Could Consuming MORE Energy Help Humans Save Nature?
By John Horgan
Even before I arrived at the annual “Dialogue” of the Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland, California, think tank that challenges mainstream environmental positions, I was arguing about it.
"Ecopragmatists" contend that higher energy consumption may help us "decouple" from, or reduce our impact on, the environment. Photo: Breakthrough Institute.
When I explained some of the institute’s positions to two green friends, they were aghast that I would hobnob with a group that favors nuclear power, natural gas, genetically-modified food—and, more generally, the notion that environmentalism is or should be compatible with rapid economic growth.
My friends agree with ethicist Clive Hamilton that the Institute’s “ecopragmatist” policies (other common descriptors are ecomodernist, neogreen and techno-utopian) “will lead us to disaster.” Hamilton argues in Scientific American that Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, founders of the Breakthrough Institute, “do not deny global warming; instead they skate over the top of it, insisting that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth system might throw up, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them.”
Like environmental journalists Andrew Revkin and Keith Kloor, who are friends, I admire the work of Shellenberger and Nordhaus. We share (I think) several basic assumptions, which for me are emotional as well as intellectual. First, optimism about the future is reasonable, given how much progress humans have already achieved in the realms of medicine, human rights, prosperity and even the environment. Second, optimism, even wishful thinking, are more conducive to achieving further progress than alarmism and despair. Third, we can solve our problems by being more open-minded and creative–and scrutinizing all our assumptions.
Take, for example, the provocative agenda of the 2014 Dialogue, which was held in Sausalito, California, June 22-24, and was titled “High-energy Planet.” (See also the institute’s recent report “Our High-Energy Planet.”) Here is how the Dialogue brochure introduces the agenda:
"For the past 40 years, rising energy production and consumption have been widely viewed as inherently destructive of nature. A steady stream of government, United Nations, and environmental proposals have identified lowered energy consumption as the highest goal of climate and environmental policy. But during that same period, global per capita energy consumption has risen by 30 percent. And over the next century, global energy consumption is anticipated to double, triple, or more. The reality of our high-energy planet demands that we rethink environmental protection. The question for Breakthrough Dialogue 2014 is, ‘How might a high-energy planet save nature?’
Universal energy is a fundamental requisite of development. The transformation of natural energy assets into usable energy services allows not just for household lighting and electricity, but also modern infrastructures and societies. Affordable energy is used to power tractors, create fertilizers, and power irrigation pumps, all of which improve agricultural yields and raise income. Cheap and reliable grid electricity allows factory owners to increase output and hire more workers. Electricity allows hospitals to refrigerate lifesaving vaccines and power medical equipment. It liberates children and women from manual labor and provides light, heat, and ventilation for the schools that educate the workforce.
A world with cheaper and cleaner energy could be a world where humans tread more lightly, leaving more space for other species while reducing pollution. Cheap, clean energy could power advanced water treatment plants that remove phosphorus from livestock effluents, returning clean water to rivers and recycling phosphorous as a fertilizer. Desalination could spare aquifers, rivers, and lakes, while rehabilitating freshwater ecosystems. Materials recycling and incineration could make landfills a thing of the past. And vertical agriculture could spare more land for nonhumans.
There is no guarantee that a high-energy planet will be a better place for nature. While land used for agriculture has grown only modestly, frontier agriculture continues to devastate old-growth rainforests in Indonesia and Brazil. Coal continues to be the fastest-growing fuel, and the carbon intensity of the global economy has been increasing in recent years. And while consumption of some key resource inputs such as wood and non-agricultural water appear to have peaked, demand for others is still growing rapidly.
Ultimately, what will determine whether our high-energy planet is better or worse for nature will be the ways in which our technologies, our economies, our values, and our politics evolve. What are the ways that we might shape the trajectory of the current transition and what are the ways that we won’t? What does an ecomodernist politics look like that is simultaneously realistic and aspirational about the future of the planet?
Agricultural innovations have boosted the productivity of farmland over the last 50 years, sparing enormous swathes of land, according to a 2012 analysis by Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University and co-authors. Other energy-consuming innovations could help further reduce humanity's impact on nature, according to Ausubel."
Breakthrough speakers did not all find the concept of a sustainable, high-energy planet plausible. Far from it. The vision of a prosperous, green, “high-energy planet” was supported by some speakers, notably environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University, who received the 2014 “Breakthrough Paradigm Award.”
