Hidden Costs Constrain the Benefits of Transitioning to Renewable Energy

It seems that little effort to understand fully the costs and benefits of the transition from fossil fuel to PV energy production has accompanied the rush to install utility scale solar and wind farms. However, it is very important to examine the environmental costs of achieving the environmental benefits of low carbon emissions energy production, especially at industrial scale. Moreover, that transition must involve so far largely ignored major societal transformations if humanity is actually to achieve the goals of zero carbon emissions, ecological restoration, and climate stabilization.

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Paris Agreement Celebration

Given the accelerating trajectory of ecosystems collapse and climate destabilization well underway, achieving those goals is simply imperative. Yet, despite the importance of the technical, economic, and social complexities inherent in such a comprehensive transition to “sustainability,” utilities, governments, and corporations pursue the quest mostly in a business-as-usual format.The COP-21 Paris Climate Agreements, so difficult to implement, nevertheless fall short of needed international action.

Even before reading Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions, I worried about the carbon costs of the production of renewables. Zehner raised many questions but did not provide the kind of data-driven findings we need to optimize renewables deployment, though he rightly asserted the primacy of the problem of overconsumption.

Optimization Imperative

Importantly, the choices are difficult and the optimal solutions very hard to achieve.  In several ways, international trade is an important culprit. Not only does it add immensely to carbon costs; it also amplifies the waste resulting from not keeping manufacturing domestic in all PV markets. Corporate financial optimization conflicts with ecological and climate imperatives.

Clearly, we need an international agreement that works in the exact opposite direction from the extant NAFTA or delayed TTP regimes. No approximation of net-zero emissions will be possible in the near future without severely curtailing international trade and minimizing the distance between materials extraction, and the manufacture, installation and operation of near carbon-neutral energy systems. The same goes for all industrial production.

COP-21-Paris-Climate-Conference-Summit co2 chart

Only Deep Industrial Contraction can Achieve Adequate Reduction in Carbon Emissions.

We must accelerate the transition, but we must do so consistent with the goal of minimizing net carbon emissions in the process as well as in the outcome.  In that context, it is interesting to note that so little mention is made of energy conservation in the literature of emissions reduction and “sustainability” — except indirectly, in terms of improving production efficiency. The immensity of the task escapes most analysts.

DeGrowth and Consumption

One of Zehner’s core arguments is that the renewable energy transition not only consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy production and depletes increasingly scarce mineral resources. It also encourages more energy consumption and waste.  It is not surprising to find the old pattern of “unanticipated consequences of social action” in this context.

The core consequence in this case is that the goal of zero carbon emissions to stabilize ecosystems and climate must entail significant contraction of industrial economies themselves – “degrowth.” Most government officials and policy wonks do not anticipate that deeply transformative consequence. It contravenes their deeply held beliefs in economic growth as the primary societal goal.

Two Kinds of “Grass Roots”

Most analysts and even political leaders agree on the need for large-scale highly rational international agreements to optimize the transition to a low-carbon renewable-energy-based economy. Yet little prospect for such large-scale political solutions is in sight. At one level, local community efforts to fight global warming are essential. However, some sort of “grass-roots” effort also must arise within the PV and wind industries, in order to optimize the extraction-production-distribution-installation matrix, despite the difficulty. Maybe the industry could form cooperatives to trade or share elements of the cycle in order to minimize distance between these elements in order to optimize carbon-reduction benefits. At this point, micro-economic incentives are lacking.

As Kris De Decker documented as early as 2015, based on diverse research findings, net-positive life-cycle carbon-reduction benefits from renewables are far from automatic. They only occur with localized optimization of supply chains. An important step is to bring awareness to the players — and to environmentalists too. However, some form of leverage on the industry is also needed, or it’s not likely to happen. Time is short, and the cost of time in this instance is very high.

Beyond Resistance: Replacement and Restoration for Resilience

Resist we must. But what will that get us, really? Well, catharsis yes. However, that is clearly not enough.

Will resistance bring a slower unraveling of American Democracy? Maybe, maybe not. The deep entanglement of political institutions with the increasingly monopolistic “technosphere” is so extensive that only resistance that borders on revolution might make a dent by forcing contraction of the corporate state. Don’t hold your breath.

climate change heats the planetWill resistance bring one or two less weather weirdings next year? Probably not. That will take a lot more than resistance. Only major contraction of the techno-industrial-consumer economy coupled with accelerated deployment of low-carbon technology and economics in local communities will make much difference. That will require massive social change at every level.

Limits of Resistance

Will resistance bring a respite from the splitting of our society between the extremely rich and the rest of us? Perhaps a tiny easing, if a new Congress were to legislate big penalties for abuse of the economy by the financial sector and if a new president were to appoint a ‘hard-ass’ to enforce existing anti-trust law. Only then might the parasitic financial sector shrink some. But its penetration into political institutions is deep and pervasive. But how much of the liberal insurgency that is the #resistance just a visceral repulsion to a narcissist sociopath and how much seeks deep social change?

Would resistance bring a slight improvement in the deteriorating health of our people due to abridged access to healthcare? Not likely in the short run, since it will take a lot more than Corporate Democrats controlling Congress to overthrow the Medical Insurance Monopoly and Big Pharma dominance over the forced “markets” mediating medical care. On the other hand, maybe enough resistance could generate the momentum needed to bring on universal health care, so common in the rest of the developed world.

Well, with a lot of resistance, we might at least get a concerted effort to accelerate climate action, right? Again, Mr. Big Corp is likely to continue forcing more capital-intensive hi-tech R&D programs, not accelerated deployment of ready-to-go distributed power generation and energy conservation strategies. Serious carbon emissions reduction, which requires major contraction of the technosphere, would involve seriously greater community control of economic activity, replacing the endless intermediation within the technosphere assuring sustained central control and uninterrupted human suffering.

Something Different: Replacement, Restoration, Resilience

No, we need something very different, and we need it now. “But you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?” Of course, that is a major part of the problem. We are blindly sailing into unchartered waters in a sinking ship with the captain acting the mutineer  overloading a private lifeboat with bullion. “Follow the money.”

Sorry.Lifestyle.out.of.stockWe will not survive by appealing to existing authority structures or charismatic demagogues. Nor will we survive by separating out ‘recyclables’ while buying plastic-packaged everything and investing in a hybrid car to maintain accustomed fossil-fuel levels of mobility.

Well, I can tell you one thing. What we do need even more than resistance is replacement of the global industrial-consumer economy with local ecological communities. Also we urgently need restoration of ecosystems everywhere to stop the planetary bleeding of the complex of living Earth systems we timidly call “the environment.” Only then can we achieve the resilience we desperately need. We will never get close to resilience by appealing to national politics. We must act now where we live. Of course, that is the hard part.

Resist we must, but it will be far from enough, even if Indivisible, movements like it, and street protests grow much larger. Politicians will continue dickering and taking bribes right up to the point where full-on climate collapse accelerates weird weather events, droughts, floods, large-scale crop failures, forced migrations, escalated violence and imminence of societal collapse.

No, Resistance is not enough.