Brave New World

There are several good books out at the moment relating to the problem of climate change, humanity’s emissions and what to do about them.

One is by Bill Gates, and his input on the subject is extremely welcome. With his laser focus on getting tasks completed, he says there are only two statistics that matter: 51 billion and zero. The first is the number of tonnes of CO2 that we currently emit into the atmosphere each year, and the second is the number of tonnes we need to emit by 2050. Unless a great idea actually helps to bring that about, then it isn’t really a great idea, it’s just a distraction.

Evidence of this is the relentless attention surrounding transport emissions, but globally these constitute just 16% of the total, and air travel a fraction of that. The carbon elephants in the room are cement and steel, and just ‘making things’. By addressing these issues and rolling out some pretty easy policy changes, rich countries could easily reduce their emissions by 20%. The hard part is getting the emissions down to zero. Even harder is to do that whilst also addressing the fate of the 800 million people who currently have no access to electricity. There is no denying the scale of the challenge.

Fortunately (for our area of research), Bill Gates sees huge utility in “super, super cheap and totally clean hydrogen”, and the way that hydrogen helps is not necessarily by turning it back into electricity. Apologies to the fuel-cell and the hydrogen car, but it appears that hydrogen’s most constructive uses are with the myriad industrial processes involved in ‘making things’. The difficult challenges that cannot be electrified, such as making fertiliser and steel. Decarbonising these two alone would reduce total emissions by 30%, which is amazing, for one thing to be able to do that.

Nevertheless, to get to zero means doing everything. There is no one, single, winning technology. From solar panels to nuclear fusion, direct carbon capture to artificial concrete, all technologies need to be used. Or do they?

This brings us to the second book Under a White Sky by Elizabeth Kolbert. The title refers to the possibility, remote but very real, that a ‘small group of powerful nations’ could release millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide to offset global heating. Such geoengineering would alter the atmospheric scattering of light to such an extent that blue skies would cease to exist. Obviously, this is good marketing to help sell the book, and shouldn’t be taken too literally, but the questions are very real. To what extent is technology a solution to technology-related problems, or is it just more of the cause?

Technology is just a tool, neither good nor evil. Invention is begotten by necessity, and driven by short-term considerations. But the application of technology is in the hands of powerful individuals and nations. Even if they act altruistically, economic decisions almost by definition ignore both non-humans and future generations.

This is why nature may yet end up as one of the greatest victims of attempting to find a solution to climate change, regardless of whether one exists or not. Impassioned calls for rewilding (e.g. from the likes of George Monbiot) have little impact on a technophile like Bill Gates. The idea of ‘just doing less’ has little impact on the vast number of people who subscribe to a work ethic that tells them that working is inherently good. However, it is by working that humans have transformed fully half of the Earth’s ice-free land surface. Even working to save a species from extinction just leaves it “conservation reliant”.

“There is no way we can all go back to hunter-gatherer society. That isn’t happening” says Kolbert, but she refuses to make the final decision for us. Whether it is a brave new world that is horrifying, or one that is exciting, with journalistic detachment she leaves that up to us to decide. I think the truth lies between the two, therefore whatever your opinion, it’s best to read these books as a pair.

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