Leaving the Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight where they belong—deep underground.

By October 6, 2021October 18th, 2021Editorial

Offshore wind turbines. © Masha Basova/Shutterstock.

If some giant cosmic hand were to switch off our sun, we would know about it some eight minutes and 20 seconds later when, at the speed of light, the final shaft of visible electromagnetic radiation penetrated our atmosphere. Our world would flip into permanent night, and temperatures would start to drop. Quickly.

Life on Earth would not disappear immediately, but the writing would be on the wall for most species. The planet’s own molten core would keep some of us going for a while, but food production would be a problem. We could go underground, of course, and we could build nuclear reactors. But that would take time, time we probably wouldn’t have. Whether our demise took five or twenty years, or even a hundred, is immaterial. Life on a Snowball Earth wouldn’t be much fun, not even for a handful of surviving troglodytes.

Such a scenario, of course, is highly improbable. Our sun is about 4.6 billion years old and will keep pumping out life-supporting warmth for the next 10 billion years or so. In other words, the light going out on Earth is one problem our kind does not have to worry about for a very long time indeed. However, the inescapable fact is that one way or another, all our life-supporting energy needs and, ultimately, life itself relies on the sun. It has been thus since Earth started to coalesce out of stardust. It kept us alive as we foraged and hunted before we learned how to make fire, since the first steam engines chuffed along railway lines, and gasoline and diesel motors powered our automobiles. And so it is for the energy-efficient batteries, magnetic force, wind, solar, and whatever else that will increasingly power us into the future.

To all intents and purposes, the sun is an infinite resource, so the fact that we use it and even the amount of it we use is of no consequence at all. However, how we harness that power is of great significance. We have begun to understand this over the past two-and-a-half centuries or so of our addiction to fossil fuels.

Just over two decades ago, Thom Hartmann, an American teacher, and psychotherapist, wrote a book that I have re-read many times. From the first page to the last, it made an indelible impression. But it was the title that grabbed my imagination most of all. The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight was, and still is, an inspired choice. The “ancient sunlight,” of course, refers to fossil fuels—the planet’s coal, oil, and natural gas reserves formed under tremendous pressure several hundred million years ago from the microscopic remains of plants and marine creatures. That these carbon-sequestrating organisms once lived was due solely to the life-giving warmth of the sun. And, the “last hours” warns that we have used this resource so quickly that at current rates of extraction, we will exhaust it within decades, a century at most in terms of natural gas. Of course, to do so, to use the last lump of coal, the last barrel of crude oil, or the last cubic foot of natural gas would be folly indeed. Already we are seeing the climatic and ecological consequences of releasing trapped carbon at a rate beyond the capacity of the atmosphere and oceans to reabsorb it. To continue this path would warm the Earth to the point that it would become increasingly difficult for life as we know it to persist. We need the sun’s energy, but just enough, no more and no less, to keep us in our comfy ‘Goldilocks’ zone. It is this delicate balance that we are messing with to a dangerous extent.

I came across Hartmann’s book at the turn of the millennium, just as I was starting to fully grasp the galloping extent to which we had begun to dismantle the natural systems supporting our time on Earth. Scientists had been raising the red flag long before this, of course. The First World Climate Conference had been held in Geneva in early 1979 and almost ten years before we had moved into ecological overdraft for the first time when, on December 29, 1970, humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services exceeded what Earth could regenerate in that year. This year, 2021, Earth Overshoot Day, happened a full five months earlier; alarmingly, it seems inevitable that within the next decade or even sooner, this marker of our ecological debt will have accelerated to a full year in advance of that 1970 date. Sobering to reflect that it took our genus, Homo, some 2.5 million years to “learn” how to use all that the Earth could give us in a year, and probably no more than 60 or so to be living so far beyond these means.

For even longer, since 1824, in fact, we’ve known about the “greenhouse effect.” Still, it didn’t become commonly known as that until the Swedish mathematician, and meteorologist Nils Gustaf Ekholm coined the term in 1901. Now, some 120 years later, at the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP) in Glasgow, world leaders will again meet at the end of this month. And again, they will contemplate how we might be able to restrict the planet’s warming—hopefully to 1.5 degrees centigrade above preindustrial levels, but certainly no more than two degrees. We’ve been doing this every year since 1995. On every occasion, ambitions for halting global warming are stated, and every time the conference fails to deliver the promise and it’s back to “business as usual.” Will this COP be any different?

