Full Steam Ahead?

In moving toward a clean energy future, unbridled optimism has its pitfalls

There are individuals, organizations, institutions, corporations and even some governments showing leadership in the quest for cleaner energy, more livable communities and a lighter human footprint on the planet. In The Leap: How to Survive and Thrive in the Sustainable Economy, Chris Turner tells their stories. And he tells them in a way that is compelling and accessible—mixing vignettes of colourful personalities with clear descriptions of technological innovations, green corporate strategies, urban rejuvenations and key energy-environment policies.

If the continual failure of major governments to act against the climate risk depresses you, this optimistic book can help. After reading it, you feel good about the inspirational people in different corners of the world who are rolling up their sleeves to make a difference. You feel good about the author, too, for his effort to spread their messages in a way that hopefully attracts many readers. The planet needs more books like this.

For a taste of the book’s many characters and places, Turner’s occasional focus on Denmark provides an illustrative sample. He describes the multi-decade transformation of Copenhagen, since it first banned cars from its main street in 1962, through a series of decisions on town planning, urban renewal, cycling infrastructure, public transit and district heating that show how an enviable quality of life in a modern city can coexist with an incredibly low per capita use of energy. Jan Gehl, one of Denmark’s earliest advocates and practitioners of this approach, has helped spread the “Copenhagenization” process to cities around the world.

Turner also describes Denmark’s leadership in the development of wind power that, while initially a modest effort in the late 1970s to reduce dependence on foreign oil and coal, has morphed into a full-blown crusade to eliminate the use of fossil fuels over the next few decades as a model for the world. This is not easy for a country such as Denmark, whose best renewable source of electricity is wind, which is intermittent and often most plentiful during night when electricity demand is lowest. But the Danes are also converting coal-fired power plants to biomass (wood and crop residues) while strengthening their transmission links to the hydropower reservoirs in neighbouring Norway and Sweden.

Interconnection with these energy storage systems certainly helps manage the electricity system in the face of wind’s intermittency. But this initial effort will be supplanted by the growing adoption of vehicles with batteries—like the hybrid-electric Prius and Volt—that can store wind-generated electricity for when it is needed.

The concurrent deployment of “smart meters” to all electricity consumers will enable two-way communication between the electricity system operator and vehicles parked anywhere in the country, so that batteries can be charged or discharged depending on the supply-demand balancing needs of the system. Vehicle batteries can thus store excess wind-generated electricity for use when the wind is not blowing but demand is high. Special tariffs that reflect electricity’s value at any given moment will motivate those who can benefit from participating in this experiment in decentralized energy storage. Those with hybrid-electric vehicles can even agree to have their battery drained completely in special cases and they would simply rely on biodiesel or ethanol for their next vehicle trip while their battery recharges.

The book is brimming with informative and interesting stories like these from Denmark, and for this reason I highly recommend it. I have, however, a fairly significant complaint. It stems from Turner’s strategy of presenting his book as more than a travelogue of modern renewable energy, community redesign and inspiring people. He wants to convince the reader that he has an insightful new concept for motivating and guiding action—“the leap” (or “the great leap” or “the great sideways leap” depending on the page). To explain it, Turner detours through metaphors and fields of research that are unrelated to the book’s topic and confuse more than clarify. It all comes across as a thinly veiled effort to endow the book with a sophistication and gravitas that it does not merit.

The problem starts with Turner’s rationale for the leap. Humanity is in the grips of three related crises: failure of the financial system, peak oil and climate change. A rapid shift to renewable energy will solve all three. By creating jobs, rebuilding social capital and providing stable energy prices, the shift to renewable energy will somehow repair our fragile financial system. At the same time, this shift will eliminate the twin threats of peak oil and climate change. The shift must happen quickly, but this is difficult because it requires a significant change in world view, given our fossil fuel dependence and our penchant for creating inhospitable cities that segregate rich from poor and prioritize cars over people. The solution is to leap: quickly take actions and implement policies that others have done elsewhere or that simply seem like the right thing to do, without bothering too much with careful analysis, critical thinking or caution.

For those harbouring doubts about what this approach actually is, or why it would be wise, Turner provides three specific metaphors. First, he asks us to imagine two trains running parallel toward a chasm. You are on the train that will fall into the chasm, while the other will sail miraculously over it, and for some reason you know this. You should leap to the other train (which I intend to do when I next find myself in a similar situation). This is metaphor number one. If this is unhelpful for real-world decisions, then consider the following. You are one of several transatlantic shipping companies operating out of New York in the early 1800s. The Black Ball shipping company tries for a competitive edge by setting a regular schedule for departures while all the other companies only leave port once their holds are full. This successful business strategy is an example of a leap. This is metaphor number two. Still not clear? Okay, how about you are the governor of New York State in the early 1800s, and you convince your constituents to support the construction of the Erie Canal. The canal proves a great success, fuelling the dramatic growth of New York City. The decision to build the canal was a leap. This is metaphor number three.

