The Case for Optimism on Climate Change


The video here is quite gripping: you should watch it!

Despite the title, Gore starts with a long and terrifying account of what climate change is doing. So what’s his case for optimism? A lot of it concerns solar power, though he also mentions nuclear power:

So the answer to the first question, “Must we change?” is yes, we have to change. Second question, “Can we change?” This is the exciting news! The best projections in the world 16 years ago were that by 2010, the world would be able to install 30 gigawatts of wind capacity. We beat that mark by 14 and a half times over. We see an exponential curve for wind installations now. We see the cost coming down dramatically. Some countries—take Germany, an industrial powerhouse with a climate not that different from Vancouver’s, by the way—one day last December, got 81 percent of all its energy from renewable resources, mainly solar and wind. A lot of countries are getting more than half on an average basis.

More good news: energy storage, from batteries particularly, is now beginning to take off because the cost has been coming down very dramatically to solve the intermittency problem. With solar, the news is even more exciting! The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt per year by 2010. When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we’re on track to beat it 68 times over.

We’re going to win this. We are going to prevail. The exponential curve on solar is even steeper and more dramatic. When I came to this stage 10 years ago, this is where it was. We have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the emergence of these exponential curves.

And the cost has come down 10 percent per year for 30 years. And it’s continuing to come down.

Now, the business community has certainly noticed this, because it’s crossing the grid parity point. Cheaper solar penetration rates are beginning to rise. Grid parity is understood as that line, that threshold, below which renewable electricity is cheaper than electricity from burning fossil fuels. That threshold is a little bit like the difference between 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 33 degrees Fahrenheit, or zero and one Celsius. It’s a difference of more than one degree, it’s the difference between ice and water. And it’s the difference between markets that are frozen up, and liquid flows of capital into new opportunities for investment. This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector. We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since. The projections for the future are even more dramatic, even though fossil energy is now still subsidized at a rate 40 times larger than renewables. And by the way, if you add the projections for nuclear on here, particularly if you assume that the work many are doing to try to break through to safer and more acceptable, more affordable forms of nuclear, this could change even more dramatically.

So is there any precedent for such a rapid adoption of a new technology? Well, there are many, but let’s look at cell phones. In 1980, AT&T, then Ma Bell, commissioned McKinsey to do a global market survey of those clunky new mobile phones that appeared then. “How many can we sell by the year 2000?” they asked. McKinsey came back and said, “900,000.” And sure enough, when the year 2000 arrived, they did sell 900,000—in the first three days. And for the balance of the year, they sold 120 times more. And now there are more cell connections than there are people in the world.

So, why were they not only wrong, but way wrong? I’ve asked that question myself, “Why?”

And I think the answer is in three parts. First, the cost came down much faster than anybody expected, even as the quality went up. And low-income countries, places that did not have a landline grid—they leap-frogged to the new technology. The big expansion has been in the developing counties. So what about the electricity grids in the developing world? Well, not so hot. And in many areas, they don’t exist. There are more people without any electricity at all in India than the entire population of the United States of America. So now we’re getting this: solar panels on grass huts and new business models that make it affordable. Muhammad Yunus financed this one in Bangladesh with micro-credit. This is a village market. Bangladesh is now the fastest-deploying country in the world: two systems per minute on average, night and day. And we have all we need: enough energy from the Sun comes to the Earth every hour to supply the full world’s energy needs for an entire year. It’s actually a little bit less than an hour. So the answer to the second question, “Can we change?” is clearly “Yes.” And it’s an ever-firmer “yes.”

Some people are much less sanguine about solar power, and they would point out all the things that Gore doesn’t mention here. For example, while Gore claims that “one day last December” Germany “got 81 percent of all its energy from renewable resources, mainly solar and wind”, the picture in general is not so good:

This is from 2014, the most recent I could easily find. At least back then, renewables were only slightly ahead of ‘brown coal’, or lignite—the dirtiest kind of coal. Furthermore, among renewables, burning ‘biomass’ produced about as much power as wind—and more than solar. And what’s ‘biomass’, exactly? A lot of it is wood pellets! Some is even imported:

• John Baez, The EU’s biggest renewable eneergy source, 18 September 2013.

So, for every piece of good news one can find a piece of bad news. But the drop in price of solar power is impressive, and photovoltaic solar power is starting to hit ‘grid parity’: the point at which it’s as cheap as the usual cost of electricity off the grid:

According to this map based on reports put out by Deutsche Bank (here and here), the green countries reached grid parity before 2014. The blue countries reached it after 2014. The olive countries have reached it only for peak grid prices. The orange regions are US states that were ‘poised to reach grid parity’ in 2015.

