Things that won’t save us from global warming: (5) Technology

Technology is one of the key factors in climate change. It is technology that has brought us to this point. It began with industrialization, or if you like even earlier with the mastery of steel, or earlier still, with the mastery of fire, which allowed us to start bending our environment to our will. Technology is a set of tools for altering nature. The better our technology becomes, the faster, easier, and more powerful it becomes to do what we want. In many ways it seems that the problem is that our technology has outstripped our capacity to use it responsibly. Our hands overreach our hearts.

Despite this, it is to technology that many people look for salvation. I think this is because, of all the aspects of our society, technology is the one thing that seems to change persistently and in a good way. Tech gets better, while politics, economics, and religion stay pretty much the same. So sure, it has cause a lot of damage, but we can change the direction and make things better.

And there is truth to this. We have already seen a lot of positive changes. More economical cars, less use of plastic bags and excessive packaging, recycling, efficient light bulbs, and on it goes. We have cleaned up a lot of skies and rivers. And on a bigger scale, we have seen the dramatic drop in prices of renewables, especially solar photovoltaic, which has dropped over 50% in a decade, and is still going down. The skilful application of technology sits at the heart of the discussions of our energy future.

Let us be clear: I think it is perfectly possible to avoid runaway climate change by using suitable technologies. There is no need for any particular breakthroughs, they exist now. The barriers are political and economic. But this is essentially meaningless. If they are not actually going to be used, then they may as well not exist.

If technology is going to save us, we need more than the potential. We need something compelling.

What do I mean by a compelling technology? Well, the most obvious example is the mobile phone. Most of us have one. We don’t use it because of political corecion or economic necessity. We use it because it is so much better than any alternatives.

If we look around us, most of the things we use are such compelling technologies. Doors. Bottles. Shoes. Paint. Toothpaste. These were all, in their day, radical solutions that completely outclassed what we did before. There may be some cases where our adoption of technology was driven by corporate interests or some nefarious plot, but on the whole we use things that work.

And then we keep using them. Almost all the technologies that I use on a daily basis are pretty much the same as the things I used when I was a kid. Of course, we normally don’t notice this, because we only notice the things that have changed. But the things that have really changed—computers, phones, etc.—are few, and the things that stay much the same are many.

A car today is a bit better than one from the 70s. More efficient, more comfortable, quieter. But if we were all to swap our cars with models from the 70s, it wouldn’t make all that much difference. We’d still get to work and back again, and fit the shopping in the boot. And that is despite the billions of dollars of R&D that are poured into the auto industry.

Really radical, compelling breakthroughs are rare and often unpredictable. We dreamed of flying cars and jetpacks, and got smartphones and tablets.

So if technology were to save us, it would require new compelling technologies. Not just an electric car, which offers advantages (marginally less air pollution, quieter, cool) and disadvantages (cost, range, disposal of batteries—but something so much better that we all want to stop using cars. Teleportation!

But there doesn’t seem to be anything like that on the horizon when it comes to the big problems like energy production. Fusion might do it, but it’s still a dream. Thorium reactors, maybe, but still untested. Solar and wind are unreliable. Geothermal seems promising, but little explored. Nothing is so much better than what we are doing that people are rushing to adopt it worldwide. We don’t need a better lightbulb, we need something that is as much of an improvement over a lightbulb as a lightbulb was over a candle.

Moreover, if new compelling technologies appear, the likelihood is that they will be harmful, not helpful. Most technology R&D goes into making money, not saving the planet. The big tech companies, for example, are competing to bring in wearable tech: watches, glasses, and so on. Because of demand? No. Because they will use less resources than phones and tablets? No. Because we already have phones and tablets, and they need to introduce a new product category so that we we buy even more. More tech, meaning more extraction, more energy, and more toxic landfill.

And we don’t just need one kind of compelling technology, we need multiple kinds in many areas: cars, planes, electricity, cement and steel manufacture, farming, to name a few. In most of these areas the technology we use is old, works well enough, and there is no real sign of radical change.

So we need multiple new compelling technologies in diverse fields that help the environment, with no new compelling technologies that have adverse affects. I’m not seeing it.

And this still underestimates the problem, because even “green” technologies harm the environment. Take solar panels as an example. You have to mine diverse minerals from different parts of the world. Then they must be transported to other parts of the world for processing. Then transported again for manufacturing. Then again for assembling. (Repeat as needed.) Then again to be distributed, and finally installed. Solar panels use energy while they operate, for maintenance and so on. The very existence of “green” power encourages us to use it, with various kinds of devices which all similarly require extraction, manufacture and so on. Then the solar panels (and the devices, of course) reach the end of their life and have to be disposed of, which takes even more energy and creates toxic waste. And meanwhile they have helped maintain a culture dependent on cheap energy, and will therefore have to be replaced by something else.

