Can big science be sustained?

Reflections on Fundamentals by Frank Wilczek

Also published on Resilience

During a long career at the frontiers of physics Frank Wilczek has earned many honours, including a Nobel Prize for Physics in 2004. Fortunately for general readers he is also a gifted writer with a facility for explaining complex topics in (relatively) simple terms.

Perhaps you have, as I do, an amateur fascination with topics such as quantum electrodynamics (QED) and quantum chromodynamics (QCD), and questions such as “To what extent do the laws of physics work the same running forward in time or running backward in time?” If so I heartily recommend Wilczek’s latest book Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality. (Penguin Random House, January 2021)

Wilczek shares with us the sense of wonder and beauty that has kept him excited about his work for the past 50 years. You might realize, as I did, that with Wilczek’s help you will understand aspects of particle physics, cosmology, and the nature of time better than you ever thought you might.

Yet from the opening pages of the book, Wilczek drops in assertions about history, society and the role of science that I found both troubling and worthy of a more focused examination.

What makes western science so great? (Or not.)

In Fundamentals Wilczek spends most of his time discussing scientific developments during the 20th century, particularly developments that weren’t even mentioned in high-school textbooks the last time I took a course in physics. But he grounds his discussion in a celebration of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century.

“The seventeenth century saw dramatic theoretical and technological progress on many fronts, including in the design of mechanical machines and ships, of optical instruments (including, notably, microscopes and telescopes), of clocks, and of calendars. As a direct result, people could wield more power, see more things, and regulate their affairs more reliably. But what makes the so-called Scientific Revolution unique, and fully deserving of the name, is something less tangible. It was a change in outlook: a new ambition, a new confidence.” (Fundamentals, page 4)

In subsequent centuries, the applied science that grew from this scientific revolution led to internal combustion engines, electric motors, all manner of telecommunications, digital cameras, lasers, magnetic resonance imaging and the Global Positioning System – to name just a few of the technologies that have transformed ways of life.

I count myself a fan of the scientific method, and I haven’t personally known anyone who is either ready, willing or able to live without any access to any of the technologies Wilczek cites as outgrowths of this method. But can these technological successes be credited solely to a new and superior approach to inquiry?

In the opening pages Wilczek states that “prior to the emergence of the scientific method, the development of technologies was haphazard.” (page 3) He then slips in an observation that to him requires no elaboration, presenting a graph of GDP growth with this comment:

“This figure, which shows the development of human productivity with time, speaks for itself, and it speaks volumes.” 

Graph from Fundamentals, by Frank Wilczek, page 3.

The graph speaks for itself? And just what does it say? Perhaps this: when at long last humans learned to extract ancient deposits of fossil energy, laid down over millions of years, and learned how to burn this energy inheritance in a frenzy of consumption, with no worries about whether successive generations would have any comparable energy sources to draw on, only then did “economic growth” skyrocket. And further: it’s not important that a great deal of wealth – from accessible fossil energy reserves to biodiversity to climate stability – has gone down as fast as that graph of GDP has gone up. It doesn’t matter, since in GDP’s accounting for economic growth there is no need to distinguish productivity from consumptivity.

As you might guess, what I glean from that GDP graph may not match what Wilczek hears, when he hears the graph “speak for itself.” But I think the relationship of science to the larger human enterprise, including the economy, deserves further scrutiny here.

That GDP is a crude economic indicator should become clear if we reflect on the left side of Wilczek’s graph as much as the right side. He credits the scientific revolution with leading to an explosion in productivity – but his graph shows a barely perceptible change in world GDP per capita for the period 1500 – 1800. Significant growth in GDP per capita, then, didn’t arise for at least a century after the scientific revolution, until about the time fossil fuel exploitation began in earnest.

Can this be taken as evidence that there were no fundamental changes in the world economy during the centuries immediately preceding the fossil fuel economy? To the contrary, some of human history’s most epic changes began about 1500, as western european nations colonized the Americas, instituted the slave trade on a massive scale, colonized large parts of Africa and Asia, and began a centuries-long transfer of ecological wealth from both land and sea around the globe, at the cost of hundreds of millions of human lives. Global economic wealth per capita may not have changed much during those centuries – but the distribution of that wealth, and the resulting wealth of a small slice of educated european elites, certainly did change. And it was from these elites that, with few exceptions, came the men (again, with few exceptions) who worked out the many discoveries in the scientific revolution.

It shouldn’t surprise us that these new understandings would come from people who had the economic security to get good educations, acquire expensive books, set up laboratories, make patient observations for years or decades, and test their theories even if any practical applications might be so far in the future as to be unforeseeable. A well-rounded assessment of the scientific revolution, then, should look not only at the eventual technological outcomes that might be credited to this revolution, but also the ecological and sociological factors that preceded this revolution. And a balanced assessment of the scientific revolution should also ask about blind spots likely to accompany this worldview, given its birth among the elite beneficiaries of a colonialism that far more of the world’s population were experiencing as an apocalypse.

In particular, it should be no surprise that among the class of people who do the lion’s share of consumption, the dominant faith in economics has conveniently assured them that their consumptivity equals productivity.

How much energy is enough energy?

Wilczek spends much of Fundamentals illuminating energy in many guises: the energy charge of an electron, the energy that holds quarks together to form protons, the gravitational energy of a black hole as it bends space-time, the dark energy that appears to be causing the universe not just to expand, but to expand at an accelerating pace. His explanations are marvels of clarity in which he imparts the sense of wonder that he himself felt at the outset of his lifelong scientific journey.

When he turns to the role that energy plays in human life and society, unfortunately, his observations strike me as trite. He titles one chapter, for example, “There’s Plenty of Matter and Energy”.

Here he gives us the unit AHUMEN, short for Annual Human Energy, which he calculates at 2,000 calories/day, which over a year comes to about 3 billion joules. With this unit in hand, he notes that world energy consumption in 2020 was about 190 billion AHUMENs, or about 25 AHUMENs per capita. He draws this conclusion:

“This number, 25, is the ratio of total energy consumed to the amount of energy used in natural metabolism. It is an objective measure of how far humans have progressed, economically ….” (p 127, emphasis mine)

If tomorrow we consume twice as much energy as we consume today, then by this “objective measure” we will have progressed twice as far economically. This sounds to me like neither clever physics nor clever economics, but mere mis-applied arithmetic.

Wilczek adds that Americans consume roughly 95 AHUMENs per person, without pointing out what should also be obvious: if the global average is 25 AHUMENs per capita, and Americans consume 95 per capita, that means hundreds of millions of people in our advanced global economy are getting only a few AHUMENs each.

Proceeding with his argument that “there’s plenty of energy”, Wilczek says that if we consider only “the portion of solar energy that makes it to Earth, then we find ‘only’ about 10,000 times our present total energy consumption. That number provides a more realistic baseline from which to assess the economic potential of solar energy.” (page 127)

Indeed, there is and always has been a vast amount of solar energy impacting the earth. That energy has always been enough to fry a human caught unprotected for too long in the desert sun. It’s always been enough to electrocute a human, when solar energy is incorporated into lightning storms. That abundant solar energy can even freeze us to death, when increasingly unstable weather systems push arctic air deep into regions where humans are unprepared for cold.

That energy has always been enough to kill crops during heat waves or to flood coastal cities when storms surge. With each passing year, as our geoengineered atmosphere holds in more heat, there will be more solar energy theoretically available to us, but immediately active in global weather systems. That will make our economic challenges greater, not simpler.

For that abundant solar energy to represent “economic potential”, we need to have technologies that can make that solar energy useful to us, and manageable by us, in cost-effective ways. Wilczek both recognizes and dismisses this concern in a single sentence:

“Technology to capture a larger fraction of that [solar] energy is developing rapidly, and there is little doubt that in the foreseeable future – barring catastrophe – we will be able to use it to support a richer world economy sustainably.” (page 140)

Wilczek himself might have little doubt about this, but I wish he had included some basis on which we could be confident this is more than wishful thinking.

While this discussion may seem to have veered a long way from the core concerns of Wilczek’s book, I suggest that the relationship of societal energy consumption to the needs of the scientific enterprise may soon become a critical issue.

ATLAS detector being assembled at Large Hadron Collider, 2006. Photo by Fanny Schertzer, 27 February 2006. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The energy demands of big science

The work of 20th century physics has come with a high energy price tag. Famously, some of the major steps forward in theory were accomplished by brilliant individuals scribbling in notebooks or on chalk boards, using tools that were familiar to Newton. But the testing of the theories has required increasingly elaborate experimental setups.

The launching of a space telescope, which helps reveal secrets of the farthest reaches of our universe, is one energy-intensive example. But likewise in the realm of infinitesimally small, sub-atomic particles – where Wilczek has focused much of his work – the experimental apparatus has become increasingly grand.

Wilczek tells us about Paul Dirac, a pioneer in quantum electrodynamics who wrote in 1929 that “The underlying physical laws necessary for the mathematical theory of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known.” Yet much subsequent progress in the field had to wait:

“When Dirac continued, ‘And the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved,’ modern supercomputers were not even a dream.” (page 120)

The theoretical framework for the Higgs particle was proposed decades before it could be confirmed, and that confirmation carried a huge energy cost. “In the years prior to 2012, Higgs particle searches came up empty,” Wilczek writes. “We know now, in retrospect, that they simply didn’t bring in enough energy. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, finally did.” (page 176)

It’s not just that this collider involved the construction of a circular tunnel 27 km in circumference, nor that while operating it draws 200 MW of electricity, comparable to one-third the electricity draw of the city of Geneva. The power allows experimenters to smash protons together at speeds only 11 km/h less than the speed of light. And these collisions, in turn, result in nearly incomprehensible quantities of data being captured in the Atlas detector, which sends “all this information, at the rate of 25 million gigabytes per year, to a worldwide grid that links thousands of supercomputers.” (page 176)

When the tunnel had been bored, the superconducting magnets built and installed, the Atlas detector (itself twice the size of the Parthenon) assembled, the whole machine put into operation, and the thousands of supercomputers had crunched the data for months – then, finally, the existence of the Higgs particle was proven.

Wilczek doesn’t go into detail about the energy sources for this infrastructure. But it shouldn’t escape our attention that the experimental-industrial complex remains primarily a fossil-fueled enterprise. Fossil fuels fly researchers from university to university and from lab to lab around the world. Fossil fuels power the cement plants and steel foundries, and the mines that extract the metals and minerals. Many individual machines are directly powered by electricity, but on a global scale most electricity is still generated from the heat of fossil fuel combustion.

Wilczek cites the vast amount of solar energy that strikes the earth each day as a vast economic resource. Yet we are nowhere close to being able to build and operate all our mines, smelters, silicon chip fabrication facilities, intercontinental aircraft, solar panel production facilities, electricity transmission towers, and all the other components of the modern scientific enterprise, solely on renewable solar energy.

