January 1, 2020
A century ago, after the hardships of World War I and the 1918 influenza pandemic, the “Roaring 1920s” ushered in economic prosperity and social progress. The decade saw the expansion of the automobile, telephone, radio, electrification and consumer appliances. Aviation became a business. Nations saw rapid industrial and economic growth. Cultural norms were overturned, as women gained the right to vote in many countries. Jazz blossomed. Life was good again until growing income disparity caused the 1929 stock market crash and Great Depression.
So, what will the 2020s bring to the world?
Once again, we live in a time of rapid innovation and scientific progress. Breakthroughs in genome editing, clean energy, AI, quantum computing and robotics are ready to scale up and change society.
At the same time, automation is fomenting intense fears about job displacement and immigration. Nationalism is rising while globalism is falling. There is tremendous economic growth but increasing wealth inequality once more. The stock market has hit record after record, but the masses hardly benefit. Topping it all is the climate emergency and the necessary task of recreating the energy value chain. The fossil fuel industry, the miracle of the 20th century, has become the menace of the 21st.
Life could become better than ever. Or, once again, the 20s may end disastrously. That is our choice, as the true threat may not be economics or carbon, but our apathy.
The Roaring 1920s novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald recalled how jaded people were despite technological marvels like commercial radio, liquid-fueled rockets and antibiotics. He wrote, “…a new expression, ‘Oh yeah?’ summed up all the enthusiasm evoked by the announcement of the last super-skyscrapers.”
The 2010s had its own expressions of indifference: “I don’t know,” “Let’s see what happens” or “It doesn’t matter,” so let’s take a selfie with that glacier before it melts.
People share their deepest fears, hopes and convictions about our planet and then hedge them with, “but I don’t know,” and stress over their next tweet of the day. We seem too afraid or just unwilling to trust the outstanding science and innovation guiding our path forward. It’s as if we’re afraid to care and don’t want to act. Or, incorrectly, we assume that time is on our side and that something magical will save the world.
We do know though. We know that Earth is facing a climate crisis and we know it is up to us to solve it. Until recently, societies could not predict and solve problems this far in advance. For that alone, we should be optimistic!
But…we talk, go to conferences, set targets and then do nothing. Who is fooling who? The apathy and lack of accountability in the 2010s resulted in no action on climate change or economic inequality. The time of gaslighting, pseudoscience and astroturfing around climate change must end. Please join me in declaring the 2020s the “Do-it” decade. Let’s make the ‘20s roar again.
Here are some things you and I together can do to win the Roaring 2020s for planet Earth and civilization. I hope you are ready to act on these suggestions.
1. Become a More Efficient and Responsible Energy User
The first decades of this century were largely about “me.” People calculated their purchases and vacations based on potential Facebook and Instagram hits. Wouldn’t the world be better if we rebuilt and strengthened communities around values deeper than social vanity?
The opposite of narcissistic consumerism is collective responsibility. From national policy and power grids down to the way we each consume, recycle, travel and eat, we have choices to make. We can buy sustainable goods, take electrified public transport, eat less animal meat and support a more circular economy.
But we cannot wait for others to act first. We cannot absolve ourselves of collective responsibility by insisting that our choices are too insignificant to make a difference. They do matter. They shape how our family, friends, and coworkers think and act. When we work for the common good, we inspire others to do the same.
2. Hold Nations Accountable to the Paris Agreement
Since the first international conference on climate change in 1979, annual CO2 emissions have grown from 19.59 billion metric tons to more than 36.15 billion. International agreements to reduce emissions have accomplished nothing because they lack teeth.
Federal governments must set emissions reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement to contain warming within 2° C. Then, they must hold companies accountable to these targets through the annual audit process. Penalties for missing targets should reflect the net present value of future climate change damages. Repeat offenders could be punished by restricting their access to important trade agreements.
Ask your legislators to introduce real accountability. This could have a major impact, as the recent “Urgenda Climate Case” against the Dutch government showed. It was the first time a high court ruled that government has a legal duty to prevent dangerous climate change and must meet the climate targets it previously agreed to.
3. Grow Global Energy Storage
In November, the winning bid for a 900 MW solar project in Dubai was a record-setting $0.016953/kWh. Solar power is far more cost-effective than fossil fuels, but its greatest weakness is storage.
Current lithium-ion batteries are not up to the job of turning cheap solar power in affordable, reliable base load. We must invest in alternatives such as flow batteries, electrochemical batteries and gravity-based storage.
4. Connect Regional Clean Energy Networks With Modern High-Voltage Power Lines
Different regions of the Earth are blessed with different sources of clean energy. We need to establish high-voltage direct current (HVDC) powerlines that move clean energy from areas of abundance to areas of demand. Arbitraging their time differences could help create clean energy baseload.
A good example is IceLink, which will transmit geothermal, hydro and wind energy from Iceland to the UK by 2025, creating a massive clean-energy battery for Europe. HVDC projects to deliver North African solar power and North Sea offshore wind power to Europe are on a similar track. We need more like them.
5. Make Carbon Capture, Storage and Usage (CCSU) Economically Feasible
Current CCS projects, like Quest in Alberta, are so expensive that they require hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to cover the capital costs and daily operations. Such projects will not be repeated nor build the carbon markets of the future.
