What could a Post Corona society look like?

The Corona pandemic has resulted in an enormous setback and disillusion all over the world. Families find themselves in quarantine, health systems are under enormous pressure, and the level of global economic damage may be without precedent. Regardless of how long the pandemic will last, it is bound to leave a deep impression on societies around the world. Since we can only speculate its impact because there are a lot of uncertainties, scenario thinking seems to be the best tool to imagine how current developments will shape a post-corona society.

Our observations

  • Scenario reasoning is not based on a linear extrapolation of events today, rather it distinguishes factors that are most uncertain (and relevant) on a given time-scale and questions how those factors can shape the world, depending on how they develop in the future.
  • In our scenario exercises, and throughout all of our research, we focus on developments in geopolitics, technology and culture, which form the axes of our scenario models. In this case, the pandemic will impact geopolitics, the technology we develop (and put to use) and socio-cultural trends. By combining these three axes of uncertainty, we produce eight distinct scenarios in each of which a specific combination of (conceivable) outcomes of the pandemic takes effect.
  • While these outcomes are yet unpredictable, current developments inform us about the likeliness of specific scenarios actually becoming reality. As we noted in our previous edition for example, China’s apparent success in fighting the outbreak is likely to contribute to a wider acceptance of Chinese institutions and its use of technology. This, in combination with President Trump’s (supposed) attempt to buy a German vaccine developer, could very well sway geopolitical momentum for China.
  • As millions of people are living in some form of quarantine or lockdown, people are developing and embracing new (or already existing) practices such as teleworking and online education. Some of these are only temporary and can be discarded once the crisis is over, others may last longer and become part of our everyday routines.
  • The crisis lays bare existing problems and (some of) these can become a “target” for society to address in a post-Corona society. These problems can become visible either because they add to the spread of the virus itself (e.g. poor accessibility of healthcare in some countries) or because current measures against further spreading of the virus show us what the world could look like (e.g. clean air in Chinese cities and crystal-clear water in Venetian canals).

Connecting the dots

Once the Corona-crisis is over, the resulting deep social and economic wounds will take time to heal and, afterwards, the world probably looks a lot different from today’s. This does not necessarily mean that a full-blown paradigm shift will take place, but the personal suffering, months of societal disruption and a global economic crisis are likely to shake up geopolitical dynamics, change the way we use technology, challenge our worldview(s) and force us to redefine priorities in order to prevent or prepare for new crisis. In order to get a glimpse of such changes, we can start to think about the factors that are likely to have a major impact on the world as we knew it before the pandemic. We recognize three factors: cause, reaction and solution. First, how we will perceive the cause of the pandemic. For example, will China get the blame as a source of viruses came from there, or will we blame the global economy? The causes of the pandemic will be scrutinized, and possibly acted upon (e.g. specific health and safety regulations or a more critical stance on global flows of people and goods). Second, what happens during the crisis. Think for example about how individuals behave (e.g. widespread altruism or hoarding consumers) or how nations behave towards their citizens and towards each other (e.g. sharing resources or not). Also, we are already witnessing how new, and not-so-new, practices are gaining popularity and we may continue to behave like that in a post-corona world as well (e.g. teleworking and online education). Third, the way the crisis ends and how it ends.  For instance, specific nations, businesses or technologies (e.g. if China is the first to develop an effective vaccine) can save us. The axes in our scenario model express extremes of how the pandemic could change geopolitics, (our use of) technology and sociopolitical aspects. The greatest uncertainties, from our perspective, are whether this crisis will lead to further globalization or rather to (small steps towards) deglobalization, whether technology will be used (primarily) to prevent a new crisis or to be better prepared for the next one and whether people will aspire to an attitude of more individualism or collectivism. From a geopolitical perspective, the spread of the coronavirus is deeply intertwined with globalization. Ongoing globalization is justly portrayed as one of the major causes of the rapid global spread of the virus, as international economic and political interests made it near impossible to isolate it. The pandemic can directly influence global relations, depending on whether countries work together to control the outbreak and develop a solution or whether they choose to go about it alone and,

for instance, refuse to share scarce resources (or medicines) with each other. As a result, a post-corona world may be one in which globalization prevails (or even accelerates) or we may see (different forms of) de-globalization as multilateral institutions fall apart.
From a technological perspective, the question is how this crisis affects the kinds of technology we will develop and how we will put them to use. One outcome could be that we decide to put all of our technological weight behind preventing a new health (or another natural or man-made) crisis. Solutions may include a sensor-based economy for early detection of problems or technology that supports alternative consumer practices (e.g. facilitating meaningful interaction online). Another outcome of the crisis could be that we will focus on the preparation for future crises instead; e.g. the deployment of more scalable infrastructure to facilitate peak-demand or technology that supports autarkic lifestyles and local value chains. This reasoning, of more radical attempt to prevent or prepare for crises could very well apply to other looming crises as well (e.g. climate change or mass migration).
From a socio-cultural perspective, the crisis can lead to changes in world view(s). This can apply to the way we view each other, but also to our relationship with nature or the Earth. Failure to achieve effective social distancing or egotistic consumer behavior, for instance, could lead to further individualization as distrust and moral disapproval of others increases. The perceived human-nature dichotomy, to give another example, is likely to deepen if societies fail to address the pandemic. By contrast, the current crisis may also lead to more altruistic behavior when healthcare professionals and other (underpaid) critical workers are recognized and rewarded, which can also translate into broader attempts to reduce inequality. The result could be a society in which the collective prevails over individuals. As scenario thinking is not a predictive tool but rather a tool to navigate the future, it forces us to broaden our perspective and keep an open mind on future developments instead of, as happened during the Financial Crisis, fantasizing about a utopian world in which all the problems of the past are fixed. At the same time, we can speculate, and thus anticipate, which of the eight scenarios are more or less likely as the crisis unfolds. From a decision-making perspective, we can consider which actions fit best with one or (preferably) multiple scenarios. The above contours are the first sketches of the research model we will explore in depth in the coming period.

Implications

  • When exploring several scenarios about a post-corona society, the challenge is to do so as neutral and unbiased as possible. That is, thinking in terms of desirable and undesirable scenario’s prevents an in-depth exploration of the pros and cons in all scenarios. That is, when a crisis unfolds in a direction that was first perceived as undesirable, one is less capable to spot opportunities. Nevertheless, this is easier said than done as some scenarios seem dystopian at first glance and the most obvious opportunities seem rather cynical.