And if someday in the not-too-distant future we are able to operate a comparably complex industrial infrastructure solely on renewable energy, will this generate enough economic surplus to support tens of thousands of scientists working at the frontiers of research?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory unveiled Summit as the world’s most powerful and smartest scientific supercomputer on June 8, 2018. “With a peak performance of 200,000 trillion calculations per second—or 200 petaflops, Summit will be eight times more powerful than ORNL’s previous top-ranked system, Titan. … Summit will provide unprecedented computing power for research in energy, advanced materials and artificial intelligence (AI), among other domains, enabling scientific discoveries that were previously impractical or impossible.” Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Just one clue

Wilczek cites a famous quotation from equally celebrated physicist Richard Feynman. During a lecture in 1961 Feynman offered this question and answer:

“‘If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms.’” (Feynman, quoted in Fundamentals, page 61)

And Wilczek proposes this revision:

“Instead of ‘all things are made of atoms,’ we should say that ‘all things are made of elementary particles.’” (page 62)

This may seem nothing more than an intellectual parlor game, with scientific knowledge today increasing at an accelerating pace. Wilczek doesn’t sound worried about the death of scientific knowledge, when he says that “Technology has already given us superpowers, and there is no end in sight.” (page 171)

But as we roar ahead into the climate crisis, I think it would be helpful and appropriate to revise Feynman’s question, replacing the “if” with “when”:

If When, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be is destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?

We can’t know for sure, of course, whether the climate cataclysm will destroy scientific knowledge. But what we can see is that we are on a so-far unwavering path to climate catastrophe, and that most governments around the world aren’t pledging (let alone fulfilling pledges) to make carbon emissions reductions that are even close to sufficient. With each passing year the challenge of transforming our civilization into a sustainable civilization grows more urgent, time grows shorter, and the consequences of failure grow more threatening not only to individual lives but to the very survival of our species. These threats are being documented and communicated in great detail by our scientific enterprises. And yet the greatest beneficiaries of our supposedly productive global economy (individual examples notwithstanding) lead the charge to the cliff.

So perhaps it’s time to consider seriously “What one sentence of information might be most useful to our survivors?”

Suppose we project our thoughts, right now, into a climate-ravaged future. Earth’s surviving inhabitants contend with a violently unstable climate. They struggle to gather enough food from deeply impoverished ecosystems, they try to build sufficiently robust shelters, they yearn to raise healthy children, and they face these challenges without any useful energy boosts from polluting fossil fuels (fuels which in any case will be hard to extract, since we’ll have already burned up the easily accessible reserves). Our digital networks of knowledge may well have gone dark, and our libraries may have flooded or burned.

In this future, will it be helpful to tell our descendants “All things are made of elementary particles?” Perhaps it will be many generations further on, if all goes well, before they can again support a scientific elite, armed with elaborate experimental apparatus, capable of making sense of these “elementary particles”.

I can’t help but wonder if, in this future, the best advice we might offer would be a simple warning: “Don’t do what we did.”


Photo at top of page: Grappling the Hubble Space Telescope. An STS-125 crew member aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis snapped a still photo of the Hubble Space Telescope after it was grappled by the shuttle’s Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System. Credit: NASA. Accessed at Wikimedia Commons.

Will the sun soon set on concrete?

Also published on Resilience

At the mention of our “fossil economy” or “fossil civilization”, most of us probably think immediately of “fossil fuels”. But as Mary Soderstrom’s recent book points out, not only our energy supply but also our most important building material has origins in fossilized ancient life.

Concrete, by Mary Soderstrom, is published by University of Regina Press, October 2020. 272 pages.

In Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future, Soderstrom shows us why cement is the literal foundation of nearly every strand of the capitalist economy. She also explains that, just as the fossil fueled industrial complex is deeply dependent on concrete for its infrastructure, so too the concrete industry is deeply dependent on fossil fuels. And these dependencies can’t be unwound easily or quickly, if at all.

By weight, of course, concrete is primarily made from sand, gravel and water – but the all important ingredient which turns the slurry into “manufactured rock” is cement. And cement, Soderstrom writes, “is in large part made from rocks laid down hundreds of millions of years ago when the shells and carapaces of organisms settled in the bottom of seas.” (Concrete, page 3)

The particular rock is limestone, which is abundant, widely distributed, and relatively easy to quarry and crush. But to make a cement from limestone takes energy – a lot of energy.

Ancient Greeks and Romans invented one form of concrete, and some of the resulting buildings and aqueducts still stand today. Quicklime was the basis for their concrete, and production of this lime needed only the heat from firewood. Making lime, Soderstrom says “had a large impact on the forests of any region where people had figured out how to make the substance.” (Concrete, page 44)

For uses such as marine piers and aqueducts, early concrete also depended on particular types of sand that had been forged in the heat of volcanos. The best such sand came from Pozzuoli, near Vesuvius, and such sands are still known as pozzolans. That kind of sand is not so abundant nor so widely distributed, and the global dominance of concrete as a building material had to await more recent technological developments.

This limestone quarry and cement production plant on the north shore of Lake Ontario is operated by St. Marys Cement, a subsidiary of Brazilian corporation Votorantim Cimentos. February 2016.

A key step came in the nineteenth century through the work of French engineer Louis Vicat. In his efforts to recreate the intense heat of volcanos, he developed kilns that chemically transformed crushed limestone into a forerunner of today’s ubiquitous Portland cement. These industrial volcanos had their own serious implications:

“The temperatures required for doing this are nearly twice as high as that needed to make quicklime, about 1,450 degrees C, and therein lie two of the great problems created by our enormous use of modern concrete: where to get the energy to attain those temperatures, and what to do with the greenhouse gases emitted in the process.” (Concrete, page 25-26)

The primary fuel for cement production remains coal, supplemented in some areas with pet coke (a dusty carbon residual from petroleum refining), ground up tires, plastic, even some wood byproducts. To date, renewable energy sources are not up to the challenge of producing good cement at quantity. That is because, Soderstrom writes “the end product of hydro, solar, nuclear, tidal, and wind power is electricity .… [S]o far it doesn’t produce temperatures high enough to make cement from the basic rock.” (Concrete, page 47)

Another key development arose because concrete, as hard as it may be, does not have great tensile strength and therefore doesn’t, by itself, span gaps very well. The skyscrapers and bridges essential to our cities and transportation systems need the addition of steel to concrete. Ridged steel rods, woven into forms before the concrete is poured, are commonplace today, but Soderstrom writes that it took much trial and error to produce a steel that would adhere to concrete in the right way. That steel was also very expensive until development of the Bessemer furnace in the 1850s. Only then could concrete take its place at the foundation of the industrial economy.

Vancouver Public Library central branch, British Columbia, October 2016.

Flashy constructions of glass, steel and concrete throughout our cities are one face of concrete’s dominance. But Soderstrom reminds us that concrete is equally important in humble abodes around the world. Do-it-yourself builders in edge cities rely on a bag of cement, a few buckets of gravel, and an old barrel in which to mix up a slurry – and the result may be a new wall or a solid floor in an improvised one-room dwelling. The government of Mexico, she notes, helped combat the spread of parasites by paying for $150 of supplies, allowing small home owners to replace their dirt floors with concrete.

“The desire to provide sanitary housing for ordinary working families has been the motor for concrete construction since the middle of the nineteenth century,” Soderstrom writes. (Concrete, page 69) There are echoes of this trend everywhere. In American suburbs, even where the walls and roofs are made of lumber, the homes nearly all stand on concrete foundations. Concrete was critical in rapidly reconstructing urban housing in Europe following World War II. And such construction continues on a gargantuan scale in contemporary China: “the United States used 4.5 gigatons of cement between 1901 and 2000, while China, as it ramped up its housing and infrastructure offensive, consumed 6.6 gigatons in only four years.” (Concrete, page 102)

Roads, bridges, houses, apartments, offices, factories – if concrete was important only in those categories of infrastructure, it would be a big enough challenge to replace. Yet Soderstrom illustrates how concrete is closely implicated in the food we eat and the water we drink. The formerly desert valleys of California, which now supply such a huge proportion of fruits and vegetables for North America, only became an oasis – perhaps a temporary one – due to massive concrete dams and hundreds of kilometres of concrete aqueducts and concrete irrigation ditches.

In other areas hundreds of millions of people live in areas that would frequently flood were it not for concrete flood control structures – and which might flood, catastrophically, if these structures are not maintained. Meanwhile hundreds of millions more depend for their drinking water on concrete canals that divert water away from its natural flow. This is true in the US southwest, for example, but on an even greater scale in China. “Already, Beijing is getting 70 percent of its water” from the South North Water Diversion,” Soderstrom writes – and this project is far from completion.

Truck route to Port of Valencia, Spain. October 2018.

An attempt to paint a full picture of concrete’s history and current importance is necessarily wide-ranging, and boundaries around the subject would necessarily be subjective. In the discussions of military strategy, social housing policy, and the politics of carbon taxes, there were many points in the book where I felt the focus on concrete was getting a bit too soft. Yet Soderstrom’s goal is much appreciated: she wants us to understand the vast scope of the challenge we face in transforming our concrete civilization into something sustainable.

It is now widely realized that the production of concrete is a major source of carbon emissions, and that we must reduce those emissions to net zero in the next few decades or face imminent collapse of the planetary life-support systems. Concrete: From Ancient Origins to a Problematic Future gives us glimpses of many efforts to reduce the environmental impact of concrete, through use of different fuel mixes, carbon sequestration, or technological enhancements that reduce the amount of Portland cement needed in a given project. None of these experiments sound reassuring, given the rapidity with which we must transform this critical industry, and given that it would be difficult if not impossible to simply forgo the use of concrete, within decades, without mass casualties.

Other books are better positioned to discuss the technical challenges involved in making sustainable concrete, or making sustainable infrastructure without concrete. But Soderstrom has performed a real public service in showing us the rich history of the seemingly dull material that undergirds our way of life.


Photo at top of page: Exponential Growth of Bridges – a Canadian Pacific rail line runs under ramps for the new Highway 418 expressway near Courtice, Ontario. January 2021. (Full-size image here.)

 

How we went from “makers” to “trash-makers” – and how to get back

Also published on Resilience


Why do we have so much stuff? Why is it so hard to find good stuff? And when our cheap stuff breaks, why is it so hard to fix it?

These questions are at the heart of our stories in 21st century industrialized nations, and these question are at the heart of Sandra Goldmark’s new book Fixation: How to Have Stuff Without Breaking the Planet.

As a theatre set designer Goldmark is attuned to the roles that things play in our personal stories. As a proprietor of a New York City “fix-it” shop, she understands why people want to keep and repair broken things, and why that is often unreasonably difficult. 

