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Could Trump and a hard Brexit be better for the environment?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged a change of pace of governmental attempts to keep global temperatures within manageable bounds.  Thus far, of course, governments have done little more than pay lip service to the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while doing nothing to actually halt them.  Indeed, there is more human-generated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today than at any time since the start of the industrial revolution.

The new IPCC scientific report, based on updated data, points to a temperature increase of at least three degrees above pre-industrial levels.  The report also revises down the manageable temperature increase from 2 to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  However, as Matt McGrath at the BBC observes:

“The critical 33-page Summary for Policymakers certainly bears the hallmarks of difficult negotiations between climate researchers determined to stick to what their studies have shown and political representatives more concerned with economies and living standards.”

And there’s the rub.  We are no longer in the bright green game of growing our way out of climate change using shiny new renewable electricity technologies as the foundation for a brave new digital economy.  To keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees requires that we dramatically alter our way of life by ceasing fossil fuel consumption entirely by 2050.  And even if we achieved this (probably impossible) task, it would still be insufficient – we would also need to deploy one or more yet-to-be-invented technology to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequestrate it somewhere for tens of thousands of years.

So how are we doing thus far?

The countries of Europe and North America have done an exceptionally good job of hiding their true climate impact by offshoring most of their carbon footprint to the developing states that manufacture most of the things we consume.  This allows us the illusion of an electrified digital economy that cannot actually exist without the fossil fuels burned elsewhere on the planet.  Even so, our continued insistence that we have the right to increase our energy consumption year on year means that we are still failing to meet agreed carbon reduction targets.

What, then, might we do to end our use of fossil fuels?

According to the IPCC, we need to rapidly electrify our economies and switch to zero-carbon electricity generation.  Unfortunately, it is here that we discover that just because most economists are idiots does not mean that the economy does not matter.  Supply chains and production processes really are important. It turns out, for example, that the materials used in the manufacture of technologies like solar panels and wind turbines are either by-products of the fossil fuel industry or cannot be produced without using fossil fuels.  Moreover, all depend upon fossil fuels in their deployment and maintenance.

There is worst to come however.  In the last two decades humanity has engaged in a Herculean effort to deploy renewable electricity technologies.  Nevertheless, as fast as we have added this new energy to the mix, so we have found ways of consuming it.  That is, our energy use – including our consumption of fossil fuels has continued to grow despite the addition of renewables.  Indeed, for all of our efforts to develop renewable electricity capacity, the results are puny.  As energy expert Kurt Cobb explains:

“I recently asked a group gathered to hear me speak what percentage of the world’s energy is provided by these six renewable sources: solar, wind, geothermal, wave, tidal, and ocean energy.

“Then came the guesses: To my left, 25 percent; straight ahead, 30 percent; on my right, 20 percent and 15 percent; a pessimist sitting to the far right, 7 percent.

“The group was astonished when I related the actual figure: 1.5 percent. The figure comes from the Paris-based International Energy Agency, a consortium of 30 countries that monitors energy developments worldwide. The audience that evening had been under the gravely mistaken impression that human society was much further along in its transition to renewable energy. Even the pessimist in the audience was off by more than a factor of four.”

In 1995, fossil fuels accounted for 87 percent of global energy consumption.  In 2015 this had dropped to 86 percent; and there are good reasons to believe that even this figure is fraudulent.  As Barry Saxifrage explains in an analysis of last year’s BP Statistical Review of World Energy, there are four reasons to doubt the official figures:

  • Data: Our atmosphere shows no sign of it.
  • History: China has huge under-reporting problems.
  • Human nature: Growing pressure to under-report and no way to catch it.
  • Money: New coal plant construction is booming worldwide.

The sad truth is that adding renewable energy to the mix (until and unless yet-to-be-invented technologies materialise) is not going to save the day.  To illustrate this, imagine that we had, at any time in the last couple of decades, simply switched from a growing economy to a sustained economy:

World Energy Consumption 2017
Source: Global carbon emissions 2007-17

As I pointed out in a recent post:

“If we had maintained our global energy consumption at its 1992 level, we could have removed the equivalent of our entire 2017 coal, hydroelectric and renewables consumption.  If we had switched to a sustainable economy in 1998, we could have saved the equivalent of our current coal and renewables.  Even as recently as 2004 we might have saved almost the equivalent of our 2017 coal consumption.  Note also that renewables – the thin orange sliver beneath coal on the chart – have barely dented our energy mix.  Indeed, had we ceased growing the economy in 2015, we could have saved the energy equivalent of all of our renewables… which is another way of saying that renewable energy makes but a tiny difference in the grand scheme of things.”

Notice, too, that the drop in global energy consumption (and carbon emissions) following the 2008 economic crisis was greater than our current renewable electricity consumption.  This points to the troubling truth that the IPCC scientists have struggled to get past their political paymasters – the only way humans have ever found to reduce fossil fuel consumption and subsequent carbon emissions is to crash the economy:

CO2 emmissions and slumps

The Great Depression, the end of World War Two, the two oil crises in the 1970s, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the 2008 Great Financial Accident are the only occasions when humanity has managed to temporarily reverse the otherwise exponential rise in carbon dioxide emissions.  Notice also that for all of the economic dislocation and hardship that those events entailed, they made but a small dent in the industrial economy’s impact on the biosphere.

Set aside the fantasy that solar panels and wind turbines are going to save the day and we are left with but one conclusion – if we are to keep planetary temperatures within the bounds in which human life can exist in future, we are going to have to voluntarily – and relatively rapidly – shrink the global economy on a scale far greater than the 2008 crisis; and do so every year, unrelentingly between now and 2050.  And the longer we leave it, the worse the impact on our living standards is going to be.  And, of course, even in the unlikely event that we are successful, we will still need to find some new technology to suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

This, in the end, is why I believe that humanity is not even going to try to do what has to be done.  Instead, our political and corporate overlords will continue to sell us the bright green myth of renewable energy while maintaining business as usual for as long as possible.  This, in turn, leads to an interesting proposition: could it be that the economic impact of a hard Brexit – particularly in conjunction with Donald Trump’s trade wars – might inadvertently bring about precisely the kind of economic collapse in the consuming regions of the global economy that are needed to curb our carbon emissions?  If so it would be ironic that so many climate change deniers endorse Trump and Brexit; when so many self-professed environmentalists are currently expending a great deal of energy opposing them.

As you made it to the end…

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