For the world to develop within a safe operating space of planetary boundaries one of the grand challenges is a global transition to a renewable world energy system. This is a double challenge because it’s not only about biophysical operating within a safe operating space, it’s the recognition, shown in this graph, of the tight connection between energy use in the world and economic growth. In fact there’s a linear relationship so far between growing economies and growing energy use. And that is projected to continue, even though in [at] a slightly lower pace, up until mid this century.
There’s also the recognition of how our past looks like. And just check out this development of the extraordinarily rise in energy use since the great acceleration started in the mid-1950s. And what you see here is the growth of coal, and particularly oil and gas, as the predominant sources of energy.
So one simply has to recognize that if we’re seriously talking about sustainable development we can not escape the fact that we need not only energy, we will need more energy in the future if we take an ethical responsibility for the wealth of a world of 9 billion people.
The challenge, thus, is a transition into a zero coal or non-fossil fuel-based economy in the future. What may help us here is in fact not only technology advancements in renewable energy, which is remarkable, it’s also the fact that we are approaching or are at peak of many of the most cheap fossil fuel energy sources.
And in this graph you see that already from the mid-’80s, 1980s, and onwards we have actually bypassed the point of access to cheap sources of oil. This has a risk of course of a transition to other cheap but even more polluting sources, such as coal, and the transition we’re seeing today in terms of fracking for natural gas, which is methane, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas. But overall it shows that however you twist and turn the analysis the era of cheap oil is behind us, which may help us also as an incentive to a transition to renewable energy systems.
But a very important challenge in terms of this transition is to recognize that not only is there a linear relationship between economic growth and energy use, what has enabled our quick economic growth is that energy has been cheap. And if you look at a key parameter in this regard called energy return on investment, meaning how much value do you get out for each input of investment into your extraction of energy.
We have been privileged, in fact enormously privileged, of having a very large return on investments on oil over the oil era, since the early 1930s and ’40s with energy returns on investment often exceeding hundred in the early days of the oil bonanza, and today moving down quickly to levels of 30 to 15.
But look at what happens with, for example, nuclear energy, biomass, photovoltaics, oil sands, with energy returns on investment being very low. And in fact this really worries scientists and analysts because we’re not even sure how to operate a world economy with energy returns on investments going below 10 to 15, so another reason to really explore innovative solutions in the space of renewable energy systems.
And just look at this trajectory into the future indicating that we’re moving increasingly towards a point where we bypass this magical level of energy returns of investments below 10, which again means that energy becomes so expensive that it may no longer contribute to the economic growth we’ve seen in the past.
So these are sharp reminders that the planetary boundary analysis showing the necessity to stay within a sustainable global carbon budget is coupled to the recognition also that the polluting, dirty and climate-destroying energy systems we have today are also becoming less attractive because they’re becoming more and more expensive, and less and less efficient in delivering to the human endeavor of economic growth.
Now if you look into the future the drama is equally stark. This is an analysis from the Global Energy Assessment showing that even in a transition to a sustainable energy future, here illustrated by the label Global Energy Assessment efficiency, or the Global Energy Assessment mix, which if you look carefully shows a very rapid rise in renewable energy systems and a contraction in the use of particularly oil and coal, but still the overall picture is growth of energy demand in the world.
So in 2050 the estimate, as you see even if we have very high optimistic projections on energy efficiency, we’re still seeing a future where we’re moving from our current use of roughly 500 exajoules of energy to a future of 600, 700, 800 exajoules of energy in the future. So a reminder again of the enormous challenge.
Now what’s the solution to this? Well, most analysts would agree today that the long-term future is a future world basically or predominantly supplied from solar energy systems. We’re not there yet, but look at these graphs, which originate from fantastic work among energy researchers at Chalmers University in Sweden, showing the exponential rise in photovoltaics and wind power in key countries in the world.
And what you see here is that up until 2002-2003, we had a very slow rise in technology and uptake of these renewable energy systems. And then we have a takeoff and exponential rise where for example today countries like Germany, after all the world’s fourth largest economy in the world, if you wake up a Saturday morning in Germany you’re likely to get in the order of 30-40% percent of your electricity from wind and sun. So we’re starting to see solar and wind systems coming to scale also in the large economies of the world.
So there’s promise that this transition is not only necessary, but in fact possible to achieve at economically competitive rates, but also desirable. because they provide clean energy systems with very high benefits for health and also interestingly in a much more democratic way.
