George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian, opines that After the failure of Cop26, there’s only one last hope for our survival. I’m curious, George, what is it?
Now it’s a straight fight for survival. The Glasgow Climate Pact, for all its restrained and diplomatic language, looks like a suicide pact. After so many squandered years of denial, distraction and delay, it’s too late for incremental change. A fair chance of preventing more than 1.5C of heating means cutting greenhouse gas emissions by about 7% every year: faster than they fell in 2020, at the height of the pandemic.
If we shut down our economies the way we did during the height of the pandemic, it really will lead to a fight for survival. We are already at 1.3C above preindustrial levels. The idea that if the temperature increases any more than 0.2C, the world will end, seems ridiculous.
What we needed at the Cop26 climate conference was a decision to burn no more fossil fuels after 2030. Instead, powerful governments sought a compromise between our prospects of survival and the interests of the fossil fuel industry. But there was no room for compromise. Without massive and immediate change, we face the possibility of cascading environmental collapse, as Earth systems pass critical thresholds and flip into new and hostile states.
Thinking that we will be able to move entirely off fossil fuels in eight years is pure foolishness. If we are lucky, we’ll have a significant portion of light vehicles running on electricity. Short haul trucking may also move to electricity. Long haul trucking could perhaps be moved to hydrogen, but today, producing hydrogen in the quantities needed would require its own emissions. This still leaves heating, farming, steel making, and cement for construction without emission free alternatives. In eight years, a start might be made in moving to heat pumps for heating, at least in new construction, but it will be hard to make a dent in retrofitting all the existing homes that don’t use radiant heating.
So does this mean we might as well give up? It does not. For just as the complex natural systems on which our lives depend can flip suddenly from one state to another, so can the systems that humans have created. Our social and economic structures share characteristics with the Earth systems on which we depend. They have self-reinforcing properties – that stabilise them within a particular range of stress, but destabilise them when external pressure becomes too great. Like natural systems, if they are driven past their tipping points, they can flip with astonishing speed. Our last, best hope is to use those dynamics to our advantage, triggering what scientists call “cascading regime shifts”.
This sounds like the World Economic Forum’s plan. Problem is, free people are not going to agree to it.
A fascinating paper published in January in the journal Climate Policy showed how we could harness the power of “domino dynamics”: non-linear change, proliferating from one part of the system to another. It points out that “cause and effect need not be proportionate”, a small disturbance, in the right place, can trigger a massive response from a system and flip it into a new state. This is how the global financial crisis of 2008-09 happened: a relatively minor shock (mortgage defaults in the US) was transmitted and amplified through the entire system, almost bringing it down. We could use this property to detonate positive change.
Mortage defaults in the US did not cause the global financial crisis. It was caused by derivative investments that offered high interest but were based on sub-prime lending. Mortage defaults merely lit the fuse on the bomb of bad investments that the banks were sitting on. These same banks should have been allowed to fail. The bail out did more harm than the crash, leading to multiple rounds of quantitative easing (AKA printing money) that devalued everyone’s savings. Intentionally triggering such a financial collapse could kill millions.
Sudden shifts in energy systems have happened before. The paper points out that the transition in the US from horse-drawn carriages to cars running on fossil fuels took just over a decade. The diffusion of new technologies tends to be self-accelerating, as greater efficiencies, economies of scale and industrial synergies reinforce each other. The authors’ hope is that, when the penetration of clean machines approaches a critical threshold, and the infrastructure required to deploy them becomes dominant, positive feedbacks will rapidly drive fossil fuels to extinction.
I expect that when it comes, the move to adoption of electric vehicles will indeed be a tornado. EVs alone will not do away with fossil fuels, and they will actually require CO2 emissions by the equipment that extracts and ships the resources to make them, as well as in the production of steel and the vehicle manufacturing process. While there may be further waves of adoption of battery technology, for example in short range shipping and for power buffering used in concert with unreliable solar and wind power generation, there will still be many industries (steel, resource extraction, long haul shipping, farming, and construction) that will continue to require fossil fuels and emit CO2.
For example, as the performance of batteries, power components and charging points improves and their costs fall, the price of electric cars drops and their desirability soars. At this point (in other words, right now), small interventions by government could trigger cascading change. This has already happened in Norway, where a change in taxes made electric vehicles cheaper than fossil-fuel cars. This flipped the system almost overnight: now more than 50% of the nation’s new car sales are electric, and petrol models are heading for extinction.
Batteries performance will not continually improve. There are potential technologies that could lead to future jumps in battery efficiency, but the gains to be had in Lithium Ion technology are minor, though their cost will doubtless continue to decrease for some time as methods of manufacture improve and scale increases. There are two factors that have to be overcome before mass adoption will occur. First, the cost must be low enough that the savings offered by the simpler, more reliable electric vehicles is greater than their additional cost. Second, charging infrastructure must be sufficient to allow people to live with their relatively limited range. The government can move the needle a small amount by spending large numbers of tax dollars. Once the tipping point is reached, government will only be in the way.
As electric cars become more popular, and more polluting vehicles become socially unacceptable, it becomes less risky for governments to impose the policies that will complete the transition. This then helps to scale the new technologies, causing their price to fall further, until they outcompete petrol cars without the need for tax or subsidy, locking in the transition. Driven by this new economic reality, the shift then cascades from one nation to another.
People won’t stop driving gasoline powered vehicles because its socially unacceptable. They will switch to electrics when they are more affordable and convenient than gas vehicles. As electrics become ubiquitous, gas stations and traditional engine mechanics will close, and those who still have gas powered vehicles will find them more expensive to run and maintain. As usual, the poor will bear the burden, as even after electrics become cheaper to buy than new gas powered vehicles, they will be stuck with their old gas powered vehicles, unable to afford to upgrade.
If governments are seen as egging the shift to EVs on, they may face retaliation at the ballot box. Finesse will be required, something that the average politician seems to lack. Even then, in the end, the state has little to offer in terms of ability to make positive change. Attempting to force change requires giving up our freedom. Statism inevitably leads to totalitarianism, and totalitarianism to genocide. Global warming seems preferable to this.