Part 1: The Size of the Problem
The fossil addiction
We've all read those rosy optimistic stories about renewable energy, and how in some given month 100% of new electrical capacity in the US was all renewable; or about how during some hour in the dead of night all of the electricity demand in Denmark was met by wind. You read those stories and you think, "Hey! We're making progress in the climate fight!"
And that impression is dead wrong. We're not making progress, we're going backwards. It's just that we're going backwards a tiny bit more slowly that we would have otherwise.
Here's a graph. Look at it closely. Study it carefully. And then try to project, on the basis of this graph, the year in which the world will stop burning fossil fuel:
If you look way down at the bottom of the graph, that green line is renewables. Do you think that's tiny? You don't know the half of it. Most of that green line is biofuels, and only a tiny fraction of the green line is solar and wind. If solar and wind had been broken out separately, they would both be hugging the axis. Let's put it this way: ALL the growth in ALL non-fossil energy during the last 10 years, combined
, adds up to less than 20%
of the growth in fossil fuels during the same period. (It's actually 18.6%). It's not just that we're not
using less fossil fuels, its that we're not even close
to using less fossil fuels. But to solve the climate crisis, that big gray hump on that graph has to go all the way down to zero.
Or at least it has to be hugging the axis, right where solar and wind are now.
Are you frightened yet? If not, you should be. Because this graph might very well represent the end of civilization as we know it.
Agriculture. It's what you eat.
In 1848, more than forty nations across Europe underwent simultaneous revolutions. It wasn't the internet or twitter that caused that; it was crop failure. The price of food went way up, so people spent all their money on food and none on manufactured goods. With no demand, the factories shut down. And suddenly, Europe was full of unemployed hungry people. And hungry people do desperate things.
Then in 2011 it happened again, and nobody noticed. In the summer of 2010, Russia had the biggest, hottest heatwave of its history. That caused the Russian grain harvest to nosedive. The Russian government responded by banning grain exports, which meant that the Russians didn't feel the pinch; instead, the pinch was felt by those countries the Russians had been exporting to. Among those nations were Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, where the price of food went way up. And all four of those nations underwent simultaneous revolutions starting in the spring of 2011: the "Arab Spring." Hungry people do desperate things.
So what happens the next time? What happens if the next time one of the countries affected is India, or Pakistan, or China, or North Korea, all of which have nuclear weapons? Hungry people do desperate things, and a desperate person with a nuclear weapon is a very bad idea. Is it any wonder that a Pentagon-commissioned study in 2007 projected that climate change will be a major catalyst for terrorism? (And they were right).
When we think about the impact of climate change, most people think of hurricanes, superstorms, rising sea levels, wildfires, and lost ecosystems. All of those are important, but the fastest way we will kill ourselves is just by killing ourselves: civilization rises or falls by the food supply, and everyone's safety depends on the social contracts and mutual trust of a functioning society. If that breaks down, society collapses. Ask anyone in Syria or Somalia, and they'll tell you.
When T. R. Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, he saw the rapidly rising population of the world and predicted a famine that would hold population in check. He was wrong about both the famine and the population, because he failed to see the impact of industrialization – i.e., the use of fossil fuels – on agricultural production. First motorized tractors, cultivators, and reapers caused production to increase; then the introduction of fertilizer caused to to increase again. Then pesticides caused it to increase again. Today the debate is whether we should deploy genetically modified crops, which have the potential of further increases. The answer to that question may depend heavily on future climate, and the social environment it fosters.
But it is the intensive use of energy that has allowed all of those increases in agricultural productivity. The production of fertilizer requires nitrogen fixation, which is a highly energy intensive process. In effect, we eat the energy of fossil fuels, via the application of modern fertilizers to agriculture. Chemical pesticides and GMO research are likewise supported by the modern energy-intensive industrial economy, although not to the same scale as fertilizer.
This leads us to a very important concept: EROI, or Energy Return On Investment. It's a way of accounting for the energy inputs and outputs of any energy generating activity. For animal-powered agriculture, EROI is about 5 to 7. That means you get 5 to 7 units of energy out of it for every 1 unit of energy you put in to it. Before the Industrial Revolution, that was (almost) the only energy producing activity there was, and over 90% of the world's population was engaged in that activity, to be able to support the less-than-ten-percent of people who did everything else useful.
But modern agriculture, with its diesel-powered tractors, high-energy fertilizers and pesticides, has a much, much lower EROI. Today agriculture in the US has an EROI of about .09 to .17, which means we put a lot more energy -- mostly fossil fueled energy -- into agriculture than we ever get back as food. And those inputs are absolutely essential if we want to maintain the current level of global food supply. Without it, most of the world's population would starve.
The non-fossil solution
So here's what we need to solve the climate crisis:
1. We need a cheap, abundant supply of electricity that is fossil-free, and also free of hidden fossil fuel dependencies.
2. We need a cheap, abundant supply of non-fossil liquid fuels for transportation, particularly aviation and heavy trucks. This also needs to be free of hidden fossil fuel dependencies.
3. We need a cheap, abundant supply of high-temperature non-fossil process heat for industrial applications, such as smelting metals and manufacturing ammonia for fertilizers.
Ideally these solutions should be deployable anywhere in the world, that is, not dependent on specific geographical factors. Alternatively, we might be able to finesse that requirement by a combination of geographically dependent technologies that are diverse enough to cover the globe.
Part II of GETTING TO ZERO can be found here. Is renewable energy economically viable?
Yes, yes, I know: publishing Part II before Part I? Bad kossack! Waiting 14 months between parts? Bad, BAD kossack!