Your gas tank is not an oil well. Your battery will not be a power plant.

Also published on Resilience

My car comes with an amazing energy-storage, demand-management-and-supply system; perhaps you’ve heard of it. It’s called the “gas tank”.

Thanks to this revolutionary feature, if I get home and the electric grid is down, I can siphon gas out of the tank and power up a generator. In a more urgent energy crunch, I can siphon out some gas, throw it on a woodpile, and get a really hot fire going in seconds. If a friend across town has no power, I can even drive over there, siphon out some fuel, and run a generator to provide power in an alternate location. It’s beautiful! I can shift energy provision and consumption both temporally and spatially.

There is one minor drawback, to be sure. If I siphon the fuel out of the tank then I can’t actually drive the car, at least not more than a few kilometers to the nearest fuel station. But let’s not let that limitation cast a shadow over this revolutionary technology. If this flexible load-management system were widely adopted, and there were cars everywhere, think how smoothly our society could run!

These thoughts come to mind when I hear someone rhapsodize about the second coming of the electric car. Recently, for example, a Grist headline proclaimed that “Your Electric Vehicle Could Become a Mini Power Plant. And that could make the electrical grid work better for everyone.” (June 21, 2021)

Stephen Peake, in Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons (review here) wrote that “new fleets of electric vehicles parked overnight could become another mass source of electricity storage and supply.” (emphasis mine)

One more example: an Oct 2020 article at World Economic Forum says that “When electric vehicles are integrated into a city’s energy system, the battery can provide power to the grid when the sun is down or the wind isn’t blowing.”

The key to this supply-and-demand magic is “bidirectional charging” – the electric vehicles of the near future will have the equivalent of a gas tank with a built-in siphon. Thus their capacious batteries will not only be able to quickly suck power out of the grid, but also to empty themselves out again to provide juice for other purposes.

But allow me this skeptical observation: electric car batteries do not have huge batteries because the drivers want to offer aid to the “smart grid”. Electric car batteries are huge because cars are huge consumers of energy.

(True, electric cars don’t consume quite as much energy as internal-combustion cars of similar class and weight – but they consume a whole lot more energy per passenger/kilometer than intelligently routed electric buses, trains, or especially, electric-assisted bicycles.)

And let’s be clear: neither an electric car vehicle nor its battery provide any “energy supply”. The car itself is a pure energy suck. The battery is just an energy storage device – it can store a finite capacity of energy from another source, and output that energy as required, but it does not produce energy.

As with internal-combustion powered cars, when the tank/battery is drained for a purpose other than driving, then the car ceases to be a functional car until refueled.

That will leave some niche scenarios where vehicle batteries really might offer a significant advantage to grid supply management. The Grist article begins with one such scenario: three yellow school buses which run on battery power through the school year, and serve as a battery bank while parked for the summer months. If all 8,000 school buses in the local utility service area were EVs, the article notes, their fully-charged batteries “could collectively supply more than 100 megawatts of power to the grid for short periods — or nearly 1 percent of Con Ed’s peak summer power demand.”

When parked for the summer, electric school buses would not need to be charged and ready to drive first thing every weekday morning. So they could indeed be used simply as (terribly expensive) battery cases for two or three months each year.

OK, but … let’s be careful about singing the praises of school buses. This might be a slippery slope. If big buses catch on, soon Americans might start taking their kids to school in giant pick-up trucks!

Of course I jest – that horse has already left the barn. The top three selling vehicles in the US, it may surprise people from elsewhere to learn, are pick-up trucks that dwarf the pick-ups used by farmers and some tradespeople in previous generations. (It will not surprise Canadians, who play second fiddle to no-one in car culture madness. Canadians tend to buy even larger, heavier, more powerful, and more expensive trucks than Americans do.)

The boom in overgrown pick-ups has not come about because North Americans are farming and logging in record numbers, nor even, as one wag put it, that a 4X8 sheet of plywood has gotten so much bigger in recent years. Yet urban streets, parking lots, and suburban driveways are now crowded with hulking four-door, four-wheel-drive, spotlessly clean limousine-trucks. Those vehicles, regardless of their freight-carrying or freight-pulling capacity, are used most to carry one or two people around urbanized areas.

If we are foolish enough to attempt electrification of this fleet, it will take an awesome amount of battery power. And as you might expect, car culture celebrants are already proclaiming what a boon this will be for energy transition.

A pre-production promo video for Ford’s F-150 Lightning electric pick-up truck gets to the critical issue first: the Lightning will accelerate from 0 – 60 mph (0 – 97 km/hr) “in the mid-4-second range”. But wait, there’s more, the ad promises: the battery can “off-board” enough power to run a home “for about three days”.

Keep that in mind when you start seeing big electric pick-up trucks on the road: each one, in just a few hours of highway driving, will use as much power as a typical American home uses in three days.

