Look Around You! – Do You See A World About to Change to Sustainability?

Awaiting Large-Scale Change

Take a look around and tell me if you see a world about to become sustainable. No, certainly not! So far countries and companies have run pilot projects to develop sustainable technologies and solutions that have been implemented on a small scale. Most things, however, remain the same. The world will not change to sustainability until people realise the magnitude of the change we are about to embark on.

One example is the change to electric vehicles. Governments have not realised the scale of this change, still the EU has set the goal to make the union fossil-free by 2045! There are 240 million cars in the EU and with an average driving distance of about 11,500 km per year there will be a need for electricity amounting to the production of more than 100 nuclear reactors or more than 150,000 wind turbines to charge them with electricity every day. In the winter even more capacity will be needed because more electricity is needed to drive a kilometre in cold weather.

The challenge of providing this much electricity for transportation will be great, because it will require large investment in power generation and distribution. The challenge will be great in Germany. With 48 million cars the country will need the electricity from 20 nuclear reactors to power all cars, but Germany has a strong economy. Not all countries have the economy of Germany. Italy and Spain have large fleets of cars and they need a corresponding amount of power to charge future fleets of electric cars. Italy has 40 million, requiring the power from 16 nuclear reactors and Spain has 25 million, requiring 10.

Now, governments in Sweden, Germany, and a few other countries are starting to talk about the transformation of trucks and buses to electric drive. The Swedish government is starting to subsidise the installation of charging posts for trucks along Swedish main roads, although there are only about 100 heavy trucks registered in the country, out of the total of 84,000 heavy trucks. The government is progressive and there are already plans for electric road networks where vehicles will be able to charge while driving via tracks in the surface. To turn all trucks and buses in the EU to electric drive the power produced by some 50 nuclear reactors, or 75,000 wind turbines will be needed, and more in the winter. Apparently, the idea is that all cars and trucks will be electric by 2045, requiring a total of more than 150 nuclear reactors or the power from 225,000 wind turbines, spread out across all countries of the EU, regardless of their financial opportunities to make the investment.

So far 2% of all cars in Germany and France are electric and not even the leading countries Norway and Sweden with 10 and 5% electric cars respectively, have investigated the level of investment needed in power production, reinforcement of grids, expansion of charging infrastructure to charge all vehicles every day, training of employees to drive the transformation to electromobility forward, or the investments in technology and business development that will be needed.


Electromobility is Only One Example

Many believe that the transformation to a sustainable society is well under way and that we only have to wait for another few years until all plastics are made from biological feed stock. The truth is that the change to recycled or biological plastics is at an earlier stage than the transformation to electromobility.

About 8 to 10 percent of all oil produced is used for plastics production. In addition to this a share of the natural gas that is produced is used for plastics production as well. Natural gas contains the same hydrocarbons as oil, so gas can be used to produce plastics.

If countries were to change their plastics production to 100% grain-based plastics 25% of agricultural land on the planet would be needed. To change transportation to biofuls 4 times all agricultural land on the planet would be needed and there would be no grain left to eat. We know that the change has not come very far, because we are able to eat bread and pizza every day, or as often as we like.

Governments and the experts that give advice to politicians and business leaders around the world have not realised the scale of the change. They still think that banning plastic straws and taxing plastic bags are important steps in the right direction. They are steps in the right direction, but they are small steps. There is a need for strategies that take the scale of the transformations into account and address the scale and the need for investment!

Electromobility and plastics are only two of the most prominent examples of the scale of the transformation to sustainability. Other examples are the need to reduce the footprint from various aspects of our consumption, for example applying the principles of the circular economy to achieve this.

I have written 5 internationally published books that discuss the need for high-level analysis, strategies, and plans for the transformation, the latest being “The Blind Guardians of Ignorance” from 2020.

Plans need to comprise all necessary activities, not only the ones that seem most obvious, like subsidising electric cars and building some chargers. Strategies and plans need to take into account the need for electricity and the competence that will be needed by the people who are going to work with the transformation. Change projects for electromobility will have to become widespread. To charge all cars, buses, and trucks wherever they are, whenever they need, millions of chargers will be needed. Similar systematic approaches will be needed in other sustainability areas.


Strategies Will Be Needed – But Also People With An Understanding

To change to sustainability strategies and plans will be needed. But it does not help much that I write articles on Medium if there are few others that understand the need and are able to bring this message forward.

It was easy for NASA and President Kennedy to understand that going to the moon in 1969 had to involve investments not only in rockets. To go to the moon there was a need for a launch pad, a huge building where rockets and other things could be built, a vehicle that could take the rocket to the launch pad, a control centre in Houston, TX, and many other things without which the mission would not have succeeded. To build railways there was also a need for station houses, level crossings, coal depots, bridges, not only locomotives and railway cars. People understood this in the 19th Century and in the 1960’s, why don’t they now?


Why This Blindness to the System Aspects of the Transformation?

Big numbers are difficult. Who knew about Terrabytes and Petabytes before we had to get computer memories bigger than kilo, Mega, or Giga? Few people understand Megawatts, Gigawatts, or Terrawatts.

One nuclear reactor produces about 4.5 Terrawatts per year, enough power to fuel about 2.2 million electric cars that go 11,500 kilometres each. In Germany they produce 600 TWh of electricity per year and about 135 TWh, or 30 nuclear reactors, will be needed to fuel cars, buses, and trucks on a daily basis. But more than 30 will be needed in the winter, which complicates the discussion further.

As long as there are few electric vehicles and most of them are charged at night, we have no problem. When countries start to have 25% electric cars and 5% electric trucks and buses people will find it difficult to get them all charged every day, unless power production and grids are significantly expanded. Expansion will not have to take place in all parts of grids, so the need in different parts of cities and towns will have to be mapped.

More people will have to become comfortable with the big numbers of power use and power production. It is not more complicated than understanding Megabytes and the other concepts of computer storage.

If more people realise that our future depends on the transformation to electromobility and that the people who start to learn now can take the lead in the transformation, that would be a huge step forward. In Sweden forecasts have been made telling us that only electric cars may be sold by 2028, if the present increase in demand continues. If this becomes true it is more than likely that a lot of owners of electric cars will not be able to charge them regularly, because of a lack of capacity in power grids. Most probably we will also need to expand power production, even if we have about twice the amount of power per person that Germany has. Norway, the leader in electromobility, has more than three times the power production per person compared to Germany. No wonder that Norway, Iceland, and Sweden lead this race towards electromobility. Power is abundant and cheap here, compared to the situation in other countries!

People in all countries – start to learn about the complexity of electromobility! It is a necessary transformation, but not as straight-forward as decision makers seem to believe at present.