The true feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels

One of the great misconceptions of our time is the belief that we can move away from fossil fuels if we make suitable choices on fuels. In one view, we can make the transition to a low-energy economy powered by wind, water, and solar. In other versions, we might include some other energy sources, such as biofuels or nuclear, but the story is not very different.

The problem is the same regardless of what lower bound a person chooses: our economy is way too dependent on consuming an amount of energy that grows with each added human participant in the economy. This added energy is necessary because each person needs food, transportation, housing, and clothing, all of which are dependent upon energy consumption. The economy operates under the laws of physics, and history shows disturbing outcomes if energy consumption per capita declines.

There are a number of issues:

  • The impact of alternative energy sources is smaller than commonly believed.
  • When countries have reduced their energy consumption per capita by significant amounts, the results have been very unsatisfactory.
  • Energy consumption plays a bigger role in our lives than most of us imagine.
  • It seems likely that fossil fuels will leave us before we can leave them.
  • The timing of when fossil fuels will leave us seems to depend on when central banks lose their ability to stimulate the economy through lower interest rates.
  • If fossil fuels leave us, the result could be the collapse of financial systems and governments.

[1] Wind, water and solar provide only a small share of energy consumption today; any transition to the use of renewables alone would have huge repercussions.

According to BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy data, wind, water and solar only accounted for 9.4% 0f total energy consumption in 2017.

Figure 1. Wind, Water and Solar as a percentage of total energy consumption, based on BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Even if we make the assumption that these types of energy consumption will continue to achieve the same percentage increases as they have achieved in the last 10 years, it will still take 20 more years for wind, water, and solar to reach 20% of total energy consumption.

Thus, even in 20 years, the world would need to reduce energy consumption by 80% in order to operate the economy on wind, water and solar alone. To get down to today’s level of energy production provided by wind, water and solar, we would need to reduce energy consumption by 90%.

[2] Venezuela’s example (Figure 1, above) illustrates that even if a country has an above average contribution of renewables, plus significant oil reserves, it can still have major problems.

One point people miss is that having a large share of renewables doesn’t necessarily mean that the lights will stay on. A major issue is the need for long distance transmission lines to transport the renewable electricity from where it is generated to where it is to be used. These lines must constantly be maintained. Maintenance of electrical transmission lines has been an issue in both Venezuela’s electrical outages and in California’s recent fires attributed to the utility PG&E.

There is also the issue of variability of wind, water and solar energy. (Note the year-to-year variability indicated in the Venezuela line in Figure 1.) A country cannot really depend on its full amount of wind, water, and solar unless it has a truly huge amount of electrical storage: enough to last from season-to-season and year-to-year. Alternatively, an extraordinarily large quantity of long-distance transmission lines, plus the ability to maintain these lines for the long term, would seem to be required.

[3] When individual countries have experienced cutbacks in their energy consumption per capita, the effects have generally been extremely disruptive, even with cutbacks far more modest than the target level of 80% to 90% that we would need to get off fossil fuels. 

Notice that in these analyses, we are looking at “energy consumption per capita.” This calculation takes the total consumption of all kinds of energy (including oil, coal, natural gas, biofuels, nuclear, hydroelectric, and renewables) and divides it by the population.

Energy consumption per capita depends to a significant extent on what citizens within a given economy can afford. It also depends on the extent of industrialization of an economy. If a major portion of industrial jobs are sent to China and India and only service jobs are retained, energy consumption per capita can be expected to fall. This happens partly because local companies no longer need to use as many energy products. Additionally, workers find mostly service jobs available; these jobs pay enough less that workers must cut back on buying goods such as homes and cars, reducing their energy consumption.

Example 1. Spain and Greece Between 2007-2014

Figure 2. Greece and Spain energy consumption per capita. Energy data is from BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy; population estimates are UN 2017 population estimates.

The period between 2007 and 2014 was a period when oil prices tended to be very high. Both Greece and Spain are very dependent on oil because of their sizable tourist industries. Higher oil prices made the tourism services these countries sold more expensive for their consumers. In both countries, energy consumption per capita started falling in 2008 and continued to fall until 2014, when oil prices began falling. Spain’s energy consumption per capita fell by 18% between 2007 and 2014; Greece’s fell by 24% over the same period.

Both Greece and Spain experienced high unemployment rates, and both have needed debt bailouts to keep their financial systems operating. Austerity measures were forced on Greece. The effects on the economies of these countries were severe. Regarding Spain, Wikipedia has a section called, “2008 to 2014 Spanish financial crisis,” suggesting that the loss of energy consumption per capita was highly correlated with the country’s financial crisis.

Example 2: France and the UK, 2004 – 2017

Both France and the UK have experienced falling energy consumption per capita since 2004, as oil production dropped (UK) and as industrialization was shifted to countries with a cheaper total cost of labor and fuel. Immigrant labor was added, as well, to better compete with the cost structures of the countries that France and the UK were competing against. With the new mix of workers and jobs, the quantity of goods and services that these workers could afford (per capita) has been falling.

Figure 3. France and UK energy consumption per capita. Energy data is from BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy; population estimates are UN 2017 population estimates.

Comparing 2017 to 2004, energy consumption per capita is down 16% for France and 25% in the UK. Many UK citizens have been very unhappy, wanting to leave the European Union.