Keep it in mind, too, when you see a new bank of solar panels going up in a field or on a warehouse roof: the installation might output enough electricity each day to power 100 pickup trucks for a few hours each – or 300 homes for the whole day.

Given that we won’t have enough renewably produced electricity to power existing homes, schools, stores and industries for decades, is it really a good idea to devote a big share of it, right at the outset, to building and charging limousine-trucks? Are the huge batteries required by these vehicles actually features, or are they bugs?

Granted, an electric car battery can provide a modest degree of grid load-levelling capability in some situations. It can be drained back into the grid during some peak-power-demand periods such as early evening in the heat of summer – as long as it can be recharged in time for the morning commute. That’s not nothing. And if we’re determined to keep our society moving by using big cars and trucks, that means we’ll have a huge aggregated battery capacity sitting in parking spots for most of each day. In that scenario, sure, there will be a modest degree of load-levelling capacity in those parked vehicles.

But perhaps there is a better way to add load-levelling capacity to the grid. A better way than producing huge, heavy vehicles, each containing one battery, which suck up that power fast whenever they’re being driven, while also spreading brake dust and worn tire particles through the environment, and which significantly increase the danger to vulnerable road users besides. Not to mention, which result in huge upfront emissions of carbon dioxide during their manufacture.

If it’s really load-levelling we’re after, for the same money and resources we could build a far greater number of batteries, and skip building expensive casings in the form of cars and pick-ups.

Other factors being equal, an electric car is modestly more environmentally friendly than internal-combustion car. (How’s that for damning with faint praise?)  But if we’re ready for a serious response to the climate emergency, we should be rapidly curtailing both the manufacture and use of cars, and making the remaining vehicles only as big and heavy as they actually need to be. The remaining small cars won’t collectively contain such a huge battery capacity, to be sure, but we can then address the difficult problems of grid load management in a more intelligent, efficient and direct fashion.


Illustration at top of post: Energy Utopia, composite by Bart Hawkins Kreps from public domain images.

Going to extremes

It only took us a century to use up the best of the planet’s finite reserves of fossil fuels. The dawning century will be a lot different.

Also published on Resilience

In the autumn of 1987 I often sipped my morning coffee while watching a slow parade roll through the hazy dawn.

I had given up my apartment for a few months, so I could spend the rent money on quality bike-camping equipment for a planned trip to the Canadian arctic. My substitute lodgings were what is now referred to as “wild camping”, though most nights I slept in the heart of downtown Toronto. One of my favourite sites afforded a panoramic view of the scenic Don Valley Parkway, which was and remains a key automobile route from the suburbs into the city.

Even thirty-five years ago, the bumper-to-bumper traffic at “rush hour” had earned this route the nickname “Don Valley Parking Lot”. On weekday mornings, the endless procession of cars, most of them carrying a single passenger but powered by heat-throwing engines of a hundred or two hundred horsepower, lumbered downtown at speeds that could have been matched by your average cyclist.

Sometimes I would try to calculate how much heavy work could have been done by all that power … let’s see, 1000 cars/lane/hour X 3 lanes = 3000 cars/hour, X 200 horsepower each = the power of 600,000 horses! Think of all the pyramids, or Stonehenges, or wagon-loads of grain, that could be moved every hour by those 600,000 horses, if they weren’t busy hauling 3000 humans to the office.

This car culture is making someone a lot of money, I thought, but it isn’t making a lot of sense.

One early autumn afternoon a year later, in the arctic coastal town of Tuktoyaktuk, I dressed in a survival suit for a short helicopter trip out over the Beaufort Sea. The occasion was perhaps the most elaborate book launch party on record, to celebrate the publication of Pierre Berton’s The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and The North Pole. The publisher had arranged for a launch party on an off-shore oil-drilling platform in said Northwest Passage. As a part-time writer for the local newspaper, I had prevailed upon the publisher to let me join the author and the Toronto media on this excursion.

The flight was a lark, the dinner was great – but I couldn’t shake the unsettling impression made by the strange setting, beyond the ends of the earth. I thought back, of course, to those thousands of cars on the Don Valley Parkway alternately revving and idling their powerful engines. We must be burning up our petroleum stocks awfully fast, I thought, if after only a few generations we had to be looking for more oil out in the arctic sea, thousands of kilometers from any major population centre.

This post is the conclusion of a four-part series about my personal quest to make some sense of economics. I didn’t realize, in the fall of 1988, that my one-afternoon visit to an off-shore drilling rig provided a big clue to the puzzle. But I would eventually learn that dedicated scholars had been writing a new chapter in economic thought, and the quest for energy was the focus of their study.

Before I stopped my formal study of economics, I sought some sort of foundation for economics in various schools of thought. I devoted a good bit of attention to the Chicago School, and much more to the Frankfurt School. It would not have occurred to me, back then, to understand economics by paying attention to the fish school.

