Postcard from a Recovering China

This blog post first appeared on the Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader website

Preparing to leave Beijing last week after a splendid fortnight’s rail tour of the two neighbouring (and confusingly named) provinces of Shaanxi and Shanxi, I was startled to find evidence of a very different China to the one that is often portrayed in mainstream English-language media – “never mind the quality, feel the growth!”  What’s more, I found it in the most unexpected of places: the gentleman’s convenience in the departure lounge of Beijing’s magnificent Capital International Airport.

As is depressingly normal in many places these days, marketers have identified the unavoidable minute or so we all spend answering nature’s call as a terrific opportunity to sell us something.  However, what grabbed my attention was not an eye-catching advert for over-the-counter performance enhancement medication.  In front of me on the wall above the ablution facilities a series of posters followed a common theme, selling not a product or a brand but a concept: sustainability.

In one, an hourglass depicted a melting glacier in the top half, beneath rising CO2 bubbles, with a partially submerged globe in the bottom.  The Chinese caption was endearingly translated into English as “Save the Earth Not allowed to wait”.  On another, whose slogan was not translated but says something like “Please treasure the resources, protect our Earth”, the globe was portrayed as an apple with its skin being peeled away.  Given the location, I admit to feeling rather self-conscious as I furtively rummaged in my pocket and withdrew my camera to record the moment!


This toilet-related anecdote echoes an episode I experienced soon after moving to South Africa from Europe last year.  On visiting various big company headquarters in Johannesburg, I immediately noticed the free condom dispensers in the men’s room, which I took to be a quite appropriate and sensible response to the country’s struggle to curtail the spread of HIV/Aids.  This contrasts sharply with my native UK, where I’m more likely to be sold a personalised car registration plate while nature takes its course.  The consumer is king, to be pandered to even when prone.

(Slightly tangential but indicative of the same trend: I remember fondly those televised public service announcements of my childhood, which my generation would instantly associate with a cartoon ginger tomcat and the catchphrase “Charley says …“.  Sadly, Charley no longer speaks to the UK’s children about the dangers of talking to strangers or playing next to canals, because that would waste valuable media space in which to sell plastic toys.)

I’ve written before about the rational and emotional conflicts that I wrestle with internally each time I return from China.  On this occasion, I left with a clearer-than-ever conviction that China’s future is also the world’s future – which is not to say that I’m entirely comfortable with that realisation.  In disclosing this, I don’t intend to issue a free pass to citizens of every other country on Earth regarding their environmental responsibilities.  The argument that “it doesn’t matter what we do to curb our resource use or greenhouse gas emissions because we’re a rounding error next to China’s national accounts” is morally bankrupt.  Our consumption choices are to a large extent serviced by Chinese coal-fired power plants and manufacturing processes with lax environmental oversight.  We are comfortable purchasing cheap goods, provided we don’t have to confront the devastation they cause in someone else’s back yard.

I recall my business trip some years ago to the massive Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg, when I was struck by a sense that I was standing inside the throbbing engine room of the German economy (though VW’s rivals in Munich and Stuttgart may beg to differ).  For Wolfsburg read China; for Germany read The World.  Similarly, it has been said that the forests of Amazonia represent the lungs of Planet Earth.  In that case, perhaps China is its beating heart – at least in economic terms – powering a cardiovascular system that keeps other organs of commerce from breaking down.  It isn’t called the Middle Kingdom for nothing.

On the flight home to Cape Town, I read in the China Daily newspaper that officials and analysts inside the People’s Republic believe the economic slowdown “may have bottomed out” at 7.4% – down from an average of roughly 10% over the last decade – and the country is now in recovery.  To express this in meaningful terms, at a sustained 7.4% rate of growth the Chinese economy would double in size only every 9.5 years, rather than every seven years under the 10% scenario.  Does this represent breathing space for our attempts to engineer a sustainable future?  And remember: the economy is “in recovery” with the implication being that it is starting to accelerate once again.

Yet, over the course of my travels overland from Beijing through Xi’an and Pingyao to Datong, I noticed several weak signals – in addition to those lavatory wall posters – pointing to a different possible future: millions of electric scooters silently and efficiently plying the urban streets (often carrying more than one passenger); a new bicycle share scheme up and running in Beijing (not the preserve of high-minded commuters in London, Paris or Washington DC); gigantic wind farms dotting the countryside; solar-powered street lighting systems and ubiquitous roof-mounted solar geysers; the steadily lengthening choice of high-speed inter-city rail options available on the China Railways ticketing system.  Want to travel from Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south?  By the end of this year, a journey of some 2 200km that currently takes more than twenty hours will be cut to less than eight.  Given this option, why bother subjecting oneself to the ordeal of airport transfers, heavy-handed security checks, cramped seating and baggage delays that characterise air travel?


Back in South Africa and having had a week to soak on my experiences, I find myself quite taken aback by my renewed sense of hope (admittedly, more hope than expectation).  While many macro trends and the sheer weight of numbers appear unpromising, China’s development trajectory is not guaranteed to tip the world over the ecological cliff.  And if it does, who among us gets to cast the first stone?  It’s extremely difficult for anyone unfamiliar with the country to find solid grounds from which to criticise its development choices.  The challenges that China’s incoming leadership (coincidentally, likely to be announced the same day as American voters go to the polls) will soon be grappling with – improving the quality of life of more than a billion people within severe and hardening environmental limits – are as daunting as they are unprecedented in human history.  In this respect I wish them well, as I think we all should.  Our collective future largely depends on their success.

South Africa on the brink

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Two weeks into the truckers’ strike and South Africa stands on the precipice of serious societal breakdown. The Marikana massacre was undoubtedly a tragic event in its own right, although it may prove to have merely been the spark that lit the fuse.

The powder keg waiting to explode is the imminent shortage in liquid fuel supplies. Unless the country pulls itself back from the brink, we are in for a national state of emergency.

It may play out something like this.

As fuel supply lines further constrict, many motorists will understandably choose to fill up their tanks “just in case”. Filling stations will quickly run dry, supermarkets operating at the end of complex just-in-time supply chains will see their inventories deplete, exacerbated by panic buying brought on by sensationalist media coverage. Within days, severe food shortages will result, and we’ll be running a real-time nationwide experiment to test the veracity of the adage that civilisation is, at any one time, only nine meals away from anarchy.

