We all know that the world is undergoing an energy transformation, from a system based on fossil fuels to a system based on renewable energy,in order to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the most serious impacts of a changing climate. This article however realistic it appears, could be understood as some sort of justification of the ineluctable surrender of the fossil fuel to its time penalty.
Jarand Rystad Jan 25, 2020
Existing fossil fuel power plants will play a pivotal role in enabling the full transition to a near-zero-carbon electricity system in many countries. How can such a surprising and perhaps counterintuitive conclusion be reached? The key word is intermittency, in reference to the wide fluctuations of energy supply associated with solar and wind. Even if these two sources are, to some degree, complementary (with more wind at night and during winter, complemented by more sun at daytime and during the summer), the combination still carries a high degree of intermittency.
In this analysis, we have used data from Germany from 2012 to 2019, and scaled this up to a near 100% renewable system – assuming that the total capacity will be 160 GW, or three times the average consumption. In this system, there will still be 28 days where solar and wind combined produce less than 30% of the consumption. This happens typically during high-pressure weather systems during the winter months from November to February.
Moreover, there will on average be two extreme periods per year, with up to three days in a row when sun and wind will deliver less than 10% of Germany’s total energy consumption. Even with adjustments to imports and consumption levels, the country would still need some 50 GW of power to avoid blackouts (with 72 hours at 50 GW equating to 3.6 TWh). Total water pumping capacity today is 7 GW over four hours or about 30 GWh. Assume this multiplies ten-fold by 2050, and assume that 45 million cars are battery electric vehicles with surplus capacity of 20 kWh each. This would deliver about 1.2 TWh in total, meaning the system would still need 2.4 TWh of power or a continuous load of 33 GW.
During these periods, restarting old gas-fired power plants could be an economically rational way to deliver the power needed to keep the nation running as usual. The carbon footprint of this would be small – probably less than the footprint associated with constructing gigantic battery facilities for those few extreme cases. Germany presently has 263 gas power plants, with a total capacity of 25 GW.
Thus, finding a way to maintain these plants for emergency back-up capacity could be an enabler for an energy future based around solar and wind power. Capacity pricing rather than price per kWh is probably one of the commercial changes needed. This is the same pricing model that most people also have for home internet services, and should thus not be too difficult to implement.
Adelle Geronimo informs that despite all the hoo-hah in the Middle East, the UAE to accelerate space tech startups is no extraordinary youth employment programme. This follows the UAE launching in October 2018, its first satellite built entirely by Emirati engineers in the UAE and after sending an Emirati astronaut to the International Space Station. The UAE plans also to establish a self-sustaining habitable settlement on Mars by 2117.
The UAE Space Agency has announced its collaboration with the Abu Dhabi-based global innovation hub, Krypto Labs, to launch the UAE NewSpace Innovation Programme, which aims to maximise the growth of space technology start-ups with NewSpace, the rising private spaceflight industry.
The programme falls under the purview of the National Space Investment Promotion Plan, which aims to heighten the role of the space industry in contributing to the economy of the UAE.
It is also in line with an MoU signed between the UAE Space Agency and Krypto Labs, which aims to increase innovation and investment in the space sector, drive a diversified UAE economy, and promote awareness through specialised initiatives that support space technology entrepreneurship.
Dr. Mohammed Nasser Al Ahbabi, Director-General of the UAE Space Agency, said, “The UAE NewSpace Innovation Programme invites students, entrepreneurs and start-ups to share their ground-breaking ideas and transform them into viable commercial products. This supports developing space technology as part of the UAE’s private spaceflight NewSpace sector, which aims to make space more accessible, affordable and commercial.”
Selected applicants will take part in a three-month incubation programme at the headquarters of Krypto Labs in Abu Dhabi, with access to the hub’s facilities. They will also have access to the innovation hub’s local and global network of investors, be mentored by global space experts, and develop their skills in business creation, marketing, and sales, among others.
