It Is Engineers, Not Politicians, Who Can Solve Climate Change

We don’t need another climate accord. We need cheap solar panels and electric cars

Photo by Portland General Electric
Portland General Electric

When Trump recently announced America’s exit from the Paris climate agreement, the world erupted with fury and despair. Commentators called the decision “abhorrent,” “apocalyptic,” an event that “edged the world closer to climate disaster.” France’s Emmanuel Macron—who mockingly asked Trump to “Make Our Planet Great Again”—not only announced that he will push his country to go beyond its emissions commitments under the 2015 agreement, but has offered his country as a “second homeland” for American climate scientists. Desperate times, desperate measures.

Weep not for the Paris agreement. It is not going to save us, but then, there was never any hope that it would. All it does is affirm a goal, while saying exactly nothing about how to achieve it. It doesn’t require its signatories to commit to any specific targets. Its predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, included theoretically binding commitments by wealthy nations to reduce their emissions of six major greenhouse gases by an average of 5.2 percent between 1990 and 2012, but those commitments were unenforceable, and while Kyoto held sway, global emissions rose by 40 percent. The Paris agreement is an even more toothless successor to Kyoto’s failure.

If, twenty years ago, the Kyoto Protocol had had more stringent targets; and if it had actually been followed—then, maybe, politics might have saved us from global warming. But Kyoto was the equivalent of asking a comfortably well-off person to go on a strict diet for decades. Extending it to the rest of the world would have been like asking a starving man to take up fasting for fun. There was never any chance of success.

Even then it probably wouldn’t have worked. Even if we had somehow managed to sign a global climate agreement with teeth, the cost in both money and political capital would have been immense. A 2009 McKinsey report estimated that it would have cost roughly US $1 trillion to cut two thirds of the growth in India’s carbon emissions from 2010 to 2030. But even those estimates were too rosy. The world is a moving target; political arrows aimed decades earlier consistently miss it by many miles. And each year, things seem worse than we previously thought. 2009: MIT reports “warming could be double previous estimates.” 2013: scientists call the prognosis “catastrophic rather than simply dangerous.” 2016: scientists warn “Earth’s climate sensitivity may actually get worse as global temperatures continue to rise.”

Politics will not save us. Put not your hope in politics. But keep hope close to your heart. While politicians try and fail to diminish carbon levels by a few percent, in certain circles, far away from parliaments, fossil fuels have already become, well, quaint. A few years ago, while the politicians weren’t looking, solar and wind power hit the knee of stunning exponential growth curves. Check out this graph put together by Auke Hoekstra, a researcher at Eindhoven University of Technology.

This is one of the most remarkable charts I have ever seen. It says that practically every year since 2008, the International Energy Agency—a Paris-based organization that acts as a clean energy policy adviser to its twenty-nine member states—has wildly underestimated the growth of solar power, insisting that it is linear rather than exponential.

Let’s talk about exponential growth for a moment. Consider: would you rather receive $100,000 every day for a month, or a penny on the first day, two cents on the second day, four cents on the third, eight cents on the fourth, etc.? The former, which adds up to $3 million, may sound tempting, but is drastically wrong. That’s linear growth. The latter gives you more than $5 million for a thirty-day month, and more than $10 million for thirty-one. That’s exponential. Put another way, the IEA (headed from 2011 to 2015 by a politician, Netherland’s former Minister of Economic Affairs) has kept doggedly asserting, despite available evidence to the contrary, that solar power is growing $100,000 a day.

As of last year, in much of the world, unsubsidized solar power—i.e. that built with no government support whatsoever—is not just cheaper than wind power. It is cheaper than coal. It is cheaper than natural gas. This is expected to be true in all of the world as of 2020. Wind power should be cheaper than both too, soon enough. New power plants will not be sun-powered because they are greener, or in order to hit stringent emissions targets. They will be green and renewable because in just the last few years technology has made them much less expensive than their dinosaur-burning alternatives.

What happened? A combination of steadily improved materials science, in turn midwifed by the vast increase in cheap computing power that has turbocharged science around the world; economies of scale, as factories churn out more solar technology, especially in China, and power plants become larger; and better financing terms, as financiers ceased seeing solar power as a risky and hence high-interest venture, and began offering larger and lower-interest loans. Those three factors combined into a virtuous cycle that has become a whirlwind.

Of course that isn’t enough. We can and will build new solar plants, and vast forests of pale turbines, but at night and on windless days, respectively, they will produce nothing. Most new plants will be solar or wind, but many (though not all) of the old fossil-fuel ones will be kept running at capacity, until we find a cost-effective way to store sun and wind power at scale.

