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On 27 July 2020, Justin Rowlatt, Chief Environmental Correspondent of BBC News, published an article with the headline: What the heroin industry can teach us about solar power.
I missed that, but a month later found it reported in an issue of Zac and Jesse’s amusing and informative blog called “Now You Know.” about issues related to electromobility and renewable energy. This particular episode of the blog was called: Solar Panels: Proof is in the Poppies where they highlighted the findings reported by Justin Rowlatt.
So what’s the story here?
In 2013, the first Afghan farmer used solar panels to power a pump that brought water up to the surface from 100 meters below ground. Prior to that, his only alternative had been diesel pumps. Pumps ran on dirty diesel that fouled his motors and caused frequent breakdowns, in addition to intermittent supply. Running on solar power was clean and free, the pumps worked reliably, and the farmer was able to grow 2 or even 3 crops a year, in addition to increased yields per crop. The following year, a few panels were available for sale in local markets. Since then, the sale of solar panels has taken off in the province, with 67,000 arrays counted in Helmand Valley alone in 2019. The negative effect of this bounty is that opium output has more than doubled in the intervening years.
If only we could see that kind of exponential growth of renewables in rich countries, the world’s environmental outlook would not be the bleak picture it is today. But there is a surprising amount of misinformation in the educated, industrialised world. This is partly due to the existence of powerfully entrenched corporations that jealously guard their own turf and discourage innovation. The second negative factor is the advertising industry that has spent decades fine-tuning their ability to spread the message of their paymasters, however detrimental to the planet. Time to take a leaf from an Afghan farmer’s book on energy, if not for choice of crops.
As the blog ELECTRIFYING noted this week: Renewable electricity generation has hit all-time highs in the first half of 2020. And this despite the slowdown in utility scale renewables installations as a result of Covid-19. Read more at the link to the original posting below.
When Austrian-born American economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of creative destruction, he was referring to cycles of innovation in industry as new technologies displaced older, less efficient ones. As a new technology gained the upper hand, older industries died out, giving rise to a period of disruption and major unemployment.
In a chapter in his book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Schumpeter writes: “The same process of industrial mutation—if I may use that biological term—that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of creative destruction is the essential fact about capitalism,” he said. Schumpeter was more right than he knew, not only about industrial mutation, but in regard to natural mutation. As a passionate environmentalist, I would assert that Schumpeter’s insight is primarily applicable to natural systems. More than 60% of the world’s wealth is embedded in nature and natural systems. Heedless of that, we, in developed industrial societies and all aspiring, developing industrial societies, are recklessly plundering our planet’s natural resources in order to fuel economic growth; in pursuit of the cachet of success, of material wealth far beyond basic human needs of food, clothing and shelter.
Studies show that most forest trees need to be exposed to fire every 50 to 100 years to invigorate new growth. Epidemiologists have long predicted pandemics like the current one, but societies at large have been too busy chasing prosperity to pay much attention. Now that Nature has targeted humanity with some creative destruction of its own, it’s up to us to learn the lessons of the forest; clearing away the dead wood of outdated industrial practices, investing in lifestyles and technologies that eliminate waste and support planetary health.
What need for annual trillion dollar subsidies for fossil fuels when 99% of scientific studies say we should stop carbon emissions? What need for continued economic growth when wealth accrues to the 1% of the population and leaves the other 99% behind? What need for new technologies when the best ones currently available are not being used widely enough?
Political leaders won’t ask us these questions. We must ask it of them. Our survival as a species depends on it.
Growing up in a country where English was the language of higher education, I inherited an Anglo-centric view of most developments in science and technology. For example, thinking about the history of printing, the names of Johannes Gutenberg and William Caxton came to mind. When I mentioned Caxton to a German friend, they looked blank, having only heard of Gutenberg. Six hundred years before Gutenberg and Caxton, however, there were nameless Chinese monks who used carved wooden blocks coated with ink to print Buddhist texts. Subsequently, movable metal type was used in both China and Korea, two hundred years before Gutenberg’s printing press.
