For the first time LIFT hosts, for this session on sustainability and energy, a Nobel Prize recipient as speaker. Before, however, technology critic Bill Thompson (blog) and Philippa Martin-King of Wattwatt.com do a brilliant double-act discussing energy efficiency. Wattwatt (it's of course a word play between the unit of power and "what") has co-organized the session. It's an online community of people interested in energy efficiency. Which is not as boring a topic as it sounds. They are launching Care4it, a contest for kids under 18 and schools for the best idea to make a difference in climate change and energy efficiency: widgets, awareness campaigns, etc. Main prize: 10K USD and a carbon-neutral trip to Geneva to pick up the prize.
Then Tom Taylor, from Headshift, a company that builds and consults on social software applications in London, talks about tech and behavour: how to use social networking -- and peer pressure -- to inflect people's behaviour towards more sustainable activities. He presents the Green Thing, an online community that encourage people to engage in sustainable behaviour, little step by little step (I've already blogged about it here). Things like "walk to work once a week" instead of driving.
Check out the videos on this page, particularly the "Old thing wrap" or "Touching the Stairs" (picture left). Inciting behavioural change is not new. Why is the Green Thing different? It's a positive thing. It's easy, you don't have to make a major commitment. It's creative: it's entertainment that tries to lead to understanding and hence stimulate engagement. It's social (there is power in numbers, and energy in peer respect).
There are other sites that use the same ideas, such as Pledgebank (I pledge that I will do a certain thing if X people pledge to do the same).
Takeaways: measuring, visualizing and exposing/sharing behaviours in the social graph can have massive effects on behaviour. But it needs to be positive, fun and easy.
Somebody has calculated that the quantity of solar energy that reaches the Earths surface every minute would be enough to cover the needs of the entire world's population. However, only a small fraction can potentially be captured, and an even smaller one is actually captured today. However, it's clear that the true energy of the future, medium and long term, is solar. We just need to find efficient ways to harness it.
There are many different technologies, from photovoltaic to thermal solar, and many projects have been put forth, from gigantic thermal solar plants in the deserts to huge photovoltaic islands off the coast of the Arab Emirates.
Guy Pignolet is a member of the SunSat Energy Council, which is a UN-afffiliated NGO, and they have a particular idea on how to capture solar energy: do so in orbit, and beam it down to Earth with microwave beams in a 24-hours a day controlled process, and use it in combination with hydrogen technology.
He shows a satellite blueprint composed by vast surface of "sail" solar cells and a central body from where the energy would be transmitted to Earth. Crazy? Pignolet says that 200 people in the world are working on space solar power. The satellite concept has actually been around for 40 years, since engineer Peter Glaser theorized it in 1968. "We have now all the basic science and technology working for this". Problem: this needs to be the size of Manhattan. "So we don't expect to have a full system operating before 30 or 40 years for now".
He also addresses the other problem with electricity as a form of energy: electrons can't be stored, they can only circulate. He suggests that hydrogen may be the solution, as an energy storage vehicle. "We could use electricity to hydrolize water in a clean way, and then store the hydrogen -- which can then be recombined with oxygen in a fuel cell to make electricity again" (that's the design used for the prototype cars that I described here and here, but which can of course be applied to domestic energy needs etc).
Andy Reisinger is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC - wikipedia page) that won -- collectively -- the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Al Gore for their work on scientifically assessing the state of the Earth's climate. He's actually a very important member of the group, because he has coordinated the small group writing and editing the summaries of the reports -- the documents that you've read about in the press and that have landed on governmental desks all over the world.
I'm moderating the session and introduce him as a "co-laureate of the Nobel Prize for Peace". Before starting his talk, he stresses that he's expressing only his personal views and is not representing the IPCC in a formal capacity.
He shares five key messages:
- Climate change is inequivocabily happening. There is an increasing confidence among scientists that the change over the last 50 years is very likely due to greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activities.
- Changes in climate of 21st century will be unilke everyting that human civilization has experienced previously. "The world has not been that warm, nor has the global climate changed that rapidly, at any time over the past 10'000 years (ie. The span of human civilization)". Some key impacts of climate change if warming keeps going as it is going: Water stress for more than 1 billion people; 20-30% of species at increasing risk of extintion; Reduced crop yield at lower latitudes; Costal flooding in megadeltas of Africa/Asia; Health risks from heath, malnurition and diarrhea; Long-term (centuries) risks of meters of sea level rise
- Greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow largely because they're linked to development status, and alot of people ispire to the development status of the western world (China and India and Brazil). Under business-as-usual global emissions are projected to increase by 25-90% by 2030. It's of course very difficult to tell developing countries that they can't seek that status.
- Technology is the key tool that will allow us to provide more and more people with better "services", but provided at a lower amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Lots of potential for energy efficiency in building, industry, plants. And of course renewables can make a significant contribution in reducing growth in emissions. Nuclear power is also an option, if reducing emissions is your focus. Carbon capture is the newest tech, it's not expected to make a significant contribution in the next 15 years. So a portfolio of technologies both on the supply and the demand side can do the job.
- But the real question is that the application of available technology is not only a function of tech itself: it's a societal choice. Most of the technologies are currently available, but they also have to be affordable of cost-effective (societal choice: put a price on carbon), must be attractive, and must not be crowded out by existing investments. This can only be achieved with adequate policies and choices.
What Andy is saying -- I'm interpreting here -- is that global solutions need a global price on carbon, but if you want global action, you need to recognize that not everybody is in the same position to act - it comes down to a foundamental wealth transfer, and we're not ready for that.