World in motion

MANY IN THE social sciences have given up on trying to imagine the future. Between the options of conceiving of it in present day terms, plus the hyperbolic fantasy of much science fiction, perhaps their surrender is understandable. Yet it is important that we find a way to envision the world as it will be decades from now, because choices made today can narrow or broaden constraints on our decision making in the future. One example of this I recently encountered concerned a city planner who was tasked with developing a transport infrastructure plan for part of a major Australian city out to 2040. When I asked her how driverless electric vehicles (EVs) were factoring into her planning, it became clear that they were not even under discussion in her planning group. Yet driverless EVs already exist and will likely be a big part of our future transport long before 2040. I had seen this kind of thing before – when I began talking to electricity utility managers in the 1990s about solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. None of them could conceive of solar having an impact in the short or medium term on their business. Perhaps disruptive technologies like solar PV and driverless EVs are so disruptive simply because, from a planners’ perspective, they seem to be hiding in plain view. 

If planners are to do a better job, the people they report to must learn to kickstart their ingenuity, and the planners themselves need to integrate a wider skills base in their decision-making process. In this essay I have outlined a sensible way of imagining the future, in regard to climate change and the various technologies developed to avoid it, which I think provides some useful parameters for future-gazing. But first I want to talk about the most important limit of all – the limits of our imagination.

Climate scientists often talk about 2050. By then, the burden of greenhouse gases already existing in the atmosphere will have driven global average temperatures to around 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial level. And if we are to avoid runaway climate change, it is widely understood that we must be burning no fossil fuels by then. It’s also clear that accelerating sea-level rise will be having a major impact on coastal regions; that heatwaves will be far more severe than at present; and that fire risk and extreme weather events such as flooding will have increased. Other parameters are known with a high degree of certainty; for example, demographic trends make it inevitable, bar some global catastrophe, that the human population will be around nine billion by 2050. 

Despite understanding these broad parameters, my imagination fails me when I try to comprehend what living in 2050 will be like. The only way I have been able to get a sense of that world is by carrying out a thought experiment. Imagine that it is the year 1915 and that we are trying to imagine the world of 1950 rather than 2050. In 1915 the streets of Melbourne were filled with horse-drawn vehicles, and housework was still muscle-powered. The world map was delineated in terms of European empires whose colonies were colour-coded, and which had existed for centuries, and there was not a single communist state on Earth. A great war was being fought on the other side of the world, in which generals debated the relative value of biplanes versus cavalry for surveillance (effective aerial bombing and fighting lay in the future). Battlefields saw cavalry charges, but the tank was entirely unknown.

Fast forward to 1950. It’s a world of nuclear weapons and jet aircraft, in which roads are dominated by cars and trucks, and horses are rapidly vanishing from their last strongholds on farms. In the home, much housework is done by machines. On the world map, the empires are gone, and communist countries straddle the globe, and are spreading fast. To someone living in 1915, this world would sound like science fiction. Yet its seeds were there to be seen in 1915. Einstein’s theory of special relativity, which lay the groundwork for the nuclear age, had been published in 1906, and some degree of home electrification and motor transport already existed. And, of course, Marx’s Das Capital had been published in full by 1883. The foundations of 1950 had been well and truly laid by 1915. And indeed a few thinkers, including writers of science fiction, saw glimpses of the future. But politicians, planners and many others in positions of influence did not. Perhaps they had too much vested in the status quo to engage intellectually with such disruptive change.

WHO IS SHOWING us glimpses of the future today? The global engineering company Siemens produces an excellent magazine called Glimpses of the Future, which is probably the best guide I know to technological change in the power and transport sectors. Almost nobody outside the industry reads it. In other areas, such as the sharing economy, TED talks often shed much light. And, of course, Thomas Piketty has famously highlighted the future risks of income inequality. Put such sources together and you gain some idea of the drivers of societal and technological change for a large part of our future out to 2050. Moreover, the pace of technological and social change in the twenty-first century has accelerated greatly over that seen in the twentieth century. Much more will change in the thirty-five years to 2050 than changed in those prior to 1950. The foundations of the 2050 world are self-assembling before our eyes. Yet in terms of planning by most businesses and governments as they make long-term infrastructure investments, things proceed on a business-as-usual basis.

