Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Lesson 12, part I: Economics, the story so far

I had to confess from the start that I don't really understand economics. But I also suggested that nobody else does either, since we're looking at incredibly complex systems.

The story so far
It all began with solar power. Food was the original source of human energy, recently collected by plants from the sun, sometimes via animals. Around four hundred thousand years ago, give or take half a million, fire was discovered. This meant that food could be cooked making digestion quicker and meal times shorter, also making more food available.

The next major development in energy use can probably be attributed to James Watt inventing a practical steam engine that ran off coal, and was first used to pump water out of coal mines to allow more coal to be mined. This led to the exponential growth in energy use and carbon emissions that we still witness today.

Oil started to join the picture in 1859 when it was discovered in Pennsylvania. Production in that year was two thousand barrels. Ten years later four million barrels were produced per year.

The great smog of London came in 1952, reckoned at the time to have killed four thousand people in a couple of weeks. Modern estimates put the figure three times higher. Smog is a mixture of smoke and fog, and they decided to do something about the smoke, bringing in the Clean Air Act in 1956.
More recently, in the 1970s came the oil shock. Global prices rose in 1973, and again in 1979. I didn't go into the causes, but they are probably connected to peak production during the sixties. Troubles in the Middle East are often connected with the oil shock, but they may be a result rather than a cause.
The oil shock led to low energy building standards in Scandinavia, and energy efficiency in Japan. Each of these can play a part in solving our energy problems, but more on that later.

At around the same time, the Club of Rome report of 1972 started ringing alarm bells about global warming. They were ringing for a while before the world woke up and in 1988 the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change was formed to deal with it.

This year, or hereabouts, three significant events have happened. We've reached one degree centigrade of warming, domestic solar power has reached grid parity in many countries, and at COP21 in Paris governments agreed to keep warming well below 2 degrees centigrade. Just to put these apparently small numbers of one or two degrees into context, if it was your body temperature, you'd be going straight to the doctor.

So what about the future?