Why, then, are these things touted as the solution? It’s not because they don’t cause harm, but because they cause less harm than the current solutions. A lot less harm. The exact figures vary a lot depending on context, but as a ballpark figure, the lifetime emissions of greenhouse gases for renewables and nuclear is less than 5% of that of coal. (Gas is, or was, around 50%, although that is probably closer to 100% now that we know that the fugitive emissions are so much greater than expected.) Here’s the table from Wikipedia.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by electricity source.
Technology Description 50th percentile
(g CO2/kWhe)
Hydroelectric reservoir 4
Wind onshore 12
Nuclear various generation II reactor types 16
Biomass various 18
Solar thermal parabolic trough 22
Geothermal hot dry rock 45
Solar PV Polycrystaline silicon 46
Natural gas various combined cycle turbines without scrubbing 469
Coal various generator types without scrubbing 1001

That’s a massive improvement, which is why most commentators are confident that existing technologies can serve in a low carbon future. Of course there are many other practicalities to consider, but the basic figures are there.

So while technology doesn’t offer a silver bullet, we can certainly use it in more skilful ways, which may well give our planet the breathing space to heal itself. But it is unlikely that the technology itself will drive this transition. What is needed is a change of mind.

29 thoughts on “Things that won’t save us from global warming: (5) Technology

  1. I agree with your analysis here. Technology might help, but won’t because the political will is lacking. I’ve been reflecting on the contrast with the Ozone Hole. This was identified in the mid 1980s. We certainly felt the difference in New Zealand – sun burn in 15 minutes was no joke. Nor were rising skin cancer rates! However the problem was well defined and there was little dissent. It was expensive to change from chloro-fluoro-carbons, but a viable alternative was available relatively rapidly, and the necessary action was taken. Now the Ozone Hole is shrinking. With a simple problem it’s possible to communicate it in a way that simple people can understand.

    Climate change is a complex problem, the evidence has been slow to coalesce into a coherent picture, and the change required appears to be total – we have to completely retool the world’s industrial processes. And that’s not going to happen. So we’re looking at a Soylent Green type scenario.

  2. The technology we need is Fusion Reactors…unlimited energy with little waste…. we have one in the sky works a treat. Just need a few smaller ones down here :)

    • Fair comment . My understanding that Fusion reactors use at lot less material than Fission recators and while the material is radioactive it has a maximum dangerous life of 50 years as against fission that extends for thousands of years. I also understand the risk of Chernobyl type meltdowns are nil.

      I cant help but feel that fusion energy a large part of the solution, which in the end when weighing up the risks its got to be a million time safer than burning fossil fuels.Maybe its no accident that the suns of the Universe are powered by fusion energy :)

      Solar energy has a place in the mix but if we are honest there aint enough sunshine enough of the time in most of the world. The solar infrastructure like wind powered energy also relies heavily on energy from burning fossil fuels to be constructed making the net gain from a carbon perspective very little at times

    • As the details I quote in the article show, the greenhouse emissions reduction of renewables is typically massive: less than 5% of the greenhouse emissions of fossil fuels. There are, of course, other issues, but none that are insurmountable. Solar energy, for example, can be stored as hot water or compressed air, and a mix of technologies can make up for many shortfalls. Hydro power, for example, is extremely easy to adjust, so it can be used to compensate for short term changes in the solar or wind energy.

      Another very promising technology is geothermal. Drill deep, and pump water through and you can power steam engines. Relatively simple technology, without large acreages required. There’s lots of potential for geothermal, as it happens, in Australia’s Hunter Valley, where many of the coal plants are currently operating. So the change could happen with a minimum of disruption to infrastructure or families.

      Fusion would be great, but there’s no signs of it happening in the foreseeable future.

      One other possibility would be to adopt the notion: we don’t always have to have what we want when we want it. But that is even less probable!

    • Interesting point about the Hunter Valley, losing the coal industry would have a massive impact on jobs etc…..Which brings us back to capitalism…We have to find another form of economy that doesn’t rely on consumption of material products and that can provide work while distributing income and services fairly. Fairy land .. I think not as there are many alternatives that living in a world of 7 billion humans will be forced to consider.

  3. Do you think the conscious efforts by extremely wealthy people that are vested in making money from fossil fuels, to lobby and propagandize for the continued use of these rather than cleaner technologies, is a big obstacle to progress?