In order to drill down into some detail, let’s return to some of those certainties or near certainties as regards our climate future. The greatest certainty about 2050, and arguably one of the most important to know, is the minimum possible extent of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by that time, and their impact on average global temperatures. Current concentrations of atmospheric CO2 hover just below 400 ppm – greatly elevated over the 280 ppm of the pre-industrial era. Those gases have caused average surface temperatures to increase by 1 degree above the pre-industrial average of 14 degrees. But greenhouse gases take decades to reach their full warming potential. This means that the gas already in the air will see average global temperatures rise to around 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial average by around 2050. And we continue to emit greenhouse gases. The pledges that nations have made to limit emissions under the Paris Agreement will still see us living in a world 2.7–3.5 degrees warmer than the pre-industrial average by 2100. It now seems all but certain that we cannot cut greenhouse gases fast or hard enough to avoid 2 degrees of warming. And that is the threshold, or ‘safety rail’, that scientists warn is dangerous to cross. 

The consequences of 1 degree of warming are well known: catastrophic droughts in the Americas, Africa and Australia; the global rise of the ‘megafire’, such as that experienced in Victoria in 2009; a rapid increase in the frequency, intensity and duration of heatwaves. Melting ice caps – Indonesia’s Carstensz Glacier, the last in the Australo-Papuan landmass, will be gone in two to three years, and the vast Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in West Antarctica are doomed to melt away – will accelerate sea level rise, and it’s wise to assume that sea level will be half a metre higher in the second half of the twenty-first century, and rising fast, than it was in pre-industrial times. Biodiversity will continue to dwindle, due both to the shifting climate and carbon dioxide acidifying the oceans – they are already 30 per cent more acidic now than they were two hundred years ago, making it hard for anything marine that makes a shell to survive. It is difficult indeed to contemplate such a bleak future. But unless we do, solutions cannot be found. And as we shall see, solutions do indeed exist.

The impacts of rising average temperatures on weather extremes and biodiversity are not linear – 1.5 degrees of warming is far worse than 1 degree. At 1.5 degrees, the Great Barrier Reef, for example, cannot survive. And it is unlikely that anything can get enough greenhouse gas out of the air by 2050 to avoid that. So we have a fair idea that the world of 2050 will be one where excess atmospheric CO2 will be driving ever less-desirable changes to the climate, biodiversity and perhaps even human survival.

IT IS THIS realisation that is driving efforts to cut the burning of fossil fuels (the main source of greenhouse gas emissions) as hard and fast as possible. For three years running now, global investments in renewable energy sources (mostly solar and wind) have outstripped those in fossil fuels. And the cost of renewables has continued to fall. Wind and solar are now the undisputed future of energy generation. But much remains to be done, particularly in energy storage, before they can fully replace fossil fuels.

A second, quieter revolution, has also been taking place. Energy efficiency has been increasing at a fantastic rate. As a result, most of the developed world has long passed peak coal and oil demand. Globally, infrastructure investments in cities, much of it focused on energy efficiency and the increased amenity that it brings, is a $2 trillion-a-year business. Billions of individuals are doing their bit by changing light globes, fitting rooftop PV, cycling to work, and in many other ways.

The consequences of the rise of wind and solar, and of energy efficiency, has yielded a surprising outcome. In April 2015, the International Energy Agency announced that, for the first time in their forty years of record-keeping, the increase in greenhouse emissions stalled at a time of global economic growth. It also noted that the increase in greenhouse gases had stalled at the same volume as 2013. We may be at the decisive moment in the global energy transition. But even if that is true, we can scarcely avoid breaching the 2 degree safety rail.

The realisation that we are coming to greenhouse gas mitigation very late is drawing attention to another approach. In my book, Atmosphere of Hope (Text, 2015), I call it the ‘third way’. Third way technologies offer the possibility of drawing CO2 out of the atmosphere at a scale that makes a difference to our climate future. But as of 2015, all are either so limited in scope, or so early in the development pathway, that it will be twenty to thirty years before they will be having a meaningful impact on atmospheric concentrations of CO2. And that’s if we begin investing in them today.

