So far in the global warming era, we’ve caught precious few breaks. Certainly not from physics: the temperature has increased at the alarming pace that scientists predicted thirty years ago, and the effects of that warming have increased even faster than expected. (“Faster Than Expected” is probably the right title for a history of climate change so far; if you’re a connoisseur of disaster, there is already a blog by that name). The Arctic is melting decades ahead of schedule, and the sea rising on an accelerated schedule, and the forest fires of the science fiction future are burning this autumn. And we haven’t caught any breaks from our politics either: it’s moved with the lumbering defensiveness one would expect from a system ruled by inertia and vested interest. And so it is easy, and completely plausible, to despair: we are on the bleeding edge of existential destruction.
But one trend is, finally, breaking in the right direction, and perhaps decisively. The price of renewable energy is now falling nearly as fast as heat and rainfall records, and in the process perhaps offering us one possible way out. The public debate hasn’t caught up to the new reality—Bill Gates, in his recent bestseller on energy and climate, laments the “green premium” that must be paid for clean energy. But he (and virtually every other mainstream energy observer) is already wrong—and they’re all about to be spectacularly wrong, if the latest evidence turns out to be right.
Last Wednesday, a team at Oxford University released a fascinating paper that I haven’t seen covered anywhere. Stirringly titled “Empirically grounded technology forecasts and the energy transition,” it makes the following argument: “compared to continuing with a fossil-fuel-based system, a rapid green energy transition will likely result in overall net savings of many trillions of dollars–even without accounting for climate damages or co-benefits of climate policy.” Short and muscular, the paper begins by pointing out that at the moment most energy technologies, from gas to solar, have converged on a price point of about $100 per megawatt hour. In the case of coal, gas, and oil, however, “after adjusting for inflation, prices now are very similar to what they were 140 years ago, and there is no obvious long-range trend.” Sun, wind, and batteries, however, have dropped exponentially at roughly ten percent a year for three decades. Solar power didn’t exist until the late 1950s; since that time it has dropped in price about three orders of magnitude.
They note that all the forecasts over those years about how fast prices would drop were uniformly wrong, invariably underestimating by almost comic margins the drop in costs for renewable energy. This is a massive problem: “failing to appreciate cost improvement trajectories of renewables relative to fossil fuels not only leads to under-investment in critical emission reduction technologies, it also locks in higher cost energy infrastructure for decades to come.” That is, if economists don’t figure out that solar is going to get steadily cheaper, you’re going to waste big bucks building gas plants designed to last for decades. And indeed we have (and of course the cost of them is not the biggest problem; that would be the destruction of the planet.)
Happily, the Oxford team demonstrates that there’s a much easier and more effective way to estimate future costs than the complicated calculations used in the past: basically, if you just figure out the historic rates of fall in the costs of renewable energy, you can project them forward into the future because the learning curve seems to keep on going. In their model, validated by thousands of runs using past data, by far the cheapest path for the future is a very fast transition to renewable energy: if you replace almost all fossil fuel use over the next twenty years, you save tens of trillions of dollars. (They also model the costs of using lots of nuclear power: it’s low in carbon but high in price).
To repeat: the cost of fossil fuels is not falling; any technological learning curve for oil and gas is offset by the fact that we’ve already found the easy stuff, and now you must dig deeper. But the more solar and windpower you build, the more the price falls—because the price is only the cost of setting up the equipment, which we get better at all the time. The actual energy arrives every morning when the sun rises. This doesn’t mean it’s a miracle: you have to mine lithium and cobalt, you have to site windmills, and you have to try and do those things with as little damage as possible. But if it’s not a miracle, it’s something like a deus ex machina—and the point is that these machines are cheap.
If we made policy with this fact in mind—if we pushed, as the new $3.5 trillion Senate bill does, for dramatic increases in renewable usage in short order, then we would not only be saving the planet, we’d be saving tons of money. That money would end up in our pockets—but it would be removed from the wallets of people who own oil wells and coal mines, which is precisely why the fossil fuel industry is working so hard to gum up the works, trying to slow down everything from electric cars to induction cooktops and using all their economic and political muscle to prolong the transition. Their economically outmoded system of energy generation can only be saved by political corruption, which sadly is the fossil fuel industry’s remaining specialty. So far the learning curve of their influence-peddling has been steep enough to keep carbon levels climbing.
