Let’s start with a paradox. The planet we’re living on, Earth, since terraforming and colonising Mars is currently not possible, is slowing down. 500 million years ago, a day was 22 hours long. Given that the change is about a millisecond per century, it is very unlikely that any of us will feel that effect. It is, however, all the more surprising if one considers the evolution of human activity and the fact that things seem to always go faster. And indeed, the ‘Great Acceleration’ is the expression used to describe the spectacular development since the 1950s, of the world economy, population, energy demand, trade, and… of the human impact on the environment.
Lightning speed of information
What better example than the flow of information to characterise the speed at which things can go in our modern world?
All major media continuously diffuse information and news on their website. A study made with data from 2013 which analysed 2.5 million news articles, showed that in average it took 175 minutes for a piece of news appearing on one website for the first time to be repeated on another news channel. For a quarter of those events, the time was less than 4 minutes! Somewhat ironically, fake news actually diffuse much faster than real information. On Twitter for example, studies show that fake information propagates 10 to 20 times faster than a real news. On financial markets, reaction times for high frequency trading are of the order of milliseconds.
In very different fields, the Covid-19 virus propagated throughout the whole world in hardly a few months after its discovery in humans. Things which appeared impossible have been realised on very short timescales. 8 years elapsed between John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s speech announcing, in 1961, the decision to land a man on the Moon and Neil Armstrong’s first step on our satellite in 1969.
Adoption speed of new technologies
The speed at which certain technologies are adopted can also make one dizzy. In 2000, there were about 730 million mobile phones in the world. 16 years later, there are about 7.4 billion, as many as there are inhabitants. This of course does not mean that every inhabitant has got one – many people own at least two. Over the same period, the fraction of American households owning a tablet went from 3 to 64%. The pace at which new objects are released is also breathtaking. Mobile phone manufacturers update their flagship model every year. The number of pixels on smartphone cameras has been multiplied by 35 in 10 years, and the trend is now the multiplication of camera sensors themselves.
But nothing beats Moore’s law, postulated on the basis of empirical observations by Intel’s co-founder in 1965 and revised 10 years later. It states that the number of transistors on a microchip doubles every 2 years- an annual growth rate of 41%. A growth rate which has been maintained over almost 50 years, resulting in a multiplication factor of 25 million!
Energy transition: fast and easy?
From the above figures, the total transformation of our energy system might seem possible in a fast fashion. This energy system is still currently based for 80% on fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) that we consume at a rate of about 15 billion tons per year (2019 number). As stated in the recent IPPCC report, the remaining carbon dioxide budget to have a reasonable change to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees is about 460 billion tons- while our annual emissions are about 40 billion tons. The budget gets larger if one considers 2 degrees as a target, with all the dire consequences it implies. A drastic reduction of our emissions is in any case required within the next 30 years – a reduction which has yet to start.
It is true that in their phase of exponential growth, energy technologies such as nuclear, wind or solar photovoltaic grew at about 25-40% per year. For nuclear, that growth has stopped rather abruptly towards the end of the 1980s. In 2019, nuclear accounted for about 4% of the world energy demand (10% electricity). Although nuclear has very beneficial advantages to decarbonise electricity production, it is currently hard to see signs of a coming renaissance – but some countries seem to be changing their mind. Wind and solar represent 1 and 2% of our primary energy. A recent study done across 60 countries showed that wind and solar typically deploy at a rate between 0.8 and 1.8% of the total installed capacity per year. While this is fast, it is not fast enough to be compatible with most envisaged net-zero scenarios. In addition, many countries tend to observe a slowdown of renewable deployment rates despite the relatively low penetration in the electricity system.
Finally, in the energy world, contrary to what happens for mobile phones, infrastructures and power plants require significant investments (of the order of 1 billion euro per GW for coal) and they are designed to operate for a long time. Closing power plants earlier than anticipated potentially represent a significant cost. A country building coal power plants in 2021, and about 500GW of new coal capacity is being considered, will certainly not close them in 2025. By its size, our energy system – the world primary energy demand is about 160 000 TWh- is therefore much closer from a giant container-ship than a jet-ski…
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Greg De Temmerman is managing director of Zenon Research, a think tank studying the links between energy and the economy. He is also associate researcher at MINES ParisTech PSL. He is a physicist by training, specialised in plasma physics and materials science. From 2014-2020 he was coordinating scientist at the ITER Organization.