Rare sunshine at the Paris climate summit

opinion December 12, 2015 01:00

By The Nation

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A US researcher says our reliance on oil, coal and gas will end by 2030 as interest surges in solar power

Tony Seba, a Stanford University expert on renewable energy, made headlines at last week’s climate-change conference in Paris with an optimistic shrug. According to the entrepreneur, thinker and lecturer, the world is fast approaching the “tipping point” at which the world will very soon be forced to use solar energy more than the much-deplored fossil fuels. 
Conspiracy theorists surely welcomed one aspect of his presentation, but his vision offers great hope to all of us. Certainly the disputes in Paris overshadowed Seba’s prediction, since the climate trouble is real and related problems with oil and coal are apparent to all. Still, we are entitled to dream of cleaner air, and what Seba said brought that dream somewhat closer to reality. The widespread use of solar energy is only a few years away, the expert insisted, because not even the companies whose interests are vested in fossil fuels will be able to fight exponential advances in solar technology.
The claims are not new, but thorough study has convinced Seba that his specific forecast is accurate. In fact he now believes the change will come faster than he had earlier predicted. By 2030, he said, the use of oil, coal and gas will be obsolete, based on the fact that the tapping of solar energy has lately been doubling every year. It still represents just 1 per cent use of all forms of energy use, he noted, but if that doubling continues on an annual basis, it will take just a few more years for solar to overtake everything else.
What would have cheered the conspiracy theorists was Seba’s suggestion that vested interests, in cahoots with politicians, have anchored global dependence on fossil fuels – the status-quo industries that are worth trillions of dollars. Technology, however, is slowly but surely transforming those industries into consumer-driven models, he said, and the vested interests and politicians are powerless to stop the change.
The new face of industry will make oil, gas and coal obsolete and the shift to clean energy the economically smart thing to do, Seba stated. “Getting out of fossils [won’t be] a moral decision but a smart decision,” he said, citing recent innovations like driver-less cars and electric vehicles. “Any money you put into a new plant you will lose because it’s not going to last 40 years.” If Seba’s prediction proves accurate, we can expect to see a drastic shift in politics as well. Most international politics, along with diplomacy and economics at the highest levels, have traditionally revolved around who controls the oil and who has the capacity to drill, process and distribute it. The global embrace of clean energy would be a game-changer on an unprecedented scale.
Seba has his doubters and critics, but then again, all revolutionary ideas have faced scepticism, if not outright denunciation. With further interest and effort, sources of clean energy – wind, water and sunlight – can be harnessed at greater speeds and volumes. Oil, gas and coal changed the way people travel and work, but we long ago realised they do not separately or together constitute the ultimate solution. Technology is enabling people to do more with less energy and with cleaner energy. The biggest question now is whether the “tipping point” will come as early as Seba has predicted.

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