  • Because this crisis affects the whole world and all layers of society, it will probably be a formative experience for many. The concept of ‘formative experiences’, however, is mostly used in the discourse of generations, in which a worldview is formed by huge events or developments in someone’s youth. However, we have previously explored a different approach, allowing formative experiences throughout a lifetime. This might be a more interesting angle for this particular situation because this event has a deep impact on everyone around the globe, not just the young.

In the back end of our cities

Whilst an idealized view of the countryside is common, the reality is that the countryside has rapidly modernized and transformed in Western, urban-industrialized society. How can we understand today’s countryside in a vastly urbanized world: Is the countryside the antithesis of the city, is the rural land the machine room behind our urban consumption patterns or is it a place where ideas for the future emerge?

Our observations

  • The countryside is broadly defined as land that is not urban, not in towns. As the world has rapidly urbanized over the last centuries and more than half of the global population live in cities, a lot of focus has gone to cities, urban needs, urban lifestyles, and the rapid transformation of cities (i.e. the rise of the smart city). The UN predicts that further urbanization will mainly take place in Asia and Africa, as Northern America, Latin America and Europe already are heavily urbanized regions and even sometimes show some deurbanization (and a move to midsized cities).
  • In order to draw attention to the countryside, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas has just opened an exhibition in the Guggenheim museum in the very heart of Manhattan. He aims to show the urban world the transformation that is happening outside urban areas (the “other” 98% of the globe’s surface). At the end of the exhibition, the visitor is presented with a futuristic countryside: a space that is controlled by machinery, data centers, computing power and automated agriculture; the human is completely out of the picture in this visualization and the countryside has been reduced to a series of places of manipulation for the urban masses.
  • `The urban-rural rift is the polarization of those living in urban versus those in rural areas. Especially in the U.K. and in the U.S., this polarization is visible in the political divide. While the American election system also gives scarcely populated areas a vote, European politics rely more on the popular (and thus often the urban) vote. As cities are generally hotspots of progressive politics and have more attention for sustainability, this has a polarizing effect on Western societies. As the urban world greatly affects the landscape and environment, sustainable development depends on successful management of urban growth. But policies for sustainability often have an enormous impact on those in the countryside. As a result, the countryside has turned into a political arena in the Netherlands and has led numerous Dutch farmers to travel to cities with their tractors to protest.
  • According to the European definition, the Netherlands does not have a countryside anymore. The Dutch land is heavily cultivated and densely populated, not only by farmers. The remaining farmers have become entrepreneurs running large-scale, automated farms or farms catering to the nostalgia of urban dwellers for the old countryside, hosting tourists to experience the traditional countryside even if that place has long been gone. Generational amnesia describes the phenomenon that every generation assumes that the landscape as they know it is the “natural” landscape.
  • As urban problems proliferate in the limited space of the city, such as noise pollution, air pollution, crowdedness, disconnectedness from nature, etc., the countryside attracts urban dwellers. In times of crisis, such as war or pandemics (such as the Coronavirus), the isolated, sovereign and self-sufficient nature of the countryside even becomes crucial for survival.

Connecting the dots

Western society is an increasingly urban-industrial society. As more and more people live in cities nowadays, ideas and images of the countryside are increasingly idealized and stubbornly idyllic. The countryside is often depicted as an area that is more in harmony with nature than the urban area, a place associated with closely-knit communities, a sense of belonging, and a simple, idyllic life on farms. As our city lives rapidly transformed and modernized, images of the countryside often stayed the same and have become the antithesis to the city, a cultural construct of urban society. Although the preconceptions that surround the countryside – that it is isolated, authentic, traditional, backward, small-scale – are persistent, the countryside has changed as an inevitable result of the urbanization and modernization of society. Rural landscapes have been transformed by the tightened grip of modern, Western, urban-industrial society. The fast-changing and growing needs of the urban population now predominantly define rural transformations. Think of the energy transition, infrastructure altering landscapes – from pipelines to large-scale solar parks, the nutrition transition leading to bigger livestock farms and increased demand for soy to sustain the urban diet, and the digitization of society leading to the rise of enormous datacenters and gigantic ecommerce distribution centers. It takes a lot to meet the demands of the average urban consumer today. In a sense, the countryside hosts the scarce resources that need to be managed efficiently in order to serve the energy-dense (in terms of electricity, diets, data and goods) urban consumption patterns. Transformations of the countryside are of all times and the periphery has long serviced the center, but current modern interventions are taking place on an unprecedented scale. Through these hypermodern interventions, the countryside is turning into a functional and dehumanized engine room for the city. The romanticized farm has transformed into an automated, high tech AI-hub; even small-scale farmers in remote areas have experienced the information revolution and have access to mobile-enabled agricultural technology.

As the daily needs of urban consumers are increasingly served with the immediacy of user-friendly interfaces and disappearing computers, the countryside is turning into the backend of the urban world powered by big mechanistic boxes invisible to their daily users. The human presence in these complexes with the size of small cities is reduced to a minimum. In his book Machine Landscapes (2019), Liam Young explores these places ruled by AI and computing and considers them architectures of a post-human world. Not only are production processes outsourced on a large scale, societal and ecological costs are equally left to the countryside. The handful of laborers working in the machine room of the city are often temporary low-skilled and low-paid migrant laborers, whose fate is invisible to the urban elite. Similarly, refugee camps are often built on desolate landscapes, far out of the sight of the urban citizen. As such, the invisibility of these vulnerable groups comprises a new form of exclusion. Furthermore, under the pressure of the big urban footprint, the non-urban is turning into a desolate, degraded landscape. The fact that awareness about the ecological costs of our urban footprint is growing, gives momentum to environmentally friendly machine rooms, such as Norway’s green hydropower electricity-powered datacenters. Furthermore, pressure on farmers to reduce the environmental impact of food production has led to precision farming, which minimizes the amount of pesticides and herbicides in growing crops. As such, the countryside can also be a frontier of progress and innovation.

Implications

  • The seamlessly interfaced life of the urban dweller contrasts sharply with rural life. As a response, some claim that social and environmental issues should not be addressed as pertaining to separate rural and urban political agendas, but along an “urban-rural continuum”. Others argue that cities, as they absorb a large percentage of the world’s population and resources, should also become more resilient, self-sufficient and resourceful, to be achieved by making industries more sustainable, less polluting, more social, and adaptable to existing urban conditions by creating goods locally with 3D printing, for instance, locally growing crops in urban farms or by creating regional food systems to serve the city.

