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.
|Nuclear||various generation II reactor types||16|
|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.