From hot air to action
Hope for mankind is not yet lost
Imagine, says Adair Turner, chairman of the Energy Transitions Commission, that a beneficent god had sent envoys in the night to steal two-thirds of the world’s store of fossil fuels, so that mankind knew it would run out of them within 40 years. “I’m certain that by 2060 we’d have built a zero-carbon economy and the cost of doing so would be trivial,” he says.
能源转型委员会（Energy Transitions Commission）的主席阿代尔·特纳（Adair Turner）说，想象一下，一个仁慈的上帝在夜间派出使节，偷走了世界上三分之二的化石燃料库存，这样人类就知道 40 年内它们就要用光了。「我敢肯定，到 2060 年，我们已经建立了零碳经济，而这样做的成本将是微不足道的。」他说。
The alternative to heavenly intervention may be equally fanciful: that governments will curb the world’s addiction to fossil fuels by agreeing on the global application of the ultimate sin tax—a price on carbon-dioxide emissions that will rise from, say, $50 a tonne in 2025 to $200 a tonne in 2050.
不靠上天干预的话，另一种方案可能同样是幻想：各国政府会就在全球范围实施「终极罪恶税」达成协议，以遏制全球对化石燃料的沉迷。比如，二氧化碳排放的价格将从 2025 年的每吨 50 美元上涨到 2050 年的每吨 200 美元。
Miracles do happen, but it is unwise to rely on them. In the meantime, the challenges of building a global energy system that requires a fourfold increase in electrification, a hydrogen economy built almost from scratch, and the removal of hundreds of billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, should not be underestimated. It is feasible; the technologies are available and could become a lot cheaper if they were adopted widely. Mandates to curb carbon emissions in the future are spurring companies to innovate to survive. But to have a meaningful global impact, the effort requires a level of political ambition that does not yet exist.
To encourage such ambition, it helps to bear three mantras in mind. The first comes from a ten-year-old gem of a book called “Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air”, by the late British scientist David MacKay. It is “think big”. As he puts it (with his italics): “Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little helps.’ If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes in demand and in supply.”
要鼓励这样的野心，记住三句真言会有帮助。第一句是「志向远大」。它来自已故英国科学家戴维·麦凯（David MacKay）于十年前发表的一本好书《永续能源——拒绝空话》《Sustainable Energy—Without the Hot Air》。正如他所说：「不要受『积少成多』这种说法误导。 如果每个人都做了一点，我们只会做成一点点。我们必须做很多。需要实现供求的巨大变化。」
Second, think inside the box, not just outside it. The more that zero-carbon technologies can make use of existing systems built for the fossil age, the less risk there will be of trillions of dollars-worth of stranded assets, or of consumers having to change their habits much. Examples include synthetic fuels in existing jet engines, hydrogen in natural-gas pipelines, or zero-carbon aluminium smelters. Steve Oldham, boss of Carbon Engineering, a Canadian startup that sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere, puts it this way: “To make an impact, non-disruptive disruptive technologies are required.”
其次，不但要突破常规，还要在常规中突破。零碳技术越能利用为化石燃料时代建造的既有系统，数万亿美元资产被搁浅或消费者需要大力改变行为习惯的风险就越低。这包括在现有喷气发动机中使用合成燃料、把氢气送入天然气管道，或建设零碳炼铝厂。加拿大创业公司碳工程（Carbon Engineering）的老板史蒂夫·奥尔德姆（Steve Oldham）是这样说的：「要产生影响，需要不颠覆的颠覆性技术。」
Certainly none of the zero-carbon technologies is developing quickly enough, but they have been under development for decades, at least in the laboratory. The hard part is scaling them up. And the more potential uses a technology such as hydrogen has, ranging from heating to making steel to powering ships with clean ammonia, the more compelling it is as a business venture.
Third, embrace collaboration as well as competition. Just as Carbon Engineering has borrowed ideas from other industries to make direct air capture more efficient, so steelmakers, iron-ore producers, utilities, cement companies and oil multinationals should be exchanging ideas on how best to turn natural gas into hydrogen or capture and store CO2. Competition is still vital. Potential rewards beckon for those who can license the first zero-carbon-steel or aluminium technologies, if the carbon price is high enough. But tackling climate change is a shared mission to overcome a massive market failure: the negligible cost of potentially catastrophic emissions. This is not about “winner takes all”, more about “we all lose unless we work together”.
In the long run, decarbonisation could be a way of reinvigorating capitalism. Carbon-intensive energy, together with capital, ingenuity and cheap labour, has been a driving force of economic growth since the Industrial Revolution. It has changed everything, from agriculture, industry, transport and warfare to global geopolitics. Billions of people still crave the development fossil fuels bring. Yet they have also delivered huge rewards to despotic, rentier regimes, encouraged cartels and over-centralised economies, and never borne the cost of their environmental impact.
Mass electrification, from zero-carbon sources, could stimulate new industries and further decentralise the global economy. It could absorb some of the surplus savings that exist in parts of the rich world, provide plentiful demand for jobs to meet the engineering challenges and ease energy poverty in poor countries. It might sound far-fetched in an era of trade wars and isolationism to think that anything can be done for the common good. But using human ingenuity to build a post-carbon future could be a big economic, as well as environmental, opportunity. Sadly, mankind is still not doing nearly enough to rise to the challenge.
（Nov 29th 2018）打赏