Fortunately for us she is also a darn good writer, whether she’s discussing the details of a damaged goose-neck lamp or giving an overview of a globe-spanning logistics system that takes materials on a one-way journey first to far-off factories, then to warehouses and stores, then to our homes, and finally, too soon, to our landfills. 

A copy of Fixation is one of the best gifts you could give or receive this season.

Linear Economy. Port trucks lining up for crane at Halifax loading dock.

Early in the book Goldmark asks why we are so attached to things, even when they have broken and it is more work to get them fixed than to buy new. This attachment, she says, is not pathological and indeed is at the very heart of being human. While many animals use simple tools, such as picking up a rock to crack nutshells, only humans make a point to save those tools. Living “in the moment” is great, but making preparations for the future is a key to our evolutionary success. Storing, maintaining, even loving our tools is thus a big part of human cultures.

The balance is seriously tilted, nevertheless, by an economic machine that depends on us buying more, all the time, and in particular buying new. Goldmark uses Ikea as a case study, describing their concerted effort to persuade customers that furniture is fashion, and we should buy new tables almost as often as we buy new clothes.

Then, too, there is carefully planned obsolescence, in products that we otherwise might keep for many years. Apple’s famously hard-to-replace batteries provide one example. Goldmark also describes an almost-durable desk lamp, which can be counted on to break because there is a plastic component where the lamp joins the gooseneck – that is, precisely where there is repeated motion and stress. Goldmark writes:

“Plastic is, very simply, a pain in the butt to fix. It’s hard to glue, and once compromised—cracked, scratched, nicked—it’s very hard to do anything useful with it at all. If you’ve got a plastic finish on something, you can, maybe, paint it or touch it up. But when plastic is used on component parts that take any stress, especially moving parts, it can mean that one small break makes the entire object useless.”

Placement. Loading “boxes” onto container ship, Halifax.

While plastic plays a big role in the factory-to-landfill pipeline, so too does cheap energy and international wage disparity:

“When  a  manufacturer  might  be  paid  three  dollars  per  hour  to  make  a  coffee machine in China or India, when raw materials and fuel for shipping are cheap, and a fixer in the States requires at least minimum wage, and hopefully more, it’s easy to see how making new cheap stuff became the dominant model.”

Thus in the United States in 2018, Goldmark writes, people spent about $4 trillion on new stuff but only $17.5 billion on used goods.

And while Americans like to celebrate their historical prowess as “makers”, not much is Made In America anymore. The makers, Goldmark writes, have been reduced to trash-makers. And unfortunately as the skills in making things atrophied, so too did the skills in repairing things.

Nudge. A tug guides a container ship to the wharf, Halifax harbour.

Getting beyond this unsustainable economy will require changes in attitudes, changes in education, changes in the manufacturing and retail chains, changes in wage allocations. Goldmark addresses all of these weighty subjects in beautifully accessible ways. With a nod to Michael Pollan, she rewrites his food mantra to apply to all the other things we bring home:

“Have  good  stuff  (not too much), mostly reclaimed. Care for it. Pass it on.”

Donating used goods helps, she writes, but “donating alone is not enough. If we’re not buying used ourselves, then we’re just outsourcing the responsibility of ‘closing the loop.’”

Caring for our things is both a simple and a complex undertaking. That means taking time to seek out quality items which will last and which can be repaired. It means promoting and honouring “embodied cognition” – simultaneous learning by head and hands, as practiced by people skilled in diagnosing and repairing. It means supporting companies that repair and resell their own products, and supporting local repair shops so they can pay a living wage.

As humans we will always want, need and have things, but our current way of life is unsustainable and we need to do much better. The good news, she says, is that

“We have the tools. We can build a better, circular model of care, of stewardship, of maintenance. A model where we value what we have.”


Photo at top of page: Freight yard at sunrise. Fairview Cove Container Terminal, Halifax, Nova Scotia. August 29, 2018. (click here for full-screen view)

 

Transition to a Low-Energy Future

One project has taken the lion’s share of my work time for the past year, and it has been a project close to my heart.

As long-time readers will have noted, my writings frequently concern the intersection between energy and economics. I was honored and grateful, therefore, to be asked to serve as guest editor of an issue of The American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

After a year’s work this issue is now published, under the title “Transition to a Low-Energy Future”. An issue overview and all individual articles can be found here.

I am now working on the next phase of this project – seeing this published as a generally-available print book. Inquiries and comments on this project are most welcome; please get in touch through the Contact page on this website.

Energy storage and our unpredictable future

A review of Energy Storage and Civilization

Also published on Resilience.org

It’s a fine spring day and you decide on a whim to go camping. By early afternoon you’ve reached a sheltered clearing in the woods, the sky is clear, and you relax against a tree trunk rejoicing that “The best things in life are free!” as you soak up the abundant warmth of the sun. As the sun goes down, though, the temperature drops to near freezing, you shiver through a long night, and you resolve to be better prepared the next night.

And so by the time the sun sets again you’ve invested in a good down sleeping bag, you sleep through the long night in comfort due to your own carefully retained heat, and then you greet the cold dawn by cheerfully striking a match to the pile of dry sticks you had gathered and stacked the day before.

In this little excursion you’ve coped with variable energy flows, using technologies that allowed you to store energy for use at a later time. In short, you’ve faced the problems that Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd identify as critical challenges in all human civilizations – and especially in our own future.

Their new book Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach (Springer, February 2020) is an important contribution to biophysical economics – marvelously clear, deep and detailed where necessary, and remarkably thorough for a work of just over 150 pages.

The most widely appreciated insight of biophysical economics is the concept of Energy Return On Investment – the need for energy technologies to yield significantly more energy than the energy that must be invested in these activities. (If it takes more energy to drill an oil well than the resulting barrels of oil can produce, that project is a bust.) While in no way minimizing the importance of EROI, Palmer and Floyd lay out their book’s purpose succinctly:

“we want to argue that energy storage, as both a technological and natural phenomenon, has been much more significant to the development of human civilizations than usually understood.” (Energy Storage and Civilization, page 2)

Central to their project is the distinction between energy stocks and energy flows. Sunshine and wind energy – primary energy sources in a renewable energy future – are energy flows. Grains, butter, wood, coal, oil and natural gas are energy stocks. And storage mediates between the two:

“Energy storage deals with the relationship between stocks and flows: storing energy, whether by natural or anthropic processes, involves the accumulation of flows as stocks; exploiting stored energy involves the conversion of stocks to flows.” (page 1)

Our current industrial civilization relies on the vast quantities of energy stored in our one-time inheritance of fossil fuels. These energy stocks allow us to consume energy anywhere on earth, at any hour and in any season. If the limited supplies of readily accessible fossil fuels weren’t running out, and if their burning weren’t destabilizing the climate and threatening the entire web of life, we might think we had discovered the secret of civilizational eternal youth.

Fossil fuels are higher in energy density than any previous energy stock at our control. That energy density means we can ship and store these stocks for use across great distances and long periods. Oil is so easy to ship that it is traded worldwide and is fundamental to the entire global economy.

In particular, fossil fuel stocks can be readily converted to electrical energy flows. And electricity, which is so magnificently versatile that it too is fundamental to the global economy, cannot be stored in any significant quantity without being converted to another energy form, and then converted back at time of use – at significant cost in energy losses and further costs for the storage technologies.

This is the crux of the problem, Palmer and Floyd explain. The vision of a renewable energy economy relies on use of solar PV and wind turbines to generate all our electricity – plus electrification of systems like transportation, which now rely directly on fossil fuel combustion engines. A major part of the book deals with two closely related questions: How much storage would we need to manage current energy demand with the highly intermittent flows of solar and wind energy? and, Are there feasible methods known today which could create those quantities of energy storage?

Beyond simple technologies like huge tanks or reservoirs of oil and gas, and stockpiles of coal, our current economy has little need for complicated means of energy storage. Batteries, while essential for niche uses in phones and computers, store only tiny amounts of electrical energy. But in Palmer and Floyd’s estimations, to maintain an economy with today’s energy consumption without fossil fuels, we will need to expand “current technologically-mediated storage capacity by three orders of magnitude”. (page 28)

What might a thousand-fold or greater expansion of storage technology look like? Palmer and Floyd provide some excellent illustrations. Pumped hydro storage is one promising candidate for managing the intermittent energy flows of solar PV or wind generators. Where suitable sites exist, surplus electricity can be used to pump water to an elevated reservoir, and then when the sun goes down or the wind calms, the water can flow down through turbines to regenerate electricity. This is a simple process, requiring two water reservoirs that are close geographically but at significantly different elevations, and is already used in some niche markets.

But for pumped hydro storage to be a primary means of managing intermittent renewable electricity production – that’s another story. By Palmer and Floyd’s calculations, to produce half of current US peak electricity demand via pumped hydro storage, the combined water flow from all the upper reservoirs would need to be far greater than the typical flow of the Mississippi River, and closer to the total flow of the Amazon River (depending on the average elevation differences between the reservoir pairs).

Comparison of required Pumped Hydro Storage flow to major river flows (by Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd, from Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach, page 143). This amount of Pumped Hydro Storage would be needed to meet half of current US peak electricity demand.

Building sufficient battery storage is equally daunting. Palmer and Floyd look at the challenge of converting the world’s gas- and diesel-powered passenger vehicles to battery-electric propulsion. Even after making appropriate allowance for the far greater “tank-to-wheels” efficiency of electric motors, they find that to replace the energy storage capacity now held in the vehicles’ fuel tanks, we would need battery storage equivalent to 142 TWh (TeraWatt hours). As shown in Palmer and Floyd’s illustration below, the key material requirements for that many batteries are vast, in some cases greater than the entire current world reserves. And that is to say nothing of the energy costs of acquiring the materials and building the batteries, or the even more difficult problems of electrifying heavy freight vehicles.

Material requirements for batteries for world’s fleet of passenger vehicles (by Graham Palmer and Joshua Floyd, from Energy Storage and Civilization: A Systems Approach, page 141). To match the deliverable energy stored in the fuel tanks, battery production would consume huge quantities of key materials – in some cases exceeding the current world reserves.

Barring unknown and therefore unforeseeable possible developments in storage technologies that might provide order-of-magnitude improvements, then, it is highly unrealistic to expect that we can simply replace current world energy demands from renewable energy sources. Far greater changes are likely: combinations of changes in technologies, trading practices, regulations, social practices, ways of life. The layers of interacting complexity, Palmer and Floyd argue, are beyond the capacity of computer models to predict.

