Through the Eye of a Needle: An Eco-Heterodox Perspective on the Renewable Energy Transition

SA: This is such an important paper by Megan K. Seibert and William E. Rees

In 13 well-written pages that clearly present that trying to solve only for climate change will indeed not solve anything. This can be shown in the context of the idea and ideals of a Green New Deal.

“We argue that while the GND narrative is highly seductive, it is little more than a disastrous shared illusion. Not only is the GND technically flawed, but it fails to recognize human ecological dysfunction as the overall driver of incipient global systemic collapse.

By viewing climate change, rather than ecological overshoot—of which climate change is merely a symptom—as the central problem, the GND and its variants grasp in vain for techno-industrial solutions to problems caused by techno-industrial society.

Such a self-referencing pursuit is doomed to fail. As Albert Einstein allegedly said, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. We need an entirely new narrative for a successful energy transition. Only by abandoning the flawed paradigmatic source of our ecological dilemma can we formulate realistic pathways for averting social–ecological collapse.”

The authors clearly demonstrate that a reliance on renewable energy to keep things are they are today is completely misguided:

“GND proponents are appallingly tolerant of the inexplicable. They fail to address how the gigatons of already severely depleted metals and minerals essential to building so-called RE technologies will be available in perpetuity considering typical five to 30-year life spans and the need for continuous replacement [17,18,19]. They offer no viable workarounds for the ecological damage and deplorable working conditions, often in the Global South, involved in metal ore extraction [20,21]. Green New Dealers advance no viable solutions (technical or financial) for electrifying the many high-heat-intensive manufacturing processes involved in constructing high-tech wind turbines and solar panels (not to mention all other products in modern society) [22,23,24,25]. The waste streams generated by so-called renewables at the end of their short working lives are either ignored or assumed away, to be dealt with eventually by yet non-existent recycling processes [26,27,28]. Proposals for electrifying the 80% of non-electrical energy demand overlook crucial facts, namely that the national-scale transmission systems and grids required for electrified land transportation do not even exist today, nor is the needed build-out likely given material, energy, and financial constraints [29].”

And then in solid but brief detail, the authors illustrate clearly the limitations of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels in an industrialized economy.

“In short, no RE source or system is viable if it cannot not generate sufficient energy both to produce itself (literally from the ground up) and supply a sufficient surplus for society’s end-use consumption. Currently, no so-called RE technology is in the running.”

Ultimately, trying to keep industrial civilization going is a losing battle, and one that will only make overshoot worse: “Clearly, the climate crisis cannot be solved in isolation from the macro-problem of overshoot—certainly not by using technologies that are reliant on the same FFs and ecologically destructive processes that created the problem in the first place.”

The most colossal planning failure in history

SA: These are excerpts from the great Richard Heinberg. So important!

He explains the predicament we are in: “Here’s the essence of our planning failure: we have built up civilization to a scale that can temporarily be supported by finite and polluting energy sources, and we have simply assumed that this scale of activity can continue to be supported by other energy sources that haven’t yet been developed or substantially deployed. Further, we have incorporated limitless growth into the requirements for civilization’s success and maintenance—despite the overwhelming likelihood that growth can occur for only a historically brief interval.”

Then he explains what we need to do: “We should start with conservative estimates of how much energy solar and wind can provide. No one has a definitive figure, but for industrial nations like the US, it would be wise to assume some fraction of the energy currently provided by fossil fuels: half, for example, would be a highly ambitious goal (one of the first projects of the planning process would be to come up with a more precise estimate). Then, planners would explore ways to reduce energy usage to that level, with a minimum of disruption to people’s lives. Planners would also seek to determine approximately the scale of population that can be supported long-term by these sources without degradation of the environment (yes, Putnam discussed the relationship between population and energy back in 1953), and then create and implement policies to begin matching population to those levels in a way that reduces, rather than worsening, existing social inequities.

A comprehensive plan would detail the amount of investment required, and over what period of time, and would specify the sources of the money.”

Then he tells us what our fate will be if we do not plan: “Without planning, this is what will most likely happen: we’ll fail to produce enough renewable energy to power society at the level at which we want it to operate. So, we’ll continue to get most of our energy from fossil fuels—until we can’t, due to depletion. Then, as the economy crashes and the planet heats, the full impacts of our planning failure will finally hit home.”

And he offers us a tantalizing planning experiment: “Finally, as I have suggested elsewhere, good planning would entail the creation of a pilot project, in which a medium-sized industrial city is transitioned to get all its energy (for food, manufacturing, heating and cooling, and transportation) from renewables.”

