A simple route to climate disaster

I’ve mentioned quite a few times the spurious calculations offered by Ted Trainer of the Simplicity Institute, purporting to prove that renewable energy can’t sustain a modern lifestyle. But I haven’t looked hard at the other side of the coin; the idea that ‘degrowth’ could provide us with a sustainable, low-tech but still comfortable way of living, based on local self-sufficiency.

Samuel Alexander, also of the Simplicity Institute, has a piece in the Conversation, making this claim. Presumably, unlike energy technology, this is an area where the Institute ought to have some special expertise. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case.

Alexander makes two points of particular interest.

First, he suggests that we (that is, urban dwellers) could meet our food needs through a combination of suburban gardening and trade with nearby farmers. This is illustrated by a picture of a community garden in San Francisco.

Second, he observes that this is not a process that should be sought through top-down measures from government, but rather through ‘bottom-up’ initiatives from individuals and groups.

I’ll deal with the second point first. Rather than putting this discussion in the future tense, why not look at attempts to move in this direction, which have been going on for at least forty years (there was a big movement to Nimbin on the NSW North Coast in the early 1970s, for example). As far as I know, none of these have got anywhere near achieving self-sufficiency in food, let alone fibre for clothing, timber for building and so on. And, as far as I can see, there is less going on in this direction now than there was 40 years ago.

That’s not to say of course, that self-sufficiency is impossible. For thousands of years, the majority of the world’s population lived by subsistence agriculture, and a billion or more still do. The only problems were
(i) It’s a life of miserable, back-breaking work from which people have always fled at the earliest opportunity, even when the alternative was near-starvation in a disease-ridden urban slum or shantytown
(ii) The current world population could not possibly be fed (even on a meat-free diet) with the yields typical of traditional subsistence agriculture

Perhaps the Simplicity Institute is counting on using more modern (but sustainable) technology to achieve high food yields. At one level, this might just be feasible. ‘Organic’ farmers have shown that it’s possible to achieve commercial yields without using pesticides or manufactured fertilisers, though other costs are higher, so that it is necessary to charge a premium price. But this only works on a significant scale if, in other respects, standard energy-intenisve industrial technologies (farm machinery, food processing and so on) are used.

Alexander makes it pretty clear that (as with the Institute’s attacks on renewable energy) this kind of modest tinkering is not what he has in mind. So, let’s take a look at the community garden he uses to illustrate the simpler approach. The photo shows about 20 people and a dozen or so garden beds, each about 1-2 sq m in area.

I’m not much of a gardener, but the total area looks pretty comparable to the backyard patch we had when I was a kid, which certainly didn’t feed our family. Rather than rely on such impressionistic stuff, though, it seems better to look at some proper data. Alexander doesn’t offer any and neither does the Simplicity Institute website, but the Internet has plenty of information.

Typical estimates seem to be that you need somewhere from 100-400 sq m to supply enough vegetables for a single person.

That includes a carbohydrate source such as potatoes, and perhaps fruit, but no meat, eggs, milk, grain or plant protein sources like soybeans.

Taking the most optimistic numbers possible, the garden plots illustrated by Alexander would meet less than half the vegetable needs of one person. This isn’t a remotely serious analysis: it’s more like claiming that a household could supply its own electricity by pedalling a stationary bike.

A more immediate objection relates to the transition path. Suppose that the Simplicity Institute managed to convince everyone that it is necessary to adopt the ‘degrowth’ approach they advocate. This would require a comprehensive restructuring of the entire economy: food production and distribution systems are just one example.

How rapidly could such a transformation be achieved? An obvious answer is to run the tape in reverse. The shift from a largely agricultural economy to our current post-industrial economy took about 200 years in the leading economies, and has nowhere been achieved in less than two generations (say 60 years). It seems reasonably to assume that reversing the process would take just as long, even granting the improbable premise that we started tomorrow[^1]

We don’t have 60 years to spare. If the world economy isn’t thoroughly decarbonized by 2050 (a little over 30 years away), the chance of holding global warming to 2 degrees C will have been lost.