Factories will close their doors as production lines grind to a halt, with companies unable to procure raw material supplies or shift burgeoning product inventories. More and more banks and ATMs will run out of cash; emergency services will find themselves simultaneously inundated with calls for assistance as violence and desperation spreads, yet unable to respond due to their own fuel shortages; hospitals will cancel all but the most critical operations as remote doctors and nurses struggle to reach their place of work; burials will be postponed and corpses will pile up in morgues. The country will come to a complete standstill and many of the characteristics of modern civilised society that we take for granted – trust, human decency, a lawful majority – will evaporate.

If all this sounds rather fantastical and unlikely, recall that it has already happened.

In the United Kingdom (UK), just 12 years ago last month, a protest by road hauliers against high diesel prices led to blockades of refineries and fuel terminals, and culminated in a week-long social experiment that will be remembered by anyone who experienced it. The world’s fourth largest economy (at that time) unravelled within a matter of days.

The challenge facing South Africa today is not identical, though situational differences should not lead us to a position of complacency. The UK dispute specifically targeted transport fuel supplies at source, whereas the current crisis involves the road haulage sector (which is but a critical component of the supply chain) as a whole.

However, throw in some extremely combustible kindling created by entrenched social inequalities and legitimate labour grievances – which have found their most recent violent expression in the extractives sector disputes – and we have all the conditions necessary for collapse.

The extent of our dependency on liquid transportation fuels – overwhelmingly derived from oil, more often than not from unstable parts of the world – becomes vividly apparent only when they no longer flow freely.

Until this moment, we scarcely give a moment’s thought to how pervasively oil seeps through every aspect of our lives.

Note also that absolute physical shortages are not necessary; with the human tendency to hoard in anticipation of a crisis, all that is required is for the notion to take hold that limited fuel supplies are a distinct possibility.

It becomes a case study in self-fulfilling prophecies.

Of course, none of the above is inevitable in the coming weeks. What is likely, however this plays out, is that we will recover from the crisis and return to some semblance of normality without properly facing up to – much less addressing – this pernicious dependence on liquid fuels.

To the extent that we pretend to deal with it, our “answers” will probably be found in synthetic oil substitutes – coal liquefaction and Karoo shale gas – proffered as a pathway to national energy security that insulate us from undemocratic regimes in faraway desert lands. It’s a shell game – a confidence trick designed to keep our eyes away from the real prize. It’s methadone for our collective heroin addiction.

Dear Fossil Fuel, I want a divorce!

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Dear Fossil Fuel,

There is no easy way to do this, so I’ll just say it: I want a divorce!

Writing this letter is very painful for me, but the contents will not come as a great surprise to you. Our relationship has been wondrous at times, with ups and downs like every marriage. But you’ve been abusive for too long and pushed me to the limit. It’s taken decades of counselling to build up the courage to leave you, but after 300 years together I’ve decided it is time I grew up and faced the future as a responsible adult.

Let me start by saying: I don’t think you ever had evil intentions at heart. Your character flaws are in your basic chemistry, and that’s not your fault. You’ve had a difficult life, unloved by all except me. Your parents – Sun and Earth – were ashamed of you. Having conceived and given birth to you by accident millions of years ago, they locked you away in the cupboard under the stairs, out of sight and out of mind. So full you were of harmful chemicals, they probably felt they had no choice, to give their other offspring the best possible chance to thrive.

But once I released you from your geological tomb, how you made up for lost time with your fiery character! We achieved things together that I could not have imagined before we met. Side by side, we reshaped the landscape; we built great cities and connected them with infrastructure that spanned continents; we fought and won epic wars (admit it, you were often the cause of them!); we created a vast empire that left no corner of the globe untouched. Put simply, we lived tens of thousands of lifetimes in three short centuries. I owe virtually all of my success to you, which is why I write these words with such a heavy heart.

My parents were uneasy about our union from the early days. Oh, they could see how much fun we were having together – how your intensity captivated me! – but they worried that our relationship was growing at the expense of everything else in my life. It’s easy to see it now: I was becoming dependent on you, even addicted, blind to the damages we wrought, losing sight of what was important. Because of you I lost all respect for my mother, Nature.

With you egging me on, I became lazy and conceited. I didn’t stop to worry how I was growing, only that I grew. And I grew! As time passed, I hardly noticed how overweight I had become. No, morbidly obese! I’d developed this habit of consuming unnecessary stuff in vast quantities, more wants than needs. So wasteful of mother’s inheritance – much of it gone, forever – such regret … gradually I lost all interest in my appearance, as together we created such waste! I’ll admit, at the time it was childishly good fun, but I realise now, as I spend more and more of my energy cleaning up your mess, it must stop!

Frequently – and this is my greatest shame – I also lost sight of my duty to take care of my father, Society, who has long struggled with episodes of ill-health. On the surface he appeared OK, but underneath the neglect was evident, as his recent violent outbursts testify. (In fact, I would be surprised if our relationship were not the direct cause of much his sickness, though I know you will protest your innocence!) Of course, I would not even exist were it not for mother and father. I’m determined to make up for lost time and place their needs first and foremost from now on.

I know what you’re going to say: “I can change!” I’ve heard it so many times. Yes, I know you’ve become more efficient over the years, and tried to clean up your act. But everything is relative – you too have grown so much larger (OK, it’s partly my fault) that all your efforts to improve yourself have been trumped! And you’ve become so risky lately. You used to be dependable, easy-going – I liked the sense of security that you gave me. But over the last 30 or 40 years you’ve become so volatile and unreliable. I can see the writing on the wall: you probably are going to change, but not for the better! It’s only a matter of time before you blow up again, and set me back another few years. I just can’t take it any more.

And now for my confession: I’ve met someone else. He’s not as powerful as you – not at the moment – but he’s got some really interesting ideas how we can develop together in totally different ways. He’s very smart, not all brute force like you – he thinks you’re incredibly primitive, and I’m coming to realise he’s probably right! He doesn’t smell (oh, your awful smells!), never leaves any mess lying around, refuses to draw us into debt (he doesn’t know the meaning of the word!) and he gets the job done so much more efficiently than you ever did. Granted, he’s not always there by my side (he travels the world), but he has a wonderful network of like-minded friends that are always hugely supportive.

I know this will come as a bombshell for you: he’s your younger sibling, Solar Flux. Sun and Earth are so proud! My parents love him, too – he’s got big plans how we can attend to their needs and make up for all my past misdemeanours. Mother wonders why I left him in the first place for you all those years ago. But as I keep reminding her, our marriage was not all bad. Some of the amazing things we accomplished have made me what I am today – without that, I couldn’t begin to imagine a successful future with Solar Flux. Thanks to you, I’ve learned so much. But I was a child when we met. I’ve grown up, come through a tricky adolescence, and now I’m ready to move on.

