hyThe Greenhouse Problem: Why you won’t solve it.
Almost everyone who thinks the greenhouse problem is serious takes it for granted that it can be solved, just by moving off the carbon-based fuels. In addition we have been told by Stern and the IPCC that the cost will be negligible. “So, why don’t those stupid politicians just develop the sustainable alternatives?”
Almost no critical thought has been given to what the limits to renewable energy sources might be. My Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society (2007) seems to be only the second book published on the theme. Here are a few of the basic reasons which I think show that it will not be possible to solve the greenhouse problem at any cost so long as this society remains committed to affluence and growth.
Just after the mid-2000s a responsible, safe greenhouse target was generally taken to be to keep the atmospheric CO2 concentration under 450 ppm. To do that the IPCC says we have to cut emissions by 50 - 80% by 2050, i.e., possibly to around 5 GT/y, and probably to below zero by 2100. (IPCC, 2007, SPM 5.)
But in the last few years warming effects have been more rapid and alarming than the IPCC anticipated and a number of people have concluded that we must eliminate all emissions by 2050. Hansen for instance says the target sh0ould be 350 ppm by 2050, not 450 although the level is already 380 ppm.
There are only four options for providing the expected 2050 world energy demand of approximately 1100 EJ, more than twice as great as at present –-- conservation/efficiency in use, coal with sequestration of the CO2, nuclear, and renewables.
Let’s assume energy conservation etc. cuts 25% off the supply required to provide services, and that 25% of the reminder is low temperature heat. The task would then be to provide 620 EJ of “final” energy.
Geo-sequestration of CO2 can capture only 80 - 90% of the CO2 generated when coal is burned. It can only be applied to stationary sources, such as power stations, so it cannot deal with the c. 50% of carbon fuels used in other sources, such as transport. If we take the 2050 release limit as 5 GT/y CO2, electricity generated by coal use would have to be about a mere 86 EJ. That means 534 EJ would have to come from nuclear energy and renewals. Let’s divide the task between them.
To provide 267 EJ from nuclear reactors we would need about 33 times as much reactor capacity as we have now---and Uranium resources (assuming 2 – 4 million tonnes) would be totally exhausted in about 2 years. (Zittel, 2003, and Leeuwin and Smith, 2006.) Take the highest estimates, and add Thorium and it’s 15 years (unless breeder reactors are used, or they get fusion to work.)
So we would have to give almost the whole task to the renewables, and lets for simplicity split the 534 EJ between solar and wind. We’d need about 530 times the world’s early 2000s wind capacity. (See Table 1 in Coppin, 2008.) Where are you going to locate that? Not within thousands of kilometres of demand. Europe’s total on and offshore wind potential has been estimated at 4 EJ. (Tribe, undated, p. 48.)
If the solar contribution all came from PV panels, we would need 260 billion square metres, or 29 square metres per person (at average Sydney solar radiation, so much more for Europe…and more again in winter.) That’s about $150,000 per household…for maybe one-third of the energy budget.
Then how will you deal with the variability of renewables? Wind and PV provide no electricity at all on calm nights. Unless you can store vast quantities of electricity wind and PV can’t save consumer society. Electrical energy can best be stored as water pumped up into dams to generate electricity later, but world hydro capacity is a small proportion of what demand will be so it can’t carry the load when wind and sun are down. Storing electrical energy as hydrogen wastes three-quarters of the energy generated by the time it drives a vehicle or other device (Bossell, 2004) and this is why we are not likely to use it in large quantity. (See Ch. 6 in Trainer, 2007.)
So what is Europe going to do for weeks on end in mid-winter when there can be very cold, cloudy and still weather?
What about solar thermal energy? Because they can store energy as heat, solar thermal systems will be valuable contributors to a renewable energy world. But even in the best locations such as Central Australia it seems that output would be too low in the winter months for these systems to ensure a sufficient a reliable electricity supply. If in addition they were expected to ensure supply when PV and wind were down for four days, their storage capacity would have to be about 25 times the standard 12 hour provision. (For the detail see Trainer, 2008a.)
Note also that almost all the renewable energy sources, along with nuclear and geo-sequestration, produce only electricity, yet only about 20% of energy needed takes this form. Where are we going to get the other 80%?
Enthusiasts for renewables typically fail to deal with the problems of conversion losses and dumping. If we are going to derive that 80% by conversion from electricity then there will be large losses. For instance to produce a liquid fuel in the form of hydrogen would lose half the electrical energy. Then if wind and solar are to contribute significant fractions of total demand there will be times when both are generating more than is needed. For instance if there is enough PV capacity to average .33 of demand, and enough wind to do the same, then there will be times when winds are strong and the sun is out and these two sectors are generating about 3.3 times demand, so 2.3 times demand will have to be dumped, or stored inefficiently as hydrogen.
