If you could go back in time, to the last century, to try and avert the worst effects of climate change, where would you go?
Sometimes, I think, of what could have been, had Frank Shuman, a US inventor from Philadelphia, been able to develop his pioneering Solar Power Plant, built in Cairo in 1913, kick-starting a clean energy revolution, in the process.
With the backing of UK investors and interest from the British and German governments, Shuman had a master plan: to build a series of giant solar plants in the Sahara to challenge the supremacy of King Coal. “You would only need 20,250 square miles in the Sahara in order to supply the whole world with energy,” he calculated. “One thing I know for sure. If mankind does not learn how to harness the power of the sun, he will ultimately fall back into barbary.”
Unfortunately, mankind was not yet ready to be saved. When the First World War arrived, Shuman’s solar plant was broken up into scrap to make weapons and the discovery of cheap oil deposits in Iraq effectively killed off his dream and with it, a safe future of cheap, clean solar power.
Fast forward in time nearly 100 years and we find ourselves at the G7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, culminating in the 2015 G7 declaration which stated “that deep cuts in global greenhouse gas emissions are required with a decarbonisation of the global economy over the course of this century.”
Later that year at COP21 in Paris, the decarbonization mantra was further repeated, that the incumbent energy system was to give rise to a new clean energy economy. That, if there were to be any chance of limiting warming to the supposed 2 degree safety threshold, never mind the 1.5 degree aspirational limit, emissions would have to peak around 2020 and then swiftly decline.
How did we leave it so late? With 80% of the world’s energy still derived from fossil fuels, can we realistically make the transition to a 100% renewable future, in time?
In terms of resolving this most crucial issue, two pathways present themselves. Firstly, renewables are witnessing exponential growth, helped in part by falling costs. Plummeting prices for solar and wind power and led to new power deals in countries including Denmark, Egypt, India, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates all being priced well below fossil fuel or nuclear options. “A global energy transition [is] well under way, with record new additions of installed renewable energy capacity, rapidly falling costs and the decoupling of economic growth and energy-related carbon dioxide emissions for the third year running,” said Arthouros Zervos, chair of REN21.
However, despite its irreversible progress, the renewable industry will need at least several decades to leave fossil fuels completely behind, and even that time-frame could be optimistic, given current administrations’ intransigence on the issue.
Given that we only have five years left before the 1.5C carbon budget is blown, how can we buy the clean energy transition enough time?
This is where negative emissions technologies come in. The term covers everything from reforestation projects to seeding the stratosphere with sulphates or fertilising the ocean with iron fillings.
Why are negative emissions technologies so important? A study published last year warned that all the scenarios for keeping global temperature rise to 2C require “negative emissions” – removing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it on land, underground or in the oceans.
It’s controversial – not least because of the chequered history of geoengineering-type projects, but also because of concerns it will grant governments and industry a licence to continue with business as usual.
“The beguiling appeal of relying on future negative emission technologies (NETs) is that they delay the need for stringent and politically challenging polices today – they pass the buck for reducing carbon on to future generations” said Kevin Anderson, co-author of the paper and Professor at the Universities of Manchester and Uppsala. “But if these Dr. Strangelove technologies fail to deliver at the planetary scale envisaged, our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”
With the twenty or so years required, to use these unpredictable technologies, to buy us enough time, it does cast my mind back to Shuman and his solar park in the Sahara, and the thought of….. what if we had made his clean energy dream a reality….
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