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Why I'm wary of relying on technology to 'fix' climate change

· Climate Policy,Cleantech,Behavioural Change

In the lead up to the current Paris COP, there has been an absolute deluge of climate and energy events happening in London. And to feed my need for optimism, I've attended probably 6-7 of these in the last few weeks run by various organisations like the Energy Institute, Imperial College, and others.

In general and perhaps unsurprisingly, these (pro-agreement) speakers are positive about the chances of a climate agreement in Paris and about our ability to tackle climate change. Yet despite the positive vibe of these events, I'm finding their undertones troubling.

It's taken me some time to process, but I've noticed three recurring themes in these presentations that continue to make me uneasy:

(Theme 1) Climate change is a technology problem solved by shifting from 'bad technology' to 'good technology'

These presentations devolve into a strange mix-and-match game where speakers present their preferred combination of technologies that deliver the emissions reductions required, e.g.

Limiting climate change to '2 degrees' or '350 ppm' = A + B + C

We like framing the problem this way. The subsequent arguments focus on what mix of technologies are used as A,B,C and whether forecasted improvements in A,B,C are realistic or not. Regardless of how abstract or inaccessible these targets can seem, we use them as a central basis for proposing low-carbon pathways. But this top-down numbers game deftly sidesteps the need to address issues like:

The problem is psychological. Technology-aside, western society is addicted to an energy-intensive lifestyle fuelled by cheap hydrocarbons. The mere existence of coal mining technology is not a problem. The addiction that leads us to dismantle entire mountains to extract coal is a problem. More to the point, the helplessness that comes with this addiction is a problem, as it fuels self-doubt that things can actually change.

We don't really know what a 350 ppm world will look like. Seriously, what do these scenarios actually mean for a normal person's day-to-day existence? Can I still commute by car? Will the supply chain impacts affect prices at my grocery store? Will this change how my town, region, or country operates? What should my kids be learning to prepare for this world? These should be key considerations in deciding what future energy mix & infrastructure we need.

Any low-carbon technology will have a negative impact to be managed. It's hard to find a technology that has zero negative consequences. Nuclear power generates radioactive waste. Wind turbines can kill birds (perhaps an overstated impact but still true). Plenty has been written about the need for a precautionary approach, but these conversations rarely get close to providing a like-for-like comparison of the tradeoffs each low-carbon technology offers.

The topic of tradeoffs is especially interesting to me, as recent climate speakers have been proclaiming the...

(Theme 2) Belief that a laissez-faire energy strategy will achieve our environmental objective at the lowest cost

There's a persistent narrative that we must adhere to 'path neutrality' - letting 'the market' decide the most cost-efficient way to deliver a low-carbon energy system. And while there are plenty of reasons to think the Conservative Government's energy strategy isn't path neutral (here, here, here, and here), the idea of path neutrality itself is more problematic.

In theory, it makes sense. Using price as a lever, the market allows us to achieve an environmental improvement while seeking the lowest cost of abatement. However, this isn't always how technology deployment works in reality:

As an example, in the late 1940s and 1950s, several young nuclear power technologies were emerging including light-water reactors (LWR) and gas-graphite reactors (GGR) (full study available at Franke & Nill, 2005). For simplicity, let's call them reactors #1 and #2.

In modern times, #1 is the most common type of nuclear reactor. But this was not necessarily a case of superior technology triumphing.

In the 1950s, #2 was seen to offer significant advantages over #1:

  1. Lower chance of radioactive contamination ('leaking')
  2. More efficient at producing energy (better thermal efficiency)
  3. Lower risk of technical failure (a 'meltdown')
  4. Lower production cost (in 3 of 4 studies between 1953-57, #2 was 10-40% cheaper)

However, US political and military objectives led #1 to gain dominance in the marketplace:

  • The US Navy made an early commitment to #1 (1949) for nuclear propulsion in submarines coupled with a broader US focus on developing nuclear power for military use
  • Substantial US policy & military subsidies for #1 bridged the production cost gap
  • The high cost of 'technological diversity' - subsidising several expensive new competing technologies - was a disincentive for supporting multiple types of reactor
  • The US government influenced European technological development - formal agreements with some European states subsidised the use of (American) reactor #1 technology to increase the overall deployment of American technology

This example highlights how complicated interactions between technology, business strategy, subsidies, and governmental objectives can influence which technologies flourish or flounder. Regardless of whether #1 or #2 was the most appropriate, the point is that the path is rarely 'neutral'. As such, I worry that politicians supporting a 'path neutral approach' may not care too greatly if that approach succeeds.

