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.