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How to Save the World in 15 Years – Part Three: The Looming Death Spiral of Carbon-intensive Industries

Disruptive technologies and societal change could allow us to reach net zero much quicker than anticipated, if we make the right choices now  

Cracked clay mud in a dried-up lake or river bed caused by prolonged drought in summer in hot weather temperatures. Photo: Arndt Sven-Erik/Arterra Picture Library/Alamy

How to Save the World in 15 Years Part ThreeThe Looming Death Spiral Of Carbon-intensive Industries

Disruptive technologies and societal change could allow us to reach net zero much quicker than anticipated – if we make the right choices now  

The publication of the latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has driven home, once again, the gravity of humanity’s predicament on planet Earth.

As demonstrated in parts one and two of this series, we have tended to consistently under-estimate the scale and pace of climate change and, as a result, are always playing catch-up as new scientific insights reveal how close we are to the climate system spiralling out of balance irreversibly. The evidence is mounting that the Earth is already in the climate danger zone.

The IPCC has called for transformational change of the global economy, hitting all levels and all process of all societies. But the idea of achieving such a colossal scale of transformation in such a short period of time seems impossible.

It has caused many in the environment movement and beyond to feel a sense of despair as the lack of political will, and the inertia among global political and corporate leaders, reinforces a sense of apathy and disillusionment.

Yet, we are also told that this scale of transformation is going to come at a cost, at least for now – that it will hurt consumers, hit our wallets, drive-up prices for households, and significantly increase taxes. That we have to take a hit in the short-term, to reap the long-term benefits.

But these longstanding beliefs are based on a lack of understanding of the nature of the systemic transformation required. In reality, more and more evidence is emerging that transformation is coming – and that by understanding its dynamics, we will be positioned to benefit today not only ecologically, but economically and socially too.

The Dynamics of Disruption

This year, I was involved as an editor in a new report published by the San Francisco-based technology forecasting think tank RethinkX. The report offers what I believe is the clearest evidence of how, despite the gravity of our current situation, we can solve climate change by transforming the entirety of our civilisation in as little as 15 years. 

The report is co-authored by my colleagues venture investor James Arbib, environmental social scientist Adam Dorr, and serial entrepreneur and Stanford University lecturer Tony Seba. Unlike conventional siloed, linear approaches, the report is based on the Tony Seba Disruption framework – a complex systems approach to understanding the interplay between disruptive technologies and societal change.

Seba’s framework and RethinkX’s application of it are particularly significant because they have been used to successfully anticipate a wide range of developments, from rapid declines in costs of solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, to the collapse of the coal industry and oil prices.  

The report finds that the most powerful fossil fuel-based industries in the world – oil, gas and coal; livestock farming; and combustion engines – are going to become obsolete well within the next 20 years. The driving force of this transformation? Economics. 

Robust empirical data confirms not only that these industries are entering economic death spirals that will make their business models increasingly unsustainable, but that in the next decades, they will be increasingly disrupted by a cluster of existing clean technologies in the energy, transport and food sectors, which are rapidly becoming cheaper, more efficient and more ubiquitous. 

If societies recognise this dramatic shift and make the right choices, humanity will be able to eliminate 90% of global carbon emissions within the next 15 years and reach net zero by 2040 or even well before 2035 – far faster than conventional analysts believe is possible and ushering in a new era of post-carbon prosperity. 

But, if we choose to obstruct this coming transformation, the Earth will find itself stuck in the climate danger zone: going above 2 degrees Celsius and breaching the ‘safe limit’ ratified by governments around the world under the Paris Agreement. 

How Disruption Drives Change

Previous disruptions provide a compelling context to understand what’s coming.

Horses were the dominant mode of transport for millennia. Landline phones and analogue cameras were in place for over a century-and-a-half. But cars, smartphones and digital cameras all achieved mass adoption within as little as 10 to 15 years.

In all of these cases, disruptive technologies experienced a virtuous cycle of exponential cost reductions and exponentially-improving efficiencies, enabling them to fundamentally threaten the economic viability of incumbent products.

Simultaneously, the latter were driven into a vicious cycle of economic decline – becoming more inefficient, expensive, and less profitable in comparison. Eventually, it simply made no economic sense to buy the old products and their business models became obsolete. 

The accelerating feedback loops between these vicious and virtuous cycles drive the mass adoption rates of the disruptive technologies along an ‘S curve’: adoption increases slowly at first, then accelerates toward an exponential growth rate that levels-off as the product dominates the market. At the same time, previous technologies enter death spirals of economic decline, and rapidly become relics of history. 

These are not simply one-for-one substitutions. Cars didn’t simply replace horses – they completely transformed the entire landscape of society, from commuting to logistics, trade to war, retail to how we designed our cities.

This pattern of transformation is now empirically well-documented by several studies. The new RethinkX report uses it to identify the most promising disruptions with the biggest transformative impact. 

The End of Big Oil, Big Motors and Big Ag

Today, just three overarching sectors of the global economy – energy, transport and food – are responsible for more than 90% of global carbon emissions. But, in each of these sectors, disruptions are now taking place that will lead a suite of clean technologies that will not only become cost-competitive with prevailing industries, but cheaper. 

