This podcast script deals with the parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, the discourse surrounding both of them, and also the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on our efforts to address climate change. The original episodes can be downloaded here:
COVID and Climate Change: Parallels and Interactions
This week’s episode is going to be a slightly more loose exploration of some different themes, and maybe a little more opinionated than usual, so I hope you forgive me for that. In general, the link here is that I’m going to be talking about the interactions, parallels, and links between the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the situation with climate change.
The first thing that I want to address here is, unfortunately, the parallels that show up in the politicisation of the two issues. I want to get this rant out of the way so that I can talk about some more interesting stuff later on, but I feel that it’s illustrative of a few important things to talk about, and it’ll probably make me feel better to talk about both climate/covid deniers and some of the similar tactics that they use.
First thing to say is that science is uncertain. The science of a developing situation, like this pandemic or like climate change, is doubly uncertain. You are pushing a system beyond the range that you’ve usually observed it in, so you have to expect that there are going to be some behaviours that you can’t anticipate.
Both for coronavirus and climate change, we are seeing something totally new that hasn’t been observed before. The legitimate thing to do, then, is start from a position of ignorance and try to build up on that. We need to rely on mathematical models, driven by the data and by our best understanding of the science, because we can’t run experiments on the whole population or on the whole planet.
One of the ways that you can tell honest actors from dishonest actors is that the honest actors will admit their uncertainties — and they’ll tell you how those uncertainties could be addressed with more data, and probably ask for funding to conduct those experiments to boot. What identifies climate deniers and covid deniers alike is utter certainty that admits no argument, even when the individuals involved stand against the vast majority of scientists in the field.
Something that’s worth pointing out is that some of the people who are now prominently skeptical of the severity of COVID-19 are not just similar to, but actually THE EXACT SAME people who are skeptical of the severity of anthropogenic climate change. One particular individual who I won’t name — people have sent me this person’s paper making arguments that COVID is less severe than the epidemiological consensus, and it’s fascinating that their blog historically has been arguing that climate change is less severe than people think until it suddenly switched to epidemiology in the last few weeks.
It did not surprise me at all to see this same person arguing, once again, that the fatality rate for COVID was on the lowest end of possible estimates or well below — just as it didn’t surprise me to see them argue for years that climate sensitivity, the amount of warming we should expect due to adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, was at the lowest end of estimates. When you see someone who consistently argues that everything is fine and human intervention to prevent a tragedy is unnecessary — someone who used to work in the city and doesn’t have any experience in climate science or epidemiology — you do have to wonder about that person’s motivations.
Part of the parallels, and this applies particularly to the commentariat, people who write newspaper articles and so on, arise from a particular kind of conservatism. Maybe the person’s ideological bent is that they are skeptical of any kind of institution, such as the government. Maybe it’s the case that they think that addressing climate change, or coronavirus, would stifle businesses and productivity, and ultimately it would be bad for the economy.
This can be a sincerely held belief, or it can be advanced on behalf of given organisations. In the latter case, you can usually see it; for example, former oil and gas engineers who are suddenly interested in climate modelling, or have a pathological fixation with renewables. In the COVID case, we now have a paper circulating that has been produced by the investment bank, JP Morgan. One again has to wonder why people from investment banks have become epidemiologists and what they think they’ll gain by publishing a particular conclusion.
The real irony here, and what continues to depress me, is that these things really should not be politicised to the extent that they are. It is in everyone’s interest to have an effective response to climate change and coronavirus.
For example, if you’re concerned with the economy — climate-change related disasters are bad for business. It’s also very bad for business to have an entire economy that depends on a finite, exhaustible resource which has negative effects when it’s burned, and which is geographically concentrated in a few countries which tends to lead to conflicts over resources, unstable supply chains, fluctuating prices, and so on. Similarly, the perception that the pandemic is out of control could well be even worse for demand and for business than the attempts to control it.
I’m not saying that my position is right on every issue, and everyone who disagrees with me is wrong. That would be ridiculous. Science is about skepticism; there should always be skeptical voices arguing the other side of the case to keep everyone else honest, and to point out the flaws and uncertainties in their arguments. But I feel like there are valid and invalid arguments, and genuine and disingenuous positions to take on a given topic.
If you think that the cost of addressing climate change is going to be worse than the cost of enduring whatever climate change has to throw at us climate change — that’s an argument people can have. But if you choose to hide from the argument you want to make — “it’s not worth trying to prevent this” — behind an argument that says “actually, everyone’s wrong, and climate change is not a big deal that is hardly going to cause us any problems at all” — then I think that’s disingenous. And you can replace climate change with COVID in those sentences and it’s equally true. I would rather people debate about what they really think, rather than muddying the waters with a combination of cherry-picked data and wishful thinking to pretend that their actual argument is different.
The issue here is a subtle one — something a little bit like the difference between scientific advice given to governments, who then decide policy, and the difference between scientists directly setting policy themselves in some kind of evidence-based technocracy.