  • As we wrote before, growing evidence shows that proximity to natural environments is linked to better physical and mental health. In our modern lives, distanced from nature, the countryside provides an attainable way to assuage this shortcoming of urban life. Our affection for the countryside may thus reflect a fundamental human need. Moreover, the countryside can cater to a longing for a sense of being rooted, for a revalued locality in a globalized world.

The Dutch way of going circular

What happened?

Dutch material consumption per inhabitant is lower than the EU average and the Dutch consumed 20% fewer materials in 2018 than in 2000. Furthermore, compared with other countries, the Netherlands recycles a lot: 1700 kg per year per inhabitant. That the Dutch average of material use is below EU average is mainly due to the fact that the Netherlands is a relatively small and densely populated country, which means that relatively little material is needed per capita for the construction of the required infrastructure, such as roads. Furthermore, the Netherlands has a limited manufacturing industry and a large service sector, many goods are imported to be immediately re-exported after minor processing.

What does this mean?

The Dutch government aims to make the Netherlands circular within the next 30 years and to have its economy 100% waste-free by 2050, and is thus investing in promoting the circular economy. The reported progress is a good sign, but the Netherlands still has a long way to go if it wants to reach circularity by 2050.  On a global scale, the circular trend is even negative. The recently published Circularity Gap Report states that world is only 9% circular and that the upward trend in resource extraction and greenhouse gas emissions has continued. Circularity can only be reached when the problems of a linear economy are addressed. Reusing materials is labor-intensive, as more and more circular entrepreneurs have begun to notice. As a result, a shift to less tax on labor and more tax on resources is now supported by more Dutch sectors.

What’s next?

As the Dutch are striving for circularity, circular successes can be inspirational. As the building industry is still material-intensive, the BlueCity, an unusual building that serves as an incubator for companies working on the circular economy, has just won a prize for Rotterdam’s Most Sustainable Real Estate Project 2020. Furthermore, the government also aspires to circularity in agriculture. For a food nation like the Netherlands, this is a great chance to show global leadership.

Contemporary Collapsology

The end of the world is an ancient theme, prevalent in mythology, religion and arts throughout the ages. In recent years, we have witnessed rising popularity of this theme, albeit a secularized version, in popular media. Furthermore, we do not only tremble at the thought of the Apocalypse anymore: now, it is welcomed and even aspired to. Analyzing and understanding this emerging paradigm of “collapsology’ will reveal some of the deep structural transformations of our socio-cultural fabric and our perception of the current state of economic and political systems.

Our observations

  • In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, historian Jared Diamond defines “collapse” as “a drastic decrease in human population size and/or political/economic/social complexity, over a considerable area, for an extended time.” (p.3) His book analyzes the collapse of various historical civilizations and identifies five influential factors: climate change, hostile neighbors, trade partners that provide alternative sources of goods (and services), environmental problems, and society’s response to these risks. Of course, the last of these factors is the only endogenous factor, and often revolves around the short-term interests of those in power and those who own the means of production and the long-term needs of society at large.
  • There is growing interest, especially in France, in “collapsology”, which is a movement that favors a collapse of current socio-political structures, because human history is full of collapsing civilizations that in turn became fertile ground for new ones. Mostly driven by climate change, this school urges us to turn our “current collapse” into a positive one, in which we actively build new economic, political and social systems (e.g. small-scale bio-regions, economic models not based on growth) that are attuned to the finitude of the earth’s resources and foster living in harmony with nature.
  • In his book Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?, theorist Mark Fisher sees capitalist realism as the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.” (p.6) He attributes this idea to two cultural critics of “late capitalism”: Frederic Jameson (who famously said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”) and Slavoj Žižek (a Marxist philosopher who uses movies and popular media to explore hidden ideologies and capitalist hegemonic dominance in post-modern societies, e.g. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology).
  • Three years ago, we wrote about the historical recurrence of periods of “crises” and that according to the book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, we are in the midst of a twenty-year crisis period that started with the 2007 financial crisis and morphed into a broader socio-political crisis. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former Chief Strategist of the White House, was heavily influenced by these ideas and endorsed Trump as he saw him as the only person that could leverage this period of crisis to “drain the swamp” in Washington and lay the foundation for a new socio-political system (i.e. a “High”). Even after Bannon was ousted in August 2017, he has continued to support Trump for this reason.
  • A recent study shows that the fundamental political demarcation in the UK is no longer the “left-right” divide but the “centrist-anarchy” divide. Those in the anarchist ideological camp, comprising up to 40% of the population, have low trust in government, business and media and hail from both the left and right. Similarly, another study shows that both the far-left and far-right share a common urge for chaos, “sharing motivations associated with ‘chaotic’ motivations to ‘burn down’ the entire established democratic ‘cosmos’” (p.1). Their shared longing for chaos and anarchy is best illustrated by the hugely popular meme “some men just want to watch the world burn”, an expression from the movie the Dark Knight that refers to the Joker: a personage that wants to spread chaos and anarchy because “the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules”.
  • In the 1960s, ethologist John Calhoun performed experiments with mice to study the effects of population growth on individual behavior. By setting up the mice in a “utopian” environment, with plenty of food, no enemies and housing, he observed that initially the mouse population grew exponentially. However, as the space in the “mouse utopia” became increasingly socially defined, some groups of mice showed new behavior, such as extreme aggression as well as narcissistic isolation. In the end, the mouse population shrank significantly, due to a declining birth rate as a result of lower breeding and a higher death rate caused by increased violence. Calhoun dubbed this “extinction phase” and social breakdown the “behavioral sink”, and used it as a metaphor for the fate of man living in an overpopulated world by referring to the biblical Book of Revelation. Similarly, the Human Voluntary Extinction Movement defines its purpose as follows: “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health. Crowded conditions and resource shortages will improve as we become less dense.”
  • We have written before about the reinvigoration of the horror genre, with horror movies considered indicators of what (literally) keeps society up at night. One extremely popular sub-genre is the zombie genre. Although zombies look fearsome, many zombie series and films are not actually about zombies themselves but about the quest to rebuild society after the collapse of civilization due to zombies.