And lastly, given all this emphasis on technology, I'm also frustrated by the...

(Theme 3) Persistent implications that humans are weak, helpless, and will never be able to control or change their behaviour

A recent Energy Institute event on ‘Developing a low-carbon transport sector’ presented the latest analysis on efficiency improvements possible for road vehicles and the challenges faced by emerging technologies like electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cells. Fairly standard stuff.

However, the talk was prefaced by the clarification that 'focus today is on powertrain technologies, not travel demand management or modal shift'. A standard view that you will never get rid of automobiles. Some people will always have to drive. Not everyone lives in London. Cycling and public transport aren't practical for everyone.

And while this may be our current Government's view, it does a great disservice to what is possible in communities. A Labour Government's 5-year Sustainable Travel Towns study conducted from April 2004 - April 2009 and a similar Cycling Demonstration Towns programme - running from 2005 to 2009 - showed very encouraging results including:

  • 'Reductions in car driver trips in the order of 7%-10%' (Chpt 17, p. 109)
  • At least a 4.5 benefit-cost ratio from reduction of traffic congestion in the three Sustainable Travel Towns (excluding climate and public health benefits) - great value for money (Chpt 21, p. 655)
  • A mean 27% increase in the levels of cycling in the six Cycling Demonstration Towns (DfT, 2009, p. 8)

No, automobiles won't immediately disappear. But it's only been ~100 years since the Model T was released. We've already demonstrated we can reduce our reliance if supported to use alternatives, so I find it darkly cynical to so easily dismiss modal shift.

So things aren't perfect and that makes you uncomfortable, so what?

Our relationship with technology is a strange contradiction. Attend one of these climate events and you'll leave filled with visions of a techno-optimistic utopia. Attend a recent blockbuster film (ala Age of Ultron or Spectre) and you'll be pummelled with worries about the dangers of and exploitation enabled by advanced technology that very few of us understand.

I'm not naïve. Technology will play a crucial role in our efforts to transition to a low-carbon society. To ensure the outcome is a world we want to live in, we need to take ownership and stay accountable for the changes that are coming:

  • Staying accountable for ourselves: In the near-term, our energy addiction remains a reality. Our small efforts to self-regulate and improve our personal carbon footprint are crucial for keeping ourselves engaged and for informing & inspiring those around us.
  • Staying accountable for our community: It's powerful when people unite around a shared vision of the future. While challenging at the national scale, this is still possible within smaller communities. Over the last several years, I've frequently read inspiring stories of UK community energy organisations that are taking a stake in their energy future. Continuing this active involvement is important if we want to be future 'shapers' rather than the future 'takers'.
  • Staying accountable for our country: At the national level, financing decisions made today will have lasting impacts for decades to come. I know it's far less hassle to remain disenfranchised and unengaged... I share that feeling often. But to achieve the exciting and dramatic changes we need by 2050, all of us need to be more pointedly involved. If you don't agree with the plans for Hinckley Point C or sovereign wealth funds for fracking, let your MP know! Object and present your vision. If the nuclear technology example teaches us anything, it's that broader government, corporate, and military objectives can heavily influence the direction of technological change. Strengthening public engagement is a necessary counterbalance offering the chance to create a 2050 society we would enjoy living in.

No doubt it will be a difficult challenge. It's easy to speak in generalities and avoid the headaches of the specifics.

So let's do something about it! I challenge you to reduce your climate impact in one small way by 2016. Doesn't have to be dramatic, but it's important to try new ways of living (e.g. walk or bike to work for one day).

The Guardian has a great list of ideas (for UK readers). I'd love to hear about your experiments in the Comments section.

For my part, I'm going contact my company pension fund - asking what's required for it to divest from fossil fuels.

In upcoming posts, I'll be delving into several of these 'obstacles to change' in more detail. For notifications of my latest articles, join my mailing list (100% confidential, no spam).

I don't have answers for a lot of these questions, but I do look forward to working on them over the upcoming years with readers like yourself.

- Paul

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