I realise this divorce is probably going to cost me, in the short-term financial sense. But in the long-term, I know that I will grow even stronger in this new relationship and lead a much more vibrant and meaningful life without you. No doubt, this will be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, but it is one I can no longer postpone. If I avoid this decision now, I may harm my relationship with my parents beyond repair, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

Yours no longer,

The Economy

The Story of Energy (for Grown-ups)

Among the myriad challenges facing the human species in the early years of this century there is one that shows up on every political and business agenda from Pretoria to Paris, Lusaka to London, and Windhoek to Washington: how to sustain economic growth.  So dominant is this discourse that those who dare to question it can be readily dismissed as lunatics, so far outside the mainstream as to appear out of touch with reality.  Can’t they see?  We need to create jobs!  

Yet deep down we all know that our home planet – and the non-renewable resources upon which our economies are based – is finite, meaning that nothing can grow indefinitely without violating immutable laws of nature.  This is a scary thought.  So, to insulate our preferred mental models of the world from uncomfortable physical truths, we invent oxymoronic terms like “sustainable growth” that evade all attempts to assign a coherent definition.  Most worryingly, we render ourselves unable to recognise and confront a profound blind spot: the pivotal role that energy plays in the human project. 

To comprehend why we are where we are, and what it means for our future, we must first appreciate that not a cent of economic activity happens without energy being transformed from one form into another.  Through trillions of daily conversion processes – some of which happen inside our bodies as we consume food which also required energy to produce – we benefit from a range of useful services such as heating, cooling, mobility, communications, etc.  In so doing, laws of physics dictate that we must throw some energy away as waste heat; we can (and should aim to) improve the efficiency of our conversion steps, but we can never break even. 

A deeper understanding of our predicament is revealed in the workings of our pre-industrial world.  Then, as today, our economic system was based entirely on the movement of people and things.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, all of that movement was driven by solar energy, whether it was harvested as food for people, feed for draught animals – then converted into motion via muscles – or wind caught in the sails of ships and windmills, or rivers turning watermills.  For simplicity, we can think of this kinetic energy sub-system as the ‘Wheel’.  It was constrained by our ‘solar income’, which is the quantity of incident sunlight we could capture (in a relatively short timeframe) and usefully deploy. 

Sure, we had for many centuries also been making good use of stored sunlight.  By burning wood, peat and coal (the last of these in miniscule quantities by today’s standards), we were able to use the liberated heat to cook our food, warm our homes, and drive an impressive host of manufacturing processes.  We can call this thermal energy sub-system ‘Fire’, and it ran on the ‘hydrocarbon battery’ – sunlight captured by plant and animal life over millions of years before being locked away in fossil fuel deposits – to which we increasingly turned as our supplies of firewood became exhausted.  But, just as today, our ability to bring the hydrocarbon battery into service was constrained by the rate at which we could move these combustible fuels from where they were found to where they were needed. 

This year marks the 300th anniversary of an event that altered the course of human history profoundly.  In 1712, Thomas Newcomen’s first steam engine became operational in the English Midlands town of Dudley.  By converting heat into motion, it united humanity’s two most important discoveries: Fire and the Wheel.  From that moment on, our scope for mobility – in the first instance, to shift water from a flooded coal mine – was no longer bound by the limits of solar income, by human and animal muscle or sailing ships. 

Once we’d hooked ourselves up to the hydrocarbon battery, we began to mechanise our world.  Fewer draught animals were required, which liberated not only the paddocks on which they were kept, but also the large tracts of arable land which fed them.  In concert with advances in agriculture, fewer farmhands were able to produce greater quantities of food, which in turn boosted population growth.  More of us were free to swap rural for urban landscapes that were melting pots of knowledge-sharing and innovation, fostering further advances in science and medicine that allowed us to lead longer, more productive – and more consumptive – lives.  Later, steam ships and locomotives allowed us to move more things (including food) faster over greater distances, enabling ever higher levels of consumption.  For the better part of three centuries, we hardly looked back as we ascended this upward spiral, propelled by ancient solar energy released from fossil fuels. 

A crucial enhancement of the Fire/Wheel axis arrived towards the end of the 19th Century with the invention of the automobile.  If fossil fuels are the Earth’s hydrocarbon battery, then crude oil is their ultimate expression: its liquid state provides unmatched energy density and ease of transport, making oil the reference fuel for moving people and things, far superior to coal and natural gas.  Its role in underpinning our economic system cannot be overstated and it seems impossible to dislodge.  No wonder we are prepared to go to war over the stuff – we are fighting for nothing less than our ability to sustain economic growth as we know it. 

A ready supply of cheap liquid transport fuels subsequently enabled us to do all sorts of clever things, such as create globalised supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems, and we congratulate ourselves for the perceived efficiency gains that we created.  The trouble is it all unravels spectacularly when fuel becomes expensive or scarce, even fleetingly.  Keen to avoid cold-turkey convulsions on a societal scale, governments intervene by any means necessary and order is maintained.  This is precisely how South Africa ended up with the world’s single largest point source of CO2 emissions, thanks to its apartheid-era coal liquefaction programme, a response to constricted oil supplies. 

All the most prized attributes of advanced economies – proud beacons of human progress to which many developing nations aspire – are based upon the marriage of Fire and the Wheel.  That is, we achieve and maintain our pinnacle of civilisation by relentlessly digging fossil fuels out of the ground and setting them on fire in order to move people and things from place to place in motor vehicles.  High-tech, indeed!  But lurking in the dark recesses of our minds is the realisation that consuming any resource faster than its rate of formation is, by definition, unsustainable.  Fully aware that our hydrocarbon battery is draining fast and will not be re-charged in the conceivable future, that using it has a deleterious effect on the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth, and that meanwhile the economic system through which we aim to deliver societal needs is utterly dependent on it, what are we to do?  We surely can’t return to a pre-industrial existence where most people struggled on the very edge of survival.  At least, we won’t take this lying down. 

There is a glimmer of hope around which to galvanise our collective imagination.  About the time of the automotive revolution, another energy technology was born that also came to shape modern life: electricity.  Just as the steam engine created a pathway for turning heat into motion, so electricity can reverse the process.  Via electrons, we can take solar income – either directly by capturing sunlight or indirectly by harnessing wind – and transform it into every imaginable energy service of benefit to society, including the mobility which underpins all economic activity.  

Crucially, modern electrical devices – and transportation modes in particular – just happen to be supremely energy efficient, meaning that we can enjoy more services with less energy expenditure.  And electricity is unique among energy carriers because it can also convey information.  This introduces the prospect of discarding the current ‘dumb’ energy system and replacing it with one that is ‘smart’.  Since all of the energy arrives for free and its source will never expire as long as our solar system persists (if it doesn’t, human concerns will be a thing of the past!), what’s not to like?  

