Citizen Action Monitor

Low-carbon technology alone will not resolve our ecological dilemma, says Richard Heinberg

Follow the lead of ecological economists who know how to design strategies to improve our wellbeing while minimizing our consumption. —

No 2704 Posted by fw, January 27, 2021 —

My summary of this repost –

Richard Heinberg

Humanity’s discovery and use of fossil fuel energy triggered a Great Acceleration of everything. Which then led to unforeseen, devastating planetary consequences. Accumulating data indicates that our transition to low-carbon energy sources will not be our salvation.

Very few people are aware that only 20% of energy used globally is in the form of electricity. Which means we will have to create new technologies and infrastructure for low-carbon energy sources. And that colossal project will consume vast amounts of energy, materials, and industrial processing, including waste disposal.

Moreover, at startup, 85% of the transition energy will come from fossil fuels. Expect a prodigious pulse of CO2 emissions to be released from the transition. One way to counter CO2 emission growth is to cut economic growth by reducing consumer spending.

Low-carbon technology alone will not resolve our ecological dilemma. Climate change is not the only crisis we face. Economic over-expansion can also lead to collapse. Despite record growth of renewables, emissions still grew; whereas recent global crises quickly cut emissions.

Follow the lead of ecological economists who know how to design strategies to improve our wellbeing while minimizing our consumption. What to do about all the carbon already in the atmosphere? The bad news is there’s no market for technofixes that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. The good news is there are natural ways to capture and sequester CO2.

Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow of the Post Carbon Institute, a prolific author and speaker, is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost educators on the need to transition society off fossil fuels. Below is my repost of Heinberg’s latest contribution of concise clarity.

Below is my repost of another of Richard Heinberg’s timely examinations of the challenges we face, featuring my added subheadings, text highlighting and images. Alternatively, to read his original piece on the Post Carbon Institute’s website, click on the following linked title.

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Will Technology Solve Climate Change? by Richard Heinberg, Resilience, January 27, 2021

The following is Richard Heinberg’s contribution to a two-way discussion with Adam Dorr, an environmental social scientist at the nonprofit think tank Rethinkx. The exchange was hosted by Pairagraph, a platform for written dialogue between pairs of notable individuals. For the entire exchange, click here.

Humanity’s discovery and use of fossil fuel energy triggered a Great Acceleration of everything

When humanity started using fossil fuels, it gained access to tens of millions of years’ worth of stored sunlight. The result was a “Great Acceleration” of everything we had been doing—including growing food and harvesting renewable and nonrenewable resources from the natural world and turning them into technology, products, and waste. Our population grew eight-fold (from one billion to nearly eight billion) in a mere two centuries.

Which then led to unforeseen, devastating planetary consequences

But then the consequences appeared: climate change, resource depletion, soil erosion and salinization, species extinctions, plastic pollution, and more. It’s tempting to think of these as mere technical glitches that we can solve with more technology. After all, we’re accustomed to using energy and technology to solve every imaginable problem, and many people have grown rich in the process. But it’s hard to escape the perception that a massive energy boost has enabled our species to proliferate too quickly, and to use too much of nature, to its own long-term detriment.

Accumulating data indicates that our transition to low-carbon energy sources will not be our salvation

Zeroing in on climate policy, essentially the same message shouts through the data. Yes, we can substitute low-carbon energy sources for fossil fuels, but each alternative has a drawback. Solar and wind are intermittent sources, requiring energy storage and redundant generation capacity to balance out daily and seasonal peaks and troughs. Nuclear is expensive and produces radioactive waste.

Very few people are aware that only 20% of energy used globally is in the form of electricity

Then there’s the 20 percent challenge: only a fifth of final energy used globally is in the form of electricity.

Which means we will have to create new technologies and infrastructure for low-carbon energy sources

That means we will have to change how we use energy—replacing an enormous amount of infrastructure for transportation, building HVAC, manufacturing, and agriculture in order to electrify these activities. And we will have to create infrastructure to make low-carbon fuels for technologies that will be especially hard to electrify. Altogether, it’s by far the biggest manufacturing and construction project in human history.