Effectively, when you see someone who doesn’t like what they see as the implications of the science — and therefore chooses to reject the science, and not the implication — you’re seeing this mistake. Take evolution: some people reject the theory of evolution because they think it means that God does not exist, that life has no meaning, and so on. Presenting someone with these beliefs with endless evidence about the theory of evolution, scientific papers, etc. is not going to change their mind on the topic, because it’s not actually a question of evidence or beliefs on the scientific question, but the philosophical one that is associated with it. You’re more likely to be successful by persuading the person that evolutionary theory is perfectly compatible with the existence of a God.
Similarly, in climate science, we see people rejecting the science of climate change because they think it will inevitably result in the government imposing on their lives, forcing them to drive or fly or eat less meat, pay more in taxes, or stop them from working in the fossil fuel industry. This makes sense, because people don’t actually have strong, deeply-held emotional beliefs about the validity of the greenhouse effect, or the water-vapour feedback effect. But fear of the implication of the science is obviously a bad reason to reject the science in the same way as loving smoking or unhealthy food is a bad reason to reject the science surrounding how these things will impact your health.
We’ve talked about how skeptics will often use the scientific uncertainty against scientists. A quote that sticks with me so often about why scientific writing, in the context of journals, is frequently awful is this: “Scientists write for a tiny audience of experts in the field who are trying to destroy them.” This, more than anything else, is what I wish non-scientists understood about science. If you present a new idea to a group of scientists, in a paper, at a conference, in a talk, they will not congratulate you if it backs up their pre-existing beliefs. They will pick at it, they will attack it, they will go for every logical hole and every possible counter-argument, they will find every flaw and caveat in what you’ve done and make sure that you include all of that in the paper. It is a brutally self-correcting process. That’s why you should trust scientists and the scientific consensus; not because scientists are smarter, not because they are high priests of a religion, but because of the sheer levels of scrutiny that most things have to go through before they become widely accepted.
For this reason, scientists often express a great deal of uncertainty. Anyone listening to my shows on COVID will know that I’ve used the word “uncertainty” more than virtually any other word; that I’ve tried not to be alarmist and I’ve tried to put both sides of any given argument, even when it was frankly unlikely to be valid. Whenever I find a new piece of information that contradicts what I’ve said before — such as, for example, when I learned more about network effects and hetereogeneity in epidemiology, which might lower the herd immunity threshold — I’ve introduced it into my discussion, because I’m most concerned with what everyone should be concerned with: getting to the truth, scientifically, which will allow us to mount the best possible response. I certainly don’t think every aspect of what governments have done, or what scientists have advised, has been the optimum solution. I hope that people don’t listen to me and feel like I’m desperately trying to defend a single position, and that I’m willing to talk about uncertainty, albeit with my own opinions clearly more prominent.What you see is that less genuine arguers — those with a political or other motivation, say — are never going to admit to the same level of uncertainty… which, to the untrained eye, seems like they’re more certain. A New York Times writer, Mark Mazzetti, observed on this phenomenon: “The odd thing about reporting on the coronavirus is that the nonexperts are supremely confident in their predictions, while epidemiologists keep telling me that they don’t really know much at all.” Or, as Bertrand Russell put it, “‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.’ (Bertrand Russell).
And I find it very distressing that this is the case. Imagine you were arguing, say, that smoking or asbestos didn’t cause cancer. You’re arguing against a general consensus. If you’re wrong, you’re arguing for policies that could kill more people. This is literally true of climate skeptics and people who want to argue that the COVID fatality rate is much lower than everyone else suspects. It seems a little strange to give barely any credence to any alternative views in those circumstances.
I also want to talk about a very frustrating but easy-to-spot tactic which is “gish gallop” or shifting goalposts. Essentially what happens here is that while you have one argument — one coherent case for what’s happening, or what should be done. They have fifty. These arguments might all internally contradict each other, or they might be inconsistent, but the hope of the gish galloper is that by advancing them all at once, they can still succeed.
I’ve had arguments with climate deniers who have literally gone from: “Actually, volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans” (they don’t, and isotopic evidence suggests the atmospheric CO2 is increasingly down to us), to “Water is a more important greenhouse gas than CO2” (Yes, it is, but a big part of predicted climate change is because the atmosphere will hold more water vapour, and without water vapour’s greenhouse effect we’d live on a frozen rock), to “The warming is actually caused by natural variations, or cosmic rays, or clouds” (it isn’t), to “The greenhouse effect isn’t real”, to “The temperature records are fake.”
So if you were to take all these arguments together, someone is effectively arguing that the warming, which is actually all fake, is caused by natural variations and not CO2, which is not an important greenhouse gas, although it’s also caused by CO2 from volcanoes and not people. It’s incoherent on the face of it — some of the arguments directly contradict each other.
