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A dangerous exercise in self-delusion

Repeat after me, very slowly: There is no such thing as EXTERNAL on a finite planet.  This phrase ought to be printed in 24pt text at the very start of every economics textbook.  And no, I am not being pedantic here.  The prevailing belief among economists that there are things (like our planet) that are “external” from our economy has already led our civilisation to the brink of collapse; and is now poised to lead us over the edge of that cliff.  For this reason alone, we should keep economists as far away as possible from any issue that requires a solid grounding in the scientific method and the principles of engineering to be understood.

Alas, despite their track record in recent years, mass media continue to treat economists as a kind of royalty.  So it was that journalists waxed lyrical about a new report from the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) which makes the spurious claim that decarbonising the global economy is technically and economically possible by mid-century.  The BBC reported that:

“A new report on the potential of heavy industry to combat climate change offers a rare slice of optimism.

“Sectors like steel, chemicals, cement, aviation and aluminium face a huge challenge in cutting carbon emissions.

“But a group including representatives from business concludes it is both practical and affordable to get their emissions down to virtually zero by the middle of the next century.”

The BBC report quotes ETC co-chair, economist Lord Adair Turner:

“Making the transition involves a step change in the way we do things.  It can be done and it won’t break the bank … but it will require real urgency from policy-makers, from business leaders and from investors and financiers.”

In an article for Project Syndicate, Turner sets up the strawmen of climate change denial and libertarian economics in order to discredit anyone who might challenge the ETC techno-fantasy of a 100 percent carbon-free economy by mid-century:

“The belief that climate change is a hoax is comforting to anyone who thinks that government must play no role in the economy. But combating climate change threatens neither prosperity nor private enterprise…

“A report just published by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) – which includes many major businesses and no obvious ‘cultural Marxists’ – describes how to build a zero-carbon global economy at only minimal economic cost by 2060. In fact, such an economy would deliver as many job and business opportunities as those created by today’s fossil-fuel-dependent economy…

“On the far right, free-market ideologues deny climate change because it threatens their facile economic ideology. And there probably are some on the far left who… would like to turn the fight against climate change into a new justification for eliminating private enterprise. Both sides deny reality, and for that reason are certain to be severely disappointed.”

Politics – together with economics – is merely the attempt to rationalise what is going on in a global economy that is, in fact, an increasingly fragile self-organising complex system.  Simply wishing something to be true – whether you are a Marxist, a libertarian or a neoliberal like Turner – does not make it so; as the physicists and engineers whose role is to understand complexity often point out (to anyone who takes the time to ask).  The ETC report – which is based on the views of green energy companies and investors (so no conflict of interest there) – itself acknowledges the absence of yet-to-be-invented technologies such as carbon capture and storage; but blithely assumes that it is just a matter of time and money (rather than physics) before these are overcome.  Indeed, the hydrogen economy at the heart of the ETC vision depends on several absent technologies:

“Hydrogen use will almost certainly increase dramatically (7-11 times by mid-century), with two routes to zero-carbon hydrogen: electrolysis, which will likely dominate in the long term, and steam methane reforming plus carbon capture and storage.”

By the back door this involves smuggling Schrodinger’s renewables into the equation – renewable energy technologies that must simultaneously replace the 85 percent of our energy that currently comes from fossil fuels while at the same time providing the massive additional energy required to generate enough hydrogen to power economic growth.

In typical economist-thinking, the report assumes that financial penalties and rewards are sufficient to drive a transition away from fossil fuels:

“Key policy levers to accelerate the decarbonization of harder-to-abate sectors include: Tightening carbon-intensity mandates on industrial processes, heavy-duty transport and the carbon content of consumer products [and] Introducing adequate carbon pricing, strongly pursuing the ideal objective of internationally agreed and comprehensive pricing systems, but recognizing the potential also to use prices which are differentiated by sector, applied to downstream consumer products and defined in advance…”

Excuse me for a moment while I satirise this way of seeing the world:

Modern Economics: Goldilocks is dead
In a closed system, some things are impossible no matter how much money you are prepared to pay.

The economy might be better represented as a kind of food chain pyramid that has the western financial structures at it apex and the raw materials of our finite planet (the so-called “externalities”) at its base.  It is no accident that most of these zero-carbon economy schemes begin with the decarbonisation of the western apex rather than the resource base.  This allows the crucial sleight of hand of globalisation – the pretence that all of the consumer goodies that westerners import do not count toward our carbon footprint.  Scientist Kevin Anderson, also quoted in the BBC report alludes to this:

“If we include CO2 from international aviation; shipping; imports and exports – then UK plc has made no real dent in CO2 since 1990, nor have the other climate-progressive EU nations.

“Until we dispense with our rose-tinted specs we’ll not even recognise the problem – let alone the solutions. No nation is even approaching doing what ‘they feasibly can’ – and we will continue to fail whilst we worship the god of Mammon and ephemeral economics.”

Until and unless someone can present a decarbonisation scheme that begins with electrifying the massive haulage trucks and diesel-powered machinery that is used by the extractive industries (including industrial agriculture) at the base of the global economy pyramid, then my money is on lower demand (either by choice or at mother earth’s insistence) as the only feasible means of curbing our fossil fuel use.  This, however, is the one thing that neoliberals like Turner cannot contemplate:

“[T]he public-policy interventions needed to fight climate change pose no threat to responsible private business or to the aspirations of developing economies… In fact, such an economy would deliver as many job and business opportunities as those created by today’s fossil-fuel-dependent economy.”

Infinite growth on our finite planet simply must go on… and anyone who says otherwise must be either some kind of climate change denying conspiracy theorist or an alt-right head-banger… But here’s a thought from someone who is neither – what if bright green neoliberals like Turner are just as dangerous in their own way as those who deny that we have a crisis?  What if, that is, 7.5 billion humans continue doing all of the things we are currently doing (including breeding our way to 10 billion by mid-century) solely on the promise from economists like Adair Turner that the global economy can be seamlessly and painlessly decarbonised?

If they are wrong, that’s an awful lot of additional corpses that are going to result from the projected shortages of key resources in the next decade (including, ironically, the fossil fuels that everyone professes to want to dispense with).  Modern renewables currently account for less than three percent of the world’s energy.  Nuclear and hydro account for about 12 percent, but there are limits to future development.  Biofuels could have an impact, but only by reducing the food available to feed the growing population; most likely resulting in famine once the fossil fuel precursors of artificial fertilisers are unavailable.

There is simply no energy-technology route to a decarbonised global economy available to us in anything like the time remaining.  To claim that there is may allow millions of western consumers to continue to deny the impact our lifestyles are having on the habitat we depend upon; but in the end it will condemn far more people than is necessary to a premature – and probably unpleasant – demise.

Humanity should have begun the process of de-growth in the 1970s, when there was time to manage it gradually.  To begin today will involve significant hardship and a considerable lowering of the population (ideally through birth control rather than euthanasia).  But maintaining business as usual in the hope that some bright green technology will save us risks making the collapse far more traumatic and deadly than it might otherwise have been… and that’s something that is not significantly different to the future being offered to us by the climate change deniers (who still seem to have the best songs).

As you made it to the end…

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