Welcome to 2020, and let me wish you a happy new decade. Now I know a pedant would tell you that isn’t until this time next year, and like most pedants they would be irritatingly correct, and absolutely no fun at parties, but the third digit has changed from a 1 to a 2, so that’s good enough for me.
As we tend to do with any significant date, or big birthday its a time to reflect and figure out how to be a better you for the future. This could not have come at a more apposite time for us humans, and if we get it right, there are good grounds for an optimistic vision of our future. But it does require a fresh outlook.
As 2019 drew to a close Australia is on fire, East Africa is flooding, new science emerged that oxygen levels across the world’s oceans were running out as sea temperatures climb, 16 year old climate change activist Greta Thunberg was harangued by naysayers as she arrived at the Madrid climate change conference, and these were all taken from a single day’s headlines in December. Meanwhile the professional objectors to the overwhelming scientific evidence queue up to deny the obvious and wave coal above their heads and rev their V8s in a chorus of defiant denial. Some of these people occupy high office and command huge influence. Why do they do this? Well it’s complicated, but you can boil it down to one thing at the core. Most humans don’t like to be told what they can’t do, particularly by hippies and kids. The environmental message has been too wrapped up in telling people what they can’t do any more. You can’t drive, you can’t fly, you can’t throw things away, you can’t eat meat etc. This rarely brings out the best in your average human. However your average human is capable of more amazing things than any other organism on Earth, or possibly anywhere, if given their head and motivated in the right direction. It’s only about 250 years since the start of the industrial revolution and look what we’ve managed to do, for good and bad. It’s 120 years since the car was invented, 115 since the plane, yet look how rapidly these have changed our cities, and shrunk the globe and enriched our lives. It’s about 25 years ago at maximum that most people first visited a web page and that has changed the world arguably more than any invention in history to the point that in just a quarter of a century, our world could not function without it and we are still in the infant stages of a connected world. I genuinely still regularly wear a jacket that is older than that.
As a planet we need to change our old ways radically, and right away. Here is the positive news. Most of the technology we need to do it actually exists right now, if we choose to develop it. We need to sell the necessary change in our behaviour as the next industrial revolution, ripe with opportunities to beat new paths, create new technologies and, naturally, to make a big pile of cash in the process. That should motivate the right people, it always has in the past. The industrial revolution had its Josiah Wedgewoods, the late 19th Century it’s Rockerfellers and Eddisons, the tech revolution it’s Zukerbergs, Gates’ and Bezos’, the 2020s revolution will have its own, they are already out there, somewhere.
The price of generating renewable energy per KWH will drop to be consistently cheaper than fossil fuels this year according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This has already led to the flood gates opening to truly colossal sums of inward investment from institutional investors to pension funds keen to exploit the massive potential returns from getting in at the ground level. This will inevitably turbo charge the speed of improvement similar to the exponential improvements in computer power when the big money moved in. The emergence of micro electricity generating grids in Bangladesh that allows localised solar power sharing for people not connected to a national power grid has shown us a glimpse of a technology that improves the environment, and the lives of those who connect, and this can be cheaply and rapidly rolled out to the unconnected poorest third of the global population, literally billions of people.
Carbon recapture, the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, is also a massive area for potential growth. Most scientists reckon that even if we achieve the herculean task of reducing our carbon emissions to zero, it won’t be enough, we have to drag out of the sky some of the stuff we have put there already. Again, good news, changes to agricultural practices, the planting of vast floating seaweed farms among other schemes can begin to achieve tangible, and significant benefits within months, as well as numerous positive outcomes for farming, nutrition and health. This already exists, it just needs positivity and investment to scale up rapidly.
When the motivation is right, humans can achieve the impossible, in seemingly impossibly short timescales. It was just 66 years from the Wright Brothers flying 100 yards at head height in little more than a kite until two guys stood on the moon, in 1886 Carl Benz demonstrated the first rickety and slow example of a motor car, 24 years later Henry Ford gave us mass motoring. It’s been 12 years since the first iPhone was launched in 10 years 45% of adults globally own one, with close to 90% ownership in developed countries. Apple became the most valuable global company in the process of course. Until this month, that is, when the Saudi’s started getting out of the oil business. Aramco, the state owned oil company staged it’s long awaited IPO, selling 1.5% of it’s shares for a substantial $25 billion, valuing the company as a whole in the region of $1.7 trillion. Why? Well it seems that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia realises that the writing is on the wall for oil, so sell it off while it is worth something and invest the money into alternative, renewable technologies, and if that isn’t grounds for optimism, I don’t know what is.
By Phill McCoffers – The Islander Economics Correspondent