In addition to shifting the overall message about our unsustainability predicament, we’re creating a first-of-its-kind Planning Product that will contain concrete recommendations for transforming society away from fossil fuels towards sustainable, one-Earth living.
The Planning Product will contain two main parts: a Biophysical Analysis and an Action Plan.
The Biophysical Analysis will:
Lay out the evidence for why so-called renewables (solar, high-tech wind, large-scale hydropower, and nuclear) are not renewable/viable.
Demonstrate which types of energy are actually renewable or largely dependent upon renewable resources.
The Action Plan will use the results from the Biophysical Analysis to lay out a concrete roadmap for the transformation. It will include:
A plan for eliminating fossil energy that rations and allocates the remaining carbon budget to a) essential uses, b) the de-commissioning of unsustainable fossil-based infrastructure, and c) the re-building of critical renewable-based infrastructure and supply chains.
A global fertility strategy to reduce the human population to the billion or so people that a non-fossil energy future can likely support on this already much damaged Earth.
– a few key points about –
why so-called renewables aren't viable
For more, see our Pulling Back the Curtain white paper, below – our first foray into the Biophysical Analysis.
So-called renewable energy technologies – or what we might dub faux renewables – are manufactured by techno-industrial processes that are entirely reliant on fossil fuels and that produce significant toxic waste.
Faux renewables are made out of myriad non-renewable metals and minerals that have already been severely depleted during the Industrial Age. Extracting these metals and minerals involves enormous ecological destruction, pollution, the use of large fossil-fueled machinery, and often horrible labor conditions. Once extracted, these resources are shipped all over the world on fossil fueled cargo ships and trucks.
The hallmark of techno-industrial manufacturing processes needed to produce faux renewables is high-temperature heat. This high temperature thermal energy is very difficult to generate with electricity - the only type of energy faux renewables produce. Only a few manufacturing processes use electricity, while the rest rely on complex, large-scale machinery that generates high temperatures with fossil fuels. “Electrifying” these processes is simply not yet possible and would be astronomically expensive.
Solar panels and high-tech wind turbines are transported on large fossil fueled trucks from their manufacturing facilities to their installation sites. Once there, high-tech wind turbines need to be erected with huge fossil fueled cranes and held in place by massive concrete and rebar bases. Concrete and rebar are also made using non-renewable mineral resources and extremely high temperatures, and they too have to be transported in large fossil fueled trucks to installation sites.
At the end of their short lives, faux renewables end up in landfills. Most of their parts can’t be recycled, and even if they could, recycling is an energy intensive process that involves dealing with toxic materials.
There’s no nuclear technology that doesn’t generate radioactive waste. And, like other faux renewables, building and operating conventional nuclear power plants and small modular reactors (which have to be transported) requires fossil fueled processes, machinery, and complex technologies, not to mention enormous amounts of water and non-renewable resources. They're also wildly expensive.
Consider that less than 20% of total energy consumption is in the form of electricity – the rest is liquid fuels used for transportation and heat. Faux renewables only produce electricity. And in a post-Green Revolution agricultural world with many billions of mouths to feed, nearly every square inch of arable land will have to be devoted to growing food, leaving virtually no room for biofuels.
what we still need to understand about renewable energy
What processes and materials will exist for generating thermal heat? What are the implications for making iron, steel, and other basic products?
What are the remaining supplies of critical non-renewable metals and minerals? Should any be left in the ground for ecological reasons? Can what’s left even be extracted without fossil fueled machinery and processes? What will this mean for production?
What is the current supply of wood? What and how much forested area should remain unharvested for biodiversity conservation and ecological health? What areas are candidates for reforestation, and what would restoration mean for future supplies given human population sizes?
What is the potential for woody biomass boilers given the above considerations? Can boilers that currently generate both heat and electricity (“combined heat and power”) be adapted at smaller scales?
What will lower-tech wind turbines look like and can they generate electricity in addition to other types of mechanical energy?
