I recently read an article, arguing that clean energy won’t save us from disaster. The argument is relatively simple. Whereas we want to stop using fossil fuels, clean energy doesn’t lead to us using less fossil fuels. It simply leads to a situation where we can use more energy altogether. As an example, an oil shortage can be solved by producing more electric cars, that consume coal instead of oil. Similarly, solar panels don’t shut down coal plants, but deliver a boost in electricity, when electricity demand is generally at its highest: In the summer, when we’re all using air conditioning.
I browsed through OPEC’s report for 2040 today. It predicts that our use of oil will increase dramatically. The expectations for fossil fuel use in 2040 are similar to those of the EIA. It’s worth noting by the way, that although the EIA is always seen as too excited about fossil fuel’s expansion, their estimates have been shown to be right so far, in fact, their year 2000 prediction for the future underestimated how much our fossil fuel use would grow. The reason this happens, is because human beings can always think of new and more things they want to do with energy.
As an example, the OPEC report insists the increase in oil demand it expects from increased use of air travel, will exceed the reduction in demand from more electric vehicles on the roads. So, Elon Musk considers himself to be engaged in an existential fight for the survival of humanity and its propagation across the galaxy, but electric vehicles won’t be sufficient to bring that about. The problem is quite simple: Less demand for oil, makes oil cheaper. Cheaper oil, makes air travel affordable to more people. There are billions of people around the world who have never entered an airplane, they’d be eager to jump aboard.
Another example, that shows just how pervasive this problem really is, is Bitcoin mining, or crypto-mining in general. Bitcoin mining consumes as much electricity as Austria (0.33% of global demand). Crypto-mining consumes as much electricity as the Netherlands. I’ve spent a lot of time, trying to convince Bitcoin fanboys that their electricity use is unsustainable and undesirable. It’s not just bad for our environment, but it doesn’t achieve the goals they have in mind for their project. Bitcoin is of course a cult, so that makes it hard to inject any sanity, but the enthusiasts simply don’t see the problem with spending 100,000 times more electricity than a credit card would on their transaction.
The important thing to note is that the system doesn’t intrinsically need a lot of electricity to perform meaningful computation. Control over the protocol simply requires you to prove that you wasted more electricity than your competitors, so there’s a continual competition to waste more electricity. In a world where zero-sum games of electricity consumption competitions are tolerated, no chance of ecological sustainability is possible. If you think the babyboomers are reviled, just wait until you see how millennials will be looked at one day. Future generations will hate us for tolerating this phenomenon, they will look at us as weak, cowardly and decadent, for not standing up to them. Do with that knowledge what you want.
If you have a group of people, who have sufficient wealth at their disposal to be economically relevant and see no genuine need to reign in their use of energy, any efficiency gains made by other organizations and people are more than offset by the people who simply don’t care. There will be some people out there, convinced that they can use the energy for a useful purpose that seems absurd to everyone else. As an example, we don’t just have Bitcoin cultists, we have Bitcoin carnivores, people who believe they should eat a diet composed for 100% of meat. They don’t care that they will always be a minority, that we can’t afford to have more than a few million Bitcoin carnivores without having to chop down the last rainforests in the world. If you happen to wonder how I feel about such people, I feel the same way about them as people a hundred years from now will feel about them, when they suffer from heatwaves so severe they watch their families die.
I’m convinced at this point that if it’s still possible to maintain a habitable planet, improvements in energy-efficiency and a migration to clean energy won’t be the way we will accomplish that objective. Instead, the way forward would have to consist of sequestering carbon dioxide and geoengineering our climate for a long enough period to allow nature to adapt to the changes we inflict. Carbon dioxide can be injected into empty oil fields, the deep ocean and other places, where it will remain for a few hundred years, before escaping and prolonging the climatic changes we inflict. If you think that’s not the way forward, you might want to start thinking about what should be done about Bitcoin Carnivores and similar cults.