Originally published as a guest post at Bill Kerr‘s blog by Arthur Dent on 21st May, 2015.
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According to the World Bank:
“By acting now, acting together and acting differently, we will be able to transition to a low emissions, climate resilient development path and hold warming below 2°C.”(1)
To help achieve this, a MOOC sponsored by the World Bank (Turn Down the Heat) requires students to produce “digital artefacts” with the aim “create a sense of urgency and a call to action for individuals, companies or countries to change behaviors associated with a warming planet”.
My call is for the World Bank to change its behaviour and “turn down the hype”.
It should be obvious that none of the measures advocated by the World Bank have had much impact on the planet warming, and there is no reason to expect that creating a sense of urgency in support of more of the same will have a better result.
The IPCC’s authoritative report on Mitigation of Climate Change(2) shows clearly that there is no realistic prospect of holding warming below 2°C.
The simple reality is that most emissions will result from the rapid industrialization of developing countries like India and China who cannot and will not switch from the cheapest energy sources available while they remain poor. No amount of hype will change that reality.
If the problem was as grave and urgent as claimed there would be no alternative but for developed nations who can afford the cost to switch from cheaper fossil fuels to more expensive nuclear power and also pay the costs of the entire world doing the same. But the World Bank does not advocate that, so it is difficult to believe it takes its own hype seriously.
Wind and solar power cannot solve the problem because they are intermittant. Power is also needed when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining. There is no technology on the horizon that could store energy cheaply enough to compete with the dispatchable power from fossil fuels, even if wind and solar power was free. Instead of pretending that wind and solar could do the job it is clearly necessary to act differently. Since there is no viable replacement for fossil fuels on the horizon that developing countries could afford, it is necessary to do something very different from what the World Bank advocates.
We will need some breakthroughs in fundamental technology. Neither the regulatory nor the market pricing mechanisms advocated by the World Bank can achieve that. Massive investments in research and development and fundamental science are required. Contrary to the hype there is no “return” on that investment. As with all fundamental science, the results have to be made freely available to the countries that are too poor to pay for it. So the “free rider” problem ensures that no carbon pricing mechanism could motivate such investment. At present each developed country is hoping that somebody else will pay to develop the necessary technology. There is no “national” benefit in doing so. It is a global, not a national problem. The most ambitious national targets for R&D are about 3% of GDP for all purposes. These targets are not being met, despite the fact that new technology is the driving force for economic growth.
A global levy on developed countries that can afford it is required, to pay for the costs of a massive global R&D program that is not expected to produce any “return” on the investment, other than “merely” solving the problem of global warming.
That may require a significant expansion in the total scientific workforce and consequently a long lead time for education.
If it is not successful, then we will have to resort to some combination of geo-engineering, adaptation strategies and subsidizing nuclear power in all countries, at potentially vastly greater costs. But even if a massive global R&D program failed to produce clean energy competitive with fossil fuels, it would at least accelerate economic growth generally and enable the whole world to afford more expensive energy than fossil fuels more quickly.
“Modernization has liberated ever more people from lives of poverty and hard agricultural labor, women from chattel status, children and ethnic minorities from oppression, and societies from capricious and arbitrary governance. Greater resource productivity associated with modern socio-technological systems has allowed human societies to meet human needs with fewer resource inputs and less impact on the environment. More-productive economies are wealthier economies, capable of better meeting human needs while committing more of their economic surplus to non-economic amenities, including better human health, greater human freedom and opportunity, arts, culture, and the conservation of nature.”(3)
We need more modern technology, not medieval windmills.