Have you heard about IBMs super computer Watson? It was made to compete on the US TV game show ‘Jeopardy’ which it won! It has 200 million pages of content, can answer questions in natural languages and is said to be artificially intelligent.
It’s now being deployed in Africa to solve the pressing problems of agriculture, health and education. Such are the transformative powers of Watson the IBM project has been called Lucy after humankind’s first ancestor.
On March 3rd 2014 The Tyranny of the Experts written by the economist Professor William Easterly is published. He argues in it that there is an obsession with fixing the symptoms of poverty without addressing the systemic causes. Moreover that freedom and assuring people’s rights and thus choice are key to building sustainable development.
Maybe unfairly (and I have only read the preview of Easterly’s book available on Amazon) I would characterise there two approaches as ‘science will find a way though’ versus ‘democracy is the answer’. There are lots that I love and think true in what Easterly says but ultimately my concern is that we are seeking a one size fits all model.
We have to start with people and they are complicated – individually and even more so when we come together as societies. Data can help but ultimately you/we have to listen. Democracy is the best system we have, but asserting people’s rights is not enough. Rights without options or access can lead to massive frustration.
- We have to change our course – consumerism leading to our current 3 planet living, testing the finite nature of our planet is leading to ecological disaster. The impacts of climate change are being felt first and hardest by poor people living on marginalised land. Taking action on climate change has proven a struggle in a democracy where significant changes are needed now but the full impact won’t be felt for decades.
- Development should be at a human scale, we should start with people their choices and needs, looking at measures of wellbeing not just economic growth. People should have a voice and be listened to in development that impacts them.
- We have to share and set up rules that promote sharing not greed and gargantuan acquisition – a world where the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion is a world where something is very wrong.
- Technology has a huge role to play – but technology needs to know its place as a servant not the prescriber of solutions. Big isn’t always better.
- Above all warm words need to be matched by action. The world needs to prioritise sustainable development but also to fund it. That means taking tough choices when it comes to government spending – huge bonuses for bankers or bailing out people?
Reading the article in The Guardian about IBM’s Watson I was reminded of a passage in Small is Beautiful written in 1973
‘In the urgent attempt to obtain reliable knowledge about his essentially indeterminate future, the modern man of action may surround himself with ever growing armies of forecasters, by ever growing mountains of factual data to be digested by ever more wonderful mechanical contrivances. I fear the result is little more than a huge game of make-believe and an ever more marvellous vindication of Parkinson’s Law. …Stop, look and listen is a better motto than ‘look it up in the forecasts’ ‘
40 years on there is still huge wisdom – encouragements to pause and think – to be taken from Small is Beautiful.
But to go back to Watson – I love the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock Holmes – so what could be better than a Sherlock quote on Climate change (I may be stretching its meaning)
‘I think you know me well enough Watson to know that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognise danger when it is close upon you’
The Final Problem
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Wherever you live in the world, having your home or land flooded can be utterly devastating. The victims of the floods in the UK deserve our help but the Daily Mail is wrong to target the UK’s international aid budget to provide it.
Their petition calling on the Prime Minister to divert some of the aid budget to help victims here is in danger of robbing poor Peter to pay Paul. Climate change makes no distinction between extreme weather here and other countries around the world. We are all in this together.
Floods currently threaten thousands of people in Zimbabwe, Burundi and Bolivia. When communities there are flooded they not only lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods but they are also at risk from cholera and other water borne diseases.
Given the Daily Mail’s rhetoric and petition it is easy to forget that international aid accounts for just 0.7% of our GDP.
I am proud that the UK’s three main political parties support the 0.7% target and want to help the poorest people in the world. Their leadership is needed now more than ever.
Last year our supporters met the Prime Minister and praised him for meeting the 0.7% target, a process which took over 20 years to achieve. In a letter he sent to us the Prime Minister said “Thank you very much for your kind words on 0.7%. It is something I am proud of. We need groups like Practical Action – and you personally – to be out there making the case for it”.
