The fossil fuel industry has taken a very cavalier bet that China, India and the developing world will continue to block any serious effort to curb greenhouse emissions, and that there is, in any case, no viable alternative to oil, gas or coal for decades to come.
Both assumptions were still credible six years ago when the Copenhagen climate summit ended in acrimony, poisoned by a North-South split over CO2 legacy guilt and the allegedly prohibitive costs of green virtue.
At that point the International Energy Agency (IEA) was still predicting that solar power would struggle to reach 20 gigawatts by now. Few could have foretold that it would in fact explode to 180 gigawatts – over three times Britain’s total power output – as costs plummeted, and that almost half of all new electricity installed in the US in 2013 and 2014 would come from solar.
One of those few who did was Bjorn Lomborg. Who actually predicted it back in the 1990s. And boy didn’t people shout at him about it.
It’s really terribly fucking simple. The best economic forecast is that tomorrow will be much like today, plus or minus a tad. Next year will be very much like this, plus or minus a tad.
So, if we want to see what the future is going to be like our simplest, and often most accurate, forecast is just going to be that things will bumble along much as they are. No, not that everything will be the same: but that the underlying rates of change will carry on much as they have been.
A useful and reasonable forecast for the 21 st century is therefore that it will be much like the 20th (hopefully, minus the wars and communism which did so much to blight it). GDP will continue to grow at about the same rate, technology will march forward at about the same rate, fertility will change at about the same rate, energy usage per unit of GDP will decline at about the same rate and so on and on. It is this which gives us the A1 family of scenarios in the SRES, the economic models on which all climate change science is based (with updates to the RCP scenarios). And this tells us that the world will be a pretty nice place. We’ll abolish absolute poverty and so on. And whether or not climate change is a problem depends on what energy sources we use to propel this world.
As Lomborg (and the writers of some of the scenarios within the A1 family) has pointed out, let’s also project the increasing efficiency of solar and other renewables forward in the same manner. What’s the price drop in the 20th cent? That’s what it will be in the 21st. And the lovely thing is that this is exactly what is happening. In the 1990s Lomborg was predicting that solar would become properly price comparable to coal in the 2020-2025 time span. That’s what we think will happen now too. All this effort has changed very little indeed.
And that price drop is also contained within the A1 family. Assuming that tech advances in the 21 st as it did in the 20th then we get to A1T. And climate change isn’t a problem because we have a lovely rich world, poverty is abolished, and we don’t use much coal or oil because other things are cheaper.
Far from no one predicting this, this is actually what was predicted. And it’s also, a priori, the most believable of the predictions that were made. Because it’s just a straight line extension of the underlying processes in the already extant economy and society.
It’s this, and this alone, which makes so much of the climate nonsense nonsense. Because the analysis of why it was happening also noted that the processes to reduce it to being a minimally important problem were already baked into the very society being analysed.
A1FI would be a very bad outcome. A1T would be a lovely one. All anyone should ever have asked is how do we make sure we get to A1T? And upon asking that question we get to Lomborg’s answer. It’s the one that is going to happen anyway so don’t worry.
Sure, I overstate my case a tad, but only a tad.