Their book is a bit of a complex system, too. Although many of the ideas they present are simple and they explain them well, there are sections which go beyond “challenging” for readers who have no more than an ancient memory of high-school-level chemistry and physics. (I plead guilty.) Such readers will nevertheless be rewarded by persevering through difficult parts, because Palmer and Floyd do such a good job of tying all the strands together. The second-to-last chapter, for example, provides a lucid explanation of why the “hydrogen economy” offers real potential for replacing some of the energy storage and transport capacities of fossil fuels – while incurring very significant energy conversion penalties that would have major economic implications.

Civilizations both ancient and contemporary need practices that provide a sufficient Energy Return On Investment – but a high EROI is not sufficient cause for a technology or practice to come into wide use. Rather, we need complete socio-technical systems that provide the right combination of adequate EROI, and adequate and flexible energy storage.

Energy Storage and Civilization is a superb overview of these challenges for the waning years of fossil fuel civilization.


Photo at top by Radek Grzybowski – A stack of wood lays in front of a snowy and foggy forest, Gliwice, Poland; from Wikimedia Commons.

Platforms for a Green New Deal

Two new books in review

Also published on Resilience.org

Does the Green New Deal assume a faith in “green growth”? Does the Green New Deal make promises that go far beyond what our societies can afford? Will the Green New Deal saddle ordinary taxpayers with huge tax bills? Can the Green New Deal provide quick solutions to both environmental overshoot and economic inequality?

These questions have been posed by people from across the spectrum – but of course proponents of a Green New Deal may not agree on all of the goals, let alone an implementation plan. So it’s good to see two concise manifestos – one British, one American – released by Verso in November.

The Case for the Green New Deal (by Ann Pettifor), and A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal (by Kate Aronoff, Alyssa Battistoni, Daniel Aldana Cohen and Thea Riofrancos) each clock in at a little under 200 pages, and both books are written in accessible prose for a general audience.

Surprisingly, there is remarkably little overlap in coverage and it’s well worth reading both volumes.

The Case for a Green New Deal takes a much deeper dive into monetary policy. A Planet To Win devotes many pages to explaining how a socially just and environmentally wise society can provide a healthy, prosperous, even luxurious lifestyle for all citizens, once we understand that luxury does not consist of ever-more-conspicuous consumption.

The two books wind to their destinations along different paths but they share some very important principles.

Covers of The Case For The Green New Deal and A Planet To Win

First, both books make clear that a Green New Deal must not shirk a head-on confrontation with the power of corporate finance. Both books hark back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous opposition to big banking interests, and both books fault Barack Obama for letting financial kingpins escape the 2008 crash with enhanced power and wealth while ordinary citizens suffered the consequences.

Instead of seeing the crash as an opportunity to set a dramatically different course for public finance, Obama presented himself as the protector of Wall Street:

“As [Obama] told financial CEOs in early 2009, “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.” Frankly, he should have put unemployed people to work in a solar-powered pitchfork factory.” (A Planet To Win, page 13)

A second point common to both books is the view that the biggest and most immediate emissions cuts must come from elite classes who account for a disproportionate share of emissions. Unfortunately, neither book makes it clear whether they are talking about the carbon-emitting elite in wealthy countries, or the carbon-emitting elite on a global scale. (If it’s the latter, that likely includes the authors, most of their readership, this writer and most readers of this review.)

Finally, both books take a clear position against the concept of continuous, exponential economic growth. Though they argue that the global economy must cease to grow, and sooner rather than later, their prescriptions also appear to imply that there will be one more dramatic burst of economic growth during the transition to an equitable, sustainable steady-state economy.

Left unasked and unanswered in these books is whether the climate system can stand even one more short burst of global economic growth.

Public or private finance

The British entry into this conversation takes a deeper dive into the economic policies of US President Franklin Roosevelt. British economist Ann Pettifor was at the centre of one of the first policy statements that used the “Green New Deal” moniker, just before the financial crash of 2007–08. She argues that we should have learned the same lessons from that crash that Roosevelt had to learn from the Depression of the 1930s.

Alluding to Roosevelt’s inaugural address, she summarizes her thesis this way:

“We can afford what we can do. This is the theme of the book in your hands. There are limits to what we can do – notably ecological limits, but thanks to the public good that is the monetary system, we can, within human and ecological limits, afford what we can do.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, page xi)

That comes across as a radical idea in this day of austerity budgetting. But Pettifor says the limits that count are the limits of what we can organize, what we can invent, and, critically, what the ecological system can sustain – not what private banking interests say we can afford.

In Pettifor’s view it is not optional, it is essential for nations around the world to re-win public control of their financial systems from the private institutions that now enrich themselves at public expense. And she takes us through the back-and-forth struggle for public control of banking, examining the ground-breaking theory of John Maynard Keynes after World War I, the dramatically changed monetary policy of the Roosevelt administration that was a precondition for the full employment policy of the original New Deal, and the gradual recapture of global banking systems by private interests since the early 1960s.

On the one hand, a rapid reassertion of public banking authority (which must include, Pettifor says, tackling the hegemony of the United States dollar as the world’s reserve currency) may seem a tall order given the urgent environmental challenges. On the other hand, the global financial order is highly unstable anyway, and Pettifor says we need to be ready next time around:

“sooner rather than later the world is going to be faced by a shuddering shock to the system. … It could be the flooding or partial destruction of a great city …. It could be widespread warfare…. Or it could be (in my view, most likely) another collapse of the internationally integrated financial system. … [N]one of these scenarios fit the ‘black swan’ theory of difficult-to-predict events. All three fall within the realm of normal expectations in history, science and economics.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 64)

A final major influence acknowledged by Pettifor is American economist Herman Daly, pioneer of steady-state economics. She places this idea at the center of the Green New Deal:

“our economic goal is for a ‘steady state’ economy … that helps to maintain and repair the delicate balance of nature, and respects the laws of ecology and physics (in particular thermodynamics). An economy that delivers social justice for all classes, and ensures a liveable planet for future generations.” (The Case for the Green New Deal, pg 66)

Beyond a clear endorsement of this principle, though, Pettifor’s book doesn’t offer much detail on how our transportation system, food provisioning systems, etc, should be transformed. That’s no criticism of the book. Providing a clear explanation of the need for transformation in monetary policy; why the current system of “free mobility” of capital allows private finance to work beyond the reach of democratic control, with disastrous consequences for income equality and for the environment; and how finance was brought under public control before and can be again – this  is a big enough task for one short book, and Pettifor carries it out with aplomb.

Some paths are ruinous. Others are not.

Writing in The Nation in November of 2018, Daniel Aldana Cohen set out an essential corrective to the tone of most public discourse:

“Are we doomed? It’s the most common thing people ask me when they learn that I study climate politics. Fair enough. The science is grim, as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just reminded us with a report on how hard it will be to keep average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. But it’s the wrong question. Yes, the path we’re on is ruinous. It’s just as true that other, plausible pathways are not. … The IPCC report makes it clear that if we make the political choice of bankrupting the fossil-fuel industry and sharing the burden of transition fairly, most humans can live in a world better than the one we have now.” (The Nation, “Apocalyptic Climate Reporting Completely Misses the Point,” November 2, 2018; emphasis mine)

There’s a clear echo of Cohen’s statement in the introduction to A Planet To Win:

“we rarely see climate narratives that combine scientific realism with positive political and technological change. Instead, most stories focus on just one trend: the grim projections of climate science, bright reports of promising technologies, or celebrations of gritty activism. But the real world will be a mess of all three. (A Planet To Win, pg 3)

The quartet of authors are particularly concerned to highlight a new path in which basic human needs are satisfied for all people, in which communal enjoyment of public luxuries replaces private conspicuous consumption, and in which all facets of the economy respect non-negotiable ecological limits.

The authors argue that a world of full employment; comfortable and dignified housing for all; convenient, cheap or even free public transport; healthy food and proper public health care; plus a growth in leisure time –  this vision can win widespread public backing and can take us to a sustainable civilization.

A Planet To Win dives into history, too, with a picture of the socialist housing that has been home to generations of people in Vienna. This is an important chapter, as it demonstrates that there is nothing inherently shabby in the concept of public housing:

“Vienna’s radiant social housing incarnates its working class’s socialist ideals; the United States’ decaying public housing incarnates its ruling class’s stingy racism.” (A Planet To Win, pg 127)

Likewise, the book looks at the job creation programs of the 1930s New Deal, noting that they not only built a vast array of public recreational facilities, but also carried out the largest program of environmental restoration ever conducted in the US.

The public co-operatives that brought electricity to rural people across the US could be revitalized and expanded for the era of all-renewable energy. Fossil fuel companies, too, should be brought under public ownership – for the purpose of winding them down as quickly as possible while safeguarding workers’ pensions.

In their efforts to present a New Green Deal in glowingly positive terms, I think the authors underestimate the difficulties in the energy transition. For example, they extol a new era in which Americans will have plenty of time to take inexpensive vacations on high-speed trains throughout the country. But it’s not at all clear, given current technology, how feasible it will be to run completely electrified trains through vast and sparsely populated regions of the US.

In discussing electrification of all transport and heating, the authors conclude that the US must roughly double the amount of electricity generated – as if it’s a given that Americans can or should use nearly as much total energy in the renewable era as they have in the fossil era.1

And once electric utilities are brought under democratic control, the authors write, “they can fulfill what should be their only mission: guaranteeing clean, cheap, or even free power to the people they serve.” (A World To Win, pg 53; emphasis mine)

A realistic understanding of thermodynamics and energy provision should, I think, prompt us to ask whether energy is ever cheap or free – (except in the dispersed, intermittent forms of energy that the natural world has always provided).

As it is, the authors acknowledge a “potent contradiction” in most current recipes for energy transition:

“the extractive processes necessary to realize a world powered by wind and sun entail their own devastating social and environmental consequences. The latter might not be as threatening to the global climate as carbon pollution. But should the same communities exploited by 500 years of capitalist and colonial violence be asked to bear the brunt of the clean energy transition …?” (A Planet To Win, pg 147-148)

With the chapter on the relationship between a Green New Deal in the industrialized world, and the even more urgent challenges facing people in the Global South, A World To Win gives us an honest grappling with another set of critical issues. And in recognizing that “We hope for greener mining techniques, but we shouldn’t count on them,” the authors make it clear that the Green New Deal is not yet a fully satisfactory program.

Again, however, they accomplish a lot in just under 200 pages, in support of their view that “An effective Green New Deal is also a radical Green New Deal” (A Planet To Win, pg 8; their emphasis). The time has long passed for timid nudges such as modest carbon taxes or gradual improvements to auto emission standards.

