The mad rush of this energy transition

As we gaze at the top of the roller coaster we’ve been on for a year, it looks like we’re on a long, crazy ride. Ahead: A few decades filled with gigantic decelerations, as well as exciting advancements moving faster than we ever imagined.

If this makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone.

It even has a technical name: a spiral imbalance. The energy transition curve no longer looks smooth. Nonlinear effects are likely to push society and nature to tipping points – some bleak, but others surprisingly promising.

The case of dread

Evolution has wired our species to fear change. It can be adaptive. Every four years, the usually cautious National Intelligence Council brings together a large international group of experts in demographics, international relations, economics and technology, and asks them to assess future risks.

Their latest report, “Global trends 2040: a more contested worldWell worth a read, but it can cause anxiety. The scenarios they envision have names such as “Tragedy and Mobilization” and “Separate Silos” and “A Drifting World”.

If you want a faster grip, a New York Times Editorial offers a nice summary. Among the trends that worry the intelligence community:

  • Disinformation, mistrust, social fragmentation into conflicting identity groups, technological displacement of jobs and suppression of dissent, government-sponsored conflicts (orange line in the graph below), and economic inequity and indebtedness are on the rise.
  • The growth of the global middle class, progress against poverty and disease, and trends in academic achievement flatten out.
  • The ratio of workers to retirees, trust in government, protections for minorities, global levels of democracy and freedom of the press and justice are falling.


Source: Uppsala Data Conflict Program, 2020

Only one of the five scenarios for 2040 in this report foresees an effective international response to reduce climate change, but only after environmental disasters have led to global famine. Pretty sinister stuff.

The arguments for optimism

The famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, if he was still alive, might point out that many of these same dynamics – what he called “punctuated equilibria” – promote rapid adaptation in nature, as players evolve. quickly to occupy new niches. Human history is filled with similar spurts of progress, often in response to new technologies and social activism. Think of the shift from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, which only took a decade or so in many cities. Or the transition of nearly 600 million Chinese to energy-efficient stoves in just 15 years, which the Anthropocene covered in 2016. Or the almost complete transitions to natural gas in the Netherlands and nuclear electricity in France – also a decade to come.

In the case of the US energy industry, the encouraging report “Halfway to zero: progress towards a carbon-free electricity sector” shows that greening America’s energy supply is already happening faster than most people thought was possible 15 years ago.

The analysis, carried out by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Lab, compares the current state of energy production in the United States to what experts predicted in 2005. As shown in the graph below. below, the reality turned out better than expected on almost all measures.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Compared to what was then considered the path to the “status quo”:

  • wind and solar delivered 1200% more electricity provided that;
  • residential electricity prices have remained essentially stable, but electricity bills have gone down because consumers used less electricity;
  • the fall in pollution prevented around 35,000 annual deaths and saved over $ 200 billion in healthcare costs;
  • and renewable energy has created many more jobs which were lost due to the coal collapse, so that overall employment in the sector exceeded projections by almost 30%.

Figures like these fuel optimism. Unlike past transitions, which have responded to the pull of increased consumer demand for cheaper and more convenient energy, the transition now underway is also being pushed by governments and activists organizing around an emergency. climate.

So maybe this time it’s really different.

What to watch out for

1. Negative domino effects of climate disasters and more sophisticated models that help leaders avoid them. “A heat wave can start forest fires, which lead to air pollution, thus damaging public health”, write climatologists an insightful commentary in Nature. “Drought-destroyed crops can lead to volatility in food prices, which can exacerbate social unrest or migration.” But because countries rarely factor these spillovers into plans to meet their sustainable development goals, the researchers predict that “many efforts to achieve the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] will fall like a house of cards at the first tremor.

In response, scientists can build more sophisticated detection systems that track what is happening on the ground. They can also extend their models of natural systems to include constant interaction with financial institutions, households, and other human systems. Anticipating the curves and slopes to come should make it easier to navigate.

2. Positive domino effects that accelerate the energy transition and smart policies that warn them. Dominoes can fall either way. A compelling study this month on climate policy makes a compelling case to transform imbalance and nonlinear changes to our advantage.

Norway has done this with electric vehicles, and electric vehicles have skyrocketed to 50% of new car sales as the country has made it slightly more expensive to own a gasoline car. Imagine if the top 10 auto-producing countries followed Norway’s lead. This could set off a cascade: massive increases in battery production, falling energy storage costs, cheaper renewables and the death of coal.

Politicians “don’t look for tipping points” and can make strategic mistakes in trying to put a single price on carbon for each part of the economy, the authors say. A smarter idea, they say, is to price carbon in each sector just enough to trigger positive domino dynamics. We might then be amazed at how quickly the world is changing – for the better.

About Alma Ackerman

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