Richard Heinberg

Climate change is not an isolated issue. And techno-fixes will not solve it. Only a dramatic move away from fossils combined with the willingness of a large part of society to forgo on excessive convenience and luxury products and services, argues Richard Heinberg.

As Heinberg writes: climate change is often incorrectly described as an isolated pollution issue. In this flawed framing, humanity has simply made a mistake in its choice of energy sources; the solution entails switching sources and building enough carbon-sucking machines to clear the atmosphere of polluting CO2. Only the political power of the fossil fuel companies prevents us from adopting this solution and ending our existential environmental crisis.

But techno-fixes (that is, technological solutions that circumvent the need for personal or cultural change) aren’t working so far, and likely won’t work in the future. That’s because fossil fuels will be difficult to replace, and energy usage is central to our collective economic power.

In other words, power is the key to solving climate change—but not necessarily in the way that many pundits claim. Solutions will not come just from defeating fossil fuel interests and empowering green entrepreneurs; real climate progress will require the willingness of large swathes of the populace, especially in wealthy countries, to forgo forms of power they currently enjoy: comfort and convenience, the ability to travel far and fast, and the option to easily obtain a wide range of consumer products whose manufacture entails large inputs of energy and natural resources.

This is not a feel-good message, Heinberg mentions, but the longer we postpone grappling with power in this larger sense, the less successful we’re likely to be in coming to terms with the climate threat.

Why not?

Why can there be no climate techno-fix? There are two routes to this conclusion. The first one meanders through the history of humans on Earth, revealing how each new technological or social innovation empowered some people over others, while often imposing a long-term environmental cost. The adoption of agriculture was a milestone on this path: it enabled more people to subsist in any given area, and it led to cities, kings, and slavery; further, in many places, plowing tended to deplete or ruin topsoil, and city-dwellers cut down nearby forests, leading to eventual societal collapse.

But the real show-stopper came much more recently. The adoption of fossil fuels gave humans the biggest jolt of empowerment ever: in just the last two centuries, our global population has grown eight-fold, and so has per capita energy consumption. Our modern way of life—with cars, planes, supermarkets, tractors, trucks, electricity grids, and internet shopping—is the result.

Climate change is the shadow of this recent cavalcade of industriousness, since it results from the burning of fossil fuels, the main enablers of modern civilization. Nevertheless, rapidly increasing population and consumption levels are inherently unsustainable and are bringing about catastrophic environmental impacts on their own, even if we disregard the effects of carbon emissions. The accelerating depletion of resources, increasing loads of chemical pollution, and the hastening loss of wild nature are trends leading us toward ecological collapse, with economic and social collapse no doubt trailing close behind. Ditching fossil fuels will turn these trends around only if we also deal with the issues of population and consumption.

That’s the big picture. However, the quest for a climate techno-fix also fails on its own terms—that is, as a painless means of averting climate change while maintaining our current industrial economy and way of life.

Why Solar Panels Won’t Save Consumerism

Renewables like solar and wind are not without challenges. While sunlight and wind are themselves renewable, the technologies we use to capture them aren’t: they’re constructed of non-renewable materials like steel, silicon, concrete, and rare earth minerals, all of which require energy for mining, transport, and transformation. These materials are also depleting, and many will be difficult or impossible to recycle.

Sunlight and wind are intermittent: we cannot control when the sun will shine or the wind will blow. Therefore, to ensure constant availability of power, these sources require some combination of four strategies:

  • Energy storage (e.g., with batteries) is useful to balance out day-to-day intermittency, but nearly useless when it comes to seasonal intermittency; also, storing energy costs energy and money.
  • Source redundancy (building far more generation capacity than will actually be needed on “good” days, and then connecting far-flung solar and wind farms by way of massive super-grids), is a better solution for seasonal intermittency, but requires substantial infrastructure investment.
  • Excess electricity generated at times of peak production can be used to make synthetic fuels (such as hydrogen, ammonia, or methanol), perhaps using carbon captured from the atmosphere, as a way of storing energy; however, making large amounts of such fuels will again require substantial infrastructure investment, and the process is inherently inefficient.
  • Demand management (using electricity when it’s available, and curtailing usage when it isn’t) is the cheapest way of dealing with intermittency, but it often implies behavioral change or economic sacrifice.

