The year 2019 undoubtedly marked a milestone in global ecological awareness, especially in terms of climate change. No doubt, thanks to the work of Greta Thunberg and movements such as Fridays for Future, but also by the concatenation of high-impact weather events over the past few years. The people of the street accept, because they see it with their own eyes, that a change of great depth is taking place in the climate, and also in the environment in the broadest sense. The problem is now known and, more importantly, recognized.
The environmental degradation of our planet has not only a serious impact on people’s safety, but also directly on their health. As Professor Fernando Valladares explains, the current COVID-19 pandemic has been helped by biodiversity loss (the more species, the more barriers to disease transmission from animals); In addition, areas where the infection has had the greatest incidence and lethality, such as Lombardy or Wuhan, are areas of high air pollution, where its residents have already affected the mechanisms of defense of their lungs.
The proliferation of plastics throughout the food chain and in water, the increase of heavy metals, the presence of dioxins throughout the environment and many other problems complete the picture of the health impact of unused human activity.
The ecological transition
It is clear that we need to react quickly and effectively, even if our planet is made an uninhabitable place, at least for our species. Governments and companies have picked up the glove and are preparing packages of appropriate measures to deal with the climate emergency, and to a lesser extent the overall environmental problem. There is repeated talk of ecological transition, and many states have already created their own departments and even ministries to prepare for that transition.
But what is the ecological transition? What is this transition? We know what its ultimate purposes are: to combat climate change and, to a lesser extent, other environmental problems such as plastic pollution. The relevant question is how they intend to carry out a great task.
Let’s start with the basics: while we obviously have to direct society’s efforts to combat the problem of climate change (and other environmental problems), we must know that we are no longer in time to stop it. Earth’s radiative balance is unbalanced right now, and will take you at least a couple of centuries before it reaches a new temperature where the infrared emission escaping into space has the same energy as the solar radiation absorbed by Earth.
We don’t know if it’s too late to react
This means that even if we suddenly stopped greenhouse gas emissions today, Earth’s temperature would still rise a couple of centuries before stabilizing, although it would certainly do so more and more slowly. With the amount of greenhouse gases already accumulated in our atmosphere, the climate inertia could be large enough to reach one of those hotspots that would trigger uncontrolled warming of the planet by the release of large masses of greenhouse gases now held on the planet’s surface.
We have no assurance that it is no longer too late, and we have no capacity to stop global warming; we can only aggravate it further and pray that we do not overcome any turning points.
Given the extreme seriousness of the problem, one might think that radical and drastic measures will be proposed to address it. Nothing further from the truth. The official discourse on the ecological transition, on both sides of the Atlantic and spreading across the globe, is based on the Green New Deal (GND), the New Green Pact that must allow us to decarbonise our economy, while creating millions of jobs and reducing global poverty.
Green capitalism, that oxymoron
As an idea of principle, there is not much to object to: who would not want a reduction in emissions, while generating employment and reducing poverty? There are only two problems. The first, that gnD is physically impossible. The second, that his proponents know very much.
The GND’s approach is essentially a recovery from the idea of green capitalism that began to be pushed back about two decades ago.
The leit motiv del cagreen pitalism is that it is possible to reconvert the modes of production of today’s capitalism to make them «green». The use of the green adjective is very important, because it is intended to avoid the substantive issue, and that is that what our economic and productive system should be asked to do is to be sustainable.
As the Bruntland Commission put forward in 1991, «sustainability is to use current resources so that future generations can continue to use them in the same way.»
There is, in the concept of sustainability, an idea of self-containment, of not exceeding the limits of the resources that the planet provides us in a renewable way, and of not generating waste at a rate greater than the planet can absorb. But it is well known that capitalism is not a self-contained system, for the basis of it is growth – without economic growth the rate of capital regeneration is zero or negative, which destroys the benefit of capital and thus capitalism.
For this reason, green capitalism is an oxymoron or contradiction in terms, of the same as it was and has always been sustainable growth – nothing that grows can always be sustainable in the long run.
The GND recovers expensive ideas to green capitalism, namely that today’s fossil energy sources can be replaced with renewable energy, and that, combined with savings and efficiency, will allow us to maintain the current economic and productive system, growth-oriented capitalism. Therefore, all international plans (the European GND) such as national gnD (the Spanish Law on Ecological Transition) are oriented to these principles: renewables, electrification, savings and efficiency.
The reality is that all these principles are completely wrong if the real goal was to achieve a capitalist system based on renewable energy. I know this clashes radically with the keynote discourse in our society, and that’s why I’ve spent a lot of time discussing it extensively in multiple articles and essays, especially in my own blog. While the length of this article will not explain in detail why renewable-based capitalism is impossible, I will try to set out the most relevant issues.
