called Global Warning, written by Michael le Page, observes that if the 2007 prognosis of the IPCC was gloomy, the next one ought to be even grimmer. Le Page offers seven reasons why: in a nutshell, our earlier climate change models didn’t have sufficiently strong system-wide feedback loops in them, and despite our knowledge of climate change science we’ve done nothing meaningful to change our behaviour. Here’s a summary of the seven reasons.
I had a discussion recently with futurist colleague Wendy Schultz about defining the change that happened in Europe and America in the late 18th century. It was the enlightenment, certainly, through which a whole host of new political views about public voice and the independent integrity of the individual emerged into the mainstream, even if took another 150 years, or even 200, to work themselves out. And at the same time it was the beginning of the age of extraction, when humankind started to use the stored resources of the planet at scale for their profit and endeavour. Both of these ideas are still the dominant frames of our public discourse, certainly in the richer world, and shape (almost completely) competing arguments about sustainability. So I was lucky – even privileged – this week to hear the Canadian landscape photographer Ed Burtynsky talk about his work at a private event organised by Arup in London.
Smart Monkey TV is an interesting venture from Russell Southwood, whom I’ve known a long time – a You Tube channel on which Russell collects video interviews on a range of subjects he thinks people could be interested in. It’s just been soft-launched with a first set of interviews, and this is how it describes itself:
Interesting interviews with people who know what they’re talking about and have something to say for people who are curious.
I was interviewed on futures and on energy – here are the two clips on energy. First up, the complex timeline – and complex system – for the decline of oil (about 6 minutes):
And second, the impact the decline of oil will have on business (about 9 minutes):
The technology industry has grown up in an age of cheap and abundant energy, and that has shaped, deeply and fundamentally, the way it sees the world, what it chooses to make, and how it designs what it does. You have to think only of the short lifespan of the devices, the fact that they are discarded, not upgraded, when technology moves on; or the emerging service designs based on the world of the cloud; and always on, on demand access. But the age of cheap and abundant energy is coming to a close. It is about to become scarcer and more expensive. How does the technology energy need to respond?
It’s hard to know where to start with the BP oil disaster. Commentary has been gushing out almost as quickly as oil. We know the scale of the pollution, and have read ecologists who say the conditions are unlike any other seen on earth, certainly in the anthropocene period. Dark humour is one response; angry satire is another (The Onion: ‘Massive Flow Of Bullshit Continues To Gush From BP Headquarters‘).We have a good idea that BP’s conduct over the drilling was somewhere between careless and reckless (and that sooner or later a court is likely to decide on which), and that regulatory agencies were compliant or ineffective. One area that seems to deserve more thought – especially from a futures perspective – is the way in which essentially man-made disasters such as this are to a significant extent produced by a limited set of ideas about risk, both the way it gets assessed and the way it is managed.
“We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it”. Stewart Brand’s brand of eco-pragmatism, spelt out in his new book Whole Earth Discipline, is prefaced with his knowing nod back to the Whole Earth Catalog, this time with added urgency. And being god-like involves solving the accelerating climate and resource crisis by adopting nuclear power, learning to love GM crops, and indulging in quite a lot of geo-engineering. A review by Jon Turney in The Guardian seemed to welcome Brand’s vision of “a new generation of science-led, environmentally aware ecoengineers who recognise that the state of the Earth is now in our hands”. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it’s worth unravelling some of this. The first point is that as the triple impact of resource scarcity, climate change, and increasing global population becomes more apparent, and as we continue to do little to mitigate them, the clamour for technology-based solutions grows louder. But they’re unlikely to be successful.
No sooner had I published yesterday’s post on the wide disagreement about future oil production, than Britain’s Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security has called on the government to reassess its currently dismissive view of the risk of oil shortages. The Taskforce produced the Oil Crunch report which I mentioned in yesterday’s post.
The row over whether the International Energy Agency has or has not nurdled its oil data to (a) prevent financial market panic or (b) appease the Americans or (c) neither of the above, is interesting but a bit of a sideshow. What’s more interesting is how fast the notion that ‘peak oil’ is imminent has moved from being a contested minority view to being mainstream.