Our society and, indeed, our way of life is facing an existential threat. The situation is grim, but not hopeless.
These words could have been used to describe the threat faced by the world’s democracies in 1939, and they could describe the threat today. Eight decades ago, the menace of totalitarian autocracy unleashed a world war that democracies had no guarantees of winning. This decade, the danger of climate crisis is becoming similarly tangible. More and more people are beginning to realize what all the scientific studies actually mean: a distinctly, uncomfortably, non-zero chance that there are people presently alive who may live to see the end of democracy and civilization. As Joachim Schellnhuber, a professor at Potsdam Institute and one of the leading climate scientists in the world, put it in September 2019, the business as usual carries with it at least one in ten odds of civilization’s collapse. At the same interview, professor Schellnhuber also stated that rectifying the situation would take at least 20 years of hard work, and that we have only 30 years left to act.
The task ahead can be summarized very briefly. Global greenhouse gas emissions, most notably carbon dioxide, have to fall significantly. The only viable strategy for doing this is simple: electrify everything and clean up electricity generation. Those activities that cannot be electrified have to be restricted according to the availability of low-emission fuels, such as electrolytically produced hydrogen and synthetic methane, or discontinued altogether. At the same time, we have to turn deforestation into reforestation, globally, and reduce material consumption in order to halt and reverse the ongoing, currently accelerating and extremely worrisome loss of biodiversity. We also have to transform our current agricultural practices, transitioning away from a system that is utterly dependent on fossil fuel “energy subsidies”. All this has to happen while we simultaneously ensure that the transition does not exacerbate economic and social inequalities, nationally or globally.
After decades of inaction, some are now surprised that we no longer have further decades for inaction. There is still time, but major changes have to be initiated within this decade. For example, our energy production system has to rapidly transition from its current, fossil fuel dominated state to almost completely zero emission system. This is just one of the necessary measures, and by no means sufficient by itself, but it serves to illustrate the vastness of the challenge.
Below is a rough diagram exploring what a sustainable energy system of the future might look like. In the diagram, I’ve assumed that the global energy generation increases from its current power level, about 18 terawatts (TW), to 30 terawatts, in order to end energy poverty once and for all. (This figure is not a result of any specific calculation, and only serves to illustrate the magnitudes.) As a rough guesstimate, one could assume that one half of this might be delivered by wind power, about one third by solar, and the remainder would come from a mix of hydropower, nuclear energy, and other sources.
In this case, assuming conservatively that wind turbines last on average 25 years before replacement and depending on average power, the world would have to build up the capacity to construct and install something between 400 000 and 700 000 wind turbines annually, in perpetuity. Such a construction capacity would permit us to build and upkeep between 9 to 15 million wind turbines globally, and deliver about 15 terawatts of average power.
In 2018, approximately 20 000 wind turbines, averaging at about 2.5 megawatts of nameplate capacity, were installed in the world. In other words, we would have to increase the production of wind turbines 20- to 30-fold. (Assuming that world energy use does not increase from its present levels, an 11-fold increase might be enough.) A wind turbine would have to be manufactured and installed every minute, on average. If this sounds like a phenomenal undertaking, it is because it is one.
Nevertheless, we know that such an undertaking is doable. For instance, between 1939 and 1944, United States alone increased its aircraft production 32-fold, from less than 3000 aircraft in 1939 to a peak of 93 600 aircraft in 1944. Additionally, the numbers alone do not tell the whole story: where the planes of 1939 were mostly light, 1- or 2-engined civilian models, the vast majority of those produced in 1944 were massively complex, up to 4-engined war machines bristling with the latest technology. At the same time, the forges of democracy delivered up to 50 cargo ships per day, two fully equipped aircraft carriers per week, and a tank every 26 minutes. All this was achieved despite disruptions and material shortages caused by the war, while over 12 million youth of prime working age, nearly 9 percent of the whole population, were away, fighting on air, land and sea in every corner of the globe.
This miracle was achieved through mass production on a truly epic scale. As factories retooled to produce immense quantities of standardized products, more expensive machinery became profitable to install. This capital deepening, and learning by doing as workers learned to use their tools more efficiently, worked wonders. In 1941, a B-24 Liberator took between 200 000 to 300 000 person-hours to complete; by the end of the war, 18 000 sufficed. (As a comparison, in current dollars, the cost of a B-24 is about the same as the cost of a 2-3 megawatt wind turbine, and from manufacturing point of view, the B-24 is significantly more complex, containing some 25 000 distinct parts or sub-assemblies compared to about 8 000 in a wind turbine.) Similarly, when the first simplified Liberty cargo ships were completed in 230 days, the type was considered to be very fast to construct: by the end of the war, an average Liberty ship had taken mere 11 days to build, and the record from keel laying to launch was four days, 15 hours, and 30 minutes.
A key to this miracle was cooperation between the industry and the federal government. The government was the customer and paid for the products, controlled prices to combat speculation and inflation, and occasionally stepped in to resolve disputes and allocate scarce materials or workers. The work itself was performed by private enterprises, who received fair pay and sustained healthy yet not excessive profit margins. On occasion, the federal government subsidied firms directly, and in general, tax regimes were adjusted to favor investments in war production.
