Health reporting this week is rightly dominated by the challenging worldwide distribution of the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19. Bringing the virus to bay is job #1, not only to preserve human life but also our global economy. But this week, on the 5th anniversary of the Paris Agreement, we are reminded that our long term human health, including clean air and water, mitigation of weather-related human disasters, and regulations that lessen our chronic burden of disease, depend as much on energy policy as they do health policy.
Nowhere is this more evident (though largely hidden from sight) than in our planet’s positioning to address global warming. The Paris Agreement, the climate accord signed by 195 nations, was abuptly dismantled by Trump four years ago. But President-elect Biden has signaled that his first order on January 20, 2021, will be to rejoin the agreement.
As Trump patronized his fossil fuel funders, and promised that “we’re going to have clean coal and we’re going to have plenty of it,” the oil and gas industry wrote down the value of its assets $170 billion in the first 6 months of 2020.
Acknowledging as much this past week, a cabal of energy investors, with combined assets of $9 trillion, signaled a shift in their strategy with a pledge to harmonize their investments with net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Those investors haven’t suddenly “discovered religion.” No. They’re looking at the numbers.
Clean energy options like solar and wind, combined with the latest battery technology, are now 79% cheaper to produce than US coal production. Investors realize that 90% of the new energy capacity generated worldwide in 2020, as reported by the International Energy Agency, has come from clean energy.
Efficiency, profitability, and technology in clean energy are now aligned. The cost of solar panels has dropped 89% in just the last decade, while wind turbines are close behind with a 59% drop in the same time period. The cost of batteries have declined in tandem by 89% resulting in just a two year horizon before electric vehicles reach cost parity with the venerable fossil fuel guzzling internal-combustion engine.
As Trump was fiddling, American cities and states were quietly adjusting their energy investment strategies. Much of the credit goes to former Vice-President Al Gore, whose leadership in this arena has been tireless and earned him a well-deserved share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Al Gore will be highly visible as part of the US delegation in November, 2021, when all signators of the Paris Agreement reconvene in Glasgow, just a 1 hour and 11 minute drive north from the Trump Turnberry Golf Course. But the true celebrity at that historic gathering will be infromation technology.
Gore helped Climate Trace in 2019. As their site describes:
“In 2019, a group of nonprofits including US-based WattTime and UK-based Carbon Tracker teamed up to apply for Google.org’s AI Impact Challenge with a proposal to monitor all global power plant emissions from space. Google.org not only selected the project for a $1.7 million grant, but also sent a group of seven skilled data engineering and machine learning Fellows to work alongside WattTime and Carbon Tracker for six months to help bring the initiative to fruition.
After the announcement of the Google.org grant, the teams were surprised to immediately hear from over 50 other organizations and scientists around the world offering to help. So they began systematically investigating: Could mixing and matching innovations from various groups improve global emissions monitoring even further? Among the new collaborators was Vice President Gore, who had long suspected that improved global emissions monitoring through satellites and AI held dramatic potential to accelerate climate progress.”
Gore sees the ability to track real-time atmospheric carbon emissions as a “game-changer.” Combined with efficiency, low cost, and jobs, Gore writes, “This precision tracking will replace the erratic, self-reported and often inaccurate data on which past climate agreements were based.”
If you feel Al Gore is overly optimistic, consider the words of thought leader and Silicon Valley entrepreeur, Tony Seba, co-founder of RethinkX, an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption. Last month in a report titled, “Rethinking Energy 2020-2030: 100% Solar, Wind and Batteries is Just the Beginning”, he stated,
“The implications of this clean electricity disruption are profound. Not only can it solve some of society’s most critical challenges but it will usher in hundreds of new business models and create industries that collectively transform the global economy. When a system generates hyperabundant electricity at a marginal cost close to zero, the potential for new value creation is limitless. This isn’t a problem of overcapacity. This is a Super Power solution.”
Mike Magee, MD is a Medical Historian and Health Economist and author of “Code Blue: Inside the Medical Industrial Complex.“