Blog 0: What got me interested in low-carbon energy and why do I care?

A Kind of Prequel to What Will Become a Low-Carbon Energy Blog

… … … 15 minute read … … …

Technological improvements in low-carbon energy generation and energy storage have been rapid. And these improvements seem to be ever accelerating. It’s not difficult to look at the technology section of news outlets and discover some sort of relevant technological advance on a daily basis. I have grown aware that I’m becoming slightly addicted to following these advancements. Probably because it’s a much needed source of optimism in a vast and persistent delivery of pessimistic climate change news. I have found myself reading and watching these articles and videos at random, largely to satisfy my daily fix of reassurance – that everything is going to be okay! So I have decided to collect my thoughts in a bit more of an organised manner and write them in the form of this blog. As with many of the blogs and You Tube channels I am subscribed to, I hope this blog will have an overall more encouraging than discouraging feel to it, but I don’t intend to make a conscious effort to do this. If I come across an article discussing a major blow to the low-carbon energy sector, I won’t disregard it as not being happy enough for here. So brace yourself for the odd blog which is thoroughly depressing. In fact, some may find this first one a bit bleak…

I thought I’d begin by introducing myself and why I decided to make a blog about the energy sector, as opposed to any of the many other sectors contributing to climate change. This may be a bit of a long, rambley and overly philosophical introduction, so feel free to skip to a future blog, which I’m sure will be more concise and better structured. You’ve been warned.

My name is Michael. I have, since childhood, been interested in the long term survival of the human race. I enjoyed reading apocalyptic stories and speculating with friends about what’s going to finally cause society to de-rail itself and what, potentially, will drive the human race to extinction. I find it interesting to this day that no-one really has a good idea about how long the human race will survive… one hundred years, a thousand, a million, a billion or perhaps it will be tens of billions of years that we’ll successfully be evading extinction for. In my view, each of these guesses is as good as each other. If we make it through the next few hundred years, relatively unhampered, I think it would be naïve to speculate too confidently about what technologies will exist then, and how they may help us to avoid the currently unavoidable. Destroying an inbound asteroid may become child’s play.

Initially I went to university to study Physics and Astrophysics. The astrophysics bit helped me answer some of these questions. The Sun is going to expand into a red giant, it will consume the Earth and whilst survival elsewhere in the solar system may be possible for a bit, the sun will eventually become a planetary nebula – firing off its outer layers in ionised pulses of inevitable doom. In short, the evolution of the sun pretty much guarantees long-term survival in the solar system won’t be possible. I say ‘long-term’… this is still a good five billion years away, give or take. That’s a lot of time for us to figure out how to move to a planet in another solar system.

Just before the sun dies however, it appears likely our Milky Way Galaxy will collide with our neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy. This may not be as bad as it seems, with the sparsity of the galaxies meaning a direct stellar collision remains improbable. However, things might get a bit messy. But assuming by this point humans are spread out across multiple solar systems it seems reasonable to think that some fragments, of whatever humanity looks like then, will survive. These fragments of humanity then may go onto find some remote red dwarf stars to orbit around, these have the longest life spans of any star, surviving for as long as ten trillion years. So I figure this is really the upper limit of human survival. When these die, the universe will turn dark and there will be no realistic source of energy. At this point the ever expanding universe will be well on its way to a thermal heat death and I’d say human extinction is pretty much guaranteed. So we won’t survive forever, but there’s a pretty mind-boggling upper time limit.

Another thing I have reasoned is, with the extraordinary past few hundred years of technological development and expansion of human understanding, it seems like the next few hundred years will leave us very well equipped to deal with the more cataclysmic events, such as asteroids and super volcanoes. Additionally, once we have spread ourselves across multiple planets and stellar systems, the freak annihilation of one world would not spell the end of humanity. We may still be a long way off from achieving this exodus, but if we can make it through the next few hundred years okay then I think surviving the following million years and then perhaps the next few billion will be relatively trivial.

