Encountering Discontinuity on a Down Escalator

"What if the transition to renewables fails?"

ast week we continued our multi-week review of the study by Hansen et al, Global Warming in the Pipeline, forecasting the course of climate change this century and added two other recent compendia of studies, both of which had concluded, ominously, that the vast majority of projections predict increases of global temperature far higher than 1.5°C.

Most of the predictions push us up to somewhere between two and three degrees of warming where it would no longer be possible to maintain global civilization as we know it today, and the worst take us above 5 degrees and human extinction by the end of the century. Hansen says the equilibrium temperature from present atmospheric pollution is 10 degrees, but it could take us a few thousand years to get there because of ocean mixing and other delaying factors.

In Davos at the World Economic Forum this month, Potsdam scientist Johan Rockström responded to a DW interviewer who asked, “Johan, do you have any good news for us?”

Well, the good news part is that we today have so many solutions — technologies, practices, systems, everything from electric mobility to wind power and solar voltaics that actually compete without subsidies with fossil fuel systems. So from a business or an economic perspective it makes sense to invest in sustainability not only to reduce risks of unmanageable damage but also because it just makes economic sense.

So that’s a light in the tunnel. Another light in the tunnel and we see it very clearly here in Davos you know, the business leaders in the world across all sectors from construction, food, transport — they’re all on board and seeing not only the necessity but also a value in moving in the direction of fossil fuel free, sustainable, more resilient business models.

But finally also, science is very clear and science has made tremendous advancements over the last decades and can today show you … the targets that every business [and] every nation in the world must stay within in their economic development to be able to stay safe. … My conclusion is that we can still land at 1.5 but it will certainly, unfortunately, mean a period of overshoot before we can finally stabilize at 1.5.

The challenge is that we just need to bend the global curve of emissions. Can we do that? Well, the answer is yes, if we just decide to do it.

Four years ago a research team led by Iñigo Capellán-Pérez looked at the renewables transition now underway in terms of EROI — energy return on investment. Richard Heinberg at Post Carbon Institute explained:

If societal EROI is high during and after the transition, that means energy will be easier to obtain. And with more plentiful and cheaper energy, other problems will be easier to solve. For example, cheap energy could enable the processing of lower-grade mineral and metal ores in larger quantities, thereby making it cheaper to manufacture renewable energy components and install infrastructure. However, if societal EROI declines, most industrial and economic problems become harder to solve — whether they involve manufacturing or resource acquisition.

Currently, the world gains 12 units of energy for every unit of energy invested (drilling wells, mining coal, etc.) Renewables have EROI payback of between 3 and 5 units, partly because of the increased need for energy to build new energy infrastructure. The researchers reported that “the production of energy would need to increase by 35% in order to supply the same level of net energy to society during the transition.” They also found that greater requirements for raw materials would surpass current mineral reserves for tellurium, indium, tin, silver, and gallium.

Heinberg worries:

The implications of the study are startling. If society pursues a fast transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy alternatives while attempting to maintain current levels of energy usage for other purposes (agriculture, manufacturing, building heating and cooling, road and building construction, and transportation), energy systems will be strained, possibly to the breaking point. Indeed, under conditions of declining EROI and resource scarcity, the transition might fail and industrial societies might find it difficult to stave off collapse.

A more recent study published in Nature in November 2022 supported this analysis. It found that “the initial push for a transition is likely to cause a 10–34% decline in net energy available to society.” Moreover, the cumulative carbon emissions associated with rapid transition are likely be substantial, 70–400 GtCO2 added to the atmosphere compared to current fossil emissions of about 50 GtCO2/y. Electric cars are not carbon neutral.

Heinberg breaks down the implications:

This finding means that, if society’s overall emissions are to stay within the budget permissible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, the rest of society (i.e., sectors other than the energy industry) will have to reduce emissions, perhaps effectively to zero. How this could be accomplished for sectors such as aviation and the steel and cement industries is barely imaginable. Unless we figure out how to reinvent many key industrial processes, they’ll simply have to be significantly downsized.

Tverberg’s Revenge

or the past 30 years, energy actuary Gail Tverberg has been warning her readers that collapse is imminent. Failing to grasp that climate change is the one ring that rules them all, she prefers to blame the Korowicz Crunch, Peak Oil and the Ponzinomics that permits fracked oil and gas to sell below production cost. In a post to Our Finite World on January 9, she says that the world economy is facing a very different problem in 2023 than it had in 2005 and predicts a discontinuity in ’23 or ’24 at the latest. She offers several promising avenues to make the economy more efficient and squeeze out unsupportable energy load. As I look around, I observe that many of these are already well underway:

