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A ray of hope for a burning world

There's a bright side to this heatwave. Credit: LISELOTTE SABROE/AFP/Getty Images

There's a bright side to this heatwave. Credit: LISELOTTE SABROE/AFP/Getty Images

July 25, 2019   4 mins

The enemies of action on climate change get hot and bothered around this time of year.

Though fond of a “so-much-for-global-warming” tweet when it’s cold out, in a heatwave they’re sure to remind us about the difference between weather and climate.

Well, they’re not wrong – an extreme weather event is not necessarily a signifier of climate change. But a warming planet does make extreme weather events more likely. When you hear about one or two degrees of global warming remember that this is an average figure – and that the extra heat isn’t going to be distributed evenly.

Remember also what each additional degree adds up to. If it helps, imagine the number of fan heaters you’d need running to warm up the entire world by that amount. We’re talking about a truly vast input of energy in a geologically instantaneous moment of time. In other words, an almighty jolt to a complex system the size of a planet. So, yes, we can expect multiple disruptions to the climate – as opposed to a smoothly averaged-out rise in temperatures.

It all seems so overwhelming. But that only reinforces the case for preventative action. Some man-made global warming, and hence climate trauma, is inevitable – but whether or not we make a bad situation worse is up to us.

Of course, there’s a whole bunch of vested interests who’d rather we didn’t act. They’ve tried, but failed, to undermine public trust in climate science, so now the main focus is on persuading us that the challenge is too big, too costly for us to tackle.

For instance, they’d love us to be disheartened by graphs like this one, which shows global consumption of different energy sources over the course of the 21st century. The bars for coal, oil and natural gas tower over those for the low carbon energy sources: nuclear, hydro and the new renewables (mostly wind and solar). How on Earth are we going to replace so much dirty energy with clean alternatives in the little time left to us?

Well, there’s no doubting that this is the fight of our lives – but its scale is not quite as daunting as it appears. The graph above is a measure of primary energy consumption. It includes conversion losses from the combustion of fossil fuels, i.e. the waste heat that disappears out of power station chimneys, vehicle exhaust pipes and boiler vents. This is energy that we don’t need to replace with cleaner sources.

We also don’t need to replace the energy that we can avoid wasting by making efficiency improvements. There’s a great example of just how big these could be in a fascinating article for The Economist. It’s about electric cars – whose potential goes way beyond simply swapping out the internal combustion engine for an electric motor and a battery pack. An American company called Indigo Technologies is developing a means of replacing the centralised drive system of a conventional car with an in-wheel drive unit they call the T1.

Essentially, they’re attaching an electric motor to each wheel – but what’s the advantage in that?

“…fitting T1s to all four wheels eliminates the need for driveshafts, transmissions, suspension parts and other weighty components…

“Reduced vehicle weight means also that the propulsive motors do not need to be as powerful as those of conventional electric cars—especially as the task of propulsion is divided four ways between them. Nor are any gears involved, for the motors turn only as fast as the vehicle’s wheels, which is a relatively low speed for an electric motor and further reduces its need to be powerful.”

Getting rid of the gubbins required to run a car from a centralised source of automotive power (inevitable with a combustion engine) saves a lot of weight and space, with all sorts of knock-on benefits. For instance, less weight allows a smaller battery pack and thus a further weight reduction:

“A smaller battery can be topped up more effectively by the regenerative braking built into the module, as well as being faster to recharge when plugged into the mains. Indigo has tried the T1 out on prototype cars redesigned to be more aerodynamic. It reckons these prototypes need only a tenth of the power required by a combustion-engined vehicle, even at highway speeds.”

In other words, one improvement enabled by the application of clean tech unlocks others – the cascade of efficiencies producing a much bigger energy saving than we might think possible.

Another example of “hyper-efficiency” is space heating. If you achieve high enough a standard of insulation you can not only save the cost of the energy that leaks through the walls and windows of a conventionally constructed building, but also get rid of the expensive and temperamental mini-combustion plants we call boilers – much simpler, smaller and cheaper electric heaters can do the job instead.

Ever since our distant ancestors learned how to make fire, human civilisation has been organised around the combustion of biomass and fossil fuels. As a species we haven’t moved beyond that elemental fact – we’ve just become more sophisticated in our control of the things we set light to. Our heating systems, our power stations, our modes of transport – it’s all one long burn, one long struggle to contain and direct the destructive force of fire.

But now we have a chance to break free, to generate and consume energy only when and where it’s useful, to become a post-combustion civilisation.

So let’s put out the fires we started – and stop burning the world before it burns us.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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