That’s why we need to pay attention to the only other piece of good news, the only other virtuous thing that’s happened faster than expected. And that’s been the growth of movements to take on the fossil fuel industry and push for change. If those keep growing—if enough of us divest and boycott and vote and march and go to jail—we may be able to push our politicians and our banks hard enough that they actually let us benefit from the remarkable fall in the price of renewable energy. Activists and engineers are often very different kinds of people—but their mostly unconscious alliance offers the only hope of even beginning to catch up with the runaway pace of global warming.
So if you’re a solar engineer working to drop the price of power ten percent a year, don’t you dare leave the lab—the rest of us will chip in to get you pizza and caffeine so you can keep on working. But if you’re not a solar engineer, then see you in the streets (perhaps at October’s ‘People vs Fossil Fuels’ demonstrations in DC). Because you’re the other half of this equation.
Researchers have unveiled a ground-breaking system that allows electronic devices to run without batteries for “an infinite lifetime”.
Computer engineers from Northwestern University and Delft University of Technology developed the BFree energy-harvesting technology in order to enable battery-free devices capable of running perpetually with only intermittent energy input.
The engineers hope the innovative BFree system will help cut the vast amounts of dead batteries that end up as e-waste in landfills around the world.
It will also allow amateur hobbyists and those within the Maker Movement to create their own battery-free electronic devices.
“Right now, it’s virtually impossible for hobbyists to develop devices with battery-free hardware, so we wanted to democratise our battery-free platform,” said Josiah Hester, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northwestern University, who led the research .
“Makers all over the internet are asking how to extend their device’s battery life. They are asking the wrong question. We want them to forget about the battery and instead think about more sustainable ways to generate energy.”
In order to run perpetually with only intermittent energy – for example the sun going behind a cloud and no longer powering the device’s solar panel – the BFree system simply pauses the calculations it is running without losing memory or needing to run through a long list of operations before restarting when power returns.
The technology is part of a new trend known as ubiquitous computing, which aims to make computing available at any time and in any place through smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT).
The research represents a significant advancement in this field by circumventing the need for a battery, and the associated charging and replacing that comes with them.
“Many people predict that we’re going to have a trillion devices in this IoT,” Dr Hester said.
“That means a trillion dead batteries or 100 million people replacing a dead battery every few minutes. That presents a terrible ecological cost to the environment.
“What we’re doing, instead, is truly giving power to the people. We want everyone to be able to effortlessly program devices in a more sustainable way.”
The research will be presented at the UbiComp 2021 conference on 22 September.
FOR MORE than 100,000 years humans derived all their energy from what they hunted, gathered and grazed on or grew for themselves. Their own energy for moving things came from what they ate. Energy for light and heat came from burning the rest. In recent millennia they added energy from the flow of water and, later, air to the repertoire. But, important as water- and windmills were, they did little to change the overall energy picture. Global energy use broadly tracked the size of a population fed by farms and warmed by wood.
The combination of fossil fuels and machinery changed everything. According to calculations by Vaclav Smil, a scholar of energy systems at the University of Manitoba, between 1850 and 2000 the human world’s energy use increased by a factor of 15 or so.
The expansion was not homogeneous; over its course the mixture of fossil fuels used changed quite dramatically. These are the monumental shifts historians call “energy transitions”. They require huge amounts of infrastructure; they change the way the economy works; and they take place quite slowly.
James Watt patented his steam engine in 1769; coal did not exceed the share of total energy provided by “traditional biomass”—wood, peat, dung and the like—until the 1900s (see chart overleaf). It was not until the 1950s, a century after the first commercial oil well was drilled in Titusville, Pennsylvania, that crude oil came to represent 25% of humankind’s total primary energy. Energy transitions were slow largely because the growth in total energy use was fast. In the century it took oil to capture a quarter of the total, that total increased. They are also always incomplete. New fuels may reduce the share of the pie that old fuels control, but they rarely reduce the total energy those fuels supply. Much more “traditional biomass” is burned by the world’s poor today than was burned by the whole world in 1900.
To give the world a good chance of keeping global warming, measured against the temperature pre-coal, well below 2°C (3.6°F) will require an energy transition far larger and quicker than any before it. In the next 30-50 years 90% or more of the share of the world’s energy now being produced from fossil fuels will need to be provided by renewable-energy sources, nuclear power or fossil-fuel plants that bury their waste rather than exhaling it.
During this time, the pie will keep growing—but not necessarily as fast as it used to. The direct relationship between GDP and energy use, which held tight until the 1970s, has weakened over the past half century. It is possible for growth per person to continue without energy use per person increasing. Though the population is no longer growing as fast as it did at the 20th-century peak of its increase, it will still be the best part of 2bn higher by mid-century. And all those people should be able to aspire to modern energy services. Today more than 800m people still lack electricity—hence all that burning of traditional biomass.