Many of these energy systems are provided from small-scale distributed households, farms, small businesses, that produce their own energy and buy and sell energy to a flexible energy market. That’s why, to close, I believe that journals like The Economist even put at the front page of one of their recent issues a dinosaur and an oil pump in their hands, making the analysis that in fact those who invest and keep investing in dirty, risky, undemocratic fossil energy sources are the dinosaurs in terms of meeting the demands and needs and opportunities in the future. While a transition in terms of energy in a safe operating space can be, should be, and must be the opportunity for a much more clean, modern energy system for a world that of course will demand more energy to truly achieve sustainable development, but which needs to be sustainable.
This will be about technology, and this is one of my favorite topics. When we talk about the Anthropocene, I think we seldom miss the point that so much of what happens in the Anthropocene, and the fact that we might be in the Anthropocene, happens through technology; it’s been through technology.
And one of the favorite examples that I take up with some of my students and some of my talks is this example. A couple of years ago an NGO and a couple of researchers discovered a new monkey type in the Amazon called the Titi Monkey, a new type of Titi Monkey. And they needed money to promote conservation efforts for the monkey. So they decided to make an option, an online option to sell the naming rights of that monkey. So they did that, and it was quite successful. They managed to get $650,000, and the company that won that auction was an online casino called GoldenPalace.com.
So GoldenPalace.com officially gets to name the monkey, so the official name of this Titi monkey is actually GoldenPalace.com Titi Monkey. And it has a Latin name called Callicebus aureipalatii, which I believe means golden palace.
And it’s quite a bizarre example, of course, but I find it quite intriguing that we’re modifying – we’re affecting nature at such a deep level that we’re even auctioning out the naming rights of a monkey species to an online casino.
I think the three interesting topics in here that are more general that this quite bizarre example. One deals of course with biodiversity and how we protect biodiversity. And there’s another issue related to politics of course. I mean where are we, is this a good idea should we really pull in private funding in this way? And giving – selling out naming rights in this way? And of course the third topic [is] about technology. Who would have thought 10 years ago that an online casino would have bought the rights to name this particular monkey?
Now I think this really brings us to an illustration of the next generation of environmental challenges in the Anthropocene, and new governance challenges facing us.
This is a quote from a New York Times article from one of the researchers a paper showing that the west Antarctica ice sheet was collapsing irreversibly, risking to create very large increases in sea level rise. And the quote from the scientist of course is, “This is really happening. It has passed the point of no return.” So it brings us back to the issue of tipping points and new risks.
Once these news were out there of course you hear discussions about trying to stop this from happening through technology, so essentially geo-engineering interventions. Sending out ships to spray out salt particles in ways that would make clouds whiter and then cool down the area, and hopefully, ideally, theoretically, cool the area down so much that you could stop the glaciers from collapsing. And of course this is just one example of many, many of these tipping point elements. This is a famous image from Tim Lenton’s work on tipping points in the Earth system.
And the issue here is of course if there are tipping points, and some of these might be a very, very large scales, and affect the Earth system as a whole, are there ways by which we can use technology to stay away from these, or mitigate these, or adapt to these in smart ways? And of course that triggers a lot of controversy and political conflict. And geo-engineering is a brilliant example of the interplay between risky tipping points, technology, and technological interventions and the political conflicts and debates those sort of discussions trigger.
And it’s not just about climate. I mean I just gave you a climate example. Some scientists propose that you would need to promote a new generation of conservation efforts that are more active to cope with climate change in ways to protect coral reefs.
So one example of tangible interventions were to create artificial coral reefs, or create big umbrellas, or to protect and cool down coral reefs, to create gene banks, etc., etc. Another interesting observation is from a workshop that was a few years ago in the UK where researchers and NGOs got together to discuss whether we can use synthetic biology to promote conservation and to maintain biodiversity. And there’s an emerging discussion about something called the extinction, so essentially using DNA from extinct species and use that DNA to bring these species back, and would that be a way to maintain and protect biodiversity?
Highly, highly controversial of course, and quite intriguing. I think one of the general reflections and reactions to this from the public and other scientists would be, but are we allowed to do this? Doesn’t this inflict on the precautionary principle? Now the precautionary principle that states that we shouldn’t do anything that might create harm. I mean that would be the popular perception of that.
But in fact if you look into international agreements, such as the Commission on Biological Diversity, it states something different. It says that, and I’m goint to quote here, “Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.” So essentially actors, NGOs, a few researchers, used the precautionary principle as support for these sort of intervention[s].
And is that the proper framing of the precautionary principle, or should we have a more moderate interpretation of that? And what would that look like? So I think that’s just a simple illustration of the sort of challenges that tipping points, emerging technologies, get mixed up in a way that create[s] new political controversies and new governance challenges.