Why do humans generally use fossil fuels for transportation, rather than electricity? The reason is because fossil fuels store energy very densely, whereas batteries can’t store electricity at the same density. Vaclav Smil pointed out in a recent interview we’d need to see a three orders of magnitude improvement in battery electricity storage per unit of weight, to allow airplanes to carry out the kind of transportation needs they currently fulfill using electricity.
For this reason, it’s generally acknowledged there’s no clear pathway yet to solving the carbon emissions from air travel. You might argue the alternative solution would be to produce biofuels from plants to fly people around with. This is an idea the aviation industry supports, to greenwash its existence. The problem of course, is that biofuels are produced through photosynthesis and the world is endowed with limited photosynthetic capacity. According to Biofuelwatch, the air travel industry’s plan to use 50% biofuels (285 million ton) in its projected business activities by 2050 would require an amount of land devoted to biofuel production three times the size of the United Kingdom. This land won’t just appear out of nowhere, it would either need to compete with land currently used to feed people, or with land currently covered by rainforest.
An airplane is considered to be “carbon neutral”, if one unit of carbon is removed from the atmosphere, in exchange for every unit of carbon the airplane releases into the atmosphere. The problem with carbon-based fuels is that airplanes release all sorts of stuff besides carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, substances that heat up our atmosphere independently in their own right. Emissions of nitrogen oxides at the heights airplanes travel are particularly effective at forming ozone in the upper troposphere, a strong greenhouse gas. The non-CO2 greenhouse effects of airplanes are estimated at anywhere between 30 to 190% of the CO2 effects.
It seems perfectly fashionable in environmentalist circles to suggest the use of fossil fuels should be phased out, or even that people should cease eating meat. For whatever reason however, it’s taboo to suggest air travel should be phased out. Worse still yet, is to suggest environmentalists have a moral obligation to limit their own air travel. If you were to make this suggestion, you’ll be met with assertions that we are dealing with a systemic problem that can’t be solved by individual actions. As John Michael Greer so eloquently pointed out, the bigger issue is that nobody feels any reason to do anything about a problem, if those who point out the problem seem to lack the moral fortitude to take measures in their own right to address it. Consider for example, how will political parties ever find an opportunity to address the air travel industry, if even the supposed hardline ecologists on whom their political mandate depends spend their summer engaged in voluntourism in a Cambodian orphanage for a week?
This is not a side-issue, or an academic debate, it’s a serious problem we’re dealing with. Air travel will have to be phased out. At current rates of growth, even if we were to succeed at addressing every other source of emissions we have, by 2050 air travel would be big enough on its own to exceed our carbon budget. It’s comparable to having a flat tire. If you don’t patch every hole, you’ll still run out of air. Besides being unsustainable, air travel is ultimately profoundly unjust. The vast majority of the world’s population has never seen the inside of an airplane, most never will. A single retour trip from Los Angeles to Paris releases roughly as much carbon dioxide as ten Kenyans would in a year.
Ultimately, the reason air travel is not discussed, while fossil power plants are subject to campaigns to shut them down is because restrictions on air travel would personally affect the demographic that claims to be concerned about climate change. It’s the difference between policies that directly affect the demographic of upper-middle class avocado-smoothie-sippers and policies that would shift the costs onto people who are poor and/or uncool. Note the issue here affects what is ultimately a luxury. Surveys show most flights are meant for recreational activities, while most work-related travel can be addressed through telecommuting.
In the end, the people who never got to benefit from this luxury, are the people who will have to pay the price for it. I live in the Netherlands, a country where heat extremes mostly mean uncomfortable summers and a hamper to agricultural production. The climate models and economic models we have suggest the people who will be most affected by climate change, are those who have had the least responsibility for the emergence of this problem. In India, failing harvests due to unprecedented droughts lead poor farmers to commit suicide. The political instability of nations like Syria can similarly be linked to droughts.
Not counting a flight over my hometown as a child, I have three retour flights to my name. As I stated about a year ago, I have no intention to fly ever again in my lifetime. By now I have managed to avoid attending two optional business journeys for my employer this year. I’ll be the first to agree it means I might miss out on some fun things in this manner. However, for me it simply means developing a better appreciation of the smaller world I live in myself. My own country has a richness that is severely underappreciated. To put it very bluntly, the realization I arrived at is that the standard of living we take for granted today will lead to billions of deaths later this century, of people who had no say in the matter. This is not far-fetched. What would be far-fetched would be to assume we can increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at a rate 100 to 200 times faster than during the transition from the last ice age, without dramatically damaging the environment on which our civilization depends.
The bigger problem: Unsustainable energy consumption
The bigger problem we’re faced with is that the levels of energy consumption seen in first world nations today simply can’t be sustained. There is no realistic method out there that could make it sustainable, particularly when seen in face of the fact that third world nations are gradually starting to approach our level of energy consumption. It’s worth noting for example that the Netherlands plans to fill a quarter of the North Sea with wind turbines, while Germany wishes to fill 90% of its share of the North Sea. If you stick too many wind turbines together however, a wind shadow emerges, leading further wind turbines to catch less wind. In addition, an environment filled with wind turbines leads to local climatic changes similar to those of carbon dioxide itself.
The massive undertaking, which seeks to increase the number of turbines in the North Sea between 20- and 60-fold by 2050, is said to lead to the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs, far more than would be lost in the fossil fuel industry. The point that tends to go unmentioned is the fact that labor isn’t just a gift that falls out of heaven. If renewable energy “creates jobs”, this is merely an optimistic way of stating that maintaining our current level of energy consumption will take more work in the future than it does today.
