Endless Layers Of Delusion

June 3, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed
Colored views image via rubi-borgohain/flickr. Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Apologies for the sheer length of this, the layers of delusion are truly endless. Each sub-heading can be treated as a standalone mini-chapter.

Obvious Delusions

We are used to treating the ‘bought and paid for’ politicians and ideological front groups of the rich and powerful[1] [2] [3] [4] [5], or the Christian fundamentalist folks who believe in a cartoon history called Creationism[6] [7], as groups that are either serving or trapped in deep delusional denial. Then there are “The Rapture”[8] folks who consider that God will beam up the true believers while the rest of us non-believers are left on earth to meet our blood curdling end. For such a true believer, the ongoing destruction of the ecological and resource basis of our complex civilization is not a problem, as God will just make it all better after the non-believers have perished. At the other end of the religious spectrum we have the economists who believe that the new god of the Invisible Hand and the wonders of technology will deliver us from our own suicidal deeds; all we need is to get the prices right[9] [10].

As the inconvenient facts raised by scientists have made the position of outright denial increasingly less tenable, much of the ruling elites have moved onto more sophisticated denial and delay tactics, although the recent misleading “climate pause” has breathed new life into the outright denial camp[11]. These delusions are still fooling many people, although a small but increasing number are identifying them as the rubbish that they really are. With a keen understanding of the necessity for controlling the conceptual frameworks and knowledge which individuals use to make decisions in modern superficially democratic societies, the manipulation of social reality has become a highly sophisticated and extensive endeavour for the elites and their courtiers[12] [13] [14] [15]. The success of such manipulation can be seen in a 2013 Pew Research poll that found that only 40% of U.S. respondents considered climate change to be a major threat to their country, with Europe and Canada not much better at only 54%, and Asia Pacific at 56%. Only Latin America, at 65%, had a significant majority that saw climate change as such a threat[16]. Even those who accept the significant threat of climate change, and the other effects of humanity’s impact upon the earth, find it hard to step outside the confines of the current growth-addicted system. Such an acceptance could upend an individuals most basic assumptions about how the world works, and the sheer scale of the changes necessary to move society to a sustainable path can appear overwhelming. This places many at risk of being co-opted into working within the current growth-oriented system, such as the carbon trading initiatives that have done nothing to combat climate change while being open to easy manipulation by corporations.

These factors have resulted in many layers of delusion, ranging from the outright denials and obvious obfuscation of the elite manipulators and apologists, to the less obvious delusions of those who tirelessly strive for changes that they think will help save humanity from the consequences of its actions. There are many groups that do accept some of the deep problems that humanity faces, but cannot take the next step to accept that the way in which human societies work needs to fundamentally change; especially the reality that continued economic growth is not tenable if humanity is to move to a sustainable path.

Technocratic Delusions: The United Nations

The United Nations (U.N.) is a wonderful example of this class of delusions: it strives to accept the gravity of the situation while trying to find a sufficiently positive story to tell so as to not alarm the general population. The wonderful oxymoron of Sustainable Development[17] [18] was coined by the U.N. to dodge the fundamental societal changes that will be needed to avert collapse. Others have tried to redefine the meaning of the word development to remake the overall concept into one matching our reality. For example, some have stated that we can have development without growth: as such, development can be of the spiritual, social, and artistic kind. They should simply give up on this confusing soft and fluffy term and stop wasting their energy. Instead, we need to accept that the future will be a lot more tough than fluffy.

The U.N. outdid themselves in the field of soft and fluffy with their recent climate change study that claimed that if we only started now we could move to a sustainable economy at hardly any cost[19]. The co-chair of the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change is quoted as saying that taking the required action “doesn’t mean [the] world community will have to sacrifice growth …. Climate policy isn’t a free lunch but could be lunch [that’s] worthwhile to buy”[20]. This from a report that noted the fact that climate change emissions accelerated in the most recent decade. The report does contain excellent research from many incredibly hard-working and realistic scientists; unfortunately this is hampered by sheer bureaucratic conservatism and inertia, together with the fact that the summary for policy makers is open to thorough political review and alteration[21]. This leads to both a lack of integration of more recent research, and a drive to propose what is seen as politically feasible in the near term rather than what is truly required to save modern civilization. So how did the global organization tasked with telling us the painful truth about climate change manage to come to such a wondrous and happy conclusion?

The report represents technocratic delusions and faulty logic, together with the ability of the powerful (through their political representatives) to de-emphasize the negative and emphasize the positive. The New York Times details well the impacts of this bureaucratic conservatism and politicized oversight, “Climate scientists not involved in writing the new report said the authors had made a series of cautious choices in their assessment of the scientific evidence. Regarding sea level rise, for instance, they gave the first firm estimates ever contained in an intergovernmental panel report, declaring that if emissions continued at a rapid pace, the rise by the end of the 21st century could be as much as three feet. They threw out a string of published papers suggesting a worst-case rise closer to five feet,” and, “Similarly, the authors went out of their way to include recent papers suggesting that the earth might be less sensitive to carbon dioxide emissions than previously thought, even though serious questions have been raised about the validity of those estimates”[22]. Thus, the soft and fluffy messaging is maintained, supporting the continuation of humanity’s exponential and highly destructive growth.

2 Degrees is Safe, and 450 ppm of Carbon Dioxide Equivalent Will Get Us There

The assumption that a 2 degree centigrade increase in the average global temperature will not trigger positive feedbacks that will create significant further warming, nor endanger human civilization, has become a political anchor which is seemingly impervious to rational challenge. Unfortunately “there is little explicit scientific evidence for why 2 degrees centigrade should be the preferred target”[23]. The current impacts of only a 0.8 degree warming point to the IPCC target being too high, “If we’re seeing what we’re seeing at 0.8 degrees Celsius, two degrees is simply too much”, states Thomas Lovejoy[24]. More and more recent scientific findings, including paleoclimate studies, also show a greater level of responsiveness of the earth’s climate to increases in greenhouse gases than assumed by the I.P.C.C. models[25] [26] [27]. In a deft sleight of hand, the acceptable level of cumulative carbon dioxide emissions of 1000 gigatonnes (reduced to 790 gigatonnes taking into account other climate forcings) that the I.P.C.C. has emphasized as a target is the one that only provides about a 2 out 3 chance of not breaching the 2 degree limit[28]. This is akin to a game of Russian Roulette with a revolver that can hold three bullets and has one bullet loaded. Would you want to play when the possibility of more empty chambers is available to you? Gaining that extra safety margin comes with a cost, of course; in the case of climate change, that cost is a much lower limit of allowable greenhouse gas emissions.

