So, basically, we’re screwed

Really sobering article in the FT by Martin Wolf. Here’s the gist:

We live in a fossil-fuel civilisation. There have been two energy revolutions in human history: the agricultural revolution, which exploited far more incident sunlight; and the industrial revolution, which exploited fossilised sunlight. Now we must return to incident sunlight — solar energy and wind — along with nuclear power.

Discussions last week at the Oslo Energy Forum clarified things for me. My principal conclusion was that a transformation from our current energy system to a different one is the only option. Some suggest we should halt growth as well. But this would not only be impossible, it would also not be nearly enough.

Over the past three decades CO2 emissions per unit of global output have been falling at a little below 2 per cent a year. If this were to continue and world output were to stagnate, global emissions would fall by 40 per cent by 2050 — far too little. Relying on actual reductions in output, in order to cut emissions by, say, 95 per cent, by 2050, would require a fall in world output of roughly 90 per cent, bringing global output per head back to 1870 levels.

Since we’re not going deliberately to go back to 1870 (all those stovepipe hats), we have to stop burning fossil fuels, period — and make a transition to a non-carbon economy. Wolf thinks that, in principle, this might be possible. But,

A zero-carbon economy would require about four to five times as much electricity as our present one, all from non-carbon-emitting sources. In running such an economy, hydrogen (much of it produced by electrolysis) would play an essential role. Hydrogen consumption might jump 11-fold by 2050.

In many sectors, the costs of decarbonisation are (or soon will be) competitive. Yet in some, they will not be. There will need to be incentives and regulations to force the shift. In order to avoid merely moving production, in its most emissions-intensive forms, elsewhere, it will be essential to impose offsetting taxes on imports from jurisdictions that refuse to support the needed changes.

Note the last sentence and ask yourself what are the chances of this happening in the world as we know it?

Summing up: we could do it, but we won’t. I’ve argued for a long time that we need a theory of incompetent systems — i.e. systems that can’t fix themselves.