In the run-up to COP 26, The UK’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has this to say: “Securing a brighter future for our children and future generations requires countries to take urgent action at home and abroad to turn the tide on climate change. It is with ambition, courage and collaboration as we approach the crucial COP26 summit in the UK that we can seize this moment together, so we can recover cleaner, rebuild greener and restore our planet.”

In an article in The Guardian, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has “excoriated” global leaders over their promises to address the climate emergency. She quoted Boris Johnson as saying “This is not some expensive, politically correct, green act of bunny hugging,” and Narendra Modi expounding that “Fighting climate change calls for innovation, cooperation and willpower.”

Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net-zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,” she responded in a speech to the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy, on Tuesday. “This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises.”

Her anger is not unfounded, as is borne out by UN Climate Change’s recently published synthesis of individual country’s climate action plans. While it indicates a clear trend that greenhouse gas emissions are being reduced over time, it also clearly states that nations must “urgently redouble their climate efforts if they are to prevent global temperature increases beyond the Paris Agreement’s goal of well below 2C – ideally 1.5C – by the end of the century.”

Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, congratulated the Parties, saying that “countries are making progress towards the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals. This means that the in-built mechanism set up by the Paris Agreement to allow for a gradual increase of ambition is working.” Yet the report also notes that the combined action plans of all countries imply a sizable increase of about 16 percent in global GHG emissions in 2030 compared to 2010. According to the latest findings of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), unless actions are taken immediately, such an increase may lead to a temperature rise of about 2.7C by the end of the century. Another study by the University of East Anglia, Stanford University, and the Global Climate Project, appears to support feelings of disquiet. “Among the dozens of countries that reduced their emissions 2016-2019,” it says, “carbon dioxide emissions fell at roughly one-tenth the rate needed worldwide to hold global warming well below 2°C relative to preindustrial levels.”

So, will COP 26 show real commitment towards building back better and the immediate carbon-cutting actions necessary? Or are we going to witness yet another grand and costly gathering to simply kick the can down the road? Again.

Faced with the alternative of an increasingly uncomfortable world, it is difficult to understand why the quick transition to a carbon zero economy isn’t happening at the required pace to make a difference. But then, fossil fuels have driven our economies for 250 years; they have created, for some, a world of great comfort, convenience, and for a few, unimaginable wealth. That’s hard to let go of, even if the consequences of not doing so will be so severe for all.

But the profile of energy production and consumption is changing, and like most things in our consumer-driven societies, price and availability are forcing the pace of transition. Already, renewables are undercutting fossil fuels as the world’s cheapest source of energy. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), of the wind, solar and other renewables that came on stream in 2020, nearly two-thirds were cheaper than the cheapest new fossil fuels.

Contributing to this changing picture has been the reduction in government subsidies that, for decades, have propped up the fossil fuel industry. Such instruments are intended to protect consumers by keeping prices low, but they also come at a high cost. For example, they encourage excessive energy consumption, thereby accelerating the depletion of natural resources. Furthermore, they also reduce the incentive for investment in energy efficiency and other forms of cleaner energy.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), in 2020, the fall in fossil fuel prices and energy use brought the value of fossil fuel consumption subsidies down to a record low—the estimate of just over USD 180 billion is some 40 percent down from 2019 levels. This is the lowest annual figure since the IEA started tracking these subsidies in 2007. One of the more significant contributions that world governments can make towards the climate change goals so desperately needed would be the complete removal of subsidy structures helping a dying fossil-fuel industry. And even better would be redirecting funding towards incentivizing an even faster transition to renewables.

Publisher’s Weekly may refer to Hartmann’s The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight as a “well-intentioned but soggy New Age manifesto.” “Soggy” it is not, and while I would never describe myself as “New Age,” I regard it as an essential handbook for environmental activism and well worth a read. The book, updated and now in its third edition, carries an appropriate new subtitle: The Fate of the World and What We Can Do Before It’s Too Late. While I am doubtful that any world leader will actually read the volumes of scientific evidence that will be part of their COP26 briefing, they could all benefit from browsing through Hartmann’s eminently readable tome. Even if they don’t do this, reading the following sentence from the UN will do: “Climate action is not a budget buster or economy-wrecker. Shifting to a green economy could yield a direct economic gain of $26 trillion through 2030 compared with business-as-usual. This could produce over 65 million new low-carbon jobs.”

Suppose they and their teams can carry this statement into the forthcoming climate deliberations in Glasgow, and more importantly, agree to turn this opportunity into a reality without delay. In that case, and by leaving the last hours of ancient sunlight sequestered forever, they will have gone some way, at long last, towards doing their job.