Connecting the dots

A few weeks ago, we explored three posthumanist paradigms. However, we didn’t discuss the most radical version of post-humanism: a scenario in which humans go extinct and our current societies and civilizations collapse. This “collapse” is an ancient theme, explored in many religions (e.g. the Last Judgment present in all Abrahamic religions), myths (e.g. the flood myth found in many cultures around the world), literature and arts (e.g. the movie 2012 (2009) that was part of the 2012 phenomenon driven by the eschatological end of the Mayan calendar). Fantasizing about the Apocalypse is making a comeback in our contemporary culture, philosophy and media. But why?
One could claim that collapse is an intrinsic “directionality” of reality. In physics, the process of “entropy” implies that any closed and stable system will eventually dissolve into more chaos and disorder. This not only holds in physics but also in social sciences, such as in the process of “creative disruption”, in which new innovations make old technologies superfluous and destroy their socio-technical system, periods of hegemonic shift, in which new challengers undo the geopolitical order of the previous hegemon, or from one generation to the next, as youngsters generally want to do things differently than their parents and grandparents and dream of creating a new society. Currently, we could be witnessing such seismic shifts in various parts of our society and culture, as systems move from an “old” phase to a new one. For example, the next technological revolution could be in the making, driven by improvements in AI, the fact that the end of America’s hegemonic cycle is nearing as China is on the rise, and the approaching new generational cycle, in which Gen Z embodies the Artist archetype (with corresponding characteristics), while new utopian visions of society are emerging that transcend our capitalist system of production and consumption (i.e. post-growth economies and post-materialist consumption).
In this sense, the “collapse” is just a phase in cyclical movements and a continual process of rebirth and decay, growth and collapse that is found all around reality. But collapse as a phase has both a negative and a positive side. On the negative side, the phase of collapse means that the destruction of our current political, economic and social systems. On the positive side, collapse is followed by the “post-Apocalyptic world”, in which man has the opportunity to rebuild his world, culture and civilization. And it is this positive part that has gained much popularity in recent years. So what is it that we long for in the post-Apocalyptic world?
First, there is a deep and fundamental belief that society’s systems are “broken”: social mobility is declining as inequality is mounting, politicians seem unable to harmonize polarized society and partisan politics cannot overcome society’s biggest challenges (e.g. climate change, affordable housing or healthcare for younger generations), many fear losing their “bullshit jobs” or don’t even like their job (e.g. 84% of workers are not fully engaged in their job) while others have to keep working to make ends meet (the Yellow Vests’ slogan is: “The end of the world, the end of the month, same struggle.”). Exactly this feeling that change cannot be accomplished within the system and that therefore the system should change, is what unites far-left and far-right voters. Indeed, this dystopic feeling (i.e. the belief that there is no alternative to the current state) shows that extremist parties in our current system are on the same page with respect to collapsology.

Second, there is more and more longing for personal agency and meaningful political engagement. As we increasingly inhabit abstract and complex systems (e.g. modern bureaucracies, multinational companies, global cities, international social networks), we feel that we no longer belong somewhere but anywhere instead (see David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere). As such, many post-Apocalyptic media content shows us a world in which small communities have real interaction (e.g. The Walking Dead), and in which we have a tangible impact on our political systems. Furthermore, this could be a requirement for turning our nascent ecological collapse into something positive (e.g. city foodscapes).
Lastly, modern technology provides us with more freedom, but can distort our natural rhythms and possibly suppress our biological inclinations. As such, we increasingly feel out of touch with natural and concrete life: we no longer possess the skills to survive outside highly domesticated areas (e.g. cities, smart homes), which is a deeply-rooted psychological need, and are becoming increasingly detached from nature (which also causes mental problems). This problem is exacerbated by ever-increasing population growth that not only puts pressure on our resources but also on social and political spaces. Calhoun’s mice experiments show that increasing social and political density can induce social division and conflict, which we’re experiencing with rising extremism and increased social isolation. Calhoun likened this to the First of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who is said to embody the Antichrist and to induce the destruction of a corrupted world. Similarly, to a large extent, digital technology and big tech now define our social and cultural spaces and increasingly mediate our relation to the living world and social spaces. This gives us new ways of relating, but also leads to different social behavior, such as hate speech or less ethical online behavior. As such, Scott Galloway has dubbed Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Facebook the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse due to their unbounded power in all parts of our everyday lives. In contrast, post-Apocalyptic worlds, in all their brutality and destruction, force us to take matters into our own hands, work the land for food and survival, rebuild new societal structures and communities from the ashes of the previous civilization, and gain an immediate relationship to the world around us (i.e. not mediated by digital technologies). This could help explain the popularity of survival series (e.g. Ultimate Survival, Naked and Afraid).
Many of the “romantic” imperatives and latent wishes of the post-Apocalyptic world are already coming to us in less violent and dangerous forms. For example, in leisure, we want to live closer to nature, e.g. by camping and a #vanlife. In economics, we perceive the rising (or returning) cult of craftsmanship as an attempt to gain more control over our own means of production and denounce the “abstract labor” that is prevalent in post-industrial or late capitalist societies. Politically, new forms of “counterculture”, such as cryptocommunities, bottom-up and local cooperatives, as well as terrorism and rising fundamentalism, are increasingly rebelling against the system and wish to overturn it. Lastly, from a philosophical perspective, transhumanism tries to overcome the current “human condition” by either letting humans go extinct or transcending man’s limited physical and mental capabilities to create new societal structures in line with evolutionary (e.g. Kevin Kelly’s technicium) or sustainability imperatives.

Implications

  • The Apocalypse as a subject is on the rise in films, series, but also in videogames in which the aim is to retreat from society and venture into new worlds. Negatively, this is because apocalyptic games offer “sustained escapism from our own reality”, writes Alfie Bown in his book The PlayStation Dreamworld (p.40). But on the positive side, videogames like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Neo Scavenger, or The Forest depict a world in which gamers can interact in a deep way with the environment and practice survival skills.
  • Collapsology could become a defining feature of the “formative experience” of younger generations, which would render new value patterns and ideas about the Good Life. In the model of The Fourth Turning, “Crisis” (i.e. Collapse) will be followed by a “high” period (i.e. the post-Apocalyptic world), which will value strong institutions and social conformity, with a solid pragmatic problem-solving worldview. Theoretically, Gen Z’ers are then likely to become more socially conservative and less liberal, which is already visible in their more prudish and materialist lifestyles, declining tolerance of minorities and increasing wish for authority to make others behave as they wish.

Europe’s geopolitical strategy is a green strategy

In December last year, the European Commission presented its European Green Deal. The Green Deal takes on this generation’s defining tasks: tackling climate change and environmental challenges as well as creating a more inclusive economy while combating rising inequality. The plan for this green transition contains bold promises such as that it will “leave no one behind and provide a new growth strategy for Europe. Although the plan is ambitious, there are good reasons to believe it has great potential – even geopolitical.

