Equinox Summit day 2: Thomas Homer-Dixon on energy and complexity

From June 6-9, some of the top scientists and environmental researchers in the world will be in Waterloo at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics for the Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI) Equinox Summit. These experts will be discussing ways in which the world can chart a course for the future that will involve sustainable, low-carbon energy solutions.

Each day, a scientist or researcher, will give a public lecture at Perimeter Institute, stay logged on to thecord.ca for continuing coverage.

For day two of the Equinox Summit at the Perimeter Institute in Uptown Waterloo, a public lecture was given by Thomas Homer-Dixon, a professor at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Environment and Business. Homer-Dixon, whose books The Ingenuity Gap and The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization focus on the susceptibility of humankind to energy and climate crises in the future, also holds the CIGI Chair of Global Systems at The Balsillie School of International Affairs.

Homer-Dixon’s talk centered around the relationship between energy and complexity in society. He explained that this relationship and the complexity of the modern world mean that conservation or limiting energy use will only get the world so far in dealing with energy difficulties.

“In other words, if we want to have the complex social and technological and economic systems that we have in our society today that provide us with many benefits, we need to have a lot of energy and there is a certain irreducible demand if we want to sustain that complexity,” he said.

Humanity has been dependent on cheap, abundant energy sources to reach its current population and complexity, Homer-Dixon said. However positive this complexity is for creating innovation and providing benefits for societies, the complicated nature of these systems is troublesome because understanding the workings of interconnected political, social and economic systems is nearly impossible. Predicting how the systems will react to even minor problems is very difficult as well; Homer-Dixon cited the American sub-prime mortgage crisis that led to a global financial downturn as one example.

“Complex systems are frequently tightly coupled, if you pop one part of it out you find that like a row of dominoes, you get problems cascading away,” he said.

Complexity is a product of solving problems, a cycle that the world is currently experiencing on a grand scale. “Societies become inexorably more complex as they try and solve their problems, this complexity costs energy, and over time, that complexity produces diminishing returns,” Homer-Dixon explained, illustrating that complexity can become more troublesome than helpful.

Homer Dixon moved on to talk about how the world will need to compensate for greater complexity and find and exploit greater amounts of energy. “We’re going to spend $200 billion on oil sands development in Alberta by 2030, an enormous amount of capital, in order to produce five million barrels a day, basically about half of Saudi Arabia’s current production,” he said.

“The oil sands are not going to save the day when it comes to liquid fuels on this planet.”

Homer-Dixon proposed a solution involving a significant carbon tax and what he called a “30-30-40 solution” for the next few decades. 30 per cent of the necessary energy to support humanity moving forward would come from conservation efforts, 30 per cent from distributed renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy and the remaining 40 per cent coming from coal and natural gas power plants generating electricity and capturing and storing carbon emissions underground.

“Given a price on carbon, we’re going to see a profound shift in the character of energy production in our societies,” he said, noting that there would still need to be zero-carbon technologies for generating power created, such as enhanced geothermal energy.

“Getting through this transition isn’t going to be a smooth process, it’s going to be characterized by shocks and crises,” he explained. “The shocks we might experience in the future will create extraordinary opportunities for changing our societies and economies and technologies.”

He concluded on an ominous yet hopeful note. “Humankind doesn’t innovate in really profound ways that change whole societies until they are in a situation of emergency,” he said.

“We need to think about what we can take off the shelf and use when the crisis happens.”

Click here for coverage of day one.