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A fortnightly clump of science, technology, Mayan Warrior drones and good news. Not necessarily in that order.
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The Crunch # 65


Homo Electric and the Trillion Dollar Time Trial (Part 2). Plus, bioprinted bladders, autonomous saildrones, our new fave artist and good news on gender equality and plastic.

"Constantly we are collapsing. Constantly we are fixing."

Vaclav Smil
In our last edition, we showed you why making the leap across the great energy divide is going to be such a big challenge. And we introduced you to some grumpy old men who are convinced that we aren't going to make it. 

Fortunately for us, those grumpy old men have forgotten that this time around, it's different. Previous energy transitions happened because newer fuels and machines were better, cheaper and more abundant. This transition by contrast, is being driven not just by the market, but by an urgent and growing awareness of the needs facing the global community: combating the worst effects of climate change, providing universal energy access, and reducing air pollution from energy. For the first time ever we're going to try and deliberately make an energy transition happen, and perhaps more importantly, do it on a global scale.

The way we like to think of this is that the human species is a cyclist. Let’s call our cyclist Homo Electric. Now imagine that we’re participating in a time trial, just like the ones they do on the Tour de France.

Except now it’s the most important race of all time...
 


The Trillion Dollar Time Trial


The starting gun went off in Paris in 2015, when the world came together to sign the largest international accord ever created, agreeing to limit global warming to 2°C. The challenge is to get there by the year 2050. The clock is ticking.

The good news is that we’re cycling with the best piece of kit money can buy: the Clean Energy Bicycle. It’s the most amazing machine ever created. Not only does it allow us to harness, store and distribute the power of the wind, the sun, the tides, it gets better over time. The faster we go, the whizzier the bike gets.

We’re also the crowd favourite. On every corner of the planet, there are billions lining the roads, cheering us on, the General Public (give ’em a wave). The closer we get to the finish line, the louder they’ll be cheering.

The bad news is that Homo Electric is going to be getting heavier as we go. Population growth is going to add billions of new humans to our weight. To make matters worse, the race is a direct challenge to the most powerful industry that has ever existed: the Fossil Fuel Dinosaurs. At stake is their entire existence. There’s no depth to which they’re unwilling to sink. They’re going to do everything they can to slow Homo Electric down. They'll be throwing tacks into the road, setting up roadblocks and bribing traffic officials every step of the way.

The wildcard is Governments. Some of them are helping out with a well planned doping regime, funding research into newer and better bicycles, and stopping the Fossil Fuel Dinosaurs from interfering. Most however, are standing idly by, eating popcorn and watching on the telly. And a few are actively working with the bad guys to sabotage the race.

So how are we doing?

Well, the first few kilometres have been pretty ropy. Despite our best intentions, Homo Electric has been pedalling squares. It’s probably time we remind ourselves again about what’s really at stake here
 
Scared means we want to live.

Becky Chambers, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
 

Welcome to Hothouse Earth


We’ve just had a crazy summer in the northern hemisphere of the planet. Los Angeles, Marrakech, Montreal, Denver, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Belfast and Tbilisi have all recorded their highest ever temperatures. In Siberia, for the first time in memory, the ground that insulates some of the deepest layers of permafrost did not freeze, and in the Arctic, some of the oldest and thickest sea ice has started to break up, a phenomenon that has never been recorded before. In the past two months new temperature records have been set in Algeria (51.3℃), South Korea (40.7°C), Norway (33.5°C) and Japan (41.1℃). Oman has recorded the hottest ever global overnight minimum (42.6℃), and California’s Death Valley set the record for the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, with an average temperature of (42.2℃).

A heatwave has gripped Japan, North Korea and South Korea, leaving hundreds of people dead, and in California and Greece, deadly fires have ripped across the land, leaving tens of thousands homeless. Sweden experienced its hottest July in 260 years and its worst drought in 74 years. Northern Ireland and Wales recorded their hottest June temperatures ever. The first half of summer in the United Kingdom was the driest on record, many people comparing it to the heatwave of 1976 — a weather event so intense it’s been partly held responsible for the birth of punk.

They’re not even in the same league.

The planet has warmed by 1℃ since the Industrial Revolution, and the bill is starting to come due. Average carbon dioxide concentration is now at its highest level ever recorded, and higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years. The last three years are the three hottest in recorded history, and 2018 is on track to make it four out of four. It’s not just polar bears or storm surges on tiny islands any more; changing weather patterns are now on the doorsteps of everyday Americans, Europeans and Asians. That’s the thing about climate change. The science always wins. You can fool yourself, you can fool other people for a while, but you can’t fool Mother Nature.

None of this is inevitable. It’s the result of choices made by people who are still alive. Between 1990 and now, half of all greenhouse gases humanity has ever emitted were poured into the sky. Go back to the end of WW2 and the percentage rises past 85%. The energy, transportation, manufacturing and agricultural systems we’ve built are unsustainable by design. If we don’t change them, if we don’t make the fourth energy transition happen orders of magnitude faster than the previous three, we won’t just heat the world up another few degrees — we’ll push the climate system past a critical threshold, at which point the entire thing spins out of control.

According to Johan Rockstrom, the executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre these climate thresholds, these tipping points, act like a row of dominoes. “Once one is pushed over, it pushes Earth towards another.” Temperature rises past a certain level, say 2℃ or 3℃, could set off a cascade of catastrophe, with melting permafrost releasing methane to ratchet temperatures up even further, enough to kill off the Amazon and the boreal forests, melt the polar ice sheets and so on, in a chain reaction that pushes Earth into a terrifying hothouse state from which there is no return.