That is why we have decided to speak out now.
Last year we received £2.83 million from the international aid budget and used it to help nearly one million poor and vulnerable people.
In the UK the cost of the clean-up and compensating people for the loss and damage will run into many millions of pounds. But as a relatively rich country, it is a bill we can afford to pay without the need to take money away from some of the poorest people in the world.
Countries like Nepal and Bangladesh were highlighted in the Daily Mail’s article. People there do not have insurance policies and unlike people here there is no government support available to help them. But they, like the victims in Somerset and along the Thames, know only too well what it is like to lose everything. I know because I’ve been to both countries and seen the floods there for myself.
In Nepal we have put in place early warning systems to alert people when the water level rises. There I met Parbati Gurung, 45, a widow who regularly checks our water gauge station 2 km north from Chisapani. If there is a danger of a flood she lets people along the river bank know by texting them and a siren is blown three times.
In Bangladesh I’ve seen how with funding from the international aid budget Practical Action has helped protect many local communities by working with them to build bunds around villages and through innovative technologies like floating gardens has helped people feed themselves during the floods. We have also worked with communities to build flood-proof homes and raise wells to protect vital drinking water.
In the short term our work in Nepal and Bangladesh has helped to save hundreds of lives. In the long term, it means thousands of people’s lives are not devastated every time there is a disaster.
It is something I believe the British taxpayer and many Daily Mail readers would be very proud of.
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The science is clear. ‘Business as usual’ will increase global temperatures by at least four degrees – possibly much more. This will have catastrophic impacts on many parts of the world – and especially on the poorest people.
That’s why one of our leading climate scientists, Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, convened a Radical Emissions Reduction conference at the Royal Society. This was not a climate science conference, the speakers included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO experts, politicians, a French philosopher and an Irish fireman! The conference brought a variety of perspectives to bear on the technical, social and political feasibility of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe.
“We are [energy] addicts … [and] shale gas is our methadone.” Kevin Anderson.
The conference passed no motions and made no declarations but I took away three main messages:
- It is technically feasible, though it will be very hard, to reduce emissions fast enough.
- To do so will require the citizens of developed countries to make significant sacrifices.
- Neither the people nor the leaders of these countries have the will to make the changes needed.
The political radicalism of the conference surprised me. The keynote speaker was Naomi Klein and Green MP Caroline Lucas was on the final panel. In her speech on the first day Naomi said, roughly, ‘I thought I might stir you up by calling for revolution but that’s already happened six times!’ Many speakers stressed the need for major change in politics and behaviour and emphasised the political and ideological roadblocks.
The Good News
The unexpected star of the second day was Neil McCabe, a fireman from Dublin. Six years ago he started a process of general improvement and emissions reduction at his fire station. In six years he has done 300 actions and created 20 start-ups. He has extended his approach first to the rest of the Dublin Fire Service and then to the whole Council. Inspiring stuff!
Some speakers discussed technologies. Brenda Boardman, for instance, told us that using LED lights would significantly reduce peak electricity demand. Lighting, she said, is about 22% of peak demand (much more than I’d have guessed). Wed may already have reached ‘peak light bulb’. Other speakers discussed low energy technologies for homes and shipping.
Other speakers presented scenarios for the transition to a low-emissions energy system and Dan Staniaszek told us that stopping climate change will have many societal benefits, especially for health.
The necessary changes are technically possible, economically affordable and offer many benefits.
The Bad News
Though we’ve known about the threat of climate change for over twenty years nothing effective has been done. Global emissions continue to rise. “Global recession,” John Barrett told us, “is the only thing shown to reduce global emissions – and that only briefly.” The impacts are serious and increasing precisely known. According to Tyndall Director Corrine Le Quere “Of the one metre Hurricane Sandy storm surge, 20cm was due to global warming”.
