Magic Bullets

The Breakthrough Institute argue that we need more R&D investment, triggered by Governments, in technologies to allow us to stop emitting greenhouse gases. Many people will agree but might say:

“Yes, new technologies are important, yes, lets invest in research, but don’t wait for a golden bullet that will effortlessly save us or it will be much too late. Alongside looking for new solutions, we have to use the technology we have already – insulate houses, create a grid to export power from places with high potential for renewable”

The Zero Carbon Britain report is also very cautious about assuming:

“There is one magic bullet that would negate the need for major reductions in energy demand and use of natural resources.” (p28)

I have heard the arguments lots of times, and yes we cannot rely upon capitalism shifting and putting the resources into new technologies, and these technologies being sufficient. However there is contrast, and that is closing our eyes and ears to such a dynamic.

The fact that we live in a society which is dominated globally by coal and oil interests doesn’t mean that there can’t be shifts in the predominant modes of production. Without denying the destructive and oppressive nature of the beast we also need to pay heed to the potential. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously argued that the ruling class retained its powerful position by constantly revolutionising the technological means of production:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty are swept away, all new ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air. “

(Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)

The last 150 years have been very dynamic. Just think about the computer/IT/digital/internet ‘revolution’. Along with wireless and TV, cars and aeroplanes. But these technological breakthroughs are not just going to emerge ‘naturally’ from business. Similar developments (e.g. the microchip, the internet) have been stimulated by the cold war and the space race, see “Where Good Technologies Come From: Case Studies in American Innovation”

See <>

In contrast Breakthrough Institute say it is possible, indeed necessary to foster State investment in order to stimulate an unprecedented increase in the rate of technological change leading to enormous low carbon investment.

(In October 2007, Houghton Mifflin published Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s Break Through: why we can’t leaving saving the Planet to the environmentalists.)

I agree that:

“Few things have hampered environmentalism more than its longstanding position that limits to growth are the remedy for eco- logical crises.”

On page 15 they suggest that

“There is simply no way we can achieve an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions without creating breakthrough technologies that do not pollute. This is not just our opinion but also that of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, of Nicholas Stern, the former chief economist of the World Bank, and of top energy experts worldwide. Unfortunately, as a result of twenty years of cuts in funding research and development in energy, we are still a long way from even beginning to create these breakthroughs. ”

On the one hand I am not saying we can rely upon the magic bullet. But on the other hand I don’t believe we can really mitigate and halt the development of global warming unless technological breakthroughs are made to happen. I am convinced that there will be some technological breakthroughs. One question is “how and when, and are governments going to help force the pace?”

And another question is “are environmentalists taking these arguments on board?”

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2 thoughts on “Magic Bullets

  1. First of all, who is the “I” who wrote this piece?

    Secondly, I’m not clear what this “I” person is saying. Yes,
    indeed we need technologies to deal with climate change. I think that is
    blindingly obvious. However, there are now plenty of examples of technological
    innovations that have been counter-productive when it comes to climate change.
    An example would be bio-fuels, which require far too much land and/or labour
    and fresh water to ever be a real solution as a low carbon fuel source.

    In fact most technological innovation over the last two
    hundred years have involved new ways of using (carbon sourced) energy to power
    devices to do clever things. Within the context of a growing economy technological
    innovations that increase energy efficiency typically do not lead to less
    energy being used but more. This was known to Jevons in the 19th
    century and is variously give the name “rebound” or the Khazoom Brookes effect.
    For example people save money in their insulated houses and blow the money on a
    holiday flight to Spain. Net result – more energy used, not less. Or again a
    company that saves on its energy costs will invests the savings in an expansion
    in production…sure it expands jobs too but the expansion will involve more

    Take the internet as another example. A few years ago it was
    consuming about 2 % of the human used global energy supply – 1% to make devices
    and 1% to power them. Technological change in the internet is increasing energy
    efficiency by 10 times ever five years and superficially there seems to be
    plenty of scope in this process to “de-carbonise” the economy – for example stay
    at home skype calls and conferences to replace travelling by car or air to
    visit people place to face.

    Hurrah!……But wait a minute. The energy consumption of
    the internet is also doubling every five years. The technological change that
    increases energy efficiency makes possible new applications which require data
    centres using bucket loads of energy, burning coal in North Carolina, for the
    new applications. To use the new devices you have to buy them and throw away
    the old ones. The new devices must be built and powered. New applications
    spread the internet based economy. If something doubles every 5 years then in
    grows like this every 5 years 2 – 4 – 8 – 16 – 32 – 64 – and the 2 that started
    this sequence was 2% of the global energy supply….sorry…that is seriously
    not helpful.

    So technology on its own is necessary, but it is not
    sufficient. It is even likely to be counter productive. There is an additional
    need for a restraining framework to lock in the energy efficiency gains. An
    example of this kind of framework that would be equitable is a policy like cap
    and share (‘cap and share’ NOT ‘cap and trade’).

    With cap and share you limit the fossil fuels that you allow
    into the economy in the first place by requiring coal, oil and gas companies
    who produce (or import) fuels to have permits before they are allowed to sell
    their fuels. The permits are denominated in carbon units so a coal company
    wishing to sell coal must have permits for all the carbon content of the fuel
    it sells to power stations or elsewhere. The amount of permits would be subject
    to a strict ceiling which is reduced each year. This way the amount of fossil
    fuels that would be let in the economy in the first place reduces each year.

    Now for the share – in order to get hold of the permits the
    fuel suppliers must first buy them. Who from? Well the permits are effectively rationing the right to burn fossil fuels into the earth’s atmosphere. And who owns the earth’s atmosphere? Actually the earth’s atmosphere is a global commons that we all use and should share the benefits from if we are prepared also to share the responsbility of looking after it. So in return for accepting our responsibility and having a rapidly reducing cap we should all share the benefits. So the permits should first go to the public. But most of the public do not sell fossil fuels so the public should then be allowed to sell them on to the fossil fuel supplies – as long as we limit the suppliers enough and reduce the carbon each year fast enough.

    So the trick is to ensure that the money that the fossil fuel companies buy the permits with goes back to the public per capita. Of course, the price of fuel and goods made with fuel will rise, but if you have a low carbon lifestyle the amount of money that you make selling your permits would be more than you would have to pay as the price of goods rise when the carbon price re-enters your cost of living.

    In fact it will not be possible to decarbonise the economy without a cost. It will hurt – but this can be done equitably. In fact most poor people have low carbon lifestyles so they would in general come out ahead – but they will have to continue to decarbonise year on year to stay ahead. They may need additional help to achieve this if they are old or vulnerable – that’s a different story….

    But the technology needs an equitable framework to drive the process….

    Then technology will be helpful to allow people to cope with a reducing carbon lifestyle imposed in the reducing cap. Without the framework technology is likely to be counter productive

    Brian Davey

    • Thank you for your very interesting and provocative comment! We are currently formulating a response to get this debate going. Please bear with us and we’ll get back to you shortly.

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