We are exhibiting all the symptoms of addiction, including compulsive behaviour and denial in the face of mounting evidence that we have a serious problem.  We even resort to theft in order to feed our increasingly expensive habit, either from weaker nations and communities, or from generations as yet unborn.  As civilised adults we need to confront and treat this addiction, unhook ourselves from the hydrocarbon battery, creating in its place a new economic paradigm that provides societal needs equitably within solar income constraints.  

Does this mean the end of growth, at least as the term is currently understood?  That is inevitable anyway; we cannot negotiate with hard biophysical limits.  The best we can hope for is what economists might call a ‘soft landing’.  The 21st Century project – both hugely challenging and incredibly exciting – is to create the ultimate just-in-time delivery system, powered by energy that arrives every day from the sun, not by setting fire to millions of years of ancient sunlight in the blink of an eye.  All other species on Earth manage just fine like this.  For now, we are the 0.0001% that attempt to live by rules of our own making and it is silly to imagine that we can continue as we are with impunity.  

Unstoppable Forces and Immovable Objects

“That’s my new house” – my Chinese tour guide gestured toward a row of featureless apartment blocks beneath our vantage point overlooking the river – “and that’s where I used to live.”  She showed me a photograph of a modest two-storey structure within the walls of the ancient city of Fengjie.  It presumably remains intact, albeit more than 150 metres underwater.

This stretch of the Yangtze – roughly 660km from Chongqing to Sandouping – is much less a river than a lake these days, thanks to the mind-blowing Three Gorges Dam.  My guide for the shore excursion of neighbouring Baidi Cheng – the White Emperor City, at the mouth of the still awesome Qutang Gorge – was among more than a million Chinese citizens forced to relocate prior to their homes being submerged by the rising waters.  If she was remotely bitter, it certainly didn’t show.


Over many return visits since my two years living in Beijing from 2004, the Middle Kingdom has always left a deep impression or two.  It’s hard to grasp the scale and pace of development underway in China without experiencing it for oneself, but while still fresh – if that’s the word – from my most recent trip, I’d like to share some reflections that I hope will provide a glimpse of some of the changes in progress.

I have just returned from two weeks travelling overland in one of the country’s industrial heartlands.  Starting in Chengdu, Sichuan, the home Province of my travelling companion, we journeyed by rail to Chongqing before boarding a tourist ship that cruised down the now broad and peaceful Yangtze to Yichang, a few kilometres downstream of the infamous hydroelectric power station.

The relentless intensity of river traffic brought home that electricity generation was but one of the intended outcomes of this stunning engineering endeavour.  It may not even have been the most important one.  Previously, this was a notoriously difficult stretch of inland waterway, evoking the Symplegades – or Clashing Rocks – successfully navigated in Greek legend by Jason and the Argonauts.  Now, an endless stream of gigantic barges piled high with cargoes – notably mountains of coal – ply the becalmed waters.  Setting aside the grave environmental and social concerns related to the Three Gorges development – including landslides caused by increased physical pressure on surroundings and loss of agricultural land – one wonders about the net carbon impact of what is ostensibly a renewable energy project, given the enhanced flows of coal that have been made possible.

Countless factories and construction projects dot the river banks.  This region of China is well-known for its winter fogs, though it is easy to imagine that the precession of chimney stacks and their attendant columns of smoke – added to the sooty exhaust fumes of river traffic – contribute significantly to the dismal visibility, all the more disheartening in an area of exceptional natural beauty.  It struck me: this is what implausibly cheap consumer goods look like upstream in the supply chain, far beyond the horizon of cost-conscious consumers.  The juxtaposition of local fishermen in tiny sampans bobbing around in the slip-stream of industry lends a Dickensian flavour to the scene – A Tale of Two Rivers – and a vivid reminder, were it needed, of the inequality challenge confronting not only the developing world but many advanced economies, too.  As if to compensate for those dark satanic mills, dozens of new bridges that span the water have been designed with an aesthetical flourish rather than stolid functionality in mind.


As for the dam itself, which we reached at midnight on the third day and passed in four hours via a sequence of enormous locks, the audacity it expresses can have few equals in the world.  As an aside, en route to China I met one of the challengers for the title of “world’s most audacious construction project” when stopping in Dubai for the weekend.  On arrival, I made immediately for the top of the Burj Khalifa, at 828m and 160 stories the world’s tallest building by some considerable distance.  Appropriately enough, it features prominently in the latest Mission Impossible movie.  The eye-watering extravagance shouts engineering hubris, but it is no less beautiful for that.

In defence of Three Gorges Dam, unlike the Burj Khalifa it is hard to label it as nothing more than a vanity project.  For starters, it is devastatingly ugly.  A few key facts: (1) Mao Zedong visualised the dam in a poem penned in 1956, titled “Swimming”; (2) its 18GW of hydroelectric power capacity is roughly equivalent to nine Hoover Dams; (3) were it operating in 1994 when construction began, it would have supplied around 12% of China’s power needs – but due to explosive demand growth it today represents less than 4% and is obviously declining each year; (4) the submerged area includes 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, 657 factories & 30,000 hectares of cultivated land.  Construction is ongoing: the latest addition to the scheme is a ship elevator into which the “smaller” vessels (typically passenger ships of up to 3,000 tons – everything is relative) will be lowered or raised the full length of the drop that separates upstream and downstream waters, thereby shortening the crossing time from four hours to thirty minutes and debottlenecking the main lock system.

Another hour downstream from the dam we disembarked at nondescript Yichang, from where a four hour white-knuckle bus ride whisked us to Wuhan, the most important city in Hubei Province.  Together with Chongqing and Nanjing, Wuhan is one of China’s so-called “Furnaces” due to the sweltering summer climate endured by its 10 million residents.  Its location at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Han rivers, dividing the city into three parts – Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang (hence the composite name) – brought to mind Pittsburgh, with which I later learned Wuhan is officially twinned.  From Hankou to Wuchang on the short commuter ferry, I was impressed by the dozens of electric-powered bicycles and scooters crammed on board.  A recent estimate placed China’s e-bike population at 120 million; I briefly imagined the scene were all of those zippy two-wheelers powered by noisy two-stroke petrol engines.


