What if… we had taken Climate Change seriously in the 1990’s?

Friends, reading comments about COP26, I noticed that many people viewed it as ‘an apocalyptic failure’, while others viewed it as ‘meaningful progress’.

In the face of such different interpretations, I began to wonder what unequivocal ‘success’ at COP26 would have looked like?

And reflecting further, I began to wonder what the world would be like now if humanity had begun taking climate change seriously in the 1990’s.

I picked the 1990’s because the basic reality of the phenomenon became mainstream in 1980’s. And so considering (say) 1995 as a starting point would have given  a clear 10 to 15 years for debate about what actions humanity might best take. Remember the landmark Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1992.

And my conclusion surprised me.

I came to the conclusion, that although I wished profoundly that we had acted differently back then, in fact I don’t think that we would be substantially further along the road to a renewable-energy economy than we are now.

Really?

Well it’s all hypothetical and I could be wrong, but I am probably not completely wrong.

Anyway: that’s what this article is about: how much lower might CO2 concentrations be now if we had acted earlier?

Carbon dioxide

The measure of success or failure in our attempts to avoid the most dangerous impacts of anthropogenic global warming is the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2).

In 1995 atmospheric CO2 concentrations were ~360 ppm, and they have risen in the intervening 26 years to roughly 415 ppm.

Click the image for a larger version. The ‘Keeling Curve’ showing the rise in atmospheric concentration of CO2 since 1959 as measured at the Mauna Loa observatory: link. Also shown are three alternative trends that might have happened. The green dotted line shows what would have happened if annual emissions had remained the same as in 1995. The orange dotted line shows what would have happened if annual emissions had fallen since 1995. The red dotted line shows what would have happened if annual emissions increased even faster than they actually did..

If in the years since 1995 we had managed to stop growth in emissions i.e. just emit the same amount of CO2 every year – then the Keeling curve would have continued in roughly a straight line – shown as a green dotted line above.

In that case, the atmospheric CO2 concentrations now would be around 400 ppm. This is 15 ppm lower than the situation now – which would represent a saving of 7 years emissions.

But could we reasonably have hoped for better? Surely if we had started back then we would have hoped for a reduction in annual emissions by now?

I am not sure. The world population has increased from ~5.6 billion to ~7.6 billion over the period since 1995, and it is not obvious to me that we could reasonably have hoped for a significant reduction in annual emissions.

And this is especially the case since many of the technologies which are today commercially available at scale did not exist back in 1995.

Let me give you some examples.

Wind Turbines

I could be wrong, but I think the idea that 9.5 MW wind turbines could built and operated would have been inconceivable to most planners back in the 1990’s. The idea of having vast windfarms at sea would also have seemed deeply unrealistic. No one would have made a national plan that depended on an untried technology.

So early turbines were built and incorporated onto electricity grids, and the cost was subsidised to enable the industries to grow.

And as experience with the technology grew post 2000, we might conceivably have deployed wind power faster than we actually did. But faster deployment would have led to the installation of more lower power turbines which we would now be scrapping.

The massive and ongoing reduction in cost arises from installing monsters 10 times as large as turbines installed a decade ago.

It is probably true that we are behind the best possible wind deployment curve – but we are probably only a small number of years behind that curve. We are certainly not 25 years behind the most optimistic possible curve.

Solar

I could be wrong again, but I think the idea that solar PV generation could be built and operated on the present scale and at the present cost would have been inconceivable to most planners back in the 1990’s.

As with wind, initial solar generation in the UK was heavily subsidised and that allowed an industry to develop, both in the UK, but most significantly in China where most panels are made.

In 1995 I am pretty sure that the idea that rooftop solar panels in the UK (!) might generate more than 1 GW on a sunny day would have been inconceivable.

The idea that we would have Solar PV farms generating 9 GW on sunny days is still astounding.

The idea that the cost of solar PV would fall as low and as fast as it has could not have been reasonably predicted by anyone.

And the impact of this in other countries will be more profound than in the UK.

But it is hard to imagine that the industry could have grown and prices fallen substantially faster than they already have.

Electric Vehicles

Mainstream manufacturers of internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs) had the technologies to make profitable and useable electric vehicles (EVs) for decades e.g. the Chevrolet EV1, Volt, and Bolt. But for a variety of reasons they resisted the technological shift.

Despite mandates to produce EVs, the legacy automakers were so committed to ICEV technology – which was where most of their profits and commercial advantages lay – that they failed to commit to the change.

So it is possible that if mandates had been maintained, the shift to electric vehicles could have begun much earlier.

But the fact that ICEVs are now becoming obsolete before our eyes is due – in my opinion – to one person: Elon Musk.

Tesla was started in 2003 and Musk joined in 2004 (link) with the aim to “expedite the move to sustainable transport and energy, obtained through electric vehicles and solar power”. The Tesla Roadster (of which only 2450 were sold) was the first production car to use lithium ion batteries. The scale and pace of the change instigated by Tesla exceeds anything that the legacy carmakers have ever achieved. And the shift to EV manufacturing in China is staggering.

And so although an earlier mandate to shift to EV’s might possibly have moved things slightly faster, my guess is that the giga-factory concept which has been invented by Tesla, will ultimately drive the switch to EVs faster than the legacy automakers – or government planners – could ever have conceived.

Batteries

Batteries will play a key role in a sustainable energy civilisation. And their performance in terms of longevity, capacity and safety, has improved astoundingly in recent years.

