Dr James Canton on the Future of Energy

by Mallika Naguran

When I asked Dr James Canton, a thought leader and author based in San Francisco, if environmental problems that we face today such as the oil price increase, food shortages and climate change induced natural disasters are going to get any worse, he asked me if I wanted to know the truth. Sure, I said, that’s why I am here.

Governments lack courage.

Governments lack courage.

“Truth is, there is going to be more carbon emissions, there is going to be more climate change disasters and there is going to be more pollution. It will continue to be an escalating problem as long as politicians sit around and do nothing about it,” says the CEO and Chairman of Institute for Global Futures.

The author of The Extreme Future: The Top Trends That Will Reshape the World In The Next 20 Years pulls no punches when talking about governments’ responsibility in restoring our development-stressed planet. According to him, governments should sit up and act as there is barely enough oil-based or non oil-based fuel left to provide energy for the global economy by 2020. “There is even not enough energy to keep pace with GDP growth after 2030,” he says, adding that this period would be within his children's and children’s children generation. Yours and mine too.

According to him, energy will be a drag on growth, security, food and productivity that will start to show even earlier, by 2015.  “Unless you have a new innovation on energy, there are not enough alternative energy sources to offset 20% of global demands,” he says.

“You can’t delink energy from other sectors such as medical, construction, transportation and as such an eco strategy is needed to rethink global sustainability,” he says. Dr Canton points the need to intensify investments into alternative forms of energy provided by solar, hydrogen, biofuels, nuclear, geothermal and especially nanotech.

“Without that we are screwed,” he says.

In his book The Extreme Future, Dr Canton writes that nano energy may accelerate the efficiencies of alternative energy sources and possibly enable the production of more cost-effective sources of energy, including hybrids.

Clean tech companies and carbon trading are two areas that will drive forth change, he says; clean tech industry is projected to be one of the largest, global multi-billion dollar industries of the 21st century. Carbon trading that creates a new asset class, according to Dr Canton, is a big solution that will arrest carbon emissions while revenues are channeled towards green energy investments.

When asked if market leaders should play a bigger role in saving the Earth, the reply was candid. “Sure, there are enlightened MNCs that can do more, but there’s only so much they can do. They aren’t governments and governments are slow. Governments are politicians who do not have the courage to bite the bullets.”

What if they did? “Well, they would build infrastructures, invest in R&D for carbon sequestration and they would also build hundreds of green mega city developments that are sustainable and don’t have any cars. We can reverse the trend like in China where people once got around on bicycles because energy was too expensive then. Now they roll out 800,000 cars for their market from the General Motors plant alone.”

He also pointed out that with the projected three quarters of the global population of nearly 8 billion living in coastal cities around the world, that would be a stage for “the perfect eco-storm” with radical storms, sea changes, tidal waves and extreme climate change putting populations at risk. “It will be a more dramatic scene that Hollywood,” he quipped.

Should governments look into crises plans then, as Dr James Lovelock warns they should in his book Revenge of Gaia? “I agree with him,” says Dr Canton,” as environmental problems due to energy crises will result in massive dislocations.”

With developed countries relying more and more on renewable energy and less on traditional sources such as oil and gas, this would also give rise to another set of problems related to geopolitics.

“I forecast that the level of dependence we have on oil - separate from the economics of oil – costs more increasingly over time. The geopolitics of oil is that 80% of it is in the hands of parties that are not moderate political forces. They are individuals with fundamentalist or radical ideologies that are antithetical to modern, liberal societies.”

Dr Canton refers to OPEC nations, Venezuela, Iran or Nigeria where there are politically unstable countries that are either in conflict or potential flash points, adding“You can’t count on an energy source that is under some degree of continual conflict, strike or stress.”

With geopolitical issues, security and terrorism are real possibilities.

“I forecast that five to ten percent of energy purchased by Europe and the US over the next decade and half will lead up to as much as a third of OPEC countries having declining GDPs because they have not moved out of tying themselves to oil. And this will cause some (OPEC) countries to crash. This provides the ground for new levels of terrorists to emerge because they are angry with the world for not purchasing enough oil.”

So he tells the Arab and African leaders when he meets them that they are part of the problem with their rigid ways, and the solution for them is to be more open and embrace a more liberal, productive, democratic society and look into having sustainable economies.

Having oil contributes to energy and security now. Take that away, we have a big conflict to solve, says Dr Future.

Build more green mega cities, says Future Guru.

Build more green mega cities, says Future Guru.

Dr Canton’s Top 10 Trends of the Extreme Future

 1.    Fueling the Future - The energy crisis, the post-oil future, and the future of energy alternatives like hydrogen. The critical role that energy will play in every aspect of our lives in the 21st century.

2.    The Innovation Economy - The transformation of the global economy based on the convergence of free trade, technology and democracy, driving new jobs, new markets, globalization, competition, peace and security. The Four Power Tools of the Innovation Economy are Nano-Bio-IT-Neuro.

3.    The Next Workforce - How the workforce of the U.S. is becoming more multicultural, more female and more Hispanic. Why the future workforce must embrace innovation to become globally competitive.

4.    Longevity Medicine - The key forces that will radically alter medicine such as nanotech, neurotech, and genomics, leading to longer and healthier lives.

5.    Weird Science - How science will transform every aspect of our lives, culture and economy—from teleportation to nanobiology to multiple universes.

6.    Securing the Future - The top threats to our freedom and our lives, from hackers to terrorists to mind control. Defining the risk landscape of the 21st century.

7.    The Future of Globalization - The new realities of global trade and competition; the rise of China and India; the clash of cultures and ideologies; and the cultural-economic battle for the future.

8.    The Future of Climate Change - How the environment is changing and how we need to prepare for increased global warming, pollution, and threats to biodiversity.

9.    The Future of the Individual - The risks and challenges from institutions, governments, and ideologies in the struggle for human rights and the freedom of the individual in the 21st century.

10.    The Future of America and China - How destiny of two great nations, from capitalism, to innovation, to democracy tosecurity will champion the world. 

Photos by Mallika Naguran

Dr James Canton was the distinguished speaker at Singapore’s SIM Annual Management Lecture22 August 2008. He is also the author of Technofutures: How Leading-edge Innovations Will Transform Business in the 21st Century, Next Millenium.

Get more info at www.futureguru.com and contact Dr Canton at jcanton@futureguru.com

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