The only chance of decarbonization is an approach that is focused much more narrowly on reducing CO2 emissions, through energy efficiency, renewable energy and a shift away from the most energy-intensive forms of consumption. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, this can be done at very low cost, but we need to move much faster than we are doing.

Those, like Trainer and Alexander, who oppose any effective action to reduce CO2 emissions, while demanding a massively larger agenda reflecting their social and ideological preferences, are effective (and sometimes actual [^2]) allies of the rightwing denialists.

fn1. The UN Climate Change Framework Convention process started more than 20 years ago, and is only now producing any significant (though still inadequate) action. ‘Degrowth’ isn’t a process or even the basis of a movement, it’s just an idea.

fn2. One notable meeting place was Barry Brooks’ Brave New Climate site, where denunciations of renewable energy from Trainer and Peter Lang, a denialist who used to comment here, sit side by side

251 thoughts on “A simple route to climate disaster

  1. There’s lots of critiques of the ecological footprint available that are more eloquent than I could put together eg see one below.
    I also came across a damning comment by the eccentric ecological economist Richard Tol at
    Richard Tol says:
    August 26, 2010 at 8:17 am
    The Ecological Footprint is not a good idea gone bad. It is a bad idea. The basic notion is that there is such a thing as an absolute yardstick for what people care about. Socrates believed in this, and all classical economists from Quesnay and Smith to Ricardo and Marx. The latter three adhered to the labour theory of value, while the former (like Wackernagel) adhered to a land theory of value.
    Note that Quesnay’s theory was superceded by Smith’s, which was overturned by Marx’s and, finally, by Jevons, Menger and Walras.
    In a way, therefore, Wackernagel’s ecological footprint is a throwback to the 18th century. It’s academic regress. The ecological footprint, if anything, is an indicator of the intelligence of the analyst. (The correlation is negative.)’

    Richard Tol’s comment of course reminds us of Keynes’ comment that so often we are captive to the ideas of ‘some defunct economist’.

    ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back’.
    (There are some really witty, apposite quotes on this wikiquote page).

  2. There’s another problem with EROEI too. In a system in which all (or very nearly all) energy inputs are FHC, it makes good sense to put an equals sign between energy inputs and pollution. OTOH, if most or even much of the energy input is from non-FHC sources, the EROEI calculus can be misleading.

    I was looking at one of those fabulous chloropleth maps a while back and it turned out that one of the most energy-intensive societies in the world was … Iceland. It was coloured in black to make the point. That might have been fair enough for Kuwait, which runs on oil, but it was damned misleading for Iceland which runs its stationary power and its heating on hydro and geothermal.

    It matters where the energy inputs come from. If they are in a less despatchable form and get transformed into a more despatchable form (imagine using energy from wind or solar to crack water and produce H2 to use in a fuel cell) then the EROEI calculus would not be germane.

  3. @Fran Barlow

    Fran Barlow :
    @John Goss

    we never subject food to EROEI because we humans don’t care how much energy it takes to produce a calorie within an edible food item. If humans weren’t intrinsically valuable the EROEI calculus would put food production out of business.

    To repeat there is still a need for bloggers here to do some serious background reading – maybe including John though its hard for me to tell. Or maybe get a subscription to Environmental Science and Technology so you can understand this stuff better.

    Regarding food and energy see for example the references you can access via http://scholar.google.com.au/scholar?q=%22life+cycle+assessment%22+%22food+miles%22&btnG=&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5

    One example recent ref with 470 ACADEMIC citations is WEBER, C. L. & MATTHEWS, H. S. 2008. Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental Science & Technology, 42, 3508-3513.

    It took me 10 seconds to locate that body of information.

    Beyond that there is popular stuff like Fred Pearce’s “Where my stuff comes from”

    These all illustrate EROEI by another name.

    EROEI is just one tool in the giant interelated tool box of environmental accounting which is the primary source of all the pop information above. Its neither trivial nor the last word not finished. Its just a part of environmental science technology and engineering.

