Dawn of the Solar Age: An End to Global Warming and to Fear


Prem Shankar Jha Jha

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    To my grandchildren, Jai and Amaya, and their children whom I will not see, with an apology for the terrible world my generation is leaving to them, and the hope that they will remember that I tried to make it a little better.


    In 1982, when I was the Acting Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of India, Prem Shankar Jha brought to the Commission a proposal for converting municipal solid waste into transport fuels. This could be done, he explained, through the destructive distillation of urban solid waste to yield carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which could then be recombined, using the right catalysts, temperatures and pressures, into methanol and other transport fuels. The technology was well understood and had been used to produce methanol from wood or coal since the Second World War. It could, in fact, convert any form of biomass into transport fuels.

    Harnessing this technology could, therefore, greatly reduce pollution and disease in the cities, provide the stimulus India needed to increase the land area under tree cover, create millions of jobs in sylviculture and agroforestry, and double farm incomes if not more by giving crop residues a commercial value equal to, if not greater than, the value of the principal crop. It would also save scarce foreign exchange.

    The Commission accepted the proposal and notified the concerned ministries in the central and state governments of India, but the crash of oil prices that followed three years later ensured that the project remained stillborn.

    Today, when the threat of climate change has become very real, I am greatly pleased to find that Jha has not only continued to follow the research done in laboratories all over the world but has also brought the results together in a book to show how global warming can be limited not just to the 2°C that governments hope will keep the world safe, but the 1.5°C that climate scientists believe is all that the world can bear.

    Jha has not stopped there but gone on to show how the public awareness of these technologies has been suppressed to make it continue believing that there are no alternatives to fossil fuels. Of still greater value are his insights into why powerful governments, large global corporations and even a section of its scientists have collaborated in this deception.

    The answer, according to him, does not lie in their narrow pursuit of self-interest, but in a profound reluctance among those who control the levers of power today, to face the political consequences of a shift in the energy base of society from coal, oil and gas, to solar and biomass energy.

    It lies in the fact that just as the concentration of coal in the geographical North gave rise to the hegemony of Europe and North America, a shift in the energy base to the sun and biomass could have the opposite effect. Political scientists will find his insights into the myriad ways in which ideology and information have been harnessed to slow this down the most fascinating, if not the least controversial, part of the book.

    M.S. Swaminathan Founder Chairman, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation Former Director General of the International Rice Research Institute


    Once a wraith shrouded in the mists of the future, climate change has emerged as a threat to humanity that is too disturbing to contemplate. Beginning with the first reports of the World Meteorological Organization in the late 1960s, every succeeding report has said essentially the same thing: that the world is growing warmer at a historically unprecedented rate, and that an accumulation of carbon dioxide, and other greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels, is the main cause. Today, with each of the last 14 years having been hotter than its predecessor, and unprecedented weather events having become routine, the room to doubt that it has begun, and may even be accelerating, has shrunk till there is almost none left.

    My purpose of writing this book is not to add one more voice to the rising clamour of alarm. It is to show that while the threat is very real, we already have the capacity not only to arrest it, but to create, in the process, a cleaner, more egalitarian and, above all, a more peaceful world. The key to doing this lies in shifting our energy base out of fossil fuels within the next half-century at most. If we do this, we will not only limit the climate change to a level that human beings and most other living species will be able to adjust to, but also eliminate most of the causes of the conflict that is racking the world. Which of these two legacies we will leave for our grandchildren will depend upon the choices we make in the next decade. Tarry longer, and the choice will be made for us.

    As the huge circulation of an article published by New York magazine, on 10 July 2017,1 showed, this sense of urgency has begun to creep into the public's awareness. But with no credible solutions on offer it has been bitterly criticised on the ground that it can only sow panic. The desire to avoid this is also the reason why not only the governments of the largest countries of the world but also the scientific community whose consensus views have been presented to the world by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been extremely conservative in their projections of the likely impact of global warming, so far.

    Another, more deep-seated, reason for our conservatism is that human beings are biologically conditioned to react only to immediate and tangible threats. Even with the acceleration that seems to have set in, climate change does not fit this bill. But there is a third, so far barely acknowledged, reason for our reluctance: The very same ‘civilisation’ that has bestowed unimaginable affluence upon humanity, and so greatly widened the frontiers of knowledge that we now have a pretty accurate idea of what the universe looked like a mere 300,000 years after it was born,2 has also enslaved our minds and made us blind to the dangers it is now spawning.

