The cheapest electricity in history

The Carbon Brief team had a nice summary of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2020. My favorite 3 nuggets:

(1) “For projects with low-cost financing that tap high-quality resources, solar PV is now the cheapest source of electricity in history.”

(2) India will build 86% less new coal power capacity than expected last year. Long seen as driving global coal growth, IEA now says India will add just 25GW by 2040.

The result? Global coal capacity will fall.

(3) This year’s version of the highly influential annual outlook offers four “pathways” to 2040, all of which see a major rise in renewables. The IEA’s main scenario has 43% more solar output by 2040 than it expected in 2018, partly due to detailed new analysis showing that solar power is 20-50% cheaper than thought.

Despite a more rapid rise for renewables and a “structural” decline for coal, the IEA says it is too soon to declare a peak in global oil use, unless there is stronger climate action. Similarly, it says demand for gas could rise 30% by 2040, unless the policy response to global warming steps up.

This means that, while global CO2 emissions have effectively peaked, they are “far from the immediate peak and decline” needed to stabilise the climate. The IEA says achieving net-zero emissions will require “unprecedented” efforts from every part of the global economy, not just the power sector.

For the first time, the IEA includes detailed modeling of a 1.5C pathway that reaches global net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050. It says individual behaviour change, such as working from home “three days a week”, would play an “essential” role in reaching this new “net-zero emissions by 2050 case.


It has been awesome to see the IEA continually revise up the solar forecasts. I predict continued revisions in the coming years. Solar adoption will continue to rise quickly because it will be the obvious economical decision.

And, that’s fantastic.

Fires

It’s been a devastating few days near us.

Many have lost their homes. Many others have their bags packed in case an evacuation order comes their way tonight.

The rest who’ve avoided these fires (dumb luck) have been staying indoors doing their best to avoid the smoke. This is while hoping evacuation zones don’t widen and with accompanying attempts to maintain some semblance of normalcy amidst the chaos.

Diego Saez-Gil, a resident of Boulder Creek, shared this pic of his burnt down home.

Diego is also the CEO and the Founder of Pachama, a start-up committed to restoring forests to fight climate change. He shared a beautiful post about how this tragedy only makes this mission more personal.

Leah Stokes, a Professor at UC Santa Barbara and a leading thinker on environmental policy, had a thoughtful article explaining what happened and why we need to continue to act with urgency in moving toward a grid driven by renewables. Of course, given the circumstances, she found it important to remind us – “What’s happening in California has a name: climate change.”

Remembering this isn’t going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination. We’ve still got billions of dollars invested by folks with entrenched interests in fossil fuels to ensure climate denial continues to find its place in mainstream media.

But, as much as it is easy to point fingers (and it is), science has always worked this way. Galileo Galilei spent a large part of his life under house arrest for asserting that the Sun was at the center of the solar system.

And, if we need a recent example, one need only to look as far at the state of COVID-19 in the United States.

So, the fight will need to continue. And, as we move from this fire to the next extreme weather event to the one after that, we’ll probably need fewer reminders of the fact that the stakes are higher this time around.

Or at least that’s hope.


PS: I find myself thinking of Valery Legasov’s note from time to time.

“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on our search for truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there, whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl. Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: “What is the cost of lies?”

Some good news – Carbios and plastic

Plastic is an ever present in most of our lives. Sadly, the result is the presence of billions of tons of plastic wasted all over the planet – from the Arctic to the Mariana Trench. We don’t yet know the second and third order effects of all this waste – for example, what are the effects of plastic entering our food chain via animals and fish?

While such impact is hard to discern measure, it is highly likely not positive.

But, plastic is also an invaluable fixture in our daily lives. So, eliminating plastic is a near impossibility. And, even if we will hopefully make strides toward (significantly?) reducing plastic use over time, we also need to find a way to recycle plastic. This has proved to be really difficult in the past and researchers have been attacking the problem in earnest over the past two decades.

And, we have some good news along those lines – scientists in France have created a mutant bacterial enzyme that has managed to successfully break down 90% of PET bottles (think: soft drink bottles) and then use them create new-food grade plastic bottles. Their paper was published on the journal Nature recently – see here.

Carbios, the company that these scientists, founded is leading the charge here toward possibly enabling industrial scale recycling in 4-5 years. While that is most certainly 4-5 years later than I’d like, the fact that it is a possibility thanks to this breakthrough is very heartening.

