`The Garnaut, IPCC and Stern Reports: Flawed energy analysis underlying mitigation optimism.
These three influential reports assert two crucial conclusions, the first being that the greenhouse problem can be solved by adoption of alternative technologies, and the second that this can be done at negligible cost to GDP. However none of these reports discusses the underlying implicit energy assumptions, the main one being that alternative energy technologies can be scaled up by the huge magnitudes required to replace fossil fuels. The argument in this paper is that this assumption is invalid.
There has been little study of the possible limits to renewable energy sources. The paper looks at the quantities of wind, solar, geosequestration etc. that would have to be provided if use of fossil fuels was to be sufficiently reduced, and indicates why these quantities are not likely to be achieved.
If these arguments are valid then it will not be possible to meet projected global energy demand while achieving acceptable greenhouse targets. It is concluded that the greenhouse and energy problems must be seen as elements within the general limits to growth predicament, and that these and other major global difficulties cannot be solved within a society committed to affluent lifestyles and economic growth.
The Final Garnaut Report (2008) aligns with those from the IPCC (2001, 2008) and Stern (2006) in arriving at optimistic conclusions regarding the possibility of solving the greenhouse problem, and the cost to the economy. For instance the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report says, “In 2050 global averaged macro-economic costs for multi-gas mitigation towards stabilization between 710 and 445 ppm CO-e, are between a 1% gain to a 5.5% decrease of global GDP.” (Barker, Quereshi and Koehler, 2006.) The Report’s “Key Message” summary says that appropriate policies “…will allow strong economic growth to be sustained in both developed and developing countries, while making deep cuts in emissions.” (IPCC, 2007, p. 239.) Stern concludes, “… expected annual cost of achieving emissions reductions consistent with an emissions trajectory leading to stabilisation at around 550 ppm is likely to be around 1% of GDP by 2050…” (2006, p. 239), and “…climate change mitigation is technically and economically feasible with mid-century costs likely to be around 1% of GDP…” (p. 240.)
These three influential reports reaffirm the common belief that conservation effort, geo-sequestration, nuclear energy and renewable energy sources can cut greenhouse emissions to safe levels while GDP continues to grow at more or less historical rates.
These conclusions have received extensive global publicity and appear to have been taken as crucial and confident givens in official and popular thinking about the nature of the greenhouse problem and the steps that are appropriate for dealing with it. This paper argues that both these conclusions are mistaken. The argument is not one of degree, i.e., that the cost and difficulty will be significantly greater than is foreseen by these two studies. The argument is that the greenhouse problem cannot be solved without large scale reductions in the volumes of economic production and consumption taking place, and therefore cannot be solved at any cost within a society committed to affluent “living standards”, maximum levels of economic output, and economic growth. If this argument is valid then it would be difficult to exaggerate the seriousness of the policy mistakes that could be premised on the Garnaut, Stern and IPCC reports.
Each of these lengthy and detailed reports is based on a number of crucial energy assumptions that are not discussed let alone established. The core general assumption is that the alternatives to carbon emitting energy sources can be scaled up by the necessary very large amount. Remarkably, none of the reports considers the reasons for concluding that alternative energy sources cannot replace fossil fuels. This case is detailed in Renewable Energy Cannot Sustain Consumer Society (Trainer, 2007a), and a more recent summary of the case is given in Trainer 2008a.
The following critique will focus mainly on the Final Garnaut Report but will also refer to parallels within the Stern and IPCC Reports. The paper does not deal with or question the climate science embodied in the three Reports. This is accepted as valid and important documentation of the nature and urgency of the greenhouse problem. This paper is only focused on the conclusions regarding mitigation possibilities and costs.