Now, what do these metaphors actually tell us? I am not sure. My guess is that Turner is saying we should—in the interests of shifting quickly to renewable energy and liveable cities—be willing to quickly gamble on new approaches and technologies. If these gambles prove successful in hindsight, Turner calls them leaps. But what if they are not successful? Should we have been more careful, perhaps done something else instead of wasting effort and resources? Turner does not provide much guidance here. Yet, while regular scheduling of transatlantic shipping was a successful gamble, the business pages of our newspapers are replete with daily examples of similar-scale entrepreneurial leaps that fail. The hindsight fact that one succeeded hardly provides evidence for the value of leaping.

And the Erie Canal may have been a successful gamble, but economic historians point to most canal projects of the early 1800s in Europe and North America to illustrate the enormous waste of society’s resources from risky projects that should have been considered more carefully in advance. Many of the canals started in this period were never completed, and most of the rest were rendered obsolete within a decade of completion by “the leap” to railways. Indeed, Turner’s selective vision is clearly evident when he mentions but draws no lessons from the financial losses to the followers of George Washington, who pursued his dream of a canal from the Potomac to the Ohio—a project that was never completed.

When Turner shifts from the leap to the great leap, he evokes images of the decisions of China’s Chairman Mao. The Great Helmsman too was a fervent advocate of the leap approach to socioeconomic decision making, but his hastily launched Great Leap Forward of 1958 had disastrous consequences for China’s environment, economy and an estimated 30 million people who died from famine.

If Turner would simply argue that we need to rapidly transform the global energy system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels in order to prevent human-produced climate change, his book would be more coherent and defensible. Instead, he again tries to score populist points by linking the 2008 financial crisis to both coincidentally high oil prices and climate change, declaring the three phenomena to be symptomatic of a fundamental breakdown of our socioeconomic system. Yet the expert book he summarizes to explain the financial crisis, by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, does not argue that high oil prices caused the financial crisis. Indeed, no book by a reputable economist does that. Greed, inadequate regulation and a period during which bankers were willing to close their eyes and leap do just fine on their own as explanations.

Turner’s wholesale acceptance of the peak oil story compels him to overlook the countless independent assessments showing that the earth has a frightening amount of fossil fuels, in a great diversity of forms, all of which can be used to generate electricity and power vehicles. Turner accepts independent assessments, such as those from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, when it comes to climate science, but he ignores independent assessments that show the huge magnitude of global fossil fuel supplies at reasonable prices. While he does use one estimate of conventional oil supplies by the International Energy Agency, he ignores that agency’s other studies that explore the ability to substitute between forms of fossil fuels. (For example, South Africa today produces a substantial share of its vehicle fuels from coal and some countries produce vehicle fuels from natural gas.)

Turner should stick with the climate threat. Virtually all climate scientists agree it is huge and already upon us. It is the only rationale we need for acting quickly. But in acting quickly, we need to be cautious and careful. There are many possible wrong steps ahead.

Fortunately, for guidance there are large independent assessments of the global energy system. While the IPCC is known for its volumes that assess the climate science, it produces other volumes that assess the options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Energy Modeling Forum, based at Stanford University, brings together world-leading analysts for assessing the technologies, energy sources and policies for rapidly transforming the global energy system. Ten years ago, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Vienna directed the production of the World Energy Assessment, an excellent resource for non-experts. It is repeating this process in producing the Global Energy Assessment, to be released in early 2012. Consulting these reports—especially their summaries for policy makers—can help populist writers become a bit more discriminating, a bit less prone to leap in response to the latest discussion with an advocate of one particular technology or policy.

To give one example of many throughout the book, Turner raves about Germany’s feed-in tariff, which pays a higher price to producers of renewable electricity. The policy was recently adopted by Ontario. He parrots FIT advocates in claiming that this policy is vastly superior to a system of renewable quotas, which some jurisdictions use instead of FIT. What he fails to acknowledge is that since the introduction of FIT in 2000, Germany has continued to modernize and expand its coal plants, just as Ontario now builds natural gas plants. Yet, the IPCC, EMF modelling studies and the upcoming Global Energy Assessment clearly show that rich countries must not be installing any new fossil fuel generating facilities if humanity is to keep the global temperature increase below two degrees Celsius. That is why British Columbia in 2007 implemented a near 100 percent clean electricity quota system, which forced the cancellation of two coal plants and the exclusive development in B.C. of small hydro, wind and biomass electricity facilities. While the FIT has certainly had some good effects, it is hardly the “full-blown leap” Turner calls it, and countries such as Germany need to quickly augment or replace it with a ban on new fossil fuel–burning investments or a 100 percent clean electricity quota system—which amount to the same thing.

Chris Turner has written an interesting book full of inspiring examples of what people are doing around the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy use and to make more liveable cities. Readers will especially enjoy and benefit from the book if they skip through the discussions of his leap concept and zero in on these wonderful examples.