Continued Discussion with Author of “Abundant Clean Renewables? Think Again!”

(See original article and discussion below this post.)

by Almuth Ernsting (with D. Schwartzman’s response, in bold)
published online on December 18, 2014 

Schwartzman’s intro: We warmly welcome Almuth Ernsting’s reply and willingness to engage in a discussion despite our different views.  These kind of exchanges are very helpful in reevaluating our positions, learning from each other, and this has certainly been the case for me as a result of reading Ernsting’s writings. Furthermore, only when climate activists take each other seriously enough to confront our disagreements will our movement gain the momentum needed for a strong transnational for climate justice with a chance to prevent C3 with North/South equity.   However, I am disappointed that Ernsting has not yet recognized the strong correlation between life expectancy and energy consumption per capita demonstrating the impact of energy poverty in the global South, a critical component of the huge inequities prevailing in our world.  (Note: We have not changed any of Ernsting’s submission in what follows, but should point out that the spelling of our last name is Schwartzman, not Schwarzman.)

Back in 1996, David Schwarzman first argued that the unfolding ecological and climate crises have little to do with inherent physical limits to growth: Physical limits to growth do exist – but we are nowhere near reaching them.  Transitioning to a solar economy would allow us to increase global energy use tenfold by tapping into just 1% of the solar radiation that reaches the land’s surface.

Note that I did not argue that global energy use should be multiplied tenfold, only used this as example of the solar power potential.  In our recent papers, we have supported consideration for a global consumption level approximating 3.5 kilowatt/person, with population stabilizing between 8 and 9 billion in this century, hence requiring roughly 28 to 32 TW, compared to the present level of 18 TW, hence at most an increase of 1.8 times the present.

This energy could be used to clean up the biosphere, remove toxins and radioactivity and to give everybody a decent standard of living while protecting the biosphere from further harm. His comments to my article reflect the same view, though he now includes wind energy as part of his ‘Solar Utopia’.

Of course wind power is derived from the interaction of solar radiation with the Earth’s atmosphere.

It’s an attractive vision: Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where nobody suffers energy or other forms of poverty, where polluted soils and waters can be cleaned and where carbon dioxide is scrubbed from the atmosphere, thus forestalling dangerous climate change?

Why should we instead choose a low-energy global society, one which would meet everybody’s basic energy needs but which, by definition, would curtail many of the choices which much of the population in rich countries now enjoy.  Such as the choice of visiting family and friends on another continent for Christmas, living in a tranquil rural area whilst working in a city – or comfortably wearing T-shirts indoors during a high-latitude winter.   Consumerism reliant on shipping and trading goods around the planet and manufacturing disposable junk would likewise have no place in a low-energy society.  Clearly then, the changes necessary to reduce energy use would not be popular with all.  And if there were clean and affordable ways of sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and cleaning polluted and radioactive environments – would we really want to forego them?

Exactly my point, humanity should not forego this goal. We argue that this is achievable only with a transnational movement powerful enough to dissolve the MIC. This transition is not only compatible with the rejection of wasteful consumption which prevails in the U.S. and other countries of the global North, but requires it.

Schwarzman has always stressed that his vision could not be realised in a capitalist society which will always put corporate profits over ecological and human well-being.  The same, however, can be said for a transition to a low-energy society – ending economic growth and cutting global energy use in order to protect planetary systems can hardly be reconciled with corporate profit motives.

And neither can the solar transition we propose, which will require radical changes in the existing capitalist political economy, beginning with radical reforms entailing a shift to technologies serving peoples and natures needs rather than profits. The critical difference between the low-energy society transition and what we propose is that ours will terminate energy poverty in the global South simultaneously with the capacity to confront the real challenges of ongoing climate change, while Ernsting’s low-energy prescription fails to address these issues.


The real question surely is not which of those choices we prefer – it’s whether the choice supported by David Schwarzman really exists.

The choice we support will only be realized when there is sufficient political power to make it possible.