Moving on from Wuhan, the world’s fastest train south to Guangzhou averages 328km/h on the 968km journey, which annihilates comparable high-speed routes elsewhere in the world.  The new Wuhan Station embarrasses many modern airports in terms of scale, passenger facilities, and physical beauty.  A comparison with airports is apposite, since the station is situated some 50km from the city centre, thereby demanding close to an hour’s taxi ride in light traffic.  This came as a surprise – and a disappointment – to a European brought up to believe that the great advantage of rail over air travel is the convenience of journeying from one urban centre to another.  Still, I retain a conviction that rail travel is vastly less stressful and more enjoyable than flying.

Guangzhou, formerly known in the West as Canton, is regarded as China’s third city after Beijing and Shanghai.  If this status gives Guangzhou an inferiority complex, you wouldn’t know it.  The city’s proximity to Shenzhen and Hong Kong – soon to be connected with yet another high-speed rail line – give it a significant competitive advantage.  A stunning array of outlandish buildings have sprung up, including a striking waterfront opera house, all serviced by a spanking new – and already insanely busy – underground metro system.  Beijing’s development received an additional kick from the 2008 Olympics, while Guangzhou experienced a similar stimulus from the 2010 Asian Games, recognised as the second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics.

On leaving China from Guangzhou’s spotless – if mildly confusing – Baiyun International Airport, my overriding impression was that, despite everything I have read and experienced previously, it remains impossible to do justice in words to the sense of sheer momentum that exudes from this vast country of nearly 1.4 billion citizens, undertaking in two or three decades a transformation for which human history offers no precedent.  The industrial development that took more than a century in the US and Europe – with only a few hundred million citizens to consider – can offer some useful pointers, but direct analogies quickly break down due to the vastly different context in which humanity finds itself today.  For one thing, when E.L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, we hadn’t the faintest idea of the full consequences of embarking on a socio-economic development trajectory underpinned by two of our most primitive discoveries: fire and the wheel.

Where does it all lead?  Whether we like it or not, China’s future is our future.  My colleague Dirk Visser at CSPL South Africa begins his excellent systems pressures overview by referring to the movie The Dark Knight, in which the Joker sums up his relationship with Batman: “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”.  China creates an overwhelming illusion of the proverbial unstoppable force.  Is nature – or the hard, non-negotiable biophysical limits that nature imposes on all earthly life – the immovable object?  Apparently not, yet.

Priming the Pump at Durban

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

Another year, another COP, another step closer to the brink. It must seem to the casual observer that the UN climate negotiations are an exercise designed explicitly to create gridlock and failure. Judging by many of the blogs, comments and tweets I’ve been reading since bleary-eyed delegates stumbled out of the Durban ICC on Sunday, the most recent episode has provoked some strong but mixed reactions: politicians claiming a triumph of multilateralism, NGOs decrying the lack of progress on issues of substance. Both views hold some merit. As someone who was present in Durban for the regulation fortnight – but missed the 36 hours of injury-time – I’d like to weigh in with my personal reflections.

Before that, a confession: I’ve always had a ‘thing’ for prime numbers. I find their indivisibility immensely satisfying, suggestive of an eternal significance which shows up in unexpected places. For instance, I could never quite put my finger on why the game of rugby is such a dire spectacle, until I realised: there are 15 players on each side! The prime numbered 11-a-side codes of football and cricket are self-evidently superior. In a similar vein, when a football club wins five European Cups (as my Liverpool did in 2005) it gets to keep the trophy in perpetuity and UEFA commissions a new one, to be tossed around cheaply among subsequent winners of the tournament… until that magical prime number is reached once more.

Back to climate change. A brief review of previous UNFCCC COPs reveals a curious pattern in which significant moments of progress are marked by prime numbers. At COP3 in Kyoto, negotiators hammered out the eponymous Protocol, which to date remains the only legally-binding international climate treaty ever brokered (although as I write this, news filters through that Canada has withdrawn due to its failure to meet commitments – a bit like skiving off your final exams the day before because you didn’t show up at any lectures). In Marrakech, COP7 reached an agreement on how to implement the Kyoto Protocol among 193 of the 194 signatories of the UNFCCC, the sole absentee being the nation that is by far the largest historic contributor of GHGs to the atmosphere. Montreal’s climate summit in 2005 was significant for being the first meeting of the Parties to Kyoto, namely COP11/MOP1 – two prime numbers in one conference! Two years later, in another prime double-header, it was at COP13/CMP3 in Bali where the intransigent US was famously shamed by Papua New Guinea’s Kevin Conrad, who issued the challenge to either lead, or “get out of the way”. The US backed down, opening the way for the Bali Roadmap that was intended to deliver a “Kyoto 2” in Copenhagen.

I won’t lay the blame for COP15’s failure to deliver entirely at the door of composite numbering. At least the signature text of the summit went as far as to declare – for the first time at a UNFCCC conference – what was meant by the Convention’s ultimate objective to “avoid dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. By introducing the 2°C threshold – with deep emissions cuts guided by science and on the basis of equity – the Copenhagen Accord (PDF) was not entirely useless, setting the tone for the Cancun Agreements issued at the low-key COP16. As for the rest of the even-numbered COPs, they were undoubtedly necessary staging posts on the way to the prime events, but honestly, who remembers what happened at COP14 in Poznan? Anyone? How about COP12 in Nairobi? Like the World Cup group stages, there’d be no knock-out phase without them, but barring the occasional seven-goal thriller they’re generally pretty tedious affairs.

So what of COP17? Despite hosts South Africa receiving widespread and deserved praise for saving the talks from total collapse, many have correctly asserted that the Durban Platform contains nothing of substance that helps steer the world from its catastrophic business-as-usual 4°C trajectory. No international legal framework has been agreed (yet), national voluntary pledges made in the wake of Copenhagen have not been tightened, business leaders may still claim paralysis owing to a lack of regulatory certainty. On the flip side, the most complex political negotiations ever attempted remain intact, with all 194 Parties – including the world’s largest absolute emitter, the world’s fastest growing emitter, the world’s largest per capita emitter, and the world’s largest historical emitter – committed to negotiating by 2015 a legally-binding deal to cut emissions that will enter into force by 2020. Perhaps it will take the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (PDF), due towards the end of 2014, to provide the fresh impetus to the negotiations.

Meanwhile, national governments continue to enact domestic laws to penalise GHG emissions, irrespective of the perceived failure of the international negotiations. The UK’s landmark Climate Change Act set the ball rolling in 2008, but now even carbon-intensive emerging economies like South Africa are on the verge of introducing carbon taxes, hot on the heels of Australia’s recent legislation. From a business perspective, surely the drums are now beating loud enough for companies to start planning for success rather than failure in humanity’s collective efforts to address climate change. If we think mitigation for 2°C is expensive and complex, just wait until we start adapting for 4°C. As one observer wrote in the aftermath of Durban, “It’s not a choice between a climate change deal and economic development; it’s really a choice of both or neither.”