A major area of omission from the I.P.C.C. report is the probability of an exponential relationship between temperature and the release of carbon dioxide and methane from natural processes, such as permafrost decay, methane hydrate destabilization and the action of organisms within wetlands[29] [30] [31] [32]. The logical acrobatics performed by the I.P.C.C. to support its official findings are exposed when the following conclusion is buried within the scientific findings of its own report, “It is virtually certain that near-surface permafrost extent at high northern latitudes will be reduced as global mean surface temperature increases. By the end of the 21st century, the area of permafrost near the surface (upper 3.5 m) is projected to decrease by between 37% (RCP2.6) to 81% (RCP8.5) for the model average”[33]. The I.P.C.C. accepts that at least the top 10 feet of permafrost will be affected by significant melting and decomposition, but does not include the resulting carbon dioxide and methane emissions in its official calculations of climate sensitivity. This is a very significant omission as researchers who have included this carbon feedback from melting permafrost, not including any acceleration in carbon emissions from wetlands and methane hydrates, have concluded that it will add up to 0.75 degrees centigrade to global warming by the end of the twenty-first century[34]. Even this estimate could be quite conservative as another recent study found that as the permafrost melts and the organic matter within it decomposes, the chemical reactions that are triggered produce more climate changing gases than previously assumed, and create greater amounts of methane (which has a 20 year climate change effect 86 times that of carbon dioxide) relative to carbon dioxide[35].

The effects of climate change upon cloud formation and composition is an area that has created a great deal of variation in the level of climate sensitivity between climate models. One study that reviewed climate models found that those that modelled the cloud feedback mechanism more accurately produced a climate sensitivity that was double that assumed by the I.P.C.C.[36]

The effects of the current 0.8 degrees centigrade warming tend to support the need for a lower target for atmospheric carbon dioxide, as a number of environmental responses outstrip the forecasts utilized by the I.P.C.C. The most obvious example is that of the Arctic sea ice cover, which is shrinking much faster than the I.P.C.C. had predicted[37]. As early as 2009, some scientists started to use these actual decline rates to validate which climate model’s forecasts best predicted what was really happening to the Arctic sea ice. One such reassessment found that the models that best fit the real world data predicted much earlier dates for an ice free Arctic. The average prediction of the models was that the Arctic could be expected to be ice free by 2037, with a quarter of the models predicting a date of 2028[38]. The latest I.P.C.C. Assessment Report does state that a September ice-free Arctic is likely before 2050, but does not include the effect of the much higher energy absorption rates of dark open water versus white ice[39]. The effects of this reduced reflectivity increase dramatically as more areas become ice-free at the summer solstice in June, when there is 24 hours of daylight and the energy of the sun has the least amount of the earth’s atmosphere to travel through. One estimate puts the climate warming impact of a year round ice-free Arctic as equal to that of human greenhouse gas emissions, i.e. such an eventuality could double the rate of climate change[40].

Another very disturbing recent trend left out of the I.P.C.C. report is that of the increasingly chaotic behaviour of the Northern Hemisphere climate system, which may be caused by the differential warming of the Arctic and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere. The northern Jet Stream seems to be slowing down, creating a much more porous boundary between the two climate zones. This allows both cold air to travel more to the south and warmer air to enter the Arctic region[41]. Temperature anomalies of more than 10 degrees centigrade have been experienced in areas such as Alaska, Russia, and parts of the contiguous United States[42]. Some researchers propose that the Northern Hemisphere climate system is very sensitive to small changes in the temperature differential between the Arctic and the rest of the Northern Hemisphere[43] [44]. This produces the possibility of a relatively rapid shrinkage and eventual collapse of the Arctic climate zone, radically changing rainfall patterns (disastrous for major agricultural areas) and producing substantial increases in temperatures in the Arctic (which will increase the melting of permafrost, methane hydrates, sea ice, and ice sheets).

Such evidence has led climate scientists like James Hansen to call for a limit of 350 ppm[45] of carbon dioxide (we are already pretty much at 400) rather than the U.N. supported 450 ppm. Of course, if the U.N. accepts Hansen’s position, the soft and fluffy options disappear and the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat”[46] options raise their ugly heads.

Overall, the I.P.C.C. report uses a temperature target which is not scientifically based, and a matching emissions scenario, which even using its own models, gives just a 2 out of 3 chance of meeting that temperature target. Any scientific research which is deemed too open to uncertainty is not included which, for a rapidly developing and highly complex area such as climate science, leads to extremely important findings being ignored. Unfortunately the latest research tends to point to a worse, rather than better, situation which invalidates the I.P.C.C. emission targets. The incredible level of delusional thinking in some parts of human society is shown by those critics who frame what is a very conservative and politically watered-down I.P.C.C. Assessment Report as alarmist[47].

Natural Gas as a “Lower Carbon” Bridge Fuel

One of the most potent greenhouse gases, identified as a major villain in previous extinction events, is methane[48]. The stuff most people know as “natural gas” is predominantly methane, and is generally burnt for electricity and space heating. It does not stay in the atmosphere very long, but over a 20 year timeframe has 86 times the heat trapping effect of carbon dioxide[49]. When it is burnt, it does produce significantly less carbon dioxide than oil or coal, which is the basis of its reputation as a “low carbon” fuel. Unfortunately, as a gas it has a habit of leaking into the atmosphere in its unburnt state, and natural gas leakage of only a few per cent offsets the lower carbon when it is burnt.

Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency tell us that not enough methane leaks out to offset the carbon benefits, but the basis of such statements have been called into question by independent research. Such research has shown that significant leaks at both the drilling sites and end user sites more than offset the lower carbon production when burnt[50] [51]. Powering vehicles with natural gas instead of diesel will thus actually increase the rate of climate change, and the same goes for using natural gas to generate electricity. Given the ability of methane to generate significant climate effects in a short timeframe, possibly triggering irreversible positive feedbacks, the 20 year period of analysis is much more salient than the time period used by the I.P.C.C. and other researchers. The acceptance that natural gas is not cleaner than diesel or coal would cause huge issues with the very powerful and politically-connected gas exploration and production industries.

Carbon Capture & Storage (C.C.S)

The U.N. report places a huge emphasis on the use of C.C.S. to allow humanity to keep burning fossil fuels without the climate change consequences. This technology is still in the very early stages of development, with no commercially-viable plants in operation. A basic assumption is that huge amounts of carbon dioxide can be safely sequestered underground for thousands of years, with only 1% of the stored gas escaping for every thousand years of storage[52]. This assumption is open to question: the pressure from the stored gas may breach the reservoirs seals, and a fault slip of just a few centimetres would allow the carbon dioxide to escape[53]. The carbon dioxide could also leak out while it is being transported by pipeline from the fossil fuel powered power station to the injection site, a distance that could be hundreds of miles or more. If looked at from a life-cycle perspective there are additional offsets to the climate change benefit, such as the embedded energy in the massive infrastructure that will have to be put in place and the methane that will be released by the mining processes involved in supplying the additional coal required to power the capture process. The C.C.S. process is very energy intensive, requiring 25-40% more coal to produce as much energy as a plant not utilizing C.C.S.

Vattenfall, one of the largest European producers of electricity from lignite, which is the lowest grade of coal, has given up on its research into C.C.S. after ten years of work[54], and Norway has cancelled a large scale C.C.S. project which had suffered “years of delays and mounting costs” with the country’s Auditor General stating that “The complexity of implementing CCS was underestimated”[55]. The Sleipner carbon dioxide injection site off the coast of Norway has been in successful operation for many years, but this is storing the carbon dioxide that is a by-product of oil and gas production, not carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power stations. Thus, the carbon dioxide is produced close to the injection site, saving the large infrastructure that would be needed to transport between a power station and a distant injection site. Even in this case there have been concerns raised about the ability of the site to securely store the carbon dioxide over time[56]. In the United States, Kemper is building a coal-fired electricity plant which gasifies the coal before incineration and then captures 65% of the carbon dioxide produced in a liquid solvent. The plans are to sell the carbon dioxide to companies involved in Enhanced Oil Recovery (E.O.R.) work which inject the gas into old oil wells to increase pressure and thus force out more of the oil. The end result of this project, which has been impacted by delays and cost overruns (which have doubled the cost to US$5 billion), is an electricity plant which still emits as much carbon dioxide as one powered by natural gas[57]. In addition, the ability to offset costs through the sale of carbon dioxide for E.O.R. is limited at the industry level given the sheer scale of the carbon dioxide produced versus the E.O.R. market needs. At a demonstration project in Saskatchewan, Canada, a lignite-burning electric power plant is being retro-fitted to capture 90% of the resulting carbon dioxide. As with the Kemper plant, the carbon dioxide will be provided to an oil company to be used in nearby E.O.R. operations. The Canadian government will be picking up about 20% of the C$1.2 billion cost of the retrofit[58].

Vaclav Smil has estimated that humanity would have to build from scratch a, “worldwide absorption-gathering-compression-transportation-storage industry whose annual throughput would have to be about 70 percent larger than the annual throughput now handled by the global crude oil industry whose immense infrastructure … took generations to build”[59]. There are also numerous legal liability issues that need to be worked through with respect to the long term storage of carbon dioxide underground[60]. For example, who is responsible for the possible damages and lost lives caused by an escape of the sequestered gas? Added to that will be the local populations which will most probably resist the storage of a dangerous gas beneath the land upon which they live. The long drawn out and still unresolved issue of where to host storage sites for spent nuclear fuels comes to mind[61].

This is betting the future of human civilization upon an unproven and extremely expensive technology requiring a vast and leak-free implementation, together with the political will to overcome local resistance and to resolve the complex legal issues involved. Delusional seems too limited a word when placing humanity’s collective future upon the realization of such fanciful beliefs. Of course, without C.C.S., the coal industry will have to be shutdown if climate change emissions are to be kept within even the I.P.C.C.’s definition of safe levels.

Modern Society is Highly Resilient, Flexible and Open to Pain Sharing

The U.N. report notes that a significant portion of fossil fuel assets may be rendered worthless, as they cannot be burnt if climate change is to stay within the 2 degree centigrade limit[62]. Unfortunately, they do not follow this statement through to the possible societal impacts: the major one being the impact upon the financial system which serves to provide funding, liquidity, and the ability to make payments for the global economy. Nine out of the twelve most heavily capitalized corporations in the world are energy companies[63].

The Carbon Tracker initiative[64] was set up to identify such stranded unburnable fossil fuel resources, and the financial value placed upon them by the financial markets. They have estimated that only 20% of current fossil fuel reserves can be burnt without triggering discontinuous and irreversible climate change processes (using the I.P.C.C. cumulative carbon emission target). Carbon Tracker estimates the remaining amount, which cannot be exploited if climate change is to be kept within acceptable bounds, supports financial asset values of over $4 trillion, and debt servicing of over $1 trillion[65]. An acceptance of this reality by the markets would produce a very substantial market downturn, together with a credit crisis, given the scale of the assets involved. Fossil fuel extraction and processing industries continue to invest $100′s of billions in the discovery and development of new unburnable resources every year. This does not take into account new investments made by industries that utilize those fossil fuels, such as the ongoing development of the internal combustion engine. Such investment may also be severely devalued in a future of severely constrained fossil fuel supplies. The resulting financial crash would cripple the economy in a rerun of the 1930’s depression.