France recently has been experiencing “Yellow Vest” protests, at least partly related to an increase in carbon taxes. Higher carbon taxes would make energy-based goods and services less affordable. This would likely reduce France’s energy consumption per capita even further. French citizens with their protests are clearly not happy about how they are being affected by these changes.

Example 3: Syria (2006-2016) and Yemen (2009-2016)

Both Syria and Yemen are examples of formerly oil-exporting countries that are far past their peak production. Declining energy consumption per capita has been forced on both countries because, with their oil exports falling, the countries can no longer afford to use as much energy as they did in the past for previous uses, such as irrigation. If less irrigation is used, food production and jobs are lost. (Syria and Yemen)

Figure 4. Syria and Yemen energy consumption per capita. Energy consumption data from US Energy Information Administration; population estimates are UN 2017 estimates.

Between Yemen’s peak year in energy consumption per capita (2009) and the last year shown (2016), its energy consumption per capita dropped by 66%. Yemen has been named by the United Nations as the country with the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” Yemen cannot provide adequate food and water for its citizens. Yemen is involved in a civil war that others have entered into as well. I would describe the war as being at least partly a resource war.

The situation with Syria is similar. Syria’s energy consumption per capita declined 55% between its peak year (2006) and the last year available (2016). Syria is also involved in a civil war that has been entered into by others. Here again, the issue seems to be inadequate resources per capita; war participants are to some extent fighting over the limited resources that are available.

Example 4: Venezuela (2008-2017)

Figure 5. Energy consumption per capita for Venezuela, based on BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy data and UN 2017 population estimates.

Between 2008 and 2017, energy consumption per capita in Venezuela declined by 23%. This is a little less than the decreases experienced by the UK and Greece during their periods of decline.

Even with this level of decline, Venezuela has been having difficulty providing adequate services to its citizens. There have been reports of empty supermarket shelves. Venezuela has not been able to maintain its electrical system properly, leading to many outages.

[4] Most people are surprised to learn that energy is required for every part of the economy. When adequate energy is not available, an economy is likely to first shrink back in recession; eventually, it may collapse entirely.

Physics tells us that energy consumption in a thermodynamically open system enables all kinds of “complexity.” Energy consumption enables specialization and hierarchical organizations. For example, growing energy consumption enables the organizations and supply lines needed to manufacture computers and other high-tech goods. Of course, energy consumption also enables what we think of as typical energy uses: the transportation of goods, the smelting of metals, the heating and air-conditioning of buildings, and the construction of roads. Energy is even required to allow pixels to appear on a computer screen.

Pre-humans learned to control fire over one million years ago. The burning of biomass was a tool that could be used for many purposes, including keeping warm in colder climates, frightening away predators, and creating better tools. Perhaps its most important use was to permit food to be cooked, because cooking increases food’s nutritional availability. Cooked food seems to have been important in allowing the brains of humans to grow bigger at the same time that teeth, jaws and guts could shrink compared to those of ancestors. Humans today need to be able to continue to cook part of their food to have a reasonable chance of survival.

Any kind of governmental organization requires energy. Having a single leader takes the least energy, especially if the leader can continue to perform his non-leadership duties. Any kind of added governmental service (such as roads or schools) requires energy. Having elected leaders who vote on decisions takes more energy than having a king with a few high-level aides. Having multiple layers of government takes energy. Each new intergovernmental organization requires energy to fly its officials around and implement its programs.

International trade clearly requires energy consumption. In fact, pretty much every activity of businesses requires energy consumption.

Needless to say, the study of science or of medicine requires energy consumption, because without significant energy consumption to leverage human energy, nearly every person must be a subsistence level farmer, with little time to study or to take time off from farming to write (or even read) books. Of course, manufacturing medicines and test tubes requires energy, as does creating sterile environments.

We think of the many parts of the economy as requiring money, but it is really the physical goods and services that money can buy, and the energy that makes these goods and services possible, that are important. These goods and services depend to a very large extent on the supply of energy being consumed at a given point in time–for example, the amount of electricity being delivered to customers and the amount of gasoline and diesel being sold. Supply chains are very dependent on each part of the system being available when needed. If one part is missing, long delays and eventually collapse can occur.

[5] If the supply of energy to an economy is reduced for any reason, the result tends to be very disruptive, as shown in the examples given in Section [3], above.

When an economy doesn’t have enough energy, its self-organizing feature starts eliminating pieces of the economic system that it cannot support. The financial system tends to be very vulnerable because without adequate economic growth, it becomes very difficult for borrowers to repay debt with interest. This was part of the problem that Greece and Spain had in the period when their energy consumption per capita declined. A person wonders what would have happened to these countries without bailouts from the European Union and others.

Another part that is very vulnerable is governmental organizations, especially the higher layers of government that were added last. In 1991, the Soviet Union’s central government was lost, leaving the governments of the 15 republics that were part of the Soviet Union. As energy consumption per capita declines, the European Union would seem to be very vulnerable. Other international organizations, such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, would seem to be vulnerable, as well.

The electrical system is very complex. It seems to be easily disrupted if there is a material decrease in energy consumption per capita because maintenance of the system becomes difficult.

If energy consumption per capita falls dramatically, many changes that don’t seem directly energy-related can be expected. For example, the roles of men and women are likely to change. Without modern medical care, women will likely need to become the mothers of several children in order that an average of two can survive long enough to raise their own children. Men will be valued for the heavy manual labor that they can perform. Today’s view of the equality of the sexes is likely to disappear because sex differences will become much more important in a low-energy world.