Our observations

  • The Green Deal is European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s flagship project. The ambitious plan aims to make a deep transition towards a new socio-economic paradigm that is more inclusive and especially more sustainable, by leaving behind the paradigm of industrial modernity (e.g. aresource-intensive economy based on the use of fossil fuels, capital-intensive with lower returns on labor, working on the basis of extractive instead of regenerative business models).
  • This requires a set of transformative policies as formulated in the plan, that aim to: 1) reach climate neutrality by 2050 (i.e. by enforcing a climate law to further reduce carbon emissions and by ensuringeffective carbon pricing throughout the economy), 2) decarbonize the energy system (which also involves innovative technologies and infrastructure, such as smart grids, hydrogen networks or carbon capture, storage and utilization, energy storage), 3) create a circular economy (with special focus on action in the sectors that are energy- and resource-intensive and reducing waste), 4) create a renovation wave of public and private buildings (as they are responsible for a large share of energy and resources), 5) accelerate the shift to sustainable mobility, 6) create a European food system thatwill be the global standard for sustainability, 7) restore ecosystems and preserve biodiversity (Europe’s natural capital), and 8) reach zero pollution in air, water and soil.
  • The European Commission will mobilize €1 trillion of investments to finance the transition. According to the European think tank Bruegel, the European Green Deal should be comprehended as a reallocation mechanism, as it fosters investment shifts and labor substitution. First, effective carbon pricing in all sectors should be guaranteed through the strengthening of the EU emissions trading system (ETS). Besides this carbon pricing, a sustainable investment strategy should push companies to switch to the necessary technologies. Also, innovative, green European companies should be aided by the right conditions to flourish. And finally, those negatively impacted by the climate policies (such as coal-mining regions) should be supported with compensation measures.
  • The plan has been received with a lot of criticism. Critics say the deal will mostly be greenwashing and is not inclusive. Furthermore, reaching climate neutrality will not be easy. The EU’s own annual climate action progress report says reductions in emissions will have to speed up significantly for the EU to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Also, von der Leyen’s plan for a carbon border tax, a tariff based on the difference between the EU carbon price and that in the exporting country to create a level playing field for European companies, is seen as a protectionist measure harming developing countries and potentially causing problems in international trade for the bloc.
  • Also, one EU member that is crucial in reaching the ambitious climate goals, has opted out of the plan. As Poland is still heavily dependent on coal, von der Leyen wants to bring the country on board by proposing a compensation fund for ultra-carbon-dependent regions.

Connecting the dots

The European Green Deal is a far-reaching policy document affecting every sector of the biggest internal market of the world. It requires all kinds of stakeholders (local, regional, national and international, public and private) across the bloc to take action. In order to get everyone involved, the deal makes considerable promises. First, it promises a just and inclusive transition, to leave no one behind. Second, it promises to provide Europe’s new growth strategy, as von der Leyen has said to be convinced that “the old growth model based on fossil fuels and pollution is out of date and out of touch with our planet”. And the third big promise is that the deal could make the EU a global leader. It can show the world that a competitive economy does not have to emit greenhouse gases and that economic growth can be decoupled from resource use. Although the U.S. Democrats’ Green New Deal has a similar goal, the European Union’s version is technically more feasible. While the EU commission wants the plan to inspire the world, the bloc to lead international efforts, and Europe to be a front-runner in climatefriendly industries and clean technologies, it also recognizes that climate goals cannot be achieved without other countries, and wants to build alliances with the likeminded.

Indeed, the EU commission admits that the plan makes bold promises, and von der Leyen herself has dubbed it Europe’s man on the moon moment”. There is widespread criticism of the plan’s vagueness on details making itunrealistically ambitious. While this is valid criticism, it is beside the point. In her analysis, economist Mariana Mazzucato sees the U.S. Green New Deal (which has a similar mission but is even vaguer on details of how to reach the goals) as a mission-based policy. The value lies in it setting a clear direction for change, it is a good guide because its goal is worth pursuing. A green transition is complex and requires more than the technological accomplishment of getting to the moon, but a positive vision for change is nonetheless a strong driver for success.

More than the clear and widely shared mission of the plan, multiple developments are increasing momentum for a green transition. First, as the conflict between the U.S. and China has shown EU member states that they need Europe to stay competitive in the new era of great power competition, there is more support from member states to unite in pan-European projects. The Green Deal fits with a more assertive European industrial policy that not only aims for green business, but seeks to build European champions as it enjoys first-mover advantage: the Green Deal is a historical occasion to revitalize the European industry. In that vein, von der Leyen has said climate change would be her commission’s top priority and that it will be a “geopolitical Commission”, stressing that Europe needed to be more assertive in the world. Second, the EU has a decision-making model that strives for consensus and the deal was unanimously endorsed by the European Council. Third, multiple progressive member states are already positioning themselves as sustainability champions with national policies, such as France, with its sweeping anti-waste and circular economy bill, which may easily inspire othersto do so as well (as the surge in cities and states declaring climate emergency has shown). And fourth, European citizens increasingly vote for a green future by electing green politicians and by consuming sustainable goods.  The European elections in May 2019 resulted in 74 green MEPs (almost 10% of the assembly) being appointed and also showed more environmentalist rhetoric from other factions. The majority of European consumers are willing to pay a premium price for more environmentally friendly products. The idea for a single market for green products has already been tested successfully. Alongside the widespread climate strikes, these are signs that European civil society is pushing for more ambition in fighting climate change.

There is much at stake for Europe. Since the Paris Agreement and other global climate goals such as the SDGs are less effective as they are not legally binding and lack global governance, the European Green Deal could be a vital means for Europe to show it can unite in action. Failing would degrade trust in the EU as an effective bloc. But if the EU succeeds in making a green transition, it will prove an important opportunity for Europe to become a leader in a new, green socio-economic paradigm and simultaneously boost trust in pan-European initiatives.

Implications

  • In the absence of effective climate action from the U.S., the question is whether Europe can bring along China in its ambitious climate goals. With tensions rising between the U.S. and China, the EU is suddenly a much more interesting partner in climate and in trade for China, the world’s biggest emitter. Hopes are high for the EU-China summit in Germany in September, as it could be an important gaugeof whether Europe can successfully engage China.
  • In a few weeks, the European Commission will present an EU industrial strategy to address the twin challenges of the green and the digital transformation. The latter is key in achieving green goals.

Residential energy storage systems

What happened?

