When I first started working in industry, I was lucky to have a great manager. One aphorism he drummed into me was: “don’t let best be the enemy of better”. It is easy to keep looking for the optimum; to seek the definitive best solution. Usually, it doesn’t arrive, and you waste time. Endless prevarication is deadly.
Another saying was “don’t bet the farm”. Most innovations, and most changes, don’t deliver as planned. So have a backup plan; have alternatives, and keep your options open. It is a terrible idea to box yourself in so that the survival of your business depends on the success of one big idea. One ‘home run’.
These lessons keep returning to me as I listen to debates about how we tackle the climate crisis. There are far too many purists who not only argue for their preferred solution but actively try to trash any other ideas. These rows confuse the public and hand ammunition to those who say that there are no viable solutions to climate change.
What is the problem with electric vehicles?
As an example, both climate deniers and green activists tell me that battery electric vehicles are harmful “because lithium”. I get that there are concerns about the sources of materials, end-of-life recycling, and a bunch of other issues. Still, electric vehicles are better for carbon emissions and better for air quality than internal combustion engines. Technology evolves. Yes, there are carbon emissions from electricity generation now, but that is changing rapidly. Yes, we can’t recycle all electric vehicle batteries yet, but we know we can, and the capacity is building. Already many EV batteries go into a thriving second and third use market.
Battery electric vehicles are not yet perfect, but measurably better for the environment than the current solutions and still developing. To discount a viable solution for reducing carbon emissions because it is not perfect is both stupid and arrogant. The right questions are; is it better than the incumbent technology and does it have scope for further improvement?
Those resisting action on carbon emissions dislike electric vehicles because they don’t think any change is necessary. Some environmentalists dislike electric vehicles because they don’t think we need private vehicles at all; particularly in urban areas. Everything should be public transport, walking and cycling. Two groups coming from opposite ends of the spectrum, attacking the same solution to carbon emissions for its lack of perfection, and using the same arguments. That does not help to convince the public that there are ways to fix the climate crisis.
Green on green firefights
A recent example of the tendency of supposed environmental campaigners to undermine solutions they don’t like is the Jeff Gibbs film ‘Planet of the Humans’; produced and promoted by Michael Moore. They are very clear what they don’t like, renewable energy and population growth, for example, but silent on what their proposed solutions are. Unfortunately, to make their point, they have played fast and loose with the current facts and attacked those trying to reduce carbon emissions. Many blogs and opinion pieces by a variety of experts and commentators have comprehensively dismantled the arguments used. But the damage is done. Factional battles amongst greens have handed a PR triumph to the deniers.
Complex problems often require multiple solutions
It should be obvious, but apparently is not, that no single solution can address the climate crisis. Not nuclear, not wind farms, not going vegan. Every serious examination of how we can transition to a sustainable future assumes multiple strategies running at the same time.
Back in 2004, two Princeton scientists developed ‘stabilisation wedges’. Changes that would each reduce carbon emissions by 1 billion tonnes per year, and where the technology is available if not yet cheap enough for large-scale deployment. We could start to make these changes today if we wished. The current wedges in the model are:
- Improve energy efficiency
- Switch fuels
- Carbon capture and storage
- Nuclear power
- Wind energy
- Solar energy
- Biomass fuels
- Increase natural carbon sinks
You can argue with their choice of wedges if you like, many people would object to biomass and nuclear, but they are options available today.
Project Drawdown takes a different approach, looking in detail at 82 specific solutions that are available today to cut emissions and improve the environment. It takes a broader view of potential ideas than the stabilisation wedges and provides carefully researched estimates of the carbon saving each can deliver, and what it would cost.
A recent update report offers the latest thinking on the minimum and maximum savings in gigatons of carbon emissions from 2020 to 2050. There are three broad areas of activity; reduce carbon sources, support carbon sinks and improve society.
Be positive or the deniers will win
A positive approach to the crisis is essential. We can tackle the climate crisis, but it will take many solutions. They must be tested, developed and deployed. Some will work better than expected, some less, and some will fail. There is no single answer, and we must not allow debates about the relative merits of different approaches to give the impression there are no viable alternatives. That is the territory of climate denier organisations like the Global Warming Policy Foundation. They have announced that the UK plan for net-zero by 2050 would cost each household over £100,000. This ludicrous figure comes from some very dubious assumptions:
- There is no cost to business as usual. Tell that to those flooded by “once in a century floods” that happen every couple of years.
- There is no economic benefit to net-zero. No gain to the health and social care budget and the economy from cutting 50,000 early deaths a year from air pollution or 20,000 – 30,000 deaths from cold. No new industries emerging from the transition.
- The cost is purely additional money. Not a transition from one type of economy to another where resources get redeployed.
They have doubled down on this story by tweeting a picture of a weeping woman labelled “Net ZERO – Like lockdown But PERMANENT”. A direct reference to the famous George Orwell quote from 1984, “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever”.
That is the competition. Simple arguments attractive to someone fearful about their future who has had a torrid time since the great financial crisis of 2007-2008.
Perfection belongs to the gods
So let’s recognise that there is no perfect single solution to the climate crisis. Let’s argue for what we think are the best ideas, but not rubbish all the others. Let’s accept that we will have to follow multiple strategies, and we will not know which are the best until we have tried them. Remember, don’t let best be the enemy of better, and don’t bet the farm.