Green-Tinted GlassesAbsent from most public and policy conversations is any acknowledgement of the possibility that renewable energy cannot power a high-consumption civilization. This series will explore mounting evidence that a major downshift in consumption is looming — and explore the implications of this energy realism for human progress and flourishing. A Dig curated by Christopher Ketcham
The Green Growth DelusionAdvocates of “Green Growth” promise a painless transition to a post-carbon future. But what if the limits of renewable energy require sacrificing consumption as a way of life?
In the annals of industrial civilization, the Green New Deal counts as one of the more ambitious projects. Its scale is vast, promising to reform every aspect of how we power our machines, light our homes and fuel our cars. At this late hour of ecological and climate crisis, the Green New Deal is also an act of desperation. Our energy-ravenous culture cannot continue producing carbon without destroying the systems that are the basis of any advanced civilization, not to mention life itself. Something must be done, and quickly, to moderate the pressure on the atmospheric sink while powering the economic machine.
The consensus on the need for scaling up renewable energy is rarely disturbed by a disquieting possibility: What if techno-industrial society as currently conceived — based on ever-increasing GDP, global trade and travel, and complex global production and distribution chains designed to satisfy the rich world’s unquenchable appetite for bigger, faster, more of everything — what if that simply cannot function without energy-dense fossil fuels? What if, despite the promises of Green New Deal boosters, it is impossible to make sustainable the current system that provides billions of people sustenance, shelter, goods?
This possibility is not mentioned thanks to the dominance of “green growth.” This is the idea that the organizing principle of our civilization — endless growth of economies and populations — can be decarbonized swiftly in a way that will involve no material disruption. Green Growth holds out the promise of transitioning from fossil fuels directly into something like an earth-friendly utopia without a hitch and without meaningful sacrifice. This is the sales pitch offered by Green New Deal proselytes such as Ezra Klein, the New York Times columnist and podcaster who brings a relentless optimism to the belief — the faith — that renewables can underwrite business-as-usual.
In a 2019 episode of his podcast titled “How to solve climate change and make life more awesome,” Klein laments that “conversations about climate change are pretty depressing [but] decarbonizing doesn’t mean accepting a future of less — it can mean a more awesome, humane, technologically rich, and socially inspiring future for us all.” His guest, Saul Griffith, inventor and clean-energy advocate, agreed that “[o]ur cars could be just as big, only electric. The American Dream could be better than ever.”
Undergirding this vision of a bigger, greened American Dream is the work of a Stanford professor of civil engineering named Mark Z. Jacobson. In a series of major journal articles and studies, Jacobson has sought to demonstrate that the current world economy can be made to run entirely on a combination of wind, water, solar and geothermal energy. He has received plaudits and rousing applause from, among others, Democratic New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, co-sponsor of the 2019 Green New Deal resolution in Congress, who has anchored her proposals with Jacobson’s “roadmaps“ to a zero emissions society. New York state senators, meanwhile, have proffered a bill for renewables transition that explicitly “builds upon the Jacobson wind, water and solar study.” In 2016, climate action guru Bill McKibben said, “I’m convinced by the careful work of Mark Jacobson and others that [100% renewables] is possible.” More recently, in a March 2022 issue of The New Yorker, McKibben enthused about the ongoing “good news” from Jacobson and like-minded green-tech experts. “We have the technology necessary to rapidly ditch fossil fuels,” promised McKibben.
Less likely to appear in the pages of leading magazines are those with a more skeptical view of Jacobson’s assurances about building carbon free societies within a few decades. But these are far from marginal voices. When a group of scientists writing for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences took a close look at Jacobson’s wind-water-solar plan in 2017, they found it was based on “errors, inappropriate methods, and implausible assumptions.”
Curious as to whether renewables could “power the future,” professors in design and mechanical and aerospace engineering at Monash University in Australia concluded in a 2016 study that estimates for the technical potential of renewable energy were all over the map. The academics, Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, argued that “values at the lower end of the range [of technical potential] must be seriously considered… future [renewable energy] output could be far below present energy use.”
