Here Comes the Sun

Tuesday, 31 March, 2015

Coal fired power will soon be obsolete.

That was the topic of a debate staged at Federation Square in the twilight of 2014. Bob Brown spoke for the motion, alongside a green energy entrepreneur and our own Professor Mike Sandiford. In opposition, an economist, a businesswoman and a government executive valiantly argued that – noble intentions aside – global change will inevitably take decades. Despite its pragmatism, this line fell on deaf ears. An appeal to the human capacity for change, supported by Brown’s ardent rhetoric, claimed an easy 67 per cent of the audience’s approval. Optimism won.

Such a result is at odds with the tone of most climate change commentary, and indeed, the majority of all discussions about our collective future, ever. John Stuart Mill observed in the 1800s that “not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage”. Not much has changed since. If you can forewarn society that somewhere something will go horribly wrong, you will likely be lauded for your prognostications. Regardless, often, of their subsequent accuracy. Legitimate predictions of cancer epidemics, nuclear war and global famines have been respectively met with falling mortality rates, nuclear disarmament and ever more efficient agriculture. Granted, one could propose that pessimistic forecasts such as these are necessary catalysts for change, but such acknowledgment would do nothing to nullify their eventual – touch wood – falsity.

Applying this lesson to climate change, things don’t look nearly as bleak as the media atmosphere would suggest. Yes, if we stroll ceteris paribus towards the future, then it will be in much worse shape when we arrive. Certainly the molluscan pace of top-down change makes this outcome easy to foresee. History, however, suggests otherwise. And there is substantial evidence of broader societal shifts that prove we are changing, with considerable momentum.

One counter-intuitive example is urbanisation. New York, when measured by per capita carbon footprint, is the greenest city in America. Due, simply, to the economies of scale that arise from its concentrated population. When everything is closer together, dependence on walking, cycling and public transport becomes a viable option. Floor space becomes costly, discouraging the accumulation of unnecessary material goods. Duplication of infrastructure is minimised, while energy-intensive public buildings like shopping centres and stadiums are better used. The UN predicts that the urban portion of global population will rise from 54 per cent today to 66 per cent in 2050, and this will facilitate less energy-intensive lifestyles.

Then there is rural electrification. Bringing power to the 1.2 billion without access is key to development, but could greatly hamper climate efforts if achieved via fossil-fuelled national grids. Fortunately, impatient villagers are increasingly using small renewable generators to power nebular, local networks. Solar LED lighting and micro-hydro turbines are becoming affordable thanks to social enterprise, whilst the Gates Foundation is backing a no-emissions device that turns human waste into electricity and drinking water. Compared to traditional grids, these technologies can be rolled out quickly, replacing the diesel generators on which many rely, and bypassing the construction of long-range transmission lines. Decentralised energy infrastructure is perhaps the only feasible path through the conflicting priorities of poverty and climate change, and one that is being steadily put into practice.

Finally, emissions targets remain prosaic but promising. The EU is aiming for 40 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. China, in a surprise G20 treaty with the US, have named that same year as the deadline for reversing their herculean emissions growth. And in a bout of cosmic timing that did wonders for this article’s cohesiveness, Britain recently announced a tripartisan agreement to phase out polluting coal-fired power. To be sure, many of these objectives aren’t stringent enough to avoid two degrees of warming. They are, however, becoming more ambitious as public pressure mounts, and this trajectory can only improve.

To reiterate: none of this is justification for complacency. If anything, greater understanding of the mechanics of progress should heighten frustration with their inertia. But surely humans can, if pressed, muster enough nuance to be both optimistic and cognisant of the need for drastic, short-term change. Doing so is, I believe, only rational.