The stakes for the Trillion Dollar Time Trial, in other words, could not be higher. The performance of Homo Electric will determine whether our planet remains hospitable to human life or slides down an irreversible path to climate chaos. And the longer we delay, the harder it gets to make it to the finish line in time. The whole race is going to be done and dusted within our lifetimes, and we are all going to be living with the consequences, one way or another.
To oppose something is to maintain it… You must go somewhere else;
you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.


Ursula K. Le Guin, Soliloquies in Mishnory
 

The Race Strategy


A professional cyclist doesn’t enter a race without a strategy. The Trillion Dollar Time Trial is no different. Here’s the plan:

A clean energy transition is about more than just switching over to renewables. It’s a fundamental rearrangement of the way energy is harvested, distributed and used. It’s not just replacing creaking coal plants with shiny solar panels or swapping car engines for batteries. It’s about restructuring our entire energy infrastructure, moving away from an old centralised system, characterised by predictable flows and powered by dense fuels that are easy to transport, to a decentralised one with turbines, panels, batteries and millions of smaller, smarter connections that gather energy from diffuse, less predictable sources, and concentrate it inwards. It’s not a fuel swap. It’s a whole new way of organising the built environment, the most basic structures of modern life.

That means that electricity is going to get more important. Right now, the energy system is roughly divided into big chunks — electricity, buildings, transport, and industrial. While there are a few interconnections and overlaps, they mostly exist as separate silos. The global supply chain for the petrol you put in your car, for example, doesn’t really have much to do with the gas networks you use to heat your house, or the coal shipments that power your electricity grid.

As Homo Electric accelerates into the race, the plan is to stop setting hydrocarbons on fire, and start moving around more electrons. We stop using diesel generators, and switch to solar and storage. Instead of powering our cars by blowing up black dinosaur juice, we give them batteries and charge those with energy from a clean grid. We change our heating systems, moving from gas furnaces to electric heat pumps. As Emma Pinchbeck, the executive director of Renewables UK puts it, “Pressure for decarbonisation collapses the energy silos, and expands the range of stuff that we use electricity for.”

Yes, there are disagreements about exactly what mix of those sources will be needed, what mix of centralised versus distributed resources and what mix of supply-side versus demand-side solutions — but there’s broad consensus that pathways to fully clean electricity exist. And the cleaner your electricity grid gets, the cleaner all the devices that connect to it get too. Right now, around 26% of final energy usage is electricity; according to some studies, that proportion is going to more than double by 2050. Of course, that still leaves the remaining stuff that’s harder to electrify, like air travel and steel furnaces, but the idea is that we leave that for the second part of the race.

For the first half, the strategy is simple:

STEP 1. Clean up electricity 
STEP 2. Electrify everything

Or, as we like to call it...

Make Electricity Great Again (#MEGA). 

In the next edition, we'll be showing you how #MEGA is going to work (but if you don't feel like waiting head on over to our Medium page where we're a little ahead). 

Good news you probably didn't hear about 


California has just unveiled the most ambitious climate target ever, with a commitment to making the world's fifth biggest economy carbon neutral by 2045. Vox

After 20 years, troops have been withdrawn and the Ethiopian and Eritrean border has been reopened at two key crossing points, reuniting hundreds of families. BBC

India’s highest court has just struck down a more than century-old prohibition on gay sex, calling the Victorian-era law “irrational, indefensible, and manifestly arbitrary.” Al Jazeera

In a huge step forward for gender equality, Morocco has passed a law that criminalizes violence against women, and imposes harsh penalties on perpetrators. Albawaba

New Zealand has become the latest country to outlaw single-use plastic shopping bags, and will phase them out over the next year. Time

France has become the first country in Europe to ban all five forms of neonicotinoid pesticides that researchers believe are killing off bees. Telegraph

The Malaysian government has announced it will not allow any further expansion of oil palm plantations, and that it intends to maintain forest cover at 50%. Malaymail

Indistinguishable from magic


The first autonomous saildrone has crossed the Atlantic Ocean, completing the 2,880 km journey between Canada and Ireland in two and a half months. Digital Trends

Residents in Bangkok are now swapping excess electricity using blockchain, in what is now one of the world's largest peer-to-peer renewable energy trading platforms. Reuters

Synthetic biologists in California have used genetically edited bacteria to boost the microbiomes of patients suffering from a rare disease called phenylketonuria. NYT

A few months old now but... remember the 3D-printed bridge in Amsterdam over the canal? It's complete. Not the way they imagined but still, extraordinary. Dezeen

A machine learning algorithm in Beijing has analysed brains scans of seven coma patients and correctly predicted when they would wake. Doctors said they had "no hope." SCMP

CRISPR has been used to introduce a mutation into a dog gene that then overrode a mutation responsible for a disease that mimics muscular dystrophy. Science

There are 10 people alive today who are now walking around with replacement bladders that have been grown using their own cells and bioprinting techniques. BBC

The information superhighway is still awesome


Ryan Holiday says watching the news raises cortisol levels and causes sleeplessness, but reading a book for six minutes reduces stress levels by up to 68%. So. Read books. 

Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the woman who discovered pulsars, has finally been awarded a $3 million prize after 51 years of no recognition. And she's given it all away to charity. NatGeo

Our favourite video from Burning Man this year. Studio Drift’s Amazing Luminous Drone Swarm + Dutch composer Joep Beving amplified through the Mayan Warrior. Vimeo

Wonderful essay on how to think about technology. We always talk about it as a tool or a set of instructions, but Dan Wang argues that we should also remember it's a process.

Forget biohacking. It's looking more and more likely that Metformin, currently the eighth most-prescribed drug in the United States, is the best prescription for anti-ageing. Medium

Why has nobody ever told us about dystopian sci fi Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag before? How are we only hearing about this guy now? Instant new favourite. The Verge

That's it for this edition!

Much love,

Gus and Tane

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