Moriarty and Honnery revisited the subject of renewable energy potential in a 2020 report published in the journal Energies, reiterating that “a future world entirely fueled” by renewables could end up being “a lower-energy one.” Moriarty then teamed up with seven co-authors — climate scientists, sustainability experts and engineers — to look at “energy descent as a post-carbon transition scenario.” The team concluded that “[d]eep uncertainties remain about whether renewables can maintain, let alone grow, the range and scale of energy services presently provided by fossil fuels.” As Moriarty and Honnery put it in their 2016 paper, the “prudent course” in a renewables-only future “would involve major energy reductions…we will likely [need] to re-evaluate all energy-consuming tasks, discarding those that are less important.”
How much demand would we have to shed in a post-carbon energy descent where renewables power civilization? “At a rough guess,” Moriarty told me in an email, “I would say 50% or more.” He approached the issue with the practical mindset instilled from decades as a civil engineer. If half of current energy use must be cut to reach true sustainability, Moriarty suggests a good start is ending global transport and trade as we know it. In other words, he said, “globalization will have to end.”
Ted Trainer, a lecturer at the University of New South Wales and founder of The Simplicity Institute, has reached a similar conclusion. “The limits to renewable energy have been almost totally ignored as a topic of study,” he writes. Elsewhere, Trainer notes that this topic is ignored with special fervor among the “technically sophisticated…participants in green and left energy camps.” The Ezra Kleins of the world adhere to what Trainer calls the “tech-fix faith,” which is marked by the assumption that there’s “no need to shift from…present energy and resource intensive lifestyles and systems, or from an economy driven by market forces, the profit motive and growth.”
Then there is the legendary energy and systems theorist Vaclav Smil. An emeritus at the University of Manitoba and author of more than 40 books on energy, environment and industry, Smil has declared the “rapid-speed transformation narratives” in the renewables field to be so full of “magic prescriptions” that they are “the academic equivalents of science fiction.”
“Heavy doses of wishful thinking are commingled with a few solid facts,” Smil writes in his 2022 book “How the World Really Works.”
To understand this mismatch, it is necessary to look closely at how we use our prodigious amounts of energy. The picture is very different from the one found in Green New Deal presentations full of high-speed rail projects and windmills.
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Electricity — for lighting, heating, cooling, ventilation, appliances and electronics, among other end uses — accounts for just 20% of total global energy demand. The other 80% is for hydrocarbons burned for mining, drilling, industry, manufacturing and transport, both passenger and freight. Right out of the gate, this simple fact presents problems for a GND camp whose cri-de-coeur is “electrify everything.” As Smil observes, Green New Dealers provide “no explanation for how the four material pillars of modern civilization” — cement, steel, plastic and ammonia — will be produced with renewable electricity. With current technologies, and for the foreseeable future, you simply cannot make cement, steel, plastic or ammonia absent fossil fuels. Nor do green growth visionaries offer a viable explanation for how flying, shipping and trucking — the beating hearts of the global growth economy — are to be powered without burning enormous amounts of carbon. “They merely assert that it could be so,” writes Smil.
On this crucial point, the case of Germany’s decarbonization program — the Energiewende, or “energy turnaround” — is instructive. While it succeeded in expanding wind and solar to some 40% of electricity production, it notably failed to substantially reduce the country’s overall dependence on fossil fuels. The vaunted turnaround pushed the share of carbon in powering Germany from 84% to 78%, a fractional reduction. Expanding the frame, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy informs us that wind and solar provided the equivalent of less than 5% of global primary energy in 2022. Fossil fuels powered the global growth economy for 300 days; wind and solar only 18 days.
When I emailed Smil to discuss the energy economics of the Green New Deal, he declined. “We are dealing with people who, despite receiving relevant education, refuse to acknowledge basic physical [and] mathematical facts,” he explained. “That a global decarbonization is impossible by 2030 or 2040 is beyond any reasonable dispute.”