Needless to say, other aspects of a low-energy economy might be very different as well. For example, one very low-energy type of economic system is a “gift economy.” In such an economy, the status of each individual is determined by the amount that that person can give away. Anything a person obtains must automatically be shared with the local group or the individual will be expelled from the group. In an economy with very low complexity, this kind of economy seems to work. A gift economy doesn’t require money or debt!

[6] Most people assume that moving away from fossil fuels is something we can choose to do with whatever timing we would like. I would argue that we are not in charge of the process. Instead, fossil fuels will leave us when we lose the ability to reduce interest rates sufficiently to keep oil and other fossil fuel prices high enough for energy producers.

Something that may seem strange to those who do not follow the issue is the fact that oil (and other energy prices) seem to be very much influenced by interest rates and the level of debt. In general, the lower the interest rate, the more affordable high-priced goods such as factories, homes, and automobiles become, and the higher commodity prices of all kinds can be. “Demand” increases with falling interest rates, causing energy prices of all types to rise.

Figure 6.

The cost of extracting oil is less important in determining oil prices than a person might expect. Instead, prices seem to be determined by what end products consumers (in the aggregate) can afford. In general, the more debt that individual citizens, businesses and governments can obtain, the higher that oil and other energy prices can rise. Of course, if interest rates start rising (instead of falling), there is a significant chance of a debt bubble popping, as defaults rise and asset prices decline.

Interest rates have been generally falling since 1981 (Figure 7). This is the direction needed to support ever-higher energy prices.

Figure 7. Chart of 3-month and 10-year interest rates, prepared by the FRED, using data through March 27, 2019.

The danger now is that interest rates are approaching the lowest level that they can possibly reach. We need lower interest rates to support the higher prices that oil producers require, as their costs rise because of depletion. In fact, if we compare Figures 7 and 8, the Federal Reserve has been supporting higher oil and other energy prices with falling interest rates practically the whole time since oil prices rose above the inflation adjusted level of $20 per barrel!

Figure 8. Historical inflation adjusted prices oil, based on data from 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy, with the low price period for oil highlighted.

Once the Federal Reserve and other central banks lose their ability to cut interest rates further to support the need for ever-rising oil prices, the danger is that oil and other commodity prices will fall too low for producers. The situation is likely to look like the second half of 2008 in Figure 6. The difference, as we reach limits on how low interest rates can fall, is that it will no longer be possible to stimulate the economy to get energy and other commodity prices back up to an acceptable level for producers.

[7] Once we hit the “no more stimulus impasse,” fossil fuels will begin leaving us because prices will fall too low for companies extracting these fuels. They will be forced to leave because they cannot make an adequate profit.

One example of an oil producer whose production was affected by an extended period of low prices is the Soviet Union (or USSR).

Figure 9. Oil production of the former Soviet Union together with oil prices in 2017 US$. All amounts from 2018 BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

The US substantially raised interest rates in 1980-1981 (Figure 7). This led to a sharp reduction in oil prices, as the higher interest rates cut back investment of many kinds, around the world. Given the low price of oil, the Soviet Union reduced new investment in new fields. This slowdown in investment first reduced the rate of growth in oil production, and eventually led to a decline in production in 1988 (Figure 9). When oil prices rose again, production did also.

Figure 10. Energy consumption per capita for the former Soviet Union, based on BP 2018 Statistical Review of World Energy data and UN 2017 population estimates.

The Soviet Union’s energy consumption per capita reached its highest level in 1988 and began declining in 1989. The central government of the Soviet Union did not collapse until late 1991, as the economy was increasingly affected by falling oil export revenue.

Some of the changes that occurred as the economy simplified itself were the loss of the central government, the loss of a large share of industry, and a great deal of job loss. Energy consumption per capita dropped by 36% between 1988 and 1998. It has never regained its former level.

Venezuela is another example of an oil exporter that, in theory, could export more oil, if oil prices were higher. It is interesting to note that Venezuela’s highest energy consumption per capita occurred in 2008, when oil prices were high.

We are now getting a chance to observe what the collapse in Venezuela looks like on a day- by-day basis. Figure 5, above, shows Venezuela’s energy consumption per capita pattern through 2017. Low oil prices since 2014 have particularly adversely affected the country.

[8] Conclusion: We can’t know exactly what is ahead, but it is clear that moving away from fossil fuels will be far more destructive of our current economy than nearly everyone expects. 

It is very easy to make optimistic forecasts about the future if a person doesn’t carefully examine what the data and the science seem to be telling us. Most researchers come from narrow academic backgrounds that do not seek out insights from other fields, so they tend not to understand the background story.

A second issue is the desire for a “happy ever after” ending to our current energy predicament. If a researcher is creating an economic model without understanding the underlying principles, why not offer an outcome that citizens will like? Such a solution can help politicians get re-elected and can help researchers get grants for more research.

We should be examining the situation more closely than most people have considered. The fact that interest rates cannot drop much further is particularly concerning.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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1,253 Responses to The true feasibility of moving away from fossil fuels

  1. aaaa says:

    Almost a billion dollars for Notre Dame? I find that to be an appalling allocation of money. The French government should bait and switch the donators; let them commit to the transaction, then tax it 80%.
    I fail to understand how modern ‘self-aware’ societies, full of financially struggling high IQ individuals, by-the-way, can allow and encourage billionaires to exist when the fiscal situation is dire in all countries now.

