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.


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.

The Essentials of Resilience in a World of Growing Chaos

By now, it ought to go without saying that the evidence is in – after all, global warming has been recognized by scientists for decades. The accelerated release of “greenhouse gases” since the dawn of the Industrial Age is now causing accelerated warming of the planet with multiple interacting deleterious effects. We just don’t have time to argue the scientific consensus vs. the propaganda of the growth economists and industrial apologists. It is what it obviously is. Far more important challenges than “climate deniers” lay ahead. Resilience will be the key to meeting those challenges.

The most urgent question today is what must be done now and in the near future to achieve major mitigation of carbon emissions. The second most urgent question is: What can we do to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate disruption already “in the pipeline”? Mitigation and adaptation go hand in hand, although adaptation without mitigation is akin to seeking a more comfortable collective suicide. Without rapidly reducing the release of greenhouse gases, conditions will become so extreme that humans and many other species will be unable to adapt and survive. The species-extinction rate is already extreme by evolutionary measure.

Mitigation and Adaptation

So, resilience must be understood as the ability to both mitigate the sources of climate change and adapt to climate disruption in just the right balance. This must be done in the context of improving knowledge of the climate changes that are already occurring. We know that some of the processes are also accelerating because of interactive positive feedback loops. But the methane and CO2 releases from nascent arctic permafrost melting are not yet accounted for in the current IPCC climate change models. We need to know and immediately act upon the most strategically important climate disrupting factors. We must choose those factors with both the greatest impact on climate and the most potential for rapid and radical mitigation.

Fortunately, some mitigation efforts may also have adaptive benefits. For example, a massive program to improve the energy efficiency of buildings will not only reduce energy use and waste. It will also provide better shelter from extreme temperatures. Unfortunately, some attempts at mitigation will both reduce carbon emissions from energy production and stimulate more energy use and waste. It is almost universally assumed that the installation of renewable energy production technologies to replace high-emissions production, such as coal-fired power plants, will simply reduce emissions. However, the extraction, manufacturing, and installation processes release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also can encourage expanded energy waste because of greater availability of energy at lower cost.

The Politics of Necessity

We live in a minefield of cost-benefit dilemmas and potential unintended consequences of strategic alternatives. Then there is the problem of the political economy. Little if any meaningful and timely climate action at an adequate scale can be expected from the corporate state. Profligate U.S. energy consumption has caused more of the extant climate disruption than any other nation. Yet our “leaders” – both corporate and governmental – treat any commitments to carbon reduction as if it were just another trade-deal negotiation. The fact that China recently surpassed our current level of emissions does not relieve the U.S. of its responsibility for the highest levels of over-consumption and waste. We led the world into this mess and we ought to take the lead in unwinding the fossil-fuel driven growth economy. We can and must lead in the development of an ecological economy with appropriate infrastructure and social structure as well. That will not be easy, nor can it be accomplished by conventional means.

The current social structure is uniquely adapted to the perpetuation of the failing industrial leviathan. What David Korten calls the “Sacred Money and Markets story” sustains a social structure comprised of alienated individuals, fragmented families and communities. That social structure is dominated by a corporate state, which is driven primarily by the interests of the financial-military-corporate-political elite. Comprehensive whole-society-level mobilization and centrally coordinated action could theoretically make the most difference most quickly. One of the greatest contradictions of our current dilemma is that, the power structure steadfastly resists such action. Its capabilities include a significant potential for “command and control” over climate action. However, its interests are in continuing with “business as usual.”
Interestingly, China has a lot of command and control capability because of its one-party dictatorship. Oddly, so does the U.S. – since the two-party state operates as one corporate state. Yet, it will not take significant climate action since its interests lay in exploiting the present situation more than in human well being. Such action is in direct opposition to the short-term financial interests of the power elites to retain the system they control and from which they profit so handily.

The Ultimate Resilience

Throughout history, people have risen up in response to oppressive conditions and attempted to overthrow kings, dictators, and other regimes. But climate change, as Naomi Klein puts it, “changes everything.” Not only are conditions such that any kind of violent rebellion is impossible if not suicidal. But structural change through normal political processes is almost entirely blocked by the two-parties-as-one oligarchy.

Change must come from people organizing themselves at the local level in a number of ways, where access to political decision-making is at least possible. Many groups in communities all over the nation, and across the planet as well, are organizing to take local actions to either resist or replace the control of their lives by the corporatocracy. If they create enough momentum, these actions will evolve into the new economy. The resulting eco-community based life in harmony with our living earth systems will become the ultimate resilience.