We need to establish carbon taxes that incentivize CCS and move the cost burden from taxpayers to emitters. In addition, we need to invest in a portfolio of CCS techniques including direct air capture, geological storage and recycling processes that inject carbon into agriculture soils to enhance production.
Carbon dioxide is not waste. We can convert CO2 into cement, marketable nanofibers and fuels. We don’t need to stop at carbon zero. CCS and Usage must mature into a negative emissions industry that slows climate change. We need to add that U firmly to CCS!
6. Develop Green Hydrogen Power
Green hydrogen is a carbon-neutral energy source produced through electrolysis, which is powered by renewable energy. It is crucial to honoring the Paris Agreement in Europe, argues my colleague Fred Van Beuningen.
Hydrogen can be containerized and piped just like natural gas. It is suitable for electricity, heating and long-distance transportation by land, sea and air. Plus, hydrogen can be combined with captured CO2 to provide cleaner hydrocarbon feedstocks for powering heavy industries like chemicals, concrete and plastics.
7. Get Fusion Energy to the Finish Line
The “holy grail” of clean, safe, affordable energy is nuclear fusion. The joke used to be that fusion is 30 years out and always will be 30 years out. No longer. Within five years, demo plants are expected to show that fusion can scale and commercial fusion plants could be online within 10 years.
However, fusion energy has just enough funding to fail. In the 20s, we need to ensure that fusion energy gets the capital to become a mainstream source of power.
8. Be Realistic: Make Natural Gas the Methadone of Fossil Fuels
Fossil fuels will be around for years, so if we are serious about limiting emissions by 2030—the decisive year in the climate emergency—we must use natural gas as a transition fuel.
Just as physicians use methadone to ween addicts off of opioids, we should use natural gas to ween the global economy off coal and oil while we commercialize fusion energy and other new sources of mass-market, baseload energy. How? Let’s call an international moratorium on new oil and coal projects in the early 2020s but accelerate new natural gas projects.
Natural gas is already used to generate electricity, heat homes and power automobiles. Although natural gas isn’t the ultimate solution to our climate crisis, this Methadone Plan can stall the pace of climate change and improve our odds of containing warming to 1.5° C, the threshold beyond which warming will cause irreversible damage to ecosystems. Over time, natural gas can be used for other purposes, like producing feedstock for fish and livestock—something the biotech firm Calysta already does.
9. Take Care of The Most Vulnerable
The transition from fossil fuels to clean energy is eliminating jobs in coal and oil and creating hardship for the families involved. We must take care of fossil fuel workers and invest in their future.
“Replacing” their jobs with better opportunities is not as simple as it sounds. But there is hope. Clean energy jobs could boom in former oil and coal areas. The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada, for instance, could repurpose CO2 for agriculture and lead the food industry in innovations that we’ll need to feed a world with more than 9 billion people. Opportunities to create a new bioeconomy with replacements for plastics and other traditional oil-based products are abundant in these areas as well.
Let’s give people the training and subsidies to develop these opportunities into mature businesses. We need to help people see this future and create a more inclusive society where everyone—not just urban elites—benefit from the enormous technological advancements of our time. Let’s turn the “us versus them” society of today into a “we’re in this together” society of tomorrow.
10. Be True to Yourself
Finally, it’s time to bring this list back to you and me. Points two through nine could excuse us from action. After all, what influence can we have on these global-scale projects? It comes back to apathy. What will we choose to believe about the world and our power to shape it?
Can you look in the mirror and say without blushing, “I respect and trust science; there are no ‘alternative facts.’ I am doing my best to effect change, however I can”?
We may be a highly developed species (according to ourselves), but we are susceptible to tribal feelings, charismatic pseudoscientists and our own psychology. Every day, we must fight to exercise skepticism and resist misinformation.
It’s not just social media we need to be concerned about. Today, only 9% of 15-year-olds in the OECD can tell the difference between fact and opinion. Much like the climate emergency, the revival of critical thinking is a multigenerational project.
We must hold ourselves accountable to our actions. We can’t all be Greta Thunberg, but we need to be realistic and honest. We don’t need any more green-washers or salon socialists who lament the environment at cocktail parties with a glass of imported sauvignon blanc in their hand. The time to act is now.
Together, We Can Do It
As in the 1920s, the march of progress is impressive, but it threatens to leave a trail of social and economic casualties. I say, not this time! If we work together on these 10 suggestions, we can end the 2020s much better than the 1920s.
What should be clear is that the energy transition is more than a change in technology. It is a transformation of culture, business and politics that starts at the individual level—with your actions and mine. It cannot succeed without a revitalization of community, shared purpose and common facts. If we overcome our tribalism, we should be able to avoid a societal crash. We could be well on our way to a more inclusive society and major progress on the energy transition.
Let’s not fall prey to the apathy and disillusionment of the 1920s. The technological marvels of the 2020s deserve better than “Oh yeah?” Our solvable climate crisis may be daunting, but “I don’t know,” “let’s see” or “it doesn’t matter” are no longer acceptable responses.
Let’s make the Roaring 2020s a decade of action. Dance the Charleston again on New Year’s Eve, but on January 1st, start “doing.” Do it for the decade. Do it for the world. Do it for us all!