Over the next two decades, the report finds, conventional power plants run on oil, gas and coal will be replaced by solar, wind and batteries (SWB). Privately-owned automobiles based on internal combustion engines will be replaced by electric and later autonomous vehicles (A-EVs) operated as an on-demand service. Industrial livestock farming will be replaced by precision fermentation (PF) in microbial protein factories and cellular agriculture (CA). 

The driving force of this huge transformation in our fossil fuel-dependent production system is economics.

Our research shows clearly that SWB, A-EVs, and PFCA have already begun their virtuous cycles. Over the past decades, empirical data reveals cost curves confirming that they are experiencing exponential improvements in performance, efficiency, price and returns, that in turn is driving feedback loops of vicious cycles in incumbent industries. 

If this pattern continues at its current rate according to the predictable pattern of technology disruptions, then the conclusion is unavoidable: this cluster of technologies is on track to become not merely cost-competitive, but two to 10 times cheaper than incumbent carbon-dependent energy, transport and food industries over the next 20 years.

As this takes place, they will increasingly penetrate markets, making conventional carbon-intensive industries obsolete and leading associated carbon emissions to decline dramatically.

In the energy sector, which currently accounts for some 57% of global carbon emissions, RethinkX’s research confirms that solar photovoltaics, wind power, and lithium-ion storage batteries will be capable of providing 100% of a society’s energy far cheaper than conventional power plants in most regions of the world. At the current rate of improvements, they will become cheaper than fossil fuels by 2030. 

But that’s just the beginning. There are optimal and poor approaches to SWB deployment.

Modelling by RethinkX in 2020 demonstrated that, by building over-capacity of solar and wind to decrease reliance on batteries in the winter, the new clean energy system would be capable of producing extremely large quantities of surplus electricity for free, generating at least three times the amount of electricity as the fossil fuel system produces at near zero marginal costs all year round. This is a conservative estimate – one study by Swiss Government scientists found that solar over-capacity could generate worldwide as much as 10 times the current levels of energy consumption. Such a vast increase in the availability of clean, cheap electricity would enable the complete transformation of the energy system, making it possible to cleanly power a vast array of public services, from wastewater treatment to recycling.

A similar revolution is underway in transportation, which accounts for 16.2% of global emissions.

Based on the rate at which self-driving technology is now improving, we expect autonomous electric vehicles to further disrupt and ultimately replace gas-based cars within around a decade. But, even without autonomous tech, RethinkX has found that because electric cars last seven times longer than gasoline vehicles, costs per mile of transport especially for ride-hailing and freight will plummet, making the model of transportation-as-a-service so cheap that it will no longer make sense for most people to have their own car. Costs will drop even further when electrical vehicles remove the labour cost. 

The third major opportunity is in the food sector, currently responsible for 18% of global emissions.

RethinkX’s previous research has shown that the entire dairy and cattle industries will be replaced by rapidly advancing precision fermentation (PF) and cellular agriculture (CA) technologies. PF uses microbial hosts such as yeast or fungi as ‘cell factories’ for ingredients like proteins and fats. Dairy protein DNA sequences are programmed onto the microorganisms, such as yeast, which are placed into fermentation tanks like those used to brew beer, where they are fed simple plant-based nutrients and sugars to grow. The fermentation process causes these microbes to produce proteins identical to those found in dairy milk – without the cow. This process can be used to create a vast diversity of animal proteins without needing the actual animal, and even to replace the agricultural cultivation of staple crops with greater efficiency, while using less energy, land and water.  

Driven by improvements in biological and information technologies, the costs of these technologies have dramatically declined. In 2000, the cost of producing a single kilogram of one type of protein molecule was around $1 million. By 2020, it was around $100. According to RethinkX’s work, it is projected to fall below $10 by 2025. By 2030, PF will become five times cheaper than livestock farming, and 10 times cheaper by 2035. The new report confirms that this is already happening faster than RethinkX previously predicted: we are now on track for proteins produced via PF to cost $1 per kg as early as 2030. As this process unfolds, it will disrupt the diary and cattle industries at an accelerating pace.


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Between Collapse and Renewal

RethinkX is not the only group to have arrived at such conclusions. In a separate report, the Carbon Tracker Initiative – a London-based think tank looking at the impact of climate change on financial markets – drew on RethinkX’s systems framework to examine specific trends in the energy sector. 

“The fossil energy system is falling over the edge of the demand cliff,” the report concluded. “Peak fossil fuel demand likely occurred in 2019. This marks the beginning of runaway change: the tipping point where positive feedback loops start to dominate the system. Positive feedback loops mean disruption. We identify seven virtuous and vicious feedback loops that are driving a rapid transformation of the global energy system, as renewables displace fossil fuels.”

But, as RethinkX’s analysis shows, it is not just the energy sector. Every foundational sector of the production system of human civilisation is experiencing disruption. The new report focuses on energy, transport and food, but all three of those disruptions are also being driven by exponential change that has occurred, and is occurring, in the information and materials sectors.