The biggest problem for renewable energy is the provision of liquid fuels. Biomass cannot meet more than a tiny fraction of the global demand. We will probably get 50 GJ/ha of ethanol produced from woody biomass produced on a very large scale. (Fulton, 2005. Some believe 1.3 times Fulton’s assumed yield from biomass can be achieved.) To give the expected 9 billion people the present Australian oil plus gas amount of energy we would need to harvest 23 billion ha of plantations – on a planet with only 13 billion ha of land! (See Trainer, 2007, Ch.5.)
“Well then, let’s have electric transport.” Firstly, heavy trucks, sea and air transport can’t be run on batteries, which means that only about 60% at best of the transport budget can be run on electricity. (Proportions from ABARE, 2009.) If we were to provide domestic/industrial electricity (24% of final) and to also run half our transport system (13%) on electricity then renewables would have to generate around 180 EJ, three times as much electricity as at present, taking into account battery losses. (If hydrogen-powered vehicles are assumed the losses are around twice as great; see Bossell, 2004.) And both transport and electrical energy demand are rising fast, heading for around three times the present amount in Australia by 2050.
If the other almost half of the transport budget (80 EJ) was to come from biomass (at 50 GJ/ha) we would need to plant 1.6 billion ha of forest, more than all present cropland.
After you have met that direct electricity (24%) plus transport demand (26%) you would still have 50% of energy demand left to find, i.e., 310 EJ. Much of this is at present liquid or gas so electrical energy would have to be converted with large losses (e.g., a 75% loss from wind to wheels via hydrogen.) So you would probably have to generate at least another 600 EJ by wind or solar. Your grand total for electricity generation would then be over 800 EJ.
These numbers indicate that it is not possible to draw up a plausible 2050 1100 EJ energy budget without large and unsafe use of coal. Yet that budget’s target is only one-fifth of the amount we would need to give all 9 billion people expected the per capita energy use Australians are likely to have by 2050. That’s where they are all fiercely heading whether you like it or not. (To give them all the “living standards” Australians are heading for by 2050 world economic output would have to be 30 times as great as it is now.)
In other words it is crucial to recognise that the discussion is not about how to sustain the present society. The most fundamental element built into the foundations of this society, and into the mentality that drives politicians, economists, the media, and ordinary people, is the blind obsession with constantly getting richer and consuming more and more, that is, with economic growth.
Even if he alternatives to fossil fuels could do it, they can’t do it in the time available. It will be all over by 2040. As Mason’s The 2030 Spike (2003) points out we are within a couple of decades of a coincidence of savage and insoluble crises to do with oil, water, arable land, population, forest depletion, fish stocks, soil depletion, shortage of phosphorus and various other minerals, failed states, urban breakdown…and accelerating international conflict over resource access. If you think we can replace fossil fuels by 2050 you are assuming we can build the equivalent of around 900 giant power stations every year…while we solve all the other problems at the same time.
Stern, the IPCC, Garnaut and just about everybody else assume that we can solve the problem by energy conservation effort and moving to alternatives to carbon fuels … without any discussion at all of the difficulties and limits involved. (For detailed critiques see Trainer, 2007.)
What will you do? You will now plunge into cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, planting trees, researching CCS – while building coal-fired and nuclear power stations and desal plants just as soon as consumers demand more energy and water. You will follow Howard’s wisdom – take action to save the environment, but not if it harms the economy…which G.H. Bush put more elegantly as, “The American way of life is not negotiable.” You will demand that your government solves the greenhouse and petrol price problems…without increasing the prices you pay. The very last thing you will do is recognise that the problems cannot be solved while you remain obsessed with affluence and growth.
You will in fact make big gains in the near future, maybe even reducing emissions 20% by 2020 as you “pick the low hanging fruit”. This will seem to show that all you have to do is keep this up and the problem will be solved. But even if you achieve goal Prime Minister Rudd stated, a 60% cut in CO2 emissions by 2050, this would leave Australians emitting13 tonnes of CO2 per capita p.a., and if 9 billion were to live like that world emissions would be 98 billion tonnes p.a. …which is almost 5 times as high as at present.
To put it another way, if we were to cut global emissions by 60%, to 11 billion tonnes p.a., that would be an average of 1.2 tonnes per person…which is under 5% of the present Australian per capita amount. Let’s see your “cap and trade” proposal do that without “harming the economy” Mr. Rudd. Garnaut is calling for a cut to the IPCC medium 2050 emission release target, 9 GT/y, which would be a per capita release only 5% of the present Australian figure. And note again that the responsible target probably has to be no emissions by 2050. The cap Mr. Rudd will have to be pulled down around our ankles. You are going to do that, are you, in an economy you want to see grow to four times its present size by 2050? Do you think your courageous 2009 announcement of a 5% reduction by 2020 puts you on track?
