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Is this sustainable?

Sunday’s Guardian editorial is no doubt correct when it says that:

“It’s too soon to say with any confidence what impact coronavirus will have on the climate emergency. The brakes placed on economic activities of many kinds, worldwide, have led to carbon emission cuts that would previously have been unthinkable: 18% in China between February and March; between 40% and 60% over recent weeks in Europe. Habits and behaviours once regarded as sacrosanct have been turned on their heads: road traffic in the UK has fallen by 70%. Global air traffic has halved…”

One thing that we can say with absolute certainty, though, is if the economic impact being predicted by such esteemed bodies as the International Monetary Fund or the UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility is anywhere close to what happens, we are witnessing the biggest reversal of greenhouse gas emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Age.  Scientific evidence – such as the famous NASA satellite images of pollution reduction in China – is growing.  So too is anecdotal evidence that we can see and smell with our own senses.  The skies are clearer; and locked-down cities are no longer shrouded in a yellowish haze of vehicle exhaust fumes.

Just as the pandemic crisis has exposed the dangerous inequalities in our economy – with most of the highest paid people currently twiddling their thumbs at home, while the truly important (and usually poorly-paid) workers struggle to keep civilisation from imploding – so it has shown what we might be able to do if we treated climate change and environmental destruction more urgently.  Both revelations have led to a widespread insistence that things must not be allowed to go back to the old “normal” when this is all over.

This has led to a re-heating of Green New Deal policies that realistically died with the passing of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders earlier this month.  The Guardian, for example, insists that:

“In human terms, the economic contraction precipitated by the virus – and predicted by the World Bank to lead to a severe depression – is sure to be brutal. No one, and least of all an elected government, would have chosen to limit emissions in this way. But if further savage waves of destruction to people’s livelihoods are to be avoided, rather than simply stored up or ignored until they become unignorable, just as coronavirus was, every possible effort must now be made to ensure that the recovery, when it comes, is as green as possible; that any and every stimulus package is directed towards renewable energy and zero- or low-carbon infrastructure and transport.”

These are fine sentiments.  However, the reality of our predicament is likely to halt them in their tracks.  Firstly, with the exception of the end of the Second World War – the first human conflict to be fuelled and won with petroleum – the only times that we have ever halted the growth in greenhouse gas emissions have involved system-wrecking economic crises:

More importantly, the last dip – the recession that followed the 2008 financial crash – accounted for more carbon dioxide reduction than all of the non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies deployed around the planet thus far.  “Non-renewable” because they cannot be manufactured or even maintained without the fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – which still provide 86 percent (assuming we can take Chinese government statistics at face value) of the world’s energy.  The cement and steel in the concrete bases of wind turbines depends upon coal.  The glass used in solar panels depends upon gas.  Let’s not overlook what rare metals production looks like.  And, of course, to transfer the manufactured solar panels and wind turbines from the Chinese factories to the European and American “farms” where they will be deployed depends upon a global transport system, at least 90 percent of which runs on petroleum.

The assumption that the pandemic crisis is teaching us how we might change the way our economy operates is fanciful at best.  Mostly it is rooted in the entirely wrong belief that it is possible to do away with all of the supposedly non-essential and frivolous consumption that we engage in while keeping the essential components.  But that is not how it works.  The reason, for example, that you can access scientific papers about the current pandemic on the internet is because billions of other people are uploading pictures of cats.  Take away the cats and the advertising revenue crashes.  Take away the advertising and social media cannot function.  Take away social media and what remains of the internet would be little different to the internet of the mid-1980s (when few outside academia and the military even knew it existed).

The same is true across the board.  As David Korowicz pointed out back in 2011, the critical infrastructures that we all depend upon – the electricity grid, water and sewage, road networks, etc. – are only viable because discretionary use spreads the cost of operating it sufficiently to make it affordable.  If we only did the essential things, the price would be so high that it couldn’t function (and even nationalising it would require a diversion of funds via the tax system that would crush a large part of the economy).  Even the oil industry itself operates only because of technically frivolous consumption.  Diesel fuel is the lifeblood of the economy.  But diesel is only a small fraction of what is refined from a barrel of oil.  A waste product – petrol/gasoline – is by far the largest fuel to be produced.  In a sense – as the response to the pandemic is demonstrating – most of us could dramatically cut back on our petrol consumption because most of our journeys – including the daily commute – have been shown to be non-essential.  The problem is that our collective petrol consumption effectively subsidises the cost of diesel.  So if we stopped using it, the oil industry would have the double whammy of having to increase the price of diesel (which the economy would likely be unable to afford) and to find something else to do with all that petrol (which will also likely come at a high cost).

This brings us to the fundamental error of thinking when looking at the current response to the pandemic as a model for tackling climate change; the idea that what we are doing is in any sense “sustainable.”  It is true that for the first time in four decades, western governments have rediscovered the ability to intervene in the economy – including printing and spending vast sums of newly created currency.  It is this sudden burst of currency creation that has allowed businesses to survive without customers and households to survive without – in practice – employment.  However – and this should be written in large letters on every social media wall on the planet: “you can print currency but you can’t print wealth.”

