What do we owe the future?
In 1950 there were 2.5 billion of us on our planet, with the population growing at close to 20% per decade. We have just passed 8 billion, and while the growth rate has slowed to 8.7% in a decade, one billion people were added in the last decade.
I have been reading William MacAskill’s book What We Owe the Future. It is an exciting and essential question – it certainly provokes thought. It raises the most fundamental question about responsibility, to whom are we responsible for the way we leave the world when we pass? What kind of world are we leaving for our children and grandchildren? Moreover, what of those billions who may follow? MacAskill argues that “future people should count for no less, morally, than the present generation”. The decisions we make now about growth and sustainability will shape the future. The lives of future generations will be “extraordinarily good or inordinately bad.” MacAskill asserts “that we really can make a difference to the world they inhabit.”
The decisions we make now about how we reach sustainability, whether we change rapidly enough to leave a habitable world for our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren, are our responsibility. Schoolchildren around the world have engaged in the international Fridays for Future movement, which originated with Greta Thunberg. Children don’t have a vote, as MacAskill puts it, “politicians have scant incentive to think about them.” Let alone the unborn.
Untrammelled growth is not possible. Our industry is already bumping up against the limits of growth as we face the consequences of overtourism. MacAskill points out that if growth were to continue at a modest 2% per year in ten thousand years, the world economy would be 1086 – there are less than 1067 atoms within ten thousand light years of earth. Unlimited growth is not possible.
MacAskill argues that we live in a time of rapdid technological, social and environmental change and consequently, “we have more opportunity to affect when and how the most important of these changes occur, including by managing technologies that could lock in bad vlaues or imperil our survival.”
Our industry’s Achille’s Heel is aviation, not flying but the dirty fuel used to power the aircraft. In a rapidly growing population with poor food security and hunger, looking to food waste and biomass to fuel aviation is morally questionable and irresponsible.
There is a better choice.
In February last year Zoe Clarke in Global Investment Research, a Vice President at Goldman Sachs pointed out that higher commodity prices and higher carbon prices make green hydrogen more attractive. “We can achieve the clean hydrogen revolution we envisage with existing technologies but we certainly require existing technologies to reduce in costs on the back of scale and automation, whilst technological innovation continues to improve the technological offering.”
Matthieu Favas, finance correspondent at The Economist, reported this week in The Climate Issue, that nine countries are planning to install 260 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2050—enough to power all of the EU’s nearly 200m households. This creates an opportunity, a big opportunity, to produce green hydrogen an effective way of storing energy.
“Many large offshore wind farms being commissioned today include plans to build electrolysers so part of the power they produce can be used to make green fuel. Doing so offshore, where the electricity is produced, is more efficient than having electrolysers onshore: hydrogen pipelines cost just one-fifth of what equivalent high-capacity power transmission lines do. This may lead to the creation of an archipelago of “energy islands”—artificial atolls that host the crews and facilities needed to produce hydrogen en masse. There are also big projects afoot to build coastal hydrogen plants close to Europe’s industrial centres, notably in Germany.”
Today’s generation of leaders in politics, finance and aviation have choices. The future of our species requires that we take responsibility, make the right moral choice, and speed the transition to clean aviation. The greenhouse gases we emit now will blight the future of our children and grandchildren.