    Its moving force today is the market economy. The competition inherent in it is responsible for the dizzying acceleration of science and technology that has brought the world where it is today. In the past, human beings thanked God for ‘rest and home and all things good’, and looked to Him to save us from misfortune. Today we have transferred most of that faith to the market. This has robbed us of the capacity to control the market even when the way it works is patently driving humanity ever closer to suicide.

    The proof of this is to be found in the vast gap between what we profess and what we actually do. Look at the Manhattan skyline from the New Jersey Shore of the Hudson, or the London skyline from the Post Office Tower, and ask yourself whether the night sky is any less brightly lit now than it was 40 years ago, and you will find the gap. ‘But these are fluorescent, Halogen, and LED lights,’ you might say. ‘They consume a tenth of the power that tungsten bulbs consumed’. And you might then add, for good measure, ‘I am already running a Prius, and plan to switch to a Tesla the next time round. Am I not doing my bit to prevent Global warming?’ You are, but there are 10 times as many high-rise buildings in Manhattan as there were 30 years ago. Similarly, hybrids only halve fuel consumption at the very best, and the power for the electric car battery still comes from a power station that burns coal or gas. The grim truth is that so long as the population keeps growing, incomes keep rising and people continue to aspire to a better life, using fossil fuels more efficiently will only postpone the fifth mass annihilation of species that we are in the midst of. Only this time we will be among the victims.

    Climate change is not the only threat that humanity faces. A more immediate one is that fossil fuels are getting harder to find all the time. The struggle to do so and to control their use is therefore intensifying and taking the world closer to war. The ‘point of inflexion’ where the discovery of new, exploitable, reserves of fossil fuels starts falling behind the growth of consumption is on the point of being reached in the case of oil, and is expected to be reached before the end of this century for coal. If we are still dependent then upon coal, gas and oil for most of our commercial energy, the anxiety that the major powers of the world are beginning to feel will turn into paranoia.

    The threat posed to humanity by the approaching exhaustion of fossil fuels was first spelt out by the Club of Rome in 1972. Its report, ‘The Limits to Growth’, had warned that if population, income and consumption continued to grow at the exponential rates recorded in the previous quarter of a century, the global economic system would collapse around the middle of the 21st century in famine, pestilence and war. In the 1970s, the report was dismissed as being alarmist, but a recent study has shown that in 2002 the world was precisely on the track it had predicted 30 years earlier.

    The outliers of the approaching storm are already overhead. Even as warming oceans, prolonged droughts and flash floods are endangering the food supply chain in arid and semi-arid regions, the race among the major powers to corner the mineral resources that remain is plunging an expanding area of the world into a state of near-permanent war. War and extreme civil conflict have engulfed Iraq, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrein, and is lapping at the doorsteps of Iran. Not coincidentally, all but two of these are oil- and gas-producing states. Somalia and Sudan are failed or failing states.

    War and famine are combining to trigger mass migrations and where this is resisted, as in Darfur, to genocide. The fear of hordes of starving African and Middle Eastern refugees descending upon their countries is already changing the political climate in Europe and the United States. If desperation and paranoia continue to mount, it is perfectly possible that by the middle of the 21st century the use of nuclear weapons may no longer be unthinkable.

    Shifting the energy base of the global economy from fossil fuels to solar energy in one or more of its myriad forms will avert both the threats outlined previously. Solar power is clean; it is fairly evenly distributed across the inhabited world, and it is limitless. But it is here that we encounter a singular anomaly. The technologies that can do this are now well known. What is more, they have been known to scientists for four decades in the case of solar electricity and almost a hundred years in the case of transport fuels. So why does the general public continue to believe that fossil fuels are indispensable?

    Asking this question opens a Pandora's box of doubts. Could it be because human memory is short and incapable of retaining the deluge of information that it is now subjected to? Could it be because the alternatives to fossil fuels are untested and considered to be too expensive and too limited in supply to be taken seriously? Could the knowledge have been deliberately suppressed by the energy lobby? All three explanations touch only the fringes of truth.

    The answer lies in a far older truth: from the taming of fire to the splitting of the atom, civilisation has been built upon mankind's capacity to harness and control various sources of energy. The way in which it has done so has shaped the structure of every civilisation since the last ice age: It explains the wealth and pre-eminence of Greece, Persia, China and India two thousand years ago; of the Arabs Caliphates and Byzantium a millennium ago and of Europe and North America in the last five hundred years.