(H/T: The Guardian for sharing this)

The economics of building a coal plant

Carbon Tracker, a UK based website I’ve been following of late, shared a useful graphic about the costs of coal versus renewable energy.

Coal has always been considered the cheapest source of power generation. And, as a result, the debate about whether to regulate coal plants has involved a lot of political back and forth in the past decade.

But, as the Carbon Tracker team points out, over half of the coal power plants today cost more to run than building a new renewable power plant. At the rate at which this progress is being made, low-cost renewable energy generation is expected to be cheaper than coal everywhere in a decade.

There are no incentives more powerful than monetary ones in shifting behavior.

Looking ahead into the 2020s

When I think of the biggest problems we face as humans, I break the population into two groups.

The first group focuses most of its energy on finding ways to provide for the basic necessities. Nearly 5 Billion people out of the 7.95 Billion people on this planet fall into this bucket. They live on less than ten dollars per day. Of this group, around billion started this decade living on less than two dollars per day and are classified as people living in “extreme poverty.”

It is important to start with a broad strokes understanding of the realities that the global population faces. Most people on the planet (~60%-70%) live in poverty. And, yet, it is likely very few, if any, of the people you are related to are likely to fall in this bucket. So, underestimating the grip of poverty on the global population is completely understandable. We just aren’t exposed to it often enough to comprehend it.

The second group is the group we – and most folks we call relatives or friends – fall into. We, as a group, are blessed with the privilege that accompanies either being born in a wealthy (by global standards) zip code or to parents with healthy genes. In most cases, our privilege is likely a combination of both.

As a result, we have the luxury to spend our time worrying about problems that don’t involve finding ways to provide shelter or food for those we love.

Again, it matters that we internalize the impact of this privilege simply because we spend very little time talking or reading about it. To a girl born in the slums of Mumbai, the odds of having the kind of life you or I have are near zero. No amount of mental fortitude or ingenuity will compensate for the lack of privilege.

Of course, I exaggerate when I say “no amount.” But, not by much. The odds of making it out of poverty (never mind “extreme poverty”) are near zero.

By the end of 2030, current estimates are that we’ll end up with around 500 million people in “extreme poverty.” While significantly lower than three decades prior, we’ll still be ways off eradicating extreme poverty. While I’d love for us as a race to be focused on eradicating extreme poverty, I think the odds of that happening are, again, near zero.

That’s because the second group is going to be drawn into the many problems created by two realities.

The first is that the climate – different from the weather – on planet Earth is moving toward a state of emergency. In the next decade, we’re going to see this discussion continue to pick up momentum. Along the way, we’re going to hear inaccurate facts, conspiracies, and resistance. It won’t matter if we’re on the right, left, center or whichever other political leaning I haven’t captured. As long as we’re affected by the earth’s gravitational field, we’ll be impacted by the consequences.

Today, even though 97% of scientists working on the climate agree on the problem, we’re not close to mainstream adoption. But, it will follow. It took between twenty and thirty years for scientific consensus around nicotine to become common knowledge. But, that was before the internet. Even accounting for the easy spread of falsehood, I expect consensus on the climate emergency to take shape toward the end of the next decade.

The next fight we’ll be wrestling with will be the complicated relationship between us, our work, and money. The industrial economy was built on drawing a clear connection between labor and money. That happy relationship led to a growing middle class and prosperous times for large portions of the developed world.

However, that relationship has broken. As we saw over and over again in the past decade, a few lines of code can generate more economic value than millions of hours of labor. And, as machine learning became mainstream, we learnt that these lines of code can help reduce the amount of human labor required to produce everything we need for our consumption.

As this relationship between us, our labor, and the money we earn has broken, we’ve seen unhappiness and dissatisfaction soar in the richest places on the planet. When human beings are unhappy, we behave in predictable ways. We turn on people who are different from us, resist change, and elect people who promise to deal with the “others” and promise to make things like they were in the good old days.

But, there’s no reversing the tide.

Add an inevitable economic downturn into the mix and we’re heading into a fascinating decade.

What does this mean for us?

As is the case with humanity, there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic. I choose the former as optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In the face of all this, my recommended approach tends to be rooted in simplicity and focused on change from the inside out. That means being the change we wish to see. That starts with committing to thinking better, working hard on meaningful problems with optimists who’re focused on learning and challenging our assumptions.

That also means living as sustainably as possible, voting when we can, and not falling into the trap of thinking the problems we see around us are a result of “them.”

In the end, all we have and will have is each other.