Today the world uses only about 20 percent of its final energy in the form of electricity. The other 80 percent of energy is used in the forms of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. A transition away from fossil fuels will entail the electrification of much of that other 80 percent of energy usage, which includes most transportation and key industrial processes. However, many uses of energy, such as aviation and the making of cement for concrete, will be difficult or especially costly to electrify. In principle, the electrification conundrum could be overcome by powering aviation and high-heat industrial processes with synfuels. However, doing this at scale would require a massive infrastructure of pipelines, storage tanks, carbon capture devices, and chemical synthesis plants that would essentially replicate much of our current natural gas and oil supply system.

Machine-based carbon removal and sequestration methods work in the laboratory, but would need staggering levels of investment in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale, and it’s unclear who would pay for them. These methods also use a lot of energy, and, when full lifecycle emissions are calculated, it appears that more emissions are often generated than are captured. The best carbon capture-and-sequestration responses appear instead to consist of various methods of ecosystem restoration and soil regeneration. These strategies would also reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions. But they would require a near-complete rethinking of food systems and land management.

Heinberg: fixes require even more energy

The essence of the problem with a climate techno-fix is this, Heinberg explains: nearly everything we need to do to solve global warming (including building new low-emissions electrical generation capacity, and electrifying energy usage) requires energy and money. But society is already using all the energy and money it can muster in order to do the things that society wants and needs to do (extract resources, manufacture products, transport people and materials, provide health care and education, and so on). If we take energy and money away from those activities in order to fund a rapid energy transition on an unprecedented scale, then the economy will contract, people will be thrown out of work, and many folks will be miserable.

On the other hand, if we keep doing all those things at the current scale while also rapidly building a massive alternative infrastructure of solar panels, wind turbines, battery banks, super grids, electric cars and trucks, electrified industrial equipment, and synthetic fuel factories, the result will be a big pulse of energy usage that will significantly increase carbon emissions over the short term (10 to 20 years), since the great majority of the energy currently available for the project must be derived from fossil fuels.

The happy illusion that we can do it all can be maintained only by refusing to acknowledge the stubborn fact that all activity, including building alternative energy generators and carbon capture machinery, requires energy.

Energy is inextricably related to power. Thus, if society voluntarily reduces its energy usage by a significant amount in order to minimize climate impacts, large numbers of people will likely experience this as giving up power in some form—whether physical, social, or economic.

It can’t be emphasized too much: energy is essential to all economic activity. An economy can grow continuously only by employing more energy. World leaders demand more economic growth in order to fend off unemployment and other social ills. Thus, in effect, everyone is counting on having more energy in the future, not less.

Problems ignored usually don’t go away. And not all problems can be solved without sacrifice. If minimizing climate change really does require substantially reducing world energy usage, then policy makers should be discussing how to do this fairly and with as little negative impact as possible. The longer we delay that discussion, the fewer palatable options will be left.

If we just could give up power

The stakes could hardly be higher. If emissions continue, the result will be the failure of ecosystems, massive impacts on economies, widespread human misery and migration, and unpredictable disruptions to political systems. The return of famine as a familiar feature of human existence is a very real likelihood.

It’s easy to see why people would wish to avoid giving up social, political, economic, and physical power to the degree that’s necessary in order to deal with climate change. Fighting entrenched power is a contentious activity, often a dangerous one. People with power don’t like threats to it, and they often fight back.

That’s why environmentalists like to choose their battles. The fossil fuel industry is wealthy and formidable, but at least it’s an enemy that’s easy to identify, and a lot of people already feel critical of the oil and gas companies for a variety of reasons (gasoline is too expensive, oil pipelines cause pollution, and so on).