Language matters! The point was driven home to me when I travelled in Central Europe in the 1970s and came across a book. Lightning in his hand: the life story of Nikola Tesla. I read about his discoveries and inventions and thought, it couldn’t possibly be true. Most of these were Edison’s discoveries. The light bulb. The generator. Alternating current. Wrong on all counts apparently. Edison merely perfected the lightbulb and was a savvy marketer. He was also not above using dirty tricks to discredit competition. He is said to have publicly electrocuted dogs and cats with alternating current (ac/which we use today) to prove that his direct current was safer than Tesla’s ac. All this happened in the late 19th and early 20th century. For an amusing take on Nikola Tesla’s many accomplishments compared to Edison’s, see Why Tesla was the greatest Geek who ever lived.
In the 21st century, there’s a face-off between two companies that both borrow the great Serbian genius’s name. Nikola and Tesla. Tesla, as some of you might know, became the most valuable car company on the planet this week, based on market capitalization, overtaking Toyota.
Nikola Motors is far less known, and aims to compete head-to-head with Tesla’s electric semi, a heavy duty battery electric vehicle slated to appear in 2021. Nikola claims its trucks, powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell, will provide driving range comparable to a diesel truck. They say that pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) will have to compromise either on range or haulage capacity, simply because of the weight of its batteries. Nikola has no sales and no revenue, yet has achieved market valuation of $34 billion in 2020. Hmm! Why is there no end of people willing to bet their money against Tesla?
On the other hand, Tesla has a brilliant track record of achieving seemingly impossible goals, its cars outperforming every other electric vehicle on the road today, and it already has several prototype semis on the road. CEO Elon Musk reiterates at every opportunity that he relies on first principles of physics to base technology choices and manufacturing decisions. The above image, courtesy of the non-profit Transport and Environment (via Clean Technica), seems to support his opinion, that producing hydrogen with current technologies to run vehicles on electricity produced by a fuel cell just does not make economic sense. Many engineers at Toyota, Hyundai, Honda, BMW and Mercedes disagree with Musk and are putting a chunk of their considerable R&D resources into FCEVs* using hydrogen. None of them seem as yet to have prominent plans to roll out extensive hydrogen charging infrastructure so this indicates a future for FCEVs as niche products in the coming two decades.
All the legacy automakers are in a bind because of Tesla’s rapid roll-out of increasingly attractive and popular electric models. They face a triple whammy, locked in to their traditional supply chains, with highly qualified and experienced ICE workforces who need to either be retrained or made redundant, and confronting dramatically decreased car sales in 2020. Post-Covid, the only automotive growth segment seems to be in EVs.
A case can be made for FCEVs in the case of heavy duty, long-range transport vehicles that only need point-to-point charging infrastructure rather than a widely distributed one; think cargo ships, passenger ferries, trains. Aircraft powered by hydrogen? I don’t know whether the concept will take off (pardon the pun), although Zero Avia has short haul aircraft that run on hydrogen fuelled electricity. Whatever the case, the sooner we come off conventional ICEs, the better for our planetary future.
*FCEV – Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
**ICE – Internal Combustion Engine
The Covid-19 lockdown has put a damper on my scheme to sponsor the planting of at least 1000 trees in 2020. I hoped to plant a few of the thousand with my own hands. I think taking personal action leads to a deeper commitment.
There have been many articles recently about a Swiss company called CLIMEWORKS that has a strategy to remove CO2 from the air through conversion to carbonates. These carbonates can then store carbon underground as solids or else, in gaseous form, be treated to produce synthetic liquid fuels at an ultimate cost of around $ 1 per liter, as mentioned in a recent Nature Briefing newsletter.