One bin is rubbish

When Ogilvy took on the goal of making households in the UK recycle more, their “one bin is rubbish” campaign focused on getting folks an extra bin at home. This, in turn, meant that folks found it much easier to sort their recyclable trash and, thus, recycle more.

A big reason for the success of their campaign was their focus on changing behavior instead of attempting to make them card carrying members of the green movement.

Over time, changes in behavior inspire changes in beliefs and attitude.

It is a story I think of every time I think of the climate crisis of late. We need more of a focus on changing behavior before attempting to change beliefs.

Climate Crisis – the most important 5 posts

An item on my “to write in a long form post” list that I haven’t been able to get to in the past months is a post on the climate crisis. I wrote long posts on the topic ~2 years ago and a lot has improved in our understanding of the problem (hint: it is a tougher and bigger problem than we initially thought). So, instead of attempting to synthesize all the great stuff being written on the topic, I thought I’d attempt to curate the most important 5 posts I’ve read on the topic for anyone looking to get up to speed.

1. Amasia and the Climate Crisis – The Facts by Ramanan Raghavendran (link). The Amasia team (a venture capital firm) have done a fantastic job synthesizing the facts on climate change in one post. If there’s just one insightful post you want to read to understand the facts, this is it.

2. The state-of-emissions of greenhouse gases by Our World in Data (link). As Ramanan and team detail in the above post, richer countries have contributed disproportionately to this problem. I’ve gotten a bit of heat from some of you in previous posts where I’ve called out the current US administration for inaction on the problem. The chart below hopefully helps explain why – as the biggest contributor to emissions globally and the biggest per capita in the last 250 years (by a distance), taking some responsibility to find solutions isn’t an unrealistic expectation in my book.

And, second, while our politicians would love for us to point fingers at “them” (take your pick on whoever “they” are), we all share the planet and we emit a lot of greenhouse gases collectively. We’re in this together.

3. The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change by NASA (link). The top scientists in the United States shared their take on the climate crisis to the world. They detail causes, evidence, and effects in this very thorough and beautifully visualized analysis. The biggest takeaway for us – we need to stop calling it climate “change.” It is a crisis.

PS: If you prefer reading research papers, here are two (1, 2) recommended by one of the most knowledgeable folks I know on the topic.

4. Scientists have been underestimating the effects of climate change in The Scientific American (link). If the above consensus didn’t give you pause, maybe this will. The authors of a book called “Discerning Experts” examined the research on the topic of climate and concluded that scientists have been consistently underestimating the effects of climate change. This is happening because scientists wants to be consistent with preceding research, worry about being labeled as alarmists, and view the data more conservatively (likely to be able to maintain optimism themselves).

5. So, what are the solutions? This all sounds pretty bad. What, then, are the solutions? As you might imagine, there is nothing definitive here – so, I have more than 1 link to share. If there were, there’d be nothing to discuss. :-) Bill Gates, now one of the leading thinkers and investors in this domain, believes the answer lies in tackling the various major drivers of emissions – electricity (25%), agriculture (24%), manufacturing (21%), transportation (14%), and buildings (6%). His post is here.

While there are many interesting technologies in the running to reduce or remove emissions in these areas, the technologies that experts are pinning their hope on seems to revolve around some form of carbon capture. Akshat Rathi, a reporter at Quartz, has been doing a great job covering progress on carbon capture and also has a good weekly newsletter called “The Race to Zero Emissions.”

There are, of course, reasons to be pessimistic. When I went down the climate crisis rabbit hole 2 years ago, I emerged with a sense of disappointment and despair at our efforts to understand the problem and respond to it. The progress we’re currently making is too slow – there is no doubt about that. And, the challenge with changing behavior today is that it has become a political issue in many places. Making something political is close to the surest way to prevent progress.

As a result, there are many who believe we’ll only be able to get over our petty issues/conflicts and begin to respond after a major negative event that will contribute to the loss of many lives. Sadly, as things stand, the odds of them being right are fairly high.

That said, optimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, I think it is important to be optimistic. And, to that end, I’ll end with a key paragraph in the first link I shared from Ramanan’s/Amasia’s excellent synthesis.

Issues as large and widespread as climate change suffer from the paradox of rational choice: while it is collectively rational to take action in the face of climate change, it may seem individually irrational to make fundamental lifestyle changes due to the high personal cost and immeasurably small effect a single set of actions will have on the environment as a whole. The importance of change at the individual level, however, is far greater than most people recognise, and such change when taken up by billions will make a decisive difference.

Amen to that.

I hope this round up helps.