But not all roadblocks to climate solutions are attributable to the oil companies. The rest of us are also implicated, though to greatly varying degrees depending on where we live and how much we consume. Our whole modern consumerist way of life, the essence of our economic system, is at fault. Unless we’re willing to give up some of our power over nature—our power to extract and transform resources and deliver the goods that we have come to rely on—then we’re destined to careen from one disaster to the next until our worst fears are realized.

It’s understandable why most environmentalists frame global warming the way they do. It makes solutions seem easier to achieve. But if we’re just soothing ourselves while failing to actually stave off disaster, or even to understand our problems properly, what’s the point?

The only real long-range solution to climate change centers on reining in human physical, social, and economic power dramatically, but in ways that preserve human dignity, autonomy, and solidarity. That’s more daunting than any techno-fix. But this route has the singular advantage that, if we follow it intelligently and persistently, we will address a gamut of social and environmental problems at once. In the end, it’s the only path to a better, safer future.

This article is adapted from POWER: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society Publishers, September 2021) by Richard Heinberg

Read the complete article by Richard Heinberg on resilience.org

Also read: Electric cars emit more co2 at production than conventional cars

ipcc leaks

Juan Bordera Romá reports about how recent IPCC leaks were passed on to him, and what it actually means. He is a screenwriter and journalist and a degrowth activist in Extinction Rebellion and the Transition Network.

Somewhat by chance and because I was working in the right place at the right time, I was one of the journalists who exclusively leaked the contents of one of the most important reports in recent years. This is the report by Working Group 3 of the UN organization – the IPCC – which is in charge of designing proposals to mitigate the effects of climate chaos. Both those already caused and those yet to come. The conclusions drawn from what has happened so far and from the report itself are not easy to digest. And precisely because of this, much less is being done than what is essential.

Let’s start by recalling that there was a leak prior to ours, of the report from the Working Group 3 – the one in charge of measuring the impacts – made by Agence France-Presse (AFP) in June of this year. I don’t know where the leak came from and what it contained, but the headline: “Life on Earth can recover from major climate change. Humanity cannot”, went around the world and we at Fastlove analysed it here.

These IPCC leaks already revealed that there was a certain nervousness in the scientific community, and a desire to skip the step of review and modification by governments of the summaries of the reports (yes, incredible as it may seem, governments can propose changes to scientists and must unanimously approve the final summary of each working group). Moreover, these summaries are what the absolute majority of journalists read, and they are the basis for the subsequent information that is disseminated, as the reports are several thousand pages long each. Although the scientific work is unimpeachable, this makes it even more difficult for the more daring positions to appear.

Then, a month and a half after the first IPCC leaks – on 6 August – just 3 days before the first part of the report was officially published (Working Group I – in charge of giving science evidence), a very special piece of content reached the Extinction Rebellion Spain movement, of which I am a member. We are talking about the leaked summary of Working Group 3, the mitigation proposals.

Obviously this part of the report is very important, as it has to dive into proposing paths that are passable to avoid the worst results of the climate chaos we have already unleashed.

And while sometimes they are not as bold as the situation requires – even with the summer of extreme events we are experiencing – on this occasion there are parts of the report that have challenged the usual somewhat tepid logic of previous reports.

So, in short, what does the scientific community propose?

Based on the previous work of more than 14.000 different studies, very briefly their conclusions are clear:

  • “Coal and gas plants should be shut down within 9 to 12 years”.
  • “Total emissions need to peak in 2025 and fall rapidly from there to net zero between 2050 and 2075”.
  • All these plans are based on technologies (carbon capture and sequestration, and carbon dioxide removal – CCS and CDR) that are far from being developed. Therefore, they are still relying on some sort of “technological miracle”. This is not very scientific, to be honest.
  • “In scenarios with reduced energy demand, the mitigation challenges are significantly reduced, with less reliance on CO2 removal (CDR), less pressure on land and lower carbon prices. These scenarios do not imply a decrease in welfare, but a provision of better services.” This is literally an adaptation scenario to the economic theory that advocates that it is possible to live well with less. Degrowth.
  • Different scenarios are expected: Global warming associated with these different emissions scenarios ranges from less than 1.5°C to more than 5°C by 2100 compared to pre-industrial levels. We are at 1.1°C and are already seeing increasingly catastrophic consequences of climate destabilisation. Avoiding exceeding 1.5°C is almost impossible to achieve. But every tenth of a degree counts.
  • Fighting energy poverty and climate change are not incompatible. This is because the biggest emitters are the richest ones: the richest 10% emit ten times more than the poorest 10%.