The I.P.C.C. also makes heroic assumptions about the ability of our highly complex globalized civilization to act both rapidly and flexibly. In fact, there are very large inertial forces within modern human societies which have been built around the availability of cheap fossil fuel energy. Such inertia can be provided by both physical elements, such as path-dependent energy infrastructure[66]; political resistance, such as the shareholders and executives of fossil-fuel related corporations[67]; and socio-psychological resistance to information that challenges fundamental world-views[68].

The equitable sharing of pain across groups within a single country and also between countries will be critically important to the speed at which required actions are taken. An example of this is the use of the draft during periods of war to share the sacrifices across economic groups. Although not perfect, the draft has been shown to be very successful in reducing tensions during times of war as all are seen to be doing their part. Unfortunately, at the time when shared and equitable sacrifices are required, the rich and powerful within society have both the ability and tendency to sidestep any pain sharing and instead transfer their share onto others. The 2008 financial crisis is illuminating, as the elites that created the crisis have generally managed to sidestep the consequences and force the less fortunate parts of society to bear the consequences[69] [70].

There is also very little sign of an openness to equitable pain sharing between countries. The most logical and equitable approach whereby the richer countries would accept much greater carbon emission reductions than the less wealthy countries, as the rich utilized an inordinate share of the carbon budget to achieve their current level of wealth, is most definitely a non-starter. Sustainable military and diplomatic power is heavily dependent upon economic power[71], although there are other variables at play, and therefore any country unilaterally accepting limits on carbon emissions which impact economic growth could be seen to be unilaterally disarming and thereby placing itself at a disadvantage vis à vis other countries. Hence, the proposals for “contraction and convergence”, whereby climate change emissions per capita would be equalized between countries, is a direct threat to the relative power of the United States (U.S.) given the much larger populations of China and India. The U.S. shows no signs of accepting any such reductions in its relative power position. Quite the opposite can be seen in the ongoing rivalry between the U.S. on the one hand and China and Russia on the other; the current (2014) events related to the crisis in the Ukraine being a good example of that rivalry[72].

Technocratic Delusions: Official Energy Forecasts

The International Energy Agency (I.E.A.) is the preeminent independent organization providing forecasts of future global energy supplies, through its annual World Energy Outlook publication. Its forecasts are used as the basis of future policy decisions by governments across the world. Unfortunately, this agency seems to be forever wearing rose coloured glasses, which the continual failure of their forecasts to match reality seems unable to remove[73]. In 2000 the I.E.A. predicted that global liquid fuel production in 2010 would be 95.8 million barrels per day (mbpd); the actual production in 2010 was 87.1 mbpd[74]. This error was the difference between low oil prices and the huge spike in energy prices that actually happened in the second half of the decade. Such over-optimism is repeated by the International Oil Companies and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (E.I.A)[75]. The one thing that these optimistic forecasts support is the belief that there is enough energy available to support the ”business as usual” of continued exponential economic growth for decades to come. At least some of this optimism may be politically driven, as claimed by some ex I.E.A. officials[76]. Laherrere puts the optimistic bias very well, “The industrial age, which started our consumption society, is based on cheap energy from fossil fuels. Our society is so used to growth (measured with a very poor indicator being GDP which represents expenditures and not wealth) that no one wants to foresee decline.”[77]

Another misrepresentation is the way in which different fossil fuel derived liquids are reported, without any correction for the differing energy densities or energy costs of production. It is the flow of net energy (the energy provided minus the energy utilized in exploration and production) upon which modern societies depend, not the raw production volumes which are mixed together in the category of Global Liquid Fuel Production. The I.E.A. combines a whole hodgepodge of heterogeneous liquids together within this category, such as conventionally produced crude oil, condensates, unconventionally-produced crude oil, natural gas liquids, and ethanol from corn and sugar.

Conventional Crude Oil and Condensates

Conventionally produced crude oil (push a hollow tube into the ground until it reaches the oil reservoir and the oil flows up the tube under its own pressure) can be said to be the “champagne” of liquid fuels, with high energy density and high, but declining, levels of net energy. Newer oil fields tend to be in much less accessible areas, to be much smaller than the older ones, and to have more difficult geologic characteristics. All of these factors increase the costs of extracting the oil with respect to the older fields. As those older fields age and deplete, the oil pressure falls, and huge amounts of water or gas have to be pumped in to keep the production volumes up. This again increases costs.

Condensates are usually produced in conjunction with natural gas production, and make up about 11% of what is generally called crude oil. They are not the same as crude oil though, and are usually blended with heavier crude oil with refiners tending to pay less for crude blended with condensates as there are limitations on what products can be produced from such a mix[78].

Unconventional Crude Oil and Natural Gas Liquids

Unconventional crude oil, such as that derived from bitumen from the Canadian Tar (yes, it’s tar not oil) Sands, or from Ultra Deep Sea wells, or from “fracked” wells, have significantly lower levels of net energy than that of conventional crude oil; as so much energy is used in their production, transportation, and in the case of the Tar Sands, the conversion into heavy oil[79]. The Natural Gas Liquids generally have an energy density of only 60-70% of conventional crude oil, and have limitations to their use as a liquid fuel[80].

Plant Derived Ethanol

Adding corn ethanol to global liquids production is actually double counting, given that the net energy is about zero, with biodiesel and sugarcane ethanol better, but still below, the net energy of conventional oil.

The raw production volumes that the I.E.A. emphasizes (with even a breakdown of the global liquids volumes excluded from presentations and publications made by the U.S. Energy Information Administration[81]) are a significant, and increasing, misrepresentation of the net energy available to power our complex human societies. As conventional crude and condensate production peaked in 2005, the share of unconventional oil, NGL, and biofuel production has increased as a share of the total global liquids production, and therefore the misrepresentation has become greater[82]. With even the net energy of crude and condensate declining, together with the net energy of natural gas production, some commentators have proposed that the peak net energy of global liquid fuel and gas production may have already been reached, contradicting the ongoing increase in volumes[83]. It is as if a wine producer had started to count the production of white wine as part of the champagne production statistics.