Applicants will also have the opportunity to secure funds to ensure their start-ups are prepared to enter the market.
Eligible applicants must present an innovative and original idea with a clear technical approach, which generates a feasible and scalable product. The teams must have at least one Emirati team member.
Dr. Saleh Al Hashemi, Managing Director of Krypto Labs, noted, “By supporting innovators and young entrepreneurs, we aim to foster a spirit of originality and zest within start-ups to solve global challenges that keep the UAE on the frontier of the innovation map and elevate its position as a leader for innovation-focused businesses.”
Indeed, per the above, USD 10 trillion of fossil fuel investment must be redirected towards energy transformation by 2030.
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 12 January 2020 – The share of renewables in global power should more than double by 2030 to advance the global energy transformation, achieve sustainable development goals and a pathway to climate safety, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Renewable electricity should supply 57 per cent of global power by the end of the decade, up from 26 per cent today.
A new booklet 10 Years: Progress to Action, published for the 10th annual Assembly of IRENA, charts recent global advances and outlines the measures still needed to scale up renewables. The Agency’s data shows that annual renewable energy investment needs to double from around USD 330 billion today, to close to USD 750 billion to deploy renewable energy at the speed required. Much of the needed investment can be met by redirecting planned fossil fuel investment. Close to USD 10 trillion of non-renewables related energy investments are planned to 2030, risking stranded assets and increasing the likelihood of exceeding the world’s 1.5 degree carbon budget this decade.
“We have entered the decade of renewable energy action, a period in which the energy system will transform at unparalleled speed,” said IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera. “To ensure this happens, we must urgently address the need for stronger enabling policies and a significant increase in investment over the next 10 years. Renewables hold the key to sustainable development and should be central to energy and economic planning all over the world.”
“Renewable energy solutions are affordable, readily available and deployable at scale,” continued Mr La Camera. “To advance a low-carbon future, IRENA will further promote knowledge exchange, strengthen partnerships and work with all stakeholders, from private sector leaders to policymakers, to catalyse action on the ground. We know it is possible,” he concluded, “but we must all move faster.”
Additional investments bring significant external cost savings, including minimising significant losses caused by climate change as a result of inaction. Savings could amount to between USD 1.6 trillion and USD 3.7 trillion annually by 2030, three to seven times higher than investment costs for the energy transformation.
Falling technology costs continue to strengthen the case for renewable energy. IRENA points out that solar PV costs have fallen by almost 90 per cent over the last 10 years and onshore wind turbine prices have fallen by up half in that period. By the end of this decade, solar PV and wind costs may consistently outcompete traditional energy. The two technologies could cover over a third of global power needs.
Renewables can become a vital tool in closing the energy access gap, a key sustainable development goal. Off-grid renewables have emerged as a key solution to expand energy access and now deliver access to around 150 million people. IRENA data shows that 60 per cent of new electricity access can be met by renewables in the next decade with stand-alone and mini-grid systems providing the means for almost half of new access.
Kuwait has issued a global tender to seek international experts for a major project to help diversify the economy.
Kuwait has issued a global tender looking to companies to help develop a new Entertainment City in the country.
The mega-scale tender seeks to locate the right partners to undertake planning, development, execution, operation, maintenance and investment in the project which forms part of Kuwait Vision 2035.
Al-Diwan Al-Amiri said in a statement that it aims to sign up partners “at the nearest possible opportunity”.
Considered to be one of the largest projects of its kind in the region, the mega project will actively support the ongoing efforts by the government to diversify sources of income and will contribute to the revitalisation of the cultural, leisure and tourism sectors in Kuwait, the statement added.
As part of the project, a global entertainment and tourism city will be established, featuring an amusement park and a world-class integrated entertainment complex.
Project components primarily include a ride based outdoor theme park, an indoor theme park, an aqua park, a kids’ activity and entertainment centre, in addition to gaming arcade, a snow/ski park and a multiplex and open air theatre.
