There's Only One Real Option for Averting Economic and Ecological Ruin -- So Why Aren't We Talking About It?
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After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010 and the Middle East–North Africa uprisings of 2011, almost no one still believes that oil will be as cheap and plentiful in the future as it was decades ago. For coal, the wake-up call is coming from China—which now burns almost half the world’s coal and is starting to import enormous quantities, driving up coal prices worldwide. Meanwhile, recent studies suggest that global coal production will max out in the next few years and start to decline.
New extraction techniques for natural gas (horizontal drilling and “fracking”) have temporarily increased supplies of this fuel in the United States, but the companies that specialize in this “unconventional” gas appear to be subsisting on investment capital: Prices are currently too low to enable them to turn much of a profit on production. Costs of production and per-well depletion rates are high, and energy returns on the energy invested in production are low. Recent low prices resulted from a glut of production produced by rampant drilling in 2005–2007, which only made economic sense when gas prices were much higher than they are now. All of this suggests that rosy expectations for what “fracking” can produce over the long term are overblown.
Exotic hydrocarbons like gas hydrates, bitumen (“tar sands”), and kerogen (“oil shale”) will require extraordinary effort and investment for their development and will entail environmental risks even higher than those for conventional fossil fuels. That means more expensive energy. Even though the resource base is large, with current technology the nature of these materials means they can be produced only at relatively slow rates.
But if the hydrocarbon molecules are there and society needs the energy, won’t we just bite the bullet and come up with whatever levels of investment are required to keep energy flows growing at whatever rate we need them? Not necessarily. As we move toward lower-quality resources (conventional or unconventional), we have to use more energy to acquire energy. As net energy yields decline, both energy and investment capital have to be cannibalized from other sectors of society in order to keep extraction processes expanding. After a certain point, even if gross energy production is still climbing, the amount of energy yielded that is actually useful to society starts to decline anyway. From then on, it will be impossible to increase the amount of economically meaningful energy produced annually no matter what sacrifices we make. And the signs suggest we’re not far from that point.
In one sense it matters a great deal whether we choose the low-carbon or the high-carbon path: One way, we lay the groundwork for a sustainable (if modest) energy future; the other, we destabilize Earth’s climate, shackle ourselves ever more tightly to energy sources that can only become dirtier and more expensive as time goes on, and condemn myriad other species to extinction.
However, in another sense, it doesn’t matter which path we choose: With human population numbers growing and energy constraints looming, we will have less energy to burn per capita in the future. Plot any scenario between the low-carbon and high-carbon extremes and that conclusion still holds, which means less energy for transport, for agriculture, and for heating and cooling homes. Less energy for making and using electronic gadgets. Less energy for building and maintaining cities.
Efficiency can help us obtain greater services for each unit of energy expended. Research has been proceeding for decades on how to reduce energy inputs for all sorts of processes and activities. Just one example: The electricity needed for illumination has declined by up to 90 percent due to the introduction first of compact fluorescent light bulbs, and now LED lights. However, efficiency efforts are subject to the law of diminishing returns: We can’t make and transport goods with no energy, and each step toward greater efficiency typically costs more. Achieving 100 percent efficiency would, in theory, require infinite effort. So while we can increase efficiency and reduce total energy consumption, we can’t do those things and produce continual economic growth at the same time.