The good news, however, is that governments say they are willing to push through the change. Previous transitions, though shaped by government policy at national levels, were mostly caused by the demand for new services that only a specific fuel could provide, such as petrol for engines.
The growth in renewable-generation capacity is the exception. It has not been driven by the fact that renewable electrons allow you to do things of which those from coal are not capable. It has largely been driven by government policy. This has not always had the near-term effects for which such policy should aim. Germany’s roll-out of renewables has been offset by its retreat from nuclear, and its emissions have risen. But subsidies there and elsewhere have boosted supply chains and lowered the cost of renewable technologies.
During the 2010s the levelised cost (that is the average lifetime cost of equipment, per megawatt hour of electricity generated) of solar, offshore wind and onshore wind fell by 87%, 62% and 56%, respectively, according to BloombergNEF, an energy-data outfit (see chart overleaf). This has allowed deployments that were unthinkable in the 2000s. Britain now has more than 2,000 offshore wind turbines. They are built by developers chosen based on how low a price they are willing to take for their electricity (the government pledges to make the cost up if the market price falls below it).
In 2015 winning bids were well over £100 ($123) per MWh, far higher than the cost of fossil-fuel electricity. Thanks to predictable policy, fierce competition and technical progress, a recent auction brought a bid as low as £39.65 per MWh, roughly the level of average wholesale power prices. Solar and onshore wind are even less expensive. About two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries where renewables represent the cheapest source of new power generation, says BloombergNEF.
Solar power is the really spectacular achiever, outstripping the expectations of its most fervent boosters. Ramez Naam, a bullish solar investor, recently recalibrated his expectations to foresee a future of “insanely cheap” solar power. By 2030, he reckons, in sunny parts of the world, building large new solar installations from scratch will be a cheaper way of getting electricity than operating fully depreciated fossil-fuel plants, let alone building new ones. Michael Liebreich, a consultant on renewable energies, speculates about a “renewable singularity” in which cheap renewable electricity opens up new markets that demand new capacity which makes electricity cheaper still.
Even without such speculative wonders, the effect of renewables is appreciable. Together with natural gas, which America’s fracking revolution has made cheaper, solar and wind are already squeezing coal, the energy sector’s biggest emitter (a megawatt of coal produces a stream of emissions twice the size of that given off by a megawatt of gas). In 2018 coal’s share of global energy supply fell to 27%, the lowest in 15 years. The pressure that they can apply to oil is not yet as great, because oil mostly drives cars, and electric cars are still rare. But as that changes, renewables will come for oil, as they are already coming for gas.
There are stumbling blocks. Neither the sun nor the wind produces energy consistently. Germany’s solar-power installations produce five times more electricity in the summer than they do in the winter, when demand for electricity is at its peak. Wind strengths vary not just from day to day but from season to season and, to some extent, year to year. This amounts to a speed bump for renewables, not a blockade. Long transmission lines that keep losses low by working at very high voltages can move electricity from oversupplied areas to those where demand is surging. Lithium-ion batteries can store extra energy and release it as needed. The economic stimulus China announced in March includes both ultra-high-voltage grids and electric-vehicle-charging infrastructure.
Thou orb aloft, somewhat dazzling
As the sun and wind account for a larger share of power, renewables might store power by splitting water to create hydrogen to be burned later. More ambitiously, if technologies for pulling carbon dioxide back out of the air improve, such hydrogen could be combined with that scavenged carbon to make fossil-free fuels.
In doing so, they might help remedy the other problem with renewables. There are some emissions which even very cheap electricity cannot replace. Lithium-ion batteries are too bulky to power big planes on long flights, which is where artificial fuels might come in. Some industrial processes, such as cement-making, give out carbon dioxide by their very nature. They may require technology that intercepts the carbon dioxide before it gets into the atmosphere and squirrels it away underground. When emissions cannot be avoided—as may be the case with some of those from farmland—they will need to be offset by removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere either with trees or technology.
None of this happens, though, without investment. The International Renewable Energy Agency, an advisory group, estimates that $800bn of investment in renewables is needed each year until 2050 for the world to be on course for less than 2°C of warming, with more than twice that needed for electric infrastructure and efficiency. In 2019 investment in renewables was $250bn. The big oil and gas firms invested twice as much in fossil-fuel extraction.
If governments want to limit climate change, therefore, they must do more. They do not have to do everything. If policy choices show that the road away from fossil fuels is right, private capital will follow. Investors are already wary of fossil-fuel companies, eyeing meagre returns and the possibility that action on climate change will leave firms with depreciating assets.