Are there ecologically sound options for thermal and/or electricity storage?
Which large-scale hydroelectric dams are candidates for removal or retrofitting based on net energy and ecological considerations?
In what circumstances might smaller-scale dams ecologically acceptable? What type of energy would they produce?
Are there viable alternatives to any of the countless fossil fuel-based materials used today? (For example, roads, many clothing products, plastics, and a seemingly endless array of other products, are all made with fossil fuels).
What are the implications of all this for post-fossil fuel infrastructure, supply chains, and ways of life?
the shrinking / non-existent carbon budget
The National Centre for Climate Restoration (Breakthrough) in Australia (not to be confused with U.S.-based The Breakthrough Institute) has performed some of the most rigorous analyses to date on the state of the global climate. Independent analyses like theirs are crucial since it’s well understood that IPCC estimates are conservative due to the failure of its climate models to take a variety of feedbacks into account, scientists’ professional reticence, and political pressures on the IPCC itself.
Breakthrough’s latest Climate Reality Check report warns that:
We’re likely to reach 1.5°C warming by 2030 or sooner.
The world is on a 3° to 5°C warming path by 2100. 2°C is likely before 2050, 3°C may be reached by 2060, and, if nothing changes, 5°C before 2100.
1.75° to 1.95°C warming is expected from the current level of greenhouse gases, resulting from the warming of 1.2C that we’ve already experienced plus the 0.6° to 0.75°C lag due to the Earth Energy Imbalance. On top of that, the potential benefits of future emissions reductions may not be realized if the corresponding decrease in atmospheric aerosols (pollution) results in accelerated warming. The result is that there is really no carbon budget left if the world hopes to remain under 2°C.
1.5°C is not a safe target.
2°C is very dangerous.
It can trigger self-reinforcing warming (positive feedbacks), in other words, warming that would run out of control regardless of emissions reductions.
Professor James Hansen has said it is “well understood by the scientific community” that goals to limit warming to 2°C are “prescriptions for disaster.”
3°C would be catastrophic.
Food production would be inadequate to feed the population due to a global average one-fifth decline in crop yields, a decline in the nutrition content of crops, catastrophic decline in pollinator populations, desertification, monsoon failure, and chronic water shortages.
The livelihoods of the world’s poorest three billion people, comprising mostly subsistence farmers, would be severely impacted, if not destroyed, with one- to five-year mega-droughts, heat waves, or heavy floods.
A 0.5 to 1.5 meter rise in sea levels is expected by 2100, flooding coastal cities and displacing millions of people. Even if we curb all CO2 emissions today and stabilize at current levels, mean global sea level would continue to rise by 25 meters over subsequent centuries.
This stands in stark contrast to IPCC targets, which say that:
Carbon emissions must be eliminated by 2050 to stay under 1.5°C and by 2070 to stay under 2°C.
As of 2020, we had a remaining carbon budget of 395 Gt CO2 to limit warning to 1.5°C and 985 Gt CO2 to limit warming to 2°C.
It's an understatement to say that the challenge before us is enormous. Global emissions pre-COVID were still rising, having increased 40% since 2010 despite falling emissions in the US and EU (which were lower in 2018-19 than in 2010). Paris Agreement pledges are wildly inadequate, and the 2020 emission reductions of 6% from 2019 levels due to COVID were miniscule in comparison to what’s needed at a sustained level.
As Breakthrough warns, the end of civilization due to climate disruption is not inevitable but is increasingly probable the longer dramatic global action is delayed. What we do between now and 2030 is vital.
The first phase of our research looks at the widely overlooked limitations of the renewable energy technologies commonly put forth as solutions.
This examination shows that RE cannot deliver the same quantity and quality of energy as fossil fuels, that the espoused technologies are not renewable, and that producing them – particularly mining their metals and discarding their waste – entails egregious social injustices.
We conclude that that the narrative of business-as-usual with a technological fix is not possible and that scale-back, transformation, and a re-assessment of RE options is needed.