Oli Davey explores the future of energy and transport
A few months ago I listened to an interview with Nate Hagens who gave what I think is a really thought-provoking and unique perspective on the twin challenges of the climate and energy crisis’. I’ve attempted to summarise his thinking below (and hopefully done it justice), because of its obvious implications for both transport and the design of our urban streets.
He begins by noting that for the vast majority of humankinds existence, and even until relatively recently, the most a person could hope to achieve in a day was limited to their own strength and endurance. If they were lucky, they might be able to supplement this with the work of an obliging horse or ox. But humankinds output increased only marginally over the course of tens of thousands of years, with subsequent generations improving only imperceptibly in the amount of work they could get done in a single day.
However, Nate Hagens then points out how the industrial revolution changed all of this. The discovery of coal, oil and gas along with the development of technologies to harness their energy turbocharged humankind and helped to lift millions of people out of poverty. For the first time, a person could achieve far more in a day than they ever could before. Seen this way, he suggests that this period is probably more accurately referred to as the energy revolution. He likens fossil fuels to a golden handshake from the earth – a one-off consignment of condensed energy from the sun to kick-start a productivity revolution that has continued growing ever since. And all we had to do was simply find these fossil fuels – a free gift of ancient, concentrated sunlight that we didn’t have to make ourselves or even have to process a great deal. They were pretty much ready and waiting to start powering whatever machine we could dream up.
He suggests that the 7.8 billion people that currently live on this planet can now do the work of the equivalent of over 500 billion people. Whether it’s the speed at which we can travel, the scale of the structures that we can build or even the computing power of our laptops, they have all been made possible by our fossil fuel grant. But we are also using up this limited supply of the suns bottled-energy at a rate 10 million times quicker than it was created. And now the good times of simply digging up the energy that we require to power our growth are coming to an end. Now, we must stand on our own two feet and find ways of actually making our own energy.
A big part of this shift is obviously being driven by the damage that the burning of these fossil fuels is doing to our delicately balanced planet. But even for those who are sceptical about the impact that humankinds’ actions are having on the ice caps there is another issue. In just a few short generations we will have run-out of fossil fuels in any real sense. They will no-longer be the go-to energy source because they will simply be too rare and too difficult to unearth. We will need to find new ways to power our productivity or accept that our monumental period of sustained growth is coming to an end.
Worryingly, he points out that potential replacements, such as wind, solar and hydro power, all suffer from intermittent generation, whilst nuclear has a similar issue to fossil fuels in that the planet only contains the equivalent of approximately 60 to 70 years’ worth of suitable uranium. Plus, all of the above alternatives are used to generate electricity – a power source that currently accounts for just 21% of our total usage.
With domestic transport having the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions of any sector across the UK economy (at 23% in 2019) and the majority of these emissions (55%) coming from passenger cars, understanding how the energy landscape will change over the next few decades will be crucial. Furthermore, with the potential for transport emissions to need to fall by 34-45% by 2030 and 65-76% by 2035, despite having remained resolutely unchanged for the last four decades whilst other sectors of the economy (most notably Energy Supply and Business) have achieved significant reductions, starts to look like an even taller order than it may have already done. It is fair to say that the future is likely to look very different even if it continues to be one that is defined by the energy that we use.