Schwarzman’s belief that corporate profit motives are thwarting a transition to abundant clean energy is one shared by many climate campaigners.   The view that energy corporations have a vested interested in stopping humanity from enjoying renewable cheap and clean energy – and have largely succeeded in this quest so far –  is widespread,  popular and long-standing.  It’s a view I had regarded with great scepticism even before I looked more closely at different renewable energy technology.  Why ever would energy corporations forego an energy source that was within their grasp and which offered fantastic never-before achieved energy returns on investment, would over time require ever fewer resources to exploit and would thus guarantee vast returns on financial investments over time?   Why wouldn’t a company like BP or Exxon Mobile be sinking big money into developing such a technology and patenting it?  Why would corporations powerful enough to push nations into fighting brutal wars for oil not think of ways of preventing others from using their miracle-technology in breach of patent laws?  Sure, vast amount of finances have been sunk into fossil fuel assets and companies might not just want to shed all of those assets.  And yes, profits can be made from manipulating the price of fossil fuels in a global commodity market – something that would be harder to do in with wind and solar power.  But all the same – why would every single energy company want to forego potentially astronomical profits for the sake of keeping us hooked on fossil fuels with a fast-declining energy return on investments?  And even if they did, would there really be no corporation anywhere that would want to cash in on a near-miracle energy source?  It doesn’t make sense to me…unless of course, wind and solar power are nowhere near the near-miracles Schwarzman and many others believe them to be.

Our “A Solar Transition is Possible” modeling did not assume anything else but the empirical characteristics, such as EROEI, of current wind/solar technology, along with those the existing global energy infrastructure. Further, we should recognize that the resistance shown by fossil fuel corporate power is derived not only from its perception of potential $trillions of profit embedded in fossil fuel reserves (see McKibben’s “Terrifying New Math”, discussed on this homepage) but also its political opposition to challenges to its hegemony in the global political economy, protected by imperial power (see Our Statement, this website).

Wind and solar power are, without any doubt, much less destructive and much less carbon-intensive than other energy sources.  They do need land (even if sheep might be able to graze amongst solar panels), turbine and solar PV manufacture is resource-intensive, it does rely on destructive mining, solar panel manufacture is relatively energy-intensive and neither is anywhere near zero carbon.  But there are no better alternatives.  It is imperative that we rapidly phased out fossil fuels and other destructive energy sources and find ways of relying on the least destructive forms of energy, especially wind and solar.  On this point we agree.  What I disagree is that any of this would be an option without curbing global energy use.

Let be clear, we advocate reducing wasteful consumption in the global North, coupled with increasing clean energy consumption in the global South to the rough 3.5 kilowatt/person minimum sufficient for world standard life expectancy levels. This combination translates into higher global energy use utilizing the current solar flux to Earth.

According to Schwarzman, all of the problems with wind and solar power can be addressed: Rare earth metals can be recycled (according to one scientist devoted to finding ways of doing so, there’s indeed hope of achieving a 10% recycling rate but not of reaching, say 80%),  carbon-free steel can be produced (though one of the references cited supports replacing coal with charcoal from vast tree plantations – which is hardly low-carbon or sustainable and another points out that another alternative process is only at the early research and development stages, with big hurdles yet to be addressed), and floating offshore turbines could be more efficient and use less concrete (this is possible, but the first prototypes are only just being tested).

The reference cited regarding an 80% limit on recycling does not provide justification for this claim, rather implicitly assumes a business-as-usual capitalist context.  Good point made regarding the potential use of tree plantations to provide carbon for reducing iron ore. Another potential technology for avoiding coal use for iron production should be mentioned, the use of hydrogen as a reductant (e.g.,  link). Hydrogen could of course be produced using solar-generated electricity, the electrolysis of water.  Furthermore, the necessary changes in the physical economy in a solar transition will not only free up huge amounts of materials, especially metals, from obsolete technologies, but facilitate recycling from the cleanup of scrap materials now resting in polluting dumps and landfills around the world.

No doubt there will be technological progress.  But the most important question is: Can wind and  solar power be scaled up to replace and overtake current fossil fuel and other destructive energy use during the short window of time we may still have to prevent the worst impacts of climate change?  Can such a vast energy transformation allow us to start drastically cutting carbon emissions today?

Our response is of course yes, with the highest carbon footprint fossil fuels being phased out first, using conventional liquid oil in a full solar transition; see our papers for details.

The fastest energy transition ever experienced by humans has been the 20th century transition to oil.  Sure, it’s been a major contributor to climate change, it’s caused environmental devastation in many parts of the world and it has blighted the lives of millions of people affected by oil spills and, as in Nigeria, land-grabs and violence.  But for many decades, oil was, in purely economic terms, a veritable miracle fuel.  It had the highest energy return on investments of any fuel source ever discovered – 100:1 (now historic, as most ‘easy oil’ is gone).  It’s an ideal energy carrier for fuelling transport, providing heat and generating electricity alike.  1901 is commonly seen as the start of the ‘age of oil’, with the Spindletop ‘gusher’ in Pennsylvania.  The expansion of the oil economy didn’t start until 1920 but its use then expanded faster than that of any other energy source before or after, reaching 50% in 1972.