This issue also extends to coal production. The net energy of coal varies among locations. It is affected by differences in geology, differing types of coal which vary in energy densities, and varying levels of problematic properties such as sulphur content. For example, in the United States the ratio of energy gained to energy expended ranges from 40:1 to 80:1, while in China it is about 20:1[84]. Since the more energy dense and accessible coal tends to be mined first, the energy density of coal tends to fall over time as the more energy dense deposits become depleted. This is not reflected in the raw production numbers that are reported, as is the case in the United States where a decreased amount of energy provided has paralleled an increase in coal production due to ongoing reductions in the energy density of the coal being extracted.

Mainstream Environmentalist Delusions

The true level of required change to society, and the requisite level of reduction in wealth, is very hard for people to accept; especially when this is in direct opposition to the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of the population, and will most probably result in large amounts of suffering and strife. Also, there is a natural human desire to not deliver truly horrendous news and possibly be branded as an extremist or crank. This has lead to a large number of what can be referred to as “mainstream” environmentalist groups accepting the notion that economic growth must continue, while shying away from the hard messages. Instead they adopt somewhat escapist and delusional beliefs which support their claims that human societies can continue to grow while still moving towards a sustainable path within a few decades.

Vaclav Smil has captured the sheer enormity of the task of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, “Annual combustion of [fossil fuels] has now reached 10 billion tonnes of oil equivalent …. nearly 20 times larger than at the beginning of the 20th century … Energy transitions, shifts from a dominant source (or combination of sources) of energy to a new supply arrangement, or from a dominant prime mover to a new convertor – are inherently prolonged affairs whose duration is measured in decades or generations … It took natural gas about 60 years since the beginning of its commercial extraction (in the early 1870’s) to reach 5% of the global energy market, and then another 55 years to account for 25 percent.”[85]

Windmills, Solar, Bio-Fuel and Hydro-Power will Replace Fossil Fuels In a Few Decades

When coal, oil and natural gas are burnt, the resulting energy is released immediately. In addition, the infrastructure of mines and wells, transport and refinement mechanisms, and incineration modes are already in place – the massive investments required have already been made. For wind and solar things are completely different, as there is an upfront build for each new increment of capacity, and the resulting energy is only provided in small amounts over many years. This is not including the cost to upgrade electricity grids to be able to deal with fluctuating and dispersed power sources. Fossil fuel electricity generating installations tend to be highly concentrated and provide a reliably constant output. Wind and solar are subject to the vagaries of the weather, and the technologies required to store electricity during the peak periods of utilization to balance out fluctuations are not in place.

The many congratulatory announcements of growth in installed wind and solar capacity misrepresent the true situation. Even using the best locations possible, the utilization of that capacity is about 40% for wind, 20% for solar photovoltaic (PV), and 60% for concentrated solar (CSP)[86]. There are also the specious congratulatory statements about wind and solar providing a high percentage of a country’s electricity needs on a specific day, or even confusing electricity supply for the overall energy supply[87]. Of course, there is no mention of the non-windy, overcast days where they may be providing next to nothing and the fossil fuel generating plants are being fully utilized. In the absence of extremely cheap and scalable storage systems, redundant backup systems are needed, as with Germany, which assumes that it will be burning coal to produce electricity for decades to come[88]. This is why the possibility of connecting Germany’s electricity grid with Norway’s is being proposed by some, so that the latter’s huge pumped-water installations can be used as Germany’s big battery[89]. The amount of work required would be huge, complex and of course incredibly expensive.

Currently non-hydro renewable energy sources (wind, solar, bio-fuel, geo-thermal) provide 2.4% of the global energy supply[90]. The many press statements stating that “renewables” are a much bigger share include hydro-electricity which supplies approximately 6.7% of the global energy supply[91]. The expansion of hydro-electricity is limited by applicable sites, with only a doubling of current capacity probable. As many possible new sites are in the tropics, with concentrated levels of biomass, the construction of dams will add to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels even after they have been built, as the lush vegetation decays under the rising waters. Wind and solar can only produce electricity, with the former providing 2.3% of global electricity production in 2012, and solar providing less than 0.5%[92]. Using the relatively optimistic projections of the International Energy Agency’s (E.I.A.) “New Policies” scenario, wind and solar’s share of global electricity supply will only grow to 10% in 2035, with the most optimistic “450” scenario projecting a share of 18%[93]. With the inclusion of hydro and bio-fuel generating plants, the renewable share jumps to 48% in the “450” scenario. Even in this most optimistic scenario, will the renewables’ growth lead to a reduction in fossil-fuel generated electricity?

The most obvious answer may appear to be, “Of course, given the big increase in their share of electricity generation!” The renewables’ gain is treated as the fossil-fuel powered’s loss. The complication is that the usage of electricity grows in lockstep with the growth in the economy, and during the I.E.A. forecast period electricity usage is expected to have grown by about two thirds[94]. Nearly all the increase in renewable power generation is used up by the growth in demand and therefore there is very little actual reduction in fossil-fuel usage. As long as the economy keeps growing, energy demand will tend to grow, and thus the replacement of fossil fuels will be chasing an ever-increasing target. As James Hansen notes with respect to China, “It is true that China is leading the world in installation of renewable energies. However, … new fossil fuel energy output in China, mostly coal, exceeded new wind energy by a factor of six and new solar output by a factor of 27”[95]. This is the reality that has pushed climate scientists such as Hansen to consider that a massive expansion in nuclear energy is the only way in which atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations can be kept within an acceptable level[96]. Remember that this is just for electricity generation, which currently only utilizes about 40% of primary energy production.

