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Because the economy, stupid!

In a piece for the Guardian today, columnist and rent-an-activist Owen Jones naively asks “Why don’t we treat the climate crisis with the same urgency as coronavirus?”  It isn’t even an original thought.  There are memes all over social media just now comparing the current death rate from COVID-19 (around 3,000 worldwide at the time of writing) with everything from third world hunger to road traffic accidents.  Nor is Jones particularly original in pointing out just how serious the growing climate crisis already is:

“It is a global emergency that has already killed on a mass scale and threatens to send millions more to early graves. As its effects spread, it could destabilise entire economies and overwhelm poorer countries lacking resources and infrastructure. But this is the climate crisis, not the coronavirus. Governments are not assembling emergency national plans and you’re not getting push notifications transmitted to your phone breathlessly alerting you to dramatic twists and developments from South Korea to Italy.

“More than 3,000 people have succumbed to coronavirus yet, according to the World Health Organization, air pollution alone – just one aspect of our central planetary crisis – kills seven million people every year. There have been no Cobra meetings for the climate crisis, no sombre prime ministerial statements detailing the emergency action being taken to reassure the public…”

The central proposition here, though, is entirely wrong.  Governments around the world are NOT reacting differently to the threat of climate change than they are to the threat from the corona virus.  To understand this, we need to examine the unspoken assumption behind Jones’ question; namely that the governments of the world are primarily concerned with the threat to human life.  The government planning document released to the public on Tuesday gives the lie to this:

“The chief focus [of the emergency response] will be to provide essential services…”

While joe public may be concerned with the personal risk from developing COVID-19, governments have a far broader concern.  Pathologist, Chris Martenson neatly sums up the three-way balancing act that governments are faced with in responding to the spread of the virus:

  1. Contain or delay the spread of the virus
  2. Keep the economy functioning
  3. Prevent public services – particularly healthcare – from being overwhelmed.

Having lots of people die is probably the least concerning of these from the point of view of an emergency planner – emergency planning, remember, has its origin in planning for rebuilding in the aftermath of a nuclear war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.  Indeed, the state would be more relaxed about COVID-19 if those who die simply keel over in their own homes.  It is the fact that most fatalities follow a relatively long (in resource terms) period of intensive medical care for which our just-in-time public health services are ill-equipped to cope.  For example, John Johnston at Politics Home warns the UK government that the:

“NHS has 43,000 fewer nurses than it needs… rising demand for NHS services alongside a failure to tackle barriers for new recruits had led to significant vacancy rates across many parts of the health service.

“Despite an overall 5% increase in the number of nurses employed between 2010 and 2017, a new report from the watchdog warned that certain specialties and regions still face major staffing challenges.”

This follows a Guardian survey which suggests that the government promise bring in retired medical staff to make up the numbers will require new conscription laws.  As Matthew Weaver reports:

“Scores of retired NHS doctors and nurses have told the Guardian that they are against returning to work to help tackle coronavirus, with many saying it would threaten their physical and mental health…

“’After the way I was treated I would rather shove a rusty six-inch nail up my backside than return to my old job,’ said a 67-year-old former staff nurse from Manchester.

“Anthony O’Neill, 58, from Glasgow, said: ‘No, nein, non, nej! Was a hospital physician for 32 years: never ever going back.’ And a 60-year-old London GP said: ‘I left general practice due to burnout. I would not go back under any circumstances.’

“A 58-year-old former GP from Northamptonshire said he ‘jumped ship early’ after ‘being repeatedly shafted by successive administrations’. He asked: ‘Why would I go back?’

“A former senior sister from Wigan said she still has ‘nightmares 12 years on about the extraordinary working conditions’. Another said: ‘I left nursing in disgust at the treatment of nursing and ancillary staff by a toxic and bullying management culture.’ And a nurse from Cheshire said: ‘I still feel quite angry that I felt no option but to retire at 55.’

The NHS has less than 170,000 beds – just 140,000 in England – to manage all of the routine acute illness as well as to respond to a condition which ministers believe will infect 50-80 percent of the population and could result in twenty percent of the workforce being sick at the same time.  That means somewhere between 4,987,500 and 7,980,000 requiring hospital treatment in the course of the epidemic.  Put another way, we face a degree of triaging that would be wholly unacceptable in normal times; with people who would ordinarily qualify for urgent treatment having to go to the back of the queue, and with people who would normally require ongoing social care simply being discharged and left to their own devices.

The economy, too, is at considerable risk.  Unfortunately, most people – including Guardian commentators – have been conditioned to believe that something called “the economy” exists separate to their/our daily lives.  The economy, we assume, is something to do with central banks and stock markets, interest rates and government spending.  In reality, these are just the over-complex crud that floats to the top of a global economy that is really about the complex and self-organising global networks of extraction, supply, manufacturing and transportation of everything that we consume from the clean water that comes out of the tap and the food that miraculously arrives on supermarket shelves to the gas that powers our electricity grid and the petroleum that fuels our transport.