The oft-cited 80% reduction by 2050 target may not be enough. John Barrett thinks it should be 97%. Either requires annual reductions in the range 7.5 to 10% in the developed world. Yet almost everyone, and not just mainstream politicians, is in denial about both the scale and pace of the changes needed. Several speakers gave lists of reasons for the inaction and denial but here’s my list:
- Vested interests in fossil fuel and growth oppose effective action. The worst are fuel producers, both corporate and national, energy supply companies and automobile and aerospace firms. But they also include manufacturers, retailers, media and governments who benefit from growth, ie. almost all of them.
- The dominance of neoliberal ideology. Since 1979 this has conquered the parties of the Left as well as the Right. Neoliberals believe in the magic of the market and that government intervention must make things worse. Naomi Klein criticised North American environmental organisations for using neoliberal arguments, thus strengthening their enemies. Even at this conference, several speakers proposed solutions, such as tradeable quotas, that rely on new markets, yet Clive Spash and Steffen Bohm told the conference that carbon markets had failed.
- The near absence of convincing role models for low-carbon living requiring acts of imagination too difficult for most of us.
What is to be done?
The general shape of the needed policies is clear. We need more R&D funding for renewables, energy storage, insulation, energy efficiency and low-carbon farming. We also need much tougher standards for energy efficiency, carbon taxes and selective subsidies, eg for house insulation.
But how, politically, can we get them when government is doing the opposite? The necessary actions follow from the reasons for inaction: We need political reform to reduce corporate power, and we need, as Naomi Klein said, “to shred the neoliberal ideology”. Everyone agreed that the necessary action would not happen without strong public pressure so we need a political movement.
All this is hard but our future requires no less.
Videos of the conference sessions can be found at http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/communication/news-archive/2013/radical-emissions-reduction-conference-videos-now-online
David Flint is a retired management consultant, visiting fellow at the Cass Business School, Practical Action supporter and active member of the Green Party.No Comments » | Add your comment
One month ago Warsaw was abuzz with thousands of people. Senior politicians, government representatives, development agencies, academics, civil society and the media were all engrossed in addressing what is one of the most pressing issues of our time – climate change.
Now everyone is back home and most are probably thinking more about Christmas than how the world is going to cope with an inevitable increase in temperature that will permanently change the lives of us all.
Looking back, I went to COP 19 with an agriculture perspective, keen to identify hooks and partnerships that would strengthen the recent decision by our global group of agriculturalists to focus on adaptation by smallholder farmers. Practical Action’s specific aim is to improve agricultural policy and planning so that it builds the capacity of smallholder farmers to use their unique knowledge and resources to adapt to climate change through ‘Climate Resilient Agriculture’.
It was disappointing that there was little discussion on agriculture during the days I was in Warsaw. A few things did become clear, however, from the people I met and the events I attended. Notably, that much still needs to be done on ‘adaptation’ in agriculture to understand what is really needed, and meant, by ‘Climate Smart Agriculture’. Practical Action can contribute to this issue and provide grounded examples relevant to policy makers based on lessons learnt by smallholder farmers and the rural poor in developing countries. In our Country and Regional offices this will mean engaging with Government and stakeholders in the National Adaptation Planning (NAPs). In the UK we should work with partner organisations to make sure our learning influences the global debates and donor policies.
Unexpected by me, and probably many others, was that Warsaw would be able to achieve something good on ‘Loss and Damage’. This is an important issue for us because the people we are working with are being increasingly impacted by climate change. Impacts which are becoming irreversible – ‘beyond the reach of adaptation’ – and affecting people who are least to blame for the situation: e.g. extreme droughts, ever worsening floods, sea level rise and loss of fresh water. At the beginning of week 2, I signed an NGO Global Call for Action for the establishment of an ‘International Mechanism on Loss and Damage in Warsaw’. To cut a long story short the agreement to have a mechanism for ‘Loss and Damage’ was probably the most significant achievement of COP19.