WHAT A GREAT CHALLENGE! I fear we will not accept it.

The discontinuity doesn’t allow us a “do-over”

Alex Steffen is an excellent thinker and writer on the existential crisis time we find ourselves in. He recently posted a commentary entitled: “We’re not ready for what’s already happened. Welcome to the discontinuity, population: everyone.”

His central thesis is this:

“The true measure of the seriousness of the planetary crisis is not destruction but discontinuity.

My most succinct working definition of a ‘discontinuity’ is a watershed moment, one where past experience loses its value as a guide to decision-making about the future. It’s a critical concept, so I’m going to do my best in this week’s email to quickly explain what it means to me, and why it may be useful to you.

The planetary crisis is what I call the interlocking, complex, accelerating changes our actions are bringing on in the natural world. Climate change is the largest problem within this crisis, but it is interconnected with ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, topsoil loss and water shortages, threats to food systems, changes in ocean chemistry, the release of rivers of toxic chemicals into the biosphere, invasive species and so on. We can talk about them as separate challenges, but in reality they are all one crisis. And it is getting worse, fast.

The planetary crisis is a discontinuity. This is the most important thing about it. Failing to understand the climate/ecological emergency as an all-encompassing discontinuity in human societies is failing to understand it, full stop.

Every time human systems and planetary realities clash, the human systems fail, and human beings lose. It sometimes takes a while for the defeat to become obvious, but on a wide variety of fronts, the defeats we’ve already dealt ourselves over decades of inaction are growing unignorable. Many more are coming into focus now—and we’re still losing our conflicts with nature on a grand scale.

Those defeats have altered all our human systems, already. Not only is the Earth’s entire biosphere being transformed at a speed greater than anything humans have lived through before, but the human world has become something no human has ever experienced before.

Discontinuity is a fact of our lives. It’s no longer a choice. Most of us are confused about when we are. I know I’m still figuring it out.

Here’s something we do know: The longer we delay acting at disruptive speeds, the more discontinuous the near future will be with present expectations… and the less value present systems will retain. Disruption now, or even more discontinuity (and then more disruption) that’s our choice—and the speed of our actions is how we choose between them.

Acknowledgment of that reality may be the most powerful idea on earth right now.

The planetary crisis is a crisis because it has unleashed discontinuity throughout human systems, and because only a few of us can see it yet.

We are in the teeth of a King Grizzly discontinuity, and it’s shaking our material certainties and our cultural assumptions apart like a salmon-wrapped ragdoll. Oily stuffing is already flying in all directions.”

I think this is absolutely correct and wonderfully stated.

AND THEN, such a smart, insightful person suggests in the very same piece that the solution to this discontinuity is as follows:

“Above all, this means building. It means hundreds of millions of new homes; wind farms and solar fields by the tens of thousands, factories churning out batteries and electric cars and induction stoves and geothermal systems; new shipping infrastructure; the rebuilding of coastal cities everywhere; massive investments in ecosystem services, fire protections, water and soil conservation; a reinvention of huge industries like chemicals and concrete and consumer plastics; a landscape in upheaval. A giant building boom is what successful action looks like.”

What the actual fuck!? How can he accurately diagnose our predicament but come up with this prescription? Electric cars for fuck’s sake!

In appears that Alex’s mind, the solution to the discontinuity is MORE OF THE SAME THAT GOT US TO THIS POINT. (“…factories churning out…)

Where will all the raw materials come from for this “giant building boom?” How will everything needed be extracted, transported, manufactured, constructed, and maintained without enormous carbon emissions? Renewables absolutely cannot power a “giant building boom.” This would be nothing but the last carbon soaked straw in destroying a livable planet.

If we are in the discontinuity he describes – and I believe we are – then the answer is not more building, but to stop everything. We don’t get a giant do-over to get things right this time.

Instead, we must repurpose what we already have, undo everything that isn’t absolutely essential to sustaining life, restore ecosystems and do this with justice to all life.

And from this stopping, we can begin to imagine how a civilization can be formed solely on the basis of the energy flows of sunlight. This was the past. This is the future.

I’m not a consultant trying to keep my business afloat. Thus I don’t need to peddle fairy tales of “giant building booms” to politicians and corporations desperately searching for a way to keep business as usual going.

