When my father was born, European and American homes were heated with coal, horses were still a common means of transportation, and there was no such thing as nuclear power. My children may well make it into the 22nd century when I hope today’s energy systems will seem as antiquated.
In an attempt to overcome our natural short-termism, residents of the Japanese town of Yahaba imagined themselves as their grandchildren when making public decisions. That is a recipe for choosing wisely in energy and climate. Major pieces of energy infrastructure – hydroelectric dams, nuclear plants, pipelines – may operate for 80 years or more if maintained well.
Researching a new energy technology and bringing it into widespread commercial use takes decades.
The first photovoltaic panel was invented in 1883, solar-powered components were widely used on satellites by Nasa in the 1960s, but only in the last few years has solar power become ubiquitous in regular electricity generation.
Climate works on an even longer timescale. Thirty-six years after the major US congressional hearings that brought attention to global warming were held, half of the American political establishment still refuses to take the issue seriously.
Melting of much of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets now appears inevitable. This could cause more than a metre of sea-level rise by 2100, compared to about 23cm globally since 1880. But we’re already dangerously close to warming of 2ºC – which over centuries could irreversibly increase water levels by more than 12 metres.
Even the best and costliest sea defences would not stop the drowning of all the world’s great coastal cities, and the densely-populated, fertile deltas and floodplains of the Mississippi, Rhine, Nile, Niger, Ganges and Yangtze. What would we think today of unthinking Tudor, Ming or Moghul rulers who had yoked us to such a dismal destiny?
By contrast, politicians in most countries work on a four or five-year cycle.
Since 2015, the UK has had five prime ministers, and nine energy ministers, under three different job descriptions. Some of these ministers were tasked to drum up business, some to protect the environment, some to lead scientific innovation and some to safeguard energy security and cut inflation – whatever the political imperative of the week.
Today’s energy and climate plans have several weaknesses that reflect short-term thinking. They stick too closely to today’s technologies. Tomorrow’s innovations, by definition, cannot be predicted; at best, some can be dimly anticipated.
In the 1960s, Stanford computer scientist Roy Amara said: “We overestimate the impact of technology in the short-term and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
The media is full of miraculous discoveries that never turn into practical or commercial devices. But others, like hydraulic fracturing or the internet, emerge from decades of quiet work to become overnight successes.
Today artificial intelligence, Crispr gene-editing technology and nuclear fusion are popular candidates for breakthroughs, but the truly transformative technology of this century may be something entirely different.
Second, they assume that energy demand remains similar to today’s, with some predictable changes: more gadgets and travel, bigger homes, a richer Asia and eventually Africa, more air-conditioning in a hotter climate, and incremental efficiency improvements.
Other than wood, the average person in 1800 consumed the energy equivalent of about 10g of oil annually, all in the form of coal. Today that is more than 200 times higher, about 1.7 tonnes of oil equivalent, and includes coal, petroleum, gas, and electricity from uranium, wind turbines and solar panels.
But what about a radically dematerialised civilisation that lives mostly virtually? Or where people live for two centuries through life-extending methods? Or a throwaway society that 3D-prints and discards, that flies hypersonically from London to Sydney in two hours for a weekend bash, holidays in space and mines asteroids?
Third, they work within an assumed linear, stable framework of economic, political and social relations. That’s after the past 100 years saw a world war, a Cold War, several epochal revolutions and financial crises, and a global pandemic.
There were 64 fully sovereign countries just before the Second World War – just one of them in Africa. Today there are 195. The colonial empires have evaporated. China and India have risen to become great powers. Similar upheavals await, even in the optimistic case that we avoid some cataclysm.
An international system based on nation states may not endure, in a world of growing disorder in some places, greater transnational co-ordination elsewhere, and the rising role of global corporations and perhaps new types of organisation, even extraplanetary ones.
Faced with such bewildering uncertainties, how do we plan anything long-term in energy and climate policy? This brings us back to the residents of Japan’s Yahaba and imagining ourselves as our grandchildren.
The intended net-zero carbon date for the UAE and many other countries seems far off. But it is only 26 years away – well within a single professional career. Often we see climate solutions dismissed with the argument that they will not work by mid-century. Indeed we need urgency to deal with our current problems.
But history does not stop in 2050. Planting a seed today that grows to maturity in 2100 is a worthy act. Coal, oil, gas and other critical materials of today come and go, but that seed – an innovation, an institution, an intellectual insight, an item of infrastructure – will yield fruit forever.
We should not foreclose our descendants’ futures. That means bequeathing them possibilities, not destroying that which can never be recreated, not abandoning knowledge or skills or the path of innovation and not trapping them in fossilised social or political structures. As far as possible, we need to rise above our parochial concerns, ephemeral ideologies and prejudices.
We should cultivate awareness of history as a guide not to what will happen, but what could happen. Simultaneously, we build on hints of possible futures from deep insights into science’s unanswered questions, new technological frontiers and the remorseless march of demographics or economics.
What kind of a world do we want to leave to our grandchildren? One without rainforests, corals and polar bears, where existence is a desperate struggle to salvage something from rising seas, encroaching deserts and collapsing states? One where a harsh autocratic hand holds back progress and doles out rations of electricity to a constrained society? Or where hard work and ingenuity have stabilised the climate, provided energy, prosperity and freedom to all, and launched humanity into exploration of the new outer and inner worlds of the 2100s?