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Plan for a zero-carbon society

By JEREMY RIFKIN | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-07-24 08:10
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China can lead the world to a sustainable future in less than a generation by implementing its smart digital infrastructure initiative

We are facing a global emergency. Our scientists tell us that human-induced climate change brought on by the burning of fossil fuels has precipitated the sixth mass extinction of life on Earth.

According to the famed Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, "the extinction of species by human activity continues to accelerate, fast enough to eliminate more than half of all species by the end of this century"-by the time today's toddlers are senior citizens. The last time the Earth experienced an extinction event of this magnitude was 65 million years ago.

While the global climate crisis has become a lightning rod in the political sphere, there is a parallel movement within the business community that will shake the very foundation of the global economy in coming years. Key sectors of the economy are beginning to decouple from fossil fuels in favor of ever cheaper solar and wind energies and the accompanying clean technologies, green business practices, and processes of circularity and resilience that are the central features of sustainable development.

The levelized costs of utility-scale solar and wind installations have plummeted and are now below the cost of nuclear power, oil, coal and natural gas, leaving the conventional energies and accompanying technologies behind. New studies are sounding the alarm that upwards of trillions of dollars in stranded fossil fuel assets could create a carbon bubble likely to burst by 2028, causing the collapse of the fossil fuel civilization. To date, over $11 trillion of investments in the fossil fuel industry have either been divested or are in the process of being divested. "Stranded assets "are all the fossil fuels that remain in the ground because of falling demand as well as the abandonment of pipelines, ocean platforms, storage facilities, energy generation plants, backup power plants, petrochemical processing facilities, gasoline stations, auto service centers and the myriad industries tightly coupled to the fossil fuel culture.

The leading oil-producing nations will be caught in the cross-hairs between the plummeting price of solar and wind and the fallout from peak oil demand and accumulating stranded assets in the oil industry. Other nations-including China-that rely heavily on fossil fuels will face a similar economic and social crisis. The marketplace is speaking, and governments everywhere will need to quickly adapt if they are to survive and prosper.

It's clear that China and the world need a new economic vision and accompanying deployment plan for instituting a zero-carbon society that can be implemented quickly in less than a generation. To understand the historic moment we are in as we exit the 200 years of a fossil fuel civilization and enter into a new era of renewable energies to manage the economy and daily life, we need to step back and ask the question of how the great economic transitions in history occurred. If we know how they occurred, we can get a roadmap for countries around the world and chart a new course into what we call the Green New Deal in the West, and what China calls an Ecological Civilization.

Every major economic infrastructure transformation in world history has required three elements, each of which interacts with the others to enable the system to operate as a whole: a new communication medium, a new power source and a new transportation mechanism to "manage", "power" and "move" society. Infrastructure paradigms also create new kinds of human habitats and are accompanied by new economic systems and new forms of governance to manage them.

In the 19th century, steam-powered printing and the telegraph, abundant coal, and locomotives on national rail systems meshed in a common infrastructure to manage, power and move society, giving birth to the First Industrial Revolution and the rise of urban habitats, capitalist economies and national markets overseen by nation-state governance.

In the 20th century, centralized electricity, the telephone, radio and television, cheap oil, and internal combustion vehicles on national road systems converged to create an infrastructure for the Second Industrial Revolution and the rise of suburban habitats, globalization and global governing institutions.

We are on the cusp of a Third Industrial Revolution. The digitized broadband communication internet is converging with a digitized continental electricity internet, powered by solar and wind electricity, and a digitized mobility and logistics internet made up of autonomous electric and fuel-cell vehicles, powered by green energy from the electricity internet. These three internets are continuously being fed data from sensors embedded across society that are monitoring activity of all kinds in real time, from ecosystems, agricultural fields, warehouses, road systems, factory production lines, retail stores, and especially from the residential, commercial, and institutional building stock, allowing humanity to more efficiently manage, power, and move day-to-day economic activity and social life from where they work and live. This is the internet of things (IoT).

In the coming era, buildings will be retrofitted for energy efficiency and climate resilience and embedded with IoT infrastructure. They will also be equipped with edge data centers, giving the public the ability to share data more quickly in managing communication, energy generation, and mobility and logistics. Smart buildings will also serve as green micro power-generating plants, energy storage sites, and transport and logistics hubs for electric and fuel cell vehicles in a more distributed zero-carbon society.

Buildings in the Third Industrial Revolution will no longer be passive, walled-off private spaces but, rather, potentially actively engaged nodal entities sharing their renewable energies, energy efficiencies, energy storage, electric mobility and a wide range of other economic and social activity with one another at the discretion of their occupants.

Connecting everything and everyone via the Ecological Civilization infrastructure offers substantial economic benefits. In this expanded digital economy, individuals, families and enterprises will be able to connect in their homes and workplaces to the IoT and access big data flowing across the world wide web that affects their supply chains, production and services, and every aspect of their social lives. They can then mine that big data with their own analytics and create their own algorithms and apps to increase their aggregate efficiency and performance, reduce their carbon footprint, and lower the marginal cost of producing, distributing, and consuming goods and services and recycling waste, making their businesses and homes greener and more self-resilient in a zero-carbon society.

The massive scale-up and deployment of the digital 3.0 infrastructure will involve virtually every Chinese sector and industry and will create millions of new jobs. Moreover, every dollar invested in the infrastructure is projected to return $3.3 in GDP between 2020 and 2040. In addition, over the 20-year deployment, China will save trillions of dollars from improvement in public health and the mitigation of climate disruptions in the economy.

What we are learning from climate change is that everything that each of us does in our own communities, regions and nation-states spills over political boundaries and affects every other human being on Earth, as well as our fellow species and the biomes and ecosystems that sustain all of life. The real question at hand is whether all of humanity can come together in time to forestall the mass extinction of life on Earth? This is the new dawning reality that gives impetus to China's vision of an Ecological Civilization and the European Union's comparable vision of the Global New Green Deal. China can lead the world into a zero-carbon society by introducing a seamless smart digital Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure in its 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-25) that can take the country and, hopefully, the human race into an Ecological Civilization.

The author is an advisor to the European Commission, the China Electronic Information Industry Development (CCID) in the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and the author of The Zero Carbon Society: The Rise of the Ecological Civilization and the Global Green New Deal. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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