Shining New Light on Our Future

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Issue 309
July/August 2018
The Food Issue

Reviews

Shining New Light on Our Future
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Cover: Photograph by Leela Cyd www.leelacyd.com

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Edward Davey finds much to admire in two new books on how to tackle climate change and develop sustainable energy sources. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken (ed.). Published by Penguin UK, 2018. ISBN: 9780141988436 Taming the Sun: Innovations to Harness Solar Energy and Power the Planet by Varun Sivaram. Published by MIT Press, 2018. ISBN: 9780262037686

Two recent books offer grounds for hope when it comes to addressing the challenges of our energy use and climate change.

Drawdown is a comprehensive effort by the distinguished environmentalist Paul Hawken and a team of at least 250 others to document one hundred of the most promising solutions to climate change. It became a New York Times bestseller in 2017; the Penguin UK edition was published in February this year.

Taming the Sun is even more recently hot off the press and has already received widespread acclaim, including glowing reviews in The Economist and the Financial Times. Its author, Varun Sivaram – Fellow for Science and Technology at the US think tank the Council on Foreign Relations, and former adviser on energy to the mayor of Los Angeles and the governor of New York – has produced a clear and compelling account of the potential scope and current limitations of solar power. It is a riveting read, full of information, insight and sober analysis from someone who has given his entire academic and professional life to date to the solar cause.

Drawdown contains eloquent, concise summaries of each of the hundred solutions, drawing on a wealth of academic literature and data, brought together in impressively pithy form in essays of two pages per solution. It covers a vast range of interrelated subjects, from energy, food, women and girls, buildings and cities, land use, transport and materials, to ‘coming attractions’ – solutions not yet at work at scale, but (we hope) soon to be. Readers of Resurgence & Ecologist will find most if not all of their passions well represented here.

The book is handsomely produced, with excellent and evocative photographs, and an uplifting foreword by Hawken conveying the book’s collaborative spirit and its purposeful focus on finding solutions to our climate predicament.

The writing is skilled at distilling the technical literature for an informed general reader. The essays are interspersed with well-chosen selections of writing that fit the subject, such as extracts from Pope Francis’s Encyclical On Care for Our Common Home and Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees. These complement the arguments and present a welcome distraction for readers as they move from, say, a section on micro-wind to another on methane digesters via a passage from Andrea Wulf’s startling biography of Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature.

In the energy segment, there is an admirably dispassionate account of the rights and wrongs of nuclear energy, along with solar water, rooftop solar and grid flexibility. In the food section, conservation agriculture, reduced food waste, clean cookstoves and multistrata agroforestry are among the subjects discussed. The section on women and girls – on women smallholders, family planning and educating girls – gives due weight, in an appropriately nuanced way, to the dual win for human dignity and justice, as well as the climate, that would be assured by enhanced access to reproductive health rights around the world.

In the section on buildings and cities, the authors do good work on insulation, smart thermostats and (via Satish Kumar’s eloquent thoughts on the subject) walkable cities. In land use, they span forest protection, perennial biomass, Indigenous peoples’ land management and (the right forms of) afforestation.

In transport, there is a chapter on telepresence, alongside mass transit, trains, trucks and airplanes (the latter undergoing significant technological development). In materials, the focus is on refrigerant management – improvements to which are among the biggest single contribution to climate change mitigation the world could make – as well as bioplastics and industrial recycling.

Finally, in ‘coming attractions’, the authors discuss inter alia the implications of repopulating the mammoth steppe, solid-state wave energy, industrial hemp and building with wood. The book ends with an invitation to “community, collabor­ation, and cooperation”. In Hawken’s words, “we became human beings by working together and helping one another. That remains true today. What it takes to reverse global warming is one person after another remembering who we truly are.”

Taming the Sun is a brilliant achievement, focused squarely on the solar solutions referred to in Drawdown: cogently argued and impeccably structured, with barely a dull sentence, and packed with data and evidence. Sivaram’s diagnosis is clear: the main determinant of humanity’s future will be how well the world harnesses solar energy. In one of two plausible future scenarios set out at the beginning of the book, “solar’s rise sputters to a halt” – as other previous technologies such as nuclear did – and with it, any hopes of meeting the Paris Agreement. Sivaram’s 2050 in this scenario is a fairly dystopian one, and rightly so.

The other possible future is a very different, more attractive one, in which solar energy has played an instrumental role in delivering a stable climate, cleaner cities and an altogether better world. For solar power to provide at least a third of the global electricity we need by mid-century – up from 2% today – and to grow even faster from there, Sivaram demonstrates that pro­active and sustained investment will be required.

There will be major pitfalls along the way. (Donald Trump’s election has been one of them; insufficient investment in innovation, another.) “Solar could undercut its own economics, strain power grids, and struggle to displace ubi­quitous fossil fuels,” Sivaram argues. Innovation in business models and financing, solar technologies and energy systems for solar will be urgently needed “to avoid hitting a ceiling” and for solar to reach its full potential.

The silicon cell is now limited in its scope, and has been for some time. ‘Value deflation’ is another key challenge: the more solar power is installed, the less the electricity it produces in the middle of the day is needed. Until this electricity can be stored economically, the costs of its storage place a high burden on the system – and this in turn lowers solar’s value: a vicious circle, which only investment and innovation can disrupt. Sivaram sets out a compelling account of how this might be achieved.

These two books’ resolute focus on evidence, hopefulness and action are a much-needed inspiration in these difficult times. Both deserve the widest possible readership, and will hopefully continue to spur the global action we so urgently need.

Edward Davey works for the World Resources Institute. His book A Restored Earth: Ten Paths to a Hopeful Future is due to be published by Unbound in 2019.

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