But if this type of argument unfolds in front of people who aren’t skeptical, and especially if they’re predisposed to one side of the argument, it can seem like the gish galloper won. “Look, the scientist had to spend their entire time defending themselves against the countless arguments that the other person had to make, their theory seems to be full of holes, and I’m sure that at least one of those counterarguments is true.” Even though it’s fairly obvious that the more consistent, rational case is to advance one explanation for what we’re observing, rather than six that all contradict each other.
You can see something similar happening with COVID. One example that I will name is Professor Gupta from Oxford, who had another piece out lately that circulated in my orbit. This is the same person behind the group that released the paper on March 23rd which suggested that half of the UK had already been infected with COVID-19. That paper — which really expressed the most wildly optimistic case for a virus that spread very very quickly but was very mild in most cases — I gave some benefit of the doubt, despite disagreeing with its conclusions, because it was couched in terms of “we should do lots of antibody testing to reduce uncertainty and figure this out right away”, and not “50% definitely have COVID.”
Since that paper was published as the “Oxford Model”, nearly two months ago as I write this, it’s become increasingly clear that any idea that the 50% of people were already immune in March was wrong. The serology testing that was asked for has now happened, and the most recent results suggest that around 5% of the UK had had COVID by May (rising to 17% in London.)
But Professor Gupta has now changed her argument — I’m taking this all from Unherd where she was interviewed — and is suggesting that the serology testing that was considered to be so important is actually not relevant, and doesn’t contradict her thesis, and that instead people are just immune due to cross-immunity from other coronaviruses, such as those that cause the common cold.
So the argument appears to have changed from “the disease has already spread through the entire population and therefore probably has a very low fatality rate, let’s just check with some antibody testing” to “actually most people are already immune to the disease because of other coronaviruses, antibody testing is useless and doesn’t contradict my theory” Now, ignoring for a second that the Professor, after being proved wrong in one argument, has changed to another that contradicts it — because if everyone was immune already, it’s hard to see how the virus could spread this quickly and to so many places — you would think that this would require a change on at least one point.
If, in fact, most people have not been infected with COVID — because they are already immune — then presumably the fatality rate should be higher than she first suggested. It just happens that infections are less likely because of existing immunity in the population. But Professor Gupta doesn’t concede this point, instead arguing that “the infection fatality rate is probably between 0.1% and 0.01%, probably closer to 1 in 10,000.”
Given that at least 36,000 have died of COVID in the UK already, if the IFR was really 1 in 10,000, it would imply that 360 million people in the UK have had COVID-19 — an impressive feat for a country with a population of just 70 million. Let’s be charitable and say that “closer to 1 in 10,000 than 1 in 1,000” lies at the midpoint, 0.05%. Then we’d still need everyone in the country to have been infected — and this by a virus that apparently most people are magically immune to anyway.
In response to places like New York, where the fatality rate is already running at 0.15% of the entire population — assuming everyone was infected — she simply says that “where vulnerable people are gathered together, the disease can “rip through” them more easily.” So apparently the entire state of New York is a population that’s more than 10x more vulnerable than she expects for the average person, and for some reason, the people there don’t get colds or don’t have this inexplicable, “natural immunity”, while the people of Denmark, which began social distancing earlier, or Beijing or Seoul, where cases have been much more strictly controlled from the start, somehow do.
She further argues that evidence for this is that “the course of the virus has been the same in countries around the world, whether there has been a lockdown or not, which is most easily explained by a build-up of immunity in the population.” So not pre-existing immunity, but immunity that arises once you’re infected; what else could a “build-up of immunity” mean? And how can one claim that the course of the virus has been the same regardless of whether and when countries locked down, when countries that implemented early social distancing measures, testing and tracing, like South Korea, has 5 of deaths per million population, while the UK has more than five hundred per million population?
I think I’ve spent enough time on this. Professor Gupta made her mind up two months ago — and, in the rest of the interview, where she talks about the social harms and economic cost of lockdown, you can see her motivations for making this case more clearly — and is now just casting about for different arguments, even when they contradict each other, to support the general theme: “this virus is less severe than everyone else says”, a scientific point that masks the underlying political/implication point “the lockdown is more costly than it is beneficial.”
There’s a place for debate about whether the lockdown is more costly than beneficial, just as there’s a place for talking about heterogeneity in networks, and a place for talking about the possibility of cross-immunity from other coronaviruses — these are all really interesting, potentially crucial topics in understanding the disease. What I don’t like to see is people choosing their camps and refusing to be swayed by any new evidence or even address their critics directly.
And so you can have the COVID gish gallop. This disease isn’t going to be a problem, it’s being contained, and anyway it’s not that bad, much less fatal than you think it is, or everyone is already immune to it anyway, and if it isn’t then there’s a cure, and if the cure doesn’t work then there’s nothing we can do because lockdowns don’t work either. On the extreme end, you have the deaths are fake (smacks of the temperature records being fake!), or that everyone would have died anyway (which is much like the argument that anthropogenic climate change actually comes from natural variability). So you can see that we are used to these parallels and the willingness of people to rapidly switch between arguments. The difference is that a rapidly-unfolding pandemic tends to prove people wrong faster than climate, which takes years and decades to get reliable data on. Yet it doesn’t seem to change people’s minds once they’ve decided what camp they’re in. Funny, that.
