|Hydrocarbons replace carbohydrates on the road to prosperity|
Sustainability was defined by the 1987 Brundtland Commission as the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Few would argue with this. However, the response to the need for sustainability has evolved into a modern orthodoxy with three key messages; the release of carbon dioxide due to human activity has been a catastrophe; we need to prioritise energy efficiency over energy production; we need to curtail energy intensive long haul travel. However, the thinking behind each of these ideas while well meaning, is misguided, ultimately damaging and quite often misanthropic.
The growing availability of low cost energy since the industrial revolution has been an overwhelmingly civilising and liberating influence. By largely mechanising food production, replacing carbohydrate fuelled farm labour with hydrocarbon fuelled machines, most of us have been freed from agriculture to think, innovate, create and improve. A wonderful 1920s advertisement for a new kerosene tractor has a call to “keep the boy in school”, freeing the farmer’s children from manual labour to pursue education in a virtuous circle of enlightenment. Humans are by their nature ingenious and in the future will continue to find a plethora of new uses for energy which we cannot yet even imagine. More importantly, we need to meet the current energy needs of almost half of humanity who still cook using wood or animal waste with appalling consequences for the health of families. If our generation chooses to stagnate or reduce its capacity to produce energy then we will certainly compromise the ability of both current and future generations to meet their own needs, whatever they may be.
Our ability to generate energy has improved immensely since the industrial revolution due to dramatic increases in the energy density of fuels with a transition through wood, coal, oil, gas and nuclear fission. A largely unacknowledged result of this increasing energy density has been a reduction in carbon emission per unit of energy produced and a continual decoupling of energy production from the environment. Low energy, carbon rich wood from forests was abandoned for easily transportable coal and now energy dense, zero carbon uranium. The overall growth in carbon emission which we now worry about has been the result of these continual improvements in energy density and innovation driven efficiencies leading to greater energy use. This is human progress.
The reason that there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now than in the past is that economies are developing, particularly those of recently impoverished nations such as India and China. The century long rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is an indicator that he poor are becoming prosperous, and correlates with a rise in a host of other metrics such as life expectancy, health care and literacy. We will however turn the corner on carbon emissions when the corresponding century long trend of decarbonising energy production through improving energy density and growing prosperity finally outpaces energy demand. This is the same long-term process which enabled air and water quality to be greatly improved in the developed world once clean technologies were devised and our economy could afford the costs of the necessary stringent environmental regulation to ensure their implementation. Economic growth and technical innovation need not be about crass consumerism, but having the resources and tools to improve the human condition and indeed improve the environment. A retreat to a low energy 1950s lifestyle will only lock in inefficient modes of production and lead to declining standards of living for our children and ultimately regressive environmental degradation.
If we’re serious about displacing carbon from energy production we would be well advised to accelerate the trend of improving energy density. Large-scale adoption of nuclear energy has allowed France to deliver a carbon emission per unit of electrical energy production less than 20% of the UK while providing some of the cheapest electricity prices in Europe. More importantly, we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible with nuclear energy. The current generation of once-through reactors turn less than 1% of uranium into useful energy. What’s often classified as nuclear waste is in fact just partly spent fuel with vast quantities of untapped energy. Future generations of so-called fast reactors will burn almost all of their fuel, leaving extremely small volumes of short-lived waste products, while there is enough known thorium to provide essentially limitless energy into the far future. There is certainly no shortage of clean, high-grade energy, only a shortage of ambition in some quarters and a retreat from the idea of human progress through technical innovation. Turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater is a simply miserable and ineffectual response to the energy challenges of the future. While energy conservation is clearly important, we should remember that the efficient use of energy has long been the result of technical innovation and ultimately leads to greater energy use. The Watt steam engine was significantly more efficient than the Newcomen engine but this increased efficiency, and so improved utility led, to a rise in demand for coal.
Rather than pursuing real growth in clean energy production, the orthodox interpretation of sustainability is leading to a socially regressive policy of enforced abstinence. One of the principal targets has been the continued popularity of air travel. Since the beginning of large-scale civil aviation in the 1950s, technical innovation has led to a reduction in fuel burn per passenger mile by an impressive 75%. The effect of these continual efficiency improvements has been to reduce the cost of air travel and so increase and democratise its utilisation. Again, this is human progress. Travel is an invaluable glue that binds together economies, cultures and nation states in a common future and enriches lives. The way forward is not the stay-at-home policy of socially regressive taxation to suppress demand for travel, but continued technical innovation such as carbon-neutral synthetic fuels for long haul air travel and cheap electricity for ultra-fast short haul rail.
While sustainability has become engrained in our thinking, its orthodox interpretation risks a stagnating future of contracting material and intellectual horizons. There can be no return to a golden era when humanity was somehow in harmony with nature. Such a mythical world never existed. The truly sustainable course is to meet the needs of future generations by gifting them the intellectual tools of technical innovation to deliver an economically and culturally rich global society of shared prosperity in which human needs are progressively decoupled from nature. Human progress has of course never been easy, uniform or certain. However, we should be very wary of those advocating a transition to a low-energy, low-ambition society. This is indeed a dangerous idea which will inhibit the undreamt of ambitions of future generations, ultimately harm the natural environment and risk consigning the developing world to the prospect never-ending poverty.
First published at The Herald 29 November 2009