    Today, nearly every policy maker (except Donald Trump) concedes that another energy shift has become imperative, but no one fully understands how it will affect the power balance between people within and between nations. All that we know for certain is that such a fundamental shift is bound to create vast numbers of new winners and losers, and the biggest losers would be those who have invested most heavily in the existing economic and political power structure of the world. So as the need to shift becomes more urgent, the effort to first discredit the science that can make it possible, then to capture emerging technologies in order to control the pace of their introduction, and finally to suppress, or at least discredit the emerging technologies that have the greatest capacity to upset current power relations in the world, has steadily gathered momentum.

    This book therefore has three goals: to explode the myth that there is no way to end our dependence upon fossil fuels; to understand how and why the world has been persuaded to believe so and to catch a glimpse of another world that we can leave behind for our grandchildren if we make the shift out of fossil fuels as rapidly as technology and economics have now made possible. Suffice it to say that it will be very different from the stormy, war-racked world that we live in today.

    I first glimpsed this world in 1980 when S. Paul, a scientist friend in New Delhi, walked into my office and asked me whether my newspaper, the Financial Express, would publish an article on a way out of the oil price crunch that was threatening to strangle the Indian economy. When I asked him what he had in mind he said:

    Oil can be obtained by burning any biomass in a limited supply of air. Various tarry oils have been by-products of the making of charcoal for hundreds of years. The technology has now been developed to the point where it can yield almost any bio-fuel.

    In the 1970s, India depended upon imported oil to meet 70 per cent of its needs, so I had watched Brazil's recent success in substituting gasoline with ethanol with envy and wondered whether India could do something similar. When I asked Paul whether this was being done anywhere, he drew my attention to a White Paper published by the New Zealand government two years earlier that had drawn up a plan to gasify a part of the country's annual harvest of pinus radiata in order to produce methanol. The methanol could be used as an octane booster, as Brazil was doing with ethanol, or be converted into gasoline by a simple process that had been developed by Mobil and is in use till this day.

    The New Zealand White Paper lit a fuse in me that is still burning today, for not only was methanol an older, tried-and-tested transport fuel than ethanol, but it could be produced not only from wood but from any kind of biomass, be it wood shavings and timber residues, to agricultural crop residues or urban solid waste. It did not, therefore, suffer from the supply constraints of ethanol. As I dug deeper into the subject, I found myself looking at India's filthy cities, its ravaged landscape, its poverty-stricken villages and its toiling, emaciated peasants, with different eyes. If garbage could become the feedstock for transport fuels, it would cease to be a nuisance and acquire immense value. In a matter of months, therefore, all the accumulated waste lying in and around urban garbage dumps, and along hundreds of miles of roads and rail tracks, would simply disappear, and re-emerge as diesel, gasoline or aviation turbine fuel.

    The past half-century had seen the slaughter of India's forests and decimation of its once abundant wildlife on a scale close to what Brazil and Malaysia are experiencing now. The New Zealand plan offered us a chance to re-afforest the 100 million hectares of forest lands that had been denuded since India became independent. This would take the pressure off, and save, the natural forests and wildlife that remained. Reforestation would also provide employment to millions upon millions of youth in the villages who were languishing for want of employment. The conversion of what are now useless, or low-value, crop residues into transport fuels would give these residues a market value that would double farmers’ incomes at the very least. Best of all, it would rejoin the umbilical cord between agriculture and industry that had been severed when humanity turned from wind and water power to fossil fuels to quench its thirst for energy.

    So at age 45, full of excitement and optimism, I took a proposal to gasify urban solid waste to produce power at the first stage, and methanol at the second, to the Planning Commission of India and a few months later to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mrs Gandhi immediately agreed that this was a technology that needed to be harnessed and forwarded the proposal to the Government of Maharashtra. The planning commission also forwarded the proposal to other state governments for appraisal and implementation. Ten days after seeing Mrs Gandhi I found myself the rapporteur of an Indian delegation sent around the world to appraise available technologies for converting urban solid waste into fuel gas (also known as synthesis gas).

    Then in the next few months I got my first taste of the real world, for nothing happened. Two years later, oil prices collapsed. Since then the proposal to gasify municipal solid waste to produce transport fuels has gathered dust. Today very few outside India's chemistry laboratories even know that such a technology exists.