In the wingnut fringe, we see the same things. Global warming is a conspiracy by Al Gore to sell books, or COVID is a conspiracy by Bill Gates to sell vaccines. Ridiculous but this is where people’s minds go. And meanwhile the poor old epidemiologists are stuck saying: “We are forced to tell people things, even though we wish they weren’t true, because of public safety.” Yeah.
I’m going to end this episode with a little listener mailbag, just to thank individual people who have supported the show by talking to us or subscribing on Patreon, and answer some of the questions that I’ve had. Please let me know if you find this embarrassing, but I think it’s worth thanking people in person rather than just generically saying that I’m grateful to listeners, since we are still a small enough band that I can single you all out personally!
Just a little explainer about the Patreon — because it’s very irregular that I can come up with bonus content, you only pay for the bonus episodes that you get. Thanks to patrons Anne, Austin, Bruce, Dave, Frode, Hakon, Lindsay, Lora, Richard, Steven, and Navajo for signing up to do that.
I also want to thank Becky, Dave, Steve and Jeremy from the Facebook page, in particular Dave for his dedicated commenting when new episodes arise over the years — I hope you’re all keeping well in the midst of this crisis.
Finally, some recent emails. You can contact us via the contact form on physicspodcast.com and I try to answer every email that I get, usually pretty successfully, but I’ll single out a few here. I’d like to thank Scott for his supportive words and in particular about our interview with Gemma Milne, Smoke and Mirrors, about technological hype. If you enjoyed that interview, do check out her work as well, via the Science Disrupt podcast.
Alexander asked me about dentistry in the time of COVID-19. I have to say, it’s not an area I know an awful lot about, but I do note that episode 611 of This Week In Virology — Corona and Crowns — deals specifically with this issue of how to practice dentistry safely. As someone who’s had a few brushes with the dentist in the past, I can only imagine what people are going through to get around that. I haven’t listened to their advice yet, but what I would say is that even if you have effective filtration or disinfectant going on, I think it’s difficult to do anything but reduce the risk of transmission. I think as we move on with COVID, we are going to need to make a lot more cost-benefit analyses in the actions that we take, and accept that the risk of infection is never going to be zero.
To Anton, the literature student — thanks for the kind words and I hope you can get back to studying and being bored on trains soon.
To Jan, who emailed last month about COVID exit strategies — one of your questions was about how scaleable using blood plasma from recovered patients as a treatment was. I note that to date, 7,000 people have had this treatment in the US. What’s still happening are randomized clinical trials to determine just how effective it is. As Jan pointed out, at least theoretically, if R < 1 then you will always have more recovered people to take blood from than you will have people who might currently need it. This is true, but I imagine that if the benefit is only minor, or only worthwhile in the most severe cases, it may be that the bottleneck is not in blood but in cases where it’s worth the hassle of taking the blood and doing the transfusion, which I imagine is quite complicated. We also discussed contact-tracing apps which I think I’ve since done in much greater detail.
To Sander, who asked if I could do more interview episodes — I hope you appreciate your email is part of the reason I’ve done a few more lately, and have more on the way! I love getting to speak to people who are knowledgeable and passionate also. Thanks for your kind words about the show.
Thanks to Lukas who welcomed me back after the hiatus. Hopefully I can avoid another one of those in the future.
Thanks also and finally to Benjamin and Samuela who gave me their reflections on immortality for the “Who Wants to Live Forever” episode where we dived into some philosophical speculation. My views on immortality haven’t changed — I still think it would end up being tortorous — but the question of whether it’s scientifically practical, and what it would mean if it was, is certainly something that we’ll come back to.
I’m really keen to someday do a listener Q+A episode in full, because I think it would be immensely fun for me and for you guys. So, again, if you want to contribute questions for something like that, send them in via the Contact form on physicspodcast.com, or to my email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll endeavour to feature them on a show someday. One thing I’m specifically interested in is how keen people are for me to do a really lengthy, in-depth series on climate change and issues surrounding that. This is really the closest thing I have to a proper area of expertise, so I’d like to know how people would feel about that as a topic. As ever, any comments, questions, or concerns that you have should go there.
Until next time, then, take care.
So, having ranted at far too great a length about the parallels between the politicised debate around climate change and the politicised debate around COVID-19, I want to talk about how the two potentially interact with each other.
