Monday, 10 March 2008

Energy use in the lifeboat scenario

This post now relates to a revised version of the Lifeboat scenario.

The lifeboat scenario is the least unpleasant of my three climate change scenarios. However, it will be extremely difficult to realize as can be seen by considering the central issue of energy use. Though the uncertainties are too great to say exactly what changes will be needed to keep the lifeboat afloat we’ll almost certainly need to act in at least four ways.

First we must improve our efficiency in using energy, eg by community heat and power schemes, better house insulation and more fuel-efficient cars. This ought to be the easiest option because in cutting energy use we also save money. If people, businesses and governments aren’t doing what’s needed – and they mostly aren’t – that’s because of inertia and a preference for short-term convenience over long-term savings. Information campaigns, carbon taxes and stricter standards can all drive savings here.

Second we must reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation by:

a) Introducing low-carbon sources of energy such as wind, tidal, solar and nuclear.

b) Adding carbon capture and storage facilities to gas, coal and oil-fired power stations.

These steps are expensive and some of the technologies are unproven at least on the scale required. Moreover the effects of making these changes will only be felt over many years but their impact is large.

Third, we must replace other uses of fossil fuels, eg petrol for cars, with low-carbon electricity. This probably means settling for some loss of performance and perhaps of comfort and safety (since comfort and safety often add weight thus increasing fuel consumption). However, a great deal of driving is short journeys in which comfort is secondary and high speed a positive disadvantage.

Fourth, we must reduce our total demand for energy-consuming goods and services. We must:

a) Do less of the things that consume energy, eg travel, especially by car and plane, and eating meat.

b) Replace the things we buy less often.

c) Reduce the world population.

Now, there should be something in this list to offend everyone! Why will we need to do all these things? Because it’s likely that by the time we get international action on climate change we will be approaching, or even past, the point at which positive feedback effects cut in to drive increasing temperature gain. Indeed, some experts, Prof. James Lovelock for one, think that we have already passed the tipping point. So we will not be able to organize a soft landing. We’ll have to use all the means we can find.

It’s entirely possible that all of the first four measures will be insufficient by the time we actually apply them. If so we’ll have to take actions of a fifth kind. That’s steps to effect the global climate directly, eg by using genetically engineering plankton to capture CO2 from the atmosphere or dispersing aerosols in the atmosphere to reflect sunlight.

Now I accept that the science is uncertain so perhaps we won’t have to treat this as a global emergency. But the lack of progress in addressing climate change and the track record of international institutions suggest that a pessimistic view is most likely to be correct. After all, if the nations can’t stop such visible horrors as the genocide in Darfur, how likely is it that they’ll take timely action on the infinitely harder and less visible problem of climate change?

The only safe assumption is that we’ll have to do all of these things is we are to avoid the horrors of the police world and Hobbes world scenarios.

And to do them requires both vigorous inter-governmental action and a major change in social attitudes. These are needed both to motivate governments to act and to make the costs and loss of goods and services acceptable.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Does Business ‘Get’ Climate Change?

A recent survey of nearly 3,000 top managers by McKinsey, the world’s leading management consultancy, shows a change in thinking about climate change. 51% see “environmental issues including climate change” as one of the top three issues that will affect public and political attention over the next five years. A similar proportion put it in the top three for impact on ‘shareholder value’ (ie the share price). The environment was rated a top three issue by more managers than any other issue.

This was reinforced for me at the Financial Times Innovation conference in London last year. Although climate change was not on the agenda it kept coming up and Gary Hamel, one of the world’s leading management thinkers, told the audience “Climate change is now one of humanity’s greatest challenges and therefore a challenge for any company.”

The good news is that this is up from 31% two years ago. 87% are personally worried about climate change and 81% see a role for government in addressing the issue. Overall they expect government to take the lead.

The bad news is that 49% of top managers don’t put it in the top three. And this proportion is 55% in China, 59% in North America and 67% in India.

The opinions of top managers matter both for the resources they control directly and because of their influence with governments and other businesses. 97% believe that the climate is changing. We haven’t yet persuaded them to take responsibility but we’re well on the way.


  • Assessing the impact of societal issues. The McKinsey Quarterly, 24 November 2007. (Also on the web.)