Life may have returned to normal for those who were in Warsaw but, I for one, am committed to keeping the buzz going and starting the New Year with a renewed commitment to our work on Climate Resilient Agriculture.No Comments » | Add your comment
As many people return from remembrance Sunday, attending a service in memory of the lives lost to human conflict, the death toll in the Philippines from Typhoon Haiyan mounts, do we need a service to remind us of the ever increasing death toll from Climate Change?
Typhoon Haiyan has caused immense devastation in the Philippines and is now threatening Vietnam. Will this disaster generate the political will necessary to get the climate negotiations back on track? Unfortunately, historical precedent is that despite the disaster mobilising international aid efforts and generating global sympathy, the global political community is more interested in protecting self-interest than making the sacrifices necessary to deliver a global agreement.
Only twelve months ago the lead negotiator of the Philippines delegation, broke down during his prepared statement at the COP18 climate talks in Doha, as he appealed to the world: ‘no more delays, no more excuses’ as the death toll from Typhoon Bopha, which was at then the most powerful tropical typhoon to ever hit his country leaving many hundreds of people dead. Less than twelve months later and a new ‘most powerful’ typhoon leaves many thousand, certainly ten and maybe hundreds of thousands of people dead, will it make a difference?
So what was I hoping for as I remembered the sacrifice of a previous generation? I am hoping that we can put down our own self-interest and come together to deliver a global agreement that responds to the damage we have already done to the climate and to the planet. MITIGATION, we need to act to halt greenhouse gas emissions, ADAPTATION, we need to step forward with our promise to deliver adaptation financing to those who are already suffering as a result of changing climates and we need to act on LOSS and DAMAGE, recognising that for many it is already too late!
Let us all hope that the government representatives meeting in Warsaw remember the plea of only twelve months earlier, “what is demanded of us by 7 billion people… if not us, then who; if not now, then when; if not here, then where?” Will Warsaw be remembered as the first positive step on the road to a new global agreement, to do this it is critical that now is not the time for pointing fingers, but now is the time to act? Will a set of decisions and a road map be agreed that demonstrate we are serious about averting further catastrophic warming before it too late not only for the people of the Philippines, but for all of us!
http://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2012/dec/06/philippines-negotiator-emotional-plea-doha-climate-talks-videoNo Comments » | Add your comment
The guy who just took my order for dinner - ‘chicken or fish, rice or chapattis?’ – nonchalantly waited for my reply while picking fluff out of his belly button.
He seems a nice person so I didn’t complain.
I am choosing to let that image remain in my mind rather than the ‘we’re all doomed’ message from my dinner time reading – the Russell Brand-edited New Statesman.
I agree with Russell’s overarching message - ‘before we change the world, we need to change the way we think’ – however I found the pessimism that runs through the magazine deeply depressing. He, and also interviewed, Noel Gallagher, won’t vote becaus,e as Billy Connolly said, ‘it encourages them’, describing voting as ‘a tacit act of compliance’. He also includes an article by Naomi Klein writing after interviewing eminent scientists who feel gagged and their criticism of various governments’ environmental policy massaged (or worse) away. One who chose to break the gag, Brad Werner, a geophysicist, invited to address 24,000 space scientists at the American Geophysical Union titled his talk ‘Is the Earth F***ed?’ and when pressed by journalists to answer his own question replied ‘more or less’.
This is deeply depressing, even more so as I’ve just arrived in Bangladesh which is the country most at risk according to the just published Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2014. It’s also one of the poorest places in the world and many families living on the edge are already feeling climate change impacts.
Management theorists etc. tell us there are lots of things you need to deliver change
One is fear – to shock people out of their complacency and natural inertia. Russell Brand in The New Statesman tries I think to do this.
The second is vision – how because of the change things can be better, and the change can even be better for you.
Russell Brand focuses too much on fear, I prefer vision but I get the need for balance. We agree the time to act is now.
I am not willing to blame politicians, their short termism is driven by a ‘spectacle and cakes’ approach to keeping people happy, but even with this I’ve seen real and massive change in my life – in South Africa, in Germany with the fall of the Soviet Union, through the transformation of IT. I believe our world can change I’d like to think each and everyone of us has a part to play in making the change happen. This isn’t complacency – sitting here in Bangladesh it’s hard to be complacent - it’s about hope.
