The Climate-Change Trip to Abilene
Climate change is not the biggest problem facing the world. It is a symptom of the much larger problem of overshoot. Overshoot means that humans are using natural resources and polluting at rates beyond the planet’s capacity to recover.
The main cause of overshoot is the extraordinary growth of human population made possible by fossil energy. Concerns about overshoot and population raised more than 40 years ago were dismissed. Climate change has captured public awareness more recently although many doubt that it is an emergency.
Overshoot is more difficult to dispute: the destruction of rainforests, the extinction of other species, the pollution of land, river and seas, the acidification of the oceans, and loss of fisheries and coral reefs.
Figure 1. Pollution. Source: depositphotos.
The world is now two years into a pandemic that has fundamentally altered the global economy and our most basic human need for social interaction. Yet few realize that Covid is just another symptom of overshoot—the distress of our planet’s ecosystem.
Our default solution to pandemic, climate change and population growth is technology: vaccines, new energy and ways to boost the planet’s food and energy supply. Although technology helps to alleviate the symptoms for awhile, the underlying malady remains.
Climate change cannot be fixed with renewable energy and electric vehicles. Substantial reductions in population, energy use and consumption are the only answers to climate change and its cause, overshoot.
Energy Is The Economy
Population is the currency of evolution. Growth is not some frivolous, uniquely human behavior. There seems to be a genetic imperative for all species to increase their numbers. Those with the best access to highly productive sources of energy grow the most. Those that are able to adapt with larger populations live and those that are not become extinct.
Energy is central. Any movement, activity or event in nature requires energy. Energy is and always will be the currency of life.
Like all life, humans work to live. Work requires energy.
Early man hunted and foraged, and ate other animals and plants for energy. Later, humans turned to agriculture for meat and grain. Because these could be saved for future use, surplus energy became part of human society.
Those with surplus energy could bargain with others to do some of their work in exchange for energy—grain or a farm animal. Eventually, this barter system developed into currency. Money is a claim on energy.
Most people think that the economy runs on money. It doesn’t. It runs on work which requires energy. The economy runs on energy. Energy is the economy. Oil is the primary source of energy today therefore, oil is the economy.
Overshoot: The Population Bomb
From the advent of agriculture until about 1700, the work of human society was done by human and animal labor with some help from biomass—mostly burning wood for heat (Figure 3). Over the next 250 years, coal became the dominant energy source as machines began to do work previously done by men or animals. The steamship and locomotive revolutionized transport and promoted the settlement of vast, empty areas of the earth. This and increased mechanization of agriculture produced a step-change in human population from about 600 million in 1700 to more than 1.5 billion by 1900.
Better access to concentrated energy led to a 2.5-fold increase in population.
The liquefaction of air in 1910 by Haber and Bosch made free nitrogen abundant and, by the end of World War I, industrial-scale fertilizer production began. Food supply multiplied. By the end of World War II, oil began replacing coal as the principle source of energy. That and continued mechanization of agriculture allowed the world population to increase from about 1.85 billion at the end of World War I to its present level of about 7.8 billion.
A more concentrated form of energy led to a 4.2-fold increase in population.
Humans were able to increase the carrying capacity of Earth but at a price. Today, man and his livestock comprise 98.5% of earth’s total biomass. The world’s forests and wild grasslands have decreased by 2.4 times the area of the United States since 1900 (Figure 4).
Forests have decreased 1.1 billion hectares and wild grasslands have decreased by 1.25 billion hectares. Wildlife populations have decreased about 60% over the last 50 years as habitats were eliminated.
The world has used half (51%) of all the oil ever produced in just the last 25 years (Figure 5).
This is overshoot and population growth is the root cause. Climate change is just collateral damage.
The Slow Truth About Energy Transitions
Oil, natural gas and coal make up almost 80% of the world’s primary energy consumption today. Despite the excitement about renewable energy, wind and solar account for only about 7% of the world’s energy use.
There is no analogue in human history that supports the idea that society can increase renewable energy from 7% to 100% in 30 years. Not even close.
EIA’s most recent forecast predicts wind and solar will increase from 7% today to about 19% of world consumption by 2050 (Figure 6). Petroleum will decrease slightly from 30 to 28%, natural gas will fall from 24% to 22%, coal from 26% to 20%, nuclear from 5% to 4%, hydroelectric from 4% to 3%, and biomass will increase from 4% to 5%.
If that seems pessimistic, it’s because many analysts compare renewable energy growth for electric power generation—not total energy use—and there, the percentages are higher.
Figure 7 shows that wind and solar are expected to increase from 17% to 46% of world electric power generation by 2050. EIA forecasts that natural gas will decrease from 22% to 15%, coal will fall from 37% to 24%, nuclear from 11% to 9% and hydroelectric power from 10% to 7%.
Perhaps EIA’s forecasts are too pessimistic. Double them and although more than 90% of electric power will be generated by wind and solar, electric power will account for less than 40% of all energy consumption.
To make matters worse, electric power generation from all sources—including coal and natural gas—is only expected to increase from 30% to 41% by 2050 (Figure 8). It’s hard to envision a nearly 100% renewable world in which electric power does not account for even half of our energy demand.