Residential energy storage systems, i.e. home batteries, appear to be taking off across the globe. In the United States, annual installations grew from 2.25 MWh in 2014 to 185 MWh in 2018 and growth continued in 2019 as well. For Europe, analysts believe a doubling of installations, to 1.2 GWh per year, will have taken place by 2024.In Germany, with the highest electricity prices in Europe, already half of all households that invest in solar panels order a home battery as well. It is thus no wonder that battery producers (e.g. Tesla, CATL), traditional energy companies (Shell) and suppliers of conventional generators (e.g. Generac) are jumping on this market.

What does this mean?

Most households use their home battery to store solar energy during the day so they can use their “own” power after sunset as well and minimize their utility bill. This is especially relevant in areas where consumers receive a low price for the excess energy they supply to the grid or where “time-of-use” tariffs make it expensive to use grid power during peak hours. These factors, in combination with purchasing subsidies for the (ever cheaper)batteries, make that solar-plus-storage can already compete with grid-power. Aside from lower costs, households may also seek to become as grid-independent as possible. For some, this is a rather romantic ideal, for others, it is increasingly a necessity, as events of extreme weather are leading to more frequent power outages (sometimes power is shut off on purpose, to prevent wildfires).

What’s next?

The transition to renewable energy power generation will require ever greater capacity to store excess power for later use. These home batteries already play a valuable role on the level of individual households, but there are also attempts to leverage them to balance supply and demand in the wider energy system. Storage capacity aggregators (e.g. utilities or dedicated companies) are developing “bring your own battery” programs that pay consumers a premium to have their batteries provide energy to the grid during peak hours. These initiatives fit with ideas of a decentralized energy system, but it remains to be seen whether they can actually compete with the kind of large scale battery projects that have also enjoyed rapid growth in recent years.

Can market forces save the climate?

Despite the pending U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and the rollback of major climate-related policies, U.S. carbon emissions have continued to decrease. It appears that the influx of cheap shale gas and other market forces play a big role, along with (remaining) public policies against coal-fired power plants and in favor of renewables. Going forward, the question is really whether, in the coming years, the U.S. can continue on its path to lower emissions in the absence of meaningful climate policies.

Our observations

  • According to the International Energy Agency, global energy-related CO2 emissions flatlined in 2019 at 33 gigatons, even though the global economy grew by 2.9%. In part, this is due to mild weather (saving energy for heating and cooling) in a number of large economies and economic slowdown in several developing economies (e.g. China). Energy-related emissions have actually dropped in Europe (5%) and the United States (2.9%), and this is mostly due to the influx of natural gas and renewables in power generation (which accounts for ~40% of total emissions). In the U.S., the carbon intensity of its energy mix has declined steadily over the last 30 years (down by 12%).
  • Along with cleaner power generation, the overall energy intensity of the U.S. economy has dropped 40%from 1990 levels. The latter appears especially relevant and multiple aspects play a role here: offshoring manufacturing (i.e. effectively exporting emissions) and the growth of the services sector, yet there’s also a clear shift away from coal to more energy-efficient natural (shale) gas turbines, more fuel-efficient vehicles.  
  • As with other bi- and multilateral international deals, President Trump has argued that the Paris Agreement is disadvantageous to the U.S., as it would (mildly) force government to take action that could hamper economic growth and result in higher consumer prices. It is, however, questionable whether the U.S. withdrawal from “Paris” will really have an impact on U.S. emissions, as it doesn’tinclude any binding norms. Yet, it is a testament to this administration’s desire to freeze or roll back climate targets and it will send a message to the rest of the world as well. Also, the U.S. is unlikely to continue to contribute to the global Green Climate Fund that is to support developing nations in their efforts to reduce GHG emissions.
  • The Trump administration has rolled back several Obama-era climate-related regulations. Most importantly, this includes the substitution of the Clean Power Plan, which placed (state-specific) limits on emissions from power generation, with the much weaker Affordable Clean Energy act. As for transportation, the administration has frozen the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standardsand manufacturers no longer have to reduce emissions from passenger cars by 5% per year. In addition, the state of California is no longer allowed to set its own (typically stricter) standards.
  • President Trump has been called a “climate nihilist” for whom every utterance about climate change is informed by political interests; anything to please his donors or his voters. With respect to the latter, Republican voters are likely to demand more climate-related action. By now, almost twothirds of Republicans actually believe in climate change and two surveys (one from Pew and another from the American Conservative Coalition) found that between 52 and 67% of young Republican voters indeed want the GOP to do more about climate change.
  • Like Trump, the secretary of the EPA and former coal-industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler is not an outspoken climate change denier, but he continues to stress that the problem should be left to the free market and improved technology, rather than solutions dictated by government. The same holds true for other Republicans who maintain that government can support technology development, but that it should not impose any limitations on business.
  • Individual states and cities continue to take action against climate change. Recently, more than 250 American mayors have pledged to power their cities with 100% renewable energy by 2035.

Connecting the dots

Since Donald Trump took office, the United States has shaken off its climate-leadership feathers. Before Trump, being the global superpower and one of the top polluting nations, the U.S. participated in global climate negotiations and, indeed, took steps to reduce its own carbon footprint. In fact, starting shortly after the turn of the millennium, the United States has slowly but surely reduced it carbon emissions. And even though some of the progress can be attributed to offshoring of production and temporary economic downturn, there’s a structural trend of decarbonization of the American economy. And even today, despite the fact that the rhetoric on climate change has shifted completely and much weaker regulations have been implemented, the American economy continues to emit less and less CO2. Together, these dynamics raise the question whether stringent policies are really needed to further reduce its carbon footprint and, as a follow-up question, whether this trend can continue even if President Trump is elected for a second term.

The major gains, if not the only gains, were realized in the power sector. Here, the big story is the (market-driven) rise of shale gas, which has offered a relatively low-cost and stable alternative to coal. At the same time, the balance has also shifted in favor of natural (shale) gas due to environmental norms in relation to, for instance, mercury emissions (which are not directly related to climate change) that raised the operating costs of coal-fired power plants. The Clean Power Plan, which was the major climate-specific tool to push out coal in the future, has probably played a lesser role in recent years. Also, renewable power generation has obviously grownrapidly, but has “only” accounted for about a quarter of the reduction of coal (and some 8% of total power supply). Going forward, the new Affordable Clean Energy act will hardly affect the power sector and current plans to weaken the previously mentioned mercury (and other toxics) standards could indeed halt the decline of coal. More structural, policydriven, progress should come from states or cities. In other sectors, such as the transportation sector, no absolute reductions have been achieved, but there is still a slowdown in emissions’ growth that could be taken as a sign of the (partial) decoupling of economic growth from carbon emissions.