Worryingly though, I have D:Ream’s song ‘Things can only get better’ going through my mind – but I’ll go with it and recall the transformation of Brian Cox from D:Ream keyboard player to Professor of Astrophysics and popular science presenter. Things only got better for him! One person changed – and a mass movement is just that – a movement of individuals. Let’s act so things get better for our planet.3 Comments » | Add your comment
If you ask someone “what is the role of Technology in Disaster Risk Reduction?” they may scratch their head and look puzzled, but if you ask the more direct question “how can technology alleviate or exacerbate risk?” you can start a much more lively debate. Well that is what happened when I recently challenged a group of post graduate students on the MSc Disaster Management and MSc Emergency Planning and Management courses at Coventry University, to think about how technology can influence risk.
The popularity of these courses is recognition of the increasing levels of risk facing us today. The scale, frequency and severity of natural and man-made disasters have risen progressively, with the key drivers being climate change, depletion and destruction of natural resources and increasing populations living in vulnerable locations. Disasters not only kill and injure people, they also damage infrastructure, reduce productivity and generate social tensions, they consume resources that would otherwise be directed towards productive activities, and they can wipe out years of development in seconds.
Practical Action’s work in the field has highlighted that it is insufficient to focus only on responding to disasters; there is an urgent need to shift to risk reduction in which avoidable risk is eliminated and unavoidable risk is factored into the livelihood choices of local people. There is no doubt that technological advances have increased productivity, income and life expectancy, they have improved quality of life and removed the threat of disasters from our daily lives. Technology such as early warning systems are vital in this transition, as experienced with the 4 day advance warning of the passing of the Atlantic storm by the Met Office in October 2013 as compared to the swath of disaster left in the wake of the unexpected 1987 hurricane. Therefore, it was a great opportunity to work with students at Coventry University to explore the role of technology in the risk equation, to understand how the application of technology can reduce or exacerbate risk, and explore what changes are necessary to deliver the promise of technology justice for the over one billion people who still live in extreme poverty and vulnerability.
The day began with a presentation of Practical Action’s work outlining our achievements in disaster risk reduction. The students were then asked to brainstorm the multitude of hazards facing poor people today. They selected natural disasters such as earthquakes, Tsunami, flooding, drought, extreme storms, landslide, volcanic eruption, wildfire and disease epidemics, as well as human induced disasters such as conflict, war, terrorist attack and chemical spills. The students then broke into five groups and selected one hazard and a key sector to explore in more detail. The five hazards and sectors selected were; flooding and the communications sector, disease and public health, earthquake and public works, wildfire and forestry and war and the health sector. Each group was then asked to identify technologies that are involved in the sector and to explore the potential of the technology to alleviate or exacerbate risk and identify the key players involved.
Looking at the group that studied the health sector in conflicts situation, the group identified a wealth of different technologies involved, including; communications such as targeting of first aid, coordination of search and rescue for the recovery of casualties; food storage and distribution to ensure hospitals are well supplied but also ensuring the front line health staff have adequate supplies; transportation critical for ambulances, medication and food delivery and equipment supply; shelter especially for casualties, but also providing adequate facilities for doctors such as operating rooms; utilities such as water and electricity supply and the need for refrigeration to keep medicines safe. The group also explored the role of protective technologies for healthcare workers such as gas masks and other protective clothing.
The groups were asked to explore the issue of technology justice for their selected hazard. They picked one or two technologies already identified and were asked to explore the drivers and barriers to the development and implementation of technologies in a developing country context. Each day, everyone regardless of where they live is exposed to risk of one form or another. The students quickly realised that the majority of technological solutions reflect the ability to pay and not the priorities on the ground. Thus the majority of disaster risk reduction technologies reflect consumers demand, rather than deliver vital risk reduction to poor people living in vulnerable situations. More work is needed to understand how decision processes can be changed to ensure that the right technology is available at the right place so that when the next hazard strikes it doesn’t become a disaster.
