With the wholesale price for US crude oil famously, if briefly, turning negative recently, and – slightly less famously – with commenters in a thread under my last post suggesting that it’s technically straightforward to transition the existing energy system largely to renewables, it feels the time is right to address some post-lockdown and post-carbon energy realities. Let me state my three-part thesis upfront:
- It is not going to be easy technically or in any other way to transition the existing energy system to a low carbon one
- This means there will be profound changes in human societies over the coming decades
- It serves no sound purpose to dismiss the implications of (1) and (2) as ‘apocalyptic’
A recent paper published in Nature Climate Change and reported here seems corroboratory of my thesis in concluding that “merely adding new technologies is unlikely to bring the climate challenge under control, unless we also deliver behavioural, cultural and economic transformations” and that “technological promises allow those benefitting from the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and the comfortable lifestyles it enables to justify those practices to themselves”.
But let’s get going with a few facts and figures. Cautious estimates like those of the IPCC suggest that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about half within a decade and to net zero by 2050 if we’re to avoid global average temperature increases in excess of 2oC over preindustrial levels at century’s end, at which point the consequences of global heating are likely to be severely detrimental to human wellbeing (and the wellbeing of many other organisms).
GHG emissions are mostly caused by the combustion of fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal), so a key necessity for climate change mitigation is to transition the global energy economy out of fossil fuels. And the fact is, this hasn’t yet begun to happen. Globally in 1965, we consumed energy to the tune of 3,485 million tonnes of oil equivalent (TOE) from fossil fuels. By 2018 that figure had leapt to over 11,700 million TOE. And we can’t blame all this on population increase. In 1965, global fossil fuel use was 1.05 TOE per capita, whereas in 2018 it was 1.55.
These figures show that, far from a transition out of fossil fuels, our use of them has been amplifying. True, our use of lower carbon energy sources has increased at a faster rate than fossil fuels, to the extent that in 2018 the proportion of global energy consumption contributed by fossil fuels was ‘only’ 85%, whereas in 1965 it was 94%. But since we need to be sharply reducing fossil fuel use rather than increasing it, as at present, this is cold comfort. And most of the low carbon energy sources we’ve added since 1965 have been high-cost nuclear and hydroelectric projects with questionable environmental implications and limited potential for roll-out beyond a handful of countries. Only 4% of current global energy consumption comes from sources other than nuclear, hydro or fossil fuels.
This picture is set to change dramatically in the short-term with the Covid-19 crisis. Plummeting energy demand has hit the fossil energy sector disproportionately, which I’d suggest is partly because fossil fuels disproportionately service the non-electricity sector, and partly because once renewable capacity is installed the sun, wind and water that powers it cost nothing. But it would be misleading to conclude that the Covid-19 crisis is fostering an energy transition. If and when normal activity returns, so will fossil fuel use. Some people are saying that the fossil energy downturn we’re currently seeing due to Covid-19 could become the new normal. To me, that seems fanciful unless the new normal also encompasses the end of economic growth, the end of urbanization and the end of intensifying global economic linkage – and even then it may not be enough to reduce GHG emissions adequately. I’ll touch on those issues some more below, and in my next post, I hope. In the meantime, I’d suggest the present short-run decline in fossil energy use does not a renewable energy transition make.
Maybe not, the argument sometimes goes, but why look downheartedly backwards at how the energy economy has unfolded up to now when, Covid-19 or not, there are reasons to look optimistically forwards towards an impending energy transition? I guess I’d find it easier to endorse this view if there was actually any evidence that one is underway – though bearing in mind that we probably need to cut emissions in half within ten years, it’s quite possible that an energy transition that starts today is still going to be too late. I’m also mindful of Professor McLaren’s view in the Nature Climate Change article I mentioned: all this heralding of game-changing technologies that are just around the corner may amount to little more than greenwashing of current high energy lifestyles.
But let’s try to get a bit more of a handle on the energy transition that’s needed. Take a look at this table:
|Year – 2018
|Fossil energy consumption (TOE per capita)
|% Energy consumption from fossil fuels
Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019 and World Development Indicators
Most of the heralding for an energy transition I encounter comes in the form of small-to-medium scale investment in new electricity capacity in rich countries, where for a whole host of reasons the smart investment money undoubtedly is in renewables. And don’t get me wrong – I largely welcome such moves. I’ve even moved there myself, with my farm’s electricity, space, water-heating and (shortly) some of its transport running off renewables. But to make a convincing argument that we’re on the brink of a sustainable energy transition, small-scale electricity investment in rich countries is irrelevant. Instead, you need to put yourself in the shoes of the government in South Africa, or Bangladesh, or Indonesia, or various other global powerhouses of economic growth and industrialization shown in the table above, and then explain how they’re going to junk most of their energy sectors over the next decade or two and substitute the same level of energy capacity from low carbon sources. You need to explain how they’ll prematurely decommission their fossil energy infrastructures and create new ones affordably with per capita GDPs somewhere between about a sixth and a fortieth of US levels. And you need to explain why they’d be willing to sign up to this transition, when much richer countries are using proportionately far more fossil energy while failing to transition themselves.