Very early on in this crisis, there were a few articles and a general sentiment — particularly when it was localised to China, and particularly in the West — that there might be a “climate silver lining” from coronavirus. The idea here was that emissions would decrease due to the general reduction in transport, economic and industrial activity. It’s true that emissions have gone down due to the lockdown — this was quantified in a paper released in Nature Climate Change: “Temporary reduction in daily global CO2 emissions during the COVID-19 forced confinement”.
But the effect has been quite small. According to the paper’s abstract
Daily global CO2 emissions decreased by –17% (–11 to –25% for ±1σ) by early April 2020 compared with the mean 2019 levels, just under half from changes in surface transport. At their peak, emissions in individual countries decreased by –26% on average. The impact on 2020 annual emissions depends on the duration of the confinement, with a low estimate of –4% (–2 to –7%) if prepandemic conditions return by mid-June, and a high estimate of –7% (–3 to –13%) if some restrictions remain worldwide until the end of 2020.
Now there are a couple of points to make here. One is very obvious, but I would be remiss if I didn’t make it. The effect of our emissions is cumulative as CO2 lasts for hundreds of years in the atmosphere. So climate change is still getting worse; we’ll still have record CO2 concentrations and likely record temperatures in many places this year. And, indeed, if the 7% figure for the year as a whole is true, then the emissions reductions down to the whole pandemic this year has effectively bought us… about an extra month in our fight against climate change.
One point that I think this pandemic has made clear is that it is, in fact, possible for people to undergo incredibly rapid behavioural changes if they feel that it’s for the greater good. People have drastically reduced their transport habits, staying at home as much as possible. Global air traffic has rapidly reduced by around two-thirds in the last few weeks. If you’re listening to this, there has probably been some disruption to your life. The reduced economic activity has been vast: China’s GDP may have shrunk by 40% during the lockdown, and the EU is projected to drop in GDP by 7%. GDP is a flawed, flawed measure of course, but it seems likely that, temporary or not, this is the worst recession since the Great Depression.
And yet the benefit that we’ve had from this massive upheaval on behalf of millions of people, climate-wise, has been very small indeed. Now it’s true that these actions and these disruptions weren’t designed to minimise CO2 emissions — it’s just a by-product. Perhaps if we went into “lockdown for the climate”, we could get more reductions. At the same time, it’s obvious that the cost has been huge and the reduced level of activity is going to be unsustainable for more than a few months.
So this is not a perfect analogy. But what it seems to suggest and support to me is what’s been mathematically obvious for quite a long time: individual lifestyle changes can only ever be a part of what we need to do against climate change. An important part, maybe, but certainly not all, and certainly not the main part.
And it should illustrate the scale of the challenge to all of us. Because all this disruption and upheaval and recession may just reduce emissions by around 7%. And according to the UN’s climate change report, in order to keep to below 1.5C, we would need to reduce global emissions by 7.6% every year from now until 2030. Obviously, doing this through demand-side measures alone — changing our behaviour to reduce emissions — is simply going to be impossible. Just look at how much has changed to only reduce emissions by 7%.
It should be clearer than ever, then, that when it comes to tackling climate change, we are going to get nowhere with any kind of small, symbolic gestures. We need to be extremely ambitious — we need to remake society, and we need to displace fossil fuels wherever they are used: in transport, for planes and automobiles; in buildings, when it comes to heating and air-conditioning; in power production, in the places where they are still used to generate electricity; and in industry, where processes like cement-making and steel-making produce large amounts of CO2, and, as much as possible, in agriculture, where growing herds of cattle result in deforestation, land use changes, and increasing methane emissions.
This result reminds me a little of the famous MIT study which showed that — even if you had no possessions at all — the bare minimum it would require you to survive in the US would still result in CO2 emissions of 2 tonnes a year, above the global average, purely because of the embodied emissions in that bare minimum of shelter and food that it required you to live. In other words, there are no lifestyle changes great enough for you to make that will solve the problem of climate change, simply because of how deeply embedded the dependence on fossil fuels was in society. That study was a couple of decades ago, and things have improved since then, but I think the basic point is still true: systemic change is required. Everyone has just undergone very dramatic lifestyle changes and it’s barely put a dent in global CO2 emissions.
This, incidentally, is why I’m skeptical when I see fossil fuel companies like Exxon and Shell tweeting out “carbon footprint” calculators. Keeping track of your own personal contribution to climate change, and trying to minimise it, is obviously important and something you should do. But it will be meaningless without that systemic change which is required to seriously cut emissions.
And this is why I’m also very concerned that there is going to be any kind of silver lining for the climate crisis to come out of the coronavirus crisis. Because the truth is, there won’t be any kind of silver lining unless we work for it — unless we act to insist that it’s part of the recovery. The real risk, the base case here, is that governments are focused on virus response for years, and any kind of climate policy gets delayed — and, when there is bandwidth to try and deal with this again, it’s argued that there’s not enough money in light of the recession and in light of the huge economic costs and bill to pay from trying to contain the virus.
This would be a disaster when right now, we actually have a chance to build back better.