Shutterstock / Edward Limits to Production
The first issue to be addressed is that of limits on renewable production. Although the energy that comes to us from the Sun is almost 10,000 times the energy consumption of all humanity, this energy comes scattered over the entire surface of the planet and with little efficiency – the ability to do useful work – it must be concentrated and capitalized with the right systems – hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, photovoltaic plates – in order to take advantage of it.
This need for concentration and processing is what imposes limits on renewable use: not all locations are suitable, not all of them achieve a good performance – the relationship between the energy that is used for the deployment and the one that ultimately recovers – not all technological solutions are adequate – because of the use of scarce materials or highly polluting extraction/production – and the amount of energy ultimately usable is ultimately finite.
On what is the maximum renewable potential there is still quite a lot of discussion: there are very optimistic research groups, such as that of the Mark Jacobson at Stanford University, who believe that we could produce several times the energy that is consumed in the world today using renewable means; and some rather more pessimistic ones, such as the Energy, Economy and System Dynamics Group (GEEDS) of the University of Valladolid, which show that the renewable potential of the Earth is, at best, around 30-40 percent of the energy consumed today, and that without other problems such as resource scarcity, dependence on fossil fuels or low energy return.
GEEDS is the main modeler in the European MEDEAS and LOCOMOTION projects, and the results of its modelling work is that there are many obstacles in the way to the transition and that, in any case, the amount of renewable energy that can be exploited is finite and much more limited than thought.
The limits of usable renewable energy
Either way, even the most optimistic researchers deny that there is a limit to usable renewable energy, and that means that our energy consumption will not be able to grow forever and forcibly capitalism, as it is understood today, it will have to end at some point.
There are countless other problems that will in practice limit renewable use: that it is directed to the production of electricity when in our sun societyor 20 percent of the final energy is electric and the other almost 80 percent is difficult or impossible to electrification; large quantities of fossil fuels are needed for deployment and maintenance, which is compromised not only by emissions, but also by the upcoming fossil fuel shortage; yields are very low in some cases; large quantities of materials are needed to be extracted, with a great environmental impact and difficulty in supply in the future; and so on a long et cetera.
Savings and efficiency
The other great fallacy of green capitalism has to do with saving and efficiency, concepts that fall within the broader notion of the dematerialization of the economy. The dematerializing thesis argues that, thanks to efficiency gains, less and less energy and materials are consumed per unit of GDP produced, and that therefore, following this historical trend, there will be a time when energy and material consumption will decline while GDP continues to grow.
The truth is that no country has been able to steadily reduce its material and energy consumption while continuing to grow. The only thing we have seen, in countries like the US, is that GDP has grown faster than energy consumption was growing, improving so-called «energy intensity»; but what has happened here is the outsourcing of the most polluting and energy-cost activities to countries like China, where the goods consumed here are now produced, spending more energy on transport.
Indeed, if you look at the energy and material consumption involved by Western countries – counting what is spent in other countries even if it is consumed here – it has actually increased and has in fact done so dizzyingly over the past two decades because of globalization.
In fact, the whole entelechia of dematerialization does not withstand a serious economic analysis: as the economist Gaél Giraud shows, from each point that raises the GDP, 0.6 points correspond to the increase in energy consumption and still 0.1 points more come from the efficiency improvements, assuming work and capital only the remaining 0.3 points.
Capitalism is dying
The reality of our world is that capitalism is, in fact, dying; of a slow, agonizing death, but he is dying. What no one is talking about is that we are not going to abandon fossil fuels to the rank, but that it is the fuels that are abandoning us. Crude oil production has slowly fallen since 2005 because there are no more profitable deposits to exploit, and the bad oil substitutes with which we have tried to compensate for this fall are ruinous – to explain to Repsol, what happened to Talisman.
Coal and uranium have also begun their process of decline, natural gas is expected to begin its final decline before the end of the decade. The severe economic crisis that is being unleashed by the COVID-19 health crisis will cause less investment in oil well exploration and development, further accelerating the process of fossil fuel decline.
Over the next few years we will see the price of oil swinging wildly as oil production declines in a hasty and irrecoverable manner. We are already in the era of inevitable energy decline, and we will lack energy when we were most needed to finance the transition.
There will be no green capitalism, because neither renewable energy will give unlimited energy, nor fossil energies, already in reverse, will provide surpluses to build a new model. Whatever happens, we’re going to get down, we’re going to go less.
We can pretend that this is not happening and maintain the entelequia that we are going to maintain this system but with green energy, that after COVID-19 we will return to normal: the consequence will be that only the rich will be able to benefit and the rest of the population will become impoverished and will be dispossessed. The alternative is to correctly explain what we need to deal with and organize an orderly and as equal decline as possible.
What are you betting on?
The original version of this article has been published in issue 113 of the Revista Telos, of Fundación Telefónica.
Antonio Turiel, Senior Scientist, Institute of Marine Sciences (ICM-CSIC)
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.