But even if a transition to wind and solar power at the same rate as the earlier one to oil was possible, that would be far too limited and far too slow to offer much hope of avoiding catastrophic impacts from climate change.  And of course, global energy use was far lower than it is today during the transition to oil – so a similar rate of decision would mean a mean a much greater shift in real terms.

We agree, and as our studies and those of others we cite demonstrate, this transition can occur in a few decades, much faster than the transition to oil.  Previous energy transitions, in particular to coal and then to petroleum, have occurred in a profoundly different context.  Solar transition is imperative to confront the challenge of preventing catastrophic climate change, which in itself is the end game of the previous energy transitions.

And here’s what a full transition to wind and solar would have to entail: Vast numbers of wind turbines, solar panels and solar thermal plants would need to be manufactured and installed every year, much of the electricity grid worldwide would need to be replaced or upgraded, electricity storage – a vital part of renewable energy infrastructure sadly so far starved of funds – would need to be researched, developed and then scaled up in virtually no time.  Much of the world’s transport infrastructure would become obsolete and – unless ways of ending reliance on private transport were found quickly – the global car fleet would need entirely replacing (let’s  not think about the nightmare of aviation here), domestic and industrial heating systems worldwide would need to be ripped out and replaced with electricity-ones (hopefully accompanied by home insulation programmes).  All manufacturing plants for aluminium, steel and concrete would need to be replaced so as to stop using coal, using technologies that are still in their infancy – and precisely at the time when the demand for aluminium, steel and concrete would explode to facilitate renewables expansion.  Then there are the many machines and other vehicles, such as tractors, which run on oil and would all need replacing, the world’s shipping fleet would need replacing, etc. 

Clearly, the challenges of ending fossil fuel and other destructive energy use are formidable even with a significant reduction in global energy use – and the upfront carbon emissions would be particularly high if reliance on car use and aviation wasn’t greatly curbed.  It’s a challenge we can’t avoid if we want to try and avoid catastrophic climate change.

Yes, this transition is in most respects well described.  But the huge increase in global wind/solar energy capacity will actually make possible this transition in ways already mentioned in my response and in our papers.  The carbon emissions of aviation transportation is a important challenge. Nevertheless, alternatives to the use of petroleum are on the horizon, and as we mention in our 2011 report, at the completion of a full solar transition aviation we can plausibly expect carbon-neutral hydrocarbon fuels to be produced from industrial reactions, powered by solar energy, using carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water as raw materials.

But Schwarzman suggests that we can somehow achieve a transition to wind and solar that doesn’t just replace virtually all other energy sources but allow global energy use to be greatly increased, enough, for example, to power millions of power-guzzling fans to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere – and quickly enough to bring carbon emissions down rapidly.  This, I’m afraid, sounds like fantasy to me.

I suggest it sounds like a fantasy because you do not yet appreciate the radical potential of a transnational climate justice movement to make it a reality. And creating this new reality is imperative to avoid C3, which would disproportionately impact the majority of humanity living in the global South.  Settling for a low-energy global energy system is giving up the fight, in essence accepting the inevitability of climate hell in this century.

Unlike David Schwarzman, I do not believe that high per capita energy levels are necessary for human well-being .  I have seen no evidence for a correlation between high life-expectancy and high energy use.

Not “high energy use”, rather a rough minimum of 3.5 kilowatt/person, which is lower than is the case for most countries in the global North, especially the United States. Apparently, you haven’t taken a serious look at the evidence, starting with Vaclav Smil’s discussion in his books we cite, for a robust requirement of this minimum to achieve the world standard life expectancy, necessary but not sufficient, recognizing the impact of income inequality.

According to a recent global survey, the country with the highest level of well-being worldwide is Panama – a country with a per capita energy use below the global average and far below what Schwarzman believes necessary.