  • Regionalization not globalization
  • Eliminating the trade advantage of the world’s reserve currency
  • Localizing vacations
  • Shrinking the number of banks, insurance companies and pension programs
  • Cutting pensions, unemployment insurance and guaranteed disability compensation
  • Decentralizing and digitizing higher education
  • De-socializing and cutting access to healthcare, especially for people who have no hope of ever re-entering the workforce
  • Encouraging uncontrolled epidemics, reduced quality of food and water, and a general increase of mortality across the board
  • Putting up barriers to migration and increasing migrant mortality
  • Fewer single-use items, more durable goods
  • Recycling and reuse

The Nature study’s authors are perhaps a bit more optimistic. They conclude:

A good life could be achieved at lower per capita energy use by … shifting from consumption choices with higher energy intensities to choices with lower energy intensities (e.g. from cars to bicycles), and by avoiding the most inefficient alternatives altogether (e.g. flying).

Even as we simplify our lifestyles, shaming private jets and gas stoves, we’ve still left ourselves and our children with the Herculean task of removing very large amounts of carbon dioxide in an effort to pull temperatures back down, post overshoot.

The trouble is, there’s no sign of a genuinely globally coordinated effort to achieve those goals. Conflicts, fuel crises, and political polarizations all over the world are leading us in the opposite direction.

As Tverberg points out, we humans can get along for a while with less food (our source of energy), but we will lose weight.

Without enough food, we are more likely to catch illnesses. We might even die if the lack of food is severe enough.

The world economy can perhaps get along with less energy for a while, but it will behave strangely. It needs to cut back, in a way that might be thought of as being analogous to a human losing weight, on a permanent basis.

Dave Borlach, who puts out a weekly YouTube video on the change underway, Just Have a Think, nags:

If we’d started doing all this back in the mid-80s when people like James Hansen, Carl Sagan and Al Gore were setting out the size of the problem in no uncertain terms to members of the United States Congress then we could have implemented extremely modest carbon reductions of only about one or two percent a year and that would have been enough to have completely avoided the serious predicament we now find ourselves in.

Can Renewables Save Us?

a recent episode of The Great Simplification podcast, oil analyst Art Berman mused,

Berman: Well, I’m really curious about when the world will realize that all of the alternatives to oil are basically only good for electric power generation, and electric power generation is a relatively smaller portion of the total energy consumption that we have. And so, I’m not, again, being critical or saying anything other than observation. And that is the fact that people think that somehow renewable energy is going to solve everything we’ve been talking about, it’s simply not true, it cannot.

We can’t do all the things that we need to do in our civilization just with electric power. And so, in a way, we’re solving the easy part of the problem and convincing ourselves that once we finally get it right, we’ll have the whole thing solved. And again, I’m all for renewable energy. I’m totally in favor of renewable energy, but it’s simply not going to solve any of the stuff we’ve been talking about today.

Nate Hagens: Well, I agree with that. In my writings, I say renewable energy can power a great civilization, just not this one.

The bumpy ride we are experiencing with atmospheric rivers in California, record heat in Australia, and no snow at European ski resorts is just a prelude to what is coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Speed bumps are going to become roller coaster rides. Electricity from renewable energy will not solve that problem. If you cannot prepare entirely, at least you should forego feigning surprise.

Watch the WEF-Davos session with Joyeeta Gupta, Johan Rockström, Yo Yo Ma, and Al Gore here.


Capellán-Pérez, Iñigo, Carlos De Castro, and Luis Javier Miguel González. “Dynamic Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) and material requirements in scenarios of global transition to renewable energies.” Energy Strategy Reviews 26 (2019): 100399.

Fenton, D., The Activist’s Media Handbook: Lessons from Fifty Years as a Progressive Agitator, Earth Aware Editions (2022).

Hansen, James E., Makiko Sato, Leon Simons, Larissa S. Nazarenko, Karina von Schuckmann, Norman G. Loeb, Matthew B. Osman et al. “Global warming in the pipeline.” arXiv preprint arXiv:2212.04474 (2022).

Slameršak, Aljoša, Giorgos Kallis, and Daniel WO Neill. “Energy requirements and carbon emissions for a low-carbon energy transition.” Nature Communications 13, no. 1 (2022): 1–15.

Steffen, Will, Johan Rockström, Katherine Richardson, Timothy M. Lenton, Carl Folke, Diana Liverman, Colin P. Summerhayes et al. “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 33 (2018): 8252–8259.

Stoddard, Isak, Kevin Anderson, Stuart Capstick, Wim Carton, Joanna Depledge, Keri Facer, Clair Gough et al. “Three decades of climate mitigation: why haven’t we bent the global emissions curve?.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 46, no. 1 (2021): 653–689.

Tverberg, G., 2023: Expect a financial crash followed by major energy-related changes, Our Finite World (January 9, 2023).


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