In the past two decades, China very deliberately set out to burn the Earth’s remaining reserves of coal to transform its economy into the world’s primary manufacturing centre.  As a consequence, while the Chinese Communist Party might survive a prolonged lockdown of its manufacturing regions, it is doubtful that the rest of the global economy will escape so lightly.

The now famous NASA satellite image showing the dramatic fall in nitrous oxide pollution over China since the lockdown gives an indication of just how much industrial activity has been halted:

The dramatic fall in global oil consumption also points to a massive loss of manufacturing output.  As Robert Rapier at Forbes explains:

“The oil markets have been anticipating a big impact on oil demand from the coronavirus outbreak. That’s why we have seen nearly a 30% drop in the price of crude oil since the beginning of January.

“But as we await this week’s OPEC meeting to see what actions they may take, we now have some indication of just how much oil demand has been impacted: It’s the largest quarterly demand drop we have ever seen. (my emphasis)

One reason why this has yet to enter the forefront of western media consciousness is that it takes between 35 and 40 days for a container ship to sail from China to Britain and northern Europe.  The goods that we are buying in the shops and the components our manufacturers are assembling today were despatched before the lockdown began.  Beginning this week, though, container ships which would ordinarily be delivering a large part of the goods that we have come to take for granted will not be arriving.  They are still anchored up on a Chinese dockside waiting to be loaded with goods that have not been produced for more than a month.

Nor is the loss of Chinese manufacturing the only threat.  Yesterday the Indian government announced a ban on:

“the export of 26 advanced pharmaceuticals ingredients (APIs) or basic chemicals, including paracetamol, antibiotics such as metronidazole and neomycin, some vitamins and hormones due to the spread of Coronavirus and disruption in supplies from China.”

Although India is a major supplier of generic drugs to the UK, it depends upon the supply of precursor chemicals from China which are now failing to arrive due to the lockdown.

As other states around the world – such as, currently, Italy and Iran – are obliged to lock down major economic regions, so the economic shock will multiply and amplify.  In most cases, there is no easy way of developing alternative manufacturing in an unaffected or less affected region of the planet in anything like the time that would be required to prevent the coming economic shockwave from the loss of economic activity.

Most importers are only going to discover that their supply chains included China when key components fail to arrive.  How many of us are aware of where a product was made when we order it from Amazon?  Importers are no different.  They know the location of the agent that they deal with, but not the location of the various people who supply the export agent.  And, of course, Liebig’s law of the minimum applies – it does not matter that a car assembly plant has all of the components that are not made in China if the single electronic chip that runs the electrical system is still on the dockside in Shanghai.

Consumer behaviour, too, has an impact (remember this is a self-organising system).  While Australian toilet paper manufacturers are experiencing a temporary boom, European airlines are witnessing a massive fall in passengers who, quite reasonably, regard an aeroplane as being one of the most likely places to be infected with a corona virus.  Add to this the probability that governments around the world will eventually have to follow Italy’s lead and lockdown regions with high concentrations of the virus, and we have a recipe for a degree of economic disruption at least on a par with the Great Depression or the fall of the Soviet Union.

This is where the suggestion that climate change is being treated differently falls down.  There are only six occasions in the last 100 years in which human global carbon dioxide emissions have fallen.  None are the result of environmental policy.  Five were the result of severe economic hardship:

CO2 emmissions and slumps

Jones’ solution to climate change is the classic leftist “green new deal” fantasy that government ministers are quickly disabused of when they take office:

“This time round, there’s little room to cut already low interest rates or boost quantitative easing; green fiscal policy must be the priority.

“What would be mentioned in that solemn prime ministerial speech on the steps of No 10, broadcast live across TV networks? All homes and businesses would be insulated, creating jobs, cutting fuel poverty and reducing emissions. Electric car charging points would be installed across the country… an emergency training programme to train the workforce would be announced.”

This fantasy, however, has always depended upon ignoring the fact that almost all of the technologies – or at least their essential component parts – required to bring about this transformation are manufactured in China using the dirtiest of the fossil fuels – coal.  China already burns half of the planet’s reserves of coal.  To bring about the kind of green energy/technology transformation envisaged in a global (to limit it to the UK would amount to yet another variant of imperialism) green new deal would require that China burn a lot more than the remaining half of the coal reserves; thereby defeating the point of the proposed transformation.  To be clear here, despite a massive effort over the last thirty years or so, non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies – wind, solar, tide and wave – make up less than five percent of the global energy mix:

World Energy Consumption 2017

Just the coal that we have added to the mix since 2015 is enough to cancel out all of the energy provided by non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies.  Notice also that fossil fuel consumption continues to grow faster than renewable energy consumption; meaning that we are not even running to stand still.