We are now in “a trench war,” they write, “to hold off every extra tenth of a degree of warming.” In this war,

“Another four years of the Trump administration is an obvious nightmare. … But there are many paths to a hellish earth, and another one leads right down the center of the political aisle.” (A Planet To Win, pg 180)


1 This page on the US government Energy Information Agency website gives total US primary energy consumption as 101 quadrillion Btus, and US electricity use as 38 quadrillion Btus. If all fossil fuel use were stopped but electricity use were doubled, the US would then use 76 quadrillion Btus, or 75% of current total energy consumption.

The Fight for Right of Way

Confronting the legal web that enforces drivers’ privilege

Also published at Resilience.org

Why is car culture so dominant in North American life? Is it a matter of personal preference, or is it the result of extensive advertising?

Those are important factors – but University of Iowa law professor Gregory H. Shill says that auto dominance has also been cemented by a myriad of laws that favour drivers and discriminate against non-drivers.

In a new paper entitled “Should Law Subsidize Driving?” Shill writes:

“There exists a vast system of legal rules that offer indirect yet extravagant subsidies to driving, artificially lowering its price by offloading its costs onto non-drivers and society at large. Rules embedded across nearly every field of law privilege the motorist and, collectively, build a discriminatory legal structure with no name.” (Shill, “Should Law Subsidize Driving?”, 2019, page 3)

The paper discusses privileges for drivers in, among other areas, criminal law, civil liability, the method of setting speed limits and the lax enforcement of those limits, mandated dedication of public space to parking, zoning laws that favour low-density development, use of general tax revenues to cover nearly the entire costs of road construction and maintenance, and vehicle safety standards that ignore vulnerable road users.

This promotion of driving coincided with the financial interests of the largest industries – car-making and petroleum extraction – and Shill argues that it also worked to maintain racial segregation.

Far from a dry legal treatise, Shill’s paper is one of the best studies you will find of the social costs of car culture in the US. A great deal of his analysis applies in Canada as well.

Get off the road, idiot!

People in North America now take for granted that cars have the right of way on public roadways, while pedestrians and cyclists enter these streets at great personal risk. But when this grand theft by auto of public right of way was beginning, the reaction was widespread revolt.

“In cities, the contemporary reaction in the 1910s and 1920s was one of fear and outrage: whereas the street had previously been a relatively safe place for people to amble, with the tacit approval of local authorities it had in a very short period of time been transformed into a wildly dangerous place where motorists killed and maimed large numbers of people with impunity. Urban pedestrians, and especially children, suffered disproportionately. A class element predominated as well, as cars were a luxury at this time and many children killed in urban streets were poor.” (Shill, 2019, page 21)

Toronto Telegram, May 26, 1934. The lead says “KING OF THE KILLERS! Greatest menace to human life smirks at law – total penalty for thirty-one killings is merely four and one-half years in prison.”

Many people were deeply offended that well-to-do motorists not only killed pedestrians, but typically paid no or minimal legal penalties for doing so. As Shill documents, this pattern remains true today. And where regulatory remedies seemed to be called for, the response was generally to create greater legal tolerances for errant drivers.

He notes that there was a serious move to install automatic speed limiters in cars – in the 1920s – but the forces of “motordom” mobilized a campaign of public relations and legal changes. One result is that the term “jaywalking” was enshrined in law as an offense, and another is that speed limits were rapidly raised to favour heavy-footed drivers. (Though it was already clearly understood that speed kills.)

Ironclad suggestions

A new method for setting speed limits became standard across the country: the limit is set as the speed under which 85 per cent of drivers will drive on a given road in “free flowing traffic”. As Shill explains, this standard method promotes fast vehicle movement but is counterproductive to public safety:

“if the speed limit on a given residential street is 30 mph, but 85 percent of drivers travel on the road at or below 40 mph, the speed limit will be raised to 40 mph. If raising the speed limit prompts drivers to drive even faster, such that 85 percent now drive 45 mph, the speed limit will be raised again.” (Shill, 2019, page 14)

Finally, there are few places in the country where speed limits are actually enforced; rather, a wide allowance is expected and accepted by both drivers and law enforcement, such that drivers driving only five or 10 miles/hour above the speed limit are seldom ticketed.

Although technologies for automated detection and ticketing of speeders have been known for many years, this way of enforcing the law is often outlawed:

“So dissonant are social attitudes towards speed limits that some jurisdictions do not permit and in some cases expressly forbid automated enforcement of speed laws. They are ironclad suggestions.” (Shill, 2019, page 10)

Shill contrasts the systematic tolerance of speeding and other driving infractions with harsh treatment for transportation-related offenses by non-drivers.

“[T]he maximum penalty for a parking meter or HOV [High Occupancy Vehicle] lane violation is a ticket, while boarding a subway or light rail without paying can trigger not only a fine but arrest. … [D]elaying 50 bus passengers by temporarily parking in the bus lane is punishable by ticket, but boarding that same bus with an expired pass can trigger jail time.” (Shill, 2019, page 73-74)

The institution of sprawl

The widespread adoption of automobile ownership a century ago immediately created a new problem. Auto owners would not own a space in which to store their cars in all the places they might visit. As Shill notes, a free market system could have met this need through charging whatever the market would bear, in each location – but that would have imposed significant costs on motorists, thereby lessening the demand for cars.

In response, cities and states rapidly changed laws to provide free public space for the storage of cars – and in the process they redefined a common word:

“By the 1920s, city parking authorities ‘began cutting down street trees and widening streets to accommodate the volume of cars, thereby replacing the original meaning of parking as a place for trees and greenery with parking as a place for automobiles to stop.’” (Shill, 2019, page 23, quoting from Michele Richmond, The Etymology of Parking, 2015)

This free use of space, Shill notes, is not for just any use:

“street parking is reserved for cars. Try ‘parking’ a picnic table, tiny home, or above-ground pool there and you will soon discover that motor vehicles are generally the only type of private property that it is lawful to store for free on the public street. The car yields to nothing in its consumption of public subsidy.” (Shill, 2019, page 48)

Devoting a big share of residential street space to fully subsidized parking was not enough. Zoning rules across the country also mandated that new buildings – apartments, office complexes, retail developments – must also include generous amounts of parking space.

Shill discusses such zoning rules extensively, as part of a web of rules that systematically favour low-density development where regular car use is a necessary part of daily life – at great cost to public budgets, and even greater personal cost to those who can’t afford cars.

A human sacrifice every six minutes

As Shill explains, the capture of right of way by cars has always been bloody and it has always been discriminatory, since non-motorists on the roads (now termed “vulnerable road users”) are disproportionately poor and visible minorities. But of course motorists themselves also pay with their lives at a high rate.

Today in America the great majority of adults are drivers and car-owners, yet even among drivers there is a deadly class division. The American auto industry strongly favours large, heavy vehicles which sell for a much higher price and bring a much larger profit margin. The saturation advertising campaigns for these vehicles feature, on the one hand, their awesome power and their thrilling speed, and on the other hand, the extensive safety features that supposedly keep the cars’ occupants in a cocoon of security.

Ironically, though, the bigger and heavier the cars get, the deadlier are the roads – particularly for vulnerable road users, but also for drivers of smaller cars.

The auto industry originally secured a loophole for “light trucks” in order to escape fuel efficiency standards. The ubiquitous “Sport Utility Vehicle” falls into that category, and so do the hulking, four-wheel-drive, four-door pickup trucks you now see scattered through the parking lots of every suburban grocery store.

With their high front ends these vehicles kill pedestrians and cyclists at a particularly high rate. Whereas a pedestrian or cyclist struck by an old-fashioned sedan will typically be hit at the legs, and will be lifted up and onto the hood (“bonnet”) of the car, the same vulnerable road user will be hit right in the vital organ zone when struck by a “light truck”, and will likely be knocked down and run over. The result:

“Research shows that a pedestrian is 3.4 times as likely to be killed if struck by an SUV or other light truck than if hit by a passenger car.” (Shill, 2019, page 58)

But drivers of lower-priced cars also share the social costs:

“SUV-to-car crashes are also far graver. ‘In frontal crashes, SUVs tend to ride over shorter passenger vehicles, crushing the occupant of the passenger car.’ In head-on collisions with SUVs, drivers of passenger cars are between four and 10 times more likely to die than in collisions with other passenger cars.” (Shill, 2019, page 64-65, quoting from Tristin Hopper, “Big Cars Kill”, National Post, July 31, 2015)

There is no natural law that says car safety ratings should take into account only the safety of the car’s occupants while discounting the safety of other road users. In fact, in some countries the legal framework governing car design is quite different:

“The United Nations has issued a regulation designed to protect pedestrians, which had been adopted by 44 countries—many of them our peers in Europe—as of 2015. The United States has taken no action.” (Shill, 2019, page 63)

Here too, US law offloads the social cost of driving, in this case the social cost of driving high-frame vehicles, onto the general public.

There is much more in Shill’s almost book-length monograph and it is well worth a careful read. He summarizes the effect of an elaborate legal web of privilege with these words:

“The car’s needs are given priority over the right of society to health and welfare, affordable homes, and economic vitality. Car supremacy claims one human sacrifice every six minutes, bakes the planet, and enforces race and class inequality. It is not endemic because it is just, it is ‘just’ because it is endemic—and blessed by law.” (Shill, 2019, page 76)

He adds that “The task of repealing car-centric laws that justify and solidify bad outcomes is formidable. If it succeeds, it will take the labor of more than one generation.” I sincerely hope he is wrong about that timeframe.


Graphic at top of article is adapted from an anti-jaywalking poster produced by the Public Art Project of the Work Projects Administration (WPA). Students of history will recall that the WPA was a prominent job-creation agency of the New Deal. Let’s hope that the Green New Deal will not sponsor propaganda boosting continued auto dominance.

One human sacrifice every six minutes refers, of course, just to the casualties in the United States. Worldwide, about two people per minute die in traffic accidents.

Pulling the plug on fossil fuel production subsidies

Also published at Resilience.org

How long would the fossil fuel economy last if we took it off life support?

Or to state the question more narrowly and less provocatively, what would happen if we removed existing subsidies to fossil fuel production?

Some fossil fuel producers are still highly profitable even without subsidies, of course. But a growing body of research shows that many new petroleum-extraction projects are economically marginal at best.

Since the global economy is addicted to energy-fueled growth, even a modest drop in fossil fuel supply – for example, the impact on global oil supplies if the US fracking industry were to crash – would have major consequences for the current economic order.

On the other hand, climate justice demands a rapid overall reduction to fossil fuel consumption, and from that standpoint subsidies aimed at maintaining current fossil fuel supply levels are counterproductive, to say the least.

As a 2015 review of subsidies put it:

“G20 country governments are providing $444 billion a year in subsidies for the production of fossil fuels. Their continued support for fossil fuel production marries bad economics with potentially disastrous consequences for the climate.” 1

This essay will consider the issue of fossil-fuel production subsidies from several angles:

  • Subsidies are becoming more important to fossil fuel producers as producers shift to unconventional oil production.
  • Many countries, including G20 countries, have paid lip service to the need to cut fossil fuel subsidies – but action has not followed.
  • Until recently most climate change mitigation policy has been focused on reducing demand, but a strong focus on reducing supply could be an important strategy for Green New Deal campaigners.