It is not obvious to me that it would have been possible to scale up battery production substantially faster than what has actually happened.

Indeed progress has been so rapid that it is perfectly possible that had we started earlier, we might well have started using battery technologies that were barely fit for purpose.

China

Several aspects of the renewable energy revolution – such as cheap solar panels, EVs, or battery manufacture – rely on sophisticated and world-leading manufacturing in China.

It is not obvious that the manufacturing capacity the world requires could have been made available much faster than it already has.

The Internet & Computers

I find it hard to believe, but the internet barely existed in 1990: today it is ubiquitous

Network speeds are fast enough that video conferencing is now routine, and the speed of the network enables many technological innovations which allow us to cope with the unpredictability of energy generation using renewables.

It is not obvious that advances in these fields could possibly have developed any faster

Nuclear Power

One area where we might conceivably have achieved much more than we have is in the area of nuclear power.

I remember at the time being dismayed when the Blair government’s refused to engage with the issue, and basically let the UK civil nuclear industry die.

I personally would have been happy if the UK had built a few more nuclear power stations over the past 25 years. And it would have been quite conceivable to have built out nuclear power much more widely on an international scale.

I don’t know how much we might reasonably have hoped that this would lower CO2 emissions. Perhaps by 10% per year globally? Perhaps by a more significant fraction for the UK.

But, if we had adopted a very pro-nuclear solution to our energy problems, then there may have been other unintended consequences.

The capital requirements of a large nuclear power station (~£20 billion) are so high – even for governments – that they could easily have deprived wind and solar energy projects of the capital they needed for their initial growth.

As we look at the field now, we can see that perhaps a small number of truly gigantic nuclear power stations are possibly not the best implementation of nuclear power. And although nuclear power does have low CO2 emissions, it is expensive – something like 10 times more expensive than wind energy.

From today’s perspective, it is likely that smaller, modular reactors (e.g. this, or this, or this) will be cheaper, safer, and contribute to the grid more flexibly.

If we had already committed to nuclear power in a big way, it is quite possible that not only would the growth of renewables have been squeezed, but the price of electricity might be substantially higher.

Conclusion

Friends, I would like you to be sure about what I am suggesting, and what I am not suggesting in this article.

  • I am not saying that this is the best of all possible worlds.
  • I am not saying that actually our delay in acting has been ‘for the best’.
  • I am not saying we should be blasé about our progress in addressing Climate Change.

But I am reflecting that:

  • This is not the worst of all possible worlds.
  • Our past delays mean that we have not acted on climate change at the fastest rate possible.
  • But the last 25 years have seen the growth of new industries and technologies at truly astounding rates.

The change in public consciousness has also been profound.

And I am reflecting that although it would obviously have been better to address the challenges of Climate Change sooner, by chance some aspects of recent progress has been so rapid, that we may not be a full 30 years behind where we might have been.

Any delay is regrettable, but even if we had acted sooner, we would already have already committed ourselves to at least a century of climatic challenge.

My conclusion is that it is really is not too late to act on this now – but it is getting later every day…

8 Responses to “What if… we had taken Climate Change seriously in the 1990’s?”

  1. 171indianroad Says:

    Do you do a YouTube channel? Best way to expand the audience.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Bruce: I’m thinking about it. But it’s a different skill set compared with writing.

      Anyway

      Best wishes

      M

  2. Ross Mason Says:

    Hi Michael,
    Sciblogger found this.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Thank you Ross: What a lovely video. And how prescient and accurate his remarks remain all these years later.

      Hearing him speak rationally and without bile or hatred is like a balm to my soul.

      Best wishes. M

  3. Edmond Hui Says:

    An aviation metaphor- the inadvertent delay in mass implementation of these technologies resulted in a Boeing 707 rather than a Comet 1. Actually industrial and commercial history is littered with pioneers who did not prosper as much as the later entrants to a field. You’re saying that world hesitancy in the 90s has resulted in a less chaotic and more technologically advanced base with which to build the first widespread adoption of carbon reducing technologies. I think you’re right and we may be lucky on this.

  4. Juraj Mucko Says:

    I beg to differ.
    You seem to imply that progress is something that happens just like that for no apparent reason and at a certain and almost fixed pace. In my opinion progress is driven by demand for product and available funding for research.
    Two examples:
    1. In late 1970-s cassette players had motors weighing a couple hundred grams and occupying large volumes. Then Sony launched the first Walkman and new demand was created. The product was selling like crazy and there suddenly was 1 billion dollars available for research. Motors became 1/10th in size and 1/4 in consumption (my estimate, don’t take my word for these numbers).
    2. When mobile phone market spread from executives “time-to-save” to general population “time-to-kill” mobile phones expanded 10-fold and devices dropped from 3kg to 100g within a decade or so.
    My conclusion is that if we started earlier we wouldn’t be so far behind now.

    • protonsforbreakfast Says:

      Hi. You make good points. But I think my main point holds.

      Yes, it would have been better if we had started sooner. But actually, dramatic as the revolutions triggered by Walkmans and iPhones has been, it is trivial compared to he magnitude of what is required here. The car industry and oil and gas industries take very long times to dismantle, and that is difficult to do when clear alternatives are not available at scale.

      Those alternatives are available at scale now, but they weren’t 25 years ago.

      Best wishes

      Michael

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