Sequestering carbon with trees is much slower, less industrial, and would be Nature’s way to restore the planet. Following Nature’s way might be less glamorous to the uninitiated, but to be done well, it requires a wealth of local knowledge. This local knowledge is often the kind that is not found in text books or taught in schools. The kind of people who possess this knowledge usually do not know they possess something valuable, since much of the world discounts their knowledge for lack of paper qualifications, not even a high school diploma. But some of the most successful development programs have been based on inputs from aboriginals and “primitive” forest tribes. After all, artemisinin, cinchona and willow bark had been in use for centuries before modern medicine discovered them; artemisinin in China 2000 years ago, cinchona in early South American cultures. Willow bark and leaves were used by Assyrians, Sumerians, early Egyptians and ancient Greeks. So let’s plant trees then, as widely as we can, in order to suck up carbon. But if we make use of available local knowledge, we will find dozens, if not hundreds, of ancillary benefits.
One such afforestation program, conducted by a non-profit foundation called The Forest Way, strictly plants only indigenous species of trees on an area that covers a few square miles of once-barren land. In the twelve years since the planting began, a few dried out streams carry water again, leaf litter decomposing on the forest floor is slowly building up a layer of healthy soil and, most spectacular, the number of bird species sightings have increased from around 60 to 230+ at last count.
The subject of tree-planting brings me finally to the title of this post. ECOSIA calls itself an “ecological search engine” and it aims to help reforest the earth. According to Wikipedia, Ecosia plants an average of 1 tree for every 45 searches made on it. The Ecosia search engine works with all browsers and once you begin to use it, the page shows a small window with a tree symbol and a number to denote the searches made on this search engine since the download. Most recently Ecosia’s website reports 97 million trees planted (and counting), and more than 15 million users. Make that 15 million and one. I became an Ecosia user yesterday!
Chris Goodall (environmentalist, economist and businessman) has published a book in 2020 on recommended steps for a zero carbon future. In 12 concise and easily digestible chapters he outlines steps to be taken to achieve (or even exceed) the UN goal of stopping greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Although specific to the UK, the straightforward proposals in the book could easily serve as a blueprint for any country around the world, regardless of where they stand on the spectrum of greenhouse gas emissions intensity.
The opening chapters deal with green energy generation to power local and regional grids, then move on to housing and transport. The chapters on transport deal with ground, air and shipping transport, three sectors that might need different fuels, depending on technological developments currently in their early stages; battery electric vehicles (BEVs) for ground transportation, hydrogen used with fuel cells for shipping, and liquid synthetic fuels for aviation. There are potential breakthroughs in the offing for each of these solutions and, of course, unforeseen developments in battery technology could mean that energy density is high enough for BEVs to power ships and airplanes as well as cars, buses and trucks. With so much potential waiting in the wings, this is an exciting time for new technologies, despite the looming threat of runaway climate change that can annihilate patterns of living we’ve developed over the past century.
There is a chapter devoted to fashion and its climate impact, as well as one on the carbon footprint of buildings, specifically in concrete production, and fossil fuels in heavy industry. There are known low-carbon solutions here, and the main problem is changing established production norms, the long lifetimes of existing physical infrastructure, and changing the mindset of the large corporations that own these industries.
Food production and forests have great potential to (one) reduce emissions and (two) absorb more CO2 respectively. Finally, it’s the economist’s turn to ask: how will all these changes be paid for? The straightforward answer is through a carbon tax that captures the environmental cost of the fuels used. However, experience has shown that the implementation of this straightforward answer is anything but. There are powerful vested interests to be overcome, not to mention the expense of retraining workers made redundant by obsolete industries.
Two chapters at the end of the book deal with direct air capture of CO2 and geo-engineering solutions. Each of these have their champions, but in my opinion, direct air capture (by industrial means) would never be cost-effective for a simple reason. The technologies that are sophisticated enough to make direct air capture cost-effective would also be good enough to lower emissions to the point where the technology is no longer needed. A sort of negative Catch-22. As for geo-engineering, the scales and money required for this effort would be best spent on researching and implementing technologies that lower emissions in the first place, rather than trying to decrease their effects. Secondly, there are too many unknowns associated with such large scale engineering projects. History is replete with examples of engineering hubris. The second half of the twentieth century saw countless predictions that “science would solve all problems” and “plentiful nuclear energy will provide power that is too cheap to meter.”