As far as average citizens were concerned, the war did result to some privations. Gasoline and rubber, for instance, were rationed. However, less than half of the total US industry was ever mobilized for war production, and life at the home front continued with far less disruption than in any other country involved in the war. Work was plentiful, and wages increased by 70 percent. Many previously excluded groups, such as women and persons of color, found paid employment for the first time. All in all, the mobilization effort laid the foundations for the prosperity of the 1950s, and cemented the status of the United States as the world’s pre-eminent economic power.
No law of nature prevents us from conducting a similar mobilization today. If we wanted, we could easily increase the production of clean energy sources and carbon-free transportation by 30 or even 40-fold. Compared to the situation in 1940, what the industry of 2020 can achieve is nothing short of magical
It is even possible that large scale mobilization would eventually turn out to be the cheapest way to transform our infrastructure. Currently, we are constructing the low-carbon infrastructure in bits and pieces. Production is small-scale, made to order, with little to no standardization. This is most likely a major reason why low-carbon infrastructure is more expensive than dirty, polluting, fuel-guzzling fossil fuel infrastructure. If we standardise the production to a few basic models and concentrate our powers to manufacturing epic quantities of each one, the undeniable advantages of mass production, capital deepening and learning by doing are unleashed. It’s completely possible that as a result, low-carbon infrastructure becomes cheaper than our current dirty alternatives, even before any carbon taxes are factored in.
After all, mass production does not have to be limited to power plants, even though I used them as an example. Just as the American industry produced not just planes but innumerable quantities of ships, tanks, weapons and equipment, we could mass produce immense quantities of simplified electric scooters, tractors, and cars, electrifying not just our transport but our agriculture as well. Electrolysis plants for clean hydrogen could well be mass produced, slashing the costs of this critically important piece of clean infrastructure. Electric trains need no further introduction, and in the near future, it might be possible to build short-haul electric aircraft to clean up regional transportation. These are just some examples of the products that climate mobilization could deliver.
State-coordinated mass production on an epic scale is also the only card we haven’t even tried to play. So far, we have utterly failed in our attempts to stave off the climate crisis. For three decades, we’ve produced little more than talk about theoretically optimal climate policies, letting precious time to slip by our fingers. Concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues its relentless march upwards, from dangerous to very dangerous. Even though some recent policies have raised our hopes, an accurate summary of current policies is “far too little, far too late.”
For this reason, beginning in January 2020, we will begin to develop a practical plan for climate mobilization. We do not know whether and to what extent the lessons from the world wars are really applicable to our current predicament. Therefore, we have to study the subject without prejudice. The United States war mobilization is, after all, an “existence proof” that a society based on private enterprise and (relative) democracy can, if it so wishes, refocus its industrial might to repel an existential crisis. The history of the US war mobilization can also provide instructive for policy makers across the globe. Contrary to what many believe, the war mobilization began in earnest nearly two years before Pearl Harbor, and President Roosevelt had to use all his considerable political skill and influence to push through the required legislation. The debates would be familiar to everyone who has followed the climate mitigation debate. For instance, when Roosevelt asked in May 1940 – a year and a half before Pearl Harbor – the industry to deliver 50 000 warplanes per year, the responses included “that is impossible”, “it’s far too expensive”, “why should we care for the troubles of faraway peoples?”
Four years later, those 50 000 planes were delivered in little more than six months. What if similar approaches, adapted to our current predicament, would deliver similar results?
After all, transition to a sustainable society is a task we have to do, a task we know how to do, and a task we will do. The only alternative is an eventual collapse of global civilization. In order to help us in that task, a network of researchers and specialists now under construction shall therefore prepare a plan, as concrete and comprehensive as possible, for how the European Union at least could refocus its industry towards repelling the current existential threat to democracy and our way of life. In other words, we shall produce a draft plan for staving off the end of the world as we know it, should our politicians choose to stave it off. Of course, we know that such a plan will need time for political groundwork, and therefore we set the nominal start date, the H-hour so to speak, to 2030. This gives the current environmental policy paradigm a decade to produce results, but also gives us at least somewhat prepared backup plan, just in case the policies that have failed us for the last 30 years continue to do so.
Having said all that, it is nevertheless imperative to remember that technology alone cannot “solve” the sustainability crisis. Unless we simultaneously retool our societies as well, no amount of wind turbines or electric cars can deliver anything but a temporary respite. Unless we can set hard limits to environmental degradation, sooner or later we will cross some dangerous threshold. Retooling our societies requires that we abandon societal mechanisms that make the destruction of our only life support system seem like a rational choice for an individual. Unless we can do that, some other sustainability crisis will be the end of us, even if we manage to stop dangerous climate change. Sustainability crises are interconnected, and we are facing potentially equally serious biodiversity crisis, and that we have altered the planet’s nitrogen cycle in an unsustainable manner. Dwindling freshwater supplies are already causing local problems, and the phosphorous cycle is out of balance in an alarming manner, all while our near-exponential growth is also approaching four other critically important “planetary boundaries”. For these reasons, it is certain that the future will see a societal change as well: the only questions remaining are whether this change is voluntary and planned, or involuntary and forced upon us by physics.
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