What you are watching is an international trade fayre for a burgeoning green industry. It is no accident that the fossil fuel corporations are over-represented or that the banking and financial sector are heavily involved. Because, while human-caused climate change is real enough, the “solution” you are being sold is nothing more than corporate imperialism, funded by new carbon taxes, green levies and taxpayer-backed loans, while draped in bright green clothing.
Until now, the prime movers in a green industry have escaped scrutiny because the crisis appeared far away while the “solutions” were relatively cost-free. A few pounds on everyone’s electricity bills only really hurt those at the very bottom, and we could all claim that we were doing our bit by funding wind turbines and solar panels while washing our clothes in cold water and sending our “recycling” to China to be incinerated or dumped in the sea. Indeed, insofar as climate activism has focused solely on raising awareness of the problem, there has been almost no serious discussion of the potential solutions. As Jasper Bernes in Between the Devil and the Green New Deal puts it:
“The Green New Deal proposes to decarbonize most of the economy in ten years— great, but no one is talking about how. This is because, for many, its value is primarily rhetorical; it’s about shifting the discussion, gathering political will, and underscoring the urgency of the climate crisis. It’s more big mood more than grand plan.”
Climate change though, was but one – the potentially lucrative one – aspect of a much bigger predicament. More immediate – although this has yet to filter up to our elders and betters (or so they tell us) as they jet around the planet lecturing the rest of us about carbon footprints – are two other aspects of the same human overshoot predicament. The first of these is the growing economic breakdown resulting from the failure to address the crisis of 2008. Rather than unwind the unrepayable debt run up by private banks, the debt has largely been transferred to governments and central banks. The likely result of this in the not too distant future, is a series of currency collapses as it becomes clear that future taxation cannot possibly repay outstanding state debt.
A potential trigger for this, and the second aspect of the predicament that we have been ignoring, is the crisis of resource depletion. In part, this is simply the product of our insane attempt to have infinite growth on a finite planet. Humanity’s collective economic activity is now so great that a series of key resources will be increasingly unavailable if we maintain today’s rate of global growth. And these shortages will become severe in the event that we begin to make the kind of zero-carbon transition envisaged by the green industry. As Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington et al., warned in 2019:
“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.”
This amounts to imperialism masquerading as “saving the planet,” since it will be corporations based in the developed states using their exchangeable currencies – while they still have value – to consume what remains of the planet’s mineral reserves, thereby denying them to humanity as a whole. As Simon Michaux from the Finnish Geological Survey notes, in the event that the EU (which then included the UK) were successful in its effort to produce 200 million electric cars by 2030, the world would be left with just two months reserves of chromium, gold and zinc, three months of silver, and four months of nickel:
Even at the modest growth rates prior to the Covid pandemic, some of those metal reserves will likely be gone by the end of the decade. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that these estimates are overly optimistic because oil – the “master resource” – peaked in 2018. This is not the same as “running out of oil.” Rather, it marks the high point of oil production. This is because all of the old, big, and easy oil fields are in decline. And all we have to replace them are small and difficult – i.e., energy-expensive – deposits such as shale oil and bitumen sands.
The rising energy cost of oil translates into a rising energy cost of any industrial process which requires oil – and especially diesel. This includes the production of fossil fuels, including oil itself. As Richard Heinberg at Resilience explains:
“Coal and natural gas spot prices have recently soared to record levels internationally, while oil is trading at over $80 a barrel—the highest price in seven years. Newspaper columnists are asking whether people in Europe and Asia who can’t afford high fuel and electricity prices might freeze this winter…
“Political commentators are naturally searching for culprits (or scapegoats). For those on the business-friendly political right, the usual target is green energy policies that discourage fossil fuel investment. For those on the left, the culprit is insufficient investment in renewable energy.
“But there’s another explanation for the high prices: depletion. I’m not suggesting we’re about to completely run out of coal, oil, or gas; there’s no immediate danger of that. However, the energy industry has historically targeted the highest-quality and easiest-accessed of these resources, which means that what’s left, in most cases, are fuels that will be costlier to extract and process—and also more polluting.”
