• Ian Sutton

Appropriate Technology

Updated: Oct 13, 2021

International Energy Agency (IEA) Net Zero by 2050 plan

Yesterday (March 31st 2021) the International Energy Agency (IEA) hosted a Summit featuring a wide range of leaders from governments and organizations. The Summit was part of the IEA’s program to publish, 'the first comprehensive roadmap for the global energy sector to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.'

. . . the roadmap will set out a pathway for what is needed from governments, companies, investors and citizens to put global emissions on a path in line with a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees. The roadmap will help decision makers to prioritise urgent action in the lead-up to Glasgow [COP26 Summit later this year].

The speakers mostly had a positive attitude about how much progress has already been made, and what needs to be done in the next decade in order to achieve the Net Zero targets. Yet there seemed to be an underlying sense of unease, a feeling that, if the past is harbinger of the future, then we are not going to make it. For example, one of the speakers was John Kerry who has served as the United States Secretary of State and is currently the nation’s Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. He alluded to the lack of progress in reducing emissions in the years since the Paris Climate Conference that was held six years ago. He stressed that the time for talk is gone, action is required. Time is pressing.

The reality that no one at the meeting was willing to talk about is that, unless there is some highly unlikely world-wide change in attitudes and behaviors, we will not make the 2030 target of 1.5°C, nor will we achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050. Consider some of the information provided in recent posts just at this site.

  • Rebound showed that global CO2 emissions continued to rise during the COVID-19 pandemic. The sudden and large slowdown in economic activity over the course of the last twelve months has had minimal impact. Yet none of the IEA speakers talked about the economic slowdown that is probably going to be needed to meet their targets. Indeed, many of them stressed the importance of continued economic growth.

  • Three Decades described how it took 30 years to change out the principal motive power units on American railroads, yet the speakers talked about transforming our entire industrial infrastructure in that amount of time.

  • A series of posts to do with renewable energy, including Renewables: Not Fast Enough and Renewables: the Paradox, have described some of the fundamental difficulties to do with moving quickly to “green” energy sources.

An unspoken assumption in most of the literature to do with technology and climate change is that new technologies, ranging from those that are well-established such as solar, to others that are futuristic such as nuclear fusion, will help us maintain our current lifestyle, and continue steady economic growth. However, if we cannot achieve our Net Zero goals then we need to accept that Business as Usual is not going to happen. Which means that we should select simpler technologies, rather than those that are high-tech and that require a complex infrastructure.

For example, nuclear fusion pushes technology to the limits. The fusion reaction occurs at unbelievably high temperatures, and containment of the plasma is a enormous challenge. If we fail to meet the Net Zero goals we may find that we will no longer be able to provide the hi-tech infrastructure that fusion technology requires.

Other technologies are more suited to a low-tech environment. For example, there is as much energy as we will ever need in the ocean’s tides, currents and waves. This energy can be tapped using devices that are orders of magnitude simpler than a nuclear fusion reactor. One example of such technology is vortex shedding. Yet this type of technology has not received even a tiny fraction of the funding provided to nuclear fusion, even though it is hardly futuristic — after all, it is the technique that fish use to generate forward propulsion. The technology is very well established.

Fish using vortices to move forward

Given that achieving our Net Zero goals seems to be ever more unlikely, we would be well

This means that the technology requires a supporting base of advanced technology. If it turns out that Net Zero by 2050 is not a realistic goal then we should shift our emphasis away from futuristic technologies such as nuclear fusion to simpler technologies such as ocean power.

Vortex shedding — a simple method of using ocean energy

Credit: University of Michigan