But governments need to make the signals clear. Around the world, they currently provide more than $400bn a year in direct support for fossil-fuel consumption, more than twice what they spend subsidising renewable production. A price on carbon, which hastens the day when new renewables are cheaper than old fossil-fuel plants, is another crucial step. So is research spending aimed at those emissions which are hard to electrify away. Governments have played a large role in the development of solar panels, wind turbines and fracking. There is a lot more to do.
However much they do, though, and however well they do it, they will not stop the climate change at today’s temperature of 1°C above the pre-industrial. Indeed, they will need to expand their efforts greatly to meet the 2°C target; on today’s policies, the rise by the end of the century looks closer to 3°C. This means that as well as trying to limit climate change, the world also needs to learn how to adapt to it. ■
Correction (May 22nd 2020): This article previously stated that Britain had 10,000 offshore wind turbines. In fact that is the total number of turbines; only 2,016 are offshore. We’re sorry for the error.
This article appeared in the Schools brief section of the print edition under the headline “Not-so-slow burn”
The pandemic shows how hard it will be to decarbonise—and creates an opportunity
Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub
FOLLOWING THE pandemic is like watching the climate crisis with your finger jammed on the fast-forward button. Neither the virus nor greenhouse gases care much for borders, making both scourges global. Both put the poor and vulnerable at greater risk than wealthy elites and demand government action on a scale hardly ever seen in peacetime. And with China’s leadership focused only on its own advantage and America’s as scornful of the World Health Organisation as it is of the Paris climate agreement, neither calamity is getting the co-ordinated international response it deserves.
The two crises do not just resemble each other. They interact. Shutting down swathes of the economy has led to huge cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. In the first week of April, daily emissions worldwide were 17% below what they were last year. The International Energy Agency expects global industrial greenhouse-gas emissions to be about 8% lower in 2020 than they were in 2019, the largest annual drop since the second world war.
That drop reveals a crucial truth about the climate crisis. It is much too large to be solved by the abandonment of planes, trains and automobiles. Even if people endure huge changes in how they lead their lives, this sad experiment has shown, the world would still have more than 90% of the necessary decarbonisation left to do to get on track for the Paris agreement’s most ambitious goal, of a climate only 1.5°C warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution.
But as we explain this week (see article) the pandemic both reveals the size of the challenge ahead and also creates a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon at a lower financial, social and political cost than might otherwise have been the case. Rock-bottom energy prices make it easier to cut subsidies for fossil fuels and to introduce a tax on carbon. The revenues from that tax over the next decade can help repair battered government finances. The businesses at the heart of the fossil-fuel economy—oil and gas firms, steel producers, carmakers—are already going through the agony of shrinking their long-term capacity and employment. Getting economies in medically induced comas back on their feet is a circumstance tailor-made for investment in climate-friendly infrastructure that boosts growth and creates new jobs. Low interest rates make the bill smaller than ever.
Take carbon-pricing first. Long cherished by economists (and The Economist), such schemes use the power of the market to incentivise consumers and firms to cut their emissions, thus ensuring that the shift from carbon happens in the most efficient way possible. The timing is particularly propitious because such prices have the most immediate effects when they tip the balance between two already available technologies. In the past it was possible to argue that, although prices might entrench an advantage for cleaner gas over dirtier coal, renewable technologies were too immature to benefit. But over the past decade the costs of wind and solar power have tumbled. A relatively small push from a carbon price could give renewables a decisive advantage—one which would become permanent as wider deployment made them cheaper still. There may never have been a time when carbon prices could achieve so much so quickly.
Carbon prices are not as popular with politicians as they are with economists, which is why too few of them exist. But even before covid-19 there were hints their time was coming. Europe is planning an expansion of its carbon-pricing scheme, the largest in the world; China is instituting a brand new one. Joe Biden, who backed carbon prices when he was vice-president, will do so again in the coming election campaign—and at least some on the right will agree with that. The proceeds from a carbon tax could raise over 1% of GDP early on and would then taper away over several decades. This money could either be paid as a dividend to the public or, as is more likely now, help lower government debts, which are already forecast to reach an average of 122% of GDP in the rich world this year, and will rise further if green investments are debt-financed.
Carbon pricing is only part of the big-bang response now possible. By itself, it is unlikely to create a network of electric-vehicle charging-points, more nuclear power plants to underpin the cheap but intermittent electricity supplied by renewables, programmes to retrofit inefficient buildings and to develop technologies aimed at reducing emissions that cannot simply be electrified away, such as those from large aircraft and some farms. In these areas subsidies and direct government investment are needed to ensure that tomorrow’s consumers and firms have the technologies which carbon prices will encourage.