Durban may not have been the emphatic breakthrough that most of us wished for, but I’m convinced future historians will judge it to have been an historic COP: the one at which the pump was primed.

Fracking Irresponsible Development

A year ago, I asked a middle manager at a multi-national liquid fuels company why its sustainability report didn’t contain any discussion of peak oil.  He shot back with a withering “I think we’ve got beyond that.”  I believe he was right, though not in the way he intended.  

Amidst all the outcry and outrage provoked by the prospect of fracking natural gas from the Karoo, insufficient thought has been given to how the fossil fuel resource is intended to be used.  What’s the real motivation behind Big Oil’s attempts to get its hands on those methane molecules?

Energy, of course!  You know, the Energy Dilemma?  The world needs more energy with less CO2, so “we are producing more cleaner-burning natural gas and using advanced technologies to develop new resources” – it says it right there in Shell’s 2010 Sustainability Report.

But let’s examine that statement carefully.  There’s nothing factually incorrect in what Shell says.  Natural gas is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel, and Shell (and many of its Big Oil brethren) is producing more of it year after year.  However, there’s something about the choice of language that might be opportunist at best, disingenuous at worst.

First, it’s hard to take at face value the notion that Shell’s steady drift into natural gas is the result of a deliberate strategic decision to turn away from dirtier fossil fuels.  Consider that the company’s relative growth in gas has occurred over the same period of time that it was investing heavily in the Albertan tar sands.  Far easier to swallow is the idea that Shell has simply not been very successful at finding conventional oil resources – recall the reserves scandal of 2004 – so that over time its portfolio has diversified in both directions: simultaneously growing in cleaner-burning natural gas and filthy bituminous hydrocarbon deposits.  The next time you meet a Shell executive, ask the question: when was the last time your company (or any other oil major, for that matter) walked away from economically-recoverable conventional oil resources because of a strategic decision to focus on natural gas?  They would have a job explaining that one to their shareholders who focus on replacement of reserves as a key indicator of company performance.  

Second – here is the crunch – what do Shell (and Sasol) have in mind for all that Karoo shale gas?  The clue lies in Qatar.  It’s based on an elegant piece of chemical process engineering whereby carbon atoms are stitched together to synthesise the longer hydrocarbon chains that comprise petrol and diesel.  The really neat thing is that, technically, you can use anything containing carbon, including cleaner-burning natural gas, filthy dirty lumps of coal, wood chips, my mother’s bathroom curtains, or even the finest Persian carpet.  The choice of feedstock informs the economics of the process – rug-to-liquids being at the high end of the cost spectrum – as well as the energy required in the conversion steps.  So flexible is this technology platform Shell gave it the label XTL, where X = any source of carbon atoms.  When X = natural gas, it’s called GTL.  Which brings us back to the Karoo.

Why does this matter?  Because in the context of our global Energy Dilemma, what’s important is maximising the energy services – heating, cooling, lighting, mobility, communications – delivered to society while minimising the associated CO2 emissions.  This is where the term “cleaner-burning” appears disingenuous.  True enough, GTL diesel fuel burns with lower sulphur dioxide, lower nitrous oxides, and lower particulate matter than conventional oil-based diesel (based on current fuel quality standards).  This is directionally beneficial in terms of improving urban air quality.  However, exactly the same is true of coal-to-liquids diesel, or rug-to-liquids diesel; the “cleaner-burning” character of natural gas has precisely nothing to do with it.

In terms of CO2 – the most important form of pollution wrapped up in this Energy Dilemma – GTL is essentially no better than regular fuel.  Which is to say: it’s considerably worse, because by far the most rational use of natural gas in addressing the more-energy-with-less-CO2 conundrum is using it to displace carbon-intensive coal to generate lower-CO2 electricity.  In parallel, by investing in electromobility, we simultaneously do away with those nasty tailpipe emissions at a stroke.  If instead we allow natural gas molecules to enter the liquid transport fuel supply via GTL plants, we pointlessly fritter away all the carbon advantage inherent in the resource.  From a climate change mitigation perspective any decision to follow the GTL path is nothing less than irresponsible.

Then again, the potential use of natural gas as a lower carbon bridging fuel in the struggle against rising CO2 emissions was never the driving force behind Big Oil’s attempts to open up the Karoo.  They are not in the electricity business, they are in the liquid transport fuels business.  All forms of energy are not the same.  For them, the Energy Dilemma is about securing more hydrocarbon resources and leveraging their enormous chemistry sets to create synthetic petrol and diesel that will be set on fire in desperately inefficient motor vehicles.  I think we’ve got beyond that.  

China’s alternative to an American addiction

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Last week saw the launch of BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, a rich seam of energy industry stats that journalists, analysts and academics will spend many hours mining for nuggets of data that support their chosen narratives.  The Financial Times led with “China becomes leading user of energy” – hardly a revelation to even the most casual industry observer, though undoubtedly a pleasing melody to those in the US who point to the rise of the Middle Kingdom as a reason to forestall domestic action on climate change.  

Noteworthy in BP’s latest tome is that crude oil remains the number one source of energy, contributing just over one-third of the global total.  In terms of growth, China again leads the way, increasing its consumption by 860 000 barrels a day, or 10.4% over the previous year.  Of course, in per capita terms, China’s oil consumption pales in comparison to the world’s largest economy: at 2.5 barrels per person a year, the average Chinese citizen consumes nine times less oil than its American counterpart.  Nevertheless, China’s growing thirst for oil represents a direct threat to US economic supremacy.  America may have been the first – and remains by far the largest – oil addict in the global village, but as others increase their appetite for the drug – the supply of which is increasingly concentrating in the hands of a relatively few volatile countries – the US must eventually face the prospect of weaning itself.  The only plausible alternative is to brace for military conflict.  

An urban legend goes that early in 2003 while Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld fumbled around the Oval Office for a catchy moniker with which to rally the nation ahead of their planned invasion, they came up with “Operation Iraqi Liberation” – an obvious riff on the Iraq Liberation Act signed into law by Clinton in 1998.  Just in time, one sharp-eyed White House aide piped up that the initials spelled “OIL”, which was possibly too brazen even for the Bush administration.  With that, “Liberation” was dropped in favour of “Freedom”.  Mission accomplished.