Other components comprise a sports centre, a museum, public parks and social entertainment areas with landscaped areas and trails. The project also comprises 4 and 5 star villas, apartments, a retail mall, commercial areas and restaurants. It also includes an observatory, an amphitheatre, indoor water channels.
The current location for Al-Diwan Al-Amiri’s Entertainment City in the Doha region in the north of Kuwait will be expanded and developed to cover 2,750 million square metres.
The deadline for the global tendering and bidding process is set for February 27.
Al-Diwan Al-Amiri’s other projects include the Jahra Medical City, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Cultural Centre, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Cultural Centre, Kuwait Motor Town and Shaheed Park.
A Frenchman is credited with being the first to discover the photovoltaic effect that produces electricity from sunlight. The first solar panel was built in the US. But when Abu Dhabi decided to build the world’s largest individual solar power project, they looked east for help.
The country partnered with Chinese and Japanese companies to construct a facility, which opened this year, with a peak capacity of 1.18 gigawatts generated by 3.2 million solar panels. That’s because Asia, more than any other region on the planet, and China, more than any other nation, currently represent the future of solar energy, and are at the heart of the ensuing industrywide transformation from fossil fuels to renewable and nuclear energy.
Decarbonization is changing the face of energy and the world economy in more ways than most consumers — and even most executives — appreciate. Besides the transition from molecule to electron, as this move toward electrification suggests, it is also shifting the industry’s economic base from West to East and reconfiguring the hierarchy of companies and geographies that define energy.
Asia is the 800-pound gorilla in the energy story. First, its continued economic growth and rising standard of living will make its constituent nations pre-eminent energy consumers for the foreseeable future. A study by BP indicates that Asia, including China and India, will represent 43% of global energy demand by 2040, and through that year, the region will account for more than 50% of the growth in demand. In contrast, energy demand among the 36 nations in the OECD, which includes most big economies in the Americas and Europe, will be flat.
China’s sunny outlook
Second, places like China are already among the most important suppliers of non-fossil fuel-based energy and technology. By 2017, China owned 72% of the world’s solar photovoltaic module production; in comparison, the US has 1% and Europe 2%. Of the eight top producers, six are Asian. Not including hydropower, China has somewhere around one-third of the world’s installed renewable capacity; the EU has a little over a quarter; and the US accounts for 14%. China also leads in the generation of hydropower.
As the electrification of transportation advances and demand grows for renewable energy storage solutions, China looks likely to monopolize here, too. China produces at least two-thirds of the world’s production capacity for lithium-ion batteries, which are used in electric vehicles (EVs), mobile phones and laptop computers (some estimates put their share at closer to 70%), and it looks likely to hang on to that lead through at least 2028. And besides being the largest market for EVs, China also controls the bulk of production.
China is the third-largest miner of the primary raw material used to produce those batteries, lithium — often referred to as white petroleum because of its mounting economic importance. Chinese producers are also buying up lithium reserves in Chile, the world’s second-largest lithium miner (Australia takes the top spot).
A fundamental overhaul
Of course, climate change is forcing the energy industry to undergo an existential transformation that may eventually see the elimination of fossil fuels entirely. While most executives at oil companies will be dead or at least retired before that transition proceeds to what seems its inevitable end, the slowing of demand is already being felt.
By contrast, the demand for electricity seems insatiable. Electrification rates continue to rise across the globe, with Asia expected to be close to 100% coverage by 2030. Much of that growth in demand may be supplied by renewables and nuclear power rather than fossil fuel-generated power, although natural gas is expected to play a role for years to come. It also may be accomplished through a decentralization of generating capacity, such as recent rural electrification projects in places like Malawi and Bangladesh where farmers and villages use solar panels and small generators to provide their own electricity.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?
Moving to clean energy is key to combatting climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated. Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago.
Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.
Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.
