Can Technology Spare the Earth?

The IPCC says that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by  at least 80 % by 2050 to achieve the goal of limit global warming to not  more than 2°C, agreed to by the EU and the G8.

Recent research indicates  that the cumulative emissions in the period 2000-2050 should be not  more than 1000 billion tons of CO2. In the first 7 years of this 50 year  period; 234 billion tons were already emitted. Even if we give up the  2°C goal, risking unpredictable feedback mechanisms disrupting the  climate in more severe manners, quick, deep emission reductions are  required to stabilize atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Given that energy  access is so essential for the economy, we need to ask ourselves:

How can such reductions be achieved?

What is the role of technology, behavior change, and a change in our path of development?

It appears that policy makers and too many scientists have already  made up their mind. Technology is the solution! I was reminded of this  again by Norway’s Minister for Environment and Development, Erik Solheim,  who started his speech on the political prospects for climate  protection at NTNU with a rhetorical question of where we would stand  without technology today, pointing to the increase in life expectancy  from 40 to 70 years since the industrial revolution. Without  technologies, it would be back to the caves. Solheim’s rhetoric  contributes to making a taboo of any other solution strategy, something  we can ill afford in the precarious situation we have put ourselves in.

Of course technology is an indispensible part of the solution! It  would be impossible to even feed the current population 6.9 billion  without technology, not to talk about the 9 billion we expect by 2050.  Alluding to a life in the caves, however, it not helpful when we  consider how we could lower our carbon footprint to less than one ton  per person and year, from 15-30 tons in developed countries today. One  needs to ask whether technology is sufficient, or whether other changes  are required as well? What are the environmental, social and monetary  costs of technological solutions, compared to other approaches? I see  that the exclusive focus on technology clouds our thinking about the  implications of climate change for our development.

The past century and a half have brought tremendous economic  development. The quality of life of individuals has improved greatly,  and a household’s possessions of everything from living space to  clothing and gadget have grown substantially, at least in the rich  quarter of the global population. Many take the expression sustainable development to  imply that the less wealthy and very poor would catch up with us, but  also that we would continue the expansion of possessions and travel  distances as we have done in recent decades. The base-line of our energy  scenarios is such economic development, where business-as-usual implies  that it occurs using incrementally improving technology with  improvement corresponding to current rates (1% energy efficiency gain  per year, technology learning for new energy technologies), while  mitigation scenarios imply the adoption of different energy technologies  to satisfy the needs of the ever-expanding economy.

In the mind of policy makers, technology is the ultimate band-aid  that solves the CO2 pollution problem from energy, allowing for a  continued expansion of energy services without any limits. The trouble  is that this perspective is not even supported by the energy technology  models from which it has emerged. My reading of the International Energy  Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives is that climate mitigation to the 2°C level is simply not possible if the economy develops along a baseline scenario.

One reason is certainly food production, which already causes more  greenhouse gas emissions that we can afford globally from all  consumption activities. There it is methane from cows, nitrous oxide  emissions from soils and the fate of soil organic carbon which play an  essential role. This leaves little room for emissions from the energy  system. Even if we go to totally fossil-free energy technologies,  material production will require the oxidation of carbon. Furthermore,  there are resource constraints which affect carbon-free energy  production. Jesse Ausubel, from whose influential 1996 American Scientist article I borrowed the title of this blog, has pointed out that the limited availability of land constrains  all renewable sources. The increasing opposition to wind power projects  indicates that maybe we want to keep part of nature for other purposes.  Nuclear fission has its own resource limits. In addition, concerns  about proliferation need to be taken seriously in today’s world.

I think it should be possible to achieve our current level of  material wealth with much lower greenhouse gas emissions, even though I  would like to see the feasibility of a <1 ton per year carbon  footprint demonstrated by model calculations that take both life-cycle  emissions and resource limits into account. The current development  path, however, does not stop there. The wealthier the individuals, the  more air travel they do, and there is no technology on the horizon to  take carbon out of the aviation business. Richard Branson’s Virgin  Galactic vision and enterprise demonstrates that we are on the  trajectory to commercial space-flight being available to the upper  classes. Such a development can never be sustainable.

We need to simply acknowledge the resource limits on this planet and  to change course towards a development that occurs within these limits.  The limit on greenhouse gas emissions is one crucial limit, but limits  on the yields of fish stock and land, as well as of energy and material  resources, are also important. It is not that we need to halt economic  growth – only totalitarian regimes can put a lid on human ingenuity –  but that we need to change the direction in which the economy develops.  Innovations and growth which rely on more energy, more resources need to  become impermissible. Enforcing such constraints will provide a new set  of opportunities for innovation and technological development, for  cultural expression and human well-being in harmony with nature.

We are still far away from having the constraints and price signals  in place under which economic growth could be environmentally  beneficial. As such, the current economic crisis is a blessing and an  opportunity to use the involuntary pause to change course, to reorient  development, to green the economy. There are some efforts in that direction, but they need to be strengthened dramatically.