However, it seems that many of these humanistic starting points and principles are being criticized andpressured. First, the ongoing ecological crisis not only requires a radical overhaul of the principles of industrial modernity and economic and societal meta-rules of our socio-technical systems (i.e. a Deep Transition), but could also point to a crisis of our anthropological conception of man. If human beings actively undermine one of our “living conditions”, this might have something to do with our idea that man is at the center of the cosmos and reality. Indeed, this is one of the principles of the emerging paradigm of deep ecology that opts for a radical decentering of the human. Second, it is increasingly doubtful that human nature is being seen as something inherently good, given the problems of rampant socio-economic inequality, poverty and exploitation (of both humans and non-humans). As we own increasingly powerful technologies that create a vulnerable world, more studies are examining an earthly future without the human kind (e.g. omnicide).

So if it’s not government pulling the strings on climate action, can the invisible hand of the free market take care of this problem? It probably can, but only to a certain extent. First, businesses will continue to look for cheaper means of production and this will also entail ways of saving energy (e.g. more efficient airplanes in aviation) or finding cheaper sources of energy that today include (relatively clean) natural gas and sometimesrenewables. Second, consumers increasingly demand more climate-friendly goods and services and this will be a trigger for, at least some, businesses to deliver just that (e.g. vegan food, sustainable clothing and low-emission vehicles). Third, and perhaps most interestingly, recognizing that change is necessary and inevitable in the long run, industries tend to prefer steady and predictable policies that allow them to develop solid strategies and plan their investments. This is why a handful of car manufacturers have struck a deal with the state of California to continue to develop cleaner cars despite the federal government weakening its (CAFE) standards. These companies assume that future governments (and consumers both in the U.S. and elsewhere,as well as foreign governments) will expect them to produce low- and zero-emissions vehicles anyway and, to them, it makes no sense to halt ongoing efforts because of a temporary hiatus in American regulations(although their ambitions are lower than the original CAFE norm).

These drivers will push the U.S. to a lower carbon footprint, but in the end, they will only lead to a further optimization of the current system along the lines of ecological modernization. The real problem here is that the market can only fix problems that are reflected in market prices (e.g. high fuel costs), while the costs of climate change will take effect too far away and over too-great a timespan and will remain externalities without active public intervention (e.g. taxes, emissions trading schemes, environmental standards or other performance targets).

Implications

  • Republican lawmakers facing pressure to “do something for the environment” are most likely to seek legislation that directly favors American citizens without “hampering” business. This will include support schemes for cleantech and limited environmental norms in relation to air and water pollution. Reforestation is also a favored measure among Republicans, including Trump himself.
  • In the absence of meaningful federal action, (blue) states and cities (e.g. NYC) are likely to take more action of their own accord. Yet, it is to be expected that the White House will try to limit their room for maneuvering.
  • While a lot of emissions have been “exported” with offshoring production to emerging economies, the digital economy will result in higher domestic emissions once again. Today, the ICT sector accounts for about 1.5% of the global carbon footprint, but this may rise to 14% in 2040, much of which will come from local data centers.

Retroscope 2019

The end of the year is a time for contemplation. In this Retroscope, we look back and reflect on the ideas and insights we have published in The Macroscope throughout 2019. We have covered a wide range of events and developments in technology, global politics and society. The Macroscope is marked by our team’s diversity of perspectives, ranging from philosophy, economics, history, sociology, political sciences to engineering. Combining this interdisciplinary approach with scenario thinking, we aim to assess current affairs from a comprehensive and long-term perspective. Our retrospect of 2019 is therefore about how this year’s events tie in with or deviate from larger trends in technological, hegemonic or socio-cultural cycles. Our mission is to unlock society’s potential by decoding the future.

We hope you enjoy our reflection!

FreedomLab Thinktank

Click here for our Retroscope of 2019.

 

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Hegemonic cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Technological cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Socio-cultural cycle

Click here for our Retroscope 2019: Disruption in the making

Artificial winter wonderlands

What happened?

Climate change is affecting winter sports regions as they can no longer count on the snow to fall in early December and last until the end of the traditional skiing season. Some areas have lost as much as 40% of their average snow depth over the last decades and at least 60% of slopes worldwide are lined with snow cannons to make up for too warm or too dry winters. In the coming years, these cannons, of which larger resorts need hundreds, will drive up costs significantly as their energy (and water) bill will continue to rise with climate change. At some point, however, these machines will not suffice anymore (they can only produce snow at temperatures close to 0oC) and resorts will either have to switch to even more expensive and energyconsuming methods, or, when this is no longer feasible, limit operations to a couple of months per year.

What does this mean?

In the United States, several lowerlying resorts have already shut down due to disappointing winters and investments are concentrating on high altitude resorts that are more futureproof. A further shakeout is likely in the coming two decades and, internationally, investors (e.g. in real estate) are also eying the highest of regions. Obviously, as snow becomes a scarce good,these regions will benefit from their unique position, but the entire industry will experience a decline; rising costs are already discouraging people from going on winter holidays (e.g. in the Netherlands) and, over time, skiing is bound to become a luxury only the wealthiest households will be able to afford once again.

What’s next?

Apart from rising costs, the environmental impact of winter sports is also growing and skiing could very well be among the next consumer practices that fall prey to the “shame” trend. In the short term, this will mostly relate to the direct impact of skiing resorts in the form of deforestation and exorbitant energy and water usage. In the longer term, people will likely travel farther to reach snow sure areas (e.g. in Canada or Japan), thus further enlarging their environmental footprint with their vacation. To prevent all too heavy backlash, most ski resort are trying to reduce the environmental impact of their operations, e.g. by using renewable energy, but their efforts are unlikely to prevent groups of consumers from developing skiing shame in the (near) future.

What to expect from battery development

The rise of electric vehicles and the energy system’s growing need for energy storage solutions have us craving ever-better and cheaper batteries. Currently, our smartphones, vehicles and home batteries make use of li-ion batteries and these have improved immensely over the past decades, but further gains in production costs and performance are more than welcome. There are, however, boundaries to what can be achieved with li-ion technology and a range of alternative chemistries are being developed. The question really is how far li-ion can take us and what we can expect from next-generation batteries.