There are levels and levels here that make the prospects for such a transition profoundly slim. Close connections between governments and the fossil energy industry varying from institutional inertia through to outright graft rightly gain attention from environmentalists, but are only the most superficial problem – though, even so, we seem to keep electing governments like the Trump administration or the Conservatives in the UK with absurdly pro-fossil fuel policies. The global inequities I mentioned that make it unlikely poorer countries will transition is another major problem. But even with the will, the sheer difficulty of transitioning an entire national and international economy and its infrastructure is formidable. If you’re looking to install a few megawatts of new electricity capacity, renewables may well be the cheapest route. It doesn’t follow that junking our global 11.7 billion TOE fossil energy capacity in favour of renewables is likewise cheaper.
We easily fall into the trap of saying that the obstacles to transition are ‘only’ political, and not technical. We might just as well say that the feasibility of transitioning is ‘only’ technical, but not practical – because not political. But I’m not even sure that a transition is technically feasible. Take solar electricity generation, which is widely touted as the best renewable option. To cut fossil fuel use by half globally in the next decade in favour of solar electricity, we’d have to increase global consumption of the latter from present levels forty-four fold in those ten years. To be persuaded that such a transition is even technically possible, I’d need to see some kind of plausibly costed manufacturing, siting and implementation plan, not generalities about how we’re on the brink of an energy revolution, or about how the marginal cost of installing small new renewable capacity is lower than for fossil fuels.
Likewise, to make a plausible case that a business-as-usual global economy can be sustained by renewables, it’s necessary to show not that it’s possible to smelt iron or manufacture fertilizer with renewable energy (it is) but that it’s possible to produce the 1.3 billion tonnes of steel or 120 million tonnes of N fertilizer manufactured annually at something like present prices, along with the numerous other products that currently make the (human) world go round as it does.
Of course, there’s a logical flaw in my statement above that to cut fossil fuels by half we’d need to install an equivalent amount of solar capacity. Instead, we could cut fossil fuels by half and not replace them with anything. Once we start thinking in terms of decreasing energy use, a new world of possibilities opens up. This, far more than any low carbon energy source du jour, is surely the real game changer.
So, looking again at the table above, let’s forget the 6.0 TOE of fossil energy used by each Canadian resident, or the 2.3 used by each UK one, or the 2.0 by each Chinese one or the 1.55 used by the ‘average’ citizen of the world. Let’s aim for something lower – very much lower, in the case of some countries. Can we achieve it just through efficiency savings? If so, please show me how. Because really I think the debate we need to be having, which is badly overdue, is what kind of different world a low energy world would look like. What kind of farming would we have? What kind of industry? What kind of health and social care? What kind of settlement patterns?
I’m not going to get into that here. I’ve written about it before, I’ve written about it in my forthcoming book, and hopefully I’ll write about it again. My view is that if we play a skillful hand, that kind of world could be more congenial for more people than the present one. And of course, the technical difficulties of using less energy are slighter than those of replacing fossil energy with renewables. The political difficulties remain profound. So that’s where we need to concentrate most of our efforts, not in dreaming up implausible scenarios for how to replace 11.7 billion TOE fossil fuel consumption with low carbon alternatives. The political difficulties of energy descent are much lessened globally if the small number of rich and powerful countries that use way above their share of fossil fuels become demonstrably committed to rapid energy descent. Which puts considerable onus politically on those of us who live in such countries.
Regrettably, I’m doubtful that we’ll actually see such an energy descent. I daresay there’ll be some fiddling around the edges, which might put us a bit lower than the 3.7-4.8oC heating over preindustrial temperatures by century’s end that we’re currently headed towards, but I’m not convinced it’ll be by enough to avoid apocalyptic outcomes. And I’d suggest that anyone who scorns the word ‘apocalyptic’ to describe 3.7-4.8oC heating probably isn’t paying attention.
But supposing we do achieve adequate energy descent. Doubtless there’ll be those who’ll consider the resulting world of labour-intensive horticulture, localized economies, ruralization and deindustrialization apocalyptic, or some variant of those other shopworn standbys – romantic, nostalgic or primitivist. But in all honesty I think it’s these folks who are living in the past. This is the world we now need to work towards, and to make as congenial as we can. It’s not a world with no industry or no machinery. Techno-utopians tend to pose dualities of the form if not a John Deere X9, then a stone sickle. This isn’t the choice we face. But we do face hard choices, and they won’t get easier if we waste time heralding the latest save-our-ass technology and deriding those working towards an adequately low energy future for their apocalypticism.
Earlier, I said that I largely welcome efforts to transition into renewables. I also said that we need to put most of our efforts into the politics of that transition, and to initiate an overdue debate about the kind of lower energy worlds we might create. Here’s why. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies pull in the same direction as those working politically to create more equitable, lower energy societies, then we gain strength from each other and make a fair and sustainable world more likely. Inasmuch as those working directly on implementing low carbon energy technologies prioritize replacing the existing fossil energy infrastructure with an equivalent low carbon one, then our efforts will probably be mutually undermining. My request to those working in the renewable energy industry is to ask themselves before undertaking any new project: “Will this help people to live a lower energy lifestyle than they previously did?” – which, regrettably, is not something we can say of the low carbon energy installed globally to date. If they can’t answer yes to the question, I’d request they dump the project and seek another one. It’s urgent.