Ending subsidies to producers can play a key role in taking the fossil fuel economy off life support – or we can wait for the planet to take our civilization off life support.

Producer subsidies and the bottom line

A 2014 paper from the Oxford Centre for the Analysis of Resource Rich Economies takes a broad look at subsidization trends in many countries and over several decades. In “Into the Mire”2, Radoslav Stefanski aims to get around the problem of scarce or inconsistent data by, in his words, “a method of so-called revealed preference to back out subsidies.”

Stefanski does not focus specifically on subsidies to producers. Instead, he is concerned with inferring an overall net subsidy rate, which is the difference between subsidies aimed at either fossil fuel producers and consumers, and the taxes levied on fossil fuels at the production and consumption end.

He finds that “between 1980 and 2000 the world spent – on average – 268 billion USD (measured in 1990 PPP terms) a year on implicit fossil fuel subsidies.” Starting from the late 1990s, however – when it should have been clear that it was globally essential to begin the transition away from fossil-fuel dependence – the rate of subsidization grew rapidly in several regions.

In particular, Stefanski finds, “the vast majority of the increase comes from just two countries: China and the US.”

In North America, he says “until the 1990s the policy was fairly neutral with a slight tendency towards subsidization. Subsequently however, fossil fuel subsidies exploded and the region became the second highest subsidizing region after East Asia.”

Not only did the global price of oil see a rapid rise after 2000, but North American production saw a huge growth in production through two unconventional methods: hydraulic fracturing of oil-bearing shale, and mining of tar sands. These oil resources had been known for decades, but getting the oil out had always been too expensive for significant production.

A 2017 paper in Nature Energy shows how crucial subsidies have been in making such production increases possible.

Entitled “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, the paper quantifies the importance of state and federal subsidies for new oil extraction projects.

The authors found that at then-current prices of about US$50 per barrel,

“tax preferences and other subsidies push nearly half of new, yet-to-be-developed oil investments into profitability, potentially increasing US oil production by 17 billion barrels over the next few decades.3

The projects that would only be profitable if current subsidies continue include roughly half of those in the largest shale oil areas, and most of the deep-sea sites in the Gulf of Mexico – all areas which have been critical in the growth of a reputed new energy superpower often referred to triumphantly as “Saudi America”.

From Erickson et al, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, 2017.

The authors also estimate the greenhouse gas emissions that will result from continuing these subsidies to otherwise-failing projects. In their tally, the additional carbon emissions coming from these projects would amount to 20% of the US carbon budget between now and 2050, given the widely accepted need to keep global warming to a limit of 2°C. In other words, the additional carbon emissions from US oil due to producer subsidies is far from trivial.

Extending this theme to other jurisdictions with high-cost oil – think Canada, for example – the authors of Empty Promises note “the highest cost fields that benefit most from subsidisation often have higher carbon intensity per unit of fuel produced.”4,5

The Nature Energy study is based on an oil price of US$50 per barrel, and says that subsidies may not be so important for profitability at substantially higher prices.

Another recent look at the fracking boom, however, reveals that the US fracking boom – particularly fracking for crude oil as opposed to natural gas – has been financially marginal even when prices hovered near $100 per barrel.

Bethany McLean’s book Saudi America6 is a breezy look at the US fracking industry from its origins up to 2018. Her focus is mostly financial: the profitability (or not) of the fracking industry as a whole, for individual companies, and for the financial institutions which have backed it. Her major conclusion is “The biggest reason to doubt the most breathless predictions  about America’s future as an oil and gas colossus has more to do with Wall Street than with geopolitics or geology. The fracking of oil, in particular, rests on a financial foundation that is far less secure than most people realize.” (Saudi America, page 17)

Citing the work of investment analyst David Einhorn, she writes

“Einhorn found that from 2006 to 2014, the fracking firms had spent $80 billion more than they had received from selling oil and gas. Even when oil was at $100 a barrel, none of them generated excess cash flow—in fact, in 2014, when oil was at $100 for part of the year, the group burned through $20 billion.” (Saudi America, page 54-55)

It seems sensible to think that if firms can stay solvent when their product sells for $50 per barrel, surely they must make huge profits at $100 per barrel. But it’s not that simple, McLean explains, because of the non-constant pricing of the many services that go into fracking a well.

“Service costs are cyclical, meaning that as the price of oil rises and demand for services increases, the costs rise too. As the price of oil falls and demand dwindles, service companies slash to the bone in an effort to retain what meager business there is.” (Saudi America, page 90)

In the long run, clearly, the fracking industry is not financially sustainable unless each of the essential services that make up the industry are financially sustainable. That must include, of course, the financial services that make this capital-intensive business possible.

“If it weren’t for historically low interest rates, it’s not clear there would even have been a fracking boom,” McLean writes, adding that “The fracking boom has been fueled mostly by overheated investment capital, not by cash flow.”7

These low interest rates represent opportunity to cash-strapped drillers, and they represent a huge challenge for many financial interests:

“low interest rates haven’t just meant lower borrowing costs for debt-laden companies. The lack of return elsewhere also led pension funds, which need to be able to pay retirees, to invest massive amounts of money with hedge funds that invest in high yield debt, like that of energy firms, and with private equity firms—which, in turn, shoveled money into shale companies, because in a world devoid of growth, shale at least was growing.” (Saudi America, page 91)

But if the industry as a whole is cash-flow negative, then it can’t end well for either drillers or investors, and the whole enterprise may only be able to stay afloat – even in the short term – due to producer subsidies.

Supply and demand

Many regulatory and fiscal policies designed to reduce carbon emissions have focused on reducing demand. The excellent and wide-ranging book Designing Climate Solutions by Hal Harvey et al. (reviewed here) is almost exclusively devoted to measures that will reduce fossil fuel demand – though the authors state in passing that it is important to eliminate all fossil fuel subsidies.

The authors of the Nature Energy paper on US producer subsidies note that

“How subsidies to consumers affect energy decision-making is relatively well studied, in part because these subsidies have comparatively clear impacts on price …. The impact of subsidies to fossil fuel producers on decision-making is much less well understood ….” 8

Nevertheless there has been a strong trend in climate activism to stop the expansion of fossil fuels on the supply side – think of the fossil fuel divestment movement and the movement to prevent the construction of new pipelines.

A 2018 paper in the journal Climatic Change says that policymakers too are taking another look at the importance of supply-side measures: “A key insight driving these new approaches is that the political and economic interests and institutions that underpin fossil fuel production help to perpetuate fossil fuel use and even to increase it.”9

The issue of “lock-in” is an obvious reason to stop fossil fuel production subsidies – and an obvious reason that large fossil fuel interests, including associated lending agencies and governments, work behind the scenes to retain such subsidies.

Producer subsidies create perverse incentives that will tend to maintain the market position of otherwise uneconomic fossil fuel sources. Subsidies help keep frackers alive and producing rather than filing for bankruptcy. Subsidies help finance the huge upfront costs of bringing new tar sands extraction projects on line, and then with the “sunk costs” already invested these projects are incentivized to keep pumping out oil even when they are selling it at a loss. Subsidy-enabled production can contribute to overproduction, lowering the costs of fossil fuels and making it more difficult for renewable energy technologies to compete. And subsidy-enabled production increases the “carbon entanglement” of financial services which are invested in such projects and thus have strong incentive to keep extraction going rather than leaving fossil fuel in the ground.

Carbon-entangled governments tend to be just as closely tied to big banks as they are to fossil fuel companies. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that in 2018 the G7 Fossil Fuels Subsidy Scorecard noted that “not a single G7 government has ended fiscal support or public finance to oil and gas production, with Canada providing the highest levels of support (per unit of GDP).”10

Fossil fuel producer subsidies and the Green New Deal

Major international climate change conferences have long agreed that fossil fuel subsidies must be phased out, ASAP, but little progress has been made.

The first step in getting out of a deep hole is to stop digging, and at this point in our climate crisis it seems crazy or criminal to keep digging the hole of fossil fuel lock-in by subsidizing new extraction projects.

Many major fossil fuel corporations have expressed their support for carbon taxes as a preferred method of addressing the climate change challenge. I am not aware, however, of such corporate leaders advocating the simpler and more obvious approach of removing all fossil fuel subsidies.

Perhaps this is because they know that carbon taxes almost always start out too small to make much difference, and that every attempt to raise them will stir intense opposition from lower- and middle-income consumers who feel the bite of such taxes most directly.

The costs of producer subsidies, on the other hand, are spread across the entire population, while the benefits are concentrated very effectively among fossil fuel corporations and their financial backers. And by boosting the supply of fossil fuels, especially oil, to a level that could not be maintained under “free market” requirements for profitability, these subsidies maintain the hope of continuous economic growth based on supposedly cheap energy.

The sudden popularity of “Green New Deal” ideas in several countries raises essential questions about political strategy. There is no single silver bullet, and a range of political and economic changes will need to be made. Though one major goal – eliminate most fossil fuel use by about 2030 and the rest by 2050 – is simple and clear, there are many means to move towards that goal, not all of them equally effective or equally feasible.

A swift elimination of producer subsidies, and a redirection of those funds to employment retraining and rehiring in renewable energy projects, strikes me as a potential political winner. Major fossil fuel interests, including big investment firms, can be counted on to oppose such a shift, of course – but they have shown themselves to be determined lobbyists for the preservation of the fossil fuel economy anyway.

Among the overwhelming majority of voters without big financial portfolios, the cessation of handouts to corporations strikes me as an easier sell than carbon taxes levied directly and regressively on consumers.


Photo at top: port of IJmuiden, Netherlands, September 2018.


Footnotes

1 Empty Promises: G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production, published by Overseas Development Institute and Oilchange International, 2015, page 11

2 “Into the Mire: A closer look at fossil fuel subsidies”, by Radoslav Stefanski, 2014.

3 Peter Erickson, Adrian Down, Michael Lazarus and Doug Koplow, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, Nature Energy 2, pages 891-898 (2017).

4 Empty Promises: G20 subsidies to oil, gas and coal production, published by Overseas Development Institute and Oilchange International, 2015, page 17

The same hurdles to unsubsidized profitability apparently apply outside of North America. See, for example, this article detailing how major fracking ventures in Argentina are likely to stall or fail due to declining subsidies: “IEEFA report: Argentina’s Vaca Muerta Patagonia fracking plan is financially risky, fiscally perilous”, March 21, 2019

 Saudi America: The Truth About Fracking and How It’s Changing the World, by Bethany McLean. Columbia Global Reports, 2018.