    • Think about the jobs that rebuilding Notre Dame creates. Not only are workers hired, but these workers spend their money buying homes and cars and groceries. It tends to stimulate the whole French economy, especially if those outside the country contribute.

      If contributions are based on debt, the result is even better. This tends to pull the economy forward. (For a short time, until the time to repay debt with interest comes.)

      • DJ says:

        GDP without prosperity

        • DJ says:

          I can’t see the difference to just handing out free cash, except for the resource waste.

          • Dan says:

            It upsets the puritans. They like to see people have to grovel for their peanuts. Printing up trillions for the .1% is great because it trickles onto us who keep the wagon wheels turning, but god forbid any type of safety net for the peons.

            • Duncan Idaho says:

              We have a gaggle of puritans here.
              However, reality is wake up check:

            • I know that college professors are overwhelmingly liberal. Those teaching in colleges benefits from more government funding for schools; more funding for research. They have enough confidence about the future that they do not need to stick to conservative old ways that worked in the past.

              A lot of people who are farmers or who have been through a lot of hard knocks seem to be conservative.

              I expect that adolescents from families who are doing well financially will tend to test higher on intelligence tests, and those who come from lower income families will tend to test lower on intelligence tests (whether or not there is any real difference in their capabilities).

              I am not convinced that this chart tells us anything very much other than that people who are very much helped by the system tend to be liberal, those who aren’t helped so much helped by the system tend to stick to the old ways, and thus are more conservative.

              I think that really smart people realize that neither Liberal political thinking nor Conservative political thinking has the answers. The question is where your personal gullibility happens to lie.

    • JeremyT says:

      Absolutely. What scam, on a par with indulgencies, that those with hoards of cheap money teach us about generosity.
      Let them line up to take front seats at the thanksgiving, but it’ll need a helipad on the new roof to escape the gilets jaunes.

      • Think of indulgences as a way to get money from the 1% (or even 10%) so that the church-state (they were one at that time) could carry out its program to assisting the poor by giving them jobs, such as building and maintaining the churches. Extra children (who could not inherit land because doing so would divide up the farm) could find employment as nuns or priests.

        I bet leaders today could not come up with such a creative solution! Indulgences were a great idea, especially if there is a wage and wealth disparity problem.

      • Dennis L says:

        Is something sometimes better than nothing?

    • piers says:

      An act of msirroret, surely. Which Arab country should be bombed?

    • Robert Firth says:

      I have no quarrel with someone who makes a billion euros by delivering a billion euros worth of value to his fellow men. But a billionaire who stole the money through big government or big banking I would hang in public.

    • Robert Firth says:

      The peons who built Notre Dame de Paris, and the many skilled artisans who trekked across half Europe to join in the endeavour, had a different view. And I agree with them. Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon Earth …

  2. Duncan Idaho says:

    The secret to a stable society? A steady supply of beer doesn’t hurt

    Not that fond of it, but science is often right—-

    • Xabier says:

      Proving Queen Victoria to have been wiser than she looked:

      ‘Give my people beef and good beer, and they will be loyal’.

      Lenin complained that the British were too well-fed to be revolutionary.

      • Karl says:

        A character in a book by former YouTube survivalist “Maineprepper” said, “all a man really needs is a full belly and a woman”. Add in the beer, and that’s a recipe for a happy life. I’ve been poor, and I’ve been well off. Houses and cars and vacations are nice, but I could get along well anywhere with food, drink, and female companionship.

    • Gorbachev tried prohibition because Soviet workers were showing up drunk at work all the time.

      It probably ended his career.

  3. Baby Doomer says:

    The Largely Ignored Problem Of Global Peak Oil Will Seriously Hit In A Few Years

    • Tom says:

      “The era of oil is coming to an end, with global oil production set to halve in the next five to six years. To avoid a global economic slump, the transition to 100% renewables worldwide needs to be accelerated. It is feasible and cheaper than the current system, research shows.”

      I stopped reading there. Totally delusional.

      • Greg Machala says:

        Yes, delusional and contradictory. It isn’t a transition to “renewables” it is more like burning the last remaining reserves of fossil fuels to build infrastructure that (without fossil fuels) will be mostly useless.

      • Greg Machala says:

        “To avoid a global economic slump, the transition to 100% renewables worldwide needs to be accelerated.” – I couldn’t read much past that. Just look at Germany and say that with a straight face. Accelerated? Really? Accelerating “renewables” would accelerate collapse. We would extend and pretend by burning more coal than we would building “renewables”.

        • MM says:

          Germany has 26000 Wind turbines deployed and did neither cut it’s energy usage nor the emissions of CO2. Renewables in continental Europe are a total waste of money and the proponents of this path also argue for power to gas technology by renewables in Germany. No one can pay for all these installations and not for the energy price thereof

      • Baby Doomer says:

        People don’t seem to understand that renewable’s produce electricity and oil is used for transportation..

        • Actually, renewables produce only intermittent electricity, and this is only a substitute for fuels to produce electricity, rather than the “dispatchable” electricity that we need. Intermittent electricity is worth very little.

            • Greg Machala says:

              In that chart the energy that is captured by “renewables” is tepid and intermittent and wholly dependent on the high energy density, dispatchable fuel of the three big producers of energy: coal, oil and natural gas. It is easy to confuse renewables with fuel. They are not fuel like coal oil and natural gas. They capture energy from other sources of burning fuel (namely the sun). After all it is the sun that makes the wind blow due to the differential heating between the equator and the poles.