Note those weasel words, though: cost-effective. We already have the requisite technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions far beyond what the Paris Agreement calls for. It’s just too expensive. The notion of the whole world driving electric cars, running their homes on locally generated renewable storable power, taking carbon-neutral flights, and using green construction materials is laughable.

Just ask anyone who’s ever spent a week in China or India, both full of impoverished people who travel in cheap, battered, gas-burning cars and motorcycles, through cities whose air is terrifyingly thick with pollution, past factories and power plants that belch filth into the air. The cost to replace their coal plants with solar en masse, or to trade in most of their gas-burning motorcycles for electrical ones, would be measured in the many trillions. (Recall the $1 trillion estimate just to cut the growth in India’s emissions.) Even spread over decades, it’s a ridiculous notion. Poor nations need that money to survive and thrive today.

But then, costs change, don’t they? Ten years ago, the notion that solar and wind power would be cheaper than coal and natural gas by 2017 was similarly laughable, except perhaps to a few dreaming technologists.

To stop global warming before it comes catastrophic, we need to take technology which is currently restricted to the very wealthy, and make it available to the poorest of the poor, in a matter of only a decade or two. If only the global technology industry had essentially been training for this superhuman feat for its entire existence. If only this was arguably the one thing that it is incredibly, consistently good at. Oh, wait.

There was a time when transatlantic flights were so expensive that they were often paid for in instalments. Last month I booked a flight from Oakland to Barcelona for $200. Remember when only rich people had cell phones? And then when only rich people had smartphones? How long do you think it will be before we’ll be rhapsodizing nostalgically: “Remember when only rich Californians drove electric cars?”

There is a role for politics. That role is to stop paying obeisance to King Carbon, to stop subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry, and to help and encourage the distribution of new technologies that will supplant the filth-spewing old ones that are warming our planet unsustainably. Not to bet on which ones will succeed, but to promote and promulgate as many as possible, and to start treating polluting technologies as the pariahs they should become.

The standard example of how politicians can fight global warming is to require cars to burn gas more efficiently so that they get more kilometres per litre. This approach is reminiscent of Henry Ford’s (probably apocryphal) quote: “If I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” What we need to do is take litres out of the equation entirely. Not by subsidizing the purchase of zero-emission cars, but by helping companies make zero-emission cars so cheap that they don’t need to be subsidized. Governments routinely offer massive packages of tax breaks and subsidies to lure automobile factories. A good beginning would be to stop doing so for any factories that build cars which burn gas.

And if even that doesn’t work—then we still have options that most people don’t like to talk about.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The problem is that they cause global climate to change. A dirty secret that many scientists don’t like to talk about is that even if greenhouse gases keep rising, we can counteract this effect by playing directly with the atmosphere. Harvard’s David Keith, formerly of the University of Calgary, estimates that we could spray sulfuric acid into the stratosphere to counteract all green-house gas global warming at a trifling cost of $700 million per year, which you will note is thousands of times less than any cost measured in trillions.

This is probably a terrible idea. The atmosphere is an insanely complicated system and nobody pretends to think they understand the potentially disastrous repercussions. But such “geoengineering” is an option. A better but far more expensive one is carbon sequestration, in which we leach carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere and store it in a solid, non-warming state. This, alas, would be punitively expensive to scale—at least using current technology. But, again, costs change. The firm Carbon Engineering, in Squamish, BC—founded by the same David Keith, and counting Bill Gates among its funders—is one of several which have already launched pilot carbon-capture plants.

There is an Isaac Asimov essay that argues that the history of our species is, in essence, a history of inventing new technology to mitigate the consequences of our previous technology. From that perspective, perhaps the most significant historical moment of the last decade was the launch of the Tesla Motors Gigafactory in the barren desert just outside of Reno, Nevada. When complete (it is operational, but only 15 percent built out) it will be one of the largest buildings in the world. In 2018 it is projected to ship more lithium-ion batteries than were produced on the entire planet in 2013. And it is the first of four or five. Don’t look to Paris for our best hope against global warming. Look to Reno.

Can we take the clean, renewable power already available to the rich, and make it available to the poor of the world without asking them to make financial sacrifices for it—without asking the starving man to fast? Yes, almost certainly. Can we do it in time? Well, that’s another question. Even with some exponential growth on our side, it’s going to be a tight-run thing at best. Either way, though, our success or failure will not be determined by the accords our politicians sign. It will be decided by the ingenuity of our engineers.

Jon Evans (@rezendi) has written for Wired, TechCrunch, and New Scientist.

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