Some governments have put their efforts into greening their covid-19 bail-outs. Air France has been told either to scrap domestic routes that compete with high-speed trains, powered by nuclear electricity, or to forfeit taxpayer assistance. But dirigisme disguised as a helping hand could have dangerous consequences: better to focus on insisting that governments must not skew their bail-outs towards fossil fuels. In other countries the risk is of climate-damaging policies. America has been relaxing its environmental rules further during the pandemic. China—whose stimulus for heavy industry sent global emissions soaring after the global financial crisis—continues to build new coal plants (see article).
The covid-19 pause is not inherently climate-friendly. Countries must make it so. Their aim should be to show by 2021, when they gather to take stock of progress made since the Paris agreement and commit themselves to raising their game, that the pandemic has been a catalyst for a breakthrough on the environment.
Covid-19 has demonstrated that the foundations of prosperity are precarious. Disasters long talked about, and long ignored, can come upon you with no warning, turning life inside out and shaking all that seemed stable. The harm from climate change will be slower than the pandemic but more massive and longer-lasting. If there is a moment for leaders to show bravery in heading off that disaster, this is it. They will never have a more attentive audience. ■
This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Seize the moment”
Editor’s note: Some of our covid-19 coverage is free for readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. For more stories and our pandemic tracker, see our hub
AMID COVID-19’s sweeping devastation, its effect on greenhouse gases has emerged as something of a bright spot. Between January and March demand for coal dropped by 8% and oil by 5%, compared with the same period in 2019. By the end of the year energy demand may be 6% down overall, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), an intergovernmental forecaster, amounting to the largest drop it has ever seen.
Because less energy use means less burning of fossil fuels, greenhouse-gas emissions are tumbling, too. According to an analysis by the Global Carbon Project, a consortium of scientists, 2020’s emissions will be 2-7% lower than 2019’s if the world gets back to prepandemic conditions by mid-June; if restrictions stay in place all year, the estimated drop is 3-13% depending on how strict they are. The IEA’s best guess for the drop is 8%.
That is not enough to make any difference to the total warming the world can expect. Warming depends on the cumulative emissions to date; a fraction of one year’s toll makes no appreciable difference. But returning the world to the emission levels of 2010—for a 7% drop—raises the tantalising prospect of crossing a psychologically significant boundary. The peak in carbon-dioxide emissions from fossil fuels may be a lot closer than many assume. It might, just possibly, turn out to lie in the past.
That emissions from fossil fuels have to peak, and soon, is a central tenet of climate policy. Precisely when they might do so, though, is so policy-dependent that many forecasters decline to give a straight answer. The IEA makes a range of projections depending on whether governments keep on with today’s policies or enact new ones. In the scenario which assumes that current policies stay in place, fossil-fuel demand rises by nearly 30% from 2018 to 2040, with no peak in sight.
The IEA, though, has persistently underestimated the renewable-energy sector. Others are more bullish. Carbon Tracker, a financial think-tank, predicted in 2018 that with impressive but plausible growth in renewable deployment and relatively slow growth in overall demand, even under current policy fossil-fuel emissions should peak in the 2020s—perhaps as early as 2023. Michael Liebreich, who founded BloombergNEF, an energy-data outfit, has also written about a possible peak in the mid 2020s. Depending on how the pandemic pans out he now thinks that it may be in 2023—or may have been in 2019.
Previously, drops in emissions caused by economic downturns have proved only temporary setbacks to the ongoing rise in fossil-fuel use. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Asian financial crash in 1997 and the financial crisis of 2007-09 all saw emissions stumble briefly before beginning to rise again (see chart). But if a peak really was a near-term prospect before the pandemic, almost a decade’s worth of setback could mean that, though emissions will rise over the next few years, they never again reach the level they stood at last year.
The alternative, more orthodox pre-covid view was that the peak was both further off and destined to be higher. On this view, emissions will regain their pre-pandemic level within a few years and will climb right on past it. Covid’s damage to the economy probably means that the peak, when it arrives, will be lower than it might have been, says Roman Kramarchuk of S&P Global Platts Analytics, a data and research firm. But an economic dip is unlikely to bring it on sooner.