Our observations

  • According to BloombergNEF, lithium ion battery costs have fallen by 87% from $1,100 per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to $156/kWh today. This is mostly due to upscaling and automating production. By 2023, costs may be as low as $100/kWh, but at some point, raw material costs will limit further reductions and, growing demand for these materials (e.g. lithium, nickel, cobalt) is likely to result in supply problems and volatile material costs.
  • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a price of $125 per kWh is needed for electric vehicles to compete with gasoline or Diesel vehicles and estimates this threshold can be reached by 2022. The DOE and others (e.g. McKinsey) are somewhat more skeptical as to when the $100/kWh can be achieved.
  • Cost, however, is far from the only criterion. Important characteristics of batteries obviously includeenergy density (i.e. by weight and by volume), but also power density (i.e. the power they can deliver at any moment), lifetime and safety. Ideally, abundant, low-cost and non-toxic raw materials would combine all these properties. Unfortunately, there are many trade-offs between these characteristics.
  • Current and future supply problems have made reducing the cobalt content of batteries a key priority. By 2030, EV production is expected to have outgrown current cobalt mining and processing capacity by farand today automakers are scrambling to secure long-term supply of (responsibly sourced) raw materials. Tesla has pledged to eliminate the mineral in its next-gen battery.
  • More radical changes in chemistries (e.g. lithium metal, solid state, sodium ion, multivalent-based, and lithium sulfur and metal-air) are in various stages of development, but even when they are (technologically) “ready” for commercial use, they will have to go through (more or less) the same process of upscaling and learning.
  • Last month, (fuel cell) electric truck startup Nikola announced it is working on a revolutionary, but undisclosed, type of battery that will hold four times the energy of a li-ion battery, while costing only half as much. In recent history, we have seen a number of battery startups making similar claims, butthey have never delivered on their promise. These included Sakti3, which was acquired, and ditched, by Dyson, Envia, linked to General Motors and Belenos, a subsidiary of watchmaker Swatch. These companies seem to have in common that they made overly bold promises on the basis of lab-scale achievements that proved too difficult to scale up in terms of performance and costs.
  • Beyond transportation, the energy system is in dire need of low-cost, high-capacity energy storage solutions. Along with pumped hydro (which has been used for decades already) and new solutions such as compressed air or hydrogen, batteries will likely play a big role as well. BloombergNEF expects the storage market for batteries to grow from 17GWh today to 2,850GWh in 2040. This is a 122-fold increase and would require an estimated $662 billion in investment.
     

Connecting the dots

Any battery consists of two electrodes, an anode and a cathode, that contain electrochemically active materials. As the battery is used (i.e. discharged) particles (i.e. ions) move from the one electrode through the other and, in doing so, force an electron to go through an external electric circuit and power a device. In rechargeable batteries, the reverse process takes place when the battery is charged. The two electrodes are separated by an insulating material through which the ions can pass, in most li-ion batteries this is a separator film drenched in a liquid (the electrolyte). The composition of both electrodes and the separator material determines the characteristics of the battery and some combinations could, in theory, yield a superb battery. In practice, however, there are many challenges to actually making those batteries work for hundreds, or thousands, ofcharge and discharge cycles without substantial degradation or safety issues. And, when those requirements are met, the battery has to be manufactured at mass scale and against low costs, which, among other factors, rules out all too exotic and expensive materials.

One challenge is finding the optimal combination of materials is that all materials add specific characteristics and there are several trade-offs between them. To illustrate, an important group of li-ion batteries uses so-called NMC cathodes which are made from a mixture of nickel, manganese and cobalt in varying compositions. Roughly speaking, nickel adds capacity, manganese brings safety, and the amount of cobalt determines how fast a battery can charge and discharge. This, however, means that increasing capacity (i.e. more nickel, less of the others) necessarily comes at the expense of safety and charging speed. Other types of li-ion batteries include lithium iron phosphate batteries, which are relatively cheap and long-lasting, but low in energy density, and nickel cobalt aluminum oxide batteries (used by Panasonic/Tesla), which can hold a lot of energy, but are costly and less safe.

Decades of fundamental research and engineering have led to dramatic improvements in common li-ion designs. To illustrate, the first Nissan Leaf in 2011 was equipped with a li-ion battery with a capacity of 24 kWh. Increasing energy density has enabled Nissan to fit a 40 kWh battery in its similar-sized 2018 model. Yet, for this generation of batteries, the end is in sight as far as storage capacity goes. What’s left is reducing costs through further upscaling and automation of production. This will result in cheaper electric vehicles, but not necessarily in vehicles that can drive much farther on a single charge; any vehicle can only carry a battery of a certain weight and volume.

For genuine breakthroughs we have to look to other types of batteries that use different materials and principles. Some of these promise far greater storage capacities than li-ion (in terms of kWh/kg), but all of them still face considerable hurdles towards practical applicability and readiness for mass production. Among this new generation of batteries, solid-state batteries appear most promising from a mass-market perspective. These use a solid electrolyte instead of flammable liquids, which makes for a safer battery and because a solid layer takes up less space than a fluid one, it can also increase energy density. For these reasons, solid-state batteries are already in use in pacemakers and other critical applications, but as of yet they are too expensivefor EVs. One of the challenges is to find a means of applying an ultra-thin layer of solid electrolyte to the electrodes that that stays in place even when the electrolytes swell and contract during charging and discharging (which they do as ion shuttle back and forth). Depositing such a layer, atom by atom is technologically feasible, but extremely time-consuming and thus difficult to scale up.

Solid-state and other next-gen batteries have been in development for decades and progress is slow and fundamentally uncertain. In other words, no “miracle battery” is on the horizon yet and in any case, it will take at least another decade for any of these batteries to come to the market and move beyond specific niche markets where certain trade-offs are acceptable (e.g. with space applications, costs are less of an issue than with automotive uses). In the meantime, (likely) cost reductions will be key to mass scale adoption of electric vehicles and the use of (li-ion) batteries for stationary, grid-scale, energy storage. In terms of vehicle range, progress is most likely to come from further optimization of powertrains and overall weight reduction.

Implications

  • As far as transportation goes, vehicle ranges, on a single charge, are not likely to improve dramatically in the coming decade. For heavier vehicles (e.g. trucks and buses), other strategies may be needed to cover longer distances (e.g. fast-charging en-route, possibly while driving along specific stretches of road with overhead wires or induction chargers in the road surface). Limitations to battery capacity (and longer-term cost reductions) open up a window of opportunity for hydrogen (fuel cell) technology.
  • As we noted before, a lot of renewable technology relies on relatively scarce resources and there will be a scramble for metals such as cobalt and nickel. Ethical sourcing will also be increasingly important in this sector and this will further limit availability of raw (and processed) minerals. Potential beneficiaries include mining companies in politically stable and well-governed regions and battery recycling facilities.