The high price of inaction

For more than 40 years – ever since the Great Oil Crisis of 1973 – scientists, governments and media have been warning that the world must reduce its dependence on fuels derived from hydrocarbons. Initially, the main worry was supply – would the world run out of oil and gas before we found alternatives? But by the 1980s, an even greater danger came to the fore: climate change, aggravated by the massive amounts of CO2 being spewed into the atmosphere by oil-derived fuels.

Over these four decades the world has changed in ways no one could have anticipated. The Cold War ended, the human genome was decoded and the smartphone became ubiquitous. On the energy front, though, it sometimes still feels like 1975. Yes, our cars are more efficient and our homes are better insulated. Yes, we have some solar panels and wind turbines. What hasn’t changed is that our societies would come to a standstill if suddenly there were no more oil. Worst of all, global warming shows no sign of abating: 2014 was the hottest year since recordkeeping began in the 1880s.

The problem is not one of knowledge. Universities, research centres and industry have committed major financial and intellectual resources to the question of sustainability. As the special report on energy storage in this issue of Technologist highlights, they have made impressive progress in devising practical solutions.

Paradoxically, the free market is both the best friend of sustainability and its worst enemy. When oil supplies are tight, the price rises and ideas that were once considered pie in the sky become economically viable. But when the oil price drops, for whatever reason, the alternatives are once again overpriced. With the plunge in oil prices that began at the end of 2014, the world seems set for another ride down this rollercoaster.

It need not be so. Policymakers have an array of economic tools at their disposal – taxes, subsidies and other incentives – to ensure that the current oil glut does not set back goals that are now shared worldwide, even by such long recalcitrant nations as the U.S. and China. As the temptation to just sit back and enjoy the declining price of oil grows, our elected (and unelected) officials should contemplate what the world would be like in another 40 years if they miss this opportunity.

Henry Muller


The end of Moore’s law reign

Since the 1960s, Moore’s law has guided the production of processors and transistors. However, the continuous shrink of silicon chips approaches physical limits.