What, though, if covid does not merely knock demand back, but reshapes it? This shock, unlike prior ones, comes upon an energy sector already in the throes of change. The cost of renewables is dipping below that of new fossil-fuel plants in much of the world. After years of development, electric vehicles are at last poised for the mass market. In such circumstances covid-19 may spur decisions—by individuals, firms, investors and governments—that hasten fossil fuels’ decline.
So far, renewables have had a pretty good pandemic, despite some disruptions to supply chains. With no fuel costs and the preferential access to electricity grids granted by some governments, renewables demand jumped 1.5% in the first quarter, even as demand for all other forms of energy sank. America’s Energy Information Administration expects renewables to surpass coal’s share of power generation in America for the first time this year.
Coal prices have fallen, given the low demand, which may position it well post-pandemic in some places. Even before covid, China was building new coal-fired plants (see article). But the cost of borrowing is also low, and likely to stay that way, which means installing renewables should stay cheap for longer. Renewable developers such as Iberdrola and Orsted, both of which have weathered covid-19 rather well so far, are keen to replace coal on an ever larger scale.
Those who see demand for fossil fuels continuing to climb as populations and economies grow have assumed demand for oil will be much more persistent than that for coal. Coal is almost entirely a source of electricity, which makes it ripe for replacement by renewables. Oil is harder to shift. Electric vehicles are sure to eat into some of its demand; but a rising appetite for petrochemicals and jet fuel, to which lithium-ion batteries offer no competition, was thought likely to offset the loss.
Now oil’s future looks much more murky, depending as it does on a gallimaufry of newly questionable assumptions about commuting, airline routes, government intervention, capital spending and price recovery. In the future more people may work from home, and commuting accounts for about 8% of oil demand. But those who do commute may prefer to do so alone in their cars, offsetting some of those gains. Chinese demand for oil has picked up again quickly in part because of reticence about buses and trains.
As to planes, Jeff Currie of Goldman Sachs estimates that demand for oil will recover to pre-crisis levels by the middle of 2022, but that demand for jet fuel may well stay 1.7m barrels a day below what it was as business travel declines. That is equivalent to nearly 2% of oil demand.
Such uncertainty means more trouble for the oil sector, whose poor returns and climate risks have been repelling investors for a while. Companies are slashing spending on new projects. By the mid-2020s today’s underinvestment in oil may boost crude prices—making demand for electric vehicles grow all the faster.
Natural gas, the fossil fuel for which analysts have long predicted continued growth, has weathered the pandemic better than its two older siblings. But it, too, faces accelerating competition. One of gas’s niches is powering the “peaker” plants which provide quick influxes of energy when demand outstrips a grid’s supply. It looks increasingly possible for batteries to take a good chunk of that business.
Those hoping for fossil fuels’ imminent demise should not be overconfident. As lockdowns around the world end, use of dirty fuels will tick back up, as they have in China. Energy emissions no longer rise in lockstep with economic growth, but demand for fossil fuels remains tied to it. Mr Currie of Goldman Sachs, for one, is wary of declaring a permanent decoupling: “I’m not willing to say there is a structural shift in oil demand to GDP.” Even so, a peak of fossil fuels in the 2020s looks less and less farfetched—depending on what governments do next in their struggle with the pandemic. Of all the uncertainties in energy markets, none currently looms larger than that. ■
Ben Tarnoff, co-founder of Logic Magazine, explores the devastating impact of cloud computing on the climate — and makes the case for a radical transformation of the internet as we know it.
As of writing, roughly half of the world’s population is living under lockdown.
Not everyone can remain indoors, of course: millions of working-class people put their lives at risk every day to be the nurses, grocery store clerks, and other essential workers on whom everyone else’s survival depends. But globally, a substantial share of humanity is staying home.
One consequence is a sharp increase in internet usage. Trapped inside, people are spending more time online. The New York Times reports that in January, as China locked down Hubei province — home to Wuhan, the original epicenter of Covid-19 — mobile broadband speeds dropped by more than half because of network congestion. Internet speeds have suffered similar drops across Europe and the United States, as stay-at-home orders have led to spikes in traffic. In Italy, which has one of the highest coronavirus death tolls in the world, home internet use has increased 90 percent.
The internet is already deeply integrated into the daily rhythms of life in much of the world. Under the pressures of the pandemic, however, it has become something more: the place where, for many, life is mostly lived. It is where one spends time with family and friends, goes to class, attends concerts and religious services, buys meals and groceries. It is a source of sustenance, culture, and social interaction; for those who can work from home, it is also a source of income. Quarantine is an ancient practice. Connected quarantine is a paradox produced by a networked age.