Electric Cars Will Save Us

About a third of the global energy supply is provided by the extraction of oil and is predominantly used in internal combustion engines to drive cars, trucks, trains, and ships. There are currently more than one billion cars in the world, with only a tiny proportion not relying upon the internal combustion engine, and the number of cars is expected to roughly double by 2020. Although there has been some reduction in miles driven in the more affluent nations, this is being more than offset by growth within developing countries such as China and India, with China already having a higher number of car sales than the United States[97]. Global car production is expected to reach 85 million in 2014, of which about 400,000 will be plug-in hybrid or fully electric vehicles, and will be above 100 million by 2018[98]. The sheer scale of the challenge to replace a significant number of gasoline-powered cars with electric ones is shown by these figures. Even if all new car production was of electric cars from 2020 onwards, it would require two decades to replace the current fleet of gasoline-powered cars. That is, of course, not taking into account ongoing growth in the number of cars, which would take up a significant amount of new car production.

Whether or not electric cars help reduce carbon dioxide emissions depends upon how the electricity that they use is generated. If it is generated predominantly with fossil fuels then an electric car could be better referred to as a fossil fuel car, the only difference being that the fossil fuels are not directly incinerated by the car, but rather in far away power stations. As the Union of Concerned Scientists states, the “electric vehicle fleet will only be as clean and sustainable as the power grid it ultimately plugs into”, and they estimate that the average current mid-size electric cars would have the same emissions as a 30 miles per gallon gasoline powered car (their estimate for natural gas is 54 mpg, but that does not take into account methane leaks which offset much, if not all, of the difference between natural gas and coal)[99]. The widespread usage of electric cars will increase electricity demand, and given the inability of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels in electricity generation by 2035, the additional electricity will have to be supplied by coal and natural gas.

The benefits to the corporate world of pushing the “electric car as saviour” is evident in the celebration of “BMW’s sustainable supercar.”[100] The reality is a desperate attempt to continue with mindless consumption and waste, facilitated by the belief in technology, as epitomized by one writer’s lustful prose, “The i8 takes the LifeDrive technology and sexualizes it, in a dead cool, modernist luxury GT complete corner-gripping all-wheel drive and wing doors.”[101] Nothing about the amount of the earth’s resources needed at every stage of the production process, from the extraction of raw materials to the final assembly. Nothing about the energy mix that will be used to provide the required electricity. The car may have been designed to be light for its size, but it is still heavier than smaller cars. To call it sustainable is to render that word meaningless. In 1984-style doublespeak the unsustainable is transformed into the sustainable through some quick technology fixes and a huge dash of marketing.

Bio-fuels Will Save Us

Currently two countries produce 90% of global bio-fuel production; Brazil and the United States. Brazil is the only country in the world where the majority of cars are powered by bio-fuels. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Brazil enjoys the specific combination of advantages of a low population density, large amounts of fertile land, a climate that promotes the growth of the sugar cane from which the ethanol is derived, and car engines equipped to use fuel that is predominantly ethanol[102]. The countries where car use is expanding at the fastest rate, such as China and India, do not enjoy this combination of factors. Corn ethanol production, predominantly utilized in the United States, is nowhere near as efficient as Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol production. At best it uses as much energy to grow, harvest and process the corn as the resulting ethanol provides and therefore does not reduce carbon dioxide emissions. At the societal level, the usage of 40% of the U.S. corn crop to produce ethanol that provides 10% of U.S. gasoline consumption[103] makes absolutely no sense, and the corn ethanol industry would not exist without government subsidies and mandates. Cellulosic ethanol has been put forward as a much more efficient alternative to corn ethanol, but there are no commercial plants currently operating and it is at least a decade away from being commercially provided in significant amounts[104].

A more fundamental issue with the use of plants to replace significant amounts of fossil fuels with bio-fuels is the assumption that there are large amounts of unused biomass available within the earth’s ecosystems. Nature does not produce waste; instead, biomass serves as food and nutrients for animals, insects, and the soil. This is emphasized by a report that the removal of crop residue from fields to produce bio-fuels will cause the soil to degrade and lose increased amounts of carbon to the atmosphere[105]. It is estimated that, at current growth rates, humanity will be using more than 50% of the earth’s Net Primary Production (N.P.P.)[106] by 2050, with the assumption of no increases in the use of that N.P.P. to produce transportation fuel. Any increase in what humanity takes has to be at the cost of other consumers, resulting in accelerated species loss and soil degradation. The International Energy Authority is cognizant of the ecological limits to the use of bio-fuels, and states that the use of agricultural and forestry residues will depend upon “the sustainable portion that must remain in the field to replenish the soils and maintain future crop yields”, and estimates that bio-fuels will grow from 3% of world transport fuels currently to only 8% in 2035[107]. Fossil fuels are the result of millions of years of photosynthesis compacted into incredibly energy dense forms. With bio-fuels only the current product of photosynthesis is available, and thus they will never be able to match the amounts of energy made available through the formation of fossil fuels.

Nuclear Energy Will Save Us

A number of scientists, environmentalists and other commentators have embraced nuclear energy as the only solution to keep climate concentrations of greenhouse gases within acceptable limits and/or overcome fossil fuel depletion. Many, like James Hansen, have arrived at this point after accepting that the new renewables of solar and wind cannot replace fossil fuels within a viable timeframe and that an end to economic growth is not an option. With respect to the latter point Hansen writes, “Global energy consumption will continue to rise for decades. Why? First, population is likely to reach about nine billion before it begins to decline, even in the best case. Second, developing-world energy use is still rising as it must to achieve living standards that allow their emphasis to be on more than survival. Even China, though most of its population is now above the poverty line, will use more energy, because its economic development and the well-being of its citizens are not yet at the point where energy needs level out. Third, in the developed world, despite improving energy efficiency and assertions by some people that they will live low energy lifestyles, there is no indication of a dramatic decline in overall energy use. People travel and plan to continue to travel. Small declines in energy use in the developed world are so far a consequence mainly of outsourcing of manufacturing, not low-energy lifestyles”[108].

