The United Nations (UN)-created IPCC may have been around for more than 30 years and the knowledge that climate change could be harmful for the planet may have been suspected for more than 50 years, but it seems the planets have only started aligning in this very decade to act on the reduction of the carbon footprint of human activities, on a formidable, etymologically meaning fearful, scale. The UN calls for a 45 to 55% reduction by 2030, and 2015 Paris Agreement signees have so far only pledged for an effort amounting to a mere 7.5%. The PwC Net Zero Economy Index should be 12.9% per year, and it was 2.5% last year. Should I continue with the bad news?
This gap, a true chasm, should nevertheless not surprise anyone who is or has been working in the energy industry.
Energy is by far the first contributor to man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, whether it is used for electricity production, transport or industry at large: the second industrial revolution, which started in the 19th century, took place because of the availability of fossil resources, coal, then petroleum, then natural gas, that powered the innovations we still live with and enjoy today, but filled the atmosphere with GHG at the same time, causing climate change. And the third industrial evolution, which started in the 1970s with the nascent digitalization of things, is not running on thin air but also does need energy, on a big scale.
Energy is also supported by a massive, planet-wide, network of infrastructures to extract, transport, transform and use, directly or indirectly, that which took many decades to build. We are talking here of heavy industries, in essence slow to evolve, not by lack of innovation, but due to the sheer size of what is to be modified. We need an energy transition, not an energy revolution, 2017 Bolshevik-style. Looking back, sure, the 9 million cars that roamed the US roads in 1920 (the internal combustion engine was invented in 1879) had caused the end of the horse-based urban transport (50,000 horses in Boston in 1870), but the final victory of the automobile took a bit longer, as not every state was as quick to embrace this progress than the wealthy conurbations of the East. In France, we have built a massive nuclear-based electricity production system between 1977 and 2002 with 58 reactors, 63 GW in total, but workers, competence and materials were available for this performance. Do we have both today, to be concentrated over the next eight years? Likely not.
Where do you start to transform the fossil energy society to help revert, at least mitigate, climate change? This is where the dilemma of the title features: should you wait to re-organize the whole supply chain(s) around renewable sources or should you start changing end-use to operate on renewables only? Should you have wind-based electricity production in a part of the country, but limited high-voltage power lines to transport it where it is needed (Germany)? Should you sell electric cars (EV), but forget to tell the buyers ubiquitous recharging stations will only be available much later in the future (everywhere you can find an EV market)? Should you stop fossil resources projects, as the IEA suggests, crippling supply before demand reduces, causing dramatic price spikes, like this year (everywhere in 2021)? A sure recipe for social unrest and to drive people into poverty.
The techno-progressists and the doomsayers, list is not exhaustive, will call for trying all innovations, regardless of the maturity or the coordination level required in our sophisticated systems that support our way of life, as time is short to address the existential problem we are facing, no less than the end of the human race. The climate skeptics and the conservatives that wish to maintain their existing businesses and past investments as long as possible, list is not exhaustive either, will rail at the waste of public money to fund unnecessary, not validated, if not utopic, innovations, with no foreseeable profitable or feasible future.
Indeed, if we need growth, and sustainability, and inclusion, to avoid falling from democracy into tyranny, we are short of a well-coordinated and thought-through master-plan to properly address climate change. Maybe the liberal system we most live in does not allow this to happen, and we start late, too late. On top of that, we may then have to live with climate adaptation, mitigating climate change-induced dire consequences, as best as we can, and still preparing for a better future that will only materialize after a possibly lengthy period of suffering, especially in the most exposed areas of the world.
In the absence of a magic wand to drastically reduce GHG emissions, right away, we should be pragmatic, the opposite of dogmatic, which unfortunately seems the new approach in the public debate. And we need to honestly accept that we need all possible solutions now, even if what is available and mature today can be fraught with drawbacks and would not qualify for ideal in a Zero Net Carbon future. To name a few:
And, most importantly, explain and educate the public. The word is out in the mainstream media that the energy transition will not come cheap. It is high time we prepare citizens to accept this annoyance to maintain their standard of living in the Western world, to live better in less advanced countries, and we make plans to support the less affluent to deal with these end-of-the-month issues. The end of the world can wait.
Philippe Marchand is a Bioenergy Steering Committee Member of the European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP).