• Ian Sutton

Lessons from 2020


Credit: Shutterstock


Many blog writers start each new year with a prediction as to what they think will happen. The year 2020 made such forecasting look rather foolish. Nevertheless, here are my thoughts as what I think may happen in 2021 with regard to our response to climate change.


A YouTube video of this blog is available at https://youtu.be/ntZt-O_S-zU.


Lessons from 2020

What has the extraordinary year 2020 taught us, and what might happen in the year 2021?


The first lesson is that we need to be very cautious when making predictions. How many people in the final days of the year 2019 predicted that,

  • A world-wide pandemic would cause the deaths of nearly 2 million people. And that by the end of the year the pandemic would still be out of control. Indeed, new variants of the virus are developing.

  • The global economy would experience a sudden and drastic economic crash in which millions of people would become unemployed almost overnight, tens of thousands of businesses would close, and the tourist business would just about collapse.

  • For those of us living in Virginia, all but one of the famous Confederate statues on Richmond’s Monument Avenue that were erected in the 1890s would be removed.

Yet all of these events happened, and they happened very quickly. It pays to be humble.


There was one area, however, where predictions turned out to be quite accurate, and that was to do with climate change. It’s happening, it’s getting worse, and it’s affecting more and more people in their daily lives.

Consider just the following items.

  • We are seeing an increasing number of severe storms. Indeed, there were so many hurricanes and tropical storms in the Gulf of Mexico that we ran out of names and had to start a new sequence using the Greek alphabet.

  • The year started with wild fires in Australia followed by massive fires throughout the western part of the United States. Even the Siberian tundra started to burn.

  • Conservative and careful mainstream media are talking increasingly about how the climate seems to be changing, as we see in the above post to do with the gradual increase in temperatures in central Virginia.

  • At a personal level I was able to grow a fall crop of English peas — something that would have not been so easy in previous years.

Some Good News


BP — Net Zero by 2050

There was, however, at least one item of good news to do with climate change and the year 2020. More and more nations and organizations are committing to the ‘Net Zero by 2050’ goal. The governments of Germany, Japan and the U.K. all made this commitment, as did the leaders of many oil companies. Their goal is to restructure their operations so that they are not adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere 29 years from now.

Here is what Vicki Hollub, CEO of Occidental, said recently,

As we got to the point where we realized that there was no way to cap global warming at two degrees without a significant amount of carbon capture we then realized that there was an opportunity for us to go further with our anthropogenic plan and make it into a business.

Climate Change and Technology

The goal of this web site and blog series is to find and evaluate technological solutions that can help us meet the challenges of climate change. In particular, we need to know if technology can help us meet the goal of getting to ‘Net Zero in 2050’. (That is — no net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere just 29 years from now.)

Broadly speaking there are three types of technology to consider.

  1. Technologies that are already well-established and commercially proven (although not necessarily profitable). Included in this group are solar, wind and nuclear power.

  2. Ideas that are still at the concept or development stage. Examples are ammonia fuel cells and nuclear fusion.

  3. Processes for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — either at the point where it is generated, or from the air around us.

In addition to asking whether a technology will work, we need to consider project management realities. Can we implement the new technology world-wide in just three decades? Do we have resources (human and physical) to implement a wholesale and radical reorganization of our entire industrial infrastructure in such a short period of time? Who will pay for such a transformation? Where will the money come from? Fundamentally, do we have the political will to make such a transformation so quickly?


At the site, each idea or proposal is evaluated using a simple Phase-Gate project management approach as shown in the sketch.



Predictions for 2021

Given the unexpected events of the year 2020 it behooves us to be very circumspect when peering into 2021. Here are a few guesses.

  • A combination of widespread vaccination, improved treatments for those who are ill, and a general acceptance of social hygiene practices will cause the COVID-19 pandemic to die down, but not go away altogether. Like the ‘flu, it will be part of our life. But it will not be quite as dominant as it is now.

  • The pandemic’s economic impact will continue for years. Whole industries will undergo fundamental restructuring.

  • Industrial activity will pick up and the Keeling Curve will continue its long-term, seemingly inexorable upward climb. The climate will continue to get hotter; extreme weather events will become even more extreme.

The Keeling Curve

Net Zero by 2050

A further prediction is that many companies, particularly those in the energy business, will continue to realize that low-carbon goals are more than just “good ideas” or “something that we need to think about”. These companies will realize that moving away from carbon-based fuels is both fundamental to their survival, and an opportunity to become business leaders and to make money.


Conclusions

In the coming year we will take a close look at the technologies that are proposed as a means of addressing our climate change dilemmas. To obtain an overview of the topics that we are reviewing check out the draft Table of Contents for a book we are working on, Technology for a Changing Climate.

Well, that concludes our first post for the year 2021. We wish everyone a happy new year. Of one thing we can be sure — it will be interesting.

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