But of course there are other issues: the intermittency of solar power, the difficulties of storing energy, etc. How optimistic should we be?

7 Responses to The Case for Optimism on Climate Change

  1. Giampy says:

    How optimistic should we be?

    It depends on the timeframe that we want to consider, right ?

    I’m optimist that we can reach an almost zero emission economy by the end of this century, with the majority of the shift happening actually in half the time.

    But, IMO, there is just too much infrastructure around to expect substantial change in one decade or so.

    Another problem is that oil will become much cheaper once its demand starts to come down, so i think that reaching actual parity will take longer than “a few years”.

    And finally, it seems that energy storage based on batteries can only increase gradually. A lot is being invested in battery research, without leading to any breakthrough so far.

    Anyway, this is another optimistic view:

    Interestingly, he cites Bill Gates who actually is a little more pessimistic.

    This is more about the infrastructure that can be changed … but only in due time:

  2. Patrice Ayme says:

    Optimism sells better.

    The problem is how much the three giant glacial basins in Antarctica, the WAIS, Wilkes and Aurora basin can take, before failing from warm water sneaking beyond the thresholds.

    In Equivalent CO2 we will be at 500 ppm within 6 years at most. Then Antarctica will be clearly unstable. A case can be made that water is already sneaking below the aforesaid basins:

    But German lignite will keep us warm, after Germany turns off its nuclear reactors.

  3. Uli says:

    “This is from 2014, the most recent I could easily find.”
    Here is a German source for the years from 1990 including preliminary data for 2015.

  4. nad says:

    So what’s his case for optimism? A lot of it concerns solar power, though he also mentions nuclear power:

    Mr. Gore may eventually want to read the article: Japan very nearly lost Tokyo

    • Good read. I bet Angela Merkel was in close contact to the Japanese back then, and thus it was a nobrainer for her to drop nuclear. It’s not just the waste problem. There’s the criminal neglect of the folks who decide the nuclear business. Apropos: Traditional nuclear plants are no longer economic, even when we forget about the waste and mismanagement/misplanning risks.

      I don’t share Gore’s optimism: Electricity is not all of energy. Energy is not all of GHG production: There’s also the problem of selfdestructive soil carbon oxidizing agriculture. And climate weirding is not all the existential problems the Late Homo Sapiens has to face. And these problems are not additive but multiplicative, as exemplified in Syria.

      Well, sure the current evolution of electricity should give the usual economist pessimist suspects some pause for thought. And we don’t even need much nuclear for the baseload if there is a decent longrange grid collecting wind power from where the wind happens to blow. Here the U.S. need to catch up, not on nuclear. (OK, maybe some waste burning new generation plants should be developed and run by govt.)

    • Apropos Fukushima:

      With Tshernobyl, nuclear power turned out (radio-) active environmental protection. What you find around Tshernobyl is a paradise of free nature (with only a few odd mutations). Short lived organisms don’t care much about cancer. I’m almost 50, so cancer is not troubling me either. Now we need some more Fukushima radiation to prevent ocean ecosystems from terminal collapse due to overfishing. (If only radiation could undo acidification, then I would hail the classical economists’s nuclear pipe dreams…) — An old German relative of Mars Joh. Pictor Florifulgurator explainig stuff. — Now serious: Jeremy Jackson explaining the state of the oceans at US Naval War College. Who wouldn’t welcome Fukushima after pondering this?

  5. From a financial point of view, climate change adds three risk factors to all stocks:

    • The risk of damage caused by climate change. [E.g. Miami and much coastal property is going under water eventually. We’re just not sure exactly when. Or, Canadian Forests and mining towns are burned by climate-change-associated wildfires.]

    • The risk of technological replacement. This applies to many industries, but it applies especially to fossil fuel companies. The price of renewable power is dropping rapidly, and as it becomes cheaper than fossil fueled electricity, state by state, the market will remorselessly eliminate fossil fueled power plants. [In 20 years, we’ll still have some sort of cars, we’ll still wear clothing, and we’ll still have something like a phone. But, while we’ll still use electricity, probably very little of it will come from fossil fuels.]

    • Regulatory risk. Just three weeks ago, on April 22, 2016, The US, China, the European Union and 174 other countries signed the Paris Climate Accord. This accord promises substantial reductions in the use of fossil fuels. It is an unprecedented international action; and it means that fossil fuel companies will never again be growth industries. [For instance, we know we need to leave about 80% of fossil fuels in the ground, if we are to keep climate change to a manageable level. Those are all on some corporation’s books as “proven reserves”. Now, who’s 80% will be left underground and become valueless? That’s a risk to any company that owns reserves of oil.]

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