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Eccentric orbits

‘Global Apollo’ programme for renewables cannot take off without political power

It always seems impossible until it’s done. NASA

A group of prominent scientists has launched an “Apollo programme” for renewables, called Global Apollo. Its mission is to make carbon-free electricity less costly than that generated from coal, and to do it within ten years. It’s an international effort that will promote the technological advances required to produce the rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and so keep climate change to within the “safe” limit of two degrees celsius.

It’s an ambitious if not audacious statement of intent that will seek to marshal the efforts of current and new generations of engineers and scientists.

And on its own it’s doomed to failure. Let me explain.

The Global Apollo mission takes inspiration not only from the Apollo Program that sent humans to the moon, but also the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors (ITRS). What’s that got to do with climate change? Well, the ITRS is a collaborative effort between the world’s largest chip manufacturers to understand, plan and ultimately resolve technological challenges that allow faster semiconductor chips. Over the past 30 years this has produced continual decreases in microchip prices along with steady performance improvements.

By the 60s semiconductors were taking over from vacuum tubes. SenseiAlan, CC BY-SA

Faster and cheaper chips translates to better and cheaper electronic products that spur further innovation. It’s a win-win. But this is a terrible analogy for our current dependence on fossil fuels.

It’s a terrible analogy because the ITRS doesn’t operate in a world in which electronic vacuum tube manufacturers spend millions of dollars actively trying to undermine the development of semiconductors.

What renewables are up against

Take Shell, for instance, which has been particularly belligerent on exploiting its fossil fuel reserves. Speaking last month, the company’s CEO Ben van Beurden said:

All the oil that we have, we will use … There will still be a need for hydrocarbons for years to come, and the decline in existing production is always going to be faster than the decline that the most successful [low carbon] policies can create. There is always going to be a need for investment.

This explains why Shell’s drilling platform Polar Explorer is currently parked in Seattle, before heading north in the summer to start developing new fields in the Arctic. That climate change is producing warmer temperatures in the Arctic and so reduced summer ice, which makes it easier to drill for more climate-changing fossil fuels, is either fortuitous or tragically ironic depending on your point of view.

Polar Explorer is met by anti-fossil fuel ‘kayaktivists’. Backbone Campaign, CC BY-SA

We have a good idea of how much carbon we need to leave in the ground and it’s more than current known reserves. We don’t need to be prospecting for more fossil fuels. Shell attempts to avoid the conclusions of its behaviour by arguing for carbon capture and storage – removing the carbon dioxide from the point of pollution, or some other technologies that could scrub it out of the atmosphere.

However, given the feeble performance of carbon capture and storage and the requirements for sustained decreases in greenhouse gas emissions right now, this is equivalent to identifying the hard-to-fix element of problem, drawing a box around it and labelling it “this is where the magic happens”.

Earlier this year environmental campaigner and consultant Jonathon Porritt gave up working with Shell and concluded that it and BP will never transition away from being companies built around the exploitation of fossil fuels. It’s hard not to come to the same conclusion.

You may accept all that, but still feel it doesn’t seem fair to argue that companies like Shell are trying to stop the development of renewable energy. Yet oil and gas firms account for five out of the world’s top six companies by revenue. There are tremendous amounts of money to be made from digging up fossilised carbon, and these firms are profiting hugely from the status quo.

These profits buy access to power. Recent analysis from the Guardian shows that between 2010 and 2015, Shell alone met with UK ministers at least 112 times. This was nearly as much as the total number of meetings from 23 renewable energy companies over the same period.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that the recently passed Infrastructure Act includes the passage on “maximising economic recovery of petroleum in the United Kingdom”. This means the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will in future be legally obliged to promote the extraction of fossil fuels, while also being legally obliged to reduce emissions as a consequence of the 2008 Climate Change Act. Perhaps another magic trick is required?

Notwithstanding their very large revenues, oil and gas companies also receive extensive tax breaks and economic incentives to exploit more fossil fuels. The International Energy Authority estimated these were US$548 billion in 2013.

The problems are political

It is on this landscape that Global Apollo launches. It and similar endeavours such as the Great Transition are urgently needed, but they will only succeed with buy-in from all sectors of society. That involves the challenge of leaving potentially trillions of dollars in the ground and with it the influence and power that could wield.

Power does not evaporate in the face of compelling argument. Building a vision of low-carbon energy generation is necessary for a sustainable future. But it isn’t sufficient. The power that fossil fuel companies currently enjoy must be challenged. This will require a leap as great as any of the technical and engineering advances of Global Apollo or the original Apollo Program.

A footprint that will last millions of years. Global Apollo could have a much greater legacy. Edwin Aldrin, Apollo 11, NASA

If that happens, if we are able to rein in the power and influence of oil and gas companies at the same time as help them transform into providers of low carbon energy, then Global Apollo may just work and in doing so surpass a footprint made in lunar dust nearly 46 years ago.

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