Technology justice in DRR requires the involvement of the poorest and most vulnerable in the development of solutions so that technologies deliver the biggest impacts for the poorest and most vulnerable and are not driven by a profit motive alone. Changing this mindset will be a challenge but one of the first steps must be the realisation that existing technologies applied at the right place could save many thousands of lives each year. Practical Action is uniquely positioned to increase global recognition of the role that technology and innovation play in alleviating and occasionally exacerbating disasters on people’s wellbeing. We must make efforts to demonstrate and advocate for the positive role that technology can play to promote disaster sensitive development; ensure the right technologies are available in the most demanding situations regardless of the cost and reverse technology based development approaches that exacerbate long term vulnerability. Thus technology justice is central to the work of Practical Action as we build a movement, where technology is used for the benefit of all, in a way that is not at the expense of future generations.
Were you horrified by Simon’s blog on the World Energy Congress? I was!
The energy industry is putting forward two scenarios, the first seeing a 30% increase in global energy consumption, the second an approximate 80%. Both scenarios leave huge numbers of poor people without access to decent energy – the rich remain profligate, the poor without?
Last night I put the scenarios from the World Energy Congress report to the panel of eminent speakers at the Royal Society and All Party Parliamentary Group on Climate Change meeting. The response I got was twofold:
- These would be included within the business-as-usual scenario (is that reassuring?!)
- From Professor Tim Palmer, University of Oxford: ‘The IPCC’s job is to assess the scientific literature. It’s quite a conservative document in many respects.’
I think I was a bit shocked or maybe I’m a bit naive … Is it just me that finds the idea that the world is working on a major increase in carbon-based energy surprising?
We need to work together with nature and respect our planetary boundaries. Just because we can exploit nature doesn’t mean we should.
Poor people are feeling the impact of climate change first and hardest. As the impact increases, they will be the least protected – I read today of an asylum seeker in New Zealand arguing his case on the basis of climate change making his island home untenable. The judge found his argument tenable, but outside the criteria on which asylum was allowed.
I’d love the climate scientists to talk to the energy planners. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a joined up vision of our future – even is its one that scares us?1 Comment » | Add your comment
Is scientific objectivity morally wrong? In other words is it a cop out?
I’ve just attended a meeting of The Royal Society and the All Parliamentary Group on Climate Change, at which hugely eminent scientists – Professor this and Lord that – presented the findings of the 5th Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The truth is we’ve heard it all before – and while in scientific circles the evidence has become yet more conclusive: now at 95% for anthropogenic climate change – what it tells us, we already know. The world is warming quickly, rainfall patterns are changing – and the change is probably irreversible. The question is how far we go before we as a world decide to take action?
Talking about Bangladesh, Professor Tim Palmer, professor in climate physics at the University of Oxford, said ‘By any stretch of the imagination this is going to put a major stress on humanity. The impact could be devastating.’
Yet all of the scientists there agreed the need for impartiality – the scientific methodology. Not having opinions beyond the scientific facts.
Lord Oxburgh told a story of going to a meeting a few years ago with 80 ‘captains’ of US industry and how they were turned off from tackling climate change by the scientists’ love of the unknown. The business people wanted to know facts and plan what to do. The scientists wanted to tell them what they needed to explore further. The meeting ended in disarray and no action.
The impact of climate change is close to my heart because I’ve seen how poor communities are already feeling its impact. I’m going to Bangladesh in two weeks, and sitting at the meeting thinking about the people we work with, somehow the impartiality, the studied objectivity seemed wrong. How can we say Bangladesh will be devastated, and not apply moral values to the impact on millions of people? How can we not argue with passion the need for change and start working towards solutions?
I love science, the curiosity and solutions-focus. This studied impartiality is a trend, I understand that it’s in response to the furore that surrounded the last IPCC report and ‘email gate’, but even so in my view, it’s wrong.