Yet despite the urgency of climate concerns and the rapidly falling cost of renewable energy, the speed at which this existential energy transition will happen is uncertain, as pre- and post-tax subsidies on fossil fuels remain in place, discouraging consumers to make the change to a more environmentally beneficial and frequently cheaper source of energy. The International Monetary Fund estimates post-tax subsidies on fossil fuels like coal and petroleum — a result of unpriced externalities, such as societal costs from air pollution and global warming — totalled $5.2 trillion in 2017.
Regardless of the speed of transformation, there’s no doubt it is already well underway. That’s why places like the United Arab Emirates (of which Abu Dhabi is the largest) are building solar power and nuclear facilities, despite being the world’s eighth-largest oil producer — and making the transition with Asian partners. They see the future.
The first two decades of the 21st century saw the return of mass movements to streets around the world. Partly a product of sinking confidence in mainstream politics, mass mobilisation has had a huge impact on both official politics and wider society, and protest has become the form of political expression to which millions of people turn.
Following moments of open class warfare in the late 1960s and early 1970s, battles against the political and economic order became fragmented, trade unions were attacked, the legacy of the anti-colonial struggles was eroded and the history of the period was recast by the establishment to undermine its potency. In the post-Cold War era, a new phase of protest finally began to overcome these defeats.
This revival of protest exploded onto the political scene most visibly in Seattle outside the World Trade Organization summit in 1999. If 1968 was one of the high points of radical struggle in the 20th century, protest in the early 2000s once again began to reflect a general critique of the capitalist system, with solidarity forged across different sections of society.
The birth of the anti-globalisation movement in Seattle was followed by extraordinary mobilisations outside gatherings of the global economic elite. Alternative spaces were also created for the global justice movement to connect, most notably the World Social Forums (WSFs), starting with Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001. It was here that questions over what position the anti-globalisation movement should take over the Iraq War, for example, were discussed and debated. Though the WSFs provided an important rallying point for a time, they ultimately evaded politics.
In the years leading up to and following the banking crisis of 2008, food riots and anti-austerity protests escalated around the world. In parts of the Middle East and North Africa, protests achieved insurrectionary proportions, with the overthrow of one dictator after another. After the Arab Spring was thwarted by counter-revolution, the Occupy movement and then Black Lives Matter gained global attention. While the public, urban square became a central focus for protest, social media became an important – but by no means exclusive – organising tool.
To varying degrees, these movements sharply raised the question of political transformation but didn’t find new ways of institutionalising popular power. The result was that in a number of situations, protest movements fell back on widely distrusted parliamentary processes to try and pursue their political aims. The results of this parliamentary turn have not been impressive.
Crisis of representation
On the one hand, the first two decades of the 21st century have seen soaring inequality, accompanied by debt and the neglect of working people. On the other, there have been poor results from purely parliamentary attempts to challenge it. There is, in other words, a deep crisis of representation.
The inability of modern capitalism to deliver more than survival for many has combined with a general critique of neoliberal capitalism to create a situation in which wider and wider sections of society are being drawn into protest. More than a million people have poured onto the streets of Lebanon since mid-October and protests continue despite a violent crackdown by security forces.
At the same time, people are less and less willing to accept unrepresentative politicians – and this is likely to continue in the future. From Lebanon and Iraq to Chile and Hong Kong, mass mobilisations continue despite resignations and concessions.
In Britain, the Labour Party’s defeat in the recent general election is attributed largely to its failure to accept the 2016 referendum result over EU membership. Decades of loyalty to the Labour Party for many and a socialist leader in Jeremy Corbyn calling for an end to austerity couldn’t cut through to enough of the millions who voted for Brexit.
In France, a general strike in December 2019 over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms has revealed the extent of opposition that people feel towards his government. This comes barely a year after the start of the Yellow Vest movement, in which people have protested against fuel price hikes and the precariousness of their lives.