Really Dire News:

“The latest measurements released by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego  show that the atmospheric CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, are now at record levels. The average for March 2021 was 417.14 parts per million (ppm), which is 50% higher than the average for 1750-1800. Independent measurements by NOAA also show record CO2 levels. The Met Office predicts monthly CO2 concentrations in 2021 to peak at 419.5 ± 0.6 ppm in May (Figure 1). This is despite a temporary reduction in global emissions last year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

From the UK MET

This is the decade that will define Pullman’s fate

By Steve Austin

Now that our political crisis has for the moment waned, we must urgently focus on the climate crisis.  Locally, we are one year into the decade that will define the fate of Pullman over the remainder of the 21st century. Unfortunately, we haven’t done much that science recommends to mitigate and adapt to the crisis. It is as if we are ignoring science.  Or worse.  This is ironic considering that Pullman was literally created to support the propagation of scientific knowledge. 

The climate crisis is accelerating.   2020 is tied with 2016 as the hottest year on record.  This follows the 2010s, which were the hottest decade on record.  Ice is melting across the planet at a rapidly increasing rate, in line with worst-case scenarios.  The heating is exacerbating epic weather disasters; last year there were 416 such events globally. 

Here, trends are making it likely that even “normal” summers on the Palouse will become incredibly hot.  And drier.  Rainfall is forecast to become more prevalent in winter and spring, with less in summer.  

These impacts will affect us all here, especially heat sensitive people, those on limited incomes who may not be able to afford cooling, and farmers.  More broadly, the crisis puts all life on this planet is under threat, including hundreds of millions of our fellow humans. 

Looking forward, scientists estimate warming of nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5C) by 2030, decades ahead of earlier projections, and representing the threshold of a “safe climate.”  Currently, the world is on track for 7 Fahrenheit of heating this century, which climate scientist Michael Mann says “would constitute the end of civilization as we know it.” 

In order to avert the worst impacts and potentially unstoppable heating, science is clear as to what must be done:  we must halve fossil fuel use by 2030 (less than 470 weeks from now) and then end all use within the following two decades. This is what justice demands.  It remains to be seen whether we will do what is morally right. 

It won’t be easy. Ending fossil fuels will fundamentally change everything in our lives.  They provide more than 80% of all energy use and we rely on them to power transportation systems, create materials deemed essential to modern life, and grow food.   

Ending fossil fuel use will expose Pullman’s deep vulnerabilities in at least two related areas.  First, our region is completely dependent on fossil fueled transportation.   Ending fossil fuels could leave us dangerously isolated. The second area relates to logistical provisions, especially food.  Pullman is at the end of a very long, fossil fueled supply chain. 

So, we know what’s causing the crisis and what’s needed to end it.   What have we done in Pullman so far? 

Not Much. 

Pullman’s new draft Comprehensive Plan contains not one mention of climate change in 243 pages. Absurdly, Washington’s current planning laws don’t require it.  But it seems important to have climate mentioned somewhere in the plan for the 20-year future of the community. 

We’ve fallen short in other areas as well. There are no plans for large scale local food production, shade tree planting, or zero carbon city operations. Development codes have not been revised to ensure neighborhoods will be habitable. No realistic transportation planning has occurred to ensure we remain connected to the rest of the world. Smaller, yet no less symbolic, downtown bike lanes were eliminated, sending an incorrect signal about future transportation. And there is no region-wide plan for ensuring justice for those most vulnerable to climate impacts. 

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson about a similar crisis, climate warnings are clear and stark, like a fire bell in the night. “The climate emergency is evolving faster than predicted,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said recently. “We must accelerate our response, with ambition and urgency.  This is the battle for our lives.” 

Are we in Pullman going to act on what science is telling us? 

10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted

Comment: Carbon neutrality targets are often not as ambitious as they sound, relying on problematic carbon offsets and unproven technologies By 41 scientists

The idea of carbon offsetting, which underpins so-called net zero targets, is founded on a number of myths.

In many cases, offsetting relies on capturing carbon in vegetation and soils. Such capacity is however limited and is needed to store carbon dioxide that we have already emitted.

Assumptions of future technologies and targets decades ahead delay immediate action. Countries and corporations must shift focus from distant net zero targets to real emissions reductions now.

The impacts of the climate crisis are becoming increasingly severe, everywhere. We are experiencing heat waves, floods, droughts, forest fires and sea level rise as a result of global heating. The average global temperature is rising at an unprecedented rate, rapidly diminishing the prospect of keeping global warming below 1.5C and with increasing risks of crossing irreversible tipping points.

In practice, however, net zero targets several decades into the future shift our focus away from the immediate and unprecedented emissions reductions needed. Net zero targets are generally premised on the assumption that fossil fuel emissions can be compensated for by carbon offsetting and unproven future technologies for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. But offsetting does not cancel out our emissions – yet action to do so is immediately needed.