Anything that can help people endure long periods of isolation is useful for containing the virus. In this respect, the internet is a blessing — if an unevenly distributed one. Indeed, the pandemic is highlighting the inequalities both within and across countries when it comes to connectivity, and underlining why internet access should be considered a basic human right.
But the new reality of connected quarantine also brings certain risks. The first is social: the greater reliance on online services will place more power in the hands of telecoms and platforms. Our undemocratic digital sphere will only become more so, as the firms that own the physical and virtual infrastructures of the internet come to mediate, and to mold, even more of our existence. The second danger is ecological. The internet already makes very large demands of the earth’s natural systems. As usage increases, those demands will grow.
In our efforts to mitigate the current crisis, then, we may end up making other crises worse. A world in which the internet as it is currently organized becomes more central to our lives will be one in which tech companies exercise more influence over our lives. It may also be one in which life of all kinds becomes harder to sustain, as the environmental impact of a precipitously growing internet accelerates the ongoing collapse of the biosphere — above all, by making the planet hotter.
Machines Heat the Planet
To understand how the internet makes the planet hotter, it helps to begin with a simplified model of what the internet is. The internet is, more or less, a collection of machines that talk to one another. These machines can be big or small — servers or smartphones, say. Every year they become more ubiquitous; in a couple of years, there will be thirty billion of them.
These machines heat the planet in three ways. First, they are made from metals and minerals that are extracted and refined with large inputs of energy, and this energy is generated from burning fossil fuels. Second, their assembly and manufacture is similarly energy-intensive, and thus similarly carbon-intensive. Finally, after the machines are made, there is the matter of keeping them running, which also consumes energy and emits carbon.
Given the breadth and complexity of this picture, it would take a considerable amount of time to map the entire carbon footprint of the internet precisely. So let’s zero in on a single slice: the cloud. If the internet is a collection of machines that talk to one another, the cloud is the subset of machines that do most of the talking. More concretely, the cloud is millions of climate-controlled buildings — ”data centers” — filled with servers. These servers supply the storage and perform the computation for the software running on the internet — the software behind Zoom seders, Twitch concerts, Instacart deliveries, drone strikes, financial trades, and countless other algorithmically organized activities.
The amount of energy consumed by these activities is immense, and much of it comes from coal and natural gas. Data centers currently require 200 terawatt hours per year, roughly the same amount as South Africa. Anders Andrae, a researcher at Huawei, predicts that number will grow 4 to 5 times by 2030. This would put the cloud on par with Japan, the fourth-biggest energy consumer on the planet. Andrae made these predictions before the pandemic, however. All indications suggest that the crisis will supercharge the growth of the cloud, as people spend more time online. This means we could be looking at a cloud even bigger than Japan by 2030 — perhaps even the size of India, the world’s third-biggest energy consumer.
Machine Learning is a Fossil Fuel Industry
What can be done to avert the climate damage of such a development? One approach is to make the cloud run on renewable energy. This doesn’t entirely decarbonize data centers, given the carbon costs associated with the construction of the servers inside of them, but it does reduce their impact. Greenpeace has been waging a campaign along these lines for years, with some success. The use of renewables by data centers has grown, although progress is uneven: according to a recent Greenpeace report, Chinese data centers are still primarily powered by coal. It also remains difficult to accurately gauge how much progress has been made, since corporate commitments to lower carbon emissions are often little more than greenwashing PR. “Greening” one’s data centers can mean any number of things, given a general lack of transparency and reporting standards. A company might buy some carbon offsets, put out a celebratory press release, and call it a day.
Another approach is to increase the energy efficiency of data centers. This is an easier sell for companies, because they have a strong financial incentive to lower their electricity costs: powering and cooling data centers can be extraordinarily expensive. In recent years, they have come up with a number of ways to improve efficiency. The emergence of “hyperscale” data centers, first developed by Facebook, has been especially important. These are vast, automated, streamlined facilities that represent the rationalization of the cloud: they are the digital equivalent of the Fordist assembly line, displacing the more artisanal arrangements of an earlier era. Their economies of scale and obsessive optimizations make them highly energy-efficient, which has in turn moderated the cloud’s power consumption in recent years.
This trend won’t last forever, however. The hyperscalers will max out their efficiency, while the cloud will continue to grow. Even the more conscientious companies will have trouble procuring enough renewables to keep pace with demand. This is why we may also have to contemplate another possibility: not just greening the cloud, or making it more efficient, but constraining its growth.