This is an excellent description of a number of the formidable inertial tendencies that exist to drive humanity’s energy use higher, but Hansen falls into the sustainable development trap, stating that, “I believe that the best hope for preserving Earth’s environment and its invaluable abundance of life is through intelligent economic development, and economic development requires a substantial level of affordable energy”[109]. The assumption is that what is needed is yet more of the exponential economic growth that has got humanity into its current predicament, with technology finding a trap door to facilitate escape. The trap door that Hansen proposes is a massive increase in nuclear installations to provide cheap energy without carbon emissions, while ignoring the intensifying levels of pressure that continued growth will produce on the mineral deposits and ecological systems upon which humanity depends. This is reminiscent of the economists trick of assuming that “all other things will remain equal” when of course they never do. Climate Change is only one of the probable causes of human societal collapse, as detailed in the report “Limits to Growth” in 1974 by the Club of Rome[110], with its forecasts found to be worryingly accurate in recent analyses[111] [112]. Climate change is a symptom of the real underlying cause which is the exponential growth of humanity’s claims upon the earth.

Even if we focus just on the symptom of climate change, Hansen’s proposals for a massive nuclear renaissance have some serious shortcomings. Nuclear energy currently provides only 4.9% of global energy usage[113], and crises such as Chernobyl and Fukushima have shown some of the risks of nuclear fission together with fuelling public aversion to it as an energy source. Among the casualties of such large and costly failures, together with a history of large construction cost overruns, has been commercial insurance which is not a viable option for the nuclear industry. This hurdle has been overcome by governments taking on the responsibility for the excessive costs of accidents, providing loan guarantees, allowing utilities to pass extra costs onto the consumer, providing outright subsidies, or building and operating the plants themselves. In addition, all of the government funded research is provided free to the industry. When accidents happen, many of the costs also tend to be socialized as they overwhelm the ability of any private company to meet them.

The large subsidies, as well as the cost of storing depleted nuclear material possibly for thousands of years into the future, are not reflected in industry cost structures. There are also decommissioning costs which may exceed US$1 billion per unit[114]. Given these difficult cost issues, plus the highly divisive and politicized nature of nuclear power, it is very hard to gain an accurate EROI for nuclear power. Charles Hall estimates it at probably no greater than 5:1.[115], which is well below that needed to support our current civilization’s level of complexity. In essence the high net energy provided by fossil fuels has allowed humanity the luxury of utilizing nuclear fission as an energy source. Thoughts of replacing the much higher net energy source of coal and natural gas powered electricity generating plants with nuclear ones need to take into account the very significant differences in net energy rather than just looking at gross energy outputs.

Proponents of a nuclear renaissance claim that new designs, and lessons learnt by the industry over the past few decades, allow for cheaper and easier to implement nuclear power plants. A simple test of this is to look at the experience of the most recent projects. In 2005, the construction of the Olkiluoto 3 plant in Finland commenced. It was estimated that it would cost 3.2 billion Euro to build and would be in operation by 2009. The estimated cost has now escalated to 8.5 billion Euro, there is no date for the plant to be ready for operation, and the project is now the subject of “one of the biggest conflicts in the history of the construction sector”[116] [117]. In France, the construction of the Flamanville 3 nuclear plant commenced in 2007, with costs estimated at 3.3 billion Euro and a completion date of 2013. Costs have now escalated to 8 billion Euro and the estimated completion date has moved out to 2016[118]. The two projects in the United States, at Vogtle and V.C. Summer seem to be doing somewhat better, but the former has already experienced an 18 month delay and a US$900 million cost overrun half way through construction[119], and the latter has experienced a 9 month delay and a US$500 million overrun at an early stage[120]. In October 2013 the U.K. government signed a deal with the French company EDF to build a new nuclear power station which would be operational in 2023. It is of the same type used at both Olkiluoto and Flamanville. The deal includes a 25 year commitment to an electricity price which is twice the current U.K. wholesale price, indexed to inflation, and a 10 billion pound loan guarantee. The European Commission has raised serious concerns about the project, and is undertaking an in-depth review of the deal[121]. China is driving forward with its expansion of nuclear power, but has scaled back plans for new plants prior to 2015, and has experienced some cost and schedule overruns with respect to newer designs[122].

Many of the current nuclear power installations were constructed decades ago and are reaching the end of their operating life, which is about 40 years. Nearly 45% of nuclear plants worldwide are over 30 years old; over 90% have been operating for over 20 years[123]. Some have had their useful life extended through renovations and the loosening of regulatory standards, especially in the United States, but such extensions are limited. With such a large number of aging nuclear power stations, construction of new nuclear generating capacity may only balance the retirement of current plants, especially in countries such as the United States and France which have large numbers of aging plants. To maintain this balance at the global level it has been estimated that approximately 20 new nuclear power installations will be needed per year to offset the removal of aging ones[124]. Large complex pieces of engineering tend to have issues at the start of operation and as they approach/pass their designed end of life. This may mean that the possibilities of accidents or damage that would lead to retirements may have been under-estimated.

Four U.S. nuclear plants have recently been closed; San Onofre and Crystal River due to damage and safety concerns, Vermont Yankee and Kewaunee due to a lack of competitiveness. The ability to extend the life of the remaining 99 nuclear plants by regulators is also coming under political pressure, as is the case with the Indian Point plant[125]. France faces the same challenge, as about half of its 58 nuclear reactors will reach the end of their 40-year design life in the 2020’s. The operator is arguing for the 10 to 20 year extensions as has happened in the United States although the French regulator will only give a first opinion on this in 2015. A continuance with the current fleet of reactors, combined with their eventual replacement, has been estimated as costing about 300 billion Euro[126]. In the United Kingdom, eight of the nine nuclear power stations are scheduled to close by 2023[127].

