Citizen Action Monitor

Without drastic cuts in our consumption, cutting emissions alone won’t halt environmental decline

Even if we transition to renewables, our use of natural resources to make more stuff to consume will continue to grow.

No 2517 Posted by fw, September 6, 2019

Ian Boyd

“Reaching net zero emissions has become the focal point of government efforts to halt climate and ecological breakdown. It is easy to aim for but much more difficult to deliver – and worse, we may be focusing on the wrong objective. During my past seven years spent as chief scientific adviser at the UK’s environment ministry, it has become clear to me that even if governments succeed in reaching net zero by 2050, it may do nothing significant to halt environmental decline. To produce goods and services, the global economy needs materials – and that means growing or mining natural resources. Since the industrial revolution, the rate at which we have been using these resources has been increasing, and in the last 15 years this rate has accelerated considerably. As an example, China used 50% more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in the whole of the 20th century.”Ian Boyd, The Conversation

Sir Ian Lamont Boyd FRSB FRSE is a Scottish zoologist, environmental and polar scientist, former Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and is a professor of biology at the University of St Andrews.

Here’s a summary of Boyd’s main ideas as presented in his article, reposted below. Greenhouse gases, a waste output of the global economy, have to be eliminated in order to halt global heating. But curbing GHG waste outputs without also cutting natural resource inputs will cause an increase in global heating. Energy is needed to create everything we consume, and the total energy costs of consumption are not declining. And even if we transition to renewables, our input of natural resources will continue to grow. Global economic growth increases resource use which drives up energy use. As accessible resource stocks are depleted, energy, environmental costs of accessing new stocks increase, leading to other complications. There appears to be no way out – not tech fixes, not renewables, not R&D innovations. We must stop treating Earth as an infinite repository of natural resources. The only way to reduce global economy’s damaging waste output is to reduce our material input. To do this, we need a different model of economic prosperity, but governments and citizens are not going to like the proposed solutions – taxation, regulation, and public investment. Here’s how to redress the current imbalance between the short-term value of consuming and the long-term value of safeguarding our environment. There is only one way out – governments and citizens must drastically reduce the amount they demand of the global economy. Failure to live in harmony with the natural world will relegate us to the waste dump.

Below is a repost of Ian Boyd’s article, featuring my added subheadings, text highlighting, a couple of added hyperlinks, and notes in [square brackets]. As well, there is a See Also reference at the end.

To read Boyd’s original piece on The Conversation’s website, click on the following linked title.

**********

Focusing on cutting emissions alone won’t halt ecological decline, we must consume less – former UK chief environmental adviser by Ian Boyd, The Conversation, September 2, 2019

Eye on the wrong prize? Even if net zero emissions is reached by 2050, it may do nothing to halt environmental decline

Reaching net zero emissions has become the focal point of government efforts to halt climate and ecological breakdown. It is easy to aim for but much more difficult to deliver – and worse, we may be focusing on the wrong objective. During my past seven years spent as chief scientific adviser at the UK’s environment ministry, it has become clear to me that even if governments succeed in reaching net zero by 2050, it may do nothing significant to halt environmental decline.

The global use of natural resources also drives environmental decline, and our rate of resource use is increasing

To produce goods and services, the global economy needs materials – and that means growing or mining natural resources. Since the industrial revolution, the rate at which we have been using these resources has been increasing, and in the last 15 years this rate has accelerated considerably. As an example, China used 50% more cement between 2011 and 2013 than the US did in the whole of the 20th century.

What does the relationship of the greenhouse effect and the 2nd law of thermodynamics have to do with waste?

The second of Newton’s seminal laws of thermodynamics* tells us that the outputs of a stable system have to equal its inputs – and the global economy is no exception. Because the economy – and in particular the circular economy** – is still growing, THE INCREASE IN WASTE [OUTPUTS] LAGS A LITTLE BEHIND THE INCREASE IN INPUTS of natural resources. However, retention of materials in the economy is temporary. ALL MATERIALS WILL EVENTUALLY EXIT AS WASTE, WHETHER IN MINUTES OR CENTURIES. [* For a summary explanation of the greenhouse effect and the 2nd law of thermal dynamics, see the reference at the bottom of this post][**An economic system aimed at outputting waste while continuing inputting of natural resources].

Greenhouse gases, a waste output of the global economy, have to be eliminated in order to halt global heating  

Greenhouse gases are among the quickest of the global economy’s waste products to be felt, and eliminating emissions is essential if we are to halt catastrophic global heating.