Two pathways – the biological and chemical – exist in the third way. Biological pathways use energy from the sun and photosynthesis to capture CO2 and incorporate it into plants. Reafforestation is an established third way method. It is useful, but limited in its capacity. For example, in 2014 humans emitted forty gigatonnes of CO2. In order to sequester a tenth of that in forests, you’d need to reafforest an area the size of Australia. Biochar technologies allow plant matter to be turned into charcoal. Charcoal is mineralised carbon and it rots more slowly than untreated plant matter, allowing it to be buried in the ground and stored for decades or centuries. But as of 2013, only a thousand tonnes of biochar was produced globally. Seaweed farming offers larger possibilities. Seaweed grows thirty to sixty times faster than land-based plants, and covering 9 per cent of the world’s oceans with seaweed farms would allow us to capture all of the greenhouse gases currently emitted, as well as growing 200 kilograms of protein per year, in the form of fish and other seafood, for a population of ten billion. But 9 per cent of the ocean surface is four and a half times the area of Australia. And it’s still an open question as to what we’d do with all that seaweed, and the CO2 that could be produced by utilising it. 

Chemical pathways need a power source, which is currently partly fossil fuel based. But that looks set to change as wind and solar grow. One option is the development of carbon negative concretes. Currently, concrete production is responsible for 5 per cent of global emissions. Carbon negative (that is, CO2 capturing) concretes already exist, and if this embryonic industry were grown to scale it could be a breakthrough technology. A carbon price specific to the cement sector could hasten this. Another option is the use of serpentinite rocks. They are abundant and capture CO2 as they weather. It takes five to six gigatonnes of ground-up serpentinite to capture four gigatonnes of CO2. Serpentinite-based products are already being used in roofing paint and as a soil amendment, and it’s been suggested that beaches be seeded with serpentinite to allow for large-scale CO2 capture. Other options include their use to capture CO2 from ship smokestacks (dumping the used serpentinite in the ocean would result in more CO2 capture from the seawater).

Plastics made from CO2 already exist, as do fertilisers and biofuels. One of the most important breakthroughs was the announcement by University of Washington researchers that carbon fibres can be manufactured from atmospheric carbon dioxide, at a fraction the cost of conventional methods. This technology draws down atmospheric CO2 to incorporate into material that can compete with steel and aluminium, both of which are major sources of greenhouse gas. While still in the laboratory stage, sourcing carbon fibres from the atmosphere could be a potent weapon in the fight against climate change by 2050.

BUT ALL OF these potential third-way industries would need to grow in scale from tiny to massive to be making a difference to our climate future. A conservative estimate of the capacity of third-way technologies by 2050 is that they might be drawing down 40 per cent of current global emissions. This could prove crucial in whether or not the 2 degree safety rail is broken. If this is to happen, a major tech boom must occur that will revolutionise almost every sector of the economy. And it must begin now.

Other technological innovations are hastening change, one of the most important of which is driverless electric cars. Several motor vehicle manufacturers are confident that they will have driverless EVs to market by 2020. They promise to be safer, cleaner and more convenient to use than conventional cars, and have the potential to optimise existing transport networks. The major technological breakthroughs required for their development have already been made, and I think that their uptake will be rapid. But what will the taxi drivers, truckers, oil sector employees, petrol station and parking station owners, traffic police, mechanics and others involved in the existing transport system do for a living in 2030 and beyond?

The social, technological and environmental revolutions gathering pace in the first half of the twenty-first century are so complex and interconnected that it defies efforts to comprehend as a whole. But parameters can be seen, and those parameters are a useful guide to those involved in long-term planning today. The challenge for those involved in planning for Australia’s future is essentially to avoid capital waste by investing in infrastructure that will be outdated before it has paid back its investment. Nobody can predict the future; but an agile, thoughtful and engaged planning process can surely achieve that.

Griffith Review