The tendency towards street protest will be encouraged too by the climate crisis, whose effects mean that the most heavily exploited, including along race and gender lines, have the most to lose. When the protests in Lebanon broke out, they were taking place alongside rampant wildfires.
As protesters gain experience, they consciously bring to the fore questions of leadership and organisation. In Lebanon and Iraq, there has already been a conscious effort to overcome traditional sectarian divides. Debates are also raging in protest movements from Algeria to Chile about how to fuse economic and political demands in a more strategic manner. The goal is to make political and economic demands inseparable, such that it’s impossible for a government to make political concessions without making economic ones too.
There has also been a resurgence of the far-right in many countries, emboldened most visibly by parties and politicians in the US, Brazil, India and many parts of Europe. This resurgence, however, has not gone unchallenged.
The convergence of crisis on these multiple fronts will reach breaking point, creating conditions that will become intolerable for most people. This will galvanise more protest and more polarisation. As governments respond with reforms, such measures on their own will be unlikely to meet the combination of political and economic demands. The question of how to create new vehicles of representation to assert popular control over the economy will keep emerging. The fortunes of popular protest may well depend on whether the collective leadership of the movements can provide answers to it.
Digital adoption key to cope with growth of mega cities or as put by Fida Kibbi: “As we continue to advance towards a more urbanized world and the impacts of climate change grow progressively, there is a greater need to accelerate digital adoption in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”
The number of megacities is forecast to increase to 43, each with more than 10 million inhabitants by 2030, said an industry expert, citing a report by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
More than half of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, the report said.
“As we continue to advance towards a more urbanized world and the impacts of climate change grow progressively, there is a greater need to accelerate digital adoption in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” said Fida Kibbi, vice president and head of Marketing, Communications and Sustainability & Corporate Responsibility at Ericsson Middle East & Africa.
Digitalization has a unique potential to enable other industrial sectors to move towards the low-carbon economy. According to the “2019 Exponential Roadmap” report, the digital industry has an important role to play in reducing global carbon emissions through existing ICT solutions across energy, manufacturing, agriculture, land use, buildings, services, transportation and traffic management.
According to research by Ericsson, ICT solutions could help to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 15 per cent by 2030, amounting to around ten gigatonnes of CO2e—more than the current carbon footprint of the EU and US combined. Examples of areas where the savings can be enabled by ICT solutions are: transportation, energy, industries and agriculture.
Ericsson takes a proactive stance and collaborates with a wide range of stakeholders to scale the impact of our joint programs and initiatives in areas like climate change, agriculture, financial inclusion and, humanitarian response.
Technology innovations have the potential to accelerate global efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals:
Technology to address the impacts of climate change
According to a report by the Global Humanitarian Forum, climate change is responsible for some 300,000 deaths each year and over $100 billion worth of economic losses, mainly because of shocks related to health and agricultural productivity. According to a recently published report, Africa is the region at the most immediate risk of droughts and floods.
With the acceleration of extreme weather, sea level rise, and other climate change impacts – precise weather information has become an absolute necessity. Innovators at Ericsson and the Swedish Meteorological and Hydrological Institute (SMHI) have been leveraging microwave data to solve the problem in a unique new initiative being piloted in Rwanda.
Ericsson Weather Data creates detailed and cost-efficient rainfall and flood predictions using the existing telecom infrastructure. Ericsson and SMHI leverage cellular network data to measure rainfall in real time, utilizing signal disturbances in microwave links.
By applying an algorithm, these disturbances can be used to measure exactly how much rain has fallen between two points on a microwave network. Potential use cases include climate mitigation efforts, flood prevention in sewage and stormwater systems in cities, agriculture, transport solutions, tourism, insurance, weather agencies and water utilities.
Banking the unbanked
Mobile financial services are a global game-changer with an open money network being the connection needed between the financial industry and telecom to increase both the commercial and social inclusion benefits.
With mobile money, people can make payments anywhere at any time with their mobile devices connected with Internet. This allows end-users to seamlessly purchase products or services without having to physically hand overcash or swipe a card. The freedom to send, spend and receive money with a mobile phone is quickly becoming an essential part of life for billions of people.
According to data from Ericsson ConsumerLab, more than half of consumers in Africa are using mobile money services through an agent, and some 20 per cent use mobile money themselves on a mobile phone. However, the unbanked are the ones who are least involved in the formal financial system, due to factors such as distance to banks, education, and the inability to authenticate their identity,
Increasing financial inclusion through the use of digital technology is an essential element in furthering the economic development of Africa. And the story does not end here. Mobile money services have become an essential, life-changing tool across Africa, providing access to safe and secure financial services but also to energy, health, education and employment opportunities.
“Ericsson is committed to using technology to contribute to new innovative solutions for a better tomorrow, and our aim is to develop solutions that support the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals within the context of sustainable business practices,” Kibbi concluded.
International collaboration is the only way to defeat it.
Corruption takes many forms. It is often thought of as a problem that mostly affects developing countries. But while the harm it does is magnified in poorer nations, corruption does not concern itself with national boundaries – it can be unearthed anywhere.
1. Across the EMEA region (that’s Europe, the Middle East, and Africa) and India almost half of all workers think bribery and corruption are acceptable if there is an economic downturn.
2. Corruption, bribery, theft and tax evasion, and other illicit financial flows cost developing countries $1.26 trillion per year. That’s roughly the combined size of the economies of Switzerland, South Africa and Belgium, and enough money to lift the 1.4 billion people who get by on less than $1.25 a day above the poverty threshold and keep them there for at least six years.
3. The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index scores 178 countries on their degree of corruption – 10 is the cleanest possible, and 0 indicates endemic corruption. In 2010, around three-quarters of all 178 scored lower than five.
4. As much as $132 billion is lost to corruption every year throughout the European Union’s member states, according to the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs.
What’s the World Economic Forum doing about corruption?
It hosts the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI), the largest global CEO-led anti-corruption initiative.
Realizing that corruption hampers growth and innovation, and increases social inequality, PACI aims to shape the global anti-corruption agenda.
Founded in 2004, it brings together top CEOs, governments and international organizations who develop collective action on corruption, transparency and emerging-marking risks.
PACI uses technology to boost transparency and accountability through its platform, Tech for Integrity. Show
5. Bangladesh is one of the world’s poorer countries. Around one-third of the population say they have been the victims of corruption, and an astonishing 84% of those households who had interacted with different public and private service institutions have been victims of corruption.
6. In war-torn Afghanistan, of the $8 billion donated in recent years, as much as $1 billion has been lost to corruption. Integrity Watch Afghanistan estimates bribe payments — for everything from enrolling in elementary school to getting a permit — exceed $1 billion a year.
7. In one Russian province, if you want to become a police officer you will probably have to pay around $3,000. To get a place in medical school, you will need to part with around $10,000. One consequence of this, according to the International Crisis Group, has been that some people have grown so disaffected that they have become drawn to Islamic extremism.
The MENA region has $100 billion worth of clean energy projects currently in the pipeline, according to a report by Energy & Utilities.
The report estimates total investment in clean energy to exceed $300 bn by 2050 if the region’s utilities are to meet their ambitious targets.
Middle East Energy said that the sharp drop in the cost of solar and wind power technologies is driving clean energy, with the cost of installing photovoltaic (PV) solar and wind having fallen by 73 percent and 80 per cent respectively since 2010.
The commissioning of the world’s largest single-site photovoltaic (PV) solar plant in 2019, the 1.17GW Sweihan independent power project (IPP) in Abu Dhabi, is one of the milestones reached this year in the push for clean energy, the report noted.
Dubai also reached financial close for a $4.3 billion concentrated solar power (CSP) project, Noor Energy 1, which is the largest single-site power investment project in the world.
