Discover more from Byline Supplement
A Hot Mess: From Energy Scarcity to Superabundance
Nafeez Ahmed investigates how the climate crisis could eventually lead to a golden new age for humanity
To mark another year of record-breaking climatic events, Byline Supplement is republishing its exclusive series of articles from the August 2022 edition of Byline Times. For the latest, subscribe here
Imagine a world in which animals and humans live side-by-side in peace. In which nature and wildlife flourish. The air and waters are clean. Everyone on the planet has access to everything they need and more: abundant clean energy; access to cheap and nutritious food; advanced means of transport at the push of a button; the time and opportunity to learn, create and communicate.
Amid grave warnings about the climate emergency, the scarcity of food and energy, and rampant political corruption, it sounds like a utopian pipe-dream. But some of the most robust data available suggests this is a picture of what’s possible, not centuries from now but within the next two decades.
Byline Supplement is an entirely reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Rethinking Humanity by James Arbib and Tony Seba established a powerful and original new systems framework to understand the complex interplay between societal transformation and technology disruptions.
One of its core findings is that the vast bulk of global greenhouse gas emissions – about 90% – can be traced to three of the five foundational sectors that define civilisation: energy, transport and food. It so happens that the most significant technology disruptions for climate change are happening precisely in these sectors.
Since 2010, solar, wind, and batteries costs have fallen by up to 85% and continue to drop even further as their performance increases. Vehicles powered by oil-guzzling internal combustion engines will be overtaken by electric vehicles. Livestock rearing and commercial fishing are being upended by precision fermentation, allowing us to brew and programme all kinds of proteins; as well as cellular agriculture, through which we can create real animal proteins without killing animals.
The data shows that these new sources of energy, food and transport will become 10 times cheaper than existing forms as early as the 2030s. But there’s a catch: these technologies will not be adopted fast enough to avoid dangerous climate change.
As we move into a world of 1.5C of warming, heading towards 2C, the risks of triggering catastrophic further global heating become not only more acute, but put us at risk of unknowingly sleepwalking into a worst-case ‘hot house Earth’ scenario, with diminishing prospects of pulling back.
Technology disruptions can be delayed or accelerated by our choices. If we continue to throw all our weight – through subsidies, regulations and beyond – behind maintaining dying industries, there is a serious risk that our societies will go down with them.
Two decades ago, UN climate assessments were warning of a catastrophic 6C rise in global average temperatures by 2100, with other studies warning it could be even higher, up to 8C. Today, the scientific consensus sees the worst-case looking at about half this. Though the risk that we trigger a hot-house Earth remains, we’ve made real progress in reducing that risk. Even the tepid action taken to date has had an impact – although global greenhouse gas emissions are at their highest levels yet and still rising, the rate of growth has slowed because of the disruption of coal.
This process can be accelerated. Our challenge is to accelerate the energy, transport and food disruptions as fast as possible so we can reduce 90% of emissions as early as the 2030s. But that’s just the beginning. The implications of this acceleration don’t stop at partially solving climate change – if we chose to accelerate the disruptions, we could open the way to a new era of ‘superabundance’.
Assumptions are often made that renewable energy is ‘softer’ and ‘weaker’ than fossil fuels, that it costs more, and delivers less energy because the sun doesn’t shine and wind doesn’t blow all the time. This is deeply mistaken.
Disruptions are not one-for-one substitutions, but instead lead to completely new systems with new properties, requiring new rules. The car was not a faster horse slotting into old transport networks, it was a new tool which transformed not just our transport networks, but everything else. That is what’s about to happen over the next two decades.
For the first time in history, emerging technologies show a clear pathway to transcending the limits of the age of extraction-based scarcity and entering a new era of creation-based abundance.
As oil, gas, and coal are becoming more inefficient and expensive, the opposite is true of solar, wind, and batteries. Supersizing solar and wind-generating capacity to three to five times the level of existing demand produces up to five times more energy than fossil fuels systems at no marginal cost for most of the year. At the same time, it dramatically reduces overall system costs by removing the need for weeks’ worth of seasonal battery storage, to such an extent that we can meet winter demand with 30 to 40 times less battery storage.
In other words, an optimally designed renewable energy system is not a step backwards but an advancement to a cleaner and larger energy system.
Swiss Government scientists have shown that building such a system globally could generate up to 10 times the amount of energy we use today – just by deploying solar on the built environment and the world’s deserts. Their assumptions were conservative – they didn’t take into account the role of wind power, which means we could potentially generate even larger quantities of energy. The Swiss team concluded that the entire global ‘circular economy’, designed to ensure that minerals and materials flows are comprehensively recycled wherever possible, could be sustained in this system, along with all further manufacturing to continue expansion of the clean energy system.
Once built, this system won’t need constant material inputs like the current fossil fuel system, but would last for 50 to 80 years given the realistic lifetimes of its core components.
The transport sector will undergo a similar transformation. Data shows that ride-hailing will become many times cheaper than owning and managing personal cars by the 2030s. As a result, the number of vehicles in service will drop by more than 80%, resulting in a fraction of the volume of cars on roads today.