As a thought experiment, let us suspend our voices of cynicism for a moment and imagine – as the urban legend would have us do – that the US-led invasion of Iraq was chiefly concerned with securing oil, specifically the world’s third largest reserves after those sitting beneath the deserts of Saudi Arabia (uncomfortable allies) and Iran (sworn enemies).  Indeed, the number one oil-consuming nation on Earth – reliant on imports for roughly two-thirds of its annual demand – has a strong vested interest in the affairs of the Middle East petrostates.  The Carter Doctrine leaves little room for doubt: the Persian Gulf region is vital to the interests of the US and will be protected “by any means necessary, including military force”.  Put simply, without cheap transport fuels moving people and goods across the urban sprawl and vast interstate network – themselves products of the nation’s now dwindling domestic petroleum bounty – the American economy grinds to a halt.  

Perhaps Jimmy Carter’s 1980 State of the Union speech was nothing more than Cold War posturing, designed to make the Soviets think twice before extending their Afghanistan incursion further westwards to the oil fields of the Gulf.  Taking Carter’s words out of their historical context is unfair; America wouldn’t really go to war over another nation’s natural resources, would it?  Dick Cheney provides a clue when, during his stint as chief executive of Halliburton – shortly before assuming the vice-presidency under Bush Jnr – he addressed an Institute of Petroleum conference in London: “Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world’s economy. The [first] Gulf War was a reflection of that reality.”

As the occupation of Iraq winds down (US troops are supposed to withdraw by the end of this year) we might well ask ourselves: was it worth it?  In 2008, economist Joseph Stiglitz put the true cost of the Iraq war to the US at about $3 trillion; more recently he concluded this figure was probably too low.  For the sake of the exercise, we will avoid hyperbole and assume the original estimate of $3 trillion puts us in the right ball park.  Is that a lot?  To provide a sense of scale, consider that since the invasion kicked off in March 2003, the US has burned through roughly 60 billion barrels of oil at a cumulative cost of about $3.5 trillion.  That’s an extraordinary amount of money literally going up in smoke – it’s remarkably close to Stiglitz’s estimated cost of the war – but we are no closer to assessing whether the US will get a decent payback.  

Donald Trump’s recent suggestion to simply take the oil as compensation for the cost of the invasion makes sense from a narrowly-defined financial perspective.  According to BP’s latest data, Iraq’s oil reserves measure 115 billion barrels, which would keep the US ticking over for 16 years at current rates of consumption.  Translated into dollars at today’s oil price, Iraqi reserves are worth some $12 trillion, not including the cost of development. Now it starts to look more interesting: that represents a four-fold return on the investment!  Except of course that Trump’s proposition – a bit like a burglar justifying the theft of your home cinema system as recompense for the outlay on his crowbar, eye-mask, striped T-shirt, and hessian sack bearing the word “Swag” – is morally reprehensible to any right-minded human being.  

Setting aside grand larceny, perhaps another way to think about it is this: how else could the US have spent $3 trillion to address its eye-watering dependence on oil, simultaneously the cause and the result of decades of foreign policy negligence?  It is remarkable to ponder that for every man, woman and child in the US a whopping $10 000 could have been invested in measures to avoid oil consumption, such as developing the type of safe, clean, efficient and effective mass transit solutions that many European and Asian citizens enjoy, or investing – as China has – to establish a world-leading electric vehicle industry that by its nature is independent of oil, and by its far-sightedness will probably eat America’s lunch in the coming decades.  

Instead, during the 8 years of the war, US citizens set fire to some 1.15 trillion gallons of motor gasoline, much of it in obese “sports utility vehicles” with fuel economy ratings that should be a source of national embarrassment and would have finished Detroit were it not for the federal bailouts of 2008.  It was only fair: Washington was complicit in the predicament that Motown found itself in after years of profiting from feeble business-as-usual energy policy, while Beijing was busy plotting a domestic automotive industry based on electricity.  The astounding fact is that while it remains political suicide for a US administration to consider a meaningful tax on gasoline – thereby encouraging more frugal driving habits – it is politically acceptable to place at risk the lives of young American soldiers in the Middle East in order to secure flows of the very oil that it is impossible to tax back home.  

Impossible to tax transparently, that is.  The $3 trillion cost to the American taxpayer of projecting military force in Iraq translates to a phantom tax of $2.69 on every gallon of gasoline consumed in the US since 2003 – effectively doubling the average pump price to more than $5 a gallon over the period of the war.  To put it another way, if instead of agreeing to invade a sovereign state Congress had slapped a 100% tax on gasoline back in 2003, its citizens would be no worse off financially and the federal coffers would have been boosted rather than drained to the tune of $3 trillion.  With most Europeans already paying north of $8 a gallon of petrol and diesel, it is both difficult to sympathise with the American motorist and easy to appreciate why Europe’s automotive fleet is twice as efficient as that on the other side of the North Atlantic.  

Of course, all of this is simply a thought experiment based on the notion that Operation Iraqi Freedom was all about the oil.  To swallow that, you would have to believe the words of every US president since Lyndon Johnson, one by one gravely warning of the national security implications of dependence on foreign oil, while successively failing to offer any plausible means of addressing it beyond securing more resources at home and abroad.  

For the majority of global citizens living in the developing world, a straightforward question demands a straightforward answer: should we seek to emulate the oil-drenched model of economic development pursued by America and its allies for the last century and a half, thereby embracing a doctrine of expensive military interference in faraway desert lands?  Or might China – for all its shortcomings and pressing development challenges – offer a less dystopian vision of the future?  Returning to the BP Statistical Review we discover that not only has China surpassed the US in total energy consumption, it is also now the world’s leading generator of carbon-free electricity from wind turbines.  With its planned 45,000 km of high speed rail by 2015, burgeoning renewable energy sector and more than 120 million electric bicycles plying Chinese roads today, it is for good reasons that we are increasingly refocusing our attention from west to east.  

Are we starting to ‘get’ the oil question?

This article first appeared in the South African business newspaper Business Day on 7th April 2011

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  A little less than three years ago, within the space of a few weeks, oil prices hit a record $147/bbl, Lehman Brothers collapsed into the largest bankruptcy in history, and the global economy fell into a ravine from which it has scarcely emerged.  A recent article by Jacob Weisberg in Slate magazine discussed the cause of the economic crisis by examining “the 15 best explanations for the Great Recession”.  Surprisingly, the price of oil did not feature in that long list of persuasive explanations.  It’s surprising because in the prevailing economic system oil is the economy.  