        • Greg Machala says:

          “Renewables” do not produce electricity. They capture energy mainly from the wind and the sun. And they do that In a very low energy density, inefficient and intermittent way. It is fossil fuels that “produce” the infrastructure they need to work. “Renewables” produce nothing. They actually consume finite resources and energy to be built and maintained. It is fossil fuels that produce nearly everything we have.

    • Duncan Idaho says:

      “Perhaps the most important reality about oil scarcity is that geology doesn’t care about opinions, particularly the opinions of people who will all probably die in the same year.

      It’s not about money. It’s about death.”

  4. Baby Doomer says:

    How Will Future Generations Remember Our Time?

    A mounting perfect economic storm born of a convergence of peak oil, climate change, and an imbalanced U.S. economy dependent on debts it can never repay is poised to bring a dramatic restructuring of every aspect of modern life.

    • What future generations?

      • Greg Machala says:

        I agree. We should really need concern ourselves more with the current generation of people. Many of whom are suffering incredible hardships due to diminishing returns. Pity most don’t understand how we got to this point and are somehow concerned about future generations. Hunter-gatherer is the only way for humans to survive long term. We are not evolved enough to appreciate exponential growth.

        • Robert Firth says:

          Greg, please let us keep agriculture. I would be happy in a society as sustainable as Edo Japan (without the caste system, though). And agriculture can certainly be made sustainable: the ants have been practicing sustainable agriculture and animal husbandry for 140 million years. The secret is simple: their agriculture is contained within the anthill, so cannot generate externalities.

  5. Baby Doomer says:

    Tesla “Spontaneously Catches Fire”, Is Incinerated After Burning For Hours

    This is just like what those Samsung phones did a few years ago..Same issue..They are making the batteries too powerful and pushing the limits of them too far..Just wait till one catches on fire in someones garage and burns down a house and kills a family of four..

    • Another Tesla issue I noticed:

      Tesla – Panasonic Relationship On The Rocks, Poses Risks

      It looks like Panasonic could call the relationship quits. It is looking into ties with Toyota, among other things.

      Tesla has $15.7bn in purchase obligations to Panasonic from 2019. Panasonic could walk away with a $2bn write-off in its Gigafactory investment, which is only 11% of its shareholders’ equity.

      Tesla would see huge disruption to its growth prospects if Panasonic calls it quits and takes its cell lines back to Japan or China.

      Instead of mollifying the situation, Elon Musk fought back on Twitter in response, which raises the stakes of a split up with Panasonic, Tesla’s most important supplier.

  6. SuperTramp says:

    That’s it….Going to New Zealand and save myself

    New Zealand
    ‘Decades of denial’: major report finds New Zealand’s environment is in serious trouble
    Nation known for its natural beauty is under pressure with extinctions, polluted rivers and blighted lakes
    Kevin Hague from the conservation group Forest and Bird said the report was chilling reading and captured the devastating affects of “decades of procrastination and denial”.
    “New Zealand is losing species and ecosystems faster than nearly any other country,” he said. “Four thousand of our native species are in trouble … from rampant dairy conversions to destructive seabed trawling – [we] are irreversibly harming our natural world.
    A massive rise in the country’s dairy herd over the last 20 years has had a devastating impact on the country’s freshwater quality, a key area being targeted by the government for improvement. During her election campaign, the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, pledged to make the country’s rivers and lakes swimmable again for the next generation.
    That could prove challenging, with the report finding that groundwater failed standards at 59% of wells owing to the presence of E coli, and at 13% of the wells owing to nitrates. Some 57% of monitored lakes registered poor water quality, and 76% of native freshwater fish are at risk of or threatened with extinction. A third of freshwater insects are also in danger of extinction
    Drink MORE MILK!

    In another words, there is no place to run to avoid the coming

    Get the picture?😚

  7. paularbair says:

    “Of course, there is no shortage of eminent – and eminently respectable – people claiming that a transition to 100% renewable energy is technically feasible, that it may be completed rapidly and a (relatively) low cost, or even that it might unlock a myriad of new growth opportunities and unleash a new era of prosperity and welfare for all earthlings. For ever and ever, Amen. Among these are a number of scientists and researchers, who have undertaken to “prove” the feasibility of a 100% renewable world through very elaborate energy systems models. Their abstract models of course prove what they are intended to prove – as most abstract models typically do. Hence, they say, the advent of renewable heaven is possible, and all that’s preventing it is a lack of “political will”…. Their work is a major source of inspiration for a number of prominent climate activists, and also, no doubt, for many of the young climate strikers around the world.
    Yet if the plans and scenarios that are currently being put forward for a full-scale and fully-managed global transition to renewables are to constitute interesting material for historians in the future, it is unlikely to be as the original blueprints of a successfully completed move to a new energetic underpinning for human civilization. Rather, they will probably be seen as very telling examples of how something that was “proven” to be eminently “feasible” by very bright minds actually failed to occur. These plans, in fact, and the sophisticated models on which they are based, largely ignore key determinants of human history’s dynamics, and hence constitute little else than intellectual exercises. Very interesting and creative intellectual exercises for sure, but which bear little connection to the world’s energy reality and trajectory.”

    • Thanks, Paul, for a link to a very fine post you wrote.