For the moment and temporarily, governments can prop up the economy in this way because the overwhelming majority of the population still buy into the belief that we will return to some form of “normality” and that the economy of the future will be bigger and wealthier than the economy as it was before the pandemic struck; allowing the debt to be repaid.  One vision of that bigger and wealthier economy involves the massive deployment of non-renewable renewable energy-harvesting technologies, switching from internal combustion engines to electric motors and swapping physical products (books, DVDs, face to face meetings, etc.) with digital equivalents (e-books, mp4, Zoom, etc.).  But these fantasies depend upon a planetary resource base that simply isn’t there anymore.

Several key minerals are only available today because we haven’t attempted a WWII-scale Green New Deal.  As Tad Patzek explains:

“To compare the WWII industrial effort with the global dislocation necessary to ameliorate some of the effects of climate change is surprisingly naïve… This comparison also neglects to account for the human population that has almost quadrupled between the 1940s and now, and the resource consumption that has increased almost 10-fold.  The world today cannot grow its industrial production the way we did during WWII.  There is simply not enough of the planet Earth left to be devoured.”

Less obviously, the energy that we depend upon to do anything is itself increasingly constrained as most of the large oil fields around the planet pass peak production.  It is not that there isn’t plenty of oil – or, indeed, fossil fuels in general – under the ground.  Nor that enhanced recovery techniques, deep water drilling, hydraulic fracturing and strip-mining bitumen sands cannot continue to deliver vast quantities.  Rather, the problem is that each additional barrel of oil from this point on is taking more energy to produce, so that the net energy available to the wider economy is shrinking:


The net energy or energy return on energy invested can fall from 50:1 to as low as 15:1 without having a major impact on the wider economy.  Between 15:1 and 5:1 things become extremely difficult.  And beyond 5:1 any semblance of a modern economy is impossible.  Which raises the question, where are we now?  To which, sadly, there is no definitive answer.  Conventional oil is probably still above 20:1.  Hydraulically fractured shale oil is somewhere around 5:1.  Bitumen sands are around 2.5:1 and corn-based biodiesel is energy-negative (it takes more to produce than it provides in return).  Solar farms are around 5:1 and windfarms between 15:1 and 20:1 – but remember these technologies are not renewable; without a steady supply of energy-cheap fossil fuels (and in the absence of an energy-dense alternative) these technologies are likely to go the same way as the wider economy.

This, perhaps, is the most uncomfortable aspect of the response to the current pandemic.  The current shutdown of the economy is causing real – and probably lasting – hardship for millions of people across the developed economies.  As TruePublica report:

“Just as the UK sends £200m in aid to help developing nations battle coronavirus, and as food banks crater as volunteers isolate, it is reported by the FT that a shocking 3 million people in the UK will go hungry in the lockdown. Many admit to having gone a whole day without eating anything as the coronavirus fallout leaves vulnerable people hungry and unable to access vital food supplies.

“A YouGov poll commissioned by the Food Foundation exposes the shocking reality of how the prolonged but necessary lockdown, coupled with some people’s selfishness, is impacting low-income households.

“In addition, Welfare Weekly reports that – an estimated 7.1 million people say someone in their household has had to reduce or skip meals because they could not access or afford sufficient sustenance.

“Of the 8.1 million people (16%) in Britain who are believed to be facing food insecurity during this crisis, 21% don’t have enough money to buy adequate food supplies, 50% were unable to get the food they needed from the shops due to shortages and 25% were unable to leave their homes and had no other way to get the food they needed.”

In the longer-term, millions of the jobs that have been lost will not be coming back.  Nor, with the economy facing a depression worse than the 1930s, is there any guarantee of replacement jobs arriving for years to come.  Indeed, if the 12 years following the 2008 crash are anything to go by, the majority of over-50s workers laid off because of the pandemic will likely never be in employment (beyond the low-paid gig-economy) again.

Despite this, though, anybody who is paying attention understands that even this is not sufficient to reverse the process of global warming.  The best this will achieve is a temporary dent in our emissions before economic necessity once again trumps the need to deal with the growing environmental crises.  Rather than political action it will be resource shortages – themselves the result of fast declining net energy – which will impose that kind of economic contraction upon us.  As Tim Morgan explained recently:

“… the coronavirus pandemic has triggered two fundamental changes that were, in reality, due to happen anyway.

“One of these is a systemic financial crisis, and the other is the realisation that an era of increasingly-cosmetic economic ‘growth’ has come to a decisive end.

“The term which best describes what happens from here on is ‘de-growth’. This is a concept that some have advocated as a positive choice, but it is, in fact, being forced upon us by a relentless deterioration in the energy-driven equation which determines prosperity.”

The current lockdown measures are only “sustainable” for as long as national currencies maintain their value.  National currencies, in turn, are only sustainable for as long as the myth of a bigger and wealthier future can be sustained.  That myth depends upon growth in the net energy available to the economy that ceased sometime around 2005.  There is already a growing list of things that we used to be able to do that – for net energy reasons – are no longer possible; from the collapse of commercial supersonic flight at one end to the growth of such things as bicycle delivery services and hand car washes at the other.  In the aftermath of the pandemic, we will likely say goodbye to many more things that we used to take for granted until such time as investors notice and either markets and asset prices collapse for good or stagflation arrives to remove the paper wealth that western economies currently run on.

There is nothing sustainable about the current lockdown.  But, then again, there was nothing sustainable about the “normal” economy we were operating anyway.  The future is not green growth but de-growth; not more and better, but make do and mend.

As you made it to the end…

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