Well-being is a subjective perception, not an objective assessment of quality of life:  “The Global Well-Being Index is a global barometer of individuals’ perceptions of their well-being” (source cited: Life expectancy is arguably the most robust proxy for quality of life. Perceptions of well-being are surely informed by individual’s views of what is possible in a society at a given time, and not what is actually possible if the existing constraints on quality of life are removed.  According to the most recent data available (2009), Panama had a energy consumption per capita of 1.1 kilowatt/person, about one-third of the minimum required for world standard life expectancy. Panama’s life expectancy ranks 44th in the world (link, World Health Organization (2012).  In the same year, Panama’s population below poverty line was 26% (link).  Further, it should be noted that the use of well-being and “happiness” indices is very problematic: see e.g., Pellegrini, Lorenzo and Luca Tasciotti,  2014, Bhutan: between happiness and horror. Capitalism Nature Socialism 25 (3): 103-109.

Finally, in a argument similar to that made by Ernsting here,  Ted Trainer (2014) claims  that “satisfactory quality of life” does not require a 3.5 kilowatt per capita level of energy consumption. I responded as follows: But “satisfactory” means what? A lower life expectancy than the highest now achievable, with the implication that most of humanity must settle for less while the privileged elites in the global North get the best health care? In contrast, I have rested my case on the following imperative: every child born on our planet has the right to the state-of-the science life expectancy now shared by a few countries in the global North, not simply a “satisfactory” quality of life.” (David Schwartzman, 2014, “My Response to Trainer,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 25(4): 109-115; Ted Trainer, 2014, “Reply to David on the Simpler Way and Renewable Energy,” Capitalism Nature Socialism 25(4): 102-108).

I would never question the need to overcome energy poverty.

According to the World Health Organisation, in the global South 4 million people a year – most of them women and children – die because of pollution from indoor biomass cooking.  Far more still become ill from such pollution because they have no means of cooking safely and cleanly.  Meantime, in many countries of the global North, energy poverty is blighting lives, too –  in Scotland, where I live, more than a quarter of the population officially live in fuel poverty and many cannot afford to keep warm in winter while some cannot even afford to regularly cook meals.  Clearly, energy poverty is a major injustice.  But I do not believe that overcoming energy poverty requires maintaining, let alone increasing, current global energy use.

 Yes, energy poverty does exist even in the global North for those without sufficient income, pointing again to the challenge of addressing income inequality in sync with a transition to clean energy. But again what level of energy consumption is needed to reach what every child born on our planet deserves, the world standard life expectancy and quality of life that goes with it?  Even today with a little over 7 billion people, and assuming a minimum of 3 kilowatt/person requirement, the world would need the equivalent of 21 TW, more than the present consumption corresponding to 18 TW.

People aren’t going hungry because there isn’t enough food to go round, but because they are being excluded from access to it through unfair agricultural, economic and social policies and structures.  In the same way, energy poverty is about unequal access to energy.  Addressing it will require a major redistribution in energy access – i.e. rapidly reduced overconsumption of energy.  However, many of the solutions to energy poverty don’t actually require great amounts of energy.  In Northern countries, energy poverty is to a large part due to poorly insulated homes and a major home insulation programme would cut fuel poverty and energy use at the same time.  Safer cooking methods and stoves can protect women and children from indoor air pollution.  Still, few would contest that access to electricity – including for lighting – makes a big difference to people’s quality of life.  One country that has made huge and successful efforts to provide electricity to even the remotest communities is Brazil.  99.3% of the Brazilian population now have access to it.  Per capita energy use in Brazil remains well below the global average.  However, Brazil’s energy use has been rising substantially since 1994 and the country is now the eighth largest energy consumer in the world.  Proof that greater and fairer energy access means turning low-energy into higher-energy countries?  Actually, that’s not at all what Brazil’s energy statistics suggest.  Brazil’s residential sector still only accounts for 10% of the country’s total energy use.  The industrial sector – including pulp mills, steel manufacture and sugar mills – use nearly four times as much as all households together.  Transport (both private transport and freight) accounts for 32% of Brazil’s energy use. While access to electricity has undoubtedly improved the living standards of many in Brazil, the same can hardly be said about the expansion of polluting pulp mills (linked to large-scale land-grabs and forest destruction for monoculture tree plantations), about iron furnaces and steel works – or about the lack of public transport alternatives that forces millions of urban middle class people to spend hours every day commuting on gridlocked roads.

Good discussion of Brazil’s experience and challenges. However, it should be pointed out that according to the most recent data available (2009) Brazil’s energy consumption per capita was 1.82 kilowatt/person, an energy poverty level, with a life expectancy ranking 58th in the world (link, World Health Organization 2012).

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