This is a serious problem for the emerging green industry and its Big Finance backers, because without cheap oil there is simply no way in which the proposed energy transition can happen. There is no part of the manufacture, transportation, deployment and maintenance of wind turbines, solar panels, tidal barrages, wave turbines, biofuels and biofuel refineries, geothermal plants, hydroelectric dams, or modular nuclear reactors which doesn’t depend upon fossil fuels in general, and diesel fuel in particular.
This feeds back into economics, of course. The big hike in gas prices did not just halt the production – ironically – of industrial carbon dioxide. Nitrogen fertiliser is made from gas, and the high prices have caused some fertiliser plants to cease production while others are charging prices too high for farmers to afford. Unlike the direct increase in gas and electricity prices which are hitting consumers this winter, fertiliser shortages and high prices will not be felt until next autumn, when global grain prices reach eye-watering levels as a result of decreased yields. Nor will this be the only shock, because a large part of the gas – nitrogen – fed grain harvest goes to animal feed and to supposedly green biofuels; so expect the prices of both to rise in subsequent years.
Indeed, as oil production falls, even mineral resources which were believed to be plentiful will turn out to be inaccessible as the cost of recovering them is too great. This leaves us increasingly vulnerable to an economic version of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum – that the system fails as a result of its least available input, irrespective of whether the other inputs are plentiful. The World Economic Forum’s wet dream of a new hydrogen economy, for example, will not fail for want of hydrogen, water or electricity, but from global shortages of the platinum required as an irreplaceable fuel cell catalyst.
For most of those discussing climate change both inside and outside the COP26 conference this week, there appears to be little awareness even that oil and gas are actually fossil fuels. The activist demand that humanity – or even that part of it which lives in the developed states – cease consuming fossil fuels immediately, would bring about mass fatalities on a scale which would make Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot blush, as each one of our life support systems – food, water, lighting and heating, healthcare, etc.. – failed within a matter of days. Indeed, even without a full-scale cessation of use, shortages and high prices would disrupt the economics of what are better referred to as “fossil carbons,” if we are to include the full range of products derived from them:
This is because there is little scope to vary the substances derived from a barrel of oil during the refining process. Petrol – largely a waste product – accounts for the majority of a barrel and is sold to the public as a means of subsidising the price of the more valuable products – especially diesel fuel. One consequence of the proposed switch to electric vehicles is that most of those other products will become unaffordable; not just because of the loss of petrol sales, but because of the new requirement to somehow dispose of all of that petrol.
The shear volume of products derived from oil which we take for granted but which we would struggle to do without is mind boggling. And yet ill-informed activists, corporate CEOs and supposedly responsible political leaders are warmly applauded when they propose an immediate end to fossil fuels before we have had a serious debate about the kind of economy we could realistically have with the available alternatives (as opposed to fantasy technologies which do not – and in many cases cannot – exist).
The need for this debate will become increasingly urgent with each new year in which oil production is lower than it was the year before – beginning in 2018 and continuing indefinitely. Although this will likely be obscured by the immediate collision between a financial system based on infinite growth and a finite planet Earth which can no longer support growth. In less unequal economies, the economic shock might have been easier to bear. But in the economies in which we live, the result can only be eco-austerity for the majority even as those represented inside the COP26 conference look forward to one last round of eco-socialism for the rich. As Jasper Bernes points out:
“The problem with the Green New Deal is that it promises to change everything while keeping everything the same. It promises to switch out the energetic basis of modern society as if one were changing the battery in a car. You still buy a new iPhone every two years, but zero emissions. The world of the Green New Deal is this world but better—this world but with zero emissions, universal health care, and free college. The appeal is obvious but the combination impossible. We can’t remain in this world.”
But for now at least, activists play into the hands of green greed by pretending that the primary need today is to “raise awareness” of climate change – it isn’t. Even in the backward USA, the majority of people now accept that climate change is real, and that human activity has contributed to it. As a result, the mass imposition of eco-austerity via various new carbon taxes and green levies on a population which cannot afford it, is being tacitly accepted as the only alternative. Meanwhile, the two other civilisation-collapsing threats – economic collapse and resource depletion – cannot even be mentioned in polite company.
As you made it to the end…
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