Garnaut’s treatment of the crucial assumption
Garnaut concludes that the desirable target for atmospheric CO2 concentration is 450 ppm (although he recommends a 550 ppm target on the grounds that the lower one is not likely to be accepted.) The IPCC estimates that the 450 ppm target would result in a 2 – 2.4 degree rise in temperature. Many would now say that this runs an unacceptable risk of global ecological damage, given the recent observation of more rapid warming effects than the IPCC anticipated. (Gardiner, 2008, Baer and Mastrandrea, 2006, Hoehne, 2006.) Hansen (2008) argues that the appropriate target is in the region of 350 ppm, although the present atmospheric concentration is 380 ppm.
Garnaut expects that all carbon emissions will need to be eliminated by 2100, and this aligns with the graphs in IPCC, Fig. SPM 7 and the numbers in IPCC, Table SPM 5, (p. 16.) He anticipates that by 2100 Australian electricity consumption is likely to be about 6 times as great as it is now, i.e., around 5.25 EJ/y. (See Fig. 20.5, p. 485, Fig. 20.10, p. 489, and Fig. 20.9.) This multiple would seem to be largely due to the assumed electrification of transport.
Garnaut does not estimate probable global energy consumption in 2100, which is unfortunate as such a figure would facilitate analysis of the possibility of relying solely on non-emitting energy sources. However some idea of the probable magnitude his analysis implies can be derived. Fig. 3.10 indicates that world CO2 emissions under a business as usual projection would be some 4.3 times as great in 2100 as at present. Assuming that by 2100 there would be much use of renewables, geosequestration and nuclear energy and that carbon emitting energy sources would be far from the main contributors, it can be inferred that Garnaut would expect global energy production to be considerably greater than 4.3 times the present level. Figure 20.18 estimates that if zero emission geosequestration is achieved carbon fuel use by 2100 would be 10 times as great as it is now, suggesting that for total energy consumption the multiple would be greater still.
A more confident figure might be based on the present Australian energy consumption of around 260 GJ per person, an anticipated “business as usual” 2050 rate of 500 GJ, given that ABARE, (undated) estimates the national energy growth rate will be 1.9% p.a. in 2030, and a global population of 9 billion. These assumptions indicate a possible global energy demand of around 4,500 EJ by 2050 or soon after. For the purposes of the following illustrative argument a far lower figure will be used, i.e., 1,100 EJ. This roughly aligns with expectations for actual global demand based on IEA projections, and corresponds to the figure Stern evidently anticipates for 2050 (derived from the emissions quantities in his Fig. 9.4.) Note that 1,100 EJ would only provide 9 billion people with less than half the present Australian per capita energy use, and possibly one-quarter of the likely 2050 figure. It is therefore a much lower supply target than should be taken by those who believe expected rich world “living standards” can be provided for all people.
Stern’s misleading target statement.
Stern’s Review appears to be saying, and has been widely reported as saying, that at a mere 1% of GDP cost we can do what is required to solve the greenhouse problem. But this is not what it is actually saying.
The IPCC’s diagrams show that the emission reduction curve for a 450 ppm target to be achieved begins to fall from present levels soon, and rapidly. However the 550 curve is quite different, showing that emissions can actually rise for some time and by 2050 do not need to have fallen far. Stern takes the level of this curve in 2050 as his target, and this corresponds to an emission of 18 GT, or 75% of the present level. The point is that this is all that has to be done by 2050 to be on that curve, but it would be just the beginning and much more would have to be done in the years after 2050 if the 550 ppm level was to be achieved eventually. Even if the 1% of GDP cost and the available alternative technologies would make it possible for us to be on this curve in 2050, this says nothing about whether we can follow the curve all the way down to where it has to go. It has to go down to about 28% of the present emission rate, whereas if Stern’s proposals work we will only have gone down to 75% of the present rate by 2050. In other words the necessary reducing will barely have begun by 2050 yet Stern’s conclusion reads as if the steps he recommends will have solved the problem by 2050 at a cost of only 1% of GDP p.a.
In fact in the fine print Stern does recognise that long run stabilisation will require eventual reduction to under 20% of present emissions (p. 197), and possibly to 1 GT/y in view of evidence on the weakening of ocean absorption capacity.