The final chapter, entitled “What can we do ourselves,” is more important than most people realize. On the one hand, individual actions do count and “little drops make an ocean.” But a second, little regarded effect of “little drops” will be the most important. Whether we live in democracies or dictatorships, ultimately, governments are guided by the cumulative wisdom of the governed. And in any nation where the overwhelming majority of its citizens practice sound environmental stewardship, this mindset will be inexorably transferred to the leadership as well.
We all know that leadership counts. We all realize intuitively that we get the leadership we deserve. So ultimately, logic stands on its head and we are forced to admit that we, the people, are the leaders who have to show our leaders the way.
FOSSIL FUELS ARE FOR DINOSAURS – Aviott John
The hydrogen economy may be only a decade away, or more. Some people think that battery electric vehicles will replace combustion engines in the interim. Whatever the case, there are exciting new developments happening in the world of hydrogen. Here’s a shared post from the blog Electrifying entitled Hydrogen – unleash the beast.
Thousands of thinking people all over the world are now beginning the see the current corona pandemic as an opportunity to radically restructure the world; to reduce our consumption of resources from a finite planet; to recalibrate a global economic system that enriches the 1% while impoverishing the 99% (and the planet in the bargain), to rethink our agricultural systems, currently dominated by large holdings and industrial corporations, to small farms and tenants who look to enhance biodiversity rather than only being driven by increased yields and profit.
In whichever country in the world we live in right now, the crucial question our governments will deal with in the immediate aftermath of the current crisis will be: which of the following systems will be bailed out first: Banks and the financial system; major food corporations and large producers; the biggest energy utilities; airlines and the transportation system.
From the point of view of the average citizen, all of them are of equal importance. Most important, of course, is access to the most basic needs of life; food, clothing and shelter. In extraordinary times like this, when governments throw fiscal discipline overboard in order to preserve life, the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) suddenly looks attractive again. Here’s a link to a Wikipedia article on UBI that shows how the idea was first touted in the early 16th century in Sir Thomas More’s Utopia.
Would the UBI plan work? In the best of all possible worlds, it certainly might, considering that the assets of the above-mentioned 1% would cover the costs. Is the UBI plan feasible? Who knows? Or as Shakespeare had Hamlet expressing doubt, “Ay, there’s the rub, for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.” On the other hand, a modern philosopher reminds us that a good crisis should never be thrown away. In other words, who knows what solutions may be workable in these extra-ordinary circumstances as we enter a new paradigm of learning, living, and learning to live.
Here’s a story for the dwindling number (I hope) of climate change skeptics who still look forward to business-as-usual, or more-of-the-same as a blueprint for the rest of the 21st century. A HuffPost report in November reveals that, way back in 1956, the coal industry accepted the reality of global warming and did not feel threatened by it (the problem lay one generation in the future!). The same is true for the oil industry, according to a spate of lawsuits brought against it by various groups and several US States. In December 2019, Exxon won a major climate change lawsuit brought against it by the state of New York, but there are many more on the way.
The remarkable thing here is that the science of impending climate change was uncontested as long as the threat to the profits of fossil fuel corporations lay decades in the future. Here is the paradox at the heart of the debate about climate change. In the early days of global climate modelling, in the 1970s, the models were relatively unrefined and scientists themselves did not stake strong positions based on the results of their own models. Additionally, the majority of scientists subscribed to the myth that science has to be neutral in order to serve as an impartial referee that floated above the discussion, distributing facts where necessary. In reality, the discussions on the ground were becoming messy. The science began to be disputed as the soon as the deadline for meaningful action neared. Powerful polluters, mining companies, oil corporations, muddied the waters (both literally and intellectually) with arguments that played on statistical uncertainty to kick the decision a few decades down the road.