Schooled by fish

Well into the 21st century, I started hearing about biophysical economics and the concept of Energy Return On Investment (EROI). I can’t pinpoint which article or podcast first alerted me to this illuminating idea. But one of the first from which I took careful notes was an April 2013 article in Scientific American, along with an online Q & A, by Mason Inman and featuring the work of Charles A.S. Hall.

The interview ran with the headline “Will Fossil Fuels Be Able to Maintain Economic Growth?” Hall approached that topic by recalling his long-ago doctoral research under ecologist H.T. Odum. In this research he asked the question “Do freshwater fish migrate, and if so, why?” His fieldwork revealed this important correlation:

“The study found that fish populations that migrated would return at least four calories for every calorie they invested in the process of migration by being able to exploit different ecosystems of different productivity at different stages of their life cycles.”

The fish invested energy in migrating but that investment returned four times as much energy as they invested, and the fish thrived. The fish migrated, in other words, because the Energy Return On Investment was very good.

This simple insight allowed Hall and other researchers to develop a new theory and methodology for economics. By the time I learned about bio-physical economics, there was a great wealth of literature examining the Energy Return On Investment of industries around the world, and further examining the implications of Energy Return ratios for economic growth or decline.1

The two-page spread in Scientific American in 2013 summarized some key findings of this research. For the U.S. as a whole, the EROI of gasoline from conventional oil dropped by 50% during the period 1950 – 2000, from 18:1 down to 9:1. The EROI of gasoline from California heavy oil dropped by about 67% in that period, from 12:1 down to 4:1. And these Energy Return ratios were still dropping. Newer unconventional sources of oil had particularly poor Energy Return ratios, with bitumen from the Canadian tar sands industry in 2011 providing only about a 5:1 energy return on investment.2 In Hall’s summary,

“Is there a lot of oil left in the ground? Absolutely. The question is, how much oil can we get out of the ground, at a significantly high EROI? And the answer to that is, hmmm, not nearly as much. So that’s what we’re struggling with as we go further and further offshore and have to do this fracking and horizontal drilling and all of this kind of stuff, especially when you get away from the sweet spots of shale formations. It gets tougher and tougher to get the next barrel of oil, so the EROI goes down, down, down.”3

With an economics founded on something real and physical – energy – both the past and the immediate future made a lot more sense to me. Biophysical economists explained that through most of history, Energy Return ratios grew slowly – a new method of tilling the fields might bring a modestly larger harvest for the same amount of work – and so economic growth was also slow. But in the last two centuries, energy returns spiked due to the development of ways to extract and use fossil fuels. This allowed rapid and unprecedented economic growth – but that growth can only continue as long as steady supplies of similarly favourable energy sources are available.

When energy return ratios drop significantly, economic growth will slow or stop, though the energy crunch might be disguised for a while by subsidies or an explosion of credit. So far this century we have seen all of these trends: much slower economic growth, in spite of increased subsidies to energy producers and/or consumers, and in spite of the financial smoke-and-mirrors game known as quantitative easing.

The completed Hebron Oil Platform, before it was towed out to the edge of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland Canada. Photo by Shhewitt, from Wikimedia Commons.

The power of the green frog-skins

John (Fire) Lame Deer understood that though green frog-skins – dollars – seemed all-important to American colonizers, this power was at the same time an illusion. Forty years after I read Lame Deer’s book Seeker of Visions, the concepts of biophysical economics gave me a way to understand the true source of the American economy’s strength and influence, and to understand why that strength and influence was on a swift road to its own destruction.

For the past few centuries, the country that became the American empire has appropriated the world’s richest energy sources – at first, vast numbers of energy-rich marine mammals, then the captive lives of millions of slaves, and then all the life-giving bounty of tens of millions of hectares of the world’s richest soils. And with that head start, the American economy moved into high gear after discovering large reserves of readily accessible fossil fuels.

The best of the US fossil energy reserves, measured through Energy Return On Investment, were burned through in less than a century. But by then the American empire had gone global, securing preferred access to high-EROI fossil fuels in places as distant as Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Iran. That was about the time I was growing to adulthood, and Lame Deer was looking back on the lessons of his long life during which the green frog-skin world calculated the price of everything – the blades of grass, the springs of water, even the air.