To consider how we might do that, let’s first consider why the cloud is growing so fast. One of the most important factors is the rise of machine learning (ML). ML is the field behind the current “AI boom.” A powerful tool for pattern recognition, ML can be put to many purposes, from analyzing faces to predicting consumer preferences. To recognize a pattern, though, an ML system must first “learn” the pattern. The way that ML learns patterns is by training on large quantities of data, which is a computationally demanding process. Streaming Netflix doesn’t place much strain on the servers inside a data center; training the ML model that Netflix uses for its recommendation engine probably does.
Because ML hogs processing power, it also carries a large carbon footprint. In a paper that made waves in the ML community, a team at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found that training a model for natural-language processing — the field that helps “virtual assistants” like Alexa understand what you’re saying — can emit as much as 626,155 pounds of carbon dioxide. That’s about the same amount produced by flying roundtrip between New York and Beijing 125 times.
Training models isn’t the only way that ML contributes to climate change. It has also stimulated a hunger for data that is probably the single biggest driver of the digitization of everything. Corporations and governments now have an incentive to acquire as much data as possible, because that data, with the help of ML, might yield valuable patterns. It might tell them who to fire, who to arrest, when to perform maintenance on a machine, or how to promote a new product. It might even help them build new kinds of services, like facial recognition software or customer-service chatbots. One of the best ways to make more data is to put small connected computers everywhere—in homes and stores and offices and factories and hospitals and cars. Aside from the energy required to manufacture and maintain those devices, the data they produce will live in the carbon-intensive cloud.
The good news is that awareness of ML’s climate impacts is growing, as is the interest among practitioners and activists in mitigating them. Towards that end, one group of researchers is calling for new reporting standards under the banner of “Green AI.” They propose adding a carbon “price tag” to each ML model, which would reflect the costs of building, training, and running it, and which could drive the development of more efficient models.
This is important work, but it needs a qualitative dimension as well as a quantitative one. We shouldn’t just be asking how much carbon an ML application produces. We should also be asking what those applications do.
Do they enable people to lead freer and more self-determined lives? Do they cultivate community and solidarity? Do they encourage more equitable and more cooperative forms of living? Or do they extend corporate and state surveillance and control? Do they give advertisers, employers, and security agencies new ways to monitor and manipulate us? Do they strengthen capitalist class power, and intensify racism, sexism, and other oppressions?
Resistance with Transformation
A good place to start when we contemplate curbing the growth of the cloud, then, is asking whether the activities that are driving its growth contribute to the creation of a democratic society. This question will acquire new urgency in the pandemic, as our societies become more enmeshed in the internet. It is a question that cannot be resolved on a technical basis, however — it is not an optimization problem, like trying to maximize energy efficiency in a data center. That’s because it involves choices about values, and choices about values are necessarily political. Therefore, we need political mechanisms for making these choices collectively.
Politics is necessarily a conflictual affair, and there will be plenty of conflicts that arise in the course of trying to both decarbonize and democratize the internet. For one, there are obvious tensions between the moral imperative of improving and expanding access and the ecological imperative of keeping the associated energy inputs within a sustainable range. But there will also be many cases where restricting and even eliminating certain uses of the internet will serve both social and environmental ends simultaneously.
Consider the fight against facial recognition software that has erupted across the world, from protesters in Hong Kong using lasers to disrupt police cameras to organizers in the United States pushing for municipal bans. Such software is incompatible with basic democratic values; it also helps heat the planet by relying on computationally intensive ML models. Its abolition would thus serve both the people and the planet.
But we need more than abolition. We also need to envision and construct an alternative. A substantive project to decarbonize and democratize the internet must combine resistance with transformation; namely, it must transform how the internet is owned and organized. So long as the internet is held by private firms and run for profit, it will destabilize natural systems and preclude the possibility of democratic control. The supreme law of capitalism is accumulation for accumulation’s sake. Under such a regime, the earth is a set of resources to be extracted, not a set of systems to be repaired, stewarded, and protected. Moreover, there is little room for people to freely choose the course of their lives, because everyone’s choices — even those of capitalists — are constrained by the imperative of infinite accumulation.
Dissolving this law, and formulating a new one, will of course involve a much broader array of struggles than those aimed at building a better internet. But the internet, as its size and significance grows through the pandemic, may very well become a central point of struggle. In the past, the internet has been a difficult issue to inspire mass mobilization around; its current highly privatized form, in fact, is partly due to the absence of popular pressure. The new life patterns of connected quarantine might reverse this trend, as online services become, for many, both a window to the world and a substitute for it, a lifeline and a habitat. Perhaps then the internet will be a place worth struggling to transform, as well as a tool for those struggling to transform everything else.