For all the above reasons, the content of the exclusive has gone around the world.

We first published it in the Spanish magazine CTXT, from there it reached The Guardian in the UKthe Spiegel in GermanyCNBC in the US and Yale University, as well as IndiaChinaIndonesiaBrazil and many other countries.

As if this were not enough, the source of the leak (a group of scientist-activists, Scientist Rebellion) was so happy with the work that they passed us more material (the entire chapter 1 of the report) and with it we were able to produce another article in CTXT, co-written with some of the best experts in our country on the issue, and which has even been translated into English in the prestigious Monthly Review. Well, now that the maelstrom of work and unleashed emotions has passed, and the content has settled, I am going to try to summarise how complex I see this issue.

Embracing degrowth can be key to managing climate chaos, and capitalism as we understand it is unsustainable.

These are the two main conclusions. And the fact that they are reflected in a report that tends to be more conservative than daring says a lot about the seriousness of the situation.

The first thing I would like to do is to thank the enormous team effort that has made it possible for this to get this far. Secondly, I would like to point out that there are many barriers in the media. Some – most of the television channels – have not even deigned to mention the leak. They dare not speak clearly about the enormous problem and how little is being done to solve it. And this barrier is key. If it is not told, it does not exist. And it is impossible to do what needs to be done.

You may be wondering: how huge is the climate problem? Well, I remember the headline of the first leak:

“Life on Earth can recover from major climate change by evolving new species and creating new ecosystems. Humanity cannot”.

Extinctions seem to us to be a thing of the past and could never affect us, the all-powerful and omnipotent being that calls itself “Sapiens Sapiens”, while destroying its own life support. But there are many facts that confirm that this is not the case. The current rate of species extinction is tens to hundreds of times higher than the average of the last ten million years. And it is accelerating. Dangerously close to the rate of the previous 5 great mass extinctions. Add to this runaway climate change that may take on an irreversible inertia for humans. It is not serious. It is a matter of life and death.

Extinctions are usually caused by an abrupt change in some factor that destabilises the quasi-magical balance of life on Earth. In the past they have been triggered by a series of volcanic mega-eruptions or a meteorite impact. And this sixth mass extinction is happening because of us. Yes, us. We are the meteorite now. At least the unbridled economic system we have built.

This story was first published on resilience.org

damage of climate change

A study by an international team of scientists found that the economic damage of climate change could be six times higher by the end of this century than previously estimated.

Projections like this help governments around the world calculate the relative costs and benefits of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. However, prior analysis has shown that the models used may ignore important risks and therefore underestimate the costs.

Currently, most models focus on short-term damage, assuming that climate change has no lasting effect on economic growth, despite growing evidence to the contrary. Extreme events like droughts, fires, heatwaves and storms are likely to cause long-term economic harm because of their impact on health, savings and labour productivity.

The study authors first updated one of the three climate-economy models used to set the price of carbon for national policy decisions, then used it to explore the impact of year-to-year climate variations and the rates of economic recovery after climate events.

The study, that was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, shows that by 2100, global GDP could be 37% lower than it would be without the impacts of warming, when taking the effects of climate change on economic growth into account. Without accounting for lasting damages – excluded from most estimates – GDP would be around 6% lower, meaning the impacts on growth may increase the economic costs of climate change by a factor of six.

Up to 51% of global GDP

Yet, there is still considerable uncertainty about how much climate damages continue to affect long-term growth and how far societies can adapt to reduce these damages; depending on how much growth is affected, the economic costs of warming this century could be up to 51% of global GDP.