    • Absolutely. In fact I think this is the key. There is no inherent reason why people, politicians, and even companies should not not understand the science and act on it. The fossil fuel lobby runs, and has run for many years, an extremely effective disinformation campaign. But how to stop it?

  4. You’ve left out one technology that is getting more and more attention from high-placed people in positions of power — geoengineering, especially in the form of solar radiation management, that is, injecting tiny sulfur particles into the stratosphere to mimic the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions. Talk about “silver bullets.” As one of this approach’s most forceful advocates, Lowell Wood, put it: “Geoengineering is going to win, because the politicians, when they finally come down to the crunch, are going to ask: What is the cheapest thing that might possibly do the job? They don’t care what it is. If it consists of Las Vegas dancers performing iin the rotunda of the capital, they’ll choose that if it’s the cheapest solution. That’s the way things work in a democracy. People never pay more than they have to.” Other scientists are pursuing it less out of whole-hearted conviction than desperation because they just don’t see the necessary reduction in carbon emissions happening soon enough, if ever. Of course, the more credence geoengineering gains, the less we’ll feel the need to make those painful cuts.

  5. Bhante

    I could not find an email address so i am putting me query here i apologise for not commenting on subject. The link below is an article in Tricycle Magazine and on of the things they touch on is Mindfulness.

    I am intrigued as to your thoughts on the Mindfulness craze that seems to be sweeping the world :) So when an if you have time over the coming years I love to see what your thoughts are.

    http://www.tricycle.com/blog/which-mindfulness

    • In brief, I think the authors of that article are rather uncritically following the 20th century Burmese interpretation of mindfulness, which relies exclusively on a particular interpretation of one text. For example, they say:

      Mindfulness of the body is intended to result in the understanding that the body is a collection of impure elements that incessantly arise and cease, utterly lacking any semblance of a permanent self. That is, the body, like all conditioned things, is marked by three characteristics (trilaksana): impermanence, suffering, and nonself.

      This is 20th century vipassanavada, and has no basis in the texts. The Kayagatasati Sutta, for example, lists ten benefits of mindfulness of the body, and nowhere are the trilaksana mentioned. Nowhere in the Pali canon, indeed, is mindfulness associated with the trilaksana. The authors are decrying the distortion of mindfulness in the context of health and psychology, but they are not acknowledging that their own interpretation is also based on 20th century ideas.

      I have shown in detail in my A History of Mindfulness that the purpose of mindfulness in early Buddhism is as a basis for samadhi. You do mindfulness meditation such as being mindful of breathing in order for the mind to become peaceful and unified. It is samadhi that leads to vipassana, not mindfulness alone.

    • Thank you there is so much misinformation out there, it nice to have a reliable source :)

  6. Greetings Venerable and all.

    I’m glad you mentioned very briefly compressed air in one of your replies. For more information on this tried and tested method for using gravity and water to compress air which can then be used to run machines (designed for the purpose), such as the cars we had in the early thirties, please see the petition I’ve started at: https://www.causes.com/campaigns/37946-produce-pollution-free-cars.

    In short, I think traditional knowledge/technology will help greatly to save us.

    best wishes

  7. Hello Bhante Sujato,

    As a rational human, politics makes no sense to me.

    But if we both desire current or continued energy usage growth rates and we want to minimize detrimental effects upon the environment, then there is only one primary replacement for the majority of fossil fuel usage in the short term:

    fission.

    Solar, hydro, wind power are all great, and should be used where and when appropriate. But let’s wake up. Those three can not and will not scale up to replace or dent our fossil fuel usage. Fission can cheaply replace ALL but aviation fuel. And air travel costs must go up appropriately, which is to say, there should be enormous financial incentives to find alternatives.

    Fussion would be great and we should invest heavily in research, but for today: fission is our primary solution, if there is any solution at all.

    Alex

    >

    • Hi Alex,

      I don’t have much of an opinion about this. I expect that the best solution will vary from place to place. In Australia we have huge amounts of solar, wind, wave, hydro, and geothermal energy, not to mention potential biomass and other sources. Other countries are not so lucky. I don’t like the idea of fission, but it’s better than ruining the climate. Certainly I think there has been an unfortunate knee-jerk reaction to Fukushima. Coal causes far more death and destruction, even now.

  8. Here’s an article from the NYTimes, on two brothers that use economic theory (carbon emission taxes) and the law (an obscure provision in an existing Clean Air Act, our corrupt Congress would not pass such language today) in an effort to address CO2 emissions and climate change. Apparently, the Obama administration is pushing to close coal fired power plant in the US; this may be a wonderful note on which to end his presidency. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/us/brothers-work-different-angles-in-taking-on-climate-change.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

  9. lil me has no answer so pls do excuse me… but considering the cause and effects… a question… those who encourage the easy way out of the so called ‘clean’ nuclear power has to consider who and where the waste is going? would those who encourages tht would offer his own front or backyard for it?