To me, renewable energy doesn’t pass the “smell test”. The economy gives birth to bubbles, but if bubbles were patently obvious to all the participants, they wouldn’t emerge in the first place. There’s always going to be disagreement over the existence of a bubble while the bubble inflates. I would argue that renewable energy meets all of the typical characteristics of an economic bubble. In fact, we can compare renewable energy to some of the characteristics of the current cryptocurrency bubble. You’ll find many similarities.
Estimates for the future seem to dismiss intrinsic scaling issues.
Bitcoin consumes roughly 0.3% of the world’s electricity supply. A 10-fold increase in value, should lead to a 10-fold increase in energy consumption. Still, there are widely held notions that the value is going to increase a hundred fold or even more, which would necessitate the consumption of 30% of the current global electricity supply. This issue tends to be dismissed through a sleigh of hand trick: Supporters point to improvements in transaction capacity, then claim this would reduce consumption of electricity per transaction. This ignores the bigger issue, which is that the current valuation is unjustifiable and can’t continue to grow at its historical rate without causing a global electricity shortage.
In the case of renewable energy, scaling issues are similarly dismissed. Plans for the construction of wind parks in the sea seem to dismiss the question of how the rest of society will be affected, where the workers willing and able to spend days at the ocean will come from, where the raw materials will come from and what the impact on the environment be. Plans to use biofuel as a substitute for fossil fuels seem to ignore the need to feed human beings. The estimates for the future are based not on what’s realistic, but on what is desired.
The system currently functions through collective enthusiasm about its future success
A Bitcoin transaction currently consumes about 10 to 100 dollar worth of electricity, tens of thousands of times more than a credit card transaction. Terrible system right, why would anyone use it? The reason is because the electricity is paid for through inflation, a stealth tax levied on every owner of a Bitcoin. As long as more people show up willing to buy a Bitcoin, the value goes up and you don’t notice the high rate of inflation necessary to keep the system going. Similarly, active development of the system continues, because of corporations and individuals willing to donate money to ensure further development continues. Finally, there are Bitcoin enthusiasts, who are willing to hold onto their coins or mine at a loss when the value of Bitcoin drops. Without these enthusiasts, the value of the system would start to decline rapidly and the cost of attacking the system would go down too.
Renewable energy similarly functions through the expectation that it’s going to work well in the future. Subsidies are paid with the expectation they won’t be necessary anymore when the technology is used on a broader scale. Workers at Tesla work unpaid overtime and customers pay inflated prices for a car because they believe themselves to make a positive contribution to mankind’s future. Loans are given at low rates and investors throw money at new companies because of the expectation that companies will deliver on their promises.
Success under niche conditions is extrapolated to other situations without proper justification
Bitcoin works pretty well if you’re looking to buy or sell drugs anonymously through the Internet. There are newer coins that work better, but the big innovation Bitcoin brought to society is the darknet market, where drug dealers can sell drugs and cash out, hidden in a crowd of speculators gambling on the value of the coin itself. Enthusiasts see this development and its proper function under these conditions and mistakenly assume it’s going to work under other conditions too. Bitcoin will be a good store of value, or a cheap and easy payment method, they imagine. In reality it’s a terrible store of value, as your wife has no clue how to get the money out when you drop dead and hackers can steal your investment. It’s similarly not a cheap and easy payment method, as anyone who uses the system can testify.
For renewable energy, similar conditions apply. Solar panels generate most electricity when electricity is most needed. For this reason, the first amounts of solar power can be of great benefit to the electricity grid, particularly in countries near the equator. However, as more solar power is produced, the power will require base load capacity to shut down, or worse, the solar power needs to be stored in one way or another. If there’s anything we’re bad at, it’s storing electricity. Similarly, solar panels can be very useful in situations where you need electricity without a connection to an electricity grid. For electrical cars, similar problems apply. Right now these cars tend to be charged at night, when electricity prices are low due to low demand. If sufficient numbers of these cars have to charge in a neighborhood, the grid itself needs to be adjusted to be able to cope with the bigger peaks in demand.
Skeptics are held responsible when failure occurs
The biggest characteristic of a bubble is perhaps the simple fact that you’re not supposed to doubt the justification of the bubble. Cryptocurrency fanatics have a habit of issuing death threats towards competitors. You’re supposed to “hodl” and if you dare to sell, you must have “weak hands”. Institutes and analysts who doubt current valuations are thought to be in league with conspiring forces. In short, if you don’t believe in the cryptorevolution, you’re a bad person.
Elon Musk similarly insists that people are plotting against him. The fossil fuel industry is held responsible for apparent sabotage at Tesla. The idea that renewable energy can’t meet all our energy needs is argued by the green lobby to be a new form of “climate denial”, as if ecological limits suddenly become irrelevant when it comes to renewable energy. If you don’t believe in the green energy dream, you’re a bad person.
Green energy doesn’t pass the smell test. Green energy in its present incarnation serves primarily as a method of evading the reality that we will need to accept a reduction in our consumption of resources. It shares many of the characteristics that become apparent in more patently obvious bubbles. Back in 2008, the subprime mortgage bubble served as a domino stone that set off a broader recession. Today the student loan bubble, the cryptocurrency bubble and the green energy bubble seem like potential candidates to serve as domino stones for the next recession.