The faulty methodology; use of “top down” economic modelling.
Like Stern and the IPCC Working Group 3 and virtually all analyses of carbon mitigation, Garnaut has relied solely on either “bottom up” economic modelling (costing each unit of replacement technology and multiplying by the amount that would be needed) or top down modelling (estimating the effect that overall measures such as a carbon tax would have on a choice of energy sources). Garnaut’s approach is in general “top down” although he says some of the studies referred to were “bottom up”.
The logic of the former approach asks what amount of tax on carbon would raise the cost of carbon based energy to the point where users would turn to other sources. However the solution to the global mitigation problem does not depend primarily on the cost of various technologies for avoiding the emission of 1 kg of CO2. It depends primarily on whether those technologies can be applied on a scale that could deal with billions of tonnes of CO2 p.a. This question is not asked by Stern, the IPCC, or Garnaut. The following section sketches some of the reasons for concluding it is not likely that the alternatives can be used on the scale that would be required.
Can alternative energy sources be scaled up sufficiently ?
The reasons supporting a negative answer to this question are primarily to do with the technical limits likely to be encountered.
It will be assumed that energy saving and conservation effort will eliminate 25% of the 1100 EJ demand stated above (evidently Stern’s assumption, from Fig. 9.4), and that 25% of the remaining 825 EJ will be low temperature space and water heating and cooling that can be delivered from solar sources . (This is almost 40% greater than Stern assumes, and is not plausible for winter in the high latitude countries where most rich world populations live.) The remaining 619 EJ supply task will be divided between coal using geosequestration, sun and wind. (In Trainer 2007a it is argued that contributions from other renewable sources on the scale required are not likely. Re biomass and nuclear, see below.)
The IPCC does not anticipate a major contribution from geosequestration by 2030. Stern assumes that it will account for about 18% of energy by 2050. According to the IPCC carbon capture and storage technology is only capable of taking out 80 – 90% of greenhouse gases from emissions. (Metz, et al., undated.) In addition is it only applicable to that perhaps 50% of emissions produced by stationary sources. If 206 EJ was to be accounted for by coal via geosequestration this would be about 6 times the present amount of world electricity produced from coal. If 85% of these emissions could be captured then annual carbon emissions from electricity generation alone would be more than 40% of the present global total CO2 emissions and therefore unacceptably high. In addition, at that rate of coal use, approximately 26 billion tonnes p.a., the commonly estimated probably recoverable coal resource of 1 trillion tones would last less than 40 years. However the Energy Watch Group, 2007 (see also Hienberg, 2007), believe resources are much more limited than has been generally assumed, and that “business as usual” coal supply might peak within two decades.
However as has been noted, it is now being argued by various authorities that global carbon emissions must be totally eliminated this century, and by some that this must be done before 2050. It is likely therefore that unless 100% effective CCS technology can be developed, there must be a complete phase out of carbon based energy sources within decades. The supply task for the other non-carbon sources would then be 619 EJ, not 412 EJ.
If 206 EJ of electricity was to come from wind, where would this amount of capacity be located? It would be almost 400 times the amount generated by wind when Stern wrote. Garnaut notes that there could be a problem of “site availability” (p. 481.) The IPCC states global wind potential at 600 EJ, ten times the present world electricity production, without comment on how it is to be harvested. Trieb (undated), a strong advocate of renewables, estimates that total on and off shore European potential is only 4 EJ. Europe would have to draw from a far wider area such as Czisch (2004) advocates extending from Morocco to Khazakhstan. This would set problems to do with transmission loss and equity; i.e., the right of other people in those areas to a share of the wind energy they produce. Czisch’s proposal would harvest the wind resources of perhaps one-third of the area between Morocco and Kazakhstan to provide for Europeans.