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Smil is talking here about decarbonization of existing energy demand. He acknowledges that rapid decarbonization is possible, but only if we vastly reduced demand, a route that would entail “substantial cuts to the standard of living in all affluent countries.”
As long as this subject is politically off-limits in every major economy, Smil agrees with sustainability scholar William Rees, who has concluded, “The politically acceptable is ecologically disastrous while the ecologically necessary is politically impossible.”
Rees is among the most veteran and eloquent of dissenters from the green growth faith. In his 45 years at the University of British Columbia, where he directed the School of Community and Regional Planning, Rees became known for his work in ecological economics, which understands the economy as embedded in biophysical processes and not comprehensible outside those processes. Among GNDers, Rees is just another scold for asking whether the idea of powering industrial civilization with renewables amounts to “little more than [a] shared illusion.”
Like Smil, Rees draws our attention to serious concerns about the biophysical limits to green growth. In 2021, writing inEnergies, Rees and co-author Megan Seibert, executive director of the REAL Green New Deal Project, a think tank, declared that green orthodoxy “views the world through a narrow keyhole that is blind to innumerable economic, ecological, and social costs” of a renewables transition.
They agree with Smil that Green New Dealers “advance no viable solutions [for] electrifying the many high-heat-intensive manufacturing processes involved in constructing high-tech wind turbines and solar panels” (including, prominently, cement and steel production). Waste streams generated by renewables at the end of their working lives “are either ignored or assumed away, to be dealt with eventually by yet non-existent recycling processes.” Critically, they charge, Green New Dealers also “fail to address how the gigatons of…metals and minerals essential to building [renewable energy] technologies will be available in perpetuity.”
Seibert and Rees note that the transition of the U.S. electrical supply away from fossil fuels by 2050 would require an astonishing increase in the rate of grid construction, amounting to an estimated 14 times that of the rate over the past half century. The same goes for wind and solar plant construction. To achieve 90% decarbonization and electrification by 2035 the United States “would have to quadruple its last annual construction of wind turbines every year for the next 15 years and triple its last annual construction of solar PV every year for the next 15 years” — and then repeat this colossal manufacturing endeavor indefinitely, as solar panels and wind turbines have average lifespans of around 15 to 30 years.
Fossil fuels, of course, are needed for every step of renewables manufacturing.
“[T]he espoused technologies are not renewable,” write Seibert and Rees. “Their production — from mining to installation — is fossil-energy-intensive, [and] producing them — particularly mining their metals and discarding their waste — entails egregious social injustices and significant ecological degradation.”
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To understand why Rees and his colleagues in ecological economics have taken a skeptical view of green-tech saviorism, one needs first to understand the significance of ecological footprint analysis. Ecological footprint does not confine itself to a nation’s carbon emissions — the myopic habit of climate scientists and activists — but includes the totality of inputs that supports a given lifestyle, e.g. food, water, soil, metals, minerals. This includes the materials, waste and emissions embodied in consumer goods, including those made overseas, so that the ecological impacts of production are allocated to the nation where the end products are consumed. Ecological footprint also encompasses all per-capita waste, including food waste, throwaway plastics, household chemical pollution and other toxins, and all types of liquid effluent — counting, for example, the gallons of water needed to flush the average human’s prodigious excreta.
Ecological economists also use another key indicator, material footprint, which focuses on the extraction and use of materials in the global economy. Material footprint is a major driver of biodiversity loss and other ecosystem pressures. In the U.S. and other high-income countries, material footprint per capita increased by nearly 50% between 1990 and 2008, driven by the pursuit of growth, capital accumulation and consumerism. Today material use in these countries overshoots sustainable levels by a factor of four.
All of this ecological impact gets swept under the rug when we focus only on carbon emissions. Yes, we need to reduce emissions, and fast. But we also need to pay attention to other equally dangerous impacts, which are not addressed at all by mainstream Green New Dealers.