    It has taken me more than 30 years to understand that this torpor was not a peculiarly Indian affliction and to identify its cause. Before the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009, Western leaders, from the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to Danish Prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, kept insisting that the technologies that could usher in a ‘low carbon’ world had been identified and needed only a little political will to be harnessed. But in the 15 meetings of the signatories to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that culminated in the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009, and the 6 meetings, culminating in the Paris summit, that have followed, no one has spoken a single word about the technologies that can make the shift possible and, more importantly, those that cannot. Inevitably, therefore, there has not been even an hour of discussion of the cost of energy delivered by these supposedly well-known technologies and of the yardstick (in terms of future fossil energy costs) against which these should be measured. This book suggests that the explanation of this anomaly is to be found in the way that market economies function and even more fundamentally, in our enslavement to an idealised concept of ‘the market’, which has prevented us from understanding the way in which it actually functions. Much of this book is devoted to explaining this anomaly.

    Notes and References

    1 David Wallace-Wells, ‘Our Uninhabitable Earth’. New York, 10 July 2017.

    2 https://naturalhistory.si.edu/exhibits/evolving-universe/posters/4.0.1.pdf


    From a simple search for alternative feedstock to oil for the production of transport fuels that began in 1980, to a quite recent realisation that it is not the lack of alternatives to fossil fuels, but the increasingly slavish relationship of governments to the dictates of the global ‘free’ market, which has brought us to the tipping point in climate change, the insights I have tried to present in this book has taken me almost 40 years to develop. During my long journey, I have been helped by innumerable people who have taken the time and trouble to read, comment on and correct what I have written and encouraged me to take the next steps in my quest. But I will do my best to remember them and thank them for their guidance.

    They include two great editors of the Times of India, Sham Lal Jain and Girilal Jain, who gave me the freedom to wander where my curiosity and concerns took me in my weekly columns on the economy in the newspaper. I would like to thank Dr M.S. Swaminathan, former Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), who not only invited me to present my ideas to the Planning Commission of India in 1982 but also invited me to do so again at a conference on whole crop utilisation at IRRI in the Philippines the next year. I would like to thank former Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Dr R.K. Pachauri for allowing me to present my ideas at conferences of the Tata Energy Research Institute (now The Energy and Resources Institute; TERI) as far separated as in 1983 and 2015, and for bringing my writings on energy conservation and renewable energy to the attention of the International Institute of Energy Economics in Washington in 1986. I am, in particular, most grateful to Dr Ashok Khosla, former Co-President of the Club of Rome and President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, for recommending me for membership of the energy panel of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1985. Had that not happened I might never have made the transition from worrying about foreign exchange shortages and air and water pollution, to worrying about climate change.

    From writing a book to getting it published is a long and difficult road, especially when there are already 21,000 books on global warming and climate change in the market. So I am profoundly grateful to my agent Laura Susijn for undertaking the daunting task of persuading editors that this book has something important to say. Her task was not easy, but the peer review process proved invaluable to me, for it exposed me to the concerns and, in some cases, prejudices that my book would encounter and that I had therefore to guard against. This process of reflection led to insights that have transformed the original draft. I have, therefore, to thank all the peer reviewers who took the trouble to read my book and pen their comments to thank, and I would like to do so even though I will never know who they are. I would like to thank the editor at SAGE, New Delhi, who not only read my manuscript with painstaking attention, but convinced the management that the book, although written for the general reader, had sufficient scholastic merit to fit in with SAGE's image as an academic publisher.

  • About the Author

    Prem Shankar Jha is an independent columnist, a prolific author and a former information adviser, Prime Minister's Office (India). He completed his master's in philosophy, politics and economics from the University of Oxford in 1961. After working for five years for the United Nations Development Programme in New York and Damascus, he returned to India to pursue a career in journalism. Over the past few decades, he has been Editor in , and , and the Economic Editor in Jha has been a visiting scholar at Nuffield College, University of Oxford; Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Harvard University; University of Virginia; University of Richmond and the Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata. He began research on alternate fuels in 1980. He has written extensively on them and their significance for the environment. In 1985, he was nominated to the energy panel of the World Commission on Environment and Development. In 1988, he was awarded the Energy Journalist of the Year award by the International Association for Energy Economics.Jha has many published works to his credit. Some of them are given as follows: (1980), (1993), (2002), (2002), (2003), (2006), (SAGE, 2009), (2009) and (2010).

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