Nuclear power stations have a number of vulnerabilities to both weather and geologic events. First, to provide cooling, they need to be located next to water sources such as the sea coasts or along rivers. This means that floods and coastal storms can render them inoperable. This was not only seen at Fukushima following the Japanese earthquake, but also at the Fort Calhoun facility near Omaha, Nebraska. Photographs of the Fort Calhoun plant surrounded by the flooding Missouri river and protected by a giant “rubber barrier” vividly illustrated the risk of such floods[128]. Two years later, in early 2013, the plant had still not re-entered service. In 2012 Hurricane Sandy underlined the vulnerability of coastal nuclear facilities. Many were shut down for safety reasons as Sandy approached. Climate Change is destined to bring more intense rain events, raise sea levels and intensify storms. If the climate sensitivity to increased levels of carbon dioxide is as high as Hansen considers it is, is it sensible to construct more nuclear facilities that could be compromised by extreme weather events and sea level rise? In addition, what would have been the effect if on 9/11 the planes had been flown into nuclear facilities close to population centres? A world riven by the effects of climate change and resource constraints will certainly not be a safer one than the present.

Uranium is also a depleting resource. Nearly half of the demand in the past couple of decades was filled from existing uranium stockpiles or by the retirement of nuclear weapons as part of the 1993 “Megatons to Megawatts” deal between the U.S. and Russia. Just as with the fossil fuels, the easier deposits of uranium were mined first; newer mines have lower concentrations of uranium and higher costs. Canada is the only country with untapped ore grades of 1% (from which the mining of 100 pounds of ore yields 1 pound of uranium); the majority of the rest of the world has ore grades below 0.1%, with two thirds of that being below 0.06%[129]. Between the exhaustion of stockpiles and reductions in supplies from weapons decommissioning, it has been estimated that uranium mining output will have to increase by about 50% to continue supplying current demand. Taking into account planned growth, it has been estimated that economically viable uranium deposits could be depleted within 30 years[130]. Investment in the uranium mining industry went through a two decade slump from which it has only recovered in the last few years. Given the need to increase output by at least 50% to meet both continuing demand together with ongoing increases should nuclear usage grow, at least a doubling of uranium mining may be required. However, the opening of a new uranium mine can be a long and arduous process. One recent project, Cameco’s Cigar Lake mine, has been delayed by over five years due to repeated flooding[131]. The technology for sifting uranium from sea water has been proposed, but is at a very early stage of development with further research needed in realistic marine settings and pilot plants. This is a technology which is theoretically possible but has not been proven to be practical in a real world setting nor scaled up to produce commercially-viable volumes.

After being used to generate electricity, spent nuclear fuel can be reprocessed to recover usable fissile materials that can be used to generate about 30% more electricity. As with nuclear reactors, very large up-front investments are required to build reprocessing plants before output begins. Reprocessing also requires uranium prices as high as $360 per ounce to be profitable[132]. A report commissioned by the French Prime Minister in 2000 estimated that France would have saved $33.5 billion by not reprocessing nuclear fuel[133]. By 2018 both of the United Kingdom’s reprocessing plants will have been shut down, and half of the remaining global capacity will be provided by the single La Hague facility in France[134]. Another quarter of the remaining global capacity will be supplied by the Japanese Rokkasho facility, which after several decades of construction will be ready for operation in October 2014[135]. A major issue though is that none of the expected plutonium-burning fast reactors have materialized, and consequently, no civilian market for the plutonium produced by the plant. Also, as noted by the Centre for Public Integrity, such a plant represents a tempting target for terrorists[136].

Fast breeder reactors promise more efficient use of the source materials, but also involve even greater levels of engineering complexity than conventional nuclear reactors, and no commercially viable fast breeder reactor has ever been built. There have been other possibilities proposed, such as Thorium-based reactors and the TerraPower traveling wave design, but these are still either on the drawing board or at the early prototype stage at best. The time from where they currently stand to large scale usage is probably counted in decades. The promise of nuclear fusion is still at least 30 years in the future[137].

It is impressive that James Hansen has managed to work through so many layers of delusion, but disappointing that he has fallen for yet another technocratic fix instead of accepting the reality that it is the continued exponential growth of humanity’s claims upon the earth which is the underlying problem and that yet more technocratic fixes are not the real solution. That lies in the messy and difficult world of politics and social change within which Hansen has also valiantly worked.

Any Version of “Business As Usual” is Not Tenable

Humanity faces a predicament, an uncomfortable situation from which a graceful exit is impossible. All of the different layers of delusion share the drive to avoid the painful reality that society will have to go through wrenching changes on the path to sustainability. Economies will have to shrink, and living standards fall; especially in the richer countries. Whether it be from climate change, cheap energy shortages, or some other side effect of humanity’s exponential growth in its claims upon the earth, if this reality is not accepted and acted upon, modern complex human society will not see the end of this century.

In the 1930’s Winston Churchill railed against the threat of Nazi Germany but no one wanted to listen to him. Instead, Britain’s leaders wanted to remain within their comfortable world by grasping the delusional thoughts that Hitler was really a nice chap who would listen to reason and be fobbed off with a few limited concessions over a nice cup of tea. Such delusional thinking led to the “peace with honour” settlement of Munich[138]. Only when the delusions were shattered by the invasion of Poland was Churchill’s viewpoint accepted and those of the previous leaders’ swept away. Britain then only survived through blind luck and mistakes made by the German high command[139].

Humanity as a whole now stands in the same position with respect to the impacts of its continued exponential growth as Britain did with respect to Nazi Germany. If actions had been taken early on, the cost may have been relatively small, but we are now well past that point – no matter how much the endless layers of delusion would have us believe otherwise. Without an acceptance of reality, and the commitment and acceptance of the required challenges, privations, and sacrifices reminiscent of a world war, modern human civilization will not survive. The truth is that there will be a lot of “blood, toil, tears and sweat” on the way to a sustainable future. Just like the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, our complex societies have a choice between a rapidly diminishing possibility of a difficult escape or assured destruction


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Roger Boyd

I have a BSc in Information Systems from Kingstom University U.K., an MBA in Finance from Stern School of Business at New York University, USA, and a MA in Integrated Studies from Athabasca University, Canada. I have worked within the financial industry for the past 25 years, and am also a research member of the B.C. Alberta Social Economy Research Alliance (BALTA) looking at the linkages between issues of sustainability and models of ownership and finance. Most recently I have completed a book, to be published shortly by Springer, titled “Energy and the Financial System”.

Tags: climate change, Denial, peak oil, United Nations