Image from NASA, ESA and G. Bacon (STScI)

Quick philosophical aside:

On this point, I think there’s often a departure of interest. Natural selection has programmed us to care about the carrying forward of our genetics for a generation or two but doesn’t make one care particularly about their great great great… grandchild etc. I also think people who have read a few dystopian novels are readily accepting of the fact that humans in the distant future will be largely un-relatable. For example, in the novel ‘Brave New World’ (set a mere six-hundred years in the future), the humans of future society come across as being unrelatable to the point they are detestable, leaving the reader wondering if they want such a society to exist. For me, I don’t let myself care too much about this. I interact with my generation and the generations adjacent to me. The evolving nature of human morality is inevitable and the societal implications can be left for future society to be concerned about. Ultimately the longevity of human society remains very much in our hands and is therefore our responsibility.

“…civilization has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism. These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organized society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic. Conditions have got to be thoroughly unstable before the occasion can arise. Where there are wars, where there are divided allegiances, where there are temptations to be resisted, objects of love to be fought for or defended—there, obviously, nobility and heroism have some sense…”

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

So, getting a bit more to the point, how do we make it through the next few hundred years? I’m sure there are other threats, but for me there are three big things that threaten human existence in the imminent future. These are: the development of AI, nuclear war and climate change. Note I say human existence and not survival. I think climate change, for example, won’t in itself drive humans to extinction, but it has the potential to be a catastrophic and long lasting hindrance to human development. Also notice how all three hazards are in human control. I reason that natural phenomena have had the potential to kill humans for the past one hundred-thousand years, so statistically the chance of a random natural event killing all humans in the next few-hundred years seems unlikely.

The regulation of AI development and the monitoring of geopolitical tensions are no-doubt imperative, but for me, the inevitable nature of global catastrophe resulting from climate change, which is pretty much guaranteed if the anthropogenic drivers are left unchecked, is really in our control – in a way which is almost agonising. I want to stress, IT IS IN OUR CONTROL! It’s not like dealing with a galactic collision, the solutions are, to a large extent, already here and they can be implemented now. And it’s the next thirty odd years that really will make all the difference. After waffling on about cosmological timescales, three decades really does sound like the blink of an eye. It’s this generation right now that has the opportunity to make the necessary decisions and put in place the necessary innovations.

So that was all a long way of saying that I am interested in mitigating the problem of climate change.

In 2018 I decided to do a master’s in Climate Change at UCL. This was mainly to make myself more appealing to the ‘climate change job sector’ which by this point I had decided I wanted to work in in some sort of capacity. The degree was full of miserable facts. I wouldn’t want this to be my official one sentence review of the degree. I found it highly educational and very useful in helping me to decide where specifically I most wanted to work. But yes, I would say I left the course feeling overall more pessimistic than when I started it.

There was one concept that I found particularly depressing. A ‘Tipping Cascade’. This basically describes the idea of how several tipping elements exist in the Earth System. A tipping element such as the Greenland Ice Sheet, which if that melts, could cause the shutdown of a major Atlantic ocean circulation system, which could trigger some permafrost melting, releasing a load of greenhouse gasses, and so on… like the falling of a line of dominoes. (Don’t quote me on that order of tipping elements occurring – that was just to get across the idea). But what was alarming was one study’s estimate of how just a two degree centigrade increase in global temperature above pre-industrial could trigger this tipping cascade. (We’ve already reached around one degree above pre-industrial and are currently on route to hit the two degree mark by about 2050, if ‘business as usual’ continues). If this tipping cascade is triggered – this would likely send us towards a ‘Hothouse Earth’ state, even if at this point we are no longer emitting any greenhouse gasses – the Earth System just takes over. A Hothouse Earth describes a world with average global temperatures 4-5°C hotter than pre-industrial levels and sea levels, not 1-2 meters higher, but 10-60m higher than today. When considering the resulting refugee crisis, limited fresh water resources, reduced fertile land, freak weather events, inevitable wars and civil unrest – this would be an absolutely cataclysmic state of affairs. This Hothouse Earth is also a very stable position for the Earth to exist in, meaning it would be very difficult to undo the damage once it has happened.