Namely, we need to pay attention to materials footprints.
Rising materials gluttony is a global scourge. According to the International Resource Panel, a research body launched by the United Nations Environment Program in 2007, the world is not becoming more efficient in its use of resources, but massively less so. The IRP found that while world population doubled in the last 50 years, the total volume of material extracted from the planet to meet the relentless demand of capitalist growth more than tripled during the same period.
Today’s global economy has become more profligate and wasteful, using ever more materials per unit of GDP. Consider these trends:
— In 2000, it took an average 1.2 kilograms of materials to generate one dollar of global GDP. In 2010, it took 1.4 kilograms.
— The annual global extraction of materials in 1970 was 27 billion tons. It was 70 billion tons in 2010, and 92 billion tons in 2017.
— Per capita global material use went from seven tons in 1970, to 12 tons in 2015.
According to the IRP, there is “growing environmental pressure per unit of economic activity” that directly contradicts green growth claims that market and tech efficiencies have streamlined the pillage of earth.
Modeling a future scenario that assumes business-as-usual, the IRP projected that materials extraction will hit 190 billion tons by 2060, more than double the current rate, and per capita material use will rise to a stunning 18.5 tons. “In the absence of urgent and concerted action,” the organization warned (in what reads like classic understatement), “rapid growth and inefficient use of natural resources will continue to create unsustainable pressures on the environment.” The urgency in mainstream circles to deal with greenhouse gasses stands in stark contrast to the silence over our ravenous churning through the raw stuff of the planet.
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What will the material footprint of the green tech revolution amount to? What if we solve the carbon problem and increase our total ecological impact in doing so? We only have guesstimates for answers, with wide-ranging assumptions about how much material will be needed and waste produced to manufacture the generation after generation of green machines that promise to replace fossil fuels.
Consider the sober assessments of the electric and mining industries and its market analysts, who have highlighted the enormity of the task. In a 2022 document, the Electric Power Research Institute warned, “Achieving [U.S.] net-zero energy would involve an energy transformation that is unprecedented in scope and scale.” The rise in demand for critical metals for a renewables build-out is expected to range from 700% to an astonishing 4,000%.
Bill Rees estimates that in the next 35 years, with the doubling of the world economy, the quantity of minerals required for the presumed energy transition will be equal to all of the minerals ever consumed to date in the course of human history. As Rees put it: “We are projecting more consumption and pollution impacts anticipated in the next 35 years than in the previous 300,000!”
“If it were to be achievable, this would be the largest single increase in demand and supply of metals in all of human history,” agrees energy analyst Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and faculty fellow at the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University. “It has never happened.”
According to the Finnish Geological Survey, over the next 22 years humanity will have to mine more copper — some 700 million tons — than has been mined in the last 4,000 years, roughly how long Homo sapiens has been digging for the metal. Copper shortages within a decade, states S&P Global, could “short-circuit the energy transition.” Mining, energy and renewables consultancy Wood Mackenzie reports that “[t]he mining industry needs to deliver new projects at a frequency and consistent level of financing never previously accomplished.” Mining is an extremely tough business. According to industry data, for every thousand deposits discovered, only one or two become mines. It takes between 16 and 20 years to develop a discovered deposit into a mine, and for every ten producing mines, as many as three will lose money and be forced to shut down.
The range of inflationary pressure on metals with rising demand and limited supply is uncertain, but analysts expect that prices certainly will rise. In fact, they already have. Minerals economist Chris Clugston, author of “Blip: Humanity’s 300-year Self-terminating Experiment with Industrialism,” has looked at price trends for a 120-year period — from 1900 to 2019 — of 81 non-renewable natural resources pivotal to the maintenance of the industrial system. He found “increasing secular price trends” associated with 61 of the 81 NNRs, including aluminum, chromium, clays, coal, iron ore, lead, manganese, natural gas, nickel, oil, phosphate rock, potash, salt, tin and zinc. As the U.S. Geological Survey explains, “a rising long-term price for a commodity indicates increasing scarcity of supply relative to demand. This is what we should expect with minerals as depletion progresses.” Clugston also found that prices that were going down are now starting to go up for 17 of the 81 NNRs. These include cement, crushed stone, gypsum and sulfur. The slow reversal from declining to rising price “indicates in-process transitions from relative global abundance to increasing global scarcity,” writes Clugston.