And the good news is that the technology to do that is here, it’s ready, and it’s cheaper than ever before. Some examples:
Offshore wind prices have simply plummeted in recent years. Here in the UK, offshore wind projects can bid for a “contract for difference” — an average price at which they can sell the electricity. If the price of electricity is lower when they sell the power, the government pays them; if the price is higher, then they pay the government.
For projects starting in 2017, that price was £167/MWh. The price for the most recently announced projects, which were due to start in 2023, is just £44/MWh, with the cheapest project coming in at under £40/MWh. In just five or six years, the price has fallen by nearly 70%. Wind now supplies 20% of the UK’s electricity alone. And by 2023 in the UK, it could be cheaper to build a brand new offshore wind plant to generate electricity than it is to continue to operate an existing natural gas plant. You would actually save money by shutting down fossil fuel plants immediately and building renewables instead. As these machines are being built, they are getting more efficient — the average capacity factor, which basically the % of the nameplate capacity that actually generates on average due to efficiency, intermittency, and when you supply power to the grid — has gone up from 20% in 2009 to 34% today, largely as the turbines have got larger and more efficient, and better integrated onto the grid at large.
The same story is true in solar panels, perhaps even more stunningly. The price to build 1 Watt of solar panel capacity has fallen from $76 in 1977 to 25 cents in 2017. The levelised cost of electricity from solar panels has fallen from $320/MWh in 2009 to around $35/MWh in the US in 2018, according to Lazard. This means that in just a decade the cost has plummeted by around 90% and it’s now less than half the price of coal and nuclear, and cheaper than natural gas. Furthermore, the cost is projected to continue to decline, with IRENA, the international renewable energy association, suggesting a further cost halving could be in the pipeline in the next decade — and this is before you even take into account new and disruptive solar technologies that are being developed. Meanwhile, the price and efficiency of thermal generation — turbines and fossil fuel power plants — is the same as ever, and the price of the fuels themselves is volatile and fluctuates.
In fact, according to analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, renewables are now the cheapest form of electricity generation for at least two-thirds of the global population, in areas that account for 71% of global GDP and 85% of electricity generation. 85% of electricity generation, and renewables are the cheapest way of providing that, and they’re still getting cheaper. Battery storage, to provide backups for the generation and for electric cars, has fallen from around $1200/kWh in 2010 to around $180/kWh in 2018. The costs of batteries have plummeted by around 85% and they still have much further to fall.
The point here is that people who formed their opinions on renewable energy even ten years ago, when I was in high school even — these opinions are now hopelessly out of date. And this is really the most hopeful thing about the climate crisis at the moment, because sadly, John Maynard Keynes was right when he said: “The ideas of economists and political theorists, whether they are right or wrong, are more powerful than is commonly believed. People who consider themselves to be perfectly rational are more often or not the slaves of some defunct economist.” It would be incredibly hard to struggle to decarbonise society if it was very expensive. The fact that it’s now cheap to at least generate massive amounts of renewable electricity gives us a shot.
Which is a good job, too, because we may well need to double or even quadruple electricity generation to electrify transport and heating, which are two huge sources of carbon emissions beyond simply power generation, which is — if anything — the low-hanging fruit of decarbonisation, even though there’s still much work to be done there globally.
So there is reason for optimism, at least on these grounds. We have seen truly remarkable cost reductions in renewables. Previously, the energy transition was just the right thing to do for the climate and the environment, for living in a sustainable world and for global security, for reducing the air pollution that leads to one in six premature deaths, and for providing cheap and modular electricity to remote communities, to the billion people who still don’t have electricity.
Now it’s also indisputably the right thing to do for the economy. Electric cars, heat pumps, and alternative methods of generating heat for industry are likely to come down in price substantially as well over the years and as the industries scale up.
But it’s still a transition; it doesn’t happen by magic; it requires action.
Part of the flaw in idealised economic theory is the assumption that, if things make economic sense, then they tend to happen. But plenty of things we could have done to decarbonise have negative costs. An economically rational person would drive around in a car that’s fuel-efficient to save money and save the planet — but instead, people choose gas-guzzling SUVs. SUVs alone were the second biggest contributor to the rise in CO2 emissions between 2010 and 2019. Economically rational, climate-conscious people would not buy a car that’s both more expensive to buy and run, and yet they do. Similarly, there are plenty of energy efficiency measures and replacements that could be made which would both save money and reduce carbon emissions, and yet they aren’t happening. Many socio-technical analyses of emissions try to set a carbon price by determining what price would need to be put on a tonne of emitting CO2 to ensure that it was cheaper to avoid emitting it than pay the price for emitting it. But many of them find that a huge fraction of our current emissions could be avoided at a carbon price of $0 — for negative money — in other words, we’d save money and reduce emissions. Yet these things don’t happen by themselves.
In fact, nearly $600bn worldwide is potentially due to be spent on coal-fired power plants that are more expensive than the alternatives and that may end up being retired prematurely anyway.