“Climate change makes detrimental events like the recent heatwave in North America and the floods in Europe much more likely. If we stop assuming that economies recover from such events within months, the costs of warming look much higher than usually stated. We still need a better understanding of how climate alters economic growth, but even in the presence of small long-term effects, cutting emissions becomes much more urgent.”

The researchers also updated the model to take advances in climate science over the past decade into account, as well as the effect of climate change on the variability of annual average temperatures – both of which increased the projected cost of climate change.

The authors calculated the effect of these changes on the ‘social cost of carbon’ (SCCO2), a crucial indicator of the level of urgency for taking climate action that calculates the economic cost of greenhouse gas emissions to society. Expressed in US dollars per tonne of carbon dioxide, estimates currently vary greatly between $10 to $1,000. However, when taking more robust climate science and updated models into account, this new study suggests that the economic damage could in fact be over $3,000 per tonne of CO2.

“Burning CO2 has a cost to society, even if it is not directly to our wallets. Each person’s emissions could quite well result in a cost to humanity of over $1,300 per year, rising to over $15,000 once the impacts of climate change on economic growth are included,” Dr Brierley said.

Much higher than policy makers assume

While the findings show large uncertainties, the central values were found to be much higher than policymakers currently assume; the US government, for example, currently uses a social cost of carbon of around $51 per tonne to judge the costs and benefits of projects linked with greenhouse gas emissions, whilst the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which covers power, manufacturing and aviation, recently exceeded €61 for the first time.

Study co-author Paul Waidelich (ETH Zürich) said: “The findings confirm that it is cheaper to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than it is to deal with climate change impacts, and the economic damages from continued warming would greatly outweigh most costs that could be involved in preventing emissions now. The risk of costs of damage of climate change being even higher than previously assumed reaffirms the urgency for fast and strong mitigation. It shows that choosing to not reduce greenhouse gas emissions is an extremely risky economic strategy.”

Source: UCL

 

lappeenranta green city

Four green cities, all Green Capital or Green Leaf winners, showcase their achievements during the European Week of Regions and Cities. To highlight the theme Green Transition they will present their cases during a special webinar.  The aim of the event is to show how forerunner green cities enhance the speed of their green transition by utilizing the European Recovery funding opportunities and European-wide networking possibilities.

Green Capital and Green Leaf cities are recognised for their commitment to ambitious goals and environmental standards. All the Green Cities has set the common objectives of the recovery: decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, productivity growth and raising the employment rate. At the workshop you will get to know the best practises of recovery and sustainability work of the cities of Lahti and Lappeenranta, Finland, Grenoble, France and Växjö, Sweden. Each presentation will have different angle to boost the recovery. Moderator of the webinar is Regional Director Europe Wolfgang Teubner from ICLEI.

City of Lahti develops carbon neutral construction

City of Lahti in Finland is the European Green Capital 2021. We have already abandoned the use of coal and will become a carbon-neutral city by 2025 as the first major city in Finland. Lahti is known as an agile research and development area for environmental technology, where the environmental monitoring, circular economy, land use and construction sectors cooperate seamlessly and efficiently. This enables the development and testing of interdisciplinary innovations on a practical scale. In Lahti, we are creating a product development, research and piloting platform for innovations in carbon-neutral and energy-efficient construction – covering the entire life cycle of buildings, from zoning to the utilisation of demolition materials.

The Carbon Neutral Construction Development Centre was established in Lahti in autumn 2020. City of Lahti is seeking solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of construction in both new and old buildings. The Centre focuses on global megatrends: renewable energy production, minimisation of energy use, recycling of demolition materials and use of organic materials in buildings as carbon sinks. It involves the City of Lahti and the city-owned construction companies, as well as the educational institutions and several companies in the area. During the presentation, director Juhani Pirinen will tell about some practical examples of the projects that the Carbon Neutral Construction Development Centre is working with.