Meanwhile scientists sat back and redoubled their efforts, striving for ever greater accuracy in their models. They reasoned, logically, that once their results achieved greater accuracy, people would come round to their point of view. But that is not the way the world works. It has little place for logic and reason. So they toiled on, with ever more dense reports of double- and triple-checked facts and innumerable citations. Meanwhile the world went on guzzling gas and emitting CO2, methane, and worse. This is the point when the world drowns in despair or A MESSIAH APPEARS. Lo and behold! We have our unlikely messiah. Hundreds of thousands of school children, young people. Their face is that of Greta Thunberg whose single-minded focus has made her the global symbol of the movement.
If we look at simple facts, solutions to the problem are much more doable than we think. Elon Musk is mocked for saying that 10,000 sq. miles of the Nevada desert covered in solar panels could produce all the energy requirements of the United States. He’s right of course, but this is only intended as an example of scale. It wouldn’t be safe or desirable to have the entire nation’s energy needs produced at a single source. The following is a better example. An engineer acquaintance, Klaus Turek, calculates that in the case of a temperate country like Austria, just 0.391% of its surface covered with solar panels is sufficient to meet its electricity requirements. That works out to about 328 sq. km. for the whole country. The area covered by buildings is 2.4%, however (2,013 sq km approximately). Therefore, just 16% of the currently available roof space would be sufficient to cover all of Austria’s current electricity needs, with plenty left over for expansion.
I’m currently reading a book by Kate Raworth called “Doughnut Economics.” In it, the author pleads for a rethink of the traditional growth model of an ever-expanding economy to one of equitable development, keeping planetary boundaries in mind, and ensuring redistribution of resources so that the most disadvantaged in society are also looked after.
In the traditional testosterone model (my own term) of economic growth, the rich prosper while the rest of the population benefit from the trickle-down effect of an expanding economy. Trickle down is a euphemism for the rich pissing down on the rest, thus validating the term piss-poor long after the expression came into use. I have examined the disastrous effects of testosterone based decision-making in two earlier blog posts: in 2015 (Golden Skirts vs. Testosterone in the Financial World), and in 2018 (Leadership Hope for a Warming World). Another reflective piece, published on this website in 2018, is related to the topic of the current post (Three Score Years and Ten: Planetary Health and your Lifetime).
It’s clear now to all but the most self-absorbed amongst us that we’re already consuming much more than the planet can sustainably provide. If Mother Nature and the earth’s resources were assumed to be a bank account, then we’re no longer living off the interest alone but are drawing down its capital. Since 1971, the Global Footprint Network has calculated Earth Overshoot Day for each year. In the website’s own words:
The Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of the year that Earth’s bio-capacity suffices to provide for humanity’s ecological footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global consumption of Nature’s capital. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s bio-capacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s ecological footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in a year:
(Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day. (EOD)
In 2018, Earth Overshoot Day was calculated to have happened on 1 August. In 2004, the overshoot fell on 1 September! By this calculation, the last time mankind was truly sustainable was in 1969 or 1970 when overshoot day fell in a subsequent year!
Since this planetary over-consumption was first computed in 1971, we have been steadily increasing our ecological debt, and the interest we’re paying on that mounting debt is measured in food shortages, soil erosion, rising temperatures, increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, biodiversity loss and much, much more. The problem is huge and solutions seem daunting and unreachable to us as individuals. Before we sink into despair, Kate Raworth tells us that there’s plenty we can do as societies to reverse this state of affairs and restore the planet to health. Doughnut Economics, the term she has coined, outlines the solutions that society needs. In the diagram above, the light green space denotes the resources mankind can safely take from the earth while restoring it to health. The dark green lines are the planetary boundaries that have to be respected if we wish to do this. The blue segments are the labels of the various sectors that have to be addressed. The book outlines broad prescriptions to deal with the problems of each of these sectors. In reading through this and other books written in a similar vein, we see that the answer to climate change lies in social change, not in new technologies. Technology alone is useless without the human will to adopt them and to adapt.
So here is the answer to the initial despairing question. What can we do as individuals? There’s plenty one can do. The EOD website lists hundreds of steps individuals can take to mitigate planetary health. Therein lies our power as individuals. Out of many, one.
Doughnut Economics: Kate Raworth, Random House Business 2018, 384 pp.,