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.

Our Moon Shot

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

On Monday 5th October, I was introduced to a new and slightly disorientating experience: I attended the UK Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.  It was disorientating for three reasons.  First, there were generous swathes of BLUE – a colour I usually associate with unpleasant football stadia – all over the place.  Second, the majority of delegates were speaking a dialect of my mother tongue that might be described as Hugh-Grantglish.  Third, as I scanned the agenda – the Conservative Party Conference agenda! – I picked out several plenary sessions and fringe events that suggested “sustainable development”.  A whole day dedicated to Green Growth.  In the UK, on the surface at least, it seems blue is the new green.

One such sustainability-related seminar that I managed to attend was titled “Keeping The Lights On: Energy in the 2010s”.  As a series of panellists fixated on our various energy supply options, I found myself wondering why we were sitting in this conference room – drenched in sunlight via a huge pyramidal glass ceiling – with all of the lights on.  Ah, but they were all energy efficient light bulbs!  During the Q&A session, I suggested that one of the better ways to safeguard the UK’s ability to keep the lights on might be knowing when to switch them off.  Or alternatively, to put the “conserve” back into Conservative, rather than Labour-ing under the fallacy that we can close the energy gap by increasing supply.  

Switching the lights off

Minister of State for Energy & Climate Change Charles Hendry presented a view of what the next decade holds in store as the UK faces the prospect of retiring several GW of nuclear and coal-fired electricity generating capacity.  His answer?  A mix of new nukes (with no government subsidy), coal/CCS and offshore wind (the UK holds 40% of Europe’s offshore wind resource, yet currently sits an embarrassing 25th out of 27 Member States in terms of percentage of energy derived from renewable sources, ahead of mighty Malta and Luxembourg).  And given the long lead times involved – particularly for nukes and coal/CCS, neither of which will make significant contributions before 2018 – we will also need to further increase our dependency on imported natural gas.  It’s not the most inspiring picture, but it’s certainly pragmatic.

If you believe, they put a man on the Moon…

But who needs pragmatism from our political leaders?  Whatever happened to vision and ambition?  During the closing plenary at the Carbon Show in London the next day, I argued that it wasn’t always like this – certainly not on 26th May 1961

I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.  No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important in the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. 

When John F Kennedy spoke those words, he didn’t present a pragmatic proposal for how his vision might be accomplished by leveraging the power of competitive deregulated markets.  In fact, at the time you’d have been very hard-pressed to argue it was a realistic ambition.  But it was certainly inspirational, it captured the imagination of a country, and it led to arguably the greatest human achievement ever.  Why have we grown content to settle for realism, when all evidence indicates that something absolutely extraordinary needs to happen?  

Imagine a contemporary politician taking JFK’s place for that 1961 speech: “I believe that, in the long-term, this nation should probably put a man on another celestial body.  But as politicians we need to be careful not to pick winners – perhaps it’s the Moon, or maybe Mars is the right destination – the truth is we don’t know.  In any case, there’s plenty to be done in the short-term: we need to gain altitude cost-effectively, and that means we’ve got to harvest the low-hanging fruit by climbing Mount Everest.  We’re confident we can do it because some Kiwi and a Nepalese bloke managed it a few years back.”  Doesn’t it just make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck?!

A Giant Leap For Mankind?

JFK chose a different way to shape history.  He followed up his 1961 call to action with these words at Rice University in September the following year: 

We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win…

According to the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report, to stand an evens chance of staying below the critical 2°C theshold, we’ll need to engineer a zero carbon energy system by 2050, with all the interim steps this implies.  It won’t be easy and it won’t be cheap, but it’s what the science tells us is necessary if we’re to avoid the worst effects of climate change.  Are we ready to accept this challenge clear in the knowledge that it will be hard, or will we continue to postpone?  Make no mistake: decarbonising the global economy in 40 years is our Moon Shot.  Conservation >> Efficiency >> Decarbonisation, all on a scale for which history has no precedent.  

Before Apollo 11 and Niel Armstrong’s giant leap for mankind came Apollos 1 thru 10 – as mankind’s baby steps grew into confident strides – all of them laser focused on achieving the ultimate ambition.  So it is with our Moon Shot: we won’t manage this in one “giant leap”, no doubt we’ll trip along the way, but we will learn with every step we dare to take towards our zero carbon economy by 2050.  

The Blue Planet

In considering whether this daunting challenge is one we should be willing to embrace, we might pause to recall the words of astronaut Thomas Stafford – from the Apollo 10 mission that preceded Armstrong’s lunar landing by two months – as he recalled looking down on his home: 

The white twisted clouds and the endless shades of blue in the ocean make the hum of the spacecraft systems, the radio chatter, even your own breathing disappear.  There is no cold or wind or smell to tell you that you are connected to Earth.  You have an almost dispassionate platform – remote, Olympian and yet so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below.

Put like that, our dear old planet sounds worth looking after, doesn’t it?  Perhaps it’s fitting that blue is the new green – we all live on a Pale Blue Dot, after all.

Electric Vehicles: Keeping it Real

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

Last Tuesday I met with a group of MEPs from The Greens / European Free Alliance (EFA) at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the electrification of the transport sector. Following on from my recent guest blog on the Better Place website, I take their interest – and the thrust of the conversation – as another indicator that electric vehicles are moving into the mainstream. The MEPs present – including Claude Turmes and Satu Hassi, both of whom are clearly very knowledgeable on the topic – evidently have concerns that special interest groups are using the bright prospects of electric vehicles to avoid addressing the larger challenges associated with transport sustainability.

Let me restate my position on this: if we clicked our fingers today and electrified the entire automotive fleet of the world – approaching one billion vehicles – we would still be faced with a horribly unsustainable transport sector. We would still have inefficient use of vehicles, too many unnecessary journeys in vehicles that are unnecessarily large, a desperately under-utilised asset base, ugly urban landscapes designed for motorists rather than citizens, chronic under-investment in public transport, growing congestion and associated loss of economic productivity, not to mention a commensurate rise in stress levels. Cars are sold to us on the promise mobility, but in city centres they increasingly deliver immobility.

I could continue, but the larger point should be clear. Electric vehicles are inherently highly energy efficient and compatible with a carbon-free sustainable renewable energy system. But they don’t in themselves solve the broader transport challenges mentioned above. However, by acknowledging the fact that electrification of transport can dramatically improve the energy efficiency and carbon footprint of this uniquely problematic sector – not to mention help tackle urban air and noise pollution – we are not arguing against addressing all of those other important sustainability issues. Similarly, the fact that the nuclear industry vocally advocates the electrification of mobility does not mean that opponents of nuclear power must also oppose the widespread roll-out of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles – not only cars but also bicycles, vans, and mass-transit modes of mobility – are vital if we are to achieve the objective of the Copenhagen Accord and stay below 2°C of global warming. This will require complete decarbonisation of the energy system by 2050, which means no more fossil fuels burned in mobile applications.

We need to elevate the debate above the creation of false dichotomies, the drawing of ideological boundaries around transport electrification that suggest “pro-EV” equates to “anti-investment in public transport”, to take one example. Unless we manage to maintain an intellectually honest dialogue, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.