Cate Trotter and ‘Undercover Economist’ Tim Harford discuss the future
Cate Trotter and ‘Undercover Economist’ Tim Harford discuss the future

How will we consume energy in the future? What could the cities of the future look like? And what role will businesses, government and regulators have to play?

These were just some of the questions addressed at Shell's Powering Progress Together (PPT), an event near London exploring the energy future. 

The afternoon opened with a session entitled "A day in the life of a new energy empowered consumer". In it delegates were invited to consider what the "energy empowered consumer" may look like. 

Cate Trotter, founder of the trend forecasting consultancy Insider Trends, depicted a world where by 2040 parks are planted with bamboo to absorb carbon dioxide. 

Forecast vs reality

Then "Undercover Economist" journalist Tim Harford then focused minds on 2019 -- as it had been imagined by the 1982 science fiction film Blade Runner.

The Hollywood film, said Harford, depicted 2019 with artificial intelligence capabilities so spectacular that it would feature machine-based "replicants" of human beings.

Yet, he said, it had missed less extravagant innovations, like the smartphone. It was these more mundane innovations that had really changed the world, Harford said.

Solar power, he suggested, was a good example of how real technological change is often more Ikea than Hollywood.

"Solar is getting cheaper in an incredibly boring way," said Harford. "If you make things modular, like an Ikea bookcase, they are easy to assemble - and who here hasn't marvelled at how easy it is to assemble an Ikea bookcase?"

UK country chair Sinead Lynch
Cate Trotter said that by 2040 parks could have artificial grass and carbon-capturing bamboo

"The same is increasingly true of solar. One of the reasons it is taking off is that it needs fewer and fewer people to install, which brings the cost down."

That, Harford explained, is how technological change often works. "We restructure things with the most simple and elementary technology, and we do so because it's got cheaper and cheaper," he said. "And cheap changes the world."

Future cities

Developing the theme in a later session, Gil Penalosa, founder of the 8 80 Cities non-profit organisation, envisaged cities of the future as bikeable and walkable, such as Copenhagen today - where 41 per cent of journeys are by bike and 20 per cent by walking. 

The second session asked delegates the question: "how can we help close the gap between intention and action in energy?" 

David Weatherall, head of policy at the Energy Saving Trust, sought to sell the environmental virtues of double glazing. Its insulating properties, he said, stop us from having to turn up the heating and emit more carbon dioxide.

"We are not happy enough about double glazing," insisted Weatherall. "It's the biggest unheralded carbon-saving success story in our homes."

Yet despite all these relatively cheap possibilities, everyone agreed it would be challenging to reach the Paris Agreement goal of restricting climate change to well below 2° Celsius.

Shell UK country chair Sinead Lynch tours the stands during Make the Future Live
Shell UK country chair Sinead Lynch tours the stands during Make the Future Live

Carbon pricing

Toby Park, head of energy and sustainability at social purpose company The Behavioural Insights Team, highlighted the paradox that sometimes those who cared more about the environment had higher carbon footprints.

"Stronger pro-environment values," he said, "Can correlate with more education and wealth, which also correlates with having larger homes and travelling on more holidays."

There was near-unanimity that all of society had to act: individuals, Shell and other business, and those in political power. 

Governments could not shoulder the burden alone, but they had to deliver effective carbon pricing mechanisms, like emissions cap and trade systems or fair, well-balanced and well-designed taxes.

Some argued that once a price was attached to emitting greenhouse gases, it would become much clearer to entrepreneurs that they could make fortunes by improving carbon capture technology or boosting the effectiveness of renewables. And possibly the most eye-catching argument of the day was advanced by Harford, in favour of a carbon tax. 

"People have postponed the birth of their children in order to get tax advantages," he said. "This is not an exaggeration. We have really good research on this.

"If the day you are born can be altered by taxes, people will adjust their energy mix in response to a carbon tax."

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California: Powering Progress Together

Business leaders, policymakers and academics will gather in San Francisco, California, for Shell Powering Progress Together

Powering Progress Together

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