Green cities play a key role economic recovery of Europe’s mountain region

Grenoble, European Green Capital 2022, is a city of 160.000 inhabitants in a densely populated valley in the French alpine mountain range. Back in 2005, we adopted France’s first climate action plan and are now seeking to turn Covid into an opportunity to accelerate the transitions with our neighbours in the valley and the mountains. Since 2014, for example, the city has been circularising the supply chain for the 11.000 meals it prepares daily for schools and care homes: local farms now provide organic, seasonal food, at least once per week vegetarian, with a 100% vegetarian option. As the next step, we would like to replace today’s plastics containers with cellulose-based ones made from local wood, suited for composting.

Whilst Grenoble acknowledges the need for electric vehicles, it believes that in the long term hydrogen, and already today natural gas from methanisation of waste, are good alternatives notably for public transport and logistics. Mountain regions are badly suited to being equipped with an EV infrastructure and EU-funded pilots have shown that green hydrogen produced with solar power could be a viable alternative. In the short term, Grenoble promotes bio-methane for public transport and heavy vehicles.

Mountains are often considered leisure playgrounds for skiing or alpinism. Since 15 years, Grenoble is working with its citizens for a wider scope that includes conservation, food, mountain culture, local value chains and responsible outdoor activities. Our tools are France’s biggest alpine movie festival, excursions for pupils from disadvantaged families, teaching children alternatives to downhill skiing, putting local products into the Christmas market etc. These actions also feed into the EU strategy for the Alpine Regions.

Climate City Contract leeds a way to climate neutrality

Växjö is a municipality of 95,000 inhabitants in the southern part of Sweden. It is a growing city surrounded by forests and lakes. Since early 1970’s Växjö has been on a path to steadily improve the environmental work, which is a unanimous focus among the political parties. Back in 1996, Växjö decided to become a fossil fuel free city, to be achieved in 2030. CO2 emissions are now at a level of approximately 1.4 tonnes per capita. This is a result of a strategic work, not at least with the energy production which is now totally from renewable energy sources. The commitment to reducing environmental impact made Växjö being the winner of the European Green Leaf Award in 2018.

In 2020, Växjö signed a Climate City Contract with a number of national authorities. This contract states that Växjö will speed up the transition to climate neutrality by 2030, as well as the authorities paving the way with necessary policy changes and support. The contract also acknowledges the importance of local and regional cooperation in order to be successful. This is no news to Växjö, who has a history of involving citizens, companies and the university in the climate work.

During our event, Deputy Lord Mayor Cheryl Jones Fur will talk about the Climate City Contract and how we will use it at local level to be successful.

Lappeenranta is working hard to green the electrification

Lappeenranta, the Climate Capital of Finland, has been chosen as one of the Greenest European Cities. European Green Leaf Award 2021 winner is full of high energy, out-of-the-box thinking and international expertise. Lappeenranta will be carbon neutral city by 2030.

We pioneer in renewable energy and clean environments with passionate problem-solving at our forte. In our university and tourist center, located in logistically important region in South-East Finland only 2 hours from Helsinki, near the border between the EU and Russia, we dare and do. The Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology LUT, the innovative operating environment, skilled workforce and good networks in a city of around 73,000 residents make it easier to start up and expand international business operations.

Electrification will change the world, it’s industry and the way of economics. The world is looking for a new emission-free and reliable energy system. We are going to turn emissions into opportunities.

During the webinar, MP and member of the Lappeenranta City Council Hanna Holopainen will tell how local companies are set to reveal the most innovative solutions, how we are going to save the planet – and at the same time create growth in global business.  We can transform air and water into fuels, chemicals, materials and even into food.

With the know-how of local university Lappeenranta has become a center for energy and environment research, innovation and business. There are 3000 jobs related to cleantech and sustainable business in the region. City has made with the national government an innovation agreement to speed up the business on green electrification.  By combining renewable energy, water and carbon dioxide, we can produce fuels without emissions.

Webinar

The City of Lappeenranta (Finland), together with the cities of Lahti (Finland), Grenoble (France) and Växjö (Sweden), organises the How green cities lead the way to European recovery? -webinar on 13th October as part of the European Week of Regions and Cities 2021.

Webinar is held on Wednesday, October 13, 2021, 2:30 PM to 4:00 PM (CET)

Please register here.