  4. Fran at 27. I think you have yourself indicated clearly some of the potential problems with EROEI. I personally don’t care what quantum of energy a person uses in doing activity x, as long as that person fully compensates the rest of society for any damage that activity does to the rest of society and the planet, and if they can’t fully compensate, they shouldn’t be allowed to do it.

  5. Ronald Brak :
    Newtonian, I mean this in good faith, but I don’t think the things you suggest I read would be my experience.

    Likewise in good faith I think all I’m suggesting is people who havent been exposed professionally read further all these environmental accounting which are out there so it becomes more and more part of their ‘Decision Support’ on life choices like whether and why to have PV or a car or whatever. They arent magic bullets but they are useful and provide surprises. I get the sense a lot of bloggers here arent familiar with this stuff but might be interested.

    Personally I also have reservations on many of these accounting tools mainly because of the uncertainty boundaries which are often not well quantified.

    Nevertheless they are useful as a means to understand why we seem to be increasingly running Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen’s Race i.e. in quest for happiness we put all this energy and effort into work e.g. to buy and run a car – but at the end of the day when you do look at the accounting you see something akin to madness and masochism which is useful.

    One reason for defending EROEI is a fascinating problem it highlights in respect to oil. The worse the payback gets the more perversely we need to invest in more dead end energy and in effect support the fossil fuel companies who dont want to change but just want us to keep buying their stuff.

    Much has been written around this trend of increasing wealth without increasing happiness which I think addresses Rog’s throwaway that the only thing that counts at the end of the day is money. The bankruptcy of that in jest observation is nicely captured today by the dreaded St George of Monbiot http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us.

  6. “There have been several instances in recent months when wind energy has accounted for all, or nearly all, electricity demand in South Australia. Last Tuesday, however, set a new benchmark – the combination of wind energy and rooftop solar provided more than 100 per cent of the state’s electricity needs, for a whole working day between 9.30am and 6pm.”

  7. @John Goss

    That sounds like a robust principle but in practice, it’s unlikely that every human could compensate the rest of society for any damage that person does to society or the planet, even with the best of intentions. Feeding, clothing and sheltering inevitably have a footprint, and it’s necessarily an indelible one.

    At the very least, some distinction has to be made between usages that are part and parcel of underpinning human well-being (the bottom rungs of the Maslow hierarchy) and activities that are arguably discretionary. Given the very great disparities in wealth between human beings, and the ways in which those disparities arose, you would probably have to settle the burdens of the poor upon the shoulders of the wealthy, this side of the emergence of egalitarian and inclusive societies on a world scale.

  8. @ZM I think you’ll find Tasmania has been 100% renewable in most days for the last 30 years. They still thought it prudent to build an underwater cable that ends at Loy Yang brown coal fired station. At nearly 7 pm AEST I’m going to check on SA is this near realtime site
    Select the state you want. I’m finding for SA on 15/10/14 the renewables portion was 26.9% (not close to 100%) and the CO2 was 620 grams per kwh. Ontario for example averages 47 grams. Must do better.

  9. @Hermit

    There seems to be something wrong with your realtime market website, Hermit. In SA at 4am solar was providing about 200MW or 20% of demand. Sunrise is around 6am? Or has SA developed over 200MW of solar-driven energy storage. Maybe I am missing something…

  10. In related news, the rather excitable remarks by the PM and various resources industry spokesbeings relating to coal in recent days are interesting in the light of the fact that the coal industry’s market cap has declined by 60% in the past two years. Apparently this is a global phenomenon. This appears to be a global phenomenon. Robert Murray, CEO of major US coal concern Murray Energy, was recently quoted as saying “We have the absolute destruction of the U.S. coal industry. It’s not coming back. If you think it’s coming back … you’re smoking dope.” Interesting times.

  11. To summarise the above, if EROEI is less than 1, and if the energy generated is of the same quality as the energy input, you have a problem. That’s arguably true of ethanol generated from corn in the US for example. But this can only happen in the presence of really big subsidies (otherwise, the value of energy output is less than the cost of energy input, and much less than total cost of all inputs).