There are lots of reasons for short- and medium-term price fluctuations — business cycles, wars, cartels, embargoes, tariffs, substitution, environmental and toxicity concerns, etc. — factors that can cause ‘price anomalies’ lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few decades. “That’s why I focus on long-term secular NNR price trends in my analyses, typically 100 years or more,” Clugston told me. “Nature’s squeeze is on. And there is nothing we can do about it.”
A related under-discussed subject is the impact this global mining scramble will have on important and already imperiled regional ecosystems.
“Our big blind spot here is that we are headed toward a decarbonization trajectory that may end up undermining ecological integrity,” said Olivia Lazard, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who studies the geopolitics of climate. The Institute for Sustainable Futures, meanwhile, predicts a “global gold rush for minerals” in which governments and corporations will invade “remote wilderness areas [that] have maintained high biodiversity because they haven’t yet been disturbed.”
Lazard fears that green-tech development will plunge us into a period of heightened ecological and environmental assaults on previously undisturbed ecosystems. This will, in turn, “heighten the risks of conflict and insecurity whose consequences would reverberate worldwide.”
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According to the International Resource Panel, the sustainability of techno-industrial civilization will depend ultimately on something called “decoupling.” Decoupling posits that as greater efficiencies take hold in industrial extraction, production and consumption, we will no longer be constrained by the limitations of material sources from earth, nor will we have to answer to the limits of the capacity of land, water, air and atmosphere to absorb our pollutants. We will continue to grow the human enterprise but disconnect that growth from harmful environmental effects.
Perhaps the most respected spokesman for this view is former U.S. president Barack Obama. Writing in a celebrated piece in Science in 2017, Obama reported that the evidence for decoupling of energy-sector emissions and economic growth was so great that it “should put to rest the argument that combating climate change requires accepting lower growth or a lower standard of living.” Obama stated this decoupling was “most pronounced” in the United States.
Obama employed for this claim a crafty carbon-accounting trick. Decoupling may be at first glance one of the great American achievements (though it is also pronounced in other highly-developed countries among the G20 nations). A closer look, however, reveals that decoupling analysis includes only in-country, or “territorial,” production emissions and ignores entirely the consumption emissions based on the imported carbon from overseas trade in goods and materials. Enno Schroder and Servaas Storm, a technologist and economist, respectively, at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, looked at OECD countries that have managed to some extent to delink their production systems from CO2 emissions. These countries have done so, they write, only “by relocating and outsourcing carbon-intensive production activities [to] low-income countries.”
Schroder and Storm conducted a full accounting of both production and consumption emissions in putatively decoupled countries such as the U.S. In their pointed language: “Obama is wrong…there is no evidence of carbon decoupling — and mind you, it is no great achievement to reduce domestic per capita carbon emissions by outsourcing carbon-intensive activities to other countries.” (Schroder and Storm characterized Obama’s blithe ignorance of ecological facts with the headline that the “The Road to ‘Hothouse Earth’ is Paved with Good Intentions.”) A 2015 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looking at “the material footprint of nations,” supports their conclusions.
A group of ecological economists similarly asked in a 2016 study whether long-term, permanent absolute decoupling of GDP growth from environmental impact was possible. The answer was no. According to the study:
[D]ecoupling of GDP growth from resource use, whether relative or absolute, is at best only temporary. Permanent decoupling (absolute or relative) is impossible for essential, non-substitutable resources because the efficiency gains are ultimately governed by physical limits…[GDP] ultimately cannot plausibly be decoupled from growth in material and energy use, demonstrating categorically that GDP growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. [It is] misleading to develop growth-oriented policy around the expectation that decoupling is possible….
