LONDON (Project Syndicate) —Some people say that to avoid the threat of catastrophic harm to human well-being posed by global warming, we must radically change our behavior: stop flying, use bicycles and give up red meat. Others believe that new technologies can generate carbon-free growth. So who is right: Greta Thunberg, who defends the first grade, or Bill Gates, who just wrote a book defending the second?
“While rapid technological progress is our best long-term hope for mitigating climate change, Greta Thunberg is partially right today. ”
In the long run, the techno-optimism seems justified. As two new reports from the Energy Transitions Commission describe, carbon-free electricity and hydrogen, which account for just 20% of energy use today, could account for 75% by mid-century, and clean energy will be cheaper for then that dirty energy. . Solar electricity already costs less than coal power; battery costs have collapsed and will continue to fall. The cost of producing hydrogen from electrolysis will also plummet in the next 10 years. John Ballantine: Hydrogen is the only clean energy source that everyone seems to like, so why don’t we use it more to combat climate change? It will require a massive increase in global electricity production, from 27,000 terawatt hours today to around 100,000 TWh in 2050. Total battery capacity will increase and large investments will be required in expanded transmission and distribution networks. Greta Thunberg on America’s elimination of the fossil fuel crutch: ‘I don’t think you’re really going to do this’ Abundant Resources But there are abundant natural resources available to support this ‘green’ electrification. Every day, the sun provides 8,000 times more energy than the entire human population needs for a high standard of living. Even if all 100,000 TWh of electricity came from solar resources (and none from wind), we would only have to cover about 1% of the world’s land surface with solar panels.
“By 2060, we can enjoy guilt-free flight, guilt-free heating and cooling, and guilt-free economic growth. ”
There is also no definitive shortage of the necessary key minerals. Two billion electric cars, each with a 60 kilowatt-hour battery, would require a stock of 15 million tons of pure lithium, which, once in place, could be endlessly recycled. Currently known lithium resources are 80 million tons. Nickel, copper and manganese supplies are also plentiful, and concern over cobalt supplies has sparked technological progress that makes cobalt-free batteries possible. When it comes to converting photons to electrons and electrons in what physicists call “work” (motors) or heat (or cold), there are no long-term planetary limits to human living standards. By 2060, we can enjoy guilt-free flying, guilt-free heating and cooling, and guilt-free economic growth. But, for two reasons, we are still facing a potential disaster, with a diminishing probability of limiting global warming to “well below 2 ° Celsius” promised by the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Two reasons to be concerned First, we left it desperately late to act. If rich countries had pledged in 1990 to achieve zero-carbon economies by 2030, we would already be approaching that goal and global warming would be slowing down. But we didn’t, and from where we are now, ideally we should cut carbon dioxide emissions by 50% in the next 10 years. Achieving a cut on that scale is much more difficult than reaching zero emissions by mid-century. Even if all the new cars sold in 2030 were electric, most cars on the road would still have internal combustion engines spewing CO2 out of their tailpipes. And even if all the growth in electricity supply is now achieved from zero carbon sources, the shutdown of existing coal plants in India and China will take time. The second threat lies in our food and land use systems. The challenge is not how much energy we consume in the form of food, but how inefficient we are at producing it. If the world’s 9 billion people in 2050 had an adequate intake of 2,200 calories per day, that would require 7,400 TWh of energy, or only about 6% of likely non-food energy use.
“Food and fiber production is by far the main driver of tropical deforestation. ”
But while we can use clean electricity to meet most of what we need for heating, cooling, industry, and transportation, we cannot substitute electrons for carbohydrates and proteins in the food we eat. Instead, we get food from plant photosynthesis, which is much less efficient than converting photons to electrons in a solar panel. Research from the World Resources Institute shows that even fast-growing sugarcane in highly fertile tropical lands converts only 0.5% of solar radiation into usable food energy. In contrast, a field of solar panels can achieve 15% efficiency, increasing over time with technological advancement. And when we use a cow’s stomach to convert plant protein into meat, we lose more than 90% of our stored energy. As a result, food and fiber production is by far the main driver of tropical deforestation. Along with methane emissions from farm animals and nitrous oxide emissions from fertilizers, deforestation accounts for 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions and threatens to create feedback loops that accelerate global warming. Will the technology come too late? In the long run, new technologies will likely solve this problem as well. Synthetic meats produced using precision biology require 10 to 25 times less land than animal-based production, and if synthetic techniques become more efficient while cows do not, they will eventually cost less. By the middle of the century, Gates may be right and Thunberg too pessimistic even about food and land use. All production ultimately depends on knowledge and energy, and there is no limit to human knowledge and no relevant limit to the energy that the sun freely gives us. But while rapid technological progress is our best long-term hope for mitigating climate change, Thunberg is partially right today. Living standards in rich countries threaten both catastrophic climate change and local environmental destruction, so responsible consumer choice is also important. We should fly less, ride bikes, and eat less red meat. And we must secure as quickly as possible the massive flows of finance – from governments, businesses and individuals – needed to halt deforestation before it is too late. This comment was posted with permission from Project Syndicate: Greta Thunberg or Bill Gates? Adair Turner, Chairman of the Energy Transitions Commission, was Chairman of the UK Financial Services Authority from 2008 to 2012. He is the most recent author of “Between Debt and the Devil”. More on Climate Change Rachel Koning Beals: No, Biden is not coming for his burgers as he pursues his anti-climate change agenda From Barron’s: The Case for Progressive Green Taxes Morgan Bazilian and David Victor: The technical details of reducing greenhouse gas emissions greenhouse effect in half are easy compared to the profound changes in society that would be necessary