And that colossal project will consume vast amounts of energy, materials, and industrial processing, including waste disposal

The trouble is, that project will require an enormous amount of energy and materials, entailing mining, smelting, other high-heat processes, transport, and waste.

Moreover, at startup, 85% of the transition energy will come from fossil fuels

And, at least in the early stages, roughly 85 percent of the transition energy will come from fossil fuels. With low-carbon technologies like solar panels and e-cars, emissions are front-weighted, occurring mostly during manufacturing.

Expect a prodigious pulse of CO2 emissions to be released from the transition

So, a big pulse of emissions will result from the transition itself. We could fix that with technology by  building machines to extract CO2 from the atmosphere, but, once again, in the manufacturing stage these will simply add to the emissions. And it’s unclear who would pay for them.

One way to counter CO2 emission growth is to cut economic growth by reducing consumer spending

When energy analyst David Fridley and I did a months-long deep dive into the opportunities and costs of the energy transition, we concluded that scale was the biggest challenge. If we assume that energy usage will continue its growth trajectory in nations like the US, then there’s no realistic way through. It’s only if we assume a substantial reduction in energy usage that the project becomes feasible. But that requires us to question human behavior and expectations about economic growth.

Low-carbon technology alone will not resolve our ecological dilemma

Low-carbon technology is good. But by itself it will not resolve humanity’s ecological dilemma.

Climate change is not the only crisis we face. Economic over-expansion can also lead to collapse

Our environmental crisis is often framed just in terms of climate change. But resource depletion, destruction of wild habitat, and pollution also lead to collapse—just by other means. All result from economic over-expansion. A useful metaphor for what we must do is, “take our foot off the accelerator.” If you’re headed toward the wrong destination, it doesn’t help to get there faster; instead, slow down and change direction.

Despite record growth of renewables, emissions still grew; whereas recent global crises quickly cut emissions

In recent decades, there have been only two significant periods when greenhouse gas emissions declined: the global financial crisis of 2008-9 and the economic shutdown associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. During both periods, energy usage fell. In other years, despite record levels of solar and wind installations, emissions grew anyway, because economic growth stoked increased energy usage, and most of that increase came from fossil fuels. Yes, both of these periods entailed pain and suffering that no right-minded person would wish to repeat. But neither event was planned for the purpose of reducing energy usage while improving human lives.

Follow the lead of ecological economists who know how to design strategies to improve our wellbeing while minimizing our consumption

Ecological economists understand that aiming for perpetual growth on a finite planet is a ticket to tragedy. They’ve spent years designing strategies to make life more enjoyable and secure while minimizing consumption. These strategies include sidelining GDP in favor of economic indicators that emphasize quality of life, and focusing on policies to create jobs rather than hoping profit-seeking corporations will prioritize job creation. What if we actually planned to reduce energy usage significantly while revamping the economy to promote happiness and well-being? Then it would be far easier to replace our remaining energy usage with renewable sources.

What to do about all the carbon already in the atmosphere?

Taking our foot off the accelerator won’t do anything to repair damage already done; it just keeps us from doing more damage in the meantime. So, what to do about all the carbon we’ve already shot into the atmosphere, that will keep the climate destabilized for centuries or millennia?

The bad news is there’s no market for technofixes that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere

Building machines to suck CO2 out of the air is a reflex response for people hooked on technofixes, but there’s almost no market for carbon dioxide; the effort would have to be subsidized and it serves no other useful purpose.

The good news is there are natural ways to capture and sequester CO2

However, there are ways of capturing and sequestering CO2 that would help solve many ecological problems at once.

    • Reforestation would provide habitat for species we’re currently driving toward extinction.
    • Carbon farming (i.e., farming in ways that sequester carbon in soil) would increase soil fertility, improve water retention, and reduce chemical pollution.
    • And anything we do to protect and restore ecosystems—including the oceans—will help nature take care of the increased load of carbon dioxide that we have imposed upon her.

These solutions could sequester gigatons of carbon each year. And they move us toward a destination, in terms of health and security, worth inhabiting.

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SEE RELATED

Richard Heinberg proposes a way out of our climate-driven pathway to collapse: But beware delusional promises of the “green profit narrative” that we won’t need to change the way we live now. Posted September 25, 2020

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