Worse still, the global mineral resources that would be required to provide the materials to build a green new deal have already been depleted.  As with fossil fuels, there are still plenty in the Earth’s crust; but the energy cost of recovering them is too high.  As a recent letter to the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, authored by Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington et al., warns:

“To replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry…

“There are serious implications for the electrical power generation in the UK needed to recharge these vehicles. Using figures published for current EVs (Nissan Leaf, Renault Zoe), driving 252.5 billion miles uses at least 63 TWh of power. This will demand a 20% increase in UK generated electricity.

“Challenges of using ‘green energy’ to power electric cars: If wind farms are chosen to generate the power for the projected two billion cars at UK average usage, this requires the equivalent of a further years’ worth of total global copper supply and 10 years’ worth of global neodymium and dysprosium production to build the windfarms.

“Solar power is also problematic – it is also resource hungry; all the photovoltaic systems currently on the market are reliant on one or more raw materials classed as “critical” or “near critical” by the EU and/ or US Department of Energy (high purity silicon, indium, tellurium, gallium) because of their natural scarcity or their recovery as minor-by-products of other commodities. With a capacity factor of only ~10%, the UK would require ~72GW of photovoltaic input to fuel the EV fleet; over five times the current installed capacity. If CdTe-type photovoltaic power is used, that would consume over thirty years of current annual tellurium supply.

“Both these wind turbine and solar generation options for the added electrical power generation capacity have substantial demands for steel, aluminium, cement and glass.”

There may, just, be enough energy and raw resources to allow a British green new deal; but only so long as the rest of the world is prepared to collapse into abject poverty as a consequence.  Not that we will have much choice in the matter.  As the energy cost of raw materials – including fossil fuels – continues to rise, we are going to have to radically change our way of life.  That is something that governments are desperate to avoid, since, ultimately, they are in the business of protecting the wealth of the already wealthy by maintaining the current system.

While governments are prepared to make gestures toward a supposed “green economy” – not least because there are fortunes to be made from government subsidies for deploying non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies and from trading carbon credits – they are terrified by the prospect of any realistic transition away from fossil fuels.  Most environmental activists are complicit in this; imagining that an economy powered by renewable energy will be just like the current economy but without the smoke.  As Raúl Ilargi Meijer at the Automatic Earth puts it:

“People like the idea of a green economy. They like the sound of it. But if you would ask them what it means in practice, they would picture something very close to the present economic system, just green, i.e. powered by electricity instead of fossil fuels.”

But when we look at the scale of the task, we are forced to acknowledge that this version of a shift to renewable energy is a non-starter.  As Roger Pielke at Forbes explains:

“In 2018 the world consumed 11,743 mtoe in the form of coal, natural gas and petroleum. The combustion of these fossil fuels resulted in 33.7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. In order for those emissions to reach net-zero, we will have to replace about 12,000 mtoe of energy consumption expected for 2019. (I ignore so-called negative emissions technologies, which do not presently exist at scale.)

“Another useful number to know is that there are 11,051 days left until January 1, 2050. To achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions globally by 2050 thus requires the deployment of >1 mtoe of carbon-free energy consumption (~12,000 mtoe/11,051 days) every day, starting tomorrow and continuing for the next 30+ years. Achieving net-zero also requires the corresponding equivalent decommissioning of more than 1 mtoe of energy consumption from fossil fuels every single day.

“Another important number to consider is the expected increase in energy consumption in coming decades. The International Energy Agency currently projects that global energy consumption will increase by about 1.25% per year to 2040. That rate of increase in energy consumption would mean that the world will require another ~5,800 mtoe of energy consumption by 2050, or about another 0.5 of an mtoe per day to 2050. That brings the total needed deployment level to achieve net-zero emissions to about 1.6 mtoe per day to 2050…

“So the math here is simple: to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, the world would need to deploy 3 Turkey Point nuclear plants worth[1.8GW] of carbon-free energy every two days, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050. At the same time, a Turkey Point nuclear plant worth of fossil fuels would need to be decommissioned every day, starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.

“I’ve found that some people don’t like the use of a nuclear power plant as a measuring stick. So we can substitute wind energy as a measuring stick. Net-zero carbon dioxide by 2050 would require the deployment of ~1500 wind turbines (2.5 MW) over ~300 square miles, every day starting tomorrow and continuing to 2050.”

Understanding the true scale of the proposed – and impossible without some yet-to-be-discovered new energy-dense but no-carbon fuel – green new deal brings us back to the balancing act that governments are performing to mitigate the impact of the corona virus.  Substitute our environmental predicament for the virus and we see that the government response is the same:

  1. Contain or delay the impact of climate change and energy and resource depletion
  2. Keep the economy functioning
  3. Prevent public services and critical infrastructure from being overwhelmed.

Saving lives is a second order concern, and often one that has to be weighed against the cost in lives of acting differently.  Western governments will attempt to keep the economy functioning in the face of a pandemic because a lockdown will result in mass starvation.  For the same reason, they will continue to operate the 85 percent fossil fuelled economy in the face of complaints by those who assume that we only have to wish for a green energy transition to make one appear.

As you made it to the end…

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