If Australia is to use 6 times its present .7 EJ/y of electricity (Fig. 20.5), and one-third of this is to come from wind, then wind supply would be 1.4 EJ/y. This is about 45 times the amount of wind energy that the Sustainable Energy Development Authority estimated in 2005 might be provided by wind farms in NSW. (SEDA, 2005.) Australia would need about 140,000 windmills of 1.5 MW capacity (at the global average capacity of .23 stated by the IPCC, although Australia is likely to exceed this.) Average annual mill production for replacement purposes would have to be about 5,600, costing perhaps $7.8 billion p.a., not including transmission line replacement. This investment would be needed to provide 15 – 20% of final energy demand.
To derive one-third of a 619 EJ world electricity supply from PV sources, at average Sydney insolation, yielding about .85 GJ/m/y, would require 242 billion square metres of panels. (For much of the rich world average insolation is much lower than in Sydney and in some winter months it can be negligible.) For the anticipated 2050 world population this would probably be 27 metres per person.
If Australia divided the solar contribution between PV and solar thermal and therefore derived .7 EJ from PV 825 million square metres of panels would be needed. The present annual replacement cost including balance of system assuming a 25 year lifetime would be around $99 billion. This would be to provide perhaps 10 – 15% of national energy supply. The PV panels could only supply electricity for about 7 hours a day on average, setting formidable storage and integration problems.
Stern assumed biomass would contribute around 110 EJ by 2050. (Derived from Fig. 9.4.) This would probably require harvesting 850 million ha at likely yields from large areas). However if converted to ethanol this would only provide liquid fuel (oil plus gas) for 9 billion at a rate equivalent to less than 5% of the present Australian per capita energy consumption. (See Trainer, 2007a, Chapter 5.)
Australia’s biomass potential is likely to be greater than most other countries. Foran and Crane (2008) argue that Australia could meet transport energy demand from biomass (if 27 million ha can be planted, the required water can be allocated, and c. 40% of the biomass energy ends up as methanol). However transport accounts for only 40% of the present liquid fuel demand.
If 9 billion people were to consume liquid plus gaseous fuel at the present Australian rate, produced from biomass, a plantation area of 23 billion ha would have to be harvested. However the total productive land on the planet is only around 8 billion ha. (See Trainer, 2007, Chapter 5.) Thus biomass is not likely to make a major contribution to a renewable energy world of affluent lifestyles for all, especially in view of increasing demand for food, land loss and the detrimental effect of the greenhouse problem on yields.
Nuclear energy is not likely to contribute significantly to the long term global energy future, in view of the limited Uranium plus Thorium resources, unless breeder or fusion technologies are assumed. (Zittel, 2006, Trainer 2007a, Chapter 9.) The commonly estimated 3.7 – 4 million tones of Uranium would generate a total of about 600 EJ of electricity, much less than one year’s probable total energy demand in 2050.
Integration and storage problems.
Even if these formidable quantities of wind and solar energy could be collected and afforded, the main problems surrounding renewables have not yet been raised. These are to do with the integration and storage difficulties. Wind and PV capacity cannot provide energy on a calm night. In addition output from wind and solar sources rises and falls markedly, and can do so quickly. All PV capacity might be lost within two hours, but it can take many hours to ramp up a coal-fired plant to full output. (Output from gas plant can increased more quickly but gas use will not be a significant component in a renewable world, because it emits CO2, and gas resources will be largely depleted later in this century.)
These are not difficult problems when wind and sun contribute a small proportion of demand, say up to 15% each, because adjusting the surplus coal/nuclear generating capacity can accommodate their varying output.
Very large quantities of electricity cannot be stored. Pumped hydro systems are the best option, but can cope with only a small fraction of the demand. Hydroelectricity makes up about 6% of Australian electricity supply and could therefore only take a relatively small fraction of the demand task when wind and solar sources were not contributing. To store as hydrogen means that possibly 75% of the electrical energy generated would be lost, not including the embodied energy cost of building the elaborate hydrogen generating, processing, storing and electricity regenerating plant. (Bossell, 2004.) These factors weigh against the viability of a large scale “hydrogen economy.” (See Trainer, 2007a, Chapter 6.) Garnaut devotes one sentence to the storage problem, simply asserting that we can expect it to be solved. (p. 481.)