      I liked this section especially well:

      The intended move to 100% renewables, it has to be reminded, has got nothing to do with previous “energy transitions”. It may even be argued, in fact, that there has never been such a thing as an “energy transition”. Historically, new sources of energy have never substituted pre-existing ones but rather supplemented them. Coal supplanted water, wind power and biomass as the world’s dominant energy source during the Industrial Revolution, but never substituted them in absolute terms. Same thing when petroleum supplanted coal at the turn of the 20th century. We have since then continued to use more and more water, wind power and biomass, as well as more and more coal. In fact we are today using more of any energy source in absolute terms than at any time in human history, only the relative composition of our energy mix has evolved over time. The total or partial replacement this century of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, hence, would constitute a systemic change without any precedent in human history.

      In addition, when new energy sources supplanted pre-existing ones in the past, it was always because they proved to be “superior” to those in terms of energetic quality and productivity. Coal supplanted water, wind power and biomass because it proved to be a much more powerful, convenient and versatile source of energy. Petroleum then supplanted coal because it was superior still in terms of energy density, power density, fungibility, storability, transportability, ready availability, convenience and versatility of use. On all these aspects it does not appear that solar and wind energy may be in the same way “superior” to fossil fuels – but rather that they are in fact significantly “inferior”. The capture of diffuse and intermittent energy flows through man-made devices is, inherently, an imperfect substitute for the extraction and burning of concentrated energy locked up in fossil fuels. Unfortunately, no amount of “innovation” is fundamentally going to change that.

      The total or partial replacement this century of fossil fuels by renewable energy sources, hence, would constitute even more than an unprecedented systemic change in human history: it would represent a fundamental reversal of humanity’s energetic course. It would mean, in fact, a move towards a lower quality and lower productivity energy system, only capable of supporting a significantly reduced economic footprint. Rather than an upward transition, it would be an energetic and economic fall back down. This, by the way, is the fundamental reason why investments in solar and wind remain dependent on government support, and are still well below what experts say would be needed, “technically feasible” and “affordable”. Investments in lower productivity and lower quality energy sources generate few opportunities for financial benefits on aggregate. Hence, the hoped-for transition to wind and solar cannot be driven by the profit motive, on which capitalist societies fundamentally rely as the main incentive for investment and innovation, and which was instrumental in the advent and rapid deployment of previous energy systems transitions.

      • Davidin100millionbilliontrillionzillionyears says:

        that sounds quite reasonable…

        I still think the pursuit of “100% renewables” will be pursued in various places/countries…

        but it will fail spectacularly, and may or may not reach even 50%…

        the newer conclusion that I have reached is that this will be an endeavor of only the wealthy…

        just as wealthier home owners go for solar systems that may take about 10 years to pay for itself, and thus middle class and poor have little means to go in this direction…

        so also, the bigger pushes for “100% renewables” countrywide could only be hoped for in the wealthier countries…

        the wealthy can “afford” to invest some of their excess wealth in renewables, even if the result is wasted FF and lower overall EROI…

        • I think intermittent renewables are a very temporary endeavor, made possible by a growing debt bubble and hidden subsidies that providers of backup electricity are providing to the system. Adding more intermittent renewables makes the system more difficult to control as well. I doubt that renewables will ever get to anything close to 50% of electricity on any broad basis. Furthermore, 50% of electricity is far below a goal of 50% of total energy consumption–something even more unattainable.

        • DJ says:

          Yes! Please, replace all nuclear with wind, water and solar. Then we can collapse.

        • Lastcall says:

          Oh I don’t know. I think we will end up going 100% renewable; those of ‘us’ that remain, (not many) will just have to make do with what they can patch together each day (not much). It just won’t be the renewable utopia of the green dream, but the hard won scratchings from the natu-real world.

          • Tim Groves says:

            For a start, a 100% “renewable” electricity generation system won’t actually be renewable. PV and wind turbine facilities have finite working lives and nobody has worked out how to build them without massive non-renewable inputs. So survivors will have to make do with simpler wind and sun powered gizmos such as washing lines and drying frames.

            • Placing wet clothes on tops of bushes to dry also works. I saw that approached used years ago, when I went on a bus tour in Mexico. I believe the clothes were being washed in streams.

            • Artleads says:

              This is how it worked for the vast majority of people in my childhood third world. Those who were better off–and it took me a long time to learn what a small minority they were–couldn’t get away fast enough from such “primitive” methods. And now, at the apex of the industrial plenty, the ratio might well have been reversed.

    • Slow Paul says:

      Very well written and I completely agree with your views. Fossil fuels are basically millions of years of stored sunlight which we use up in a short time frame, geologically speaking. It is very obvious then that you can’t run that same industrial society on the sunlight captured over days or weeks, even years.

      Your suggestions seems to be in line with the “green movement”, back in the days when it was all about the small footprint, and not yet corrupted by the business world.

  8. MG says:

    The deeper soil

    What is one of the key differences between the tropical and freezing areas? The soil in the freezing areas is deeper. It is the influence of the freezing water that cracks the rocks. That is why human civilizations can function only where the soil is constantly recreated by floods or by the disintegrating rocks due to the freezing water.

    That is why the human civilizations could not last long in the tropical and warm areas and the reason for the sustained existencie of the human species in the mild areas, where the soil creating winters exist.

    The agriculuture is in fact mining for minerals. And it is the crushed rocks which provides the fresh supply of them.