Ausubel emphasized that energy-consuming advances such as tractors and synthetic fertilizers already enable humans to produce food far more efficiently, using less land and water. Ausubel asserted that our technologies are allowing us to “decouple” from nature–that is, to meet our needs with much less impact on the environment. Environmental researcher Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado argued, moreover, that large increases in energy consumption are required to eradicate the poverty that still afflicts a large proportion of humanity.
But key tenets of the high-energy proposal were criticized by other speakers. Energy analyst Arnulf Grubler of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis questioned whether nuclear energy will ever be as economically viable as proponents hope. Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity feared that by the time humans achieve their green, high-energy utopia, much of the planet’s biodiversity will have already been wiped out.
I saw these disagreements as productive. The conference fulfilled its goal of “achieving disagreement,” defined as “overcoming misunderstandings to get at genuine disagreements.”
I have one suggestion for the Breakthrough Institute: I hope it considers how militarism can exacerbate our environmental problems, and, conversely, how reducing militarism can benefit environmentalism and other social causes. Perhaps a topic for a future Dialogue?
“Demand-side management”: Blackouts by another name
UK: In a recent speech Ed Davey announced that energy intensive companies would be paid to switch off their machinery during times of high demand. As many have noted, this not what happens in healthy energy markets. Although this policy is called ‘demand-side management’, jargon does not disguise what is still a blackout. But simple economics can determine a much better approach to energy policy than the managed decline preferred by the deeply unpopular minority party in the coalition.
The problem of the UK’s diminished capacity is caused by energy policies, (not shortages of fuel), largely but not entirely driven by EU directives to reduce CO2 and other emissions from power stations. Much of the UK’s generating capacity has been forced to close by the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive (LCPD), followed by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), both of which are intended to reduce the emissions responsible for pollution. Nobody is against clean air, but the combination of these policies has compounded the UK’s energy problems, leaving an energy gap which threatens wide-spread blackouts.
The LCPD and IED force the operators of coal-fired power stations either to shut down within a given time (17,500 operational hours between 2016 and 2023), or to add systems to comply with the standards they set out. Retro-fitting older but still serviceable plants may not be economically viable, so the operational lifespan of these plants is reduced by a decade or more. Somewhat late in the day, the Department for Energy and Climate Change commissioned a report on the feasibility of building new gas and coal-fired capacity and extending the life of the UK’s existing power plants by making them compliant with the IED.
The existence of the report demonstrates that the current and previous governments’ plans for a greener energy sector have not materialised, and cannot now be achieved. No amount of wind turbines and domestic solar PV installations can replace the capacity that has already been lost to the LCPD and will be lost to the IED. So the government is now forced to face the consequences: begging energy companies to keep remaining coal and legacy gas plants operational for as long as possible in order to avert a deeper crisis.
Along the way, the report shows some interesting things about the history of the UK’s fleet of power stations. The following graph shows two main periods of building. Approximately 3.3GW a year of coal plant between 1965-75 and 2.5GW a year between 1990 and 2000, under different economic regimes.
This demonstrates that relatively rapid deployment of conventional plant is technically feasible. In contrast, the UK’s onshore wind fleet expanded by an average of just 0.5GW a year between 2004-12, equivalent to just 0.15GW when we take into account the variability of wind energy. At this rate, it would take nearly 80 years for onshore wind to replace the 11.8GW of coal and gas-fired capacity that will have been shut down by 2020, by the LCPD and IED. If we include the 6.1GW of nuclear capacity that will have been closed by 2020, the current rate of onshore wind farm construction will take 120 years to replace what took fewer than 6 years to build in the 1960s. So much for green economic ‘progress’.
And the cost? The report rules out building new coal-fired plants, but more interestingly finds that new gas-fired plants can be built for around £500 per KW of capacity – £500 million per GW at a build rate of up to 6GW a year. This is consistent with DECC’s own estimates, which includes onshore wind at £960 per KWh of capacity, or £3,300, when we take into account wind variability. That’s £3.3 billion per GW. So to close the energy gap with gas-fired capacity would cost around £9 billion, and take three years. But closing the gap with onshore wind energy would cost £59 billion (not including the cost of extensive changes to the Grid to cope with intermittent sources like wind) and take longer than a century. And we’d still need to spend the £9 billion on gas-fired back-up anyway.
It is remarkable, given these facts, that the government should ever doubt the need to keep the legacy power stations open. According to research by The Tax Payer’s Alliance, green energy subsidies will amount to £5.8 billion a year by 2018-19. That could pay for the energy gap to be closed in just 18 months.