Note also that if the wind sector is large, for every 1000 MW of wind capacity added, up to 1000 MW of coal or nuclear power might also have to be built to use when the winds are down. This would add greatly to the capital cost of the new system, and clash with greenhouse goals.
If the PV contribution to Australian demand fell from 1.4 EJ to zero in the few hours between day and nigh time a load equivalent to about 60 coal or nuclear power stations of 1000 MW capacity, around twice the present total quantity, would have to be quickly substituted for by other sources.
The integration issue shows that renewable energy sources are best regarded as alternative rather than additive. For instance to build X GW of wind capacity and X GW of PV capacity is not necessarily to have added 2X GW of generating capacity to a system, because there will be times when it will have added no capacity, e.g., on calm nights. This is another factor Stern’s Fig. 9.4 does not take into account. It conceals the fact that to provide an average of X GW over time might require building wind, PV and coal or nuclear capacity of up to 3X GW capacity, because there will be times when only one of these sources is working at full capacity. The table is therefore quite misleading regarding capital costs for a complete system.
Could solar thermal systems solve the problem?
Because solar thermal systems have the capacity to store heat that can be used to generate later they will probably be the most valuable contributors to a renewable energy world. However it seems that even in Central Australia, possibly the best solar thermal site in the world, these systems will not be able to provide significant quantities of electricity over the three winter months at an acceptable cost. (For a more detailed discussion, see Trainer, 2008b.)
In winter the daily output from trough systems in the best US sites falls to 20% of summer output. (Odeh, Behnia and Morrison, 2003.) The analysis of relevant factors such as direct normal insolation levels, the probable performance of east west troughs in winter, operating and embodied energy costs, and transmission losses from distant sites, seems to leave little doubt that trough systems in winter would not be very satisfactory. Average 24 hour flows might be in the region of 10 W/m.
Dishes would be more effective than troughs in winter, but output from the US Mod dish systems corresponds to a continual flow of 18-25 W/m over a winter month. Performance data on other systems (Davenport, undated) indicates c. 25 W/m flows. However such figures apply to use of efficient Stirling engines generating electricity at the focus of each dish and these are not applicable to heat storage.
The most promising approach seems to be to use ammonia dissociation (splitting into hydrogen and nitrogen) to store heat from dishes. (Lovegrove and Luzzi, 1996.) No commercial plant of this kind has been built but the potential energy efficiency of the chemical process has been predicted as .7, and half the energy entering the dish might be available for generating electricity after storage. However the net energy efficiency of the system in winter seems to be problematic. For instance if the above Mod etc. winter output figure is reduced to .7 to take into account the efficiency of the ammonia storage process, and reduced again to take into account the lower efficiency of steam generation compared with Stirling engines, then the winter output would probably be significantly lower than the above 24 hour average18-25 W/m reported for dish–Stirling systems. Note that at 25 W/m a large power station would need a 40 million square metre collection area, probably costing in the region of $(A)35 billion. From this gross flow must be subtracted the embodied energy cost of building the collection plant and the heat storage plant involving large and heavy pressurised tanks for the ammonia process. The attempt to assess the embodied energy cost of this system in Trainer 2008 indicates high figures for very large scale systems. Fortunately the Whyalla (South Australia) project being built by Wizard Power will clarify some of these issues. Its developers say they are not yet clear about probable performance and in any case understandably will not make their technical information public.
Also to be deducted are the embodied energy costs of the long distance transmission lines, e.g., from central Australia to Eastern coasts, and the energy losses in transmission. For North West European supply from the best North African sites, in the Eastern Sahara, involving a Mediterranean crossing, the latter could be 15% of energy generated.
