Problems of Scale

The material in this blog is taken from the post Problems of Scale.

Problems of scale

The material in this post is taken from the ebook Net Zero: An Opportunity.

A focus of the materials at this site is on the use of technology to slow down the rate at which the climate is changing and to mitigate the effects of such changes. As has already been stressed, technology is not a solution, we cannot return to our energy-profligate “good old days”. Even if a technology is proven to be effective at mitigating climate change, there is insufficient time for scale up.

The climate summit in Glasgow <COP26> was a failure because it was predicated on the fiction that technology will solve the problem of climate change. Technology will not solve the problem because it cannot be scaled sufficiently in time . . . In the 28 years we have left to reach net zero emissions, there is no possibility that our supplies of <alternative> electricity, CCS and biomass will scale to anywhere near the levels required by the plans discussed at COP26. And scale is the only thing that matters when we discuss plans for mitigating climate change.

(Allwood, 2021)

However, a judicious selection of new technologies (and modified applications of old ones) may provide a middle ground that provides the basis of a new Synthesis — a new way of living that is not Business as Usual, but that is not collapse either.

We frequently hear the mantra “listen to the scientists”. What is meant by this phrase is that the many scientific reports to do with climate change published in recent years leave no doubt that the climate is changing, that human emissions are the cause of the change, and that the consequences could be catastrophic. Therefore, we should stop wishful thinking and take a long, cold, hard look at what the scientists tell us about climate change. However, listening to the scientists is only the first step in this process. We also need to listen to the engineers, project managers and financial managers. When a new technology is proposed, we need to ask not just, “Can it be done?” but “Can it be implemented on a global scale within the next thirty years without having unacceptable side-effects?”

So, when a new technology is proposed as a means of responding to climate change the questions that need to be asked include the following.

  • Does it work at scale? Can it be scaled up so as to have a significant impact on the world’s production and consumption of energy in just three short decades?

  • How many resources, particularly fossil fuels, are required to implement that technology? (Chapter 16 — The Transition discusses this important and often overlooked issue.)

  • What is it impact on the Earth’s overall ecology? For example, both wind and solar power are renewable and do not produce greenhouse gases. However, both provide low density energy, hence they require immense amounts of land are needed for solar and wind farms. This land would otherwise have been used for agriculture or for wildlife.

  • Is the technology simple? For example, it is relatively simple to install an underwater turbine to capture energy from tidal flows of water. On the other hand, some technologies — nuclear fusion comes to mind — are complex, difficult and expensive to implement. It is unlikely that such technologies can be implemented at scale or that that they will be available in sufficient time to have a global impact. It is also likely that low-capital technologies will be relatively successful because, in a declining economy, economies of scale operate in reverse.

  • Not only will technology need to be simple, so will management systems. In a time of economic contraction organizations will need to simplify their management structures, de-centralize their decision-making and lower their governance/overhead costs if they are to continue to be successful.