The report estimates that installed power generation capacity will be required to increase 35 percent by 2025 just to meet rising demand in the Middle East. Rapid population growth combined with ambitious industrial and economic expansion programmes is resulting in the growing need for power, as demand for electricity is expected to triple by 2050.
“Driven by well-designed auctions, favourable financing conditions and declining technology costs, renewables are being brought into the mainstream. Based on the renewables targets already in place, the region, led by the UAE, could save 354 million barrels of oil which is equivalent to a 23 per cent reduction, cut the power sector’s carbon dioxide emissions by 22 percent, and slash water withdrawal in the power sector by 17 percent by 2030,” Gareth Rapley, Group Director, Industrial, at Informa Markets said.
The report was published as a preview to an event in Dubai, The Middle East Energy 2020, which will be organised by Informa Markets in March 2020.
The central problem which the world faces in its attempts to avoid catastrophic climate change is a contrast of time scales. In order to save human civilization and the biosphere from the most catastrophic effects of climate change we need to act immediately. Fossil fuels must be left in the ground. Forests must be saved from destruction by beef or palm oil production.
These vitally necessary actions are opposed by powerful economic interests, by powerful fossil fuel corporations desperate to monetize their underground “assets”, and by corrupt politicians receiving money from the beef or palm oil industries.
However, although some disastrous effects of climate change are already visible, the worst of these calamities lie in the distant future. Therefore it is difficult to mobilize the political will for quick action. We need to act immediately, because of the danger of passing tipping points beyond which climate change will become irreversible despite human efforts to control it.
Tipping points are associated with feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop. The albedo effect is important in connection with whether the sunlight falling on polar seas is reflected or absorbed. While ice remains, most of the sunlight is reflected, but as areas of sea surface become ice-free, more sunlight is absorbed, leading to rising temperatures and further melting of sea ice, and so on, in a loop.
The methane hydrate feedback loop involves vast quantities of the powerful greenhouse gas methane, frozen in a crystalline form surrounded by water molecules. 10,000 gigatons of methane hydrates are at present locked in Arctic tundra or the continental shelves of the world’s oceans. Although oceans warm very slowly because of thermal inertia, the long-term dangers from the initiation of a methane-hydrate feedback loop are very great. There is a danger that a very large-scale anthropogenic extinction event could be initiated unless immediate steps are taken to drastically reduce the release of greenhouse cases.
The World Is on Fire!
“The world is on fire!” says Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. She is right. California is burning. The Amazon is burning. Indonesia is burning. Alaska is burning. Siberia is burning. These fires have been produced partly by the degree of climate warming that has already occurred, and partly by human greed for profits, for example from beef production or palm oil.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the UN climate conference COP24, the universally loved and respected naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, said:
“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world are on the horizon.”
Sir David’s two-part program, “Climate Change: The Facts” is currently being broadcast by BBC Earth. Hopefully, this important documentary film, like Leonardo DiCaprio’s excellent film “Before the Flood”, can do much to mobilize public opinion behind the immediate action that is needed to save the long-term future of human civilization and the biosphere.
Recently more than 7 million young people in 150 countries took part in strikes aimed at focusing public opinion on the need for rapid climate action. The Extinction Rebellion movement, which started in the UK, has now spread to many countries, and is also doing important work. In the United States, popular political figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are doing much to mobilize public opinion behind the Green New Deal and much to counteract Donald Trump’s climate change denial.
The Remarkable Properties of Exponential Growth
Positive feedback loops occur when the presence of something leads to the generation of more of the same thing. For example in the presence of an unlimited food supply, the growth of a population will lead to more individuals reaching reproductive age, and hence an accelerated growth of the population. This type of relationship leads to the mathematical relationship known as exponential growth.
Exponential growth of any quantity with time has some remarkable characteristics, which we ought to try to understand better, since this understanding will help us to predict the future. The knowledge will also show us the tasks which history has given to our generation. We must perform these tasks with urgency in order to create a future in which our descendants will be able to survive.