These are of course, rough calculations. And they don’t take into account the cost of fuel. But the cost of financing £59 billion worth of wind farms – interest payments – would be far greater than the cost of fuel for gas plants, which is one reason why wind farms need to be so heavily subsidised. No wonder green campaigners are so violently opposed to fracking, and so resistant to a second ‘dash for gas’. The argument for closing down coal and gas-fired power stations, and replacing them with wind farms and other renewables is factually, empirically and morally bankrupt. And no wonder the government is so worried about keeping the lights on that it is asking factories to shut down. It is policies, not technical, economic or environmental challenges, that have caused the energy gap to open up.
U.S. Fracking Has 'Cut Carbon More Than The Whole World's Wind And Solar'
Fracking in the US has led to a greater reduction in carbon emissions than all the wind turbines and solar panels across the entire globe put together. This is the stark fact presented at a meeting at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg last week.
Chris Faulkner, who is chief executive of Breitling Energy Corporation based in Texas, explained: "Fracking has succeeded where Kyoto and carbon taxes have failed. Due to the shale boom in the US, the use of clean burning natural gas has replaced much more polluting coal by ten per cent. In 2012, the shift to gas has managed to reduce CO₂ emissions by about 300 megatonnes (Mt).
"Compare this to the fact that all the wind turbines and solar panels in the world reduce CO₂ emissions, at a maximum, by 275 Mt. In other words, the US shale gas revolution has by itself reduced global emissions more than all the well-intentioned solar and wind in the world.”
The economic impacts of fracking and shale gas are also indisputable: as natural gas prices in the European Union have doubled since the year 2000, US prices have fallen by about 75 per cent in the past few years. Annually, the global solar and wind subsidies cost $60B, whereas the US is saving at least $100B from cheaper energy
The Economist predicts that by 2020 the fracking revolution will have added 2 to 4 per cent ($380–$690B) to American GDP and created more than twice as many jobs as car makers provide today. US GDP today is about $16T, and US car makers employ about 800,000 people.
Chris Faulkner continued: "Many countries in Europe, and across the world, have similar opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint, and to experience the same economic benefits.”
"These are not opportunities governments should overlook, or discount, as carbon reduction targets will not be achieved through renewables or any other current energy generation technology.
"But shale is not a silver bullet, it is a stop-gap fuel while other energy generation technologies are developed, which will replace carbon-based fuels in the coming years.
"Opponents of fracking and shale exploitations cite various risks. Yet a million and a half wells have been fracked in the US since 1947 and 95 per cent of all wells in the US are fracked today. It is a very safe method of exploration and production. Fracking occurs at several thousand feet below freshwater aquifers. It is virtually impossible for any of the fracking fluid to climb back up through the rock formations between the shale gas deposits and the aquifer.
"As with any energy source,” added Chris Faulkner, "there are risks. But if there is proper regulation and enforcement, those risks can be managed and minimized. In many states in the US there are effective regulations and monitoring in place.”
Chris Faulkner was invited to present at the Council of Europe by UK MP David Davies. The 'fringe' meeting was attended by over 30 Council of Europe members from across Europe, including eight UK MPs.
"The UK is the only country in Europe which is progressing with shale exploration,” added Chris Faulkner. "The rest of Europe is watching the UK very closely to see what happens.
"The UK government is making every effort to get this right, albeit without much help from the shale industry which has spectacularly failed to properly engage with governments and, more importantly, with the public at large.
"The handful of companies operating in the field have not made any real effort to engage with local communities around sites, enter into proper discussions with local councils, or discussed fracking with environmentalists, allowing them free range to influence public perceptions using inaccurate, misinterpreted or exaggerated information mainly from the US experience.
"The industry has also failed to come forward with any suggestions for compensating landowners and local communities, seemingly leaving it to government to regulate.
"The UK government has suggested a lump sum payment and then 1 per cent of revenue going forward. This is very limited compared to the model that operates in the US where landowners can get over 20 per cent of revenue over the life of a well.”
UK: Green ‘smart meters’ are plain stupid
Ideology is a bad guide to action in the real world. It makes otherwise sensible people ignore important facts and pursue policies which are obviously flawed.
The current Green dogma is constantly pushing governments, businesses and much of the media into policies and actions which we will later regret.
The plan for ‘smart meters’ is one such mistake. Even those who now promote them do not fully understand them. Experience in other countries shows they will not fulfil their optimistic official targets and that they are fraught with risks.
They do not work properly in several types of building. Their complex technology could take years to bed down.
Yet the policy is to be implemented anyway, publicised at great expense with a launch event starring Bob Geldof. And we, the actual consumers, will pay for it for many years ahead in higher charges, even if we opt not to have the new equipment in our homes.
This is a classic example of starting with a theory and trying to force reality to fit. Similar attitudes led to the sclerosis and ultimate collapse of the old Communist systems, which promised utopia and produced poverty, concrete-headed official obduracy and rust.
The Green fashion has gone unchallenged long enough.
It is time for Ministers, MPs and the media to re-examine the claims of a belief system which has so far brought nothing but higher prices, diminished efficiency and ugly blights on the landscape.
Report from a British summer
By the end of this week, the Met Office is predicting it will be Phew, What A Scorcher! time again. It’s called the British summer.
Not according to the Government, it isn’t. Officially, we don’t have weather any more.
We have ‘climate change’, a catch-all excuse for everything from raising taxes and refusing to empty the bins to exploding manhole covers.
That’s right, exploding manhole covers. The Health and Safety Executive has warned pedestrians to be on the alert after a series of manhole cover explosions in London’s West End.
There have been 64 such incidents already this year, compared with just nine in 2011. ‘Experts’ blame the ‘wettest winter on record’ for rainwater damaging underground electric cables.
The heavy rainfall, which brought flooding to many parts of the country, is naturally attributed to ‘climate change’, which is also allegedly responsible for last week’s hot weather and the subsequent deluge at the weekend.
Today’s political class thinks the answer to unpredictable weather is to close perfectly serviceable coal-fired power stations, litter the landscape with useless windmills and jack up the cost of fuel to meet ‘green’ energy targets.
They also assume the right to lecture us about our behaviour. An outfit called ‘Public Health England’ has taken it upon itself to draw up a ‘Heatwave Plan 2014’ to be distributed to all homes.
I only became aware of this patronising drivel when Mail reader Tony Singleton sent me a copy of a leaflet which had been pushed through his letter box by Devon County Council’s ‘Emergency Management’ team.
It begins: ‘Although many of us enjoy the sunshine, as a result of climate change we are increasingly likely to experience summer temperatures that may be harmful to health.’
We are instructed to obey a shopping list of precautions to keep us safe. For instance: ‘Keep out of the sun between 11am and 3pm. If you have to go out in the heat, walk in the shade, apply sunscreen and wear a hat and light scarf.
‘Eat cold foods, particularly salads. Take a cool shower, bath or body wash. Sprinkle water over the skin or clothing or keep a damp cloth on the back of your neck.’ (I never leave home without one.)
As if this isn’t sufficiently insulting to our intelligence, we are also told how to act in our own homes.
‘Close curtains that receive morning and afternoon sun. However, care should be taken with metal blinds and dark curtains, as these can absorb heat. Consider replacing or putting reflective material in between them and the window space.’
What? Covering your windows with Bacofoil is normally associated with lunatics who are convinced they are being targeted by invisible death rays from alien space ships. It’s the kind of thing which gets people sectioned.
Now, though, it appears to be official Government policy. After reading this rubbish, I presumed it couldn’t be confined only to Devon.
I was right. The Heatwave Plan 2014 has been adopted by councils and NHS Trusts all over Britain as part of a national action plan.
I’ve stumbled across websites called ‘Norfolk Prepared’ and ‘Staffordshire Prepared’ giving identical advice.
The author of this extraordinary 45-page document is Professor Sally C. Davies, Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Officer at the Department of Health.
She has drawn on the expertise of a wide range of healthcare ‘professionals’ from across the public sector. It even contains advice to Muslims on how to avoid becoming dehydrated in the event of a heat wave coinciding with fasting during Ramadan.
They think of everything, don’t they? It was only a matter of time before the ‘climate change’ and ‘diversity’ agendas collided. Goodness knows how much all this madness is costing us.
Meanwhile, in other news, the BBC has decided to stop giving airtime to ‘unqualified climate change deniers’ and the EU is issuing new recycling rules and demanding higher petrol taxes to ‘combat climate change’.
‘Energy Independence’: The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
“Unfortunately, at the first sign of political and economic trouble most people are spontaneously inclined to put the brakes on international trade and to increase local production of critical things such as food and energy. This stance often has dire consequences.”
As some apparently inexplicable behaviour illustrates (say, being a die-hard fan of the Chicago Cubs), humans are profoundly territorial creatures. According to evolutionary psychologists, this is because for approximately 90% of their time on this planet, modern humans belonged to small groups that were constantly fighting each other over the possession of land and resources. Deep down, most people’s behaviour is not all that different from that observed on Animal Planet’s Meerkat Manor…
Peace and Open Trade
As recent events in the Ukraine remind us, sometimes the other tribe is still out there to get us. By and large, however, the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker demonstrates in his book The Better Angels of our Nature that we are living “in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence,” a relatively blessed state of affairs made possible through ever greater international trade and the worldwide exchange of ideas and culture over the last few centuries.