Jason Hickel, professor at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology in Barcelona and author of “Less is More: How Degrowth Will Save the World,” agrees that the empirical evidence “does not support the theory of green growth,” because such growth “requires that we achieve permanent absolute decoupling of resource use from GDP.” Staying within planetary boundaries is likely to require something completely different: a massive reduction of less-necessary forms of economic activity in high-income countries; a “de-growth” of industries that are organized mostly around capital accumulation and elite consumption and have little or nothing to do with human well-being.
Hickel and other degrowthists point out that the only way we can feasibly decarbonize fast enough to meet the Paris Agreement goals and reduce other ecological pressures is to scale down industries and activities that we obviously do not need: SUVs, private jets, yachts, fast fashion, industrial beef, commercial air travel, arms, advertising, etc. We should not be devoting energy and materials to producing these things in the middle of a climate and ecological emergency. Instead, we should focus the economy on what is really necessary to support good lives for all, within planetary boundaries. This requires dramatically reducing the purchasing power of the rich, and ensuring universal access to livelihoods, affordable housing and necessary public services.
Degrowthists entertain the heretical idea that a more hopeful future requires more than the hyper-development of green technology to displace fossil fuels. This alternative hopeful future does not maintain GDP growth or strive to constantly increase economic complexity. If we are to avoid ecological collapse, we must take the opposite path, one of contraction and simplification, a downsizing of the economy and population, so that Homo sapiens can prosper within the regenerative and assimilative capacity of the biosphere. In other words, we must live within our planet’s biophysical limits.
Green New Dealers who promote a growthist future, meanwhile, appear to have little understanding of basic ecological and biophysical reality. For these true believers the only approaches to sustainability — the approaches that happily align with the objectives of governments in bed with corporations — are those that attempt to arrest carbon emissions with technological innovation and economic expansion, both persisting forever, mutually reinforcing. So fundamental to the ideology of the American Dream are these notions that political strategists in the U.S. have identified “growthphobia” and “technopessimism” as two of the “deadliest sins” that can bedevil elected officials.
To win at the polls, says influential Democratic Party consultant Ruy Texeira, one must always remember that “degrowth is probably the worst idea…since communism.” Successful politicians must offer an optimistic program that “technology can produce an abundant future,” that “the transition to a green economy is really only possible in a high-growth context,” with “expensive technological innovation and infrastructure development” — that is, making capitalist business-as-usual the only solution.
University of Lausanne ecological economist Julia Steinberger thinks of green growth as a zombie notion. It has been killed several times over, “canceled by research,” Steinberger has tweeted. “I’m not sure our public discourse in media & teaching has *quite* caught up to the fact that green growth is a fiction …deceased, gone.” Why the persistence of an idea that has so little substance behind it? For obvious reasons, as Steinberger explained: “growth aligns with currently powerful forces and structures in our economies: profit-oriented corporations, wealth accumulation and the power that comes with wealth.”
The zombie made its most recent appearance again at The New York Times in February with a hearty endorsement from Ezra Klein’s colleague Paul Krugman. In his editorial, titled “Why Growth Can Be Green,” Krugman claimed that “delinking growth from environmental impact isn’t just possible in principle but something that happens a lot in practice.”
I asked Hickel for a degrowthist assessment of Krugman’s claims.
“Krugman simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” he said.
“There is a large scientific literature on the issues he addresses, which he does not engage. If we want to stop climate breakdown we need urgent, rapid and far-reaching changes to how our economies work. Yet Krugman would have us believe that everything is more or less fine.”
In the near future, we may look back on the sunny green growthism of Krugman and Klein as a form of denialism — one that we could not muster the courage and imagination to confront when we had the chance.