By Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO of Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Company
In this new monthly column, I share what I’m reading and how it influences our decisions at Autonomy & the Urban Mobility Company.
During the recent Australian bushfires I read The Uninhabitable Earth: A Story of the Future by David Wallace-Wells and Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas. Lynas is an English journalist based in Oxford; Wallace-Wells writes for the New York Times and is based in New York City. The first book gives a sweeping account of the cause and effect of climate change; the second takes us methodically through the consequences of each degree of warming as life begins to resemble a living hell.
Towards a fossil-fuel free future
The Uninhabitable Earth is well researched and well written. Wallace-Wells not only describes the destruction at hand, but explains how human nature makes it so hard for us to reduce our high carbon lifestyles. His descriptions of the consequences are dramatic but well within the bounds of probability, if Australia’s bushfires are anything to go by. Where he is weak is in his understanding of energy – the root cause of the problem. His misquotes on energy undermine his massive effort. His claim that bitcoin “consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined” is not properly contextualised and misses the point. To grasp the problem of climate change, we must first acknowledge the wonder of fossil fuel: a highly concentrated source of energy that renewables cannot easily replace.
In Six Degrees, Lynas correctly points out that in the last 30 years the world has doubled carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. We now burn 100 million barrels of oil per day; it was half that 50 years ago. Only price and warm winters dent consumption. A “new green deal” was meant to switch us to renewables without affecting our lifestyles. Despite renewable prices dropping they still make up only 5% of our energy production, with the other 95% dominated by oil, coal and natural gas, which has enjoyed massive growth thanks to fracking.
These two books in the context of COVID-19
Since the coronavirus has confined half the world, including me and my family, to their homes, I have been thinking about these two books in a very different way. No politician or moral awakening has had the same ability to reduce CO2 emissions like this virus. For years – motivated by concerns over growth and jobs – politicians across the world have avoided the tough measures needed to save our planet. But they’ve moved decisively in putting the world economy on ice as they “flatten the curve” of the virus. Once the curve flattens sufficiently governments will send us back to work and try jumpstart growth with stimulus packages.
If only we cared as much for the lives of those to come as we do for our aged and infirm. With less drastic measures than those implemented for the virus we could craft a slightly different economy (one, for example, that promotes more sustainable mobility modalities). An economy that does not prioritise consumerist heaven for this generation at the cost of environmental hell for the next.