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The Ironical Elephant
We have been traveling to France and southern England. I took a welcome break from the Internet and from writing ‘Net Zero by 2050’ posts. However, the trip did provide some insights as to the nature of the world that we are leaving and what may lie ahead of us.
As we walked through Heathrow airport for our return flight almost the last advertisement we saw was the one you see at the head of this post.
We Need To Talk About The Elephant In The Airport. Climate Change.
The irony was palpable — we were about to fly across the Atlantic and so make a large contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Were we to take the poster’s admonition seriously, international flights would come to an end, and the people at Heathrow airport would find themselves out of work.
A Touchless Society
In Europe there has been an astonishingly swift transition to Touch-and-Pay technology. Many restaurants, for example, simply refuse to accept cash. (Presumably this transition received a boost from the distancing requirements of the COVID pandemic.)
But what happens if Europe experiences chronic power failures? This is hardly a theoretical concern given the rift with Russia. Can we return to a system which uses physical cash?
Queen Elizabeth II
Just before our return we received the sad news to do with the passing of the Queen. This was hardly a surprise — there had been reports for many days that her health was failing. Nevertheless, the news was a shock. We were able to visit Buckingham Palace to pay our respects, and we heard the 96-gun salute from H.M.S. Warrior.
Elizabeth was crowned in the year 1952. Life was so much more basic than it is now. Long-distance travel was by coal-fired steam trains, very few people had been in an airplane, televisions were a new technology, and no one had even heard of global warming.
Can we go back to those days? We would like to think so, but it’s not going to happen. The U.K. had already passed peak coal by 1952, and is now well into the downside of peak oil and gas from the North Sea. Moreover, we have visited enormous, irreversible destruction on our environment. The world’s population then was 2.6 billion — now we are close to 8 billion.
The Queen’s death represents the end of an Age. We cannot return to the thermodynamic world of 70 years ago.
You Cannot Swim in the Same River Twice
Net Zero programs are important. But they are not going to deliver a continuation of Business as Usual. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar are no substitute for coal, oil and natural gas. They have a much lower energy density, they are not available on demand, nor are they dispatchable. Carbon capture and sequestration will provide no more than a respite.
The world in 2050 will look very different from our world now, and also from the world of 1952.
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