Thursday, 02 October 2014
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We can't wait for a magic solution to climate change

Judging the true environmental cost of any technology is incredibly difficult. Materials, manufacturing, distribution, lifetime usage ­– all these things add up. So it’s fair to question whether items that claim to be environmentally friendly really make a direct contribution to attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s the latest approach being taken by controversial Danish writer Bjørn Lomborg in an attempt to challenge mainstream thinking on climate change. Lomborg, who has a PhD in political science, has spent much of the last 15 years arguing with climate scientists on the extent to which global temperatures are likely to rise due to greenhouse gas emissions, most notably in his book The Skeptical Environmentalist.

His more recent ideas have focused around our responses to the problem of man-made global warming (which he agrees exists), and he has argued against spending vast sums of money on technologies that are not yet effective or cheap enough to have a substantial impact, most recently taking on the topic of electric vehicles.

Some of his basic points are hard to argue with: current mitigation efforts in the West are costly and ineffective; most future emissions will come from the developing world; wind turbines and solar panels are still too expensive; and electric cars still have too great an impact on the environment.

The Engineer would also, unsurprisingly, be in favour of increasing research into new technologies, as Lomborg suggests. But none of these points add up to a convincing argument that we shouldn’t be buying environmental technology now. The idea that we can or should just wait for scientists to invent better ways of producing clean energy or powering vehicles misunderstands the way technology is developed, rolled out and taken up (and ignores much of the role of engineers).

Technology doesn’t go straight from a lab to our homes, roads or power stations. It must be optimised, scaled up, manufactured and, crucially, paid for. We can’t wait for a university spin-out firm to suddenly start mass-producing the ideal electric vehicle. We need the existing automotive supply chain to bring their considerable expertise to the problem of manufacturing every component in the most efficient and cost-effective way. People must see owning an EV as a practical solution for their needs, which requires both education and a decent charging infrastructure. And none of this will happen unless at least some people start buying electric cars now.

Solar panels have already seen a dramatic fall in price in recent years, not because a scientist suddenly came up with a new design for solar energy collection but because Chinese firms in particular developed better manufacturing methods. And it’s hard to see how or why they would have done it without subsidies to encourage the creation of a market for solar in the first place.

Lomborg is right that renewable energy won’t really become widespread until it is cost competitive with fossil fuels. Yet the hydrocarbon industry has received heavy subsidies for years, which have helped it to become a source of cheap power. So why shouldn’t renewables receive government support if we agree that they need to be part of the solution to cutting emissions?

There’s almost always an argument for making subsidies better targeted and more effective, and it’s easy for governments to make a mess of them, as the recent debacle over UK solar feed-in tariffs shows. But technological breakthroughs on their own are unlikely to be be enough to displace established marketplaces.

There’s another underlying point in all this. Lomborg says it won’t matter if the West spends lots of money on reducing its emissions if developing countries increase theirs. Indeed, if the UK scrapped its carbon cutting efforts all together it would probably make very little direct impact on global temperatures.

However, as the countries who have benefited the most from fossil fuel-powered industrialisation – and the one’s who hold most of the world’s wealth – developed nations have a responsibility to create the solutions to prevent runaway climate change. If we don’t do it, then how can we ask the rest of the world to act on our behalf?


Readers' comments (23)

  • This discussion is all about "pushing a rope". Yes, there's an argument for subsidies. But wind and solar have been getting subsidies for decades now and are still not competitive. It may be the case that hydrocarbon companies have gotten subsidies, but if that's the case I'm personally unaware of it, other than the depletion allowances allowed to any extractive industry.
    Best IMHO to let the market work. The problem is that the AGW hypothesis has been used in a cynical attempt to stampede the population of the first world into a more ascetic lifestyle due to the urgency of the problem. But there is no urgency, as pointed out by the previously enthusiastic Economist. We have plenty of time to make a transition, and as usual the rush to "fight global warming" is mostly political/ideological, not necessary in any measured assesment of our situation.

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  • Global fossil fuel subsidies were over half a trillion dollars in 2011, according to the IEA.
    http://www.worldenergyoutlook.org/resources/energysubsidies/

  • The change of the wording from "Global warming" to "Climate change" proves the point - even the most blinkered "Climate scientists" don't believe any more in the warming. We should look (without any rush & kneejerk) at new technologies and the goal should be Energy Independence, not the mythical carbon cutting.

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  • Overall global temperatures are expected to rise but the impact on individual weather patterns won't necessarily be higher temperatures everywhere. Hence 'global warming' isn't wrong per se but 'climate change' is a better description.

  • The chinese make renewables products such as solar panels cheaply is because their labour rates are a fraction of ours and they will also have taken over our technical knowledge.
    The whole world has benefited from our industrial revolution; not just us.
    We are not asking the whole world to act on our behalf. They will do as they please and more in keeping with market forces.

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  • What a sensible article this is, Stephen. You have it dead right in my view. We must get on and get into the low carbon technologies so that ultimately the cost comes down and we have little time in which to do it. At least Lomberg doesn't deny that the problem exists like some of the head-in-sand idiots!

