End of the Line for Kodachrome and What That Means for Climate Protection

This week Kodak announced that it was ceasing production of its flagship film product: Kodachrome.  Photographers treasured this film as providing the sharpest and most vivid images, as well as the longest storage lifetime.  The film was, of course, done in by the increasing technological progress of digital cameras.  As quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, a Kodak spokesperson said, "the decision to discontinue Kodachrome was long overdue, from a financial perspective."  A photographer noted that "the world became a different place when the resolving power of digital camera equaled or surpassed film." 

What is the relevance of this to climate change?  Energy efficiency is the embodiment of new technologies for providing energy services that can surpass and take over the market from the fossil fuels that are responsible for climate change, just as the new technology of digital took over the market from film. 

The revolution that occurred when digital photography surpassed performance of film was largely unforeseen.  Digital photography was invented some 40 years ago, but did not appear in commercially significant products until 1995.  Even then, the cameras produced output suitable only to small market niches where instant images in electronic form were preferable. Digital cameras were much more expensive and heavier than comparable film-based products, and produced greatly inferior pictures.  But the fact that there was a market for these products at all spurred a process of technological improvement that resulted in continuous gains in the quality of digital images and reductions in the cost and size of the camera.  The compound rate of improvement in number of megapixels exceeded 20 percent per year, while the cost of the cameras declined.

Exponential improvement, particularly when the rate is as low as 20 percent (equivalent to a doubling period of 5 years) can go largely unnoticed.  Even those in the know fail to see this.  One of the widest circulation photo enthusiast magazines, Popular Photography, published an article in March 2001 that stated that "in less than 5 years, some predict, film use will be relegated to fine artists and anti-tech renegades - the rest of us, it appears, will be trading in our film-based cameras for... digital cameras."  But the section heading was "Pompous Prognosticators" and the rest of the article went on to conclude that there was an assured future for film. In fact, five years later the manufacturer of film cameras virtually disappeared.  As noted by the photographer quoted above, the quality of digital pictures has surpassed that of film. 

When exactly did this happen?  I have looked through the photo-enthusiast literature and have yet to find an article that noted when the typical digital camera began to exceed film in quality.  Looking back at product specifications and reviews, and looking at my own pictures, it is apparent that 2002 vintage product had already done this.  But you wouldn't know it from reading photo magazines and blogs.  The only direct comparisons I was able to find were four reviews of specific digital camera products.  In the two cases that were printed, these referred to professional level cameras costing more than $7,000. The other two were very obscure online comparisons, again, pointing only to one specific camera each. 

Even with those with their ears closest to the rail failed to see the revolution coming and failed to call it after it had already come and gone. 

Energy efficiency is a little different than digital photography in that technology improvements confront dramatic market barriers.  Whereas the consumer will readily choose a 10 megapixel camera over a 5 megapixel camera, and allow producers to respond accondingly, markets fail to provide this encouragement for the next level of energy efficiency in uses such as washing machines, computers, or air conditioners.  But where we as a nation (or even particular states) have tried, we have been able to overcome these failures of the market and produce the same kind of improvements in efficiency that we see in high tech areas like digital photography. 

Why this relates to climate is that, just as the experts were unable to see the tipping point when digital photography took over from film because it offered more value and quality for the money, current pundits on climate are underestimating the impact that new technologies in efficiency can have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a way that saves money rather than costing money. 

Just as Kodak got into trouble by being overcommitted to the old technologies of film, so we as a nation can get in trouble by overcommitting to preserving our existing fleet of polluting power plants, automobiles, and industrial processes, rather than "investing" in the development of newer and greener technologies. 

We do not yet have any examples of efficiencies that have improved at a rate approaching the 20 percent of digital photography, much less the 80 percent of portable storage for computers.  But in areas where we have paid moderate policy attention for the past 30 years, we have seen annual improvements of about 5 percent.  If we can extend these areas throughout the energy economy and speed up the pace of improvement to only 7 percent or 10 percent annually, previously daunting-looking goals of 80 percent emissions reductions sooner than 2050 don't look very difficult anymore. 

But surely, skeptics would argue, there are limits to how far you can go with energy efficiency.  The laws of physics impose limits on how long continuous exponential improvement can continue.  For digital photography, we are about at the end of the road with respect to megapixel counts and ability to take pictures in the dark. This is shown in my paper published on line at http://www.northlight-images.co.uk/article_pages/guest/physical_limits.html.

But just as it is possible to calculate where the physical limits are in photography, one can do the same for energy efficiency.  This exercise has not been carried out comprehensively since the 1970's, but a quick look at where the limits are shows that for almost all end uses of energy, we are far, far away from the point where we have exhausted the energy efficiency potential. 

This issue will be addressed in my forthcoming book "Invisible Energy."