    • SuperTramp says:

      Most of the nutrients in a Tropical Rain forest is in the canopy of the tree cover and is recycled. Not sure of your reasoning, nor how one defines human civilization?
      The diversity of the Tropical ecosystem provides resilience to upheaval and transformation.
      From the link:

      The ancient farmers and gardeners of the Amazon would likely have been speakers of languages from the Arawakan and Tupí families. They would probably have lived in “galactic” communities—groups of settlements separated by distance but linked by trade and communication—along the banks of the rivers that cross and irrigate the forest.
      “Recent archaeological studies, especially in the last two decades, show that indigenous populations in the past were more numerous, more complex, and had a greater impact on the largest and most biodiverse tropical forest in the world,” said José Iriarte, an archeologist at the University of Exeter who was not connected to the study, in an email.
      “This is the largest and more comprehensive study” to reveal that influence so far, he added. “It is is very sound, since it not only includes archaeologists (which have been stressing the larger role played by humans in shaping Amazonian forests), but also botanists and soil scientists, among other ‘hard scientists.
      That cultivation eventually altered entire regions of the Amazon, the study argues. Levis and her colleagues found that some of these species domesticated by indigenous people—including the brazil nut, the rubber tree, the maripa palm, and the cocoa tree—still dominate vast swaths of the forest, especially in the southwest section of the Amazon basin.
      From our current practices of agriculture, doubt human civilization will survive regardless.

      • Interesting article!

      • MG says:

        When deforested, the soil in the tropical areas is quickly washed away. But in the cold areas, the freezing water cracks the rocks and is able to retain such material in one place.

        It is no wonder that the Dead Sea has become such a concentrated source of magnesium and other minerals that where washed away from the deforested Palestina.

        • As SuperTramp tried to explain above, the nutrients are mostly cycled up there in the canopy – shallower dirt layer in the Tropics as opposed to colder climate zones where the balance is less in favor of green canopy but towards (+woody) deeper soil web.

          Deforestation and the Dead Sea example are just show cases of past and present bad land management / agri practices..

          You can have thriving agriculture in both climate extremes, that people don’t follow -adhere to it is another question.

          • MG says:

            Where are those past big civilizations that inhabited tropical rainforests? I guess they died out.

            • SuperTramp says:

              Some are still their, MG, just because you don’t here about them, does not mean they don’t exist. Unfortunately, many were exterminated by various methods, which I do not really have to detail, do I? (i.e. die off from diseases brought over from Europe, genocide. Ect)
              I do need to point out these people did indeed have a civilization, as defined
              the society, culture, and way of life of a particular area.
              Indeed, they had advance knowledge, but a different type of knowledge!
              Remember reading a book regarding the how in tune they are with the Rainforest.
              They laughed at a scientist totally lost in the forest, unable to understand way. The scientist, from New York City, chuckled that they would be totally lost in NY!
              Not sure if the Rainforest Action Network is still around, if it is check it out!

            • MG says:

              I would not idealize the life of the human species in the rainforest. The wars between the tribes, killing each other in the times of scarcity, the death from malnutrition: they were not different from other groups of the human species facing the limits:

              “Recent archaeological studies, especially in the last two decades, show that indigenous populations in the past were more numerous, more complex, and had a greater impact on the largest and most biodiverse tropical forest in the world,”

          • aaaa says:

            That was my undrestanding – clearing rainforest yields very poor soil, so the idiots that do it are disrupting a perfectly-running ecosystem that requires that it be left the f*** alone.

            • DJ says:

              What about terra preta?

            • MG says:

              I also have tera preta in my garden. We have created it using wooden ashes from our boiler. Otherwise there is just yellow clay suitable for pottery but not much for growing crops. We always welcome freezing winters as these make the soil more powdery, the big clay lumps are nicely desintegrated.

        • SuperTramp says:

          MG, I saw fascinating nature program on the Rainforest ecosystem. It’s different than a temperate one. The soil fertility is stored in the upper canopy of the tree cover. The hot climate requires a constant flux of nutrients in the carbon cycle. Insects break down the organic matter very quickly.
          That is why when there is clear cutting of the Tropical Rainforest the soil fertility is very rich and bountiful crops are produced. Unfortunately, the cycle is broken and like and soil it gets depleted quickly, very fast.
          Henry Ford found that out when he attempted his Amazonian project to grow a rubber plantation in Brazil.

          None of Ford’s managers had the requisite knowledge of tropical agriculture. In the wild, the rubber trees grow apart from each other as a protection mechanism against plagues and diseases, often growing close to bigger trees of other species for added support. In Fordlândia, however, the trees were planted close together in plantations, easy prey for tree blight, sauva ants, lace bugs, red spiders, and leaf caterpillars.[6]

          The workers on the plantations were given unfamiliar food, such as hamburgers and canned food, and forced to live in American-style housing. Most disliked the way they were treated – being required to wear ID badges and work through the middle of the day under the tropical sun – and would often refuse to work
          By 1945, synthetic rubber had been developed, reducing world demand for natural rubber. Ford’s investment opportunity dried up overnight without producing any rubber for Ford’s tires, and the second town was also abandoned. In 1945, Henry Ford’s grandson Henry Ford II sold the area comprising both towns back to the Brazilian government for a loss of over US$20 million (equivalent to $278 million in 2018).
          In spite of the huge investment and numerous invitations, Henry Ford never visited either of his ill-fated towns.
          From Wikipedia..
          Can’t compare the two regions, like apples and oranges.