The revolutionary implication is that today’s fossil fuel-dependent industries in the three most pivotal sectors for climate change will not survive the next two decades of rapid economic change. But there is a crucial caveat to this huge finding.

Even though the disruptions themselves are largely inevitable, exactly how they unfold is entirely up to us – we can still choose to obstruct and delay them, resulting in chaos and crisis; or we can adapt to them, or even accelerate them, allowing us to be well-positioned to maximise their benefits. 

The biggest problem is that, if we bury our heads in the sand, the fossil fuel system may survive long enough to guarantee dangerous climate change. If policy-makers remain wedded to the lure of incumbent industries, attempting to keep them afloat through subsidies, grants, market incentives, regulation and other policies, this would significantly obstruct the disruptions.

While it would not prevent them from pulling the rug out from under incumbent industries, societies that choose this path would be unprepared for the devastating economic consequences as those industries enter death spirals of declining profits, diminishing returns, bankruptcies, and stranded assets. The economic shocks could further derail the disruptions themselves.

This is what the RethinkX report describes as the ‘get stuck’ scenario – one in which carbon emissions continue to rise over the next five years, pushing well across the 2C threshold and thus deeper into the climate danger zone where we risk societal collapse induced by ecological catastrophe. 

To avoid this, the minimum we need to do is to clear market barriers to the disruptions with the most transformative potential. Instead of pouring millions into hydrogen, carbon capture, decarbonising construction, or grounding as many flights as possible, among myriad other things, it makes more sense to focus our efforts on where we can achieve significant change at least cost.

Because the eight technologies in these sectors are well out of the research and development phase and ready to scale, they don’t require onerous state interventions – merely the removal of market barriers that favour the incumbencies.

That means ending energy utility monopolies; removing private and public investments in oil, gas, coal, combustion engine and livestock industries; and eliminating regulations that favour these industries. It also means legislating for the rights of individuals to trade in the new energy, transport and food industries, supporting appropriate investments in infrastructure such as electrification for heating, and shifting towards open source intellectual property rights to enable decentralised innovation and entrepreneurship.

A New Post-Carbon System for Environmental Thriving

But slashing carbon emissions to net zero is just the beginning of the possibilities that are opening up by the transformation of the production system.

While the implications of each of these three disruptions in their own sectors is momentous, the most exciting prospects can be seen when we realise how their inherent interconnections will trigger a cascade of consequences that will transform the entire global economy. 

This new post-carbon energy, transport and food system will have entirely new properties to the old industrial paradigm, and will require new decentralised, networked and non-hierarchical approaches to organising our societies to distribute and maximise the benefits. It will transform our production and consumption practices, allow us to leave behind parasitical forms of growth, and enable us to achieve real prosperity without breaching environmental limits. 

The collapse of livestock farming, for instance, will free up to 2.7 billion acres of land from animal-based agriculture, creating an unprecedented opportunity for reforestation, species conservation, and rewilding at scales that would have been unthinkable without the disruption. Active reforestation on this land will allow us to sequester carbon at a scale unthinkable without the disruptions.

The collapse of both the fossil fuel industries and the private ownership of gasoline cars will make their associated global infrastructure obsolete, creating a vast repository of metals such as steel, aluminium, copper, nickel and beyond which can be recycled to build the new post-carbon infrastructure. It will also mean that the huge global network of logistics, shipping and freight for the heavy transport of oil, gas and coal around the world will no longer be required. The disappearance of private vehicle ownership will drastically reduce the number of cars on roads, which will further transform demand for materials. 

Most importantly, the combined impact of the disruptions across these sectors will also reduce the cost of withdrawing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere to around $10 per ton of CO2 by 2040.

Whereas the IPCC offers no mechanism for how carbon withdrawal technologies could ever become feasible, RethinkX has identified how these disruptions will lay the groundwork for that to happen. Instead of thinking about carbon withdrawal right now, then, we should focus on deploying these disruptions first, and then begin scaling-up carbon draw-down methods (both natural and technological) later, when we will be able to deal with intractable emissions from aviation, construction, and so on through offsets.

This will enable us to rapidly go beyond zero by taking carbon out of the atmosphere within the next 20 years – instead of towards the end of this century as the IPCC wrongly estimates. 

And, if we truly recognise the opportunities of this coming transformation, we can accelerate the disruptions in such a way that we maximise our chances of solving climate change and restoring planetary life-support systems, by ramping up strategic investments in the disruptions while investing more deeply in reforestation and carbon withdrawal. 

In RethinkX’s scenario of accelerated action, the Earth could hit net zero by around 2033, and begin rapidly sequestering carbon – going 20% below zero (safely capturing 20% of the carbon currently accumulated in the atmosphere) as early as 2040. We could blow the Paris Agreement out of the water by going beyond zero and getting to significant negative emissions a decade earlier. 

In the process, we would pave the way for an unprecedented transformation of civilisation in which we could, for the first time in human history, meet all of our needs without destroying the environment – not with speculative technologies of the future, but with technologies that exist here and now.

The choice between collapse and renewal has never been clearer. What happens next is up to us.

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