UN-Substantiated Claims

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

I made a resolution recently, one that I had to break within a matter of days.

Quick digression: in my former life on the Mobil Oil graduate programme, we used to enjoy a game called Buzzword Bingo (there are some rather more colourful names for it).  I’m sure it’s familiar across the corporate world – a quick Google search for “buzzword+bingo” returns more than 90,000 hits.  For the uninitiated, each player starts with a grid consisting of words and phrases that sound thoughtful but tend to be vacuous – things like “synergy”, “low-hanging fruit”, or “hit the ground running”.  Each time a particular word or phrase is used, players will strike it off their grid until all have been eliminated – HOUSE! – following which the maverick will stride confidently out of the room and into the dole queue.  

Back to my resolution.  Having attended and participated in countless sustainability-related conferences over the last 5 years, it struck me that too many words and phrases are parroted without a second thought for their true meaning, much less their plausibility.  So I resolved that the next time I’m attending a conference and I hear someone assert with confidence “the world will have 9 billion people by 2050”, I’d shout HOUSE! and then head for the fire escape.

Foolish of me, in retrospect.  Within days, at the World 50 sustainability forum in London, I heard both Patrick Dixon and Nick Stern trot out the “9 billion people” assumption-masquerading-as-fact, yet I couldn’t bring myself to walk out on either of them.  They’re both utterly brilliant and it was a real privilege to listen to them outline their views of the human development challenges facing us over the next forty years.  I’d have been cutting off my nose to spite my face.

But it did concern me that two great minds would have us accept this projection as pretty much inevitable.  Why has it become such a resilient piece of conventional wisdom, unchallenged and unchallengeable?  Is it because it comes from the United Nations?  I decided to check the assumptions that underpin the UN’s population projection.  From the website of the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, I found this revealing statement: 

 To project the population until 2050, the United Nations Population Division uses assumptions regarding future trends in fertility, mortality and international migration.

Three trends – fertility, mortality, migration – play out over the next four decades to deliver 9 billion people by 2050.  But what are the other implicit assumptions that underlie this projection?  For instance, that oil supply will continue to expand to meet rising demand?  

I’ve yet to see any business plan that starts with the assumption: the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening.  That would be silly – that’s just the way the world is.  And for the last 150 years since E. L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania, oil supplies have risen more or less continuously (barring the odd political intervention) to meet growing demand.  That’s just the way the world is.  Along the way, agriculture has mechanised, delivering humanity a huge endowment of arable land for food production rather than husbanding of draft animals.  In parallel, this has liberated millions from back-breaking manual labour – we can leave all that to our personal “ghost slaves”, or barrels of oil – enabling rapid urbanisation and the associated social complexity that characterises modern civilisation.  And, of course, a human population that has grown more than six-fold from just over one billion in 1850 to almost seven billion today.  

The global population will be 9 billion by 2050, and oil supplies will continue to grow to satisfy rising demand.


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.