If any quantity, for example population, industrial production or indebtedness, is growing at the rate of 3% per year, it will double in 23.1 years; if it is growing at the rate of 4$\%$ per year, the doubling time is 17.3 years. For a 5% growth rate, the doubling time is 13.9 years, if the growth rate is 7% (the rate of economic growth that China’s leaders hope to maintain), the doubling time is only 9.9 years. If you want to find out the doubling time for any exponentially growing quantity, just divide 69.3 years by the growth rate in percent.
Looking at the long-term future, we can calculate that any quantity increasing at the modest rate of 3% per year will grow by a factor of 20.1 in a century. This implies that in four centuries, whatever is growing at 3% will have increased by a factor of 163,000. These facts make it completely clear that long-continued economic growth on a finite planet is a logical absurdity. Yet economists and governments have an almost religious belief in perpetual economic growth. They can only maintain this belief by refusing to look more than a short distance into the future.
Exponential decay of any quantity follows similar but inverse rules. For example, if the chance of a thermonuclear war will be initiated by accident or miscalculation or malice is 3% in any given year, the chance that the human race will survive for more than four centuries under these conditions is only1 in 163,000, i.e. 0.000625 percent. Clearly, in the long run, if we do not completely rid ourselves of nuclear weapons, our species will have no hope of survival.
Besides nuclear war, the other great threat to the survival of the human species and the biosphere is catastrophic climate change. The transition to 100% renewable energy must take place within about a century because fossil fuels will become too rare and expensive to burn. But scientists warn that if the transition does not happen much faster than that, there is a danger that we may reach a tipping point beyond which feedback loops, such as the albedo effect and the methane hydrate feedback loop, could take over and produce an out-of-control and fatal increase in global temperature.
In 2012, the World Bank issued a report warning that without quick action to curb CO2 emissions, global warming is likely to reach 4 degrees C during the 21st century. This is dangerously close to the temperature which initiated the Permian-Triassic extinction event: 6 degrees C above normal. During the Permian-Triassic extinction event, this occurred 252 million years ago. In this event, 96 percent of all marine species were wiped out, as well as 70 percent of all terrestrial vertebrates.
Is a quick transition to 100% renewable energy technically possible? The technology is available, remarkable characteristics of exponential growth can give us hope that it can indeed be done, provided that we make the necessary effort. Governments currently give enormous subsidies to fossil fuel industries. These must be stopped, or better yet, shifted to subsidize renewable energy. If this is done, economic forces alone will drive the shift to renewable energy. The remarkable properties of exponential growth can give us hope that the transition will take place rapidly enough to save the future of our planet from the worst effects of climate change.
Feedback Loops and Ethics
All of the major religions of the world contain some version of the Golden Rule,
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.
In Christianity, there is a striking passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”
This seemingly impractical advice, that we should love our enemies and do good to them, is in fact extremely practical. It prevents the feedback loops of revenge and counter-revenge that we see so often in today’s conflicts. In fact, if nations that claim to be Christian really followed this commandment, their participation in war would be impossible. Conflicts can be prevented by unilateral acts of kindness.
Feedback Loops and the Information Explosion
In 1965, the computer scientist Gordon E. Moore predicted that the number of components per integrated circuit would increase exponentially for the next ten years. In 1975, he revised his growth rate to correspond to a doubling time of every two years. Astonishingly, Moore’s Law, as this relationship has come to be called, has proved to be valid for much longer than he or anyone else believed would be possible.
Moore’s Law is an example of the fact that the growth of knowledge feeds on itself. The number of scientific papers published each year is also increasing exponentially. This would be all to the good, if our social and political institutions matched our technology, but because of institutional and cultural inertia, the exponentially accelerating rate of technical innovation is threatening to shake human society to pieces. We need new global institutions of governance and new global ethics to match our new technology.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy andreceived his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf).
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