So what’s the answer? If the question was, as everyone thinks it is, “How can we run our rampant affluence and growth consumer-capitalist society without causing a greenhouse problem?” then the answer is – you can’t! The overshoot, the magnitude of the unsustainability, is far too great. Consumer society has slammed into its limits. There is no possibility of keeping this party going for more than a few years on renewables plus nuclear energy. It can only be kept going, for a while by continuing to burn highly unsafe amounts of carbon based fuels. The basic cause of the global predicament is gross over-consumption and it can only be solved by cutting levels of production, consumption, trade, investment and GDP to perhaps one-eighth of present levels, and staying down there in a zero-growth economy. That means scrapping the present economy.
Some of us have been trying to get consumer society to face up to these limits to growth for decades, without any effect. There is no sign whatsoever that the penny will ever drop. You want the greenhouse problem solved but you will not tolerate any suggestion that this will require the quest for affluence and growth to be abandoned. (Anyway, why do you want growth? Don’t you know the research has been telling us for two decades that it is accompanied by a falling quality of life?)
This has been about only two aspects of the sustainability problem, energy and CO2 emissions. There are several others which drive home the fact that our rates of resource use and environmental impact are grossly unsustainable. Take for example the footprint measure. It takes about 8 ha of productive land to provide for one Australian but by 2050 the amount of productive land per person available on the planet will be a mere .8 ha. It seems that we are using 10 times the sustainable per capita amount, even without taking into account the loss of productive land.
And then there is the little matter of a global economy that is grotesquely unjust, allowing market forces to deliver to the rich countries most of the Third world’s resource production and permitting only development that will gear its productive capacity to stocking our supermarket shelves – while three billion by on $2 a day and 850 million are hungry. How affluently would you live if you had to get by on your fair share of the world’s petroleum, fish, timber, etc? Do you think you can solve this problem without dramatic reduction in your levels of consumption? Do you think it can be solved in a market system when by definition such a system allocates scarce goods to the rich and prevents the poor from getting a fair share?
It is not just that consumer society is unsustainable and unjust – the point is that it cannot be made sustainable. But no one is willing to even think about this. How then could you expect the greenhouse problem to be solved?
The tragedy is that there is an easy and workable and attractive solution –which will not be taken. We call it “The Simpler Way” – Google that and you will find that if we agreed to live frugally and self-sufficiently, in localised economies geared to need not profit or market forces or growth, we could easily cut our footprint sufficiently, while liberating ourselves from the consumer rat race. (For the detail see Trainer 2006.) In fact many little groups are working to build such economies, the most inspiring cases being within the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements. But the mainstream plods stolidly ahead towards the chasm, blindly obsessed with striving for ever-greater wealth and GDP.
If you don’t like this analysis of the situation, work it out for yourself. I’ve given the basic numbers and sources; just do your own arithmetic and tell me where I’m wrong.
ABARE, (2009), Energy in Australia, AGPS, Canberra.
Bossell, U., (2004), ”The hydrogen illusion; why electrons are a better energy carrier”, Cogeneration and On-Site Power Production, March – April, pp. 55 – 59.
Coppin, P., (2008), Wind energy, in P. Newman, Ed., Transitions, CSIRO Publishing, Canberra.
Fulton, L., (2005), Biofuels For Transport; An International Perspective, International Energy Agency.
Hansen, J., et al., (2008), “Target atmospheric CO2; Where Should humanity aim?”, Climate Progress, http://climateprogress.org/2008/03/17/hansen-et-al-must-read-back-to-350-ppm-or-risk-an-ice-free-planet/
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (2007), Climate Change 2007, Fourth Assessment Report.
Leeuwen, J. W., and Smith, P., (2005), Nuclear Energy; The Energy Balance, www.stormsmith.nl
Mason, C., (2003), The 2030 Spike: Countdown to Catastrophe, Earthscan.
Trainer, T., (2006), The Simpler Way Website, http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/
Trainer, T. (2007), Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain a Consumer Society, Springer, Dodrect. (For an updated summary see Trainer, 2008b, below.)
Trainer, T., (2008a), “Estimating the limits of solar thermal power”. See alphabetical topic list in The Simpler Way website, above.
Trainer, T., (2008b) “Renewable energy – Cannot sustain an energy-intensive society.” http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/REcant.html
Trainer, T., (2008c), The Garnaut Interim Report; A critical commentary. http://ssis.arts.unsw.edu.au/tsw/Garnaut.crit.html
Trieb, F., (undated), Trans-Mediterranean Interconnection for Concentrating Solar Power; Final Report, German Aerospace Center (DLR), Institute of Technical Thermodynamics, Section Systems Analysis and Technology Assessment.
Zittel, W, et al., (2006), Uranium resources and nuclear energy, Energy Watch Group, Dec.