Review of Inside Science: Abundant energy
Abundant energy – an episode of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme – is a thought experiment imagining a world where energy is abundant, cheap and highly available. I listened to it on 9th February 2023. The programme was presented by Inside Science regular Gaia Vince with contributions from Rachel Kyte1Rachel Kyte CMG is Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, who has previously worked for the UN on sustainability issues. , Jim Watson2Jim Watson is Professor of Energy Policy at UCL. He’s advised government on the low carbon energy transition. and Hannah Richie3Dr Hannah Richie is Head of Research at Our World in Data, based at Oxford University, who looks at food, agriculture and energy in relation to global development trends..
The premise was that cheap and abundant energy becomes available through scaling up existing technologies such as solar and wind power. The result of this could be a reduction in the cost of producing and transporting almost everything. Potentially, this could result in a large number of huge, game-changing benefits. Among those talked about by the participants were:
- Reduced geopolitical and social insecurity and inequality.
- Reduced pollution from polluting fuels, such as fossil fuel.
- Less time in under-developed countries spent collecting fuel, freeing women, in particular, to make other economic contributions and improve their education.
- Fewer barriers to irrigation in agriculture.
- Higher availability of fertilizers and pesticides for agriculture.
- Improved food security coupled with new food production methods, e.g. vertical and indoor agriculture and lab grown meat (currently prohibitive because of high energy requirements) leading to better nutrition and less pressure on biodiversity from land-use.
- Improvements in health and education.
- Reduced economic migration.
- Potential mitigate the effects of climate change e.g. through geoengineering schemes and cheap air conditioning.
These potential benefits are intoxicating and it is easy to get carried away by them. Who wouldn’t be excited by, for example, the potential to transform currently under-developed parts of the world and the prospect of reducing the amount of land required for agriculture with consequent opportunities for rewilding? But they are only potential benefits and, in the main, would not automatically follow from abundant energy.
Some notes of caution were sounded in the discussion. For example:
- There is a relationship between increasing access to energy and water shortage. Water and energy use are bound up in a complex relationship. Although there is potential for desalination plants (currently impeded by high energy requirements) to mitigate this, we should be cautious about the potential to exacerbate an already severe, and growing, problem.
- We shouldn’t forget that the technologies we are talking about, principally wind and solar, whilst being less damaging than fossil fuels, are not themselves without environmental impacts. They may have unforeseen impacts when scaled up to the degree required for abundant energy.
- We should be very cautious about geoengineering schemes: they have the potential to do great harm.
- There is no guarantee that abundant energy would reduce geopolitical inequality, indeed if the means of production were concentrated into few hands, it might alter the geopolitical landscape without reducing insecurity or inequality.
(I wish the potential dangers of higher fertilizer and pesticide availability had been included in those caveats.)
For some of the contributors, caution over the concentration of production was overstated: they were reassured by imagining a distributed system of production. But the kind of distributed energy production for cities, towns and communities that I can imagine would be characterised as an ‘energy commons’. Advanced economies dominated by an imperative for GDP growth do not facilitate commons and often actively work against them, partly because of their potential to operate under the GDP radar and partly because they do not provide opportunities for individuals or corporations to accumulate wealth. The history of capitalism is one where commons have been systematically enclosed/appropriated by elites in order to generate profits. It would be naïve to think that there will not be powerful drivers aiming to do the same with green energy, however distributed the means of production is.
The political-economic context in which energy becomes abundant is a key variable which was completely absent from this thought experiment. Nowhere was this more evident than in the discussion about a circular economy. Some participants in the discussion were very excited about the potential of abundant energy to enable a circular economy – one in which materials are continually recycled using methods not currently in widespread use because of prohibitively high energy requirements. But the requirement for energy is only one inhibitor to circular economies. Another, arguably much greater, inhibitor is the imperative for GDP growth. We could, for example, make our economy much more circular by regulating to make products longer-lasting and repairable and by outlawing built-in obsolescence. None of that requires more energy, but it has not happened because it would reduce the quantity of goods we consume and therefore reduce GDP growth. Even in an abundant energy future, the imperative for GDP growth would prevent a truly circular economy – to support GDP growth there would always be pressure to pull more new raw materials into the circle!
Jim Watson came closest to articulating some of my worries. He noted that there are examples of resource abundant countries experiencing a ‘resource curse’ – where the economic benefits of the resource are captured by elites, leading to corruption and neglect in other areas of the economy. But neither he, nor anyone else, touched upon the specific threat from growthism.
It left me wishing that the panel had included an ecological economist. In his book Less is More, the ecological economist Jason Hickel briefly addresses an imagined future in which energy is 100% green, but his thought experiment played out rather differently: “Even if we had a 100%-clean-energy system, what would we do with it? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, trawl more fish, mine more mountains, build more roads, expand industrial farming, and send more waste to landfill – all of which have ecological consequences our planet can no longer sustain. We will do these things because our economic system demands that we grow production and consumption at an exponential rate.”
I’ve no doubt that some of the contributors to this programme would disagree with some of that, but by completely ignoring the broad economic context within which the imagined future of abundant energy would operate, they introduced a critical distortion into this otherwise very interesting thought experiment.
- 1Rachel Kyte CMG is Dean of The Fletcher School at Tufts University, who has previously worked for the UN on sustainability issues.
- 2Jim Watson is Professor of Energy Policy at UCL. He’s advised government on the low carbon energy transition.
- 3Dr Hannah Richie is Head of Research at Our World in Data, based at Oxford University, who looks at food, agriculture and energy in relation to global development trends.