Meanwhile, precision fermentation is leading the charge in creating proteins with minimal environmental footprints and is on track to be cost-competitive with dairy industries within a few years. Precision fermentation builds on the same processes we use to brew beer, combined with revolutionary advancements in information technology and precision biology. New research by scientists at Imperial College London shows that it has shorter, cleaner production cycles, and uses a tiny fraction of the water, land and fertiliser of conventional industrial food production. This means we can scale up microbial protein production on a global scale within planetary boundaries.
Once again, the momentum for this is not just a question of consumer choices, trends and lifestyles – it’s economic. As it becomes cheaper and its quality continues to improve – which is happening exponentially – it will eventually outcompete livestock industries. This is because we will be able to have higher-quality, nutritious and tasty proteins at a tenth of the cost. That, too, will have counterintuitive impacts. The disruption of dairy industries will free up 2.7 billion hectares of land previously dedicated to animal husbandry for rewilding, regenerative agriculture, and active reforestation.
It will be the interactions between these disruptions that will drive the emergence of a completely new global system.
For instance, super power from solar, wind and batteries will make the energy costs of protein production almost negligible. We can envisage local precision fermentation production hubs popping up all over the world, leading to a far more distributed global protein production system powered by cheap, clean energy. But this won’t just apply to protein production – it will apply across the energy inputs needed for food production, opening up new opportunities that different regions and countries will explore in their own ways.
Sri Lanka, for instance, currently facing economic collapse because of gas and food shortages, would be able to use solar, wind and batteries super power to generate hydrogen gas from water electrolysis instead of from natural gas, which can then be used to make ammonia fertiliser for agriculture without emitting carbon dioxide. In other urban areas, this super power could be used to support vertical farming enterprises across towns and cities. Currently energy costs are the biggest barrier to vertical farming, which uses up to 90% less land and water than conventional agriculture and minimises agrochemicals and waste. Super power would eliminate this barrier and supercharge new, sustainable urban farming enterprises.
Super power would also make currently unaffordable carbon withdrawal technologies, like direct air capture, cheap for the first time. Coupled with autonomous technology, many currently expensive and difficult geoengineering methods will become feasible and commercially viable. In this way, we’ll be able to not merely offset the more difficult sets of emissions such as the 2.1% from flights or the 7% from cement – until breakthrough technologies come into play to disrupt these technologies – but start drawing-down the carbon we’ve been piling into the atmosphere over the last centuries.
Within the next two decades, the disruptions will make the entire infrastructure of fossil fuel-based energy, transport and food systems completely obsolete. That includes oil rigs, gas terminals, pipelines, and coal-fired power plants, as well as global logistics and shipping networks for fossil fuels, livestock and livestock products. Dismantling this infrastructure will create unprecedented scope for metals recycling. Steel, iron, aluminium, copper, nickel and cobalt are used extensively in the oil industry. But at this point, there will be huge and increasing amounts of these materials available for recycling and repurposing for the energy, transport and food transformation.
Once all the material flows to maintain the existing stock of a global solar, wind and battery system, we will be able to maintain and expand our new clean energy system without breaching planetary boundaries.
Over the next two decades, then, the transformation of the global production system will create unique possibilities that our ancestors could not have even dreamed of. Arbib and Seba call the era that could emerge an “age of freedom”. Freedom from the need to toil to meet our material needs; freedom from environmental destruction; freedom from conflicts over resources; freedom for the animals and whales to return and rejoice in the lands and seas; freedom to live in prosperity together, within planetary boundaries.
The new system will tend to disperse rather than consolidate power, creating new interconnected networks and nodes of people and communities who are owners and producers of electricity, transport, food, information and materials. It will involve a complete shift in the relationship between labour and capital that cannot be simplistically reduced to pre-existing economic ideologies.
The dawn of zero marginal cost information enabled by the internet, social media and smartphones has created the power to cheaply create and instantaneously distribute information directly to mass audiences. But it has emerged within the political hierarchies, ideological divisions and economic inequalities of the prevailing system – fuelling a new era of disinformation and psychological warfare. As the volumes of information production have become vast, our ability to manage and translate this information into meaningful sense-making, knowledge and wisdom has declined. We need completely new approaches to how we organise the information sector to facilitate our civilisation’s ‘collective intelligence’.
Byline Supplement is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
We can see the same challenges across the other foundational sectors of civilisation. We need to start thinking, seeing and acting on the basis of interconnection, non-linearity, whole systems, complexity. We need to recognise that human systems are inherently embedded in nature and that the organisational and behavioural implications of values such as love, compassion, generosity and justice are integral to our survival and prosperity.
I cannot underscore the gravity of the moment we now find ourselves in. Everything hinges on what we choose to do in the next 10 years. What we decide today will determine the future of the human species for ever. And despite the looming risks of dystopia and collapse, the grounds for optimism have never been stronger.
Every person has a momentous role to play in turning this shift into a transformation. The evolutionary leap that is possible for humanity must be taken by each of us as individuals in our different contexts. We can become agents of transformation, revolutionising our mindsets from the old narrow, siloed ways of seeing the world, to a new whole systems lens embracing Earth-centric values, and working to distribute this new lens across the networks nearest to each of us, our family, friends, work colleagues, local institutions and beyond.
And so, each of us is faced with a choice. What do we stand for – the old, dying paradigm of extraction with its scarcity, violence and division; or the emerging paradigm of creation, freedom and superabundance? And what are we going to do about it?
Byline Supplement is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.