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Debates & Lectures archive

16th April 2013

Cheapside Debate: 'Can technology save the planet - yes or no?'

Dr Mayer Hillman (Senior Fellow Emeritus since 1992
at the Policy Studies Institute, University of Westminster)

Dr Bernie Bulkin (Chair, Office of Renewable Energy,
Department of Energy and Climate Change)

Chair: The Revd Chris Brice (Operation Noah)

MAYER HILLMAN began by observing that the government is required to provide more and more energy but that the crucial issue is whether the earth's atmosphere has the capacity to absorb the emissions that fossil fuels create. Carbon dioxide has been released to such an extreme that its effect is uncontrollable. everybody wants to believe in a sustainable future, he said, but the future is not sustainable and nobody wants to talk about it.

Economic growth needs to be assessed in terms of whether it produces CO2 emissions; without renewable energy, technology is useless. Most 'carbon reductions' we hear about are only delivering less of an increase, not a real reduction of emissions. We must lead zero-emission lifestyles; if we are not prepared to do so, and to pressurise governments and others into doing so, then we are complicit in contributing to the destruction of an already dying planet. The earth's resources are finite and there is a limit to the role technology can play.

BERNIE BULKIN admitted that Dr Hillman and he had been having this argument for eight years, but now it goes public. The issue, he said, is how we solve the problem, and changing behaviour is what is necessary; that can be achieved on a massive scale through the application of technology. We have been successful in changing attitudes and behaviour towards seatbelts, smoking and cycling. Aspiration is a better motivator than fear. What people must know is that we can have it all - a better life and beat the challenge of climate change.

We already have all the science we need to generate sufficient power without recourse to fossil fuels. We need cost reduction combined with efficiency. The cost of solar panels has dropped to a quarter in the last four years; wind turbines are also cheaper; electric vehicles are developing low-carbon electricity to power them. The technology required to solve energy problems is less ambitious than what was required to produce the current generation of smart phones. Bio-sciences, material sciences and information technology must all play a part in finding a solution. We underestimate the capabilities of techology in the 21st century.