The forces of the American economy could buy just about anything, it seemed. But dollars, in themselves, had no power at all. Rather, biophysical economists explained, the American economy had command of great energy resources, which returned a huge energy surplus for each investment of energy used in extraction. As Charles Hall explained in the Scientific American interview in 2013,

“economics isn’t really about money. It’s about stuff. We’ve been toilet trained to think of economics as being about money, and to some degree it is. But fundamentally it’s about stuff. And if it’s about stuff, why are we studying it as a social science? Why are we not, at least equally, studying it as a biophysical science?”4

The first book-length exposition of these ideas that I read was Life After Growth, by Tim Morgan. Morgan popularized some of the key concepts first worked out by Charles Hall.5 He wrote,

“Money … commands value only to the extent that it can be exchanged for the goods and services produced by the real economy. The best way to think of money is as a ‘claim’ on the real economy and, since the real economy is itself an energy dynamic, money is really a claim on energy. Debt, meanwhile, as a claim on future money, is therefore a claim on future energy.”6

The economic system that even today, though to a diminishing extent, revolves around the American dollar, was built on access to huge energy surpluses, obtained by exploiting energy sources that provided a large Energy Return On Investment. That energy surplus gave money its value, because during each year of the long economic boom there was more stuff available to buy with the money. The energy surplus also made debt a good bet, because when the debt came due, a growing economy could ensure that, in aggregate, most debts would be paid.

Those conditions are rapidly changing, Morgan argued. Money will lose its value – gradually, or perhaps swiftly – when it becomes clear that there is simply less of real, life-giving or life-sustaining value that can be bought with that money. At that point, it will also become clear that huge sums of debts will never and can never be repaid.

Ironically, since Morgan wrote The End of Growth, the dollar value of outstanding debt has grown at an almost incomprehensible pace, while Energy Return On Investment and economic growth have continued their slides. Is the financial bubble set for a big bang, or a long slow hiss?

Platform supply vessels battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon, 2010. Photo by US Coast Guard, via Wikimedia Commons.

The economy becomes a thing

When I was introduced to the concepts of biophysical economics, two competing thoughts ran through my head. The first was, “This explains so much! Of course, the value of money must be based on something biophysical, because we are and always have been biophysical creatures, in biophysical societies, dependent on a biophysical world.”

And the second thought was, “This is so obvious, why isn’t it taught in every Economics 101 course? Why do economists talk endlessly about GDP, fiscal policy and aggregate money supply … but only a tiny percentage of them ever talk about Energy Return On Investment?”

Another then-new book popped up right about then. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, published by Verso in 2013, is a detailed, dry work of history, bristling with footnotes – and it was one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read. (That’s why I’ve quoted it so many times since I started writing this blog.)7

As Mitchell explained, the whole body of economic orthodoxy that had taken over university economics departments in the middle of the twentieth century, and which remains the conventional wisdom of policy-makers today, was a radical departure from previous thinking about economics. Current economic orthodoxy, in fact, could only have arisen in an era when surplus energy seemed both plentiful and cheap:

“The conception of the economy depended upon abundant and low-cost energy supplies, making postwar Keynesian economics a form of ‘petroknowledge’.” (Carbon Democracy, page 139)

Up until the early 20th century, Mitchell wrote, mainstream economists based their studies on awareness of physical resources. That changed when the exploding availability of fossil fuels created an illusion, for some, that surplus energy was practically unlimited. In response,

“a battle developed among economists, especially in the United States …. One side wanted economics to start from natural resources and flows of energy, the other to organise the discipline around the study of prices and flows of money. The battle was won by the second group, who created out of the measurement of money and prices a new object: the economy.” (page 131)

Stated another way, “the supply of carbon energy was no longer a practical limit to economic possibility. What mattered was the proper circulation of banknotes.” (page 124)

By the time I went to university in the 1970s, this “science of money” was orthodoxy. My studies in economics left me with an uneasy feeling that the green frog-skin world was, truly, a powerful illusion. But decades passed before I heard about people like H.T. Odum, Charles Hall, and others who were developing a new foundation for economics. A foundation, I now believe, that not only explains our economic history, but is vastly more helpful in making sense of our future challenges.

* * *

Lame Deer’s vision of the end of the green frog-skin world was vividly apocalyptic. He understood back in the 1970s that we are all endangered species, and that the green frog-skin world must and will come to an end. In his vision, the bad dream world of war and pollution will be rolled up, and the real world of the good green earth will be restored. But he had no confidence that the change would be easy. “I hope to see this,” he said, “but then I’m also afraid.”

Today we can study many visions expressed in scientific journals. Some of these visions outline new worlds of sharing and harmony, but many visions foretell the worsening of the climate crisis, economic system collapse, ecosystem collapse, crashes of biodiversity, forced global migrations. These visions are frightening and dramatic. Are we caught up, today, in an apocalyptic fever, or is it cold hard realism?

We have much to hope for, and we also have much to fear.


Image at top of post: Offshore oil rigs in the Santa Barbara channel, by Anita Ritenour, CC 2.0, flickr.com


Footnotes

 

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.)

 

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.

