Mike Berners-Lee is intent on getting the world off fossil fuels and onto a more sustainable trajectory. Leveraging his years of experience advising industry leaders on carbon management, the professor at Lancaster University’s Institute for Social Futures advocates an approach that gives equal weight to individual action and collective responsibility. In his view, we must pursue a global, top-to-bottom shift that emphasises decarbonisation in every sphere. He puts his cri de cœur on paper in the updated edition of There Is No Planet B, published in January. The book catalogues a wide range of environmental threats and proposes an abundance of innovative solutions. Here, he explains the unique circumstances faced by the UK in making the shift to sustainable energy, how local energy production can help and what we should be thinking about as the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference approaches.
What do you view as the major energy problems facing the world?
The human energy supply has been growing for millennia and is continuing to grow rapidly. For the last few centuries, we’ve been getting most of our energy from fossil fuel which, of course, has turned out to be hugely dangerous. It has created a climate emergency. We need to get off fossil fuels at high speed. We need to ramp up our renewable energy production like crazy. The good news is it’s technically possible. We also need to transform how we use energy to adapt ourselves to the new energy forms. Most of that turns out to be really doable. However, just transitioning energy supply to renewables will get us nowhere. If we carry on growing our energy supply at the current rate, it will mean we’ve doubled it by 2050. If we were to replace today’s energy supply with renewables, but double our energy usage, then we’d still be taking just as much fossil fuel out of the ground as we are now. The more energy we use, the harder we make it for ourselves to transition.
How do those problems play out in the UK specifically? Are there any we should be more or less worried about?
This whole thing is a global issue. We need to make sure all the energy required gets to everywhere that needs it. Different countries are using dramatically different amounts of energy. Different countries also have totally different capacities to generate renewable energy. There is a colossal solar panel opportunity at the global level. This is especially true for sun-drenched countries like the United States or Australia or most African countries. If you’re a country like the UK, the question is a little bit different. We’re a small, crowded island without much sunlight. In Australia or America, all you have to do is put up the solar panels and maybe a few wind turbines. The sunlight will basically do it for you. In the UK, you have a really complex energy mix: a bit of solar panels, a bit of offshore wind, a bit of onshore wind, a bit of tidal, a bit of hydro, maybe a bit of biofuel, maybe a bit of nuclear. It’s a much more complicated equation.
How much of the responsibility for mitigating climate change lies with individuals and how much with governments? Are individual efforts worth much without government intervention?
Individual actions make government action possible. All these things work together. We need big systemic change. People are going to transform how they’re living. Businesses are going to transform how they operate, and the goods and services they provide. And governments are going to incentivise. All these components are going to come together. In the UK over the last couple of years, we’ve had a lot of people taking to the streets insisting on action. That has opened up political space, which has enabled our government to feel brave enough to increase its carbon targets to net zero by 2050. That isn’t enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.
What are some of the problems faced in making renewable energy sustainable, both in terms of infrastructure and actual harvesting?
First of all, we have to generate the energy. At the global level, the big deal is just putting solar panels out. For the UK, it’s a more interesting mix. Then you have to get it to where it’s needed. So that’s a transmission issue. But you use a lot of raw materials. Renewable electricity is dependent on the weather and the time of day. So that gives you huge storage issues. You can store some of it with batteries. But you have to be able to store enough so the whole country can have its electricity supply right through the night in winter. It has to be really cheap. Then there’s the question of how you store energy in a lightweight enough form that you can put it into an aeroplane and put it in the sky. But there are emerging technologies. Using ammonia as a storage material, we might be able to get across the Atlantic with a passenger flight.
Is the decentralisation of energy the right way to go? Do we want more local production?
When local energy production can be done, it does have some advantages. It creates a sense of local independence, which is really good. You don’t have to transport the energy. The biggest difference it makes is we’ve gone into a world in which the resources we use are so removed from their production. We’re detached. That leads to thoughtless, mindless consumption. It’s the same with our energy. I have some solar panels on the roof of my house. That’s actually a great reminder that this energy actually comes from somewhere. If I want to use more energy, I better put more solar panels on my roof. We have such rubbish sunlight in the UK and yet solar panels have taken off. That’s partly because we had these feed-in tariffs [that incentivise renewable production]. That’s really stimulated the market. Now the feed-in tariffs have been taken away. If you want more solar panels on your roof, you don’t get the same government support. But the prices have come down to the point that you don’t really quite need it anymore. They’re becoming cheaper and easier to make all the time.
Are there any misconceptions about renewables and decarbonisation that particularly bother you?
If renewables are no more than the growth rate in the energy supply, they will do zero. Most people think efficiency will lead to a reduction in energy use. It doesn’t. When we get more efficient in our use of anything at all, what happens is that our use of that thing goes up even more than the efficiency improvement. That means the total inputs go up, not down. This is known as the Jevons paradox. William Stanley Jevons noticed that as the UK got more efficient in its use of coal, that was stimulating greater demand for coal, not less. We see it everywhere. Efficiency improvements don’t on their own help us. They only help us when we constrain the inputs.
How is the UK doing in terms of addressing the energy crisis?
We are doing OK by the standards of most countries in the world. Aiming toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is better than most, but it’s really not enough. We have an opportunity to show some real leadership. And if we had some imagination, we could really do that. As we come out of the pandemic, we have a chance to do that with a deep green lens on and in doing so make lives better for everybody. As we go into hosting the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, we have a chance to go in there with a real seriousness and a coherence in our position. We need to demonstrate integrity. We’re on the verge of looking incredibly stupid in opening up a big coal mine on the west coast of Cumbria right as we go into these talks. I really hope we can rise to the challenge.