Within a few weeks of reading the paper describing this Tipping Cascade (a long but accessible paper by Steffen et al., 2018), I attended a talk in the geography department discussing the recently released IPCC 2018 report, which compares the relative impacts resulting in a 1.5 degree temperature rise verses a 2 degree temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. The report highlights how the impacts are significantly worse in the 2 degree rise scenario, and how just this 0.5°C difference can be highly significant. Baring in mind that we’re already 1°C above pre-industrial levels and that we’re now emitting more greenhouse gasses than ever, I remember being sceptical (even at this youthful stage of my climate change career), that we could have any chance of meeting this 1.5°C target. This talk was in a packed conference room with perhaps thirty members in the audience, most of whom were either published researchers in the field or PhD students. When the person delivering the talk asked if there were any questions, one man took the opportunity to gauge the qualified opinions of the room. He asked everyone to raise their hands if they genuinely expected humanity to reach this 1.5 degree target – no one raised a hand. He then said, okay what about the 2 degree target? I can’t promise to remember one hundred percent accurately but I’m sure it was only a couple of arms at most that were raised, and in a fairly tentative way.

Remember the two degree mark is also this predicted threshold of a tipping cascade, a hellish threshold of no return. So at this point I was thinking, ‘okay, chances are, human civilisation as we know it is probably going to end in the next few hundred years’. Occasionally I found that I was reassuring myself in an almost delusional way, compartmentalising the optimistic bit of my brain from the logical part – a bit like an agnostic on their death bed praying for an afterlife.

It seems like there needs to be quite a remarkable turn of the tides to set us on the necessarily rapid course to zero-emissions. These changes could be social, political or technological. No doubt it is important for us to work on all three of these changes. When looking at history, I can think of a few distinct, dramatic and rapid shifts in political ideologies and cultural change – but I struggle to envisage a scenario where it’s possible to engineer such a necessarily drastic change on a global scale, capable of curbing global emissions in the next three decades. And this is why I personally get more encouragement from the idea of a technological revolution, of which I can name multiple occasions where some new invention has changed the entire modern world rapidly. Because this is what clearly needs to happen!

I don’t like getting too bogged down in broad political concepts, but when there is discussion about capitalism being the root cause of climate change and how we need a new political/economic system, I am sceptical about what chance we have to quickly move from this globally deep rooted system. Capitalism has undeniably been the catalyst of powering the industrial revolution, and therefore climate change. My understanding is that it has done this because it has the power to rapidly move profitable ideas towards mass production and implementation. Therefore, surely, if low-carbon technologies become more profitable than their dirty predecessors, this catalytic capitalism could function favourably in a quick transition to cleaner technologies. This is not just my idea by the way, it’s a concept called ‘Green Capitalism’, which sounds a bit like a whole new different thing, but it is essentially just capitalism (for ‘green’ things).

Okay so all that background is just a description of my thought process of how I have narrowed down what I think needs to happen. That is, the development of low-carbon technological innovations which will soon be profitable and commercially viable, to the point that they can be mass produced and quickly replace the more carbon intensive infrastructure.

At this point I like to think about a pie chart…

IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (2014)

…It shows the relative contributions of greenhouse gas emissions from different sectors. Taken from the IPCC 2014 report and based off global emissions from 2010, the data is ten years out of date but not too dissimilar to what today’s values would show. Straight away it can be seen that the largest contributing sector is from ‘Electricity and Heat Production’. However, this sector is of even greater importance when considering the ongoing ‘electrification’ of many of the other sectors. For example the transportation sector emissions are (eventually) going to reduce in accordance with the rise of electric vehicles, and as a result will cause this ‘Electricity and Heat Production’ sector to become ever more important. Other sectors will be harder or perhaps impossible to electrify, such as Agriculture, and will need to find separate solutions.

All in all, when considering the interconnectedness of these sectors, this pie chart illustrates the paramount importance of decarbonising Electricity and Heat Production. Thankfully, I also see it as being the easiest sector to decarbonise with the promising innovations in renewables, energy storage and other flexible grid technologies. So there you go – there’s some optimism… do that and we can all live happily ever after for the next ten trillion years.

In conclusion, I suppose the aim of this blog will be to fill in that currently fairly empty optimism with lots of facts and news about ongoing breakthroughs brining us closer to the ultimate net-zero emissions ambition.

I will end it there for now! Well-done if you made it to the end of this one, it was 2788 words long. …‘til next time.

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