Sunday, September 08, 2019

Cassandra Calling - "No Way Out"

A sobering look at renewable energy from LSE anthropologist, Jason Hickel. If you don't know who he is you really should check him out.

Hickel has written an essay in Foreign Policy exploring the limits of alternative 'clean energy.'  His conclusion is blunt:

"No energy is innocent. The only truly clean energy is less energy."

Hickel shatters the myth that we can ever really decarbonize the global economy.
In 2017, the World Bank released a little-noticed report that offered the first comprehensive look at this question. It models the increase in material extraction that would be required to build enough solar and wind utilities to produce an annual output of about 7 terawatts of electricity by 2050. That’s enough to power roughly half of the global economy. By doubling the World Bank figures, we can estimate what it will take to get all the way to zero emissions—and the results are staggering: 34 million metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead, 50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminum, and no less than 4.8 billion tons of iron. 
In some cases, the transition to renewables will require a massive increase over existing levels of extraction. For neodymium—an essential element in wind turbines—extraction will need to rise by nearly 35 percent over current levels. Higher-end estimates reported by the World Bank suggest it could double. 
The same is true of silver, which is critical to solar panels. Silver extraction will go up 38 percent and perhaps as much as 105 percent. Demand for indium, also essential to solar technology, will more than triple and could end up skyrocketing by 920 percent. 
And then there are all the batteries we’re going to need for power storage. To keep energy flowing when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing will require enormous batteries at the grid level. This means 40 million tons of lithium—an eye-watering 2,700 percent increase over current levels of extraction.
...The problem here is not that we’re going to run out of key minerals—although that may indeed become a concern. The real issue is that this will exacerbate an already existing crisis of overextraction. Mining has become one of the biggest single drivers of deforestation, ecosystem collapse, and biodiversity loss around the world. Ecologists estimate that even at present rates of global material use, we are overshooting sustainable levels by 82 percent.
Can we find the resources essential to decarbonize the global economy? Is that just another way of restating other existential threats, overpopulation and our rapacious over consumption of the planet's finite resources?

As these hurdles keep appearing they only corroborate the idea that Earth can simply not support our current population numbers. The most recent estimates I have seen suggest that the truly sustainable limit is now somewhere between two and three billion. That's a shocking figure given that we're already closing in on  eight billion and heading, by some estimates, to ten billion or more.

It flies in the face of every principle of neoliberalism but we're at the stage where we must learn to live within the sustainable capacity of our ecosystem, our one and only biosphere, Spaceship Earth. Either we find our way back inside or we'll perish outside.


Trailblazer said...

And the answer is....

Guys, we have to keep our willies protected; no offloading!!


The Mound of Sound said...

There's a great deal of truth to your jest, TB. I just added a 3-paragraph conclusion to this post that mirrors your lighthearted comment.

Trailblazer said...

Entitlement is killing us.
We have to have everything regardless of cost to ourselves or mankind.
We have earned it, we deserve it we have always had it are common excuses for inaction.
Perhaps the most selfish action we humans can take is that we can procreate with no consequences.


Anonymous said...

There's always a dude who wants to get famous blowing an off-tune horn

We've already extracted enough of every significant resource to last us several magnitudes of population growth . . .

John's aghast said...

Very disheartening Mound. On one hand its so discouraging I don't want to get up in the morning. On the other hand I can't wait to get up and take advantage of the paradise I currently inhabit - before it all goes to hell.
What a dilemma!

The Mound of Sound said...

Anon 5:38. You're obviously fond of simplistic solutions. Circularity is a helpful option but hardly our salvation.

First of all, when has there been a time in the history of our species when this was seen as the preferred or aspirational goal? Is it then embraceable by human nature?

And, please remind me where we find all the critical-grade stainless steel that can be economically harvested for recycling.

You take an oversimplified fact and try to transform that into an argument. I'm not biting.

the salamander said...

.. this is a somewhat (or even worse) shattering post & read ..
Needs a reread.. needs a followup update for moi ..
It suggests a complete revamp & rewire - of my entire thought process
essentially suggesting we are far far more flucked than I thought..
and I already saw our situation as dire to an absurd extreme..

Think I will go sit in the garden.. study the gourd plant or gourd convoy
that took over while we were in the Turks..
see if any rhyme or reason overtakes me
or revelation ... or rapture

Northern PoV said...

Huge pushback from the New-Green-Deal folks on J. Franzen New Yorker article.

"What If We Stopped Pretending?
The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it."

I think most of them did not understand what they read.

This is the key passage imo:
"In this respect, any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combating extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions. To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it."

iow ... be environmentally conscious in action but can the false hope and make the focus on how to share what's left

The Mound of Sound said...

NPoV - what you're describing is the core philosophy of the Dark Mountain movement that I joined several years ago. It is stated to be for those tired of listening to the lies society tells itself. Its adherents recognize that we're not constituted to effectively thwart catastrophic climate change and yet it remains important to keep fighting - just without fanciful illusions.

One of those lies is that climate change is some standalone threat when it's actually a symptom of a more complex and ultimately lethal problem - mankind's failure to find a path to live in sustainable harmony with a seriously overburdened planet.

No one is asking the essential questions - how many humans can Earth sustainably support, how much consumption/pollution can the environment bear, how must we organize ourselves from here on in?

We are still in the grasp of 18th century economics, 19th century industrialism and 20th century geopolitics, models that served us reasonably well until the 1970s when we first outgrew the planet. Since then they've become a measure of our fatal dysfunction.

The real problem is that we fail to acknowledge this basket of existential threats or that, unless we resolve them all, we shall fail to solve any of them.

The moral obligation to resist, to fight back, is not diminished by accepting that we're on a path that holds no chance of averting catastrophe.

Northern PoV said...

And this is the essential action
"how must we organize ourselves from here on?"

all else flows from that (including smaller carbon footprints)

Given the current state of, how-must-we-organize-ourselves,
(tRump, Bolosarno, Bojo, Modi, Xi, Putin, our own "PM" Freeland, etc etc)
it is going to be a tough slog.

Anonymous said...

And so we slip from climate change denial straight to "it's impossible to do anything about it." In that case, I'm sure CAPP will say we may as well go out in a blaze of bitumen glory.