Perhaps the most difficult problem for solar thermal systems is set by the need for several days storage of energy in view of winter cloud occurrence. At present solar thermal storage capacity of c.12 hours is being developed, to enable 24 hour operation. The climate data in Trainer 2008 shows that in central Australia in each winter month there are likely to be two runs of 4 continuous days with little sunlight. Heat storage capacity capable of coping with such runs would be costly in terms of dollars and embodied energy.
If it is assumed that solar thermal is going to solve the intermittency problem set by other renewable s a far greater storage problem is involved. The task would be to enable total electricity demand to be met from solar thermal storage when there is little sun or wind. Let us assume a system in which solar thermal, PV and wind contribute one-third of demand, on average. For solar thermal storage capacity to be capable of meeting total system demand for four calm and cloudy days its storage capacity would have to be about 50 times as great as would be necessary to enable the solar thermal component to operate continuously for 24 hours. It is therefore not likely that solar thermal systems will be able to plug gaps left by the other renewable sources and thereby to guarantee electricity supply in winter even in Australia.
The conversion problem.
Discussions of the potential of renewable energy sources usually fail to take into account the need to convert energy from forms that are available to forms that are needed. Conversion is typically quite energy-inefficient, meaning that much more primary energy needs to be generated than might appear to be the case. For instance fuelling transport by hydrogen generated from electricity would require generation of about 4 times the amount of energy that is to power wheels. (Bossel, 2004.) Stern’s Figure 9.4 neglects this problem of conversion losses.
Electricity accounts for only about 20% of Australian final energy consumption. Assuming electric transport would increase this to 55%. Garnaut, Stern and the IPCC do not explain where the perhaps 45% of energy other than direct electricity and electric transport energy is to come from, and they therefore do not deal with the losses of energy in conversion from one form to another. (About half Australia’s oil plus gas use is not for transport purposes.) Nor do they deal with the fact that sea and air transport cannot be fuelled by electricity. If the forms of energy these require are to come from electricity or biomass, three to four times as much primary energy would be needed to be fed into conversion processes.
If it is assumed that transport is run on electricity and that 25% of demand is for low temperature heating and cooling which can come from solar panels, this would leave some 20% of demand needed in non-electrical form. If this was to be supplied via conversion from the electricity which renewable sources provide, at an efficiency of 33%, these sources would have to generate the equivalent of about 60% of final energy demand. Thus providing this remnant 20% of energy demand would seem to require more than the amount of electricity generating capacity required to meet direct electricity plus transport demand.
These have been crude estimates based on uncertain assumptions but they illustrate that the conversion problem is far from trivial and adds considerably to the primary energy producing capacity needed.
The dumping problem.
A similar problem commonly overlooked concerns the possibility of having to dump energy that has been produced from non-fossil fuel sources. This problem derives from the variability of renewables, increases the need for significant amount of energy conversion and lowers average capacity factors.
Consider a system in which over time wind and PV each supply one-third of demand (i.e., .33 x D). The world average wind farm capacity is .23 (IPCC, 2007, Section 22.214.171.124) which means that at times output from a farm will approach 4.3 times average output. For PV systems in good locations annual average capacity is probably about .18, meaning that on a sunny day a system will be producing 5.6 times average output. Now in a system in which wind and PV components each contribute on average 33% of total demand, on a sunny and windy day these two components might produce about 3 x D. So even if the other components in the system can be shut down, twice as much energy as is needed would have to be dumped, or stored inefficiently as hydrogen. This would have a dramatic effect on the system’s average capacity measured in terms of energy actually used (rather than produced.)
Stern’s Fig. 9.4 shows that this problem has not been taken into account. It simply divides total demand into components reflecting averaged or annual contributions with no consideration of what would happen when some or all are performing at their peak capacity rather than at their average capacity.
The variability between summer and winter might more or less double the magnitude of this problem, given that in good solar regions winter insolation is about half the summer value. Thus a PV system designed to meet 30% of demand in winter might (produce enough energy to) meet 60% of it in summer. The effect would be offset to some extent by the fact that winds tend to be higher in winter when solar radiation is lower. However with daily variability the effects compound rather than compensate; i.e., at night when there is no solar input winds tend to be lower.
