Bill Gates is for many the Dr Evil of the corporate world. His Microsoft behemoth has had a stranglehold on the world’s personal computer market for the last two decades, and wrung hundreds of billions out of users in the process. All of which makes Mr Gates ridiculously rich.
So rich in fact that his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now possibly the world’s largest private charity. It recently pledged a staggering $10 billion to help develop and deliver vaccines for children in the so-called developing world. However, Mr Gates may have had something of an epiphany recently, in terms of his understanding of where the real threats lie.
Speaking at the weekend at the TED conference in California, Gates laid it on the line: “What we’re going to have to do at a global scale is create a new (energy) system, so we need energy miracles.” Here is how he outlined the challenge: the world has to pretty much eliminate carbon emissions by 2050, while cutting energy costs in half. For this to succeed would require the largest technological, political and cultural shift since the dawn of the industrial revolution.
“We have to drive full speed and get a miracle in a pretty tight timeline,” he said. Being an uber-techno geek, it’s hardly surprising that Gates is putting his faith in technology to ride to our collective rescue. In the circumstances, it’s perhaps as good a bet as the next one. Interestingly, Gates called climate change “the world’s most vexing problem”, and fixing it is more important than creating new vaccines or improving farming techniques, causes into which he has poured billions of dollars.
It’s a fair point. Vaccines may reduce mortality among the under-fives, but this will do little good if climatic extremes, as predicted, mean famine, desertification, water system failure, flooding and political chaos for many hundreds of millions of people this century.
Rapidly ridding the world’s energy portfolio of coal and natural gas is top of Gates’ list. Since this is impractical, the oft-promised but rarely seen carbon capture and storage schemes have to be attached to coal-burning plants in particular. Yes, this means energy will cost more, but considering the alternative is climate Armageddon, maybe this will come to be seen as a price worth paying.
Regarding alternatives, it’s a belt-and-braces approach: lashings of nuclear, wind, solar as well as geothermal are now needed in copious quantities to wean us away from carbon collapse. Jim Hansen’s recent book, Storms of My Grandchildren highlighted the utter inefficiency of current nuclear reactors.
Today’s nuclear plants are typically only extracting 1% of the energy from a uranium rod, leaving a huge problem of highly radioactive waste. Logically, a new generation of “fast-breeder” reactors, which burn up to 99% of uranium, leaving a much smaller mess to clean up and of course producing vastly more energy is an overwhelming imperative. Best of all, these reactors will be able to gobble up existing stockpiles of “nuclear waste”, so we get masses of energy and LESS radioactivity. QED.
Naturally, this will be bitterly opposed by some people who claim to be environmentalists because they just plain don’t like the very idea of nuclear. Move on people. We’ve got to plug this energy chasm, and plug it right now, or the last several hundred years of human progress (in all its hues) is about to topple off a cliff.
The cliff face is much, much closer than we think. A report in the Wall Street Journal last week on a group called the Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security. It concludes that, recent economic hiccups notwithstanding, Peak Oil is now no more than five years out. That’s 2015. The paper quotes Chris Skrebowski, of the Peak Oil Consulting firm as stating that mid-2015 is when the crunch hits. “This is when capacity starts to be overwhelmed by depletion and lack of new capacity additions.” To be fair, the International Energy Agency has been telling anyone who’ll listen about this for some time too.
Peak Oil is about so much more than having petrol for the car. Oil is the black blood of industrial civilisation, we depend on it for trade and transport, food production, heating, plastics – you name it, and you’ll find oil at the heart of its production or distribution. Of course, it’s not just about oil, it’s about cheap oil.
Push oil prices north of 150-200 dollars a barrel and bang, economic crash. Yet oil depletion and scarcity of cheap oil guarantees the stuff is going to get and stay permanently expensive. In mid-2008, it was just under 150 dollars a barrel – this undoubtedly was one of a small number of key ingredients that helped trigger the September 2008 financial system crash. Sputtering oil supply and demand, along with price spikes and slumps is the shape of the landscape as we begin our perilous descent down the far slopes of Hubbert’s Peak.
While sections of the media gleefully pick holes in the outer fringes of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, the ship sails on regardless. Gates, to his credit, can see what lies ahead, and may just have the financial muscle and contacts book to start moving us beyond rhetoric. Put it this way: anyone got a better idea?