    Back in the day, this kind of criticism was probably applicable to solar PV (then an experimental technology) and maybe also to wind. But it’s long since ceased to be relevant. So, in discussion of renewables other than ethanol, we should just forget about EROEI.

  12. If we had a genuine level playing field in the energy market with no subsidies and all forms of energy paying a reasonable, objectively determined price for negative externalities, then the need for calulating EROEIs would be academic. The market would select the more efficient and less negative externality causing types of energy generation. The best EROIE energy generators would tend to be the most profitable.

    I don’t advocate free markets for everything. However stationary energy generation seems to be moving into an era where economies of scale might not apply and natural monopolies might not apply in generation. Micro and macro generators might well compete on a relatively even footing. We are seeing associations of power consumers getting deals. Why not co-operative associations of micro-producers getting deals?

    However, distribution still look like a natural monopoly to me, best left in state and federal hands.

  13. @Hermit

    Umm, you do realise that Basslink is mainly for export of Tasmanian hydro? Of course, it can go the other way, particularly in droughts, but that’s what grids are for.

    To repeat, I think you’ve utterly lost the plot. Feel free to challenge me on either of the following points
    (1) There won’t be an operating nuclear power plant in Australia any time before 2030
    (2) There won’t be any new coal-fired plants either, and many existing ones will close down
    (3) One way or another, we will keep the lights on

    If you accept these three points, then, AFAICT, every comment you have ever made here has been pointless. If not, feel free to spell out which is wrong

  14. @John Quiggin

    I take your point and agree, with a couple of caveats. It’s probably just me being pedantic or plain wrong.

    1. When you consider other input costs to making an energy source other than just energy input costs, it is probably the case that we would find that an EROEI of 2:1 or 3:1 would be needed for a profitable business in practice. This isn’t true for distilling alcohol for human consumption of course but then that is not made and drunk for its energy value but for other properties.

    2. The average energy profit ratio of our entire economy is the ratio of energy directed to get more energy to the ratio of energy directed to other net economic work. Ratios of capital applied to each purpose would I think follow suit. So a lower EROEI economy will be directing more capital to securing energy and less to other purposes. Where this is financial capital it is moot whether there is any problem as we currently have a surfeit of financial capital churning in speculation and creating asset inflation. Where it is physical capital I would think it matters. If we employ a greater ratio of physical capital to satisfy raw energy needs and have a lesser ratio of physical capital left to apply to say food and transport needs then this might matter economically speaking. Not saying it would present any insuperable difficulties but I imagine structural economic adjustments and social adjustments might be significant.

    Any thoughts?

  15. Ah, looks like the incoming CEO of CSIRO, Dr Larry Marshall, is about to shirtfront our political reality; as thrilling as the event may be, whatever the outcome, there have already been damaging cuts to CSIRO’s climate science projects, and to basic maths, stats, and informatics capability, among other areas of significance.

    The RET has demonstrated that positive action from a government can result in rapid and significant uptake of renewables, while leaving it to the market to sort out the best technological means of harnessing the raw renewable energy sources available. It is a pretty simple (as far as these things go) and effective scheme. I really hope we don’t abandon it or play silly buggers with it.

    It seems that the Abbott bloke, not content with winning an election, wants to rub every perceived enemy’s nose in it, just for kicks.

  16. >>>> ” ‘Organic’ farmers have shown that it’s possible to achieve commercial yields without using pesticides or manufactured fertilisers, though other costs are higher…”

    Was told by an ag-science guy that organic only works because the other farmers are keeping the pest populations down. Not sure if true but sounds reasonable.

  17. @John Quiggin
    If these predictions are correct it would seem that we are heading for energy poverty since coal provides 64% of our electricity, wind 2.9% and PV 1.5%. Transport which equates with (largely imported) oil use is 40% of our primary energy consumption. Next year east Australian gas doubles in price. I think a few here want to point out these issues are not easily solved.