The key word here is inertia. Changing systems takes time — it takes effort. You have to replace what’s actively there. And we’re talking about replacing every fossil-fuel powered car, every fossil-fuel powered heating system, every fossil fuel power plant that’s running.
Let’s give an example to make this concrete, and we’ll get into some quite considerable detail here so get your detail hats on. One of the thing we’d need to do to wean ourselves off fossil fuels would be to change the system for heating our homes. Here in the UK, we currently have 22 million homes with gas-fired boilers. 14% of the UK’s emissions come from households, many of them down to these gas boilers, so it’s not a minor thing on our path to Net Zero. In fact, for the UK, which has substantially reduced its CO2 emissions from power plants, it’s about as much as our emissions from power-plants.
Typically people keep their boilers for between 10 and 15 years, so even if every new boiler was carbon-neutral, we’d need a decade or more right there for natural replacements to phase out these boilers. But in fact, the boilers and heating systems being installed now are not carbon-neutral. Last year, in 2019, a record number of gas boilers were sold, around 1.7 million in the UK. Clearly, figures like this are disastrous, as every one of these purchases is locking people in to a high-carbon system — after all, it’s much more expensive to your household finances replace something brand-new compared to something old which you would’ve replaced anyway.
There are many different estimates for the cost of replacing these old boilers with something carbon-neutral. The UK’s independent Committee on Climate Change estimated that it would cost £26,300 to install the best standard of low-carbon heating into an old home, and just £4,300 to do so in a new home. This is the price of locking in high-carbon technologies in the new homes that are being built at the moment — yet there is still no law requiring new homes to be built with heat pumps instead of gas boilers.
You can’t straightforwardly multiply this price by the number of boilers to work out the cost. That’s because obviously, every home and every measure will be different, some of these costs would be borne anyway, in replacing old boilers, and the efficiency/gas bill savings will also help offset these costs over time. But it gives you an idea of the vague scale of the amount of investment that would be required to truly decarbonise the UK’s housing stock.
Let’s say a new government took over tomorrow and, rather counter-intuitively right now perhaps, decided that its greatest priority was to decarbonise the UK’s housing. They might immediately begin a programme of retrofitting — building low-carbon heating into old homes. Let’s say the solution is to give every one of those homes a heat pump [for the sake of simplicity, there are actually several different solutions, and this is really just a gross oversimplification to prove a point.]
Currently, just 30,000 new heat pumps are installed in the UK every year. So if you wanted the industry to be ready to take over from gas boilers entirely, you’d need it to get at least 50x bigger, installing 1.5 million heat pumps a year — similar to the rate of gas boiler installation today. Then, over the next decade or so, you’d gradually phase out all of those gas boilers as they are replaced by heat pumps.
When you look at the inertia of a system like this, suddenly the cost of inaction is much clearer. If we want to be carbon neutral by 2050, as the UK’s current target is — which some argue is too late given that this is a wealthy, industrialised nation — then we need to make sure that no new gas boilers are being installed by 2035–40 or so, and that the heat pump industry is ready to take over. For that, the industry has 15 years to become 50x bigger. It would need to double in size basically every 3 years. Needless to say, heat pumps are not on track to do that right now. We would need to start training the engineers who can service many tens or hundreds of thousands of heat pumps right now, just to get things done by 2050.
On the subject of heat and the UK’s gas network in particular, while we’re talking about it a side note, one of the solutions that’s often mentioned is hydrogen. Indeed, there are currently a few schemes going on to inject some hydrogen into the UK’s gas network alongside natural gas, although this can only be done by 5–10% at the moment without significantly changing how the network works.
Hydrogen can theoretically be produced through electrolysis — basically running an electrical current through water to separate the H2 from the O. So it’s possible to have “green hydrogen”, produced from abundant solar or wind electricity, which can then be converted into a fuel that can be burned.
The problem is that at the moment, most hydrogen is not made this way. Instead, it’s made from fossil fuels, including in a process called Steam Methane Reforming where natural gas is converted into hydrogen, emitting CO2 in the process. Estimates vary, but perhaps 90–95% of hydrogen sold at the moment is made from fossil fuels, and not green hydrogen. Of course, this can change, especially if and when renewables get very cheap indeed, but it’s worth bearing in mind when this is proposed as a solution.
The reason I’ve gone into such depth here is to point out that actually, shutting down coal-fired power plants and replacing them with natural gas or renewables is the easy part in reducing our emissions. There are relatively few actors in the electricity generation field; it is easier for government to regulate it and to intervene to provide incentives that will make companies switch generation methods, or to shut down or regulate the relatively small number of power plants that exist. There’s much more inertia — it’s much harder to shift — the millions of people who are involved in making decisions about buying gas boilers, or fossil-fuel powered cars.