Yesterday in the Atlee Suite Lord Oxburgh, referring to the way the IPCC reports are ‘approved’ by government before they are published, dared to use the word appeasement!
It’s probably not a word I’d use – I’d paraphrase Fritz Schumacher and quote Elvis Presley: ‘A little less conversation, a little more action’.
No part of our society is morally neutral – science, for all its stringent processes and methodologies, needs to take a stand. To talk about the future is only useful if it leads to action now.
By the way, the scientists were a hugely impressive and personable bunch. Lord Oxburgh as the Chair was most outspoken and thought provoking. For all my ‘please take a stand’ demands, they are doing a great job and would be brilliant to work with. I just want such brilliant people to engage more.
And finally from Lord Oxburgh: ‘We have to have more articulate, user friendly speakers who are actually selling the product.’ Exactly!
Did you know that access to science is a human right? I didn’t until very recently. With this in mind, how do you think scientists should behave, and should they focus on the problem (now well understood) or the solution?
Or is that a leading question?6 Comments » | Add your comment
Continuing my series of blogs from the World Energy Congress in Korea, Tuseday’s theme at the confrenece was all about identifying business opportunities in the exploitation of resources and the development of energy technologies. Once again though truly revolutionary thinking to address climate change and energy poverty seemed to be strangely missing. Two examples illustrate this:
Firstly, there is a lot of talk at this conference about the ‘shale gas revolution’ in the United States and the possibility of it being replicated in other countries, including China. In chemical terms shale gas is similar to that produced from the North Sea. It is liberated from rock strata by a process known as ‘fracking’, where water is injected under high pressure through boreholes to fracture the rock and allow the gas to be released through the cracks formed. It’s a controversial technique that can involve real environmental challenges as it needs vast amounts of water which, once flushed through the well, is itself an environmental hazard that needs careful disposal. Depending on who you talk to here, shale gas is either a revolution that will make the US energy independent in a couple of years and provide it with cheap energy for a century or it’s just another bubble that is about to burst (at the moment shale gas comes with some shale oil attached which keeps costs artificially low; the shale oil production will finish quite quickly though and once that happens the cost of extracting the gas alone will rise dramatically).
A second example would be the session I attended on Tuesday morning called ‘New frontiers: what is the next game changer?’ I was hoping to hear something about renewables, off grid solutions or new applications of smart grid technology. Instead I got a lot of information about ‘unconventional oil’ – shale gas, shale oil, oil exploration in the artic and something called methane hydrates (for more information on the latter see here). Apparently there is 4 times more oil locked in shales alone than there are left in conventional sources, which leads to the frightening (if you are worried about climate change) claim that the idea we might be reaching Peak Oil (the point at which consumption exceeds the rate of new discoveries and oil prices start to spiral) no longer applies. According to many speakers here, Peak Oil no longer an issue as there is at least 100 years left for coal oil and gas when you include unconventional sources.
The problem with all of these ‘solutions’ to the looming global energy crisis is that, apart from the obvious environmental issues associated with each of the extraction and production processes themselves, they are all about extending the life of hydrocarbons and our dependency on fossil fuels. Discussion of renewables is not entirely absent here, but the level of enthusiasm for innovation in renewables doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the level of enthusiasm for innovation in unconventional fossil fuels. The mantra repeated over and over again here is that the world will still be heavily dependent on fossil fuels in 2050, however much we invest in renewables. I can’t help wondering how much this mantra is dependent on the current subsidy regime. As someone pointed out during a session, at the moment the world provides around $500 billion a year in subsidies to fossil fuels and only about one tenth as much ($60 billion) on subsidising renewables. What if we reversed this and made subsidies for renewables 10 times greater than those for fossile fuels? Would we still be heavily dependent on oil and gas in 2050 then?
Maybe I’m just not selecting the right sessions but from what I’ve seen in the first two days I do not detect the sort of revolution in energy industry thinking that’s going to be necessary to address climate change or achieve universal access to energy.No Comments » | Add your comment