  18. @Matt

    Was told by an ag-science guy that organic only works because the other farmers are keeping the pest populations down. Not sure if true but sounds reasonable.

    It does, but it’s one of those sweeping generalisations. Certainly, genuinely organic farming is more labour-intensive, mainly because you need to put a lot more effort into maintaining the condition of the soil. Pests and weeds are really a secondary problem.

    The other issue is the return on your land. If you’re managing a commercial-scale piece of land, you are going to have to either spend more labour-hours managing it or adopt non-organic methods. Using chemicals saves you a lot of money in labour and typically produces a more merchantable and uniform crop. Organic farms tend to be much smaller, precisely so the farmer can do the work him/herself. It may well be that the organic small-holder gets some cohort protection as a consequence of his/her non-organic neighbours, but in most cases this would not be a decisive benefit.

  19. @Hermit

    If these predictions are correct it would seem that we are heading for energy poverty since coal provides 64% of our electricity, wind 2.9% and PV 1.5%. Transport which equates with (largely imported) oil use is 40% of our primary energy consumption. Next year east Australian gas doubles in price. I think a few here want to point out these issues are not easily solved.

    According to BREE in May 2011, about 36% of Australia’s domestic consumption of energy was in oil, and 34% in coal.

  20. Damn posting in a moving train! Carriage 4232 moved my index finger to submit … Sigh …

    Anyhoo … The projected figures for 2012-13 in BREE for electricity were 20% black coal and 11% brown coal, with about 39% in oil and 26% in gas.

    You seem to be confusing what we have done with what we might yet do. Since this BREE (of 2012) came out it now seems that we are going to have to struggle to avoid having 20% of our nameplate in renewables. By 2030 with a bit of development in V2G and plug-in electric vehicles, transfer of long haul bulk cargos onto rail, some demand management at peak times we could quite easily have decarbonised 30% of our domestic energy consumption. Those brown coal plants (and some of the older black coal plants) will have been decommissioned by then and some of the gas plants won’t be competitive because better prices overseas will force up the local price here.

    I do note though that rather than concede PrQ’s challenges above, you simply retreat to a version of ‘we’ll all be ‘rooned”. Perhaps you should change your nym to Hanrahan.

    Politically, no government is going to allow ‘energy poverty’. What they might conceivably do is lead policy changes that at some cost reduce sharply this jurisdiction’s carbon footprint. It might be that a large majority of people eventually come around to the idea of having nuclear power here or by 2025 some new means of relatively cost-efficiently storing and time shifting renewable output at scale arises.

    Doubtless though, your commentary will be the same.

  21. Hermit :
    @John Quiggin
    If these predictions are correct it would seem that we are heading for energy poverty since coal provides 64% of our electricity, wind 2.9% and PV 1.5%. Transport which equates with (largely imported) oil use is 40% of our primary energy consumption. Next year east Australian gas doubles in price. I think a few here want to point out these issues are not easily solved.

    You seem to assuming that these percentage are fixed and immovable. In particular, you are assuming that wind and solar cannot grow rapidly. The current growth of renewables worldwide excluding hydro is resulting in a doubling almost every three years. I wonder, when you see a human baby do you say “That could never become an adult, it’s too small.”

    I am one those who thinks there are some structural and systemic reasons why our dependence on fossil fuels is not going to be easily solved. However “not easily solved” does not equate to “cannot be solved”. I think the problem can be solved with a lot of the right kind of effort and initiatives.

    We will have to transform our society and economy. We will have to become pretty much a fully electrical economy. The large personal automobile might have to go the way of the dodo; certainly the IC engined auto will. We will have to produce the same output per capita with about half the power use but that is eminently feasible considering how much power we waste.

    I admit I am not as sanguine as J.Q. who seems to think the economics of the free market with some moderate state direction will easily and automatically drive the transition (if I am not mis-characterising his position). I don’t think it will be easy or automatic. I do think it can be done with effort, austereness and dirigist direction. Note “austereness” is not “economic austerity”.

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