There are a number of myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting that must be dispelled. By revealing them, we aim to empower citizens, so that they can pressure governments and companies to create real solutions, here and now:

Myth 1: Net zero by 2050 is sufficient to solve the climate crisis. Misleading.

Major and unprecedented reductions in emissions are needed now. Otherwise, our current high emissions will consume the small remaining global carbon budget within just a few years. Net zero targets typically assume that it will be possible to deliver vast amounts of “negative emissions”, meaning removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through storage in vegetation, soils and rocks. However, deployment of the technologies needed for negative emissions at the required scale remains unproven, and should not replace real emissions reductions today.

Myth 2: We can compensate for fossil fuel emissions using so-called “nature-based solutions” (such as carbon sequestration in vegetation and soils). Misleading.

Continue reading “10 myths about net zero targets and carbon offsetting, busted”

The Palouse misses a great opportunity to get ready for zero carbon

This recent story from WSU’s student newspaper shows that the citizens of the USA have spent at least $200 million in upgrading a tiny airport. Unfortunately, these upgrades should have a short lifespan, as air travel is incompatible with what needs to happen to maintain a livable environment. The recent report entitled Absolute Zero, created by professors at the Cambridge University, shows why this is so. We must end using ALL fossil fuels within the next 22 decades. That means the end of air travel as neither electric airplanes or biofuel alternatives will be available at scale to maintain the current system.

Instead, we could have spent that $200 million creating an electrified transport system to connect us with the rest of Washington. Hopefully the vision and willpower – and money – to achieve that will be here soon or else the communities on the Palouse will be very, very isolated in the zero carbon future.

Justice Is 15-Minute Cities


Image © Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

The ravages of the pandemic and needed responses to the climate crisis are forcing new thinking about the goals of city planning.  Most recently, the idea of a “15 minute” city is emerging.  A 15-minute city is a one in which citizens can access all of their most basic, day-to-day needs within a 15-minute walk of their homes.  This wonderful vision of humane human habitats is surely where all of our cities need to get to.  Our challenge is to realize that we must make this happen with only what we have now; we cannot afford ecologically, economically, or in the name of justice to try and build utopia anew.

It is easy to see the allure of 15-minute cities. The benefits are enormous. Increasing walkability improves health and reduces air and noise pollution, while making communities physically safer by reducing automobile violence. Meeting the needs of walkable neighborhoods enables micro entrepreneurs to thrive.  15-minute cities facilitate more close and authentic social connections that make cities stronger and more resilient at a time when that is desperately needed.

And vitally, cities will become more beautiful, softer and greener when they are not just backdrops to cars speeding by.

Paris, France has become the highest profile city seeking to remake itself into a 15-minute city. Paris Mayor Anne Hildago recently tweeted in French, “This is the condition for the ecological transformation of the city, while improving the daily life of Parisians.” Her plan is to thoroughly mix landuses across neighborhoods, ending over 100 years of monoculture development, strengthening public transit to link neighborhoods across the city, and then to humanize streets so that walking and biking become the default modes of transportation.

This is the beginning of the post car city.

Its not just Paris.  Melbourne, Australia and Ottawa, Canada are moving toward 15- Continue reading “Justice Is 15-Minute Cities”

Climate Violence American Style: A Green New Deal Emission Blitz

© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

As the climate crisis accelerates, many well-meaning people are energetically promoting grand visions under Green New Deal banners to prepare the US for a post carbon future. The visions are extremely appealing, covering seemingly vital needs such as clean energy, transportation, affordable housing, ecological restoration, with justice as a goal and creating in good jobs in the process.   Yet if we are not careful, all of these plans will come with an unbearable climate cost:  the embodied emissions inherent in the proposals represent nothing but an emission blitz that will only make the crisis worse.

It would be the height of injustice – but par for the American course – to unleash this emission blitz on the rest of the planet simply because we built everything wrong and waited too long to realize it.  Climate science doesn’t allow for a grace period in which the U.S. is afforded an opportunity to “finally get it right this time.”

The crisis is rapidly worsening.  An April 2020 study found that, without massive changes to our current emissions trajectory, 2°C of global warming is likely to be reached sometime around 2040 – less than 20 years.  Climate writer David Wallace Wells recently described the consequences of reaching that bleak temperature landmark: “more than 150 million additional people would die from the effects of pollution, storms that used to arrive once every century would hit every single year, and that lands that are today home to 1,5 billion people would become literally uninhabitable, at least by the standard of human history.”  According to climate scientist Joëlle Gergis,“the implications of this are unimaginable – we may witness planetary collapse far sooner than we once thought.”

