Words matter. As a linguist by background, I would say that wouldn’t I? But it’s true. With words we shape our world.
Take yesterday’s Tortoise climate summit for example. Of all the many wise words that were spoken, one phrase in particular has now permanently tattooed itself in my memory. That was Dale Vince (founder of UK renewable energy business, Ecotricity) characterizing fossil fuels as “single-use fuels.”
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve never heard that framing before – non-renewables, yes, but not single-use – and it struck me as incredibly powerful.
First, of course, it’s a very apt description. Once you’ve burnt ‘em, that’s it. And from a long-term value perspective, the single-use framing does seem to throw into sharper relief the waste of paying to burn fossil fuels vs. investing in renewable energy infrastructure that, once built, can continue to generate energy at little or no marginal cost. Second, and just as powerfully, it evokes obvious comparisons with single-use plastics and the huge focus for action that that has been over the last few years.
And when it comes to the case for accelerating energy transition, I have a new big fat hairy number to quote, thanks to EYQ chum, Ben Falk. A couple of weeks back, he shared with me a mind-blowing blog post from UK tech investor, Ian Hogarth, which draws upon a passage from Kim Stanley Robinson’s hard sci-fi masterpiece, The Ministry for the Future, which I’ve duly begun to bury myself in. Against the backdrop of a crippling heatwave in India, Robinson writes:
Humans are burning about 40 gigatons of fossil carbon a year… Scientists have calculated that we can burn about 500 more gigatons before we push the average global temperatures over 2 degrees higher than it was when the industrial revolution started. [Meanwhile], the fossil fuel industry has already located at least 3000 gigatons of fossil carbon in the ground. All these concentrations of carbon are listed as assets by the corporations that have located them and they are regarded as national resources by the nation states in which they have been found… The notional value of the 2500 gigatons of carbon that should be left in the ground, calculated by using the current price of oil, is in the order of 1500 trillion US dollars.
US$1.5 quadrillion! That’s an inconceivably large amount of money. No wonder Hogarth counts accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels as “one of the most ****ing epic business opportunities of all time.”