🤔 Can the clean transition happen?
Or what can the evolution of agriculture tell us about the clean transition
TL;DR The clean transition requires massive growth in the supply and use of critical minerals. Many deem it impossible. In this commentary, I argue this reasoning is unsound and look at historical, techno-economic and market data to offer a different conclusion.
Thanks to Kwasi Ampofo, Michael Liebreich, Nathaniel Bullard and Ramez Naam for helpful input and to Nathan Warren for additional research.
Agriculture never happened. Yes, I mean it. Agriculture never happened. We’re still hunter-gatherers, living in small bands of about a dozen. We survive by foraging weeds, berries and seeds. Occasionally some of the men in our group will hunt a deer or gazelle. Tiring, dangerous work. But that sweet-salty-bloody meat is essential for us. More than a third of our energy intake comes from animals: muscley protein or calorie-dense fat. It makes our 31 years of life worthwhile. Nearly one-in-six of us will die violent deaths. At least none of us will be obese; of the 10 million of us there are.
Agriculture never happened. But it nearly did. About 13,000 years ago, a woman in a typically peripatetic group in the Fertile Crescent had an idea. She cleared away a small space in the thinner parts of the forest. Planting some grasses and some berry plants, she told relatives “Look, we can plant these and grow them and eat them. We won’t need to look for berries in this huge grassland. We can find our food here. We can settle in one place.” But it didn’t make any sense. The work of “planting” took so long, it was back-breaking and provided so little. The other members argued they would need hundreds of these spaces to feed the many humans in our area. The forest was huge — and it was teeming with everything they needed to survive. Why bother changing anything?
You can understand the logic of our alternative forebears. How could they imagine the benefit of that industrial-energy transition? Of cultivating rather than capturing? Why move from securing calories from foraging to tending and husbandry? The scale of that shift is huge, unimaginable. And so agriculture never happened. Or did it?
Many smart thinkers apply the same logic to the decarbonisation of the global economy.
This decarbonisation, moving electricity to renewable sources and moving other primary energy to electricity and transforming industrial processes away from hydrocarbons is an enormous task.
Let’s just focus on the future demands of minerals needed for the clean transition — the demand is set to grow exponentially. That is as daunting as moving a hunter-gathering species of 10 million from foraging to domestication.
We have an existence proof which suggests that this rationale is flawed.
We did scale agriculture all over the globe, band by band, in parallel, in similar ways and in different ways. In fact, we have gotten so good at it, we can adequately feed six billion people, and overfeed a further one billion of them. And we even need less land than before.
To believe that it is impossible to decarbonise the global economy quickly because we won’t be able to scale up clean energy requires the same flawed rationale to argue that agriculture never happened.