As unrest in North Africa and the Middle East enters a fifth month since the first sparks of the Tunisian Revolution last December, oil prices are starting to dominate the political discourse.  In the UK, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne warned of a 1970s-style oil shock that could cost the UK economy £45 billion over two years.  Closer to home, last week’s Financial Mail cover story on oil – the three letters that threaten economic growth – argued that a sustained high oil price threatens to completely stall the global recovery.  

Until quite recently, many economists and the mainstream financial media didn’t seem to ‘get’ the profound significance of oil.  True, it was widely acknowledged that economic slowdowns – particularly in the United States, the largest oil consumer on earth – tended to be preceded by spikes in the oil price.  But the clear correlation between high oil prices and recessions did not, in itself, prove any causal relationship.  As far as 2008 was concerned, surely Wall Street’s wizardry and former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s laissez-faire approach to regulation were the real culprits.  Surely the rising oil price was just another ‘derivative’ of the bewildering world of credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations.  Better still, by pinning it on these suspects we could even appear to be clever by pretending to comprehend the unintended consequences of ‘innovative financial products’.  

Though we live in an increasingly fast-moving, interconnected and complex world, it remains a truism that the simplest explanations are often the best ones.  First, consider that the economy is ultimately about the movement of people and stuff.  Expressed as GDP – the market value of goods and services produced – it is difficult to envisage economic activity taking place to any great extent without people and things moving around.  Whether it’s raw materials being hauled from the point of extraction to a processing plant, or from there being distributed onwards to retailers, whether it’s customers accessing goods, or employees getting to and from their places of work, very little of our globalised economic system functions without motorised transport.  

Second – and here’s the rub – worldwide, 95% of the primary energy that moves people and stuff from place to place – in cars, vans, trucks, buses, trains, boats, and aeroplanes – comes from a single source.  Transport is uniquely dependent on oil, meaning the economy is uniquely dependent on oil, or rather on the liquid transport fuels – such as diesel, petrol (or gasoline), kerosene – that we obtain from oil refineries.  So when the oil price goes up, the price of transport fuels increases and virtually everything that counts towards economic activity is impacted, either directly or indirectly.  Of course, in the case of oil companies, rising oil prices have a beneficial effect, at least in the short term… more of which later.  

Intuitively it’s easier to understand this effect on the cost of physical goods that actually get shipped around.  But why should high oil prices impact the service economy, and aren’t advanced economies more service-oriented than ever?  Again, the simple answer may be sufficient for our needs.  As household transportation costs increase – and, crucially, they are inelastic because most of us cannot or will not change our abode or place of work according to the forecourt price of petrol – all discretionary expenses experience downward pressure.  Food bills climb as oil-dependent agricultural commodities track the price of crude, an effect exacerbated by the gasoline substitution potential of corn-based ethanol in the US.  Debt repayments are more or less fixed, give or take fluctuating interest rates.  What remains is a shrinking domestic budget: quieter shopping malls, fewer evenings at the restaurant, one less trip to the hair salon.  Economic activity experiences a general slowdown – this is the very definition of recession, and not an ‘innovative financial product’ in sight.  

Anyone doubting the importance of liquid transport fuel to the health of the prevailing economic system – and therefore to maintaining social cohesion and political stability – need only recall what happened in the UK in September 2000.  Truckers and farmers protesting the relatively high pump price of diesel staged blockades of refineries and fuel terminals.  Diesel and petrol supplies slowed to a trickle as the public queued at forecourts to top up their tanks “just in case”.  Within a few days, 90% of filling stations were bone dry, just-in-time supply chains unravelled and people were fighting over loaves of bread among bare supermarket shelves.  The UK had staged a compelling if entirely accidental social experiment.  

Conclusion: five days of petroleum separate an advanced civilisation from savagery.  Note that we didn’t even run out of oil, we merely panicked!  

Returning to the companies that maintain our oil flows: perhaps uniquely in the global economic village, they do rather well when oil prices are on the up.  For instance, in 2008 – the year in which oil spiked to $147/bbl – ExxonMobil posted an annual profit of $45 billion, the largest in corporate history.  That same year, oil companies accounted for six of the seven largest global corporations, as measured by revenues.  (The outlier was Wal-Mart, an enterprise utterly symbolic of the economy’s dependency on relatively cheap and free-flowing transport fuel.)  

In this context, it should not surprise anyone that oil companies are somewhat reluctant to allow the Oil Age to draw to a graceful conclusion, as the transport system inevitably electrifies to become several times more energy efficient and compatible with the full range of sustainable renewable energy sources.  Not vested in the electricity generation game, oil companies continue to lead us astray.  BP recently argued that biofuels are “the only game in town”, the only major way to decarbonise road fuel, possibly contributing around 12% of the road transport fuel mix by 2030.  Or to put it another way, within twenty years if BP have their way the transport sector will be only 88% dependent on oil.  

BP is missing the point, of course.  The question is not only how we can decarbonise the transport sector, rather it is how we can achieve this while meeting the primary objective: gaining independence from oil.  How can we divest ourselves of turmoil in the politically fragile oil exporting regions of the world, and insulate our economic and social stability from events over which we exercise no control?  Ultimately, independence from oil means getting off liquid transport fuels, which won’t be achieved by shifting to 12% biofuels over the next two decades.  

To paraphrase BP, electricity is the only game in town.

Turning a New LEAF?

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

History may record Monday 29th November 2010 as a date of uncommon significance.  Not because the UNFCCC COP-16 opened in Cancun with barely a murmur, in stark contrast to the media circus that engulfed Copenhagen twelve months previously.  Not because of the embarrassing disclosure of the US embassy cables, and their broader implications for international diplomacy.  And not because – in a deliciously ironic twist of fate – the USA was drawn to open its campaign against North Korea in next year’s football World Cup (women’s edition).  

On Monday 29th November 2010, the European motoring press announced its Car of Year for 2011.  The Nissan LEAF is a family-sized battery electric car that will travel 100 miles on a charge.  It goes on sale early next year, and is billed as the world’s first affordable, mass produced zero emission car.  The LEAF – a jumbled acronym meaning “Leading Environmentally Friendly Affordable” – beat forty internal combustion engined vehicles to claim the annual accolade, the first time in 46 years that an electric car has won the award.  Previous winners include the Porsche 928 – hardly a paragon of fuel efficiency – and in more recent years the more frugal Toyota Prius.  

A pivotal moment in the 100+ year history of the automotive industry?  Time will tell.  At the Detroit Auto Show in January, the winner of the North American Car of the Year will be announced.  On the short list is the eagerly-awaited Chevrolet Volt, an extended range electric vehicle with the potential to transform Motown and the notoriously inefficient US market.  If it wins, it could spark the revolution.