  10. :-.) … thot these infos might be interesting for evaluating how our dhamma practice is in relation to wht we support consciously or unconsciously … with effects or without effects…
    the level of duplicity and trustworthiness of so called world leaders and country in its efforts on climate change and global warming …

    http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/obama-sends-vietnam/1099846.html

    Obama sends Vietnam nuclear deal to Congress
    oh.. lets not forget the ‘orange’ agent tht was ‘given’ by Americans.

    http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/here-comes-sun-obama-touts-solar-california-n101566

    Here Comes the Sun: Obama Touts Solar in California

    and then there is the response to the jerk of hiroshima …

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/05/18/uk-germany-energy-nuclear-idUKKBN0DY0EM20140518

    “It should not be tax payers who pay for the clean-up of atomic waste but rather those who made money for decades through running nuclear power stations,”

    … no nuclear energy cld get thru to those in need when natural disasters occured… it was only basic human energy tht drives to save those in need …
    … humans can always return to places where there were natural disasters but not nuclear disaster.

  11. Hi Bhante,
    Thank you for your informative blogs.
    My view is as long as there are 7 billion people on the planet nothing will save us from destruction.
    Over population transcends all issues facing humanity, not least of all global warming, but also land clearing, refugees, war, pollution, and almost anything else you can think of. I would even argue that the continuing global financial crisis is a product of over population. I will even go further and say economically things don’t get better from here.
    Either we do something about over population, or something will be done for us.
    I tell people humanity has 10 years plus or minus 10 years. We have to accept right now nuclear weapons could be discharged which would end humanity, and the global financial crisis won’t take more than 20 years to play out.
    Even if we could do something about climate change, where are the resources to continue to support 7 billion people? And the host of other issues… But if we tackled the problem of population, it would solve all those issues.

    • I’ll take your response of deleting my last reply to this post but doing nothing else as a big ‘f&#@ you.’
      Never mind, I won’t have any further association with your brand of Buddhism.

    • Hi Alex,

      I’m sorry you feel that way. Please understand that you make the decision to publish comments on my blog, and if you later decide you don’t want them there, I am under no obligation to remove them. As you may have noticed, I spend only a little time here every few days, as I am on retreat. In order to locate a comment I have to go back to the original post and scan through the comments; I have tried to do this in the past and it is not always easy to find the relevant comment. So I have left your last comment on my 2do list, and when I get some time, I will have a look at it. Meanwhile, perhaps you could be less hasty about leaving comments, and less hasty about judging others.

  12. Climate change and efforts to stem them…
    Some more interesting information abt how advanced technology are these days and some of the results…

    from postsoviet to europe …
    ‘Ukraine Needs Aid to Finish Chernobyl Cover and Prevent Ecological Disaster’…

    http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/ukraine-needs-aid-to-finish-chernobyl-cover-and-prevent-ecological-disaster/507247.html

    Asia …
    on another note can Malaysians thank the Australians and those involved for their ‘Lynas toxic rare earth’ refining and cyanide in gold mining too …???

    ‘More than 100 youngsters in Japan diagnosed with thyroid cancer after Fukushima nuclear meltdown’…

    http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/more-100-youngsters-japan-diagnosed-4126478

    … have the smart fellas who built them or the ones tht propose more of them got a solution for a proper disposal yet …???

    oh well… theres tht bit of honey free from pesticides… insecticides… or radiation …
    i think it might be called proper application of metta for ecological sustainable environment for ourselves and for others tht wont need too much of technology or brainwork nor into space to figure tht out …
    ‘Superfärsk honung medicin mot svåra sår’ …

    http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article19555081.ab

  13. oops sori… shld have used the word ‘postsoviet’ to mean the after effects of sovietunion’s use of its ‘supportive’ neighbours and its leftover effects …

    … wonder if folks knows enough not to follow and repeat past horrors …???

  14. humans with their innovations…

    diamonds.. gold… cannot be eaten in times of disaster…
    rivers of broken banks with their ‘bonds’ machinations…
    islands sinking…

    http://www.svt.se/ug/rdet-gom-miljoner-i-skatteparadis

    travellers to space and other planets…
    melting ice with moved walruses…

    http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/01/us/alaska-massive-walrus-gathering/index.html?hpt=hp_inthenews

    but there is only the earth… the moon… and the sun… i’m very contentedly grateful …

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