McLean’s reading echoes the analysis in the 2017 book Oil and the Western Economic Crisis, by Cambridge University economist Helen Thompson.

Peter Erickson, Adrian Down, Michael Lazarus and Doug Koplow, “Effect of subsidies to fossil fuel companies on United States crude oil production”, Nature Energy 2, pages 891-898 (2017).

Michael Lazarus and Harro van Asselt, “Fossil fuel supply and climate policy: exploring the road less taken,” Climatic Change, August 2018, page 1

10 G7 Fossil Fuels Subsidy Scorecard, Overseas Development Institute, Oilchange International, NRDC, IISD, June 2018, page 9

Designing Climate Solutions – a big-picture view that doesn’t skimp on details

Also published at Resilience.org

Let us pause for a moment of thanks to the policy wonks, who work within the limitations of whatever is currently politically permissible and take important steps forward in their branches of bureaucracy.

Let us also give thanks to those who cannot work within those limitations, and who are determined to transform what is and is not politically permissible.

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy is published by Island Press, November 2018.

An excellent new book from Island Press makes clear that both approaches to the challenge of climate disruption are necessary, though it deals almost exclusively with the work of policy design and implementation.

Designing Climate Solutions, by Hal Harvey with Robbie Orvis and Jeffrey Rissman, is a thoughtful and thorough discussion of policy options aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Harvey is particularly focused on discovering which specific policies are likely to have the biggest – and equally important, the quickest – impact on our cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. But he also pays close attention to the fine details of policy design which, if ignored, can cause the best-intentioned policies to miss their potentials.

One of the many strengths of the book is the wealth of graphics which present complex information in visually effective formats.

A political acceptable baseline

Though political wrangling is barely discussed, Harvey notes that “It goes without saying that a key consideration of any climate policy is whether it stands a chance of being enacted. A highly abating and perfectly designed policy is not worth pursuing if there is no chance it can be implemented.”

He takes as a starting point the target of the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has received agreement in principle from nearly all countries: to reduce emissions enough by 2050 to give us at least a 50% chance of avoiding more than 2°C global warming. (We’ll return later to the question of the reasonableness of that goal.)

Throughout the book, then, different aspects of climate policy are evaluated for their relative contributions to the 2°C goal.

Working with a climate policy computer model which is discussed in detail in an appendix and which is available online, Harvey presents this framework: a “business as usual” scenario would result in emissions of 2,253 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent from 2020 to 2050, but that must be reduced by 1,185 Gigatons.

The following chart presents what Harvey’s team believes is the realistic contribution of various sectors to the emission-reduction goal.

“Figure 3.4 – Policy contributions to meeting the 2°C global warming target.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 67)

The key point from this chart is that about 70% of the reductions are projected to come in three broad areas: changes to industrial production, conversion of electrical generation (“power sector”) to renewable energy, and cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions in line with their true social costs.

(The way things are categorized makes a big difference. For example, agriculture is slotted as a subset of the industrial sector, which boosts the relative importance of this sector for emissions-reduction potential.)

Harvey buttresses the argument by looking at the costs – or in many cases, cost-savings – of emissions-reduction policies. The following chart shows the relative costs of policies on the vertical dimension, and their relative contribution to emissions reduction on the horizontal dimension.

“Figure 3.2 – The policy cost curve shows the cost-effectiveness and emission reduction potential of different policies.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 59)

 

The data portrayed in this chart can guide policy in two important ways: policy-makers can focus on the areas which make the most difference in emissions, while also being mindful of the cost issues that can be so important in getting political buy-in.

It may come as a surprise that the transportation and building sectors, in this framework, are responsible for only small slices of overall emission reductions.

Building Codes and Appliance Standards are pegged to contribute about 5% of the emission reductions, while a suite of transportation policies could together contribute about 7% of emission reductions.

A clear view of the overriding importance of reducing cumulative emissions by 2050 helps explain these seemingly small contributions – and why it would nevertheless be a mistake to neglect these sectors.

To achieve climate policy goals it’s critical to reduce emissions quickly – and that’s hard to do in the building and transportation sectors. Building stock tends to last for generations, and major appliances typically last 10 years or more. Likewise car, truck and bus fleets tend to stay on the road for ten years or more. Thus the best building codes and the best standards for vehicle efficiency will have a very limited impact on carbon emissions over the next 15 years. By the same token, even the most rapid electrification possible of car and truck fleets won’t have full impact on emissions until the electric grid is generally decarbonized.

These are among the reasons that decarbonizing the electric grid, along with cross-sector pricing of carbon emissions, are so important to emissions reduction in the short term.

Meanwhile, though, it is also essential to get on with the slower work of upgrading buildings, appliances, transportation systems, and decarbonized agricultural and industrial processes. In the longer term, especially after 2050 when it will be essential to achieve zero net carbon emissions, even (relatively) minor contributions to emissions will be important. But as Harvey puts it, “There is no mopping up the last 10 percent of carbon emissions if we don’t eliminate the first 90 percent!”

International case studies

Harvey gets deep into the nuances of policy with an excellent discussion of the differences between carbon taxes and carbon caps. This helps readers to understand the value of hybrid approaches, and the importance in some countries of policies to limit “leakage”, whereby major industries simply shift production to jurisdictions without carbon prices or caps.

The many case studies – from the US, Germany, China, Japan, and other countries – illustrate policy designs that work especially well, or conversely, policies that have resulted in unintentional consequences which reduce their effectiveness.

These case studies also provide a reminder of the amount of hard work and dedication that mostly unsung bureaucrats have put in to the cause of mitigating climate disruption. As much as we may mourn that political leadership has been sorely lacking and that we appear to be losing the battle to forestall climate disaster, it seems undeniable that we would be considerably worse off if it weren’t for the accomplishments of civil servants who have eked out small gains in their own sectors.

For example, the hard-won feed-in tariffs and other policies promoting renewable energies for electric generation haven’t yet resulted in a wholesale transformation of the grid – but they’ve resulted in an exponential drop in the cost per kilowatt of solar- and wind-generated power. Performance standards for many types of engines have resulted in significant improvements in energy efficiency. These improvements have so far mostly been offset by our economy’s furious push to sell more and bigger products – but these efficiency gains could nevertheless play a key role in a sane economic system of the future.

The 2° gamble

Although most of the book is devoted to details of particular policies, Harvey’s admirably lucid discussion of the urgency of the climate challenge makes clear that we need far greater commitment from the highest levels of political leadership.

He notes that the reality of climate action has been far less impressive than the high-minded rhetoric. With few exceptions the nations responsible for most of the carbon emissions have been woefully slow to act, which makes the challenge both more urgent and more difficult.

Harvey illustrates this point with the chart below. The black solid and dotted lines represent the necessary progress with emissions, if we had been smart enough to ensure emissions peaked in 2015. The red lines show what may now be the best-case scenario – an emissions peak in 2030 – and the much more drastic reductions that will then be required to have a 50% chance of keeping global warming to 2°C or less.

“Figure I-7. The longer the delay in peaking emissions, the harder it becomes to meet the same carbon budget.” (From Hal Harvey et. al., Designing Climate Solutions, Island Press, page 9)

We might well ask if a 50% likelihood of worldwide climate catastrophe is a prudent and reasonable policy aim, or certifiably bonkers. Still, a 50/50 chance of disaster is somewhat better than assured civilizational collapse, which is the destination of “business as usual.”

In any case, the political climate has changed considerably in the short time since Harvey and colleagues prepared Designing Climate Solutions. With the challenge to the political status quo embodied in the Green New Deal movement, it now seems plausible that some major carbon-emitting countries will enact more appropriate greenhouse-gas emission targets in the next few years. If that comes to pass, these new goals will need to be translated into effective policy, and the many lessons in Designing Climate Solutions will remain important.

What about fossil fuel subsidies?

In a book of such wide and ambitious scope, it is inevitable that some important facets are omitted or given short shrift.

The issues of deforestation and forest degradation are duly noted, but Harvey declines to delve into this subject by explaining that “The science, the policies, and the actors for reducing emissions from land use are very different from those for energy and industrial processes, and they deserve separate treatment from experts in land use policy.”

The issue of embodied carbon does not come up in the text. In assessing the replacement of fossil-powered vehicle fleets by electric vehicles, for example, is the embodied carbon inherent in current manufacturing processes a significant factor? Readers will need to search elsewhere for that answer.

Also noteworthy is the absence of any acknowledgement that economic growth itself may be a problem. For all the discussion of ways to transform industrial processes, there is no discussion of whether the scale of industrial output should also be reduced. In most countries today, of course, a civil servant who tries to promote degrowth will soon become an expert in unemployment, but that highlights the need for a wider and deeper look at economic fundamentals than is currently politically permissible.

The missing subject that seems most germane to the book’s central purpose, though, is the issue of subsidies for fossil fuels. Harvey does state in passing that “for many sectors and technologies, pricing is the key. Removing subsidies for fossil fuels is the first step – though still widely ignored.” Indeed, many countries have paid lip service to the need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels, but few have taken action along these lines.

But throughout Harvey’s extensive examination of pricing signals – e.g., feed-in tariffs, carbon taxes, carbon caps, low-interest loans to renewable energy projects – there is no discussion of the degree to which existing fossil fuel subsidies continue to undercut the goals of climate policy and retard the transition to a low-carbon economy.

In my next post I’ll take up this subject with a look at how some governments, while tepidly supporting the transformation envisioned in the Paris Agreements, continue to safeguard their fossil fuel sectors through generous subsidies.


Illustration at top adapted from Designing Climate Solutions cover by David Ter Avanesyan.

Quantifying climate hypocrisy – the Canada file

Also published at Resilience.org

Which nation shows greater hypocrisy in the struggle to limit climate change – the United States or Canada?

The US President, of course, misses no opportunity to dismiss scientific consensus, downplay the dangers of climate change, and promote fossil fuel use.

Canada’s Prime Minister, on the other hand, has been consistent in stating that the scientific consensus is undeniable, the danger is clear, and Canada must step up to the challenge of drastic carbon emissions reductions.

It was within the first few weeks of the Justin Trudeau administration that Canada surprised most observers by backing a call from island nations to hold global warming to 1.5°C, as opposed to the 2°C warming threshold that had been a more widely accepted official goal.1

Yet according to a new peer-reviewed study2 of countries’ pledged emissions reduction commitments following the Paris Agreement, Canada’s level of commitment would result in 5.1°C of global warming if all countries followed the same approach to carbon emissions. In this tally of the potential effects of national climate commitments, Canada ranks with the worst of the worst, a select club that also includes Russia, China, New Zealand and Argentina.

The actual carbon emissions policies of the US would result in a lesser degree of total calamity –  4°C of warming – if followed by all countries.