Make room for the bus

A review of Better Buses, Better Cities

Also published at Resilience.org

Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, published by Island Press and University of British Columbia Press, October 2019

We often hear that “the greenest building is the one you already have.” The idea is that the up-front carbon emissions released during the production of a new building can outweigh many  years of emissions from the old building. So in many cases retrofitting an old building makes more environmental sense than replacing it with a new “state-of-the-art” facility.

But should we say “the greenest transportation infrastructure is the one we already have?” Yes, in the sense that by far our biggest transportation infrastructure item is our network of paved roads. And rather than rushing to construct a new infrastructure – with all the up-front carbon emissions that would entail – we should simply stop squandering most of our road lanes on the least efficient mode of transportation, the private car.

While new light-rail systems, subways, inter-urban commuter trains all have their place, simply giving buses preference on existing roads could improve urban quality of life while bringing carbon emissions down – long before the planning and approval process for new train lines is complete.

Steven Higashide’s new book Better Buses, Better Cities is a superb how-to manual for urban activists and urban policy-makers. The book is filled with examples from transit reforms throughout the United States, but its relevance extends to countries like Canada whose city streets are similarly choked with creeping cars.

Given the book’s title, it is ironic that few of these reforms involve improvements to the bus vehicle itself (though the gradual replacement of diesel buses with electric buses is an important next step). Instead the key steps have to do with scheduling, prioritizing the movement of buses on city streets, and improving the environment for transit users before and after their bus rides.

Higashide begins the book by noting that buses can make far more effective space of busy roads:

Add bus service to a road and you can easily double the number of people it carries – even more so if buses are given dedicated space on the street or if a train runs down it. When you see a photograph of a bus in city traffic, there’s a decent chance that the bus is carrying more people than all the cars in the same frame.” (Better Buses, Better Cities, page 3)

Buses move more people than cars even on congested streets, but the people-moving power of a street really soars if there is adequate dedicated space for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users:

From Better Buses, Better Cities, by Steven Higashide, page 3

Frequency equals freedom

Which comes first – a bus route with several buses each hour or a bus route with big ridership? Municipal politicians and bean counters often argue that it makes no sense to up the frequency of lines with low ridership. But many surveys, and the experience in many cities, show that potential riders are unlikely to switch from cars to buses if the bus service is infrequent. In Higashide’s words,

The difference between a bus that runs every half hour and a bus that runs every 15 minutes is the difference between planning your life around a schedule and the freedom to show up and leave when you want.” (Better Buses, p. 23)

There is thus an inherent tension between planning routes for frequency, and planning routes for maximum coverage. The compromise is never perfect. A small number of high-frequency routes might get high ridership – as long as the major destinations for a sufficient number of riders are easily accessible. A route map with meandering service through every area of a city will provide maximum coverage – but if service is infrequent and slow, few people will use it.

In any case, overall bus network plans must be updated periodically to reflect major changes in cities, and Higashide provides case studies of cities in which transit restructuring was accomplished with very good results in a short time period.

Still, adding several buses each hour doesn’t help much if the streets are highly congested. Instead the result might be “bunching”: a would-be rider waits for a half hour, only to then have three buses arriving in a row with the first two packed full.

He emphasizes that “making buses better can start with redrawing a map, but it has to continue by redesigning the street.” (Better Buses, p. 37)

To emphasize the point he cites declining average speeds in most US cities since 2012, with New York City buses crawling at 7.6 mph in 2016. “Among the culprits,” Higashide writes, “is the enormous increase in Uber and Lyft rides; Amazon and other retailers have also led to a doubling in urban freight traffic associated with online shopping.” (Better Buses, p. 44)

Traffic stopped at Church Street and Park Place near the Financial District in Tribeca, Manhattan. Photo by Tdorante10 via Wikimedia Commons.

Effectively restricting some lanes to buses is one strategy to make transit use an  attractive option while making better use of road space. Others are the introduction of advance traffic signals for buses, or “bump-out” bus stops that allow buses to travel in a straight line, rather than swerving right to pick up passengers and then waiting for a chance to move back out into the traffic.

Transit planners often overlook the pedestrian experience as something that’s out of their realm, Higashide says. But a large majority of bus users walk to the bus, and then walk from the bus to their destination.

Unfortunately the dominance of autos in American cities has resulted in streets that are noisy, polluted, frightening and unsafe for pedestrians. In addition transit stops often have no shelter from scorching sun, cold wind or rain, and transit-using pedestrians may have very good reason to feel unsafe while they wait for a bus or while walking to or from the bus. Higashide gives welcome attention to these issues.

Finally, he discusses the rapid progress made by activists in cities where “pop-up” projects have introduced ideas such as dedicated bus lanes. Transit agencies, he says, “have to discard ponderous project development processes that result in 5-year timelines for bus lane projects and try tactical approaches that change streets overnight instead.” (Better Buses, page 11)

The people most likely to need better bus services are least likely to sit through years of public consultations. But pilot projects on specific street sections can demonstrate the many benefits of bus prioritization – for transit users, pedestrians, cyclists, car drivers and businesses alike. Higashide discusses pop-up projects which have been introduced in weeks instead of months or years, and have proven effective so quickly that they were adopted and expanded.

That’s good news for city dwellers, and good news for the rest of us too. With such an urgent need to cut carbon emissions, fast, we can not afford to spend ten or fifteen years waiting for huge new transit infrastructures. Likewise we shouldn’t put our hopes in a vast new fleet of electric cars, which will clog streets just as thoroughly as internal combustion cars do today.

In his conclusion, Higashide turns his focus directly to both the social justice and carbon emission implications of transit choices. Speaking of Green New Deal policies, he says “what they choose not to fund is as important as what they do fund.”

Federal policy must make it harder to build new roads, recognizing that highways are fossil fuel infrastructure as surely as oil and gas pipelines are and that their construction often directly harms neighborhoods where black and brown people live, so that suburban residents can get a faster trip.” (Better Buses, page 128)

We don’t need more lanes of pavement. We need to make room for buses on the pavement we already have.


Photo at top: Chicago Transit Authority buses at 87th St, photo by David Wilson, via Wikimedia Commons

Questions as big as the atmosphere

A review of After Geoengineering

Also published at Resilience.org

After Geoengineering is published by Verso Books, Oct 1 2019.

What is the best-case scenario for solar geoengineering? For author Holly Jean Buck and the scientists she interviews, the best-case scenario is that we manage to keep global warming below catastrophic levels, and the idea of geoengineering quietly fades away.

But before that can happen, Buck explains, we will need heroic global efforts both to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and to remove much of the excess carbon we have already loosed into the skies.

She devotes most of her new book After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration to proposed methods for drawing down carbon dioxide levels from the atmosphere. Only after showing the immense difficulties in the multi-generational task of carbon drawdown does she directly discuss techniques and implications of solar geoengineering (defined here as an intentional modification of the upper atmosphere, meant to block a small percentage of sunlight from reaching the earth, thereby counteracting part of global heating).

The book is well-researched, eminently readable, and just as thought-provoking on a second reading as on the first. Unfortunately there is little examination of the way future energy supply constraints will affect either carbon drawdown or solar engineering efforts. That significant qualification aside, After Geoengineering is a superb effort to grapple with some of the biggest questions for our collective future.

Overshoot

The fossil fuel frenzy in the world’s richest countries has already put us in greenhouse gas overshoot, so some degree of global heating will continue even if, miraculously, there were an instant political and economic revolution which ended all carbon dioxide emissions tomorrow. Can we limit the resulting global heating to 1.5°C? At this late date our chances aren’t good.

As Greta Thunberg explained in her crystal clear fashion to the United Nations Climate Action Summit:

“The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5C degrees, and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control.

“Maybe 50% is acceptable to you. But those numbers don’t include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of justice and equity. They also rely on my and my children’s generation sucking hundreds of billions of tonnes of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.” 1

As Klaus Lackner, one of the many researchers interviewed by Buck, puts it, when you’ve been digging yourself into a hole, of course the first thing you need to do is stop digging – but then you still need to fill in the hole.2

How can we fill in the hole – in our case, get excess carbon back out of the atmosphere? There are two broad categories, biological processes and industrial processes, plus some technologies that cross the lines. Biological processes include regenerative agriculture and afforestation while industrial processes are represented most prominently by Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS).

Buck summarizes key differences this way:

“Cultivation is generative. Burial, however, is pollution disposal, is safety, is sequestering something away where it can’t hurt you anymore. One approach generates life; the other makes things inert.” (After Geoengineering (AG), page 122)

Delving into regenerative agriculture, she notes that “over the last 10,000 years, agriculture and land conversion has decreased soil carbon globally by 840 gigatons, and many cultivated soils have lost 50 to 70 percent of their original organic carbon” (AG, p 101).

Regenerative agriculture will gradually restore that carbon content in the soil and reduce carbon dioxide in the air – while also making the soil more fertile, reducing wind and water erosion, increasing the capacity of the soil to stay healthy when challenged by extreme rainfalls or drought, and making agriculture ecologically sustainable in contrast to industrial agriculture’s ongoing stripping the life from soil.

Regenerative agriculture cannot, however, counteract the huge volumes of excess carbon dioxide we are currently putting into the atmosphere. And even when we have cut emissions to zero, Buck writes, regenerative agriculture is limited in how much of the excess carbon it can draw down:

“soil carbon accrual rates decrease as stocks reach a new equilibrium. Sequestration follows a curve: the new practices sequester a lot of carbon at first, for the first two decades or so, but this diminishes over time toward a new plateau. Soil carbon sequestration is therefore a one-off method of carbon removal.” (AG, p 102)

There are other types of cultivation that can draw down carbon dioxide, and Buck interviews researchers in many of these fields. The planting of billions of trees has received the most press, and this could store a lot of carbon. But it also takes a lot of land, and it’s all too easy to imagine that more frequent and fiercer wildfires could destroy new forests just when they have started to accumulate major stores of carbon.

Biochar – the burying of charcoal in a way that stores carbon for millennia while also improving soil fertility – was practiced for centuries by indigenous civilizations in the Amazon. Its potential on a global scale is largely untapped but is the subject of promising research.

In acknowledging the many uncertainties in under-researched areas, Buck does offer some slender threads of hope here. Scientists say that “rocks for crops” techniques – in which certain kinds of rock are ground up and spread on farmland – could absorb a lot of carbon while also providing other soil nutrients. In the lab, the carbon absorption is steady but geologically slow, but there is some evidence that in the real world, the combined effects of microbes and plant enzymes may speed up the weathering process by at least an order of magnitude. (AG, p 145-146)

The cultivation methods offer a win-win-win scenario for carbon drawdown – but we’re on pace to a greenhouse gas overshoot that will likely dwarf the drawdown capacity of these methods. Buck estimates that cultivation methods, at the extremes of their potential, could sequester perhaps 10 to 20 gigatons (Gt) of carbon dioxide per year (and that figure would taper off once most agricultural soils had been restored to a healthy state). That is unlikely to be anywhere near enough:

“Imagine that emissions flatline in 2020; the world puts in a strong effort to hold them steady, but it doesn’t manage to start decreasing them until 2030. … But ten years steady at 50 Gt CO2 eq [carbon dioxide equivalent emissions include other gases such as methane] – and there goes another 500 Gt CO2 eq into the atmosphere. That one decade would cancel out the 500 Gt CO2 eq the soils and forests could sequester over the next 50 years (sequestered at an extreme amount of effort and coordination among people around the whole world).” (AG p 115)

With every year that we pump out fossil fuel emissions, then, we compound the intergenerational crime we have already committed against Greta Thunberg and her children’s generations. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the probability that biological, generative methods of carbon drawdown will be too slow. With every year of continued emissions, we increase the degree to which future generations will be compelled to engage in industrial carbon drawdown work, using technologies which do not enrich the soil, which produce no food, which will not directly aid the millions of species struggling for survival, and which will suck up huge amounts of energy.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) has earned a bad name for good reasons. To date most CCS projects – even those barely past the concept stage – have been promoted by fossil fuel interests. CCS projects offer them research subsidies for ways to continue their fossil fuel businesses, plus a public relations shine as proponents of “clean” energy.

A lignite mine in southwest Saskatchewan. This fossil fuel deposit is home to one of the few operating Carbon Capture and Sequestration projects. Carbon from a coal-fired generating station is captured and pumped into a depleting oil reservoir – for the purpose of prolonging petroleum production.

Buck argues that in spite of these factors, we need to think about CCS technologies separate from their current capitalist contexts. First of all, major use of CCS technologies alongside continued carbon emissions would not be remotely adequate – we will need to shut off carbon emissions AND draw down huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. And there is no obvious way to fit an ongoing, global program of CCS into the framework of our current corporatocracy.

The fossil fuel interests possess much of the technical infrastructure that could be used for CCS, but their business models rely on the sale of polluting products. So if CCS is to be done in a sustained fashion, it will need to be done in a publicly-funded way where the service, greenhouse gas drawdown, is for the benefit of the global public (indeed, the whole web of life, present and future); there will be no “product” to sell.

However CCS efforts are organized, they will need to be massive in order to cope with the amounts of carbon emissions that fossil fuel interests are still hell-bent on releasing. In the words of University of Southern California geologist Joshua West,

“The fossil fuels industry has an enormous footprint …. Effectively, if we want to offset that in an industrial way, we have to have an industry that is of equivalent proportion ….” (AG, p 147)

Imagine an industrial system that spans the globe, employing as many people and as much capital as the fossil fuel industries do today. But this industry will produce no energy, no wealth, no products – it will be busy simply managing the airborne refuse bequeathed by a predecessor economy whose dividends have long since been spent.

So while transitioning the entire global economy to strictly renewable energies, the next generations will also need enough energy to run an immense atmospheric garbage-disposal project.

After Geoengineering gives brief mentions but no sustained discussion of this energy crunch.

One of the intriguing features of the book is the incorporation of short fictional sketches of lives and lifestyles in coming decades. These sketches are well drawn, offering vivid glimpses of characters dealing with climate instability and working in new carbon drawdown industries. The vignettes certainly help in putting human faces and feelings into what otherwise might remain abstract theories.

