Scientific and technological advances are amazing. We can do things we never dreamed of even a few decades ago – just think of the internet and mobile phones. This gives some grounds for optimism when it comes to tackling climate change. But how much can we rely on this to save us?
New technologies will come along and the costs of current ones will come down. If we think about the energy sector – the cost of solar panels has plummeted, wind turbines are being rolled out rapidly, batteries are much cheaper and more available – renewable energy is no longer a hugely expensive pipe dream, and in many cases much cheaper than the alternatives.
Some argue that this means that we don’t have to change our lifestyles to tackle climate change: if technology will come along to save us, we can dodge the difficult decisions. Coal, oil and gas will vanish because they are uneconomic, not just because of the damage they cause the planet. Agonies over the harms from excessive agricultural production and meat consumption will be replaced by lab-grown meat and protein, and we’ll all travel happily in clean, green, automated vehicles. Some, such as the RethinkX think tank, have suggested that we could reduce carbon emissions by 90% by 2035, just using existing technologies – without any significant lifestyle changes.
They may be right – indeed, I hope they are. It would clearly be a wonderful thing if technological advances came along at just the right time to save us from this man-made existential disaster. Transitions can and do happen rapidly – horses to cars, camera film to digital, the introduction of radial tyres.
However, I’m sceptical. I don’t think we can rely on technologies becoming available at scale just when we need them, and some transitions are hard to implement. While it is almost certain that renewable electricity will be a cheaper way to heat homes than gas by 2030, that doesn’t solve the problem of changing domestic boilers for millions of homes. It also still leaves us with the challenge of insulating our properties so we don’t waste energy. While solar panels themselves are coming down in price, the scaffolding to put them up on houses is not.
And energy is probably the easiest area for consumers to transition. I don’t care where the electrons that come down the cable originated – a coal-fired electron works just as well as a solar-powered one when it comes to powering my computer. If the solar ones are cheaper and cleaner, I’ll move to them immediately. I want my home to be warm, rather than specifically craving a gas boiler.
But that’s much harder when it comes to possibly more emotive topics like food. It’s been known for a while that meat-free diets are in general healthier, cheaper, and better for the environment. But while there are trends to eating less meat in the UK, this isn’t true globally. People don’t normally optimise their diet to produce enough nutrients at minimal cost. They may crave a steak, not a lab-grown substitute.
Technology alone won’t do it
We cannot rely on technology to magically appear and save us. We should make the most of it when it does, and we should do what we can to foster it. We should pressurise governments to support technological transitions, and end subsidies and support for outdated incumbent industries, such as the fossil fuel organisations.
But it’s too late to simply wait and hope. We don’t have the luxury of time any more in the face of an increasingly urgent crisis.