Behind this discrepancy between Canada’s professed goals and its actual policy is the lack of a global agreement on a fair method for allocating the remaining carbon emissions budget.

The Paris Agreement set a target for the limitation of global warming, and it was (relatively) straightforward to calculate how much more carbon can be emitted without blowing through that warming target. But countries remained free to decide for themselves what principles to follow in determining their fare share of emissions reductions.

The result?

Developed countries who committed to take the lead in reducing emissions and mobilizing finance for developing countries often submitted NDCs [Nationally Determined Contributions] that do not match the concepts of equity that they publicly supported.” (du Pont and Meinshausen, “Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges”, Nature Communications.)

A fair way to count to 10

An old joke provides a good analogy for the slipperiness inherent in divvying up the global carbon budget. (My apologies to accountants everywhere, especially the one who first told me this joke.)

You ask a mathematician, “how much is 3 + 3 + 4?” She punches the numbers into her calculator, and tells you “3 + 3 + 4 is 10”.

But when you ask an accountant “how much is 3 + 3 + 4?” he sidles up and whispers in your ear, “How much do you want it to be?”

Though climate scientists can provide a simple number for how much additional carbon can be emitted globally before we hit our agreed-on warming threshold, each country’s ruling party decides for themselves how much they want their share of that carbon budget to be.

And the radically different circumstances of countries has resulted in radically different positions on what is fair.

A 2016 study published in Nature gives us insight into Canada’s position.

Entitled “Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change”, the study categorizes countries into how drastically and immediately they are hit by the effects of climate change. While all countries are already being impacted, the study found that Canada is among the 20% of countries who are suffering least from climate change.

Countries are also categorized according to their responsibility for climate change, and Canada is among the 20% who have contributed the most (on a per capita basis) in causing climate change.

In economic terms, those who do most to cause climate change while suffering the least damage from climate change are “free riders”. Those who do the least to cause climate change, but suffer the most from it, are “forced riders”.

The study shows that Canada is among the 20 “free riders” now, and will still be one of 16 “free riders” in 2030. The “forced riders” in both 2010 and 2030 include many African countries and small island nations. (Yes, that would be the same island nations that Canada claimed to be backing in 2015 in the call to adopt a 1.5°C warming threshold.)

“Figure 1. Global inequity in the responsibility for climate change and the burden of its impacts” in “Global mismatch between greenhouse gas emissions and the burden of climate change”, by Glenn Althor, James E. M. Watson and Richard A. Fuller, Nature, 5 February 2016. Countries shown in dark brown are in the highest quintile in emissions and in the lowest quintile of vulnerability to climate change. Countries in dark green are in the lowest quintile of emissions, but in the highest quintile of vulnerability. The top map shows this mismatch in 2010, the bottom map the projected mismatch in 2030.

Is there evidence that the “free riders” are trying to maintain their free-riding status as long as possible? According to du Pont, Meinshausen and their research colleagues, the answer is yes: most countries have set carbon emissions commitments that reflect their immediate self-interests. In the case of the major fossil fuel producers and consumers, that means the sum of their commitments adds up to a woefully inadequate global carbon emissions reduction.

An equity framework that dares not speak its name

In their discussion of the emissions reductions pledges made by nations following the Paris Agreement, du Pont and Meinshausen try to match these pledges with various approaches to equity. They note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has listed five major equity frameworks. These frameworks are summarized in this table from an earlier paper:

Source: “Equitable mitigation to achieve the Paris Agreement goals”, by Yann Robiou du Pont, M. Louise Jeffery, Johannes Gütschow, Joeri Rogelj, Peter Christoff, and Malte Meinshausen, Nature, 19 December 2016

Of particular interest for our purposes is the final entry, CER or “Constant emissions ratio”. This has been defined as

[maintaining] current emissions ratios (‘constant emissions ratio’, or CER), so that each country continues to emit the same share of global emissions as it does at the moment, even as the total volume is cranked down.”3

In other words, those who have emitted an outsize share of carbon in the past get to preserve an outsize share of a shrinking pie in future, while those who have emitted very little carbon to date are restricted even more drastically in future.

If that sounds anything but fair to you, you are not alone. Du Pont and Meinshausen say the Constant Emissions Ratio “is considered unfair and not openly supported by any country.”

Yet when they looked at the Nationally Determined Contributions following the Paris Agreement, they found that the Constant Emissions Ratio “implicitly matches many developed countries’ targets”.

The Constant Emissions Ratio framework for these countries would be the least stringent of the IPCC’s equity frameworks – that is, it would impose the smallest and slowest cuts in carbon emissions.

In the case of Canada and other members of the climate rogues gallery, their post-Paris commitments turn out to be even weaker than commitments calculated by the Constant Emissions Ratio method.

Former ExxonMobil CEO and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Follow the money

Let’s take a closer look at some of the Nationally Determined Contributions – individual nations’ commitments towards the global goal of rapid decarbonization.

“Selected Country Pledges Under the Paris Agreement and GHG Emissions”, from “The Paris Agreement on Climate Change”, by Radoslav Dimitrov, published by University of Western Ontario, March 2018.

Canada’s commitment ranks among the weakest of this lot for three reasons. First, the Reduction Target of 30% is near the low end of the scale, with several other industrial economies pledged to Reduction Targets of 40% or more. Second, the Target Year for achievement of the Reduction, 2030, is five years beyond the US and Brazil Target Dates of 2025. This matters, because every year that we continue to emit high amounts of carbon makes it that much more difficult to forestall catastrophic climate change.

Third, the Base Year is also very significant, and on this measure Canada also ranks with the poorest commitments. The European Union, for example, pledges to reduce from a Base Year of 1990, while Canada will work from a Base Year of 2005.

Between 1990 and 2005, Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose 25%,4 and so if Canada’s emissions in 2030 are 30% lower than in 2005, that is only about a 12% reduction compared to 1990.

Canada’s national government claims to understand that swift and dramatic action must be taken to reduce carbon emissions. So why would this government then commit to only a 12% emissions reduction, compared to 1990, as a target for 2030? Let’s follow the money, with a quick look at the relative influence of the fossil fuel industry in Canada.

Radoslav Dimitrov writes

the energy sector (oil, gas and electricity) is important to the Canadian economy, accounting for approximately 10% of national GDP in 2016, more than a quarter of public and private investment, and approximately 29% of exports.”5

Notably absent in the above paragraph is employment. Natural Resources Canada says that in 2017, only 5% of employment was either directly or indirectly within the energy sector, and that includes the electricity sector.6

Both of Canada’s traditional ruling parties like to talk about their commitment to “good middle-class jobs”. But given the scale of the environmental crisis we face, how big a challenge would it be to fund an immediate job retraining and investment program to start replacing fossil fuel jobs with renewable energy jobs? Couldn’t a committed government-and-industry program find new “middle-class jobs” for 3% or 4% of the working-age population?

I think the answer is yes … but as for capital investment, that’s another story. The fossil fuel industry accounts for closer to 25% of Canadian investment, and an immediate and sustained push to reduce the output of carbon-intensive fuels would result in a dramatic and immediate drop in the stock-market value of fossil-fuel corporations.  Those stocks are a big part of the portfolios of most people in Canada’s stock-owning class.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

A two-pronged strategy which starts with “dig the hole deeper”

Since before his election as national leader, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proclaimed the need to “balance the environment and the economy”. What has this meant in practice?

As the industry-friendly Financial Post put it in 2015,

The encouraging news — at least from the perspective of the energy sector — is that Mr. Trudeau seems onside with continued oil industry expansion and that his climate change program aims to support it rather than contain it.”7

Part of Trudeau’s program was a commitment to establishing a modest national price on carbon. He found a prominent early ally in an unlikely location, Alberta. There the NDP Premier Rachel Notley not only implemented a carbon price, but also announced a cap on carbon emissions from Alberta’s oil and gas sector.

Notably, however, that cap will start to reduce tar sands emissions only in 2030, and in the meantime emissions from that sector are projected to rise 50%, from 66 megatonnes/year to 100 megatonnes.

The Alberta plan thus mirrors Trudeau’s national policy. While championing a modest carbon tax, the Prime Minister has consistently pushed for the construction of major new pipelines – and the business case for these pipelines is that they are essential in the expansion of tar sands extraction.

On this front, at least, Trudeau is willing to put our money where his mouth is. Last summer, the Trudeau government invested $4.5 billion to buy the TransMountain Pipeline, with the prospect of spending at least several billion more in a much delayed project designed to almost triple the line’s bitumen-carrying capacity.

Meanwhile a national price on carbon emissions of $20/tonne is scheduled to be implemented in January 2019, rising to $50/tonne in 2022. While most environmentalists see this as a positive step, they also believe the price needs to be much higher if it is to result in dramatic emission reductions.

Setting a low bar and failing to clear it

As we have seen, the Nationally Determined Contribution that Canada has offered in response to the Paris Agreement is one of the world’s weakest.

The evidence to date suggests that Canada is on track to miss its own low target. Canada’s Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand concluded in March 2018 that Canada is making little progress and will miss its 2030 targets unless both the federal and provincial governments step up the pace.8 And just this week, the UN Environment Program said that Canada is on track to miss its emissions targets for both 2020 and 2030.9

That should come as no surprise: it’s hard to cut national emissions by 30%, when you’re also fully committed to the continued rapid expansion of the country’s most carbon-intensive industrial sector – tar sands extraction.

Photo credits: all photos are publicity photos released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Canada, taken by Adam Scotti, accessed at https://pm.gc.ca/eng/photos.


References

1  “Catherine McKenna pushes for 1.5 C target in Paris climate talks”, Globe & Mail, December 6, 2015

2  “Warming assessment of the bottom-up Paris Agreement emissions pledges”, by Yann Roubiou du Pont and Malte Meinshausen, Nature Communications, accessed at https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07223-9.pdf

3  In “US trying harder on climate change than ‘unambitious’ China, says study”, CarbonBrief, 20 December 2016

4  “Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose sharply between 1990 and 2005: study”, April 22, 2008, accessed at CBC News.

5  “Selected Country Pledges Under the Paris Agreement and GHG Emissions”, from “The Paris Agreement on Climate Change”, by Radoslav Dimitrov, published by University of Western Ontario, March 2018.

6  “Energy and the economy”, on the Natural Resources Canada website, accessed Nov 28 2018.

7  “Justin Trudeau aims to strike balance between environment, economy with carbon policy”, Financial Post, February 6, 2015

8  “Canada, provinces lack clear plan to adapt to climate change, auditors say”, by Mia Rabson, Canadian Press, 27 March 2018

9  “Canada set to miss C02 emissions target, UN says,” in Toronto Star, 28 November 2018, accessed in Pressreader.