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There's Only One Real Option for Averting Economic and Ecological Ruin -- So Why Aren't We Talking About It?

The world will face limits to energy production in the decades ahead regardless of the energy pathway chosen by policy makers.
 
 
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The following excerpt is reprinted from the new book Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growthedited by Tom Butler and George Wuerthner, published by Post Carbon Institute and Watershed Media, in collaboration with the Foundation for Deep Ecology.

Energy conservation is our best strategy for pre-adapting to an inevitably energy-constrained future. And it may be our only real option for averting economic, social, and ecological ruin. The world will face limits to energy production in the decades ahead regardless of the energy pathway chosen by policy makers. Consider the two extreme options—carbon minimum and carbon maximum.

If we rebuild our global energy infrastructure to minimize carbon emissions, with the aim of combating climate change, this will mean removing incentives and subsidies from oil, coal, and gas and transferring them to renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and geothermal. Where fossil fuels are still used, we will need to capture and bury the carbon dioxide emissions.

We might look to nuclear power for a bit of help along the way, but it likely wouldn’t provide much. The Fukushima catastrophe in Japan in 2011 highlighted a host of unresolved safety issues, including spent fuel storage and vulnerability to extended grid power outages. Even ignoring those issues, atomic power is expensive, and supplies of high-grade uranium ore are problematic.

The low-carbon path is littered with other obstacles as well. Solar and wind power are plagued by intermittency, a problem that can be solved only with substantial investment in energy storage or long-distance transmission. Renewables currently account for only a tiny portion of global energy, so the low-carbon path requires a high rate of growth in that expensive sector, and therefore high rates of investment. Governments would have to jump-start the transition with regulations and subsidies—a tough order in a world where most governments are financially overstretched and investment capital is scarce.

For transport, the low-carbon option is even thornier. Biofuels suffer from problems of high cost and the diversion of agricultural land, the transition to electric cars will be expensive and take decades, and electric airliners are not feasible.

Carbon capture and storage will also be costly and will likewise take decades to implement on a meaningful scale. Moreover, the energy costs of building and operating an enormous new infrastructure of carbon dioxide pumps, pipelines, and compressors will be substantial, meaning we will be extracting more and more fossil fuels just to produce the same amount of energy useful to society—a big problem if fossil fuels are getting more expensive anyway. So, in the final analysis, a low-carbon future is also very likely to be a lower-energy future.

What if we forget about the climate? This might seem to be the path of least resistance. After all, fossil fuels have a history of being cheap and abundant, and we already have the infrastructure to burn them. If climate mitigation would be expensive and politically contentious, why not just double down on the high-carbon path we’re already on, in the pursuit of maximized economic growth? Perhaps, with enough growth, we could afford to overcome whatever problems a changing climate throws in our path.

Not a good option. The quandary we face with a high-carbon energy path can be summed up in the metaphor of the low-hanging fruit. We have extracted the highest quality, cheapest-to-produce, most accessible hydrocarbon resources first, and we have left the lower quality, expensive-to-produce, less accessible resources for later. Well, now it’s later. Enormous amounts of coal, oil, gas, and other fossil fuels still remain underground, but each new increment will cost significantly more to extract (in terms of both money and energy) than was the case only a decade ago.

 
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