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  • I don't think the answers are all found in technical solutions.
    I'm sure in our western world too much centralisation has taken place which relies on huge numbers of people moving around, work, shops, hospitals etc).
    Back in the 80's there used to be talk of one day everyone working from home on these new fangled computers, what ever happened to that idea!
    I think the standard we have to set for the developing world is localisation, sorry Tesco!!!

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  • Well I had to cancel this silly publication. Since the science is settled - oh wait no temperature increase for fifteen years - that doesn't match the IPCC models!! Of course we can't wait we must steal from our neighbors and fund technology that doesn't work yet.

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  • There are several questionable assumptions slipped into the article:

    ‘runaway climate change’ – It is very difficult to work out where we are on this as climate change has become so politicised and any sceptics (over even the rate of climate change) are pilloried – and if ‘runaway’ is the underlying premise – then implicitly the discussion becomes predicated on fear – never a good environment for step changes in innovation (many new innovations will be resource hungry when first developed) and some innovation is in danger of being curtailed as it doesn’t meet some arbitrary green agenda, initiative or target as it doesn’t meet the new orthodoxy of reduce, reduce!

    The assumption that reducing emissions with the example of electric vehicles as an example precludes as just one example Solar to Petrol S2P and related grand solutions to deal with carbon/climate change. Reducing/cutting back and mitigation strategies are not the only game in town. In fact if innovation is based on a desire to constrain and reduce – it is likely to be blinkered to other innovations where resources or methods for waste processing may be for instance completely supplanted and replaced or waste becomes a new resource completely.

    ‘impact on the environment’ is another slippery term made from conflated issues– this can mean – simply emissions (in which case see above) or it can mean building more roads and infrastructure to support them – in which case I give unqualified support to this impact, especially if it raises the development level of the developing countries. Increasing the human footprint is a good thing and engineers of all people almost have a historical mission to use nature and in some cases go against it.

    Even in its own terms the article should question the reliance on the exiting automotive supply chain (and design and other chains) to produce new low or zero emission vehicles or transport. Chains can constrict innovation – we didn’t get to the Model T Ford by looking at the canal boat building industry. I am not convinced that Low carbon technologies are the only game in town.

    Engineering, and this is increasingly reflected in The Engineer, is suffering from a crisis of purpose. To me its role it to change and have an impact on (not fit into) the world and the environment for the good of man– yet it increasingly capitulates to the ‘restrainers’ as an apparent attempt to, I guess, seem relevant or have a role and raise its profile. BTW This does not mean destroying nature – but if engineering means anything – surely it is to dominate nature? This does not preclude learning from nature some of the time, but nature does not span rivers or fly at near supersonic speeds (at least for transport purposes) either.

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  • That we shouldn't focus on reducing emissions immediately and directly but rather develop innovations that may be resource hungry at first but will pave the way for better solutions is exactly my point.

  • It seems to me that any strategy that relies on "green technology" as an alternative for energy production will have little or no impact on overall climate change unless there is a global strategy to tackle it and I dont think this is realistic in a world where we will still fight over everything from religion to water and oil supplies. So IMHO opinion the only options are to put our money into ways to get the race out of here OR maybe we could look at some way of actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Surely if we put it there we can think of a way to get rid of it again!

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  • Has anyone pointed out that the orbit of the earth fluctuates and the distance to the sun varies. This has an affect on the global temperature. Tropical and ice ages have been under this single influence for quite a long time. The funny thing is most things vary so "why on earth" does everyone expect a static state of affairs. Are they all entirely blinkered by political terrorism of the unqualified individuals leading our assorted countries? The only good thing about the stupid debate is the new focus on pollution. Pollution that will most likely outlast the human species. By the way when the sun becomes a Red Giant then the earth is likely to become just a little warmer as we will be within the circumference of the sun. Perhaps the idiots can come up with a political campaign to warn everyone of real global warming.

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  • I, like Boyko, have followed the change in title from "Global Warming" to "Climate change". The model put forward in the 90's predicted that over 15 years the average global temperature should have risen by 0.3 degrees. It's actually been 0.03 degrees. This is not a local effect. That is the reason I believe the name has changed.

    It is clear we do not have a runaway global warming. The reason for the climate change is unproven.

    Developing renewable energy technologies is perfectly good, but in my opinion not at any cost. The need is not as urgent as was previously thought.

    In Cornwall the local energy distribution company are using their energy banks to ground the surplus unpredictable green energy. Yet all around me more solar farms and wind turbines are popping up. The land owners are gaining from ridiculous feed-in tariffs for energy that is dumped slightly further up the line.

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  • Runaway climate change is a term used to describe a possible scenario where the process reaches a tipping point and increases beyond our control eg rising temperatures caused by CO2 emissions melt the ice caps, releasing methane and reducing the amount of sunlight reflected by the Earth, causing temperatures to rise further.

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