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The Wild Ride of This Energy Transition

Change is happening in jolts, confounding expectations. Is that a cause for dread—or optimism?
April 22, 2021

Let the best of Anthropocene come to you.

As we peer over the top of the roller coaster we’ve been on for the past year, it looks like we’re in for a long and wild ride. Up ahead: a couple decades filled with lurching decelerations—as well as thrilling forward progress that zooms ahead faster than we ever imagined.

If that makes you feel queasy, you’re not alone.

It even has a technical name: spiraling disequilibrium. The energy transition curve no longer looks smooth. Nonlinear effects are likely to push society and nature over tipping points—some grim, but others surprisingly hopeful.

The Case for Dread

Evolution has hardwired our species to fear change. That can be adaptive. Every four years, the habitually cautious National Intelligence Council assembles a large international group of experts in demography, international relations, economics, and technology, and asks them to assess future risks.

Their latest report, “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World,” is well worth a read, but it may cause anxiety. The scenarios they envision have names like “Tragedy and Mobilization” and “Separate Silos” and “A World Adrift.”

If you want a quicker take, a New York Times editorial offers a nice summary. Among the trends that have the intelligence community fretting:

  • Misinformation, mistrust, social fragmentation into conflicting identity groups, technological displacement of jobs and suppression of dissent, government-supported conflicts (orange line in the chart below), and economic inequity and indebtedness are on the rise.
  • The growth of the global middle class, progress against poverty and disease, and educational achievement trends are flattening.
  • The ratio of workers to pensioners, faith in government, minority protections, global levels of democracy, and freedoms of the press and judiciary are falling.

Source: Uppsala Data Conflict Program, 2020


Just one of the five scenarios for 2040 in this report foresees an effective international response to curtail climate change—but only after environmental catastrophes lead to global famine. Pretty grim stuff.

The Case for Optimism

The famous evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, if he were still alive, might point out that many of these same dynamics—what he called “punctuated equilibria”—spur rapid adaptation in nature, as players quickly evolve to fill new niches. Human history is replete with analogous bursts of progress, often in response to new technologies and social activism. Think of the shift from horse-drawn carriages to automobiles, which took just a decade or so in many cities. Or the shift of almost 600 million Chinese to energy-efficient stoves in just 15 years, which Anthropocene covered in 2016. Or the near-complete transitions to natural gas in the Netherlands and to nuclear electricity in France—also just a decade in the making.

In the case of the U.S. energy industry, the encouraging report “Halfway to Zero: Progress towards a Carbon-Free Power Sector” shows that greening of America’s energy supply is already happening faster than most thought feasible 15 years ago.

The analysis, by scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Lab, compares where U.S. energy production is today to how experts back in 2005 projected it would look by now. As the chart below shows, reality turned out better than expected on nearly every metric.

Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Compared to what was then seen as the “business as usual” path:

  • wind and solar delivered 1,200% more electricity than expected;
  • prices for residential electricity stayed essentially flat, but power bills went down because consumers used less electricity;
  • plummeting pollution prevented about 35,000 annual deaths and saved more than $200 billion in health costs;
  • and renewable power created far more jobs than were lost to coal’s collapse, so overall employment in the sector beat projections by almost 30%.

Numbers like these stoke optimism. Unlike past transitions, which responded to the pull of increased consumer demand for cheaper, more convenient energy, the transition now underway is also being pushed by governments and activists organizing around a climate emergency.

So maybe this time really is different.


What to Keep an Eye on

1.  Negative domino effects from climate disasters, and more sophisticated models that help leaders avoid them. “A heatwave can spark forest fires, which lead to air pollution, thus damaging public health,” climate scientists write in an insightful commentary in Nature. “Drought-wrecked harvests can result in food-price volatility, which can increase social unrest or migration.” But because nations rarely consider such knock-on effects in plans to meet their sustainable development goals, the researchers predict that “many efforts to attain the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] will, like a house of cards, fall at the first tremor.”

In response, scientists can build more sophisticated sensing systems that track what’s happening on the ground. They can also expand their models of natural systems to include the constant interplay with financial institutions, households, and other human systems. Anticipating the curves and hills ahead should make it easier to navigate them.

2.  Positive domino effects that accelerate the energy transition, and smart policies that tip them off. Dominos can tumble both ways. A compelling study this month in Climate Policy makes a persuasive case for turning disequilibrium and nonlinear changes to our advantage.

Norway did this with electric vehicles, and EVs skyrocketed to 50% of new car sales the moment the country made it slightly more expensive to own a gas-powered car. Imagine if the 10 biggest auto-producing countries followed Norway’s example. It could set off a cascade: massive increases in battery production, plummeting costs for energy storage, cheaper renewables—and the death of coal.

Politicians “are not looking for tipping points” and may be making strategic errors by trying to set one price on carbon for every part of the economy, the authors argue. A smarter idea, they say, is to set carbon prices in each sector just high enough to trigger positive domino dynamics. Then we might just be amazed at how fast the world changes—for the better.

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