These forecasts—like all forecasts—are wrong but they notionally reflect the reality that energy transitions take a long time. No matter how much we may want things to change faster, history and human behavior suggest we will be disappointed.
The widespread idea that electric vehicles are a big part of reducing carbon dioxide emissions is confusing. Cars account for about 15% of global emissions (Figure 9). That’s worth reducing but is hardly a solution to emissions.
Not All Energy Sources Are Equal
Energy transitions have always involved moving from a less productive to a more productive (higher energy density) source of energy. Coal contains 40% more energy per unit volume than wood and oil contains about 80% more energy than coal (Figure 8).
The transition from biomass to coal took about 250 years and the transition from coal to oil has been going on for at least 125 years. It is unlikely that the next energy transition will take place much faster than coal-to-oil despite current expectations that the world will be 100% renewable in a decade or two.
It is easy to compare things like oil, coal and wood because we can burn them and physically measure how much energy is released in the form of work. It is more difficult to do that with wind or solar because we don’t burn them nor are their weights and volumes comparable to fossil fuels.
Power density offers a way to compare fossil fuels with wind and solar sources of energy. It is a measure of the energy flow that can be harnessed from a given unit area: the power (rate of work) in watts (W) per square meter (m2). In simplistic terms, how does power from the area of a gas well compare to the power from the area of a solar installation or wind turbine?
If we think about power density as workers, it takes two coal workers to deliver the power of one natural gas worker (Figure 9). It takes 169 solar workers or 1,100 wind workers to replace one natural gas worker.
That doesn’t mean that wind or solar cannot replace natural gas for electric power generation. It simply means that a larger army of workers will be needed. In other words, a lot more area must be dedicated to wind and solar installations than to gas wells. That compounds—not limits–overshoot.
Renewable energy promoters claim that we can replace our current energy needs without fossil fuels.The triumph of technology may allow that but it will do little to end the ongoing ecosystem disaster.
“Without a biosphere in a good shape, there is no life on the planet. It’s very simple. That’s all you need to know.”Vaclav Smil
The Trip to Abilene
The Abilene Paradox is a famous business school parable about what happens when a group makes a collective decision that hasn’t been thought out very well. It describes a family that decided to take a long drive to eat lunch in Abilene. It was a miserable, hot day and the lunch wasn’t very good. After returning home, the complaining and blaming began. It seemed that no one had really wanted to go in the first place including the one who made the suggestion.
Most people and governments want to do something about climate change but few understand energy well enough to make effective choices. Nonetheless, we are getting in the car and turning onto the highway that leads to Abilene.
Guidelines were agreed upon to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 at the recent COP26 meeting but no government agreed to cut its economic growth or population. In the most optimistic outcome, therefore, we will continue to overshoot earth’s ecosystem using more renewable and less fossil energy inputs.
U.S. envoy John Kerry’s comments are worth considering:
“I’m told by scientists that 50% of the reductions we have to make (to get to near zero emissions) by 2050 or 2045 are going to come from technologies we don’t yet have.”
We’ve agreed to do something that’s impossible without a miracle.
The reason for the “net” in Net Zero is because the outcome will not be zero emissions at all. Instead, a complicated system of carbon trades and credits will allow a “net zero” sum on the balance sheet. Carbon emissions will continue and, therefore, so will climate change and overshoot.
People understandably want to know the solution. The purpose of this post is to show that overshoot is the problem we must address. Any plan that includes continued growth is doomed to fail.
“We cannot solve climate change or other major symptoms of overshoot – biodiversity loss, tropical deforestation, overfishing, land and soil degradation, pollution of everything, the possibility of pandemics, etc., in isolation from the others. However, if we reverse overshoot, all its symptoms would be alleviated simultaneously.Bill Rees
We cannot solve anything until we understand the reality that we are in. That has to happen before any discussion of solutions is possible.
N.J. Hagens and D. J. White recently wrote, “Reality is (typically) not fun, but necessary to engage with. At the height of energy and material wealth, it has not been a priority for our culture to think in these complex ways—it makes our brains hurt and makes us uncomfortable and sometimes sad.”
Blaming fossil energy companies or anyone else is not particularly helpful or accurate. Blaming the species for its lack of foresight and planning may be accurate but is also not helpful. Disparaging the ineffectiveness of politicians ignores 5,000 years of written history in which this has rarely been different.
An energy transition is underway. Governments have created investment incentives to propel renewable energy growth beyond anything that international accords can accomplish. Those who believe the propaganda that economic growth will be stronger as the world shifts to renewable energy need to re-read the previous two sections of this post.
Human energy transitions have always involved going from a less-to a more-productive energy source. This trip to Abilene involves something that has never been done before—going from a more- to a less-productive energy source.
Oil is the economy. As we move away from oil, the world will become poorer. As living standards fall, mass immigration and civil unrest will probably increase. The oil age won’t end tomorrow but lack of capital will put it on a similar glide path as coal. Oil will get very expensive and that will do more to limit its use than regulation and legislation can accomplish. None of this will be fast enough to do much about climate change but neither will complaining and blaming.
Overshoot and climate change are not part of a morality play. This is not about good guys and bad guys.
We are following our genetic imperative for population and economic growth. It worked pretty well for a few thousand years but now it’s killing us. Some don’t even see that yet. Wherever the world is heading, let’s not go to Abilene again.
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