But curbing GHG waste outputs without also cutting natural resource inputs will cause increase in global heating

But focusing our efforts on curbing one of the waste outputs without addressing how much we’re putting into the system is like putting a bung in a car’s tail pipe and hoping nothing will go wrong.

Just one drop in the more than 2500 billion tonne ocean of waste humanity has expelled from the global economy. Avigator Fortuner/Shutterstock

Energy is needed to create everything we consume, and the total energy costs of consumption are not declining

Everything we consume needs energy to create, and while we are making progress at reducing the energy costs per unit consumption, current evidence does not indicate that the total energy costs of consumption are declining.

And even if we transition to renewables, our input of natural resources will continue to grow

Even if the world’s energy demands stay the same, our transition away from fossil fuels will require massive amounts of new renewable infrastructure, which will in turn require vast quantities of raw materials.

Global economic growth increases resource use which drives up energy use

Global stocks of most basic resources aren’t low – although sand for construction is already becoming scarce. But when you consider that the projected trend is for energy demand to nearly double by 2050 as developing economies consume more, skyrocketing resource use is likely to become a serious problem.

As accessible resource stocks are depleted, energy, environmental costs of accessing new stocks increase, leading to other complications

As the most accessible deposits of resources become depleted, the energy and environmental costs of accessing further reserves increase. Eventually, we will be faced with a dangerous excess of new forms of waste, or worse, run out of a crucial building block of the global economy.

There appears to be no way out – not tech fixes, not renewables, not R&D innovations

If we think that technology can come to the rescue, then we are almost certainly mistaken. Claims about the rapidity with which we can transition away from fossil fuels are exaggerated, and evidence suggests that levels of innovation within advanced economies is declining, in spite of continuous investment in research and development.

Less in, less out

We must stop treating Earth as an infinite repository of natural resources

If we continue on our current trajectory, then by 2050 the amount of waste we produce, in all its forms, is likely to be three to four times what we produce now. It’s difficult to say exactly how soon resource use and resulting waste will become a problem with existential implications. But its crucial that we stop treating the planet as a bottomless pool of resources long before that point. We must act now, before the task becomes any harder.

The only way to reduce global economy’s damaging waste output is to reduce our material input

To do this, as a society we must focus not on emissions themselves, but on the root cause behind them – consumption. If we truly want to reduce the damaging waste produced by our global economy, then we need to reduce the amount of materials we put into it.

How much stuff do you really need? Monika Kozub/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

We need a different model of economic prosperity, but governments and citizens are not going to like the proposed solutions – taxation, regulation, and public investment

We need policies that are explicitly designed to reduce demand and build a very different model of economic prosperity. Governments need to pull their three main strings – public investment, regulation and taxation – in concert, and across all departments. That’s a gargantuan task. To oversee such a shift, governments could create a department with the explicit remit of realigning the entrenched economic priorities of all other departments.

Here’s how to redress the current imbalance between the short-term value of consuming and the long-term value of safeguarding our environment

  • At a fundamental level, this means moving away from maximizing growth, and incorporating ecological principles into economics.
  • The fact that we can currently exchange non-material wealthin which growth, mainly driven by the services economy, is potentially limitless – for material wealth is placing unsustainable demands on limited natural resources.
  • Meanwhile, the environmental costs of these resources are usually not accounted for, and natural resources with no commercial value are treated as essentially valueless.

Only by addressing these flaws can we redress the imbalance between the short-term value of consuming and the long-term value of safeguarding our environment.

Governments and citizens must drastically reduce the amount they demand of the global economy

There is no free lunch when it comes to halting climate and environmental breakdown. It is simply not feasible for everybody on the planet to consume at the rate of the average European of North American, and we should not create the expectation that this is possible. Instead, established economic powers and their citizens must drastically reduce the amount they demand of the global economy.

Failure to live in harmony with the natural world will consign us to the waste dump

If not, our efforts to live in harmony with the natural world will join the waste heap too.

SEE ALSO

The greenhouse effect and the 2nd law of thermodynamics, by Tony Wildish, Skeptical Science, (July 2015?) To summarize: Heat from the sun warms the Earth, as heat from your body keeps you warm. The Earth loses heat to space, and your body loses heat to the environment. Greenhouse gases slow down the rate of heat-loss from the surface of the Earth, like a blanket that slows down the rate at which your body loses heat. The result is the same in both cases, the surface of the Earth, or of your body, gets warmer. So global warming does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. And if someone tells you otherwise, just remember that you’re a warm human being, and certainly nobody’s dummy.

FAIR USE NOTICE – For details click here

%d bloggers like this: