Energy sector models show that nearly all countries can provide all their energy needs from renewable energy: especially wind, water and solar. But it’s not so simple.
Mark Jacobson is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University who has written and lectured widely about how renewable energy (what he calls wind, water, and solar, WWS) can power up all of the world’s economies and completely replace the use of fossil fuels. He has developed a mathematical model which he has used to show how almost every country can switch to WWS without resorting to nuclear energy, bioenergy, or technologies like carbon capture and storage. Jacobson also convincingly points out how the transition to WWS-powered economies will substantially reduce air pollution, a scourge that kills over 7 million people a year. His new book, just published, is called No Miracles Needed, which, according to the preface “describes how to solve the climate crisis, and at the same time eliminate air pollution and safely secure energy supplies for all – without using miracle technologies.”
Jacobson’s work is important because it stresses that a technical solution to the climate crisis is possible. We have all the tools we need; we just have to rapidly deploy them. For people who are concerned about the increasingly alarming impacts of climate change (and that’s most of us), this is a reassuring message.
But is it true? Is it true that all we need to do is to rapidly transition to renewable energy and the climate crisis will be sorted? Not so fast.
Renewable energy has been the least expensive way to deliver utility-scale electricity for several years now. And yet the deployment of wind power and solar energy worldwide has been painfully slow. The reason is clear. There has been a sustained and well-funded campaign waged by the fossil fuel and nuclear power industries to disrupt and impede the global transition to renewable energy. The strategy of the fossil fuel industries at the present time is to position fossil fuel gas as a key resource in the production of hydrogen, which the industry claims will be almost carbon free thanks to the addition of carbon capture and storage—a technology that has yet to demonstrate that it can work at scale at anywhere close to the efficacy required. In parallel, the nuclear power industry is strongly advocating for the development of small modular nuclear reactors: a technology that is hopelessly uneconomic but which the nuclear industry has packaged into an attractive offer that appears to have successfully beguiled policymakers in Canada, the USA and Europe. If the climate crisis is to be ‘solved’, the advocates of the WWS solution proposed by Jacobson will have to confront and challenge the propaganda and disinformation constantly disseminated by the lobbyists advocating for ‘clean’ fossil fuels and ‘green new deal’ nuclear energy which is all too readily accepted by policymakers that seem to have little understanding of energy technology: a weakness happily exploited by the fossil fuel and nuclear energy lobbyists especially in Canada.
The second problem is much more fundamental. The climate crisis is not the only existential crisis confronting mankind, although it is the one with the most spectacular and dramatic visual impacts. The combustion of fossil fuels pollutes the air with greenhouse gases and drives global heating, but the phenomenal quantities of waste produced by consumer-driven industrial society is rapidly poisoning the oceans and the natural environment. At the same time, the extraction of the enormous quantities of minerals needed to manufacture all of the mostly nonessential stuff that is consumed by so-called ‘modern’ societies, and then discarded to make room for the next ‘new and improved’ variant continues to increase exponentially. The impact on the biosphere has been hugely destructive with hundreds of animal species driven into extinction and the abundance of key pollinating insect species falling to levels that biologists have never before witnessed. These crises have been caused predominantly by the 45 countries that are classified by the UN as ‘developed’. Imagine the level of pollution, extraction, and ecological destruction if the 170 countries classified as ‘developing’ and ‘least developed’ pursued policies focused on the relentless economic growth needed to bring them up to the same level of material consumption as the countries classified as developed?
The ecological boundaries of the planet are already straining under the burden of our present levels of consumption, resource depletion, and unmanageable waste.
So we are faced with several global crises that can only be managed if governments finally accept the overwhelming evidence that there are real geophysical limits to the reckless expansion of resource extraction, profligate consumption, and the global pollution of the biosphere.
Understanding these geophysical limits (often called planetary boundaries) leads to the unavoidable conclusion that simply transitioning to WWS sources of renewable energy can never ‘solve’ the climate crisis. Only if comprehensive transformative socioeconomic measures are undertaken on a global scale to reduce the excessive consumption of the industrialized economies and to facilitate the transition of the Global South to a more modest and sustainable definition of an acceptable standard of living will these geophysical and ecological crises be substantially reduced in intensity.
This transformative paradigm in the fundamentals of economics is what is known as ‘Degrowth’. It is not a slide backwards; it is a deceleration in the pace of unsustainable consumption that finally must be reduced to the point where societies live within the geophysical and ecological limits of the planet.
If the shift to WWS sources of energy advocated by Professor Jacobson is to ‘solve the climate crisis’, he should acknowledge that technology alone will never successfully mitigate a combination of existential threats that is being worsened by the business-as-usual industrialists that are enjoying unprecedented profits from the exploitation of petroleum and fossil fuel gas. The untrammelled and largely unregulated operations of these industries intensifies the climate crisis, exacerbates the impacts of air pollution, and will lead to global temperatures by 2050 that will inevitably overshoot the 2°C Paris Agreement target.
My last point concerns the applicability of a mathematical model to the complexities of the economies of the global South. Apart from the fact that neither China nor India have committed to a target of net zero emissions by 2050, it is unrealistic to imagine that a model that works for Canada will work for Nigeria (where about 90 million people have no access to electricity), let alone Haiti, where almost no one has reliable power. Counting up the potential contributions of wind, water and solar energy is always useful because, at the very least, it confirms that nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage are completely unnecessary, impose enormous opportunity costs, and should be comprehensively rejected by policymakers.
Professor Jacobson should continue to extol the clear advantages of water, wind and solar and to emphasize the irrelevance of ‘miracle’ technologies like small modular reactors, carbon capture and storage, and the delusionary proposals of the geoengineers. But let’s keep things real. The climate crisis will not be solved by simply switching over to renewable energy to power our overheated, consumption-driven economies that are devastating the planet.
Martin Bush is a member of SCAN!’s Education Committee.
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