To do all of this, globally — it’s a huge, huge undertaking — even if it will save money and the planet in the long-run — that will require a lot of up-front effort and investment. It is a truly monumental undertaking — especially when there are powerful industrial lobbyists that have successfully obfuscated the science and still act to make the solutions seem harder. This is a hard task.
And this is the worry with the coronavirus depression; if that investment, in terms of finance and effort, is not there, then we are going to find it very very difficult to solve this problem. The key is not to cut back on our activities and do nothing, but to reshape society so that it can run on a more sustainable footing, and that means changing the systems that currently exist! So while the temporary reduction to emissions is likely to be temporary — as we saw after the global recession in 2009 when emissions briefly dipped by a % or two and then rose again in subsequent years. In fact, there’s some evidence that a fossil-fuelled recovery may have increased emissions in some places, where money was spent on infrastructure projects that were less sustainable to stimulate the economy after the crash — which is the exact opposite of what we’d want.
It’s not just me saying this, though. Even the relatively conservative Financial Times published an op-ed effectively calling for this:
“If there is one early lesson to be drawn from the Covid-19 crisis, it is that governments must be better prepared for the worst. The pandemic has shown the lethal folly of ignoring expert warnings about the need to be ready for calamity, no matter how remote or uncertain it may seem. This should be uppermost in leaders’ minds as they struggle to rebuild stricken economies in the face of rising calls to abandon measures to address another global threat, climate change. Unlike Covid-19, the world has had ample evidence of the damaging effects of global warming for decades. Governments today still have a chance to mitigate these — they should do so as part of the effort to rebuild after the virus.
Given the scale of the economic damage wrought and the prospect of mass unemployment, policymakers face a difficult balancing act: do they preserve the status quo and rely on fossil fuels to revive their stricken economies or launch new policies to promote a green economic recovery. They should choose the latter, and emulate the example of President Franklin D Roosevelt. His New Deal used state-funded infrastructure and employment initiatives to push the US economy out of the Great Depression. Today’s governments should use their spending power to help stimulate a recovery from the virus that does not lock in a fossil-fuelled economy.”
It feels, then, that this is a really critical time for our fight against climate change. We have an opportunity, in the midst of this crisis, to change how we do things. Just as the New Deal used government stimulus to develop infrastructure and reduce unemployment, we could do the same to solve unemployment and accelerate this transition to a greener, more sustainable economy as well. We can build back in a way that makes us stronger for the future.
There are a couple of things I want to point out. One is some speculation from Zeke Hausfather, who is a very good analyst on all things climate change. He noted in a seminar for Carbon Brief that it’s just possible that 2019 may end up being the year of peak emissions. The reason for this is that, gradually, economic growth is decoupling from CO2 emissions. Historically, the fact that our economy was always growing inexorably dragged up CO2 emissions with it — bigger population, more industry, more energy generation, more transport, more CO2. Recently, as societies begin to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, we were starting to see that the “carbon intensity of GDP” was going down — in other words, more economic growth was occurring with less carbon emissions. Previously, this effect cancelled out, with economic growth more than offsetting improvements in carbon intensity. But it’s just possible, says Zeke, that if trends in economic growth and carbon intensity continue as they have, we may have seen the peak year for global emissions — and they might finally, after centuries, begin to decline. I think this is something hopeful to hang on to, but it’s also something we all need to work towards.
Finally, I have a sense that there may be some people listening who feel like this sounds like agenda-pushing. In other words, now is not the time to try and exploit this crisis to push for other things on your agenda, such as decarbonisation. To that I have two things to say. The first is that the people who already wield power and influence in society don’t need to ask politely when they want to exploit a crisis to push their own agenda: they just, silently, wield their power to do it. See what happened historically with quantitative easing after the global financial crisis, which actually made economic inequality worse after that crisis. Watch what happens with bailouts for various different industries. By comparison, no, I don’t feel bad about suggesting that we should take a course of action that would benefit us, both now and in the future.
And finally, I would just suggest that if people learn some things from COVID-19, it’s that ignoring scientific warnings is futile, because the crisis really doesn’t care if you’re burying your head in the sand. And that acting as early as you possibly can to prevent a crisis from getting worse makes far, far more sense than trying the unbelievably difficult task of adapting to a full-scale emergency. As one of the WHO scientists said: “Everything you do before a pandemic seems like an overreaction; everything you do afterwards seems inadequate.” We see this in coronavirus with countries that moved rapidly to distance and implement testing, tracking, and tracing to keep death rates low, compared to countries that have had to try and make up for things later. And we see it in climate change. Getting to that 1.5C target is getting harder by the day. If emissions had peaked in 2000, we would only need to reduce them by 3% a year to get to 1.5C. If emissions do genuinely peak in 2019, then it will require 15% a year reductions to get to the same level. Prevaricating when you are trying to address a rapidly worsening crisis is a deadly mistake: you have to act rapidly to head disaster off at the pass, because nature won’t wait. And if we won’t learn this lesson now, when will we learn?