A late 2019 study shows that Global heating has already triggered 9 of the 15 known tipping points of the planetary regulating system, potentially leading to a cascade of unstoppable, devastating climactic events.  These could destabilize living conditions over large swaths of the planet, causing immense human suffering and likely leading to sustained global military conflict over the coming decades. Leading climate scientists recently published a paper in the journal Naturethat concluded that “this is an existential threat to civilization.”

This relentless rush toward 2°C of global heating will set in motion “disastrous consequences” possibly beyond humanity’s control as preeminent climate scientist James Hansen and others concluded in a 2013 study. There is no doubt what the consequences will be.  According to writer Wen Stephensen in the book What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice, these consequences will be “to rob people, starting with the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet, of their land, their homes, their livelihoods, even their lives — and their children’s lives, and their children’s children’s lives.” He concludes:  “There’s a word for this: these are crimes. They are crimes against the earth, and they are crimes against humanity.”

Climate science is absolutely clear as to how to avoid this:  we must end all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, land use change, ruminant animals and cement.  And further, we must do everything possible to draw down excess CO2 in the atmosphere.  Unfortunately, the UN climate report in 2018 that suggested we had until 2030 to reduce emissions by roughly half in order to limit warming to 1.5C has given us a false sense of time to address the problem.

This should now be apparent: there are no years left to reduce emissions – we must end them now.  On our current trajectory, the planet is heading towards 3C to 5C of additional heating this century.  Therefore the conception that we have any carbon budget leftis just monstrous. This means the end of sweeping high emission dreams of a better way, only the truth that any more emissions will perpetuate global climate violence and injustice.

How are any extravagant Green New Deal plans compatible with this? 

They aren’t. 

Certainly, the ideas contained in many iterations of the Green New Deal hold out exciting Continue reading “Climate Violence American Style: A Green New Deal Emission Blitz”

Zero Emissions Means The End Of Concrete: What In The Hell Will We Do?

© Steve Austin (used with permission)

By Steve Austin, JD | ASLA | Clinical Assistant Professor of Landscape Architecture, Washington State University

The enormous carbon emissions associated with concrete are now forcing us to reckon with our urban future.  For 100 years we have used concrete to reshape the planet to suit the immediate needs of rapid urbanization.  Its use is so prevalent that it is, after water, the second most used substance on earth.  Concrete is so ubiquitous that it also seems that our imaginations have been encased in it as well, for few can imagine life without it.   Yet we must, because concrete is incompatible with the zero emission era. 

Over the last 100 years global urban population rose from under 10% to over 56%.  It is projected to grow to nearly 70% of humanity by 2050.  In the past, concrete was like magic in accommodating this explosive urban growth; there was almost nothing it couldn’t do. It is not an overstatement to say that concrete made the modern world. Without concrete, there would be few significant bridges, dams, large buildings, storm drainage, floodwalls, ports, and so much else.  As Jonathan Watts has written in The Guardian, concrete puts “roofs over the heads of billions, fortifying our defenses against natural disaster and providing a structure for healthcare, education, transport, energy and industry.”

But this has come at a great climate cost.  If cement – concrete’s prime ingredient – production were a country, it would be the world’s third largest CO2 emitter after China and the U.S., accounting for as much as 8% of annual global emissions.  There is no way for this number to improve much and it certainly cannot get to zero.  While there are some tweaks to lower emission intensity, cement cannot be made without carbon emissions. There is nothing– no technology, new material, or chemistry – that will miraculously appear and enable us to replace anywhere near the amount of concrete we use today. 

Cement emissions must end because the climate crisis is rapidly accelerating.  An April 2020 study found that, without massive changes to our current emissions trajectory, 2°C of global warming is likely to be reached sometime around 2040. According to climate scientist Joëlle Gergis, “the implications of this are unimaginable – we may witness planetary collapse far sooner than we once thought.”  Climate science is absolutely clear as to how to avoid this fate:  we must end all CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, land use change, ruminant animals and cement.  And further, we must rapidly draw down excess CO2 in the atmosphere.    

Obviously, we have a significant conundrum.  

Our civilization can decide that we cannot live without the benefits that concrete confers and that the devastating impacts of increasing global heating might be ameliorated Continue reading “Zero Emissions Means The End Of Concrete: What In The Hell Will We Do?”