More than two centuries before Pinker, the French philosopher Montesquieu had similarly observed:
Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices; for it is almost a general rule, that wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners… Peace is the natural effect of trade.” In the immortal words of another French thinker of the time, Voltaire: “Go into the [Stock] Exchange in London, that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt.
Unfortunately, at the first sign of political and economic trouble most people are spontaneously inclined to put the brakes on international trade and to increase local production of critical things such as food and energy. This stance often has dire consequences. As the old saying goes, if goods don’t cross borders, armies eventually will.
Less dramatically though, these policies typically deliver lower standards of living (after all, no one would bother moving good over long distances if they did not provide better and cheaper alternatives to local productions) and greater insecurity (for instance, promoting “food security” through increased local production essentially amounts to putting more of our agricultural eggs in one regional basket, a recipe for disaster when droughts, floods and other unavoidable natural calamities strike).
Energy No Exception
Energy security is no different. Policies in this respect typically involve a combination of reduced dependence on any one foreign supplier by increasing their number, ramping up domestic production and reducing overall demand through energy conservation measures. While none of these things are inherently bad when they occur spontaneously (such as when new profitable local energy sources are developed), they are counterproductive when they occur solely as a result of government subsidies, mandates or barriers to trade, as the history of U.S. energy markets abundantly illustrates.
Over a century ago, the United States was the most important oil producer in the world with significant drilling operations in states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and California. The country’s only serious global rival back then was Russia whose large oilfields around the Caspian sea (in what is now Azerbaidjan) had been developed largely at the instigation of Robert and Ludvig Nobel, brothers of the better known Alfred (of Nobel Prizes fame). In later decades though, the rapid development of the American economy and the discovery gigantic petroleum reserves in the Middle East, Venezuela, Canada and other places turned the USA into a net importer.
Greater dependence on foreign imports was not problematic until the energy crisis of the early 1970s that prompted President Nixon to launch the Project Independence whose goal was to make the United States self-sufficient. Similar policies were later embraced by many politicians. As many readers know, one of the main goals of the Obama administration was to create millions of well-paid, abundant, stable, unionized (with full benefits), healthy, environmentally beneficial, and geographically dispersed “green jobs” in everything from electric cars to wind turbines.
Unfortunately, overturning the laws of physics and economics proved more challenging than herding free-range and grass-fed unicorns. Try as they might, no visionary policy maker found a way to convert the Green Job Kool-Aid into an affordable, convenient, and reliable energy drink.
But while green schemes were falling apart, production of the much-maligned hydrocarbons soared to such an extent that, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, US crude oil imports peaked in 2005, while in 2013 the country became the world’s top producer of petroleum and natural gas, surpassing Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Of course, the sheer size of the U.S. economy means that its petroleum consumption still depends for about 40% on imports of crude oil and petroleum products, but BP’s Energy Outlook now forecasts that the U.S. will produce 101% of its energy needs by 2035, making the country de facto energy independent. While such forecasts should be taken with a grain of salt, the possibility of an energy “Independence Day” is now, for the first time in several decades, eminently plausible. This type of self-sufficiency is desirable, for it rests on superior local alternatives to those that the rest of the world could provide.
If history is any guide, however, something completely unexpected could emerge in energy markets in the coming two decades and foreign alternatives might again become more desirable. If that was the case, the U.S. would be ill advised to cling to less desirable local alternatives. As was the case before the fracking boom, energy security would be best achieved not by reducing the physical volume of imported oil, but by diversifying supplies and letting creative people in the private sector come up with better alternatives.
Risk Management 101 tells us to diversify our investment portfolio. The same is true from the perspective of energy consumers and national governments. If energy security is the goal, then strengthening energy interdependence the world over is the way to achieve it. The more suppliers you depend on, the more secure you will be. As Andy Grove put it, out true goal should be energy resilience through adaptability and substitutability. In fact, resilience is one of the best features of market processes as individual buyers and sellers can adapt, each in their own way, to changes in supply and demand conditions conveyed through market prices.
World markets not only deliver cheaper and better goods, but they also make countries and consumers more secure and resilient. Now as in the past, for most of the world more energy security means less energy independence. The U.S. is now in the unique position of benefitting from a significant local energy boom and should enjoy it while it lasts, but this should not detract from this greater truth.
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