Conclusions on the three Reports.
The foregoing discussion shows that there are several important issues and major difficulties which need to be resolved satisfactorily before confident conclusions can be arrived at regarding mitigation potential. These three reports do not deal with these issues and problems, being content to assume that solutions will be found. Garnaut anticipates an Australian electricity consumption rising to 6 times the present amount, with almost all of it coming from non-carbon based sources, but in a report of 700 pages he gives no attention to showing that this can be done. This paper has pointed to a number of lines of argument supporting the conclusion that alternative energy sources cannot be substituted for carbon fuels on a global scale. This quantitative discussion indicates the formidable difficulties that are set by the magnitude of the demand that would have to be met within acceptable carbon emission rates, and therefore the magnitude of the scaling up task. Note again that the target taken above for illustrative purposes, 1,100 EJ, is a fraction of that which might have been taken as it would only provide the expected 2050 world population with about one-quarter of the energy consumption Australians are likely to have by 2050 under a business as usual projection.
Whereas these three highly influential reports have confidently asserted that the greenhouse problem can be solved at negligible cost, without any need to question the commitment to affluent lifestyes and economic growth, the foregoing discussion provides reasons for concluding that the problem cannot be solved at any cost in a society committed to affluence and growth.
It should be stressed that these have not been arguments against the adoption of renewable energy. It is argued in Chapters 10 and 11 of Trainer 2007 that there should be transition to total dependence on renewables as quickly as possible, and that all could live well on them, but not in a consumer society.
The Limits to Growth perspective.
For more than 50 years a “limits to growth” analysis of our global situation has been accumulating, taking into account many more than energy issues. Its core thesis is that consumer society is grossly unsustainable because its levels of production and consumption are far higher than can be kept up for long or than all people could rise to. The quest for affluence and growth is the direct cause of the many alarming global problems now accelerating. Resource scarcities are intensifying with respect to food, water, petroleum, phosphorus, fish, land, forests and various minerals. A composite indicator of the magnitude of the overshoot is provided by “Footprint” analysis. The Australian per capita footprint, around 8 ha of productive land, is approximately10 times the area that will be available on the planet by 2050 (even ignoring future land losses.)
Despite this case that the present levels of production, consumption and GDP in rich countries are well beyond sustainability, their supreme national goal is to increase economic output without limit.
The limits perspective also takes into account issues to do with global economic justice. The economy delivers most of the world’s wealth to rich world corporations and consumers while the many in most need receive little benefit. It would seem to be clear that the global resource endowment leaves no possibility of Third World rising to the per capita consumption typical of the rich countries. These conditions of global scarcity and inequality are likely to fuel major geopolitical tensions over access to resources in coming years.
Considerations of this kind provide strong support for two claims, firstly that it will not be possible to make consumer-capitalist society sustainable, and secondly that the solution to the global predicament has to be sought through a radical transition to some form of “Simpler Way”. Its core elements are envisaged as non-affluent lifestyles, mostly small local economies under participatory social control and not driven by market forces or profit, and without economic growth. (For a detailed discussion see The Simpler Way website, Trainer 2006.) Such a society would not be possible without equally radical change away from the competitive, individualistic and acquisitive value syndrome that has driven Western culture for several hundred years.
There is now a small but rapidly growing global movement attempting to build an alternative of this general kind, most evident in the Global Eco-village and the Transition Towns movements. Yet, given the overwhelming dominance of the commitment to material affluence and economic growth, the prospects for global transition to some kind of Simpler Way must be judged to be remote. There is little official or public recognition of any need to question the commitment to pursuing limitless affluence and growth. The three reports reviewed in this paper powerfully reinforce the faith that there is no need to think about limits or transition to simpler ways, because alternative technologies will be able to eliminate the greenhouse problem while delivering with vastly greater quantities of energy, at negligible economic cost.
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