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.

Collapse: Converging Crises and the American Oligarchs

Two new studies now being reported converge in frightening ways with the most recent data on climate disruption. Their results reflect the growing likelihood that the converging crises of economy, social justice, and ecology will lead to the collapse of civilization and even the sixth mass extinction. (Kolbert, 2014)

First, Gillens and Page (2014) studied empirical records in the period from 1981 through 2010, and showed that the outcomes of national policy debates have had almost no relationship to the preferences of the general population, but are highly correlated with the interests of economic elites; the obvious inference is that we live in an oligarchy with the trappings of formal democracy – not exactly news. But previous research results were mixed and did not settle which model of political process is valid. The researchers found that the opinions of citizens of median income and lower have had no bearing on social policy outcomes. But the interests of economic elites (who happen to fund most of politics) are clearly reflected in law and policy. Uncomfortable as it is to admit, oligarchs rule, and like the Russian oligarchs, many are ruthless.

Second, a new study of the dynamics between human activity and nature, using mathematical models based on historical examples, predicts the collapse of civilizations when economic stratification or ecological strain surpass carrying capacity. Either economic stratification or ecological strain can independently lead to collapse. Together, well… But collapse can be avoided if a sustainable rate of resource use is achieved and if resources are distributed equitably, so that carrying capacity is not exceeded. (Motesharrei, et al, 2014) Industrial societies today, especially the U.S., have fundamentally failed to even work seriously to find a path to either economic equity or ecological sustainability as climate chaos fast approaches. (Politically motivated public gestures of little substance don’t really count.)

The latest International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports gently urge an accelerated response to climate disruption because the indicators continue to accelerate. But with lags before effects of emissions are observed and felt, and positive feedback loops accelerate – dark arctic seas absorb much more solar radiation than reflective ice sheets – we are surely approaching a tipping point where mitigation efforts will not be enough and adaptation sufficient for survival will be nearly impossible. Like all previous reports, current assessments underestimate the urgency of accelerating climate disruption.

We are in a multi-faceted trap. The oligarchs continue to grab all they can, ignoring the signs of the end of the wealth they so desperately want to control. The corporate media continue to ignore the obvious, slowing public awareness of the immediacy of the human existential crises. And as the politicians are locked into their self-aggrandizing roles as the agents of the oligarchs, the people have no say over political decisions that affect human survival.

The economic-growth machine and its ideology grind on with full political support from the agents of oligarchy (congress and president) as if the old normal still applies. Interestingly, when we look at historical examples of the collapse of civilizations, such as the Maya and the Easter Islanders described by Jared Diamond, it is clear that collapse was not inevitable. Rather, it resulted from the failure of elites to adapt social behavior to changing conditions of climate and/or ecology as they continued down their paths of self-glorification. The difference today is that it is no longer some small ecological niche that is disrupted; it is the entire planet.

Only massive public mobilization and rapid reorganization leading to ecologically viable and equitable economics has a chance of staving off the collapse of civilization. It is hard to imagine how such massive change could be accomplished. The American social and economic mobilization at the outset of World War II, comes to mind, but the elites and the people were united and the transformation required was much smaller, as were the stakes. We live in perilous times. We must act, together, now.
Diamond, Jared, (2005) Collapse: How societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

Gillens, Martin and Bejamin I. Page, (April 9, 2014, unpublished paper) “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Forthcoming, Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics.

Kolbert, Elizabeth, (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt.

Motesharrei, Safa, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, “Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies.” Ecological Economics 101 (2014) 90-102.