Yet there is no suggestion that restricted energy supplies will be a limiting factor. The people in the sketches still travel in motorized vehicles, check their computers for communications, run artificial intelligence programs to guide their work, and watch TV in their high-rise apartments. In these sketches, people have maintained recognizably first-world lifestyles powered by zero-emission energy technologies, while managing a carbon drawdown program on the same scale as today’s fossil fuel industry.

If you lean strongly towards optimism you may hope for that outcome – but how can anyone feel realistically confident in that outcome?

The lack of a serious grappling with this energy challenge is, in my mind, the major shortcoming in After Geoengineering. And big questions about energy supply will hang in the air not only around carbon sequestration, but also around solar geoengineering if humanity comes to that.

Shaving the peak

Solar geoengineering –  the intentional pumping of substances into the upper atmosphere into order to block a percentage of incoming sunlight to cool the earth – has also earned a bad name among climate activists. It is, of course, a dangerous idea – just as extreme as the practice of pumping billions of tonnes of extra carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to overheat the earth.

But Buck makes a good case – a convincing case, in my opinion – that in order to justifiably rule out solar geoengineering, we and our descendants will have to do a very good job at both eliminating carbon emissions and drawing down our current excess of carbon dioxide, fast.

Suppose we achieve something which seems far beyond the capabilities of our current political and economic leadership. Suppose we get global carbon emissions on a steep downward track, and suppose that the coming generation manages to transition to 100% renewable while also starting a massive carbon drawdown industry. That would be fabulous – and it still may not be enough.

As Buck points out, just as it has proven difficult to predict just how fast the earth system responds to a sustained increased in carbon dioxide levels, nobody really knows how quickly the earth system would respond to a carbon drawdown process. The upshot: even in an era where carbon dioxide levels are gradually dropping, it will be some time before long-term warming trends reverse. And during that interim a lot of disastrous things could happen.

Take the example of coral reefs. Reef ecosystems are already dying due to ocean acidification, and more frequent oceanic heat waves threaten to stress reefs beyond survival. Buck writes,

“Reefs protect coasts from storms; without them, waves reaching some Pacific islands would be twice as tall. Over 500 million people depend on reef ecosystems for food and livelihoods. Therefore, keeping these ecosystems functioning is a climate justice issue.” (AG, p 216)

In a scenario about as close to best-case as we could realistically expect, the global community might achieve dropping atmospheric carbon levels, but still need to buy time for reefs until temperatures in the air and in the ocean have dropped back to a safe level. This is the plausible scenario studied by people looking into a small-scale type of geoengineering – seeding the air above reefs with a salt-water mist that could, on a regional scale only, reflect back sunlight and offer interim protection to essential and vulnerable ecosystems.

One could say that this wouldn’t really be geoengineering, since it wouldn’t affect the whole globe – and certainly any program to affect the whole globe would involve many more dangerous uncertainties.

Yet due to our current and flagrantly negligent practice of global-heating-geoengineering, it is not hard to imagine a scenario this century where an intentional program of global-cooling-geoengineering may come to be a reasonable choice.

Buck takes us through the reasoning with the following diagram:

From After Geoengineering, page 219

If we rapidly cut carbon emissions to zero, and we also begin a vast program of carbon removal, there will still be a significant time lag before atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have dropped to a safe level and global temperatures have come back down. And in that interim, dangerous tipping points could be crossed.

To look at just one: the Antarctic ice sheets are anchored in place by ice shelves extending into the ocean. When warming ocean water has melted these ice shelves, a serious tipping point is reached. In the words of Harvard atmospheric scientist Peter Irvine,

“Because of the way the glaciers meet the ocean, when they start to retreat, they have kind of a runaway retreat. Again, very slow, like a couple of centuries. Five centuries. But once it starts, it’s not a temperature-driven thing; it’s a dynamic-driven thing … Once the ice shelf is sheared off or melted away, it’s not there to hold the ice sheet back and there’s this kind of dynamic response.” (AG, p 236)

The melting of these glaciers, of course, would flood the homes of billions of people, along with a huge proportion of the world’s agricultural land and industrial infrastructure.

So given the current course of history, it’s not at all far-fetched that the best option available in 50 years might be a temporary but concerted program of solar geoengineering. If this could “shave the peak” off a temperature overshoot, and thereby stop the Antarctic ice from crossing a tipping point, would that be a crazy idea? Or would it be a crazy idea not to do solar geoengineering?

These questions will not go away in our lifetimes. But if our generation and the next can end the fossil fuel frenzy, then just possibly the prospect of geoengineering can eventually be forgotten forever.


1 Greta Thunberg, “If world leaders choose to fail us, my generation will never forgive them”, address to United Nations, New York, September 23, 2019, as printed in The Guardian.
2 In the webinar “Towards a 20 GT Negative CO2 Emissions Industry”, sponsored by Security and Sustainability Forum, Sept 19, 2019.

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