    • Is this something you are quoting from? It certainly sounds right. Even where I live (in the state of Georgia, USA), we don’t have deep soils. We also don’t have very much agriculture, but we do have some. Atlanta is the home of “stone mountain.” The soil where I live seems to be about 6″ deep.

      Florida and California are where a lot of our produce is grown. The do not have much freezing. Florida is a big sand bar, as far as I know. I expect that whatever minerals are in the soil have been added. If trace minerals are missing, that is the buyers problem. I don’t know much about California soil.

      Of course, the Midwest is where a lot of grains and soy beans are grown. They have deep soil that no doubt was enhanced by freezing.

      • MG says:

        The idea about the force of the freezing water came to me when my friend told me about the devastating washing away of the topsoil he saw in Venezuela. It is no wonder that Venezuela has got so many nature protected areas. They know that they have no other choice. Brazil is big, abandoning the washed away or the depleted soil seems still not such a big problem for them. It also depends on whether the country is hilly or plain.

        • MG says:

          “Ruddiman isn’t so sure. He believes that humanity’s effect on the planet is spread throughout time and is driven primarily by agriculture. Before the year 1750, he argues, humans had already cleared so much forest as to produce 300 billion tons of carbon emissions. Since 1950, deforestation has only led to 75 billion tons of emissions.”

          • I think that humans first started shaping the world’s ecosystems according to their design back in hunter-gatherer days. They burned down forests to get to wildlife they wanted, and to encourage the growth of plants in open areas, where foods humans could eat would be more abundant. This seems to be when humans (and pre-humans) impacts on other species began.

            We don’t really have any way of getting away from the problem that I can see.

      • Dennis L. says:

        I often wonder about the trace minerals, short of recycling all the waste from both animals and humans it seems to be a losing proposition. On my land it is NPK and game over. Is it possible that the only real recycling is done on geologic time scales? Certainly plate tectonics would take care of any waste one can imagine. Between grinding and heat it is back to the basic elements.

        Dennis L.

        • DJ says:

          Before modern plumbing and agriculture trace mineral loss must have been slow.

          • Yep, the overall equation must balance out eventually.

            If I recall it correctly the oldest irrigation (ceramic or sun baked) segment plumbing goes several thousands years BC. People have learned very little since then, in the sense of keeping the outlay for the surplus infrastructure to a bare minimum. So, no silly palaces of power and worship, storage depots for feeding large armies, etc.

            Essentially every civilization in the past eventually erred on this equation, some fared on this wide spectrum way better than others, often in clever fashion managed to adapt for varied climate and to some extent understood importance of low complexity, but eventually every single one overbuilt and self destructed in the end.

            • In Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David Montgomery points out that irrigation, except when done from overflow from rivers (carrying silt) is a very short-term solution. Pumping water and running it through the soil eventually poisons it with minerals, such as salt, that accumulate in the soil. I would expect that there are also some minerals that are lost from the excess water washing through the soil.

              Irrigation is a temporary patch, allowing food supply and population to grow. When its benefits are lost, this is one of the things that puts downward pressure on “Extractable resources (Including food) per capita.”

          • Greg Machala says:

            Our plumbing system may be modern, but, it isn’t sustainable. Wouildn’t low populations living in a temperate climate with a clean hot spring and lake be more desirable? Would that not be more “modern”? All we are doing in the “modern” world is burning finite fossil fuels to battle nature. We won’t win the battle.

            • Xabier says:

              We’ve already lost the battle with Nature, it just doesn’t show unambiguously yet: observe how a bough cut from some plants continues to look fresh and green even for weeks, but is, in reality, quite dead with no potential for growth.

              It is that illusion of continuity and life that we are enjoying now – and very pleasant it is.

    • Dennis L. says:

      This solves the concentration issues with non renewables, the problem is the time scale.

  9. Baby Doomer says:

    It’s coming

    • I wonder if “failure to secure funds” for the plant might be an issue.

      Another article about this event says

      Earlier this month, solar thermal power specialist SolarReserve said it has failed to secure in time funds for its 150-MW Aurora CSP project near Port Augusta, South Australia. It now plans to sell it to a third party.

      I also notice an article called, “PG&E’s troubles hit debt ratings of 550-MW Topaz solar park.”

      It says,

      Topaz Solar Farms LLC, the holding company for the 550-MW Topaz solar power station in California, has suffered a couple of rating downgrades following news that the sole off-taker of its power intends to file for bankruptcy.

      Fitch Ratings announced on Wednesday that it has downgraded Topaz’s USD-1.1-billion (EUR 965m) senior secured notes to ‘C’ from ‘BBB-‘/Negative Watch, and removed the rating from Negative Watch. The reason for this move is the fact that a couple of days earlier Fitch also downgraded California utility Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), which is the sole purchaser of the electricity generated by the solar power complex.

      I would imagine that SolarReserve plans to sell its power at least partially to California, and thus to PG&E. Funding in California at this point sounds “iffy.” I can see why lenders might back away.

      • JesseJames says:

        RPT-UPDATE 1-South Africa to bail out Eskom without taking on debts
        “South Africa will give power utility Eskom a total of 69 billion rand ($4.88 billion) but will not take on 100 billion rand of debt as requested by the struggling firm”

        With the growing number of large electric utility bankruptcies, PG&E, Puert Rico’s electric utility, and soon to be bankrupt Eskom, I think we may see the end of our reliable grid due to power company failures. You can print all the money you want and create all the debt you want, but without electrical power, our industrial economy is toast.

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